16 September 2013

So you want to be a WLOE NBCT

Image source: Matt Haskell on SourceLink

The honey badger is a creature that has gained internet notoriety for its lack of ...cares...to give. In my experience, the powers that be in charge of World Languages Other than English National Boards are a lot like the honey badger. As both an English teacher and a world language teacher, I have to say that I think the expectations for world language teachers are significantly more stringent and difficult to accomplish than at least some other subjects.

Let it never be said that I do not admire and esteem my compatriots who are English NBCT's (being a Spanglish teacher, that's who most of the NBCT's I know are), but I think their task was a lot more possible than mine was. This discrepancy could be the result of decades of textbooks and lazy language teaching strategies in world language classes that have left a lot of us relatively uninitiated in sound instructional habits. It could simply be the inherently global and, well, foreign nature of our subject. But whatever the cause, I feel world language teachers are expected to make water out of wine to earn our National Board stripes.

Not to bite the proverbial hand that feeds me (until North Carolina takes away the NBCT raise, at least), but the process itself did not make it much easier. I found the generic feedback and expectations to marry all 5 C's set out by the ACTFL into a single lesson not once, but twice (in a whole group and small group setting for two different videos) positively Herculean. The expectation to "advocate" for our subject is not exactly a standard an English teacher has to meet either. Our activities have to extend beyond the academic and typical classroom activities, so we have to wear more hats to be considered worthy.

I have a handful of friends who are taking on the World Languages Other than English challenge this year, and I want to help them avoid the years of self-doubt and anguish that wrestling with National Boards honey badgers caused me.

For entry 1, forget conjugation and accents, spelling and sentence structure. You can throw them in as sort of icing and way of establishing patterns of issues you'll address, but overall, if it ain't cultural insight plus interpretive, interpersonal, or presentational mode, National Boards is as the honey badger of internet fame: it don't care.

For entries 2 and 3, choose a topic that oozes kid/teen appeal and incorporates intercultural comparisons. If it does not connect with their individual adolescent consciousnesses while connecting them with everyday life in the target culture, National Boards don't care.

For video lessons, be sure, too, to avoid any lesson not tied to a greater authentic purpose. If the students won't do it in real life, National Boards  is, once again, a honey badger.

Also, do not--DO NOT--let the camera catch you speaking English. If you can't do it in the target language, National Boards don't care.

For whole class engagement, if you don't have a specific activity that each individual can and will participate in the whole time--or at least a backup plan for how you could get that to happen in the future--guess what.

For Entry 4 (this one's universal), don't even mention an accomplishment that did not directly alter your day-to-day classroom functions. Fancy awards and recognition? Say it with me.

As I think of more ways to appease the honey badgers to whom supplicants must hand over months work of hard work and worry, I will add to the list. If anyone else has any ideas, even if you are more forgiving of the rigor expected of us as WLOE NBCT's, please add your input to help make some good teachers' lives easier and their classes even better.

Because for all of my bluster, at the end of the day, I am a better teacher for having been through the National Board process, and isn't that what even the honey badgers are working toward?

14 September 2013

Unconference Epiphanies: Inspiring Success with PBL

At an unconference you can learn about anything you want to learn about as long as you're willing to facilitate and have enough kindred spirits in attendance. I attended my first Edcamp last week in South Carolina, and I had the pleasure and honor of co-facilitating a session on PBL and CBL (Challenge-Based Learning) with @Carriegaffney84. I got to share some of my experiences, but more importantly, I got a fresh transfusion of ideas and enthusiasm from my unconference colleagues.

I tracked some of our ideas on a session Google Doc, but my takeaway from the PBL/CBL session can mostly be summarized in three goals:
  1. Selecting topics
  2. Building confidence
  3. Exacting excellence

Selecting topics
Learning to ask the right questions is one of the most important lessons students can learn from a PBL experience. In that spirit, I kept track of questions that would help us as educators structure a successful PBL unit. Perhaps my favorite question of the session was "What are the kids pissed off about?" In other words, what matters enough to them that they demand something be done about it? This made me think of the seniors I have in advisory who were clamoring for uniforms during our focus group time last week. And by golly, you can bet we'll be researching uniforms at schools in other countries come Spanish 3 next semester!

