Anti-Homework

Photo credit: Daniel Go license
When I was an impressionable newbie teacher, a world language educator I highly respect told me that students needed daily homework in order to facilitate language acquisition. For years, I would assign homework out of workbooks (fill in the blank, choose the right word, matching, multiple choice, crosswords, word searches, ad infinitum) because I truly believed that those assignments helped students learn the language.

Can you guess where this is going?


Not everyone would do the homework. Not necessarily because they were lazy or didn't care. Sometimes people didn't understand, or missed class, or forgot to write down the assignment, or wrote down the wrong assignment. Some students were over-worked or over-scheduled and just didn't have time to do it.

Then there was the grading thing. Because we reviewed the previous night's homework in class, students could never "make up" a missed homework grade. And then sometimes people would do the homework carelessly just to get the credit, but they wouldn't actually learn anything. It became a headache to keep track of all those homework grades, and sometimes it seemed like the only thing we did in class was review homework. I'd like to say that I was moved by research to abandon daily homework, but honestly, I was mainly sick of the grading and record-keeping hassle.

(Speaking of research, there are many resources that debate the value of homework. I recommend Cathy Vatterott's book, Rethinking Homework, as well as her website. Obviously, Alfie Kohn's stance on The Homework Myth is essential reading as well. I find Daniel Pink's Drive highly applicable to understanding motivation for learning. As for the value of daily homework in language acquisition, it's only worthwhile if the student is interested and if the activity is sufficiently challenging--but not overly challenging.)

With the help of #langchat and my PLN, I found other world language educators who had addressed the homework issue in unique but sensible ways:
Musicuentos: Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell, many thought-provoking posts on homework
Creative Language Class: Kara Parker and Megan Smith, Real World Homework
Aventuras Nuevas: Bethanie Carlson Drew, resources from a recent ACTFL session on homework choice
Sra. Spanglish: Laura Sexton, More Music! More ways to seek culture outside of class

Eventually, about three years ago, I came up with a system that works for me and my students. I call them "Fluency Activities." I modified and expanded the list from Musicuentos, and, after some tweaking, added reflection questions and a rubric. I wish I could link directly to my course website, but it's on Moodle and password-protected. At the bottom of page is the assignment description and list as it currently stands (I need to add more options, especially since my students live in or near New York City and there are so many options for absorbing culture). Below is a screenshot of the Moodle rubric I designed.


(A word about my system: I ended up separating fluency activities from other assignments. They have their own category in my grading system, and homework/classwork has its own category. Homework tends to be "flipped" style--short screencasts on grammar points, with comprehension questions--or brief formative writing/speaking assessments, assigned just once or twice a week maximum.)

Bottom line: Students love fluency activities. They love being able to exercise choice. They love listening to music, watching TV or seeing movies as "homework." They love experiencing the language as native speakers experience it. It's the anti-homework. Students like to do it because it's not boring, they get to choose what they do, and it's applicable in the real world--none of which is true of the homework I was assigning before. 

Over time, my students have learned to reflect meaningfully on their own language learning process. They ask questions about how and why phrases have been translated a certain way; they ask questions about how and why language may be used in a way that they don't quite grasp yet; they become aware of what they already know, and are motivated to understand what they don't know. They have also become pretty astute observers of culture. Here are some of their questions/observations: 

"I do not always hear people speaking fluent spanish in my everyday life and it was helpful to hear how sentences and phrases are put together by native speakers."
"I feel that this activity is all about new vocabulary and new understanding." 
"I have learned that Hispanic dancers... value dance the same way that I do." 
"It seems that the translated phrase in Spanish wasn't the same phrase as in English; how come?"
"Does [insert cultural product or practice] happen the same way in [insert place]?"

One student who's really into developing software and apps even created a game in Spanish for his classmates to play. It's called "Flappy Pablito", based on "Flappy Bird", and named for a stuffed turtle I use in class. You can play it here. Needless to say, something this creative and interesting would never have come about if this student had to do worksheets for homework. 

So far, I've assigned fluency activities in Spanish II, III, IV and AP. I'm thinking that I can even bring it to Spanish I in the second semester with a little thoughtful trimming of the activity list.

If you're a world language teacher, what kinds of free-choice activities do you offer to your students? And if you teach another subject area, how do you incorporate free-choice homework? Let me know in the comments!


