Dr. Baros is a dedicated researcher, educator, and LGBTQ advocate. Her areas of expertise are proficiency-based language teaching and creating inclusive environments for LGBTQ students and people.
Well, I learned a lot about Genius Hour this year. Being a first-year teacher, I learned more about what works for me and what doesn't. I also got a lot of honest feedback from students. In all, I love the idea of Genius Hour, but it's going to look very different next year.
My goal for Genius Hour was for students to explore culture. I made a decision to focus on Spanish language proficiency during the first four days of the week, and then allow students to explore culture on the fifth. I felt that the Genius Hour experience would be hindered if I required students with minimal Spanish skill to try and complete their project in Spanish. Thus, the tie-in to my subject was through a focus on culture.
Our Genius Hour experience was primarily split into two parts. During first semester, I tried to promote learning a little about a lot of topics. I gave students a list of 10 categories of cultural topics ranging from Art and Food to Economics and Government. By the end of the semester, students needed 15 blog posts - one in each category plus five on any cultural topic they wanted. I gave them a format for the blog posts that required them to include their resource and a paragraph describing what they learned and why they researched it.
Second semester, student chose one topic and then completed a project about that topic. They had to create something to display about their topic (I purposely left this vague to see what they came up with) and attend a "Genius Hour Fair" where everyone displayed their product and filled out a worksheet about other students' projects. Their final for the year was to turn in a portfolio that included their initial proposal, a 1-page "What is culture?" paper, a 2-page reflection paper about their experience, a Spanish-English dictionary that listed the key terms of their topic in Spanish and English, and an annotated bibliography.
Genius Hour next year is going to look very different than Genius Hour this year for a few reasons. During my first year teaching, I identified a few things that I need to address and fine tune a bit more before I'm ready to take on Genius Hour in the same way again: Spanish proficiency and Structure. I felt that I was lacking in these areas last year, and Genius Hour was when it showed the most. However, while re-structuring my curriculum and teaching this summer, Genius Hour emerged in a whole new way that I didn't expect.
Reading is a fundamental element of developing language proficiency. In my quest to pack as much comprehensible Spanish input into my class as possible, I set aside a daily free-choice reading period for students. However, I needed a way to hold students accountable for their reading and to check that they're getting out of it what they should be. I added a reading journal, where students identified what they read and included a brief summary as well as a list of words they came across that they didn't know (note to self - I just had the idea of adding in a "rating" for each entry, indicating how students feel about reading that day). Then, while deciding the format of my final, I decided to use that daily reading as the source for a book report and presentation, which allowed me to assess speaking, something that can be tricky in a Comprehensible Input-based classroom. My main objective was simply to translate their reading into a somewhat painless writing and speaking assessment, but I decided to include a "product" of their choice that could represent their book as well as help remind them of what they wanted to talk about during their 1-2 minute presentation to the class.
In my push for more comprehensible input and Spanish instruction, I was a bit sad that I was eliminating Genius Hour, but felt this was needed and that I would be much more successful with my instruction and meeting my responsibilities with my new curriculum plan. Then it occurred to me... Isn't this reading project just another form of Genius Hour? I'm requiring that they read... but they're welcome to read anything they want to, create a project that represents their learning, and presenting it. All the elements are there, PLUS it's all in Spanish! I feel like I've found my silver bullet and am quite pleased with myself. Because of some of the attitudes toward "Genius Hour" from last year, I won't be calling it that this year (at least not in front of my students). However, the fundamental elements are all there and I am so excited to capitalized on this experience again!
Now that I have a better idea of what I'm in for this fall when it comes to Genius Hour and 20 Time, I've started thinking about how I'm going to connect it to my curriculum. There are two main areas that Genius Hour can (and should) be connected to in a Foreign Language class: culture and language.
NOTE: A special "thank you" to Denise Krebs and Señorita Barragan for helping me form and articulate my ideas for this post.
Through my experience with my Latino Culture class, I have a number of ideas for how to connect their projects to culture. We spent the entire first week answering the question "What is culture?" and, on the last day, I presented to them the statement: "Culture is us." We discussed what this meant, which is essentially that we shape the world around us and it shapes us through culture. Everything can be looked at as an element or product of culture. Thus, whatever they research should, in some way, have a connection to culture.
This may be an explicit connection. For example, one of my students is researching NFL stats and how they are computed and used to make predictions. This is obviously a huge part of American culture. However, other topics might not be so clearly connected to culture, such as how a cell phone is made. In this case, I would encourage the student to research the effects that cell phones have had on our culture. Some topics may even have clearer connections with cultures other than the student's own, such as the belief in the Illuminati. Of course, in any of these cases, the investigation of cultural implications could be taken deeper as students compare one culture to another.
Since we're somewhat limited in our resources during my Latino Culture class, I'm just going to ask my students to make a connection to culture and write a brief, 100-word explanation about that connection. During my regular academic classes, though, I plan to go much deeper. While I still plan to allow students to focus on whichever topic they desire, I think I will devote an specific portion of the project and part of my rubric to connecting their topic with culture. This won't be the main goal, but will supplement their other activities. I believe that asking my students to investigate cultural implications of their topic will expand the way that they think about their topic, including considering why it is important, who it is important to, how it will affect them. I haven't decided how students will present this information, but I imagine that it will likely be in the form of a short essay (two pages) and a component of their final presentation.
