Staying Culturally Proficient in the Target Language

This month, I’m focusing on the third National Board World Language Standard, Knowledge of Culture. In my last post, I talked about how overwhelming it can be to stay familiar with the histories of unique communities who speak your target language while simultaneously keeping up with the varying cultural trends of the day. I usually approach this challenge much as I approach the challenge of keeping my target language proficiency up to date, knowing that every little bit helps. Here are some of the things I’ve done (from the easiest to most difficult) to get and keep my cultural proficiency level high.

1) Netflix

In my opinion, there isn’t a more delightfully passive way to stay up to date on culture than to turn on some Spanish Netflix while folding laundry, cooking, or eating ice cream on the couch. The easiest way to stay on top of what the Spanish world is watching is to start watching Spanish language shows and movies and let Netflix’s suggestions be your guide. In recent weeks, I’ve watched The Two Popes, Narcos, La Reina del Sur, and Coco (okay Coco is on Disney Plus, but we’ve watched it like 75 times with my son). I also have to once again plug El Ministerio del Tiempo since it is basically a dive through Spanish history but is genuinely fun to watch.

2) #langchat

I find that our online Professional Learning Network on Twitter is the best source for authentic resources and current materials to use. I wouldn’t have known about the song Soy Yo, the movie Coco, or the March Madness music in Spanish tournament if it weren’t for the good people of the #langchat community bringing it to my attention. Teachers usually do a great job of finding authentic resource treasures, and it helps to stay on top of the cool cultural resources that our colleagues are using all over the country.

3) Apple Music

When my classroom playlist needs an upgrade, I’ll skip over to the Apple music Top 100 lists to see what the top songs are in a handful of Spanish-speaking countries. Usually, I check out Spain, Mexico, and Argentina mainly because they are the first ones that you see when scrolling. Occasionally I can find a couple of songs that aren’t explicit that I can work into class, and every once in a while you can find one that gives you enough of a particular grammar structure to actually dive into a lyric study during a warm-up activity.

4) Authentic Resource searches

I’ll do an more in-depth post on my system for seeking out a solid authentic resource, but I find that the process of looking gets me cultural exposure I wouldn’t otherwise have. When you’re poring over videos of Carnval in Barranquilla in order to find that perfect, school appropriate, interesting, comprehensible piece of gold, you pick up a lot about the realities of what goes on in Barranquilla during Carnaval! Remind yourself of this next time you’re in a wormhole searching for a solid YouTube video to show in class.

5) Get in the Spanish-speaking world

When we aren’t in the middle of a global health pandemic, I recommend volunteering with a community organization that serves the Latin community, and travelling to the Spanish-speaking world for staying up to date on culture. During the time of social distancing, you can still reach out to your native-speaker friends, or to your students. If you’ve got a couple of heritage speakers in class who don’t mind acting as resources, ask them if there’s a song or a TV show that they are obsessed with at home right now that you think you should share in class. Maybe they wouldn’t mind sharing how their family celebrates a particular holiday. I’m always careful with this one to ask kids privately if they mind sharing traditions with others, because often teens in particular don’t want to be singled out, but if you do this in a sensitive way, it can be a very positive thing for everyone in the room. Parents can be a resource too, which is why I send out a survey to them at the beginning of the year asking about their experience with the Spanish-speaking world.

When it comes to cultural proficiency, staying on top of everything can seem overwhelming, but I try to tell myself that every little bit helps. Even something as simple as switching your homepage to BBC Mundo so you can read the headlines from the Spanish-speaking world can go a long way. If you have any tips on staying culturally proficient in the target language, please share in the comments below!

