Episode 103 – A Wider Vision of the World – Lori LeVar Pierce

Ep 103 Lori LeVar Pierce
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
It's About Language, with Norah Jones
Episode 103 - A Wider Vision of the World - Lori LeVar Pierce

“My students know that the word weird is outlawed in my classroom because it implies judgement… I strive to give them a vision that the world is bigger than what they have experienced, to value the thinking that is different from theirs.”

Sharing Lori LeVar Pierce with you is fun and informative because she has so many roads of excellence that she travels each day.

She brings energy and insight in part because she has her own wider vision of the world that comes from trying on different skills and opportunities: learning a new language, traveling to a new place, studying and working in both business and education, putting on a variety of hats in whatever she does (marketing, then French and German, then Latin, then speech and debate, integrating all with her science and mathematical colleagues – among many other activities).

Here are some ideas that prompt reflection from us that hear what Lori shares. What are your experiences and stories for each? As we listen, we are prompted to take a look inside ourselves for the language we use to describe…

our understanding of our own circumstances and perspectives. How do we define ourselves? Which “people” do we say we belong to and why? What seems unquestionably true to us? In what ways do we contribute? What comes hard to us? What do we define as failure? What do we define as success? What is good? How do we get there?

our understanding of the diversity of the perspectives of others we meet. What types of persons form the circles in which you live your life – circles of family, community, institution, work, play? How closely do these circles match your perspectives and practices? How often do you consciously seek out individuals or groups whose experiences and perspectives vary from yours? When you come across them, how do you feel and interact?

our understanding of the connectedness and interdependence of our lives and that of others. What immediate, interior response does that affirmation (“connectedness and interdependence of our lives”) evoke for you? In what ways does that affirmation lead to action in your life, either to agree or disagree with it?

our understanding of our own identity and purpose in the world. Why are you here? What in your unique history and experiences has led you to be where you are right now, to do what you are doing right now? When you reflect on the stages of your life, your experiences and self-identity, are your living out your purpose as fully as you’d like? How do you know? What language do you use to define your purpose and to measure it?

Take a moment – take the time – to sit with your own life experiences and to “watch your language go by.” Our language and our experiences – our culture, both small and large – are what make us uniquely human.

Focus on those gifts for a moment. Feel your call and your power to fulfil it. It will come through your lalnguage and your culture. It always does.

Click to listen:

Scroll down for full transcript.

Lori’s Bio and Resources

For me, language has always been the key that opened doors to learning about people, culture, history and how to think about things in a different way.

I started learning French as a junior in high school just because my dad and I thought that his last name was French in origin and I was interested in learning more about where some of my ancestors had come from. In 50 years of research we have yet to determine whether or not the LeVars actually ever lived in France, but my love for language has blossomed. I enjoyed French so much that I added German my sophomore year in college and then learned Latin starting in 2011 as was requested when I accepted my current job. Currently I teach French, German, Latin, and Speech and Debate to gifted 11th and 12th graders in Columbus, Mississippi. I was honored to be selected Mississippi World Language Teacher of the Year 2016.

French, German, Latin, and Speech/Debate Instructor, Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science

Learn more about Lori and her work and her sharing: Lori LeVar Pierce | LinkedIn

Here’s the World Language Resource document Lori described: MIssissippi World Languages Teaching Guide (mdek12.org)

And here are resources for families, community members, educators, and administrators: World Languages Resources | The Mississippi Department of Education (mdek12.org)

Enjoy the podcast.


0:00:06.5 Norah Jones: Well, one thing I think you’ll discover about this episode with my guest, Lori LeVar Pierce, is that we could have gone in any number of directions that would have continued the conversation for hours, and that’s one reason why I’m glad to present her to you as a guest today. One of the things that I hope you’ll do is not only listen to the complete podcast, but when you hear a nugget of interest, to go back and stop and listen to it again. And I hope that what you will also do is go to my website fluency.consulting, because she’s provided resources there and information about herself that we didn’t even have a chance to get to. It’s exciting when people are engaged in language for their whole lives and they’re able to share so many facets of it. Enjoy the podcast. So, Lori LeVar Pierce, welcome to, It’s About Language. Glad to have you here today.

0:01:06.4 Lori LeVar Pierce: Thank you, Norah. I’m glad to be here with you.

0:01:08.6 Norah Jones: Well, I’m excited to share a variety of insights that you have, because once again, making sure that people realize that you are a French, German, Latin, as well as speech and debate instructor at the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science, there’s just so much wrapped up in all of those labels that I love it.

0:01:33.4 Lori LeVar Pierce: It is. It’s absolutely true, and I can even go a step further. When people ask me to describe in my school, it is a Public Residential School for the Gifted, and every word in that is important.

0:01:48.8 Norah Jones: And why… Let’s even start with that. Why is it that every one of those words in that title, that descriptor are important.

0:01:58.9 Lori LeVar Pierce: So we’ll start word by word, so public because we are fully supported by public funds from the state legislature, we have a separate allocation from the Department of Education, but we do… It’s connected and it’s residential because all of our students live on our campus, they come from all over the state of Mississippi, and even those who are from Columbus, where the school is located, there are some who could walk to their homes, but they still live on campus because we create this living learning community, and all of that is part of what we create for these students. And help give them an environment where learning is prioritized and made easier, if it will, by the circumstances. So no jobs, no family distractions, they are here to study. So public, residential and then school for the gifted.

