Low-tech, high-interest

World Bank Photo Collection license
Sometimes a pencil and a partner are more effective teaching tools than the newest app or the sleekest device. I was reminded of this at ACTFL in San Antonio this past November, when I went to a session called Challenging Students: Learning Language Through Discovery. (There wasn't a handout per se, as far as I know, but you can access my notes here.) It was one of my favorite sessions, because the presenters used activities in Mandinka and Mandarin to show us how we, as students, could figure out language concepts on our own. The activities were engaging, memorable, fun and made me feel like I had achieved something. So of course I immediately began thinking of how I could integrate this into my classes.

The other session attendees had concluded that the keys to making language learning through discovery as follows (these are comments from people who attended the session):
  1. Don’t give students everything.
  2. Don’t ask for everything.
  3. Give them the precise information they need to figure it out.
  4. Make them work for it.
  5. Focus on what they can do, not what they can’t do.
  6. Teach students to find patterns.
  7. Trust that they can do it.
  8. Give them enough time.
In Spanish I, my students are learning how to talk about their school activities. I thought that schedules and time would be a good concept to try out "language learning through discovery." I made two versions of an activity--one for high school students and one for middle school students (see below). The high school version is a bit more complex and the middle school version is more scaffolded.

High School: El horario escolar
Middle School: El horario escolar 

I decided to make classic paper worksheets because, for paired work like this, paper and pencil are just easier and more straightforward than a computer.

First, we went over the schedule together as a class, reviewing simpler structures like "What is the student's name? What classes does he take?" so that all students were familiar with the schedule before tackling it on their own. We also took a brief but interesting detour through Euskera, the Basque language. Then students paired up to figure out how to say at what time they had certain classes. I circulated, of course, intervening when necessary. At the end, I passed the Koosh to elicit all students to tell at what time they had their second-favorite class (Spanish didn't count, ha ha). After that, students pair-shared about how their schedule compared to the Spanish one. 

The verdict?

Overall, success. It was very successful in the high school class: those periods are 50 minutes long, which was enough time to do this whole activity start to finish. There are some very strong students in that class this year, and that may have also contributed to how well the activity went. By the end of the period, everyone was able to describe their schedules.

In the middle school, students needed a bit more guidance. The class period is shorter--just 40 minutes--and given the slightly slower pace of those students, it wasn't quite enough time to get all of them describing their schedules in one period. But we finished the next day. In the future, I'd probably break that activity into two parts so that it would flow more smoothly over two periods.

I would definitely do this type of activity again. It's a great way to integrate authentic resources and create a more student-centered learning experience. And while it does require thoughtful planning, it involved very little technology: a nice break from screens for a period.