Presentational activities when times are tough

As I write this post, Virginia has just announced that all schools will be closed until the beginning of the 2020-2021 school year. My heart goes out to all of you, particularly those of you with seniors who are going through their own particular type of heartbreak. Thank you for all that you do to help those kids navigate this crazy, difficult, anxious time.

One of the gifts of being a language teacher is that we are giving kids the tools they need to connect with others and express themselves in new ways. Some of you are being asked to soldier through offering curriculum remotely, and some of you are basically being told to upload optional busywork without teaching anything new at all. No matter where you are, I hope you continue to use the skills you have to get your kids to connect and to express themselves, two activities we all could use right now. Here are two presentational activities that I’ve used for this purpose in the past that you could tweak for quarantine learning.

Differentiated Free Write

Whenever our school went through an uncertain or unusual time, I’d offer time at the beginning of class for a free-write. I’d tell them translators were not allowed, so we’d be working on pen and paper. They could write about absolutely anything they wanted, as long as they kept it in Spanish (usually I’d offer a few prompts related to our current material in case they had “nothing to write about”). If, during the course of their writing, they absolutely needed a word that they didn’t know in Spanish, I’d tell them to write that word in English in the margins and keep their writing momentum going. They’d get time to look up their words later. I’d set the clock (usually 10 minutes), give them a Spanish word count (for my lower levels 25-50) and let them ride.

As you can imagine, the results would be all over the map. You’d get a kid having a tough day who would vent in English and then write a list of 20 Spanish words at the end. You’d get a kid writing beautiful Spanish poetry that made me cry. But the free write was all about getting them to push their boundaries, test new language, build connections, and get their thoughts on paper. Give them some amazing, heartfelt feedback to encourage that vulnerable language creation, and you’re building a connection that they (we all!!) desperately need right now.

Six-word memoir

One of my favorite projects for self-expression is the six-word memoir, which I wrote about in a post here. The basic premise is that kids write an illustrated story of their life in exactly six words. It’s a project that gets kids producing language in their most creative, authentic way. You could definitely tweak it during this crazy time as well, have them talk about their memoir on Flipgrid, or simply upload all the final products to a Slide deck for them to share and comment on (or even write their guess for who wrote what and why!). It’s a project that I use at the beginning or end of the year, and the whole goal is to build connections and get kids expressing themselves authentically. I recommend it as a feel-good, non-curriculum project that you could do remotely during this hectic time. See the post for more specifics.

Hang in there

This is a time of sacrifice and inconvenience for us all, a time of crisis for many. Continue to be the light for your kids that they love you for and need you to be. We’ve got this.



The Remote Proficiency-Based Classroom: Interpersonal

In my previous post I shared some tips for activating the interpretive mode for your students when you need to teach online. For today, I’m going to take a stab at the virtual interpersonal mode.

Let’s start by saying that getting students to engage in the interpersonal mode online is by far the most difficult of the three conversational modes. As you know, interpersonal communication demands that the student engage in some level of conversation or interaction that requires spontaneous language production. When you get into an asynchronous conversation like text messaging or writing a pen pal, you get time to craft and edit your response, and it becomes almost presentational. All that being said, I’m going to share one example of how a typed interpersonal conversation could work on a simple Google Doc. 

Google Doc Guided Conversations

I’ve had students maintain free-write blogs before, and they had to post and answer a certain number of questions in the comments of each other’s posts every week. This was a good way to get them using question words, engaging in each other’s work, and reacting in some way to each other’s language. There are a number of ways you could accomplish a similar task without going through the rigamarole of getting students to start up a brand-new shiny class blog (remember from the first post in this series: now is not the time to go crazy introducing new technology!)

One easy way to get students engaging in a back and forth could be to let them loose on a Google Document. Have a pair or a group of students assigned to the same Google Doc, have each student write with their own distinctive font or color, and give them guidance for having a “conversation” similar to the guidance you would give them if you were directing a conversational activity in class.