0:02:47.5 Lori LeVar Pierce: So it’s application only, we expect that our students are… They’re all high performing, it’s focused on STEM, higher level math and science, so we give them a full curricula, including five different world languages that we teach.

0:03:03.6 Norah Jones: What a fascinating descriptor and when was the school established and I can imagine for what purpose, but instead of me imagining it, maybe you can specify.

0:03:15.6 Lori LeVar Pierce: Yeah, so it was established in 1988 by the state legislature for the express purpose of providing an opportunity for students who could not, at that time, progress further in primarily their Math and Science classes in the schools that they were… They weren’t being served. And it was modeled after the North Carolina School for Math and Science, so that the students could come together in an environment to advance their studies, and what was really fun about MSMS from the very beginning, and we have had just within, just a couple of years ago, the last original faculty member retired. So we had faculty members from that original crew, and what the state legislature did is they created the school and they hired an executive director.

0:04:01.7 Lori LeVar Pierce: And the executive director hired faculty, and then he said, “You create the school.” So the faculty got to sit down in a room with their expertise that they were not new teachers, they were veteran teachers from a lot of other places and design, if we can design a school, what would it look like? And it’s been really fun, and that atmosphere still kind of oversees what we do at this school, the faculty still get to be innovative, and we still carry those initial values and sometimes we tweak the way that we do things, but it’s just a really fun environment to be in where the core driving principle is serving students where, yes, that is really the idea behind all schools, but not all schools get to really say, that’s our one and only focus, and we can do it in innovative ways.

0:04:48.5 Norah Jones: Very, very inspiring. I’d like to zero in on one area where when you talk about designing it, the way that it can be most powerful, this is a STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics approach school. Out in the larger society, many times, STEM focus detracts from lessens the presence of language studies, and yet you have specified that the school was very carefully put together and the languages are part of that, what is the insight of this school and what are some of the results from the school over these, well, 35 years now, that will have proven that languages have a place in a school that is focused so strongly on STEM?

0:05:49.9 Lori LeVar Pierce: So interestingly enough, the original reasoning for language and for those who… Well, the original… The purpose for having world language is because all of our students are going to go to college. The idea is that they will matriculate to four-year universities, and world language experience is necessary for admission to the best colleges in the country. So at its core, that was what drove that, yet in the interim, we’ve had some really amazing teachers.

0:06:20.4 Lori LeVar Pierce: And I will give a lot of credit to my colleagues in the English department that have really helped. We’ve had some really, really amazing English faculty as well, so that has driven this appreciation for what the humanities bring in general, and then language teachers who have gone beyond the classroom to interest students in the language, to get them excited about it. And then now we have alumnae, alumni and alumnae who have graduated and come back and they may learn a language different from the one that they started at an MSMS, but they’ve learned languages, they have traveled.

0:06:54.0 Lori LeVar Pierce: Now, almost all of the students who come back to talk to me, tell me about… In fact, I just had a student yesterday at our college reveal day, some of them alumni and alumnae came back to visit, and this particular student decided to Italy for the summer, so when that’s pretty common, I think almost all of our alums travel, learn different languages. And so we’ve just sort of generated that interest and that value even if they go into STEM fields, which most of them still do, but they value that language as well, and some of them go on to major in language, I have one who’s going to major in linguistics.

0:07:29.1 Norah Jones: So language for language sake in that particular case, how about language in use in the sciences and mathematics that they follow not only in college, but potentially in their careers, any integration of the language with the scientific mind in their careers?

0:07:46.8 Lori LeVar Pierce: So what’s fun, obviously, Latin is where a lot more of that integration happens in the science field than in other languages, which is one of the reasons why when they hired me at an MSMS, they requested that I learn Latin because it needed to be a language provided. And so I had the French and the German background, and I learned Latin in 18 months and then got in front of the students and started teaching it. So even now, we’re discussing English derivatives that come from Greek and Latin, and to watch their eyes light up like, “Oh, that’s why this means that in science, or this means that,” and there are several of the science faculty members who are also fluent in these other languages and so they bring in the languages.

0:08:29.4 Lori LeVar Pierce: I was just talking with a colleague yesterday, he said, “We just had a Latin discussion in physics yesterday. Based on this particular term.” So yes, it does get integrated in there and it’s fun, those teachers like to talk to me about, yes, we brought this up and I asked the student that and they’re making these connections between what they’re learning in the science and the math fields and what they’re learning in the language fields based on the linguistic undercurrent of all of it.

0:08:56.5 Norah Jones: That’s fantastic. And we tapped on there, the fact that you added Latin in some 18 months to your array of languages that you were teaching, and I almost put on my French accent to introduce you today. Lori LeVar Pierce and apparently, thinking of that as a very French name was part of the rationale for you learning French, could you give us some personal history about why you learned languages at your start?

0:09:28.5 Lori LeVar Pierce: Yes, so it really started… My father was very interested in family history research and taught me a lot of things and showed me research he had done. And the same for me, I was very interested in LeVar, seems very obviously French, and French was one of the languages offered at my high school so I took it and had a brand new teacher who was an amazing English teacher, and he was willing to teach French, became I think a much better French teacher, but she just instilled a love of it with me, but I was just curious to know where did my family come from? What can I learn about France? And so that motivated me to start studying the French, then once I enjoyed the French, then I thought, “Oh well, maybe I could major in a language and pick up a second separate one. Because this is really fun.”

