Updating the Label-A-House Project

I spend some time volunteering as a mentor with a great group of kids downtown, and oftentimes we end up chatting about whatever is going on in school. One of our kiddos was lamenting this week about a project she had to do for French class – it sounded like a combo of a million standard Level Two projects in one go. She had to plan a vacation (travel unit) with her family (family unit) and describe the house they’d stay in (house unit).

As she described the project, my little teacher heart flew back to a flurry of INSANE houses that I got to experience the last time I did a dream house project with my middle-school kids. There was a trampoline house and a spaceship house and a Hogwarts house and a candy house and a sports-mania house. I had a kid spend HOURS designing a haunted house using Scratch and then uploading a video of it to Youtube. I had kids stringing together Snapchat videos touring friends’ houses and describing the rooms in delightfully filtered Spanish. It was a-mazing.

My poor mentor kid, however, was not encouraged to go as crazy with her dream vacation house, and at the end, the project just made her feel, well, bored. I had one of those teacher moments where I was like “omg, bored language student?? NOT ON MY WATCH” and then dove in with her to brainstorm how to combine her love of art and weirdness to produce a fun project that was more HER and less lets-go-to-pretend-France-with-your-boring-fake-family.

My language teacher heart was so broken by this bored child, that I felt inspired to write a blog post about the ways I like to make standard Novice-level Spanish projects more engaging. In this post, I’m using the word “project” pretty loosely (on the spectrum of let’s-make-a-poster to public-audience-infused-multi-week-bonanza, we’re closer to the poster end). If you’re a PBL/differentiation/student-choice-and-voice nerd like me, you probably already do a ton of these things, but maybe you can cull a few new ideas to throw out to your kids. Since my interaction mostly centered about the standard draw-and-label-a-house project, I’ll walk you through my process on jazzing up this pretty standard summative assessment.

Start with very specific language goals. When you get into the land of differentiated projects, students are likely to create products and outcomes that all look very different from one another. This is good; this is where creativity and imagination and engagement happen. BUT you want to make sure that within all of those bells and whistles, your kids are all meeting appropriate language goals. The easiest way for me to keep this straight (and keep it straight with my students) is to tie the language goal to an I Can statement. For our label-a-house project, our I Can is “I can describe my home and other people’s homes.” Love that I Can statement. Embrace it. Because at the end of the day, within all the excitement and creativity, the I Can statement is all that really matters.

Dig deeper into those language outcomes. Okay, so I have my target I Can statement in my head. The next question is, how are kids going to demonstrate mastery of that goal? For our house unit, we had a school-division-mandated vocabulary list (we can debate the merits of using vocab lists another day, okay? okay). I knew that I wanted to tap into my kids’ ability to use this vocabulary, both discretely AND organically for their own communicative purposes.

To meet the discrete goal, I required that they label a certain number of rooms and pieces of furniture in the house. I don’t require them to use every single word because I want them to pick and choose the words they’d actually need (communicative purpose), but I do give them a vocab word requirement since they’ve got to be responsible for the vocab list for exam purposes. For the house project I’ll require them to give me 8 labelled rooms and 12 pieces of furniture in Spanish. They can (and are encouraged to) use words from outside of our vocab list if they want to (we like to drive organic language learning here), BUT it won’t count as their required 8 rooms/12 pieces of furniture (to ensure we hit that required vocab).

To meet the communicative goal, I also require the kids to write a ten sentence description of their house. This makes sure that they’re stringing the words together to express themselves appropriately. This is also tapping into that presentational mode and getting them to stretch their output muscles. Additionally, it gets us towards that ultimate I Can statement: “I can describe my home and other people’s homes.”

Ignite students’ passions about The Thing They Are Creating. Laura wrote a while back about waiting for “The Gleam,” that moment when something changes in a kid’s eyes and you can tell you’ve tapped into something they’re passionate about. I love this idea because it puts into words something I also wait to see with my students, and I relentlessly pursue that sparkle in their eyes when introducing these types of assessments. I do this in two ways, and the first is getting students excited about The Thing They Are Creating. More specifically, in this case I wanted them excited about The House. I would encourage them to unleash any passion or interest or world that excites them when coming up with this house they are going to label. It could be based on something fictional; it could be based on something real; it could be based on some weird dream they had last night. My favorite line when I was trying to get kids excited about The Thing was a “anything goes as long as it’s school appropriate!” That line was usually met by lots of eye rolls and throwing of hands into the air, but was also usually followed by a barrage of questions about what they could try to invent. Any suggestion they threw out was met with an enthusiastic “YES, I LOVE IT” or a “YES I LOVE THE ENTHUSIASM but is that school appropriate?” This is where kids start thinking about fun things like designing a house built for mutant superhero fish or drawing up the house from The Simpsons. When you can tap into their interests, they start to light up.

