Why I’m not preparing my students for the “real world”

We often hear education experts tell us how important it is to design learning experiences for our students that will prepare them for the “real world.” And teacher blogs, conference presentations and tweets are also full of strategies they have developed and implemented to prepare their students for the “real world.” By and large, they are good strategies worth exploring in our classes. I wholeheartedly agree that our students need and deserve a world-class education that prepares them for life, work, and citizenship in a dynamic, complex, and evolving global society. However, I no longer tell my students that I am preparing them for the “real world.” And I would encourage all of my fellow educators to also stop telling students, parents, and other stakeholders that they are preparing students for the “real world.”
Why? Lest you think that I have abandoned the greater purpose of education, let me explain. When we tell anyone that we are preparing students for the “real world,” we are perpetuating the already all-too-common belief that that our classes and everything we do in them is something other than “real.” Rather than reminding everyone of the fact that there is a purpose behind every learning event we have crafted for our students, that phrase instead invites all our stakeholders–students, parents, community members and others–to dismiss the majority of the work we do as artificial at best and irrelevant at worst. Think about it: if we tell students, “This [insert activity or rule to be followed here] is important because it will prepare you for the real world,” what are we doing the rest of the time? I have another post coming soon on whether or not our grades and policies really do reflect the “real world” but just looking at our instruction and assessment, we can do better than imply that only some of what we do is relevant. And if it is true that only some of what we do is relevant, then it may be time to take a closer look at our practice.

But if we are teaching, practicing and assessing for proficiency rather than for points on a chapter test, then it is likely that most–if not all–of what we do is exactly the preparation our students need in order to use their language beyond our classroom walls to communicate with others and comprehend the world around them. Just consider some of the most banal examples from my own classes (and probably yours as well): we look at the same documents native speakers around the world are looking at. We talk about them just like native speakers around the world to do. We compare them to other documents from the target cultures as well as to similar documents in American culture. We interact with native speakers as often as possible in person and online. And these are just the “easy” examples. My classes are not artificial and the work my students do provides them with numerous opportunities to participate just as fluidly in French outside of class as they do in class. So I’m not about sell my work–or my students’ efforts and time– short by implying that it is different from a mythical “real world” that in reality looks an awful lot like how we are already using French in my class.

Perhaps the real issue isn’t the phrase “real world” but rather that it’s not enough to tell our students that we are preparing them for the “real world.” We have to do so rather than say so because when we are doing it, there is no longer a need for us or others to say it…or question it. How do we “do real world” instead of telling students we are “preparing” them for the real world? By ensuring that the work in which students are engaged during their time with us is representative of the authentic ways the fundamental and advanced skills of our content areas are used outside of our classes in that seemingly mysterious place called “the real world.”

As a language teacher, our field offers a diverse array of opportunities to do just that. At the most simple, we invite native speakers into our rooms from our communities, as host students, or via Skype, FaceTime or Google+ Hangouts. It’s so easy and natural for us that we almost take it for granted. We also facilitate their progression from using words and structures in controlled environments and contexts to using the language to examine a variety of topics  on a range of issues and interests that reflect authentic cultural perspectives. We do that by using the same infographics, advertisements, articles, YouTube channels and news reports native speakers are reading, listening to and talking about.  We can go a step further by using community-based and online resources to connect our students with target-language speakers around the world in a discussion of those topics. Even a time difference isn’t a problem if we send our contacts abroad links to digital forums we have created for our students to virtually discuss concepts and content. For example, tools like TodaysMeet, Padlet, and Blendspace allow anyone anywhere in the world to participate in the “conversation” if they have a link to the specific thread in question. Want to “hear” them talk? Use tools like Voxopop to create “talk groups” to which anyone with the link can contribute. Use these tools to enhance  your learners’ connections and interactions with their penpals, with humanitarian workers serving in regions where your target language is spoken and with others who are interested in the topics your students are learning about.

