Using Blogs to Teach Spanish 4

1. Introduction
Blogs written in Spanish are a particularly rich source of contextualized language in use—they are freely available, universally accessible, widely varied, highly interactive, and generally appealing to students. However, some of the same qualities that make blogs attractive for use in a Spanish class also present challenges, especially with regard to their use as a pedagogical tool in our institutional setting. For example, compared to a textbook, blogs are vast; they offer an abundance of input, such that every student in a class can be working on something different, and yet from within the same corpus of materials and context. But that also means that I, as the instructor, do not have “control,” in the traditional sense, of the material students are absorbing. How can instructors manage the vastness, as well as the “diversity in coherence” characteristic of cyber-media? Blogs are interactive and feature the target language in use by native speakers; bloggers and other visitors to the site will interact with my students. But that means, too, that they can be full of errors of the sort that traditionally we have been in the business of correcting in college classes. How can instructors connect textbook grammar to real-life usage? Blogs are up-to-the-minute and relevant, but that means also that they are always changing. A blog you use this semester may or may not be online next semester, and if it is, it will have changed. How can teachers be adaptable to the constantly changing Web? Spanish classes allot very little time and “credit” for these extracurricular activities that are generally lumped as “culture” and get short shrift in the push to learn grammar, write compositions, and prepare for exams. If we are to take virtual realia seriously as a pedagogical tool, then we have to find ways to fully integrate it with these other university priorities.

With this project I attempt to address some of these issues in an experiment in a real class setting. I designed a unified series of activities and assignments for Spanish 4, all based on the cyber-context of a current blog that features geographical, ecological, and interpersonal themes. I set out to create a practical template of ideas that takes into account the special advantages and challenges of using blog technology to provide a shared virtual context for learning language.

2. Laboratorio en movimiento: Agnes and Chimi’s Pan-American Journey
Laboratorio en movimiento is a photo blog by two Mexicans who adapted a biodiesel van to use nothing but used cooking oil and then drove it from Mexico to Patagonia. They posted and captioned hundreds of photos, documenting every day of the journey. With writing and photos, they reflect on the people they meet, on the natural and man-made wonders and everyday objects they see, on their own physical and mental states, and on their ecological and humanitarian values and dilemmas. Agnes and Chimi’s blog provides us with two real people; thirteen countries; a worthy enterprise; lots of pictures, text, and videos; and a linguistic richness not to be found in textbooks, featuring real Spanish in context, dialectical/regional differences, and informal discourse such as slang and netspañol. In many ways this is not the standard Spanish that we teach in classes, but it is the Spanish in use in the world.

A key component to addressing some of the complications of using the Internet in a language class has been to draw on Marty Covington’s thinking in Life beyond grades: an approach to course design to enhance student motivation (unpublished manuscript). He proposes that the best way to engage students in active learning is to unify all the materials of a course around one central question, a question complex enough and interesting enough to draw on three sets of skills—metacognitive skills, procedural skills, and content-oriented skills—in the service of solving it. The students are taught to “think like experts” in the field: They learn specific content-oriented data and understand where it fits in a broader problem; they practice the procedural skills that are necessary to solve the problem; and they metacognitively reflect upon what it is that the experts are doing when they solve the given problem in such a way.

In a language class, “thinking like a expert” is “thinking like a normal speaker of the language.” Yet the integration of the skill sets within a shared virtual context may help us bring into focus the elements of successful language learning as well. Our students are charged with mastering the content of a Spanish class, the rules of standard grammar; they practice the procedural skills of finding the information they need and putting together coherent discourses; and when it comes to managing the different registers and situations that communication entails, it is essential to recognize and metacognitively reflect upon what it is people are doing when they communicate in different ways, and upon what all this has to do with the rest of the world and their own lives.

3. The Classroom Experiment
The Classroom Experiment featured tight integration with the existing structure of Spanish 4. I developed activities that hone our students’ metacognitive, procedural, and content-oriented skills in the Spanish 4 classroom. I designed two modules of activities that integrated the skill sets in cohesive lesson plans. Then I tried out the modules on a real Spanish 4 class. Since I have taught Spanish 4 many times, I am well acquainted with the structure of the course and the special concerns of students at this intermediate level of language proficiency. The modules were designed to be inserted seamlessly into the normal schedule of the course and support the grammar and writing skills covered in the weeks I visited the class.

The days that I visited the class featured discussions, in-class activities, writing assignments, grammar exercises, and take-home blog reading guides, all to do with Agnes and Chimi’s journey. The general strategies outlined below can be adapted for use with any blog the instructor chooses.

a. Reading Guides
No student (nor even the instructor) has to read the entire blog; it is too big for that. With a blog reading guide, the instructor can direct the class to specific sections for all to read in common, ascertain that everyone has captured some of the necessary basic information, and then ask more open-ended questions that require the students to follow up and explore their own individual sections of interest.

