My critical pedagogy in German 101 and assessments

I’ve been reading a lot lately about student agency and student empowerment, and ways that people leading the way in the Open Education movement are sharing their ideas and demonstrating ways to share privileged spaces with increasingly more equity. Most recently, I’ve been inspired by both my colleagues participating in the #OpenEd18 conference as well as my students. Even though I was not able to go to the #OpenEd18 conference this year, I was able to attend part of the conference virtually because some kind colleagues shared slides from keynote speakers on Twitter and other spaces, and some posted livestream/recorded videos of some discussions in the @Vconnecting sessions on Youtube. (Thank you!) For some background and ongoing work, see also the Open Pedagogy Notebook.

 One of the features I find most striking about the Open Pedagogy movement is the central ethics– the general sense of collaboration that is based on the practicing inclusivity. I find it an inclusive movement, for one, because more and more leaders and advocates are acknowledged on Twitter and in conference keynotes, for example, for their contributions to the ever-developing thoughts and practices on how to make pedagogy critical and effective for all (really all) students. (Follow #OpenPed or #Digped to get an idea about these discussions). Even though I wouldn’t yet consider myself a “leader” in the movement, I already have a sense of contributing to it while also learning the basics. How can that be? It’s in the ways people like Robin deRosa and Karen Cangialosi have stated (either on Twitter, in keynotes, or to me in person) that what we are doing is a “practice.” We are all learning as we are sharing our findings. It’s iterative, non-linear work. To me, the work of  Open is creative and powerful for good. My contribution in this is building from my teaching, my reflections on my teaching, and what students have said to me that shapes my pedagogy.  

As somewhat of a newcomer (involved in open access publishing March 2008-2014, and again since May 2018) to the movement, I am inspired every day by people I’m following on Twitter who share their thoughts and, better, details about their practice of critical pedagogy. I’m reminded often that we can all contribute to this openness. This idea is an important one, as we shape how inclusive, equitable, and socially just our pedagogy will be. A couple days ago, I also listened to a conversation with Jess Mitchel on @Vconnecting, after another colleague sent me a message on Twitter, urging me to listen and to read about it (hey @karencang!). Her answer to a question at a Virtual Connecting session at #OpenEd18 about ways open could change how we do assessment inspired Robin deRosa to transcribe it. I couldn’t help but read and watch the video right away myself. Something struck me about her answer, too,  because I had been thinking in my work as a language teacher about new ways  to do assessment that don’t involve grades. I had already begun trying un-grading (e.g., grading only for completion, and giving lots of feedback, and even having students do self-assessments) for this semester. I had found that liberating for myself and for my students (thanks for that inspiration, too, @Jessifer!) I’ll likely continue that as long as it’s working, but I also believe there is more that needs to be done to assess love of learning, effort to try to learn, effort to remember correct information, to contribute to knowledge creation  (no, not to make up dangerous “alternative facts”).

I’m inspired to keep asking myself: what are you doing to keep growing as a teacher, to practice inclusion, to help bring equity. Jess Mitchell’s keynote at #OpenEd18 addressed this concept. Many others are concerned about this and trying to find ways to practice equity better. But looking at the state of higher education in the U.S. right now, we have so much more work to do, and many more people to inspire to do this work. 

So what am I doing  to keep my pedagogy critical, to make it socially just, to consider the students who don’t have all the privileges professors might assume they have because “they’re in college now,” so that students don’t have to take time to explain their hardships to me, but can instead focus on their learning? A few things. I’ll keep working on them to keep improving as a teacher and human being, but here’s a start.

Starting with a plan to have students write about their learning

Over the summer 2018, I created  a document for students in my German language courses to reflect on their progress in proficiency and their work effort. In the first section, students write a reflective piece- about a paragraph – and i ask them to discuss their work effort and goals.  I used the “Can do” statements published by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) and the National Council of State Supervisors of Languages (NCSSL) for the section where students can state what they are able to do and provide evidence.  The ACTFL website describes the statements:  “Aligned with the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines 2012 and the ACTFL Performance Descriptors for Language Learners the Can-Do Statements reflect the continuum of growth in communication skills through the Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, and Distinguished levels.” In second-language acquisition and applied linguistics, essentially what we are practicing as language teachers, we should all know that this continuum is not exactly linear, so students “progress” at different rates, but the idea is that eventually they all end up in the same place. 

