Patience and Play – Two Free Gifts that your Novice Students Need

It finally happened! Just in time for Hannukah, Christmas, St-Nicolas, New Years, and all of the other magical holidays of the season, a miracle visited my classroom!

My third period French I has been a bit of a challenge for me this year. It’s a small class (13), who all entered my classroom in September with zero experience in French. I did what I always do. I immersed them in a French only environment. This group resisted more than most. The fun, even juvenile things that I do to keep my novices in the target language did not hypnotize this group like they do most classes. This group did not appreciate the clapping games, the movement, or the interaction. Even after English week, when I clearly explained rules, procedures, and put a huge focus on building community in the classroom, the class did not want to interact outside of their 1-2 friends in the classroom. They did not want to speak French. They were not patient enough for the comprehensible input to become comprehensible. They did not want to touch each other for games, and they did not even want to interact with most of the others in our classroom. To make matters worse, one day a week, this class is lengthened by 15 minutes and moved to after lunch, and that change – as changes from routine often are – was difficult for these students. They resented the lengthened class, and they took it out on me by refusing to participate. They troubled me, and they challenged my view of the OWL method that I was incorporating. Maybe this class needed to sit down and just be talked to.

Then last week happened.

On the first day of note, I hilariously split the front of my pants while playing a game in another class. I recounted the story with animation and exaggeration to this class, and they loved making fun of me for it (lightheartedly). They asked to play the game that caused the incident and I let them. The next day, during hall duty, they stole the foam soccer ball that I used for that game, and they began kicking it around in the circle, before I entered. I need to re-emphasize that this is a class that has difficulty communicating outside of their cliques, and yet I when I came in from hall duty, they were playing with one another – unprompted. I allowed it to continue and even joined in. I only spoke French, and most of them followed suit or at least did not speak English. The English that I did hear, I decided to ignore, in favor of continuing the communal spirit that was just beginning to take root in this class. Then the best soccer player in the class kicked the ball right into my groin. Needless to say, the kids learned some French words that day that do not appear in many textbooks. They thought it was the best thing they had ever seen!

The next class day, we started out by playing a different game with the same ball, and I (in gest) protested loudly and dramatically every time that soccer player got the ball. When I concluded the game, I gave one of my classic transitions “Mains à la tête!” (Hands on your head!) The class then beat me to yelling out my classic next transition, “Mains aux genoux!” (Knees.) They then started yelling out in French every body part they knew. This turned into a 20 minute session of them spontaneously yelling out and miming a gesture for probably 200 different vocabulary words and phrases. I feel like I’m not saying that with enough emphasis. The class that hates to talk and hates to interact spontaneously generated 200 words and phrases in 100% Target Language for 20 minutes! They thought they were making fun of me. They were laughing, smiling, high-fiving! It was amazing! They were daring me to stop them, but I was too stupefied! I had the chills! I almost cried! The only thing I said for those twenty minutes was a shocked “Continuez!” Only one person did not participate in this holiday miracle. The other twelve were entirely engaged in the mental exercise of saying and acting out every French word and phrase they knew. When the bell rang, and they left, I immediately went to my online gradebook, and created an assignment called Impromptu Vocabulary Quiz. All students received an A+, except the student who did not participate who I excluded from the assignment.

On Thursday, we had a St-Nicolas party, and we played 4-square. I expected to begrudgingly tolerate English to just enjoy the holiday. They stayed in French almost the whole time during this game that we had never played in class before. They loved it! And then when we reviewed brand new vocab words at the end that we had used, their lists  that they generated were phenomenal – line, in, out, win, lose, bye, serve, re-serve, well done, fault, bounce, under, over, eliminate the threat, kill, attack, not allowed, required. Some of these words might be found in a first-year textbook. Most aren’t. But my kids own these words now!

This is the week that the magic happened in my class, and it happened for two reasons.

  1. My patience outmatched their resistance. I thought about giving up. I thought about de-OWLing for this class and seeing what would work. I thought about worksheeting them or online flash-carding the life out of them. But deep down, I believe that OWL works. I believe that given enough comprehensible input and social/emotional support, they can and will produce French. It took months, but I was right! And I couldn’t believe how right I was! They knew so many words and phrases, and they knew what they meant! They showed me what they knew better than any quiz or test I could hope to create.
  2. Play is essential for novice learners. They needed to laugh at me. They needed to kick me in the groin. They needed to play soccer, and Wake Up and 4-square. They need games to build community, to create friendships, and to provide the social/emotional support that allows confidence in language production. They need games to create context for high-frequency vocabulary and less-frequent vocabulary.  How did I miss this as an OWL teacher? Play creates community and context – two things that are indispensable to language teachers.

Education is serious. I take my job seriously, and I am concerned about “just for fun” activities replacing true education. However, after this week, I am highly reconsidering the role of play in language learning. Not vocab-review games. Not grammar games. Games that are fun just for the sake of being fun. As a language teacher to novices, I am not playing too many games. I am playing too few. Educational theorist Jean Piaget said that “Play is the work of childhood.” I’m taking this more seriously moving forward. Patience and play – those are my gifts to my novice students this season.




Data I can Use: After the AAPPL

I am fortunate to be a World Languages Teacher. Not only do I get to have fascinating conversations with students and watch them grow from total novices to advanced speakers of language, but I also do not have to deal with the data driven frenzy that has engulfed public education in my state. I am spared from having students who may or may not have ever been in my classroom taking tests that affect my own evaluations. This is undoubtedly a blessing, but the other sign of that coin is that I rarely get real, outside data into how my students are performing. Certainly, the AP exam is out there, but it is costly, the feedback is minimal, and it can only be practically administered to students at the end of the French program – students who have often graduated before I even receive their AP scores. Fortunately, at the end of last school year, my school administered the AAPPL test to all students in Levels 3 or above of all languages offered. This year marks the my 13th year teaching, but my first year coming back with actionable, personal data! Here is what I learned from AAPPL, and how I plan to apply it in my classroom this year!

Lesson #1: They can never talk too much.

I teach using the OWL methodology (see here for more information, and here, and here, and here), which is a methodology that is very comfortable practicing conversation. In fact, when teachers observe my classroom, they frequently remark how comfortable my students look speaking French, but are concerned that not enough time is dedicated to writing. Probably the most frequent question I get about OWL is How do they learn to write? Evidently, I internalized this fear, because as I was mentally preparing myself for my first ever ACTFL feedback from my students, I was prepared to apologize for their writing scores. I didn’t explicitly teach imparfait and passé composé. I’ve always been too lenient on spelling. They don’t even know the names of some of the accent marks.  I was preparing to be let down by writing, but boosted by speaking. The results surprised me. My students did exceed Ohio’s expectations for speaking, but only by a little. They blew the writing expectations out of the water. The chart below shows how my Level 3’s (the blue lines) compared against Ohio’s expectations (the red lines). The results were similar for my upper-level classes.AAPPL scores

What does this mean for my classroom? It means that my students need more practice speaking, not less. It means that despite the highly conversational nature of my program, I need to focus more on how much they are speaking and the quality of their conversations. Interpersonal Listening and Speaking was not my greatest strength. It was actually the greatest weakness. This is shocking to anyone who has ever seen my class in action, but the data is so useful. I know that next year, I’m not changing a thing in terms of writing, and I’m focusing even more on speaking!

Lesson #2: The rubrics mean what they say.

I used the AAPPL rubrics (provided free of charge on this website) all of last year as my primary grading mechanism. All year I struggled with the question But what does it really mean? What exactly is a sentence? What is unsympathetic interlocutor? These questions plagued me as I marked up students’ papers with concerns of subject-verb agreement and interrogative formations. And then I got my students’ scores. It turns out that when the rubrics say a sentence, they mean…wait for it…a sentence. A complete thought that includes a subject and a verb. How accurate does it have to be to be a sentence? Well, if you’re looking at the intermediate descriptors, accurate enough for a sympathetic interlocutor to understand you. What does that mean for my classroom? When students write the equivalent of “My mom to talk really fast,” Or “I plays the violin,” they successfully communicated at an intermediate level of discourse, provided of course that the level can be sustained. Were there errors? Of course there were? As a sympathetic English speaker, could I understand both of those sentences? Absolutely, without any difficulty. The writers of those sentences successfully communicated in sentences. This is torture to the old grammarian part of my soul that hasn’t died yet, but it is cause for celebration in my real world classroom. This is great news, because what matters in the rubric is what matters in real life – the successful communication of a message! AAPPL rubrics do not mention grammar – they care about who can understand. That is how they define accuracy, and it is liberating to our students! So next year in my classroom, I’m not going to worry about if they know which -ir verbs are not actually -ir verbs, and which  ones belong on a VANDERTRAMP list. I’m going to worry about their ability to successfully communicate a message, and isn’t that the whole point of learning another language?!

Lesson #3: I’m not challenging them enough.

Because I didn’t properly understand the role of accuracy in determining a student’s proficiency level, I believed all of my students to be in the Novice-High Intermediate-Low range. So I gave them the things that I knew students at that level needed. I gave them a ton of prompts and opportunities to show that they could communicate creatively on a single-sentence basis in one tense. Because they did not always give me the correct verb ending, I didn’t think they could possibly be beyond intermediate-low. Imagine my surprise (and joy) when I saw these AAPPL results!French Score Distributions

Focusing especially on the top two scores (Speaking and Writing), there is a clear ceiling for my students at about I4. This is a really significant score. The score of I4, which translates to a strong Intermediate-mid, indicates that these students can perform all of the tasks that an Intermediate speaker can do but are not showing any real evidence of Advanced language. A score of I5 (Intermediage-high) would indicate that students are sometimes performing at the Advanced level. I need to repeat some of that with emphasis. These students can perform all of the tasks that an Intermediate speaker can do. They could already do it! And what was I asking them to do? Intermediate tasks! Is it any wonder that they maxed out there? They didn’t need those tasks anymore. My students were practically begging me to throw them into the deep end and give them Advanced prompts, but I didn’t trust them to swim. This school year, they’re swimming!

Where would I be without the AAPPL test? I know one thing for sure. I would focus an inappropriate amount of time on writing, without challenging the skill in which they needed the most work. I would be penalizing them with lower grades than they deserved, because my understanding of proficiency is still a work in progress. I would continue to be maxing out my students at Intermediate-mid, because I wouldn’t have the data to tell me they were ready for more. The AAPPL test was a great investment for my students! I am so happy to be able to offer it to levels 3 and up again this year, and I am very pleased to be offering it optionally to students in levels 1 and 2 as well. I can’t wait to see what gains we have made this year!

Action Research Analyzing OWL Student Performance: How my OWL students performed on the AAPPL

This spring my high school administered ACTFL’s AAPPL assessment to all World Languages students in their 3rd, 5th, and 7th semesters of study. The results were encouraging, enlightening, and challenging. Below is the express version of action research on the findings and implications of this assessment.


On May 3, 2018, approximately 170 students in grades 9-12 at Chillicothe High School in southern Ohio took the AAPPL assessment. My world languages colleagues and I hoped to see if our students were meeting the proficiency targets we had set for them and if our understanding of the proficiency levels and proficiency scoring was roughly equivalent to how the ACTFL-trained AAPPL raters were scoring the exams.

