Maravilla: Wonder Projects in the Foreign Language Classroom

Prompted by a post by John Spencer, I knew I wanted to end 2017 in an engaging way. In my Spanish 2 classes, I had the perfect opportunity to have a week and a half open for a Wonder Week/Genius Hour type activity. All semester I’ve been focused on creating authentic opportunities for students to be creators and architects of their own learning. I knew what I wanted to do but wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to execute it. In fact, I had back up Spanish 2 lesson plans sketched out because I didn’t know if this was going to go anywhere.

Now that I’m staring at the results and reflecting on the process, I can share with you our journey and how valuable a time it was.

Una Semana de Maravilla: The Journey of Wonder Week

Day One: Curiosities

I had spent a lot of time looking through Laura Sexton’s reflections on Genius Hour and felt that the the most important part was to do a strong introduction and hook to generate some ideas and spark passion. Based on some of Laura’s prompts and our own unit on entertainment we just finished, I created a PearDeck where the students had to DRAW their responses to some questions. I only have them 3 minutes and then we discussed (and circled with PQA) some of the student responses. We got some good repetition and a fun discussion.

As I started to slide into the investigation project, we watched a TED talk and a few other clips I had seen from a PL class I took with George Curous. The idea here was to show them possibilities that young people can do and to inspire them.

I gave students a brainstorming sheet with some sentence starters that we would refer to for the next week. Their brainstorming assignment was in English and I wanted them to think of three topics or categories that interest them and think of questions that they have about each of these topics.

This was a very full Day One. If I had it to do over again, I would split it into two days. The CI we got from the PearDeck was super valuable and I could have spent a class period on that alone—-probably should have. I definitely cut us off short so that I could intro the brainstorming.

Day Two: Questions

I brought us back on Day Two with a pep talk from Kid President on changing the world. They somewhat laughed at my suggestion that they could change the world but couldn’t argue when I said it was possible.

Around the room I had 10-12 large posters with topics written on them: Art, Technology, Sports, Human Relationships etc. Then I gave them 10 minutes to walk around and write and brainstorm questions they can related to these topics. At first they weren’t sure but seeing other people’s questions on different posters really launched them into thinking of more questions. I had two empty posters with no category and students were encouraged to think of questions that wouldn’t fall into any category there too. By the time my three classes were done, they generated nearly 180 questions on a wide variety of topics.

We discussed how all learning begins with questioning. Their task today was to think of something they want to investigate and come up with THREE questions they are curious to know the answers how.

Foreign language confession: at this point I break from the target language. The questioning done today and the investigation to follow is all in English. Perhaps a breach of FL “best practice” but I shifted my focus to general “learning” for this portion of the project and would pick up FL for the reflections at the end.

Students submitted their three (or more!) questions to me in classroom and I responded by asking at least 3 more questions related to their questions. This was 1) my attempt to guide some students that I knew were going to get stuck, 2) expand the focus of students looking only for basic information and 3) show my natural curiosity in their investigation.

Their homework was to #neverstoplearning about their topic for the next 48 hours. They would ask me questions about “How should we answers? Do you want us to write things down?” and my answer was the same: I want you to learn for the next 48 hours. Whatever that means to you—-just never stop learning. If you think you are done—you are not. Keep investigating for 48 hours. Some did not like this response but it was one of the most valuable things I think I did to encourage them in their investigations.

Day Three & Four: Investigation

I was gone on a professional day so students had freedom to explore and learn. While I wasn’t in the classroom, they were sharing their insights with me through classroom. I asked them to fill me in on the process and this was a rewarding day. To hear from them during the inquiry process was great. There were a lot of discoveries and surprises and I was eager to wrap this up with them and let them share their learning.

Day Five: Yo Tengo Maravilla Presentation

Welcome back to the target language! Remember those sentence starters and phrases I introduced a while back. Well, today it was time to put those into practice. We had a quick informal sharing of our topic information in the target language and then I shared a presentation template with the students.

Based on their research, I wanted them to generate a list of 10 vocabulary words associated with their learning, one phrase that shares their wondering, one phrase of what they learned and one personal reflection about the project and/or their learning. Within the presentation they could also use English for supportive details and extra information.

