An activity with task dependency: Apartment-hunting

Ideally activities in class often build upon each other, so that one activity is necessary for the next one to be carried out. In this way the activities in class are not just a string of unrelated tasks, but rather part of a larger, more holistic enterprise.

One of the activities I had students carry out was authentic in the sense that such a scenario and set of conversations could plausibly occur in real life. I divided my students into pairs. Half the pairs were to be business partners in real estate–agentes de inmobiliaria–here in New York. I gave them instructions similar to the following, using PowerPoint:

Ustedes tienen un apartamento en Manhattan que quieren alquilar. Describan el apartamento:

  • ¿Dónde está ubicado?
  • ¿Cómo es? Usen por lo menos [at least] cinco adjetivos y mencionen por lo menos cinco muebles o electrodomésticos y dónde están (ej. Tiene un sofá en la sala)
  • ¿Qué tipo de inquilinos [tenants] buscan?

The other half of the pairs were to be friends looking to live somewhere together in New York. I provided with a version of the following instructions:

Describan el apartamento que quieren:

  • ¿Dónde está ubicado?
  • ¿Qué tipo de apartamento quieren? ¿Qué cosas quieren, y dónde? Usen por lo menos [at least] cinco adjetivos y mencionen por lo menos cinco muebles o electrodomésticos y dónde los quieren (ej. Queremos un sofá en la sala)
  • ¿Qué tipo de compañeros buscan?

Students first consulted with each other to answers these questions. This task required collaboration and compromise, and effective communication was crucial for them to negotiate between each other’s imaginations and desires.

For the second part of this activity, I had the pairs meet up in groups of four–agents with prospective tenants. Agents needed to be able to describe the apartment they had to offer, and prospective tenants needed to be able to express what they were looking for. The students also gained practice formulating questions.

I had the pairs switch so that in the end all the prospective tenants had spoken with all the real estate agents. I then asked them to come to an agreement and tell me which apartment each pair of tenants was going to live in.

In this activity, each task was dependent upon the one before it. Not only that, but the key vocabulary and constructions of the chapter were used, as well as some from earlier in the course. Moreover, the activity was contextualized: my students were familiar with Manhattan, since they live here, and therefore were able to discuss things like area and location in relation to their real environment outside of class. The activity also provided an opportunity for students to interact and practice their oral and auditory skills with different people in the class, and in different configurations, for an extended period of time.


The Teacher-Student Interaction

“Interaction is the collaborative exchange of thoughts, feelings, or ideas between two or more people, resulting in a reciprocal effect on each other.”

–H. Douglas Brown, Teaching by Principles

As H. Douglas Brown points out in Teaching by Principles, interaction in class is not limited to the interaction that occurs between students. It also comprises the interactions between the teacher and her students. I like to think of my role as that of a facilitator and resource–although my role is fluid depending on the circumstances. This means that I do not simply talk at students; rather, I interact with them. Sometimes I interact with them as a group, and sometimes I interact with them individually. In each case the interaction often involves answering questions. I gauge how well I have taught certain concepts, and which ones I need to clarify further, based on the questions my students pose. In this way the class is not simply a curriculum that I impart; it is a more organic experience in which I provide students with tools and tailor the material and the way I teach it to the idiosyncrasies of the group.

I believe that as a teacher it is incredibly important to remember at all times that each student is unique and in many ways very different from the rest–in terms of background, education, learning styles, and more. It is of utmost importance to pay full attention to each student’s concerns, to look them in the eye so that they know you care. In the end, communication is something that happens between people, even though these days communication is often, if not most often, mediated by machines. If the ultimate goal of the class, which should be present throughout, is for students to learn to communicate in a second language (or third or fourth, as the case may be)–then this goal is also, really, about human connection. It is therefore imperative that the teacher establish a very real human connection between with her students, without sacrificing her authority. And since, interaction is a two-way street (as we can see in the quotation that begins this post), it is not only up to the teacher to establish and maintain this connection. The teacher can facilitate an environment that fosters student engagement, as I try to do, but the student, too, must possess some intrinsic motivation and care about connecting on some level with the teacher and his or her peers, in order to gain the maximum benefit from the class.

A cultural activity with grammar and listening practice: “¡Guadalajara, Guadalajara!”

