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!

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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!

First Day Prep Series: Stations

I know most people are back-to-school or at least back-to-teacher-work-week (GOOD LUCK). If you’re not quite back yet, or you’re in the middle of first-day-over-prep syndrome, here’s some fuel for your lesson-idea fire. I’m going to talk you through my favorite First Day stations. I am a HUGE fan of using stations in class throughout the year. There are so many opportunities to work in reading, listening, speaking, writing, culture, and it gives those antsy teenagers a chance to get up and move as soon as their attention span on a given task starts to wane. The stations below are all about ten-to-fifteen-minute activities that you could use as stations or as a brainbreak/closing activity throughout the first couple of weeks of class to build classroom environment.

Last year was my first year I jumped immediately into stations on the first day of class. I had taught an overwhelming majority of my students the year before, so I felt brave, and wanted to do something a liiiiittle different with my kids besides your standard get-to-know-each-other/read-the-syllabus kind of day. The stations worked well in classes where I already knew all the kids and our environment was pretty well-established AND in classes where everyone was new to me and new to Spanish. I would definitely recommend giving them a try.

First, a word about how I do stations. In my classroom, I have assigned seats at tables, so it’s relatively easy to put kids into station groups based on where they sit. On the first day of school, people are mostly still figuring each other out, so you don’t have to stress too much about grouping people perfectly. I had 90 minute blocks, which meant with 5-10 minutes of warm-up and 5-10 minutes of clean-up and conclusion, so about five or six stations of ten to twelve minutes each was ideal. At the end of each ten to twelve minute time block, I’d play some popular Latin music (last year it was Soy Yo) to cue that it was time to rotate to the next activity.

The key with stations is to make sure each activity is SUUUUPER easy to figure out without much teacher guidance. Nothing is worse than spending five minutes explaining an activity to one group while another group is waiting for you to get over to them and keep them on task. Usually it works best when you can just wind them up and set them loose. That’s why having written directions at each station is key.

For the first day of school, my goals were always that students would understand their ownership in the classroom and its environment, that they would be held accountable for their behavior and work in class, and that they would be supported on the intimidating mistake-filled journey of language learning. Proficiency, setting language goals, and the importance of studying Spanish were saved for the second day of class. So my first day of school stations dealt a lot with the social-emotional sides of language learning and with the decorations I had in the room, so that students started the year off associating meaning with what was in front of them on the walls and buying in to the classroom environment.

My stations were as follows:

  • At station one, I gave them a worksheet that listed a lot of the words and phrases posted around the room, and asked them to work with the people in their group to write down as many meanings in English as they could guess or remember. Each of these words and phrases (question words, which you can find here, and classroom expressions, which you can steal here) is written in Spanish with a picture next to it, so even students with zero Spanish experience could potentially try to make a guess at meaning. I like that they have the support of their new classmates for this activity as well. I also gave them the freedom to get up and look closer at each picture if they wanted to (movement in middle school is a good thing).
  • At station two, I gave them the answers to station one (except for the kids who started at this station, obviously), and gave them their syllabus. Their task at this station was to read through the syllabus and write down three or more questions about the class, me, or learning Spanish. This task usually doesn’t take a full ten minutes, so I’d also give out their student surveys at this station, which I usually give as homework on the first day of class (yes, I’m evil, but whatever kids like talking about themselves).
  • At station three, students would sit down and chat with me. This was my FAVORITE. They’d arrive at the conversation station with questions they’d prepared in the syllabus station, and after that conversation ran dry, I got a chance to get to know kids and chat with them about their summers. Student relationships are the best, so this was a fun one for me last year. If something comes up at a different station that you have to tend to, the kids also can work on their survey homework while they wait for you to bounce back to them, which is also a good deal.
  • Station four was supposed to be a “silent” station, but I had a hard time enforcing this from where I was sitting at station three. At station four, I had written down the six activities from our syllabus that are essential to learning Spanish. I stole some of these from La Maestra Loca last year and tried out a version of her “chalk talk” idea for this station. I cut out titles of the activities and glued them to butcher paper on the wall. I asked students to write or draw pictures about what each activity meant to them close to each title. I left these up for the first couple of weeks as a reminder too.
  • I directed students to my handy dandy Meme wall for station number five. Basically I had them read through the Memes and write down the meanings for as many as they could. This was a great activity in Spanish 1B and Spanish 2, but resulted in some blank stares in Spanish 1. I didn’t quite have enough scaffolding about cognates before this activity for my Spanish 1s, which made this my weakest station for them. You could do a similar activity with whatever posters or cultural materials you have in your room for upper levels.
  • Station six directed the kids to a series of maps. The goal of this activity was to get them immersed in culture and get them thinking about the concept that language is different everywhere. I listed a few countries, then had them fill in what continent each country is on, what the capital is, and how you say “cool” in that country. I thought about using this bro map as well, but the language on there is pretty strong for middle school. Overall, I loved this station as a review/introduction to the variety in the Spanish-speaking world.
  • I know a moment ago I said five or six stations were ideal, but I also used a seventh station in a couple of my classes, or as a conclusion activity depending on time and the number of kids in the class. The last station was to come up with a class “silent signal” to use in our class when we transition from group activity to silent activities. Each group would propose a signal and then the class would vote on their favorite. They’ve used the silent awkward turtle, the silent llama, and a “live long and prosper” butterfly in previous classes (middle school is the best), but some classes like making up clap rhythms too. It’s a fun team-building exercise that you can use or change as the year continues. I just love giving them that extra additional ownership in the classroom routines.

