Learning a New Language in Texas: TEKS for LOTE and Professional Development in Foreign Languages

by Jay LaPlante
Published in SEDL Letter Volume XI, Number 2, August 1999, At the Heart of the Matter: Improving Teaching and Learning Through Professional Development

Spanish-language teacher Mary Diehl teaching class

In schools around Texas, foreign language teachers are learning a new language that is helping them to communicate with students. But surprisingly, it's not the language of an ethnic group or nationality. It's a language of standards —what students should know and be able to do as they learn foreign languages like Spanish, French, or Japanese. The new standards, called TEKS for LOTE—Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Languages Other Than English—are improving foreign language instruction in Texas schools. Teachers who understand TEKS are helping shape foreign language instruction in ways that are meaningful to students and are passing that knowledge on to other teachers by participating in professional development programs through the LOTE Center for Educator Development (LOTE CED).

The LOTE Center for Educator Development

The development of the TEKS for LOTE in 1997 by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) was in response to a mandate from the Texas legislature to clarify what all students should know and be able to do in K-12 public schools for all subject areas, including foreign language instruction. SEDL was instrumental in their formation by bringing together foreign language educators and members of the public to help TEA create the new standards.

The LOTE Center for Educator Development
SEDL staff members Sylvia Juarez-Harms, Lillian King, and Elaine Phillips

Once the TEKS for LOTE were adopted by the State Board of Education, TEA formed the LOTE Center for Educator Development (LOTE CED) in partnership with SEDL to provide professional development training and other opportunities to teachers of foreign languages with the goal that all Texas LOTE teachers will understand and use TEKS proficiently. In-services, on-site learning experiences, teacher exchanges, and peer coaching and mentoring training are just some of the ways the LOTE CED carries out its work.

Lillian King, SEDL program associate and coordinator for the LOTE CED, says the training and other Center activities help teachers implement the TEKS by improving instructional strategies and techniques. InŽs Garc’a, TEA's director for Languages Other Than English agrees. "We wanted to provide opportunities for foreign language teachers to become acquainted with the TEKS for languages and to learn how to better implement those standards in the classroom," says Garc’a. "Therefore teachers must have proper training."

The Five C's

Five Program Goals form the foundation of current, TEKS-based LOTE (foreign language) programs: Communication, Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities. Communication, meaning the skills of listening, speaking, reading, and writing, is the primary focus of language acquisition. Cultures, Connections, Comparisons, and Communities contribute to and enhance the communicative language experience by supplying context, that is, what students communicate about (e.g., topics, themes, literature, etc.) and in what contexts their communication takes place (e.g., face-to-face, in writing, via the Internet, etc.).

Picture: diagram of the interrelationship of the Five Program Goals

The five Cs are becoming a common framework used by LOTE teachers to shape student learning. Teachers can bring language learning to life by having students use the language to learn about different cultures and to communicate in culturally appropriate ways; to expand knowledge of other subject areas, such as geography; to compare the influences that their first language and target language have on each another; and to involve themselves in language use beyond the walls of the classroom, for personal enrichment and career development. In classrooms like Mary Diehl's, the five C's are part of the everyday experience.

'The Dating Game'

Students in Level IV Spanish classes at Westwood High School in Round Rock, Texas, are gearing up for fun and romance—with full support and encouragement from their teacher, Mary Diehl. “It’s fun and they love to do it!” she says. Wait a minute! What are they teaching at Westwood High?

Not to worry. Diehl is referring to “The Dating Game,” her students’ version of the popular 1970s television show where a player interviews contestants as potential dates and chooses a winner at the end. The show is staged in Diehl’s classroom each year to provide a fun way for her students to learn Spanish.

“The Dating Game” is just one way Diehl incorporates the Five C’s to get students engaged in learning. The game is conducted entirely in Spanish by her students—from conceptualization to production. “I’m seeing them communicating in the language and writing in the language. They have to use certain vocabulary and advanced structures.” In addition, the students have fun while they work cooperatively. After Level III Spanish students sit in as the “Dating Game” audience, they too are enthusiastic and look forward to moving to Level IV and beyond. Of course, “Dating Game” players don’t go out on dates. “There’s a line they can’t cross,” Diehl says, laughing.

