Guest Blog Post by Kristin Mancini. Kristin is the World Language Curricular Lead/Program Coordinator for Madison Public Schools in Madison, CT. She has taught High School Spanish for over ten years. Kristin is currently working on re-imagining K-12 curriculum in Madison in Spanish, French, Mandarin, and Latin.
I have been working with my colleagues to re-imagine K-12 World Language curriculum units into more engaging experiences for our students. For each unit we write a Performance Based Assessment that assesses both the content and 21st century capacities (e.g., Synthesizing, Collective Intelligence, Alternate Perspectives, etc). It hasn’t been an easy experience but a fulfilling one, to give our students PBA experiences in lieu of the traditional unit tests.
On these authentic assessments, students are given a voice and the ability to choose how they will present their knowledge. However, sometimes I feel like we are trying too hard to “contrive” an audience — how do we find an authentic audience without contriving them, or maybe more importantly, how do we create assessments that will prepare our students for the moments where they are confronted with that broader audience outside the classroom (that we could have never contrived in our wildest dreams)?
Are we really preparing our World Language students to function in real life, authentic scenarios?
Traveling to Costa Rica
This question hit me like a ton of bricks this past summer. My colleague Josh Hibbard and I traveled to Guanacaste, Costa Rica this summer with 12 high school students. ¡Pura vida! as the Costa Rican people (Ticos) say; suggesting enjoying life and being happy.
Our students participated in an immersion experience in Playa Hermosa, located in Guanacaste, Costa Rica. Our students attended an International school in the mornings and participated in a variety of adventures in the afternoons. Every afternoon seemed like an authentic PBA to me.
One day students interviewed volunteer firefighters who are possibly the answer to saving the tropical Costa Rican forests; another day they were sent off in a park to talk to locals about how they were observing the holiday. I can go on and on. No scripts, just a task, and using their Spanish in authentic settings.
The kids were entirely engaged in the activities, asking to do more and more interviews. Really?
Students Ready for the Task at Hand
It was one day in the Blue Zone of Costa Rica where I thought even deeper about authenticity. The Blue Zone is an area on the Nicola Peninsula where a group of villages have been identified to have a significantly higher rate of longevity than other parts of the country.
The bus left us off in the Blue Zone, where we divided into three groups and walked the dirt road to small huts where our students were tasked with interviewing these “centenarians.” The immersion director instructed the students to think of questions that they could ask these elderly people when they would later welcome us into their homes with open arms.
Let me get this straight, I thought to myself: students are going to walk into the homes of these centenarians, ask them questions and have authentic conversations with them in the target language, and then come back together to synthesize information in order to determine the secret to living a long life? Now this is a real PBA.
As the immersion director had designed the task and given the groups directions, I was nothing but a chaperone accompanying one of the groups down the dirt road to a woman’s home. I didn’t really have any idea where this was all going. As we got closer, I wondered if the students were ready for this task. They assured me that they were ready for action.
It started to rain harder and harder and eventually we approached a worn down hut-like structure. We entered to the scene of a ninety-something year old woman (she was unable to remember her exact age) sitting surrounded by mud, in the dark, clearly without electricity. I was instantly taken aback.
The woman greeted us with a smile, hugs, and kisses. My three students looked even more in shock than I did. I could barely speak, but I was told to speak very loud, as she couldn’t hear. So as loudly as I could, I presented myself and my students to the woman in Spanish, explaining where we came from and why we were there. She smiled back at us in the dark. I told the students that they could begin asking questions.
They sat there and looked at each other, unable to speak at all, let alone in Spanish. I encouraged them in English, “go ahead, ask her about her life, ask her what her name is, ask her what she does everyday.”
I knew the students sitting with me were more than capable of speaking in Spanish. They had been using the language the whole trip, but now sitting in this muddy cabin trying to determine what the secret to long life is, they were frozen and speechless. I started sweating under my raincoat, as I communicated in Spanish with the woman myself and help the students become comfortable.
Eventually they got out a question or two, but not with much ease. I exited the hut in a cold sweat in the 99 degree heat. I had no idea what I was supposed to think. Why did the students struggle to converse with this woman? Why were we all so shocked? My initial feeling was frustration, but I quickly overcame that.
Was it the way the woman was living that shocked them? Did that shock them so much that they were literally speechless? I dwelled and dwelled: how can we possibly prepare students in our classrooms for scenarios like these? How could we ever replicate this experience in a classroom?
Processing Thoughts and Feelings
I didn’t speak to the kids the whole walk back to the bus. I had to process my thoughts first.
I first focused on my own feelings. Why did the experience have such an impact on me? It had to be the scene that the women was living in. To me, it was poverty, poverty that I had never before experienced in my lifetime. I don’t know if she would say that she was living in such poverty, but to me it was a world I had never experienced before this day.
Later that day I talked to the students who had accompanied me and asked what they thought. Their first reaction, as I had suspected, was shock at the way she was living.
“I just kept looking for a bed in the mud to see if she slept in there,” said one student.
They also voiced that they were afraid to say something that might offend her. I was surprised by the comment. Why did they think they would offend her? Who cares if their Spanish was imperfect. Thinking back, I realize now that when students are working with a truly authentic audience, they genuinely want their work to be perfect.
When we returned to the rest of the group, I told the immersion director that my group wouldn’t have much information to share with the group about the centenarian that we interviewed. Upset, I told him that my students couldn’t get many questions out and, when they did, the woman wasn’t able to communicate very much to them.
I felt like we had failed at the task … but had we?
The director told me not to worry, that he would talk with my group. As the group was synthesizing all the information in order to determine the secret to living a long life, he asked my group a question: Were the people you interviewed happy? I turned around on the bus to look at the students, wondering how I would answer that question myself. But after a few seconds, it seemed to me like that question could be answered with much greater ease: Yes. She really was quite happy. My students said the same.
A Lasting Impact
Upon our return to the United States, the impact on our students far exceeded what we had ever expected from the trip. On the bus ride from New York back home to Connecticut, my colleague Josh sent an email out to parents saying that we had landed. “As a heads up, the kids have all been very emotional today. This trip far surpassed the impact I could have ever imagined.”
In the days and weeks following the trip students and parents reached out to us as the chaperones, and to our district and building administration, explaining how this trip gave their children an experience they could have never offered them on a family vacation.
One particular message from a parent particularly stuck with me: “She came home speaking about the ‘beauty’ of the people more than any other thing. She spoke about the pride Ticos have for their country, the simplicity of their lives, and the sense of gratefulness and happiness they have. She now knows the true meaning of Pura Vida.”