My favorite no-prep authentic resource activity

I was obsessed with the March Madness Music craze last year (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, stop reading and go here and also here). By the end of it, a handful of my students started taking over the beginning of class, unprompted, with some fake microphones and a full-on Sports-Center-ish pregame show before each match-up. It was awesome to see them hamming it up for something as simple as showing two music videos, and they loved it. I will admit that after a couple of weeks, I was craving some different activities to give them while we watched the music videos, so I thought I’d share my favorite one today in case you’re in a mid-March-Madness rut (or just need a new way to engage with authentic resources in general).

I love this activity for many reasons, not the least of which is that it requires ZERO prep. It’s designed to allow kids to produce and take risks with the language in a way that isn’t threatening or intimidating. It gives them an opportunity to express themselves authentically and power through inevitable mistakes, and it’s also great for classes that have students at varying language levels.

Basically, before I share the authentic resource (in this case, two music videos), I give them a minimum word goal. This varies by level, but for my novices, it would be around 25 words. They need to write while they watch, and come up with 25 words to describe what they hear and see. I remind them that this is an authentic resource (made by Spanish speakers, for Spanish speakers), so they aren’t going to understand many of the words. I want them to focus more on what they observe. For my Spanish 1s, I wouldn’t even demand they write sentences. A list of words or a handful of phrases will do. For example, the phrase “blanco y negro” for a black and white music video would be perfect. If they do recognize some words in the lyrics and write those down, awesome. For Spanish 2s, I’d usually encourage them to write sentences, but they didn’t need to string them together as a coherent paragraph, just list things they observe (“La chica lleva una camisa rosada;” “La cantante es divertida;” “Me encanta la canción;” etc) . Like I said, this activity is designed to be really open so that all language levels can challenge themselves.

During March Madness, we’d watch both the music videos of the day, and in addition to their observations, I’d direct them to write down which song was their favorite and why (in their best Spanish – this counted as part of their 25-word goal!). I’d also ask them if there was one song they’d like to watch again to get up to that 25-word goal, and we’d often watch at least one of them twice.

To bring us all together for a discussion, I’d direct the kids to pick the favorite sentence or phrase they wrote, and share it with the people sitting close to them. In my class, they sat in tables of four kids, so they’d all share their best sentence/phrase with their table. After that, I’d direct the group of four to pick the best sentence from their group to share with the class, and they’d send one person to write that sentence on the board at the front of the room. This sharing not only ups the quality of their work (some of them love the opportunity to show-off), but it also sparks discussion, gives them some accountability, and helps them learn from the other sentences in the room.

Once we have every group’s best work on the board, a representative from each table has to stand up and read their group’s sentence out loud. This representative can’t be the same person who wrote on the board (which forces more of them to participate). I take the time to repeat each sentence/phrase and VERY informally correct any errors. Usually I’ll just vocally rephrase the sentence emphasizing the correction. This does the trick without discouraging them from taking language risks. We also always give a little applause to each group when they present.

And that’s it! From there, you can dive into more discussion about the resource, or get ready to roll into the lesson for the day. It’s a simple idea, but it was my go-to to get some discussions going around authentic resources, and a great warm-up activity.

If you’re looking for more March Madness ideas, I loved this post from Martina Bex. It’s chock-full of ways to mix it up week to week. Otherwise enjoy la Locura de Marzo!

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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!!

Attacking the Vocab List: Slap Review

Following best practices in language acquisition while also satisfying a curriculum that demands memorization of huge vocabulary lists can be a STRUGGLE. One of the ways I tried to get around it and reach a good balance was through Spanish-only review games. Teaching middle school taught me that engagement would be way higher if there was some sort of game involved, ideally a Spanish-only game where kids had an opportunity to move around and let out some of their energy in those endless 90-minute blocks. Today I’m going to share one of my vehicles for achieving competition, movement, acquiring new vocab, and immersion all at the same time, and that method is called Slap Review.

You can use and adapt Slap Review in a variety of contexts and conditions, but it was my go-to when we were tackling one of those huge, long, division-mandated vocabulary lists. The kids use the vocab list as an anchor for any variation of the slap review framework. Today I’m going to talk about Slap Charades and Slap Pictionary.

You can play charades and Pictionary as a whole class by dividing everyone into teams and having each team guess for points, but I found that when you play review games this way, it gives students too much opportunity to disengage. You get your kids that are SUPER into it overshadowing the kids who would rather curl up into the fetal position than compete in front of the whole class. It’s good as a reward or a time-filler to play a whole class game like this, but when you really want to make sure every kid is participating and learning, it’s not the most ideal format. This is how Slap Review was born.

