Week 4: What? You don’t want me to write a paper?

This entry is part 34 of 48 in the series Teaching Transparently
HISP 205 students outline their goals, and how they plan to achieve them

HISP 205 students outline their goals, and how they plan to achieve them

[ I apologize: this post has been sitting, completed, in the draft box for far too long…I really don’t know why it did not get to see the light of day until right now. Well, actually I do…it’s been a busy semester, and around the time this post was meant to appear I was invited to China… and I am not referring to China, Maine…anyway, a wild semester. More to follow, and soon.]

March 6, 2009: We are into week 4 now in HISP 205, and things are beginning to settle into a bit of a cadence now. The class runs on two tracks: the in-class part where we decide upon topics (usually country based, and usually focusing on the countries they have visited or want to visit). We read articles, we see movies we share fotos. Everybody talks, or at least we try to get to that place where everybody talks.

The out-of-class part is where they plan their final project…which, as one student explained to me today isn’t a final but a forever project. Each student establishes a series of 3 personal linguistic goals that s/he wants to accomplish during this semester (one by the end of March, the next by the end of April, the final one might never be accomplished but goals 1 and 2 have helped to set the stage so work can be continued …after the class is over, outside of the classroom, and out there in the real world where this language lives and breathes).

Their final exam with me will have two parts:

A one page essay in Spanish that:
• reviews the goals accomplished,
• explains how we know the goals were met, and
• gives the grade that the student wishes to receive and an explanation as to WHY it should be given based on the work done

A 30 minute oral defense/conversation (in Spanish) that:
• will give an overview of the project
• will defend the grade chosen with concrete examples

There have been some looks of stunned wonderment to be sure. What? you don’t want me to synthesize all of Guatemalan History in a 3-5 page paper? You dont want a thesis statement or a bibliograph ? Huh? I get to chose my own goals in this class, determine how I will get to them and then how I know I have met them? What? I get to determine my own grade and then defend it? Huh?

It might seem like I am giving in, giving away all of the teacher-centric power, acquiescing to the students wants and needs. Indeed, i am putting their learning in their hands. I am asking them what they want to accomplish and how they want to get there. I am offering them my support, my encouragement and a swift kick in the rear if they fall behind. This is a different, and more necessary even, kind of teaching : teaching them that defining realistic goals is hard work and figuring out how to measure whether you realized them is even harder. I am asking them to be accountable for what they learn and how they are learning it. I am asking them to blog about their experiences so others can share in the successes and or your set backs…

In my mind…this is much more language learning (and even meta-learning) than any skit, recording, test, m/c test, video project, 7-10 page paper could ever provide.

So the out-of-class part is underway. The in-class part is still a but rough. Students still expect ME to kick them into gear when they are not speaking, no matter how often I tell them that no, this is your job and your responsibility to yourself as well as the others in the classroom. I feel as if we are getting there…but it’s slow.

If you are interested in seeing what I presented to them as a rubric, an outline, for the final project …I have attached a copy below. Please feel free to download and review it here. Give me feedback. If you do use it, let me know how it went and what I could do (what we could do) to make it an even better experience for all of our students the next time around.


I welcome your comments.

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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!


  1. Trip Kirkpatrick · April 12, 2009 Reply

    What do you see as the potential for unintended consequences? Similarly, what do you see as the downside risk to your approach? I don’t think I’ve read you writing about that under this tag, but feel free to direct me to the relevant post if it exists.

    • bsawhill · April 13, 2009 Reply

      Unintended consequences? Those are what I live for. That’s the best part of teaching without a static syllabus, and letting the students direct their own learning.

      Every year I teach this, something unexpected happens. Every class engages with the material that we cover in class differently depending upon the chemistry of the group, what is happening in the world around us, etc. Last semester, we talked about the FARC and Ingrid Betancourt in Colombia (the parallel being that this would be like Hilary Clinton–then still a candidate for Presidnet– being kidnapped mid campaign and held for 6 years). I had a student from France watching TV5 and telling us about their views on the news (Betancourt is French). the best part? when Ingrid was released, the commenters from Colombia on our blog “scooped” the NYTimes by about an hour. Those are my kind of unintended consequences 🙂

      But I am thinking you mean something else…

      Today I had a meeting with one of my students (note: I meet with each of them for 15min once a week to check in) and she was thrilled by the fact that she was talking about huge, complex topics in her Skype conversations with her native speaker partner, and that even though they were not talking about the topic she wanted to cover (preparing for working this summer as an EMT in a free clinic in Washington, DC) she was absolutely overjoyed with the knock-down-drag-out debates she was having (on a regular basis) with him. If I had –told– her this would happen, of course it would not have.