Ready to go further? Engage your students in Project-Based Learning, otherwise known as PBL (and for language teachers, Project-Based Language Learning, or PBLL). I’ve been learning about and implementing Project-Based Language Learning for several years, although so far, I would consider my implementation of it to be fairly novice. One of the most accomplished language educators who has made PBLL a fully integrated component of his language instruction is Don Doehla, who blogs on world languages (including PBLL) for Edutopia. Here is just one of his many PBL posts. Spanish teacher Laura Sexton has also done incredible work in this arena. And here is a great overview of best practices in PBL directly from the experts at the Buck Institute for Education.

Why do I like PBL or PBLL to prepare students for a myriad of roles in a society that will define itself after our students leave us?  Through well-designed Project-Based Learning experiences–or more correctly, expertly facilitated PBL experiences–students learn through inquiry, often of their own design. Two critical components of successful PBL and PBLL are

  • the active role the students play throughout the learning, practice and assessment process, and
  • the higher purpose of assessment in PBL/PBLL

Starting with the selection of the essential question or challenging problem the students will tackle, through the cycle of inquiry, reflection, and critique and revision, student voice and choice are the primary factors guiding their work. Students move from learning language for points in the gradebook to acquiring language they will need in order to comprehend and talk about the field they are studying. They move from passively receiving instruction to determining and acting on their own learning needs with teacher support. I’ve even had students work with me to help write the grants that would fund their work and design and publish their own advertising.  And of course their involvement doesn’t end when their research does: I include my students in the choice, design and implementation of their culminating  PBL/PBLL event, which is often open to the community. It is through this event that students demonstrate their knowledge and apply the full gamut of their skills (content skills, language and literacy skills, and often numerous 21st Century Skills). It is the essentially the assessment, but really it is so much more: the culminating event evaluates students’ proficiencies much more thoroughly and authentically than a test grade. The culminating event provides students with a meaningful venue that requires demonstration of both spontaneous and prepared application of their language skills and content knowledge.

Interactions with native speakers in our classrooms and online. Discussion and analysis of authentic media. Assessment for an audience beyond the teacher and a purpose greater than a grade. For the language educator, this is–or should be–our every day, day to day. Just like in the “real world.”



Yes, they CAN understand native speakers!

I often hear teachers say that authentic videos featuring native speakers (and intended for viewing by other native speakers) are too difficult for our language learners to use as listening practice, let alone listening assessment. And yet, I think we can all agree that we would like to have our students listen to “real” products that are authentic, meaning that they were created and published by native speakers for native speakers. In addition to providing real examples of the language the students are learning, authentic videos place that language within culturally authentic contexts, thereby providing our students with windows into the cultures that speak the language and the way the cultures are reflected in the use of the language.

One approach I have found to help students better work with authentic video is to ensure we apply what we know about best practices pedagogy in general to the way we present videos and the ways in which we have students interact with the videos.

So what do we know? We know that adolescent brains benefit from multiple opportunities to pause, reflect and apply knowledge at intervals throughout their work with a written or multi-media document, rather than requiring them to read/listen through the entire document before providing them with opportunities to discuss, ask and answer questions, analyze the content, and make comparisons within the language and culture and also to their home languages and cultures. In circles of experts in reading development (even in L1), we often see the reminder for teachers to design a variety of activities for “into, through, and beyond” the reading. I believe this applies just as much to videos: hook them and prepare them to listen (into); help them process what they are hearing and respond to it at multiple intervals during the video (through) and then provide students with opportunities to personalize and extend the video by creating their own responses and products after listening and successfully completing the activities to demonstrate their comprehension of the targeted language and cultural knowledge from the video (beyond).  Today’s post deals mostly with the “through” portion of this cycle. And with another important concept in world language circles (that I cannot take credit for): Modify the TASK, not the content. In other words, provide students with real content (such as authentic videos), but design tasks that are appropriate for their stage of proficiency. In this way, their listening–and their responses–are focused on what they do know and can understand.

Before we look at one of my favorite “high” tech ways to provide this kind of ongoing interaction throughout an authentic video, it’s worth remembering that a lower-tech way to do this is to simply pause the video at various points to engage the students in conversations, personalization tasks or other work that allows them to process what they have heard, connect it to what they know and understand, and use the video as a springboard for their own communication in the target language.

