Sunday, February 5, 2017

Response to Chris Cashman - part 3 - Assessment

Quick history lesson:
Chris Cashman asked me about TPRS and why I use it. I responded here.
Chris proposed a response asking about assessment here.
I responded in part 1 about why the grammar vids here.
Part 2 of my response dealt with learning vs acquisition as I understand it here.
I have put Chris' text in blue so you know whose words belong to whom.
And here is part three on: Assessment
You’ll notice that I have taken a LONG time to write this response. I have tried so many times in my head to respond and also tried so many times to write a coherent response. And I keep coming up dry. But I know that you’re patiently waiting to have a dialogue about this. So here is my best effort. I admit you’ll probably see facets that you don’t agree with me and that is completely fine. You’re the master of your own classroom and I wouldn’t want to tell you what you HAVE to do. You have to come to that on your own.
I thought it was so important to address my issues with teaching before coming to TPRS and after implementing TPRS in this first post because until you understand my journey, you’ll have a hard time seeing how I have such a hard time with assessment.

For many years, it was so black and white with my students. I would give a chapter test with a vocab section, a grammar section, maybe a reading I came up with putting those both in a context with comprehension questions, and maybe a cultural note from the chapter or two.  
If they paid attention in class, did the homework, did the practice with me in class and studied their vocabulary and grammar every so often they would be fine.  If they didn’t they would do less than fine.
Black was black and white was white. Or A was A and B was B. A was not Non-A and B was not Non-B.  Life was simple.
So if they told me the incorrect conjugation, it was WRONG. I marked it, moved onto the next errors, and felt like a wonderful or terrible teacher depending on that particular class’s savviness with conjugation and vocabulary memorization.
Those explicit grammar points as so wonderful to assess when you teach them the ideas explicitly. They are easy when teaching Spanish as a “subject” like history or math. There are rules, we teach the rules, then we move on once the students have “mastered” the rule.
I once read some online curriculum as I was working on writing my curriculum for a district where I was a department of one, and the level 3 curriculum was prefaced with the following statement, “Since students have already mastered the present and past tenses in Spanish 1 and Spanish 2…”
Wow. They had mastered the present and past tenses in just two years!?  I recently heard Bill VanPatten on Tea with BVP say it takes children at least 5 years to master the present tense in their first language (and think about all of the hours of immersion there).
Now since you have served in Hispanic ministry (as I have), you can probably see (as I have) that your proficiency level has really gone up since interacting with native speakers so much. I remember when I got out of college (a relatively confident Spanish speaker about literature and threw around words in Spanish like autochthonous, hyperbaton and enjambement, yet got myself into trouble on more than one occasion for not understanding what a Native Speaker was talking to me about and I would nod and smile).  But hey, I KNEW so many rules and PASSED SPANISH with relatively flying colors.
Also, at a school I was at, I observed a teacher who wanted her Spanish students to master the concept of noun + adjective agreement because it’s SOO easy and yet, she in her own speech had difficulty with said agreement (noun + adjective) or even verb conjugation?  But haven’t those teachers MASTERED the rule? If you ask them they know it. But it isn’t the language bouncing around in their heads.
So back to me, I noticed that the best way for me to jump out of that difficulty was immersing myself in a Spanish speaking community for years. They told me when I first came, I spoke like a Gringo. But after many years, they considered my Spanish to be better than theirs.  And that native-like attention to agreement was no longer something I had to worry about. When I monitored it, I would tend to do worse. But due to the rich amount of input, I improved beyond my peers who never immersed themselves. I would imagine you have gotten better at those as well considering our similar experiences at Spanish-speaking churches. :-)
Also, keep in mind ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines.  At what point is perfect language on the spectrum? Even in the intermediate level (which high school students after four years MIGHT be at intermediate mid), they still make all sorts of mistakes and might not be comprehensible to a non-sympathetic speaker.
So now back to my students, why do I beat myself up over if they say, “yo está”, “yo sabo”, “él tengo” in Spanish 1? Isn’t the fact that any language sticking in their heads a good thing that we can continue to work with in the rich environment of input?