During Slap Review, kids compete individually against their classmates in groups of 4-6. I usually had students sitting in tables of four, so I just had them play against the people sitting at their tables. First, you get the group to elect one kid to both participate AND keep score for their table. Usually there’s one kid in every group who really wants do this, but a solid game of rock-paper-scissors is always what I went with when no one/too many people wanted to keep score. Sidenote – does anyone else use rock-paper-scissors to resolve virtually every disagreement in their classroom? Such a lifesaver.

Once you have your scorekeeper, you get the kids in Spanish-only mode. You can read more about that strategy here, but basically you tell kids that for the duration of the game, you will be very strictly monitoring their language use, and there can be NO English. You also ask the students what words and phrases they’ll need to play the game so that they’re driving the learning. Mine always asked for things like “I win,” “Your turn,” “Cheater,” etc. Usually at one point during the year my entire class devolved into yelling “tramposo” at each other, but somehow watching them yell at each other in Spanish was kind of okay.

Once the kids are in Spanish-only mode, Slap Review begins. It can take place in many forms, but to promote associating word meanings with actions and pictures, I usually went with Slap Charades or Slap Pictionary.

Slap Charades asks that each kid at the table take a turn acting out one of the words on the vocab list for their group.  It works best with lists that are pretty verb/activity heavy. Students can do anything but write or talk when they’re acting, so kids that need to get some energy out will run around and go nuts acting things out, and kids that aren’t so into it can get away with lazily pointing from their chairs. Their group of 4-6 will watch them, then slap the table if they think they know the word being acted out. The actor determines who slapped first, points to that person, and then the person has to say the correct Spanish word from our new vocab list. If they get it right, they get a point; if they get it wrong, another person has the chance to slap. The scorekeeper allocates points the whole time this is happening (while also taking a turn to participate themselves for maximum engagement).

Slap Pictionary is the same idea, except that you give each group a small whiteboard and a dry erase marker. Slap Pictionary works better with lists that are more noun/object-heavy. One kid in each small group takes turns drawing a vocab word (no writing allowed!). Students display the board while they draw, so that if someone in their group figures out where they’re going with the drawing, they can slap quickly. This keeps the game going instead of the lull that arises when your artists try to perfect their masterpieces while their group waits for them to finish. Same as charades, the artist will determine who slapped first and call on them. If the slapper gets it right, the slapper gets a point. If the slapper gets it wrong, someone else gets to guess. The scorekeeper will participate and also keep track of points while all of these artists are competing.

At the end of an allotted amount of time (I’d say 10-15 minutes), you call time and have all the winners from each table stand up. I’d give the winners a sticker for their efforts (teenagers love stickers too), and then get the class together for a debrief. I’d get their thoughts on the new list, words that are challenging, words that are easy, and any language that they needed during the game that they didn’t know how to say while they were playing (you might get things like “hurry up” or “my turn,” etc.)

Slap Review is one of those easy methods that the kids get quickly, so if you want to adapt it for something else you can. I had kids write out descriptions of characters from a video, and later they played Slap Review by reading their sentences to their group and having their classmates slap to guess who they were describing. You could have them write out Spanish definitions to words on the list, and then have their classmates slap to guess what word they were defining. You could even try out La Maestra Loca’s Backwards Charades. There are a lot of possibilities with this format.

I’d also give kids the element of choice sometimes too. After we’d played Slap Charades or Slap Pictionary a few times, I’d let each table pick whether they wanted to play Charades or Pictionary. Some of the quieter groups would play Pictionary while some of the energetic groups would play Charades at the same time with the same list. They’re all staying in Spanish and practicing their vocab, so I had no problem letting them choose their destiny when we were in Slap Review mode.

There you have it! I hope next time you’re tired of playing Quizlet Live or Matamoscas, you try out some small-group Slap Review. Happy Halloween everyone!

 

 

 

Keeping Novice-Low Students in the Target Language

I’m going to open up to you a little bit today. One of the hardest best practices for me to follow as a language teacher is the 90% Target Language rule. As a teacher of Spanish 1 and Spanish 2, this was far and away the most difficult battle I had to fight with myself every day. The temptation to slip into English to bond with/encourage/scaffold my students was often too great for me to overcome. The joys of teaching for me felt diminished when I spent all day as the English police, and as I taught in a district where many grammatical concepts were still emphasized and tested, sometimes English felt necessary. Those moments when inside-jokes and aha moments and student collaboration occurred in Spanish were, as I’m sure they are for all of you, always such joyous victories, but sticking to a 90% TL rule in order to make those moments happen is, well, hard for me.

