A Quick Story of Shift

We have a problem in our district that most of you probably have: we do not have enough teachers to do what we really want to do.  We have classes we’d like to make smaller, classes we’d like to offer more sections of, classes that we dream of creating, and classes that we used to offer that we can no longer staff.

This year, the issue arose with our 5th grade Introduction to World Languages program.  Due to schedule changes at both our high school and middle school, the teachers that had in the past traveled to 5th grade from those two buildings to introduce the students to four additional languages they can study at the 6-12 level (they have Spanish from K-4th grades) could no longer travel as the times they are available didn’t match up to the elementary schedules.

We’ve spent the better part of the last two years increasing the minutes that our students spend learning languages in the middle and high school, and to do that we moved the Introductory program to the 5th grade thereby having our 6th graders choose a language to study for their middle school years.  Eliminating it was not an option, but realistically nothing was working out for us.

Last year, I reluctantly met with a sales rep from Rosetta Stone.  I am not big on proprietary software systems like Rosetta Stone; I find them cumbersome most of the time, but this one was different for a few reasons.  First, it reminded me of how the Florida Virtual School worked in that there is the element of individual pacing, and secondly that it may work for students who don’t traditionally perform well within the classroom.  I saw potential for its use all over the district.  After that meeting, I eagerly brought the demo back to a few members of the department to see what they thought of it.  Most dismissed it outright, but some were intrigued, so the idea got put on the back burner.

When our scheduling issues came to a head this summer and it was made clear that we could either move the Introductory program back to the middle school and steal a year away from the focused study of one language, or find a solution that would allow the students to experience the four languages before making a decision to study one further in middle school, out came Rosetta Stone once again.

This past Tuesday, I worked with the four teachers from our department (Russian, German, Mandarin, and French) to create custom curriculum within our web-based launch of Rosetta Stone.  Some of these teachers were among those that initially balked at the idea, so I was interested to see what their reaction was once they were immersed in it.  Their task was to be a student and go through as much of level 1 as possible, then change hats and become the designers of that curriculum.  Rosetta Stone allows you to modify their existing curriculum for their languages, or create your own curriculum entirely.

Their reaction?  Let’s just say it’s going to be hard pressed to keep our licensing agreement intact–they want to use it in the other schools they teach in.  They loved the idea that they could create rich, dynamic curriculum and learning environments for students and get accurate, timely feedback on their progress.  Plus, each of our students is going to be able to progress through the languages at their own pace, and on their own time.  Due to the time constraints that our school day places on language learning in 5th grade, which only allows for 35 minutes per week, these students are going to be asked to work on these languages outside of school.   Having access to their learning via the web goes a long way toward respecting the time of the students.

I am not affiliated with Rosetta Stone, nor do I think it’s a perfect product; however, what I do think of when I see our teachers working in this environment is a glimpse into what schools can look like in any subject area when quality learning environments are created both online and off.  What I am finding in working with more and more teachers on projects like this that change the perceptions of teachers and traditional learning is that what we all can agree on are the elements of that need to be in place for learning to happen.  Whether or not those elements look exactly like what we’ve all grown up with is not important to most.

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3 thoughts on “A Quick Story of Shift

  1. As always you talk about what I am thinking about! I still can’t believe we have not yet met face to face. I am very intrigued by what you are doing because I have had a similar idea on a back burner for a year now. Do to budget cuts etc we do not offer languages in K-8 and I would really like to be able to do so. We have an added advantage of having gone 1:1 this year which makes a program like Rosetta Stone even more feasible. I am looking forward to hearing about how it goes.
    One question I do have is about you school day. I have struggled with where to find the instructional minutes for languages. I do have an extra curricular area because we are a Catholic school and teach religion but where there is a will there is a way. So my question what time do your students start school and what time does it end? How long are your class periods?

    1. Hi Barbara,

      I agree–I can’t believe we haven’t caught up yet. I’ll start by saying that this solution was our last resort in that we really wanted to staff the building with our teachers. With languages like Russian and Mandarin, it is really important that the teachers can “sell” students on learning them. Our teachers in those two areas are very good at doing that.

      The building that we are doing this in has a school day that runs from 9:15 to 3:45. We also added 30 additional minutes of language arts time to the schedule due to some other new programs we brought in for the students. Last year, they had ample time for languages, but this year with all of the other factors, not so much. We are excited about the project, but it’s not at the point yet where I see this replacing anyone. Scott McLoed recently had a post where he summarized that teacher quality will become much more at a premium when the quantity is not necessary. It’s here at: http://www.dangerouslyirrelevant.org/2009/10/greater-use-of-technology-allows-for-decreased-numbers-but-improved-quality-of-teachers.html

  2. Patrick,
    Going with a commercially available product to replace what your district is able to provide is a huge paradigm shift with incredible potential. Interesting to read about the initial educator reluctance replaced with enthusiasm for the possibilities. It seems that one of the things the teachers were excited about was the opportunity for students to get excited about foreign languages as they improve their skills at their own pace and level. And isn’t that what being an educator is all about – sharing your passion for your subject in whatever way you can?
    Keep us posted.

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