Luxembourg, the country, could fit inside of Germany one hundred and thirty-eight times with room to spare. At two-thirds the size of Rhode Island, the smallest of the United States, a centralized education system makes sense, but I didn’t realize how few teachers were out there until today, when I had the unique opportunity to attend the fourth annual English Teacher’s Day, which was held in Luxembourg City. Every English teacher in the country was invited to attend, and one hundred and thirty two of us showed up. Granted, not everyone was able to attend, but that number, to my knowledge, is comparable to the English teachers held within one (large) district in the United States! After getting over the initial shock of this realization, I went back to being excited about my Luxembourgish version of the NCTE National Convention (which I unfortunately will not be able to attend this year).
The day started off with a keynote speech from Charles Alderson, a professor at Lancaster University. The title of his talk was “Language Testing and the use of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)” which, in the most paraphrased sense, was about the importance of knowing how to make tests and doing it right. I haven’t actually seen the CEFR, but whenever the CEFR was mentioned, I mentally substituted “Common Core” because, as far as I can tell, they are both a set of standards. The main difference, however, is that the CEFR is a tool for reflection, a descriptive document that is not in any way used for accountability, while the Common Core is clearly used for the latter. Dr. Alderson talked quite a bit about validity and reliability and everything else that goes into making a good test, but the biggest thing I took away from him was the idea that “nobody writes a good test on their own,” that we all need to work with others and submit tests for peer review.
After a brief coffee break, we jumped into workshops, mine being “Content, Culture, and Critical Thinking in an Era of Global English,” presented by Lindsay Clandfield, one of the authors of a book with a similar title published by MacMillan. He argued that you cannot teach a language without teaching the culture, and that the problem with teaching English is nobody knows which culture to teach. What I liked about his presentation was that he asked teachers to really think about the culture represented in their lessons, something that I think applies to teachers across content areas. We need to think about what types of culture we are portraying, and whose culture we are portraying. For him, it was about appropriately representing culture and making the learning of the language more interesting and accessible for the student, but for me, it was about having a culturally inclusive classroom. The ideas he set forth for accessing culture, though, were applicable across the board: graphic novels, comics, short stories, prompts used from pictures, discussion starters from quotes…all great things that can be modified for a language arts classroom.
English Teacher’s Day was all about the breaks, which was good, I think, because it encouraged teachers to socialize and share their different experiences from each of the workshops (there were several offered during the workshop time slot). After lunch, we had another keynote address, this one presented by Amos Paran of the University of London and titled “The Dilemmas of Teaching and Testing Literature in EFL.” The central dilemma was one that I have been encountering with my cooperating teacher—do we assess for use of English or understanding of literature? We’ve been able to compromise, but trying to assess for multiple things can be pretty tough. Paran’s lecture was one of the most applicable to language arts, as he also described the dilemma of testing for “private appreciation vs. public knowledge,” with private appreciation being the student’s personal connections to the text and public knowledge being more closely aligned with an analysis—the ability to use academic language and talk about what is happening in the text. In the end, the conclusion was really that we need to assess all aspects of literature with assessments that provides a variety of tasks, gives students choice, ensures that criteria are transparent, and minimizes the weighting of language. He went through several different examples of ways to assess understanding, from book reviews for newspapers or writing a “missing” scene/document from the text to drawing a cover or choosing music for the book.
The last workshop was one that originally looked most promising, titled “Teaching Literature,” but turned out to be more of a brainstorm for what to teach rather than ideas for how to teach. The presenters did go through a thematic unit about love vs. fanaticism, however, which was an interesting project, and I liked the idea they brought up of presenting students with texts and art that inspire each other. One example was a painting titled “The Fall of Icarus” contrasted with the original mythology and then with the poem “Icarus by Mobile” by Gareth Owens.
The whole day was a valuable opportunity to learn more about teaching English as a foreign language, gain insight into the Luxembourgish education system, and engage with a professional development community. Where EFL teachers walked away with ideas for teaching the English language, I walked away with a head full of new ideas for writing prompts (exercises that are meant for language use can be given higher expectations and used for creative writing prompts) and literature lessons, a new understanding of the Luxembourgish education system, and, as always, the excitement to continue teaching.