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This was a great guide and I’m happy with the FL tie-in. It is not much but my goal is to increase their familiarity with these reflective phrase starters so this was a good way to accomplish that. The vocabulary I thought was important and it had two unforeseen benefits. One, we had a discussion about proper use of translators and dictionaries and how to use them. I said that obviously they were going to need to look things up but wanted them to do so responsibly. This gave me the opportunity to teach them how to do this.

Secondly, I was surprised how the personal vocabulary really helped the students build their own skills. The day before break we did a non-wonder-week related game about our “Palabra Más Impresionante” (the vocab word we are most impressed that we know) and a few students used these vocabulary words as their example. And they were words that I didn’t know (I’m not up to date on my fishing and lure terminology) but these kids were able to use the vocabulary correctly. Very impressive moment for me.

Final Day: Sharing

We were up against a holiday break but I know that it’s important for the students to share their information. I wanted this to be shared with other teachers since it is such a cross-curriculum activity, so I had them record their investigative experience in English in a FlipGrid.

Hear our learning here!

I love FlipGrid because you get to hear the reflections of the students in their own words. You can reply and share with a global audience. All learning should be shared with a global audience and I’m happy to share ours with you. If you have a moment, please listen to what they learned and share feedback.

If I were to do it again, I would do something bigger as a sharing component. I wanted to do a gallery walk in Spanish with those presentations and maybe a small group IPA/speed dating activity.

I think that I will do something similar again at the end of the year or maybe 3rd Quarter and then I’ll be able to use some more of these ideas. In the meantime I’m really grateful that I didn’t have to resort to my back up plans and instead had an engaging and meaningful end of 2017 with my Spanish 2 class.


Nearpod: Mobile Learning + Interactive Presentation App

For classrooms that have 1:1 access with IPads, Nearpod would be one of those tools I would say absolutely had to be used in classroom instruction.  Mandatory use in instruction.  It combines presentation and lecture, quizzes, polling and formative assessment, video and hands on demonstrating.  There are two sides to Nearpod: the teacher side and the student side. From the teacher side, one can create interactive lessons by creating a presentation in Nearpod that is like a PowerPoint on steroids. There are six different types of features a teacher can add into a presentation.  The presentation can have multiple features, all one feature or a mixture of whatever the author wants.

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A few observations about the features:

  • If a teacher already has PowerPoints created and wants to incorporate those slides into a Nearpod presentation, it would be complete possible!  Just go to PowerPoint and save the PPT as images (this is an option in the File Menu).  Now each one of your slides is an image file that can be uploaded to Nearpod.  I think the whole “Save as Images” option is key in using Nearpod with materials you’ve already created.
  • The quizzes and Q&A make great formative assessment.  It’s a little bit tricky to do an open ended question or a question with multiple answers, but it is do-able.
  • “Draw it” is pretty awesome.  I tested it out in a math presentation at halfway through the presentation, the teacher included a “Draw it” slide where the students had to work through the problem.  The teacher sees all responses on his/her IPad.

The teacher creates an interactive, instructional presentation or lesson on the web.  When it’s time for the lesson, the teacher uses and IPad and logs in to the Nearpod app as a teacher.  The students type in a code assigned to that presentation and are immediately taken to the lesson.  It’s a teacher-paced presentation, so students are only able to see the part of the presentation the teacher wants.  When the teacher is ready to move on to the next screen of the presentation, the teacher swipes the screen and all student screens will go to the next feature.  It’s a great instructional app that allows the teacher to move through content while allowing students the opportunity to get involved and participate, all while collecting data on understanding.

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Nearpod is one of those progression instructional tools.  Content used to be delivered through lecture.  Then overhead.  Then PowerPoint presentations.  Now the presentation includes interactive elements and is right there in each student’s hands.  It’s best used in situations where there is 1 IPad for every 1 student involved (either a 1:1 environment or a small group setting).  I think that in the future of IPads in Education, Nearpod will be the instructional tool that all others are measured by.

