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A MUST read for all educators by @BetaMiller via @Edutopia

My post is a response to one by Andrew Miller on Edutopia – a MUST read for every educator!

Thanks to Andrew Miller once again for a great post on Edutopia! I could not agree more with Andrew that there are grading practices which need to be seriously examined. We must ask if we are gaining what we really want in our grading systems. Are students learning, progressing, achieving? What do we really want to see happen in our classes?

I don’t want students to feel like grades are a game to be played – he or she who has the most points wins is not the outcome I want. I want to have students who are empowered, who believe that they can do whatever they seek to accomplish, who have learned and are prepared to change the world, starting with themselves.

Lofty goals? Of course! I won’t believe anything less for my students! We must develop grading systems which honor growth, which empower, and which help support reflective practices. We must support students with fair grading systems, which do not frustrate them, but which help them understand where they are on a continuum of achievement.

I have often said that my motto for my classroom, and one of my mottos for life is this: “It is ok to be where you are; it is not ok to stay there.” I believe we must always strive to keep moving forward. How can I help my students by supporting their growth? I certainly don’t believe that a grading game is going to achieve the goal!

To that end, I offer retake exams (though not the same test), proficiency-based assessments (not discreet item tests), re-teaching opportunities, re-do assignments, reflection opportunities… and much more. I did not start teaching this way, but I am fully there now, and I will continue to look at other ways to support growth for all students, because I believe that each and every one can and will learn if given enough support. Yes, we can do it! C’est possible!

Thank you again, Andrew, for inspiring good dialogue about this important issue.

Best regards,


5 Favorite Apps for Project-Based Language-Learning

This article first appeared on Edutopia.org at:

5 Favorite Apps for PBL Language Learning | Edutopia.

If you have an inkling to try your hand at project-based language-learning (aka “PBLL”), you will need to stay organized, and help keep the students on track toward meeting our communication-based proficiency outcomes. Here are a few tips I have learned as a PBLL teacher.

1) Help! I need a management system!
My favorite app for managing the ebb and flow of communication between my students and me is Edmodo. There are other worthy options, but I have been using Edmodo for a number of years, and it feels like home now.

I post daily agendas on the Edmodo calendar, and I like that students can add notes to their own calendars as well. I post assignments, and assess them in the gradebook, leaving suggestions for improvement. I like to assign reflection prompts on a regular basis, so posting them on Edmodo means I don’t need to collect another piece of paper. What’s more, I can go home, sit in my comfy chair, read the reflections on my iPad, respond quickly to them, and keep students on track with their projects. I like that we can post students’ final products, and share them with our sister classes in Martinique and in Marseille, knowing that our friends will see them and post comments. They really enjoy seeing the comments in French from our friends!

I also appreciate that students can send me notes and questions via Edmodo; I have set up notifications to come to my phone, so I can reply when I wish, usually right away since it entails only a moment or two to do so. Edmodo has really helped me develop good relationships with my students. Parents can follow their students as well.

Did I mention that Edmodo is free? Yes, they have a few upgrades for which one can pay, but the most important tools cost nothing. Nice!

2) Reminders on Remind!
As I have reached the “mature” teacher stage of my career, I have become a bit forgetful! Luckily there is Remind (formerly known as Remind 101). I like that I can send a quick note to a whole class, or to just a few students at a time. Remind has added some nice new features as well, my favorite being that I can attach a file to the message, like handouts and the rubrics for our unit, and the students have them in hand right away. If a student says (s)he needs another copy, I simply send it via Remind. I like that I can send notes to help students prepare for presentation day, to bring their food items to share on holidays, or just to complement them for doing a good job. They like that the notices come right to their phones. Win win win! Did I mention that Remind is free? Yes indeed! Free.

3) Blending content on BlendSpace
I love to use lots of authentic resources in the target language. There is little need for textbooks when there are so many multi-media options available on the Internet (I still use textbooks, just not very often). Blendspace is a great tool for creating a playlist of resources: photos, videos, text… For each resource, I can add some text or a question or prompt to accompany the media. Students click on each resource, see the prompt, and contribute to a class discussion right in the playlist. Other students can post comments in response to others. Once the playlist is assembled, I can embed the playlist on my class website or on Edmodo. Did I mention that BlendSpace is free? I am starting to see a pattern here!

4) Bulletin boards on Padlet
I LOVE Padlet, and so do my students. I create a board, post a prompt with an accompanying image, link or document, and students post their replies, questions, or other contributions on the board.

