Cultivating Learners

Is your class roster full of students or learners? Is there a difference? Yes, and a critical one. For me, “student” is mostly a title, often associated with a young person, most frequently in a classroom setting. It designates the individual as an attendee of a school rather than an employee. One doesn’t have to do anything to be a student.  If a person listed on the roster shows up, but does nothing, that person is still a student. Likewise, if a teacher does not plan lessons that engage that person and motivate him or her to actively participate, that person is still a student in the class. And even if one participates in some way, that person may still be a “student” but not truly a learner. We often see “students” who view the content as a grade to be achieved rather than concepts to be understood and applied within and beyond the classroom. They measure their success through point totals and GPA rather than through evidence that they are able to engage in authentic and purposeful use of the content and skills.

I think that as educators, we are striving for learners. Being a learner requires more active involvement and engagement in the subject matter from both the teacher and the learner. A learner has no age and no singular place of learning. A learner actively seeks knowledge and the means to act upon it, within and beyond the classroom. Students have a set curriculum and the goal is typically a score or letter grade. Learners may or may not also set one goal as a specific grade, but they go beyond that to make broad, interdisciplinary connections and actively seek more information or other means to practice and develop their skills. Learners accept that it is possible to learn from failure and improve their understanding and skills; students merely accept the “failure” and hope the content won’t come back again later.

When it comes to languages, learners acquire and use language meaningfully rather than limit themselves to memorizing vocabulary lists and verb forms. As a result of experiences that provide opportunities to examine the products, practices and perspectives of peoples of the world, learners move past generalizations and stereotypes to build and exhibit true interculturality.

In considering the characteristics above, the distinction between students and learners isn’t just important for the learners. It is critical for the teachers as well. In order to design instruction for learners, teachers must shift their practices so that their learning experiences allow learners to seek knowledge, go beyond the confines of the scheduled content area (and the classroom walls) to seek, make and understand connections and implications, and to use their knowledge and skills in meaningful ways. Seeing the individuals in our classes as learners rather than students can help educators refine the learning experiences they design and implement so that they require learning rather than the passivity and complacence sometimes associated with being a student. 

Sadly, I haven’t quite found the answer for how to accomplish all of this. As I continue my 23rd year in education, here are some shifts I have seen in my own practice that I think are headed in the right direction, even if I am not “there” yet (have I mentioned that I’m not the teacher I want to be when I grow up?).

  • Focus on learning rather than grades. Learners demonstrate proficiency with the content or they don’t. And if they don’t, they are able to get support, complete additional practice and re-assess when their knowledge and skills have improved.
  • Remember that less is more. Using the proficiency guidelines outlined by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (https://www.actfl.org/publications/guidelines-and-manuals/actfl-proficiency-guidelines-2012), I came to realize that my learners don’t need all of the elements of language that are proposed in many curriculum materials for learners each year. Using the proficiency guidelines as my roadmap, I honed in on what is essential for novice learners vs. intermediate learners, and adjusted what we explore, learn, practice and evaluate at each level to better correspond with what one can realistically expect of novice and intermediate users of the language. I “teach” far less than I used to, but my learners are communicating more effectively, with more people around the world, and on a broader range of topics.
  • Increase the focus on and use of authentic materials so that learners see the relevance of the work we are doing. Authentic materials can also be very motivating because learners can see that they are making progress in understanding the language. Such materials also provide great, contextualized and culturally authentic models that inform learners when they themselves begin to produce language.
  • Get beyond the book and the “curriculum” and immerse your learners in the content. Try BreakoutEDU. Do a Google Expedition with virtual reality viewers (find a list of available Expeditions here). Design a multi-media lesson rich in authentic materials using a tool such as TES Blendspace and then share a link to that lesson to native speakers so they can interact with your learners through the “commenting” feature. Invite guest speakers into your class in-person or via Skype. Or do a “Mystery Skype” (or a Mystery Google+ Hangout) with your students and a class somewhere else in the world.
  • Teach and assess for communication, not points. It doesn’t matter how many points a student has earned in course. What matters is whether or not the learner can actually use the language. Understanding this will automatically shift how we teach, how learners practice, what and how we assess, and how we provide feedback and eventually grades. I’m not interested in creating students who earned enough “points” to get an “A” in my course but can’t use the language…and we have all seen situations in our careers where this happens. Some teachers assign points for behaviors that have nothing to do with applied skills or knowledge: extra credit for bringing in Kleenex, points for practice activities that may or may not have been copied, etc. If someone earns an “A” in a language class, that person, and the community, have the right to expect that he or she can actually function well in the language, as appropriate for his/her level of proficiency. When someone has an “A” and can’t demonstrate the established learning targets for the level of language completed (or of any content area, for that matter), it is actually unfair to everyone, but particularly unfair to the learner, who has been set up to fail in the “real world” when others call on them to use the skills for which they theoretically earned an A. 

One final note as I continue to refine my own understanding of the distinction between students and learners: I try not to plan lessons. I prefer to focus on designing learning experiences. For me, that lens puts the emphasis on learning and the learners and helps me design for active engagement and authentic application of language and skills rather than covering the curriculum.

Impacted: What I learned at ACTFL 2016…and what I am questioning.

I spent the last four days with 8,500 of my closest friends: language educators attending the annual convention of the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages. With so many sessions to choose from, I found myself having to choose between several promising descriptions that were scheduled in the same time slot. It turned out to be a great weekend for learning.
At the opening general session, our keynote speaker, futurist Mike Walsh challenged us to recognize how profoundly different our students learning goals and expectations (and needs) will be just a few years from now. He directed us to look to today’s eight year olds for inspiration, a humbling but important reminder of our role. He referred to us (humans) as “analog” in contrast to the vast array of digital tools, virtual tools, etc., and noted that it is in the physical environment that people make connections. We still need to teach learners to communicate face-to-face with people who come from both similar and vastly different backgrounds, experiences and perspectives. How will the increasing dependence on technology impact the way we accomplish this critical task?
From my colleagues who shared presentation duties with me at the “Everything you wanted to know (but were afraid to ask)” session facilitated by Juan Carlos Morales and Susann Davis, I revisited the connections between the modes of communication, world readiness standards, proficiency levels, can-do statements and assessments. I was reminded that can-do statements are not a list to be checked off but rather a series of flexible goals that we can and must revisit so that students have more than one opportunity to show that they are building towards the targeted level of proficiency. Achieving a certain level of proficiency isn’t demonstrated with a one-time check off of an item on a list.
From Merissa Sadler and Erin Kanner’s presentation on incorporating aspects of social media into digital portfolios, I recalled the importance of fun in the work we design for students. I saw amazing uses of Google Slides and other tools to make templates that replicate social media pages so students can create meaningful target language products within a visual framework they already know and understand. I look forward to incorporating their ideas, especially because the templates ensure that the focus will remain on their communication by facilitating the technology to eliminate glitches and other issues. And, of course, the tasks respect the requirement to protect student identities by having them do this work in the template rather than through the actual social media tools, though Common Core State Standards, as well as Digital Citizenship guidelines do also call for older learners (high school) to begin creating and publishing content on the web that is both academically accurate and professional and appropriate, so I do have my high school students do some work using social media that actually goes out to the broader community beyond our classroom. Nevertheless, these templates provide a scaffold our learners understand within which they can complete certain presentational tasks.
Later on Saturday morning, I got my first glimpse of the ACTFL draft Can-Do Statements for demonstrating intercultural communicative competency. The shift from wanting students to be “aware” of products, practices and perspectives to interacting meaningfully with them (and with native speakers) is profound. The two key competencies are “investigate products, practices and perspectives” and “interact in other cultures.” Of course, both of these competencies are expected to be accomplished in the target language, even for novice learners. Therefore, it is imperative to find products that reflect learners’ proficiency levels and design tasks that reveal deeper understandings than perhaps what they are capable of demonstrating linguistically. In doing so, I believe we will likely find that the tasks are also more cognitively complex and demanding, thus demonstrating higher order, critical thinking skills.
Saturday was a powerful learning day for me. Still later that same morning, I enhanced my repertoire of student activities with Greg Duncan’s purposeful tasks for oral, interpersonal pair work in the language class. His twist on the typical interview and “find the differences” activities will challenge my learners to engage more deeply in their conversations and communicate more purposefully. Additionally, he provided powerful reminders of the importance of pair work in any subject area. I have always seated my students in groups with identified partners within the groups so we could move efficiently from small-group to pair to whole-class interactions. When students work in pairs, they have eight times more opportunities to practice communicating than students in classes who are only invited to speak when called upon by the teacher.

