Transcript of Ep 36: A Departmental Shift to IPA-based Units with Rich Madel


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Narrator:  This is “We Teach Languages,” a podcast about language teaching from diverse perspectives of real teachers.

Stacey Margarita Johnson:  I’m Stacey Margarita Johnson, and today on episode 36, Rich Madel talks about how his department shifted their thinking from a textbook‑based curriculum to units all based on IPAs.

Rich, thank you so much for being here with me today.

Rich Madel:  My pleasure, thanks for having me.

Stacey:  Would you mind just giving us a little bit of your background, where you teach and what you work on in the profession, so we can orient ourselves to the story you’re about to tell.

Rich:  I teach in the Colonial School District, right outside of Philadelphia. I teach Spanish, I’m in, I suppose, my ninth year teaching Spanish here. I’m also the chairperson of the Department of World Languages. I’m in my fourth year doing that.

Within the profession at large, I am also an Executive Council member for the Pennsylvania State Modern Language Association and I also do some doctor work at St. Joseph University where my research focus is on proficiency-oriented pedagogy and assessment.

Stacey:  The reason why we’re chatting today is because your department has done some pretty interesting transformations as far as what your goals are for your students and how you are assessing those, and we’ll get into some of the details of how you did that.

I was hoping you could get us started by telling us what was it that you wanted students to achieve and just really briefly, what did you implement to help your department meet those goals? We can always unpack that as we go.

Rich:  What we were looking to do was, and I don’t think that we necessarily knew this at the time as explicitly as we do now, but we were really looking to grow proficiency among our students.

The conversation originally started when we were looking at AP scores and looking at how we could strategize to improve AP scores. We realized that our students need communicative ability at that highest level and so we unpacked it in a backward design model from there.

The ultimate result is that we took a look at our entire curriculum, our entire course sequence from 1A to AP and we rebuilt it, we tweaked it. It was under construction for a while and we found ourselves using the framework of the Integrated Performance Assessment to guide us through that process. That’s where we are today.

Stacey:  You mention that you didn’t know back then everything that you know now about how you needed to change. Can you give some specific examples of what the process was like for the department as you went through?

Rich:  What we did together, we first started at a very theoretical level. We first started by introducing ourselves to the Integrated Performance Assessment as a concept. During that period, we spent probably the first half of the year really having philosophical discussions about what the purpose of taking a language is. Having theoretical discussions about what the three modes of communication are and what that looks like in our classroom, how we would go about assessing that. What activities do we use to really build in each one of those modes of communication? From there we were then able to task ourselves with, “Let’s try it. Let’s all pilot a unit that culminates with a full Integrated Performance Assessment.”

We were all able to come back to the table now having that experience and have a very practice‑oriented conversation. We were able to talk about the nuts and bolts of what worked, what didn’t work. How did it affect and impact our instruction? How did it impact our students’ performance in each of those three modes?

Ultimately, we decided that it was something that was beneficial for all of those different stakeholders. We moved forward really just again attacking the entire curriculum.

Stacey:  Those initial pilot IPA units that you guys built. How did you actually build those? Was it each person working on their own to create something for their own class, or did you do it in community?

Rich:  I wanted us all to have that practice‑oriented experience. It wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to send everybody out on their own and do it. I had some of my colleagues that did feel comfortable just taking a section that he or she was teaching on their own and just go for that.

I had some other colleagues that felt more comfortable working with other colleagues in sections that they shared. They worked together and were able to again split the work that way but also share the experiences in that regard. It depended on how they were going about it. I remember spending a lot of time just being there and guiding. I had already done some pilot work on my own, enough that I felt that it was worth sharing with my department and making this recommendation.

Stacey:  I like that. I do some consulting work with faculty on my campus around technology. I often learned the technology maybe six weeks ago or one semester ago. I’m one iteration ahead. I really like that kind of mentorship because I’m not so far ahead that I’m not still learning. There’s still things I don’t know. I’m still really comfortable with the learning process, but I’m far enough ahead that I have a few more answers. [laughs]

Rich:  Oh, absolutely. Certainly the same thing, I’ve presented on what the IPA is, and I’ve worked with other departments as they introduced themselves to the IPA. There does exist an IPA 101, but I can tell you right now I’m in the IPA 301, I’m in this 401, but I am still absolutely learning and figuring out what works, how it’s manageable for my students, how it’s manageable for me as someone who values my time. [laughs] There’s absolutely growth along the way, no doubt.