We recently did a project on art and museums in Paris. To support students to learn to describe various types of artwork, I posted photos of paintings, statues, and other artworks on a Padlet board, and asked students to write descriptions. They were all engaged with their learning, and I had a document at the end as a formative assessment which helped me track their progress toward meeting the communication-based objectives of our unit. The next day, I provided workshops on various aspects of the target language or cultural content which needed clarification. The feedback helped students to improve their projects. Did I mention that Padlet is free? Yup, free, just like the others!

5) Flipping for FlipGrid!
I have one more tool to share. It is FlipGrid.com, and although it isn’t free (sorry!), it isn’t expensive either, not for what you get. FlipGrid costs 65$ a year, and for that, I get a great tool to help my students gain confidence with their speaking skills. I post a prompt or question, and students record a video reply. They can view their video before they submit. If they want to, they can re-do their video reply as many times as they like, until they submit the final response.

I have a lot of students who are deathly afraid of speaking in front of an audience. FlipGrid allows them, and the others who are more brave, to submit a speaking assignment which represents their best work. They are happy because they can do it even on their phone if they want. I am happy because I finally have an EASY tool to use to collect speaking assignments, and assess them on my iPad in that comfy chair I mentioned earlier. SO much more fun than grading those old grammar tests I used to give so very long ago. It may not be free, but it is well worth it to me, especially when I see the results. Priceless!

What about you? What other tools have you found useful for your language classes? I would love to hear about them and share ideas about how you are using them to support your students to communicative-proficiency in the language you teach. Hope to see your comments soon!

Best wishes,

Driven to Distraction

This article also appears on Edutopia at this link

In a recent post on Edudemic, author Leah Levy suggests “7 Ways to Deal With Digital Distractions in the Classroom.” I appreciated her ideas, and wondered if anyone in our community has other ideas for things that work?! So what do you think? Have you tried something that works?

Personally, I am not keen to “fight the fight” that many of my colleagues choose – not that I blame them, nor am I suggesting that they are wrong to do so. I simply don’t have desire to spend the time or the energy to stop the cultural shift toward tech devices in every hand, 24/7.  I may be guilty of the same thing anyway!

Rather, I prefer to accept that the devices are in hand and in class. I have decided to lay out a set of common agreements, which we all must embrace, including me. We don’t hide them under the table. We use them out in the open in honest, appropriate ways, for academic purposes. I tell my students that I am choosing to trust them, and that if they want me to continue to do so, then we need to keep our agreements. For most students, this works very well, but I must admit, there are times when it does not and I am disappointed.

Then again, there has never been a time in my 32 years of teaching that everything went perfectly 100% of the time! Why should things be any different today? And are the technology devices really any more of a challenge than things in the past? I really rather doubt it.

Your turn now. What have you tried that helps you keep your cool, and your sanity? No ranting here, please, just frank discussion about how we can “psyche” ourselves into shifting in good ways, so we stay the course.

I look forward to your thoughts!



Blended Learning and World Languages

This article appears on Edutopia at this link

Getting Smart has posted a new infographic on how World Language Teachers are creating blended learning environments. Here is the document:


What do you think? How are you incorporating digital learning opportunities in your classes? Does this infographic spark any ideas for you? What have you tried? What are you thinking of trying? Share your ideas, and let’s think together about it!



The Berkeley WL Project Connects on G+

This article also appears on Edutopia at this link

My journey as a connected educator began one day while I was stuck at home, convalescing after surgery. I picked up my iPad and decided to check out Twitter because I was curious to find out what all the fuss was about. I admit I was skeptical that 140 characters would really amount to much — until my professional journey started expanding by leaps and bounds. I am still amazed that, in less than a couple of months, I was part of the #LangChatteam, and a facilitator for Edutopia!

Now I have stepped into yet another role. After 25 years working as a teacher trainer with the Berkeley World Language Project, I serve as co-director. Our project offers ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers of other languages, including ESL, heritage languages, American Sign Language, and all world languages one might imagine, from French and Spanish to Arabic and Japanese, from Hindi and Swahili to German and Italian . . . It’s a great deal of fun to work with such a diverse array of educators seeking to meet the needs of students in our service region of the greater San Francisco Bay Area.

My role as co-director includes handling the technology we use and our developing social media presence. Once a skeptic, I am now an enthusiastic proponent for using social media as professional development and collaboration tools.

In addition to offering workshops, the Berkeley WL Project seeks to support colleagues, nearby and farther afield, through social media. Our connections include Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. Each has its advantages, of course, but the Google+ platform seems to offer the most flexibility for our purposes. Here are some of the ways it helps us engage with the global language community.

