An Open Letter to the Google Classroom Team

First of all, I want to just put it out there: I LOVE Google. I love how they are constantly not only creating new products, but updating and (usually) improving existing products. Through their impressive suite of tools and apps including Google Drive, Google Classroom, Google Cardboard/Goggles, and more, Google has revolutionized the way people work, communicate, and interact with our world and other people. I recognize that. I was a Google Certified Teacher (London Google Teacher Academy, 2012) and will be applying for their upcoming Certified Innovator community (with NO guarantee of being accepted, of course). If this makes it to the Google Classroom product team (and I REALLY hope it does), please know that my comments below come from a place of love. I want Google Classroom to be the site for teaching and learning that I believe Google intends it to be.

Google is known for constantly updating and improving its products. When it comes to Google Classroom, however, a visit to their product update page reveals that the updates have been relatively few and unsubstantive in terms of improving the experience for teachers and learners and creating that digital teaching and learning space I mentioned above.

So, in case your were wondering, Google Classroom Team, I have a list of suggestions that come from my own experience, as well as the experiences of teachers I work with, that I think would improve the user experience for your many, many Classrooms around the world–and more importantly, create a more dynamic, engaging, and robust online learning community.

    • Rather than “templating” documents that are “assigned” with each student receiving their own editable copy in Classroom, treat those documents like anything else in Google Drive and update them automatically in Classroom if they were updated by the teacher. Or at least be more upfront and TELL us that what we are uploading is a template whose future edits won’t be received by students. Currently, if you update the source document AFTER posting the assignment in Google Classroom, the thumbnail of that document will be updated and reflect your changes, but the document itself–the one the learners received DOES NOT update or change. This is misleading to the teacher for two reasons. First of all, Google is known for its real-time updating and collaboration and this seems at odds with the way Google products function. But users are also misled because the thumbnail that is viewable in classroom DOES actually update. As a result, users are inclined to think that the students receive the most updated version, but they don’t. There isn’t a warning anywhere to tell you that if you update that document, the students won’t receive the updated version. If the teacher happens to look in the Google Drive folder associated with the assignment, they will then see “[TEMPLATE]” next to the document title, but the teachers have to run across that in the particular Drive file associated with the assignmet–a file they didn’t even personally create–in order to notice it. Google Classroom guru (and noted teacher and author) Alice Keeler explains the logistics and use of the “templates” really well in this post, but I still think Google Classroom could improve the user experience by making it more clear to teachers when they attach a document they intend to be distributed to each student as individually editable copies. They shouldn’t have to stumble upon Alice’s post or upon the assignment folder in Google Drive in order to know that this will be the result, especially not when the thumbnail picture DOES update. 
    • Give teachers the ability to create threaded discussions in Classroom, The “Questions” feature is a great start, but it has some serious limitations. First of all, teachers cannot currently “moderate” the students’ responses before they become visible to the other students. As a result, teachers often opt to post a question, but not allow students to see or reply to other students’ responses. In addition, the even if one allows the students to post and reply to each other, the result isn’t in a threaded discussion format, which makes this much less effective as an asynchronous tool for students to share and reply to thoughts, ideas, and questions they are exploring as their learning community is working through a content-area objective. But Google already has the solution for this:
      • Resurrect Google Moderator; it was ahead of its time and Google pulled it a while ago, but it is PERFECT for the Google Classroom environment! The code for this exists somewhere in Google’s vaults. Just bring it back and add it to the “post” options for Google Classroom. 
    • Allow teachers/owners of Google Classroom to create sub-pages in Classroom for navigation and especially for organization of multiple classes. The “topics” feature simply isn’t robust enough for the kind of organization teachers and learners need if they really are going to use this space as a virtual learning environment. The current ability to drag classes into a new order on the Classroom home page also isn’t enough. Teachers often not only have their own rostered classes loaded in Google Classroom, but numerous other “classes” they created or belong to for professional learning, for collaborative group work they do on behalf of their schools and districts and more. In my case, I have 15 (yes FIFTEEN) different Google Classrooms just for our district’s “Equity through Leadership” collaborative teams alone. On top of that, I also have multiple “Classrooms” for leading professional learning on the use of Google Classroom, and many additional classrooms. And I am NOT unique in this.

      screenshot of Google Classroom home page.

      We can’t create folders for classes on similar themes or create a navigation system (similar to sub pages), so the result for people with many classes is this.

      As a result, many of us have Google Classroom Home Pages that are completely unmanageable because we can’t create a navigation system that links related classes together so that they can be collapsed into a category and “unclutter” our page. Nor can we create new groups within one class and just post to those groups (which would also be a nice way to reduce the cluttering problem on the homepage if designing a navigation system isn’t possible). The current options for choosing which students will be included in an announcement or assignment isn’t sufficient, because in the case of professional development, the “students” haven’t enrolled yet. For that to work (so that I could create just ONE class for my Google Classroom professional development for example), I  would need to be able to create announcements, assignments and questions for specific groups of learners within the same “Class” from the beginning, even before they arrive. Since I can’t do that, I have no choice but to create numerous Classrooms on the same topic so that each group of teachers with which I am working only receive the posts when the posts are relevant to them. Clearly, the “topics” feature doesn’t help with this either. 

