Tuesday, 12 June 2018

A Year and a Half Later

Every once and a while, an opportunity comes along and you're not sure if it is right for you, and, in all honesty, the thought of what you are about to become involved in may be intimidating and a little bit scary.  But I have a philosophy in life that I have taken from the title of a favourite book..." If you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat".

About a year and a half ago, I was asked to join a TLLP where we would use technology to take our FSL students beyond the classroom walls.  I was not on social media.  I did not own or use an iPad.  Google Suite was still very new.  My phone - very basic- was for emergencies only.  And so I did the only thing that I could do... I agreed to become a member of what would become a very special group of people.

I took the necessary baby steps.  I learned the technology and many different possible apps and programmes that could be used to enhance learning and engage my students.  I got a Twitter account.  I took risks in planning activities with other teachers in the TLLP and Google Hangouts for real time interactions.  We all won, and it paid huge dividends for my FSL students.  For me, the technology was just a tool to access what I wanted for my French students, the opportunity to interact authentically with others, to increase their confidence and skills and to realize that there was a purpose for their learning French.

As we had opportunities to share our learning through a variety of venues as a TLLP team, it was exciting to see the interest and the desire of others to take risks, and so I was able to hook up with colleagues outside of the group and my Board.  The reaction after their first hangout was always the same..."That was awesome!  My students loved it! I watched their confidence grow as we were talking together."  The exact feelings that I and my students had after our first hangout.  And then came the inevitable ... "When is our next one?"

Personally, I have found that starting simple interactions in the earliest grades (Core French begins in grade 4 in my Board) through simple number games, Battleship and guessing games gave my students the opportunities to use French in simple repeated patterns that built confidence.  They also heard different simple phrasing, so these activities expanded their vocabulary.

But my older students wanted and needed a push to test their conversational skills and to develop their interactive listening and speaking strategies.  So, for the past two years, I have had my grade 8's involved in video penpals and, this year, my 7's were matched up with another class.  The growth of the abilities for many of them has been exciting to witness.  For the most part, I have received very positive feedback from my students who felt that this opportunity gave them confidence and a real chance to see what their abilities are.  (My IEP students who needed some support would come in at recess to complete their taping with me.)  Here is some of their feedback:

"I really enjoyed it. It was fun speaking to someone in another city.  It made me learn to ask questions better."
"I did find it cool that someone somewhere else understood what I was saying. I used my knowledge that I learned in the classroom in a real world scenario."
"It helped me with being able to expand on conversations and for justifying my opinions."
"I do not like to talk in front of the class, so I rarely do so.  This gave me a chance to just talk to one of my peers with no one watching me or listening to me except for my peer and Madame. I definitely believe that it helped me practise and become more confident in talking.  Thank you for this activity."

While I am thrilled with everything that we have been doing and witnessing the positive reactions from my students, I was always searching for the next goal for myself and my students. So my next question was "What if we were to collaborate with another class on an area of study together instead of doing simple games?"  So I did a co-writing activity with another class.  Then I found a colleague who was willing to switch things around in her classroom and do a unit on animals.  (Thanks, Kayla!)  After our grade 4's had finished the learning, we did an activity where the students had to ask questions about the animal's attributes to determine the other class' animal.  It was great, but I wanted more.

This year, my students have asked me if we are having hangouts.  We have done some.  Too often, though, I have had to reply that I could not find a teacher that was teaching the same unit of study so we could collaborate and do some interactive projects together. A couple that were planned fell through.  I want to move past simple games.  I want my students to have to use more than a few rote sentences.  So I started to imagine teachers who purposely, intentionally, collaborated and designed a unit of study together with the end goal in mind of both an oral (listening and speaking) and a written (reading and writing) "penpal" component.  Would that make a difference?

It just so happened that this February, my grade 8 video penpal teacher, my mentee and I were meeting (I was able to bring them into the extended TLLP this year) and discovered that we were all doing the Olympics.  I put forth my idea.  We eagerly set dates to do an oral and written task.  Our oral task was for each class to research and get information on a male and female Canadian Olympian.  Then in our hangout, we would ask questions of each other and obtain the information for each other's chosen Olympians.  Each student had a recording sheet to write down the given information.

After every activity, I always have a debriefing session. I had not mentioned to my grade 6 students my idea for purposely planning for interacting, but they instantly confirmed that I was on the right track with this first piece of feedback given: "I felt like I was in a real conversation today.  I had to think and not just repeat two or three words."  The rest of the students were quick to give agreement.

Our writing part involved grouping students from both classes into different meetings on Today's Meet (which unfortunately will no longer be available after June 16), asking and responding to questions about the Olympics, favourite athletes and sports they liked.  Suddenly I spotted them adding their reasoning for why they liked something or not.  Upon debriefing, their reaction was the same.

After that experience, we three teachers decided that this is the route that we want to take, intentionally planning together so our students can interact.  We have already made plans to get together this summer.

So where to from here?  I am reaching for that next level in the game before retirement.  With the support of my two colleagues, we are inviting other Core French teachers from our Board to join us.  New teachers, experienced teachers.  Technology savvy or newbie.  We are planning a meeting to share our ideas and a website that we have developed so teachers may sign up for a topic that they are interested in teaching, for which grade and approximate time of the school year.  It is our hope that another teacher also interested in exploring that topic will see the request and team up with that teacher.

Who knows where this can take our programming and the confidence for ourselves and our students to speak French outside the classroom walls.  But first we must be willing to put one leg over the edge of the boat... 

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