ACTFL 2016: A Changing Profession

Just recently, I attended the ACTFL National Language Convention & Expo in Boston, Massachusetts as both a presenter (representing Glencoe High School, Roll Tide!) and an Exhibitor (Organic World Language). I was one of seven thousand people at the convention. Each year, ACTFL has a theme. This year, the theme was: ImpACTFL.

I attended sessions of different kinds and spoke to many educators of all corners of the USA, including some from abroad. I also presented two sessions (one as a co-presenter to Annie Tyner of OWL and as the lead presenter of another). After taking in the conference from various perspectives, I have come up with a few takeaways:

  1. Language teachers across the country are hungry for student-centered, proficiency-based classrooms. I had conversations with around 100 different teachers or more and what I gathered from many of those conversations is that teachers, admin and those who make decisions on learning outcomes and environments of students are searching for answers to the questions surrounding acquisition. How do we create a space where students can USE the TL (target language) in and out of class? How can we EMPOWER students to take charge of their learning? How can we effectively evaluate and adjust instruction according to the outcomes that our students produce? I can tell you this: it will require a paradigm shift in how teachers view language teaching and how admin directs teachers to evaluate students. My honest opinion is that the first domino to drop, causing a shift ought to be that teachers are directed to use standards-based grading, devoid of points. Until this happens, you will have a “points” mindset with teachers who do not see motivation to change. Focusing on standards can help shape the focus of evaluating on looking at the data and what it means, instead of arbitrarily assigning points to students based on whatever influences those points designations.
  2. There are very talented teachers of all classroom deliveries. After seeing some of the sessions that I saw and hearing some of the exhibitors’ sales pitches, I have come away with an appreciation for all of the creative ideas that many teachers have. I observed a session on using apps in the classroom and I saw many different booths, one in particular that offers little mini cultural documentaries that are authentic to Spain. There is so much talent in our profession. How can we cultivate the talent we have as a language teacher community, in order to make positive changes across the country and raise our cultural awareness as Americans? The epicenter of this answer lies in the classroom, the structure and how we cultivate language learning and culture in our classrooms.
  3. I am making a difference and it feels great! My session on Picture Literacy went incredibly well! At session’s end, there were approximately 75 people participating! The focus of the session was how to use imagery to usurp (take the place of) native language use/translation in the language classroom. Translation, while temporarily relieving, is not the most efficient way to acquire a language of study. How can we develop tools, resources and a philosophy that supports using the target language as the exclusive language of the classroom? That was the essential question that supported the session. Participants, drew, took pictures, and used language based on pictures as well as seeing how pictures can be used to demonstrate comprehension of material at a lower level class. It was incredibly uplifting to see so many teachers interested in using tools to build use of the target language in the classroom. I have presented before, but this presentation really cemented for me that what I do contribute on this level is truly impACTFL. It has caused me to reflect and be appreciative for the journey that has led me to where I am and I have ACTFL, OWL, the Hillsboro School District, Glencoe High School and so many of those who have been and are mentors to me. I appreciate you all and I hold you in high regard.



Turning Back the Clock: Reshaping how I view class structure.

Right around tomorrow will mark the 5 year anniversary of my starting out with a desk free environment. It would mark the first of three years in a row where I had the same students, collected amazing data on their writing and speaking, validating the work that we had done together for those years. In these five years of teaching using the OWL method, I have collected data in a variety of ways, but it is time to return to revisit the core component of what makes OWL so successful: the circle.

When I first began to use the circle, I had a few tools such as transitions passing through the circle, sillas de muerte (chairs of death), SMOOSH (transition game) and the determination to use Spanish 100% of the time or to strive for it everyday, as well as expecting my students to do the same. After five years of reflecting, it is time to revisit this concept with new ideas and a fresh perspective on how it can work in a more effective manner. In true reflective form, I have essential questions (feel free to steal this or take it and make your own):

EQ 1: How can I use movement effectively to create a consistent flow from class period to class period?