Stacey:  So, after you did that initial pilot and everyone decided you wanted to pursue this, I guess you had a practice‑oriented discussion, and then everyone decided they wanted to pursue it for the program. Did you continue that system of people getting to decide for themselves? Because an entire IPA curriculum is just such a huge undertaking. I’m just wondering how you managed it.

Rich:  It is definitely a large undertaking. It’s a large undertaking just working at the unit level definitely. What we did is we divvied up the responsibilities based on the sections that we were teaching. If I had a level three and I felt comfortable going with the level three at the pace that I was working, then I was creating the assessments as we went.

I had other teachers who shared level two, so they worked on that collaboratively. Other teachers at a different level felt OK going at their pace. We were very patient, but we were also very diligent with the work that we were doing.

It took over a year to get to a place where we felt that the entire curriculum reflected not just the assessment shift but also reflected again the pedagogical shift that goes along with working with the Integrated Performance Assessment.

Stacey:  Rich, can you tell me how you build a unit based on an IPA?

Rich:  Yeah, so, previously we had been using a text book that we felt comfortable with. Our unit sequence in a large part followed the scope and sequence of that textbook. We didn’t want to reinvent the wheel. We didn’t want to create extra work for ourselves, especially when we already had these resources.

What we did is we in essence stayed with the thematic framework of a lot of the units that already existed. We constructed essential questions that we were interested in that we thought would be relevant to the students. We took a backward design process, where again we started with an essential question. We identified the specific proficiency target that we were looking for.

From there what we did is we developed and described a communicative event in which all three modes of communication would be necessary. In developing that communicative scenario, it was really important that we detailed it in such a way that it was real world.

It was something that we could say either, A, our students are existing in this world or, B, it’s something that we’re preparing our students and realistically can say that our students would encounter this situation in the real world. Then from there, it was just a function of saying, “OK, now what are the tasks within each of these three modes that are relevant to these communicative scenario?”

For example, we have a unit where we talk about celebrations from all around the world. In that sense our essential question is, “What are these celebrations like in different countries? What are the products and the practices of these celebrations in different areas of our own target culture?”

We found an article in a local Spanish‑speaking newspaper that really did a great job of introducing the concept of the quinceañera. We use that as our interpretive piece. Part of that article was actually multiple case studies of specific families and how they prepared and celebrated their quinceañera. What we were able to do was just assign students these different case studies as in, “OK, this is the quinceañera that you’re going to go to. You can read that.” And then that really provided the content for our interpersonal conversation. We were able to compare and contrast experiences in these different quinceañeras.

From there, going and culminating within the presentation mode, we were able to give back to this family that invited us to their quinceañera. We were able to share with them a celebration that’s really important to our families. We created a scrapbook where we were able to detail ‑‑ this what we did, this is how we prepared. We were able to wrap in all of these different elements of the unit. You really get to see that integrated piece of the integrated performance assessment work. Each part of the assessment really builds off of the other.

Students really required the content now that they get from each one of those pieces in order to progress through the assessment experience. Now, there’s another aspect to building the unit this way, and that is, once we’ve identified what our assessments are going to be in each one of those modes, we’re then able to extrapolate these Can Do statements.

In order for our students to be successful in the interpretive mode, we need them to be able to do X, Y and Z. In order for them to be successful in this conversation, they need to be able to express X, Y, and Z. For me, I used those Can Do statements as my curriculum. What I’m doing is I’m taking a look at those statements and saying, “How do I need to prepare my students? What are we really doing at a task level in order for them to be successful at that more holistic level, working through the IPA?”

I have some colleagues that they still…because they’re still working within that thematic framework, they still feel comfortable using the textbook and using some resources. In that sense, go for it. I have an entire closet of these textbooks that I no longer use. I’m glad that they can use it, but for some of my other colleagues, myself included, we have just absolutely enjoyed the freedom and the liberation of being able to say, “You know what? That part of that unit, not relevant to these tasks. This vocabulary expression, not relevant to these tasks,” or, “You know what? There’s an expression that isn’t in here that we should be incorporating.” And so I have the liberty to go in there and really mold the unit to fit both the tasks at hand, but also that larger, essential question.

This assessment is really driving everything that we’re doing in the classroom.

I think that’s one of the most powerful aspects of working with the integrated performance assessment, is that washback effect and how it’s impacting my practice and also what my students are doing on a day‑to‑day basis in the classroom.

Stacey:  Yeah, I love that. That’s a wonderful example. I imagine that you’re able to better conceptualize and document what your students are able to do and that they’re able to do more because you’re really focusing on that.

I wonder, overall, how are the teachers and students experiencing the new model? Have there been any difficulties or any successes that maybe you didn’t expect?

