Wellesley, MA, Middle School Teacher Rebecca Blouwolff Selected as 2020 ACTFL TOY!
Many of us have been following Rebecca Blouwolff’s process of embracing the proficiency movement and shift to a proficiency-oriented curriculum. Now she is representing our profession through the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) as their Teacher of the Year (TOY). She is widely known on Twitter (@MmeBlouwolff), her blog (www.mmeblouwolff.weebly.com), through various articles in ACTFL’s The Language Educator (TLE) as well as various posts on the Path2Proficiency website. She generously shares her curriculum, resources, rubrics and classroom ideas on these platforms.
MaFLA is so proud that our 2019 MaFLA TOY Rebecca Blouwolff (say ‘blue wolf’) was selected as the 2019 NECTFL TOY and then as the 2020 ACTFL TOY! We are so pleased that Rebecca has agreed to share some of her journey with us in this interview.
MaFLA: In your TLE article “Focusing on Performance: Reinvigorating Teaching Toward a Student-Centered Classroom,” you outline your shift to teaching for proficiency. What are some of the most exciting benefits for you, for your department and for your students in embracing this shift?
Rebecca Blouwolff: I’m going to start with my students, because they come first. Today my students show what they can do with the language via performance-based assessments. These assessments by mode allow many more to experience success in French, because students may be skilled interpreters of YouTube videos, fearless question-askers during interpersonal speaking tasks, or detailed writers able to create with language and communicate in strings of sentences. Previously, my grammar-driven assessments penalized students for taking risks and thereby rendered these talents invisible.
My department members share pride in what we’ve accomplished, and feel energized by how far we’ve come in the past years. We know that we have a lot of ideas and effective practices to share with our building colleagues in other disciplines, as well as world language teachers outside our district. Now that our department has written a language-neutral Grade 6 curriculum, we can compare notes day-by-day and share our lesson ideas across languages. This allows us to expand our repertoire of teaching techniques and collaborate deeply.
Moving to proficiency has given me a new lease on my teaching life. I never imagined that I would have the opportunity to share my developing expertise with colleagues outside my district, and I have discovered that I love providing professional development to adults. These days I view my classroom as my test kitchen: I can test out new ideas, tinker with my recipes, and then share them with other teachers near and far.
MaFLA: What advice do you have for the teacher and/or department starting out on the shift to proficiency?
Rebecca Blouwolff: Stay humble and curious! Never be afraid to say that you don’t know, don’t understand yet, or need more help. Teachers are helpers, so seek out folks who are a bit ahead of you on the path to proficiency. In most cases, they’ll be thrilled to pay it forward by telling you their battle stories and sharing resources. Unlike Hollywood celebrities, ACTFL rock stars like Laura Terrill and Greg Duncan answer their own emails and may even be willing to point you in the right direction if you are feeling stuck. Once you start to get the hang of things, keep asking for feedback on your teaching materials and lessons so that you can refine your practice further and continue to grow.
MaFLA: The language teacher shortage is well documented and we are now only beginning to make recruitment and retention of high quality teachers a fundamental part of our leadership practice. What advice would you have for teacher leaders to help address these issues? And what advice would you have for teachers who are new to the profession?
Rebecca Blouwolff: I’d love to see a pathway for more multilinguals to enter our schools, particularly as world language teachers. This can increase teacher supply, expose more young people to multilingualism, and deepen the cultural competency of our school communities. Everywhere I go around Boston, I run into native French speakers such as a Cameroonian asylum-seeker who taught math for several years in her home country but is now working at Target, a member of the Paris Jewish community who survived anti-Semitic attacks there before deciding to move the whole family here, a Haitian cab driver who was a French teachers in his home country. How might we provide a fast track program for these people to join our profession? Expecting native speaker adults born abroad to redo their entire undergraduate education and eventually earn a master degree here is not realistic. They don’t need five or six years of study in order to be ready to do this work.
If every school could find the language teachers it needs, then there’d be more programs in more schools – not just those that can woo teachers with better conditions and salaries. This is critical equity work for all students.
For new teachers, I’ll quote Jennifer Gonzalez from Cult of Pedagogy and say, find your marigolds – those people who nurture your practice and your educator soul. Take any help you can get. Borrow liberally from others’ ideas. Fake it until you make it. Be selfish about your self-care so that you can nurture yourself for the long term. Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint, and you can’t be a good teacher for your students if you’re overtired, under-exercised, and missing out on fun with friends and family.
MaFLA: So much of the TOY program is about advocating for languages. You’ll have the opportunity to talk with language leaders and professionals across the country as well as legislators. What is your advocacy message?
Rebecca Blouwolff: In America, every person should be free to express themselves in the language of their choice, where they wish. Those of us who make language learning our life’s work must stand up for multilinguals in our own communities. We can do this by not allowing prejudiced remarks to go unchallenged, by consciously fighting bias against non-native speakers of English, and by changing our schools’ hiring practices to bring more multilingual teachers into our classrooms.
As I’ve said before, it is not the job of multilingual people to make monolinguals feel comfortable in their ignorance. Rather, it is the job of Americans to break through our monolingual mindset and join the rest of the world by learning other languages. What our world needs now is humble, curious people who seek friendship with others through mutual understanding. Multilinguals are uniquely positioned to show us how. Our future requires that we work together to accept non-native English speakers without prejudice, and broaden our idea of who is qualified to teach in our schools.
MaFLA: What are some recommendations that you have for people who want to begin to become advocates within their classes, departments and communities?
Rebecca Blouwolff: Too often teachers’ work is invisible. It’s time to show off, people! Instead of worrying that you’ll come off as boasting about your great work, think about the pride your students will feel when you showcase their achievements to a larger audience. Parents, non-language teachers, and administrators in our communities are often very curious about proficiency-based instruction, because they did not benefit from this type of world language program when they were young. Show what you do – in person, in the press, via social media — and explain why it will help your students and our nation’s future.
MaFLA: What are you most excited about your TOY responsibilities in the upcoming year?
Rebecca Blouwolff: To pick the brains of language teacher nerds across the U.S. as I attend regional conferences, and expand the depth of my own practice as both a classroom teacher and presenter.