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  • Jillian Lykens

Putting Your Program on a Pedestal: Tips to Build and Maintain Healthy Programs

In our global world, the need for speakers of multiple languages is ever increasing. However, that is not always reflected in course offerings at schools and institutions as language programs find themselves marginalized in the modern educational landscape. But that need not be the case! Here are some tips I have found to build and promote thriving language programs at a time when others are facing the chopping block.

First, a little about my own program. I currently teach German at a public high school in Colorado Springs, offering five levels (German I through AP). I came to this school last year, inheriting a program that had had a rough time during the pandemic. In my second year at this school, enrollment in German has already increased by 45 students, and we’re offering the language at the upper levels for the first time in years. I am excited to share with you what I’ve learned through this process.

There are basically three aspects of building and maintaining a health program: what you do in the classroom, what you do beyond your classroom in the school, and what you do in the community.

In the Classroom

The foundation of any strong program really depends on how you plan and deliver your instruction. Having a strong sense of clarity in your curriculum may not sound very flashy, but it is absolutely vital to attracting and retaining students. After all, who likes to have their time wasted? Students enter your room with the desire to speak the language, so make sure to give them that ability!

Think back to what gets you excited about learning. Is it drill-and-kill grammar activities? Or is it active use of the language to complete real-world tasks? If you wouldn’t want to complete tasks such as worksheets and tests, then don’t make your students do them, either.

To get students excited about your class, make sure to plan an engaging curriculum by following these steps:

  • Start with the standards. Use your state and national standards to guide what you are teaching.

  • Use the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do Statements to plan active, communicative use of the language.

  • Teach concepts in real-world communicative contexts that facilitate interculturality.

  • Make your assessments (and your daily learning activities) performance based.

With this in mind, it’s time to start planning a unit. First, choose a culturally relevant theme (not just a grammar topic). Then, decide on your targeted proficiency level and start to plan a summative assessment that allows students to show off what they can do with the language in all three modes (interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational). Go backwards from there to decide what vocabulary, grammar, and language skills your students will need to be successful with these tasks.

As an example, here is one of my favorite units to teach in German I: School. My targeted proficiency level for this is Novice High/Intermediate Low. For our summative performance assessment, students research schools in German-speaking countries, looking at websites to figure out what all is taught and how the school is structured (interpretive). They then create their own dream schools that incorporate elements of traditional German schools while allowing them to add in their own creative touches. We hold a school fair, during which they present their schools to prospective students (presentational) and field questions the prospective students might have (interpersonal). The students really enjoy being able to put their own spin on their projects, bringing in their personal interests in designing their schools and sharing them with their peers. And, before you know it, they have spent an entire class period talking to each other in German as they explore each other’s offerings.

Once you have your end-of-the-unit goal in mind, it’s time to start designing your daily lessons. Be sure to keep these things in mind:

  • Think about how each learning activity guides your students to success on the summative assessment. If it doesn’t, then you might need to re-think why you are including it.

  • Address all three modes of communication in your daily lessons to ensure your students will be successful on the tasks at the end of the unit.

  • Situate your learning activities in real-world settings so that students can make connections between what they are learning and how they will be able to use it.

  • And finally, have fun! That is what your students will remember most (and tell their friends about later!).

But a successful classroom needs more than just a strong curriculum. As my principal constantly points out, we need to put kids before content. If your students feel welcome and appreciated in your room, they will keep coming back. It’s important to put that extra bit of effort into decorating your room and making it a welcoming environment. Learn student names quickly and use them frequently. Greet every student personally at the door and welcome them into the room. And remember to take the time to recognize accomplishments and celebrate achievements, even if it’s just the small things.

Beyond the Classroom

I’m sure there are amazing things happening within your four walls, but how are people outside of your room going to know about it? Think of ways to make your program visible to the school at large. Here are some things that I’ve found useful:

  • Spill Out Into the Hallways. Think of creative activities that students can do beyond your room. Instead of a gallery hop in your room, could you have the students set up stations in the hallways with larger posters? Not only does it give your students more space, it makes others wonder what types of cool things are happening in your class.

  • Make a Big Impact. Decorate your door and create displays in the halls. Anything you can do to make people notice you, the more attention your program will get. Lure people in with over-the-top celebrations (the smell of roasting sausages during Oktoberfest does wonders for my enrollment!). Get your events on the school and district websites. And really just make sure you’re the most extra at any event, like open house or prospective student night.

  • Involve the Whole School. Think about starting a World Languages Week with events for the entire student body, not just language students. Raise the visibility of your programs while recognizing the diverse backgrounds of the people in your building.

  • Diversify. Get involved in things other than languages. If you coach or sponsor other activities, you can work on recruiting those students to your program. Plus, your colleagues will start to view you as an integral part of the school, not just as the World Language teacher.

  • Collaborate with Colleagues. Is there a way you could work together with other departments in your building? Could you bring in the art teacher to do a lesson on Impressionism? Could you work with the cafeteria to plan meals from your target culture? Could you collaborate with the PE teachers to bring some physicality into your lessons?

Out and About in the Community

No content lends itself better to real-world connections than World Languages, so start taking advantage of it!

  • Guest Speakers. We have lots of expertise in the community, so make use of it! Bringing in experts engages the students and demonstrates the real-world connections of what they’re learning. It also looks impressive to others in your building and gives the community a peek into the amazing things you’re doing in your classroom.

  • Travel. There is nothing students love better than field trips, so make sure you’re taking one. Whether it be locally in your community (restaurants, performances, art exhibits, etc.) or abroad, travel allows students to recognize the importance and impact of the language and culture they’ve been studying. (Plus, students will sign up for your class just to take the trip!)

  • Community Service. Get your students, clubs, and honor societies out in the community. Not only will it increase empathy and leadership capacity in your students, it will give your program a good name. (Also, if you don’t have an honor society yet, start one! I have several students who continue through their Senior year with me just so that they can walk across the stage at graduation with their cords.)

  • Immersion Week. One thing I’ve done in the past with colleagues to really get our students out in the community is to hold a week-long immersion camp during the summer. We focused on travel during this optional experience and then acted as German-, French-, and Spanish-speaking tourists in our own town. Not only did the students have a great time learning extra language, we made a big impression out and about in our community.

  • Find your Tribe. So, this is more for you than for your students. But make sure you get out of your classroom from time to time, too! Find a professional community that supports and inspires you, and make sure you take the time to attend conferences, workshops, and events with them. It might be tough to find the time, but it will pay off ten-fold in the end.

There is no magic bullet to attracting and retaining students, but these are steps I have found helpful. If you want to discuss any of these further with me, feel free to reach out to me at

Jillian Lykens has been teaching German in Colorado Springs since 2016. She holds a master's degree in Teaching World Languages and her instructional experience includes teaching in two different states and two different countries to preschoolers, undergraduates, and everyone in between.

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