0:10:15.3 Lori LeVar Pierce: I sort of like enjoy this, although I’m going to step back for a second, and I always have to admit, because I believe in being honest and fair, I was not a great language student, I struggled a lot, I was not… I did not get high marks in language in college, I was just stubborn enough to tell myself I’m not stopping until I can speak this darn thing, and I just dug my heels in and did it. And I think that struggle helps me as a teacher in many ways to understand my students and what they’re going through, but so that I still don’t know where my family came from in France. Many years ago, I was at a family history center, and was speaking with the European specialist in French about my family.

0:11:00.0 Lori LeVar Pierce: And she said, “Well, let’s just go. We have a catalog we can look up all the people with the last name LeVar in France, and there was one.

0:11:07.0 Norah Jones: Oh, ouch!

0:11:08.7 Lori LeVar Pierce: There are more of that in the United States than there are in France. So I really have no idea where this name came from. There is a river and in a region of France called LeVar, the LeVar River, and a geographic region, but I don’t know if someone came to the United States who was from there and made up this name, we still haven’t figured all of that out. It happened about the time of the revolutionary war, but it at least inspired me to start learning these languages.

0:11:34.7 Norah Jones: Well, there are so many folks that we talk to that are searching for a young people, adults that are searching for their heritage and learn languages to get there, and I love to convoluted and potentially, I won’t say fruitless, in sense it’s always fruitful to go and look at history and look at one family background, but from the actual connection there, but that experience, they’re two things about your experience that I’d like to reflect on in your classroom, let’s take for just a moment that I was interested in learning something about myself, what possible about myself, what kind of impact does that personal history of connecting language to your search for your own identity has happened when you are with your students, any such things students are looking for in those that you have been teaching and working with over these years?

0:12:31.3 Lori LeVar Pierce: Oh, they do. And what’s really fun, one of the first things, and I think most teachers do on the first day of school is have a student fill out some sort of an information card, names, and why are you studying this language and oftentimes, I get my family history is from here, I have a really good friend who was an exchange student. And anytime someone has that kind of a connection, they’re almost always a better student, and they’re learning things on their own, they’re taking what we’re just covering in the classroom, and they’re making it personal, and they’re learning on their own, and I think we all know as teachers that we can only do so much in the classroom language, we talk about language being a performance skill. I was speaking with my administrator this morning just about that particular thing, how languages… You speak it and you write it, right? You have to do something with it and you can’t just lecture in a class, you can’t even just teach students that in a classroom, they have to practice on their own, they have to make it their own.

0:13:31.3 Lori LeVar Pierce: And students who will then do that outside the classroom, if they have that extra motivation, are going to be your much better students, they will come back, sometimes they come back with words you haven’t heard before, sometimes they learn slang and they’ll be like… You’re talking to teenagers, and I don’t understand all of that French or German, but it’s fun because it gets them really excited and motivated to learn what you’re really engaging in together.

0:13:57.0 Norah Jones: That language as a real thing and not just something kind of made up by this respectful, but nevertheless strange person in front of them is always helpful, to recognize there is a true application.

0:14:11.0 Lori LeVar Pierce: Well, before you head on, I’m going to put another little insight given that I teach in a Science and Math school, many of my students are very focused on science and math concepts. And one of the big challenges in a language classroom is to get them to understand that this is not a discovered thing, this is not a scientific discovery, this is not a universal truth. This is something humans made up to try and communicate their ideas to each other. And so whereas, they really like the rules, learning the rules and learning the structure, learning how to figure out the problems, getting students who think that way to let go of that and just experience language and recognize that you’re just learning this, you’re not figuring it out, you can’t figure it out and then own it, because language is practice, but it makes it a little bit of a challenge, but also a lot of fun.

0:15:01.7 Lori LeVar Pierce: We have a lot of discussions they’ll ask, why is it this way? And sometimes I can have and could explain how it got there and sometimes I just say, it’s just the way it happened, is human beings make this up and it changes over time. It’s a lot of fun with Latin to talk about Latin and changing into French and German and how things changed over that time. Anyway, it just makes an interesting speaking with these students to make those kind of comparisons.

0:15:28.9 Norah Jones: You do a lot of work in front of educators, language educators, helping to guide them, and that what you just said about language is an invention and an always evolving invention and not a discovery per se. I imagine that there are educators that can take that information and with your help learn how to apply it to approach their teaching in a more discovery and participatory way, is that true of what you’ve experienced in working with colleagues and with the instructors around the State and Country?

0:16:09.7 Lori LeVar Pierce: Well, yes, I love being in… Looping around my colleagues, I love learning from them and with them and sharing things. I have an MBA and I like being an organization is actually one of the things that really… I really enjoy. I’d be a administrator, except I would miss the classroom, but yes, everybody has their own way of doing that. And what is wonderful, especially about the colleagues that we do see at conferences and workshops and events, they’re always the colleagues who are looking for something else.