I've spent a lot of time pondering driving questions and situations where students would actually need  Spanish. I've dug up audiences wherever I could to try to "drive" students to use the language in real-world situations. But the fact of the matter is that, usually, it don't mean a thing if the topic is not something they came to your class on fire about already.

Building confidence
I don't know why the affective filter hits second language classes harder than any other classes, harder even than math. But it does. Give the kids a real audience for a project in their native language, and they discover their inner grammar nazis and perfectionists. Give them a real audience that speaks more Spanish than they do, and their brains want to shut down.

So my unconference colleagues suggested setting up more practice sessions before the real deal. Practice with little kids. Practice with other kids online. Practice with kids from other classes who took Spanish before or grew up speaking it. And before each practice session, have them anticipate questions from their audience and answers they could give. After each practice session, too, reflect on what they needed to say but couldn't, and add to their "cheat sheets." Help them learn to anticipate like we have to do as their teachers and to circumlocute and solve problems with the tools they have at their disposal. And give them a chance to try it before the Big Day.

Exacting excellence
Don't just expect it. Don't just demand it. Draw excellence out of them. Set high standards and show them exactly what it takes to reach them. One of my unconference colleagues said she tells her students, “Don’t bore me: you’ve got 3 seconds to catch my attention.” Let them know that you will hold no truck with assignments completed just for a grade's sake: these are real goals that must fly in real world settings.

Also consider holding off on rubric discussions until almost the end of the unit (but with time to revise before the Big Day). That way students have to be the ones to figure out the "how" of the presentation, and you can--along with the students, if you're up to it--decide what must be included, no matter the means of presenting. This forces them to make real, meaningful decisions about their goals and their work.


If your topics are ones that not only tap into what makes your subject essential in the 21st century but also what makes students mad, you'll have a lot more buy-in than you would with just any old essential question. If you set up opportunities to practice and analyze information gaps before presenting to a real audience, students can feel confident in their ability to produce something worth presenting. And if you structure the assignment in such a way that students understand from the start that they are the problem solvers and they are responsible for the success of their presentations, then their objectives can shift worthwhile and attainable goals to worthwhile and attainable aspirations.

13 September 2013

I Have No Idea What They're Saying: Genius Hour Experiment, part 5

I discovered the secret to finding videos in the target language without YouTube, but not to figuring out what on Earth that Brazilian lady is saying.

To find the videos, a simple Google search set to just videos can be refined by choosing "Search tools" then clicking "Any source" and selecting anything but YouTube (and apparently tu.tv) that your particular search has turned up.

I just had students collect videos today, embedding or linking them on their blogs, and then I set about trying to make heads or tails of some I collected for my own Portuguese Genius Hour experiment at home.

Step 1: I decided was just to let the video wash over me and to absorb context clues from the visuals, including @Rosana's busy hands and her handy Portuguese subtitles (reading really is so much easier).

To tell the truth, I could pretty much imitate her without understanding anything she said, but this was not just an crafting quest, but also a linguistic exercise I set out on to improve my own understanding of Portuguese phonetics. Which leads me to Step 2.

Step 2: I stuck in the earbuds and listened hard for words I knew (sometimes from the subtitles). I made a list of what I thought I could make out, but mostly it was a bunch of Frenchy-sounding mishmash to my ears. Still, I paused the video when I thought I recognized something and jotted it down.

Step 3: I double checked words I had not seen before on WordReference, first by trying to type in what I thought I heard and seeing if it popped up with a little PT next to it on the dropdown menu. If that didn't work, I typed in what I was pretty sure it said in English based on my context clues and looked for something similar. In this way I discovered chapéu, dobra, outro, and linha. This reinforced some of the u, r, u, and nh sounds I'd observed on Duolingo and Busuu.

Step 4: I explained my process in my blog and included my list of heard words in Portuguese on my blog. I also decided to add a tally of my vocabulary Google Doc at the bottom to chart progress that way too (I'm up to 77, by the way).