I had already created three Zaption “tours” in preparation for upcoming lessons, but a few weeks ago, I finally tried one of my Zaption tours with my French 2 class. Zaption is one of MANY tools that allow you to edit existing YouTube videos and add student response activities, such as open-ended or multiple choice responses to questions you ask during the video (they automatically appear during video playback), a drawing response, and a discussion thread possibility. In this particular case, it proved to be a very effective and engaging lesson for students when I was absent (which can be the subject of a separate post and is a key concept for me: ensuring students are at least as engaged when I am absent as when I am present).

All of the tools that provide teachers with video editing and student response options differ a bit in their setup and their exact functionality in terms of what you can do with the videos and what kinds of questions we can ask. Currently, I like Zaption best for several reasons.

  1.  It allows me to crop existing YouTube videos without having to go to another program first to crop it. This is really key for language teachers because many videos are either simply too long or they only have a chunk that is usable at the students’ current level of proficiency.
  2. It allows me to make a “tour” of multiple videos on the same topic. Or…multiple crops of the same video (which is how I did it with French 2).*
  3. It has a variety of response/question types, including mulitple choice, open-ended and draw a response.*
  4. It provides me a report with overall success on each question and also with individual student responses.

*The downside is that these two items of functionality are only applicable to their paid version, which I happen to have this year. That said, I like it so much that it will become one of the very few tools I pay for!

So, I will share three samples here: two for French 2 (one we didn’t get to use this year, but I’m looking forward to using next year) and one for French 4/AP. In all cases, the process is as follows:

  1. Create your teacher account at http://zaption.com
  2. In your dashboard, select “New Tour”
  3. It will prompt you to add the Youtube URL for the video(s) you want to add.
  4. Click on “add video” above the video frame to add next clip. If you want to make multiple edits of the same video, just when you click on “add video”, the first video you added will automatically appear in the new window. Just click on it again to add another copy of it so that you can make multiple crops of the same video. So to make a “tour” of three clips from the same video, I copy it as many times as the number of clips I want to use from that video. Then I crop each of the copies to be a different chunk. They will all play together as one video activity when finished.
  5. Now you can crop your video clips. You do this by clicking on “trim”, which appears within the video window, in the upper left.

    Zaption edit screen

    Zaption edit screen

  6. In the same screenshot above, you can also see the tools for adding student responses. Just play your video to the point where you want to add your first question/activity. Pause the video and click on the question type you would like to use from the buttons at the top. Fill in the fields and then submit. Continue for the rest of the clip and then the rest of the tour. It is recommended that you have the video stop playing while students respond, but note that for the “discussion” feature, this doesn’t appear as an option. The students have to begin typing in order to stop the video. Also, you have the option for multiple choice responses to send them back to an earlier point in the video if they get an answer wrong, thus requiring them to listen again.
  7. As students complete the activities in the video, their responses are being saved for you to view. You can see an overall summary as well as individual student results. See screenshots below:Zaption_analytics Zaption_indiv_data

Here are some samples of Zaptions I have made for my classes.

Zaption’s YouTube channel: lots of tutorials here.

And here are some additional, very popular video editing and response tools to explore. Because ultimately, everyone has different styles and preferences. To me, it is less important which tool you choose. I happen to love Zaption. You may love Educanon. Do what you love. The key here is to ensure that authentic videos are not a passive experience for our learners, but rather one that engages them in active listening with multiple opportunities to demonstrate understanding and provide personal responses.