Whew! These are a lot of different activities for the first day of class, but I hope you can steal something fun. I love group work like this to start the year and build some strong community from Day One, since it’s so necessary to that risky, brave process of language-learning. Let me know if you use anything! Good luck with your first week!


For more in the First Day Prep Series, check out my intro post, free decoration ideas, and infographic syllabus.

Why Study Spanish: A Lesson Plan

Every year for the last three years, I’ve completely devoted my second day of school to the topic “but why are we even learning Spanish.” Since I teach middle-schoolers in an area where there aren’t a ton of native speakers around, sometimes it’s hard for the kids to think outside of their bubble and understand that Spanish has real world importance, relevance, and benefits to them. My second day of school is all about getting them to buy into the fact that learning Spanish is a skill that will help them in their real lives outside the classroom.

I love this lesson the first week of school not only because it’s important to talk about why we’re doing what we’re doing, but also because it’s super easy to update every year (an easy prep for me)! Since it’s a very learner-driven lesson, it lets me stay in the 90% Target Language zone to give instructions, even though the meat of the lesson and the students will be mostly in English. If we’re going to have a lesson in English, at least I can stay in Spanish myself the whole time.

After our warm-up, I start class off by explaining to students that it is very important to me that they are able to answer the question “why are you taking Spanish,” beyond a default “because my mom is making me.” I emphasize that I teach Spanish because I think it’s fun, but I also teach Spanish because I think it will greatly improve and enrich their lives. I usually have to use a little bit of English here in my Level 1 classes, but not my Level 2s. I point to the blank bulletin board at the back of the room that says “¿Por qué estudias español?” on it, and tell them we’re going to be filling it up today. While I’m talking, I hand out a blank chart with a list of resources on the x-axis and two columns on the y-axis that say “Three reasons to study Spanish presented” and “Best reason to study Spanish presented.” This paper is the anchor of our lesson for the day (preview an example here).

The first resource listed is always a video. The past few years I’ve used Lindsay Does Language’s “9 Reasons to Learn Spanish.” It’s modern, quirky, and pretty funny, and I can always give them some solid input in Spanish beforehand to set it up (she is a girl from England and she’s funny but she talks really fast, etc). This is a good opportunity to introduce “escribir” and “mirar” as well when giving kids instructions.

After we watch the video twice, students write down their favorite three reasons to study Spanish from the video in the middle column, and then pick their favorite out of the three for the last column. I emphasize to them that the last column (the personal favorite column) will be different for each person and will depend on each person’s life experiences and goals. Starting with the video is great since we review the first resource as a class and can work the kinks out together. After the video, the real fun begins.