0:16:46.9 Lori LeVar Pierce: They recognize that they want to add to what they have, not that what they have isn’t good, but that they want to add to that and expand and do more. And, yes, it’s… One of the really positive experiences I had with several years ago when Mississippi rewrote our teaching standards, the framework, as the states do on a fairly regular basis, and I got to sit on that committee and look at the actual standards. The old Mississippi standards did not look like the actual standards set, so we had a complete sort of trying to get them to change over so that they looked more like Proficiency Standards. Because teaching of language has evolved over the last 30, 40 years.

0:17:28.3 Lori LeVar Pierce: The way that I learned language is not the way the language is taught these days, and that process and working with the colleagues that I had to create that, it was really a great learning process and a really enjoyable process for me as well, but one of the things that came out of that particular process also was we recognize the gaps in information for world language teachers. And so we created what we called a world language teaching guide book that had not just the standards, but here are the organizations you can learn from. Here’s what an administrator should see as they walk through your classroom. Here are some resources you can go to, to pull in classroom information. Here’s where you… Here are all the accreditation options for the different languages and in the universities and where they’re provided. This is like an 800-page book that’s available online with all of these things that is just… We felt like was important and has been really well received over the last six or seven years in Mississippi to provide that for those teachers.

0:18:33.0 Norah Jones: Wow. Have you spoken to other states and regions about this particular resource? And to any effect of people saying, wow, and making use of such things?

0:18:46.0 Lori LeVar Pierce: Interestingly enough, I don’t… I think… I’m sure I had did and years ago, I can’t say that I have spoken to other world language people in other states. But the other subject areas in Mississippi have copied it, social science, they have copied this, we were the first ones to create this and then the other areas in Mississippi have created very similar documents for their discipline as well.

0:19:09.5 Norah Jones: Now you’re talking about language education has changed so much over the last several decades. What is it that you find is especially exciting? What do you find that is still kind of a struggle and a challenge? Where do you think everything’s headed?

0:19:29.8 Lori LeVar Pierce: So I finished my undergraduate degree in the last century, right? When language learning was memorizing dialogues and doing worksheets, and if you were really lucky you could find a movie to watch that someone had brought over, right? If you wanted real language speaking practice, you had… Where I went to school I had two options. One, was living in a language house where English was not allowed to be spoken. And when you walked the doors, this… I did it in French, you walk through the doors, only French. If you walked outside the house, you could then speak English. So what a created environment that was similar to the country. And then I did a working internship in Switzerland for a summer and lived with the German speaking family and spoke French at work. So those were the only opportunities for actual speaking. And listening, I remember one of the things that I loved when I was in Europe was that I could turn on the television and just absorb myself in French and in German being spoken, because that just was not possible in the last century when we were studying languages. So then fast forward, I did my undergraduate. And I will admit that when I did my student teaching, I didn’t love it.

0:20:47.2 Lori LeVar Pierce: I had taught at the college level. I loved the teaching part, but I hated all of the paperwork and disciplinary stuff. And I went on to get an MBA. I’m like, I almost quit teaching in the middle of the semester and then thought, well, if I ever changed my mind, I’m not going to want to have to start this over again. So I finished it, got my initial certification and then left it for 22 years. So then fast forward 22 years and I’m going back to teaching and it’s all begun to change, right? Everything that I had learned before was now different. Now we are talking proficiency standards and we’re using integrated performance assessments. And I learned… Even the original five C’s I knew a little bit about, but I had to catch up to all of this new stuff.

0:21:39.5 Lori LeVar Pierce: Well, what is fun and exciting about it is it really produces real language. Like when I was learning language, it took years of study before you really felt like you could have any kind of a conversation. Whereas now, my French and German students have conversations in the first week, right? Introducing themselves and using the language. And then the resources that are available. It’s almost overwhelming at this point what you can access on the internet.

0:22:08.1 Lori LeVar Pierce: My students, any minute of the day, they can pop onto the internet and listen to something in French or in German and have that exposure, the kind of exposure that I had to be in Switzerland for, 35 years ago. So that’s a big, exciting change that I feel like it’s really becoming useful. And I think then the future of this is, it’s just going to be even more so. What I felt like was my biggest hang up, and I admit that I still struggle with this because I did not learn my languages in country, if you will, I learned them academically, is the anxiety over making mistakes. The longer you can… Need the language, not study it because it’s an academic topic, but be somewhere where you need it to survive, I think the less concern you have over making mistakes because you realize that the actual communication is what’s important, not whether or not you did it right and you can earn an A in the class. And so that’s where I really try to focus with my students while recognizing I still have some anxieties about that because of the way that I learned those languages. So that’s one of the things that I personally struggle with and try and work to improve every day.

0:23:29.8 Norah Jones: The concept of vulnerability, of making mistakes, of finding out that they’re not fatal, things that I’ve addressed in one of my videos in particular. I just think about how I stumbled into and created a mess and lived through it. And that helped a lot. What are some of the ways that you help your students? Because you’re coming at this from your own emotional vulnerability part, your experience, as well as this intellectual skill that you have. How do you help the students and how do you explain, how to continue that to colleagues that you have come across that may not have had the background that you have or may have not noticed or maybe don’t know where to go to do this?

