Maureen Berger: charting new routes to language learning

Some of the most exciting and personal academic work at Moses Brown has emerged from the faculty cohort plan, a professional development and evaluation program. In a year of transformational study, a cohort of veteran teachers sets goals, serves as resources for one another’s evaluations and shares professional development plans at year’s end. At the heart of the program are cohort projects, each teacher’s big idea for personal research to be shared in the classroom. The benefit to students is clear: teachers continuously deepen their expertise, refine their curriculum, and bring the latest research back to the classroom to improve the learning experience.

IMG_20150505_143921 In her fifth year on the faculty, upper school French teacher Maureen Berger planned to dedicate her cohort project to developing a student exchange between Moses Brown and a school in France. “For certain languages that aren’t so common in this country, language learning can seem too theoretical to students,” Maureen says. “We rely on trips to immerse our students, and exchanges are the ultimate goal.” The complexities of planning an exchange, however – selecting a peer school, agreeing on international logistics, selecting students to go, recruiting MB families to host French students – made the exchange a long-term endeavor. Maureen adjusted her cohort project to concentrate on bringing two French curricula to fruition.

First, she developed the Language Learner’s Passport as a way to measure student competencies throughout upper school. Inspiration struck Maureen when she attended a summer teaching institute in France, and encountered the European Union’s model of language fluency classification. “The European teachers made so many references to ‘B2-level’ or ‘C1-level’ students,” Maureen recalls. “European language textbooks are much more standardized than ours. Clear levels of proficiency are a necessity in securing work permits in EU nations. If a Spanish accountant wants to apply for a job in Munich, for example, she takes a German placement test to demonstrate proficiency.” This got Maureen thinking about the variability of language learning in the U.S. MB’s French 2 supports different competencies than Hope High School’s French 2 does, for example. “In high school, there’s a wide range of language skills, not always aligned with age and experience,” Maureen explains. “Some students may be near-fluent French speakers, but face significant challenges writing in French.”

IMG_20150505_143544The passport encourages students to take ownership of their skill development. A series of pages codifies specific competencies in receptive skills (listening and reading) and productive skills (conversing, discursive speaking and writing). A novice can “use expressions and simple phrases in order to describe where I live and people I know,” while an advanced student can “present clear, detailed descriptions on complex subjects, integrating allied themes, developing certain points and terminating my talk in an appropriate way.” Teachers stamp the passport as each level’s skills are mastered. “My AP students were the guinea pigs,” she said, “and they love incentives.” (French chocolate, perhaps?) Next year, she plans to introduce the passport to her freshmen to use throughout upper school.

Maureen calls her second new curriculum “directed dialogues.” One of the most daunting sections of language AP exams simulates conversation, requiring students to listen to questions and record their responses in a prescribed time period. “This is often the most nerve-wracking part of the test,” Maureen says. “Inevitably the machine cuts you off in the middle of a sentence. Everyone gets rattled!” To give students at the lower and middle levels a chance to assess their conversation skills, Maureen developed scripts supporting the textbooks’ themes, recruited “actors” and timed appropriate prompts and responses, creating the system to assess students’ spoken competency. Ideally, the process is comfortable and familiar by the time students encounter it on the AP exam.

Both new curricula can be replicated throughout the World Languages department. “The more tools we can give students, the more they can direct their own learning,” she says.





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