Leadership: How to create common experiences in a non-targeted department

Teacher: “How do you “catch up” the students who show up at random intervals throughout the year? How can students “recover credit” from absences?”

These two questions were recently voiced by CI teachers struggling with transient student populations. One reported that her former CI department gave up on CI because they could not catch up the students who enter the program late. I suspect that what was happening was that the students who remained in class acquired language, and kept on acquiring language, which made the students who were often absent or entering midyear appear even further behind. That the teachers decided to drop CI because some of their students were actually learning too much speaks to the problem of a fixed unit by unit curriculum. Let me describe what they should be doing instead.

I am known for creating the Sweet 16 verbs. The idea came from Terry Waltz’s fantastic “Super 7” verbs. Terry’s idea was to quickly get your class to a point in which you can tell simple stories, rather than spending months learning thematic vocabulary lists. That was a gigantic leap forward. However, the idea behind the “Sweet 16” verbs is not simply some more verbs tacked on to Terry´s list. When I first proposed the sweet 16, Terry was describing her Super 7 as an anchor for meaningful communication within the first few hours of class.

My contribution was to take an expanded list of sixteen high-frequency words and describe them as a full four year curriculum. Many people miss how this point is a dramatic step forward. In fact, teachers who want a highly-controlled curriculum (i.e., “every teacher does the same exact lesson”) often totally misunderstand this contribution. The Sweet Sixteen, as my department used them, is the essential structure that guides our non-targeted approach to language acquisition. Let me be clear: at the time I taught in a Title I school with a fairly transient population. We enjoyed a 100% pass rate on our AP and IB exams. CI works, even if the student comes in late, even if the student misses a lot of school, even if the students are coming to school high and oblivious (I am thinking about two former students who failed every IB exam except for Spanish… because CI works).

As a department chair trying to design a common experience for students in different classes, with a half dozen different teachers on staff, I could have sought to limit the creativity of students and teachers by insisting that every teacher follow the same collection of story scripts, movie talks, and novels. That is, “all Spanish 1 students will read X novel and discuss Z movie talk. All Spanish 2 students will acquire this list of target structures so that they will be “ready” for Spanish 3″. That is the approach that leads teachers to frustration because they conclude that their transient population is missing too much.

On the other hand, the Sweet 16 verbs represent a different path towards creating a common experience between classes. Of course we do not simply repeat sixteen words for four years, but we do agree that structures with these verbs are the ones that are recycled and given priority at every step in the journey. The only other guideline we follow is to simply strive to provide compelling CI, for four years.

We recognized that in any classroom there will be many different interests, and that when students are following their own interests then they perceive the input as more compelling, which leads to faster acquisition. That is the funny thing about those studies which try to count how many times a student needs to hear a word to fully acquire it… teachers know that swears might be fully acquired the very first time they are understood whereas an abstract transition word that the student never uses in their own L1 could be uttered comprehensibly 500 times and not be fully acquired. The Sweet 16 gives a department the flexibility to allow their teachers and students to pursue different interests in class, to use different language, but guarantees that there will be a common communicative foundation throughout the entire program. For example, the Sweet 16 verbs allow one teacher to develop an independent reading program for her students in which students are all reading different books (and thus developing their own idiosyncratic vocabularies), while another teacher develops his CI skills guiding his students through an authentic telenovela.

There is another major advantage to running a department this way. When any of my teachers get students at the beginning of the year, we do not have a list of target structures in our minds that we assume our students have acquired. We do not get angry if our level 3 kids do not understand X phrase; instead we are trained to start the conversation assuming nothing and paying close attention to their eyes. At all levels, as we think about how to phrase our language so that it will be comprehensible, we all return to the Sweet 16 verbs and posters. It is a common experience in all classes, even though I spend a week talking about whales and my colleague spends weeks talking about football (what would you expect from a football coach!).

This is necessary because students move into our district at every level, and we cannot just leave them behind because they did not start with us. We need to provide a comprehensible experience at all levels, even if students missed the first 3 years of our CI program because they were learning thematic vocab in another district.

