15 September 2012

Alphabet Soup: PBL in the TL?

I once thought my training as an English teacher handicapped me as a Spanish teacher. Actual tears were shed over my inability to see what New Schools Project best practices like literature circles had to do with my grammar and vocabulary lessons. I was baffled by the prospect of calling "How do you conjugate -AR verbs?" an Essential Question. So I signed up to complete National Boards, bought myself a language instruction textbook, and signed up for grad school, in roughly the space of a year. 
And what did I find about my errant English teacher ways? Well, whaddaya know, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the ganso! Decontextualized grammar lessons do nothing? You don't say! A steady stream of exposure to quality texts is essential to improving one's linguistic skills? That's incredible!

So by the time I got dunked Baptist-style in the Buck Institute's model of Project-Based Learning, the whole I-would-get-how-to-apply-this-if-I-still-taught-English mentality was not the Everest it was when I first dipped my toe in NSP waters four years earlier. This is do-able, I thought: language instruction is not exempt from 21st century overhaul and effective engagement strategies. Meaningful, attainable, public goals can improve Spanish class just as much as they can the English class.

But here's where my rebirth as a Spanish teacher conflicts with my baptism by PBL: how can I stick to the ACTFL 80:20 Rule, make my class a mini-immersion experience, AND instruct students in the finer points of collaboration and project planning?

Me? I cannot. Not yet. I mean, to offset today's solid 45 minutes of intense small group debate, negotiation, and goal setting, plus the 15 minutes of setting up the contract which I designed completely in English for clarity's sake, and the 20 minutes of whole-class rubric design, neither I nor my students could speak a word of English until next Friday.

However, I think there is a way it can be done. Maybe. Some day.

My #langchat compatriots contend that a project that cannot be executed entirely in the Target Language is too complicated for the students' proficiency level. And so I have made a conscious effort, not to dumb down my goals, per se, but to align projects with linguistic level appropriate possibilities. Not everything needs to be a philosophical quandary or debate of societal maladies, after all.

But you know what? Everything does have to be relevant. I do not see my juniors engaging in such impassioned discussion as they did today about their movie trailers about exaggerated stories from their lives and how to make them reality if we were focused instead on their "daily routines" or what they did last weekend. I don't think the drive to achieve comprehensible pronunciation would be nearly as strong if my Spanish I girls (no boys this semester) were not preparing to get some input from actual Argentinian kids about ways to make their own Children's Day festival fun.

And it does have to fit my allotted time frames. Sure, I could have spent 2 more weeks breaking down filmmaking and teamwork-oriented vocabulary with images, semantic grouping, and TPR. But then the 6-week grading period would be over without the major project (or, rather, major test equivalent) mandated by my district. And can you imagine the level of burn-out on the whole movie-making topic if it lasted an extra month? And my poor Spanish I girls! Their vocabulary and pronunciation, their ability to pick up key words and derive meaning from what they hear are steadily improving each day. But if we had to get away from festival-related questions and vocabulary to ALSO rehearse how to ask the right questions in Spanish to get an event off the ground? We would certainly never get an event off the ground.

Mind you, I am making efforts to work some of that vocabulary in. I am fortunate to have 1.5 fewer preps this semester than all last year, so I am breaking things down, constructing simplified directions with cognates and key words wherever possible. I even have both Spanish I and II keeping a running list of "Instrucciones Importantes" so they have a ready reference for words I'll need to use again and again to explain tasks.

So is effective PBL possible in the TL--even at the novice level? If we can haggle the 80:20 Rule down to 60:40 or maybe just 70:30, then I think so. Otherwise, I give it a 50/50 shot.


  1. I don't teach PBL, but have the same conflict when using/teaching technology (and I often get upset about my lack of TL on those days). It is important to remember that we are not working in isolation and exclusively teaching language.  We are teaching some life-long skills - problem solving, teamwork, flexibility and adaptability. Those skills will be used in the students' future workplace and for the rest of their lives, while they may or may not speak Spanish for the rest of their lives. It sounds like you are doing some wonderful things with this new style of teaching, I hope you will share some project when they are done. Thanks for sharing this honest reflection, I felt like I was reading my thoughts on some days! :)

  2. So, I am trying to move more in this direction but it is harder than I originally thought. Are your classes just the PBL, or is there some lecture as well? I read a blog where the teacher said she never lectured, and I can't see how that would ever work.

    I used a PBL project for my culminating Unit Project. Students had to create a presentation to help teens with a common teen problem. They chose the problem, the group, the method of delivery. However, some really still missed the POINT! Suggestions on how I can help them reach the end game??

    1. I'd say my classes are probably fairly squarely in the hybrid category. Since they're still at the novice level, I don't think they're to a point where I could just set them loose to accomplish a task in Spanish without a lot of anticipation and targeted lessons on my part, like, how to form the past tense, for example.

      It sounds like you had a noble idea with the choice and relevance of your unit, but I think the key is the backwards planning. If you give them too much freedom, their brains will fall out. You have to have a baseline goal that you scaffold for them. Was their goal to SOLVE the problem? Were they supposed to take action to help the intended group? Was awareness the only goal? Did they need to convince someone to do something about it, and if so, whom?

      Choice and authentic learning are beautiful things, but whoo boy do they take a lot of planning and mind reading! It's about planning for every possible thing they should need to accomplish it and every problem they're likely to encounter. And LOTS of revision. They want to do it one time and be done, but the more checkpoints along the way where you can have them stop and get back on track, the better (though I'm finding they hate it at any stage of the game).