My Path to Proficiency: A Travel Journey

Note: This post originally appeared on the Path to Proficiency website in April 2017.

The thing about embarking down the Path to Proficiency is that there isn’t just one single path you have to take.  When I first began my journey towards proficiency, I found myself often looking to others further along the trek than me and asking them for directions. I knew that I couldn’t implement everything I was hearing and learning about in my conversations with more experienced teachers… so, where should I begin?  What do I have to master first?  “Just give me the Secret Proficiency Roadmap already, and I swear I’ll follow it exactly!”

Imagine my dismay when I discovered that the Secret Roadmap didn’t exist.  Naturally, this makes perfect sense: every educator’s path is going to be different, based on their past experiences and learning, where they’re teaching and who they’re teaching with, and what their natural strengths and weaknesses are.  Nevertheless, I keenly remember the frustration at feeling totally lost several times during those first few years — and I’ve seen other new travelers struggle with it, too.  So while I can’t tell anyone else what course their route will ultimately  take, I can certainly share the story of my peaks and valleys on the Path to Proficiency to now. Continue reading

My #ACTFL16 Highlights


Coming to Boston this year, I knew that I wanted to focus my learning on how to successfully recast curriculum into meaningful contexts.  Over the past year, I’ve arrived at a place in my journey as an educator where I genuinely understand the power of Essential Questions to broaden and deepen unit themes.  It’s something I have started to implement in a few of my more “inspired” units; however, I am still very much a Novice at digging beyond the superficial level with my EQs in several of my mandatory curriculum units.  We are also getting ready in my district to develop a new common curriculum for all languages, beginning with Level 1, and I am fortunate enough to get to serve on the committee.  Thus, I wanted to make sure to attend several sessions on designing thematic units. Continue reading

My 2016 TELL Collab Takeaways

I just arrived home yesterday from this year’s TELL Collab Austin, and it was as engaging and impactful as last year’s event.  One of my very favorite elements of the Collab continues to be the combined online schedule/note center, which not only lets me glean resources and ideas from the conversations I didn’t sit in on, but also allows those unable to attend to learn as well.  A great new feature at this year’s Collab was the live streaming of the always excellent Hot Seat Sessions — what an experience to discover my Canadian colleague Colleen Lee-Hayes watching our talk with Juan Carlos Morales and contributing questions from thousands of miles away!  Perhaps it’s cliche by now to gawk at the marvel of technology, but there truly is something inspiring about the increasing capacity of the tools at our disposal to connect us in powerful ways.

After a successful PD event like this, I have to do a couple of things to capture and process my learning: first, I curate my notes and resources, and secondly, I set goals for what and how much I will implement.  That last part is really critical, I think, because as so many others will point out, it is simply too easy to be overwhelmed by great ideas and ultimately return to our classrooms without doing anything different.  So, here is a list of my takeaways from this year’s TELL Collab: Continue reading

Book Study: “When Kids Can’t Read” – Part 1

George did what I have come to believe is one of the most powerful things an adolescent who struggles with literacy can do: George just showed up.  Every day that year, George came to class.  Yes, he certainly seemed disengaged from most of what we did… but he showed up.  And occasionally he’d look at me with a look that asked if today would be the day that I’d get it right, if today would be the day that I’d say something that would help him make sense of text.

Kylene Beers begins and ends each chapter of When Kids Can’t Read: What Teachers Can Do with an open letter to George, a struggling reader in one of her middle school English Language Arts classes during her first year of teaching.  The quote above instantly calls to mind the feelings that haunt me each year as I reflect on the students who were unable to find success in my Level 1 Japanese class because they couldn’t read the hiragana characters.  I have a sinking suspicion that the party line amongst many of us Japanese teachers goes something like this: “Japanese is a really hard language to learn, and if you don’t have the motivation or mental acumen to memorize hiragana, hey, maybe this class isn’t right for you.”  I won’t deny that motivation is an important factor, but I know in my heart that reading Japanese is more than the sum of memorizing the shapes and names of all the hiragana characters — just as reading in English entails far more than learning the shapes and names of 26 individual letters.  Our students show up to class expecting us to teach them how to decode those funny looking squiggles, and YES: that really is our job.  It is simply not acceptable for us to tell them, “Sorry, kid, you can’t read hiragana; there’s nothing I can do.” Continue reading

A Novice #AuthRes Unit Idea: A Trip to Ueno Zoo

Note: This post was edited in June 2017 to update link information and coordinate with an upcoming re-design to the “Resources” section.

In my stacked Level III/Level III Pre AP/Level IV AP all-in-one-section class, we’re getting ready to do a travel themed unit centered around a visit to the city of Hiroshima.  Meanwhile, my Level 1 students are a couple of weeks into a travel unit on Tokyo (something I wasn’t yet doing with the kids now in the upper level class back when they were 1st Years) — so why not kill two lesson preps with one stone and introduce the upper level class’s target patterns by talking about some Tokyo tourist attractions?  Some online resource-fishing led me to a (now-defunct) Japanese site called Find Travel, which has multiple lists of “Can’t Miss” tourist spots in Tokyo and other places.  I really like that the site’s pages have nice, big pictures with blessedly small, caption-like chunks of text, although the vocab & grammar are still a stretch for my threshold intermediates.