I know many of you have the discipline and strength and backbone to keep everyone in the Target Language from Day One, and I worship you for it. If you are one of those heroes with a TL participation system that works for your students, this post probably will not be super helpful to you (also, tell me all your secrets please). If you’re teaching Spanish 1 or even Spanish 2, and you’re having one of those beginning-of-the-year moments where getting your students to stay out of English feels like pulling teeth, this strategy may be helpful. It’s (not-so-creatively-but-super-effectively) called “Estamos en español.”

I used this strategy in as many different classroom situations as I could muster, but I used it most of all 1) during interpersonal communication practice, and 2) when students played review games in their groups. The basic premise is pretty simple.

  1. You give kids an activity that requires TL communication. The country partners activity I wrote about last week sparked this post and would be a perfect example. You want to pick something where the entire purpose is to spark authentic communication. This could be anything from a pretend marketplace in class to a game of vocabulary review charades to a simple “here’s a list of questions, discuss in groups.” You get the idea.
  2. You tell kids they’ll be working on the activity for a set amount of time. My middle-school students usually could do this for about ten minutes before pandemonium or mental exhaustion or excessive pointing at the clock set in. I found it’s good to give them a set starting point and a strong finish line so they don’t get totally overwhelmed.
  3. You remind kids of the expectations. 100% Target Language means 100% Target Langauge. Kids CANNOT write notes, whisper, look things up, or type in English. Gestures? Definitely. Acting things out? Yes. Weird sound effects that aren’t words? Sure. Coming to the teacher for a quick “¿cómo se dice…?” NOPE. They’ve got to make do with the language they know, no matter what.
  4. Be prepared to enforce the expectation. For me, I would give kids a specific five-point formative assessment grade for staying in the TL during whatever activity it was. I would wander the room, write down the names of any kids I heard using English, and gave repeat offenders tally marks. If I hear you speak English once, you get a 4/5. If I hear you speak English twice, you get a 3/5. Kids will start to police each other on this (lots of pointing and yelling INGLES!!!), but I would only take off points if I heard it myself. It only takes posting this grade once for the kids to know the importance of staying in Spanish for these activities.
  5. Take some time for pre-game language brainstorming. I’d always make sure to ask the kids what Spanish language they thought they would need to know before the activity started. If I was getting them to review specific words and phrases (likes and dislikes, for example), I would provide a lot of language either on the board or on a dialogue sheet in front of them, but having the students generate expressions in addition to the ones I provide creates more buy-in. If we were playing a review game in Spanish, they’d request language like “my turn,” “I win,” you’re right,” “let’s go,” etc. I’d write up the words they thought they’d need on the board and then make sure to give them time to think about any other expressions/phrases that could be useful before rushing into the activity. I love this as a way to give them an opportunity to drive the learning.
  6. Use classroom cues to help students flip the Spanish switch on. In my classroom, I’d ALWAYS make them countdown and turn the lights off when we were in Spanish-only mode, and I also had a rotating disco ball that I’d turn on. (I shamelessly stole this tactic from one of my teacher heros Liz, who, shameless friend plug, runs a food blog you can check out over here). The lights-off-disco-ball-on would also help if a kid came in from the office/bathroom/late. They’d look around, look at me, and nod as if to say “okay, yes we are Spanish, I get it.” If that didn’t happen, a kid might look at them and scream “NO INGLES!!” which also always made me giggle.
  7. When time’s up, debrief. In early level classes, we usually take some time after this activity to talk about how it went and how it made them feel. At first, kids talk about how it felt like their heads were going to explode, but then we talk a lot about how it gets easier and easier to stay in Spanish the longer the lights are off. We’ve had a lot of really good metacognitive discussions about how being in Spanish-only mode forces them to take risks and produce language, and to stop worrying about it being perfect. These conversations help you to start making Spanish-only mode the norm as the kids realize how much they can actually do.
  8. NOW is the time for kids to ask the “¿cómo se dice…?” questions. As part of your debrief, go back to the board where you wrote down the expressions kids thought they would need, and ask them to add to it. What language did the kids need that they didn’t know how to say yet? Nothing forces a kid to learn a word or phrase like being in a situation where they are going CRAZY with a desire to say something they can’t yet. I love that moment where you can give the kid the phrase they wanted, and they’re like “THANK YOU THAT WAS DRIVING ME NUTS.”

Like I alluded to earlier, this strategy was a crutch I used when 90% TL was really just failing (because, hey, sometimes I need scaffolding too). Incorporating it more and more helped me to keep trying to build my classroom up to the Target Language haven of my dreams.

What are your favorite strategies for keeping novice-low students in the target language? Teach me your ways!