Background information

Chillicothe, OH is a small city in Appalachia with a mix of rural, urban, and suburan students. The majority of our students are on free or reduced lunch, so much that the district received a grant to provide free lunch for 100% of the students. Many of our students come from homes with no college education, and most of Chillicothe High School’s students live below the poverty line. Anecdotally speaking, many teachers in this school have given up assigning homework, because students will not do it, or they will rush to copy right before class, even in AP or college prep classes. Academics are not devalued; however, they are not well valued beyond the limits of the school day. Furthermore, Chillicothe does not have a very linguistically diverse population. Less than 2% of students who took the AAPPL come from homes or families where a foreign language is spoken. In short, the only exposure to a language other than English (LOTE) is contained to the classroom for the vast majority of our students.

Chillicothe High School offers three LOTEs – Spanish, French, and Chinese. Spanish is by far the most popular, having three to four times more students than any other language. Accordingly, three teachers teach Spanish at Chillicothe High School. Two of the three Spanish teachers are dedicated to levels 1-3, while the third teacher teachers levels 4-7 (AP). French is the second most studied language at CHS with about one hundred students and one teacher who teaches levels 1-7 (AP). Finally, Chinese has about twenty students and one teacher responsible for levels 1-7 (AP). CHS operates by semesters, with odd-level courses being offered in the spring and even-level courses offered in the fall. Classes are 70 minutes long and meet every day for one semester. Advanced middle school students may begin their LOTE study in 8th grade, while the general population of students begins their first LOTE in the spring of their 9th grade year.

The world language teachers at CHS do not teach using one uniform methodology. The French teacher (me) uses Organic World Language (OWL) strategies almost exclusively, as does the Spanish teacher who teaches levels 4-AP.  The Chinese teacher uses a variety of comprehensible input methods (CI) including some OWL strategies. One of the lower level Spanish teachers teaches mostly in English, using a great deal of technology and her excellent rapport with students to teach about the language and its mechanics. The other lower level Spanish position has seen a great deal of turnover in the past few years. One teacher used mostly traditional, English methods to teach about the language. Another teacher who was brand new to the field of teaching attempted to use OWL in all of his classes. A third teacher relied mostly on traditional methods with some incorporation of OWL strategies before inverting that methodology in her final semester. In brief, students in Spanish 1-3 have been exposed to a variety of teachers and methods.

Essential Questions

The department never formalized essential questions that we had going into the AAPPL testing, but informal conversations proved that we had two uniform concerns:

  • What level of proficiency are our students demonstrating at the various levels? Specifically, are our students reaching Intermediate-Low by level 3 as the Ohio Department of Education recommends for level 3 students of French and Spanish? Furthermore, are our AP students performing near the advanced levels?
  • Are we assessing our students in a way similar to how ACTFL experts would assess? We are familiar with ACTFL’s proficiency levels and sub-levels, but it is hard to apply these standards to our own students. We know them. We want them to be somewhere. We are unsure as to how much accuracy must be demonstrated in order to achieve various levels. Are we grading too harshly, too leniently, or just right?

On a personal level, I had one more essential question. I wanted to know what effect if any the various methodologies  have on student performance, giving us a third essential question:

  • Is OWL methodology producing higher levels of student performance than non-OWL / non-CI strategies?


I can only speak about my own assumptions for my French students, but I would like to clarify how I was teaching them prior to the AAPPL. As I said, I use almost exclusively OWL strategies for all classes. However, the prompts I used in each class varied by what I thought that they needed. I was convinced that my Level 3 students were Novice-High, so I delivered mostly intermediate prompts to them. I made the same assumptions about my Level 5 students, believing that their linguistic accuracy was too low to actually qualify them to be intermediate speakers. I believed my level 7 students to be Intermediate-Lows. Since I wanted to push them to Intermediate-Mid, and since they were in a mixed class with my level 5, I provided them with mostly intermediate prompts with the very rare advanced prompts. In brief, essentially all of the students that I tested were working almost uniquely with Intermediate-level prompts.

Data provided by ODE supported my beliefs. The data showed that students at the end of a 7-12 program are very likely to end up at Intermediate-Mid to Intermediate-High, and that advanced scores were a longshot, even with a 7-12 program. I had an 8-12 program, and I believed that my best students were likely to cap out at Intermediate-Mid.

Why we chose AAPPL

My department decided on AAPPL for a variety of reasons. It was cost effective. At only $20 per student (and a small discount after that, just for being in Ohio), we could easily tack this on as a lab fee for anyone in the levels 3,5, or 7 courses. Furthermore, we wanted a test whose results could earn our students the Seal of Biliteracy, new to Ohio in 2018. This left us choosing between AAPPL and the STAMP test. While I believe that STAMP has a lot to offer as a test (even claiming to be a proficiency rather than performance test), and would not be closed to it in the future, we ultimately chose AAPPL because it was created by ACTFL. We know and trust ACTFL. We like that ACTFL trains the raters. We’ve invested a lot of time over the past few years learning about the proficiency levels, and AAPPL seemed to mirror proficiency more clearly than STAMP. Furthermore, AAPPL provides free rubrics that are easy to use, and my department incorporates these rubrics into our day-to-day grading. (As a side note, and I swear that I’m not being paid to say this (but I’m not closed to that idea if anyone from ACTFL is reading), the support we received from AAPPL was superb. They were very helpful and prompt when it came to administering the exams).


Choosing the examinees to be studied

Prior to administering the exam, we knew that we wanted to see first of all if our Level 3 students were attaining Intermediate-Low scores in French and Spanish. Although Chinese students also took the AAPPL, they are studying a Level 4 difficulty language, so their targets are a bit more complicated. Looking at Spanish 3 versus French 3 data gives us a bit more of an apples to apples comparison. Level 1 is also offered during the spring semester when we were administering the AAPPL, but all teachers in the department felt relatively confident that our level 1 students were reaching the target of Novice-Mid. We also wanted to know how far into the Intermediate sub-levels our honors students were climbing, so we assessed, Levels 5 and 7 as well. Comparisons of Honors-level French and Spanish students are being left out of this study, because the sample size of honors French students is too small to be conclusive.

Administering the exam

We administered exams to all 170 students in one sitting on the morning of May 3. Students who were not testing were allowed to arrive at school two hours later, which mirrored a familiar state testing schedule that our school uses. We had enough headphones to record about 100 students at a time, so students were divided into groups A and B. A groups completed the Interpretive Listening (IL) test, followed by the Interpersonal Listening and Speaking (ILS) test. Following the ILS test, Group A students were given a brief break during which their proctors placed the recording microphones outside the classroom doors. After the break, students in Group A took the Interpretive Reading (IR) test and concluded with the Presentational Writing (PW) test. Group B students began by completing the IR and IL tests. They were allowed a break after IL, during which microphones were transferred from Group A testing rooms to Group B testing rooms. After the break, Group B students took the ILS test and concluded with the PW. We intentionally placed the PW test as the final test for both groups, because our research had revealed that it was the part of the test that took the longest to complete, and it could be stopped and restarted relatively easily.

Students were grouped in rooms of like students. All Spanish 3 students took the AAPPL Form A (measuring Novice-Low to Intermediate-Mid) and all Spanish 5 and 7 students took Form B (measuring Novice-High to Advanced). Some French 3 students attempted form B, while the rest took Form A, and all French 5 and 7 students took Form B. All Chinese students attempted form A. Rooms were grouped so that the same test form was given to all students. French A students were only with other French A students. Spanish B students were only with other Spanish B students, and so on.

We incentivized participation and effort on this test by allowing test-takers to leave school early on the test day. We furthermore promised that any students who met or exceeded course expectations on the AAPPL exam would immediately receive an A or A+ on the final exam and would be excused from class on the final exam date. Consequently, our attendance was excellent, with over 95% of expected students sitting the exam.


While the AAPPL itself is a very reliable measure, our study itself does present some limitations. The most significant factor is that in comparing OWL and non-OWL students at Level 3, the course methodology is not the only variable. The full-OWL students were also French students, while the some-OWL students were all Spanish students. This is significant because demographic and academic disparities are present between these two languages. Many Spanish students take Spanish by default. There are multiple Spanish I courses offered every year, and with scant prerequisites, it is an easy elective to opt into, even if they do not really want to learn Spanish. French on the other hand has only one teacher and limited French I course offerings. Getting into French is difficult to do by accident. So the students who take French generally intended to take French, while Spanish classes have a larger mix of intentional and accidental students. This demographic difference may have affected classroom management and therefore learning outcomes in the classroom. Furthermore, as mentioned above, the Spanish courses have had a great deal of teacher turnover in the past few years. Some of the Spanish 3 students had had 4 different Spanish teachers. Their LOTE-learning history was a little less stable than the French students’. So while AAPPL will give us a clear view of what is happening in our classes, it cannot tell us conclusively that OWL vs non-OWL methodology is to blame or to praise for the results.


AAPPL results come back very quickly. The computer-scored IL and IR sections are returned immediately. The human-scored ILS and PW sections were returned in under 3 weeks, with Chinese students getting their results back in less than 24 hours.

Quantifying the results

AAPPL reports scores using a mix of letters and numbers. The following chart shows the AAPPL to ACTFL scoring.


In order to to quantify this a little simpler, I converted these scores to a 1-10 scale, as seen in the middle column on the table below.

CHS Analytical

The results of the French 3 (OWL) vs Spanish 3 (some OWL) are shown below. The Ohio Department of Education (ODE) targets are also shown in red.

AAPPL scores

Below are the results for all French and Spanish classes:

Level 5 ScoresLevel 7 Scores

And overall scores by language are presented below. Here are the French score distributions:

French Score Distributions

And the Spanish Score distributions:Spanish Score Distributions



The differences between CHS students are most stark at the Level 3 (full-OWL vs little to no OWL). It is clear that the OWL students performed their non-OWL counterparts by 2-3 points. Also, Level 3 OWL students on average performed above the Intermediate-Low target level in all 4 tests, whereas non-OWL students performed at level in only presentational writing and below level on all other tests. In short, the average Level 3 student is performing at intermediate levels of proficiency when taught in an OWL setting. The average non-OWL student at CHS is performing within the novice range.

Spanish students in level 5 have nearly caught up to their French counterparts after a full year of OWL instruction. The average French sscore tudent is performing well above level on all four tests, whereas Spanish students are performing above level in all tests save the ILS, in which they are essentially at level.

In the seventh semester of instruction, the ODE target (Intermediate High) surpasses French and Spanish students’ performance in nearly all tests. Furthermore, the Level 7 students’ scores are nearly identical to the scores of the Level 5 students.

A further observation is that the Interpersonal Listening and Speaking score for all languages and for all levels was the lowest of the average scores.

When looking at the score distributions by language, I notice spikes at certain scores. French spikes in ILS at I4 and I1, and it spikes again in PW at I4. Spanish also spikes at I4 on both of those tests with  additional spikes at N4 in ILS and I1 in PW. The I4 spikes in particular serve as a ceiling for the ILS and PW tests in both languages.


