El Proyecto Personal: Creating Conversations, Taking Risks, Learning to Prepare for the World Outside the Classroom

This entry is part 1 of 46 in the series Teaching Transparently

Each semester I am amazed (and also a little bit terrified) by the personal projects my students choose to define and pursue in my Spanish Conversation class.  This year was no different.

The first step in their personal project is defining what they want to do and how they want to do it.  Here is how the Personal Project is descried in the Course Description:

El Proyecto Personal:

You will plan, develop, implement and assess your own work in a personal project that is intended to answer some (if not all) of the following questions:

  • Why are you in this class?
  • What should success in listening/speaking in Spanish look like for you by May 1st 2015?
  • Why do you want/need to do to improve your speaking and listening skills in Spanish?
  • What are topics you want to be able to talk about, speak with others about that you cannot to your satisfaction now?
  • Are there places you want to go and if so, where and why?
  • What are the specific tasks, activities, challenges you need to set for yourself (and accomplish) to approximate these goals?

Required:

  • your project must feature regular conversations in Spanish with individuals (approved by the instructor) who possess native or near-native fluency in the language (in person or online).
  • your project must show evidence of you pushing yourself out of your comfort zone in order to learn and grown as a Spanish speaker

This year I had more than a few musicians in the class who wanted to develop conversations about songwriting, about playing their music and instruments in Spanish (given that all of the training had been in English), or about music technology.

I had business majors, psychology majors, geology majors and theatre majors. There were students who found ways to weave their academics with their knowledge of Spanish, as well as students who wanted to mesh their personal passions with their language skills. Each year I teach this class, I have no idea what they will choose to study, and each year I have 18+ independent projects that take flight (some more gracefully than others) over the 16 weeks we are together. And each year, I am amazed.

If I had to choose one project that I think would signified the importance of letting students choose their own goals, and pursue their own dreams, no matter how crazy it might seem, it might be the one I about to describe here.

Readers of LLU know that I am (some would say) a misguided Red Sox fan, but that this passion for baseball allowed me to open some doors for my students with the Cleveland Indians Front Office several years back.

This year, I had a student who was one of the starting pitchers for our college baseball team, who grew up in Arizona playing ball and speaking Spanish, and who had thoughts about a future where he could meld his knowledge of baseball and with his solid speaking skills in Spanish. This year as well, The Cleveland Indians also offered a long term contract extension to a young, promising, Venezuelan pitcher named Carlos Carrasco. For my student, meeting and speaking with Carrasco would be the ideal: the perfect marriage of his love of the sport, his proficiency in Spanish, and the requirement of pushing himself and his speaking abilities to a new level. The question was: could such an opportunity possibly happen again?

It could and it did…. Both the Indians management and  Carrasco made it happen. And similar to our Cabrera experience, the management and players were gracious, kind, and welcoming, and very understanding as each of us got tongue tied when we spoke. Like our first experience, the Indians Mgmt commented on how rare it was that someone would want to speak to the players in their home language vs the language they had to learn in order to play the game.

Here is a link to the write up the Indians’ writers did about our meetup.

In retrospect, sure,  the final outcome of this project was amazing because we got to meet a baseball superstar up close and personal. But this happened not just because I had some handy phone numbers, but because of the weeks of work my student did in preparation for this event…the letters he wrote to the Indians’ Front Office explaining his future goals, the hours/ the weeks of watching Spanish language MLB interviews and the hours of conversations he had with Venezuelans on campus and on the Mixxer about the topic of baseball.

Nor should it in any way diminish the importance or the learning or the  value of the other projects done by his classmates.  I plan to share some of their work with you soon as well.

My point is this: if you let your students dream, if you as a teacher get out of the way and give them the space in the curriculum to articulate what they want to be able to do in the language, and if you are willing to see your role not to control but to facilitate opportunities and possibilities…amazing things can and will happen with their language learning.

And this was one such example.

Series NavigationNotes I jotted to myself at the end of the term >>

Barbara has been working for a small liberal arts college in the cornfields of Ohio for about 15 years. In addition to teaching Spanish she runs a somewhat unconventional language center. Prior to this adventure 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 watch the Red Sox. Preferably not all at once, although that could be interesting. To see her online portfolio please click here!

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