It doesn’t seem as though those rules are really internalized. Listen to a kid speaking or look at a kid writing. When they speak to me in an unscripted conversation, I see the language that they have been most exposed to (in lower levels), and what is bouncing around in their head. The rules are not what is bouncing around in their head in a real-time conversation. So they might say “estás bien” instead of “estoy bien”.  
This is not going to change regardless of how often I correct them. If I bring their grade down because I haven’t given them enough input, that seems for lack of a better word: shady.
Why am I beating myself up over their not having mastered features of the language that are (from what I understand) later acquired.
Textbooks do not have anything to do with any order of acquisition that I can tell. I was never exposed to subjunctive until I was in years 3 or 4. But my wife uses the subjunctive with our daughter all the time and my daughter is slowly picking it up. Oh but my daughter doesn't know all the names of every vegetable known to man. She sure would fail a Spanish 1 class right now!
You’ve probably figured out by now that I am having a harder time administering those explicit grammar point tests.
Since coming to TPRS, I have seen that communication is king. When a student can speak and write more spontaneously in the first year than they used to be able to by Spanish 3, with comprehensibility (and minor ‘errors’ here and there), I am elated.  I find that the language is actually bouncing around in their heads!
When I came to the method, I wasn’t sure how to assess with this neat new system. What I decided to start doing was to give exit ticket quizzes often. Those went in the gradebook and accounted for a majority of their grade.  So if they understood the language during the story and could answer yes or no for eight questions, that demonstrated they were improving in the language because they could follow.
Another year, I decided to teach towards the reading of TPRS novels. At the end of each semester, they would take a test about the novel (similar to what you might see in a history class or another class). There were fill in the blank questions about the novel, True or False, short answer, etc. This was, for me, a step in the right direction. Students felt incredibly successful after having read a novel and they could talk about it via the test. While my rubric didn’t take into if they would make “grammatical mistakes” as long as it was comprehensible, some might disagree with me.
I looked at is as, if they were able to use the language they had in their brains to express their ideas, then how could I be upset. This was actually quite the paradigm shift if we rewind momentarily to my college days in a literature course. I remember there were others in the class who did not come even close to my abilities with the language. But I could not analyze literature to save my life and my ideas were not impressive to the teachers despite my lack of grammatical faux passes.  The others would get As while I would get Bs on my papers because the teachers were not grading my language, but my ideas. The language was simply the method for delivery. Fast forward to today, I can see the wisdom there.
As I continued onto another school, we would assess using Standards Based Grading (SBG), or our interpretation of it anyways. My daily quizzes were evidence and didn’t affect their grade. All we took was evidence in the areas of: listening, reading, writing and speaking. In the final per semester that was basically where their grade came from. They would demonstrate if they were able to accomplish a task (discuss characters in a book in Spanish; write a new ending; write about what happened in the book; translate a passage to demonstrate understanding).  I have blogged about those a little bit here.  I am not saying it’s the best way ever to assess. It’s what we did.
This year, I miss what I did in the previous three years with SBG, but have gone back to my old ways of exit tickets galore.  Then we have to do a final worth 10% of their grade that the district teachers have already written.
At the end of the day, I think the ideal for me is: speak in the language and give the kids 8 question quizzes. I no longer give 8 yes/no. I now offer scaffolded questions: 5 yes/no; 2 who/when/how/where; 1 why.  I liked this especially to see what they would come up with their answers to the “why” questions. Of course, if they could answer it in 1 word and I understood, they could still get full credit. But that was much harder. I always asked them to write as much as they could to answer the question and my high flyers often did full sentences on those (or multiple sentences!).
Do you at any point in a four year sequence assess them on putting an “---o” at the end of present tense ‘yo’ verbs, or “Tú tienes” instead of “Tú tengo”?  