Interpersonal speaking

It seems that the ILS test was the most difficult for all students regardless of language or level. This difficulty was particularly pronounced in Level 3 non-OWL courses, but the difficulty seemed to be staved off by OWL instruction in Levels 5 and under. This seems to indicate that students need more practice in the interpersonal mode, even in OWL classes, and especially at the upper levels.

OWL vs Traditional Instruction

The data in this study favors full OWL instruction over limited or no OWL instruction. The effects were most striking in the presentational writing and interpersonal listening and speaking modes.

What’s happening at Level 7?

In Level 7 the ODE line far surpasses our students’ performance. I account this to ODE assuming linear growth in proficiency over time. In reality, we know that it takes longer to advance through the intermediate levels than the novice one. The higher you climb in proficiency, the longer it takes you to reach the next level. ODE knows that. They even have charts that show that students will not reach Intermediate-High in a 4 year program (They can). I think they just don’t know how to represent that in course targets. No judgment. I don’t know how to do that either.

Not only does ODE pass CHS students at level 7, but in some cases, our level 5 students are surpassing them! I can only suppose that this is because language learners will naturally stagnate at upper proficiency levels, and that is why there is so little observable growth between levels 5 and 7. I also have one other explanation that can be better explained by the spikes.

The Spikes

Both French and Spanish students show spikes and ceilings at I4 in Speaking and Writing. That spike in that position is telling. French and Spanish teachers were convinced that the upper-level students were intermediate-lows, and they were trying to grow them to intermediate-mids by providing them with a great deal of intermediate prompts. The data suggests that that strategy is wrong, because the upper-level students are not intermediate-lows. In fact, they’re strong intermediate-mids! We must keep in mind that a score of I5 indicates that the speaker/writer can produce at the advanced level about half of the time. Students scoring I4 do not need intermediate prompts to grow. They need advanced prompts, and we were not providing advanced prompts to them. They stalled out at I4 because they had never been pushed beyond intermediate. The same concept can be applied anywhere there is a spike.


OWL and Reading/Writing

One of the biggest questions or criticisms that I have heard about OWL is that it does not focus enough on reading or writing. The data does not support this criticism. Not only are OWL students performing above-level in writing in Levels 3 and 5, but they are out-performing non-OWL students by 2 whole points in Level 3. While non-OWL students are hitting Intermediate-Low in Presentational Writing, the OWL students are firm Intermediate-Mids. Non-OWL Level III courses have students reading at a Novice-Mid level on average while OWL students are reading at Intermediate-Mid. That is an astounding difference. I think many people assume that OWL students will be slower to read and write than students in traditional instruction, but the data does not support that assumption. This data seems to support the opinion that the more language in a student’s head, the more language the student will read and write, and that the best way to get language in a student’s head is to give them a ton of comprehensible input. OWL instruction provides that input constantly. The constant use of the language in coversational setting seems to translate quickly to reading and writing skills.

Before moving on, I should add that reading and writing instruction are not absent from OWL instruction. On the contrary, reading serves as an important source of input. OWL methodology seeks to provide authentic reading that is both appropriate to students’ proficiency level and to their interests. Furthermore, any speaking prompt in the OWL circle can be transformed into a writing prompt with almost no effort on the part of teacher or student. Those written responses can then serve as a form of reading input for other students. When done correctly, Reading and writing are very much part of the OWL circle and classroom.

Interpersonal Listening and Speaking are Tough.

I was surprised that the ILS scores are the lowest of the scores for full OWL classes. This is certainly the skill I spend the most time on in class. I was heartned to see that the same challenge existed for the non-OWL classes, with ILS earning the lowest of the four scores in Spanish 3 classes as well. This makes me think that the interpersonal speaking skill is the slowest skill to acquire. I would love to see data on students who took all four tests nationwide to see if ILS is consistently the lowest. Also, please post in comments your experience with this if you have also administered the AAPPL.

I’m not exposing my students to enough authentic listening.

This wasn’t really part of the study. This is me using my own data for my own purposes. No students scored advanced on the IL test. Some Spanish students did. I’m not mad or jealous. I just notice it, and I’m glad to have the data to point it out. In my 12 years of teaching, this was the first official feedback that told me that my students are not doing as well in Listening that I would like. Thanks for the data, AAPPL. I know what I need to change next year.

Knowing where our students are helps us break through spikey ceilings.

The biggest revelation I had during the study was that I4 spike phenomenon. I had intentionally been giving all of my students mostly intermediate prompts. I was so sure that they were maxing out at intermediate-low. I knew that they needed more intermediate prompts. The data is telling me that I underrated my students’ proficiency levels. Even my French 3 students are starting to comfortably approach the intermediate-mid levels. They need to start seeing advanced prompts before the end of French III. Students above French III really only needed advanced prompts this year, and I didn’t give them very many. Again, I now possess really important data, and I’m extremely grateful that AAPPL let me see what I can do to be a better teacher in the upcoming school year.

Side anecdote: I got this data back a couple of weeks before the school year ended. One of my French III students who scored an I4 was taking the final interview with me, and I decided to make him go for it. While discussing his summer plans, I asked him if he had any funny vacation stories from the past that he remembered. It was a ton of fun to make him stick to his narration. His grammar was a mess,  but I think a native speaker would have gotten the gist. He needed my support to finish his narration. He couldn’t do it on his own. He needed me to ask questions like “What happened next?” or “How did you resolve that situation?” He fumbled his way through it, because he was an intermediate speaker talking through an advanced prompt, but he got to flex that advanced muscle. It was so fun to watch such a smart and talented student go through a productive struggle.

Grammar is only a problem when it’s a problem.

If I have been underrating my students’ performance all year, it’s because I thought the quantity of their grammatical errors prevented them from having the requisite accuracy to advance to the next level. The AAPPL raters did not seem to mind the grammar mistakes. This was refreshing actually. They didn’t need tenses to be perfect as long as they could understand who was doing the action and when. They didn’t need perfect verb endings as long as they could figure out who was doing the action.

Grammar is only a part of accuracy, along with spelling and pronunciation. Accuracy is not assessed by grammarians. In the novice level, accuracy is assessed by very sympathetic speakers being able to understand. At the intermediate level, regular sympathetic speakers can understand. At the advanced level, any speaker can understand. Nothing about “speaker can understand” indicates perfection or even close to perfection in terms of grammar and spelling. Grammar only becomes a problem if it hinders comprehensibility. Point in case: Tomorrow I went to grandma’s house. In this sentence I really don’t understand if the speaker has already gone there or if she will go tomorrow. Compare to Yesterday I goed to grandma’s house. There is a cringeworthy grammar error in there, but it does not impede comprehensibility in any way. I know who did what and when they did it, and I don’t even have to think to figure it out. All that to say, grammar is only a problem when it’s a problem. In the first sentence, the grammar is a problem (or the word tomorrow is), because I really can’t figure out when someone is going to grandma’s house. The grammar is not problematic in the second sentence, because I understand it, and I would understand it even as a non-sympathetic speaker.


To conclude, I return to the three essential questions.

Are our students meeting targets?

In levels 3 and 5, OWL students are consistently meeting targets. Non-OWL students are not meeting most of the targets in level 3. Level 7 students come up a bit short of the targets in most skills. This informs us, though, that Intermediate low is a very realistic target for Level 3, Intermediate-mid is a realistic target for Level 5, and Intermediate-high is a challenging but realistic target for Level 7. Now that we know that our Level 7 students are ready for advanced prompts, I am excited to see if we can grow them quite a bit more next year.

Are the grades we are giving similar to the scores AAPPL raters give?

No. We’re not. We’re grading far more strictly than AAPPL graded. One of the great things about the AAPPL score reporting is that they not only show each student’s score, but they also provide the writing / speaking sample that the student provided. I can read my student’s work, grade it myself, and see if I get the same score that AAPPL gave. That exercise alone could constitute days of really useful professional development for my department.

Are OWL students demonstrating higher levels of proficiency?

The data shows a distinct positive correlation between OWL methodology and student performance.

Assessing the assessment

If anyone is on the fence about administering AAPPL, I hope that they will take the plunge. World Langauges teachers rarely get such scientific feedback as to how well their students are progressing. This test is real data from outside sources that can actually inform my instruction. AP does not give me that level of feedback. My own assessments do not provide me the objectivity or the scientificness that I need to make real course corrections. AAPPL has been a very strong experience, and I would highly recommend it to any other teacher.


De-unitizing: Teaching Language Without Sticking to One Topic

I recently had the pleasure of attending and facilitating at Organic World Language’s 2018 Midwest Boot Camp. I should start out by saying that all of OWL’s trainings are awesome, and it is the best PD that is out there for World Languages teachers, and this Boot Camp was no exception. It was during this training, though, that I realized for the first time why OWL suggests de-unitization as one of its essential methods.

What is De-unitization?

It’s exactly what it sounds like. In OWL, teachers are encouraged to not have a travel unit, a clothing unit, and a food unit. Teachers are instead encouraged to use the students as their curriculum, and let them drive the topics (plural). This is scary to teachers for a few important reasons. First of all, without thematic units, how do we ensure that all of the essential materials will be covered?  Oddly enough, in my de-unitizing experience, this has never been a problem. Students naturally bring to the forefront the most common everyday situations. Saying hello, talking about family, vacations, pets, friends, sports, hobbies, food, school, and clothes are a normal part of students’ everyday conversations. These are the things they like to talk about and want to talk about. They talk about all of these subjects every day. Now think back to a typical level 1 textbook. Did we miss any topics? Every single one of these topics is extremely likely to come up naturally in the very first semester of any novice class. Deunitization allows all of them to take center stage in class in the same week or even on the same day! In fact, I have found the opposite problem to occur in classes. We talk about so many topics that my own vocabulary quickly becomes a hindrance. I do not have enough French to discuss martial arts, or music theory. I am forced to become a learner along with my students.