0:24:20.7 Lori LeVar Pierce: One of the things, and again, so many things come from what goes on in my head, but one of the struggles that I deal with that I try to balance every single day is how much correction to actually give back to my students. Because every time you correct it, no matter how much of a smile is on your face, no matter how pleasant your voice is, they will internalize that they did something incorrect, right? So I really, really balance that. Sometimes they need correction. You don’t want them to continue to model bad language and make mistakes on that. They want to be corrected. There are many times… My students will ask me, please, please. But I really try to back off on that as very much as possible. And we also have… And I’m very frank with my students about that. I’ve let them know that that’s something that I will struggle with, giving them… That if I give them correction, it’s only typically because I’ve heard it repeated and I don’t want the class thinking, if it hasn’t been corrected by one of the other students, thinking that that’s the way to say something or write something. But I also talk a lot about how they learned their first language. I said, when you said… When you started speaking at the age of what, 18 months, two years, did your parents correct your grammar for every sentence that you said?

0:25:35.5 Lori LeVar Pierce: And if they had, would you have continued to speak? I’m like, no, your parents clapped and they were glad. And so we do a lot of celebrating when people speak the language in class. Yay, if you give a presentation, we’re all going to give you an ovation and we’re going to pat you on the back and we’re going to say what a great job you did because everybody needs that validation.

0:25:56.7 Norah Jones: They sure do, and be it an 18-month-old or a person that is 16, that validation, in particular because of the nature of the way language just is what comes out of our mouth, therefore part of exactly who we are, it’s hard to… Hard when you get corrected as you say. Place this in a bit of a context for folks that are not necessarily familiar, people that are listening that are not necessarily familiar with how a classroom works or are potentially saying in their mind, but what do these folks grade on then? How do students get from one class to another? What is the role then of evaluation in this unfolding approach to language in use, language proficiency?

0:26:49.1 Lori LeVar Pierce: Let me start off by saying that I think that I, as probably most teachers, are always evolving. So what I’m doing right this very second may not be what I’m doing even tomorrow. I may come up with a different idea, but what I have settled on, focusing on performance-based, so looking at the IPA structure, which, Norah, you were one of the people that helped me really understand that, simplified it down to its basic parts. The IPA in a day, one thing of each. So either we are doing an interpretive piece, so we’re reading something or we’re listening to something. We are doing something interpersonal where we’re speaking to each other, or they’re doing something presentational where they’re writing or they’re speaking. I don’t actually grade a lot of that. I don’t grade interpretive almost ever. I think that that’s usually what I use to introduce something new that we’re doing is lots of interpretive feedback, lots of reading, lots of speaking or listening so that they see the examples of either the vocabulary, there’s usually a set of vocabulary and some grammar associated with whatever unit that we’re on.

0:28:04.0 Lori LeVar Pierce: And I typically introduce that with the interpretive side. In fact, an interesting side note, I had a German teaching intern with me for a year in 2018 to 2019 and she taught me that in Germany, they did a lot of inductive learning and she created actually a lot of worksheets for me in German to here’s the worksheet, read it, now answer these questions and you figure out the grammar rules that are dominating what we’re doing. So rather than me explaining them, they’re figuring them out and they work really well with my students and I think that they internalize that a lot more when they’re discovering them rather than being told them. So we do those interpretive pieces, then I typically step out of the performance phase, the IPA mode for just a moment, and we do talk about the grammar, and I make sure that we know how to pronounce the vocabulary, primarily. You have to learn it on your own, it’s a memorization process, but we need to know how it’s pronounced and make sure that they understand the definition.

0:29:02.1 Lori LeVar Pierce: So we do that, and then that, I will teach a grammar concept, like I’ll teach it in a day, they will have been exposed to it with an interpretive piece. I’ll teach it, we’ll use it as some kind of an interpersonal back and forth. They’ll have some practice on it in homework. Just the old drill that’s used typically automatically graded, because since COVID I put everything online and my grading is like nil anymore.

0:29:27.8 Lori LeVar Pierce: And then I’ll quiz them on that. Just that one grammar concept. Did they understand it? So here’s a quiz that pulls from a random database. So they take that quiz until they achieve 80% proficiency. They get a zero unless they achieve 80% proficiency. And then that grade goes in the grade book. And then we go on and work on the presentational piece. And there may be two or three steps in there of different grammar concepts. But then the presentational piece, either a spoken or written for each unit, and those are evaluated based on actual IPA rubrics, use of language, complexity of the text, impact, understandability, comprehension, and grammar control, right? And they have those rubrics in advance, they know what we’re working towards. So that’s where the grades come from in my class.

0:30:19.8 Lori LeVar Pierce: And then of course some credit for having done the homework. I don’t grade most of the homework unless it’s something that I give them where they can repeat it over and over again until they get the score that they want. And then that’s the score that I will put in. So they get… Some part of their grade is boosted by their effort. They have to master the grammar concepts to move forward. I don’t expect them 100% mastery. And we know we always have to cycle back in language over and over again. And then the formal what we would call a test these days. The assessments are always either a spoken or written kind of an assessment with a rubric.

0:30:53.0 Norah Jones: Great descriptor, very succinct and very thorough. And I keep making sure that we have heard things like to the 80% level, enough to keep on going, because it will be reiterative. That’s very powerful and very encouraging for young people, I assume.

