Tag Archives: Edutopia

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,


Going deeper with PBLL planning

This question was posted recently on Edutopia

Dear Don,

Thank you for your article. I am a French teacher at the American School of New Delhi and I am currently preparing a COETAIL program (Certificate of educational technology and information literacy) . As part of my last course, I have decide to implement a PBL task. I am teaching a beginner group and our next unit is about ‘food’. I have been inspired by your article to ask the students to set up a restaurant in a francophone country. As a novice with PBL, I would be really grateful if you could give me some advice to ensure a succesful and enjoyable experience for my students : do you give your students any vocabulary or structures beforehand? how do you make sure that they communicate with each other in the target language (considering that I have a beginner group, they might use more English than French)? How do you assess them along the way? How do you track individual’s participation in the group? I’ll appreciate any advice, rubrics, resources I could use to help me set up that project. Merci beaucoup!


Hi Julie – you have some GREAT questions! Well done on experimenting with PBLL (project-based language-learning) as well.

I usually introduce a PBLL-aligned unit with some form of comprehensible input in the form of a story related to the learning targets and including a driving question for inquiry. For example, for this “food unit,” the driving question(s) is/are: How can we help to preserve the rich culinary heritage of the Francophone world? The learning targets are formulated in “I can statements” = I can + language function + theme. For example:

  • I can describe how to prepare a recipe from the target culture.
    I can ask and answer questions about the foods of the target culture.
    I can help someone select a dish from a menu.

My story will model all these learning targets. I include key vocabulary and structures (not grammar! but syntactical relationships, or sentence frames) as a model of the language they will learn and produce. My story may have episodes as well, to break it down into segments, as all at once could be overload. I do not provide lists of words, I ask students to share out new words they are learning, and we create a word wall – usually on Padlet.com, but also the walls of the classroom. I am not keen on a “defined list” – I want students to own their vocabulary. There can be choices here.

Students work in groups of four ideally. More is too many, three is the least. They have assigned roles (decided by the group) to ensure everything is done well – project manager, secretary, questioner/clarifier, producer…). I help scaffold interpersonal communication between students with sentence frames – on Padlet and on paper. I also circulate around the room constantly, checking in with groups as they do their research. I ask and answer questions in French, and support their use of the target language. Students are encouraged to use target language as much as possible, but they are not required only to speak French.

I have rubrics for several things: collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and of course communication: oral and written, in the three modes of communication – interpretive, interpersonal and presentational. I am working on updates of my rubrics, including making variations for novice, intermediate and advanced level fluencies. The ones I have made are on my website at https://drdmd.wordpress.com – see the tab labeled “PBLL” – note that this page is under construction, but there is a link to my old site where there is all I have posted so far. More to come on this! You will find a lot of resources there.

I am writing a “how to” book on PBLL, but it is in draft, not yet done. More to follow on this!

I hope this gets you started! Thanks for your post, and best wishes on your good work!


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,

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!

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,

4 Tools to Help Structure a Reflective Teaching Practice

This article also appears on Edutopia at this link

While I was in the process of preparing for National Board Certification about ten years ago, I realized I needed to develop means to carry forward the most important thing I learned from the certification process–reflection. I wanted to ensure it would become a regular and normal habit of my professional journey. I resolved to reflect regularly on my teaching practice by putting into place a structured means to ensure I was without excuse to reflect easily and often. I decided to set up a few tech tools, outlined as follows. Evernote Firstly, I use Evernote, as they say, to “remember everything!” Evernote is an amazing tool which works on all my devices, whichever one I have underhand when I need to record something – talk about being without excuse to record my thoughts, ideas, intentions and resolutions! I can use the apps on my phone, iPad, and laptop, or I can use a browser on the desktop computer in my classroom. I can email a note to my Evernote account, and clip webpages for later use, as well as articles to read later. I can take photos and easily add notes about what I have captured visually. I use Evernote’s Clearly to format articles for easier reading, and Evernote’s Skitch to mark up a pdf or a photo with comments. I recently purchased a Jot Script pen from Adonit to use with Evernote’s Penultimate app which allows me to draw or take handwritten notes, if I am tried of typing and think I can read my penmanship when I return to the note! Penultimate, Skitch and Clearly all save my notes to my Evernote account. I can capture just about anything I want, and add notes as well as tags to help me sort my notes later into notebooks by categories. Evernote is great! Diigo Diigo has quickly become one of my very favorite tools. I use Diigo to bookmark resources on the web, rather than in my browser. Why? I have a few reasons. Firstly, my bookmarks are available wherever I am since they are stored in the cloud, not just on one machine. Not only that, but I can attach a note or comment to any bookmark I save, then share it with others, and tag the bookmarks for later sorting. Additionally, I can share the bookmark with a group, and post an idea or strategy to use the resource. Other group members can share ideas with me as well. I love the ability to reflect collaboratively about ways to use the resources in my lessons. I also like to use Diigo to annotate readings for my students with highlights to draw their attention to certain details, and sticky notes with questions and/or prompts to guide their reading and elicit deeper engagement with the text. Diigo generates a shortened link to my annotated page, which I then share on Edmodo with my students. Twitter That leads me to Twitter, which has easily become one of the primary tools I use for reflection. As I share resources with my PLN, and they with me, many of us have engaged in discussions about ways to use them. I like following others’ blogs, and leaving comments or questions to open up a reflective conversation among peers. I know when my colleagues have posted something when they tweet it out. My teaching has been so very enriched by these exchanges! Edutopia Finally, I come home to Edutopia. I have so enjoyed the opportunities to collaborate with the good people at Edutopia, many of whom I have met since we are so close. Though I have been to the ‘ranch’ only a few times, I have collaborated via Skype, email and Twitter, as well as met with my colleagues at conferences here and there. More importantly, however, I have access to all those who stop by the site to read an article, and leave a question or a comment, which I hope many of you will do in response to this very post! I think we live in such an amazing time when we can collaborate virtually across the globe on common points of interest. So how about it, friends?! What are your thoughts about reflective practice? Have you structured means to engage in reflection alone and with others? Do you connect with others which works well for you, and which you could share with us all here on Edutopia? I look forward to your ideas and comments. I may find another tool to scaffold my thinking this term, and so might you! Wishing you all great reflection opportunities, and a Happy New Year as well! Don