Fluency Activities
The best way to learn a foreign language is not by memorizing vocabulary or drilling verb tenses. It's by immersing yourself in the language and reflecting on what you can understand and what you don't know yet. The most valuable assets in becoming fluent are TIME (lots of time spent interpreting and producing the language) and INTEREST (pursuing things that are interesting to you in the foreign language so that you build up a vocabulary that makes sense in your life). In order to develop your fluency independently, you'll be asked to complete these Fluency Activities periodically. 
Assignment. Do one of the following activities. Make sure you get evidence of completing the activity -- take a screenshot or picture, give “works cited” type of information about the source you used, or record yourself, depending on what makes the most sense in the activity. Then:
  • Identify 5 new words or phrases in Spanish that you learned and provide the meanings in English AND
  • Describe the use of a grammar point that you understood (such as a command, the use of preterite or imperfect, etc.) OR
  • Explain what you have learned about Hispanic cultures by doing the activity.
Finally, write a reflection about your experience. This can be in English or Spanish, your choice. (If you choose to write in Spanish, please follow the Translator/Dictionary guidelines.) Answer these questions completely and honestly:
  • What did you do?
  • What did you like about this activity?
  • What did you find challenging? How did you address the challenge?
  • Would you recommend this activity to a friend who is learning Spanish? Why or why not?
  • Write at least two questions that occurred to you during this activity or as you wrote your reflection. You don't need to answer them. 
Your total writing should be about a paragraph (7-10 sentences).
Submit the evidence, the 5 words/phrases, grammar use or cultural understanding, and the reflection. You can upload a document to Moodle or type your text directly into Moodle (and upload the photo if you have one).
List of Activities
If you have a suggestion for an activity, let me know!
Language
  • Use Duolingo to practice Spanish 10 minutes a day for 7 days.
  • Change the language on your cell phone to Spanish for 7 days.
  • Listen to one or several podcasts in Spanish for a total of 20 minutes (such as Coffee Break Spanish or Notes in Spanish).
  • Change the language on your most-used social media site (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc) to Spanish for 7 days.
  • Call the Denver Story Line (720.865.8500) and choose option 5 to listen to a story in Spanish. Write a 1-2 sentence summary of the story. 
  • Create a game to test/practice Spanish grammar or vocab by writing code. It's easy. Use this website to learn how to do it. 
  • Participate in #spanstuchat on Twitter on the first and third Tuesday of every month from 9-10 p.m. It's a chat in Spanish by and for Spanish students. Use tweetchat.com to make sure you include the hashtag in your conversation!
Music
  • Listen to Spanish-language music for 20 minutes. Try stations on Pandora, Songza, Spotify, iTunes Radio, Rdio, etc. 
  • Find a Spanish-language musician (someone who does NOT have a top 40 song or is NOT well-known in the U.S.) and listen to 3 of their songs on YouTube, iTunes, Spotify (et al). Google the lyrics to improve your comprehension. 
Film & TV
  • Watch a Spanish-language movie. There are many options available on Netflix. You can also borrow a DVD from Mrs. Matheson, or watch one in the movie theater. Pay attention to the ratings! Please don't watch something that is not appropriate for your age. 
  • Watch your favorite movie, but switch the language to Spanish, either with dubbing or subtitles. This can usually be done on the "Settings" section of the DVD menu. 
  • Watch a Spanish-language TV show (25 minutes or longer). If you have digital cable or satellite, you should be able to find several Spanish-language channels. You can also find YouTube channels of major networks (Telemundo Novelas, for example). 
  • Watch a Spanish-language news program for 25 minutes or more. Find a Spanish-language channel on digital cable or satellite. Or try the websites of Univisión, Telemundo, CNN en español, Televisión Española, or BBC Mundo. You could also view a series of videoclips adding up to 25 minutes.
  • Watch a YouTube tutorial in Spanish on a topic of your interest (10 minutes or more). You can find tutorials in Spanish by searching for "tutoría" and then the topic in Spanish, such as "baile", "maquillaje," or "guitarra".
  • Watch a soccer game (or other sport) in Spanish.
Reading
  • Read news in Spanish online for 20 minutes. Try BBC Mundo or CNN en español or Nulu, which is a site specifically designed for language learners. You can use Lingro to make the words on the site clickable to help your comprehension.
  • Find a trending topic (#topic) in Spanish on Twitter and read the most recent 50 tweets. You can use a tool like Trendsmap to find trending tweets around the world. You don't need to have a Twitter account to do this. (NOTE: This material is not filtered, so beware of inappropriate messages and images.)
  • Follow three famous Spanish speakers on Twitter. Performers are usually a good place to start (musicians, dancers, actors, film directors or athletes). Make sure that they actually tweet in Spanish before you follow them. 
  • Read a novel, story, or collection of poems in Spanish for 20 minutes. To find these, you can borrow a book from Mrs. Matheson, check out a book from the school library or your local library, or download free samples of Spanish-language books to your e-reader (Kindle, iPad, Nook etc.). A good starting place would be to read your favorite book in translation. 
  • Read five comic strips in Spanish. Find them here
  • Read the directions in Spanish for 7 household items and compare them to the English (shampoo, detergent, small appliances, etc). 
  • Find and prepare a recipe in Spanish from a site such as Qué Rica Vida. With prior approval, you can bring in your dish to Spanish class to share with your classmates.
  • Take pictures of ads in Spanish that you see around the city (subways and bus stops are particularly rich sources). Take pictures of at least 5 ads.
  • Find and follow Instagrammers in Spain and Latin America. You can do this by searching for #país (#argentina, #peru, #colombia, etc.). Please be sure to preview a user's profile before you follow them to make sure that they do not post inappropriate content. One good Instagrammer is @igersperu. 
Speaking & Writing
  • Talk with a native speaker in Spanish for at least 5 minutes. There are many native speakers at PCS!
  • Chat with a friend via Facebook, text, Twitter or other messaging medium. The communication should have a minimum of 5 exchanges (5 sent messages per participant). 
  • Practice pronunciation. Use the Pronunciation Guide at Study Spanish and click on the topics on the left side toolbar. You should complete 10 topics. It's best to start at the beginning.
  • Go to an authentic Hispanic restaurant. A good test to ensure that the restaurant is authentic is to see if they have Spanish-only menus. Order and pay for your meal in Spanish. You may have to explain yourself to the server. There are many, many restaurants in Washington Heights and other neighborhoods.

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