Extend your Professional Learning Network with Edmodo

Teaching an elective subject in a small school district and make building a professional learning network difficult.  Teachers using Edmodo are fortunate to have subject based communities that they can access for resources, suggestions and discussion regarding education in their content area.  These communities are the perfect extension of anyones professional learning network.

Edmodo Communities
Edmodo Communities

The communities are built around content area and not grade level, so each community includes teachers from all age groups.  Edmodo reaches across the country and into several different countries around the world.  The diversity of teacher ideas within the content area is amazing.  You can check in and look at the community activity any time you want: twice a day, once a week, once a semester – – it doesn’t matter.  The community is there for you as you need it.

The greatest gift of the Edmodo community is the sharing of ideas, resources and content specific information.  You can simply go to the community, post a question and within a day, have 15 responses from across the globe to try and help you out.  Since the information comes from other Edmodo teachers, there is a huge focus on technology and how to make it work in all tech savvy environments (IPad, 1:1, mobile carts).

A Change of Focus for Second Semester

I just finished 1st semester and had the opportunity to take a breath and really think about these numbers I gave my students that somehow magically turns into a grade.  In high school especially, students and parents are concerned with letter grades and how to maintain a good grade.  By extenstion, I as a teacher become concerned about point values of different assignments and activities and the awarding of points based on these things.  Every grading period I feel like I’m playing a numbers game; that my class content all boils down to a percentage of a point total.  And it frustrates me because I didn’t become a teacher to give out numbers, percentages or letters.

Bottom line: I want to give my students knowledge and opportunities to learn, practice and master concepts and skills.  That needs to be my focus and not a gradebook.  There is a lot of buzz about standards based learning, which I think goes hand in hand with that feeling: assess students on his or her ability to master a standard or objective and don’t define things by arbitrary point values.  That’s a system change of great magnitude that requires a lot of philosophical shift and I’m not going to jump into that territory alone or at this time.  I think I can solve my frustrations in smaller, smarter changes in how I approach the set-up of my class.

Weighted Categories

I like weighted grades – – they give me the opportunity to say from the beginning of the semester that certain things are more important than (or equally important to) other things.  A few years ago, I went back to a points system and I just felt like things were messy and left too many “loopholes” that felt beyond my control.  This semester I will go back to a weighted graded scale with three categories.  I looked at what I’m teaching and asked myself some essential questions:  What do I want my students to master?  How will I know that they have been successful this semester?  What are my major areas of focus?  My three categories are: Culture, Collaboration and Comprehension.

2nd Semester GradingCulture is important in Spanish, but it isn’t a focal point.  Spanish is primarily a language class and culture most of the time will run independent from that.  Communication is an area I would like to closely assess my students, chart progress and see growth in.  Communication includes fluency in speaking and writing.  In order to do these things, a student also needs to show comprehension of concepts learned in class.  Comprehension will include all vocabulary quizzes, grammar topic quizzes and tests and any listening and reading comprehension activities.  Comprehension of concepts is very important in learning Spanish – – but comprehension without communication skills isn’t terribly useful so I find that both categories are of equal weight.


I’m willing to admit that this is a bit of gamble, but I’m easing off of assigned homework assignments.  I always felt that I assigned homework as an opportunity to give students practice with the skills and concepts we learned in class.  Then, after practicing for a time, we would take a quiz or test and do some kind of performance or product assessment in which I could see the application of what they learned.  That’s how I felt about homework.  But for students, homework is an assigned piece of the puzzle.  They do it because I assigned it and that’s primarily where the story ended.  Should you get points for practice?  If you practice something incorrectly, should be penalized in the grade book?

I explained this to the students today and the basketball analogy worked really well for them.  We don’t think that Kobe Bryant is a great basketball player because he does really well in practice.  He shows that he is a great player by what he’s able to do in a game.  I want to see and focus on what my students are able to do when they apply what we’ve learned on a test or project.  That’s what I care about: seeing how they can use what we’ve learned.  But Kobe does practice, and that is part of what makes him great.  I want to support student practice and give them opportunities to practice by doing “homework” type activities but don’t necessarily want to hold them to a grade with homework.  What I told the students today is to think of “homework” as optional.  I will have homework activities and practice things available, give a suggested date of completion but I will (for the most part) not be chasing down whether or not they completing it.  If they practice, they will be ready for the game.  If they practice, I will be able to give them feedback and suggestions for improvement.  While on the surface it appears that I am taking all accountability and responsibility away for the students, I’m actually giving them more.  They have to make the active choice to participate in their own learning by choosing to do “homework” because it will help their learning and not for any other external reason like a point or percentage.