I asked general questions: What is Laboratorio en movimiento? Who are Agnes and Chimi?—Describe them in ten words. What do they want to change in the world? What strategies do they employ? I asked for specific information: What objects do they take with them? Where do they visit? I asked them to choose a section of particular interest to them to examine and prepare to describe in class. [Fig. 1 Guia de lectura] As the semester progresses, the same strategy is used to delve deeper into a blog’s salient themes such as ecology, activism, intercultural communication, and travel experiences.

b. The Community Dictionary
Each student in Spanish 4 is required to compile a personal dictionary of new words that they encounter throughout the semester. In this experiment we turned the personal dictionary into a “community dictionary,” using the wiki function in bSpace as a convenient forum for compiling a shared document for all to edit, add to, and revise. This project meshed with the Spanish 4 topics at hand: expository and descriptive writing. We focused on the art of describing and explaining what something was.

In their first reading assignment they were asked to make a list of new vocabulary while reading the blog. They were also asked to think about what kind of new word it was: Is it a regionalism? Is it slang? Is it a word only used on the Internet? Is it technical language to do with the environment or the process of creating biodiesel fuel?

When they came back to class the next day we did an in-class activity in which they described and explained to each other orally the new concepts they had discovered. The students needed to draw on strategies for explaining things—definition, description, giving examples, making comparisons—all expository skills that we stress in Spanish 4.

At home, they went to bSpace and posted their new words to our community dictionary, with definitions and examples. They consulted each other’s words and added more examples. Throughout the semester, the class would continue building a shared vocabulary of relevant words and expressions that all were expected to know and use. On the final day of my visits we did an in-class group writing activity using the words from the shared dictionary to write a free-form story on the theme of Un viaje imaginario (An Imaginary Voyage).

c. Grammar Exercises
A blog provides the uniquely valuable tool of a large corpus of digitized text on unified yet varied themes. Using a blog as the basis for grammar exercises is easy for the instructor and with routine practice, facilitates student engagement. Situations and vocabulary from the blog can simply be cut-and-pasted into different kinds of exercises such as fill-in-the-blank, transformations (e.g., transform this sentence from present to past or from first person to third person), and continuations (e.g., finish this sentence). [Fig. 2 Narrar el pasado]

Another useful procedure is to use the blog as a source of textual examples for special usage problems such as false cognates and words with similar definitions but different usages. For example, tiemporato, and vez are three different ways to translate ‘time,’ yet in Spanish they refer to different sorts of ‘time’ in different contexts. By searching the whole body of text, or “Googling within the blog,” a student can generate dozens of examples of a specific word in a familiar context.

d. Writing Assignments
With writing assignments based in our shared virtual context, the challenge is to create a singular task that can be completed differently by each student. In keeping with the expository writing unit of Spanish 4, I asked the students to select a leg of the journey to simply recount and describe to a specific audience. Who would you tell about Agnes and Chimi’s journey? For what purpose? What facets of the trip would you stress? Which images (of hundreds) would you describe to achieve your purpose? [Fig. 3 Ensayo: Exposición]

The essays were particularly rewarding and creative. They showed mastery of the material and the ability to transform the material for their own purposes. One student described for her vegetarian, animal-activist friend the tragic mass deaths of swans in Chile due to a CELCO plant. Another student adopted the voice of an activist from Amnesty International, comparing Agnes and Chimi’s experiences crossing the Mexico-Guatemala border with the experiences of Guatemalan refugees who cross in the other direction seeking security.

4. Student Reactions and Lessons Learned
Student reactions were mostly positive and encouraging. They were interested in Agnes and Chimi’s adventures, and they could appreciate how the digital realia enhanced their learning processes. One comment that particularly struck me was a student who said that she “had never seen positive images of Latin America.” To me that alone stood as a reason to incorporate digital realia in the classroom.

A few students made comments that perhaps challenge the idea of unity (several said that they were getting “too much Agnes and Chimi”). This should remind us that it is important to structure the class so that the activities count in the evaluation of the final grade. Also there is some work to be done connecting the blog to other readings and topics of interest. The blog should be a point of departure, especially for intermediate-advanced students who welcome the challenge. The unified context will keep us “on the same page” but there should also be a flexibility and openness that rewards student investment in the material when they incorporate other sources.

Although the Internet is vast, uncontrollable, and always changing, so is the real world in which we, and our students, communicate. A viable strategy for dealing with these complications is to break down the processes into distinct skill sets that represent different approaches to the same material, while uniting the materials around a rich, shared, virtual context. We can create plans that are doable and at the same time harness the power of the Internet to engage students in the intrinsic value of learning languages.


Download Fig.1: Guía de lectura (37k Word 97 file)

Download Fig. 2: Narrar el pasado (41k Word 97 file)

Download Fig. 3: Ensayo (33k Word 97 file)