22 January 2013

SSR in Spanish, or Sustained Silent EXPLORING

I am in love with Kristy Placido's SSR idea.However, it is perhaps incomplete to call the activity "Sustained Silent Reading." Sure, 5 minutes is sustained for a Novice Low language learner, and by golly they have to be silent for those 5 minutes. But I think "Sustaind Silent Exploration" is probably more accurate in keeping with Sra. Placido's "simply having reading material open in front of them" requirement, and really gets more at what I, for one, want them to do with authentic texts at this point.

So here are some discoveries I have made in my own exploration of their exploration so far.

Do I let them read the same book every time?
This is awesome for two reasons: one, it will encourage them to rush to class to get "their" book before anyone else, and two, they can really absorb and digest the book, almost without trying! They think they're getting off easy, but repeated exposure, even to a simple, bilingual picture book still means increasing comprehensible input, as more becomes comprehensible!

Is it cheating to provide bilingual books too?
Well, yeah, kinda. But once again, we can use it to our own evil ends without the students even suspecting! Sure, I've seen a few go through Cool Salsa and just read the English poems, but then they start to get curious. Even the vocabulary books are awesome, too. It may be what one colleague has called "flashcard Spanish," but I find from students' comments that they feel a sense of pride in absorbing some new words. Will they be able to use those words next week? Maybe. But they are experiencing a positive feeling and connecting it to language learning, so ye olde affective filter starts creeping down before they even realize it.

What genres will interest them?
Familiar things and food have got to be the most popular. They like looking at the tasty dishes in cookbooks like Cocina Mexicana and thumbing through to find the songs from Willy Wonka in Charlie y la fábrica de chocolate or their favorite parts from Harry Potter. Picture books are often popular, as it's easy to spot a subject that interests you, like animals or shapes or general silliness. Some of those local circulars you can pick up free at the local tiendas and restaurantes? Those come in handy too for those who are anxious without a lot of familiar context.

But seriously, what are they even getting out of just 5 minutes two times a week?
Let me let them answer for you:
[on Agú, agú, agú] "I didn't know what the words said, but I could gess by pictures. 
[on Capitán Calzoncillos] "The picture helps you understand what's going on even though you can't read it." 
[on Amigos de los animales] "It was easy to follow even though I didn't know what was being said." 
[on Qué pasa (a local circular)] "About news and it had a lot of pictures so I could tell what it was about."
Did you hear that? I heard "I figured out on my own how to use context clues to make sense of what I am looking at! I use schema and predictions to inform my interpretation! And Sra. Sexton never made us take notes on reading techniques or anything!"

So how do I track their progress?
I'm not as comfortable as my innovative colleague with a footloose and fancy-free SSR. Of course it should be something more or less for fun, and monitoring of the whole process should be minimally invasive. So I sat down and thought. And tweeted. And thought again. What do I really want to know about what they just did? Do I need a list of new words they're going to use daily? Do I need a summary of what they learned? Do I need their opinion?

I decided what I needed was basically what they explored, how willing they were to pick that text up again, and why. So I whipped up a little form that they whip out for each SSR session (hence the quotes above!) This helps me see how I can build my library to suit their preferences better and also get a quick insight into what frustrates them and what they're picking up on.

All in all, I feel this is a very natural, a very holistic way for students to be immersed in a language, and I think everyone should try it!

04 January 2013

I Need to Know

I have to hook students from the start, and I have to do it without letting any English intrude if possible. I can phrase my driving questions in simple enough Spanish, with generous servings of cognates and such. I can even find authentic texts for maximum thematic contextual experiences. But what I'm struggling with is how to dig in and get students to really structure their own learning, especially if I'm trying not to exceed my allotted 10% of non-target-language-time.

