Friday, January 19, 2007

Hello Hola NiHao Bonjour GutenTag Ciao As-Salaam-Aleykum Namaste Shalom

I live in Douglas County. For those of you who aren’t in Colorado, Douglas County is a large county that stretches from just south of the Denver metro area to just north of Colorado Springs. Due to its location and previously low population, it has been one of the fastest growing counties in the United States over the last ten to fifteen years. It is also the school district that is just south of my school district, and there are quite a few students who reside in one and go to school in the other (Colorado has fairly liberal school choice laws).

Beginning next fall, Douglas County Schools will begin implementing a K-12 World Languages program. While there are a whole lot of details still to be worked out, the basic idea is that students will receive instruction in a particular world language for every one of the thirteen years they are in Douglas County Schools, with the stated goal that every graduate from a Douglas County high school will be proficient in reading, writing and speaking a second language (in addition to English).

I’m a little worried about their implementation timeline, however, as I think they have many, many contentious issues that have to be decided and that will be fairly controversial, and it’s going to be tough to get it done by next fall. But I don’t want to focus on the negatives right now, both because I’m not aware of all the work they have already done and are going to do, and because I’d rather focus on some of the positives that are undoubtedly going to occur once they have all the contentious issues worked out.

I’m just going to focus on a couple of the things I’ve heard about the program. First, why they’re doing it. Certainly part of it is to help prepare students for future careers in a global economy where knowing another language will be helpful, but they also have stated that it’s to increase their students’ knowledge of other cultures. That knowing another language is not only useful in helping you get a good job, but it’s helpful in understanding the world and all the people in it. That being a knowledgeable citizen of the 21st century requires you to have more than just a passing acquaintance with other languages and cultures.

Second, at the elementary level at least, the current plan is to do this in the regular classroom (i.e., students will not go to a World Languages teacher for this instruction, but will get it from their regular classroom teacher). They are looking at various modes of delivery, with a strong possibility that a fair amount of the delivery will be by technological means. But here’s the part I love (and will be one of those contentious issues) – the teachers are expected to learn the language right alongside the students. Ignoring the contentious part, how powerful is that? What better demonstration to students that they need to be lifelong learners, that their teachers are learners as well. (As the sign on my office window says, “We are all teachers. We are all learners.”) And, at least at the beginning (when most teachers are still new to the language), think how much good it is going to do by reminding teachers what it feels like to learn something that’s hard for them. Will that maybe remind them of some of the struggles their students are going through and give them a little more empathy?

So, the question for my school district is, “Are we looking at something like this?” Because in a flat world, in a globally interconnected economy, in a 24/7/365 business cycle, in a world where understanding all the people and all the cultures of the world is terribly important for economic, political and social reasons – our students need this. And my impression from my World Languages teachers is that – at the moment – the majority of our students are nowhere near proficient in a second language when they graduate.

Even if you don’t agree with the above rationale, there’s another reason to ask this question in my district. We’ve been losing enrollment the last few years, especially at the elementary and middle levels (we’re a landlocked district with a lot of families where the kids have grown up and moved on.) If I’m a parent that lives in northern Douglas County (which I am), or a parent that lives in Littleton/Centennial, I have to make a decision about where to send my kids to school. And a K-12 World Languages program, where the stated goal is proficiency in a second language when they graduate from high school, is a very big checkmark in the “pro” column for Douglas County.


  1. Karl,

    Thanks for sharing this information. A very interesting concept, especially, as you stated, at the K-5 level with the teachers learning along with the students.

  2. Karl,

    Thanks for sharing this. I'm intrigued by their idea!

    I'm also fascinated by the idea of teachers learning along with the students. I know this will pose some interesting challenges for this district, but kudos to them for trying it out in such a big way.

  3. How exciting it would be to learn a language with my students! But it's also exciting to learn about new books, poems, ideas, writing styles. I learn along with my classes every single day. Don't we all do that? Why would a district impose a single subject that all teachers and all classes must learn? Isn't that somewhat restrictive? I favor a broader approach to learning--a full buffet.

  4. Cheryl - I guess I would say they've already done that. They already require Language Arts (Reading, writing, speaking), Math, Science, Social Studies, PE, Music and Art at the elementary level, with the classroom teacher (in Douglas County, anyway) responsible for all but the last three (as well as much, much more). I think what they're saying is that this is something that should not have to wait until the high school level (or middle school "electives"). What they are advocating is a broader approach.

  5. I'm curious about how the teachers will learn a new language along with their students. Will the teacher and his/her students receive specific instruction from a world language expert, or will each teacher be responsible for learning the language through texts/tapes/technology and then instructing his/her students? Also, won't it be much harder for older teachers (like me) to learn since languages are best taught at an early age? And isn't the best way to learn a language spending a year abroad, thus becoming assimilated into the culture along with the words? I think a better idea for learning a new language would be to require the junior year of high school be spent in a foreign country.