Engaging Today’s Learners

This article and discussion was first posted on Edutopia at this link.

I have thought a lot about student engagement in the 31 years I have been teaching teens. How about you? In fact, I would say this is one of the most intriguing questions for inquiry I have investigated, while at the same time never thinking that I have arrived at an ultimate conclusion beyond this: I still have work to do to engage my students! Just when I think I have found a surefire new technique, a new student comes along to push me back to digging through my tool box of ideas.

Resources on Engagement


There are a bunch of resources on Edutopia to consider. Check out these posts, for example:

One of my other favorite resources is ASCD. Here are a few things available on their site:


Today’s teens are not so very different from the past. They want their learning to be meaningful, fun, and especially, they want it to be engaging. I have found a number of tech tools that my students enjoy using, such as Todaysmeet.com, Padlet, and Edmodo.



I use wikis to create multimedia language learning opportunities for my students based on the themes of our inquiry. The wikis are loaded with videos, language learning games, input on various aspects of language and culture… I add to my various pages as the needs arise in response to the students inquiry and needs to know. I seek to direct them to many sources as a home base rather than merely turning them loose to go all over the internet. I am not opposed to that, I just recognize that we have 55 minutes a day together, and I want the time to be well spent. I consider this to be part of my coaching.

PBLL as engagement

As for PBLL itself… I love PBLL because it IS engaging! Whenever we offer students opportunities for voice and choice, opportunities to be creative, to make the learning personally relevant and meaningful, we create greater incentives for students to be engaged. I have enjoyed seeing students come alive and excited simply because of the increased opportunities for meaningful exploration based on their own interests, curiosity, the desire to know. I have often wondered what has happened to students who are apathetic about learning. Little children are naturally interested to explore and know. Why not teens and adults, for that matter? We build bridges to connect our students to the real world when we truly engage them with meaningful inquiry.

Language-learning as engagement

I have always wanted every student to be successful in my classes. I truly believe that anyone who already speaks a language can also learn another. Language is innate to we humans, so it should just be a given that anyone can acquire second or third language. It has been a real challenge in a very monolingual cultural context to help people believe it is possible! In much of the world, knowing 2, 3, 4, or more languages is normal. In America, even in such a diverse place as California, it often feels like a battle to convince people to believe that it is doable. The big problem is we have told the public that language learning ought to be reserved only for those going to college because the belief is that it is too hard for many people to learn another language. In addition, even those going to college are told that they need take only 2 years of a language, when it takes about 6 years to reach advanced fluency in a language similar to English like Spanish or French. So, my efforts to engage students in their own language learning have included the need to support them to take language classes over a period of years, not just one or two. I want students to become communicatively proficient, not experts of verb conjugations which they will never use in real life! Engagement has been an essential component to my teaching all these years.

Teachers as agents of engagement

One more thing. I need to be engaged too. When I think about being in the classroom for 31 years, I must stop to ask where all those years have gone. What has kept ME going all this time? It is not just a love for kids, even though that is a big part of what makes teaching a wonderful career, but it is also about the opportunity to grow and learn for myself as well. I wanted to be a teacher in large part because I love being a student. I have a job where they pay me to learn in community with others. I have often been asked why it takes so many hours a week to teach. People have wondered why I would keep changing the curriculum if it is already working, or why I feel the need not to use a textbook. I think people are well meaning, but honestly, if I were to recycle year after year the same thing, 35 or more times for a whole career, wouldn’t that be odd? I would easily grow board with what I teach because I NEED to learn, constantly to be renewed, growing, not stagnant. I think the best way to engage students is to be excited about learning new things all the time. If I can pass along a desire to rekindle the natural curiosity of childhood to those around me, I will have done a good thing, I believe. Not that it is about doing a good thing, but rather, it is about experiencing meaningful community by sharing inquiry one with another. That has truly been the best part of being a teacher these many years.

What about you?

Have I whet your appetite to share? Got any ideas to pass along? In your experience, what has worked well? What hasn’t? What have you learned from your own inquiry into student engagement? I would love to know about your experiences with student engagement. Or collegial collaboration. Or personal pursuits which have been meaningful in your teaching journey…