A second obstacle to teachers adopting deunitization is the fear of administrators. How can we show that students are making progress toward a goal if we do not have units? This has been a big discussion at my school. Units are so clean and clear and testable. Getting rid of them is messy. To respond to this obstacle, I would have to ask what teachers’ goals are. Are you trying to teach them linguistic content – passé composé and masculine vs. feminine? Are you trying to teach them about topics – clothes, food, movies, etc.? Or are you trying to communicate at ever-higher levels of proficiency? If your goal is to teach about language, then this blog probably isn’t for you. I love grammar, but it does seem more and more that modern scholarship rejects the notion of language acquisition through grammar study. If your goal is to teach about a topic, then I love what you’re trying to do, but I have a lot of questions for you. In a clothing unit, how much do you want middle school students to know about clothing? Simply teaching the words is certainly not teaching about clothes, so what are you going to spend 2-3 weeks talking about? I’ve seen essential questions like What clothes do I like to wear? and What do I wear in different seasons?, and I have some real concerns about those essential questions. First of all, students already know what clothes they like to wear. Second, you’ll never know if what they’re saying is actually the truth. How do you assess that? More interesting essential questions might be more along the lines of How are my clothes made?  and What do my clothes say about my culture and identity? I think those are interesting questions (although many students would disagree), but my problem now is that as an educated adult, I would struggle to answer those questions in English. Even more importantly, what if students absolutely miss the boat on answering those questions, but they give creative (and comically wrong) answers at or above the targeted proficiency level? If a level 1 student explains to me in intermediate language that clothes are made by elves and magically left in their closets, should they fail French? Furthermore, I’m not sure that I’m qualified to teach about such questions. This is certainly going to bring up questions about the Industrial Revolution and child labor and sweatshops – curriculum that is better suited to social studies teachers than me. I’m in French for the fromage, not to be an expert in every field that I’m not licensed to teach. If I talk about the Industrial Revolution, it is from the position of a co-learner, not an expert. Including such content-heavy essential questions really intimidates me. Instead of content-based goals, then, I use proficiency levels as goals. When looking at ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines, the topic is irrelevant. Proficiency requires us as teachers to look at what they can actually do with the language across a variety of topics. So whether a student is talking about family or music or sports, we should be assessing them in the same way and pushing them toward the same goal.

Why is deunitization important?

I’m so glad you asked. I would argue three major reasons that teachers need to deunitize. First of all, life is deunitized. Second of all, students need to be interested in the topic in order to acquire the language. Finally, if students are taught blocks of language in units, they will produce unitized blocks of language.

Life is deunitized. Life is not clean. Many of my fellow language teachers have lived abroad, and none of them talk about how clean and easy the experience was. Language is messy, because life is messy. Why should we expect language acquisition to be clean? Take my current situation for example. I’m sitting in my favorite coffee shop. There are a limitless number of topics I could talk about related to this coffee shop. I could talk about money, food, health, environmental footprint, local businesses versus chains, tipping, cafe culture, Wifi and technology, the loud noise from the renovation going on upstairs, the fields from which my coffee was harvested, the fear of leaving my electronics unattended while I go to the restroom, the restoration of a historic building, quirky furniture, and my small city’s downtown. There is no one unit that will allow me to do this, yet these are the things that are on my mind and interesting to me as I sit here. Even sitting and enjoying a coffee while I work is messy, but it is this messy-ness that makes this experience so inviting. Focusing on only one of those things for a day (or for weeks on end) would stifle my enjoyment of this experience.

Students must be interested in the topic in order to acquire the language. In other words, teachers must differentiate their instruction in order to meet the needs of diverse learners. How can we subject kids who hate sports to 3 weeks of only talking about sports? Why would we expect students to talk and produce about air travel when they have absolutely no experience traveling? Focusing on one thematic unit is detrimental to students who have no interest in that topic? I will again use myself as an example. I don’t do sports. I don’t watch them. I don’t play them. If I were to walk into a conversation, and someone said that we’re going to talk about sports and only sports, I would leave that conversation. Fortunately, that is not how real conversations work. People tend to talk about sports, then athletes, or advertisements, or health, or celebrities, and those conversations stretch into other topics as well. In real life, if I’m in a conversation about sports, I usually only have to wait a minute until there’s a new topic that I can add to. In thematic units, I may never be able to add anything of value to the conversation. In deunitized classes, I only need to wait until a more interesting topic pops up that will engage me.

Finally, deunitization is important, because students will produce how they are taught. This was my takeaway from the OWL Boot Camp. The group I facilitated ran a student work protocol, and we noticed that the student was only really doing two things – listing buildings and colors. About five minutes into it, we realized that it was because this was essentially the only thing the student had been doing for weeks in Spanish class. They were in a city unit, and they had reviewed colors. They didn’t talk about the park where they walked their dogs, or the places in the city that young people prefer, or where their family goes for outings, or where the best place for ice cream is. Pets, youth culture, families, leisure, and food did not come up in that unit. Buildings and colors came up in that unit. As a result, students produced lengthy paragraphs about what color the different buildings in town were. It was boring to read, and it was probably boring to write as well. They were taught units of information, and they produced units of information. This is not how real communication works.

Simple comme bonjour

Is there anything simpler than deunitization? Let people talk about what they want to talk about. It fosters student interest and consequently decreases behavioral problems and increases language acquisition. Its fun, and students feel smart and valued. How do you do it? Three simple words – Let. It. Happen. Let students change the topic. Let go of the idea that we have to talk about soccer or formal wear or [fill in the blank].  What we have to do is give students the opportunity to advance to the next level of proficiency. That’s it. Here are some tips for getting started:

  • Know your real goals – the proficiency levels. Talking about food is not a goal. Listing, creating, questioning, describing, narrating – those are goals. The topic is irrelevant.
  • Listen to your students. Notice what makes them laugh, what makes them think, what touches them. Introduce those topics, and let students take it from there.
  • Give up control to get control.  It’s scary to let students control the conversation, but the pay-off is that you get control of your classroom, and when you control the classroom, you’re a freaking wizard (all teachers are). When students control the content, they will be motivated to take part in the conversations and activities. Their proficiency will grow, and you will feel like a total boss.
  • Start off small. If you can’t let go of units, stick to them, but be open to going down the rabbit holes that students will provide. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel overnight.
  • Attend an OWL training. Seriously, it’s the best PD out there. You will find like-minded teachers who want to venture into this paradigm shift with you.
  • Remember that it’s a journey. You’re going to fail a little, but that just means you’re trying something new. Get up, congratulate yourself on your bravery, and fall forward!

What is a Student-Driven Classroom (and why does that need to be a thing)?

I’m just going to say it. I don’t like sports. Never have. I doubt that I ever will. I recognize the physical and social benefit of them. I think it’s great that kids and adults play sports. I hope my own kids play sports. I also hope that I don’t have to go to their games, because even though I love my kids, I really don’t like sports. Since I’m a man, this presents a social problem for me. Men talk about sports a lot. Almost constantly. A lot of men think that I’m a super quiet guy, because I rarely talk in groups of men. It’s not because I don’t like to talk. It’s because groups of men are often talking about sports, and I literally have nothing to add to those conversations. One glaring exception: I love the Olympics! I don’t know why I roll my eyes at the Superbowl but make my family shut up so that I can see if the Swedes win at curling, but I do. In summary, sports are boring (except the Olympics), but everyone should do them, and I don’t want to be part of that.

What does this have to do with a student-centered classroom? Everything. If you’re a World Language teacher who has ever based their curriculum off of a textbook, you should already know where I’m going with this. Chapter 10 – Sports and the preterite. For two weeks, all of our students are going to be talking about sports. All of them. If they don’t, they fail the test. As a teacher, I struggled through that unit. As a student, I would have entirely checked out. Dedicating an entire week to soccer has absolutely no relevance to my life. (Even worse, Chapter 11 is about skiing, and I live in Ohio, so…). This compartmentalized, unit-by-unit method of teaching is not only how I was taught, it was also how I was taught to teach. Or was it? I can’t remember, because I assumed it was the only way to teach – not just in World Languages, but in every subject. Compartmentalized, chunked material that students study, write on a test, and promptly forget. The teaching model that most of us grew up with and were trained on places a textbook and only a textbook in the center of the classroom. Yes, good teachers can make this model work and be really meaningful for their students (because good teachers are freaking magical). The thing is, though, why should they be doing this? Why should teachers serve at the altar of a textbook while trying to make their students speak in past tenses about ski trips they’ve never been on? A student-centered classroom flips the script on that. Instead of placing a prescribed course of study at the center of the classroom, a student-centered classroom views students, their needs, and their interests as the starting point of lessons. The students actually become the curriculum! Student-driven classrooms take this one step further. Whereas a student-centered classroom incorporates subjects of student interest, a student-driven classroom allows students to direct the topics and experiences through which they are going to learn the standards! Sounds awesome, right? So how does it happen? I’d like to propose a few criteria for a student-driven classroom.

Student-driven classrooms teach standards, not content.

This is a really boring place to start, but it’s important to establish this rule. Student-driven classrooms still have to teach their state and local standards. Ignoring this fact of 21st Century schooling would be a disservice to teachers. We have to teach standards. However, standards can be taught through a variety of content. As teachers of student-driven classrooms, we need to identify the behind\-the-scenes concept that we are identifying, and then we have to adapt that concept to a workable model for our own classrooms. Going back to my Chapter 11 example, there is absolutely nothing in Ohio’s World Language Standards about students talking about skiing. The standards are only about communicating in culturally appropriate ways at various levels of proficiency. If you live in the mountains of California or Vermont, then skiing is a super appropriate topic for novice learners. In rural Appalachian southern Ohio, almost no one has ever slipped on a pair of skis (including me). What’s amazing, though, is that this concept-over-content method of teaching is not unique to World Languages. Instruction in scientific principles, mathematical problem-solving, the progress of civilizations, the analysis of literature, the creation of original art, and the keys to healthy living can all be delivered through an infinite amount of contexts and contents. Textbooks don’t know that, but teachers do.

Student-driven classrooms revolve around student interests.

While teachers do not get to pick the standards they teach, they do get to choose how they teach them. In a class full of Andy McDonies, sports are never going to come up. In real life classrooms, though, sports will come up (yes, even in mine), because kids like sports. Student-driven classrooms, having dethroned the textbook from their central position, create a new solar system whose sun is the standards wrapped up in student interests. I’m probably never again going to teach a novice unit about skiing, or train travel. Actually, I’m probably never going to teach a unit about anything, because student interests aren’t unitized! Students don’t neatly store their passions in perfect boxes. Student passions are messy, and interconnected, and infinitely diverse. One passion leads to another. Let’s once again take sports as an example. Even though I have very little to offer on the topic of sports, I can’t wait to talk about the Olympics, which are in Korea this year. My dad went to Korea, and threw up the entire time. To make matters worse, my mom had panic attacks while he was gone, which we thought were heart attacks. She went to the hospital; my food-poisoned dad (who never travels by the way) had to find a way to organize emergency travel, and I had to deal with doctors who did not understand what was happening. It made me think about becoming a doctor. I had been a chemistry major for a while in college. Was 27 really too old to start thinking about becoming a doctor? I ended up actually going back to complete a pre-med program, and that made me need a break so bad that I took a really quick vacation alone to San Francisco (my first time on the West Coast), where I ended up meeting my wife! Sports are not my passion, but traveling is. Health is. Education is. Family is. The textbook would never let me talk about all of those things in the same unit, but my life has never been unitized! No one’s life has ever been unitized. A student-driven classroom recognizes that the standards we teach belong to our students – not our pre-identified content. In a textbook-driven classroom, students are ignored. In a student-centered classroom, student interests are accounted for and honored by the topics the teacher selects. In a student-driven classroom, the students select the topics, and the teacher weaves the standards into that topic.

How do we get students to select the topics? It starts by knowing our students. And we get to know our students by listening to them talk. And we listen to them talk by giving them opportunities to talk about themselves. If we as teachers are not forming deep and meaningful relationships with our students, we cannot have a student-driven classroom.

Student-driven classrooms account for student needs.