1. Language Acquisition Theory

We have the unique privilege of being located at the University of California Berkeley and being part of the research and activities of the Berkeley Language Center. We’ve established an online presence, in part, so that we can share the wealth of information flowing through our halls at Cal, which comes from all over the world. We share information about the latest developments in language acquisition theory and best practices.

For example, there have been significant discoveries about how the human brain learns languages. We are especially keen to share this research so that we can think together about how best to design curriculum which will allow students to be successful in language acquisition. We know that we don’t really learn languages through structural approaches, which have been the predominant methodologies used, especially in the U.S. How often have we heard someone say, “I took two years of French, and all I can remember is that we conjugated verbs.” And of course, that’s what we have done, but no one ever went into a café to conjugate a verb!

We’ve discovered that the brain learns languages best by imitating patterns. We hear/see/read chunks of language, and then we imitate them until we have a sense of how they function. Afterward, we begin substituting words within the patterns, adding more patterns to our repertoire, until we really own the language. We’ve also learned that if we teach structures on the side, we can help students improve their accuracy, particularly in writing, but only once they reach intermediate fluency, so that they have enough language to which they may apply their improved accuracy. Google+ allows enough space to post important research online and foster a conversation about these and other articles.

2. The Power of Conversation

We seek to connect with people at a deeper level beyond our workshops and tweets. Google+ allows for longer conversations, which sometimes lead to setting up a hangout for face-to-face conversations. I’ve had chats with language educators all over the globe, from France, Canada, and South Africa, to Hawaii, Japan, and China. It’s been enriching to have these connections as we explore incorporating newer strategies for learning languages based on what we learn from the research. We’re exploring what really works to help students achieve the proficiency-based the outcomes we desire.

3. Extending the Workshops

Most of our engagement with language educators has been with those who come to our workshops. Each of our programs offers 40 hours of contact per school year. However, that’s often not enough time for our participants to process how to implement the new skills they are learning. We’ve started experimenting with discussion forums on Google+. We post an article with a few questions to support a deeper conversation about what works in the classroom. We will eventually post videos, photos, and other sorts of media as well. We think this development will serve a need that we were previously unable to meet.

4. Sharing Results

We also plan to share examples of student work with our Google+ participants. In fact, we hope our participants will also share their own examples of student work as we engage in action research together. The G+ platform allows for a lot of options to this end.

It’s amazing to live in a time when things happening on the far side of the world can affect what we do in our classrooms with students. The world is indeed our classroom, and all the more in a language class, where we support students to connect globally. We have found a useful home on Google+ to support the conversation about what really works in language acquisition, and how to put these strategies into practice.

Have you also have found ways of using G+ to connect with other educators around the world? I hope you’ll share your thoughts and comments below. And I look forward to learning with you as we share ideas here on Edutopia!

Wonders and Challenges of a High-tech Learning Environment

This post also appears on Edutopia at this link

Because of the great generosity of the non-profit NapaLearns.org, and the Napa Valley Vintners who sponsor them, I have a lot of technology in my French classroom, and in particular, a class set of netbook computers, tables and chairs with wheels, and a large interactive whiteboard. Learning a language is a very different affair with the support of technology! I have been taking stock lately of the wonders and the challenges of teaching in this blended environment. Here are some of my observations.

Let’s start with some of the wonders…

1) Students LOVE having tables and “wheelie” chairs (read here, Freshmen boys and chair races!) so that they can re-configure the classroom at will. The chair races are fine with me, as long as they take place before or after class. It is amazing how many fewer tardies there are!

2) Students can work at their own pace, and make choices about what they view and re-view, including videos, readings, explanations, activities, games… as often as they want or need to do.

3) The computers offer more support for collaboration, and opportunities to think critically since students are more engaged. Every student has his/her own tool to explore, interact and share what he/she is learning.

4) Students like the cool learning platforms available. Not only are textbooks changing, but the need for a static, one-source of learning materials, is no longer limiting us in what we have available. The world has come to us!

5) There are some really cool language learning games out there, but my students really enjoy DuoLingo in particular. The developer, Luis von Ahn, has developed a free learning platform that students really enjoy. Students collect badges as they achieve levels of competency. I have decided to offer credit for the badges students earn. They are turning in a print screen of their badges as they earn them.

6) Students have many more tools to creatively display what they are learning! Opportunities for creativity are much more engaging and meaningful, since they are personally more relevant!

Well, what about a few of the challenges?!

