InterviewsJuly 2015

Interview: Toni Theisen on Language Teaching and Technology

Interview with Toni Theisen, former French teacher at Loveland High school (Colorado), past ACTFL President, 2009 ACTFL TOY and current Director of the Thompson School District Dual Language Immersion program in Loveland, CO.


EDWIGE: You were the 2009 National Foreign Language Teacher of the year and you went on to be the ACTFL president for a year. How was that experience?

TONI: Well, first of all, let’s start off with the ACTFL TOY program I was very honored to have been selected.  The main objective of the program is to advocate for world language programs at all levels. But I was not the only teacher of the year. We have a whole group of teachers who are out advocating for foreign language study in many different ways at the state, regional and national level. One of the advantages of being the ACTFL TOY is that it give this teacher a title that gets one into many doors to advocate for world languages. For example, I had a chance to speak to the Colorado State Board of Education as well as my own district’s school board several different times about language learning, particularly with my focus on technology. I had a chance to talk with state and local political leaders, as well as many national leaders in the House and the Senate. Probably one of my best experiences was when I had a private meeting with the Ambassador of France to the United States. Before I went for this meeting, I asked my students what I should take from Colorado to the French ambassador and they gave me a few ideas. My students decided that they needed to make a video in French, talking about why they were learning French. Each one of them had prepared a short testimonial in French explaining why it was important to learn French in Colorado.  A lot of them looked up some famous French quotes, including Le Petit Prince which we were reading at that time. So when the Ambassador said, “So tell me about learning French in Colorado”, I shared their video.  Needless to say, he was very impressed and I was very proud. It really gave me a chance to speak of the importance of language. So throughout the entire year, that really was my role. My role was also to encourage other teachers to try to be the teachers of the year so they could advocate for their state, make connections. That was a really important piece. The title of ACTFL TOY continues to be very strategic in advocating for world languages.  Just this year, it helped get two district elementary dual language immersion programs launched in my district, because I came with expertise and it was validated with this national credential.

EDWIGE: How did you go from being teacher of the year to becoming ACTFL president? How did that transition happen?

TONI: Well, from 2003 to 2006, I was on the ACTFL board.  I served on several committees, and I was the Convention chair for the national conference. I also served as the Chair of the ACTFL 21st century skills map.  So with this experience and serving as the ACTFL TOY, CCFLT and Anna Crocker, who was president at that time, asked whether I wanted to run for ACTFL president. I said I would be honored to be nominated for this very important role.  The rest is history.

EDWIGE: You were teaching the whole time?

TONI: Yes, I was.  We all serve on boards, committees, etc. so before I even said yes I talked to my principal and my district.  They were very supportive in providing days off for my travels and commitments.  I was proud to be an active teacher serving in this role.  I wanted other teachers to see how taking leadership positions is crucial for our profession.  I quite often shared events from my classroom via tweets, Instagram, videos, and blogs.  I wanted to inspire others to take on leadership roles in their schools, districts, states, and regions.  But really what it gave me is a different type of validity because I was a teacher, a secondary teacher, being a teacher and doing these things.  Part of my message was that we can all find that leader in us and find ways to contribute to our profession in many different ways. But also being ACTFL president gave me a lot of opportunities to support language learning. I got to promote a lot of different things and of course, I promoted the use of technology in the classroom in ways that would really transform what we were doing; that was always part of my message. And a big part of the ACTFL convention was about using technology. It gave me an opportunity to go to different conferences, be part of things that I wouldn’t normally be able to be a part of. So again, a different type of leadership role to share. And I just encourage anyone to be part of their professional organizations, that’s where we are united, that’s where we share, that’s where we learn, and if you want to move to those leadership positions, they’re available.

EDWIGE: What is the major project you worked on when you were ACTFL President? Did you work on the 21st-century skills map?

TONI: Yes, that came about a couple years before, as a project because the p21 council wanted each content area to come up with a map. So I chaired the committee. We put together this ACTFL 21st century skills map that became part of the many documents ACTFL has to support teachers. What do we do to support literacy, numeracy and 21st-century skills? So it’s just saying “Here’s what it looks like in the 21st-century classrooms”. So yes, I did have a leadership role on that. And then one of the things that I did that was really fun was that I got ACTFL on the path of thinking about badges. I had heard of the wonderful work of COERLL at the University of Texas, and I when I had a chance to go to the IALLT conference in Florida, I took the opportunity to learn more about their work. Then I was at AATSP, and the COERLL group was there, we had more time to discuss their work with badges.  Collaborating with COERLL under the leadership of Carl Blyth, we were able to offer the first participatory badge at the ACTFL 2013 convention.

EDWIGE: So let’s talk a little bit about you being an advocate for technology integration in the classroom. What do you say when teachers call it bells and whistles or distractions to learning?