Implications for Students
I'm going to have to require an update on the vocabulary Google Doc each week, I think. I decided the podcast post was a bit much at this point, but I think it would be worth having them record what's on their list up to this point, maybe make some sentences out of it to record that too. Maybe I should even have them make soundboard glogs? But if I want them to have a prayer of picking out familiar words in a listening context, they'll have to actually know how they sound and be able to hear them over and over.

I think a blog post that includes a list of heard words might trick them into attempting the listening, too, as they can probably easily get nearly the week's 50 with the list alone, so they'll think they're getting away with something. However, I think they'll have to take it in chunks of no more than 5 minutes (some found some lengthy videos) to focus their attention.

Checking themselves with WordReference will also be key to verifying what they hear. Picking out conjugated words was a little tricky for me, but I was glad I had words like vou under my belt and that we'd assiduously rehearsed voy a/vas a this week as sort of a preparation. I don't want to overwhelm them with conjugations, but at least knowing the present tense yo form should give them a place to start.

Next Steps
I think I will assign ONE video vocabulary list first, then a soundboard glog, followed by a second video vocabulary list (maybe it will be improved?) I believe it will be crucial to establish confidence in the interpretive skills before having them branch out into interpersonal. I do think, however, that during the second six week grading period, I would like them to at least locate a few possible "experts" who are native Spanish speakers whom they can grill with questions at a later date. This may be where cultivating a Twitter list might come in handy or even isolating Pinterest buddies with common interests.

Previous Genius Hour Experiment posts:

08 September 2013

Google it up: The Ultimate Interpersonal Experience

Google has what you need to connect your students to classes across the country and across the world. With e-mail addresses and adequate access, you can set your students up to carry on both synchronous and asynchronous conversations any time, and you can even record them for free! I'm in the process of testing a lot of these out through the club project I'm working on with English classes in Argentina.



Step 1: Gmail Contacts
First and foremost, make sure everyone has a Gmail account, and make sure their Gmail accounts have the appropriate permissions (school accounts may block things like Google + or YouTube, and that could foil the whole plan).

I suggest collecting classes--both yours, and those with whom your classes are communicating--in their own Contact List groups then exporting the groups (just the groups, not your whole list) as a CSV file. I also copy just the emails separately to a document so I can have a list of emails with nothing else but commas separating them. Trust me, this will be useful.

Step 2: Blogger
Set up a blog on Blogger.com* for the interaction and go to Settings. Copy your list you have already copied, pasted, and whittled down to nothing but emails and commas into the "Add authors" section. If your students are like my students, you may have to do this a few times to make sure they both open and accept the invitation to join. Once they have joined, they can create a new post on the blog that everyone now shares, and anyone can see who posts what when, and of course they can comment on each other's posts too.

Generating a list of labels (tags) you want them to use on an introductory post that you add can help facilitate specific post location down the road. Since we're collaborating with an English class, I made a separate page to list the English class's topics and one for our Spanish class topics, plus a page of directions on how to contribute and now one where a calendar of class-time appointments (Google Calendar is another great feature--though it doesn't really involve actual interpersonal TL communication) can be set.

Step 3: Google Plus
Google + is free with the Google account, but it must be activated to use many of the features that follow. You could use the Circles option here to organize student contacts as well, especially if they're working in certain groups for a period of time and you need to be able to contact individual groups separately.

Step 4: Google Communities
Create a community--preferably with a theme that will promote discussion beyond listing a few favorites. Link to the blog and copy and paste your e-mail/comma list of students to invite. I've made my community private, but people can search it and request to join. If students haven't activated Google + yet, you may need to just "share" the community with them as kind of a hint so they can request membership once they have joined.

You can also set up separate post categories. For my purposes, I went ahead and made a separate category for each club topic. In time, this may replace the blog, as students can post text, photos, videos, links, and even events, which could be topic-related occurrences in the news or just plans to meet up and talk! They can even schedule Hangout sessions and get reminders, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Step 5: YouTube*
Make sure that your account at least is connected to YouTube, proper permissions in order, etc. If nothing else, you will be able to record this way. Anyone else who wants to record Hangout conversations will have to either make sure their account is connected or that they're grouped with someone whose is and that that person initiates the Hangouts.

