Have you ever had to teach a teenager how to drive?
If so, you remember how helpless, and even terrified, you felt as you gave that teen the wheel.
It’s hard to give up control over something so important.
But we’re willing to bet that this teen learned to drive just fine.
Why? Because they really wanted to, and knew it was a skill they were going to need in life.
It’s the same way with your language class. It can be scary to give your students control over something as critically important as their own learning. But independence and relevance will always be the strongest motivators for learning anything.
As with driving, your students just need a little direction from you to make their project-based learning experience worthwhile.
So let’s explore some guidelines for taking your students on a project-based learning adventure that they’ll never forget!
There’s no way around it: a quality project will occupy a significant portion of learning time in your classroom. When any activity takes up this much time, it’s important to be clear about the reasons you’re doing it. That way your students will understand its value and not see it as a frivolous “time-waster.”
Here are the reasons that projects are worth doing in any classroom, but especially yours.
- Project-based learning is student-centered. With “teacher-centered” methods like lecturing and note-taking, you are the sole dispenser of knowledge. Projects give students ownership and control of their own learning as they seek out learning that’s meaningful to them and accomplish it on their own terms.
- Projects allow students to use real-world skills. It’s no secret that student motivation skyrockets when they see their learning as relevant to the real world. (Remember the driving example I mentioned earlier?) Depending on your community and location, infusing a “real world” feel into language learning can be challenging, to say the least. But projects are a perfect way for students to apply what they’re learning to real-life situations. They can experience the value of language and culture first-hand, instead of just listening to you tell them about it.
- Projects encourage the use of higher-order thinking skills. Yes, we know you’re probably tired of hearing about Bloom’s Taxonomy, but we’re going to remind you anyway. As teachers, our task is to empower students to utilize those higher-order skills: analyzing, evaluating and creating. When you’re teaching a language, there are days when you feel like you never get past remembering and understanding which, while necessary, represent the very bottom of the hallowed learning pyramid. A quality project is a unique opportunity for students to utilize knowledge at the highest level.
So now you understand the value of taking time out of routine classroom instruction to take your class on a project-based learning adventure.
But before you start, you’re probably wondering whether there’s a way to be absolutely certain that it won’t be a huge waste of time.
Well, the only way to do that is to make sure that you’re giving your students a high-quality project.
Checklist for a Successful Foreign Language Project
Before you send your students off on their anticipated road trip, go through this checklist to confirm that you’ve given them a task that’s well worth their time (and yours).
A quality project is:
- Relevant. Does this project relate to real-world situations? Will students use their language skills to solve real problems? Think navigating conversations or producing cultural products that can be used or enjoyed.
- Aligned to curriculum goals and learning outcomes. We hate to burst your bubble… but remember that the whole point of everything you do is student learning. Will your students be working towards your learning goals? Or is this project simply “fluff”? Identify your standards and desired student outcomes that will be met through classroom time on this project.
- Student-centered. If it’s a quality project, then all you have to do is give them a bit of direction and guidance, and send them on their way. Allow students to choose their own topics (within reason) and give them plenty of leeway to exercise their creativity and problem-solving skills. What they come up with just might surprise you!
- Rigorous. It’s just human nature: when we don’t have to work for something, we don’t value it. It’s the same with learning. Students should struggle, wrestle and at times even become frustrated. Allow it to happen, but be available to provide scaffolding at that spot right between frustration and despair… so that they don’t give up. Remember that this is how you felt when you were learning your second language.
- Fun. As much as they need to struggle, there must also be an element of fun in a great project. Something about it must spark and hold student interest so that they go right to work on it every day with little to no prompting. Perhaps it incorporates a favorite activity (like sports, music, drawing or video games). Or perhaps it addresses an aspect of culture that intrigues them (like food, celebrities or holidays). You know your students better than anyone else, so find that unnameable something that translates into fun for them.
So now you’re ready to get started!
Here are a few concrete ideas to spark your imagination.
4 Foreign Language Project Ideas for Student-driven Success
These project ideas can easily be tweaked to suit your students’ level and interests.
Food for Thought (and Learning)
What’s the hallmark of any culture? Food, of course! And it’s safe to say that all your students, no matter their personalities or learning styles, probably love food.
So ask your class to come up with a menu for a culturally appropriate meal and prepare it together.
Students can begin by independently researching foods that are traditional in the target culture. Then bring them together to share their findings and choose the foods that they’re going to prepare as a class. The meal should be comprised of key elements such as an appetizer, salad, main course and dessert. Next, break them into small groups and give each group a target-language recipe corresponding to their particular dish to follow.
It’s helpful to undertake this project in the context of a unit on food vocabulary so that they can build familiarity with words for common foods and ingredients. Before they begin cooking, teach them target language vocabulary for language commonly used in recipes like “stir,” “chop,” “simmer,” etc. You might even try demonstrating by articulating such actions as they watch you put together a simple recipe first.
We guarantee that they’ll never forget the day they sampled authentic German Rouladen or had their first taste of real Italian lasagna.
After the meal, ask them to journal about the meal, describing the foods they liked and those they didn’t.
It’s certain to create a hunger for that language and culture which will last their whole lives.
Whether it’s the last episode of “Game of Thrones” or “The Walking Dead,” kids and adults alike love dishing about their favorite characters and stories on TV. Why not utilize that enthusiasm for their next project?
Fortunately, technology makes it easy to find engaging target-language television to pique their interest. YouTube, Netflix and Amazon Prime all make it easy to search for TV shows in the target language. You and your students can check out the popular French detective drama “Braquo” or the romantic Chinese mystery “Love 020.”
Assign episodes of the show to watch, and then come up with a few questions that allow students to discuss the themes of the show. The questions should get them to think more deeply about the story and their connection to it. For example, ask students to share who their favorite character is and explain why. Or they could come up with an alternate ending for one of the episodes.
Post the questions on a shared blog or break your class into small discussion groups to talk about them. As a culminating task, students can write a script and act out an episode of their own, similar to this project using Spanish telenovelas.
A Children’s Book
Few things are as satisfying to students as sharing their knowledge with younger, less advanced students.
What better way to do so than by creating and sharing a children’s book?
A simple picture book that teaches target language vocabulary for things like numbers, colors and days of the week can serve as a welcome refresher for your own students. They can create small books that tell a story and introduce vocabulary in a charming and engaging way. When they’ve finished, schedule a visit to a classroom of younger children where your students can read their books to a young “reading buddy” or to the whole class.
They’ll enjoy interacting with their younger peers and feel a priceless sense of pride in teaching them new skills.
If possible, keep the books on display in your school library for a while so everyone can enjoy and learn from them.
The Artist Within
Art conveys a profound understanding of culture (and sometimes of language), but appreciation for a culture’s art is not something that can be easily taught. Students can connect with a culture’s art on a deeper level by recreating their own versions of it.
If possible, collaborate with an art teacher (in your school or otherwise) ahead of time to brainstorm a list of art-related vocabulary in the target language. These terms can include processes, materials, colors and descriptive words.
Then enlist the teacher’s help to coach students in the actual techniques unique to a particular time period in the target culture: the sweeping, flowery blooms of Georgia O’Keeffe, for example, or the superflat style of Takashi Murakami.
Ask students to present their work in the target language when they’re finished, describing both their process and the finished product.
Do you have some ideas now?
Go run with them! And craft an unforgettable experience for your students by putting them in the driver’s seat with project-based learning.