Let the Wheel Decide

Yesterday I received my latest newsletter from Joshua Cabral, a World Language teacher in Massachusetts who operates the website World Language Classroom. In it, he talked about a website called Wheel Decide that lets you create free wheels of chance like the one you might see on the game show Wheel of Fortune or at a roulette table in a casino. For example, if you don’t know what to have for dinner, you may spin a wheel like the one below to choose what to eat that night.

I have nothing but respect for Joshua, who is a member of many professional language organizations and an engaging speaker and presenter. But, he is much more interested in getting students to speak in class than I am, so it came as no surprise to me that he suggested using Wheel Decide for student output activities. As a comprehensible input (CI) teacher, I am more concerned with input than with output, but the idea of using this wheel intrigued me as a way to inject some novelty into my classroom instruction. I have started implementing it in class in a few ways that you may find useful in your own classes.

In my classroom, I start off by talking about the day, date, and weather. Recently a French teacher colleague said on Twitter that she includes a discussion about the weather in a French-speaking country as part of her opening routine. I thought this could be a great way to talk about French-speaking countries and geography, and I decided to use this wheel to take this activity one step further in my French class this morning.

I created a wheel with the names of the capital of different French countries and overseas départements. Here’s what it looks like:

I started class today as I do normally by discussing the day, date and weather. Then I let a student come up to spin the wheel to choose which French-speaking region we would talk about. Today the wheel landed on Basse Terre, the capital of Guadeloupe. This city was unfamiliar to my students, so I showed them where it was on Google Maps (My students especially like using the Google Maps feature where you can drop the human figure found on the right into an area and get the street view). So as we talk about the day, date, and weather, we also can learn a bit about the French-speaking world without having to do a straight-up geography lesson.

I also like to do games on Fridays in my class, so I came up with a Wheel Decide to choose which (low/no prep) game to play that day (By the way, I get most of my game ideas from Keith Toda’s fantastic blog. Click on links under “Post Reading. Amy Marshall also has a ton of games on her blog, DMS Spanish. Look for “No/Low Output Games.”). Here’s what my wheel looks like:

Lastly, if you read my blog, you may remember that I don’t really like the unpredictability of Storyasking, since so often things can get out of control by students either shouting out inappropriate answers or not participating at all. Sometimes in class I use dry erase cubes when I ask a story, where I have students write possible ideas on the cubes which we roll to determine our answer. I am also planning on using Wheel Decide to help choose possible suggestions in class as well. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Using YouTube Videos in French and Spanish Class

A few years ago, I stumbled upon two great YouTube sites where native speakers tell stories intended for people wishing to learn Spanish or French. In Spanish class, my students and I watch videos on
Pablo Pankún Roman’s YouTube channel, which is called Dreaming Spanish. Students in my French class watch videos on the YouTube channel operated by Alice Ayel.

These channels are great because I can use them as a way for my students to receive input. I am not a native speaker of either French or Spanish, so listening to these videos is a great way for students to listen to native speakers (and in my Spanish classes, heritage learners get to hear a variation of Spanish that they don’t hear at home because Pablo is from Spain). I can slow down the video and add subtitles for my Novice Low learners, so they can be made comprehensible for students at all levels.

Alice organizes her videos by subject and by season (just like a TV series, she has Season 1, 2, and so on). Pablo, on the other hand, organizes his by language proficiency level. I must confess that I like having them sorted by level because it makes it easy for me to pick videos that will be comprehensible for my students based on their ability. If I’m in a hurry, I don’t need to preview his videos to see if it’s at an appropriate level for my students the way I have to for Alice’s videos.

In addition, both Alice and Pablo help learners acquire cultural knowledge of the French-speaking and Spanish-speaking worlds because they record videos about cultural products or practices. Holiday traditions are a popular topic on both channels. Alice will often record stories based on fables written by French author Jean de la Fontaine, and Pablo talks about Spanish history and important figures of Spanish and Latin American history on his.

At my school, all teachers are required to keep emergency lesson plans on file. Once I discovered these two YouTube channels, my plans became simple. In the event that I am absent unexpectedly, my students watch videos and write summaries on the videos they watch in English. I am careful to state in my plans that videos need to be a certain length. I also ask the substitute to monitor computer use to make sure that students don’t turn on English subtitles, which I am unable to control.

During class, watching a video and completing a task based on the video is a great warm-up activity. I have found that they have a calming effect, so I often will show a video when a class meets right after lunch or last period of the day. As they watch and write, my students begin to calm down and regain some of the focus they need to make it through the rest of the class without getting in trouble.