Sunday morning, I started with Kristy Placido’s session on using commercials and other short films. She showed a couple of really interesting commercials and modeled a Movie Talk for us. That was helpful to me since I have seen references to Movie Talks on social media, but had never seen one done. She modeled some strategies for preparing students to work with the media they would be watching, including an interesting tech idea that involves using screen shots from the commercial in a PPT and then “callouts” in PPT to add bits of the script. The result looks like a comic strip that students can read, discuss and use for making predictions for what will happen before viewing the actual commercial. Of the commercials she showed, my favorite was a PSA from Costa Rica discouraging citizens from keeping birds as pets. As an authentic resource, it was pretty close to the perfect video for language learners:  it was short, comprehensible (even to me, with only one semester of college Spanish that I tucked under my belt almost 30 years ago), and tackled an important issue for the Costa Ricans. Check her twitter feed (@Placido) for blog posts and resources.  This morning, I was thinking about her Movie Talk and remembering that the others I had seen described also used video with no speaking (or with the sound turned off). During a Movie Talk, if I understand it correctly, the teacher stops the video several times during the viewing to ask the students questions about what they are seeing. The questions are designed to give the students frequent opportunities to not only be observant, but briefly share their observations with chunks of language appropriate to their proficiency. But today, I was wondering if it would also be effective to sometimes use videos with sound and ask questions about what they heard. For example, if there’s a restaurant scene, I would imagine you could ask questions like, “did the man order coffee or tea?” “Do you think the two people are family, friends or acquaintances? Why?” The answer to that last question would come from whether the speakers were using the formal or informal register, which the students would be able to hear in the conversation. Her session reminded me that I could be doing a lot more with video–and especially commercials–than I currently do. 

One of the last sessions I attended was an amazing display of social justice learning and action that Jennifer Wooten (University of Florida), Anneke Oppewal (Gravelly Hill Middle School) and Maria Eugenia Zelaya (Eastside High School) facilitate for their secondary and university learners. Although I thoroughly appreciated everything the presenters shared, two of my favorites were

  1. facilitating student examination of how house and home are portrayed in their textbooks with an eye to who is represented in those images and who is left out, and
  2. a framework of guiding questions that facilitate intermediate-level dialogue and examination of issues of social justice. For example, insert the word “racism” (or any -ism) in the spaces below (and translate into your target language of course).

So my questions going forward:

  • How do I bring more powerful, culturally rich social justice work to my most novice learners? Clearly, I can attempt to replicate some of the activities in the session I attended, but I want to engage them in social justice action, not just social justice learning. Not having a community of French speakers who are excluded from mainstream society locally, I will need to connect my learners to disenfranchised French speakers elsewhere in the world. However, I already have some experience in this kind of work, and I have recently become equally aware of the need to ensure that my students and I interact in ways that exhibit empathy, not sympathy, and to empower, not “save” the people with whom we work. Their experiences, knowledge and potential are powerful. We are collaborators in their work and must allow our future partners to construct or co-construct the goals and process that the work will follow.
  • How do I adapt teaching and learning in my classes to reflect the dynamic and constant flow of information and interaction my current students experience (and that will only increase with the generation to come)?
  • What more can I do to ensure my students spend more time communicating, but still receive the feedback and support they will need to be both successful and encouraged by their attempts?

If you would like to learn from what 8,500 of us experienced at ACTFL, you will soon be able to find most presenters’ handouts (including mine) on the ACTFL Web Site (https://www.actfl.org/convention-expo/2016-annual-convention-and-world-languages-expo). Many are already there, but currently, there is a glitch and some handouts have been deleted. ACTFL is working on this as I write. You can also check out a Storify of what all of us were sharing during the convention here (https://storify.com/NicoleNaditz/impacted-at-actfl16).

Putting the world in world-class education

Connecting our content to meaningful experiences outside of the classroom seems hard. Connecting our students to peers and content experts around the world seems even harder. But if we are serious about providing every student with a “world-class education,” then we will have to come to terms with the fact that one of the critical elements missing from most students’ educational experiences is….the WORLD: its peoples and their languages and perspectives. The geography of the world (natural, political, human and otherwise). How the choices we make in our daily lives impact others around the world and ecosystems all over the planet. The WORLD may be the most forgotten piece of our educational programs.

So what can be done? How do I expand my curriculum beyond the covers of our textbook and the walls of our classroom to connect my students to the world?  For my students, learning and practicing the language isn’t enough. Our students need to practice language as a global communication tool, not merely an academic pursuit of points and grades. So that was my answer: I must facilitate opportunities for my students to people around the world. Yes, easier said than done. But it has to be done.