The meat of the lesson centers around a jigsaw activity. If you’re not familiar with a jigsaw activity, it generally goes like this:

  1. Students are divided into groups. Each group receives a different resource, and that group becomes “experts” in their resource. In this case, each “expert” group receives a different article or infographic about why learning a language is important. Since my students are seated at tables in groups of four, I generally will take one person from each table and divide the class into four bigger groups (so they’re all in groups with no one who sits at their normal table). Then, I give each group one of four resources (this year I used Why Learn Another Language When You Already Speak English?, The Benefits of Learning Languages Infographic6 Reasons Why Everyone Should Really Learn Spanish, and Why Learn Spanish? 10 Great reasons)
  2. Students become “experts” in their resource. In this case, I give students 2 minutes to silently read through their article or infographic and decide individually (silently!!) which three reasons to study Spanish presented in their article are the best ones. After two silent minutes, they must come to a consensus in their expert group about which reasons are the best. I like making them come to a consensus because it forces them to argue with each other about which reasons to study Spanish are more important (love it).
  3. Once each expert group has reached a consensus about the most important points of their resource, they have to go back to their original tables and report on what they read about. Again, none of the kids at their original tables have the same resource, so the students depend on each other to be able to complete their chart for each article. If you have a slacker in an expert group, his or her table group suffers, which forces everybody to participate (peer pressure!!).
  4. Before they start presenting to their original groups, I instruct them to stand up and present their ideas formally to their tablemates, NOT to just switch papers and copy down each other’s answers. I do this to start getting students used to talking with their peers, and also to get them used to standing up and presenting. Spanish is not a class where you can sit quietly the entire year, so I think it’s important that they get a chance to stand up and talk during the first week (even though it is in English). I love that they’re only presenting to their tables, not the whole class. This reduces anxiety, since there’s so much noise while everyone is presenting at the same time, and eases them into the scary idea of talking in front of the class.
  5. Each kid fills out their paper based on what their classmates present, but they also have to grapple with the material a bit individually when they think about which reason presented in that article is most important TO THEM in that third column. To complete their table, they have to pick out the reasons from each presentation that are most relevant to their lives, so the activity stays very personal.

Once the jigsaw activity is over, I bring the whole class back together and show one last video. I love this one because it’s short; it makes them think, and it makes a bunch of really great points about language learning in general that can be applied to Spanish. After they’ve filled out their tables based on the last video, the students have about 18 different reasons to study Spanish that they’ve gotten from videos, articles, and each other (NOT from me, which I love). The last row that students have to fill out asks them to list their top three reasons for studying Spanish, and at this point they can add their own if their reason to take Spanish hasn’t been presented that day.

Their exit ticket is that they have to write down their number one reason for learning Spanish. On small cut-out pieces of paper, and I also ask them to write down their goal for learning the language. I tell them that this isn’t a class goal (I don’t want a million papers that say “my goal is to get an A”), but this is a language-learning goal for life (like “I want to be able to have a conversation with my aunt from Puerto Rico,” or “I want to be able to talk to my friend in Spanish and not have people understand us in the hallway”). I’m always surprised by the quality answers some of the students come up with.


My favorite part of the lesson is that I staple the exit tickets to the bulletin board at the back of class, and that is where they stay all year. I love that we have that constant reminder of why Spanish is important, and a constant reminder of a real world goal for learning language. The best thing of all about that reminder is that it comes from the students themselves, not from me.

I’m really excited to be finishing up the first week of school and to dive into the Spanish learning next week, but I do also always love starting the year off with big picture reflection on why we’re spending time together in Spanish class. If you’d like to use this lesson in your classroom, but don’t want to go through the work of putting it all together, you can purchase it on Teachers Pay Teachers here.

Do you spend time on “why Spanish is important” at the beginning of the year? How do you get your classes to buy into 36 weeks of language learning? Let me know 🙂

Student perspective: is it okay to lie on language tests?

Raise your hand if you’ve ever said something like this to your world language students: “Remember – I’m not grading you on what you say. I’m grading you on how you say it. It’s okay to lie on your test if you can’t remember the Spanish word you want to use!”

This, of course, is an excellent testing strategy for students. The most recent conversation I had like this in my classroom was during our “giving directions” unit. One of our test questions asked students to write out driving directions from their house to school. “Your directions don’t have to be accurate,” I advised them, “just make sure you include a few different turns so I know you can use the structures we’ve learned.” This gives students the freedom to show off the language they know, avoid the language that gives them trouble, and stress more about finishing their test than writing long paragraphs of accurate directions from their house thirty minutes away from school (not to mention it makes grading easier for me).