    • On the subject of “topics,”  it turns out that learners and educators don’t explore subjects and objectives in isolation! They constantly build upon previously-learned material. Teachers purposefully “spiral” content from previous weeks, months, or even years into lessons. And they also purposefully connect lesson content and resources to multiple learning targets and themes within their own subject areas, but also across subject areas. As a result, we need to be able to select MULTIPLE topics for each announcement, question, and assignment rather than be limited to only ONE topic.
    • Please, please, please can we have more robust text formatting using a Rich Text tool bar/ribbon in Google Classroom so that teachers can craft detailed instructions right on the classroom page instead of requiring students to click on a document to view formatted directions? We need to be able to number, add bulleted lists, or put statements in bold or even another color. But in Google Classroom right now, the ONLY formatting option we have is the “return key.” This is simply insufficient for teachers really trying to use Google Classroom as a robust learning space.
    • Educators need to be able to drag and drop posts in Google classroom to change the order in which they appear. The current option (and only option we have) to “move” one post “to the top” simply isn’t sufficient for the needs of educators and others who use Google Classroom, such as facilitators of professional learning. For example, a couple weeks ago, I was creating an online PD course called “Teaching Digital Citizenship” in Google Classroom. But I had to start on a piece of paper and design the entire course in reverse order so that the content and assignments would appear in chronological order to my audience when they take the course.
    • Allow teachers to add information to the calendar. And/or, add an option that can be toggled whenever teachers add an announcement: “add to calendar?” Sometimes, teachers want to “announce” a test on the calendar. Currently, they have to make that announcement an “assignment” in order for it to appear in the calendar.
  • And finally, to enhance the way we can communicate with families and guardians (as well as students) through Google Classroom, I have two additional “asks” of Google:
    • Add links to resources that are shared in Google Classroom to the view that parents have in the guardian summary so that parents can view and/or print out a resource, for example, if necessary. Currently, the “guardian summary” is a static document that includes what was due and what is upcoming. But announcements aren’t visible. Links and resources that are shared via Classroom aren’t included in the Guardian Summaries. 
    • Enable two-way communication for the Guardian Summaries. Why can’t parents email back? 

I’m not the only one asking for these features and more. Here’s another blog with some of the same requests and some additional ones.

If you also use Google Classroom, and you would like to increase the chances that some of these improvements might be made, click on the question mark in the lower right hand corner of your classroom homepage (the one where all your classes are listed). Choose “give feedback” and share any of the above requests with the Google Classroom team. They really are reading all the feedback. In fact, Google Classroom is the ONLY Google product that has its own team of people reading only the feedback from that one product (all the other Google products share a team whose members review feedback from across the entire span of the rest of the Google product line).

Thanks in advance for listening, Google. I really, really do love your products!



Another cross post?

Well, it’s been a quiet year on my personal blog (I do hope to change that in 2018), but that’s partially because I have been guest blogging, both with Alice Keeler for whom I did one post, and also for KQED “In the Classroom.” So, here is my latest post on “In the Classroom,” all about how you can put the digital portfolio tool Seesaw to work for you and your students. See you in the New Year!

Seen elsewhere

Just a quick update to let my readers know that I have been busy writing…just not here. Here are some bits and pieces that appeared elsewhere on the web and that I thought some of you may find interesting.

  1. NEW! Flipgrid: The Global Classroom Connections Maker, a guest post for KQED Education.
  2. Kleenex is not proficiency, which I wrote as a guest blog for @AliceKeeler.
  3. Core Practice 2: Fostering Interpersonal Communication published for the Kentucky Department of Education.
  4. My responses when interviewed by Peter Paccone regarding my teaching practice.



Cultivating Learners

Is your class roster full of students or learners? Is there a difference? Yes, and a critical one. For me, “student” is mostly a title, often associated with a young person, most frequently in a classroom setting. It designates the individual as an attendee of a school rather than an employee. One doesn’t have to do anything to be a student.  If a person listed on the roster shows up, but does nothing, that person is still a student. Likewise, if a teacher does not plan lessons that engage that person and motivate him or her to actively participate, that person is still a student in the class. And even if one participates in some way, that person may still be a “student” but not truly a learner. We often see “students” who view the content as a grade to be achieved rather than concepts to be understood and applied within and beyond the classroom. They measure their success through point totals and GPA rather than through evidence that they are able to engage in authentic and purposeful use of the content and skills.