Let’s say you wanted to students to engage with each other on a topic such as, “How is the corona virus changing your daily routine?” One way to get them going would be to have them to come up with three questions they could ask one another about their current daily lives, turned into you for a formative assessment. You collect the answers, then you could edit the list and send it out to everyone to use as anchors during their Google Doc conversation (thus creating ownership and buy-in when students see their own questions on the list). In pairs or small groups, you have them write back and forth on a Google document, requiring them to converse back and forth for, say, one page. You could even put a time limit on this activity, ensuring that they don’t fret over grammar and spelling mistakes, and that they are generating language as spontaneously as possible.

You’d use a pretty lenient proficiency-based rubric to grade an activity like this, but set the expectation that ANY use of online translators would not be tolerated. Remind them that you can easily see if a student merely copies and pastes their writing by looking at the document editing history, and that the penalties for using an online translator are very high, while the penalties for making mistakes in grammar or spelling are pretty low. You’re just trying to get them to engage in a back and forth. 

Other Interpersonal Ideas

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Flipgrid as a possibility here. You aren’t quite interacting in a spontaneous way, but it at least gets students actually speaking and listening to one another, which is NOT something they are able to do with a typed conversation on a Google Document. Having a Flipgrid activity in addition to a timed, typed interpersonal activity like the one I just outlined would help you to activate speaking and listening skills, and also get the spontaneous conversational skills working as well. Flipgrid is also not a very difficult tool to introduce if you’ve never used it before. I recommend Maris’ post here if you need an introduction to how Flipgrid works.  

Others have mentioned the possibility of using Google Hangouts or Google Meet, which you can also use to record videos (see Kara’s post on this topic here). If this is an option for you, you could set-up and monitor small group discussions with your students to get them conversing, but I more like the idea of using Google Meet or Edpuzzle for input rather than trying to go through the logistical nightmare of organizing multiple Google Hangout sessions with multiple groups of kids all day long (if you have tips for making something like this work, please share!) 

Interpersonal communication in a remote-learning scenario is not going to be perfect, but there are definitely ways to try to get around the challenges. Good luck making it work for your students, and please don’t hesitate to share additional ideas in the comments below!


The Remote Proficiency-Based Classroom: Interpretive

While many of us hunker down to teach through the COVID-19 outbreak, I’m sharing some low-prep strategies for trying to teach a proficiency-based classroom remotely. My previous post goes through some general tips taken from years of teaching in a tech-heavy classroom. This post will focus on getting kids focused on the interpretive mode remotely.

As you know, when we’re talking about interpretive, we’re wanting to focus in on kids’ ability to decipher a written text or a spoken word. As I alluded to in my last post, the key with interpretive activities is to get students to engage with the material in different ways and, more essentially for online learning, submit the proof that they’ve done so. Many times you end up feeling like you have to come up with comprehension questions that are specific to each resource, reading, or video, which is a great way to ensure students are engaged and getting the information you want out of the material, but preparing those activities can be incredibly time-consuming. Below are a couple of ideas that get students producing in the language, but don’t require nearly as much upfront work on your end.

Choice Boards

A great one-size-fits-all, low-prep way to do this is to use Spanish Mama’s free, editable bellringers. Because they saved me so much prep-time, and gave students variety and choice, I used these to start every single class period, every single day, for years. She’s got a tic-tac-toe choice board of activities that you can use with a video, a song, or a reading, and you can use them for anything from an authentic music video that’s hard to understand to a comprehensible, level-appropriate reading (Sidenote – if you need reading material, I love El Mundo en tus Manos for comprehensible current events articles, and last year’s editions are on sale for $10)

The great thing about these bellringer boards is that they offer students CHOICE. You could post the reading or video of the day, and have them complete three activities of their choice for that particular resource, submitting the proof of each activity online. If you’re going to be doing this everyday during remote learning, you could have them complete a board every three days, so they aren’t picking the same three activities for each resource every time. Offering students choice always helps with engagement and buy-in, so try to offer it to them when you can.