And what about the Allen Iversons?

And what about those who do not take the initiative and choose not to practice?  They will not be forgotten.  When Dwight Howard only goes 6 for 15 from the free thrown line in a game, his coach doesn’t just let it go and assume that next time Dwight will just have to do better.  (At least I don’t think . . . with the season the Lakers are having, it’s possible, but stick with me)  This is when the coach steps in and says, “Dwight, you haven’t been showing up for practice.  You need to come in early tomorrow and work on your free throws.  I have some tips for you and you need to work on this”.  I told the students today that if ever they gave me cause for concern, they would find me intervening and requiring them to do practice “homework” activities.  They can’t opt of learning just because they are lazy and don’t want to put in the effort.  I will hold them to my standards and do whatever is necessary to make sure they get to a successful level.

And what about those Allen Iverson’s that are still great in the game even though they have a bad attitude about practice and don’t show up for it?  Well, my focus is on what they know and how they can show me they know it.  If they can demonstrate that understanding without having to do a select number of “homework” activities . . . I don’t care.  I want to take them from Point A to Point B.  Some will get there faster.  Some will need intervention and assistance.  They will all need my support and that’s the power of being a teacher.  But it doesn’t matter to me which route they take to get there as long as they each take the route that suits them best.

Education is a personal experience, not a numeric experience.  And that will be my focus this upcoming semester.  (Wish me luck!)

Grammar Auction

Sometimes obscure websites have the greatest hidden treasures.  A few months ago, I came across a grammar activity website that included directions for a Grammar Auction classroom activity.  I thought it sounded promising and decided to try it out this week.
Setup:  I prepared 20 sentences, some written with grammar errors and others that were written perfectly.  I made a PowerPoint to help me keep track of the sentences, each one given a random, non-sequential “lot number”.  When students came into class, I randomly separated them into groups of 3 or 4.
Activity Introduction: Groups were given $5000 of fake money as their auction budget.  For each sentence up for bid, or for each “lot”, I would read a Spanish sentence.  After repeating the sentence, we started the bidding at $50.
Final Objective/Winner:  Students wanted to spend their money on quality items, not defective items (the poorly written sentences).  At the end of the auction, the winning group would be the group that bought the most correct sentences.  If there would be a tie between groups, the winner was the one that spend the least amount of money.
Students didn’t know how many sentences were available and never knew when the auction was going to end, therefore they couldn’t just sit on their money and do nothing.  Today I had a homework assignment for students at the end and as a reward for the winning group, I gave them a automatic pass on that assignment.  It was definitely a motivating factor.
Probably one of the greatest activities I have ever done.
My Spanish 2 students had been working on their proofreading skills so this was a perfect time to introduce the auction.  I had wondered if reading the sentences to them was too difficult and thought about showing them the written sentences, but decided that might be too easy.  They did a GREAT job with the learning outcomes.  They listened carefully and discriminately, they discussed with their group members, reasoning with each other to determine whether or not it would be a good buy.
Gamesmanship was a huge part of this and I think that made the students like it even more.  It wasn’t just about buying a good sentence and not a bad sentence – – it was about watching your money, budgeting, trying to run up bids on other teams, trying to bait other teams into buying bad sentences, etc.  There were a lot of undercurrent things happening in the class but the activity still revolved around knowing our Spanish grammar.  It was kind of like a game stacked on top of a game.  I love this for a couple of reasons.  1) I feel like my students that easily understand things get bored with repeated practice activities and games, and the added layers involved in the Grammar Auction allowed them to experience something else in addition to bottom-line learning outcomes.  2) Students that struggle often feel left out or overwhelmed with straight-up practice activities and are sometimes instantly turned off and disinterested in activities they perceive they will not be successful in.  The added layers serve as hooks or tributaries that help pull these students into the core of the activity.  I saw students that started out just as the money counter or the bidder, but as the activity progressed, they became fully involved without really having to try.  It’s a trick on them, treat for me.
Grammar Auction Sentences
I was hugely pleased with the processing and application of learning concepts that I witnessed and thought this was a valuable experience for my students.  I feel very good about our upcoming Grammar Test on Friday.  But the students are the real judges.  They seemed very engaged and excited, but asked anyway:  Was this activity something we should try to do again?  The answer was a loud “YES!”.  Honestly, it was the most enthusiastic YES I’ve ever gotten.
The only downside to the grammar auction is that I budgeted for each group to have $5000 and printed only $50 bills.  So I had to count 100 $50 bills.  For each group.  For three different class periods.  Ouch.

