05 May 2011

Classroom Skype: Do's & Don't's

We've skyped with 2nd graders in Arizona and are preparing to skype with high schoolers in South Dakota. Spanish II has skyped my ex-mother-in-law in Mexico, and years ago we brought all the Spanish classes together to skype a high school buddy on Fulbright in Argentina. Oh yeah, and after some bumps in the road, we had an impromptu conversation with a former student of mine from Venezuela (whose "hotness" was a motivator for some of my more...excitable...students). 

It's mostly been a pretty cool thing, though often pretty awkward. I would like to make the experience better, and so: a reflection on what worked and what didn't.

DO plan & approve questions ahead of time, in Spanish. No, you can't stop a sophomore from telling your ex-in-laws they're pretty in the middle of the discussion--that's just too easy for them. But you can at least try to make sure native speakers who don't have a lot of English at their disposal (kind of helpful if played right) can at least grasp what your young'uns are trying to ask.

DON'T stop at question planning: anticipate. Students should brainstorm the answers they can expect from their audiences and THEN think of appropriate ways to respond. I have mine create a "cheat sheet" of things they can say, though I'm not sure that's the best way.

DO rehearse beforehand. The whole anticipation things goes a lot better if the kiddos get to try asking their questions of a classmate (or teacher, in a pinch). It works especially well if the practice answerer plays dumb so they have to figure out how to rephrase and be understood.

DON'T go in without arranging a plan with the other side of the conversation. Fulbright friend had an idea of topics that would come up (culture, mainly), and I GAVE Suegra the questions ahead of time--so I could anticipate the vocabulary she'd use, in part. The first chat with the 2nd graders was confusing because we didn't delineate who was asking what or what was fair game. It went GREAT when we had definite roles (asker vs. answerer) laid out and had a feel for what kind of questions were in each other's scope/likely to come up. 

DO brainstorm relevant vocabulary ahead of time. It helps students form questions and anticipate answers--then form their own answers, if need be.

DON'T let the rest of the class sit idly by until it's their turn. To minimize intimidation for @srtaegge's Skype newbies, we'll be trying it in groups for the first time, instead of a whole-class experience. Right before talking to Suegra, I threw a note-taking thing together off the top of my head when I realized that would be a problem, but I really should have put a lot more thought into it. True, most kids were RIVETED when we were talking to the Arizona darlings--partially from nerves--but they really should have had to produce something. Now, I think I might have the groups answer survey questions about the Dakota kiddos they interview, maybe something like superlatives: "Quiero ser el amigo/ la amiga de ____ porque..." "___ es el/la mejor estudiante porque dice que..."

DO set a specific purpose for the conversation other than "practice." I could feel my kids slipping away with just the topic of "interviewing" the South Dakota kids. It's one thing to do the basics with ninitos, but with kids your age? I wish I'd thought of the survey thing sooner.

DON'T let kids just stick to a script. It defeats the purpose of interpersonal communication. I think they should HAVE a script to start off with for comfort and screening purposes, but they should also get points for ad-libbing too.

DO require follow-up. I've stressed that in everyday life we don't just go up to a person, say "Do you like ice cream?" and then turn around and walk away after getting an answer. We usually say things like "Cool!" or "Me too!" or "That's a shame." Last year, when I threw Spanish I kiddos into the deep end to interview some local Latinos about their homelands, I gave them a list of "gambits" to use. To this day, you can often hear them interject "Esteeee...." or "No me digas!" or, their favorite, "Es diferente en nuestra cultura." I should really spend more time on these every day in class, probably post them around the room. Choosing the right response is one step toward accountability for grasping the answer given, too.

Now, I haven't graded any of the skype conversations up to this point, but I think it's about time. So here's the rubric I'm thinking of going by:

___/5 Appropriate greetings and closings given
___/5 All questions asked
___/5 Questions/responses rephrased as necessary to help interviewee's comprehension
___/5 Appropriate responses and/or follow-up given for EACH question that show interviewer comprehension
___/5 At least 5 appropriate non-scripted questions or responses included

Any ideas for tweaking? Suggestions to add to the Do/Don't list?


  1. I can't wait to try my first skype! Gracias!

  2. This is great! Thank you for the great ideas! I especially think that the follow up aspect is very important! Those conversational phrases make things more realistic for the students. Are you serious? was something that my students say all the time...so now they say "En serio?" all the time as well..we should collaborate a list of phrases!!!

  3. Those are really great tips. I have taught my children these for their spanish class kids skype at http://preply.com/en/spanish-by-skype. Thanks a lot for such useful info :)