Elizabeth Allen as told to Liz Katz -- One of the most frequent requests we get at One Schoolhouse comes from schools who are considering moving a language sequence to online instruction. Schools want to offer more than one option in their World Languages department, but because the vast majority of students choose Spanish for their studies, it’s not financially feasible to have a single instructor teach two or three dozen students at four different levels. That’s when schools call us.
The follow-up question we inevitably get is “When a course is asynchronous, how do students get practice actually talking in a language?” To answer, I turned to Elizabeth Allen, who has been teaching with One Schoolhouse since 2011, first as a summer instructor and, for the past four years, as the teacher of AP Spanish Literature and Culture. Elizabeth was also a part of the facilitation team for our Summer 2020 professional development courses on hybrid instruction. At Harpeth Hall School in Nashville, Tennessee, she teaches Spanish and has served as the chair of the World Languages department.
It’s true that natural conversation is difficult in online asynchronous instruction. In the classroom, teachers rely on that improvisational speech to gauge where their students are in terms of progress and mastery. In teaching online, I came to understand that although I couldn’t replicate the practice of spontaneous conversation, I could address and develop the same skills and interaction through different activities.
Conversation is efficient because it touches on multiple skills: passive listening, active listening, speaking, and cultural competency. Online, by creating new activities, I can get the same information about students’ progress and performance. For example, I can provide authentic language artifacts in the target language by embedding video in the course page, then ask a comprehension and analysis question for students to answer in a 15-second video. I’m still asking them to practice the same skills and providing feedback and assessment.
When students speak in my face-to-face classroom, I can rely on my gut instinct and experience to make a shift in activities and instruction based on their proficiency. Online, I have to have a clear vision and plan very early for differentiation. I build my course well in advance with all the resources I need, and then adjust within the class according to the needs of my students. In my online course, it’s actually easier to differentiate. I can provide advanced students with the activities they need to stay engaged and support a student who needs to work on their skills at the same time. Students are more receptive to differentiation online because they aren’t comparing themselves to each other—they’re focused on what they need.
When I teach AP Spanish Literature and Culture online, it’s not uncommon for me to get richer content through discussion boards—both written and spoken—than I get in a face-to-face classroom. I appreciate the depth that students go into when they’re working online. I think that’s in part because there are explicit expectations and rubrics for all the activities, and students rise to the high expectations we provide. I also think it’s because we focus on the skills we want students to master instead of the activities that give them practice. Thinking deeply about the student experience opened the door to a different kind of creativity in my teaching.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)