Tuesday, December 30, 2014

A Unified Plan of Action for 2015

By Gerhard Fischer, DPI Consultant for World Languages and Global Education

I am writing these lines on the last working day of the year 2014. You can look back on many highlights that include daily triumphs of engaging students in learning another language and trying to make sense of a world that is so much bigger than their immediate environment. Even though this may not be apparent every day, teachers are changing lives, inspire young people and encourage them to become the best they can be. All educators try to do that, but the enthusiasm among world language teachers is unparalleled. I can see that every year at the WAFLT Convention in Appleton but also during the WAFLT Summer Institutes and other meetings dedicated to improving professional practice.

We can probably agree that one of the most important contributions of our professional association, WAFLT, to teacher success in the classrooms is the establishment of a sense of community and collegiality. World language teachers, even though they might feel isolated in their schools without colleagues in the same content area, understand that professional growth occurs best by working with colleagues and friends.  And that is undoubtedly a good reason for strong registration numbers at all WAFLT events.

I just came across an older (2013) article in the Washington Post, entitled “What if Finland’s great teachers taught in U.S. schools?” Pasi Sahlberg, author of “Finnish Lesson,” discusses U.S. education reform movements that more recently have focused on teacher effectiveness. In Finnland, he argues, they don’t pay much attention to student outcomes based on standardized testing. Nor do they try to establish a direct link between student performance on such tests and teacher effectiveness. Instead, Finland standardizes teacher education programs and requires a master’s level of education in the content area before candidates can begin teaching. Most importantly, though, teachers in Finland are required to work together, to critique and help each other. In other words, a school and teacher community is designed to help everyone succeed. International tests show that this approach is highly successful. By contrast, reform movements in the U.S. appear to focus on individual teachers by trying to assess their individual efficiency. What would happen, the article asks, if those highly successful Finnish teachers were to teach in U.S. schools? Would they be highly effective by U.S. standards? Sahlberg argues that they would most likely fail and drop out of teaching within a few years. Why? Because the education system is designed differently and because individual teachers cannot dramatically change student learning outcomes unless the entire system supports what they are trying to do. Sahlberg gives an example from team sports and remembers the U.S. hockey team that surprisingly won the gold medal in the 1980 Olympic Games. The quality of the individual players was not even close to the best teams in the world, such as the Soviet Union. But the U.S. team spirit forged something that was far bigger than those individual qualities: As a team, they transcended individualism.

This analogy makes perfect sense for world language teaching (and for all teaching and learning). As world language teachers, we thrive best in a community that supports our overall goals. Does your school fully embrace the need for more world language instruction? Does your school or school district increase opportunities for all students to learn more about the world? Or, conversely, are you isolated in a classroom with no real professional connections with teachers in other content areas?  Do others reach out to you, and do you reach out to others?

The year 2014 marks the first year of Wisconsin’s educator effectiveness initiative. The Wisconsin Association for Language Teachers (WAFLT) offered a full-day pre-conference workshop on writing SLOs for world language teachers. The summer institute also devoted significant time to this topic. The effectiveness of a teacher will be captured by measures defined by the individual teacher and the school community. This is a perfect opportunity to initiate or continue a strong conversation about the goals of world language programs: What can all of us do to increase the proficiency levels of our graduating students? What can we all do to involve the entire school community in conversations about the need for more global and world language education? What can we all do to demonstrate our contribution to high literacy levels?

We are in the process of creating an entirely new community that includes world language educators. Wisconsin’s new Global Schools Network is a network of schools that have been approved to run the Global Education Achievement Certificate (GEAC) program. The central requirements in that program include credits in world language learning as well as coursework with global content. Students are asked to get involved in school-wide activities such as language clubs or honors societies. One of the basic assumptions behind the Global Education Achievement Certificate has been to create school communities that are supportive of world language education. I strongly believe that our world language programs can only thrive in a supportive school culture.

The year 2014 has shown that there is tremendous interest in establishing this new Global Schools Network. At year’s end, thirty-five schools have been approved to run the GEAC program. I expect that number to grow steadily in 2015. Without any doubt, the strength of this program rests on the shoulders of world language teachers who are the overwhelming majority among program coordinators. But would it not be nice to shift that responsibility to teachers in other content areas, or to guidance counselors or curriculum directors? This is happening, and I believe this will eventually create the kinds of school cultures we need to support strong world language education programs. The next step in this conversation will continue our professional conversation about the need for longer learning sequences. Make no mistake, though, that conversation will also bring with it the question of what we can realistically promise to students, parents and the larger community: What will our students be able to do with their second or third language when they move out of our classrooms? How proficient will they be, and will they be globally competent citizens? The designation of Wisconsin Global Scholar as the result of satisfying all requirements of the Global Education Achievement Certificate should honor globally competent students with strong proficiency levels in at least two languages: their native language and a second language.

That is what I mean by a unified action plan: Let us work together on affecting school cultures to be increasingly global. Let us build a strong Global Schools Network. Let us work together to achieve this. For the past 100 years, WAFLT has built a strong community for world language teachers. I look to WAFLT to be a strong leader in creating a community of schools that lay the foundation for strong global education programs. No teacher can do that alone. 

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