WORDS from Grant Boulanger – How Fixed Is Your Mindset?

Changes are coming in our local language instruction ecosystems. Administrators who are paying attention to what happens in their buildings have become openly concerned about the lack of equity in language education in the United States.
When administrators understand that method is important (it isn’t important in all subject areas) and shifting method (which we can do if we have a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset) can increase results, they begin to understand that the goal of comprehension based language teachers is not a personal vendetta against colleagues who do things differently.
Rather, it’s about college readiness for more students by getting more and more people of all shapes and sizes through second year language classes and into the upper levels. It’s about growing, changing and adapting as professional educators to improve what we do for the benefit of our students.
Darcy Pippin, a teacher-leader in Oklahoma, has some amazing statistics as her department has transitioned to comprehension based instruction (TCI – Teaching with Comprehensible Input) over the last six years – going from approximately 15 kids in 4th year and 15 in AP to 30 in each. Besides that, she went from around 30% passing the AP test (that’s about 5 kids of 15) to around 75% passing (that’s about 23 kids of 30). Those are impressive stats.
If we contrast this with existing district statistics where TCI (Teaching with Comprehensible Input) is not used, it’s all the more powerful. What is your district’s retention rate over four years? Retention rate in a traditional public high school, which will be mirrored across the country, will be less than 10 % over 4 years.
Those students who make it to upper levels of study will be mostly white, mostly female, nearly all high-achieving students. Does that reflect your district’s student demographic? If not, why not? Does it reflect your district’s dedication to closing the achievement gap? If not, should it? If so, what changes do we need to make?
But these are just statistics. And people are naturally skeptical of statistics, as they should be. It’s only one part. The stories that are being told in schools across the country right now are what people are starting to notice and respond to. It is the stories about comprehension based instruction that will create in other teachers the feeling that they can be a part of this change.
Everyone wants to feel successful and feel like they’re good at what they do. Everyone wants their kids to buy in and feel successful too. So, there’s the special education student who shines in your class and, in fact, outshines many higher-achieving kids.
There’s the social outcast who raises her head, laughs and smiles. There’s the obnoxious kid who gets kicked out of all his other classes but not yours. There’s the high-achieving kid who is writing better by March than many level three kids from grammar-centric classes.
There’s the shy kid who doesn’t say a word, yet scores at Intermediate Low on listening and writes beautifully. What’s the common denominator here? How do we tell these stories to colleagues and administrators?
Then there’s teacher X who, just three years ago was a staunch traditional grammar/book based instructor, honing his explanations and packets for years and who had written off TCI (an umbrella term that includes TPRS) because of an underlying fear of change. It probably sounded more like, “I tried that already and it doesn’t work”.
But, after more encouragement and better understanding of the method, he now says things like, “Wow, my kids are so much more engaged. They’re not resisting me anymore. We have so much more fun and I’m so much happier.”
These are the stories that are now being told in various parts of the country and tipping points are being reached inside many WL departments, one teacher at a time, even as the corporate model applied to education is moving students into a more robotic mode.
Teachers are being evaluated now largely in terms of work accomplished, and kids are increasingly becoming mere robotic memorizers plagued with more work that can reosonably be accomplished in one day. There is less pursuit of happiness and more pursuit of work.
When comprehension based instruction/TCI is used in a classroom, however, the opposite happens, as described in the examples above. The human part of language education, which alone guarantees mastery of the language, is preserved in language classrooms that are based on comprehensible input, and great gains in actual fluency (vs. bogus testing) are the result.
In my district, we’re reaching the tipping point. Working from within the existing structures, we have crafted and presented a TCI-friendly goal statement that will be adopted for the district secondary language classes. It’s only a starting point, but this statement is clearly drawn from our district’s own language around equity and the ACTFL 90% statement published in 2011.
It’s a statement of district intent that is very hard to argue with. The harder part will be putting the goal statement into action. But our district is supportive. They’re implementing Balanced Literacy in language arts and it’s a big shift for a lot of teachers.
So, the district people are saying that they will support our department in the same way, with ongoing training and a transitional period so people don’t feel as if they need to change tomorrow. This is critical. They’re recognizing that change is scary, but that transitioning to a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, is the first step.
Grant Boulanger is a teacher of Spanish in St. Paul, MN.