I think that as educators, we are striving for learners. Being a learner requires more active involvement and engagement in the subject matter from both the teacher and the learner. A learner has no age and no singular place of learning. A learner actively seeks knowledge and the means to act upon it, within and beyond the classroom. Students have a set curriculum and the goal is typically a score or letter grade. Learners may or may not also set one goal as a specific grade, but they go beyond that to make broad, interdisciplinary connections and actively seek more information or other means to practice and develop their skills. Learners accept that it is possible to learn from failure and improve their understanding and skills; students merely accept the “failure” and hope the content won’t come back again later.

When it comes to languages, learners acquire and use language meaningfully rather than limit themselves to memorizing vocabulary lists and verb forms. As a result of experiences that provide opportunities to examine the products, practices and perspectives of peoples of the world, learners move past generalizations and stereotypes to build and exhibit true interculturality.

In considering the characteristics above, the distinction between students and learners isn’t just important for the learners. It is critical for the teachers as well. In order to design instruction for learners, teachers must shift their practices so that their learning experiences allow learners to seek knowledge, go beyond the confines of the scheduled content area (and the classroom walls) to seek, make and understand connections and implications, and to use their knowledge and skills in meaningful ways. Seeing the individuals in our classes as learners rather than students can help educators refine the learning experiences they design and implement so that they require learning rather than the passivity and complacence sometimes associated with being a student. 

Sadly, I haven’t quite found the answer for how to accomplish all of this. As I continue my 23rd year in education, here are some shifts I have seen in my own practice that I think are headed in the right direction, even if I am not “there” yet (have I mentioned that I’m not the teacher I want to be when I grow up?).

  • Focus on learning rather than grades. Learners demonstrate proficiency with the content or they don’t. And if they don’t, they are able to get support, complete additional practice and re-assess when their knowledge and skills have improved.
  • Remember that less is more. Using the proficiency guidelines outlined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (, I came to realize that my learners don’t need all of the elements of language that are proposed in many curriculum materials for learners each year. Using the proficiency guidelines as my roadmap, I honed in on what is essential for novice learners vs. intermediate learners, and adjusted what we explore, learn, practice and evaluate at each level to better correspond with what one can realistically expect of novice and intermediate users of the language. I “teach” far less than I used to, but my learners are communicating more effectively, with more people around the world, and on a broader range of topics.
  • Increase the focus on and use of authentic materials so that learners see the relevance of the work we are doing. Authentic materials can also be very motivating because learners can see that they are making progress in understanding the language. Such materials also provide great, contextualized and culturally authentic models that inform learners when they themselves begin to produce language.
  • Get beyond the book and the “curriculum” and immerse your learners in the content. Try BreakoutEDU. Do a Google Expedition with virtual reality viewers (find a list of available Expeditions here). Design a multi-media lesson rich in authentic materials using a tool such as TES Blendspace and then share a link to that lesson to native speakers so they can interact with your learners through the “commenting” feature. Invite guest speakers into your class in-person or via Skype. Or do a “Mystery Skype” (or a Mystery Google+ Hangout) with your students and a class somewhere else in the world.
  • Teach and assess for communication, not points. It doesn’t matter how many points a student has earned in course. What matters is whether or not the learner can actually use the language. Understanding this will automatically shift how we teach, how learners practice, what and how we assess, and how we provide feedback and eventually grades. I’m not interested in creating students who earned enough “points” to get an “A” in my course but can’t use the language…and we have all seen situations in our careers where this happens. Some teachers assign points for behaviors that have nothing to do with applied skills or knowledge: extra credit for bringing in Kleenex, points for practice activities that may or may not have been copied, etc. If someone earns an “A” in a language class, that person, and the community, have the right to expect that he or she can actually function well in the language, as appropriate for his/her level of proficiency. When someone has an “A” and can’t demonstrate the established learning targets for the level of language completed (or of any content area, for that matter), it is actually unfair to everyone, but particularly unfair to the learner, who has been set up to fail in the “real world” when others call on them to use the skills for which they theoretically earned an A. 

One final note as I continue to refine my own understanding of the distinction between students and learners: I try not to plan lessons. I prefer to focus on designing learning experiences. For me, that lens puts the emphasis on learning and the learners and helps me design for active engagement and authentic application of language and skills rather than covering the curriculum.

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 (

Putting the world in world-class education

Connecting our content to meaningful experiences outside of the classroom seems hard. Connecting our students to peers and content experts around the world seems even harder. But if we are serious about providing every student with a “world-class education,” then we will have to come to terms with the fact that one of the critical elements missing from most students’ educational experiences is….the WORLD: its peoples and their languages and perspectives. The geography of the world (natural, political, human and otherwise). How the choices we make in our daily lives impact others around the world and ecosystems all over the planet. The WORLD may be the most forgotten piece of our educational programs.

So what can be done? How do I expand my curriculum beyond the covers of our textbook and the walls of our classroom to connect my students to the world?  For my students, learning and practicing the language isn’t enough. Our students need to practice language as a global communication tool, not merely an academic pursuit of points and grades. So that was my answer: I must facilitate opportunities for my students to people around the world. Yes, easier said than done. But it has to be done.

