Sunday, March 20, 2016

When accuracy counts: Using a simple text, oral input, and student choice to improve output

At some point with intermediate level students, output becomes a little bit more important.  Not a lot. Just a little.

I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how best to teach a very easy novel with my faster-paced 8th grade students.  For reference, students with a "B" grade are more-or-less intermediate-low Spanish speakers/readers/learners and "A" students are intermediate-mid.  I knew I wanted them to experience an oral novel, read by a native speaker.  I knew I wanted them to do some self-directed activities that they could chose (within limits, of course).

I decided to create a series of 10 activities using resources from the Comprehensible Classroom's products, specifically the Independent Textivities and Discussion Questions.

Due to copyright concerns, I can't post the activities here.  However, I can discuss what I did and how (well) it worked!

The book: Brandon Brown Quiere un Perro

The Menu of Activities:  I gave the students a menu of 10 activities that they could choose from, plus one extra.  The activities were a mix of challenging and easy, in English and in Spanish. I intentionally included a couple of very easy activities with the knowledge that kids could select the activity that was best for them at that time.  I don't always offer a lot of choice in my classroom so this was one way to really put them in charge.  I did not use the format from the Comprehensible Classroom for a menu; I created my own and had the kids paste the activity directions on their paper.

Grading: I decided to grade on a very simple 1-4 scale:  4- Advanced, 3- Proficient, 2- Developing, 1-Emerging, 0- No Evidence.  Completeness of response, spelling, grammar, syntax, and legibility were considered.  However, students who didn't get a proficient score were encouraged and allowed to come in and re-do it.  Most did, and that gave me an opportunity to really spend individual time supporting them.

However, I also decided that since the text was very easy, they would be required to be accurate in their language.  Usually when I grade their freewrites I don't really consider accuracy in spelling and accents and I am forgiving about conjugations, articles, gender agreement, etc.  At least to a point.  But for this project, I upped the game.  Spelling, accents, punctuation, gender agreement, articles, etc. would count.  At first, they were very frustrated, but after about 2 weeks, they started turning in careful work that was accurate.  Some of them had to try three or four times, I admit, but since I rarely give homework, I felt ok about it.

The structure: Fridays were novel days.  I usually started class with a para empezar taken from the previous chapter's discussion questions or quiz questions, to review from the week prior. Then I'd put the audio book on, one chapter per week.  We'd listen to it once, then I'd offer the kids the option to hear me read it or to listen to it again by the narrator.  At first, they chose me to read.  After about the 4th week, they chose the narrator.  They took notes but didn't have to; they could use the paper copies of the book for their activities.  I usually lead a short discussion to make sure they understood key points, but the text is relatively simple so they didn't struggle too much with it.  Then they had about 15 minutes to start the work.  In those 15 minutes, I returned work and met individually with kids who needed extra support, or made appointments to follow up.  Then they had the weekend plus a school night to complete the activity they chose.

The payoff: When I asked the class if they felt the independent activities and novel study were valuable, they all agreed that it was.  They liked having the choices and gave me some feedback on what activities were more helpful vs. less helpful in terms of their learning.  Their overall accuracy in written language has improved a hundred fold, and their confidence in understanding seems to be greater.

The next steps: For the last trimester, I have about 9 weeks and 10 chapters of Nuevo Houdini, told in the past tense.  I am doing something similar but instead of 1 activity per chapter, I gave them a menu of 6 activities; they have to do 5 of them total, plus some on-line practice quizzes.

I want them to see the structures of past tense over and over and over again, so the quizzes are in Spanish, but open-book.  If they can't remember something, they can go back and read it again (and again) in the novel.

During class, I plan to use a similar format as before, but pay careful attention to their comprehension.  I started last week but I read the first chapter and asked lots and lots of comprehension questions along the way.  On a scale of 1-5, 5 being "I totally got this, SeƱora", they all rated their understanding as a 4 or 5.  So, I'm feeling good about it!

Looking ahead to next year, I think that I will probably use the same format again but do a different book for next year's 8th graders.  Maybe Esperanza?  Or maybe Agentes Secretos because it's so fun!

One other benefit for me that was totally unexpected: to have my first class on Fridays be led by an audio book was truly brilliant- a little bit of breathing room when I really needed an extra 10 minutes!  Knowing that they were still learning but giving myself a little break: priceless.  The students liked the routine of it too- on Fridays, they get stuffed animals, listen to someone read, then work independently.  Predictable and yet still interesting.  Win-win.

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