15 July 2013

Passion: Can Spanish Be as Cool as Art Club?

Early in Teach Like a PIRATE, Dave Burgess asks three critical questions about the passions that drive us as teachers: content passion, professional passion, and personal passion. To be perfectly honest, I had a hard time coming up with anything remotely satisfactory for the content question: "of all of the topics and standards you teach as part of your curriculum, which are the ones you most enjoy?" Burgess describes "meeting the 'energy' head-on," and I tried to think about when I could possibly have experienced such a sensation. I mean, sure, I've had some fun and felt moments of glee when a kid "gets it" or makes something cool. But I don't remember being "fired up," per se, in some time. Except...

Art Club.

On the Fridays last semester when I knew I was going to get to meet with Art Club, I was alive. Believe it or not, I was still pumped after clean-up at the end of most of those Fridays, too, just surveying the sketches and blooming canvases left to dry over the weekend.

Does this mean I need to go back and get an art degree to teach the content that fires me up? Have I ignored my calling as an art teacher? I don't think so: Burgess himself says "Chances are you, like me, are a teacher because of your professional passion." It's not the paint or the proportions that energize me--or the kids. There are three factors that I could probably harness in almost any class if I try that I think would lead to that same feeling. These factors help me answer the professional passion question: "What is it about being an educator that drives you?"

Student goals
I LOVE it when students decide what they want to do and then DO IT. TB wants to paint a hamburger? I have never been more excited about figuring out how to depict a pickle. CR wants to experiment with different media and color schemes to bring his sketch to life? I am all about that debate. DS wants to crochet a hat? I will go GET the color you want. I just love being a part of helping them make something they want a reality!

But how does this transfer to my Spanish classes? It's true that Art Club comes with no expectations other than entertainment, really, so the absolute goal-setting freedom is somewhat restricted by standards, grades, etc. But there are ways. I think things I've tried, like student blogs, classes selecting the driving questions, and Musicuentos' design-your-own exam--even "side projects" back in my early days as a Spanglish teacher, go part of the way to tapping into that passion, but blogs are still my goal, though the exam structure is much closer to what I'm aiming for--as long as student don't pick cop-out topics or means of presenting. I think incorporating Genius Hour is closer still to achieving this sense of student goal-setting.

In Art Club, we tried a different medium or focus almost every week. Kids could go back to a medium they liked after the weekly experiment, or keep going with what we had. Also the freedom to start something new at any time in Art Club was not only liberating but motivating. Knowing that you could drop that scarf that wasn't working out and sketch instead helped make sure people were always doing something they wanted to do. I think when I have more than a semester with my club kids, I'll be able to institute a finish-one-project rule without damaging that motivation. I think having something tangible to show for their efforts beyond half...cheeked... starts is important too.

Were I not saddled with strangely specific grading requirements and 6-week grading periods, I might do something more like I did back with side projects, a "you must turn in 5 of these 7 papers per grading period and get them 'perfect.'" I once thought with all of my homework choices (again, Musicuentos-inspired) I would harness some of this liberating motivation, but this has not been the case thus far. I wonder, though, if I might allow students to choose from these choice assignments and/or blog posts to create one expanded presentational assignment--be it written or recorded. I could cut back to 4 posts per grading period to sweeten the deal, too. And then they could play with what they want to add to (a dish they prepared? a song they heard? a post they had more to say about?) and how they want to present it. They might have to pick a specific audience to address and produce something 50 words long and be required to add their choices from a laundry list of "improvements" like visuals, links, recordings, and the like. This could work: I'm starting to feel a little pumped...

Individualized instruction
In Art Club, I would often set a goal at the beginning of club time, maybe show a little how-to video on creating cool effects with oil pastels or partnering people up to draw each other's eyes. But after that, I spent club time fluttering around the room, pausing to ask questions about what they're doing and why, helping them decide where to go next. If that pickle just wouldn't work, or CR just couldn't decide to go with earth tones or eye-popping complementary colors, or CR couldn't figure out the right medium to convey her vision, why, I sat next to the kid and hashed it out, offering my, well, amateur opinion.

Genius Hour may be the answer here, too, and I hope to get PBL projects to the level that they are also an opportunity for fluttering and roosting. I want to be a sounding board, so I guess my next goal should be to scaffold sounding-board-type questions (perhaps using a soundboard?) in the target language. I'm not sure if I can get the same sense of fulfillment or the same charge if students are struggling to formulate their questions for me, possibly avoiding asking because they are afraid to look foolish, or, Heaven forfend, because the projects are not as important to them as the pickle. This means I also must be more assiduous in devising driving questions that, first, have real student  interests in mind and, second, leave enough room for students to pursue their own passions through the projects.

Burgess' final question asks for your personal passion: "Completely outside of your profession, what are you passionate about?" For someone who is spending the wee hours of her summer weekends blogging about teaching...this question may take a little longer.


  1. Holy cow, those ARE strangely specific grading requirements! Not sure how I would feel about those for myself.

    I'd be curious to know how Spanish (or any language, really) teachers can implement Genius Hour or 20% time in a meaningful way.

  2. The requirements take some adjusting, to be sure.

    We'll be talking about Genius Hour/20% time for world languages Friday at 7PM on #LangCamp, if you want to help us figure out how it can work with languages!