My students do learn some geography…I want them to learn more. But most of the time when students learn geography, they color maps, memorize borders and capitals, pass the test and move on. And forget. They haven’t seen a compelling reason to need to know all of those places. So I don’t do a “geography lesson” or a “geography unit” full of  maps, capitals, borders or flags. Maybe that’s wrong. Or maybe I just did it wrong as a younger teacher and that’s why it didn’t work for me or my students. Be that as it may, in my class, there is no “geography test.”  Instead, I connect my students to people and places in the world. They have penpals in eastern France. They correspond with Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal, Benin, and Burkina Faso and sometimes the children volunteers’ villages. They support a school in Haiti and are working alongside an NGO in Togo. And each of these connections makes it meaningful to learn about the places: where they are in the world in relation to other countries and natural features such as oceans; what their political systems are like; how their natural resources, their history and their perspectives influence their practices and their interactions; what we have in common with them and what sets each of us apart. When we talk about these aspects of geographic literacy, the lessons are pertinent and meaningful because the students are connected to “real” people in those places. Those countries now matter to them. Can my students name all of the world’s countries and capitals when I base our geography content learning on connections we have in the world? No. But they have greater geographic literacy in the broader sense, which isn’t actually about memorizing capitals and countries anyway…and perhaps a greater desire to learn about the rest of the world as a result.

You don’t have to be a world language teacher to do this. In fact, so few American students study world languages in the United States (18.5% according to this Forbes article), that it is really imperative that ALL teachers connect their subjects and their students to the world. I’ve done some really easy connections by sharing my students’ work on Twitter with carefully selected hashtags that will send my students’ work into the twitter feeds of people around the world who are interested in the topic the students were working on. When those people start favoriting and commenting on the tweets of their work, students want to know more about the places their “followers” are from.

To go just a little bit further try this: Are your students talking about a hot topic in health? physics? government? literary criticism? the arts? current issues and events? Have them post their commentary on a tool like Padlet, then send the link to their Padlet out via social media (again, with appropriate hashtags to draw in the right audience) so that their content conversations aren’t just with you, but with others around the world. Be sure to mention that you’re hoping for global replies and ask your followers to also share (so you are more likely to get replies from diverse places). If you try this, it is very important that you turn on “moderate posts”  in Padlet’s settings so that you can be certain that comments are appropriate and safe before they appear on the Padlet. You may also want to include a request that those who post say where they are from. This will make it easier for you to then follow-up with lessons and activities about various places in the world. You can do this in the Padlet “description” which will appear at the top of the page. The nice thing about using tools like Twitter and Padlet in this way is that there is the potential to give all students (not just world language students) practice valuing and analyzing comments that represent diverse perspectives without merely judging or dismissing the comments because they do not correspond to one’s own beliefs.

Ready to go further? Sign up with Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools program to have your classes correspond with a volunteer serving in a developing country. You can pick the region of the world and even the sector in which the volunteer is working so that it best matches your curricular needs and interests.

Do you have a particular area of focus? Maybe there is an NGO (non-governmental organization) doing work in that sector somewhere in the world. Your students can send questions to these content experts and may even be able to get involved in their work. Here’s a world-wide NGO directory to get you started. Just quickly browsing their list by region, I saw NGOs for specific sports, journalism and the arts, among others, so truly, any subject can connect their students to the world in this way.

How are you putting the world in “world-class education?” Share in the comments below.


It’s time to burst the grading bubble

At the most recent ACTFL convention in San Diego, I had the opportunity to give a small talk. Actually six of us each gave a talk in the style of a TED Talk. They were called “TOY Talks,” with TOY standing for Teacher of the Year. I was joined by five other former ACTFL National Language Teachers of the Year and each of us prepared and delivered our version of a TED Talk. Challenging. Inspiring. The choice (or the combination) was us to us. After we talked ourselves off the ceiling due to our uncertainty about doing this kind of speaking, we each set about to decide what we wanted to share. Our talks are all very different. You can find all six on the ACTFL YouTube channel.

I wanted to talk about grading. Yup. Grading. And why we are doing it wrong.

I opened my talk with three statements and l instructed the audience to close their eyes for each one and raise their hand at the statement was true for them personally. And of course I had planned my statements purposefully, fully expecting almost everyone’s hands to go up for the first two statements and significantly fewer hands to go up for the third. And so we set off. I told the audience to close their eyes for the first statement which was “raise your hand if your primary goal is to develop your students’ proficiency in the language you teach.” Nearly 100% of the audience raised their hand. This did not surprise me. In fact, I was expecting that and I believe that this is true of the language teachers in our country: we all aspire to prepare our students to be able to interact with other speakers of the language in a variety of contexts with in and beyond the classroom. The audience keep their hands up, opened their eyes and looked around. Heads nodded as they saw that their peers felt the same way they did.