My students do learn some geography…I want them to learn more. But most of the time when students learn geography, they color maps, memorize borders and capitals, pass the test and move on. And forget. They haven’t seen a compelling reason to need to know all of those places. So I don’t do a “geography lesson” or a “geography unit” full of  maps, capitals, borders or flags. Maybe that’s wrong. Or maybe I just did it wrong as a younger teacher and that’s why it didn’t work for me or my students. Be that as it may, in my class, there is no “geography test.”  Instead, I connect my students to people and places in the world. They have penpals in eastern France. They correspond with Peace Corps volunteers in Senegal, Benin, and Burkina Faso and sometimes the children volunteers’ villages. They support a school in Haiti and are working alongside an NGO in Togo. And each of these connections makes it meaningful to learn about the places: where they are in the world in relation to other countries and natural features such as oceans; what their political systems are like; how their natural resources, their history and their perspectives influence their practices and their interactions; what we have in common with them and what sets each of us apart. When we talk about these aspects of geographic literacy, the lessons are pertinent and meaningful because the students are connected to “real” people in those places. Those countries now matter to them. Can my students name all of the world’s countries and capitals when I base our geography content learning on connections we have in the world? No. But they have greater geographic literacy in the broader sense, which isn’t actually about memorizing capitals and countries anyway…and perhaps a greater desire to learn about the rest of the world as a result.

You don’t have to be a world language teacher to do this. In fact, so few American students study world languages in the United States (18.5% according to this Forbes article), that it is really imperative that ALL teachers connect their subjects and their students to the world. I’ve done some really easy connections by sharing my students’ work on Twitter with carefully selected hashtags that will send my students’ work into the twitter feeds of people around the world who are interested in the topic the students were working on. When those people start favoriting and commenting on the tweets of their work, students want to know more about the places their “followers” are from.

To go just a little bit further try this: Are your students talking about a hot topic in health? physics? government? literary criticism? the arts? current issues and events? Have them post their commentary on a tool like Padlet, then send the link to their Padlet out via social media (again, with appropriate hashtags to draw in the right audience) so that their content conversations aren’t just with you, but with others around the world. Be sure to mention that you’re hoping for global replies and ask your followers to also share (so you are more likely to get replies from diverse places). If you try this, it is very important that you turn on “moderate posts”  in Padlet’s settings so that you can be certain that comments are appropriate and safe before they appear on the Padlet. You may also want to include a request that those who post say where they are from. This will make it easier for you to then follow-up with lessons and activities about various places in the world. You can do this in the Padlet “description” which will appear at the top of the page. The nice thing about using tools like Twitter and Padlet in this way is that there is the potential to give all students (not just world language students) practice valuing and analyzing comments that represent diverse perspectives without merely judging or dismissing the comments because they do not correspond to one’s own beliefs.

Ready to go further? Sign up with Peace Corps’ World Wise Schools program to have your classes correspond with a volunteer serving in a developing country. You can pick the region of the world and even the sector in which the volunteer is working so that it best matches your curricular needs and interests.

Do you have a particular area of focus? Maybe there is an NGO (non-governmental organization) doing work in that sector somewhere in the world. Your students can send questions to these content experts and may even be able to get involved in their work. Here’s a world-wide NGO directory to get you started. Just quickly browsing their list by region, I saw NGOs for specific sports, journalism and the arts, among others, so truly, any subject can connect their students to the world in this way.

How are you putting the world in “world-class education?” Share in the comments below.

 

It’s time to burst the grading bubble

At the most recent ACTFL convention in San Diego, I had the opportunity to give a small talk. Actually six of us each gave a talk in the style of a TED Talk. They were called “TOY Talks,” with TOY standing for Teacher of the Year. I was joined by five other former ACTFL National Language Teachers of the Year and each of us prepared and delivered our version of a TED Talk. Challenging. Inspiring. The choice (or the combination) was us to us. After we talked ourselves off the ceiling due to our uncertainty about doing this kind of speaking, we each set about to decide what we wanted to share. Our talks are all very different. You can find all six on the ACTFL YouTube channel.

I wanted to talk about grading. Yup. Grading. And why we are doing it wrong.

I opened my talk with three statements and l instructed the audience to close their eyes for each one and raise their hand at the statement was true for them personally. And of course I had planned my statements purposefully, fully expecting almost everyone’s hands to go up for the first two statements and significantly fewer hands to go up for the third. And so we set off. I told the audience to close their eyes for the first statement which was “raise your hand if your primary goal is to develop your students’ proficiency in the language you teach.” Nearly 100% of the audience raised their hand. This did not surprise me. In fact, I was expecting that and I believe that this is true of the language teachers in our country: we all aspire to prepare our students to be able to interact with other speakers of the language in a variety of contexts with in and beyond the classroom. The audience keep their hands up, opened their eyes and looked around. Heads nodded as they saw that their peers felt the same way they did.

OK, time for statement two. I instructed the audience to lower their hands and close their eyes again. This time the statement was, “Raise your hand if your instruction, practice and assessment are all designed to help develop that proficiency.” Again, almost 100% of hands went up. I had the audience keep their hands up, open their eyes and look around. And again, I believe that this is true. I think that most teachers really do feel that the lessons they design, the practice activities and opportunities they provide, and even the assessments that they administer work together to help develop students’ proficiency.

On to the third statement. “Close your eyes and raise your hand if the grades your students earn absolutely and accurately reflect their ability to use the language outside of your class.” I fully expected fewer hands to go up for this statement. I planned it that way. But even I was not prepared for what I saw. “Keep your hands up, open your eyes, and look around.” One hand was up. One. In an audience of well over 100 educators, only one person felt that the grades his or her students received accurately reflected the degree to which students could use the material they learned outside of class. Something is wrong and I don’t think it’s entirely due  to the teachers, the lessons, the practice, or even the assessments. Our grades are broken. The way many of us grade is broken. And the saddest thing is, our grading system is so institutionalized that most teachers use it without even giving it a second thought.

I would submit that traditional grading systems–with a 100% scale and traditional grade book categories do NOT value proficiency and that we are losing students–sometimes proficient students–as a result. So if traditional gradebook categories and the 100% scale do not value proficiency, what DO they value?

They value points. And points and proficiency aren’t the same thing.

In American education, we often do things the way they have always been done. For example, gradebook categories whose sections have names such as “homework,” “tests,” “quizzes,” and “participation.” And, of course, “extra credit.”And each of those sections is often assigned a percentage value (or a “weight”). All the assignments the students complete receive points and the points are input into the correct category. Math is done and the whole thing adds up to a score out of a possible 100%. There is conversion to a letter grade using the 100% scale and that letter grade gets reported to parents, students, and others. There is some variation to this conversion, but most scales go something like this:

  • 90-100 = A
  • 80-89 = B
  • 70-79 = C
  • 60-69 = D
  • 0-59 = F

That’s not proficiency. That’s 100 shades of grey.

We have done this in education for a long time and the system works great…if the accumulation and reporting of points is your primary objective. But I don’t think any of us see that as our primary objective. So, click here to see my “TOY Talk” where I break down why this system is actually less fair to all of our learners and what I (and a growing number of teachers in all subjects, including ours) believe may be a better way.

I also highly recommend you check out the works of Myron Dueck, Tom Schimmer, Jan Chappuis and Rick Wormeli (books and video), all of whom have greatly inspired and shaped my thinking on this subject and the changes I have made in my approach to grading and assessment over the past few years.