Step 6: Hangouts/Hangouts on Air
With just the Hangouts option on the right of  the Google + page, anyone can start a chat or video call with any of their contacts, even their circles if they've arranged them by, say, clubs. They can see all participants in real time and even share their screens or simply chat.

However the really cool thing that could solve a lot of problems for me, especially reflection and collecting evidence for e-portfolios, is the option on the left for Hangouts on Air. Kids can, of course, copy and paste Hangout chats if they just need interpersonal evidence, or even start Audacity as soon as their conversation starts for a simple audio file. However, starting a conversation with Hangouts on Air rather than simply Hangouts means you can record video.

CAUTION: Hangouts on Air conversations are automatically sent to the YouTube channel of the person who started the conversation--live and recorded, so there may be some privacy issues that you need to work out with your district and/or students. One way to address this could be disabling video an just showing the avatar when they are speaking so they can still record screen sharing, for example. Alternatively, students could download the conversations quickly and remove them from their channels, perhaps.


Community can be one of the hardest of the ACTFL's 5 C's to address, and establishing genuine contexts for target language interactions beyond the classroom is no mean feat. However, with these tools from Google, we can bring the rest of the world a few steps closer to our students, at school and at home.


BONUS: (from @mjmergen) Have students click the little microphone on Google image search and ask a question in TL about basic country facts (e.g. capital, president, flag, map), and the search will pop up with visual responses to the question! HINT: they may have to repeat the search a few times to get the question to come up right--"quien" was especially tough even for me.

They can do PrtSc screenshots to send to you to show 1) that Google understood them and 2) they obtained the desired information!

Special thanks to @EricSims528 and @JaymeLinton for introducing me to some of the secrets of Hangouts!

*affiliated with Google, of course

05 September 2013

I SAW A BUTWUB: Subordinating Conjunctions Lesson Success!

You've probably heard of FANBOYS when talking about coordinating conjunctions, but where is the acronym for subordinating conjunctions? Of course there are, like, zillions of subordinating conjunctions, so one must pick and choose. I chose my 10 favorites, based on what my I've seen my Creative Writing class use or suspect they would use. I arranged them on the SMARTboard, and we shuffled them around until we got an acronym we could remember. The result?

I SAW A BUTWUB

What's a BUTWUB, you ask? Well, in the style of Allie Brosh's Alot, we invented our own creature. Meet the BUTWUB:
Leaving class, girls (the whole class is girls) were writing I SAW A BUTWUB all over themselves and threatening to go up to the principal and say BUTWUB to see what she does. I said this could only happen if they could immediately tell her what BUTWUB stood for:
If

Since
As
While

Although (added for symmetry.)

Because
Unless
Though
When
Until
Before
And they pretty much can. They're actually a little obsessed.
This made the writing activity that followed  easier. Now instead of "subordinating conjunctions," we can just say BUTWUBs. These also became BUTWUBs:

I made slips like this for each of the BUTWUBs to demonstrate the appropriate way to structure sentences with subordinating conjunctions, both at the beginning, and at the end. Being a Creative Writing class full of teenage girls, we have problems overusing cliches in class, so we combined our list of brainstormed cliches to try to make some truly spectacular poetry.

Each girl selected 3 BUTWUB slips from the pile, and we filled out the first two lines, talking about how we needed a subject-verb combination on each line--with as many cliches as possible.

Then they could use all new cliches or basically reverse the order of the previous ones for the third line.

They completed this with all 3 and then had to decide which order they should go in, even if they were completely unrelated (though they were encouraged to add more to connect them if they needed to make more sense.)

Now Creative Writing knows some of the most common subordinating conjunctions and how to use them in a sentence, plus they have some interesting BUTWUB cliche poetry!

03 September 2013

PBL Tips for TL Teaching

How can I build a unit around a real-world problem with a real-world audience and maintain maximal target language usage? So much of Project-Based Learning revolves around developing so-called 21st century skills like research, critical thinking, and collaboration, yet we in world languages are tasked with conducting 90% of our class in a language our students barely know yet! It's one thing when their linguistic skills are branching out in every direction in level 4 or even 3, but it's quite another in novice classes. However, I believe that there are ways to scaffold PBL-oriented procedures in such a way that they are accessible--in the target language--even to novices.

