We are in the midst of one of my favorite novice units: “Back in the Day”. This southern expression so neatly sums up our entire unit and at the same time helps to solidify the notion of the imperfect tense. I wrote last year about using student choice in this unit, and I see that the topic is coming up for several teachers around my twitter world. I’ve kept most of the ideas from last year’s topics, but have added a few others.
The first thing: I polled the students using a Google form to find out their favorites, interests, etc. from when they were kids. There is enough of an age difference between me and them that I would rarely guess their choices well if I had to do so. I use their choices to create a personalized vocab bank that we will use throughout the unit.
The second thing that I did differently was to introduce the concept of the imperfect v. present tense by talking about Barcelona before and after the Olympics. Students had just finished a unit about making plans & going places around town, so this was a reasonably smooth segue. Using Neil Jones’ materials here, we spent a fair amount of time describing places and flipping back and forth between tiene/tenía, es/era, and hay/había while talking about the city. We also watched the Rick Steves video on Barcelona, 60 Minutes clip on Sagrada Familia (see it here), and this cool overview of the city. While these videos are in English, I feel they are worth using to create an experience for the students. They might not care about Barcelona before we talk about it, but after viewing these videos, they all have an informed opinion on what they’d like to see and where they’d like to go if they ever get the chance to do so–and can express those ideas intelligently and in Spanish. Once we had those three structures down, it was time to move on to…
…the “Hot Seat”. I’ve used this in previous years, and it serves a key role in this unit. Students receive a list of several questions (in this case, 12) that cover the range of topics within the unit. They have a week to prepare their answers, and then I start calling them up, one by one, to answer all the questions from the list, but in a scrambled order. This requires them to hear and interpret the question, and provide an appropriate, meaningful answer. They are scored on a 0-5 scale based mostly on comprehensibility/complexity, but with an eye toward accuracy too. While this may seem forced, I feel that it is in line with the notion that novice speakers are still primarily using formulaic answers, but that I’m trying to get them to dip their toes in the intermediate pool by adding details and expanding on their responses.
In the week between announcing the assignment and beginning to call names, important work takes place. The questions themselves form a version of PQA, so we will practice with the questions in the context of asking each other about our childhood. We work with 4 Corners activities that help to support answering the questions, and we use the questions for speed dating. We set aside a chunk of time each day to work directly on the questions, and students are encouraged to ask any & all questions that they have. It’s amazing the motivation that emerges upon knowing that you will be interviewed in front of your class! We work on sentence assembly and how to add details–all things that we’ve been working on, but that have new energy behind them. At the end of “prep week”, we coupled two ideas: chat stations and peer feedback (document here). I set up stations, each with one of the questions from Hot Seat on it. Students worked in pairs to go to the stations and answer the questions. As they did so, they completed the feedback sheet for their partner, checking off the elements of the partner’s response that they heard.
Afterward we returned to the classroom and each student wrote feedback for his partner under the headings “what went well” and “even better if”. Then they had a brief paired conference where they shared their feedback with one another. I was so proud of what I heard! Students were telling each other honest, proficiency based feedback (“you need more details for #3) that mimicked what I would have told them, but they recognized it in each other’s work. This is learning gold in my book! Students kept their own feedback in order to help them improve before tomorrow when the Hot Seat wheel might just call their names!
One subtle, but key effect of Hot Seat is that it has been an activity that encourages students to try. They know that there are no surprises, and they don’t want to look bad in front of their peers, so they are motivated to at least attempt the work. This is a big deal at this point in the year–the sun is out, pools open next week, we are in the countdown at school to the end of the year, and our school is in major upheaval about a transition that faces us in June. Kids who might be tempted to give up are actually given another chance because the content is new to everyone, so we are on a (more) even playing field again. By building in extensive help opportunities and starting small with era, había, & tenía, we have actually convinced kids that this stuff isn’t hard… and they are trying. Kids who haven’t darkened the extra help door all year have actually come in at lunch to have their work edited. I’ll take that any day!