Teacher: Hi Mike. I’ve read all your stuff but one thing that I am hearing from the more resistant-to-CI teachers is: “How do we address common assessments with this approach? How do we ensure we are on the “same page”?” I realize that until we can all discuss bigger things with answers grounded in SLA research, these questions are futile as they all need to understand the paradigm shift– moving beyond units, etc. Even so, I do notice that you don’t mention common assessments in your “My Perfect Year” book where you discuss this topic. Could you speak to that briefly? When you worked with other teachers in your dept’s journey to CI, did you have any common “end points”?

Sometimes traditional teachers are unwilling to abandon common assessments because, although they may never articulate it this way, they do not trust that their colleagues will “cover what needs to be covered”. Good for you that you were able to abandon vocab & grammar sections on the common assessments! You have won the nit-picky “let’s use assessments to compare teachers” fight… I have never seen that approach successfully build a department, it only tears people down.

First the truth: I don’t mention common assessments because we stopped using them altogether. I imagine that your colleagues won’t want to hear that, but there is a wide if silent agreement among many national presenters who have told me privately about their own practice, even when they present on assessment methods. Over and over again, experts suggest less formal assessments, less time giving those assessments, and more time for a variety of CI activities. Assessment is necessary for the teacher to understand their own impact and some assessments help students appreciate what they do in class as they recognize the progress that they have made. Informal assessment is integrated into the meat of every activity we do. I also often use quick, formative assessments such as exit quizzes to verify that specific lessons were comprehensible to the less vocal students (such as after story-listening). But informal and formative assessments are quite different from the big common assessments that many departments develop.

Common assessments, on the other hand, are almost always summative with one of three less-than-useful intentions. They want assessments that will (1) organize students by proficiency level or some other metric of language ability, (2) identify the “strong” teachers so that “weak” teachers can learn from them, and/or (3) inform students of where they are on their path to proficiency in the belief that that helps them chart out strategies to continue onward. This last point implies some conscious awareness of their language acquisition which might be useful for a self-study student who is going into deep immersion over the summer (I have seen it!), but that does not seem very relevant to most high school students. The other, more troublesome take away could be that students are supposed to consciously keep track of their language learning, stuff like “hey you need to remember not to conjugate verbs after prepositions unless…”, that kind of feedback could be very harmful. See a researcher named John Truscott on this point.

In my experience, the second option of comparing teachers so that the weak can learn from the strong never works in practice. When I look at it on paper, a chill runs through my bones. You might be tempted to develop data comparing your CI students with their students, thus encouraging colleagues to go pure CI once they see how well your students perform. I wish humans were so rational. Instead most of us would be humiliated and become entrenched in our thinking when faced with “data”. We find ways to disprove it or interpret differently. Changing the culture of the department requires a fine dance to prevent anyone from digging in. Please don’t compare your colleagues or the performance of their students in order to prove that some teachers need to change. Leadership in a school setting is about empowering teachers, leading them to find their best selves without ever tearing them down.

If you are training an entire department with varying abilities, the best option is to train your entire staff on different ways to “dipstick” or get informal assessments in the moment. We want teachers to recognize the exact moment when students cannot understand what is being said, or better yet (following Krashen), when the “illusion of comprehensibility” has been broken and students begin to feel confused. A less-than-effective colleague who develops the tools to better read his/her students will then develop skills to self-assess his/her delivery of CI. Change from within is an approach that takes years and requires a growth mindset from each teacher, but is there really any other way?

The other reason to use common assessments, to organize a student population to better provide instruction, I think is deeply flawed, but there is less agreement among various presenters on this point. I believe that kids should not be penalized for how their brains work. They all need rich CI, even those who do not output quickly or accurately. One one hand, some educators would rather divide the student population so that the teacher can provide input that is roughly at the same level. On the other hand, I believe that all classes are multi-level classes. Separating students creates an unequal and unnecessary social reality that inevitably confirms to many students that “they are not smart”. Students succeed most when they feel successful.

