11 July 2016

Proficiency & PBL: My top 5 transition mistakes

How the tables have turned! A few short years ago, I was in grad school, devouring every single word published on Musicuentos, treading water and questioning every move I made. I struggled to break away from the way I was taught and to begin to teach the way I was starting to understand my students should be taught.

But just last week, I was an invited guest of the Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell at Camp Musicuentos, sitting with teachers and questioning them.

I wasn't trying to make them squirm like the professor who wrinkled her nose at my over-ambitious "future me" college unit. I was trying to help them focus on goals that would make them AND their students feel successful. I was trying to save them time, so it didn't take them five years to feel that sense of relevance and connectivity with the young people in front of them, the five years that it took me.

I want to hop in my time machine and go back and warn a confused twenty-something how not to waste her time. And I want to stop on the way back in last week to keep a confused thirty-something from confusing a whole range of new-to-proficiency teachers.

I want to tell them what I wish I hadn't done as I started switching to proficiency.

#1 DON'T stick to the same old topics just because

I cannot tell you how many hours, days, weeks, months I wasted trying to start with textbook topics and build units from there. WHY? If you have school or district or state requirements, by all means, find some common ground. But why have a weather unit or a clothing unit or a geography unit if you can't figure out when students will actually need to USE that language when your class is over?

Instead, start with what you know--from your own experience--will come up.

#2 DON'T pick topics because they interest you

I find La llaman América a moving and throughly engaging picture book about the inner city immigrant experience. My students in rural/suburban North Carolina? Not so much. Racial disparity in Latinoamérica is an important social issue in today's global society...but not necessarily one that hits home with my more insular and, well, teenage audience. It's well and good if I am having fun. But neither I nor my students are going to feel successful with a topic that really only appeals to us language geeks infatuated with Latino cultural questions.

I should have been starting with what the young people in front of me found intriguing.

#3 DON'T leave out the audience

started to get the idea with the narcocorridos unit, tapping in to controversy and censorship and The Forbidden (super-sexy teenage stuff, right?). But WHY did my students need to communicate anything about these songs or drug trafficking in Mexico besides their own sense of fairness? And with WHOM did they need to communicate it? I copped out and tried to leave it up to them with a RAFT project, but it really made the whole thing fizzle. Knowing that they would be addressing little kids or peers or university language professors made all of the difference.

It's essential to know where you're headed and who needs to hear what your students will have to say.

#4 DON'T ignore proficiency level expectations

I was so mean. Once I got out of my own head and started trying to get into theirs, I started assigning multifaceted, open-ended, deep philosophical projects WAAAAAY beyond the novice scope of expression. I was just so eager for "relevance." I had to stop and break down what "Novice" actually meant--and even then I got a little carried away with authentic text selection.

Focus first on ME words, phrases, and sentence, THEN start recombining and getting creative.

#5 DON'T skip steps

It was a beautiful thing this weekend, watching high school and college football players try to get my eight-year-old and four-year-old to "slide" sideways to catch a ball. I marveled at their ability to break down stuff that was second nature to them now--probably had been for years--and coach little kids on how to do something as simple as getting up from a roll. I mean, my daughter got to touch a ball, but these grown men knew not to throw her into a game her first day--even after three whole hours of drills.

It's the same with a language. Students need to practice skills: reading, writing, listening, conversation. They need to practice over and over, in context, but in little pieces. They need to hear "baby Spanish" before they try to understand El Teacher on Televisa. They need each chunk of what they'll be expected to perform rehearsed in different modes with different people in different contexts. They don't know what they don't know, so it's up to you to make sure they hit all of the steps they need!

Assess only what you've repeated and practiced until almost NOBODY can fail.

If I could go back and really beat it into Younger Me's head to avoid those pitfalls, I think I would have been a happier teacher sooner and had happier students for longer.

For anyone who is treading water like I was when I discovered Sra. Cottrell's blog, take it easy on yourself, and maybe focus on fixing one mistake at a time. Shoot, if you fix one a one a unit, or even one a year, you'll still be able to skip a few years of suffering.


  1. Great reflection, Laura! Haven't we all been there, done that? I have! In no way am I that guy anymore. I let that behind so long ago it is hard to remember what I was like. Still, I made the transition at some point. I would'nt go back for anything.

    Last year, I actually received a thank you note for a final exam! No kidding! Why? My student told me that he was thankful I had given our class an opportunity to celebrate what they could do after another term, not what they could not do. I could not have been happier for that comment! Assessment SHOULD be a celebration of what students can do, not a hammer looking for a nail. I no longer assess a pile of work needing corrections, but rather, I make piles of what is proficient, what is approaching (and yet still passing), and what exceeds. If I need a fourth pile, it is a 'not yet' pile for re-teaching and retaking of an assessment. The transformation has been huge. Now I have 85% proficient, more exceeding than approaching, and if there are any not yets, they get an opportunity to become a passing performance. Got to love that!

    Your five points are a great reminder that we can and must make the move. We can no longer leave the lives of our students in the hands of textbook companies, of failure and punishment, of boredom and disengagement. We all need to take the plunge, as you have, to ensure all students are successful, empowered, involved and enthralled! Thanks for a great post!

    Best hugs and loud applause!

    1. Thanks a lot, Don! My students appreciate the "celebration" assessment approach too! It really is an important shift for truly democratic education.