Students do not need to sit quietly for 45 minutes. They do not need more PowerPoints. They do not need more worksheets. Students (and I speak mostly of high school students, as those are the students I am most familiar with) need to move. They need to speak – to me and to one another. They need to be involved in the conversation. They need to cooperate and collaborate with one another. They need to be seen. They need to be heard. They need to be loved. They need to get out of their seats and move around (yes, high school students). They need ownership in their education. Think of the last PD session you were in – or the last religious service – or school assembly. How many of us wished that the speaker would have spoken longer? Has anyone ever asked their priest, pastor, rabbi, or imam to stretch out the sermons a little longer? Have you ever left a staff meeting pining for more wisdom from your principal? We teachers are fully formed adults, and we cannot tolerate a 30 minute lecture, no matter how engaging the speaker or how interested we are in the topic. Why do we expect more from our students? Students need a different type of classroom!

Last month I sat in a meeting with teachers bemoaning how students are using their cell phones in class. I wanted to scream Stop blaming the phones! Engage the students. I didn’t. I didn’t want to get stabbed. Students need engagement, and if we do not provide that for them, something else will. In a student-driven classroom, students have to be engaged, because they are creating the class, both its culture and its content.

Checklist for a student-driven classroom

So here goes, a (certainly incomplete) checklist for a student-driven classroom.

  1. I know my students.
  2. I know what my students like, dislike, and have strong opinions about.
  3. I know what my students are good at and what they’re not good at.
  4. I know how to create an environment in which students are comfortable talking about themselves.
  5. I understand the difference between teaching content and teaching concepts.
  6. I know how to weave concepts into a variety of contexts.
  7. Topics are post-planned, after knowing what students can / want to discuss.
  8. My students know that it is impossible to get me off topic, because every topic they present can be used to teach a concept.
  9. My students move (purposefully, not fidgeting) in my classroom.
  10. My students feel respected and honored in the classroom.
  11. My students are the leaders in my classroom.
  12. I give my students a variety of ways to show what they know / can do.
  13. My classroom is a community, and my students are active members of that community.

I know that this list needs refined. Please discuss in comments.

Why do we need student-driven classrooms?

So here’s the thing. Teachers have a lot to do. We have tests to prep, data to analyze, IEPs to satisfy, parents to call, papers to grade. We have to be unfailingly polite, eternally professional, and always on the clock. Lately, we’ve even been asked to carry weapons to stop bullets. We’ve got a lot on our plates. The textbook is easy, right? Experts wrote them. The state standards are in there. Why do the hard work (and it is hard work) of student-driven classrooms? I can offer two answers for this. First of all, student-driven classrooms – classrooms in which students know and trust the teacher and one another – might just be able to stop the bullets from flying in the first place. Imagine a school in which bullying was not an option, because students had to work together for their own interests. Imagine a school where every child felt known, and respected, and loved by their teachers. Imagine a school where all students are free to be themselves and express their passions. Those schools might be our most effective weapons in preventing violence. We as teachers can create those schools when we give students the power to direct their own learning. Secondly, we cannot direct their learning, because we do not know what future we’re preparing them for. We are preparing them to work in a world that does not yet exist and that we will never know or understand. We have a mandate to prepare them for that, and we cannot prepare them for the unknown by following our textbooks. We have to support them as they bravely follow their passions, because their passions might be exactly what our future society needs. Our students have to lead our classrooms, because our students absolutely must possess the leadership and creativity to thrive in the world that is yet to be born.

*Update: I forgot to mention the role of Organic World Languages and their essential ripening transforming my classroom from a text-book driven to a student-driven classroom. If you are interested in learning more about that transformation, check out their website.

Learning vs. Acquisition #2: Acquisition and the environment that ignites it

This is the second entry in a series of conversations between myself, a high school French teacher, and Jeffrey Fisher, my principal, in which we seek to reconcile the goal of acquisition of a foreign language to the school’s goal of learning. It may be helpful first to read the introduction to this series, and the first entry in the series about learning. For clarity, my part is in gray, and Mr. Fisher’s part is in blue.

Okay, so let’s talk acquisition, and once again, let’s clarify that acquisition is subconscious. I did not learn to speak my native language through intentional effort. I acquired it, quite unintentionally, from being immersed in an English-speaking home and community. I did, however, learn to write, spell, and read through intentional efforts later on in my childhood.

A lot of my information about acquisition has been acquired (see what I did there?) over time, but I have recently been looking at this work by Stephen Krashen, one of the lead experts in second language acquisition. In it, Krashen discusses several learning acquisition theories, as well as his idea of what an optimal classroom should look like.

This resource is totally worth reading, even though it is somewhat lengthy, but here is basically what it says about acquisition as it pertains to our conversations.

  1. Acquisition is slow.
  2. Acquisition and learning both play a part in second language production, although the role of acquisition is much more important than the role of active learning.
  3. Learning a foreign language is generally only helpful in advanced settings under limited circumstances (prepared speeches, grammar tests).
  4. In order to acquire language, students need a great deal of comprehensible, interesting, non-sequential input, focused on communication rather than form, in an environment that lowers the affective filter.
  5. The affective filter blocks learning.

Krashen also describes an ideal classroom.

  1. The teacher is a facilitator that combines a great deal of comprehensible input (CI).
  2. The class focuses on the meaning of the communication rather than the form (types of texts, grammatical structures, etc).
  3. The CI is varied and interesting.
  4. The teacher is a resource to point students toward more self-selected pieces of CI.
  5. The teacher creates an environment where the affective filter is as low as possible.

At this point, I think I should further clarify what the affective filter is. The affective filter basically stops meaningful input from reaching the brain. It is almost like the fight or flight response. If a student has low motivation, she will shut down rather than fight through the acquisition. If a student lacks confidence, he will shut down, rather than fight. If the student has high anxiety, she will shut down rather than fight. Acquisition requires the brain to want to fight for comprehension. If teachers create a stressful environment, the affective filter will be high, and acquisition will not happen. In brief the affective filter causes the brain to check out, so teachers should reduce the filter.

So, what are your thoughts on this? Any reactions?


I enjoyed your summarization of Mr. Krashen’s work.  My initial reaction did move towards an area of concern as the suggestion of teacher as a facilitator can lead to multiple issues.  First, students who lack confidence and struggle with material could shut down thus prior to the teacher moving into a facilitator role (which is a large part of the “acquisition” narrative) there have to be opportunities in place for the educator to do two things:  1) establish a rapport with the students that creates a safe and comfortable environment for the student so they will give effort; 2) teachers need to have their end goal in mind with each lesson as even in a facilitator role where “acquisition” is being valued over “learning” there is a pacing and goal setting mechanism that must be respected.  Second, the ambiguous nature that “acquisition” supplies in the model you’ve outlined does leave a looseness to instructional design and delivery that could lead to difficulty in terms or replication and consistency.  A motivated learner willing to fight through the affective filter and a motivated educator willing to lesson plan in a way that has the end in mind in sight despite an “acquisition” focus as opposed to “learning” would likely yield high level results in this autonomous classroom setting.  As you said the teacher’s goal is to reduce the filter thus empowering struggling learners to “acquisition” opportunities and the only way to do that is through relationship building and a focus on effort first and “learning” or “acquisition” second.

Through Mr. Krashen’s work I see the goal of “acquisition” as idyllic in nature that can be achieved easier in a high level course where the learners are motivated and the teacher has a combination of looseness to the structure but rigidity in terms of the end result that must be achieved.


Okay, so you are concerned about the 1) role of teacher-facilitator because of 1a) classroom environment / rapport and 1b) teacher goals / pacing. You are also concerned that it is 2) more art than science – hard to replicate, and therefore detrimental to how teachers design the class. It seems like you’re fine with the theoretical portion of acquisition but concerned about how it is going to play out in real life. Am I reading that right?

I think I can address some of your concerns on focusing on what Krashen would say about the ideal classroom. In his work, it seems like there are two areas of focus – one intellectual and one emotional. His first criteria for an effective classroom – the intellectual component – is providing comprehensible input (CI). The second criteria is the emotional component – lowering the affective filter.

The teacher/facilitator will have to build rapport with his students, because it lowers the affective filter. In my mind, relationship-building is an essential function of the facilitation process. If we agree that we’re talking about a warm facilitator as a non-negotiable, does that put that first concern to rest?

In terms of Part B of Concern 1, teacher goals and pacing…Actually, I think that discussion is the gravitational center of these conversations we’re having, and I want to make sure we can address it thoroughly.

I’m going to give that its own entry. I’d like to table that one for now, but I promise I’ll address it later on.

Your 2nd concern is a bit more holistic. The acquisition model could work with the right teacher and the right students, but how can that become consistent and reproducible – not only in terms of igniting the acquisition process, but also in terms of creating the warm environment in which acquisition can take place? I would like to suggest first that we refer to Krashen’s first criteria for an effective acquisition environment – comprehensible input (CI). He gives several indications as to how we can make sure our CI is good, both in terms of quality and quantity. I think there are guiding questions that we can ask ourselves to provide consistency within our CI. Are we using an appropriate amount of CI (ACTFL recommends >90% Target Language)? Is the CI actually comprehensible? Is the CI interesting to our students (this is part of knowing / building rapport with our students)? Is the CI linguistically appropriate for their current proficiency level? Academically speaking, CI is the most important thing foreign language teachers bring to their students. Using these guiding questions, the use of CI is intentional, consistent, and reproducible. As you pointed out, though, strictly academic needs are not the only needs in the classroom, so we would want to see some consistent, reproducible environmental checks as well. For this, I would strongly recommend taking a look at the Tell Project. They clearly state out several criteria about environment (and several other important features of a foreign language classroom) that can be implemented and evaluated with consistency.

So, in brief, I’m tabling teacher goals and pacing for another conversation; I’m affirming that rapport-building is implicit in the acquisition classroom, and I’m contending that we can provide reproducible consistency and intent in any classroom with any teacher by regularly evaluating our CI using the guiding questions above, and allowing the TELL Project to guide our environment planning. What are your thoughts?


That is accurate Mr. McDonie.  From a theoretical standpoint the process of “acquisition” over “learning” in the design you have laid out is easily supported but from a practicality standpoint there are concerns about oversight, professionalism, planning, student engagement, and student learning.  

The relationship building aspect is absolutely a non-negotiable.  If we agree on that moving forward is easier but again personality has to be considered because some individuals simply aren’t warm and fuzzy and would have to work to overcome a more stand-offish personality to get past this important aspect.

I agree that the CI becomes more intentional, consistent, and reproducible with the use of something like the Tell Project framework but we would have to make that operational for us.  Would you agree?  Good research Andy.  


I totally agree.

Take-aways from this discussion about acquisition.

  1. In order for the teacher-facilitator role to work in a classroom, the teacher must invest in building a positive rapport with students.
  2. Appropriate, interesting, comprehensible input in the target language is essential.
  3. The teacher must be dedicated to minimizing the affective filter.
  4. Through reflection on our CI and tools such as TELL, we can consider acquisition to be a science rather than an art. It can be evaluated, implemented with consistency, and reproduced in other classrooms.