Rich:  Yeah, especially coming from where we were, we were working within a performance model, in quotations, but our students prior to this, when we assessed an interpretive mode, it was a pedagogically prepared paragraph that they read and it was five true and false questions or it was a textbook listening sample and five true and false questions.

Some of the experience for our students that want it to be easier, they missed that. I think that’s part of the process, is that when you deal with a more complex assessment model, it demands more.

It demands more from the students in terms of what they are doing, but also it demands more from us as the teachers in terms of the time that it takes to evaluate, the time it takes to craft these assessments to make sure that we’re getting the insight that we’re looking for in terms of our students’ progress.

There’re students that miss that old model, but I do think that there are a lot of students that are walking away from this with so much more confidence. The fact that they are, in fact, ready for the real world. Again, we know that as they’re progressing through our course sequence, we’re absolutely sure that they’re able to succeed in these real‑world scenarios.

Stacey:  That’s awesome. I imagine that for the teachers there was a bit of that, too. It’s just a different feedback model and it can be really overwhelming in the beginning. How did you negotiate the workload for instructors?

Rich:  First and foremost, we worked together to really build a rubric for each of those modes that fit our desires as educators in terms of what did we want to see our students, where were the areas of growth that we really wanted to see. We had been working with Fairfax County’s performances rubrics for years.

We took a look at ACTFL’s IPA rubrics. We looked at Ohio Foreign Language Association’s rubrics, and we took bits and pieces from all of them, and really created expectations that were our own and met our needs. Now that being said, as I was mentioning before, working with a dynamic assessment requires time and that is definitely one of the things that, going into using the IPA, I think that everybody needs to understand is that this is no longer grading a true and false quiz. This is taking a look at students’ performance and aligning it to the standards that we’ve set in our rubrics. It does take some time to gain that comfort and to familiarize yourself with the language and the expectations and the different criteria that you set.

Stacey:  Grading performance with a rubric is a skill, also, so it can…

Rich:  No doubt.

Stacey:  It gets easier with time. [laughs]

Rich:  Absolutely, it does.

Stacey:  All of the investment that you guys have put in for really over a course of years to get to where you are, would you say that it was worth it?

Rich:  I absolutely would. Again, if you look at the publications about the Integrated Performance Assessment, there’s often an element of what they call the washback effect. When the washback effect first appeared in literature some 30 years ago, it was really defined as that idea of the behaviors of both the students and the teachers are influenced by the assessment itself.

In that sense, what I’m seeing my students do on a day‑to‑day basis, I think, is absolutely something that we were not doing before. My practice has changed enormously throughout the process of working with the IPA.

I’ve become so much more reflective of what I’m doing to prepare my students with intercommunicative model, really giving students tools for their communicative toolbox, so to speak, in terms of, “How are you negotiating meaning? What are you doing when in this, in, within this task, if communication breaks down?”

Applauding students for strategies they might not even know are strategies. No longer is it a timed writing sample when they don’t understand what the prompt is. Instead, we’re focusing on the writing process, where we are specifically identifying who is our audience, how are we going to engage with them in the presentational mode when they can’t engage back with you, and crafting a message.

It’s inspired our students to be more reflective when they’re working peer to peer, and they’re editing, and they’re giving feedback. For me, it has been absolutely transformational to my practice, working with the Integrated Performance Assessment, just working within these modes and encouraging communicative competence has been huge.

Again, also integrating these authentic resources has allowed us to have conversations of cultures that we weren’t having before. Talking about the three Ps of culture was not something that we had even done before as a department.

Now, it’s standard. Now, we can’t deal with an authentic resource without dissecting these different components of culture and having that conversation and that comparative analysis.

Stacey:  That’s wonderful. I’ve got to tell you, I’ve gotten a lot out of the conversation. I’m sorry that you live so far away, because I think the next thing I want to do is come visit a few of your classrooms and take some notes. It sounds like you guys are doing tremendous work. Thanks for putting it out there so we can all learn from it.

Rich:  No, my pleasure. I’m so proud of us as a department and the work that we’ve been doing. It is absolutely stretched a lot of us in terms of our own personal growth. Again, seeing now what the students are able to do, and especially in comparison of where our expectations were before, it’s awesome. It is really, really cool.

Stacey:  Thank you so much for being here today. This was a tremendous conversation. I know that a lot of people are going to benefit from it.

Rich:  It was my absolute pleasure. I hope to hear from anybody that has questions or comments, by all means. You can find me on Twitter now, but you can send me an email. I’m here to help and to share all that I have.

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