    While I applaud the desire to learn more about other cultures, I really question the practically of implementing the Douglas County plan. But I should withold judgement until results are in. Nonetheless, I am concerned about spreading ourselves too thin. In addition to redesigning how we teach, teachers now might need to add foreign language instructor to our ever-increasing job description of subject-matter expert, psychologist, conflict-management guru, district curriculum planners (PLC's), and data providers (CSAP, MAP, ACT, SAT, etc.). Perhaps the expression, "too much information," should remind us to excel in a few areas rather than becoming experts in every field.

  6. As I said, I agree there are many implementation issues that will need to be addressed, but I was choosing in this post to focus on the positive - because I was sure many folks would focus on the negative.

    I think Junior year abroad is an excellent idea - but is both too late and impractical for many students and their families. I think a Junior year abroad program for as many students as it's possible for, in conjunction with K-12 world language instruction, would be an excellent idea.

    I'm pretty sure they don't know yet exactly how they will be doing this, but the general impression I got is that the teachers would be learning it alongside the students. In other words, the same content at the same time (of course after a few years the experienced teachers will have their level of content down fairly well).

    I, of course, agree on the spreading ourselves too thin concern. I would argue that some of the things you mentioned could be safely jettisoned, freeing up time for world language instruction. But I don't think anyone is asking these elementary teachers to be "experts" in a world language, in the sense of the level of expertise that a high school world languages instructor would need. Similar arguments could be made - and are made - in all of the other areas (math, language arts, science, social studies, etc.). While elementary teachers are expected to be "jack of all trades," they are not expected to be at the same level as a so-called "subject area expert" at the high school level. (That discussion, however, would merit several completely different posts - one on the outrageous expectations placed on elementary teachers, and one on how successful - or not - having "subject area experts" at the high school level has been.) I don't see it being any different with world languages - elementary teachers would be expected to become comfortable at their level of world language instruction. If we can ask it of the kids, can't we ask it of the adults?

  7. Wow...That is really interesting. Please keep me posted on how this goes. As a 7-12 French teacher, I am so happy to hear that a district FINALLY gets it - that kids today need another language - or ten.

    Teachers learning alongside the students - how fascinating! Who will be delivering the material? Will it be via internet/virtual classroom?

    I'm very interested! Thanks for sharing! :)

  8. I get overly excited when I hear about programs that plan to implement foreign language into the overall k-12 curriculum. It is about time. Alos, I had a few ideas in reading some of the other comments. I don't think that it is the case of finding time to free up to teach a lanugage. I don't think people realize how language lends itself to crosscurricular teaching/learning.
    Teachers would be able to teach science and language, social studies and language, etc. Not to mention the better understanding that children would have of the English language. (Of course all of this is coming from a "foreign language" teacher). I also agree that if I were school shopping I it would be an amazing pull for me as well.

  9. I know that Biologically speaking, younger students are much better at learning a foreign language. As you get older your brain is just not wired for that any more. I heard of a story that a high school in Denver had emersion programs by having students set up tables at a local mall that encouraged Spanish speaking people to sit down and have a conversation with them. I think this is a great idea, since you learn a lot more by being surrounded with the language than just sitting and reading. I also have a question for foreign language teahcers. Don't you think it is conterproductive to teach students how to read before they are able to talk? Think about how children learn a language, they talk first and later assign symbols to those sounds. Shouldn't students just talk and learn from that for the first year?

  10. Wallace,

    You bring up an interesting point. There are many different methods of teaching world language - as there are many methods of teaching any subject. TPRS (Total Physical Response Storytelling) happens to be what you are talking about. It is a method where students learn by talking and listening, and the reading and writing comes later. There are negatives and positives to this type of learning environment, and a big one is that with how MOST proficiency tests are currently wired, you need to be proficient in grammar, spelling and sentence structure, so TPRS does not necessarily lead to success in the classroom. Advocates of TPRS, however, would disagree with me, saying that their students are much more proficient in the language than those who are not taught in such a way. Personally, I can see merit to both types of instruction, but I am a rather ecclectic person, anyway. I do a great deal with "drill and kill" as well as TPRS, Learning centers, manipulative approaches, blogging, podcast creation, etc.

    Did this answer your question?

  11. What an interesting "article" to read. The part about this that really struck me was how the teachers will be learning right along side the kids, and perhaps will be reminded of what it feels like to learn something new (academically). I have often thought about taking a non-romance language course at a community college to put myself in my students' shoes. As a world language teacher, I think the bigger lesson learned would be how to learn as opposed to what I learned.

    It's just not practical to think I will be fluent in Polish anytime soon, for example. However, I want to feel the frustrations of trying to learn it, I want to take tests, I want to see what works for me and what doesn't in order to learn another langauge, with my students and my teaching style in mind the whole time. I could put myself in both peoples' shoes...student and teacher.

    I sometimes feel I have been on the "teaching" side of the coin for too long. I have forgotten what it feels like to learn a langauge in a classroom setting.

    Perhaps it will help me be a little more understanding when, on the 1st semester final exam for 1st year, I read "me llamo es Juan."