Project Based Learning Experiment

Over the summer, I got an idea from someone in my Edmodo community in regards to project based learning and foreign language.  My friend Wikipedia had this to say about this new educational buzz theory called Project Based Learning: “the use of in-depth and rigorous classroom projects to facilitate learning and assess student competence. Students use technology and inquiry to respond to a complex issue, problem or challenge. PBL focuses on student-centered inquiry and group learning with the teacher acting as a facilitator”.

So with months of preparation, I created Misterios en Madrid.  This mystery project will serve as my concluding assessment project for Spanish 1 at the end of 2nd semester.  To test it out, I had my Spanish 2 class start the year with it.  I had the students working in groups of 3 or 4.  They would assess each other throughout the steps.

Misterios en Madrid had 4 parts, or pasos.  The first group to complete each paso received 100% and subsequent groups received a slightly lower grade than the group ahead of them.  This increased the urgency and brought a competitive component to the activity.  At the beginning of each paso, I presented the material and gave a final task that needed to be completed.  The paths each group took from the beginning to the correct completion of the final task varied.  The goal was for each group to complete that final task.

In order to complete the final task of each paso, students had to use a variety of materials.  Throughout all of the pasos, I used the following materials: written clues in Spanish, VoiceThreads in Spanish, Voki’s in Spanish, maps, pictures and other realia (authentic materials in the target language, such as party invitations, hotel information brochure and hotel receipts.)


  • I enjoyed the “hands-off” role I played during worktime on the Mystery.  The students had a lot of work to do during each paso.  I facilitated but did not lead.  The students really led themselves through the activity.  I was there, in the background, to catch them if they fell or to answer specific questions.
  • Students really had to think critically about the steps they needed/wanted to take in order to complete the tasks at hand, without me feeding them the steps and procedures.  I feel that in other contexts, teachers provide students with so many guidelines that they just move through the motions towards completion like widgets on a conveyor belt.
  • I had 17 different groups working on Misterios en Madrid and had 17 different projects or experiences.  Every group worked a different way and created their own path.  At first I worried that groups would try to hard to emulate each other (or the group they perceived as the most successful) but after the first paso was over, I felt that the students started just to do what worked for them and their group.
  • There were no “super groups”.  I was happy to see so much parity in Misterios en Madrid.  In one class, the groups that finished 1st and last during Paso Uno completely flip-flopped for Paso Dos.  I think that added to the feeling that anyone can and could be successful.  When I immediately split the groups, students expected certain groups to dominate and stifle everyone else, because in a traditional setting, these students do rise to the top.  But the variety of skills need to complete a Paso combined with the open direction concept left the door open for anyone to succeed.
  • I created a few extra credit opportunities for students to work on in addition to Misterios en Madrid to offset any bad days, miscues or unsatisfactory outcomes of the grading of each Paso.  One of the extra credit opportunities I gave was for students to Tweet with the hashtag #MisteriosenMadrid.  It created a social media conversation about our Spanish class activities.  I figured, I know some of my students are already Twittering, why not encourage them to Tweet about what we are doing?  It was a fun by-product of our activities and although it didn’t add anything academic to our class, it did add to our positive classroom culture and positive student interactions.
  • I’ve had successful students before but I never saw so many proud students at the completion of each task.  I would literally see sighs and smiles and looks of accomplishment and pride that I don’t normally see when someone does a super job on a worksheet.  (See more about pride below)
  • I asked some of my students to blog about their experience in our Spanish 2 Blog.  Feel free to read their comments.  One student, Brianna, writes an especially great blog about her group’s experience, recalling the steps, successes and frustrations they encountered.  Really, she says it better than I could.
Student Feedback:
I asked my students to sum up with Misterios en Madrid experience in one word.  Then I typed all of the words into a Wordle.  Common words used are displayed larger than words that only occured once or twice.
Student feedback regarding Misterios en Madrid
  • Other than the work “pointless”, I’m pretty pleased with the feedback.  The project based direction of the class was different, thus for some students, very challenging and frustrating and stressful.  It’s easier when the teacher can just tell you exactly what you need to do in order to get done with your work.
  • Although some of the feedback is quite negative (dumb, horrible, lame), I felt that each person at one point or another during the experience had a good moment; an ah-ha moment of pride.  While one girl told me that she had nightmares about this project and couldn’t stop thinking about it at night, I had another Tweet to all her friends about how “totally accomplished I feel having just finished 1st in #MisteriosenMadrid”.
  • But it was work.  Three weeks of non-stop work where there weren’t many places to hide or slink away and just hope the teacher doesn’t call on you.  You and your group were responsible for a task, and if that task doesn’t get done . . . completely on your shoulders.  That type of work is rarely welcomed by a fifteen year old, so I understand the feelings of “dislike”.
For a better understanding of what the students experienced, please read Brianna’s blog post on our Spanish 2 blog.  Like I said, she explains the student side of it better than I ever could 🙂

