27 July 2013

Collaboration and Creating a Class Language

We are founding a new country with new laws, new leaders, and above all, a new language. No, this is not political commentary (however timely such a revolution might be), but an exercise I'm trying to flesh out to help kick off the new year.

I would like to do a little structural brainstorming early on, possibly in Spanish,  with some ideas I've been collecting on Pinterest. Ideas like brainstorming on "What kind of teacher do you want?"and a chart for what a good classmate is/does/says/does not do. I could proffer some opposites pairings to choose from and images for context to introduce some relevant descriptors in Spanish. This could lead to the "laws" and leaders by sort of outlining their vision of how things should be, either in their country and/or our class, which would hopefully lead into establishing a sense of ownership and a positive atmosphere.

As a Spanish teacher, though, I'm most interested in what can happen with the language.

Dave Burgess' crashed helicopter scenario in Teach Like a Pirate got me thinking about an activity I did in a group in elementary school myself some 20 years. We were on a deserted island too, I think, and we had to create a language using only 10 words, so we had to choose carefully. I remember trying to figure out what we could communicate without words before choosing our 10. In fact, I seem to remember spending most of our time ruling choices out rather than deciding what we would actually use.

This kind if activity could be just the stone to take out a whole flock of birds, too: from observing and defining collaborative roles to identifying types of context clues and exploring the purpose of language itself.

As Sr. Burgess suggests for maintaining the flow of the class and using the boards to direct student attention, I'd have the following questions on the board:
  1. Why do we need words?
  2. How do we communicate without words?

So small groups would have, say, 10-15 minutes to choose their 10 words. I'll give them cards to write their final choices on to hold up later. 

Group work
As the groups discuss, I'll go around stirring the pot with these questions and jotting down responses on a chart with space to answer each question for each group:
  • Who is providing the ideas for your list?
  • Who decides if they're good enough, and how do they decide?
  • How will you remember which words make the final list?
  • What happens when you get off track?
  • What happens when you get stuck?
  • What happens when someone disagrees?
  • Who is the most helpful member of the group and why?
  • Who is being the least helpful and why?

Class discussion
After I collect some responses and time is up, we'd compare group lists to make a class list of words we need to start our new language. The first group would hold up one of their cards, and other groups with the same one would hold theirs up too. If multiple groups have that word, I'd add it to the class list on the SMARTboard. If only the one group chose it, I'd collect the card for debate after all groups have shared/compared.

Once we have an initial class list, we'd turn to the two board questions, maybe have a little individual quickwrite (paper having been readied at the beginning of class to minimize transition drag, of course) on each. I'd also like to add the question: what kinds of words do we need? 

Then we'd discuss the questions as a class, come up with a class statement on the purpose of language and what makes a word necessary. We could then apply to the list to see if our word list jives with our purpose. Then, time and energy permitting, we could do a quick thumbs up/thumbs down for the singleton words I'd collected, both to round off the list and gauge how attuned the class is philosophically now.

Finally, I'd have them use that same brainstorming paper from their board responses to reflect on how the class functioned together. I'd put the last three questions I asked their groups up and have them write their reflections on how the class performed with disagreements and who/what was or wasn't helpful.

I would analyze the responses that I collected from groups as well as the reflection writings to see where we might need to strengthen collaboration skills, but also to find examples of what works well that the students are doing already. I could maybe hand out "most helpful" and "bright ideas" awards, and we can compare what worked well and what didn't to the group evaluation rubric we'll be using.

The next day, we could go over the list of words they ended up with, only in Spanish. In theory, these would be words that would need to be used frequently anyway, and so would begin our new language.


  1. I love this idea, Laura! Just out of curiosity... What would your ten words be?

    1. Oh man, I'm still working on those!

    2. Maybe...want, need, have, like, understand, know, will, can, try, make

  2. It's a tough question! I thought about it last night and asked some friends/family to try too. Should be a fun first week activity!

    I came up with: need, want, hurt, help, make, please, thank, how, why, what.

    I like yours! My list is a work in progress.

    1. I got to thinking so more and that I'd probably need words like why, when, and how too...

  3. I really like this idea. I'm just wondering how it went. Did you do this the first day or a few days after? Were there any issues in students naming others who weren't helpful so early in the school year? When giving those words in Spanish, did you give them in the infinitive or just the "yo form? Gracias!

    1. The actual word selection was a little aimless, but I feel good about how I plan to adapt it this year with an actual purpose, ie tower building (See First Day Fun Stations post). Most verbs I did put in "yo" form except for request for help type verbs (ayuda, explicar).

      It was really quite thrilling how students held each other accountable for what they did and didn't do collaboration-wise and caused some serious introspection for a few. They sometimes disagreed about their contributions, but overall kids acknowledged areas for improvement!