28 February 2013

A form letter: making the case for Skype access

Does your district require justification for downloading any software to school computers? Convince them--no DAZZLE them--into adding Skype if they have not done so already. Feel free to take as much of the letter below as you need to make your case, filling in your own blanks--and/or links--as needed.
Dear principal,
I recently connected with a Spanish teacher in ____________ whose class is currently working on a food and cooking unit, just like my Spanish I class. We have come up with an idea for a collaborative project that would allow our students to practice their interpersonal communication skills as well as their interpretive reading and listening and their presentational speaking and writing with an outside audience.

I have put together a wiki at http://comidacompartida.pbworks.com where they can communicate asynchronously, but in order to get the full interpersonal experience, my colleague in ____________, @lisajmch, and I would like to arrange video chats between small groups of our students as well. Video chat is ideal because it allows not only for the tonal inflections that provide context and meaning to spoken interpersonal exchanges, but also the additional context provided by body language and facial expression that is so essential to authentic person-to-person communication. Of course, if the video option is not available, at least the opportunity to communicate in real time with the benefit of vocal inflections, pauses, and other audio cues is the next best thing to being able to see our collaborators.

With Skype installed on multiple machines, students would have the opportunity to communicate individually, which would maximize the use of class time with full participation in an actual conversation with an audience beyond our own classroom. Alternatively, if they are ever to have the chance to practice the actual speaking of Spanish beyond our class, students would only be able to take turns as we Skyped class-to-class. The class-to-class option means that large portions of the class are sure to tune out for much of the session and that only a fraction of the time would be spent ensuring each student got a chance to engage in conversation. 

We will be sharing audio and video files through the wiki, but according to language acquisition theory, this presentational mode of communication is wholly distinct from the back-and-forth exchange afforded by an actual Skype "call." In fact, the interpersonal mode is emphasized far more at the novice level, according to North Carolina's Common Core Essential Standards (see pages 12 and 15-20)  as well as national American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.

Of course, text chatting is an alternative that would still meet the standards of interpersonal communication. However, the real world application of language study extends much further and into more areas of life if students are allowed to actually develop their oral and aural skills as early as possible.

I appreciate your consideration and support for this opportunity for our class!

Thank you,
Your devoted world language teacher

27 February 2013

Experiencia Afrolatina, Part 3: For the Kids

I needed a question that tied to something more personal and yet more universal for my teenage audience. And quite frankly, my class is both exceptionally small this semester and entirely white. Nevertheless, they are not unsympathetic sorts, and they are actually very reflective and open-minded individuals. This does not, however, guarantee background experiences that connect easily to say ChocQuibTown's or Haitian-Dominicans' experiences. So I'm going more superficial.

Instead of trying to trick them into being interested with irresistible music or flashy videos, I started with them. I had them fill out a survey about themselves and how they saw themselves, with questions in Spanish like "Are you attractive?" and "Are you a good friend?" and "Do people want to be your boyfriend/girlfriend?" Spoiler: on average there were no more than 4 no's out of 35 questions.

Then, I showed them pictures of various people we were going to "meet" throughout the unit and had them answer the same questions, about people like Kalimba, Memín Pinguín, Celia Cruz, Goyo, Tostao, Slow, the narrator from Cartas a mi Mamá, and even Rafael Trujillo (I also should have included Nicolas Guillén, because it looks like he's going to fit nicely this time). There were not quite as many yeses this time around.

We had a discussion in Spanish (well, Spanglish--but I stayed at least at my target 90%, and they understood me!) about whether what other people thought even mattered and when and why it does. I also tried to get them to come up with a target audience for the message about what other people see and think, but for naught. 

So I went about preparing ye olde comprehensible input, opting this time for a picture book introduction rather than my standby a ChocQuibTown videos, breaking down Me llamo Celia into digestible pseudo-PACE chunks. Then it hit me: if a picture book is the way to get this group into the unit, then a picture book might be the way to reach a worthy audience.

And so,we embark on our mission to create a book--as a group/tiny class--that can help children deal with a world that doesn't always see them for who they are. We will have to get into some need-to-knows to determine the characters to include, what roles they'll play, the story structure, how to illustrate, and how to convey the message in a way that kids can understand AND benefit from. We'll address those questions as I introduce them to the different players from the unit, look at the examples I have about historical figures, and hopefully come up with something worth reading to a local ESL class, maybe, maybe even putting on the market?