UPDATED: Speaking of….speaking (Post 1 in the “Readers Request” Series)

Recently, I decided to ask my readers what they would like me to examine, explore and/or share in my blog. I’m so glad I did. Their ideas have shaped not only the series of posts that I’m launching with this piece, but also allowed me to reflect on aspects of my own practice that could use some dusting off, tweaking and outright re-imagining.

And that brings us here: to the first post in a special “Readers’ Request” series in this blog. Multiple readers asked me to explore and share tips for facilitating and maintaining peer-to-peer interaction in the target language. Some wanted to know about strategies for novice learners and others for students at higher levels.

I love a challenge, so let’s kick things off with the novice learners. I think many educators (and other stakeholders) feel that getting novice learners to speak is just one of the most difficult aspects of language teaching. “After all,” they might say, “they’re so new at language. They can’t possibly know what to say. It’s just so hard!”

When I’m working on learning pathways for my students, I realize that I want them to speak, but I also have to be realistic about their proficiency. The hallmark of novice-level language is that students can consistently, accurately and spontaneously handle lists of known words in familiar contexts and memorized “chunks” of language in familiar contexts. So the challenge becomes to design contexts that maximize their ability to work with lists and chunks. And for the real pros (I’m not always there yet), to do so in ways that result in real language use for real purposes and real audiences beyond the classroom. Like I said…I’m not always there yet. My novices do most of their speaking (and other communicative tasks) in “simulated” real situations that lay a foundation for their work with target language speakers around the world in subsequent years, although we do an annual conversation group with French exchange students who come each spring (a true highlight of the year for many of the students) and I’m constantly on the lookout for other real speaking opportunities that are appropriate to their level.

So how do I get my novices to speak?

First and foremost, I speak French to and with my students. Thanks to reader @srstolz for asking numerous questions on the first version of this post. His questions helped me see that I had neglected to mention the cornerstone of my approach to supporting novice learners to speak. They must have quality input in order to be able to produce any output. That means I must maximize my time with them by using real, authentic, untranslated French as the language of instruction and of communication with my students. I speak French to them in and out of the classroom. I speak French to them even when I’m not technically teaching them. And of course, I speak French when I am teaching them. Doing so is not always easy, as many of you know. I must draw on cognates (for my English, Spanish and Romanian speakers, there are many), life experience of my learners, previous knowledge in French, visuals, realia, context, gestures and any other tools I can use to ensure that I am not merely throwing French words and phrases at them. Instead, I am building a context in which the students can acquire the targeted words and phrases as naturally as possible, crafting my input so the students arrive at the meanings themselves, just like they did in their first language. My goal is to NOT translate. Why? Because building translation into input lessons actually detracts from the effectiveness of the lesson. The students learn that they do not need to pay attention to the words the teacher is using, the context the teacher (hopefully) created to use the words realistically, or anything else the teacher might do to make the words comprehensible because the students know that the teacher will simply provide a translation anyway. Likewise, I don’t ask my novice learners to look at lists words and take notes on them because those lists take the words out of context and present them as isolated fragments of language that are disconnected from the whole. Lists on the board, in the book or on a worksheet cannot give the kind of contextualized input I can provide by crafting the lessons myself. In the most basic sense, vocabulary lists provided to students as a substitute for well-crafted comprehensible input will fail to produce speaking because the lists do not model spoken language.

Here are some other strategies I employ that support my learners to communicate in French.

  1. I seat them for communication. That means no rows. In fact, this past year, I got rid of desks altogether and replaced them with tables. Rows send the message that the class isn’t for communication: it’s for taking notes. It’s for listening to the teacher. That wasn’t the message I wanted to send. It’s true that by seating in tables, there is more opportunity for students to talk in general (and they are NOT always speaking in French, alas), but I felt strongly enough about the need for a more communicatively conducive physical environment that I decided to give up on desks and rows.
    Tables are flexible! Here they are pushed together for large groups. And, they are speaking with our French exchange students.

    Tables are flexible! Here they are pushed together for large groups. And, they are speaking with our French exchange students.

    In the end, I know that if my students are speaking English, it’s because of a failure on my part, not theirs. What kinds of “failures?” Perhaps they were given too much time to complete a task. Perhaps the directions weren’t clear. Or maybe they weren’t linguistically (or socially) ready for the task at all, causing them to break down into English. All of these things are in my control. Ultimately, I can prevent the use of English with outstanding learning supports (instruction and others) and by ensuring that the tasks are appropriate to the students’ interests and levels. So…I actually don’t scold them for speaking English if I can see that it is because I didn’t provide the appropriate supports for them to be successful in French.

