Rome was not built in one day and neither were/are meaningful projects whose impact transcends the idea of ‘an assignment’.
I am a firm believer in the idea of doing things with a purpose, because they will be referred to in the future, because they will serve as foundation for bigger developments. The idea of using my students’ efforts and creativity to complete one task that will be forgotten once it’s completed is a scary thought for me.
I have witnessed how successfully students are able to ‘build great, solid walls’ if the bricks they use were made by them. Nothing empowers students more than realizing that each stage in a learning experience contributes to enhancing the development of every new task they are involved in.
Thus, in order to help student develop a sense of belonging in each of the learning stages in a project, and to find value, purpose and relevance in each of the tasks that are completed, curriculum must be mapped in such a way that skill, competency and strategy scaffolding is pertinent; so that students recycle both prior knowledge and get to consolidate skills by employing skills / language items they used before; and so that every outcome that has been document truly owns its place in the production continuum.
For the last 3 years, at my school, in grade 7 we have been carrying out an interdisciplinary unit between IT and Language B. The objective in IT is for students to produce a website, so they use the foreign language they are studying as the source for information. Thus, students create a website about a country/city where the language they study is spoken. In the website they describe the country/city; they highlight why people should visit; they feature a series of activities that can only be done there; and they address cultural aspects as well. While this task has been very successful, next year I am planning to add a different nuance to it.
Since the information students need to include (in Spanish, in my case) needs to be written in their own words, I have arranged the conceptual units in grade 6 in order for students to start collecting information. In other words, each of the units we are covering includes a couple of learning experiences where they are encouraged to describe a certain aspect of a country they have been assigned; in this way, they keep on adding new elements to their country, hence turning the experience into a very well documented portfolio that they will be able to use next year as they face the task of constructing a website.
By doing this, a big part of their research will have been completed once the interdisciplinary unit is announced; they will not be taken aback by the sudden need to do research; they will have a wide array of information from where to choose what they want to express; most importantly, they will see the value of their efforts, and, hopefully, this will push them to take their website making experience to a different level.
As a teacher, this has value for me, because I will have sufficient evidence to state that the final piece of work is totally theirs. Likewise, I will be able to see how their skills and competencies have been developing through time; how they have been using the language to personalize their ideas; and how they feel empowered to produce work of quality.
As we are living in a time in which the amount of information is vast and massive, it is just wise to select materials meticulously, and without rushing; it is important to be involved in the production of new information, not just to be consumers of ideas produced by others. Innovation cannot happen from one day to another, and novel ideas truly revolutionize when they embody the process of analysis of a series of developments; for this reason, interactions and collaboration between teachers and students should always keep in mind the idea of properly documenting salient understandings and learnings, for they might be useful at some point in time, and knowing where we archived them will help us proceed steadily.
Finally, when I think of language as a tool, I cannot help but remember Hockett’s design features of language, as each of them presents us teachers and students with an opportunity to add intention to any learning experience. Moreover, if students use language to design ideas, and they see themselves as idea generators, the process of observing, understanding, defining, producing new ideas, creating prototypes, evaluating and re-evaluating will become a life style…. Hopefully.