0:31:11.1 Lori LeVar Pierce: Yeah, those who struggle to get to… If they haven’t been doing their homework, and we sometimes have students who don’t do their homework, right? What I tell them is that they will get the final grade, but I will take off a certain number of points for every attempt it takes them to get to that grade, language learning does require some just straight memorization. It has to be part of it, right? It’s not the biggest part. It’s just a quiz grade. It’s not a test grade. It’s not an assessment, but it is, you have to demonstrate some mastery.

0:31:42.3 Norah Jones: Yeah, and language is… Learning a language, if you were parachuted in to a country, it’s exhausting and it’s stressful and overwhelming. So having a little bit of that in the classroom, a little, I’m going to take you over for just a second to speech and debate. There is language again, in use in very, very powerful ways. Tell me about what you do with the speech and debate and how your skill in languages do with the speech and debate approach and what students experience.

0:32:16.2 Lori LeVar Pierce: So let me take you into how I agreed to say yes to speech and debate because I have integrated speaking from day one of my teaching, there have been speaking opportunities, opportunities to get in front of the class, even in English, because my extra credit in French, German, in my French, German, and Latin classes are in French and in German, it is to find a news article, something newsworthy of something that happened in a French-speaking country or a German-speaking country. In Latin, it’s about mythological stories. Summarize that in less than one minute, and I strictly reinforce that, I do not want a rambling on, you have to come up with the core message, which means you have to read it and summarize it, not pull something out and read from it. In one minute, you have to get up in front of the class and present that to the class in English, right? So I’ve done that since the very beginning. So when my principal came to me, or actually it’s Director of Academic Affairs, is what they’re called at our school, but principal asked me if I was willing to take on speech and debate.

0:33:16.9 Lori LeVar Pierce: I love speech, I had speech training, but it does really help reinforce both the fact that I’ve always had students come to the front of the class and speak, but also when we’re looking at performance, especially spoken performance assessment, those are speeches, right? It’s the same kind of skills that you need to put it together to be comfortable in front of the class. If you’re allowed a PowerPoint, what is allowed on it? What is an appropriate use of a PowerPoint? I really emphasize that with my student. I’ll say, you can use a PowerPoint to help you with your French or your German presentations, but there can’t be any words on it, just pictures. So that it will help keep you on track, but you can’t read from it, right? It can’t be that tool, which is the way you should be using PowerPoints anyway. If you’re going to read me your PowerPoint, just print it to me and send me an email. So there’s that. And then the other thing, bringing in the Latin component on it has really made me a linguist.

0:34:22.0 Lori LeVar Pierce: When I learned French and German, I was learning the languages. But learning Latin has given me a much bigger perspective on linguistics as a whole. How do languages relate to each other? What is that bigger study? And in fact, so one of the pluses, we get to sometimes teach independent study classes that we create on our own. They’re not for credit, but just for enrichment, but that’s encouraged at our school. And a physics teacher and I, who he’s also very interested in linguistics, actually taught a linguistics course in the fall semester of this year to a handful of students who were really interested in that. And they took the NACLO, the North American Competitive, North American Compute, sorry, North American Computational Linguistics Open Round Competition, sorry, the had it changed. North American Computational Linguistics Open Competition. So it is language puzzles.

0:35:16.8 Lori LeVar Pierce: So they take languages that really, not obscure, but languages that are spoken by very, very few people and they create puzzles out of them to try and understand what it is and have the students try to figure those out. And it takes the linguistic skills to understand how to solve some of those puzzles. So that’s something that we are just now developing at our school and finding a lot of students very, very interested in that.

0:35:40.0 Norah Jones: I can see why you had a former student that went on to major in linguistics that lit a fire right there. When we talk about how then young people learn the power of language to explain, to persuade, to move, be it in English, French, German, Latin, I suppose, there are some histories we have of people actually, debating in Latin with those that are of a certain approach, but the more modern languages and including in English. What kinds of insights does your background and work provide then with students’ understanding about how to choose powerful language, what constitutes appropriate language choice and how to make friends with language so that they are… They continue to use it in a powerful way?

0:36:37.7 Lori LeVar Pierce: So one of the experiences or several of the experiences in my background that I draw upon when I am talking to students about presentations, and I’ll step back and say that, I think we understand we don’t always say it explicitly, every presentation is an opportunity to persuade someone about something, right? We don’t always acknowledge that. But in speech and debate, we talk about that very explicitly, that an oratory speech is a persuasive speech. You want to persuade someone to do something, think something differently. So I go back to my business experience with my MBA. I did corporate market research. I worked at UPS corporate headquarters, and I would give presentations to upper management, to sometimes members of the executive board, right? On research studies that I would do. And sometimes it went over really well and sometimes I stumbled and I learned, but if I stumbled, I learned a lot of really good lessons from that. One of them that I remember specifically, I was in a much, in a bigger room and my PowerPoint had little text on it and not everybody could read it from the back row. So I learned a very valuable lesson that I now teach my students about what your PowerPoints are supposed to have on them. Because if you’re giving a presentation to upper management and one of them complains to your manager about it, you’re in big trouble, right?

0:38:00.6 Lori LeVar Pierce: You should have known not to put that little text on your PowerPoint. So I loved my experience in business, I love my teaching now, but I really love when it comes together like that. I can talk to my students about what it’s like to prepare for a presentation, to some very important people where you’re talking about their livelihood and their the business success and those kinds of things, and then be able to talk to them about why you need to be persuasive, why you need to understand your audience. All of these things that we talk about in speeches fit in, and I can give them actual real world examples of when I did some of those things.

