Sunday, January 26, 2020

Write & Discuss: Sometimes I win, sometimes I belly flop

I see a lot of discussion about a technique known as Write and Discuss, and I have to be honest here. I love the idea of it, but it pretty much always feels weird, boring, and sometimes downright painful when I do it in my classes.

So I have to ask myself: is that my perception?  I also know that going as slowly as I need to for comprehension and limiting my vocabulary for novices is also weird, boring, and sometimes downright painful. For me.  But is it for my kids? Should I do it anyway? Am I conflating entertainment with practices that support acquisition?  Can I do a better job at using it as a tool? (Well, duh, of course I can!)    

Here are a few thoughts about all of this.

1) Just because it is boring for me doesn't mean that it's not incredibly valuable and perhaps not boring for my learners.  (Going slowly and sheltering vocab is a great example. If you don't believe me, try taking a class in a language you don't know.  Learn to LOVE going slow.)   I'm not the one who needs to be engaged, right?  It's all about the learners (within reason, of course).  

2) If I think it is boring, and my students' body language seems to agree, maybe I can change it up.  Do it better.  

3) I know from my own experiences as a teacher and learner that it is an immensely powerful tool and can support acquisition in all kinds of ways.  When I first started playing around with it a couple of years ago, the difference in student writing was almost immediate- students were using a LOT more 1st person forms of verbs and using them much more accurately.  I was immensely pleased- especially because it was the only real change I made during that time of the year.   

OK, so, here goes my reflection on trying use it, do it better, and examining what did and didn't work.

In Spanish 1B, 8th grade, we are doing a ClipChat (aka MovieTalk) that is included in SOMOS 1, Unit 10.  It is a very, very silly video and nothing terribly exciting happens.  It is also in Spanish and uses a lot of unfamiliar and hard to understand language, so even though I keep the volume on, I rephrase pretty much every utterance, plus add descriptions and narration as we are watching it.  I *will* give the kids an embedded reading of this when we are done.  

After watching a few moments of it the day before, I decided to watch it again from the beginning on Wednesday's class, but pause to do a Write and Discuss to summarize what we had already seen.  

Here is where I got stuck: the physical layout of my classroom is such that I had the movie projected on my smartboard, and then did the write and discuss on a board off to the side.   I didn't think that I could manage switching between screens of the movie and a google doc, nor would I be able to pause the movie so we could describe (and write and discuss) what was on the screen.  

I did the (fairly) typical thing where I asked leading questions and students helped guide me to a sentence, then I added in more academic language (because that is one use of Write and Discuss, in my opinion).  This is what one class came up with:  

El cocinero está en el restaurante. Henry está en el restaurante porque tiene hambre. George está feliz y ríe cuando ve a Henry.  Henry quiere comer p. f. [patatas fritas] pero George no quiere que Henry coma p. f. porque George no tiene patatas.  Henry va a encontrar patatas.  Va a la tienda, pero Gabriela ya se acaba de patatas.  Ella recomienda que Henry vaya al mercado.  
The cook is in the restaurant. Henry is in the restaurant because he is hungry. George is happy and laughs when he sees Henry.  Henry wants to eat french fries, but George does not want that Henry eats french fries because George does not have potatoes.  Henry goes to find potatoes.  He goes to a shop, but Gabriela just ran out of potatoes. She recommends that he goes to the market.  
OK, so, that was pretty great. We re-watched a bit of the video, then added a sentence and discussed it, and the grammar focused kid asked a grammar question which I answered in 10 seconds or less, and all told, I feel like it was good input.

But oh, their body language, even with brain breaks, was devastating to me. They were lolling and wiggly and all the things that normally they are not.  So...success?   

I then did exactly the same thing with the next class- who are, as a group, a little quicker at everything, so we wrote almost twice as much in the same amount of time, and again...lolling and wiggles.  

Next up was my Spanish 2 honors class.  We have been working in SOMOS 1, unit 15, La Guerra Sucia, and I asked the open ended question: "What do you know about the Madres de la plaza de Mayo?" (In Spanish.) 

This time, I wrote directly on the smartboard (with whiteboard markers- they wipe off like magic!), and didn't have anything else projected.  