TONI: Well, I use the data that is out there that shows how kids learn differently and how they are attached to technology and how technology will be an integral part of their life. So really by putting it into the classroom, we are giving them skills that will help them with their study habits and their career. To be career ready has a big technology component. Technology resistance is often coming out of the voice of fear. I share with teachers some strategies where you can say to kids, “Well, here’s some possibilities or a tool that you can use and share”, and I try to convince them that they don’t always have to be experts in everything in order to have it happen. And when there is a failure, to not think that it was a waste of time but think about what they learned from it, and then have some discussions with the kids. The students themselves know how to use technology in other ways, so what your expertise is helping them learn. I think as language teachers, we all want opportunities to connect outside of our classroom, and tools like Skype and video messaging, and a lot of different things have made that possible. Before it was kind of difficult to find but now you have some organizations like ePals and other places where you don’t have to commit to a whole year project. You can commit to do this for two weeks. Let’s just share what our school is about, or a teacher who just want to have a little conversation. Of course, in Colorado, there is an eight hour time difference with France so you have to find a way to make that happen; a recording or something. And don’t forget of course that your community probably has speakers that can come in or can Skype in. You know maybe it’s not so much that they’re a speaker of the language themselves, but maybe they come from an international business capacity and they can talk about what it means to trade with Mexico or trade with China. Almost every state has an international affairs, international events or a business council. You really have to be creative and look at that. Ourselves as teachers, we have to model being connected too. Facebook brings people together, Instagram, Twitter, other social media groups do that too; you got to be part of that and share. In March or April, during spring break, I was just looking through a series of tweets and all of a sudden this tweet came up about a language conference in Great Britain. Well, I’d made friends with a whole lot of those people in Great Britain through Twitter and Facebook, etc. and some of them were going to be there. So they were tweeting their presentations and their links, and I  learned a little bit more about integrative technology and how it comes in stages. Here I was, connecting and participating in a conference in the United Kingdom through tweets and links; and then I could also retweet it. We can learn in different ways, we just need to model that type of thing.

EDWIGE: Do you feel that there is a little bit less pushback by teachers in terms of technology integration?

TONI: It’s more commonplace and people aren’t so crazy about it anymore. Before we would try to use everything and integrate it but really we weren’t integrating it, we were using it because it was cool. But you have to have a reason to do it. We all have a limited amount of teaching time, and now as we see some different types of evaluation processes coming up in our schools, our time gets cut back more and more. So we’ve got to really be sensible about this. I think one of the more interesting pieces coming along is this concept of a flipped classroom. I think that really has helped. There are still some drawbacks with kids not having computers at home or they’re just not doing the work but you could still do a flipped classroom within your own classroom, with half the class doing the flipping, and the other half doing stations. I think also some of the other teachers’ frustrations with technology are about having access to it.

EDWIGE: Let’s talk a little bit about teacher access, and also student access.

TONI: Well, the cost is there. What is happening in a lot of programs, a lot of schools, unfortunately, is that budgets keep getting cut back and cut back more for reasons that I don’t think are appropriate as we try to change the face of education. I’m a public school person, we need to be able to have access and fair access. But a lot of our technology is being used for testing. Before I would have an opportunity to go to a lab, or use the iPads or whatever but it comes about less and less. Really, what I use now are telephones. I’ve used phones a lot more this year. Not everyone has a phone, but I have a couple of iPads so I throw those out or kids share their phones. But the phones have the capacity to do just about anything so I just have to kind of create things that work on a phone, work with it and it still has the impact. I think that using phones has given me more access and less frustration. I still go to some districts and work as a consultant. In schools where they say we’re not allowed to use cell phones, I tell them you’ve got to change that. So I invited my principal to observe me when we were using cell phones to show what the impact was. Of course, I’ve been around awhile and I was willing to take the risk, but I was in a position to take the risk to open it up for other teachers and since then, there are a lot of other things you can do.

EDWIGE: So speaking of tools, what are your favorite tools? What are your top three? I’m sure the list changes all the time.

TONI: Oh gosh! Well, I absolutely love using Kahoot. I think that it gets kids to connect back to the lesson or gets them excited about it or ready for a new part. One of my favorite tools is Wikispaces because I can use it and kids can access it easily. Kids have made Wikispace portfolios and they’ve put their work on that. One of the ways we can connect with other schools despite our time difference is through discussion boards on wikis. I know probably a lot of teachers, particularly less commonly taught languages or languages with lower enrollment have stacked classes which means they have a lot of levels in one class. With Wikispaces, kids can be working over here and I can teach another part over here. It can preserve my sanity a little bit and alleviate the guilt of not being able to be with them all the time. I can set things up for them to work through and help them also be self-directed learners which is one of our 21st-century skills.

EDWIGE: Yes, absolutely. So Kahoot, Wikispaces, what else?

TONI: I like polls. Polling gives us ways to start a conversation. What would be the top three things that you want to learn? and then blogs and things where students can comment. Particularly for the advanced levels where responding to some of the questions is going to help them out particularly. It’s good to be able to blog and write those things, but it’s also going to help them with some exams like AP or IB. The comments give me some chance to see what they can do.

EDWIGE: So do you use Blogger?

