10 July 2017

"That's not a project"

I don't know how I lucked out rooming with such an awesome dual immersion Pre-K teacher on my recent trip to Peru! It was so exciting to learn from her and absorb her strategies! Even though she teaches littles who are adjusting to their new context first and foremost, there were still plenty of parallels between our kids because of where they are in their language learning journeys.

I only snapped about 100 pictures. And that was just because my phone froze up. Should have been 200.

I also got to meet the illustrious principal who encouraged my amiga's and her colleagues' awesomeness. Just the weekend before, the principal sent my friend to a local international PBL consortium the weekend prior (had I but known!!)

So when meeting with the principal I'd heard so much about (even  the teacher amiga's father was gushing about her!), we got onto the topic of how Project-Based Learning could be used for language learning, and how it differs by age. I ventured that it was doable with novice language learners--who are already familiar with school norms and expectations--from the beginning. It just depends on how you phrase the question.

I cited the school supply drive project, and the question "¿Qué materiales necesitan para aprender?" Simple enough wording to understand and respond to, right?

"But that's not a project!" she said.

I faltered a bit.

Wasn't it? I sputtered around, stumbling over half-baked explanations and excuses, slowly, slowly recalling why I only gave that "project" an 8 on my project success scale--despite the real-world service orientation and impressiveness of the whole endeavor: there was no real product or presentation at the end.

It was not a project.

You see, there are two things a project has to have to be more than a problem for inquiry, an interesting intellectual exercise: a product and an audience. The students have to have something to explain, to display at the end! To people beyond the classroom! The Buck Institute for Education calls it the Public Product.

Start with a real audience

"Gold Standard PBL: Public Product" BIE.org
I often advise in my workshops to start with the audience, because that's the easiest element to slack on--I should know. Honestly it's the hardest to pull off, but also the most essential.

Sure, I kind of fudged a little video "dessert"-type PSA project after the school supplies were shipped off, but who ever saw it? We could have enlisted local churches or civic organizations or even sent them to other Spanish classes! But I just kind of moved on, never really bothering to see if they actually answered the original question: "How can we help rural schools in Latin America?" I got in a hurry and checked it off on my AAPPL scales and washed my hands to move on to the next thing.

PBL projects are too big to just move on from, especially if you have someone outside the school walls who needs to see how they turned out!

Answer an important question

The telenovelas unit was also a huge hit, but cuts of William Levy and Maite Perroni with plot summaries don't really answer a Driving Question, much less THE Driving Question as to why they should watch telenovelas to begin with. I let the kiddos off the hook with some funny trailers that we watched together on exam day. Was it fun? Heck yeah. Were they engaging with the language? More than I'd dared imagine (mostly to express their contempt for Juan Miguel's wife).

At the same time, though, they were still only presenting to their teacher and classmates, and they were not engaging with language as anything more than an ornament. Speaking in sentences, asking and answering questions: all cool tricks they could do now. But WHY? There were maybe some positive feelings to make them remember Spanish fondly down the road. But PURPOSE? To continue engaging with the language after class ended? Still only for a select few.

We could have conducted surveys--even among classmates, or Spanish-speaking parents, if we didn't dare venture out into the broader community or--gasp--The Internet. It's worth carving out the time to do those things, working up the nerve to take those leaps!

What you can do

Now at a bilingual school, audiences are probably a little easier to come by, since your goal is to use BOTH languages. However, when your express role IS to develop the target language, the question becomes: Who can we talk to in the L2? Or more importantly: Who understands the L2 AND cares about this topic?

Consider the following audiences:

  • ELL classes (elementary if possible)
  • Students' parents
  • Community leaders
  • Online groups
  • Bilingual friends
  • Other target language classes
Then consider what both they and your kids might be able to help each other out with. What would these audiences want to see? What would they pay attention to?
  • Picture books?
  • Comics?
  • "Viral" videos PSA's?
  • Infographics?
  • Strategically placed posters?
  • Public seminars?
  • Support group meetings?
  • Business proposals?
  • Web sites?

We live a golden age for connection and languages!  If you focus on one project that is really worth it, one that is worth creating a public product for, then you will be able to look that awesome principal in the eye and say, "THIS is a project!"

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