Let’s think about this from a student’s perspective…

Fast forward a few months and the roles are reversed. I am sitting in the student’s chair at a language school in Costa Rica, discussing current events in Spanish with my (phenomenal) Spanish teacher for the month, Sandra. I am taking the ACTFL Proficiency exam in a few weeks, and I have to prove that I can speak and write Spanish at an advanced level in order to qualify as a World Language National Board Candidate. Often ACTFL asks opinion questions on controversial topics in order to see how a learner manages the target language when discussing complex issues. As I try to explain how insane the 2016 presidential elections have been in the United States, I get flustered because I’m passionate about what’s going on in my country, and I want to tell my Costa Rican friend about the nuances, but I’m tripping over my Spanish words. Sandra looks at me and says, “Emily. ACTFL is not grading you on your opinion. ACTFL is grading you on how you use the language. It doesn’t matter if you lie on the test as long as you use language at an advanced level. Don’t stress so much about expressing your opinion accurately.”

“But Sandra,” I say back to her, “this is really important to me! There are crazy things going on in the US right now, and I want to talk about them with you!”

You see where this is going, right? This is when I thought of my students, and a lightbulb went off over my head. I almost covered my mouth in horror. “Oh my gosh, Sandra, I have this exact conversation with my students all the time.”

It’s okay to let them lie on assessments because I’m teaching them good testing strategies, isn’t it? 

Yes…but…having to lie about something important to you just to get a good grade is kind of annoying, right?? Have you ever watched a red-headed kid in Spanish 1 and write down “yo soy rubia” on an assessment because spelling “pelirroja” is hard? I have! And yeah, the student could get a perfect score on the test with “rubia,” but when I think of my identity as a teacher, my number one goal is not “all of my students have a perfect grade,” my number one goal is “my students can communicate in a foreign language about things that matter to them.” I love teaching a foreign language because you can give students a chance to get so creative and crazy with it! It gives them another outlet to express themselves, something all adolescents tend to crave. Every time I tell students it’s okay to lie on a test, it carries an undertone of “Expressing yourself accurately isn’t the most important thing. Getting a perfect grade is the most important thing.” And I’m sure as educators, that’s not the type of thing most of us enjoy promoting.

But let’s get real; grades matter to everyone. How do we teach good testing strategies AND emphasize that we care about the things our students really want to say? 

The emphasis on what we want kids to know, understand and do should line up exactly with our assessments. In every unit and every day, I want my students to understand that I care about them and their ability to express themselves in the target language according to their personal interests and passions. However, this doesn’t always line up correctly with what our school district wants them to know and do.

Take, for example, a really common thematic unit for Level 1 – sports. To pass my county’s final exam, my students need to be able to say something like, “I need a helmet, a glove, and a bat to play baseball.” BUT out of my 60 Spanish 1 students, maybe 3 of them actually play baseball. If I have a kid who is on an insanely good bowling team, how am I going to keep him engaged through the baseball vocabulary, which he need for his exam, and also give him time to talk about bowling, his passion? What about the dozen kids who hate sports and don’t play? What about the girls every year who end up in an argument with the football players in class about whether or not dance team is a sport?

Like all meaningful and engaging units, this requires a little more work on my end and a little more work on the students’ end. By the time our sports unit hits, I already know which students are varsity athletes, which ones are involved in non-conventional sports, and which ones would rather sing on a stage in front of 500 people than run a mile in gym class. So, I always include the curriculum-mandated vocabulary and offer up student-driven vocabulary based on their interests and passions (even better if they find this vocab themselves!). The students have access to both mandatory and student-specific vocab, AND they have an opportunity to use both on their summative assessment for that unit. On my test this opportunity looks like an open-ended presentational writing prompt: “Write to a Spanish-speaking friend about your favorite sport or after-school activity. How often do you do it, where do you do it, and what do you need to do it?”

Does this mean that every student is going to jump at the opportunity to learn extra vocab so they can talk about their passions? Absolutely not. Will I still give students credit for lying about their passion for baseball on their test when they really only care about playing piano? Yup. But in giving them the tools they need to express themselves accurately from the start, I indicate to my students that I care about their true thoughts and interests. I show love to the kids whose passions lie outside our official curriculum. I still give them testing strategies and hold them accountable for the knowledge required by the county, but I also give them the tools they need for accurate expression if they want it, which is really what being a language teacher is all about.

My takeaway from listening to my friend/tutor/colleague Sandra tell me to lie on the ACTFL exam is that a) lying actually IS a good testing strategy, but b) I need to make sure I’m emphasizing to my students that I care about their passions from the beginning of each and every unit. Have you ever sat in a student’s chair and had a striking realization about the way you teach? How do you give students opportunities for expression on assessments that go outside the curriculum? Send me a comment and let me know!

photo credit: Common Ground International