Advice for the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interivew (OPI)

One of the requirements of many school districts (and of Standard 2 of the National Boards for World Language teachers) is that teachers score an Advanced on the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI). This test, if you aren’t familiar, is given in the format of a Q&A interview, either over the phone with a real human proctor, or on the computer where you record yourself talking to a robot. The goal of the test is to figure out where you are as a speaker – Novice, Intermediate, or Advanced. Full disclosure- I’ve failed it twice. I share with you today the advice I got before I finally passed the test as an Advanced, non-native speaker, and the strategies that pushed my language level over the edge.

Let’s start with the format

The OPI starts with some very simple questions (describe a typical day at your job), that gradually become more and more complicated so you can prove your prowess at different language structures (What did you do yesterday? What are you looking forward to doing this summer? What are your hopes, dreams, and wishes for the children of tomorrow? Etc.).

After you’ve gone through this chat for a while, the OPI tester will switch into a role play mode. They will give you a scenario in which you need to get yourself out of an uncomfortable situation. The scenarios I’ve gotten were: 1) your car broke down on the way to a very important meeting at work 2) you arrive at a fancy restaurant with a date and they’ve lost your reservation 3) you get to the movie theater and your tickets are not working. The goal here is to get you flustered (as if you weren’t already) and see how your language level changes when you’re under stress (as if you weren’t already). It’s a very nerve-wrecking test if you aren’t properly prepared. So what are the best ways to prepare? Here’s what worked for me:

1) Practice the easy questions.

You know the OPI is going to ask you about your typical day, about a day you had in the past, and about your hopes for the future. When you’re in your car or in the shower, practice responses to easy questions so you can start the interview feeling confident. Be able to talk about your job and what you do every day. Be able to describe your family and the things you do for fun. Be able to talk about what you had for breakfast that morning. Be able to talk about what you’re doing next weekend. Having a few answers locked and loaded can help you start off on the right foot so you don’t get flustered as quickly.

2) Never stop talking in complete sentences.

They will ask you some weird questions that you won’t know how to answer right away. Remember that the OPI folks don’t really care WHAT you say, they only care about HOW you say it. When in doubt, use filler sentences and just keep talking. Think out loud! An example I remember is “which historical figure do you most admire.” I don’t think I actually answered this question when I passed the OPI. I did say something like: “Wow, what a difficult question. I need to think about that. I could say someone from the present or the past, and there have been so many impressive people to choose from. I suppose if I had to pick someone who is still alive, I’d pick Queen Elizabeth.” Notice that these fillers employ many different types of language structures. It really doesn’t matter if you fully answer the question or not. Just keep talking in complete sentences, and let the testers know that you know how to string them together well.

3) Practice the conditional.

When you get to your scenario, you’re going to have to ask someone for help, or forgiveness, or both. Having the conditional in your arsenal is key. I spent a lot of time practicing using podría and podríamos just to maintain a high level of formality and politeness when the scenario starts to break down. Remember: their goal with the scenario is to see what happens to your language in a stressful, real life situation. You want to prove you’re cool under pressure.

4) Look up language about cars

No, really. The one time I got a scenario about my car breaking down, I had no idea how to say anything about cars or car parts, and it made me sound entirely incompetent. If I didn’t sound incompetent, I felt incompetent, which got me flustered and then I was very quickly tripping all over my words. You never know which scenario you’re going to get, so it can’t hurt to look up a few important words like “engine, transmission, brakes, etc.”

5) Hit up your native speaker friends.

Having casual conversational practice with people who can lovingly correct your mistakes is huge. If social distancing is making these interactions tough, attack your language proficiency practice with everything you’ve got. I talk about my favorite strategies for this here, but it helps to load up on the Spanish podcasts and Netflix as much as possible in the days and weeks leading up to your test. You never know what vocabulary you’ll pick up last minute that could come in handy.

If you practice the easy questions, have some filler sentences ready to use while you think about your answers to weird questions, practice the conditional, think about vocabulary categories that could come up in the scenario portion that you need to brush up on, and overload on your Target Language input and output beforehand, you’ll walk into the OPI feeling confident. That’s what made all the difference for me. If you’ve got more OPI advice that I missed, please share it below. Good luck!