Some educators might argue that “the community is paying me” to assign accurate grades… which is ridiculous. I am being paid to support the development of all of my students. I am not being paid to give a grade that will allow colleges to determine whether or not to accept my student… I am not a gate keeper of any kind. I do not issue grades to determine whether students should move on (the answer is always yes unless they simply did not come to class, the only reason my students would earn less than a B). Some of my assessments, the ones that give me a critical perspective of my students true abilities, are never reported as grades. They are for me, to determine how to push forward and determine exactly what “i + 1” is for my students. Your colleagues who expect common assessments will probably never accept this argument, but I do not think that a common assessment that spits back a number or letter grade associated with each student is valuable.

So here is a brief answer if you HAVE to have common assessments; I would try to get teachers to collect data that could improve their own teaching. (1) Quick writes without any prompt or lesson to serve as a template… just a 5 minute quick write at the BEGINNING of class to get a real sense of the language in students head, (2) another quick write after an activity that introduces new vocab or content (OWI for lower level classes, one of my Maravillas for levels 2 and above). The purpose of the second quick write is to understand whether the teacher is providing enough repetition and is going slow enough to maximize acquisition. Ideally the teacher will recognize that variations in the way the lesson is presented to different classes impact acquisition & will seek to identify those variations. The big lesson for each teacher to learn via quick writes is how to provide grammatically-rich but vocab-limited input in class. In the case of OWIs, the questions that guide the creation of an OWI limit the possible vocab used so that, over time, students hear a lot of unpredictable structures within a very predictable format. (3) Teacher reads aloud a short EASY EASY reading, students listen with no visual text. After each paragraph teacher asks comprehension questions that can be answered in one word (concrete questions, not open-ended questions). The purpose is for teachers to become aware of an optimal reading speed when reading aloud to class. Be careful not to de-motivate students by reading for too long, too fast or otherwise being incomprehensible. Encourage teachers to use a text that is new but ridiculously easy. The idea is not to find the students “drowning point”, but rather to make teachers better at speaking clearly and slowly. (4) However you put this together, do not administer the entire common assessment on the same day. Have the first five minute quick-write on Monday, the second quick write on Tuesday (again, 5 minutes), the reading comprehension on Wednesday. If you have small enough classes you could have upper levels record a short conversation on Thursday. The assessment should not be announced as such to students: you do not want students to overthink the output, you don’t want to invoke the monitor. Just a normal day, as far as they are concerned. No need to ever “tell them the results” either, since the data is all to improve teaching.

You might have noticed that I have avoided addressing the “creating a common experience” thread while discussing assessment. A common experience is often understood as common content, whereas you want to develop common skill sets. Avoid any common assessment that would guide teachers to create a day to day “common experience” that leads them to teach to a test. Any test for which students can explicitly be prepared would not be a valid assessment of language ability. The solution my department adopted was to stress the Sweet 16 verbs throughout the 4 year curriculum.

In short, when any of my teachers get students at the beginning of the year, we do not have a list of target structures in our minds that we assume our students have acquired. We do not get angry if our level 3 kids do not understand X phrase; instead we are trained to start the conversation assuming nothing and paying close attention to their eyes. At all levels, as we think about how to phrase our language so that it will be comprehensible, we all return to the Sweet 16 verbs and posters. It is a common experience in all classes, even though I spend a week talking about whales and my colleague spends weeks talking about football (what would you expect from a football coach!).

I have to say, letting go of the concrete “scope and sequence” type goals and instead stressing the Sweet 16 verbs has made my department much happier and functional. Teachers put more effort into their classes now that they feel successful and part of a successful team. Yes, a loose curriculum based around the Sweet 16 verbs has empowered my department. Feeling like you are letting your colleagues down because you cannot get that list of prepositional phrases into your students heads is not good for the teacher, their colleagues, or their students.

I hope some of these ideas are useful. I am sure you will need to re-frame the assessment ideas if you present them to your colleagues (especially if they are keen to give students grades and not so keen to self-evaluate). Nonetheless I think these ideas could lead to fruitful self-reflection that might move the process along.