Say what? 3 tips to help novice speakers SPEAK

We all want to see our language learners leave our world language programs able to participate in spontaneous conversations on a range of topics. Preparation for this lofty goal starts in the very first years of language instruction. But, we also recognize that language students at the novice level are primarily comfortable with memorize chunks and phrases (see page 5 of ACTFL’s proficiency guidelines for speaking at the novice level). How can we facilitate spontaneous conversations with and among  students who cannot yet independently manipulate the language? The single most important thing we can do is use the target language in every class every day. Students can’t be expected to use a language they don’t hear used! But here are three additional strategies I use specifically to support my novice learners to speak spontaneously.
1. Randomize participation
I knew my very first year teaching that I didn’t want to have only my bravest, most confident students to participate on a daily basis. I wanted to know how well students were manipulating new words and structures after they had practiced with a partner or small groups, and yes, my novice classes almost always complete oral activities in pairs and small groups before I ask students to provide responses to the whole class. In my first several years of teaching. I used to use index cards to randomly select which students would speak. I had a card for each student and I would shuffle them (frequently!) to randomize their participation. For question-answer activities, I would use the index cards to randomly select one student to ask the question and randomly select another student to provide the answer. This is a small, but important, step in preparing our most novice learners for spontaneous conversations because although they may be responding to a fairly structured partner activity with only limited variations, having randomly selected students produce the questions and responses for the class after they have completed the activity with their partners gives them practice being ready to speak at any time.
Random selection provides other benefits as well. I almost never allow students to volunteer because research shows that volunteering offers very little to students in terms of engagement and equally little to teachers in terms of useable formative assessment data. But randomizing participation enhances student engagement and provides more valid and reliable data from more students regarding their proficiency with the topic at hand. Some teachers do this with Popsicle sticks, but I liked index cards better than Popsicle sticks because the cards allowed me space to mark how many times each student spoke and even make other small notes regarding their work. But, not surprisingly, technology now provides us with digital options that work from smartphones and tablets. I personally have traded my index cards for the iPhone app “Class Cards” to randomize my students’ participation. It was free when I installed it years ago. Unfortunately, it is no longer free. I like the fact that I can see who is next up in the random selection because that makes it faster to announce who will ask the question and who will provide the response. Sadly I can’t find any free randomization apps anymore. Another app is “Pick Me“. It costs less than Class Cards, but is still not free. A free web-based alternative may be “Random Student Generator“. Since I have been happy with Class Cards, I have never tried Pick Me or the web-based Random Student Generator, but for what it’s worth, I can say that I have found randomization of participation to be so instrumental to support the work we are doing as a class that I would actually buy one of the apps if I didn’t have one already (and because I use my iPad tools extensively during class, I would personally opt for an app rather than a Web-based tool, but that’s just me).
2. Add spontaneity and build on existing activities with “just one more”
Often, we choose to use some existing materials in order to provide our students with practice in the new language. In my case, I find that I can often make use of or adapt some of the practice activities provided in publisher materials. I firmly believe that textbooks do not teach and therefore, I provide all the instruction myself by designing lessons that are communicative and proficiency oriented in order to teach the variety of vocabulary and structures students will need to communicate at a stage-appropriate level. However, I can include many of the proposed practice activities in my students’ learning and practice sequence, along with numerous supplemental activities that I create. Often, the activities prepared by publishers include a several designed to be completed in pairs. It is common to find these activities already organized in a question-answer format,  simulating real life conversations, albeit very short ones. But they often stop short of providing any element of spontaneity. This can be remedied as soon as students have learned and practiced the basic question words (who, what, when, where) and at least a couple of easy ways to answer those questions. Armed with these powerful language stems, we can support novice language learners to step up the game a bit (even with very structured, text-book based question/answer activities) by asking “just one more” question. This simple strategy actually supports both partners in the question-answer format to increase their language skills by requiring the questioner to listen actively and determine an appropriate follow-up question while the respondent must listen for a question that was not part of the original activity and then formulate a simple response to it.
3. Semi-spontaneous interviews
I use this structure frequently as both practice and as one of the ways I assess my novice learners’ interpersonal communication. It is easy to incorporate on a day-to-day basis so students can have several opportunities for practice (not just assessment) throughout the year. I actually really like it when students don’t feel like their assessments are different from the communicative work we do daily in class.
The key to this strategy is to allow all students to prepare some of their questions in advance but not tell them whom they will interview. Nor can they show their questions to the person they are interviewing. Preparing questions in advance for an interview is actually more authentic than not doing so because it is rare for professional journalists and others who conduct interviews (such as researchers) to not have prepared their base questions in advance.
Once students have created questions, I have them practice. There are many ways students can practice (beyond the obvious of interviewing the students that sit next to them or with whom they are normally partners. Here are some variations that provide more randomized practice:
  • “Inner-outer circle” format. This is one of my favorites. This is done by having the class stand in two concentric circles: the students in the “inner circle” face outward from their circle and then the other half of the class forms the outer circle by standing face-to-face with a student in the inner circle. If there is an odd number of students, I stand in one of the circles to even it out. Otherwise, I stand in the middle of the two circles because it is easier to quickly listen to the various conversations from the middle than it is from the outside. Once the students are in place, I choose one group  (inner or outer) to be the ones asking the questions they have prepared to the student facing them in the other circle. That student listens, and responds. Typically, with novice classes, students can ask and answer five questions in about a minute (unless they are struggling), due to the highly “memorized chunk” nature of their language use and also their inability to provide extensive detail that would lengthen answers. So, after about a minute, I ask the outer circle to rotate to their left.  The process repeats again, but their is a new pair of students. After several rotations, I have the students switch places with their partner so that students who were on the outside are now on the inside. This also results in a change of speaking role (from interviewer to interviewee or vice versa). We then continue for several more rounds. This is a great activity to do outside if the weather permits.
  • Caterpillar: This is a variation my friend (and outstanding teacher) Christine Lanphere uses for tighter spaces. Have students stand in two parallel lines. When done, each line rotates TWO speakers to their left. Note that this will have each line appear to be moving in OPPOSITE directions. This will cause those at the end of the line to switch lines. Having them rotate two speakers (instead of just one) ensures they don’t end up with the same partner they just had before switching to the other line. In smaller classes, I have one line designated as the “question line” and the other as the “answer line” and students switch roles when they rotate to the other line. In larger classes, I have students switch roles after five rotations or so, just like with “Inner-Outer Circles.”
  • Mingling: Another variation is to designate half class as interviewers and half as interviewees. Ask interviewees remain seated, set a timer and have interviewers circulate freely in the room, attempting to interview five different students in approximately five minutes. Then switch roles and repeat.

