3 Ideas to Weave PBL into World Language Classes

In a recent post, I mentioned how, despite my teacher licensure stating so, I’m really not a true expert in any sense of the word in anything other than teaching and learning. Expert Teacher? Expert in what, exactly?

Yet, because I do a lot of work in helping teachers and administrators figure out how to do better teaching and learning in their schools and classrooms, I’m often asked to give advice and on-the-spot examples for how to improve the engagement and authentic work (PBL) in variety of classes. I’ve been quizzed this way for social studies (whew, I can do that), to Algebra II (getting rougher there), to Woodshop (seriously, I’ve been asked that–more than once) to world languages.

Yes, world languages.Totally outside my realm of expertise, experience, and often, comprehension.

First off, I’m American. Always have been. Most days, I’m fairly fluent when speaking several dialects of my one language, American English. I can, at times, default to a few sentences in Spanish, where my reading is MUCH better than my speaking. And I can pick out a few key words/phrases in about 5 other languages well enough to become a sure-thing 1st victim in a Hostel movie.

What is true is that I’m probably the last person to give any sort of advice on the details of learning a world language. However, I’ve been asked this question many times. So I fall back on what I know…how to learn.

How do people usually learn languages if they’re not in a classroom or sitting at a Rosetta Stone-enabled computer? I’m assuming it’s happened a couple of times through history, right? I’m guessing they learn by doing. They learn by experiencing. And they learn a lot by wanting, nay, by needing to know how to communicate. When put into a nice, non-panicked level of need and provided even the most rudimentary of resources, people often learn quickly the words and phrases they need to be able to communicate.

(Incidentally, I believe that too much panic and people’s brains will shut down instead of working hard to figure out the communication, so we might need to have more “want to” type of pull-learning than “omigosh I’m gonna die” type of push-learning environment)

So that quick learning gets them through that moment. But that’s not ingrained learning. We need something more.

I believe that in every world language course, we might put down the grammar book and the conjugation charts and instead, drop challenges that are fun, medium-level stakes, and do not require memorized scripts.
“Hola, señorita. Como esta? Muy bien. Y tu? Donde esta la biblioteca?” Yep. Memorized script, from nearly 25 years ago. Pretty much 100% useless in my work with Spanish-speakers and 500% useless with Chinese speakers, I found out recently.

So what should we do? All I can say is that I think Richland School District Two’s (South Carolina) world language program is on the right path. They are using a tool called Operation LAPIS for their Latin classes. From the LAPIS website:

Operation LAPIS is a two-year game-based (practomimetic) introductory course in the Latin language and in Roman culture. It may be employed on its own, or as a supplement to other materials; programs and teachers may experiment with it as a supplement and then easily transition to using Operation LAPIS in place of a traditional textbook. tweet

What I noticed on this teacher’s blog post is that they’re no longer guided by the textbook (which isn’t curriculum anyway) and that her kids are actually busy using the language to communicate. Win!

Yes. Game-based challenges are interesting to kids. Heck, challenges are interesting to kids. Truth. And it’s also truth software costs money that most of us don’t have. It’s good if you can get it. But if you can’t, I don’t think you’re out of lives. (lives = luck You see, “lives” is a gaming-joke. See what I did there?)

If I was in charge of a world languages revamp, I have 3 big ideas we start with.

  1. We might start with one challenge per semester (or one per quarter, if it’s a semester-long class). We’d awaken our creativity, consider the locations that use this language, consider the current events and culture of that location, and create a real-to-life challenge the kids would have to solve. It would take about 3 hours to complete. It can be related to holidays, sure. It can be related to war or strife where lives are at stake. If we can toss in challenge for a Skype or Google Hangout with someone from that location, so much the better!
  2. Maybe the first time, we create the challenge for the students to solve. But there’s only so much energy we can spend revamping a class! So then maybe once the kids have some practice with our challenge, the next time, our students split up and create challenges (and example solutions) for other students — that we can then choose to polish up and use in subsequent years! Help them to incorporate elements into their challenges like having to write in a scholarly fashion. Help them to incorporate elements that use the vernacular of that location. Put some high-stakes to the situation.
  3. Lastly, we might try to find ways to make the challenges relevant to the students’ age groups. What are other kids/tweens/teens in that country doing right now? How are we similar? And how is our communication different?

Unfortunately, for those teachers looking to me for help, I’m unable to write the specific curriculum, since I am an American English speaker. But I’m truly excited to help you learn some elements that create engaging challenges. Then you can add in the language and cultural aspects. If you’re interested in that, please let me know! I’ll have lots of questions!

And if you are a world languages teacher, please let me know how off-track I am with these thoughts. I get these questions on a near-monthly basis and would appreciate any insight I can offer these teachers who are so hungry to do the right thing for their kids.

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Written by GingerLewman

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