Because Diehl has been a Spanish language teacher for 23 years and was recognized for her creativity in the classroom, she was selected by SEDL, along with 17 other Texas educators to help foreign language educators learn about the TEKS for LOTE and develop ways to incorporate them into their classroom activities. TEKS for LOTE training currently consists of three modules that cover a range of professional development topics, including an overview, classroom implementation of the TEKS, and developing curriculum as well as addressing assessment. The TEKS modules are presented by pairs of co-trainers, often a LOTE teacher and a district foreign language coordinator.

The Texas-Spain Connection

MoisŽs Navarro Sabater, a teacher from Spain who participated in the Post-to Post Teacher Exchange

A memorandum of understanding between Spain’s Ministry of Education and Culture and TEA created the LOTE CED’s Texas-Spain Initiative, which currently offers three professional development programs. Summer institutes place Texas teachers in various university settings throughout Spain where they improve their own language proficiency while being immersed in the Spanish culture. Texas school districts participating in the Visiting Teachers Program invite teachers from Spain to work in their classrooms and live in their community for up to two years.

The third program is the Post-to-Post Teacher Exchange. It gives Texas foreign language teachers an opportunity to change places with teachers from Spain for a year. MoisŽs Navarro Sabater is a high school English teacher in his native country of Spain. As a participant in the Texas-Spain Post-to-Post program, Navarro Sabater exchanged teaching positions with Francine Sires, a Hays High School Spanish language teacher in Buda, Texas, for the 1998–99 school year. In turn, Sires took Navarro Sabater’s English language classes in Villena, Spain.

It’s not unusual to walk into Navarro Sabater’s classroom to see groups of students researching the history, geography, politics, and culture of a province of Spain. The teacher realizes that it is a stretch for students to truly understand a country they have never visited, but he knows they can learn the language by comparing what they know about their own community and customs with those in his native country. Teaching in Texas has been a learning experience for Navarro Sabater, who was amazed that in many parts of Texas, including Buda, Spanish is spoken in the street, at the grocery store, and even in the school. He reports that his students in Spain hear English on television and radio but don’t often have the opportunity to converse in English. He adds, “One of the difficult things is to make your students see that whatever they are learning is going to have real applications in life.” He is impressed that his students at Hays have that opportunity and are excited to speak his native language.

An Extra Set of Eyes and Ears

For some teachers who desire to improve instruction, one-on-one assistance and feedback is especially effective. Through the LOTE CED Peer Coaching and Mentoring Program, teachers develop collegial relationships with one another and help each other identify areas for improvement. Greg Foulds, a teacher of Spanish at Winston Churchill High School in San Antonio, is a trainer for the Peer Coaching and Mentoring Program. Peer coaching is designed to help experienced or master teachers who want to improve their practice and learn new teaching techniques. The peer coaching process involves a pre conference to determine observation topics and a classroom observation in which data is collected. Finally, in a post conference, through questioning strategies and probing techniques, Foulds coaches his partner through a self- assessment of classroom management style, instructional techniques, and curriculum design, based on data he has collected during the observation.

The goal of peer coaching is “self-discovery,” asking the right questions so the observed teacher uncovers ways to improve instruction and help students learn more effectively. “A peer coach is an extra set of eyes and ears,” explains Foulds.

For less experienced teachers, Foulds says mentoring offers guidance for those who are new to the classroom. The primary goal of both peer coaching and mentoring is to help teachers integrate the TEKS for LOTE and the Five C’s into classroom activities. But the program goes beyond that. “It’s a way of building collegiality in the schools where people get to know one another very well,” Foulds says. “It’s a process based on trust and confidentiality.” Most important, students benefit when these teachers heighten their awareness of what is going on in their classrooms and continually strive to improve instruction.

Evaluating LOTE CED Professional Development

During summer 1999, the LOTE CED will gear up for its third year, bringing approximately 110 new language teachers from Spain to Texas school districts. In addition, almost 60 Texas teachers will participate in summer institutes throughout universities in Spain. The TEKS for LOTE training and Peer Coaching and Mentoring Program will continue throughout the 1999–2000 school year, providing professional development opportunities on TEKS for LOTE implementation to hundreds of teachers through Texas school districts and Education Service Centers. What effect will all of this have on children in Texas schools?

“The ultimate indicator of whether professional development works is what teachers do with the information and what impact that information has on student achievement,” says Garc’a.

King agrees. “It’s about teachers acquiring the skills to help students reach their goals.” And she sees this happening already as a result of the training. “Language teachers don’t leave the LOTE CED training behind. They take what they are learning back into their classrooms and use it.”

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