OK, time for statement two. I instructed the audience to lower their hands and close their eyes again. This time the statement was, “Raise your hand if your instruction, practice and assessment are all designed to help develop that proficiency.” Again, almost 100% of hands went up. I had the audience keep their hands up, open their eyes and look around. And again, I believe that this is true. I think that most teachers really do feel that the lessons they design, the practice activities and opportunities they provide, and even the assessments that they administer work together to help develop students’ proficiency.

On to the third statement. “Close your eyes and raise your hand if the grades your students earn absolutely and accurately reflect their ability to use the language outside of your class.” I fully expected fewer hands to go up for this statement. I planned it that way. But even I was not prepared for what I saw. “Keep your hands up, open your eyes, and look around.” One hand was up. One. In an audience of well over 100 educators, only one person felt that the grades his or her students received accurately reflected the degree to which students could use the material they learned outside of class. Something is wrong and I don’t think it’s entirely due  to the teachers, the lessons, the practice, or even the assessments. Our grades are broken. The way many of us grade is broken. And the saddest thing is, our grading system is so institutionalized that most teachers use it without even giving it a second thought.

I would submit that traditional grading systems–with a 100% scale and traditional grade book categories do NOT value proficiency and that we are losing students–sometimes proficient students–as a result. So if traditional gradebook categories and the 100% scale do not value proficiency, what DO they value?

They value points. And points and proficiency aren’t the same thing.

In American education, we often do things the way they have always been done. For example, gradebook categories whose sections have names such as “homework,” “tests,” “quizzes,” and “participation.” And, of course, “extra credit.”And each of those sections is often assigned a percentage value (or a “weight”). All the assignments the students complete receive points and the points are input into the correct category. Math is done and the whole thing adds up to a score out of a possible 100%. There is conversion to a letter grade using the 100% scale and that letter grade gets reported to parents, students, and others. There is some variation to this conversion, but most scales go something like this:

  • 90-100 = A
  • 80-89 = B
  • 70-79 = C
  • 60-69 = D
  • 0-59 = F

That’s not proficiency. That’s 100 shades of grey.

We have done this in education for a long time and the system works great…if the accumulation and reporting of points is your primary objective. But I don’t think any of us see that as our primary objective. So, click here to see my “TOY Talk” where I break down why this system is actually less fair to all of our learners and what I (and a growing number of teachers in all subjects, including ours) believe may be a better way.

I also highly recommend you check out the works of Myron Dueck, Tom Schimmer, Jan Chappuis and Rick Wormeli (books and video), all of whom have greatly inspired and shaped my thinking on this subject and the changes I have made in my approach to grading and assessment over the past few years.

Why I’m not preparing my students for the “real world”

We often hear education experts tell us how important it is to design learning experiences for our students that will prepare them for the “real world.” And teacher blogs, conference presentations and tweets are also full of strategies they have developed and implemented to prepare their students for the “real world.” By and large, they are good strategies worth exploring in our classes. I wholeheartedly agree that our students need and deserve a world-class education that prepares them for life, work, and citizenship in a dynamic, complex, and evolving global society. However, I no longer tell my students that I am preparing them for the “real world.” And I would encourage all of my fellow educators to also stop telling students, parents, and other stakeholders that they are preparing students for the “real world.”
Why? Lest you think that I have abandoned the greater purpose of education, let me explain. When we tell anyone that we are preparing students for the “real world,” we are perpetuating the already all-too-common belief that that our classes and everything we do in them is something other than “real.” Rather than reminding everyone of the fact that there is a purpose behind every learning event we have crafted for our students, that phrase instead invites all our stakeholders–students, parents, community members and others–to dismiss the majority of the work we do as artificial at best and irrelevant at worst. Think about it: if we tell students, “This [insert activity or rule to be followed here] is important because it will prepare you for the real world,” what are we doing the rest of the time? I have another post coming soon on whether or not our grades and policies really do reflect the “real world” but just looking at our instruction and assessment, we can do better than imply that only some of what we do is relevant. And if it is true that only some of what we do is relevant, then it may be time to take a closer look at our practice.

But if we are teaching, practicing and assessing for proficiency rather than for points on a chapter test, then it is likely that most–if not all–of what we do is exactly the preparation our students need in order to use their language beyond our classroom walls to communicate with others and comprehend the world around them. Just consider some of the most banal examples from my own classes (and probably yours as well): we look at the same documents native speakers around the world are looking at. We talk about them just like native speakers around the world to do. We compare them to other documents from the target cultures as well as to similar documents in American culture. We interact with native speakers as often as possible in person and online. And these are just the “easy” examples. My classes are not artificial and the work my students do provides them with numerous opportunities to participate just as fluidly in French outside of class as they do in class. So I’m not about sell my work–or my students’ efforts and time– short by implying that it is different from a mythical “real world” that in reality looks an awful lot like how we are already using French in my class.

Perhaps the real issue isn’t the phrase “real world” but rather that it’s not enough to tell our students that we are preparing them for the “real world.” We have to do so rather than say so because when we are doing it, there is no longer a need for us or others to say it…or question it. How do we “do real world” instead of telling students we are “preparing” them for the real world? By ensuring that the work in which students are engaged during their time with us is representative of the authentic ways the fundamental and advanced skills of our content areas are used outside of our classes in that seemingly mysterious place called “the real world.”

