Stacey Margarita Johnson: This is “We Teach Languages,” a podcast about language teaching from the diverse perspectives of real teachers.
I’m Stacey Margarita Johnson. Today on Episode 32, I am honored to have my friend Walter Hopkins as a guest on the podcast.
I should mention that he didn’t just volunteer to be a guest on the podcast. First, he volunteered to be a guest speaker in my teaching methods course this semester, and then, he agreed to let me share the recording of his presentation with everyone through the podcast.
Walter is everyone’s favorite sidekick on the podcast “Tea With BVP.” He also is the Assistant Director of the Spanish Language Program at Michigan State. He joins us today to talk a little bit about what constitutes excellent language teaching from his perspective, and a little bit about his experience supervising teaching assistants and instructors, and helping them develop.
My class and I got so much out of his presentation and I hope you all enjoy this episode as well.
Walter Hopkins: I’m Walter Hopkins. Hi, everybody. I teach at Michigan State. I’m really excited to be with you all. I just want to say first of all that one of the things that I think is of utmost importance in teaching…
I work in a program where I’m the immediate supervisor for between 18 and 20 ‑‑ depending on the semester ‑‑ teaching assistants and instructors.
One of the things I always reiterate to them about teaching is that the reality of teaching is that no one is ever going to have a perfect lesson all of the time. No one is ever going to come out of the lessons feeling like every single class period goes perfectly well.
I think that’s a reality that we as teachers aren’t willing to accept because we want perfection, we want everything to go well all the time. We want everything to go perfectly all the time, and so I think one of the most important things for teachers is that they be reflective.
When I say reflective I mean, if I’m going to observe your class, I need to, as someone who’s observing, an outsider coming into your class, watching you, I’m much more interested in your response to how that lesson went than actually how that lesson went. I want to know from you, because that’s going to demonstrate to me, how you are as a teacher much more than whether your lesson went perfectly that day that I came to observe you.
I often tell my TAs and instructors, I say, “If I’m coming to observe you, and I see a mediocre lesson, but you think that it went incredibly well, then I’m much more concerned about that than if I see someone who gives a pretty horrible lesson and can tell me that it was pretty horrible and can tell me some things that they would do to improve it.”
Does that make sense? I think that we’re so concerned about whether each and every time we’re in the classroom, everything goes perfectly, but we don’t consider the fact that it’s not about everything going perfectly but rather about: can we make adjustments? Can we consider what we would do to improve this lesson for future iterations of that class or even in the next class saying, “OK, guys. Last class was a mess. It was horrible. [laughs] So, let’s try this again.”
I think that your students can appreciate that because they can appreciate the fact that you are being reflective. You’re thinking about how you’re teaching and you’re willing to make changes, because you can see that things didn’t go as well as you had planned or as you had hoped for.
That’s the first thing I’d like to say. Think really in terms of quality teaching because it’s about you, the teacher as a whole, that you’re able to reflect on your teaching and have real honest reflection, and then be able to take that honest reflection and turn it into quality instruction, improved instruction in the future.
That’s number one. [laughs] The other thing that I think is really an important part of quality teaching is principled teaching. I’m going to say reflective and principled teaching are the two things that I think are really important.
What I mean by principled teaching is that you have taken the time to think through, “What is it that I believe about language teaching? What is it that I believe about what a language class should be? What is it that I believe that my students should know and what they should be able to do with language by the end of their time with me in this class?”
The answers to those questions are really going to inform how you set up your class, how you teach your class, and how you evaluate your students. This goes hand‑in‑hand with setting goals and saying, “OK. These are the goals for my students. These are the goal…” I think even just setting goals for yourself as a reflective teacher and as a teacher who’s constantly in need of improvement, a teacher who’s constantly developing and growing.
This is my 14th year teaching language, and I still don’t have it all together. I think it’s important for us to recognize that development, growth, learning about teaching and being a better teacher doesn’t end because you’re no longer students. That continues throughout your entire career.
As you take a look though at your principles, you take a look at what it is that you’ve said, “This is important for me, as an instructor. This is important for my students. These are the things that I find to be really key things for a language classroom,” then you need to follow those principles. You need to work toward those goals that you’ve set for yourself and for your students.
That’s what I mean when I say principled teaching. You say, “This is what’s important in a language class. This is what’s important to me. These are the things that I, through my development as a teacher up to this point, have recognized. These are really important. This is what we really should be focusing our attention on the language classes.” Then, do that. Follow those principles and aim to achieve those goals.
I think for me, when I first started out, I had all these thoughts. There were lots of things that I had learned in classes, but I just didn’t see how any of that made sense once I actually was thrown in to a classroom. You’re just overwhelmed with what you have to do.
My first teaching setting, I was teaching high school and middle school French and Spanish. I was given a textbook and said, “Finish the book.” [laughs] I was like, “All right then. I’m not sure how I’m gonna do that, but I’ll do my very best to make sure I finish this book.”
That was the goal. That was what that particular location, they said, “That was what we want you to do. We want you to finish the book.” That was all I had. It was a challenge for me then because you learn all these things in a methods class, or in a principles of language teaching, or whatever the course might be called.
You learn all these things but then when you’re thrown into the midst of it, you realize, “Wow. How do I really put all this into practice?”