      No maybe that’s not what you want either. So how ’bout this: One of my students continues to want to do historical research, write thesis statements, and include fpptnotes. She is having very hard time imagining that one could write about her interests, her passions and not have to justify that with some sort of bibliographic evidence. She doesn’t see (yet) that the best blog posts are the ones that come from your heart; they are the ones that stay in draft mode for a few weeks until you feel your words truly reflect your feelings. She still thinks that this is meant to be a scholarly exercise on 8.5 X 11 inch paper then transferred to a blog… no, this is a different type of scholarship.

      Sometimes I worry that they will take the freedom I give them and blow it…and every year I have a student who will try and make up 6 weeks of blogposts…in an afternoon. It’s sad because those students will never understand the concept of longitudinal blogging, that is, of creating a portfolio of your work over time and then looking back over it and reviewing it…they are still stuck in the 5-7 page paper, do the all-nighter, cramming mindset. And that, alas, never leads to anything good. It certainly doesn’t ever lead to any significant learning. or least it never did for me.

      I have a blog post coming up about their mid term evaluations of me and of the class. There were surprises. And a few bumps and bruises (for me) as well. And guess what? It’s all good.

      • Trip Kirkpatrick · April 14, 2009 Reply

        There s/he is! The “student who will try and make up 6 weeks of blogposts…in an afternoon”. That’s what I’m trying to prod about. Not trying to put down your hard work or vanguard thinking, just trying to push a little on the potential problems of this approach. I dig that one of the major problems is, to paraphrase one of your earlier blog post titles, stepping off the precipice, hurtling into the unknown. But you’ve been doing this long enough to have some idea of what failure looks like, si? In this context, what would the (realistic) fiasco version of this class be?* Would you have a class full of students who try to cram all the posts into one day?

        Part of my underpinning here is, of course, a presupposition that in every scholastic group there will be a continuum of success distributed among the participants. Not the dread bell curve, perhaps, but an expectation that each student’s mind works a little differently from his fellows and so will perform differently than those others. What if you get a class full of students, each of whom says s/he should get an A (or whatever top evaluation is allowed)? What if you get a student who is a time-suck but an intentional under-performer?

        These are straw men (and not very good ones, I confess, since I’m not a pedagogue), but maybe they articulate what I’m pick-pick-picking at.

        *The unrealistic fiasco would have to somehow involve spontaneous combustion.

        • bsawhill · April 14, 2009 Reply

          Thank you tripst3r for keeping the questions coming. I truly appreciate it.

          My hope is that by 1) meeting with each of them weekly 2) giving them frequent, informal, written, performance assessments with an approximation of their grade (oooh there it is again…that icky word…grades) at that moment and time 3) emailing them when they don’t show up, or expressing displeasure when they do boneheaded things like schedule a meeting with their advisor in the -middle- of class (oh no she didn’t, oh yes she did)…by doing all of that… I hope no one will slip through the cracks, or fall behind, or be, as you call ’em..a straw man or woman.

          My role, as the teacher, is to herd, cajoul, prod, poke and remind them of their goals, and remind them to keep them moving forward. Does this guarantee that everyone will succeed? Nope. I give them as many opportunities as possible to succeed… but that’s never a guarantee. Some students simply don’t want to invest themselves, do what needs to be done…as much as I wish I could…I can’t change’ em. Only they can change themselves and will do so when they are ready and able.

          So what will I do if ALL of them ask for an A? I don’t know. My thought is that if they can defend their choice, talk about their growth as learner with quantifiable evidence, and do it in the target language… heck maybe then they would deserve the A.

          Yeah… stay tuned. I can’t wait to see how this turns out 🙂

  2. Dispersemos · April 13, 2009 Reply

    The assignment seems very conceptually sound to me, and I love the focus on student accountability and goal setting. The sample short term goal (15 min. conversation on complex topic) seems very ambitious, though. And the longer-term goals seem a bit fuzzy to me. I hear many students of Spanish talk about having had a “successful” conversation or conversing “successfully” when I suspect that the conversation partner was especially sympathetic and willing to fill in gaps. Might there be some more specific criteria with which to define a successful conversation? In addition to learning specific things about the other’s culture, what should the student be able to offer to his/her conversation partner?

    Thanks for a great blog!