Silence vs. Hushed Buzz

Conduct an interview with any one of past or current students and you will learn that I have a few quirks.  Most of my quirks stem from my paranoia and worrisome personality.  One thing that always makes me nervous in a classroom is silence.  Silence freaks me out.  When inserted in a silent classroom, I start fidgeting, rocking, nervously giggling, etc.  I realize that most teachers go out of their way to cultivate a silent environment.  Through the years I’ve tried to be one of those teachers, suppressing my paranoia, but my nerves always win out.  However misguided, I worry that a silent student is a bored and inactive student; a student that I’ve lost on our journey of learning.  (There are 3 other reasons why silent students worry me, but if I shared them with you now, you’d probably just want to have me committed).

But something happened the other day in my classroom that I loved.  I hit a key between silent and chaotic.  I had my Spanish 1 students reading our Spanish 1 blog, written by last year’s Spanish class.  They had 20 minutes to read and comment on different stories.  As they worked, the noise level dropped to a hum.  I observed Hushed Buzz.

Characteristics of Hushed Buzz: few spoken words but vocal stimulation (little laughs, “hmmms”, grunts of all sizes) and the noise of purpose driven activity (keyboard clacking, writing on paper, meaningful paper shuffling).  It’s not silent but it’s silent’s close relative.  Twenty-three students sat in my room for 20 minutes, completely unaware of what was happening around them.  They were so engaged in what I had asked them to do that you could feel the energy in the room without hearing a sound.

As I teacher, I had a great hangover from this Hushed Buzz and immediately hoped to replicate the phenomena again.  I have started to plot and plan, dissecting that lesson to identify the key ingredient in this new academic libation.  I acknowledge the role technology plays in all of this.  While none of my students said they knew for sure what a blog was before we began, it took them .5 seconds to feel comfortable because it fits in their world.  They also seemed enthralled by the notion that what I was asking them to read was authored by older students that they knew or have heard of.  Reading words that “the girl that sits behind me in band” wrote mattered more than textbook words.*

As hard as I may try, Hushed Buzz might be like catching lightening in a bottle.  I might not feel this again for a year.  But at least I know there is a small step above silence that eases my paranoia.  I like having an alternative to my usual Manic Enthusiasm.

*Interesting Note: I don’t patrol the blog for proper grammar and spelling and my students were rapidly pointing out errors in both as they read.  I asked them to comment about the content of the articles but some asked if they could comment on the grammar and I wasn’t about to turn down a learning opportunity.  It was fascinating to see how many of them were irked or at least observant of mistakes, and in their comments, offered suggestions on how to fix the grammar problems.