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Student Engagement

How to Flip Your Online World Language Classroom and Boost Engagement

Use precious class time for virtual projects that explore culture, and save grammar and vocabulary lessons for when students are working on their own.

October 28, 2020
Teacher speaking to students in middle grade classroom
xavierarnau / iStock

I am a high school Spanish teacher, and one of the most powerful lessons I’ve learned in the era of distance learning is that flipping my classroom makes a huge difference in terms of student engagement. Last year, I started experimenting with devoting synchronous time to projects and asynchronous time to textbook-based nitty-gritty of grammar and vocabulary; but this year, with a virtual classroom, I planned well ahead and went full-tilt with this strategy.

The results are clear: Engagement is no longer like pulling teeth, and outcomes are better across the board in terms of mastery.

Start With a Question and Weave in Culture

I began by creating essential questions for my students that would captivate them and integrate Latino culture—questions such as, “If you had a week to spend in Chile, how would you pass your time? Would you explore like a tourist or try to act more like a local?” Their answers to those questions then served as a launching pad for an authentic final project that, upon completion, could demonstrate that students had mastered the content rooted in answers to the question.

My students started by creating blogs in which they documented their trip preparations using the past tenses (preterite and imperfect) and places they would visit (using the future tense). They had to include what they would wear based on the weather, their planned activities, and typical clothing styles of the country; the type of currency they needed; types of transportation they would take; places they would visit; and food they would eat.

Students watched prerecorded videos before class (for example, covering how to create the future tense). Then I presented my lessons in a way that did not integrate our textbook so much as incorporate the building of skills, such as using the preterite and imperfect to describe experiences in an airport, using the future tense to describe clothing choices, and using community vocabulary (words and terms used to describe neighborhoods and landmarks) to ask a friend from Chile what they should see and experience.

Dedicate Synchronous Class Time to Exploration

I created a Google Earth tour of Santiago, the capital of Chile, so that during class we could go on a pretend day trip. Together we went to various locations in the city, such as Museo Chileno de Arte Precolombino, Mercado Central, and Catedral de Santiago. Students then worked in small groups in breakout rooms to describe what they experienced at each location, using community vocabulary and the past tenses.

This process reinforced students’ grammar and vocabulary, had students speaking in the target language, and integrated culture. It also built their skills, such as describing using the imperfect, breaking down chronological events in the preterite tense, and planning an event for the following day using the future tense.

My students were intrigued by the idea of virtual travel from the get-go, they related more with the vocabulary and grammar as they were learning it in context, and they were able to create more in the target language when presented with authentic tasks. Their final projects—detailed accounts of planning, traveling, and experiencing a trip to Chile—demonstrated not only that they had mastered grammar and vocabulary, but also that they knew how to apply it in different contexts like public transportation, attire, and ordering food.

Final Steps and Student Feedback

When final projects were submitted, we celebrated, and students presented their work as a response to the initial, essential questions. They asked each other questions such as whether their trip reflected a tourist’s or a local’s experience. To add more of a sense of community and drama, I invited other teachers and administrators to virtually observe the students’ presentations.

To wrap up, students reflected on what topics they mastered, determined what areas needed more growth, and asked themselves if they felt that they had answered their essential questions. I also asked my students to rate their dedication to learning Spanish on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 as the lowest and 5 as the highest; all students rated their motivation at a 4 or 5.

Although the final project asked quite a bit of them, my students weren’t overwhelmed, but rather saw clearly the connection between what they had been doing in class and their asynchronous work on their final project. They told me they were more motivated to complete their projects because they could decide how they would prepare, where they would visit, and what they would do; most learned about places they had not heard of before. In reflections, students noted that they found the assignment challenging but fun, and that they improved their fluency; one said, “[It] pushes me to do things I didn’t think I could do.”

By experimenting with putting authentic experiences and content ahead of textbook-style grammar and vocabulary (or at least using asynchronous time for the latter), I learned that students are more engaged and pick these things up along the way, to the point where traditional assessments such as vocabulary and verb conjugation quizzes aren’t necessary. Now I assign tasks where students explore and apply their newfound knowledge by creating dialogues and engaging in discussion forums. I also provide my students with meaningful, specific, goal-oriented feedback throughout the learning process (including drafts of their work).

Virtual learning has brought many hardships; however, I am grateful that it forced me to change my curriculum, and I will take the lessons I’ve learned into physical classrooms when the time comes and focus on questions, experiences, and projects.

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  • Student Engagement
  • Online Learning
  • Blended Learning
  • World Languages
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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