As a language teacher, our field offers a diverse array of opportunities to do just that. At the most simple, we invite native speakers into our rooms from our communities, as host students, or via Skype, FaceTime or Google+ Hangouts. It’s so easy and natural for us that we almost take it for granted. We also facilitate their progression from using words and structures in controlled environments and contexts to using the language to examine a variety of topics  on a range of issues and interests that reflect authentic cultural perspectives. We do that by using the same infographics, advertisements, articles, YouTube channels and news reports native speakers are reading, listening to and talking about.  We can go a step further by using community-based and online resources to connect our students with target-language speakers around the world in a discussion of those topics. Even a time difference isn’t a problem if we send our contacts abroad links to digital forums we have created for our students to virtually discuss concepts and content. For example, tools like TodaysMeet, Padlet, and Blendspace allow anyone anywhere in the world to participate in the “conversation” if they have a link to the specific thread in question. Want to “hear” them talk? Use tools like Voxopop to create “talk groups” to which anyone with the link can contribute. Use these tools to enhance  your learners’ connections and interactions with their penpals, with humanitarian workers serving in regions where your target language is spoken and with others who are interested in the topics your students are learning about.

Ready to go further? Engage your students in Project-Based Learning, otherwise known as PBL (and for language teachers, Project-Based Language Learning, or PBLL). I’ve been learning about and implementing Project-Based Language Learning for several years, although so far, I would consider my implementation of it to be fairly novice. One of the most accomplished language educators who has made PBLL a fully integrated component of his language instruction is Don Doehla, who blogs on world languages (including PBLL) for Edutopia. Here is just one of his many PBL posts. Spanish teacher Laura Sexton has also done incredible work in this arena. And here is a great overview of best practices in PBL directly from the experts at the Buck Institute for Education.

Why do I like PBL or PBLL to prepare students for a myriad of roles in a society that will define itself after our students leave us?  Through well-designed Project-Based Learning experiences–or more correctly, expertly facilitated PBL experiences–students learn through inquiry, often of their own design. Two critical components of successful PBL and PBLL are

  • the active role the students play throughout the learning, practice and assessment process, and
  • the higher purpose of assessment in PBL/PBLL

Starting with the selection of the essential question or challenging problem the students will tackle, through the cycle of inquiry, reflection, and critique and revision, student voice and choice are the primary factors guiding their work. Students move from learning language for points in the gradebook to acquiring language they will need in order to comprehend and talk about the field they are studying. They move from passively receiving instruction to determining and acting on their own learning needs with teacher support. I’ve even had students work with me to help write the grants that would fund their work and design and publish their own advertising.  And of course their involvement doesn’t end when their research does: I include my students in the choice, design and implementation of their culminating  PBL/PBLL event, which is often open to the community. It is through this event that students demonstrate their knowledge and apply the full gamut of their skills (content skills, language and literacy skills, and often numerous 21st Century Skills). It is the essentially the assessment, but really it is so much more: the culminating event evaluates students’ proficiencies much more thoroughly and authentically than a test grade. The culminating event provides students with a meaningful venue that requires demonstration of both spontaneous and prepared application of their language skills and content knowledge.

Interactions with native speakers in our classrooms and online. Discussion and analysis of authentic media. Assessment for an audience beyond the teacher and a purpose greater than a grade. For the language educator, this is–or should be–our every day, day to day. Just like in the “real world.”


UPDATED: Speaking of….speaking (Post 1 in the “Readers Request” Series)

Recently, I decided to ask my readers what they would like me to examine, explore and/or share in my blog. I’m so glad I did. Their ideas have shaped not only the series of posts that I’m launching with this piece, but also allowed me to reflect on aspects of my own practice that could use some dusting off, tweaking and outright re-imagining.

And that brings us here: to the first post in a special “Readers’ Request” series in this blog. Multiple readers asked me to explore and share tips for facilitating and maintaining peer-to-peer interaction in the target language. Some wanted to know about strategies for novice learners and others for students at higher levels.

I love a challenge, so let’s kick things off with the novice learners. I think many educators (and other stakeholders) feel that getting novice learners to speak is just one of the most difficult aspects of language teaching. “After all,” they might say, “they’re so new at language. They can’t possibly know what to say. It’s just so hard!”

When I’m working on learning pathways for my students, I realize that I want them to speak, but I also have to be realistic about their proficiency. The hallmark of novice-level language is that students can consistently, accurately and spontaneously handle lists of known words in familiar contexts and memorized “chunks” of language in familiar contexts. So the challenge becomes to design contexts that maximize their ability to work with lists and chunks. And for the real pros (I’m not always there yet), to do so in ways that result in real language use for real purposes and real audiences beyond the classroom. Like I said…I’m not always there yet. My novices do most of their speaking (and other communicative tasks) in “simulated” real situations that lay a foundation for their work with target language speakers around the world in subsequent years, although we do an annual conversation group with French exchange students who come each spring (a true highlight of the year for many of the students) and I’m constantly on the lookout for other real speaking opportunities that are appropriate to their level.

