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Scaffold for Success.

Scorpio Sphinx Foreign Language 11-07-07

By Freddie A. Bowles
Posted from Fayetteville, Arkansas

On Thursday, November 1, at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith, 82 students, teachers, professors, and administrators convened in the Smith-Pendergraft Center with a common purpose: professional development in the teaching of foreign languages.

Providing Professional Development Opportunities for Language Teachers.

Public school teachers in Arkansas are required by state law to complete sixty hours of professional development each school year. Many of these hours are gained during teacher workdays at the local district before, during, and after the fall-spring academic year. Teachers may also participate in workshops offered through their area cooperatives, or take classes through colleges and universities. They can even attend conferences to complete their hours.

With so many professional development activities available to Arkansas teachers, why would a one-day event in Fort Smith last week be significant?

For one, the Arkansas Foreign Language Teachers Association (AFLTA) District III fall conference was the first of its kind. Previous conferences for foreign language educators were held at the state level. Fort Smith brought together participants from 22 area counties for a productive get-together with a definite local flavor.

Choose Your Language.

Secondly, the conference provided foreign language teachers in Northwest Arkansas with a full-day of sessions devoted to their primary subject area. Foreign language teachers were able to complete up to six hours of professional development in their area of expertise. Eight of the conference sessions were presented in English so that any teacher could adapt them to their target language. The remaining three were conducted in French, German, and Spanish so that participants could enjoy the opportunity to speak and practice their chosen tongue.

At the spring meeting of the Arkansas Foreign Language Teachers Association, the board of directors voted to eliminate the statewide fall meeting and instructed each district to host its own fall conference. District III is one of five districts established by AFLTA. Fort Smith is centrally located in the district, whose 22 counties extend south to Polk county, north to Benton county, and east to Cleburne county. (For my non-Arkansas readers, counties to the west of Fort Smith belong to Oklahoma.)

The idea for this change is expressed in the "Scaffold for Success" plan devised by AFLTA President Melanie Hulsey, who believes that the organization can better serve its constituency by building membership through local initiatives, including the fall conferences, which allow for more intense and personal networking opportunities.

Last week's successful District III conference supported President Hulsey's vision with outstanding attendance and exceptional presentations. Eighty-two conferees arrived to share and build upon their passion for the effective teaching of foreign languages.

Opportunities for Immersion.

The conference proved exceptional for another reason. All the professional development (PD) hours centered on the teaching of foreign languages. On the surface, that seems an obvious and mundane fact, but it becomes exceptional when viewed in the greater context of PD. Most school districts offer PD hours in general pedagogical issues such as assessment, standards alignment, or technology competencies. Rarely do foreign language teachers have the opportunity to receive PD hours in their field, not to mention in their preferred second language. Five of the six hours focused on topics that every language teacher can apply to their classes. The other hour was devoted to immersion in the three most commonly taught foreign languages: French, German, and Spanish.

The decision to abandon the statewide conference in favor of regional meetings came at the 2007 spring meeting of AFLTA, which meant that each of the five districts had but a short time to organize their fall conference. Since I was elected District III representative at the same meeting at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway, the task of organizing the conference became my responsibility. Fortunately, I inherited an exceptional group of experienced teachers to join me in the challenge. I could not have imagined having a more optimistic, disciplined, and good-natured group of folks to work with.

Anna Beaulieu, a Fayetteville High School French teacher, served as conference chair. Pam Reynolds, a Spanish teacher from Siloam Springs High School, accepted the role of assistant conference chair. Robyn Fowler, a German teacher at Northside High School in Fort Smith, served as secretary and webmistress. Dr. Greg Armstrong, chair of the World Languages Department at the University of Arkansas Fort Smith (UAFS), volunteered his university as host for the conference.

We Wondered: Where to Begin?

The five of us communicated via E-mail throughout the summer but were unable to meet mano-a-mano until late August. Anna and I traveled to Fort Smith to see the facilities and begin our plans for the November 1 date. We were fresh, naive, and enthusiastic. Fortunately, Greg had just hosted another conference at UAFS earlier in the year, so he became the voice of experience as site coordinator. However, when we sat down for that first meeting, the five of us looked at one another with a touch of incredulity, wondering: Where to begin!?

We decided immediately that communication with District III teachers was priority number one. Public school teachers simply must plan ahead, often far ahead, so that their administrators can determine if the teacher will be allowed off-campus on a school day to take advantage of a special professional development opportunity.

One would think that a uniform policy exists across the state, but that's just not the case. Instead, a set of disparate policies are cobbled together — some of them unique and downright arbitrary — to govern how teachers within each school district are allowed to earn their sixty hours. Some teachers were able to take a PD day with full funding and credit. Others had to declare a personal day to earn their PD hours. Some were allowed a personal day but could not count the six hours toward PD requirements because the conference was a held on a weekday. We just hoped that enough teachers would work their way through the maze to ensure a robust attendance.

For two months we met, E-mailed, and distributed notices and announcements to the teachers in our 22 counties. We decided on six concurrent sessions, three immersion sessions, and one keynote session. The Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) approved our plan with our assurance that each session would meet at least two of the Arkansas standards for professional development. No problem. We had the hours, the standards, and most importantly, engaging and useful sessions for our teachers — sessions that would be presented by their peers, public school teachers, and their colleagues from higher education.

Gracious Nature, Gracious UAFS.

At last came November 1. Nature graced us with a crisp and cool autumnal day — with no rain clouds visible or approaching. At 7 the conference organizers and volunteers convened in the campus center to make sure that the preparations from the night before were in order. UAFS was gracious, too, providing four break-out rooms and one general session room fully equipped with wireless connections, LCD projectors and laptops, screens, and two techies to troubleshoot throughout the day.