Of the six elements that the Buck Institute emphasize, I'd say In-Depth Inquiry, Need to Know, and Revision & Reflection are the most difficult to facilitate in the target language.


In-Depth Inquiry
  1. Figure out how to bring in the 5th C from the start. Find opportunities to get input along the way from local volunteers who are native speakers (like @dr_dmd does) or from international e-pals.
  2. Maintain active, shared lists of words students encounter, sort of a Google Doc project glossary to facilitate interpretation. Students would have to group words semantically rather than alphabetically for double connections.
  3. Try Pinterest for a starting point for research. Built-in visual clues, simplified language, easy source curation: what's not to love?
  4. If the topic is not exactly pin-worthy, or if yon font o' pins hath run dry, zero in on key words to search. Help students come up with key words by brainstorming in categories: 
Es el día de la presentación:·         ¿Dónde estás?
·         ¿Quién (aparte de la profesora y la clase) está presente?
·         ¿Qué objetos ves?
·         ¿Qué acciones observas?
·         ¿Cómo puedes describir el ambiente?
I suggest (as does WL guru @SECottrell at Musicuentos) having a variety of possible responses for students to choose from, including some obviously false ones and perhaps some that relate better to past or future projects as sort of a review/preview.

Need to Know
  1. You have to compartmentalize the types of need-to-knows ahead of time to guide questioning, for one, to offer a schema for context and semantic grouping of vocabulary. For two, the categories can help establish the ultimate goals of the project. I think "To decide," "To seek," and "To create" pretty much cover the major stages of the project and can--and should--be revisited throughout.
  2. Predict what information you think they need and devise simple who/what/when/where/why/how questions for students to interpret. Have them classify them in the Decide/Seek/Create categories before fielding questions from them.
  3. Make sure to frontload interrogatives like your life depends on it--post them for constant reference, if possible. Around 15-20 high-use, relevant vocabulary words to fill in the gaps could help too. After extended scrutiny of the predicted questions, have pairs formulate questions they could add, maybe one for each category or one for each question word. Add them to the class list.
  4. Facilitate ongoing TL conversations during research and planning with gambits (está bien, de acuerdo, lo dudo, etc.) and sentence starters to pose questions to teammates:
  • ¿Tienes…?
  • ¿Quieres…?
  • ¿Te gusta…?
  • ¿Puedes…?
  • ¿Necesitamos…?
  • ¿Por qué no…?
  • ¿Vas a…?

In fact, I think I'll have partners brainstorm a question for each of these before meeting with their partners next and submit their partners' responses.

Reflection & Revision
  1. Post a "metas del día" discussion/forum/update on Edmodo/Schoology/Blackboard, etc. where students indicate what they will Buscar, Hacer, and Decidir (look for, make, and decide). At the end of class, students reply to their comment at the end with "Tengo/tenemos..." to reflect on what actually was accomplished.
  2. Start the day by posting a few simple questions about the project on the board. (¿Qué es? ¿Quién participa? ¿Cuándo empezó? ¿Dónde es popular? ¿Por qué empezó?). Choose one person from each project group to respond to the questions, asking follow-ups to make sure they understand. This should help review and crystallize previous research while practicing interpersonal skills.
  3. For some presentational speaking practice, elicit spontaneous speeches with pictures: print/post a picture related to their topic to talk about for 30 seconds. They find a picture and either print it or send it to a common drop online to pull up on ye olde SMARTboard. They can look up vocabulary they want to use ahead of time, but they cannot read from a script.
  4. I call them "conversation cards," an idea I got from Alice Omaggio Hadley's Teaching Language in Context and expounded on on the #LangCamp wiki. Also, here is a folder of several conversation cards I've used in class. Basically, students get in groups of 3 to ask each other scripted questions about the project at hand. Or rather, 2 ask each other questions while 1 has "the answers" and keeps track of the responses for analysis later.
This list is a work in progress, of course, and while I've tried at least half of these, the rest are here as a reminder to me for ways to remedy the L1 levels I've observed. I'd love more suggestions, and I plan to add more as I experiment more, too.