17 November 2013

PBL while Tied to the Textbook

Your district has a list of vocabulary students have to know to pass your class. You are required to cover ser vs. estar and stem-changing verbs. Also, your department says you have to get through Chapter 6 by midterm. These will all be on the state/district/school exam.

Exactly where is an authentic PBL project supposed to fit in there?

While it can be lonely being the entire world language department by myself, I give thanks nearly every day for the freedom I have to experiment and do what I see is best for my students, including project-based learning. Some of my online compatriots who fill my isolated department void, however, do not enjoy this level of freedom and have a host of masters to serve and hoops to jump through in order to be allowed to do what they know is right.

It's been years since I had to face the structured demands many must accommodate, but those restrictions were already deeply ingrained in my approach to language instruction for years before my release. I stayed in the cell staring at the wall even when the door had been swung open behind me. That is to say, I still tried to jump through hoops that had vanished, so perhaps I can offer some insight into how to "do it all." I'm not saying I ever did it all, mind you, but I think I can see now how I could have.
  1. Start with the vocabulary.
    Whether it's the district's, department's, or Chapter 4's list, look at the words and the theme they're organized around (most textbooks have come at least this far). If you have just one huge list of words you have to cover by the end of the course, group them thematically yourself.

    Now think of an audience with whom it would be worth discussing that theme, an angle that would entice your students.Then design (or choose) a driving question that fits the theme and add any other vocabulary or expressions needed to address that question.
  2. Build in the grammar.
    Depending on the structure you're assigned, you might want to let this influence your driving question design too. For example, reflexives might work best with a daily routine theme or imperfect tense with a unit on childhood, future tense on dream careers. Maybe a past perfect unit on cryptozoology--"Nunca he visto una chupacabra, pero..."

    However, with most other structures, you should be able to work them in as part of the planning and/or reflection procedures. I can pretty much only speak to Romance languages, but here are some structures you might have to deal with at the novice level in Spanish and the kinds of activities that might work:
  • Yo/tú conjugations: partners ask questions about preferences to plan responsibilities  
  • 3rd person & plural conjugations: progress reports to class--groups present what they have, need, are going to do next, and class creates a status report. 
  • Adjective order/agreement: partner selection/role assigning--students describe who they want to work with, what jobs they think they should do, e.g. "Lilly es una estudiante popular y una buena líder para nuestro grupo."
  • Ser vs estar: resource summary--groups explain what sources they have found, grouping by category where possible (Estos sitios son de aficionados venezolanos), describing where they found the information (Están en YouTube) and perhaps how the author feels about the subject (Está confundido por los resultados.)  
  • Saber vs conocer: list possible interpersonal resources--who do they know who could help, and what do they know that could help? They could ask each other if they know someone they could use too.
  • Present progressive: simple circulating progress check--during independent work time, ask an individual what he/she is working on and what his/her teammates are working on at that moment.
  • Commands: pre-presentation feedback--groups share what they have with other groups, and those practice audiences tell them how to fix it.

Of course time is always a concern when you are handed a minute-by-minute pacing guide or micro-managed curriculum, so it might not be feasible to conduct your entire course with even these tips. However, successful teachers often talk about teaching beyond the test, and using the commandments handed down from on high for a still higher purpose is probably going to be time well-spent. Furthermore, with procedures used for multiple projects, you are not just "covering" the requirements, but strategically reinforcing them.

This approach takes a lot of planning, of course, but second semester is fast approaching (I'm screaming inside too), so maybe we can both resolve to test out some more of these strategies next go-round?

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