Summer Reflection Project – National Board Standards

A very hearty congratulations to everyone who has finally reached the end of this historically crazy school year. Wow. I know the outlook for 2020-2021 has its own question marks, but hopefully you’re able to put that aside for a while and enjoy putting your feet up. When you’re ready to start reflecting for next year, these posts will be waiting for you.

A few months ago, I started making my way through the National Board standards as a way to reflect upon the basics of outstanding world language teaching. I’ve decided as part of a summertime reflection project, I’m going to continue this process, and add in any tips I feel would be useful to the age of remote learning, with the thought that some of you will likely be remote learning for some of your students at some point next school year.

If you’d like to catch up, check out the following posts:

I look forward to sharing more of my reflections on the National Board Standards in the coming weeks. In the meantime, enjoy your summer!

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.

xoxo

NBCT Standard 2: Knowledge of Language

As part of our deep dive into the first National Board World Language Standard (Knowledge of Students), I’ve spent the last few posts focusing on different ways to gather and leverage information about students. Today we’re going to move on to Standard 2: Knowledge of Language (pages 22-24 here). First, the standard statement:

Accomplished teachers of world languages function with a high
degree of proficiency in the languages they teach. They understand
how languages and cultures are intimately linked, understand the
linguistic elements of the languages they teach, and draw on this
knowledge to set attainable and worthwhile learning goals for their
students.

Standard 2 is where the National Board holds us accountable to practice what we preach in terms of our own language learning. This is not easy, and NBCT does not let us off the hook. To become a National Board Certified Teacher, we are required as language teachers to prove that we maintain an Advanced language proficiency level in our target language by submitting ACTFL certificates with ratings of Advanced Low or higher on both the speaking and writing assessments. (More on my tips for passing these tests in a future post).

In addition to requiring that we are Advanced speakers of the languages we teach, this Standard requires that we do, in fact, use the language beyond the walls of our classroom. It asks us for proof of the ways we use the language in authentic contexts, whether in our community or through travel abroad. Accomplished teachers read, write, listen to, and speak their target languages as often as possible, authentically as possible, just as we ask our students to do when we are in class.

In addition to asking for proof of proficiency and language use, this standard devotes an entire section to knowledge of how language works. It briefly mentions a knowledge of linguistics before moving onto knowledge of how the language fits together in different cultural and geographical contexts. For Spanish teachers, this means that we are well-aware of the many different dialects and are able to teach the differences between the slang in Madrid and Mexico City. This is also the first time the modes of language are mentioned: we should understand and be able to teach the importance of the interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational modes.

This standard, for me, is the first time National Board really requires you to hold yourself accountable to a higher level. If you aren’t a native speaker of the language you teach, it demands that you practice what you preach in terms of lifelong language learning, which is something that goes well beyond the usual duties of your classroom. In the upcoming posts, I’m going to share my tips for staying on top of your language learning game, and also my advice for passing the ACTFL speaking and writing assessments.

What are your favorite ways to maintain your Advanced proficiency level? Share your favorite teacher language practice activities below!

La Tomatina Name Game

Back-to-school time means back-to-blog time around here! I was going through my back-to-school materials this week, and one of my favorite activities from my dear Spanish 1B 7th graders jumped out. I’m sharing it here today in the hopes that someone else can enjoy it too.

This lesson started out as a very structured plan on La Tomatina, and then when we had 15 minutes of unstructured time at the end of the lesson, it evolved into a name game/paper throwing extravaganza inspired by this post from Amy Lenord. I’ll share with you how to turn this delightful improvisation into an actually great lesson for the first weeks of school.