  2. I design tasks that maximize those memorized chunks! When students have learned to talk about themselves a bit, we imagine we have been accepted on an international exchange. All the international students will be coming to France (hence, French becomes the common language for the whole group). The host organization has prepared a get-together to allow the students to begin to get to know each other. Even with just name, age and where they live, students can begin to participate in short conversations. They participate in the “mixer” asking each others’ names, ages and home cities. And they get extensive practice with those particular chunks. If a group needs even more structure to be successful, I put them in two concentric circles. The inner circle asks the questions and the outer circle responds and then rotates to the next student. After a few rotations, the students switch circles so that all students get practice asking and answering questions. For this particular example, among students in the inner circle who are asking the questions, approximately ⅓ has the question “what’s your name?” while the remainder of the students in the inner circle are either asking “how old are you?” or “where do you live?” In this way, all students know that they could be asked any of the three questions, but they don’t know for sure which question is coming next. In addition, the students asking the questions get very comfortable with not only their question but with what a “correct” response should sound like. I train them early in the year to use this accumulated experience and knowledge to help students who struggle to answer their question by saying, “Par exemple, Je m’appelle Nicole” (“For example, my name is Nicole”) thus using their own personal response to their question as a model that may help the responding student remember how to answer that question. This empowers all students to be support providers to each other and also makes it easier for me to be more effective when monitoring responses of the whole class (I typically stand in the center of the circle so I can easily “lean in” on various pairs and listen to the conversations).
  3. As the students acquire more language (even though they remain novice-level speakers), it is easy to adapt the above activity. One adaptation I like to do is for them to add follow-up questions (such as “with whom,” “where,” “when,” etc.) as soon as they have enough language to at least provide a simple response to those questions. This begins to introduce slightly more spontaneity (they don’t know what follow-up questions they will be asked next) and it also builds additional listening skills. Furthermore, it increases the amount of the time the students spend asking questions. Given that they will likely be asking quite a few questions when they finally get the chance to travel where the language is spoken, it is imperative that teachers ensure students aren’t always merely responding to questions: they need practice spontaneously asking questions as well. Even more importantly, these short, semi-spontaneous conversations allow students to get to know each other even better and contribute to our sense of community in the classes. I do NOT insist on complete sentence responses. We don’t insist on that in “real” life, and I don’t want my students feeling like what goes on in our class is “fake” language use that doesn’t represent what happens in the real world. Real-world language use is full of single-word answers and partial phrases. That’s OK for my students as well.
  4. I use random participation techniques.This sounds like a small point, but it’s really quite important. At least to me. During the oral guided practice phase of instruction on a new aspect of the language, the students first get an opportunity to work through the task with a partner at their table. If they run into trouble, they have the other tablemates to turn to before asking me (I’m constantly circulating). After they have attempted the activity with their partners, I randomly select two students to complete each mini situation for the class (these are typically question-answer activities that hone in on a specific vocabulary theme or language structure). I used to use index cards to select students, but now I use the iPhone app called “ClassCards.” I use the app on my iPad rather than on my iPhone, but it works great because I can “shake to shuffle” the list of students, I can see the next five students to be selected (crucial since I will be selecting two students at a time), I can mark students absent when they come up in the list so they don’t come up again during that school day and I can allow a student to “pass.” That said, the app was free when I got it and it is no longer free. There are other randomizers available. I encourage you to check them out. Although these initial interactions are not always 100% realistic, guided practice is a critical language learning phase that our learners need in order to eventually be able to speak confidently and spontaneously and by randomizing participation, I am able to help maintain an environment in which all students are ready to speak–in French–at any time.  That said, it is important to move from guided practice to more open-ended, realistic independent practice and performance as soon as teachers have data that their students are working successfully with the new material.
  5. Surveys and other information gap activities are a great way to engage novice learners in short, interpersonal exchanges on a specific topic. Students first work as a class to develop a class bank of questions on the given topic (food, exercise habits, favorite activities, etc.) that they practice at their tables or in inner-outer circles. Then specific questions are assigned to individual students (or selected by students) who will conduct a survey on their assigned question, collect data from the class based on their answers and then create a visual representation of the responses (chart/bar graph/etc.) as well as a one-sentence summary. This task therefore involves speaking and listening and then also reading of their responses and writing (to generate the visual and the summary). And yet, it remains well within the realm of lists and memorized chunks with which they are comfortable.
  6. As students gain more contexts about which they can speak, conversation cards can be a productive peer-to-peer interaction activity, but for novice learners, they may need sentence frames (or rather, question frames) provided in order to get the conversations going. Typically, this would have to occur towards the end of their first year of language study at the earliest, because they won’t have enough different contexts as retrievable language with which to do the activity otherwise, but once they arrive at this point, conversation cards can serve as a great way to recycle earlier material and build-in more recently acquired expressions for their conversations. The cards might prompt them with questions they can ask about their partner’s family, favorite foods, weekend activities, how they would like to decorate their dorm room, where they like to go in town/in the region, etc.

Here are some videos that show both how I use French as the language of instruction and how my students use unscripted, unedited and unrehearsed French to practice and build communication. These students were in French 1 in the 2013-2014 school year.

French 1 end of fall semester: 

French 1 end of spring semester:

  • Part 1: 
  • Part 2: 
  • Part 3: 

These are just some ways I ensure my novice-level students are engaged in and supported during peer-to-peer interactions in the target language. What are your favorite strategies? Continue the conversation and continue the learning by sharing in the comments.

What I learned in three weeks of regional conference attendance, according to Twitter

When I’m at conferences, I like to tweet when I hear something that I feel is important or helpful. I do this to share the learning with others who were not in the same sessions as I was, but I also do this for myself. Typing helps me remember what I learned. Synthesizing to 140 characters or less requires me to think about each concept I wish to share carefully so that I can discuss it so succinctly. And tweeting provides me with a relatively easy-to-find record of the items I hope to apply in my own practice.

Pulling those tweets into a Storify makes my learning even easier to find. If you would like to learn along with me, there are several options: check out my handle on Twitter (@NicoleNaditz); scroll through the various conference hashtags Twitter so that you get not only what I tweeted but what everyone tweeted (I was at #swcolt15, #swcolt15, #clta15 and #csctfl15); or check out the slideshow I made on Storify, just so I could have the tweets that were important for my own learning in a place that made them even easier to find and view.

I hope to have a chance to truly synthesize what I learned from the amazing colleagues with whom I interacted around the country and post something a bit more profound here in a separate blog. But for now, this will have to play the role of a teaser post.

What thoughts, strategies and approaches did you explore at professional development that have since impacted your practice?

Am I Charlie?

The recent events that have unfolded in France have shown the best and worst of humanity. Once again, a series of cowardly acts of violence have caused numerous senseless deaths. Once again, families, friends, colleagues, countrymen and the world are mourning. And yet today, millions have stood up and marched around the world in a beautiful and rare sign of peaceful political and religious unity and in favor of freedom of the press and freedom of expression.

In class Wednesday, we talked about the events. We examined tweets and political cartoons in French from around the world that overtook Twitter in an explosion of indignant anger and rebellion against these attacks on the most fundamental tenets of a democratic society. We sent our penpal classes in France pictures showing our sympathy and solidarity.

Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably noticed that I tagged many of my tweets #jesuischarlie or “I am Charlie”, “Charlie Hebdo” being the name of the satirical paper whose editorial staff was the initial target of the terrorists. By now, you may have researched or seen in the news and on social media the content of Charlie Hebdo: always harshly critical of many facets of society, many groups, many faiths and many points of view…and often incredibly offensive.

Like many, including one of my students, I had to decide if I would be part of the #jesuischarlie movement. I had to think about whether that hashtag meant I agreed with the contents and the editorial approach of that paper (which I do not) or if the tag represented something more. For my student, a thoughtful, mature and very talented artist in my French 4 class, she could not bring herself to hold a sign or part of a sign with the #jesuischarlie tag in our class photo. She abhors the violence and the deaths and wants to stand in solidarity with our class against terrorism, but she also vehemently believes that the paper’s content is so offensive and hateful that, in her opinion, it does not deserve protection under statutes protecting freedom of the press or freedom of expression. We all respected her opinion and she created her own drawing indicating that Islam is not about violence and she held that as she stood with the class in the photo we sent to our penpals.

And what about me? Like her, I find much of their content very offensive. I do believe that with the freedoms afforded citizens in democratic societies also comes the responsibility to exercise those freedoms in a manner that is respectful of the many diverse perspectives of the different people who call those societies their homes, their countries, and for many, their nationalities. But ultimately, all opinions have the right to not only exist but to be expressed. Those publicly expressing extreme opinions, those engaging in rhetoric that is hateful, defamatory, and derogatory, such as some of the content of Charlie Hebdo, know that their views will be questioned, critiqued and even outright criticized. They know that they may be asked to defend and explain their views. They expect to start conversations. Heated conversations. They do not expect–and they do not deserve–to die for expressing their views.

As offensive as some of their content is, we cannot, as a democratic society, say that they have no right to publish. Because the strength of “freedom of speech” depends precisely on our willingness to defend that right even when the opinions expressed are disdainful, unpopular, or only held by a small group rather than the majority. Otherwise we begin eroding that right, eliminating more and more ideas that are not in line with “majority thinking”. If only those opinions that are easily swallowed are protected, then freedom of speech in becomes just a meaningless slogan.

