Talking the teach, teaching the talk…

The second semester approacheth.

The syllabus (or anti-syllabus, actually) for my Advanced Spanish Conversation class is beginning to take shape.

Step one: I emailed the students that are currently registered and asked them what they hoped to get out of this class. 90% of the students have responded (and most of them mentioned how thrilled they were to have even been asked for their input) and their goals could not be more varied. One student is planning to go to law school an work in immigration law/ border policies after having participated in Earlham College’s Border Studies Program as well as several other in country experiences; another wants to pursue a degree in Agronomy and study corn in México; many students plan to travel in Latin America or Spain and feel the need to not only improve their knowledge of words, history, current events, etc…but also be conversant in that knowledge (both literally and figuratively!)

Step two:
I scrapped once and for all the idea of having a textbook for this class. With all due respect to the publishers who create these books, given the variety of interested of my students there is no way one book could work for all of them. Plus, in the back of my mind I could not help but think that a book for teaching conversation seemed like a strange juxtaposition. Books…static Conversation…evolving, changing, growing. I appreciate Barbara Ganley’s frequent references to the Harkness table at Exeter as a way to think about the process of learning for our students, and how the textbook is not always at the epicenter of this process.

[An open and unabashed plug for a project along this very same line: If I were to use a book, it would probably be something that I would have had the students create …a wikibook. But at this moment and time, I simply don not have the grey matter to think about how we would weave that into the curriculum and focus on conversation…so that will be on the back burner for a bit. N’ertheless, for some very interesting conversations about what wikibooks could/should be, and the needs that they could possibly fulfill in education, please go to the Education Bridges site and watch/join in on that conversation. They have even caught the attention of the Wikipedia Foundation and will be talking to Danny Wool, Executive Assistant to Jimbo Wales (one of the founders of Wikipedia) this Wednesday]

Instead of a wikibook, I am going to ask my students to maintain personal blogs (in Spanish) for the class. We will have a central blog for the class (what others refer to as the mother blog, we will call el blog central….) with the students’ blogs linked from there. Students will have access to el blog central as well and will be asked to take over that site with their thoughts, ideas, etc as the semester goes on. (If you think this sounds remarkably like what BG has done in her classes, then you would be right)

Their blogs will be where they write not only about what we are doing in class, but begin to explore how they are going to achieve their lofty goals for the language by the time May comes around. My hope is that these blogs will end up being a way to chart their progress from February onward. That’s my hope. But there is no reason that blogs have to be text only.

Did I mention that my students will be be asked to post their own audiofiles on those blogs? And that I have native speakers from around the world poised to comment upon those audio files as they are posted? Or ready to engage in Skype conversations about the students’ postings as well. Why do this? well for the simple reason that it is one thing to get your point across to a fellow student or your teacher…it is quite another to make your point understood by a native speaker. As L2 learners in a country where immersion in the target language is not possible, we sometimes, I believe, unwittingly create little crutches for ourselves, little “interlanguages” to get our communication accomplished. By bringing in the native speaker, I hope, we will (oh how poetic) be throwing down those crutches and really wrestling with the language and the hard work of communicating meaning.

The possibilities for growth in their speaking abilities through collaboration and the use of these new technologies, I think/hope, should be amazing.

A note about writing and speaking in a second language: the research is there and it says that it is important that students write in order to speak better. Students who write in a second language on a regular basis also speak the language with greater proficiency as well as greater fluidity. This has to do, in some part, with the writing allowing the student the opportunity to investigate the necessary vocabulary, structure, modismos prior to speaking.

But what about writing in a blog, or a chatroom, or even an email…can that be considered “writing?”….

While I have yet to see any research specifically about blogging and second language (L2) acquisition (hmmmm…I see a research project in the making here), I know that much has been written about computer-mediated-conversation (CMC) and learning an L2. J. Scott Payne’s paper from the Language Learning and Technology Online Journal examines how students’ working memory can interpret patterns created in the L2 in a chatroom space and transfer those patterns to a face to face L2 conversation when necessary. To quote from the conclusion of the work:

“the chatroom may provide a unique form of support to certain types of learners in developing L2 oral proficiency”

Could it be we might be able to say the same about the connection between the L2 created in a student’s blog and the L2 create by the student in conversation? That is a question I am hoping to begin to answer this semester. Comments?

Barbara is a Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at a small liberal arts college in Maine. Rumor has it this was also her alma mater. She used to work for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for almost 20 years as a teacher and language center director. Prior to these adventures in higher ed she taught high school Spanish and loved it. She wishes she had more time in her life to play with her dogs, write, read, swim, do yoga things and making stuff out of clay. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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