Additionally, I found a couple of cute maps of the zoo that feature the names of the animals in very novice-friendly formats: one with accompanying pictures, and another (more or less) without.  Granted, animal names aren’t something I consider particularly useful for everyday conversation, but I figured we can use the maps for a fun one-day activity around circumlocuting to learn the names of the animals and practicing physical descriptions, colors, body parts, etc.  And then I had my one really good curriculum idea for the year: what if the Level 2 unit that introduces vocabulary for people’s physical traits — a unit I just happen to mildly despise — evolved into a unit about describing the animals at the Ueno Zoo instead?

Continue reading

Three Things I’m Looking For at #ACTFL15


1. Growing My Tribe.  Last year, I walked in to ACTFL only knowing the district colleagues who attended with me, and recognizing the names of just a handful of presenters from online.  This year, it feels like I’m off to a reunion with a cherished circle of friends.  Thanks to my involvement with the #langchat network on Twitter over the last twelve months, I’ve developed a group of professional colleagues who affirm, uplift, inspire, and respectfully challenge me as a World Language teacher.  These people are my Tribe, and I want my Tribe to grow at every conference I attend.

I feel extremely fortunate that the large urban district where I work has four other Japanese teachers who I can meet and work with.  But I can’t tell you how much it helped me when I gave up thinking that the only people I could plan with were the ones who taught the same language as me.  As I took my first baby steps towards more proficiency-oriented instruction two and a half years ago, I stopped looking at my curriculum as a table of contents from our district’s adopted textbook, and began to visualize a series of opportunities to make my students more proficient instead.  If my primary goal as a teacher is now to push my students’ language proficiency forward, then every World Language teacher who shares that goal can help me figure out how to do it. Continue reading

An Open Love Letter to the TELL Collab


Dear TELL Collab,

Thank you for providing me with one of the most affirming, inspirational, and just plain FUN opportunities for professional development I’ve encountered in my eight years as a teacher.  Our fellow #TELLblazer Paul Jennemann compared you to “summer camp for WL Teachers”, and let me tell you right now: I want to be back every year.


I’ll admit, I didn’t know what to think of your “un-conference” structure at first.  No set agenda?  (Created by the participants throughout the event.)  No presenters?  (Only collaborators).  I knew I would enjoy talking with other teachers, but I wasn’t sure if we’d end up touching at the heart of the issues I’m struggling with most right now as a World Language educator.  You pushed me, though.  You helped me grow in a big way: you taught me things I was dying to know; you helped me come to some new discoveries on my own; and you planted the seeds of future learning, some of which have already started to sprout in my reflection and summertime lesson planning, ready to reach for the sun. Continue reading

Confessions of a “Forwards Designer”



I admit it: I do a TERRIBLE job of implementing backwards design.

My district already writes common Can Do statements for each unit, and is in the process of creating common unit Integrated Performance Assessments to evaluate students’ mastery of those performance targets, so my lesson plans do technically start with the end in mind.  Backwards design takes a backseat, though, when I sit down to write daily lesson plans.  Our scope and sequence identifies which vocabulary and language structures students “must know” in order to be successful on the IPA, and so obviously I create lessons designed around those critical language chunks.  Usually a logical order presents itself, and so I break down those critical language chunks into sections of 6-7 vocab words/language structures at a time.  But how long should I spend on each of those sections? Continue reading

Reflecting on My Practice



I’ve been looking forward to participating in the TELL Collab for months.  This opportunity to meet and work with some of the #langchat colleagues I admire most — Paulo Jennemann, Nicole Naditz, Thomas Sauer, and my co-moderator Amy Lenord, among others — will no doubt end up being one of the highlights of my summer.  In preparation for the TELL Collab, participants have been asked to complete the Foundational Criteria Self-Assessment and use it to create a Personal Growth Plan.  As I read over the Foundational Criteria, one thing immediately becomes apparent: many of the key criteria for effective World Language teachers aren’t specific to World Language instruction at all. Continue reading

Playing with Gamification: Prologue

game_sugorokuSchool let out for summer more than a week ago in my district, but since I was completely occupied with teaching at a Professional Development seminar the last several days, it only now feels like vacation has finally begun.  I always walk into summer break with illustrious plans: working out every day, taking charge of the meal preparation in my household, devoting time to hobbies (I have a love of painting and crafting that often gets neglected for months on end during the school year), and of course, getting my lesson plans “perfected”.  (It’ll finally happen this summer, right?)

This year, factor in sitting down to read through all of my colleagues’ wonderful teacher blogs from the beginning (plus taking time to work on my own), traveling to Japan for the first time in 3 years (yay!), and the fact that I’ll be participating in no less than 5 more PD opportunities before school starts up — it makes for a very busy summer.  I like it that way, but I often find myself fighting off feelings of regret at the end of the summer.  Being the kind of person who tends to focus obsessively on one project at a time, it’s hard for me to mete out time equally for everything on my “list”: I end up meeting some goals, while leaving other ones hardly touched.  I’m going to try and address this problem for the summer while also exploring something I’ve been curious about for a while: gamification. Continue reading