I use two different tasks when I show videos in class. Sometimes I have students write a summary in English, just like they do when I am absent unexpectedly. Then I grade the summary using a rubric based on the accuracy of their summaries and how many details they provide. As you might expect, my expectations change based on the proficiency level of my students. In September of my first-year class, students are able to meet the standard by accurately describing the general gist of the story told in the video. As the year goes on, students are required to give details to meet the standard. Since every student is different, I can differentiate and require my fast processors to do more to meet the standard and lower my expectations for my slow processors.

In my novice-level classes, I may give a multiple-choice quiz based on the video. Although I do use the quiz to assess interpretive listening skills (I know that students are starting to understand at an intermediate proficiency level if they can correctly answer a question that isn’t supported by a visual), I use them as scaffolding to help make the video more comprehensible. For example, Alice tells a story in one video about a woman who eats too many chestnuts. She draws brown circles that every one of my students assume is chocolate. So one of the questions on my quiz asks students to say how many chestnuts the woman eats. By seeing the word “chestnuts,” students then are able to figure out that those brown circles aren’t chestnuts. Similarly, many stories talk about objects people want, which is very hard to express visually. Students that aren’t familiar with that verb in French or Spanish might assume that the person in the video has that object, so the question “What does Marie want?” on a quiz goes a long way to make the video comprehensible.

A final activity that I do with these videos is ask students to comment in either French or Spanish on the YouTube channel. Usually this is an extra-credit assignment. My students are so excited when Alice or Pablo reply to their YouTube comment. I guess in a way they are celebrities in our class, but if that helps students acquire language, that’s great!

What’s In a Name?

For the first 20+ years of my teaching career (when I was a textbook-based, traditional drill and kill teacher), I always gave students a French or Spanish name when they entered my first-year language classes, which would stay with them throughout their second language study at our school. Recently, however, I have abandoned this practice. Reasons why are described below.

Over the years I’ve had more Pablos, Marías, Moniques, and Pierres than I can shake a stick at. Names were given on the first day of class, which was also when students made name tags with their new names on it. As my students and I went through our introductory classes together, I often would pick up a student’s name tag and use it during a pronunciation lesson or conversation about accent marks. It was great to talk about the Spanish pronunciation of the letter j, for example, and then go pick up the name tag of the kid who chose the name “José” to illustrate my point.

In addition, most of my students loved having a French or Spanish name. Some students would call each other by their Spanish or French name in other classes, and I enjoyed it when students came to my class and told me about how they accidentally wrote their Spanish or French name on a math test. I even had a few students confess that they did not know the real name of some of their classmates and knew them only by the name given to them in my class.

But over the years, I began to reevaluate this practice. First, I started noticing in Spanish class that I had boys fighting over the name “Jesús” just because they thought it was funny to be named after Christ. I also had multiple boys fighting over being called “Juan” so they could make puns like, “I’m Juan in a million.” Other boys wanted to be called “Pablo” in honor of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. Things were no better in French class, where my male students fought over the names with Arabic roots like “Habib” and the female students all wanted the name “Latifah.” I eventually realized that my naming practice was perpetuating negative stereotypes and inadvertently giving students permission to make fun of people from another culture.

In addition, one of my classroom goals was to have students realize that the language they were studying was real and alive, spoken my millions of people all over the globe (This is one of the reasons why the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) advocates using authentic resources in second language classrooms). I didn’t want them to think of Spanish or French as something artificial that they only used when in my classroom.

In his book While We’re On the Topic, Bill VanPatten is adamant that all language used in class be part of authentic communication. This is the reason why he doesn’t have students pretend to be in an airport or restaurant in his classes. By extension, how authentic and real can communication be when someone’s real name is Caleb but classmates are calling him Federico? Not very authentic at all, I think. Over time, it started to seem counterproductive to give students a false identity when I was spending so much time trying to promote the authenticity and the real-world value of studying a second language in my class.

These days, I don’t have nametags to help me illustrate pronunciation or accent usage. My students figure those things out anyway through frequent classroom use. Also, I call everyone in class his or her given name or nickname. If a student has a name that is 100% identical in English (our first language) and Spanish or French (like David in Spanish or Rose in French), I will pronounce that name with an appropriate French or Spanish accent. If students’ names have a Spanish or French translation, I share that with students (“Your name is Michael? In Spanish it would be “Miguel.”) but never address them with it. The boy in Spanish class named Matthew is never “Mateo,” and the girl in French class named Mary is never “Marie.” These days, I’m all about keeping it real! How about you?