EQ 2: What will the implications of that consistency be on second language acquisition and student behavior?

That is my goal for this year and I am going to test it with new data collection tools. I will be using a template to track on paper what the flow of my lessons looks like. In addition to that, I plan to use it to sort vocabulary that was used/learned from that day in order to better track the different kinds of words uncovered in class. This will be a very challenging task, but I am up for it. I will start by tracking two classes (one on each day) to collect my data.

There will be a follow-up blog posting to this one once I have started to collect data. I encourage the readers to choose one thing to experiment on and collect data in order to see if your changes are making a difference. That is how we grow.

Ricardo Linnell
Glencoe High School
Spanish Teacher
OWL Trainer/Consultant (in training)
(for professional inquiries only, please)



Meaning Negotiation vs Translation: What is it all about?

This topic is definitely a very hot one in that there are many strong opinions on either side of the issue. The prevailing arguments for both sides are (translation) that it is important for students to understand as much as they can as quickly as possible, while on the (negotiation) side it is argued that students develop a much stronger bond to their comprehension as they experience language.

While I happen to be one of those who leans towards the negotiation of meaning, I will pose both sides with a counter question that at least the readers can consider. Please feel free to comment and tweet at me with your questions and thoughts. This blog post is certainly one written with the intention of sparking discussion, not providing all of the answers to this issue.

As those who use translation view it in a lot of ways as a faster and/or more efficient way of gathering comprehension for reading/listening pieces, I pose this question: What are the short term and long term implications for vocabulary acquisition and application to different topics with this strategy at use? I happen to see translation as not only a short term fix, but rather an incredibly short term fix. It is so much so that students who translate using online translators, rarely (if at all) retain the information that they translate on that particular assignment. So, if translation is viewed as a tool for increased comprehension, then why do we not see vocabulary application across topics more quickly when students are expected to produce?

In the case of negotiation, it can be challenging and trying to the patience of a class, especially if the commitment to it is 100%. What are the drawbacks to having that level of commitment to TL negotiation of meaning in the classroom?

I do believe that it is highly possible to negotiate meaning even at level 1 of any second language, but if must be scaffolded, so as to avoid accidentally jumping to too high of a level, too fast. This is why the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines are so good. They have the groundwork laid for how students can get incrementally better; however, none of this can happen if students are not getting CI and having the time to produce in the TL at the appropriate level. An example of negotiating meaning at the lower level might look like the following (below):

Person A: “I don’t understand the word dance.”

Person B: “Do you listen to music?”

Person A: “yes”.

Person B: “Do you move a little bit when you dance?”

Person A: “yes”.

Person B: “That is dancing. It is when you move with the music.”

Person A: “ahhhhhhh. Thank you.”

That is an example of using the question types that are appropriate for the particular level and. If we scaffold and utilize a variety of communication strategies in the TL, then we encourage our students to use the TL in and beyond our classes and they will respond as they feel more and more comfortable. Negotiating meaning is powerful, but I cannot negotiate meaning with a Novice Mid at the Intermediate Mid level. That would be near impossible. Scaffolding (level appropriate questioning)

Please feel free to comment and/or ask questions. I look forward to chatting with all of you!

Have a very fruitful week before winter break.


5 Goals to Strive For in the L2 Classroom

Over the past four plus years, I have experienced a renaissance in my teaching, unlike any other period during my seventeen year plus career. Keep in mind that what I am about to tell you is based on my experience and could be different for any other teacher that fits the profile.

I taught for many years in an environment where all methods were very traditional. I used more English than even I knew I should have, though I always felt something was off. There were many times where I felt sadly disappointed in myself and my students because I didn’t feel that the grades (based on the point system) matched what I felt the students had actually learned. I also think that showed up in the behavior and the level of respect that the students gave me.