First off, La Tomatina is such a wonderful cultural hook at the beginning of the school year. The actual festival happens in August, authentic resources are relatively easy to find, and food fights seem to be a universally engaging activity. I usually start the lesson off with this great wordless ad from Ray-Ban. It’s a beautifully shot video, and it lends itself well to your standard #authres activities. You can use it to anchor a movie talk, pause it periodically to get students to guess what’s going to happen next, or, my personal favorite with Novices, get students to write down as many words and phrases describing the video as possible. You can read more about this no-prep authentic resource activity here.

Once we get through the beautiful Ray-Ban video of La Tomatina, I’ll show a video that goes into detail about the what/when/where of the festival. This one from Tío Spanish and this one from SpanishPod101 are both pretty good. I usually have a worksheet that asks students to fill in certain details about the festival (when it is, where it is, what you wear, etc.), and we’ll watch this video a couple of times to give them the time they need to get the correct details down.

This is where it gets interesting. Once you go through the answers to the what/when/where of the festival and discuss the traditions as you please, hand out blank sheets of red (or pink) copy paper. Have each kid write down their name, two sentences that describe them, and what they’re wearing today. If this is the first day of Spanish 1, they can all write down “Me llamo _____,” and the activity will still work. Adapt what you’d like them to write based on where they are with their language level.

Once each kid has their info written down on their red/pink piece of paper, have them crumple it up (yup). Then, set some strong expectations about what happens next. Your kids are going to throw their “tomatoes.” They aren’t going to hit anyone in the head. They aren’t going to stand up to throw. They are only going to throw underhanded…Whatever you need to do to ensure that everyone in your classroom feels safe. This is when I give a very strong “don’t ruin this for everyone” look to my baseball and softball players who look ready to pounce. Once everybody agrees to the expectations, on your count, they throw their tomato anywhere in the classroom.

Once the tomatoes are on the ground (or wherever they ended up), the kids stand up to grab another student’s tomato. At this point, they have to find the person who corresponds to the tomato they picked up. This can be done in strictly Spanish-only mode by having people asking their new classmates “¿Cómo te llamas?” until they find the correct person.

You can have everybody sit down when they’ve found the right person and stay in Spanish-only mode to converse, have them ask their tomato person a series of questions that you dictate on the board, have them sign their partner’s tomato with a fact about themselves to practice their writing, you make the rules. There are many ways to adapt this for multiple language levels, have your kids practice each others’ names, and stay in the target language throughout. Repeat this process as many times as you’d like to get them interacting with more and more kids in the class.

Timely cultural authentic resources + get up and move around time + practicing get to know you language at the beginning of the school year + engaging in a crazy cultural activity = winning lesson for the beginning of school!

Have you ever tried a crumple-and-throw activity in your class? How did your kids respond to the chaos? Let me know! Good luck with your first days if you’re not back already!

 

6-word memoirs to end the year

For those of you who have finished the year already, congrats. In Virginia, we’re still basically staring down four more weeks of school. We’re approaching what my fave principal used to call “keep the lid on it” time. It’s that delightful time of year where we’re all just trying to make some good class memories, make sure we all survive, and not be that teacher who shows movies for two weeks.

In my last post, I shared my go-to end-of-the-year PBL, la fiesta perfecta. Once the last grades are in, however, it gets a lot more challenging to get the kids motivated to do pretty much anything, and of course, we’re totally exhausted too. I loved having a couple “wind them up and watch them go” activities at the ready to end the year, and one of the most fun ones for me was the six-word memoir.

I stole this idea from a creative writing teacher, who informed me that the six-word memoir is a “thing” in the adolescent writing world. You can see some creative examples in English and read more about it here. The premise is pretty much what it sounds like: students have to write the story of their lives in exactly six words – no more, no less. You make them do this in Google Slides, Google Drawing or Adobe Spark and have them add in gorgeous images, fonts, or graphic design elements. Or, during those last weeks when the students laptops have been turned in and you need to kill time, you have them hand draw these beauties. They’ll be left with a really cool, personal keepsake from Spanish class that is 100% them. Here’s an example:

Picture1

My Spanish 1 students would have something as simple as “A mí me gustan papas fritas” with a corresponding French fry selfie. Some would have sentences about sports (“Jugar al fútbol es mi vida”) or their friends (“Nosotras hablamos, comemos, y estamos felices”). One of my Spanish 2 students one year had a picture of an ugly wall in front of a beautiful field. In the field, he wrote “La vida está aqui.” On the wall he wrote, “La tarea.” (ARE THESE KIDS BRILLIANT OR WHAT?)

