06 November 2013

Empowering Novices for Independent Inquiry

"We don't remember anything. We just use WordReference."
I died a little inside when Spanish I told me how they felt about Genius Hour. I knew the project was not yet everything I'd dreamed it would be at the novice level, but I didn't think it was pointless! (Just typing that stings.) Nevertheless, I believe student-centered inquiry is a non-negotiable, and thus I resolved to march right back to the drawing board and build a master plan to make Genius Hour enjoyable and effective even for novices.

First, we had to have a little heart-to-heart. In Genius Hour, you've got to understand that if you're not working on a topic that you would work on if I wasn't paying attention, you're doing it wrong. One of my Spanish II kids said he tools around on Spanish sites on speakers when he's done with his other work in lab, and tells the teacher he's doing Spanish. I don't think he even realizes HE IS! If students are doing Genius Hour right, they should think they're getting away with something while they're in the target language.

Once I've been assured students have topics they're really passionate about, the rest is up to me as facilitator for their inquiry. So aside from some more general tips for collaborative PBL navigation, here are some

1) Establish a series of goals to guide students through the process, a cycle that students can work through, much like the writing process.  Begin with brainstorming, then research, then organizing and analyzing research, reflection, planningfeedback, and building. Along the way, break these steps into smaller weekly goals (if going the 20-Time route), or daily goals if you're spending a whole unit on it. Having the whole process laid out ahead of time might have prevented a lot of  "But I'm done with my post! Why can't I do homework now?" moments, too.

2) Frontload common vocabulary that will be needed for reflection, no matter the project, and perhaps add some relevant vocabulary for the week's goals. Based on my own little project and students' class language suggestions, these are some good starters:
  • Es
  • Son
  • Tengo
  • Necesito
  • Entiendo
  • Quiero
  • Me gusta
  • Creo
2) Establish project glossaries to be updated at least weekly, preferably with each new assignment. I have students maintain Google Docs, but it could as easily be a section in their notebooks if technology is at a premium. Consider limiting new vocabulary to 10 words per week (but requiring at least 3) and mandating students to stick only to vocabulary on their lists for reflection, perhaps after they've reached 30 words. HINT: I've learned that calling it a "cheat sheet" might encourage students to use it more, too, rather than just treating it like another assignment.

3) Focus on collecting resources using key words to build associations and solidify basic vocabulary for the topic. Collect pins on Pinterest and videos with YouTube or a Google Search.

4) Break down how to break down a target language text. Remember, with authentic texts, the key is to modify the task, not the text, and students don't have to understand every word of every section. Have students highlight, paraphrase, and summarize written texts. Have them preview, list what they hear, and summarize for audio texts.

5) Structure written reflection. Every so often, students should stop and summarize their overall findings and opinions, but it's hard to know where to start and what to include. Try these starters--in your TL--for reflective blog posts (or podcasts--a good excuse for some presentational speaking!):
  • I never knew that...
  • I thought _____________ but I learned that...
  • I still don't understand _______________ because...
  • A pattern I've noticed in my research is...
  • Some other interesting topics related to my topic are...
  • I would like to talk to _________ about my topic because...
  • When I present my topic, I would like to focus on ________ because...
  • Something my classmates might find interesting is...
  • I can show my classmates how _____ works by...

6) Facilitate discussion and feedback. Point students to different conversation sites like LiveMocha and Skype in the Classroom or even Twitter to find perspectives from native speakers, but also set up checkpoints for sharing their progress with classmates. Have them comment on each other's posts with compliments, critiques, and suggestions. Set up conversation-card discussions to have them reflect on what they've learned, what they're planning, and what they need to do next.

I will be experimenting with these strategies in my Spanish I and II classes over the next 6 weeks, and I hope to have them compile the results in an e-portfolio that brings together their vocabulary, sources, and reflection along with their final products. The key, I think, will be guiding them through the cycle and getting them to try different strategies when they hit a dead end and deciding what success looks like at each stage.

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