I think that fourth point is the most striking for me. I didn’t plan on bringing TELL into this discussion or develop greater thinking about what kind of CI I provide. It’s important because this science vs. art idea is one that is very important to your definition of positive teaching and learning, as you stated in the most recent entry. It can also be applied to teaching and acquisition.

In our previous conversation, you said that you do five things to create a consistent, intentional “learning” environment (I am going to consider this to be the more general sense of the word learning and not the specific learning vs. acquisition sense of the word).

  1. Trust teachers with content
  2. Set specific goals
  3. Create common assessments
  4. Implement instructional practices
  5. Collaborate with teammates to see what is working and what is not.

In this first discussion about acquisition, I feel like we have pretty much nailed down that you trust us with our content (CI), and we have even linked the CI to your fifth point. Our CI and its presentation should be part of our team collaborative discussions. I’m pretty pleased with this acquisition discussion, and I think that I’m ready to move on to goals in the next entry. Before I close out this discussion, though, is there anything more you want to add, clarify, or ask questions about?


The only thing not addressed is the common assessments to ensure common language and data to discuss in collaborative learning opportunities for educators.  If we can agree this is essential then I think we are on the same page.
So for each of your subsequent points – goal setting, common assessments, instructional practices, and collaborative meetings – I was planning on dedicating an individual post. I want to see what the acquisition version of each of these non-negotiables look like. So I’ll agree that it’s essential, and table it for a different discussion.

Learning vs. Acquisition #1: Learning, and the instructional practices that drive it.

This entry is the first in a series of conversations with Ohio’s 2015 Principal of the Year, and my principal, Jeffrey Fisher. For clarity, my text is black, and Jeff’s is blue. Fair warning – Mr. Fisher is famous for …umm…thorough written responses, so may I suggest  that you settle in with your favorite beverage prior to beginning.

Hi Jeff,

Thanks so much for agreeing to do this. I’ve already introduced you a little bit in the introduction to this series, so I hope you don’t mind if I go ahead and jump right in. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about learning vs. acquisition in my classroom. As you know, I have been incorporating Organic World Languages (OWL) into my classroom for the past couple of years, and I have loved the changes that it has brought to my classes and students. The problem is that I am having trouble formalizing a curriculum around it that conforms neatly to your high standards for instruction. I have a theory that this conflict exists because the instructional practices that you want to see in our classrooms focus on learning, while so much of teaching a foreign language depends upon acquisition. And just to clarify some terms, I am considering “learning” to be a conscious act on the part of the student and “acquisition” to be a subconscious act. For example, as toddlers, we unknowingly acquired language skills, and in kindergarten we consciously learned to read and write.
So this conflict exists – I want to focus on acquisition, and yet I know that it would be really unwise to categorically ignore everything we know about learning. 
For this post only, I want to put acquisition aside for now and talk about learning. During your principalship at Chillicothe High School, you have focused a lot on teaching for learning. You want teachers to teach explicitly the concepts behind the content that they are teaching to help foster students’ metacognition. You expect several research-based best practices for instruction such as use of bell-ringers, formative assessments, exit slips, etc; and you expect frequent connections between those activities and the deeper “Big Idea” concepts that students. Could you explain your thinking behind these a little more. What are your non-negotiable practices for your instructors, and why have you placed such a priority on them?

This is such an interesting and thought provoking topic.  First, I love the defining of terms:  learning vs. acquisition.  When defined in this manner it is clear these are two entirely different expectations.  The examples bring to light the differences between conscious learning and subconscious acquisition.  The juxtaposition is beautifully provided to the reader for clear understanding.  It will be interesting to see you delve into the acquisition aspect of this conflict because as you know I don’t disagree with what you are saying although I am guarded in this area as an educator.  For now, I’ll move to what you have termed “learning” and address what I feel as a building principal are non-negotiable aspects of teaching to better ensure learning.
First, I am of the opinion that teaching is not an art form.  To state that teaching is an art form, in my opinion, means that it is a skill based profession dependent upon the individual skills of one teacher in one classroom and nearly impossible to replicate.  This means that a child’s education is completely defined by two things:  1) the individual teacher’s skill level in the art form of teaching and 2) the child’s individual effort and ability.  This is a dangerous theory to buy into and is not supported by research.  There is research out there, in an abundance, that helps educators better understand how student’s best learn.  Why ignore that?  Why buy into a theory that makes people’s jobs and lives easier because it is individually based but doesn’t best ensure professional growth and student learning?  In many ways this sort of teaching used to exist in the form of shut my door and let me teach.  The standards and accountability movement disallowed the continuation of such practices because a spotlight began to shine brightly on those who were not getting the best out of their students. As a building principal I have an obligation to my students and staff to best equip my staff with the tools to be effective in the classroom.  Once equipped the individual teacher’s creativity and expertise can shine within the provided tools and expectations.  To provide another form of juxtaposition, my principalship has been defined by my efforts to provide teachers with the tools to be successful with research based instructional practices that best ensure student learning and growth while at the same time leaving complete teacher control and autonomy over the content they choose to deliver within the school-wide instructional practices. Consistency and intententionality with not versus Autonomy and Freedom.
I am of the opinion that teaching is a skill that can be learned, replicated, duplicated, and studied to best ensure student learning regardless of the subject area, teacher, classroom, or grade level.  Each teacher can put their own spin on things and use their style in the delivery of content that they choose but not at the risk of moving away from how teachers best teach to ensure student growth and learning.  I refuse to allow teachers to be the variable in the classroom which they are one of two variables if you rely on the aforementioned “teaching is an art form” theory.  By committing to research based practices that put teachers in the best position to engage students with necessary information and students in the best position to learn a school, collectively not individually, can better ensure student learning and growth toward mastery.  By doing this you remove the teacher as the variable in the room and the only variable left is the student.  As a professional educator you engage, connect, build relationships, and fight daily to remove even this variable from the classroom as a hindrance to learning but we all know that students bring with them unique situations outside of school that can hinder learning thus creating unexpected and incurable variables.  
So, the question is:  What is good teaching?
If your answer to that is dependent upon one teacher then you either don’t know what good teaching is or do not know how to replicate good teaching in all classrooms.  If your example of good teaching is the “ah ha” moment of teaching where learning sneaks up on the student and surprises them then my question to you is why is learning surprising anyone?  Why aren’t we strategically creating teachable moments on a daily basis that manufacturer “ah ha” moments.  I don’t want my teachers haphazardly stumbling upon good teaching with students shocked they learned something.  I want my teachers intentionally planning consistent aspects of lesson delivery to better ensure “ah ha” moments daily with the students understanding what they are supposed to learn and how the teacher plans to get them to this learning goal.  Instructional practices are not content driven but intentional and consistent ways of doing things in the classroom to better ensure positive student behavior, classroom structure, intentional teaching, and student learning.  
To change teaching from a content driven, I taught it you should learn it, leave me alone I am an artist profession to a collaborative, consistent, and intentional learning environment I followed 5 simple steps:
Point #1:  Trust your teachers with content.  I couldn’t care less what my teachers teach in terms of content.  I trust my teachers.  They are experts in their respective fields so however they see best fit to choose content will be supported by school administration.  I don’t know calculus the way my math teacher does nor do I know French the way you do.  It would be insulting for me to suggest otherwise.
Point #2:  Specific Learning Targets.  While content is up to the individual teacher what we expect our students to learn is not.  As a department we decide on what we expect our students to learn in a systematic manner so that regardless of teacher and content our students are be driven to the same learning expectations.  With this comes specific teaching goals for each teacher within each course.  This common language and curriculum allows for professional dialogue between teachers but also common educational dialogue between students.  You and your best friend may have different teachers for sophomore English but in Unit 2 you will still both be expected to understand the stages of a plot line and how to identify them in a story.  Curriculum defined by course not teacher.  Specific learning targets.  We do this through our course syllabus by defining Big Ideas which are long term goals we want our students to obtain within a unit and then Essential Questions that students must answer and show mastery to prove to us and them they have obtained the necessary skill of the Big Idea.  We don’t have to guess if students know or don’t know the material because the skills that need to be developed are show through their ability to answer the Essential Questions.  Linear expectations. Teachers define the content to teach to ensure students can answer EQs so that ulimately they can obtain the skill of the Big Idea and use that skill regardless of the situation.
Point #3:  Common Assessments:  Which brings us to point #3:  our common assessments both formative and summative have everything to do with conceptual skill knowledge obtains from our learning targets (we test on Big Ideas) and have nothing to do with content.  Teach whatever content you want but you will not find one question on an English exam on the novel To Kill a Mockingbird.  Because the content isn’t the point.  It is simply the vehicle used to get the student to better understand the information they need to answer the EQs and gain the skill of the Big Ideas.  We have common assessments based on learning targets not content to have a “who taught it better” type opportunity to discuss if you need to change what you are teaching.
Point #4:  Instructional Practices:  You mentioned it.  Consistent and intentional instructional practices.  Read Barak Rosenhine’s “Principles of Instruction:  Research-Based Strategies Than All Teachers Should Know.”  There are 100 research studies just like it but this one is condensed and I love it.  Engage students early in the lesson (bell ringers) to reinforce prior learning or preview the days lesson.  Build in opportunities to talk to every study every day and continue to form personal relationships while also providing opportunities to individually formatively assess understanding (bell ringers).  Define and close learning gaps (bell ringer).  Make learning targets clear so that students know what they are expected to learn from a long term (big ideas) and short term (EQs) perspective.  If students better know what they are supposed to learn then the material presented (content) becomes clearer to them.  Define a learning target of focus each day to provide laser focus on what the lesson’s content is supposed to be doing for the student (Review of Learning Targets).  Education is 60% entertainment and 40% content knowledge so educate in an entertaining and engaging way  When you teach a lesson if you as a student would have been bored and wouldn’t have wanted to sit through it THEN WHY DID YOU TEACH IT?!  Use direct instruction but only in parts.  Use it to model and build confidence in students (I do) so that they have the ability to try in a non-threatening manner (we do) as you guide student learning in a learning environment you create for engagement before eventually assessing the individual knowledge base of individual students (you do) to better inform the next day’s lesson planning and instruction.  It is called the gradual release model and we do it daily to better ensure teachers are using solid direct instruction but in spirits so that the teaching style is varied and we engage students more in their learning.  Within these instructional practices use whatever material you want but use the instructional practices but it organizes your classroom in a way that reduces student discipline, increases student engagement, and results in improved student learning and growth.  
Point #5:  Department Meetings:  Focused on what isn’t volatile (teacher effort through instructional practices) not what is volatile (data).  Will we look at data?  Yes.  Mostly to see who is teaching it best.  But, the meat of the conversation again centers on instructional practices so that those who didn’t teach it best can steal ideas from those who did and improve the quality of teaching and learning in their classroom.  We can do this because of a consistent language and you should be able to appreciate that as a world language teacher.  A department meeting where everyone has a different idea of quality instruction is like a department meeting with everyone speaking a different language.  No one really understands and the information isn’t useful.  Because the above 4 points are in place point #5 is the result.
The reason for the priority is to make education more collaborative and systematic, to equip educators with tools proven to be successful, and to better ensure student learning and growth.  The biggest problem in education is the fear to make a decision and work towards a goal.  If this didn’t work we would look for something else that did.  Fortunately it did work and we were pretty sure it would because research told us it would.  Leaving education to an individual teacher in isolation is not fair to the teacher nor the students we serve.  Look at any of the best companies in the world.  There success is based on a consistent vision that everyone uses and works towards.  That is what we have set up here.  That is why to me intentional learning is so important and the thought of mere hope for acquisition is terrifying.  The challenge then remains:  how can one be consistent and intentional while fabricating opportunities for true acquisition that results in appropriate learning?
Wow! That was well thought out. It is so nice that my blog readers will get to see what a Jeff Fisher email looks like in terms of length and substance!