0:38:37.1 Norah Jones: A real-world example from your own experience or potentially add one from a student experience. If you have a story to tell about that.

0:38:47.3 Lori LeVar Pierce: Well, I love the students that I have in Speech and Debate that then go on to be selected as graduation speakers, because we don’t have valedictorians or salutatorians at our graduation, because we don’t have any kind of competition among students. We don’t rank students, we don’t publish GPAs, they’re all too competitive for us to do that. So they simply select a speaker, someone who speaks well, and it is… I love it when it is someone who has gone through the Speech and Debate program, and I can see, look how lovely they do that, they’re just… They do such a great job. I’m trying to think of some of my experiences. I remember the one about the PowerPoint.

0:39:27.7 Lori LeVar Pierce: I also remember being on a research project with the McKinsey & Company Consultants, and anybody who’s in business knows their name is a pretty big name. And we were working on a project and presenting to one of the vice presidents of UPS, the whole corporate vice president. And they had me presenting on the results of the research study, some very specific things. And what I found out was that they kind of threw me under the bus a little bit. And while I was presenting valid research stuff, they had me presenting this stuff that made the VP go, “Well, yeah, of course,” of course we knew that, why did do we need to do a research study on it, and they knew, because they’ve been in the planning sessions with them, that that’s how he would react, but I didn’t know that, and here I thought I was presenting something new that we had generated and come up with, but because I hadn’t been in the room in the initial meetings, I was caught a little bit off guard. Now, it didn’t throw me for a total loop. I was able to recover, I didn’t have to crawl back shamefaced, but it taught me a lesson about understanding my audience and being prepared for whatever reaction I’m going to get when I give a speech. And yeah, anyway, just being prepared and being able to react to whatever comes at me.

0:40:52.2 Norah Jones: Well, and knowing your audience, would you say that this is something that you’re… That experience and ones like it, or ones that you have read about as well, are informing not only your speech and debate work, but also the World Language classroom?

0:41:10.3 Lori LeVar Pierce: Oh, for sure. One of the things… Maybe you want a slightly different direction, but one of the things that I have recognized in my language ability is understanding the context of what someone is talking about, so knowing what the subject is, is half the battle in understanding what they’re saying. So if you’re having a conversation with someone, and we do this all the time in our natural conversations, and somebody switches topics with you really rapidly and suddenly jumps, but when that happens in a foreign language, you’re lost for a second, you’re like, “Wait a minute, I think I know what that means, but that’s a whole different thing than what we were talking about a minute ago,” and if you miss, it may be a social cue. It may be a language cue that may be at a higher level than what you’re used to, you miss missed that cue, then it kind of catches you for a moment.

0:42:01.4 Lori LeVar Pierce: And so I think about that a lot with my students, especially when I’m speaking target language in front of them, that I try not to do that, then that I lead them. If I’m going to change topics, that I lead them into that so that they can more easily follow me in and understanding that. Meanwhile it’s just an interesting insight that I remember, it took a few years before that flash went, and it’s even harder when I listen to Quebec radio because they throw in English words with French accents when I don’t expect them, and I’m like four words down and then I realize like, oh yeah, that was an English word when I’m trying to figure out what the French word was that they used.

0:42:41.6 Norah Jones: Well, and you’re tapping on the skill of listening here, there’s been so much study here recently about the importance of listening and the need for more explicit, longer maybe attention to the teaching of listening in order to grab that context or re-orient oneself. What kinds of insights do you have about that focusing on language skill and helping to grow that powerfully?

0:43:10.1 Lori LeVar Pierce: What I’m thinking in terms of that tickler thing is really about the scaffolding that we do as teachers, when we ask students to listen to content, right? Then I’m not going to throw them into a situation that is completely unfamiliar to them, we’re going to talk about the vocabulary, they are likely to hear. The vocabulary, they might not understand, what is the context for this? So any time, that’s why we start off when we’re doing an instructional unit, we start off with the interpretive stuff.

0:43:19.6 Lori LeVar Pierce: So they have heard much of this in context already, and then it’s typically subject focused or specifically focused because we do have a task we expect them to do at the end… So we model with some examples of how people have accomplished that task in the interpersonal and in the interpretive pieces that we do, so that’s what I talk about, but we also do a lot of talking about culture. Culture is a big part of this understanding… I have told my students this particular story a few times when I was in Switzerland, I worked in a grocery store, and one morning I come came in and the manager of the store told me he wanted me to Cherchez les dates.

0:44:19.1 Lori LeVar Pierce: For the meat. Cherchez les dates.

0:44:21.1 Lori LeVar Pierce: And I looked at him and I knew what those words meant, look at the dates, look for the dates, but I didn’t know what he wanted me to do. Like, what do I do then, I can find… Well, what he wanted me to do is find the expired packages of meat and take them out of the cooler, but I didn’t know that, and it wasn’t because I didn’t understand the language, it was because I didn’t understand the context and the job requirements. And anyway, it took a little bit, I finally got it, obviously, and I understood it, but those are the kinds of stories that we all need to be aware of because it will inhibit language in ways that we just don’t anticipate.