This is a bit trickier. I believe in using Comprehensible Input (CI) for language acquisition - in other words, rather than teaching about the language (grammar and vocabulary lists) or straight immersion that is oftentimes over their heads, we focus on actually using the language at a level they're ready for through the TPRS method of language instruction. Unfortunately, even I would struggle to research my passions effectively if I was required to do so in Spanish. In addition, if I were asked to talk about my passions in Spanish, I would fail to express myself freely and effectively and would end up frustrated and discouraged. With limited language abilities, asking students to engage in Genius Hour at any level using their second language would be just that: limited (if anything!). This is definitely not how I want my students to feel about their Genius Hour experience. In particular, let me expand on my thoughts about presenting in Spanish a bit more with an excerpt from a conversation I had with Denise Krebs:
It would be extremely difficult and counterproductive for students to attempt to share their learning in Spanish for a few reasons. First and foremost is fluency - given the in-depth and unique nature of each students' learning, they will likely acquire new vocabulary even in English that they will have to share and explain to others. Even for me, it would be difficult to dive into a specific subject and then try to re-learn how to explain that to others, much less for students brand new to the language. They wouldn't be able to fully express themselves, and their fellow students wouldn't be able to understand them even if they did manage to say way they were trying to.
That comes back to the particular method I'm using for teaching Spanish - TPRS (hence the title of this blog). One of the fundamental ideas of TPRS is that we don't force output - students will speak and write when they're ready, and forcing output is not only not helpful, but can actually be harmful for students. Rather, they get 100% comprehensible and correct input (listening and reading), and the output naturally comes when students are ready. It's a very different way of approaching language than most people are used to. I like to think outside the box, and these new methods - including 20% time - will take our students to new heights of success! :)
So, then, how can we possibly promote Spanish language skills during Genius Hour and 20 Time? Señorita Barragan, another Spanish teaching using similar methods for teaching language made the following comment:
I can see this working incredibly in a language/culture survey course, such as your Latino class, or in any other subject really, but I'm having a difficult time wrapping my head around how these two fit within language classes in particular. I find that Genius Hour/20% time could replace any culture-based project or culture study in general, but as far as promoting fluency in the TL, it seems that Genius Hour/20% time may work against that. But maybe I have the wrong idea here! I find it incredible for instilling a desire to learn, for developing a sense of inquiry, and for potentially giving back to the community. For our language classes, all of this also takes time away from time spent in TL. I suppose it's a matter of priority. What are your thoughts on this?
My response was as follows:
This is something I struggled with myself. For me, it does come down to a matter of priorities in education as a whole. While I think learning Spanish is very important, I think that giving students the opportunity to do something like 20 Time is even more important.
However, that doesn't mean it's impossible to get comprehensible input for students. I'm going to be working on how to do this up until the next school year, but here are a few of my initial thoughts:
1) I'm creating materials and resources to 'flip' my classroom, which will make the most of my time within the classroom. Not only will students get CI outside of class, but we'll be able to stay in the TL more often within class because students already have the fundamentals down before they come and so class time is essentially "practice" time rather than "instruction time. This more than makes up for one "lost" day.
2) Students can compile a list of "essential vocabulary" for their topic. Assuming that their topic is important to them, they will likely need to know the "lingo" in order to communicate with other about it in any language. Should they desire to be fluent in Spanish, this would be critical and individualized vocabulary. This is more than just creating a vocabulary list that students will never use - it's personalized for them just as much as when they learn the phrase for "smells funny" because the class wanted to include it in a TPRS story. For instance, I'm not sure I could accurately express myself in Spanish regarding what I do and believe as an educator, so I need to work on that!
3) Provide activities that allow students to bring your "regular" CI together with their topics, likely using their list of essential vocab. For instance, say they're writing a proposal for what they want to study. Since I choose my high-frequency structures and vocabulary, they should be applicable even when discussing what students want to study. They could easily do a sort of fill-in-the-blank and PQA activity with questions like:¿Qué quieres estudiar? Quiero estudiar (caballos).¿Por qué quieres estudiarlo? Quiero estudiarlo porque (me gustan caballos/son interesantes).¿Qué necesitas para estudiar? Necesito (una computadora).¿Cuánto tiempo necesitas? Necesito (dos meses).¿Dónde buscas información? Busco información (en Google).
You could make it as complex or as simple as you'd like and still get students thinking about what they're passionate about - in Spanish. During the 20 Time classes, you could ask students questions in Spanish and allow them to respond in whichever language they choose as they're still comprehending and getting CI. Which gives me another thought - wouldn't it be SO motivating for students to realize they can actually communicate about what they want to with the little Spanish they know?
In sum, no, Genius Hour and 20 Time are not the best ways to promote foreign language fluency. And limiting student to the use of the foreign language is not the best way to promote the goals of Genius Hour and 20 Time. However, that doesn't mean that the two are mutually exclusive. By using the target language whenever possible but keeping it comprehensible and avoiding forced output, students can apply what they've learned to successfully communicate about their experience at the level they're ready for. I know my students can create a vocabulary list. I know that they can say basic things about their topic using the things I teach them and the things the things they research on their own. Would make this a requirement for their final presentation? Maybe in a limited way (such as a 30-second introduction that they would have the option of reading directly off of a paper), but maybe not. It does come down to a matter of priorities and each teacher will need to evaluate their own goals and make choices regarding their curriculum. For me, Genius Hour and 20 Time is an opportunity for both me and my students that I simply cannot pass up.
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