    • bsawhill · April 13, 2009 Reply

      Thanks for commenting, Dispersemos!

      The sample examples I gave were meant to be altered and adapted based upon the students’ wants and desires and wishes for their time in this class. And what they wrote fpr goals in March continues to morph and adjust as they face the reality of the time crunch, etc. I actually appreciate the fact that some of them have come to me and said “what was I thinking? Two 1 hr conversations per week? No, really, two 15 minute ones is more realistic…can we revisit my goals?”

      With each goal that they set I remind them that they will need to justify, to defend, to provide concrete evidence of meeting that goal during their final exit interview/exam with me. So, yes I understand what you are saying about how gooey a term like “successful” could be… and I am trying to avoid that mushiness by asking them to show me –in their blog, via recorded conversations — evidence, proof, examples of them succeeding where they had once fallen short….and then explain (in the target language) why that meant they met their goals.

      In the end, if there were a master plan for this course it would be for my students to gain an appreciation for the hard work that is involved in learning a language, and making quantifiable progress in a language. It’s not about fill in the blank exercises. Its not about workbook exercises. It’s about using the words in those static exercises to create knowledge and maintain communication. With others. With strangers even.

      With the technology or without, becoming proficient in a language is a process requiring energy and dedication and support from others over a lonnnnng time. If they learn nothing else than that this semester, I will be delighted. But I have a feeling there is even more than that to come. Stay tuned.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • Dispersemos · April 14, 2009 Reply

        Can you tell us how your students record their conversations and share via their blogs? Are they recording through Skype or recording other conversations with a digital recorder? Posting .mp3 files to blogs?

        I’ve been using VoiceThread for monitoring my students’ speaking outside of class, but I’m interested in other possibilities. Thanks much!

        [“It’s not about fill in the blank exercises. Its not about workbook exercises. It’s about using the words in those static exercises to create knowledge and maintain communication. With others.” Amen!!]

        • bsawhill · April 14, 2009 Reply

          We use audio hijack pro to record skype calls as mp3’s. Provided, of course they have the okay of their Skype partner. If they do have the okay, they can mke the recording, edit and upload the parts that they feel are the most noteworthy, and write about them in their blog.

          I am also encouraging my students to ask their skype partners to comment on their blogposts, especially if the post is a recap of a conversation. (is that what happened? Yes? No? Let;s see what the other person has to say) An asynchronous conversation can be as imporant as synchronous one …and sometimes the bar is set much higher when students have time to think, reflect, draft, and then post their thoughts.

          Does this help?

  3. JBlack · April 13, 2009 Reply

    Barbara –

    I think the above is wonderful! I was particularly nodding my head when I read, “This is a different, and more necessary even, kind of teaching : teaching them that defining realistic goals is hard work and figuring out how to measure whether you realized them is even harder. I am asking them to be accountable for what they learn and how they are learning it.” Your assessment is achieving so many forms of learning, and on so many levels. There’s the goal setting, there’s the meta cognition aspect, tons of strategizing and evaluation going on, and all the while there’s the language application — wow! I like! Additionally, you’ve let the students become responsible for their learning (what, how, when) and it’s so much easier for them to buy into it when this happens. It’s about them really learning, not just about getting a grade. I’m sitting here thinking how I might be able to do this next semester with one of my classes.

    What you are doing is very impressive, I must say. When I read that your class uses “a variety of technologies (blogs, voice-over-IP telephony, Spanish language social networking sites) as well as some of the immersive language environments available through virtual realities or gaming (e.g. Second Life, World of Warcraft) ” I was blown away. Keep up the great work. You are very much a 21st century teacher! And thanks so much for sharing your rubric. 🙂

  4. Benjamin · April 18, 2009 Reply

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I commend you on your pursuit of criteria-referenced testing – criteria initiated by the learner. After reading your post and responses, a few questions came to mind:

    1. How much are the short, medium, and long-term goals actually a negotiation between you and the student, and how much are the goals coming solely from the learner? It´s been my experience, teaching pre-service English language educators (especially for freshman learners) in Mexico that expressing personal linguistic goals in general from the beginning of the semester can be a challenge. Also, some goals don’t result until the learner has gone through specific experiences. That is, individual goals can change over time.

    2. Do you establish any group goals whether within your group of Spanish language learners or between partner groups (i.e., pair work) who participate via Skype, blogs, etc.? Perhaps you mentioned pair work and I just missed it, but if you don´t include group work, what’s your rationale?

