Creating a #NationofAdvocates: From 90% Target Language to 90% Retention
Guest blog by Grant Boulanger
Developing a global mindset and intercultural competence is not just for the global traveler. The ability to trust, respect and honor our neighbors and their traditions hinges on a capacity for empathy. In world language classes, that empathy begins with explorations of identity in our languages and building communities of trust. World language programs prepare many for global travel and business pursuits, but, more importantly, they should prepare students to be accepting of, celebrate and contribute to our pluralistic society. Successful language learning for all students will make us all better people. But we have hurdles to overcome and the place to begin to address them is the novice-level language class.
One issue of pressing concern from an equity standpoint is retention of students of color and male students of all races. In the latest edition of Foreign Language Annals, the official journal of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages, Dr. Hannah C. Baggett from Auburn University writes “African-American students are underrepresented in language courses and … African-American and Latino students are underrepresented in advanced placement courses broadly speaking. African-American and Latino male students were under represented even at more diverse schools, and white female students were consistently overrepresented in language classes, despite demographics and language offerings.”
Dr. Baggett shares the results of a study she conducted of more than 200 secondary schools in North Carolina. Her study confirms disparities in language learning opportunity and achievement for students of color:
- Students of color are underrepresented in language courses.
- Students of color are underrepresented in AP classes.
- Schools with majority students of color have fewer language options.
- African American and Latino males are underrepresented in upper levels.
- White female students are overrepresented in upper levels.
According to the 10th Annual AP Report to the Nation, females outnumber males in advanced placement testing in all languages except German. John DeMado’s triangle of enrollment demonstrates that retaining students at upper levels in traditional secondary language programs is not a new phenomenon. But Dr. Baggett’s study specifically brings to light disparities in enrollment opportunity and achievement potential among students of color. Conversations must shift from simply retaining students to ensuring that programmatic and pedagogical decisions intentionally acknowledge and address educational equity for students of all backgrounds.
Language educators are gatekeepers. We impact students’ ability to be accepted by post secondary schools. When students of color are underrepresented in our upper level classes, these students have less access to selective schools, which often require more than a two year minimum. As public educators charged with educating all our students, we are obligated to acknowledge and address these disparities.
There are many factors that contribute to language offerings and enrollment in public high schools across the country. As classroom teachers, we have little direct control over many of them. If we choose to respond by saying that underrepresentation of certain subgroups at upper levels is outside of our control, how do we explain the phenomenon Dr. Baggett has documented? Are we prepared to say that white females in North Carolina just acquire language better than Latino or African American males?
If a person isn’t ready to make that assertion, and I hope they are not, then there must be instructional decisions we can make to better address issues of equity in our world language classes. Which contributing factors are within our own scope and power as language teachers? How can we ensure that as many students as possible will have the confidence and competence to continue on in their language courses? How can we create a #NationofAdvocates? Let us concern ourselves with the human side of the equation.
A former colleague once confided in me that she considered it her duty to decide who was “fit” to move on to upper levels and who wasn’t. Students routinely share with me that despite their desire and intention to continue learning languages, they don’t perceive classes to be relevant to their lives. Additionally, when the focus is on learning about the language, with an unbalanced emphasis on manipulating discrete elements of the language, we unintentionally advantage some students. Well-meaning teachers may inadvertently be contributing to the problem. What we teach and assess, how we teach it and, most importantly, why we are teaching are all factors that contribute to the confidence and trust our students have in us and in the language learning process. Without high levels of confidence and trust, our students will not voluntarily enroll in higher-level language courses.
We need to make intentional decisions to acknowledge and address disparities and explore and adopt classroom practices that mitigate them. I believe that the front line of this work is in the novice-level language classroom. If students are to embrace and develop global mindsets, they have to want to come back tomorrow. We alone are responsible for creating language classes that are meaningful and relevant, engaging and fair, joyful and effective. This must be our contribution to the solution.
We as teachers can decide to adopt practices that could increase enrollment of all our students. Here are some practices that have helped me create a space where all kids want to come back tomorrow:
- Engagement – Learn to engage with our students in real, human to human communication about topics that matter to students and in ways students understand and can contribute to. Do not assume that engaging is something we do to our students, but rather with them.
- Community – Focus intentionally on building positive peer connections and creating a more joyful experience for all members of the class.
- Personalization – Find ways to customize content to make it more meaningful and relevant to the students who are in your classes at any given time. This will change from class to class and month to month.
- Equity – Promote equity by collaboratively analyzing enrollment trends to ferret out inequities in our programs and create and monitor department goals to raise enrollment of underrepresented subgroups.
- Comprehension – Use what we know about second language acquisition. A balanced and equitable grading system does not necessarily mean equal weight on all modes of communication in all levels. In our novice-level classes, SLA research compels us to give heavier weight to listening and reading comprehension, since that is the work of the Novice, and to acknowledge that production and accuracy develop over time. Emphasizing comprehension allows all of our students to experience high degrees of success, without added anxiety associated with production before they are ready. In my classes I find the less I make them speak, the more they want to.
- Proficiency – Adopt practices that lead to real and measurable proficiency. Recognize that our students sign up for our classes because they expect to learn how to use the language, not learn about the language.
As a profession, we language educators are now on board with 90% target language use at all levels in the classroom. We know and understand that our students acquire language when they understand, interpret and respond to meaningful messages. But what good is that if we cannot find a way to bring language acquisition to ALL kids? We must develop and share principles and practices that will raise engagement, address inequities and create joyful, successful experiences for all our students. 90% retention is what we need to create a #NationOfAdvocates.
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