There is a lot in there that I want to discuss more in subsequent posts, but there are also a few things that I would like to discuss briefly in terms of our discussion focusing on learning and teaching for learning.
First of all, it appears that Points #2-4 revolve around conceptual learning targets (Big Ideas and Essential Questions). Would it be fair to say that appropriate learning targets are the first and most important step in designing an effective classroom?
Second, I know we have 70-minute classes, but the instructional practices would seem to eat into a lot of the time to deliver the actual content. How much time per class should be dedicated to each of those practices?
Third, and this is not a question, but an interesting point of discussion, you included what is probably your most controversial position at CHS in this response.. In my conversations with my colleagues, the statement, “Education is 60% entertainment and 40% content knowledge,” has evoked the most emotional reactions from your staff. Would you care to address that at all?
Details Andy.  Details.  Too often individual want to have grand plans without the details and substance to move towards the grand plan.  A vision is nothing with details to support the growth of the vision.  

To your first point, yes I would agree with your assessment of my previous post.  I am not a big believer in paper lesson plans.  I have known great “meeting” teachers and great “lesson plan” teachers.  By this I mean the teachers talk a good game in meetings or can create a beautiful lesson plan full of jargon and wonderfulness yet sadly when you observe their classroom student engagement is low, lesson creativity is missing, and the intent of the lesson is simply absent.  In order to be a great classroom teacher you have to know what the objectives for learning are on a daily basis.  You have to be able to communicate those learning objectives to students clearly.  Then you have to plan through research based instructional practices to attack the learning targets in a way that is creative and engaging for the teacher and the learners.  Without appropriate and clear learning targets it can become a guess game on what exactly is the intent of the lesson.  This is where I have observed great teachers falter in the past.  They are teaching a fine lesson but move off course and get sidetracked on teaching something else making the lesson and learning opportunities busy and convoluted.  Goal defining from a long term and short term perspective that you center your lesson creation around inside impactful instructional practices allows teachers to properly plan for and enact positive learning opportunities.  
Your next point is one I am careful to never delve into.  The expectation is our instructors work through each of the instructional practices daily.  How much time you spend on each instructional practices I leave to my individual teachers.  One day a bell ringer may last 10 minutes as a preview bell ringer of the day’s lesson where the next day a bell ringer may last 30 minutes as a review opportunity to see what students know, identify learning gaps, and creatively close those gaps.  Based on this teacher based decision the next instructional practices of review of learning targets, establishment of EQ of Focus, use of gradual release model to teach the lesson, and close with a formative assessment to assess mastery of the days learning objects will be impacted.  Pacing is the most difficult part of teaching and it is a challenge regardless of the presence of outstanding instructional practices or not.  As I said I don’t want a paper lesson plan but as I also said in the previous post we are speaking a common language with our use of instructional practices so when I enter a classroom I know what I need to see from our educators.  How much time, the content within the instructional practices, the use of technology, and more are left to the individual teacher to decide.  Having said that, if outcomes aren’t positive during department meetings and evaluation conferences we would have detailed discussion on how instruction can improve within instructional practices so that time is well spent or so that technology is used to increase creativity and engagement.  Autonomy to the point of success or lack thereof and then there are checks and balances to ensure opportunity for improvement.
Last, you’re right.  There are educators, even on our staff, that bristle at this comment.  Some believe that they are a content master and their role is to simply do as the principal asks, teaching the content to the best of their ability, and the students are to learn as instructed.  I can respect this to an extent but I cannot accept nor promote this way of thinking.  This leans too much on the “I taught it, so they should have learned it” school of thought.  We live in a time where immediacy and entertainment are at a maximum.  Fast Food.  Instant lotto.  Social Media.  Even our news broadcasts are worried about ratings rather than the actual news most of the time.  Click on sportscenter and you won’t see them playing too many clips of a batter hitting a single.  It is homeruns, dunks, touchdown passes.  I firmly believe that learning is an emotional endeavor.  If you can make a student laugh, cry, or even get angry the opportunity for long term learning and memory recall greatly increases.  Think about a time you were embarrassed.  Have you ever forgotten that moment? Probably not.  It was an emotional moment.  What about your first big heartbreak?  You remember because you were emotional.  It resonates with you.  We need to do this with education.  Get emotional.  Be entertaining.  Don’t just tell me about racism.  Show it to me.  Don’t just tell me setting impacts a story.  Show me a photo of Beyonce and tell me if she could be Cinderella in the 1800s in the US.  Obviously the answer is no.  But, what about 2010.  The answer is yes.  Time period.  Setting.  It totally changes the story.  Use of technology and ability to be creative even without technology makes teaching and learning more engaging and fun for teachers and students.  If you think you will wow a student just with your content you are sadly mistaken.  That is why I say that being a content master is less than half of what goes into teaching and often what is the biggest struggle for new teachers coming out of college.  They know their subject matter but lack the knowledge of instructional practices and need to focus on entertainment value that hinders their effectiveness as a classroom teacher.  As I stated in the previous post, if you teach a lesson and you would have been bored with it yourself if you were listening to yourself teach it then it is unlikely effective learning happened in the classroom on that day..  It makes teaching harder from a planning component but it makes teaching more fun from an instructional standpoint if you buy into this 60/40 theory.
I’m not ready to discuss them in detail yet, but I really want to pick your brain soon on what acquisition targets rather than learning targets would look like in this framework. I have some ideas of what I want, but you might end up crushing my dreams, so get ready for that. I’m looking forward to working out some solutions. Thanks for your thoughts on this, and I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the acquisition side of this discussion.


Introducing a new series: Acquisition vs Learning – Conversations between a World Languages Teacher and Principal

Teaching for learning has preoccupied America’s educators for quite some time. Gone are the days of teachers saying, “I taught it; they just didn’t learn it.” In an age of state testing and teacher accountability, this phrase seems antiquated and antagonistic. Today’s teachers are in the business of individualizing their instruction, centering it around the learners in their classroom, and measuring results. Because of this focus on teaching for learning and student-centered instruction, much has been said and written about the most effective classroom practices that can achieve these lofty goals.

My own school, Chillicothe High School in Chillicothe, Ohio, is fortunate enough to be led by a tireless and competent principal, who prizes the successes of his students and teachers. He has high and unflinching expectations from his students and staff, but he couples these demands with virtually endless support and a dedication to remove any obstacles that might stand in our way. When he took the reins of CHS, his first principal post, he took command of a school that had the worst reputation in our area. It was notorious for violence, out-of-control students, apathy among students and staff, and low rates of success. In just a few years, he transformed this school into a true institution of learning. The students and staff work hard, and the results, both measurable and felt, are clear. CHS is a success story for educational leadership, earning him the title of Ohio’s 2015 Principal of the Year. He is a champion for instructional practices that lead to student learning. He demands certain practices of his teachers, and he provides support to help instructors implement them. I am indeed very fortunate to work for not only a nationally recognized principal, but also a great man and friend, Jeffrey Fisher. There is no educator that I admire more than this man, and I am so pleased to announce that he will feature prominently in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks.

As the 2016-2017 school year approaches, I am beginning to focus on what I want my students to learn, and before I even finish the thought, I am hung up on the word learn. Learning may seem like an obvious word for teachers, but I am in an elite group of teachers – World Languages teachers (*pats self on back; allows time for WL teacher readers to do same). As a WL teacher, I am not emphasizing learning (although it is certainly present in my classroom). As a WL teacher, I strive to facilitate acquisition. This distinguishes me from science, math, and social studies teachers. I am mostly not trying to teach so that they learn new facts or knowledge. Rather, I teach so that they acquire a new way to communicate things that they already know, think, need, love, or dislike. I teach for acquisition over learning. It is this special feature of WL classrooms that will be the focus of this series of blog posts. In conversations with Jeff Fisher, we will work to discuss what learning and acquisition are, how they are different, and how teaching-for-learning practices can be optimized in an acquisition-based classroom. Stay tuned.

Reflection: OWL West Coast Boot Camp

Last month, I was privileged to take part in OWL’s West Coast Boot Camp in Ashland, Oregon. I had been looking forward to this camp for months, and the week did not disappoint. Coming out of the week, I was overwhelmed with the amount of educational experiences that I had taken part in – improv classes, one-on-ones with expert World Languages teachers, leading my own circle, and even beginning my own path for consultancy by presenting on OWL’s curriculum. Boot Camp was overwhelming in the best kind of way, but now that I am home in Ohio, reunited with my kiddos, and the fog is lifting, I am able to summarize three important understandings from my time in Oregon. These three lessons are fundamental not only to how I need to run my classroom, but also to the philosophy and methodology of Organic World Languages. Lesson 1: Learning happens in community. Lesson 2: Proficiency is key. Lesson 3: Teach as I would want to be taught.

Lesson 1: Learning Happens in Community.
On Sunday, June 19, 50 teachers from all over the world descended upon a serene park in Ashland. Most of these men and women knew few if any of the other participants in the program. Several were fresh off a flight from Hong Kong, visiting the Unites States for the first time. By the end of the day I, a shy introvert, was on a first-name basis with every single participant. Throughout the week, I was paired with with almost all of these teachers at various times. I left the week with a lot of good memories, and a lot of new Facebook friends. This all sounds campy and sentimental, but adding friends to my social media lists are not the important part. The important part is that all of the participants were comfortable with one another. They could joke with, collaborate with, and share their challenges with one another because the presenters and coordinators of this program had done such a solid job of building a community. The more the week went on, the more I realized how essential this community was to my own learning.

The implications for the classroom here are obvious. In an age where we would rather text than talk, and where we use social media to isolate rather than connect, relationship-building is a valuable skill that does not necessarily come naturally. OWL asks us to build community in our classrooms, where students’ voices are heard and respected, and where they can have a second family when their biological one may not be as supportive. It is only through this community that humanistic, student-centered learning will take place.