    3. I´ve noticed in your example (i.e., Un ejemplo de un bosquejo de un proyecto final) that most goals are absent of any distinction between language structure, semantics, phonology, phonetics, etc., which I don’t necessarily have an problem with. But how do these projects fit into your overall syllabus? Does your syllabus contain “expressed” or behavioral objectives?

    4. Related to question three, do you use any norm-referenced tests (i.e., multiple choice, matching, etc.) in your class? For example, are the mid-term evaluations you mention norm-referenced tests?

    5. Related to questions three and four, how did you reach the point of implementing these projects? Do other language educators implement similar projects at different language levels? Are there any common assessments between teachers teaching the same subject at the same language level?

    6. How much class time do you allocate for learners to complete their individual projects?

    Again, I think it’s great how you focus on criteria-referenced tests since it’s the only way to achieve deep understandings, but I pose these questions to get a better understanding as to how these ideas might be shared in different teaching contexts.

    • barbara · April 25, 2009 Reply

      Dear Benjamin:

      My apologies for taking so long to reply. The semester is coming to a close and with that the responsibilities are beginning to grow…so I am behind on my blogging and my commenting.

      So here goes.

      1. Yes, expressing personal linguistic goals is indeed a challenge for our students, and for a variety of reasons. First, they have never been asked to stop and look at the process of their own language learning. Very rarely do we allow our students the opportunity to consider what teaching styles/learning styles work best for them. Nor do we give them a glimpse of what is involved in learning a language. So I try to share with my students the theories that exist about how we learn a second language, and try to help them form realistic expectations for themselves and for the class. I also try to put their desires for learning a certain grammatical form into a context, because even though we learn grammar points in isolation, those forms rely upon a context to exist.

      If there is any heavy-handedness on my part it would be when I work with them to create contexts in which they would use those pesky grammatical forms that trouble them… contexts that would allow them to see whether they have mastered the forms or not. Also…trying to get their goals to flow into one another vs being three spearate year long projects.

      Yes goals can (and do) change over time. What they thought they could do in March sometimes seems ridiculous in May. Sometimes they accomplish much more than they gave themselves credit for being able to do at the onset. I meet with them weekly to check in and see how they are progressing. If adjustments have to be made, we make them.

      The object of the game is for them to feel challenged, motivated, and ultimately successful. That and cognizant of what they can and should do to keep learning a language once this class is over.

      2) Group goals: We don’t work with one group of native speakers. The students’ skype partners are as varied as they are. All we ask is that there be an equal exchange of language and learning, and that they negotiate an “acuerdo” that makes sense for the two of them and keep revisiting that. Because our primary way of finding native speakers is as individuals via the Mixxer (http://www.language-exchanges.org/), there is a tacit understanding that each pair will negotiate their goals and how to work toeards them. And they do.

      3) I believe that my job is to get them ready for the world outside of the classroom, and helping them see that the Spanish language (especially when speaking with native speakers from a variety of places and about a variety of subjects) is not a solid, monolithic, black and white entity. Human beings speak this language…and as a result humans do some pretty incredible things in their efforts to communicate (stuff for which our formal courses of study don’t quite prepare out students, imho) The projects fits into the course goals because they show the students what it takes to make the jump from a classroom based curriculum to communicating in real time. teh clas ins a conversation class… they are conversing: with each other, with me, with others, with the world.

      4) Ah assessment. The short answer? No we do not use any normative assessments… or if we do, then my students get to decide what the “norm” is. Assessments in this class are done through rubrics that the students create based upon where we have been in the class and what they consider to be essential elements, traits, skills, abilities that each of them should have at that moment in time.

      5) How did I get here? Well the simple answer is that I realized quite early on that my students interests, experiences, and reasons for wanting to be in this class were all fascinating… and deserved to be explored and shared both within the class but with the outside world. And since this is a class where conversations are encouraged, I wanted to create opportunities for conversations to happen in as many places and spaces as possible.

      6) Time? Their time is theirs. There is no homework in this class other than writing, reading what others have written, and working on your goals via your project. Quite early on they realize (without me saying anything…) the more they put in to these things, the more they get out of the class, and the more their linguistic ability grows and flourishes.

      Expect nothing, mandate nothing…ask them to define their goals and what it would take to meet them…and they will create, grow, explore, and dig deep. It seems impossible that it could be that simple, but it is. Each time I teach this class, I am blown away at what they are able to do, see, say, create and learn.

      I hope I answered your questions. If I did not, please let me know.


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