This project also gives you some great memories of each kid, and some first-day-of-school decor for the following school year. I’m a big fan of decorating the room at the beginning of the year with work from previous years as a way to build connections with students who know some of the kids I’ve already taught. For Spanish 2 or Spanish 3, you could have students do this during the first week of school as a get-to-know-you activity as well! I find it’s a great way to spark conversation with kids about the things that are important to them.

You can also make this activity as formal or informal as you want to, which makes it ideal for “keep the lid on it” time. I’ve got a more formal student instruction sheet with a single-point rubric available on TPT here (French version here), and I’ve done pared down versions of it as part of a stations day or as an early finisher as well. I love getting students to express themselves in the target language in fun authentic ways (don’t we all?), and this is a great way to do it. When your kids come up with brilliant 6-word works of genius, let me know!

The Ultimate Fiesta PBL

It’s getting to be the end of the year for many folks around the country, so I thought now would be as good a time as any to share my go-to end-of-the-year PBL: La fiesta perfecta.

The driving question for the PBL is “How would we celebrate a holiday from a Spanish-speaking country?” or “¿Cómo celebraríamos una fiesta hispanohablante?” With that question in mind, you divide them into groups, and give them their challenge: they are to create an authentic, safe, affordable, feasible, and fun end-of-the-year celebration based on the Hispanic holiday of their choice. They’ll need to be able to set-up, clean-up, and celebrate within one class period, and they’ll have to use materials they can either get at school or easily get at home. Once they have the idea for their celebration, they’ll present it to their classmates to have them vote on a favorite. The winners will present their proposal to a member of the school admin team (hey authentic audience!) for approval. They’ll either get approval, or modify their celebration as needed, and then they’ll get to throw a huge party with their classmates!

I love this project at the end of the year because it brings some meaning to those days after testing that seem to be hard to fill up. I’d do different versions of many of the parties that got presented, not just the winners, when I was desperate for another class period to fill. Those weirdly scheduled days during standardized testing can be a struggle, and this helps to keep it engaging and light. It can be easily scaled up or scaled down too, depending on how much time you need (i.e., some of my classes ended up with 5 extra 3-hour blocks due to testing, some with a couple of 90-minute periods; this project can be stretched or shrunk to fit the time needs!)

Okay, let’s break this PBL unit down:

Guide them through a review of holidays and celebrations from Spanish-speaking countries. Before we design a party based on a Hispanic holiday, we need to research the Hispanic holidays. I’ll usually have some sort of table they need to fill in that has a list of holidays on the y-axis and different questions about each holiday on the x-axis (when, where, why, food, clothing, music, traditions, etc.) I’ll have them review stand-bys like Día de los Muertos and Navidad, but I’ll also throw in others that don’t get as much love (Carnaval, San Fermín in Pamplona, La tomatina, El cipotegato, Las Fallas, La mercè in Barcelona, Días de independencia en varias paises, etc). I’ve done this a few different ways, from doing one holiday a class-period as a warm-up with authentic video for a few weeks, to doing a huge jigsaw activity in one 90-minute block, to having them work through all the holidays in groups with a sub. The idea is to get them thinking about different celebrations, but I don’t limit them to the ones we go through together. I’ll leave it open to them to research other holidays if they want to (why not!)

