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?

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