Lesson 2: Proficiency is Key.
Community-building began on Sunday, and it of course continued throughout the week. The second day of the boot camp, though, was dedicated to language proficiency. An OPI expert came in to teach us the process of the Oral Proficiency Interview, and to explain how to identify novice, intermediate, and advanced speakers. OWL dedicates an entire day of its boot camp to this familiarization process, because proficiency is at the heart of Organic World Languages. I’ve attended so many workshops that give passing discussions to language proficiency, but OWL is unique in that it enthusiastically embraces ACTFL’s model of proficiency acquisition and builds its entire program around it. It is this dedication to proficiency that drives OWL’s methodology and makes OWL a thoroughly cutting-edge approach to language learning. Proficiency is not an afterthought for OWL, and it should not be an afterthought in our classrooms either. As more states adopt proficiency as the model for world languages standards, an understanding of proficiency will become increasingly important. OWL is very qualified to guide teachers through this process.

Lesson 3: Teach as I Would Want to be Taught.
Every OWL workshop, session, and presentation is taught in a way that models its methodology. Keeping attention span in mind, as well as the need to digest more complicated information, OWL chunks the information in ways that can be discussed and explained for learners at all levels and paces. Throughout the week, I was constantly changing partners, receiving engaging prompts, and engaging in fun transitions as material was presented. This means that there was never a time when I had to sit and listen to hours-long lectures and presentations. On the contrary, I was an active participant throughout each day.

This is what our students want! They want to be engaged and not lectured. Their attention spans are short, and their tolerance for boredom is shrinking. They are desperate for interesting discussion topics (as are teachers in PD sessions). OWL boot camp consistently models the methods that invite students to be part of the learning experience. Boredom is kept at bay, and learning happens through interesting, research-based prompts in the community created by the facilitator.

At the beginning of the week, Darcy explained that her goals could be summed up in six words. Connect, Collaborate, Create, Empower, Growth, and Whole. I definitely believe that these goals were achieved in our short time together. Through the community we forged, we were able to achieve all six of those lofty ideals. OWL Boot Camp has been the most intense,meaningful professional learning experience since my student-teaching. The facilitators thoroughly discuss, explain, and demonstrate the whys and hows of the methodology. The participants leave feeling empowered and more empathetic for their students. Best wishes to the participants in East Coast Boot Camp in August. Prepare yourselves for a great and challenging week. You will not be disappointed!

What my students are saying about OWL

My local newspaper is doing a write-up on innovative teaching methods at my high school, and my awesome principal recommended that he take a look at the OWL classrooms.  A reporter interviewed me and another OWL teacher, but wanted student feedback to 2 questions – 1) What did you think when you first walked into a deskless classroom, and 2) what if any drawbacks are there to learning in such an environment.  I sent an email out to all of my students to answer those two questions, and about a dozen responded.  Below are their responses, all of them, and the only doctoring done is what is necessary to protect their privacy

Bonjour a tous,

The Chillicothe Gazette wants to hear what you think about the method of teaching that you receive in French class (the OWL method, of 100% French, standing, and interacting in the circle).
I would love if you would help us out by providing quotes in response to the following 2 questions.
1) What were your first thoughts the first time you walked in to see a room without desks?
2) What do you think of the approach: things you like and things you’re not crazy about.
If you would, just reply to this email with your responses to those 2 questions.  Merci beaucoup, bon appetit, et bon week-end!
 Student 1 – Sophomore, French II
My first thoughts when I walked in and there weren’t any desks was that it was sort of odd but I was interested to find out the reason. I like how even on my first day here when I was new to CHS the French students continued to speak in French to me, asking me things I already knew and even things I didn’t know. The structure of the class and how we learn is very intriguing and even fun. I like how we move around, too; I get tired of sitting in a class all day. I can’t really list dislikes about the class because there’s nothing I can really complain about. Although, I’m not very fond of quizlet assignments!
Student 2, Junior, French IV

1. When I first walked into the classroom and I saw there were no desks I was very confused. We were all waiting to see what Mr. McDonie had planned. It was actually kind of exciting to switch things up and be introduced to a new way of learning.

2. I love the OWL method. It allows us to interact with the entire class and combine all of our ideas. With this, it is so much easier to memorize vocab because we make up actions to go with the words. It wakes me up in the mornings. Class is so energetic.

Student 3 – Junior, French IV

When I walked in the first day I thought I was in the wrong classroom. After Mr. Mcdonie explained what OWL was and how his was going to run class, I became so exciting. I was initially so scared to speak french the entire time but now I am so glad we use this method of teaching because it is the best way to learn a language.

I love that it includes every single person in the class and every day I know that when I come into class I am going to learn something new  and become more fluent in French. I don’t like having to stand 80% of the class time when I don’t wear comfortable shoes but it is worth it. I am so glad Chillicothe High school is implementing this.
Student 4, Junior, French IV

1.) Throughout the school day I had heard rumors that Mr. McDonie had NO desks and chairs in his classroom, his room was empty. Automatically, students to include myself, assumed that maybe they were still cleaning his room from the summer, or there was a possible shortage of desks. My French II class was one of the first classes ever that got to experience this new style of teaching known as OWL (Organic World Language). When I first walked into the class, I was a little bit intimidated, and quite frankly confused. I wasn’t sure what to expect in the next seventy-six minutes of that class. My thought was, “What on Earth is McDonie doing with this class today”. I figured that it was just a first-day-of-school thing, maybe, this was a new form of initiation into the French class. When Mr. McDonie began speaking only French, I was a little bit thrown-off. This was definitely different from the previous year where it was all about note-taking, Powerpoint viewing, and lectures (about 80% of the class in English, 20% in French). When I first had Mr. McDonie as a teacher for French I my freshman year, I could immediately tell that he was always looking for innovative ways to involve the students in his class and was extremely motivated to teach French. The OWL program has helped me reach a level of French that I never thought I could get to, and has helped Mr. McDonie in teaching the students in a way that he enjoys. Any of us French students could attest to this, but it is evident that Mr. McDonie is passionate about his job and absolutely loves teaching high school students. The OWL program has made it easier for the students to learn and excel tremendously.

2.) This form of teaching/learning requires full participation from students. It also involves a lot of interaction with classmates and the teacher. The OWL classroom setup totally changed everything for me. I have always been interested in learning new languages. Before I moved to Chillicothe, I had experience with learning German, Spanish, and a little bit of French. I always thought that there had to be a better way of learning new languages, as it is hard for teenagers to acquire a knowledge of a language that they don’t know-it gets frustrating sometimes. In my opinion, the ordinary classroom set-up with desks/chairs, white boards, note-taking, and lectures does not work too well when trying to learn/teach foreign languages. Mr. McDonie was/is genious for starting the OWL program at our school. I never in my life expected to learn a new language like this. I know for a fact that my progress in learning the French language in the past three years, alone, has increased dramatically. With OWL, I have learned to become comfortable when speaking a language that isn’t native to me. Students are often scared to make mistakes and speak out, but with this program, students are asked to make mistakes because the mistakes are learned from. The key to learning new languages is to become comfortable and confident with that language. In Mr. McDonie’s class we have a great time learning random, but relevant things. Everyone in that class makes mistakes but we all laugh with each other and fix the mistakes. The French class becomes like a ,  “little French family”, in the words of Mr. McDonie. The OWL program requires students to speak in TOTAL French throughout the duration of the class period, leaving no room to speak English. This alone, has helped me excel in the French language. I have always thought that it is so much easier to  learn new languages when constantly exposed to conversations and discussion in that language. You don’t realize how much speaking in French for 76 minutes effects you until you walk out of that class speaking French to people in the hallway and other teachers, then having to remind myself that I am allowed to speak English. In French class, the students’ brains are only thinking FRENCH-before, during, and after French class- the students eat, sleep/dream, and breathe French; it’s inevitable.
   One of the best things about the OWL program is that it allows for so much variety and has so much moving room, we are not tied down to any one topic. For example, when something significant happens in the world or is shown in the news the night before, that is what we will most likely talk about the next day. Mr. McDonie tells us all the time that the students are the ones that run the class. We get the responsibility of bringing up new topics for discussion. He tells us that if there is something we want to talk about, tell him or the class and that is what we will talk about. This is so awesome because it helps the students learn about relevant things rather than just topics written in the textbooks or in a PowerPoint.   Little did we know, this was how foreign languages throughout the school, not just in the  French program, were going to be taught from that point on. OWL has inspired me to want to pursue the French Language and other languages in my future. OWL, in many ways, is very rewarding to us as students.
 Student 5, Sophomore, French IV 

1.) “Where are the desks???” I was confused but I was excited to see that I was doing something different. I sit for an hour and ten minutes six other times a day, so it was a nice change.

2.) I like that it’s 100% French and that we can steer the conversation in different directions from time to time. I’m not crazy about doing all written work on our laps. I like that we’ve moved our exams into the library because it’s less stressful and noisy than the hallway. I like the feeling of unity in our French class and I like that we don’t judge each other on our mistakes because we all make mistakes sometimes and it’s never a big deal.

Student 6, Sophomore, French II

1. I thought that it was definitely going to be a different experience, I was a little scared and unsure, but I figured that it’d work.
2. I love it, there are different ways to teach different subjects, math for instance you practice by using things you’ve learned. With French you learn the meaning of the words, instead of the translations. It’s not a translation class, it’s a French class. Let’s just say, you didn’t learn how to speak English by sitting at a desk. Of course standing 70 minutes is a different thing, but Mr. McDonie keeps us moving, and gives us a break sometimes, so it’s not terrible. Speaking the target language the entire time is a task, but it helps me with my conversation skills. I am going on the Europe trip with CHS next spring, and I’m looking forward to testing out some of my skills. Overall I couldn’t imagine learning French any other way!

Student 7, Sophomore, French II

The first time I walked in to a room with no desks I knew the class would be a little unorthodox. I already knew we would be speaking and interacting a lot with our classmates which we do everyday.

I like my French teachers approach and his teaching methods. He uses actions to help us remember the vocabulary better and interacting with classmates allows us to become more proficient in the language by giving us more on hands practice. His methods have even helped some students become more comfortable in socializing with their peers and speaking publicly.

Student 8, Sophomore, French II

1. It was definitely different. Having desks is so normal, not having them was weird. Once we got into the habit of standing all class period, it’s normal. Standing makes you move around, and it makes the OWL experience interesting.

2. The approach is always interesting. Speaking 100% French isn’t normal for most French classes, but it works. Being used to hearing French, I wasn’t really phased by the overall experience. When we aren’t standing and talking, it’s actually pretty boring, aside from the games we play.
Student 9, 8th Grader, French I
1.) I was a little confused when I walked into a room I’d never seem before and not having to sit down in a desk. I was relived that I didn’t have to sit down for a while and be bored out of my skull, and I also thought ‘Oh god I have to stand for an entire class period this shall be the death of me.’ But Over all I like it (Though sometimes I’d rather just sit down for a bit then pretend to be an elephant hunting a Banana.)
2.) The things I like about this approach is that at least Everyone gets to participate and we get to sit there and figure out ways to learn languages by actually interacting with people. I really like that we mostly speak French and that way it sticks and I can remember things better by doing some wild dance moves that are actually me just making movement to the words i’m speaking. I’m not to crazy about taking tons of tests. I also don’t really like talking to people I don’t know. Yes that’s about it. Hope these answers shall suffice.
I have awesome students and awesome administrators.  They give me a lot to think about.