AP Spanish Language & Culture, Lexington High School
This grant would allow me to use TalkAbroad as an authentic, formative Interpersonal Speaking assessment in my AP Spanish Language & Culture classes to fill a noticeable gap in the curriculum. These conversations would give students the opportunity to discuss some of the various topics covered throughout the first three units of the course and reflect upon some of the questions – both personal ones and essential ones for the unit – that have arisen. The conversations would also be an ideal opportunity for students to interact with native speakers as a culmination of the speaking practice they will have done in class with each other and with me.
I have two classes of AP Spanish Language and Culture at my school, with a total of approximately 40 students. It is a year-long, 4-credit course comprised mostly, if not entirely, of seniors. The AP course is offered at the Spanish 5 level, which means for most students, it is their seventh year studying the language. These students are typically hard-working and high-achieving, with this course being just one of several APs in which they are enrolled. All students have access to multiple technological devices both in and out of school. This will be my fifth year teaching the course.
The course content and unit design are arguably its strongest points. I’ve developed a rigorous class that engages deeply with a variety of themes and texts that cover all of the global AP themes. Students read various texts by José Martí and write their own satires; discuss the immigration polemic; develop a community service project to aid the environment; create border art; compare standards of beauty in various countries; and much more. I consistently use authentic resources across all three modes of communication, engage students with relevant topics and provide opportunities for independent practice at home.
What’s most prominently missing, however (across this course and the others that we offer), are authentic opportunities to practice Interpersonal Speaking (IS). My department has engaged in a curriculum review process over the past several years in which we have been implementing ACTFL proficiency guidelines, Can-Do statements, enhanced instructional technology and other critical elements. It has become clear to me in this process how critical IS practice is, and yet most of the time it consists of students talking to other students – the blind leading the blind, so to speak. They’re not able to interact with a native speaker to practice negotiating meaning, receive immediate feedback on their comprehensibility and study colloquial speech patterns.
Interaction with native speakers is particularly valuable at this level because students are typically Intermediate High speakers, poised to go to college and perhaps pursue study abroad opportunities or a major or minor in Spanish. The more they can interact with native speakers now, the more prepared they will be as the global citizens we wish them to be after graduation. They have a lot of speaking skills and cultural knowledge, and it only seems logical to offer them opportunities to put everything into practice. When I think about integrating the 5 Cs and/or PBL in my classroom, the biggest element that’s missing is Community. Using TalkAbroad would allow my students to take that final step with their language skills: discussing their ideas with the Spanish-speaking community and getting immediate feedback on their attempts to communicate and negotiate meaning (with the kind of sympathetic speaker that is characteristic of the Intermediate level).
Students will use TalkAbroad to engage in monthly 10-minute conversations from September to January, for a total of five conversations. Each month will have a different theme, with a consistent focus on community:
- September: National/Cultural Identity (What’s your family history? What are some important symbols in your culture/community?)
- October: Heroes (Are heroes born or made? Who are some heroes in your culture/community?)
- November: Beauty & Aesthetics (How does your culture define beauty for its people?)
- December: Architecture (What’s the architecture like in your community? How does it affect daily life?)
- January: Science & Technology (How is technology and social media affecting your community?)
These conversations will be assigned at roughly the same time each month, so students develop a feeling of consistency and routine. I will check them for completion and listen to 1-2 minutes of students’ recordings in order to provide some quick formative feedback. Students will be responsible for keeping track of what they are learning from each conversation, which will help them with their final reflection assignment. My hope is that these conversations will (1) feel like a logical development of classroom activities, as students will be able to apply what they’ve been talking and thinking about to an authentic conversation with a native speaker; and (2) become an activity they look forward to as a way to gain experience and confidence with a skill that they probably feel most nervous about.