Free Write / Free Speak Response

When you’re dealing with novice learners, asking them to do something like “summarize the video” or “reflect on this article” can be incredibly intimidating. Beyond using the activities listed on the choice boards above, I also had some pretty great success with a word-limit free write.

For our level-one novices, I would show an authentic video, and then have them write a 15 word reaction to the video WITHOUT USING ANY ONLINE TRANSLATORS. This would often make them scream in protest, so you have to be VERY deliberate in outlining realistic expectations. Remind them that as novices, they likely are only going to be producing language in words, phrases, or VERY simple sentences. “Me gusta el video” is four words. “La chica es rubia” is four words. Writing the phrase “blanco y negro” for a black and white video is three words. Writing the phrase “Enrique Iglesias muy guapo” is four words. And boom. You have fifteen novice-appropriate words.

For this assignment, I’d use a proficency-based rubric so that for more advanced students, you will encourage them to produce in more complicated language with a higher word-limit goal. You can have students respond to a video or a reading by submitting a “free write” online or a “free speak” using an online tool like Vocaroo or Flipgrid. If you’re really only focused on the interpretive mode, you don’t need to get super persnickity with grading either. Just use it as a tool to keep them honest, and remind them they cannot use any online translators. I would take off crazy points if they threw weird translator language at me, so it’s helpful to make this type of assignment one where general mistakes with grammar and spelling are pretty low stakes. You want to reward them for engaging with that awesome authentic resource you spent hours powering through pinterest to find; not play grammar police.

Speaking of, how awesome is this infographic on activities for when you’re in quarantine?

I hope this post gets you jumpstarted on some low-prep ideas to engage students in the interpretive mode when you have to teach online. Stay tuned for some additional posts coming on going remote in the interpersonal mode and the presentational mode.

The Remote Proficiency-Based Classroom

Like in much of the world, many of the public schools across Virginia are embarking upon a few weeks of unforeseen online teaching. Beyond trying to manage the corona virus panic, it can be very intimidating to try to figure out how to teach a proficiency-based language class remotely when the entire point of our instruction is to get kids engaged and speaking to one another. For that reason, I wanted to gather some ideas and strategies for getting students producing in the interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational modes online.

Before I dive in with some specific strategies and activities you can use, I encourage you to check out Maris’s post about teaching online that comes from her experience in a blended learning classroom. She has a lot of information about useful (and free!) technology tools, and some general tips and guidelines that I’ve also found to be true during my experience teaching in a technology-heavy environment. The most salient points for me from her post are:

  • Be specific with your instructions: As with any lesson, the difference between a great lesson and a disaster lesson all comes down to clear communication of your expectations. Which leads us to our next point…
  • A great rubric is essential: I am a huge fan of adapting the single-point rubric for proficiency, and providing a very well-outlined checklist of the exact components you’re looking for in the assignment.
  • Require proof by production: In Maris’s words, “don’t watch a video and be done.” Have students prove they engaged with the video by demanding they produce language in response in a very specific way (more on that in my next post). If you’re having them engage in online practice tools like Quizlet or DuoLingo, make sure you demand that screenshot proving they actually did the work.
  • Don’t lower your standards for engagement: If you aren’t a worksheet teacher in class, you don’t have to be a worksheet teacher online. There are tons of practice websites you can give them access to if you want them to drill verbs, but before you go too far down that route, know that there are options for helping your students to really engage with the language beyond the “online worksheet.”
  • Take baby steps with new tech tools: I completely agree with Maris that now would be a very difficult time to start using something like Peardeck or Seesaw. Students are going to have enough reasons to throw their hands up in the air and say that this remote learning thing is totally pointless. You don’t want them to become discouraged from engaging with your material because they’re intimidated by a new technology platform, especially if you aren’t going to be there the next day to go through it with them. Try to take baby steps with new technology when you can.

With those tips in mind to ground us, let’s dive in with strategies for getting students engaged in our three modes of proficiency. Up first: Interpretive.