My grandparents and a large portion of my family on my father’s side live in Guadalajara, Mexico. I wanted to share some of my enthusiasm for the city and Mexican culture with my students, so I had them listen to Vicente Fernández sing “Guadalajara” in typical mariachi style. I instructed them to listen carefully and write down all the words they knew. Since this was early in the semester of a beginning Spanish class, many could catch only a few words, and they all had to listen attentively.

Afterwards, I provided them with the lyrics in English and Spanish and had them identify the verbs they heard. We read the lyrics together and discussed the words they had identified and any other questions they had. Then I asked them which words they thought were verbs. This was how I introduced the subject of verb conjugations. Thus the grammar concepts were contextualized before I even taught the rules. Most of the verbs used in the song are conjugated in the present tense, the first tense I was teaching. In this way the grammar I was teaching and my students were learning was directly connected to the artistic and cultural context of the song, and students could see how it was put into use directly.


A cultural activity and practice of oral expression: “Caminante, no hay camino…”

While my students engage with great frequency in group or pair activities in which they interact verbally, it is also important that they deliver practiced oral presentations in order to hone pronunciation skills and practice truly harnessing and putting into action what I often call “the music of the language.” It is also important that students begin to feel comfortable expressing themselves in a foreign language in front of a (somewhat) large audience, because in real life outside of the classroom their interactions will surely be, at least at first, an experience that lies outside of their normal comfort zone.

In the beginning Spanish class I taught this semester, I asked students to collaborate in pairs or groups of three to create presentations to engage with cultural material. First I had them listen to Joan Manuel Serrat’s song Cantares in class, then I presented them with Antonio Machado’s poem Proverbios y Cantares XXIX, which appears in the song:

Caminante, son tus huellas

el camino y nada más.

Caminante, no hay camino,

se hace camino al andar.

Al andar, se hace camino

y al volver la vista atrás

se ve la senda que nunca

se ha de volver a pisar.

Caminante, no hay camino,

sino estelas en la mar.

Students at this point had learned to use “haber” versus “estar” in the first person (“hay” versus “está”), and in this poem they could see the use of “hay” in a cultural and literary context. “Mar” was also a vocabulary word that they could see here used in context.

Each group was then to gave a brief presentation during a later class on a topic related to the poem: a brief outline of Antonio Machado’s life, an analysis of the song, etc. In the preparation for the presentation, students were obliged to collaborate with each other and put their thoughts into coherent sentences before pronouncing them aloud. The exercise compelled them to use the knowledge they had gained in class and to link it to elements beyond the strictly linguistic in order to communicate. They used their nascent language abilities to engage with Spanish culture, history, and artistic production.



An Interactive Exercise: ¿Qué haces para Thanksgiving?

I would like to share an activity I used in a beginning-level Spanish class that fomented interaction between students while allowing them to put into practice specific grammatical constructions and vocabulary. The activity was such that each conversation was different, and yet each conversation practiced precisely the vocabulary and constructions pertinent to the day’s lesson plan.

After providing students with the necessary vocabulary and grammatical instruction, I put the following information on a PowerPoint slide for students to see what I would be doing for Thanksgiving:

  • Voy a ir a Providence para Thanksgiving. Voy a visitar a una amiga. Vamos a vernos por primera vez en varios meses. Vamos a cocinar pavo. 
  • Voy a salir el miércoles por la tarde y llegar por la noche. Voy a volver a Nueva York el sábado por la mañana.

I then asked the students to pair up and ask each other what they were doing for Thanksgiving. Again with the aide of a PowerPoint slide, I prompted them with questions to ask:

  • ¿A dónde vas?
  • ¿Cómo vas?
  • ¿Cuándo llegas?
  • ¿Qué vas a hacer?
  • ¿Qué vas a llevar?

Students were able to have conversations with each other about aspects of their real lives. In this way their was an authenticity to their interactions that transcended the decontextualized absurdity that can sometimes characterize “interactions” in a language classroom at the most basic level. As they conversed, they helped each other express themselves, and I offered myself as a resource as they asked grammatical questions. They were curious as to the answer because they were interested in communicating accurately the very specific and personal information they were trying to convey.

In this way students learned by doing. They learned, for example, to use the construction “Ir a + infinitive,” and to correctly incorporate the vocabulary of the chapter (such as tren, autobús, etc.) into their speech. They did all this through an activity that connected what they were learning in the language classroom to their own wider, current world beyond its walls.