TONI: Blogger, yes. Yeah it’s simple enough.

EDWIGE: Some teachers can be overwhelmed by the options. There is so much out there, some don’t know where to start. What would be an entry-level technology that a teacher could start using?

TONI: I would say work with some blogs. Get your kids to start blogging. The teacher can post the questions and they could blog or respond and just see that their thinking is out there. And things like Edmodo and Schoology that a lot of districts have, where you can share lots of things, even also share their work with them within an environment that’s safe. You can use Edmodo without having a school connection and connect to other teachers. Just see how it works, and try something simple. And then I would also tell them to explore some of the polling tools, just try it out you know, put the answers up there and then from there have a conversation about the results. Then I would say use Google images, just use Google images to really supplement, because with so much visual thinking, and visual learning you can find so many pictures that kids can talk about. I like to use infographics. Infographics, which are graphs with data and pictures are a very easy way for kids to learn analysis skills, which is a numeracy skill many of our teachers are also rated on in their evaluation. They’re going to talk a little bit about it, even in level one or in first grade they can see, “Oh my, in France there are more dogs than cats.” They can say simple things: Lots of dogs, not so many cats. Those are tools that they are going to see all of their lives and that’s data representation. We’re data-driven and so why not start them right away with doing that? Of course, you can move on after that. There are some programs to create infographics that are pretty simple. Pictochart is one of them. And if you are a fan of that you can give them an infographic model and an authentic reading with data. Then have them read it in teams and create an infographic just on a sheet of paper. So you’re still talking about the data, but what they are doing is more than just comprehending the reading, they’re analyzing the reading and synthesizing it into a new form.

EDWIGE: What about when technology fails you? I know a lot of teachers who don’t feel comfortable troubleshooting technology in front of their students.
TONI: Well you always have to have a backup plan. You have to go “Well this isn’t going to work today” and just throw that part. Lots of times I’ll say: “Okay, is there a little button I’m not pushing?” and a student will inevitably come up and click it. Or sometimes, I’ll just like start singing a song and they’ll go “It’s not working?” But as long as you have a backup plan, you know it isn’t a disaster. It’s just what happens, and if we don’t teach kids ways to readjust and move on from failures, we’re not doing it right. That’s problem-solving because if everything is going to work perfectly every single time, you are in the wrong world. You have to go with the flow. I think that teachers have to let go of the fact that they have to control everything. They have to facilitate learning. Sometimes they’re the learner, sometimes they’re the mentor, sometimes they’re facilitators. So you have to be willing to let go.

EDWIGE: So you’ve been teaching for several years and you’re about to retire, so what is next in the adventure of Toni Theisen?

TONI: [Laugh] Well, I’m going to retire from teaching. I have a great teacher who is taking my place. That was really important to me because I’ve spent over four years building a successful program and it is important to have more than one language in a school. So I feel pretty good about that. I’ve been working a whole lot in promoting dual language immersion at the elementary level. It’s slow, budget issues are there, interest, funds, etc. But the interest is peaking. Finally, after three years of putting a tremendous amount of effort at bringing data, it just got approved this year so we’ll be opening up two schools. Actually, there are two elementary schools that exist and we’ll start with Kindergarten and have three rounds. One round will be traditional and the other two will be the dual immersion and we will be using Spanish. So I’ll be the director of that. With my retirement, I can work only part-time and that’s okay. And then I’ll do some coordination work in my district, which still gives me plenty of time to work on my research and do things I like to do. Probably do some consulting. But I’m thrilled with being the Director, I’m very excited about that.

EDWIGE: And it will be Spanish dual immersion?

TONI: We’re starting off with Spanish because that’s really good for our community and we could find teachers. You have to think about that. And think about access to resources, so it’s a good fit. We’ll see where it goes. I really think down the road we’ll be able to add different languages, but we’ve got to play this out in a safer environment for now.

EDWIGE: And will it be in Loveland?

TONI: Yeah it will be in Loveland. That’s where I’ve taught all my life, I live in Fort Collins, but I teach in Loveland in the Thompson School District and I think they’re very excited. A lot of people are talking about it. Everybody’s very excited about this.  In fact, eight of them, both principals, and six other teachers paid their own money to go to Guatemala to an immersion program for two weeks. The principal at the other school didn’t know any Spanish except for basic stuff. We were kind of joking around and he goes “I think I’m novice mid” and he feels like he could have a basic conversation with a parent and understand what’s going on. So, I see that as real commitment and we’ll be working a lot with Utah. Utah that has over 117 programs and they’ve adopted a western consortium and they invited us to be part of it so we will be going to an all week workshop the first week of August. Not only do they have the workshop for the Spanish teachers in Spanish, but they also have it for their counterpart in English, so they learn some different types of things. They have it for principals and directors. It will be very helpful for us. We don’t have to start off at ground zero. You know, we can learn from them and they can help us out so we’ll see where that goes.

EDWIGE. Thank you so much Toni! It’s always a pleasure to talk to you.

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