17 June 2018

Community Partners in PBL Projects

Community Partners are pretty much the whole point of PBL in language classes: you WANT students interacting and using the language outside of your classroom! What makes a project authentic is actually engaging with people who use the language in Real Life, right? So I have always advocated enlisting at least one Public Audience of native speakers or language learners before your kiddos leave. 

The Community Partners relationship hasn't always been a very cut-and-dried, though, as we frequently got more out of interactions before presentation day than we did when the Public Products were ready for the public consumption. Whether it was asking local third graders in an elementary Spanish class about what was cool for their age group these days or interviewing contacts in Colombia about the school supplies they needed each day, the interaction before we tried to make books for them or celebrate the school supply shipment arriving always seemed to be a more fruitful learning experience.

So one thing the NFLRC Instensive Summer Institute experience has brought into focus for me so far is the dual role of Community Partners. Of course there is the Public Audience at the end, but there is also the role of Cultural Assistants along the way. In much the same way that real-life engineers can come in and offer feedback for your budding physicists, basically ANYBODY who has sufficient experience with 1) the target language and 2) the designated context for your project can come in and serve as consultants for your budding global citizens!!

It comes back to the NFLRC recommended strategy for formulating Driving Questions that I got from their online symposium:
  • Collaborate with...
  • to investigate...
  • and develop a...
"Collaborate with" clues you into who your Cultural Assistants will be, and what you develop is what connects you to your Public Audience. Now these two may indeed overlap, as with our third graders we were trying to get to read more Spanish, but they may be separate, like my buddy Mauricio at Pedeleando x Icononzo (formerly Ayudando Ando) and the little school he and his wife Erika helped connect us to in the mountains of Colombia (PS hit him up on Twitter! They're building a library and looking for English teachers!).

And so far at this tropical institute, I've had additional revelations about each type of Community Partner.

Cultural Assistants

First of all, in the institute they were called "Cultural Informants," but I wanted a title that A) would sound less...snitchy and B) would come across as less intimidating when I called up ninth graders' parents or former students to invite them to help out. "Cultural Consultants" sounded a little intimidating, but I think even the shy girl who just graduated and works at my favorite taquería would be down with assisting.

So what we had at the institute was stations with a Mandarin-speaking assistant at each to help us with three phases of requesting information:
I'm pretty proud of the page I made using my
Baby Mandarin!
  1. Getting into the interview,
  2. Getting through the interview, and
  3. Getting out of the interview.
All as politely and appropriately as possible (#pragmatics).
    You see, after our mini-project that resulted in my beautiful activity page you see here,  I still don't speak Mandarin: totally Novice Low. HOWEVER, what I CAN say allowed me to access the language I needed to create my page for the activity book. I can say ...Zhongwen zenme shuo to ask how to say something in Chinese and xie xie nin when my friend graciously writes it down for me in Pinyin!

    In this case, all the Cultural Assistants had to do was help me with my pronunciation of the phrases I'd been given for the activity and write down a few phrases that I needed to complete my task! Pretty easy for anyone over Intermediate Mid, right?

    Talking with Marta, one of our instructors, I decided that another use for Cultural Assistants for the project I have planned to help combat diabetes in our area might be to find out from some local waiters--or even patrons--what dishes are most popular in local Mexican restaurants to help focus our analysis of ingredients and dietary habits! It would involve very simple language, for example:

    • What dishes are popular with American/Mexican customers?
    • What dishes are popular with adults/children?
    • What ingredients do they have?

    Public Audience

    The big epiphany about public audience was really a riff on what I have long recognized as one of my biggest mistakes in transitioning to PBLL: starting with my own interests and goals. I know sometimes you have to concede SOMETHING to the textbook/curriculum gods, but deciding what to concede really has to start with the community you´re engaging. At the novice level, I think figuring out that need really has to be the teacher's job rather than the students', and you should come in with that legwork done, the real community NEED defined.

    This means that when I go home next week and actually put a bug in some ears at Viva Tequis, we may not be making placemats for our Community Partners them as I had anticipated, and maybe it will turn out that our Public Audience is completely different than the antsy kids I had envisioned! Maybe we will be making kids menus, or menu signs, or something completely different that I had not even thought about! OR I may have to move on to the new Viva Chicken opening up in August or the Colombian cafe, El Sombrero, that's already around. I need to get started soon, though, so I have time to adapt the project.

    I do have a start on a pitch, though!

    Either way, we are going to engage with our Community Partners from the start. I have decided our Entry Event is going to bring our Cultural Assistants more business, and we are definitely placing a big order to sample and discuss the dishes we will be engaging with.

    It doesn't get much more authentic and engaging than that!

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