Once again this semester I asked my students to do self directed and self-graded projects as part of my conversation course. These projects require my students to answer the question: what personal language goals or outcomes do you want to achieve, within a specific context or about a specific topic, for the end of the term?
Readers of LLU know that I chafe at projects that have goals like “mastery of the preterite and the imperfect” or “finally figure out how to use the imperfect subjunctive.” In my mind to think about grammatical forms without considering the conversational context into which they are used defeats the purpose of the project. Also language isn’t like other subjects where if you master one form then the next one automatically falls into place. There is a lot of cycling forward and cycling backwards in language learning…it’s evolutionary. It’s slow. Language is social and it is contextual and acquisition evolves based upon the ways it is used and with whom it is used. Personally I think the whole idea of mastery in a language is problematic… there is always more to learn in a language (even in my home language). But I will save that for future blog posts.
This semester, I tried to do things a bit differently and more efficiently.
Over the years I have found that the process of defining a project takes my students many weeks. And many times that is lost time, time that could have been better spent working towards goals vs crafting goals. So this year I made my course “consent only” (students had to ask for my approval to register) and the consent was given if they could tell me, in 100 words or less, what they wanted their personal project to be for this class.
Some students fell by the wayside immediately (as in, they never submitted anything). Perhaps this was -not- what they wanted to be doing in a Conversation class. So be it. But those that did write something did so thoughtfully and even passionately. The ideas ranged from being able to talk about baseball in the Dominican Republic (because the student plays on our Varsity team and is working a t a youth baseball camp in the DR this summer), to preparing for an interview to be a bilingual medical scribe, to attending a Filmmaker’s Workshop in Mexico, to helping first generation Latinx students (and their parents) navigate FAFSA in Spanish. And once they were “consented” into my course, they were encouraged to begin to identify resources, make plans etc in order to jump into action once the semester began. For many of them by the time of our first meeting they were well underway.
The second change I made was to ask students to create project benchmarks based on the NCSSFL-ACTFL Can-Do statements
If you are not familiar with these standards, no worries, you are not alone. Try as ACTFL and others might, our textbooks and technologies often give nothing more than lip service to them. The idea is pretty simple: take the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines and put them in the hands of the students. Instead of me as the teacher telling my students what they can or will be able to do, they tell me what they can do. And in the case of my class, what they want to be able to do in the language regarding their project before the end of the semester.
Below is how I presented the assignment to the students, as well as example of what a project might look like. The items on the left are the goals, and students were asked to chart when they began to work towards those goals, when they felt like they were gaining control of those skills, and by what date they felt they had achieved secure mastery.
I would check in with students periodically during the semester and ask them to complete their grids at certain times of the year. I also asked them to self-assess based upon their progress at the midterm mark. You might think that, given the opportunity, everyone would give herself an A. In actuality, I had many C’s and B-‘s. The reason: they realized how much work there was to be done, and that they needed to apply more time and energy consistently over time to make that happen. It was not, as one student told me, like writing a paper or taking a test where you cram and get it done and hand it in and then it’s over. The personal project for HISP 303 was slow, methodical, gradual… it took time and patience and perseverance. And unlike a paper or an exam…language acquisition is never, ever truly over. There is always more to learn and say and do in the language.
I invite you to take a look at the pdf and let me know your thoughts. This is the last time I am teaching this course where I currently teach (see this post for more details) so I welcome comments, suggestion and ideas that I can use to make this course even better when I teach it in the near future at another school.