Ignite students’ passions about The Way They Are Creating It. Now that you have the kids’ creative juices flowing, tap into another side of their brains. Not only can they invent any house they want, but they can create it and show it off ANY WAY THEY WANT TO. I usually give out two or three standard examples of what types of products they could produce. In this case, I would tell them they can draw a house on a poster board and label it, or they can make a Slideshow online with a slide for each house. These are ideas they’ve done and seen a million times. Where you get excitement is when you encourage them to think outside the box. You can use Prezi or Google Draw or Slides, but you can also make a video describing your house a la MTV cribs; you can build a house out of shoe boxes; you can use a floorplanner or Snapchat or whatever other medium you can think of that meets the demands of the project. Your artists will love you for this. Your tech nerds will love you for this. Your social butterfly vloggers will love you for this. Every year, there’s some new tech tool that kids throw out that they’d love to use; I always tell them to run it by me before they get started, and then usually I let them spread their wings and fly.

Connect it to some real world culture. I love these types of projects because it gets kids going crazy about something they love and drives some real communicative purpose, but of course it helps to put a project like this into context with cultural activities in class, usually outside of the scope of the project. For something like the house unit, I’d encourage them to take a stroll in a Spanish-speaking city on Google Maps Street View and take screen shots of houses they’d like to live in. They could use one of those houses as an inspiration for their dream house. I also love using House Hunters International once during this unit (yes, that show on HGTV), and tell them they can use one of those homes as their inspiration as well. I know, I know, House Hunters is in English and there’s no input, but there is SO MUCH CULTURE. I also usually have an episode guide/questionnaire that they have to read and fill out in Spanish to keep them honest (sometimes you can find free episodes of HHI here, you can buy them here, and you can check out a sample episode guide here). I don’t like to use culture as a limitation on projects like this, but I do like to use it as a springboard for comparison’s sake, and I like to find ways that they can fit it into our project if they want to.

Design your rubric to be flexible on those passions, but not on those language outcomes. Grading these projects can be intimidating, of course, because so many of the finished products are going to look very differently from one another. For me, this was never really an issue, because at the end of the day, you’re really only grading for the stated language outcomes. Everything else is just, well, 5 creativity points worth of fun. For the house project, you check that they have the right amount of labelled rooms and furniture, and then you grade their presented written descriptions like you would any other proficiency-based piece of writing. After that, you’re just giving feedback encouraging that creativity and communicating your excitement about their finished products. To help my sanity during the grading piece of these projects, I also was sure to be very clear about how the projects were to be turned in. If it’s a physical product, it’s placed in a designated spot in the classroom. If it’s a digital file, it must be turned in properly on Google Classroom. If you’re making a video, you have to include a written description. But after that, the grading’s gravy.

If you’re feeling crazy, take it a step further and invite in an audience. The PBL gods wouldn’t quite be satisfied with a project like this, because it’s lacking in a few areas, one of them being “authentic audience” (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, you can read a little bit more here). There are a million ways you can try to infuse authentic audience into projects, but for one like this, I’d probably turn it into a competition. Have the kids present their projects to each other, compete for the best dream house, and vote on the top three in each class. After you’ve narrowed it down to the top few, invite in someone’s parent who is a real estate agent (or an administrator, or another teacher) and have them pick a winner from the final candidates. Ideally, this person would have some familiarity with Spanish, or you could have the kids present in Spanish and translate for each other. For an off-the-walls creative project like this one, it helps to pick an audience who would be open to picking from off-the-walls options (preferably someone who could believably say something like “yes, the aesthetic in your donut palace would be ideal for the market right now”). I find getting an outsider into class keeps things SO much more interesting, and that level of competition gets the kids elevating their projects to another level if you have the space in the curriculum to add it in!

Enjoy the ride. Every year and every class will bring new fun ideas that you can share with the classes who are not quite excited about a label-a-house project. Every year and every project, you’ll get that initial “okay, what’s the minimum I have to do to get an A,” but the challenge is pushing past that apathy to get to The Gleam (trademark Laura Sexton). Communicate the expectations, but use the strengths and interests you know about your kids to suggest something they can get excited about. It makes the whole process so much more engaging for everyone involved.

If you want to see how I normally present a project like this to my students, I’ve posted the simple version on Teachers Pay Teachers here (for French class here). You can purchase it or click on the Preview file to see how you’d adapt it to fit your needs. Enjoy!!