Although we, as language educators, recognize the value in learning a new language, this is not always the case for many of our students who might feel uninterested or uninspired at the start of the year. How can we set a positive tone from the first day? How can we give students a glimpse into the magic behind learning a new language and the cultures associated with it? Likewise, how can we steer clear of clichéd icebreaker activities and instead make all students comfortable in our classrooms?
6 Creative Ways to Begin World Language Classes
1. A letter to the teacher. In my intermediate level IV Spanish class, I have my students handwrite me a letter. In this letter, I ask them to expand and elaborate on their favorite moments from the summer, share their goals for the school year, and tell me about themselves and their interests. I specifically ask them to express what they are hoping to gain from our class this year. I then write back to them and leave comments in the margins of their letters. This also gives students a chance to confidentially share anything with me that they feel is important.
Not only is this a fun way to get to know each student without putting them on the spot in front of the whole class, but also it serves as something of a diagnostic, in which I can gauge their writing skills. Keep in mind that this can be done in English for level I students, too.
2. A “me” slide. With my level I students, I ask them to create a single Google Slide and include five to seven images on it that they feel represent them. Once they’re finished, I separate them into pairs or small groups. After a lot of modeling and practicing, I have them introduce themselves in Spanish (“My name is…”) and share (in English) about the images they included with their partners. It’s always interesting for the students to see how many images they have in common.
3. One-word challenge. As a means to get creative with their vocabulary, I ask my intermediate-level students to select one adjective in Spanish that they feel sums up their personality. Then, I set a timer for 4 minutes, during which they elaborate in writing as to why they chose that particular adjective. I pair them up and have them share their adjectives and explanations with one another.
It’s always fun to see which adjectives students have chosen and how many of them have picked similar ones. Additionally, this is an ideal way for students to begin practicing how to defend their answers and provide as much detail as possible. This can also be adapted for novice learners, by having them select an adjective in English.
4. Alphabetical lineup. After modeling and practicing “What is your name?” and “My name is” in the target language, I ask all of my students to stand up and line up in alphabetical order. In order to do this, they need to ask and give their names in the target language. This not only gives students the opportunity to practice these structures but also has them introduce themselves to each other in a simple, low-stress way.
5. Sticky-notes wall. I give all of my students a sticky note during the first week of school and ask them to consider why learning a new language is beneficial to their lives. Each of them writes their response and places their note on the wall, where they can see their classmates’ responses as well. Reading each other’s answers can give students different perspectives and allows them to reflect without requiring me to lecture them on the benefits of bilingualism.
6. Write the story. I carefully select one or two culturally relevant images for my intermediate students to view that specifically target themes we will cover during the school year. Next, I have them write stories behind the images that they later share in small groups. Then, I provide a detailed explanation of the cultural significance behind the images to serve as a preview of what’s to come. For example, it’s always fun to see how students interpret the images, and this inspires critical thinking in addition to creativity.
My primary goal at the start of the school year is to create a positive and nonthreatening classroom space in which every student can successfully embark on their language learning journey. Learning an entirely new language and its associated culture(s) can seem overwhelming at first; however, with the right environment in place, it can quickly become a life-changing experience.