When I joined the West Morris Regional High School District in 2012, our world language program was already quite strong. There were many talented teachers using best practices in accordance with the standards outlined by The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL). Nonetheless, as with any educational department, there was room for improvement.

From the beginning, the West Morris Regional superintendent, members of the board of education and, most important, the teachers were supportive of the department’s aim to demonstrate professional practices worthy of the designation. The process of developing an NJDOE World Language Model Program took four years, the courage to honestly evaluate where we were versus where we want to be, and a lot of hard work. The NJDOE designation centers on a district’s ability to demonstrate how its curriculum, instructional delivery, assessment structure, and professional development processes support the advancement of student proficiency, as outlined by the ACTFL and New Jersey Learning Standards. Programs that become models serve as a resource to other districts striving to implement the very practices that helped earn them the designation.

One of the greatest things about becoming a model program is hosting visitors from all over the state and helping them to reach their own world language instruction educational objectives. In doing this, the West Morris world language department has learned much about itself, its own students, other districts, and about how to continue to increase learner proficiency. Holding the designation is a special privilege. What’s more, serving as a resource to others has been incomparably informative, helping us to be ever more reflective in our own practice.

A good place to begin any transformative process is with an assessment of where you are.  Back in 2012, West Morris was fairly typical of a high-achieving high school district. Some teachers planned lessons that relied upon textbooks. Immersion was used by many teachers in the department, but we weren’t entirely embracing the ACTFL target language position statement, which advocates that the language should be used a minimum of 90 percent of the time. Nor were we comprehensively embracing the full implementation of communicative learning objectives.

Curriculum Redo We first targeted the curriculum itself. In 2012, we began with a rewrite of all world language courses. We collectively began to examine whether our curricular program aligned with our goal of building language proficiency in every student. We made a conscious move away from the isolated teaching of grammar and unrelated activities to thematically organized units that focused on communication and used authentic materials. We wanted students to learn amazing things by way of the target language, not learn about the target language.

Along with redesigning the curriculum, we worked as a department to determine challenging yet appropriate target proficiencies for the end of every unit of study and course. We researched appropriate yet rigorous levels of language proficiency that were feasible, based on the number of hours students accrued in each course. We developed a span of proficiencies for every unit and every course, which helped us to develop appropriate assessments, and planning backward, led to cohesive units of study that would interest the students and provide authentic language experiences right in the classroom.

The Importance of Professional Development At the core of the West Morris’ world language program is an intense focus on continued professional learning. We recognized early on that forming a university partnership was essential for ongoing professional learning for our staff. In 2012, we embarked on a series of intensive learning opportunities with Dr. Joseph Goebel, associate professor at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). Goebel taught the West Morris teachers multiple times per year on topics that we determined were fundamental to move the department forward. Goebel’s workshops proved to be the invaluable bedrock foundation in the process of improving practices in the classroom, as well as increasing student learning. Without the intensive learning opportunities that Goebel provided, I doubt our program would be where it is today.

By way of high-quality professional development, West Morris teachers have improved their instructional delivery with specific regard to understanding second language acquisition theory and appropriately applying it in their classroom. This is perhaps the most difficult, yet fundamentally important, part of the process of improving instruction and earning the model program designation.

West Morris teachers embraced the notion that teaching grammar in isolation in hopes that it would lead to oral language production is completely fallacious. Instead, teachers see themselves as providers of high quality and level-appropriate linguistic input, which is one of Stephen Krashen’s five important hypotheses. (Krashen is a noted linguist and educational researcher.) Memorizing verb conjugations won’t help a student speak a single utterance. In West Morris, the language is taught for the purpose of communicating with other humans, period.

Student Self–Assessment Along the way, the teachers and I determined that students needed to recognize that their learning was progress along a continuum, and that any movement on said continuum was something to celebrate! For this reason, we opted to pilot and ultimately implement the Linguafolio Student Self-Assessment checklist. This form of self-assessment is based on the ACTFL “Can-Do” statements, and helps students identify exactly what they are able to say and do in the target language. Students create a digital portfolio to accompany their checklists; providing documentation or evidence to support each check that they assign themselves. This process is crucial to students seeing themselves as active participants in their own learning, as well as helping them to monitor their progress in the language within a greater context.

In an effort to facilitate uniform, high-quality instructional delivery, the teachers and I created a digital resource repository to warehouse the curriculum, standards, targeted language proficiencies, essential questions, communicative learning objectives, input activities, learning activities, assessments, Can-Do statements, and additional resources to teach any given unit of study or course. This has completely replaced textbooks, which we no longer employ at all. These repositories, as we call them, assist new teachers, as well as seasoned ones, in delivering content that is engaging, meaningful, authentic, and differentiated. Everything is accessible to the teachers wherever they are, and everyone is eager to add and edit whenever they see that a change is necessary. In essence, this process has helped our curriculum and materials to become ever-changing and living, reflective of the depth of knowledge of the teachers who use it.

Seal of Biliteracy Earlier this year, we began our first implementation of the Seal of Biliteracy in both of our high schools. In early 2016, the governor signed a law that established the “State Seal of Biliteracy” to recognize high school graduates who have attained a high level of bilingual proficiency. The seal is a credential that accompanies the student’s high school diploma and is a remarkable accomplishment that students should be very proud of!

Our students sat for the STAMP test in January, or used their previous year’s IB or AP test scores to qualify. In total, we had about 80 students earn the seal in the spring of 2017, the first year it was available. We expect that West Morris will have even more students attain this distinction in the spring of 2018.

The past five years in the West Morris world language department have been exciting, challenging, productive, and extremely rewarding. We work as a team and the teachers and I know that all of our toil serves toward one single goal: to increase student language proficiency. Our team knows that no one can rest on their accomplishments. We hope that the next five years will be as challenging and meaningful, if not more so, than the last.

If you are interested in visiting our world language program at West Morris Central and West Morris Mendham High Schools, please contact me at jlasusa@wmrhsd.org. We would love to share our experiences with you face to face. At NJSBA’s Workshop 2017 in October, I will conduct a program discussing the path to becoming an NJDOE World Language Model Program in a session called “From Effective to Exceptional: Building a Model WL Program.” The session will be held Thursday, Oct. 26 at 10 a.m. in room 321 at the Atlantic City Convention Center. Join us!

Jessica Lasusa is supervisor of world language programs, West Morris Regional High School District. She can be reached at jlasusa@wmrhsd.org.