About a little over four years ago, I got the opportunity to see another method at work. Students used Spanish as the spoken language of the classroom. The students had a high level of respect for their teacher, as well as each other. The goals that I am about to outline, came to be staples in my classroom as a result of that experience.

Goal 1: Use the Target Language 100% of the time.

This is a lofty goal, and there are many ideas on the validity and efficiency of this goal. What I can tell you is that this goal will test the mental strength of a teacher. If the teacher is determined to see this goal through, then it is highly possible to achieve. I use the TL very near to 100% of the time, with the exception of when English is used specifically to debrief the process of learning. I can say that during 100% of the instructional time, the TL is used in the classroom.

Goal 2: To not be afraid of the TL environment.

The first goal really influences the second, in that hearing the TL as often as possible creates more a more comfortable environment in which the students can use it. This is one concept that is very significant because while frustration can occur, it is merely a sign of steps being taken forward. Every time a student overcomes frustration and moves on, the student gains a measure of linguistic confidence and can become empowered. Confidence can be fostered by empathy and warm demanding. By that I mean being a kind enforcer of using the TL in the classroom.  I have noticed a significant shift in the classroom culture as a direct result of using the TL exclusively in the classroom. Students joke in simple language with those who enter the classroom (student aides, counselors, even admin). The change is palpable.

Goal 3: To take risks, break down filters and make mistakes.

Movement in the classroom, as well as use of the TL helps to foster an environment where risk taking is more of the norm, as opposed to the exception. There are many ways to foster risk taking and much of that depends on the comfort level of the class, the teacher and the idea of not pushing too far into the risk zone, but rather pushing the boundaries of the comfort zone incrementally. Using the TL as often as possible, up to 100% of the instructional time, as well as having the students negotiate meaning and use movement as a regular part of the class helps to mitigate the discomfort that is initially sensed.

Goal 4: To infer and circumlocute.

This looks different from level to level, but there is one constant: No native language use. Inferring can be as simple as drawing or acting out language. It is meaningful and powerful because as easy as it may be to use the native language to understand concepts and vocabulary, it really defeats the process in the long run because students don’t learn the value of the struggle. The ability to negotiate meaning develops as the students learn to infer and circumlocute. I cannot stress how important this goal is. I think that many times teachers look at the end result of language use, the precision and such, all too often. What really needs attention is the process and how the results will bear out in the long run. Why should be try to be perfect immediately when it takes far longer than a four year high school stay to truly learn a second language? Getting the students to communicate and negotiate meaning through inferring and circumlocuting will push the students much further down the road of progress. It will also encourage more students to take higher levels of the second language at school, as well as giving the students the skills to shine in postsecondary second language classes.

Goal 5: To participate and be part of a community.

Taking the desks out of my class has significantly contributed to creating successful classroom communities. In a traditional classroom, students realistically have to traverse two barriers. The first barrier is the desk or the closed physical space. This barrier protects the real barrier which is the emotional barrier. That is the barrier that as second language teachers, we want to expose and remove so that students can feel free to acquire the second language without any fear. This is the exact reason why my desks are gone and they are never coming back. I have chairs, I have white boards, but the space will always be an open concept from here on out. With the emotional barrier being exposed, there is still work to do. I have found that high fiving the students, greeting them in the morning before class starts, as well as reciting the poem of respect and having the students go around and thank each other for being present has made a HUGE, positive impact on behavior, as well as the willingness to open up and accept others with whom students are less familiar.

These goals have transformed my classes, creating a space for acquisition to take place in class. There is far more respect, appreciation for learning, willingness to take risks, openness to others, as well as early language production occurring than I have ever seen in the first twelve years of my teaching.

Any comments either here or on twitter in reference to this blog post would be happily appreciated. I hope that this helps those who read it. Thank you and happy Thanksgiving and happy teaching!