That “place” can be hard to measure, but the ACTFL guidelines provide a tool to articulate it. The “Can-Do” statements are useful in helping students articulate exactly what they can do in the target language. By writing out their own statements and providing evidence – such as examples they have done in writing, listening, and speaking in class, in homework, or on a test – students can measure how far they’ve come, and make their learning tangible. My hope in assigning this self-evaluation process at three intervals over the semester was that students in my German 101 course (also in German 315) would be able to say many details about their learning the language, and at least it was a few steps further (maybe leaps) than the usual complaint: “I took this language for x years, and all I can do is say hello and what my name is,” or worse. 

Looking for something to measure their outcomes and goals, but in way that is something students can shape and articulate after having information, resulted in this self assessment template, which I have given a Creative Commons license. 

Too early to tell yet, really, if it’s as effective as I had hoped it would be, but what I have seen in responses so far is encouraging. In fact, I may have expected responses to be too frequent, as it is a lot of information for students to process and to gather what they sense is the “right” evidence. We’re still facing some obstacles- like that not enough profs are asking their students to really to a self reflection combined with un-grading. Like Jessie Stommel wrote, removing the grading of each assignment removes the unequal balance of power that can be too inhibitive to the learning process. Full disclosure, we do still have to enter a final grade, but I am planning to include each student in that process, too, as they will write about it in their final reflection pieces.

Students don’t all really know that they can trust me yet. I don’t blame them; the educational system has taught them not to. I’m doing what I can to undo that, but I don’t yet succeed 100% of the time. So, out of a class of 24 students (I lost one since my last post, due to work load demands in other classes), about 6 did the first round of the assessment on time. I grew worried. This was the rigorous assessment that I had put in the place of frequent, graded chapter tests. Why didn’t they jump on this?! Well, instead of reprimanding, I wrote an email reminder to those who had not yet submitted the assignment, explained the significance of this assessment in my view and why it’s part of my mission with Open Pedagogy, and invited them to each talk with me about alternative options for self-reflection. I brought up some fave topics in Open– “remixing” and “collaboration” — that both rely on communication. More responded to set up a time to talk it over with me right away. These conversations led to editing the document — just today — to reflect answers to questions some students had, and to show what a student had come up with as an alternative way to write the assessment. This new part appears in the “Alternatively…” section. Marvelous! This is what it is all about.

How will students know when they have learned “what they have to know” at this level?

This seems to be a burning question among colleagues, and it stays pretty firm in the forefront of my thinking, too.  However, to frame this, I ask my language students often to imagine they are on a journey with the language, a road trip to be more precise. From a second language acquisition course I took in grad school, something that has stuck with me is a road trip analogy that I expand upon in varying ways each time I tell it. Thinking of this road trip (something I enjoy myself!)  helps me to picture what goes on with my students learning the language with/from me. It has kept me humble in the times I have felt pressured to get the students to know “all that they need to know” at each level of the language. Maybe this is a “box” to undo someday, too.

My road-trip parable for language learners: 

 Let’s begin with a road map. I tend to think of this vertically, I think because we talk about “going up” the levels of proficiency. But now I’m rethinking that idea, too.

The students start at a town near where I’m currently teaching. They are heading for the same destination on their road trip. They can choose it.  While driving, they may take different routes and go at different speeds; it is not a race. Some — let’s say the ones in the car going a little above the speed limit —  might miss some scenic areas, some photo ops, some opportunities to talk with the locals. They may have passed by that sign a little quickly and missed something. They might have to stop at some point and review where they’ve been to double-check that they are on the right path and still heading to the same destination they planned on. I relate this to the idea that this “driver” might remember some things sooner than others, but maybe not be able to pronounce some words (this part is unpredictable).  There are other drivers that go exactly the posted speed limit, stop for every yellow light, venture off the beaten-path and visit more scenic spots than the other student, or they may take a break at more rest stops. However, they are taking in so much at this pace, enjoying the ride, that they also remember the color, smell, size of the roses at the first and maybe even every rest stop. They even read all the road signs along the roadway, making sure they don’t miss a thing. This “driver” might not get to all of the items in the proficiency level that  guidelines recommend by the end of  one semester, but the things that they do get are likely to be retained much longer.

Is either one wrong? In my humble yet educated opinion, no. They have different ways of taking in the information and getting to their destination, but as long as I can remember to give them the details, practice them, and let them decide on their route, I think they might stay interested long enough to stay with the language, to keep learning from me, maybe study abroad and see the world, and possibly do awesome things with the language in their work one day. 

October 16, 2018

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