From September 2018 to January 2019, the 34 students enrolled in AP Spanish Language & Culture at Lexington High School in Lexington, MA, engaged in monthly 10-minute conversations to supplement the classroom curriculum. Discussion prompts were constructed both to complement the Global AP Themes and to extrapolate upon what students were studying in class so that they could deepen their understanding of each topic by discussing it with a native speaker. The opportunity to talk with native speakers seemed particularly relevant for these learners, who are advanced students preparing for a standardized exam of which one portion will be a dialogue. Throughout the process, students were encouraged to keep a journal that tracked whom they had spoken with, what cultural information they had gleaned and what they were learning about their own interpersonal speaking skills. In early February, students wrote a one-page reflection paper in which they considered what they had learned, how their overall experience was, how they felt about the prompts and what they perceived as their own strengths, weaknesses and growth.
Below are the five speaking prompts that were assigned to students on a monthly basis. Students typically had 1-2 weeks to complete each one. The prompts did not change the existing curriculum per se, but rather were inserted into it as a supplementary/complementary requirement.
Assignment 1 (Theme: Private & Public Identities; National & Ethnic Identity)
- Instructions: En nuestra clase, hemos hablado sobre el tema de la identidad y cómo nuestras culturas y lenguas influyen en ella. Por favor, preséntense y hablen sobre sus propias culturas. ¿Qué es importante en su cultura? ¿Cómo influye su cultura en su identidad? ¿Qué idioma(s) habla? ¿Cómo contribuye(n) a su identidad? ¿Qué sabes sobre la historia de su familia?
- Private Instructions: Muchas gracias por hablar con mi estudiante. Está en una clase avanzada y debe poder comunicar bien. En clase también acabamos de aprender sobre el voseo, entonces si lo usas o puedes hablar sobre la importancia de él en su cultura, por favor, dígale algo al estudiante.
Assignment 2 (Theme: Private & Public Identities; Heroes & Historical Figures)
- Instructions: En clase últimamente hemos discutido los héroes y personajes históricos, considerando preguntas como: ¿Qué define el heroísmo? ¿Cuáles son unos adjetivos que podemos usar para describir los héroes?¿Quiénes son algunos héroes que merecen ser reconocidos (y muchas veces no lo son)?¿Cuáles son unos actos cotidianos del heroísmo que han visto o que debemos hacer más?¿Creen que el heroísmo es resultado del cálculo o de espontaneidad? Charlen sobre estas preguntas y también compartan información sobre los héroes nacionales que son importantes para tu país, y expliquen su impacto.
Assignment 3 (Theme: Beauty & Aesthetics; Standards of Beauty)
- Instructions: (1) Hemos hablado en clase sobre los estándares de belleza en los EE.UU. y en el mundo hispanohablante. Discutan sus opiniones de este tema en sus propios países/culturas. ¿Cómo afectan a los varones? ¿A las mujeres? ¿Cómo contribuyen los medios de comunicación? ¿Cómo afectan la sociedad? ¿Hay concursos de belleza en su cultura? (2) También pueden hablar generalmente del arte (visual, escénica, etc.) en su cultura. ¿Qué prefieres en cuanto a la música? ¿El baile? ¿El teatro? ¿Los museos? ¿Cuál es el arte tradicional de su país?
Assignment 4 (Theme: Beauty & Aesthetics; Visual & Scenic Arts/Art as Protest)
- Instructions: Hemos hablado en clase últimamente del arte de protesta y el papel que tiene el arte en los cambios sociales y políticos (como Guernica, por ejemplo, y las arpilleras de Chile). También hemos hablado de cómo un país responde a las épocas y acontecimientos difíciles de su pasado (por ejemplo, una dictadura). Pueden abordar cualquier de estos temas en su conversación: como su país ha seguido adelante después de una dictadura, por ejemplo, o las protestas que ocurren hoy en día donde vive, etc. ¿Quién escribe la historia de un país? ¿Cuál es el papel del arte en narrar la historia?