Over 60 professionals and students were pre-registered, so their packets and name tags (thoughtfully supplied by UAFS) were alphabetized for pick-up. Two volunteers from the World Languages Department, Brenda Ross and Mary Cantu, worked the registration table, while the rest of us greeted arrivals and fielded questions regarding equipment and other matters.

Hot cinnamon roles and coffee welcomed our guests as they claimed their seats for the opening session, greeting old friends and saying "Hello!" to new ones. A keen sense of excitement and anticipation riffled the air as curious UAFS staff, faculty, and students welcomed us and asked about the conference.

Dr. Greg Armstrong opened the session with his welcome, greeting, and introduction of three dignitaries: Susan Grier, named by Greg as "Foreign Language Specialist Emerita;" Dr. Paul Beran, UAFS chancellor; and Takeo Suzuki, sponsor of the International Club at UAFS. (Susan and former AFLTA president Patricia Carlin played key roles in getting ADE approval for the professional development hours.)

More Foreign Language Opportunities.

Dr. Beran stepped to the podium to welcome the conference guests and acknowledge the importance of learning foreign languages. Through his initiative, students at UAFS will be offered more foreign language opportunities in the near future.

Later that morning, our state Foreign Language Specialist, Ellen Treadway, dropped in to greet conferees and give a brief overview of the new state frameworks for foreign language.

After my greetings and welcome, Celine Simpson, French teacher at Bentonville High School and District III Foreign Language Festival Chair, gave a brief overview of the February Festival. Celine also took the time to set up a table of information about the festival so that our teachers could begin to prepare their students for competition.

Anna Beaulieu, conference chair, wrapped up the opening with her greetings and information about procedures and paperwork. She also introduced the keynote speakers, Sheila Bayles and Jeanette Arnhart, Spanish teachers from the Rogers School District. Participants were delighted when Jeanette appeared magically dressed in full fairy regalia, sprinkling the audience with her magic wand to initiate their presentation, "Activity Fairy to the Rescue." Their practical ideas and materials are suitable for any school district and applicable to all languages and levels. These two indefatigable and innovative ladies epitomize the best in our foreign language teachers — committed, generous, and passionate professionals who are all about teaching languages in original and effective ways. Sheila and Jeanette have expanded their successful ideas and strategies to create "An�mate," a business venture devoted to materials for language teachers.

Let the Sessions Begin!

Following the keynote, we enjoyed a short break before the beginning of concurrent sessions. The UAFS bookstore had donated several nice door prizes, so 20 lucky participants walked away with memorabilia from UAFS before choosing from two concurrent sessions. One, "Organizing Your Technology," was offered by Robyn Fowler and Anna Beaulieu. The other by Anna Love was entitled "TPRS."

Robyn and Anna B. guided participants through select Internet sites toward the goal of organizing files pertaining to the four skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Anna Love demonstrated one of the most current and popular methodologies: Teaching Proficiency in Reading through Storytelling.

Lunch was aligned with the concept of efficient time management, which may have disappointed a few participants eager for a more robust culinary experience. We debated whether to extend our day and make lunch a more formal affair with a catered meal for all participants, or shorten the day so that participants could combine lunch with professional development and end the conference day at the traditional school's-out hour — and perhaps let most of us "beat dark home," as we're fond of saying in the river delta backcountry. This time 'round we opted for efficiency and catered box lunches, which allowed participants to enjoy an immersion session in their target language while earning an additional PD hour.

Let's Go to Leipzig and Cuernavaca.

Celine pitched in again and led the French immersion session with ideas and materials for oral projects and reading strategies at the advanced levels. Robyn added her expertise in German and spoke about a special program for K-12 teachers in Leipzig, Germany. For the Spanish session, Greg and Rosario Nolasco-Bell, one of Greg's colleagues in the World Languages Department, discussed an immersion program in Cuernavaca, Mexico. I spoke in English for those who teach English as a foreign or second language, focusing my presentation on the concept of combining accuracy with fluency to help students learn the language of school along with social language.

The afternoon concluded with two more concurrent sessions, one by Jeff Hagers and the other by co-presenters Kathy Lemons and Tam Stassen. Kathy teaches Spanish and Tam teaches German at Fayetteville High School. They rocked the house with their presentation on the use of rap in the foreign language classroom. Jeff, a Spanish teacher at Bentonville High School and director of the new International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program, gave participants an overview of the IB with special emphasis on the language component.

Concurrent Session III ended the day with another pair of useful presentations. Wendy Dodge and Ivan Iglesias, Spanish teachers at the University of Central Arkansas, shared their techniques for interjecting fun and games into the foreign language classroom. Brad Gilmer, French teacher at Oakdale Junior High School in Rogers and former District III president, showed participants how they could combine technology with portfolios using LinguaFolio, a popular software program for foreign language teachers.

Just like that, it was over. Another day at school was done.

Accomplishments and New Challenges.

Teachers tidied-up their paperwork by collecting signatures for their PD confirmations before saying good-bye to friends and colleagues. Everywhere folks were discussing the day's accomplishments and tomorrow's challenges back in the classroom. "Be safe. Be careful. See you in February."

We heard many positive comments from the diverse groups of participants at our inaugural District III Fall Conference. The most telling for me came from one of my former French interns in the Master of Arts in Teaching Program at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville. Jeanie approached me with an aura of excitement and elation to share two comments. She told me first that "I never knew that a conference could be like this." Then she said she had learned so much to help her be a better teacher, and that she was going to put some of the things she learned into practice immediately.

I couldn't think of a better endorsement for the "Scaffold for Success" for foreign language teaching in Arkansas.

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