10 thoughts on “WORDS from Grant Boulanger – How Fixed Is Your Mindset?

  1. Excellent article. My experience with TPRS and CI is very similar. Enrollment grew, AP scores grew – my job satisfaction reflected the students’ confidence and ability with the language. I have been blessed with a supportive administration who lets me do right by my kids based on intuition and experience . Thank goodness I found TPRS and had the guts to put away the mass produced textbook. I know I wouldn’t have lasted to 26 years (currently) with the audiolingual/grammar method.

  2. Thank you Jody and Martina for posting this. Darcy, thank you for your numbers! It’s important that the push for equity in education reach global languages programs. It’s important that dialogue around moving our subject area into the 21st century have real and tangible goals. If we truly believe that all students can acquire language (and 99.9% have done a pretty darn good job with their first language) then those of us in public education are obligated to seek out and apply those approaches, methods and strategies that will make students want to continue to learn in our programs and beyond.

  3. I just read this article with soaring pride and a joyful heart. Darcy is a leader in every facet of what we do as second language teachers. I know because she is my colleague and dear friend. We taught together for the first decade of the new millenium. Her enduring commitment to students moved us through a difficult cultural shift in our department and indeed, our state, and beyond. This method changed who I am as an educator. As I read the article, cited examples of student successes flashed the smiling faces of students into my mind, some from the distant past, who were successful in our program, who perhaps, were not so successful in other parts of our school. Thank you, Grant, for stirring those memories.
    The ox is slow, but the plow is sure. (Chinese proverb) If you are, in anyway, connected to a second language program, please have the courage to place students at the top of your list of priorities. Comprehensible Input based methods follows natural pathways to success. It creates an environment of low stress and high acheivement. We all devote more attention and energy to things we enjoy. TCI provides foundations for fun and learning.
    Peace and humble thanks to Darcy and Grant for all you do for students.

  4. Is the day really coming when I will not hear a friend tell me that she would rather lose her German program than have to deal with “lousy” (her word) students. My colleagues are all about getting the “right” kids in front of them to take the “right” tests so they can bask in the reflected glory. Our private school is suffering from low enrollment and so far we only have 140 or so kids signed up, but out of that number, I have picked up 25 students which is just three less than I had last year out of 190 incoming freshman. To me, that is a victory for CI. I also notice that the younger siblings of current Spanish students are signing up for French. I also have more boys in French than I have ever had before. My upper levels have ceased to see the huge drop off after level 2. Instead of 8 to ten kids in level 4. My current level 4 is 17 and next year I expect about the same or more. It’s all about the method. Jody, love the new look of your blog! Thanks, Grant, for this post.

  5. Hey Chill!

    Sometimes I think it’s hard for people to see the interconnectedness of things. German has been having a rough time across our country for years now. The reasons for this are not limited to teachers with mindsets like that of those you mention, but I think it would be hard to argue that declining enrollment hasn’t contributed. And when we compare enrollment trends in TCI classes with enrollment trends in book-driven classes we see exactly what you are experiencing. Kids choose to be in an environment that is meaningful and relevant to them that delivers what they want (to use the language for meaningful communication NOW) over an environment that is driven by an agenda. If we can raise enrollment by learning a new method, and this change would help ensure employment for the future, why would we not do that? Related: Have you read Stephen Krashen’s article on delayed gratification?
    Link: http://www.sdkrashen.com/articles/why_support/index.html

    At least in private schools teachers are insulated from the federal mandate to provide education to all students. You can teach to the 4%ers there without legal repercussion. In fact, I think the “success” that some private schools have with the “eclectic approach” is due in great part to them having a disproportionately high number of 4%ers in their classes. The teaching I’ve seen in these environments (granted it’s a small sample size) pales in quality to the teaching I’ve seen in urban classrooms. They don’t realize their kids are succeeding _despite_ narrow teaching, nor how great those kids’ gains could be if they gave them even 1 year of comprehension-based instruction.

