I still remember the last day of school in March 2020; the end of in-person instruction was so abrupt. Who could have predicted that almost a year would pass before we would return to in person instruction and that even then, it would be to a hybrid model? And yet, the 2020-2021 school year taught us a lot. It tested and refined our methods of instruction; it forced us to become more innovative in our strategies. Here are four things I learned:
Create realistic scenarios
To help students relate to the curriculum, create realistic scenarios. Here are some ideas sorted by unit:
- School: Have students write a book (or create an e-book) about your school. Students can take pictures of places in the school themselves and then write descriptions of the rooms and what they do there. For e-books, have students embed audio of themselves reading the story aloud in the target language (see point 4.B). For physical books, create a classroom library with the stories and allow time for students to read their stories aloud for the class.
- Clothing: Have each student create a digital clothing store on a Google Slide. Next, create groups of 4-5 students. Have students ‘shop’ around at each other’s stores. If students are familiar with food-related vocabulary, they can even create a slide for a restaurant in a digital food court.
- Housing: Shop for a class timeshare on a real estate website from a Spanish-speaking country; use pre-taught questions to ask students about their preferences for a house. Other activities might include creating a dialogue between a home buyer and a real estate agent, creating real estate listings for houses or even filming MTV Cribs house tour videos (with the option of using pictures from the real estate website or Google images added to slides).
- Food: Create a shopping list for the class and ask students what items are needed as you shop at an online grocery store. This is a great way to teach more specific vocabulary words such as organic, vegan, vegetarian, etc. in the target language.
Use authentic resources
Most language learners have an aversion to over-simplified, staged language learning videos. Students enjoy and feel challenged by authentic resources. It is expected that students will not understand everything they hear in audios or videos featuring native speakers, however, these auditory exercises are necessary to the language learning process. Thus, it is better to alter the
exercise than the resource itself. By creating appropriate exercises to accompany authentic resources, students will then be able to find meaning in what they see and hear. Some ideas include:
- Use authentic tourism videos, interviews and weather reports. For first year language learners, stop the video periodically to ask questions about the background, what people look like, what they are wearing, or the location. For second year learners, provide students with more complex questions beforehand thus preparing them to listen for certain verbal cues. Afterwards, provide multiple choice options. Whether students choose the correct answer or not, have them support their answer in either English or the target language before the correct answer is revealed. Invite students to challenge one another.
Involve the community.
One positive outcome of the pandemic is that schools have increased access to technology. Because of this we can now involve the community – particularly those who speak the target language – in ways that were not possible before. Now it is possible to have parents and community members participate by creating recordings of themselves reading stories aloud in the target language. Through recordings, parents can educate students on a cultural event, a traditional recipe or even a dance from their country. Engaging the community in instruction is a great way of involving parents and acknowledging the diversity of our local communities. 4.
Embed culture into learning
During the 2020-2021 school year, the time students spent in specials classes was greatly reduced. As a result, I often found myself breezing through the cultural standards in the curriculum. ‘Culture’ was often reduced to a weekly slide on some aspect of a Spanish-speaking country; rarely did these weekly slides connect. Reflecting on this disjointed way of teaching culture has helped me to see the importance of embedding culture into instruction. What could this look like?
- Book clubs: My plan for subsequent years is to have students read English-language novel(s) by Hispanic authors in 7th grade. Students will then go on to reread the same novel(s) (in smaller chunks) in the target language (Spanish) in 8th grade. Students can discuss the readings and write book reports. Students can compare and contrast their own culture with the culture(s) discussed in the novel(s). Finally, students can potentially make recipes, learn dances or investigate cultural events mentioned in the stories themselves.
- A pen-pal project: Create the opportunity for students to become pen-pals with students from other countries that speak the target language. Local students and those abroad can write letters and engage in projects that introduce themselves and their home country to the other. Potential projects could include: creating a video tour of the school, writing a class story about the community or even, creating a class recipe book. When I organized my first pen pal project with a school in Andalusia, Spain, I found that this was a great way of making the language come alive for students. Such projects relate to many units in the curriculum and are an organic way of embedding culture without having to ‘teach’ it. Language becomes for students, not just another subject in school, but instead a way of communicating with another group of students – a world away – but not dissimilar from themselves.
For language learning to be interesting, it has to feel real and relatable. By creating realistic scenarios, using authentic resources, involving the local community and embedding culture into instruction in a natural way, teachers can help students better engage with the content.
By: Jade Graham
Broadview Middle School, Danbury CT