Ricardo Linnell
Spanish Teacher
Hillsboro School District 1J
OWL Consultant & Trainer (candidate)

Takeaways from the 2015 ACTFL Convention

Well, where do I start? ACTFL 2015 was eye-opening in many, many ways. I came away from this year’s convention with a much broader perspective of the variety of things that many L2 teachers do in order to bring out the best in their students. Though I use the OWL method of teaching in my classes, I developed an appreciation for the diversity that exists among the vast number of L2 teachers that descended on San Diego for the convention. Here are some things that I took away from the convention:

Takeaway 1: A student-centered classroom was a very important central focus of the convention.

This seemed to be much more than a buzz word at the convention, but I have some questions about how different teachers interpret the concept of “student-centered”. Those questions remain, but conversations about the concept are ones I hope to have with other educators.

Takeaway 2: Students need to ask meaningful questions in which they are soliciting information they desire to know in order to get to the intermediate level.

This was an area where I unintentionally have not placed as much focus as I should have in the past; however, I intend to change this. I have some creative ways of designing activities where students can ask each other questions. That starts ASAP.

Takeaway 3: Authentic literacy is essential in order to bring relevant context to L2 acquisition for our students.

Authentic literacy does not necessarily mean students are reading a literature book or something of that nature. It does mean that students have interaction with and access to authentic interpretive materials that are at the appropriate ACTFL level, by which their abilities can be measured. A novice learner can understand limited interpretive material such as signs, pictures, etc. As long as the interpretive pieces are authentic and level-appropriate, they are beneficial.

Takeaway 4: Input + Output + Input (+ 1) + Output (+ 1) = L2 development.

What I am trying to say here is that Input leads to output, which leads to an incremental increase in input, which leads to another incremental increase in output. This is relative, not absolute. Think of it more as a roadmap, as opposed to a formula. When students hear more of the TL used in class, they will use more of it. In turn, students will comprehend more of the TL as time passes, causing them to also output more of the TL in class. This is a case for 90% + in the L2. But realistically, when using only 90% +, the students will not match that. Also, the 10% leaves room for translation and explaining things in the native language. That chips away at opportunities where students could be learning how to infer and/or circumlocute. That leads to a loss of opportunity to negotiate meaning. I think it is great that teachers use the TL 90% + in their classes; however, I used it 100% for the purpose of creating an environment where negotiation of meaning is a necessity. I use 100% so that the students can get to 90% +.

Takeaway 5: Explicit grammar instruction has a purpose, but that purpose runs against the grain of communication.

Students either think about the grammar rule or they think about communicating. If students were able to do both together, then all teachers would teach proficiency-based classes with explicit grammar instruction and nearly all students would be able to communicate at the intermediate mid + level in about 2 years. That IS IMPOSSIBLE. It is likely remotely possible for a select few, but the L2 acquisition process through which students struggle has complications such as trial and error, self-esteem, confidence issues, the affective filter, etc. Students deal with a lot of things that impact their motivation to speak, as well as their precision. This is why creating an inviting environment, where speaking in the L2 and making mistakes is encouraged, is the closest thing to an accelerated process that I have seen. Students don’t immediately apply grammar rules. Grammar is important, don’t get me wrong; however, it is important to teach grammar in context, in the TL when needed. The students CAN handle it. It is a matter of will on the part of the teacher. Mind over matter.

Takeaway 6: DATA. DATA. DATA.

I got new ideas on how to collect data, as well as having some of my collection methods validated. The more ample the sample (haha), the more ratable it is. The more samples we have, the better idea we have of a students level.





Focusing on Proficiency Instead of Methodology

It has happened throughout history. People find something that makes them happy and then they share their happiness with others exuberantly, so much to the point that others perceive those happy people as out of touch, narcissistic and even cultish. It has happened in many walks of life. Crossfit is a a good example of that. The methodology of crossfit is not the problem, but the problem is how people pitch it to others and how others receive the message that becomes the issue. The same could be said for many other things such as Christianity, different diets and other things. But are we as an OWL community any different? I would say sadly, in some ways, no.

