6 New [School] Year's Resolutions

In the last two weeks of August, I start getting butterflies in my stomach. I visit my classroom and visualize the best possible seating arrangement. I start reading all the articles, books and blog posts on education that I've been meaning to get to all year. I spruce up my teacher website and start planning the first week of lessons--HOTS! Active learning! Creative collaboration! Mobile technology! All in the first week! I convince myself that this is the year that everything will go right. Obviously, this fluttery anticipation and idealistic planning do not last long. At all. Maybe to mid-September. But I think that a period of disconnected dormancy (July) followed by a period of excited planning (August) can be healthy for our professional lives. The question is, how can we keep the August spark from dying out?

In the past, I've made a mental list of resolutions for the year, which I sometimes draw upon to write the annual professional objectives that my district requires all teachers to set for themselves in the beginning of each school year. The mental list evolves from "resolution" to "wishful thinking" pretty quickly, while my formal professional objectives are almost always in the forefront of my mind. The difference is that I have to submit my two objectives to my supervisors, along with an action plan, and then report my progress at the end of the year.

Obviously, what's lacking in my resolutions is formality and accountability. I write down my objectives in detail and show them to others. My resolutions are just kept in my head, where I can easily revise them or "forget" them. So this year, I'm writing down my six new school year's resolutions, in hopes that I revisit them in October, December, March, May... whenever I need to remind "school-year me" of "August me."

Resolution #1: Create a flexible, student-centered classroom environment.  I've tried so many different seating arrangements--groups, U-shape, tables--and nothing is perfect all the time. So why not change the seats to accommodate the task? "Desk jockeying" could be something I teach my students and they practice within the first week or two of class. With practice they should be able to rearrange seats quickly and relatively quietly, and I won't just fall back on the desks-in-rows-facing-the-whiteboard arrangement. I have also been terrible about decorating my room well--I'm a penny-pinching procrastinator when it comes to the bulletin boards--so this year I bit the bullet and bought the non-cheesy supplies from Teacher's Discovery that I have been wanting for years. It's true that students look around the room and absorb what's on the walls, so it might as well be interesting and relevant to their study of Spanish, right?

Resolution #2: Assign meaningful homework. Halfway through last year I became convinced that the homework I was assigning was garbage. You know, drill worksheets. So I started assigning "fluency activities" instead. I got this idea from @secottrell's blog post about the topic via the #langchat community on Twitter. Students were to engage with Spanish outside of class by watching TV in Spanish, reading news articles, changing the language on their cell phones, etc., and then writing a reflection. Here is the link to the document that I created based on @secottrell's list. Anyway, this worked pretty well, considering that I totally changed course in the middle of the year and my students had to re-adjust to my new policy. The fluency activities were the only homework I assigned in the third and fourth quarters, and I assigned them 4 times per quarter. In the end, I think the switch was a little extreme. This summer, after reading Rethinking Homework by Cathy Vatterott and surveying my students for their opinions on the relevance of the fluency activities, I have decided to reduce them to 3 times per quarter and to assign more focused, purposeful homework when necessary.

Resolution #3: Make the language learning process transparent. I forget that most of my students don't know how they learn a foreign language. I teach intermediate and advanced students and most of them have been taking Spanish since first grade, so it's easy to think that they have the process down. But they don't. They think it's like math or English, or they come into my class with preconceived notions about being "good" or "bad" at Spanish. They don't realize that their brains are changing constantly or that making mistakes is a stage of the language acquisition process. They tend to value accuracy more highly than communication (which is, unfortunately, a result of the test-focused culture that school promotes), but then get frustrated and discouraged if they feel they can't communicate. So one of my goals is to help them understand what their brains are doing as they learn a language, and to be aware of their own learning. @spanishplans has a communication rubric that I wish I had thought of, and @tonitheisen, @martinabex and @secottrell have great ideas and resources for introducing the ACTFL proficiency scale and having students assess themselves. I'm particularly excited about @secottrell's Proficiency Taco!

Resolution #4: Focus on effective, purposeful communication. This resolution goes hand-in-hand with #3. By providing students with opportunities to communicate in a meaningful and relevant way and emphasizing successful communication rather than linguistic accuracy, I hope to get my kids to speak in Spanish more often and more confidently. So, for example, rather than asking them to tell their partner everything they know about Spain, I'll ask them to come to an agreement with their partner about the most interesting aspect of Spanish culture, or explain why bullfighting should be banned or celebrated, or what they would do if they met Sergio Ramos on the street, etc. (I have to thank great PD with Paul Sandrock for these and other ideas.) Maybe I'll have them fill out a quick checklist after completing a communicative task: Did I understand my partner? Did my partner understand me? What, if anything, did I need/want to say that I couldn't? Not one of my acquaintances or friends in Spain, Puerto Rico or Argentina (where I have lived at various points in my life) ever demanded that I produce the present subjunctive, but we did engage in purposeful conversations with varying degrees of success.

Resolution #5: Give students quality feedback. This is the one I think I'm going to struggle with the most. It's partly a culture thing. Grades are the currency that students, parents, faculty and administrators use to put a value on learning. Many high-school students (and their parents) are really good at playing the "B" game: as long as the numbers work out to a "B-" or higher at the end of the quarter, they're satisfied, even if they learned nothing of consequence. I am also obligated to give letter and number grades; I don't have a choice in the matter. But what does an "A" or a "B" mean in Spanish? I don't really know, and I'm sure my kids don't either. So how do I evaluate my students' performance meaningfully? The other part of the challenge is time. I have to find a way to move beyond number and letter grades to give my students constructive feedback that addresses their proficiency needs without sucking up all of my time and energy. Technology could help here. Some teachers provide oral feedback through podcasts. Edmodo offers an assignment annotation feature that could help streamline the grading process. I'm also fascinated by what Blue Harvest is doing to combine narrative feedback with performance standards and traditional grades.

Resolution #6. Take care of myself. It is all too easy to sacrifice the good for the great. Perfectionism causes me to work myself to the bone during the school year, and sometimes other parts of my life suffer. Exercise helps. Spending time with my fiancé helps. Unfortunately, I'm ashamed to say that I tend to put schoolwork before these more important things, especially when the work feels both urgent and endless. I suspect that instead of working harder I just need to be smarter about how I work. So I'm going to check e-mail only at set times during the day, reserve Twitter and Facebook for when I'm not supposed to be planning my lessons or grading, and go home when it's time to go home, even if it means I have to rely on a less-than-great lesson or activity the next day.

All right, there they are: my 6 new school year's resolutions, in writing. I'll definitely be checking back on them throughout the year. I'm already looking forward to a June blog post about how well I kept them! What are your new school year's resolutions?