14 February 2013

Let me see your folder: group folders and personalized pacing

Long have I despaired of being able to keep PBL groups moving forward at varying paces. Do I let the hares work on other classwork while the tortoises catch up? Do I demand everyone complete the same tasks at the same time? Do I set up a secret security camera system to monitor their every move and make sure they're on task, penalizing those who dare deviate from the prescribed order and horario?

While it is not fool-proof, I have found a system that keeps all groups moving forward while still affording them a measure of autonomy to motivate said forward movement. Of course chatters will chat, and the allure of social media remains the siren song sung in the background of every computer lab session. However, with the group folder method, I need not stop and conduct an in-depth analysis of what is and is yet to be accomplished. I simply say, "Let me see your folder."

Whether they want to go film or take pictures in another classroom, or whether they want to start editing or putting together their website, before I give them the go ahead, all I need is a "Su folder, por favor," and a quick eyeball at the outside most of the time.

Contents of a group folder:

  • 1 Cover Checklist stapled to the front with...
    • group name
    • group  member names
    • final project format (if they have a choice)
    • daily goals agenda
  • 1 Progress Log per group member with tasks broken down into steps
    • arrangements/appointments made with dates and times (at least by period)
    • date of completion
    • date of group review of material for submission
    • date of re-do (if necessary)
    • date of submission to me for approval
      Why per person? If only one person is keeping track of what's happening when, problems will surely ensue. It might also be appropriate to have a separate log for each phase of production to help break down the process into digestible portions..
  • 1 Collaboration Rubric as a reminder of the standards for collaboration
  • 3 Collaboration Checklists per group member to track self and peer evaluation. I suggest 3 for tracking progress, too. I wondered if these should not be kept separate, private, but to my way of thinking, they should be updated honestly and openly among the whole group.
  • Any notes from planning discussions, goal-setting sessions, or organization outlines to be referred back to when a group starts thinking they're "finished"
The checklist with the agenda works well because it does allow for some jumping around when appropriate. Maybe one group finished their pictures before interviews: then I can simply cross that out, even though it is fourth on the list. Hint: only cross it out if it is in your hot little hand or virtual inbox, none of this it's-on-my-camera-but-I-forgot-my-cord-can't-you-just-look-at-it-here stuff. (That's just the preamble to somebody-must-have-erased-it or it's-at-home-I'll-bring-it-tomorrow.)

I check their progress logs daily to see what they claim to have finished and compare it to what I have received that day on Schoology (or Edmodo, or an inbox--physical or electronic). Then, based on their logs, my records, and the next checkpoint, I make a suggestion under "Daily Goals" as to what should happen during the next group work session. At the end of the work session, they each update their Progress Logs, I collect folders, and I start again. I also keep a spreadsheet with my daily notes to each group (see, it's nice because there are way fewer groups than there are students), por si acaso.

As for maintaining some sort of uniformity, I do, in fact, set due dates for phases of the project with the class. Another hint: don't count on the first due dates they set. While they need to set goals early on, one of the best things Project-Based Learning (or Problem-Based Learning) does for the student is make them re-evaluate everything. All the time. Also, make them build in revision dates before the final due date.

With the Collaboration Rubric/Checklist, I did some frontloading at the beginning of the semester with a puzzle activity where students got to practice using it to evaluate their partners that tried to help them put together the puzzle. We review the alignment of the simplified Spanish objectives each time we start evaluating, so I can sit down with groups and conduct evaluations in at least 90% Spanish!I've found that it is fine to start with just Never/Sometimes/Always for students' choices, but to be able to show growth, I'm expanding to Nunca/Poco/A veces/Mucho/Siempre. (The simplified objectives for the Spanish checklist are based on the "At standard" column of the BIE rubric.)

Now I confess this whole organizational aspect of the project has been in English for my Spanish I class thus far. However, I consider it scaffolding so I can sneak some Spanish in once they're familiar with the process, or the schema, if you will. For the second and third projects, in addition to collaboration evaluations, the Cover Checklist and daily goals will be entirely in Spanish, and by the third, I hope even Progress Logs will be in Spanish.