And so it is in that vein that I have determined that, yes, #jesuischarlie.

UPDATED: 2 tools are better than one: comparing Socrative and Kahoot

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(Updated September 7, 2015 to reflect new features in Socrative 2.0).

Sometimes we want a quick check to see how our students are doing with a topic. We want to ask a few questions and know right away if the students were right or wrong. We want to be able to discuss questions students got wrong in the moment, so they can learn from their mistakes and deepen their understanding. 

Many tools exist that allow us to “poll” and “quiz” students on computers, tablets, or smartphones. This updated post looks at two such tools. 

Kahoot is a free, Web-based tool that allows you to survey students, ask formative assessment questions, or facilitate an online discussion on computers or mobile devices. So far, that is very similar to Socrative, which I have successfully used numerous times. For this post, I will be discussing only Kahoot’s “quiz” features. Their discussion platform is content for another post.

When I first found Kahoot, I was most immediately drawn to the feature that shows a bar graph after each question; this was a feature that was lacking in the first version of Socrative. Fortunately, since being acquired by MasteryConnect, quite a few enhancements have been added to Socrative. One of my favorites is when you choose a “teacher run” quiz, it now lets you press a button called “How are we doing?” after all students have responded. The result is the bar graph showing how many students chose each answer. This feature is critical in classes that are serious about formative assessment, or assessment for learning. With the bar graphs, I can have my students engage in conversations about what made one answer right and the others wrong. Or students can discuss what would have to be different about the other responses in order for them to be correcct. Now that both Kahoot and Socrative provide this feature, Socrative will return to my menu of  formative assessment tools I use regularly in class.

Perhaps my favorite new feature in Socrative is the “student-paced, student-navigated” quiz. There was a “student-paced” version before, but now, teachers can also opt to have students complete a version in which students can freely navigate quiz, including skipping questions and coming back to them later. They can also edit their responses. This can be useful for formative assessment, but there is another potential use for this particular quiz tool: Since you can add photos to Socrative (and Kahoot) and ask questions based on the photos, teachers can now develop quizzes in which some information is provided via photo (which could even be a screen shot of text on a Web page) for them to evaluate in one question and then a different viewpoint or a photo with additional information is provided in a subsequent question. Since students can navigate freely, they are also free to change their minds as they are exposed to new sets of information, data (such as charts/graphs used as photo prompts for questions), or perspectives. This is a valuable skill that teachers are (or should be) developing across the curriculum. Students must leave our educational programs able to not only form an opinion and justify it, but to form an opinion and re-evaluate their own beliefs in the face of new information…perhaps even leading to changing their minds. Socrative’s “student-paced, student-navigated” quiz could be one way to provide practice in exactly that kind of evaluation and re-evaluation of points of view.

Gamifying formative assessment

space_race_3

Two teams competing in Socrative’s Space Race. They receive feedback on their devices as to whether their answers were right or wrong.

Kahoot "quiz" screen durin gcompetition. Students' devices only show colors and shapes for answer choices. All text is on the front screen.

Kahoot “quiz” screen durin gcompetition. Students’ devices only show colors and shapes for answer choices. All text is on the front screen.

In the area of engagement, Socrative’s Space Race is still quite good, but I have to say that when it comes to student engagement, Kahoot still comes out on top for me if we are doing checks-for-understanding or very concrete formative assessments.  
 
Space Race shows them questions, and uses team rockets (by color) to show which team is making progress the fastest, but my students are even more engaged when the “quiz” starts on Kahoot. In fact, I can hear their engagement. Why? Because it uses a valuable instructional strategy: it builds in thinking time. Kahoot does this by initially showing the question and then waiting several seconds before the response choices are visible and before they can be selected on student devices. As a result, I can hear the student teams discussing the question and formulating answers before the choices even appear. Once the choices are visible, I can also hear my students discussing why their choice wasn’t there, or I can hear their validation when their correct choice was present.
 
In both Socrative’s Space Race and in Kahoot, students receive immediate feedback on their devices regarding their responses. Here are some feedback screens students see in Socrative and Kahoot.
 
Student screen after a correct response (this version had no written "feedback" about the responses)

Student screen after a correct response (this version had no written “feedback” about the responses)

 
Incorrect response, as seen on student's device. When not playing "space race" students can also receive comments about why they answer was incorrect (you must create the comments when you create the quiz).

Incorrect response, as seen on student’s device. When not playing “space race” students can also receive comments about why they answer was incorrect (you must create the comments when you create the quiz).

Here's what the student sees when he/she selects an incorrect response in Kahoot.

Here’s what the student sees when he/she selects an incorrect response.

At the end of the Kahoot  game, students receive an overall score and ranking and can share on social media.

At the end of the Kahoot game, students receive an overall score and ranking and can share on social media.

Additionally, my students–who are studying French in grades 9-12–also seem to prefer the competition style used in Kahoot to Socrative’s “Space Race”.  They like the fact that each question is timed, They also really like the “leaderboard”. After each question, and after showing the bar graph of the responses, Kahoot shows which teams are in the lead. Teams get more points for providing a correct response quickly, so leaderboard can change drastically after just one question.
 
It should be noted that my students work in teams when we use personal devices in class for two reasons: the first is that our district’s bandwidth isn’t sufficient for all of them to be on their devices at once (which led to a lot of crash-and-burn frustrations with technology when I first started using tools like Socrative, InfuseLearning and Kahoot in class since the students’ devices would be randomly dropped from the school’s wifi). The second reason we do teams is because not all students are able to bring a device to school. As a result, I do not “grade” the students with these formative assessment tools. I have other ways (and other times) to assign a grade for their proficiency with a given topic (see my post on grading and assessment).
 
Getting back to the topic, in my classes, with its use of think time and the leaderboard, student engagement appears to be enhanced with Kahoot. But, I mentioned earlier that another key factor in choosing an online formative assessment tool is real-time data. This is really where Kahoot and Socrative both shine, in slightly different ways. Both tools have the capacity to show bar graphs with data regarding how many teams chose each response. In Socrative, the best type of quiz for this appears to be “teacher-paced”. This version of your quizzes will allow to you choose to display a bar graph after any question. It is not automatically displayed as it is in Kahoot. As mentioned above, in Socrative, you have to click the button called “how are we doing?” in order for the bar graph to appear, but once you click on it, the graph is very clear and each option is easy to see and discuss. Socrative has another great feature that is not available in Kahoot: it allows you to also toggle on or off the display of feedback regrading their answers to the students on their devices. This is defaulted to “off” in the teacher-paced quizzes, probably to facilitate the discussions you would want to have after the bar graphs are displayed. However, in student-paced quizzes, you can opt to turn on the feedback. If you typed in any information about why a certain answer was right or wrong, that information will be provided to the students after they submit each response. This is not an option in Kahoot (they are told the right answer, but there is no way to push information to their devices that tells them why it is the right answer or what makes the other answers wrong). It is also easier to have students complete a quiz anytime, anywhere in Socrative: as a teacher you can just open a quiz and leave it running…any student who joins your “room” will see that quiz after they sign in. However, you can only run one quiz at a time, so if you teach several different classes, like me, you will have to be sure to “finish” a quiz that is running before you can start another one.
 