This format can be used for quick conversation practice with many topics. And as students become more comfortable, you can even have them do completely spontaneous, impromptu conversations using this format. Furthermore, you can use the

Five exchange students were visiting from France. Students prepared some questions in advanced and asked more questions spontaneously.

Five exchange students were visiting from France. Students prepared some questions in advanced and asked more questions spontaneously.

“just one more” strategy mentioned above in combination with their personally prepared questions in order to add an element of spontaneity, increase the authenticity of the conversations and promote greater listening and speaking proficiency.

When it becomes time to move from practicing conversations to assessing their interpersonal speaking proficiency on a given set of learning targets (can-do statements) with or without the “just one more” questions (I prefer to include those in assessments, so it is important to have them practice listening for opportunities to add them and also practice responding to them), I find that the easiest way to manage randomizing students for interviews I am assessing is as follows:

  1. Print out a copy of the rubric you will use to evaluate each student’s interpersonal proficiency (you can find my draft rubric here…I’m always revising rubrics!).
  2. Make enough photocopies for the class and distribute it to students. Remember that it is beneficial to do this earlier in the learning-practice-assessment cycle rather than at the end: our “end-game” shouldn’t be a secret to students!
  3. When it is time to assess, have them write their names on the rubric and then hand it back in.
  4. Shuffle them up, and the order of the rubrics becomes the order for the interviews: I call up the student whose rubric is on the top of the pile. That person asks the questions. I also call up the student with the second rubric. This student will answer the questions. When they are done, student A sits back down (she will come back at the very end). Student B becomes the interviewer (asking the questions) and I call up the next student from the rubric pile to respond. We continue rotating roles and calling up new students from the rubric pile. The very last student called up to answer will be the one who asked questions first.

What strategies do you use to help your most novice speakers actually speak? Share your ideas in the comments!