1) One student said to me last week, “I hate how everything we do is making us go on-line more and more. It’s like the Internet owns us.” I have to admit, she has a point! I am very proud of her for thinking critically about  how her engagement with technology is affecting her life. I offered her the option to suggest ways she could do some of our learning activities in other ways. I care about more about her learning than the way she learns. I also suggested that she weigh what she thinks is essential for her to do online, and what she can choose to do otherwise. I learned a lot from her comment!

2) My preparation time has changed a great deal. I can’t “wing it” as much as I used to do. Organizing agendas with links, with specific steps so students don’t get lost as they bounce from one link to the next, and reconfiguring my thinking to ensure I keep all learning activities student-centered, with occasional “workshops” where I give some input and explanation, and lead class discussions to scaffold inquiry. My role in the classroom has changed considerably. That is a good thing, given the results, but it is a challenge to shift.

3) To come at point 2 from a different angle, I have had to learn how to manage my time to allow room for more curriculum development, curation of resources, and support materials. I spend less time on the kinds of assessment that I used to do. I don’t check as much student work either, because I have developed rubrics which students can use to self-assess more. I do check that they have assessed themselves well – I find that they are often more hard on themselves than I would be. On the one hand, I like this shift, because I now spend more time creating projects, curating content, and just being creative. On the other hand, I am spending more time on work! I love my work, but the 7am to 9 pm workdays are a real challenge. I suspect that in time, this will become more streamlined.

4) With this blended approach to learning, my colleagues and I are doing more planning in collaboration. I enjoy collaborating with my colleagues, but we are not always on the same page. Sometimes it feels like I have lost a lot of my individuality and personal space. There is a need to give a great deal. I don’t always come away with what I really need since the collaborative groups are not frequently narrow enough to focus on the specific courses I teach. Even so, I work with wonderful people, and it is a privilege to have built in time to work together frequently. There are more creative ideas in collaboration than in isolation.

What about you? Do you have a blended learning environment? What have been some of your wonders and challenges? I would enjoy learning about your experiences as well. Thanks for sharing!

Best wishes,


Reflecting on How to be Innovative with PBLL

This article also appears on Edutopia at this link

As I have sought to implement project-based learning in my French classes, I have often set aside time to reflect on the units I have designed in order to modify them for various reasons. Sometimes, it has been to make the pathway of inquiry more accessible to the diverse range of my students’ abilities and skills. Often, it has been that my students have had great suggestions on how to alter the unit, making it more engaging and interesting for them — that is particularly rewarding, because it is tangible evidence that they are hooked! Other times, it is because I have discovered that what I thought was important, turned out to be not as much so for my students. I have wondered how can I ensure that my project plans are innovative enough to capture students’ attention in such a way as to make them the drivers of the PBL wagon, and not me.

In my mind, one of the most important benefits of PBL (and which won me over, as it were) is that students are actually engaged in their own learning of significant content as they acquire the skills they need to be successful in life. For many years, my biggest struggle as an educator has been to battle apathy! My own driving question has been this:

How can I, as a World Language teacher, engage ALL my students in meaningful work that demonstrates all of the following:

  • linguistic proficiency in three modes, oral and written: interpretive, interpersonal, presentational
  • cross cultural sensitivity and appreciation of the diversity of humanity
  • global and digital citizenship
  • their own real-world learning journey

Tall order? Probably, But I suspect many teachers have high expectations of themselves to deliver quality learning opportunities to their students.

My next step is to review all my pbl-aligned units to see how well they line up with my DQ (i.e., driving question). I wonder how I am doing in my own inquiry? I also wonder how I can be more innovative than I have been so my students can also be more innovative? For example, in world languages, we always have one or more units connected to food and culture – how can one separate those?! ≪C’est impossible!≫ However, I don’t want to settle for a simple food project. How can I make that unit more meaningful and significant?

I decided that we should to a project on world hunger and food distribution, a topic of inquiry which is very meaningful in the Francophone world, since three of every five native speakers of French live in Sub-Saharan Africa, where hunger is a real life or death issue. The question is why is that so, and how can we, as globally aware individuals in North America, help to solve this problem? How can we make a difference? How will it change us as well? How can we contribute to healthier living, for ourselves and for others?

My aim is to be much more innovative so my students can also be innovative, as they seek to engage in important work. I am excited to see how we can achieve that goal!

How about you? What are some ways you are looking to innovate your units for the new school year? I would like to invite you to discuss this with me and with others as we take time to reflect this summer. I look forward to hearing from you!

Best wishes,