When doing the quizzes In Kahoot, the bar graph automatically displays after all responses have been received or after the time runs out for the question. In the bar graph, the incorrect responses are washed out and the correct response is still in full color. I do wish Kahoot would NOT wash out the incorrect choices, because we actually do the most important part of the formative assessment once all the students’ responses are visible. But, at least can immediately see how many teams selected each response and I can facilitate the discussion from there.Whether we’re looking at the bar graph from Socrative or the one from Kahoot, our follow-up conversation in class typically goes something like this:
 
“I see that two teams selected choice B [normally I will state the actual language in the choice] and another team selected choice A. Turn to your partners and discuss what makes choice C correct and what specifically is wrong with A and B.”
 
Or sometimes, I might ask them “what would have to be different/true to make choice A correct.” Either way, the point is that we have a conversation after each question, unless no teams got the answer wrong. This is how we can help students learn from formative assessment. Using the “teacher-paced” quiz in Socrative or the regular quiz format in Kahoot both allow us to have those important conversations.
 
What about when the quiz is over? What data is available to to the teacher? Both Socrative and Kahoot provide a variety of data reports teachers can analyze, including whole-class response graphs for all the questions, and data on individual students or even how the whole class responded to individual questions. Here are some screens of the data reports you can look at in both tools:
 
Socrative report request screen (note the many ways you can get the report: email, download, GoogleDrive, etc.)
Socrative's report request screen. You can request individual student data, individual question data and/or an overall report.

Socrative’s report request screen. You can request individual student data, individual question data and/or an overall report.

Kahoot’s spreadsheets:
You can see data about one question from this Kahoot screen, including how many got it right or wrong, how each student answered, and even how long each student took to arrive at a response.

You can see data about one question from this Kahoot screen, including how many got it right or wrong, how each student answered, and even how long each student took to arrive at a response.

 
Kahoot provides one other type of data for teachers: students can actually evaluate the quiz after completing it. They can rate it 0-5 stars for how “fun” it is, indicate if they felt they actually learned from participating, whether or not they liked it and whether or not they would recommend it. This screen was not from an actual class, but rather me taking the quiz as two students and I forgot to click on the stars…
Getting feedback from the students regarding their perceptions and feelings after participating in Kahoot.

Getting feedback from the students regarding their perceptions and feelings after participating in Kahoot.

 
So, where does all this leave us? Since it is important to have a variety of tools (both for student interest and because we must always select the right tool for the right situation), Socrative will remain in my tool box and Kahoot has become the newest permanent member of the box. Socrative one additional advantage over Kahoot in one situation in particular: if I have the computer carts available–or are giving students time to access from home or a library (so all students can answer individually, in a non-competitive, more “serious” format), Socrative trumps Kahoot. It presents questions and answers very clearly and “cleanly” on the student’s device.  Kahoot requires that students be able to see the questions projected at the front, because only the answer choices  appear on their devices–and even then they only appear as colors and shapes–the text of the answers is also only available on the front screen. This makes Kahoot great for doing formative assessment as a whole class, but not so much for assessments they are intended to complete individually or that might even be graded by the teacher. Again, having a variety of tools in the tool box is important. It’s also important to remember that life isn’t multiple choice, so as often as my students ask if we can “play Kahoot again”, I use all such tools very selectively and far less frequently than they would like.
 
And because we all need a toolbox with more than one tool, here is a list of formative assessment tools I use with my students:
  1. Kahoot: Create your account at https://getkahoot.com/. Students participate at https://kahoot.it
  2. Socrative: teachers create at t.socrative.com. Students access and participate at m.socrative.com
  3. Google forms (with Flubaroo script to grade and email feedback if the answers are multiple choice). Here is some information and tutorials: Forms: https://sites.google.com/site/classinthecloud/google-docs Flubaroo: https://sites.google.com/site/classinthecloud/scripts-for-ed 
  4. InfuseLearning: In addition to the usual multiple choice and open-ended quiz formats, this tool has two really great features for use on students’ mobile devices the others don’t have. The first is “draw”: so students can draw a response on their screens and submit it. Then we can discuss the drawings. This is great for vocabulary practice, especially if you have them draw a “symbol” to represent abstract vocabulary. Then, on your screen at the front, you can project the results with all of their symbols and students can try to identify which words/phrases the symbols represent. The other nice feature in InfuseLearning is the ability for the teacher to “push” a URL to the students’ devices. So you can send them a Web page you want them to view, or a video, or any other item that has a URL. For example, I record some of my lessons so students can review them later. They are housed online, some on YouTube and some in other places, depending on the tools I used. With “push”, I can send all of my students the video lesson. Create your account at http://teacher.infuselearning.com/. Students participate at http://student.infuselearning.com/

Also, remember that learning management systems such as Edmodo and Schoology have built-in quizzing and polling features you can also use, as well as providing a classroom community where students and teachers can communicate and a one-stop shop where you can upload, link and store all resources for each of your lessons. And there is now a whole suite of tools hitting the Web that allow you to build questions around video content. Sounds like the topic of a separate post!

3Rs…low tech

I found myself thinking about the fact that when I prepared the video on the theme of “classroom innovation” for my application for the Google Teacher Academy (as of this writing, Google has not yet notified applicants as to whether or not they have been selected), I spent almost my entire 60 seconds talking about Web 2.0 tools I use–and more importantly, my students use–in my classes. I suppose this makes sense given the focus of the teacher academies, but I began to wonder if perhaps the focus on technology caused me to fall into the same trap that so many other teachers fall into, a sort of false equation: technology + students = innovative.

Don’t get me wrong…I absolutely LOVE technology, especially the use of Web 2.0 tools to take my students’ work and perspectives out of the classroom and help them truly interact with the viewpoints and perspectives of others. I just wonder if I put too strong an emphasis on technology as a factor in innovation as opposed to technology as one of many tools to use in the innovative classroom. Furthermore, just who was being innovative in my video? The students? Myself? Or no one? When we talk about innovation in education, what’s really important?

When using Google’s “define” search parameter, the definition of “innovative” is as follows:

Adjective:
  1. (of a product, idea, etc.) Featuring new methods; advanced and original.
  2. (of a person) Introducing new ideas; original and creative in thinking: “an innovative thinker”.

Where in the definition is the use of technology? Are some teachers (and others) assuming that students using technology is automatically innovative? Are other methods and approaches that don’t use technology being relegated to “less innovative” as a result? Are our students and community members also connecting innovative with technology, perhaps at the exclusion of innovative thinking or innovative creation that is accomplished without the use of Web 2.0 tools?