    My belief is that in the public classroom we can no longer scapegoat the kids. Before Blaine Ray we could because nobody knew better. But going in through the ears is the great equalizer. It’s how the human brain works. Add to that a healthy dose of love, meaningful interaction and personalization and you’ve got the “tough” kids outperforming the 4%ers in some cases.

    I believe that language teachers can act as invisible gate-keepers. I DON’T believe this happens with intent. But I do think it needs to be explored. When we make it difficult for kids to reach upper levels, we strip from them the possibility of even applying to many private institutions of higher ed that request 3 or more years of continuous language study. I don’t believe that’s our role, nor do I believe that it’s at all, even remotely fair.

    Thank you for your comment Chill!!!

  6. There are many factors which can affect “enrollment” in FL classes:
    • national attitudes about bilingualism in general,
    • current national or local popularity, or lack of popularity, of a particular language or perceived status of those who speak that language (Mandarin = popular at the moment, French = high status/language of the “rich” or “I’m never going to France!”, Spanish = low status/language of the “poor”, German = “Who speaks that?”, etc.),
    • competing subject areas in high school for college-bound students,
    • parental attitudes toward their own experience in FL classes which is transmitted to their offspring,
    • size of school with concomitant scheduling difficulties,
    • administrative and teaching staff (all teachers, not just FL teachers) attitudes about bilingualism and concomitant support, or lack of, for FL classes,
    • likelihood of the student using the FL (geographic availability of the language, likelihood students will “need” to use the FL with anyone in their communities–actually quite rare)–ordering at the local taquería just doesn’t count, ok?,
    • general perception the “learning a foreign language” is hard,
    • the truth about how long it really takes to acquire fluency in a foreign language,

    I think I’ll stop now.

    Private schools teach a narrower band of students. There are certainly kids of many ability and motivational levels, but the band is much narrower than in public schools–particularly when compared to students of poorer socio-economic groups. It’s another world. Special ed kids (who would not even qualify for services in a public school) are usually removed from FL classes. That doesn’t mean FL classes are filled with 4%ers. There is much more pressure in a private school for students to succeed than in a public school. There is, also, much more support. Show me a private-school child without a tutor and I’ll show you a purple elephant. Children come to school fed, clothed, with basic needs met. That cannot be said for many children in poor, public schools. (I can say these things because I worked for almost 20 years in poor, urban public schools of California and then, in one of its most wealthy, private schools for 16 years.)

    Private schools do not necessarily see nor believe that “the gains” with comprehension-based teaching have value. It still appears to be more important to spew short-term, memorized, grammar points on tests and do lovely projects than to understand or use “acquired” target language. Even though a few teachers notice the incredible depth and language ability of our comprehension-based taught students, they speak of it in whispers. “Classical”, traditional language teaching in private schools nationwide is still king. Students even believe it. They are easily brainwashed into believing the traditional paradigm. It fits in well with other “learning” paradigms with which they are familiar and fits well with an elitist point of view about life in general.

    The battle over what constitutes upper level “knowledge” in an FL classroom is still up for debate. As long as we (traditional, eclectic teachers and CI teachers) continue to measure different things, we will teach differently. The paradigm difference is extreme. If the discussions about “equalizing” or “leveling the playing field” for all students hadn’t been going on as long as I’ve been teaching, I might still be wearing my rose-colored glasses. The “eclectic”, “communicative” approach came about exactly because of those discussions–not exactly successful I’d say.

    Gotta go. I have more thoughts on this. Love the discussion.

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