Recently in my level 1 and 2H classes we were working with previously presented / discovered input, so my focus was designing learning experiences to have students process that input so they own it. Sometimes, I feel pressure to innovate or invent something new and amazing when really something simple and straightforward would work just fine. Sometimes an idea that would classify as more traditional is just the trick. Is that heresy? I'm not sure, but today I am sharing a couple of strategies I used with my kiddos to help them think through the language they know and identify their own language gaps so they could create personalized communications.
Practical Processing #1: Personalized, Open Ended Questions
My level 2H's are studying a unit on health and wellness with a sprinkling of good decision-making worked in. They had learned vocabulary about wellness by reading this Wellness Wheel (La rueda del bienestar) from Centro de bienestar natural. After working with this text to draw meaning and new vocabulary out of it, I created a Google Doc called Tu bienestar actual with 15 open ended questions for students to first answer, then ask their partners in face to face conversation. I did not ask my students to answer 15 questions in one sitting, rather I used this sometimes as a warm up, sometimes as a transition activity and sometimes as an exit ticket.
Because I know there are some who always want more concrete info on an idea before they try it themselves, the only magic to planning the 15 questions was my attempt to get my students to consider each aspect of the wellness wheel in a personal way, and in doing so they would be guided to employ subsets of vocabulary related to each particular section of the wellness wheel. So yes, I was manipulating them to use words and structures that they might not opt for on their own with an even more open ended task. My goal was to put them in situations in which they have to use as many of those wellness aspects so that, later when they are formally assessed, they have more vocab to pull from and they will have experience writing about a wide variety of subtopics related to whatever the unit assessment prompts might throw at them. Another goal of mine was to model questions for them. While some of my 2H students are super creative with the language already, many could use some coaching on how to ask a really great question, and my weaker students need practice interpreting questions thrown at them. In some ways, this activity slows down what happens in an interpersonal activity and gives them time to process the question presented to them as well as craft a solid response back.
The best part of this activity / strategy, in my opinion, is the thinking that occurs while they are responding. In my classes, I have a standing rule when we are doing writing practice: Students can ask me anything they need to help them figure out how to say what they want to say. It may seem like that is a given, but when you shift to a completely performance based assessment program, practice writing, for students, can feel like test day. So many times they still ask me if they can use their notes or look up a word with their phones. So, they still need to know that practice time means full access to resources including me. If I am honest, it is one of my favorite times with them in class because we get to get our hands dirty in the language together, and the discoveries they make in those moments are personalized learning about how the language works.
I won't lie to you and say this is the most sexy, innovative idea ever, but for me and my students, it was powerful, and when they took their vocabulary check, many made 100%.
Practical Processing #2: Question Creation Prompts
In my Spanish 1 class we have reached that point where they are learning how verbs really work (in the present tense) which means that as Novice Mids their language limits are about to expand vastly because they are no longer contained to memorized questions and answers. Nothing like learning how to conjugate the 1st and 2nd person moves Novice Mids to Novice Highs, but being aware of how to do that doesn't help them become sentence builders or curious enough to create with their new found language knowledge. To lure them into saying what they want to say, we have to give them prompts that show them what they are capable of when they get comfortable with verbs and conjugation, even if that conjugation is one form at a time.
We have to be careful, though, because encouraging Novices to create a little can feel for them like being thrown into the deep end of the pool without floaties. This is even more true when coaching them to be conversational. Question creation requires lots and lots of practice, and like my 2H's needed time to process their answers to my questions, my Spanish 1 babies need that same time and support to figure out how to ask questions period.
I have been told that translation is bad. In other words, giving students sentences or questions to translate is not a task that leads to greater proficiency. I get it, but I don't know how I feel about that thought. Part of me still feels like translation practice is really about figuring out how to say things in another language, and isn't that good? I don't know, and I am going to leave that question for language experts to answer. To avoid the translation question, I have created question creation prompts that help my students figure out how to put questions together without my writing the question for them.
The idea is to give them a mini-task that turns into a question. The Google Slides I am linking here is what I did with them this last Friday. As far as logistics go, I asked them to work out their questions in the spiral notebooks or composition books we call their "cuadernos" so they would walk out of class with questions they could practice and study for later. Another way to go is to have students use whiteboards. Of course, they prefer whiteboards, and I gave them that option, but many of my kids opted to use their cuadernos.
During the activity, they asked really great questions. My favorite question of all was, "How do you say 'do' in a question, Sra. Lenord?" And let the discovery begin! Another favorite is, "Why don't you include tú in your question?" and even better when a student across the room says, "Because the "-as" means tú. Right, Sra. Lenord?" YES. RIGHT. It is even lovelier to hear them cheer for themselves when they see the answer key to a question they were asked to create, and they got it perfectly right. AWESOMENESS. It is so amazing to see them go back to that time when learning and success was fun, rich and rewarding.
Pondering Processing Further
Those two strategies / activities were so simple, so easy to create, and yet had such meaning and power that I walk away from those lessons thinking a lot about how I can recreate similar learning experiences with the same simplicity and ease for me.
I just finished watching an old episode of the The West Wing, and in that episode Josh Lyman is trying to make a decision, but gets bogged down by his own thinking. Being the genius that he is, he can't see that the simplest choice is the most profound, the most daring. Josh is a good analogy for me and so many language teachers these days. Once we have found the light of proficiency and target language teaching, we get caught up in too much thinking and way too much self judgement. The more I know about proficiency, language acquisition and target language teaching the more I push myself for more or better. What I really need to be doing is taking inventory of what strategies and activities:
In closing, I feel it is important to say this: Simple does not mean not good enough. Traditional does not mean ineffective.
Here's to exploring new uses of old tools and sharing that with each other. Here's to a semester of reflecting on what works, no matter how old it is, who discovered it, or how often it has been used, and saving ourselves from the feeling we are not relevant if we aren't doing something completely new.
Happy Coaching, Friends!
Happy New Year!
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