So how do I get my novices to speak?

First and foremost, I speak French to and with my students. Thanks to reader @srstolz for asking numerous questions on the first version of this post. His questions helped me see that I had neglected to mention the cornerstone of my approach to supporting novice learners to speak. They must have quality input in order to be able to produce any output. That means I must maximize my time with them by using real, authentic, untranslated French as the language of instruction and of communication with my students. I speak French to them in and out of the classroom. I speak French to them even when I’m not technically teaching them. And of course, I speak French when I am teaching them. Doing so is not always easy, as many of you know. I must draw on cognates (for my English, Spanish and Romanian speakers, there are many), life experience of my learners, previous knowledge in French, visuals, realia, context, gestures and any other tools I can use to ensure that I am not merely throwing French words and phrases at them. Instead, I am building a context in which the students can acquire the targeted words and phrases as naturally as possible, crafting my input so the students arrive at the meanings themselves, just like they did in their first language. My goal is to NOT translate. Why? Because building translation into input lessons actually detracts from the effectiveness of the lesson. The students learn that they do not need to pay attention to the words the teacher is using, the context the teacher (hopefully) created to use the words realistically, or anything else the teacher might do to make the words comprehensible because the students know that the teacher will simply provide a translation anyway. Likewise, I don’t ask my novice learners to look at lists words and take notes on them because those lists take the words out of context and present them as isolated fragments of language that are disconnected from the whole. Lists on the board, in the book or on a worksheet cannot give the kind of contextualized input I can provide by crafting the lessons myself. In the most basic sense, vocabulary lists provided to students as a substitute for well-crafted comprehensible input will fail to produce speaking because the lists do not model spoken language.

Here are some other strategies I employ that support my learners to communicate in French.

  1. I seat them for communication. That means no rows. In fact, this past year, I got rid of desks altogether and replaced them with tables. Rows send the message that the class isn’t for communication: it’s for taking notes. It’s for listening to the teacher. That wasn’t the message I wanted to send. It’s true that by seating in tables, there is more opportunity for students to talk in general (and they are NOT always speaking in French, alas), but I felt strongly enough about the need for a more communicatively conducive physical environment that I decided to give up on desks and rows.
    Tables are flexible! Here they are pushed together for large groups. And, they are speaking with our French exchange students.

    Tables are flexible! Here they are pushed together for large groups. And, they are speaking with our French exchange students.

    In the end, I know that if my students are speaking English, it’s because of a failure on my part, not theirs. What kinds of “failures?” Perhaps they were given too much time to complete a task. Perhaps the directions weren’t clear. Or maybe they weren’t linguistically (or socially) ready for the task at all, causing them to break down into English. All of these things are in my control. Ultimately, I can prevent the use of English with outstanding learning supports (instruction and others) and by ensuring that the tasks are appropriate to the students’ interests and levels. So…I actually don’t scold them for speaking English if I can see that it is because I didn’t provide the appropriate supports for them to be successful in French.