What makes an approach (with or without tech) innovative? How does innovation connect to “rich, relevant and rigorous”? The definition above helps with the first question: New methods, advanced, original, creative. Of course, that makes me wonder if anything I do is truly innovative. I don’t think I do anything that’s new….I strive to apply the best methods, activities, and assessments to my instruction at all times. I keep my eyes open to ideas, resources, and strategies that may not normally be associated with world language teaching, but they are ultimately ideas, resources and strategies that others have proposed.

Perhaps the subject-specfic skills maps from the Partnership for 21st Century Skills can be of some assistance in pushing forward the conversation on innovation in the classroom. Although the use of a variety of technologies and media is reference throughout the world language 21st century skills map, a quick look at the “then and now” page, highlights the truly “supporting role” nature of technology.

Technology plays a key role, but not the only role, in the rich, relevant and rigorous 21st century classroom

Many of the characteristics listed in how languages are taught in the best classrooms “today” coincide with strategies associated with “innovative” teachers and programs: assessment for learning; authentic assessment for audiences beyond the classroom and the teacher; interdisciplinary instruction, practice and assessment; instruction that is truly crafted to achieve the desired results (“backwards design”), etc. Technology is an important support and media literacy is a critical skill our students need, but it’s clearly only a piece of the innovation puzzle.

The other day in my advanced French class, we analyzed the lyrics to a classic French song, watched a short film made using the song more than five decades later, and then students connected their own definitions of love (crafted using the song lyrics) to the chapters they were reading in a French novel–first after reading one of two chapters about the relationship of the two characters, and then after getting more information in the second chapter. Other than using a projector to show the video, there was no technology in this lesson.

Was it innovative? Perhaps. Using the definition above, it approached the song, the film based on the song and the novel (which was written before the song) in a new and hopefully creative way. The lesson was rich in content: not only French (as the academic content requiring students to use their linguistic proficiency to understand and respond to multiple authentic documents), but also in connections to literary analysis from their language arts classes and standards in the visual and performing arts. It was also relevant to students, all high school sophomores, juniors and seniors who have had and witnessed various types of relationships and definitions of “love”. Relevancy was further enhanced by the exploration of a theme across several decades, including one interpretation in 2004. And because the song, the film and the novel were all originally created by (and are all well-known among) native French speakers, students viewed, analyzed and discussed the same material native French speakers also experienced, thus giving the American students insight into cultural products and perspectives that monolingual English speakers cannot access. What about rigor? Linguistically, the lesson was quite rigorous: it demanded extensive application of the linguistic concepts across the years the students have been studying the language. It would have been even more rigorous if I had connected this particular lesson to an authentic assessment, but later the students will be completing a student-created museum with exhibits about the novel, its themes, and the author.

Another blogger talked about the curiosity box: a box in which he places random objects for students to use when analyzing a concept. Students pull an object out the box and must find a way to make and explain a connection between that object and the concept they are studying. I first learned about this approach several years ago. At the presentation I attended, it was called a synectic summary. Students love it–I use it to help them make and express connections between authentic art and literature, music and literature, or to create a richer, more meaningful analysis of current events from French-speaking cultures around the world. If innovation and creativity are inextricably linked, we must find more opportunities to push students’ thinking beyond bubbles, lines and text boxes, and into creativity generators, like the curiosity box. We must go beyond being innovative ourselves to help students see connections where they had never thought to look before so that they will become innovative thinkers and leaders. We can model innovation, but students must practice innovation. Technology may help, but it is not required.

Inspiration in 1 minute

Here’s a great way to get newly inspired about the potential of meaningful technology application in the classroom: teachers around the world are applying right now to the Google Teacher Academy in London this April. As part of their applications, they are required to post on YouTube one-minute videos they’ve created on one of two themes: classroom innovation or motivation and learning. Google made it very clear that creativity in the video is an important factor in their judging process. But more importantly, teachers all over the world are sharing their favorite tools for purposeful use of technology in the classroom. In one-minute segments, others can view the videos and find out about new tools with incredible potential for rich, rigorous and relevant learning in the classroom.

One of the tools I learned about is Socrative (http://www.socrative.com), which allows teachers to create numerous types of student response activities in virtual “rooms”.  It appears to be more user-friendly and more varied than PollEverywhere, and for now it is completely free, although information on their site leads me to believe they will charge for it once it is out of its “Alpha” release.

In order to be highlighted in this blog, any tool, resource, or approach must meet the three Rs: rich, relevant, and rigorous. How does Socrative rate?

Rich: tools like Socrative that allow students to use their “mobile learning devices” (otherwise known as smart phones, ipods, etc.) contribute to a content-rich environment for learning, as long as the teachers are purposeful about how the tools are used (and purposeful in the creation of activities students complete using Socrative and similar tools). This tool also has some pretty robust reporting features, and although you can’t see the reports (or their data) in real time, you can analyze them later to determine next instructional moves.

Relevant: students are entering a society of constant feedback, constant participation.  Using Socrative in the classroom gives students practice engaging with products, materials and others in meaningful ways in order to meet their needs or to provide feedback to others.  This provides one more way for students to gauge their own progress.

Rigorous: this truly depends on how it is used, but the student response activities can definitely be designed such that the responses demonstrate extensive content knowledge, analysis, etc. This is particularly true if teachers use the open-ended feature to encourage students to post and share their analyses or hypotheses for discussion.

What’s the downside? Well, Socrative is currently in “alpha” release…almost like a pre-release version. They are very clearly working out the bugs and using the free alpha release to get feedback that will allow them to make the product even better before they (most likely) begin charging for it. Having used in with multiple classes in the past couple of days, I can say that it lacks one very important feature: in both the “quiz” and “space race” activities, students can answer questions and are told if the answer is right or wrong, but there is no way for the whole class to look at the question, the answer choices and discuss what makes one choice a better answer than the others. This won’t be important for activities relying on student opinion or with multiple correct answers, but for quick checks for understanding, the fact that I can’t project the question and the choices, then see a graph of the students’ responses is definitely a down side compared to other tools like Poll Everywhere or the student response units that one can acquire with most interactive white boards.

Currently, you can’t really run Socrative on your computer. Instead, use your mobile device to get the app (teacher and student versions) or go to t.socrativ.com for the teacher version. Once you’ve created activities and you’re ready to try them with students, have them use their laptops or mobile devices to go to m.socrative.com where they will be giving you formative assesesment data in no time.

Want to see what other teachers are doing? Go to YouTube and search for Google Teacher Academy 2012. Applications are due Feb. 9, so there should be many, many new videos added today and tomorrow. My video application is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGcmpAelUn4. Here are some of my favorite videos from other applicants (sorry…the QuickPress feature on WordPress doesn’t allow me to make friendly links):
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EJ_LNgiqYRk
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=93oNgRLKYso
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hsuz4IQ0ZEs&feature=related
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-AvmizU-JY4
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ykucsmLtsbI
Inspiration in numerous one-minute clips is coming your way! Share the 60-second joy with colleagues!