We need to be careful of how we present our exuberance and make it something that is attainable and not superior to other options, though it may be the thing that best works for us. I have been thinking about this for quite some time, since I had the very thing I am describing happen to me when I first started using OWL in my classes. I think I turned off some people unintentionally by not letting the results stand for themselves. As my mentor (Darcy Rogers) has told me on more than one occasion, “the focus of the conversation with colleagues needs to be on Proficiency. That is where meaningful conversation starts and change stands the best chance of being effective.” Okay, so I paraphrased, but the meaning of that quote is true. If we as an OWL community want our methodology to be received by many more, then we must consider how we approach the conversation of student engagement, production and overall growth.

The focus should begin with proficiency. How do we promote a conversation surrounding proficiency? Use your state and national standards and use the ACTFL Guidelines to open the door. Ask your colleagues, “What can our students really produce?” “What is authentic proficiency? What does it look like in action?” It is important to open the door for your colleagues and invite them in, as opposed to making them feel (whether intentionally or not) like they have been shut out. The methodology will already provide enough angst, so the conversations (in my humble experience) should be focused around proficiency and what authentic growth is, what it means, what it looks like. As your colleagues how they envision a student to be when that student is taking his or her last day of language? What can the student do? What level is the student at? What does that mean for the student’s abilities to use the target language in the real world?”

These are just some things that come to mind when I consider how difficult my situation has become with some of my colleagues. If this helps to open the door for one teacher to have a better situation, then I have helped someone. Keep in mind, this is only where the conversation begins. Where it ends, can be a very positive place, so long as the beginning is inviting.


OWL 2015 Bootcamp Reflection……..

Hello colleagues, students and language lovers from all over. My name is Ricardo Linnell and I am a teacher at Glencoe High School in Hillsboro, OR. I have taught for sixteen (16) years, with this coming year being my seventeenth. For the past 4 years, I have had the pleasure of teaching by using the OWL methodology. I am flying home (as we speak), filled with passion and inspiration to make a difference in the lives of the students who will be attending my classes this year. Here are some of my takeaways from this experience:

Takeaway #1: Research is essential.

The tone of this bootcamp was set immediately (for me) when Caleb Zilmer asked the participants to “commit to being inquiry-based.” What I believe that he meant by that was that he wanted a commitment from the participants to put their bias aside and to be objective, allowing the data observed to inform each participant. This was a theme that I thought about often throughout the entire week. It has allowed me to remain grounded during week and has challenged me to look at what we do from multiple perspectives. Being “inquiry-based” removes judgment and puts it squarely in the hands of what the data says about student growth. I think that in doing so, it puts the onus of the proficiency conversation on every teacher who says they want to improve student achievement in their language of study.

Takeaway #2: Growth is a factor of the commitment to the process. 

I have believed this for a few years and though it might sound like something obvious, it is profoundly true. The hardest times to continue the method are the times when the teacher in question MOST needs to keep going. There is this concept called the “bargaining point”. It is a mental line, a point at which a person asks themselves “why am I doing this? Is this worth it?” Breaking through the bargaining point is a very powerful achievement for a person because the bargaining point then moves out to a point much further. On the contrary, quitting moves the bargaining point in much closer. By committing to the process no matter how difficult it may seem, a new OWLer may increase the likelihood (dramatically) of using OWL for a much longer period of time.

Takeaway #3: Giving the students a voice is vital to building community.

When students can trust that the teacher will take their interests to heart and apply them in the L2 environment, the students will see that they have a voice and will respond with intrinsic motivation. Disregarding or discounting student interest (and the timing of that learned interest) is the same as silencing the student. When something comes up that a student either does, says or wears in the class, then it is fair game, so long as it does not result (whether intended or not) in the student being made to feel bad.

I had a lovely time with all of you. Don’t forget to go to the forums. There you can find all of the information and resources that were presented at the OWL Bootcamp in Colorado.

Go out and inspire!


P.S. I did most of this while deliriously flying, so keep that in mind 😉