  2. I design tasks that maximize those memorized chunks! When students have learned to talk about themselves a bit, we imagine we have been accepted on an international exchange. All the international students will be coming to France (hence, French becomes the common language for the whole group). The host organization has prepared a get-together to allow the students to begin to get to know each other. Even with just name, age and where they live, students can begin to participate in short conversations. They participate in the “mixer” asking each others’ names, ages and home cities. And they get extensive practice with those particular chunks. If a group needs even more structure to be successful, I put them in two concentric circles. The inner circle asks the questions and the outer circle responds and then rotates to the next student. After a few rotations, the students switch circles so that all students get practice asking and answering questions. For this particular example, among students in the inner circle who are asking the questions, approximately ⅓ has the question “what’s your name?” while the remainder of the students in the inner circle are either asking “how old are you?” or “where do you live?” In this way, all students know that they could be asked any of the three questions, but they don’t know for sure which question is coming next. In addition, the students asking the questions get very comfortable with not only their question but with what a “correct” response should sound like. I train them early in the year to use this accumulated experience and knowledge to help students who struggle to answer their question by saying, “Par exemple, Je m’appelle Nicole” (“For example, my name is Nicole”) thus using their own personal response to their question as a model that may help the responding student remember how to answer that question. This empowers all students to be support providers to each other and also makes it easier for me to be more effective when monitoring responses of the whole class (I typically stand in the center of the circle so I can easily “lean in” on various pairs and listen to the conversations).
  3. As the students acquire more language (even though they remain novice-level speakers), it is easy to adapt the above activity. One adaptation I like to do is for them to add follow-up questions (such as “with whom,” “where,” “when,” etc.) as soon as they have enough language to at least provide a simple response to those questions. This begins to introduce slightly more spontaneity (they don’t know what follow-up questions they will be asked next) and it also builds additional listening skills. Furthermore, it increases the amount of the time the students spend asking questions. Given that they will likely be asking quite a few questions when they finally get the chance to travel where the language is spoken, it is imperative that teachers ensure students aren’t always merely responding to questions: they need practice spontaneously asking questions as well. Even more importantly, these short, semi-spontaneous conversations allow students to get to know each other even better and contribute to our sense of community in the classes. I do NOT insist on complete sentence responses. We don’t insist on that in “real” life, and I don’t want my students feeling like what goes on in our class is “fake” language use that doesn’t represent what happens in the real world. Real-world language use is full of single-word answers and partial phrases. That’s OK for my students as well.
  4. I use random participation techniques.This sounds like a small point, but it’s really quite important. At least to me. During the oral guided practice phase of instruction on a new aspect of the language, the students first get an opportunity to work through the task with a partner at their table. If they run into trouble, they have the other tablemates to turn to before asking me (I’m constantly circulating). After they have attempted the activity with their partners, I randomly select two students to complete each mini situation for the class (these are typically question-answer activities that hone in on a specific vocabulary theme or language structure). I used to use index cards to select students, but now I use the iPhone app called “ClassCards.” I use the app on my iPad rather than on my iPhone, but it works great because I can “shake to shuffle” the list of students, I can see the next five students to be selected (crucial since I will be selecting two students at a time), I can mark students absent when they come up in the list so they don’t come up again during that school day and I can allow a student to “pass.” That said, the app was free when I got it and it is no longer free. There are other randomizers available. I encourage you to check them out. Although these initial interactions are not always 100% realistic, guided practice is a critical language learning phase that our learners need in order to eventually be able to speak confidently and spontaneously and by randomizing participation, I am able to help maintain an environment in which all students are ready to speak–in French–at any time.  That said, it is important to move from guided practice to more open-ended, realistic independent practice and performance as soon as teachers have data that their students are working successfully with the new material.
  5. Surveys and other information gap activities are a great way to engage novice learners in short, interpersonal exchanges on a specific topic. Students first work as a class to develop a class bank of questions on the given topic (food, exercise habits, favorite activities, etc.) that they practice at their tables or in inner-outer circles. Then specific questions are assigned to individual students (or selected by students) who will conduct a survey on their assigned question, collect data from the class based on their answers and then create a visual representation of the responses (chart/bar graph/etc.) as well as a one-sentence summary. This task therefore involves speaking and listening and then also reading of their responses and writing (to generate the visual and the summary). And yet, it remains well within the realm of lists and memorized chunks with which they are comfortable.
  6. As students gain more contexts about which they can speak, conversation cards can be a productive peer-to-peer interaction activity, but for novice learners, they may need sentence frames (or rather, question frames) provided in order to get the conversations going. Typically, this would have to occur towards the end of their first year of language study at the earliest, because they won’t have enough different contexts as retrievable language with which to do the activity otherwise, but once they arrive at this point, conversation cards can serve as a great way to recycle earlier material and build-in more recently acquired expressions for their conversations. The cards might prompt them with questions they can ask about their partner’s family, favorite foods, weekend activities, how they would like to decorate their dorm room, where they like to go in town/in the region, etc.

Here are some videos that show both how I use French as the language of instruction and how my students use unscripted, unedited and unrehearsed French to practice and build communication. These students were in French 1 in the 2013-2014 school year.

French 1 end of fall semester: 

French 1 end of spring semester:

  • Part 1: 
  • Part 2: 
  • Part 3: 

These are just some ways I ensure my novice-level students are engaged in and supported during peer-to-peer interactions in the target language. What are your favorite strategies? Continue the conversation and continue the learning by sharing in the comments.

What I learned in three weeks of regional conference attendance, according to Twitter

When I’m at conferences, I like to tweet when I hear something that I feel is important or helpful. I do this to share the learning with others who were not in the same sessions as I was, but I also do this for myself. Typing helps me remember what I learned. Synthesizing to 140 characters or less requires me to think about each concept I wish to share carefully so that I can discuss it so succinctly. And tweeting provides me with a relatively easy-to-find record of the items I hope to apply in my own practice.

Pulling those tweets into a Storify makes my learning even easier to find. If you would like to learn along with me, there are several options: check out my handle on Twitter (@NicoleNaditz); scroll through the various conference hashtags Twitter so that you get not only what I tweeted but what everyone tweeted (I was at #swcolt15, #swcolt15, #clta15 and #csctfl15); or check out the slideshow I made on Storify, just so I could have the tweets that were important for my own learning in a place that made them even easier to find and view.

I hope to have a chance to truly synthesize what I learned from the amazing colleagues with whom I interacted around the country and post something a bit more profound here in a separate blog. But for now, this will have to play the role of a teaser post.

What thoughts, strategies and approaches did you explore at professional development that have since impacted your practice?