We co-created this text and talked about it for about 15 minutes, up until I had some students get up and act out something that I was describing (a kidnapping that we were going to read about in a few minutes) so they could visualize it before reading about it.  

Here is that text:  
Las madres es un grupo de mujeres quien no pueden encontrar a sus hijos.  El gobierno les dice que no puede ayudarles, pero las madres piensen que no es la verdad. El dictador de Argentina en 1976 no quería el socialismo. Los desapariciones ocurrieron durante esa época.  Los hijos- los desaparecidos-participaron en actividades socialistas.  Hoy en día, Las Madres protestan (marchan para conmemorar) en Buenos Aires. Llevan pañuelos que representan la inocencia de sus hijos.
The Mothers is a group of women that can not find their kids.  The government tells them that it can't help them, but the mothers think that is not the truth.  The dictator of Argentina in 1976 didn't want socialism.  The disappearances occurred during this time period.  The kids- the disappeared- participated in socialist activities.  Nowadays, the mothers protest (march to commemorate) en Buenos Aires, Argentina.  They wear handkerchiefs that represent the innocence of their children.
For the other classes, I felt like I was doing the heavy lifting. For this class, they we just telling me what to write, and I was adding some tweaks- like instead of "white scarf" I used "handkerchief".  We also had a rousing debate whether the government tells them or told  them, and the decided that since it was still happening, it should be present tense.  (There is some higher order thinking.)  

They were 100% engaged- all of them- and they were arguing about whether or not they should say that all the disappeared students were involved in socialist activities, but decided to let it lie.  (They asked later if we could change that as they learned new info, by the way.)  

So, what were the differences?  1) I was in front of them, not to the side. 2) They were super interested in this topic.  3) They had a lot more language and felt confident about using it.  

Hmmm....what can I learn from that? 

Finally, in my last class, 7th grade Honors Spanish 1, I decided to do a spontaneous Write and Discuss to summarize their answers to the question "Is it a good idea to talk about your personal problems on the internet?"  (This is a starter question from SOMOS 1, Unit 5.)

Based on what had worked in the last class, I decided to write on the smartboard at the center of the room.  I also kept it super short- bullet points rather than a connected paragraph.  

Here were our positives and negatives:  

+ Puedes ser anónimo.  Si usas Snapchat, los mensajes desaparecen (pero Snap. los conservan.)  Puedes conectar con muchas personas y recibir ayuda.

You can be anonymous.  If you use Snapchat, the messages disappear, but Snap keeps them.  You can connect with a lot of people and get help.

-Es posible que otra persona descubra tus palabras.  Son tus problemas personales, no son los problemas de todo el mundo. Personas antipáticas pueden usar tus palabras en contra de tí.
-It's possible that the other person discovers your words.  They are your personal problems, not the problems of the whole world.  Mean people can use your words against you.  

It went pretty well.  I think that keeping it short and bulletpointed actually worked very well for this class.  They struggled some with expressing what they wanted to say but we practiced some circumlocution skills and I helped them come up with the right words.

So, overall, I think that I want to do more Write and Discuss, and that I need to keep them focused on the central point in the room, and that if I can type them, it is probably better.  

Some other points made by my fantastic Professional Learning Community members (Bess Hayles and Andrea Schweitzer) when we were talking about Write and Discuss:

  • It is a great time to use written academic language that doesn't necessarily fall out of our teacher mouths during discussions.
  • It is especially great to use if the students are not going to see a text of the event (video clip picture talk, discussion, etc.) later so that they get some reading in.
  • Andrea Schweitzer pointed out that for her, when her instructor does it in Chinese at the end of class, she feels like her brain craves the part where all the talk comes together in a reading (this is totally my interpretation of her comment).  
  • Keeping it short- 5 minutes- seems to be ideal.
  • Sometimes kids also copy it, but it seems for most of us, we don't have the kids copy it. (Although I totally admit to using this as a bail out move a couple of times this fall with my Plan B class: "You guys can't handle anything else, so now we are copying off the board.")  

So there it is! Have a great week! Guess what I will be working on?  That's right! Write and Discuss!  

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