Assignment 5 (Theme: Science & Technology; Healthcare & Medicine)
- Instructions: Últimamente, hemos hablado sobre el cuidado de la salud y la medicina. Pueden hablar sobre los sistemas médicos en sus comunidades. ¿Creen en la medicina tradicional o la medicina moderna? ¿Cómo funciona la asistencia médica? ¿Cómo tiene acceso al tratamiento médico la gente en sus comunidades? No sabemos qué el futuro nos traerá en cuanto a los avances tecnológicos en el campo de la medicina. ¿Cómo creen que van a mejorar la calidad de vida? ¿Podrán los humanos vivir para siempre? Si pudieras vivir para siempre, ¿lo harías?
Feedback was overwhelmingly positive. Students were receptive to the opportunity to hone their speaking skills, learn about different cultures, hear different accents, debate classroom topics, and take their learning outside the classroom. Most students wrote about how their confidence increased significantly over the course of the semester. It will be interesting to note if student scores on the conversation section of the AP exam (and the practice assessments we do in class) increase as a result of this grant opportunity.
Below are quotations from some of the students’ reflection papers:
- “Often in Spanish classes, [interpersonal speaking] skills are assessed by responding to pre-recorded conversation prompts, which is not as helpful as TalkAbroad for practicing ‘thinking on your feet’ during a conversation. The opportunity that TalkAbroad provides, for students to converse with native speakers, is certainly unique and one that I think was very helpful for me to acquire real-world conversational experience.”
- “The best way I know how to sum up my TalkAbroad experience is that learning from fresh cultural perspectives in an individualized setting excites me. TalkAbroad and any manner of developing empathy/context for the countries of foreign-language study should be a crucial aspect of a language course. I am very grateful to have had the conversations I did and feel that its impact was one of the most important things I’ve done at LHS.”
- “I think the best thing about TalkAbroad is that it gives you the opportunity to speak Spanish outside of a classroom setting while simultaneously providing some structure and ease to the conversation.”
- “One of my participation goals for the year was to take more risks in the classroom and raise my hand even when I didn’t necessarily know how to finish a sentence in the grammatically correct form. TalkAbroad definitely initiated that growth for me and allowed me to experiment with new tenses in the comfort of the supportive native listeners.”
- “Part of the value in these conversations for me was simply greeting my partner and other pleasantries, since they’re so important to any real-world conversation I’ll have with Spanish speakers.”
- “Having conversations in which my partner and I compare and contrast our viewpoints allowed me to understand their perspective and culture more effectively than if I were to read about it in a textbook. It creates a personal connection to the cultures, which holds a stronger impact than the facts alone would.”
Over the five months, there were some technical difficulties and missed appointments, but I believe they were resolved, and no momentous obstacles were encountered. One native speaker chose not to participate and one student simply did not do the assignments. The only critical feedback came from a student who wrote, “Because the assignments were so spaced out, I don’t really feel like I had the chance to greatly improve my Spanish speaking abilities.”
I plan to write and submit a brief article to the MaFLA (Massachusetts Foreign Language Association) newsletter about my experience with TalkAbroad, as well as Flipgrid, as tools for interpersonal communication. I will also share my experience with my colleagues both near and far via my professional Twitter account. Should the opportunity arise, I would be willing to write or present about TalkAbroad for a conference or publication at a future date.
Incorporating TalkAbroad into the existing AP Spanish curriculum was undoubtedly a success. True interpersonal speaking in the classroom is almost impossible because students rarely have the opportunity to interact and negotiate meaning with a native speaker. TalkAbroad filled an obvious gap in the curriculum and in students’ skill development by giving them a true interpersonal speaking opportunity once a month for the first semester. Feedback indicated that students would have liked to continue for the rest of the academic year. At my annual evaluation meeting, I will discuss the outcomes of this grant with my supervisor and inquire as to whether we can find a way to continue in future years. I think it will be a question of whether we have the budget to purchase TalkAbroad for my AP students each year. I am hopeful that this can happen, or that at the very least we could find a suitable alternative. I am extremely grateful to have received a curriculum development grant that allowed me to enrich my students’ language learning experience in such a profound way.
Ryan Casey, Lexington High School (Lexington, MA)