0:45:03.6 Norah Jones: What a beautiful, succinct and very clear example of the need for context, vocabulary and patience. Thank you, Lori. Now, folks that are listening include educators and business folks, and people that are in organizations that make use of language or potentially are focused on language, so people that are just out there in the world. And before we end today, knowing that there are a variety of people and maybe addressing everybody or just picking a subset that you wish, what do you want to be sure that people hear from you about language, about experiences, about what you would encourage them to do? Invite them to do, exhort them to do. What’s the Lori’s last gift here?

0:46:01.4 Lori LeVar Pierce: So I’m going to focus in two different ways, and one of them having to do with world languages and one having to do more with an English-specific example, but first, my primary goal with the students that I have, and I’m going to bring it right back to me and my classroom, my experiences, is to… Because many of my students have never traveled outside of Mississippi, they only know the people that they grew up in, but to give them a vision that the world is bigger than what they have experienced, and to instill in them a desire to learn more about that to recognize and to value the thinking that is different from theirs, that will challenge them in ways that we’ll bring them joy and pleasure from having learn it, the fun things that they get to learn, but also for me it was the challenge in thinking.

0:46:50.3 Lori LeVar Pierce: I love to give my students the example that one of the most shocking things to me the first time I went to Europe was how many different ways a toilet could flush. In the United States, there are only a couple. And I got to London and I pulled the chain from the ceiling, and sometimes I pushed the button on the floor with my foot, and sometimes it was… So many… Who knew that there were so many different ways to flush a toilet, and none of them is right or wrong, they’re just different.

0:47:19.0 Lori LeVar Pierce: In fact, my students know that the word weird is outlawed in my classroom, they’re not allowed to say that because it implies judgement. So with my students, that’s my most important thing, but when it comes to actual communication, and you can tell I love to tell stories, and so I do this a lot with my students. But I remember in probably the seventh grade in my gifted and talented class, when you do all these fun little activities, the teacher gave us an assignment to write out the steps in how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

0:47:51.3 Lori LeVar Pierce: And then she took what we wrote and demonstrated how she followed our instructions to the letter, including assumption she would make that were incorrect if we didn’t give her the correct instructions. That was a huge learning experience for me about how to be specific in communication, and that has always really driven the language, and what I do with my students, you can’t make assumptions about what someone knows or doesn’t know. And if you’re giving instructions, if you’re communicating, if you’re telling a story, if you’re just collaborating, you have got to be clear about what you’re saying, use nouns instead of pronouns, proper nouns instead of other noun, real verbs that actually describe what’s going on that you have to be clear in that. And it kind of goes… It kind of actually ties both of those pieces together because understanding cultural expectations also helps us to be clear in what we are communicating, language-wise.

0:48:57.1 Norah Jones: What’s the impact in the world?

0:48:58.5 Lori LeVar Pierce: That we will all get to know each other better. Just today, I showed my class, the Brené Brown TED talk on vulnerability. And I think she has some really important things to say about each of us being willing to be vulnerable with each other, and that is the way that we create connection. And for me, language and speaking is about creating connections. I love Norah you’re one example, you see me at these conferences, I love to talk to people. To me, that’s what language is, and that’s why I love learning French and German and Latin, because it gives me new people to talk to in new and different ways and new things to talk to them about, and if we all do this, and if we learn about different cultures and people who are different from us and learn to value that rather than be unsure about it or afraid of it or guarding our own and being unwilling to change, we are all better off by embracing the difference and the diversity and the communication and the connection and the vulnerabilities that are all available to us out there.

0:50:01.9 Norah Jones: Lori, thank you. It’s beautifully said, and an inspiration. Thanks for this opportunity to share your vision with the audience and good luck with everything, and thank you for what you’re doing to help to create students who do understand that the world can be and is an exciting welcoming place. Thank you so much.

0:50:24.0 Lori LeVar Pierce: Thank you. Thank you Norah giving me the opportunity and all that you do in the example that you are to all the rest of us.

0:50:30.1 Norah Jones: Well, I hope you enjoyed that podcast as much as I had fun having that conversation with Lori, and do check out my website, fluency.consulting, to see more information about Lori, to take a look at resources and directions that Lori would like to share with you. Including by the way, that resource document from Mississippi language educators that she spoke about, that it was so strongly and well-received by her colleagues, until next time.


Thank you for always focusing on the possibilities, opportunities and the power of language and what it can do for us individually - and collectively!

Elizabeth Mack

If you've never done #cliftonstrengths, yourself or with your team, don't wait any longer.  Norah Jones of FLUENCY CONSULTING is the one and only to do it! It's all about your super powers: finding & using them to affect positive change in the world. What's not to love?!

Elizabeth Mack
Founder and CEO / Freestyle Languages


Yes, @NorahLulicJones definitely has the talent of "bringing out" the best in others or allowing them to showcase themselves in the best light! Thank you for directing the spotlight on others who have great stories and talents to share with others. 

Lisa Fore


Your podcasts are exceptionally relevant and applicable, thought-provoking and insightful, easy-to-follow and enjoyable!  

Paul Sandrock
Senior Advisor for Language Learning Initiatives / ACTFL


You have an immense talent to draw the best from your participants. 

Richard Brecht


Norah knows how to LISTEN - she really "hears" the message - and the interview is richer because of it.  New questions come from the hearing. 

Terri Marlow

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