From struggling to stupendous

A brief confession: my intermediate class has been a great challenge this year.  It’s a course that was designed for non-native speakers, but the native speakers class was disbanded this year at my school.  In order to avoid putting native speakers in level 1 classes, we opted to put them in the intermediate class.  There were some benefits of this, but also some particular struggles.  Several students were amazing, and added a depth and richness to our class that I as a non-native speaker of Spanish just can’t do as well as they do.  However, there was also a vocal group who just wouldn’t get on board with almost anything I offered.  I tried student choice, differentiation, the carrot, the stick, humor, stricter structure, more flexibility… and they just were not having any of it.  The lone exception:  El Internado.

I’ve written about how we use El Internado in class here and here and here, and have another post coming soon as a result of a fruitful collaboration with Kara Jacobs.  El Internado has been so captivating that that even the “I don’t want to do this-ers” couldn’t resist all the time.  But using El Internado is not as simple as “just watch a tv show in Spanish”-it’s a tool to teach the language.  We watched about 2/3 of season 1 this semester, and it formed the basis for the oral final exam that we took today.

One of the many things I’ve learned from Amy Lenord has been the Conversation Circle. In a nutshell, it’s a great framework for setting students up to sustain a TL conversation about any topic you should choose.  We have done them in class several times, and I’ve used it as my final oral exam for intermediate classes for a few years.  This year’s topic:  El Internado.  Students were encouraged to create conversation-stimulating questions in advance of today’s assessment and to bring those questions with them.  That’s it–no other notes, no other preparation.

Today in class, I divided the students into three groups of roughly similar skill level, and took one group at a time out in the hall.  There we reviewed the ground rules:

  1. I am there as an observer, not a resource.
  2. The assessment is a conversation, not an interrogation.  Rejoinders and agreement/disagreement are highly encouraged.
  3. Anyone can ask questions, and everyone can answer.
  4. All in Spanish.
  5. Help each other as needed.

Then I set the timer and asked one of the quieter students to start with one of his questions in order to make sure that he got a chance to have a voice.  Then I just sat back and watched.  It was hard not to help them, and also to not ask follow up questions, but you know what?  They didn’t need me to help them.  Once they got over their initial nervousness, they were so captivated by the topic and task that they forgot that this was the final exam.  They forgot that Spanish is hard.  They forgot their “I can’t do its” and just did it.  They negotiated unfamiliar vocabulary.  They shared their opinions.  They disagreed with each other.  They made predictions.  They made mistakes.  But most of all: they communicated with original thoughts in a real-life scenario for over 10 minutes without notes, dictionaries, or apps–even for the non-native speakers.  I assessed their overall performance on our performance rubric in order to assign the requisite grade.

And then the magic happened:  when the timer sounded, they were disappointed that it was over.  That’s right–they wanted their exam to go on longer!  They were eager to share, and had so much more that they wanted to say, that we could have gone on for twice the allotted time.  To tell the truth, I would have like to have let it go longer too, but we were out of time.  I am so proud of them!

And this reminds me why I stuck it out through the rough times: just when you have about had it, they will surprise you.  Conversation circles are one of the best tools in my toolbox.  Are they in yours?

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2 thoughts on “From struggling to stupendous

  1. Interesting about the conversation circle. I’ve never done that before. I’ve had students get in a circle and I give them cards with pre-written questions on it, but I love that the students generate the questions and then lead the activity. Thanks for posting this.

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