Set up the make-your-own-fiesta idea with strong boundaries. I go through a long speech when I introduce this project about how this is an opportunity for them not only to dive deep on one Hispanic holiday, but also to apply their problem-solving skills to design an entire event, on a $0 budget, with approval from the administration, that they can complete in one 90-minute block, that they’d actually ENJOY. For some of them, this is the first time they’ve taken a stab at event planning, and it’s fun to see them start to realize how much goes into planning a simple class party. I’m there as a reality check when their imaginations start running wild, and I try to help them get creative about designing something for admin approval, so that I don’t become the bad guy who shoots down dreams (i.e. “do you really think they’ll approve lighting a bonfire in the middle of the football field guys? yeah, me neither, what’s a good substitute for open flames…”) When you get enough teenagers determined to have a good time, their imaginations start doing impressive things, and those boundaries force their creative juices to start running wild.

Give them very specific guidelines and a very specific rubric. I gave them pretty strict specifications on what they needed to include in their party proposals. For me, they needed a slide on:

  • The holiday: the authentic holiday they’ll be imitating (using the same info from our pre-unit holiday dive – when, where, traditions, etc).
  • Our party activities: How will we turn traditions from the authentic holidays into a school-appropriate party? What we will actually DO at this party?
  • Set-up: What we need to do to help set-up this party beforehand the fun starts
  • Materials: What materials and supplies we need to pull this off, and how they will get them? I tell them to be VERY specific about this – Will they bring things from home? Whose home? Will they need to borrow materials from the PE department? Who will ask the PE teachers? I put as much responsibility on them as I possibly can.
  • Clothing: Do we need to wear anything that will help us celebrate the holiday more authentically?
  • Food: Will there be food? What will we eat? Who will make it and bring it in?
  • Safety: How will we ensure that this fiesta will be safe for everyone involved?
  • Clean-up: How will we clean-up after the fiesta? What will we need to clean up? Who will clean up? I remind them they’ll only have one class period to get this all done!

I also tell them they will be graded on whether their party is safe, affordable, authentic, feasible (i.e. materials are easily accessible, it’s likely to be approved by admin), time-appropriate (can you really set-up, clean-up, and have this party in one 90-minute block?), and fun (with a rubric for each category).

Give them all a chance to present and be the reality check for one another. Every single group will have a chance to present in class, and every single group will have to ask and answer questions about each party (this was an awesome interpersonal task at the end of Spanish 2). Then, classmates will vote and tally each group on the same criteria they’re getting graded on (safety, affordability, authenticity, feasibility, time, and fun). I used Google forms for this to help me easily figure out which celebration was the winning party.

Get them all to help out the chosen group for the admin presentation. While I coordinate getting a school administrator into class for the big “approval day,” they help each other brainstorm any admin concerns. Which parts of the party do they think the principal will have questions about? How are they going to address safety and clean-up thoroughly? I also have them pick who is going to translate if needed (they still have to show off present in Spanish for the admin team, but they’ll need to translate for the folks who don’t speak Spanish).

Once the party is approved, execute the plan! Once the admin team approves our celebration, now it’s time to put the plan into action. Since the kids were forced to be really specific in their presentations, hopefully this is easy. They’ve already brainstormed who is asking whom for what, and which students are bringing in which materials for set-up and clean-up. I also grade them on participation – if you said you’re on clean-up duty, you’re on clean-up duty!

Enjoy making these memories. My classes came up with some AWESOME ideas for these parties. We did a capture the flag version of running of the bulls, a huge Carnaval celebration, and a version of Las Fallas where we drew “fallas” on eggs and smashed them on a huge tarp outside to signify the Fallas bursting into flames. It was the last big hurrah for some of my 8th graders, and I loved helping them bring their nutjob ideas to life. It’s a fun one!

And there you have it. If you like this project, you can purchase a version with instructions, rubrics, and all on Teachers Pay Teachers here. Please share with me any crazy party ideas your kids come up with. I’d love to hear how this project is going in other classrooms. Good luck getting to the last day of school!

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!

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!!