When you come in and you recognize you have these principles, you have these ideas, you have thoughts that are based on research. In your mind about, “This is how I want to teach and this is how I want to help my students to learn.” Then, when you’re given a book and said, “Finish the textbook,” then you can say, “OK. Well, how am I going to do that?” as opposed to just following…taking a look at the pages and saying, “I guess I’m just teach this for the sake of knowledge, they’re gonna learn what they need to know, because that’s what they want.” Rather you can say, “No. There’s some principles behind what I’m teaching and this is what I, these are the outcomes that I want my students to be able to have by the end of the course.”
Stacey: I think that’s so important especially for new teachers. You might have a lot of constraints on their practice. Thank you for that.
Walter, I’m wondering as someone who has a lot of experience supervising TAs and instructors. What would you say are some of the common mistakes that you see instructors making when you visit their classrooms, or engage them in professional development?
Walter: I wouldn’t say mistakes. The reality is that they’re in the learning process, right?
I was telling them when I come to observe them, “This is not an evaluation. This is an opportunity for professional development. I’m not coming in here with my clipboard and writing down you did this, you did this, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do this, you did this, you did this, you didn’t do this, you didn’t do this.”
Rather I’m coming in and seeing, “What’s going well? What are some areas in need of improvement?” Trying to help them develop professionally. We actually set goals after that meeting and say these are some of the things that we together would like to see improvement on over the course of rest of the semester.
I would say that the most common thing that I see is that the TAs or the new instructors, they want students to be able to produce language long before they’ve ever given them all of the tools to be able to produce that.
What I mean by that is that, they think that by saying something a few times, that students already have that up in their brains, and then they say, “OK. Now you do this.” The students are looking at them like, “What just happened?” [laughs]
That’s the most common point of growth I would say, is helping them recognize that it takes a lot of repetition. It takes a lot of repeated questioning and interaction with input for students to get enough into their brains to finally be able to actually do something with that.
By just simply giving them a short brief introduction and then say, “Now do this.” It’s not sufficient. Students oftentimes feel unprepared to produce output, because they haven’t been given sufficient amounts of input in order to be able to do that. They haven’t had that opportunity to interact with the input in order to be able to do that. That’s the thing that I most commonly see.
Stacey: I know that you at Michigan State are doing a lot of really innovative things in your language program. I was wondering if you could tell us about a few of the ways that you are increasing the focus on proficiency, on student outcomes, and just trying to innovate in your context.
Walter: Let me tell you a little bit about what we’re doing. We are what we call a Proficiency‑Oriented Program and we sometimes refer to ourselves the Goal‑Oriented Program. What we’ve set up are courses with the primary focuses on developing proficiency. What we did when we look at proficiency goals, we said, “We want to start at the top and then move down.”
What that means is that we said, “What is our outcome? What is our desired outcome for our students when they finish the four‑semester sequence?” so the two‑year language requirement. What is it that we want them to be able to accomplish at that time.
We decided that we want our students to achieve, we actually set a quantifiable goal. We want 50% of our students to achieve intermediate‑mid proficiency by the end of four semesters.
From there then, we decided to take a look at, what does that mean? What does it mean for our students to reach intermediate‑mid proficiency? What is required? What is the knowledge that’s required? What are the things that they need to be able to do in order for them to reach intermediate‑mid proficiency?
We said, “That’s what we want to take a look at,” and so we looked at our curriculum. We looked at the textbook and we said, “What are the things in our textbook that are going to help contribute to them achieving intermediate‑mid? What are the things in our textbook that are superfluous that are not going to help them to achieve that intermediate‑mid level proficiency?”
We then determined what’s going to help, what’s not going to help and we threw out the stuff that wasn’t going to help, and we augmented the stuff that was going to help. We then established Can Do statements for each our courses.
We said, “So by the end of Spanish 101 ‑‑ so first semester‑‑ we want our students to be able to achieve these goals.” The Can Do statements are established for Spanish 101.
We said, “Then by the end of Spanish 202, by the end of the second semester, we want them to be able to achieve these goals. By the end of the third semester, we want them to be able to achieve these goals. By the end of the fourth semester, we want them to be able to achieve those goals.”
We first started out at the program level. We said these are our goals based on our principles. These are our goals we want our students to be able to do, and then work down to each individual course.
Then, we worked with individual instructors and said, as we look at these as our goals for this course, now let’s develop the course and see how we can fulfill those goals for each individual course. At a unit level, how we can fulfil those goals for each individual course at a classroom day‑to‑day level. Breaking it down from program, to course, to then each individual unit, and then each individual class‑day.
That’s how we got started. It’s been a long journey. It started just before I started here. It started in 2011 and I was hired in the fall of 2012.
We’re constantly revisiting and revising, and we’ve discovered that we’re not achieving our proficiency outcome goal, 50% of students getting to intermediate‑mid. Now we’re revisiting and saying, what can we do to adjust our curriculum in order to help us to achieve that goal.
Stacey: That’s fantastic. I love how transparent you all have been also along every stage of the process. II know that you’ve done widespread assessment on how the progress is going. Now you’re really upfront that, “Yeah, we haven’t quite met our goals, so we’re re‑evaluating curriculum.”
I think that just sets really such a good precedent for other programs that might be interested in starting that same proficiency‑oriented process so that everyone knows, it’s not something you get right out of the gate. It’s a process of always moving towards that goal.
Stacey: Walter, thank you so much for participating in the podcast and for sharing your knowledge with all of us. I am really grateful.
Walter: All right. Take care.
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