So what's a project-based world language teacher to do? The same thing I want the students to do: ask more questions.This has a few implications, of course:

  1. Forming questions needs to be one of the very first things I introduce in class.This is not a unique epiphany, of course, but it is critical.I have to hit questions and hit them hard, in all their iterations--yes/no, who/what/when/where/why/how/how much...In fact, they might become a text unto themselves.
  2. And I have to go deeper than I thought possible. Me, I. I have to do everything in my power to predict the questions students will want answered. But the questions that will be answered within the project are but a starting point. I have to go further, into the questions that will kick-start the need for the project and then go further still, to the simplest possible questions--so simple they seem obvious.
  3. Then I have to figure out how to find the answers. It is not so simple to build in a treasure hunt for information in a world language classroom, oh no. And it's not quite as simple as making a Diigo list of places to look because one must find the quintessential balance between comprehensibility and actually answering the questions.
So I pre-surveyed my incoming Spanish I sophomores some time ago, and one of their choices for projects involved persuading middle schoolers to come to our school.

OK, Step 1: WhoWhatWhenWhereWhyHow
  • Who would benefit from coming to our school?
  • What opportunities are available at our school?
  • When do they need to apply?
  • Where is our campus?
  • Why should students choose our school?
  • How are we different from other schools?
Step 2: Simplify--present tense, repetition (no conditional at the Novice Low level!)

Step 3: Question the project (in this case, I'm thinking promotional video)
  • Who will appear in your video?
  • What do students want to see?
  • When/where will you record footage?
  • Why??
  • How will you present the important points about our school?
  • How long should the video be?
  • How much time to you need?
Step 4: Predict ALL the answers
A previous employer was keen on the whole Black Swan (Nassim Taleb, not Natalie Portman) phenomenon and preparing for every remotely possible eventuality. World language teachers, we have to be even better than the military in this respect. Not only do we have to prepare for every possibility, but we have to plan in advance how best to express it as simply as possible with as many cognates as possible. This job is not for wussies.

Step 5: Figure out where these answers can come from
Sure I've got a list of recruitment ads in Spanish for colleges, and sure we're an Early College, but the approach is not the same. I guess they can provide ideas, but the audience and reasons for creating such a video are completely different than anything I can figure out how to find on YouTube. Suggestions anyone?

Which brings me to Step 6: Turn the answers into MORE questions
  • What do students think about our school?
  • What do parents think about our school?
  • What do teachers and other adults think about our school?
  • Where do they get their information?
  • What else do they need to know about us?
  • Do we need to change their minds?
  • How CAN we?
Step 7: Figure out more urgent, applicable, and--if possible--local ways to answer these questions
Me, I'm sending my "heritage speakers" home with some surveys that I'm hoping they'll distribute for me, perhaps with some SASE's to see how far they can cast the nets to get answers that would really help with this project.

Target language answers
So now that I have sources more or less lined up, the next order of business is figuring out how to keep the students in the target language as much as possible. Whenever we get to the Need-to-Know portion of the project, I've just been melting back into English. Sometimes I halfheartedly take notes in Spanish while they call things out in English, but that just isn't enough. So here are some ideas I think will keep the conversation on (in?) target:
  1. Parse out the most important words (especially interrogatives) and make image slides to teach what they mean without English before they get the questions.Try and keep it around 10-15,
  2. Pair students up and give each pair a question. They must break down what they think the question means and figure a way to convey it to the class with miming, drawing, or basically anything but English.
  3. As each question is cracked, use little whiteboards to communicate the answers they'd want to give, then have them share so you can give them the Spanish word. Maybe have one of the artistes be in charge of making the official image to go with the new vocabulary. Maybe take photos of students acting them out.
  4. Post the new vocabulary with the images in the room, online (edmodo, schoology, what have you).
  5. After students are comfortable with those questions (we're talking days), have students cannibalize the old questions to come up with more questions. The key, I think, is GIVING questions first for those of us trapped in the TL.
That is as far as I've gotten in my plan. Hopefully, I'll be testing it soon enough.And maybe I'll learn to write shorter posts by then. Maybe I'll have enough to get a PBL in the TL workshop together for ACTFL in Orlando. Anyone interested?