Impacted: What I learned at ACTFL 2016…and what I am questioning.

I spent the last four days with 8,500 of my closest friends: language educators attending the annual convention of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. With so many sessions to choose from, I found myself having to choose between several promising descriptions that were scheduled in the same time slot. It turned out to be a great weekend for learning.
At the opening general session, our keynote speaker, futurist Mike Walsh challenged us to recognize how profoundly different our students learning goals and expectations (and needs) will be just a few years from now. He directed us to look to today’s eight year olds for inspiration, a humbling but important reminder of our role. He referred to us (humans) as “analog” in contrast to the vast array of digital tools, virtual tools, etc., and noted that it is in the physical environment that people make connections. We still need to teach learners to communicate face-to-face with people who come from both similar and vastly different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. How will the increasing dependence on technology impact the way we accomplish this critical task?
From my colleagues who shared presentation duties with me at the “Everything you wanted to know (but were afraid to ask)” session facilitated by Juan Carlos Morales and Susann Davis, I revisited the connections between the modes of communication, world readiness standards, proficiency levels, can-do statements and assessments. I was reminded that can-do statements are not a list to be checked off but rather a series of flexible goals that we can and must revisit so that students have more than one opportunity to show that they are building towards the targeted level of proficiency. Achieving a certain level of proficiency isn’t demonstrated with a one-time check off of an item on a list.
From Merissa Sadler and Erin Kanner’s presentation on incorporating aspects of social media into digital portfolios, I recalled the importance of fun in the work we design for students. I saw amazing uses of Google Slides and other tools to make templates that replicate social media pages so students can create meaningful target language products within a visual framework they already know and understand. I look forward to incorporating their ideas, especially because the templates ensure that the focus will remain on their communication by facilitating the technology to eliminate glitches and other issues. And, of course, the tasks respect the requirement to protect student identities by having them do this work in the template rather than through the actual social media tools, though Common Core State Standards, as well as Digital Citizenship guidelines do also call for older learners (high school) to begin creating and publishing content on the web that is both academically accurate and professional and appropriate, so I do have my high school students do some work using social media that actually goes out to the broader community beyond our classroom. Nevertheless, these templates provide a scaffold our learners understand within which they can complete certain presentational tasks.
Later on Saturday morning, I got my first glimpse of the ACTFL draft Can-Do Statements for demonstrating intercultural communicative competency. The shift from wanting students to be “aware” of products, practices and perspectives to interacting meaningfully with them (and with native speakers) is profound. The two key competencies are “investigate products, practices and perspectives” and “interact in other cultures.” Of course, both of these competencies are expected to be accomplished in the target language, even for novice learners. Therefore, it is imperative to find products that reflect learners’ proficiency levels and design tasks that reveal deeper understandings than perhaps what they are capable of demonstrating linguistically. In doing so, I believe we will likely find that the tasks are also more cognitively complex and demanding, thus demonstrating higher order, critical thinking skills.
Saturday was a powerful learning day for me. Still later that same morning, I enhanced my repertoire of student activities with Greg Duncan’s purposeful tasks for oral, interpersonal pair work in the language class. His twist on the typical interview and “find the differences” activities will challenge my learners to engage more deeply in their conversations and communicate more purposefully. Additionally, he provided powerful reminders of the importance of pair work in any subject area. I have always seated my students in groups with identified partners within the groups so we could move efficiently from small-group to pair to whole-class interactions. When students work in pairs, they have eight times more opportunities to practice communicating than students in classes who are only invited to speak when called upon by the teacher.

Sunday morning, I started with Kristy Placido’s session on using commercials and other short films. She showed a couple of really interesting commercials and modeled a Movie Talk for us. That was helpful to me since I have seen references to Movie Talks on social media, but had never seen one done. She modeled some strategies for preparing students to work with the media they would be watching, including an interesting tech idea that involves using screen shots from the commercial in a PPT and then “callouts” in PPT to add bits of the script. The result looks like a comic strip that students can read, discuss and use for making predictions for what will happen before viewing the actual commercial. Of the commercials she showed, my favorite was a PSA from Costa Rica discouraging citizens from keeping birds as pets. As an authentic resource, it was pretty close to the perfect video for language learners:  it was short, comprehensible (even to me, with only one semester of college Spanish that I tucked under my belt almost 30 years ago), and tackled an important issue for the Costa Ricans. Check her twitter feed (@Placido) for blog posts and resources.  This morning, I was thinking about her Movie Talk and remembering that the others I had seen described also used video with no speaking (or with the sound turned off). During a Movie Talk, if I understand it correctly, the teacher stops the video several times during the viewing to ask the students questions about what they are seeing. The questions are designed to give the students frequent opportunities to not only be observant, but briefly share their observations with chunks of language appropriate to their proficiency. But today, I was wondering if it would also be effective to sometimes use videos with sound and ask questions about what they heard. For example, if there’s a restaurant scene, I would imagine you could ask questions like, “did the man order coffee or tea?” “Do you think the two people are family, friends or acquaintances? Why?” The answer to that last question would come from whether the speakers were using the formal or informal register, which the students would be able to hear in the conversation. Her session reminded me that I could be doing a lot more with video–and especially commercials–than I currently do. 

One of the last sessions I attended was an amazing display of social justice learning and action that Jennifer Wooten (University of Florida), Anneke Oppewal (Gravelly Hill Middle School) and Maria Eugenia Zelaya (Eastside High School) facilitate for their secondary and university learners. Although I thoroughly appreciated everything the presenters shared, two of my favorites were

  1. facilitating student examination of how house and home are portrayed in their textbooks with an eye to who is represented in those images and who is left out, and
  2. a framework of guiding questions that facilitate intermediate-level dialogue and examination of issues of social justice. For example, insert the word “racism” (or any -ism) in the spaces below (and translate into your target language of course).

So my questions going forward:

  • How do I bring more powerful, culturally rich social justice work to my most novice learners? Clearly, I can attempt to replicate some of the activities in the session I attended, but I want to engage them in social justice action, not just social justice learning. Not having a community of French speakers who are excluded from mainstream society locally, I will need to connect my learners to disenfranchised French speakers elsewhere in the world. However, I already have some experience in this kind of work, and I have recently become equally aware of the need to ensure that my students and I interact in ways that exhibit empathy, not sympathy, and to empower, not “save” the people with whom we work. Their experiences, knowledge and potential are powerful. We are collaborators in their work and must allow our future partners to construct or co-construct the goals and process that the work will follow.
  • How do I adapt teaching and learning in my classes to reflect the dynamic and constant flow of information and interaction my current students experience (and that will only increase with the generation to come)?
  • What more can I do to ensure my students spend more time communicating, but still receive the feedback and support they will need to be both successful and encouraged by their attempts?

If you would like to learn from what 8,500 of us experienced at ACTFL, you will soon be able to find most presenters’ handouts (including mine) on the ACTFL Web Site ( Many are already there, but currently, there is a glitch and some handouts have been deleted. ACTFL is working on this as I write. You can also check out a Storify of what all of us were sharing during the convention here (


One thought on “Impacted: What I learned at ACTFL 2016…and what I am questioning.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s