If not, how do you assess them?  How do you hold them accountable to acquire the language?
I always want to see those forms, but if communication occurs, I wouldn’t take off a huge part of their grade for that. I believe that many might take off a small percentage of the grade for “grammatical accuracy” in their syllabus. But the student might still be able to get a low A or A- even with those problems if their ideas come forth.
You said: “How do you hold them accountable to acquire the language”?
This is a very interesting question.  I think we’re mixing terms here.  Can I really hold them accountable to do something that is unconscious?
If acquisition is something they are doing without trying, then how can I really “hold them accountable” for that?
I guess I have switched my paradigm in how I view myself and my role in the classroom in conjunction with listening to TeaWithBVP.  While I would love for my students to LEARN the language as any other subject, they aren’t going to.  Spanish (and other languages) are not Subject Matter. They are the means through which we learn Subject Matter.  
Consequently, I am no longer a “Spanish Teacher”. Instead I am a “Facilitator of Spanish Language Acquisition”.
As a Facilitator, I can only:
  1. Model the TL for my students
  2. Deliver the TL  in a variety of contexts
  3. Encourage them to interact with the TL via rich input, stories, questions, authentic texts, tasks, conversations, etc
  4. Be positive and encouraging
  5. Make my classroom a safe place
While I could be wrong on my understanding of all of this, I can lead the horse to water, but I can’t make him/her drink.  
I feel as though there is a duality in me as a “Spanish teacher” contracted via a school. While they want me to “teach” the language, I want my kids to acquire the language.
You say that you do pop-up grammar. Do you ever plan to cover any grammatical concepts by level? Or is it all student-driven, based on what students may bring up?
Yes, in Spanish 1 there are things that I must point out to them that might not be as important in Spanish 2 or 3. For example, explaining that “el”, “la”, “los” and “las” all mean “the”.  They won’t need that as much in higher levels. I might also have them deduce the endings of the verbs in the present tense and the general rule.  Or try to use “direct objects” or “indirect objects”.  Again, they wouldn’t need that in Spanish 2 or 3 ideally.  We should be able to move on.
But when doing pop-ups, it is also important to realize that I do those when students might need that pointed out.  And repetition in a variety of contexts is my friend. I can’t just expect to say it once and “voilá!” they have it!
But at the end of the day, I think you have to teach YOUR students and they might be in a different place. For example, I have various sections of Spanish 1 this year and they are all so different with different needs. So while I will hit the same pop-ups throughout the year, in some they might come up more naturally while in others they might be a little more forced with a story or with the warm-up.  But I have a general idea in Spanish 1 the things I need to hit, while some others might be more relating to class discussion or interest.
So to answer your question more succinctly: both.
  1. Some pop-ups depend on students’ needs/interests in the moment
  2. Other pop-ups are things that I feel the need to point out due to curriculum restraints/priorities
What if they don’t bring “it” up? And then we go back to the question about assessing those things – that may pop-up, that may not pop-up, huh?  Do you only assess what students bring up? This is one of my biggest questions I have of the TPRS folks, and I have never received a satisfactory answer.
Here’s my 100% transparency. I think that my shifting in paradigms has led to a mess when it comes to assessment.
I don’t know what a good-balanced assessment looks like with a more holistic language teaching class.
None of my students are in the same place.
They all have different needs.
Can they accomplish something in the TL instead of worrying about the TL.
It’s the problem I have heard with multiple intelligences. We are told to teach in a variety of ways (according to Multiple Intelligences that students have). But one author pointed out the silliness of this if we only assess in one way.
If a student is kinesthetic and we teach them with kinesthetics but still expect them to perform on a piece of paper, are we really honoring their kinesthetic intelligence?
And so in a similar way, if I am teaching my students with the whole language, I should find ways to assess them with the whole language. I should look to if they can accomplish whatever task with the language and not take away points if they didn’t have the correct ENDING of an adjective or they used the wrong article if I was able to understand them.
Remember that I am teaching in levels 1 and 2. So I really see a low level of production from these students. And I notice that with the kids taught traditionally that are in my Spanish 2 classes, they are so nervous to speak because they don’t want to make a mistake. The language isn’t bouncing enough in their heads so they would rather not speak.
I want them to make mistakes. I don’t care. I want them to use the language. I want to converse with them. I want to learn about them. I want to have discussions with them in the TL.  And we can’t do that if they are too afraid to make a mistake.
But maybe I am more of a “hippy” now in my teaching style.
In an ideal world, I don’t have to give grades. In an ideal system, maybe I could just give them exit tickets even on the last day of class as their final because they would have needed the language from all semester to understand the lesson that was scaffolded on the last day. They couldn’t study for it. Their studying would be interacting with the input every day and acquiring as El Chavo would say, “sin querer quiriendo”.
I say all of this after having had somewhat of a come-to-Jesus experience with TPRS back in 2009, and then I started my first teaching job in 2010 at a religiously TPRS school. I was pumped up and ready to go.  A year into it, though, I didn’t feel it was effective.  It’s really hard to make it clear to students what they should be learning and then holding them accountable to learn *it*.  I suppose I could keep talking about that, but suffice it to say that I have left TPRS fundamentalism and have become more moderate in my approach (Southern Baptist to Evangelical Free, if you will), and I have found a way to do both. I am with you in not being 100% satisfied with how much students are producing, but I feel like what I want students to learn is clear, the way they learn it is contextualized and fun, it sets up a good way to learn culture as well, and my assessments are balanced between general proficiency building and specific grammar/vocab learning. All of that could be unpacked in another big post, I know. So maybe I need to do that.
I also question the effectiveness of TPRS and CI constantly in my own classes because they aren’t a cure all for all kids. Some kids like to know more about the grammar than others.  So I have my videos I can point them to or I explain in the last few minutes of class more in depth for them.  But there is ALWAYS that voice in the back of my head that I am doing a terrible job. I am a terrible teacher and my student aren’t learning.  That voice is similar to the one that cringes at every mistake a student makes when communicating with me in class.
I am glad you have found a way to merge methods that suits you and your students needs. I hope to hear about it more if we can meet in Chicago in March!
Off-topic: Have you ever had Puerto Rican food? If so, that could be a meal when you’re in Chicago. I live in Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, Humboldt Park.
Sounds great. Or as some I know might say, “Ta weno”. And I look forward to hearing about your experiences both in the classroom and in Hispanic Ministry! ;-)


  1. Great post! I feel like Mr assessment of a mess at this point. I just don't know how to make a valid assessment based on acquisition.

    Keep up the good work!

    1. Sounds like we're in a similar situation then! ;-)

      I love teaching to acquisition, but it seems like a lot more "vague" in terms of what to assess since:

      1. all kids acquire at different rates (even L1)

      2. kids might acquire different things at different times

      3. their not acquiring might not just be for lack of attention

      4. I've found that generally kids that read in L1 tend to pick up parts of the language faster than those who don't read in L1

      So my classes are more of a mess than ever, but we're having more fun and kids want to be in class longer and really isn't my exposing them to more of the language for longer more important than testing them over all the chapters so they can forget it all in a year or two anyways because it wasn't taught for long term?