We recently did a writing activity that was perfect for my classes because it was communicative and student-centered. Students generated the content for that class which also provided topics for future conversations. It was also: a community effort, allowed for students to engage at their level, was something that could be done 100% in the target language, was set-up in a circle, allowed for a variety of pairings, and integrated movement with writing and reading. Because of all this, I figured I’d share it with you.
One of the biggest components of class is that the students are our curriculum. There are lots of ways to elicit topics and vocabulary from them. But, sometimes we can simply ask them what it is they want to talk about! A few weeks ago I did this writing activity to generate topics with my 8th graders and then realized that it could easily be adjusted for 6th and 7th graders! It was originally inspired by an activity that my friend, Ruth and I came up with. Since every class can be very different, I like finding structures for activities that can be reused with different content at different levels.
This is an activity that allows students to have control over the topics and at the end, it provided me with a variety of topics that I can bring into class in the future. Not only does it give me topics though, it gives me specific ideas for questioning and activities that come from what the students write as a community.
Basically, the activity had five steps and I’ll describe each step for my first class and then how it differed with my other groups. In case you were wondering, this is all done in Spanish.
- Brainstorm topics
- Vote/Choose topics
- Writing activity with rotations
- Follow-up threads
Here is what each step looked like for my first 8th grade class which is mostly a group of Novice-High students working toward Intermediate-Low proficiency (3 beginners and 3 Intermediate-Mids mixed in).
1. Warm-ups- We started in a circle (like we always do) and warmed-up by reviewing the vocabulary list with actions, then students talked in pairs about how they were doing and what they had done the day before. Then they found new pairs and discussed a different topic and then another topic with a third partner. With the fourth partner I said something about needing new ideas for topics.
2. Brainstorm topics- With this fourth partner, students were asked to brainstorm ten topics or questions they’d like to talk about with the class. They wrote these out on a scrap piece of paper. They were then prompted to circle their top five. Next, they chose one person to write their top five ideas on the white board.
3. Vote/Choose topics- Once all of the ideas were on the board, students were allowed to vote for their three favorite topics/questions. (I quickly erased repeated topics or connected them with an arrow, it’s also important to note that I had veto power, but, in the end I didn’t have to use it).
A third of the class at a time went up to the board and they voted by drawing a check next to the topics they chose. Based on the check marks, we found the most popular topics/questions and students wrote them up on chart paper (1 per pair) and laid them on the floor in a circle. We ended up with 8-12 topics depending on class size.
So each pair sat at a piece of chart paper with one of the topics written on it.
4. Writing activity with rotations
- Write- I encouraged students to write about the topic. If they were the first group writing, they could pose questions and/or write their thoughts. The groups that followed were asked to answer, comment and/or expand on the writing that was already there. They could also start their own “thread”. This class was given several minutes for each topic.
- Rotate in different directions- The students decided whether they were person A or B and I explained that A would always move to the left and B would always move to the right. I had them say thank you to their partner and move to the next topic.
- Movement- This is where you can have fun. Have them move like an animal, jump, move like a spy, roll, or anything else to the next topic.
- Greeting- They will meet a new partner. Have them do a greeting. It can be as simple as a handshake, to a high five, jump high ten, 5-5-10, game of rock paper scissors etc. I’ve learned a lot of different greetings from a book on Developmental Designs called The Advisory Book.
- Repeat for each topic. (Just a note-They will repeat partners on the other side of the circle, but with a different topic. They will sometimes work with the partner, but sometimes they can write separately on different parts of the page).
5. Follow-up threads We were able to continue the above series from topic to topic until the end of class. One class finished earlier and then they had a chance to read the topics that they had visited earlier and add if they wanted to.
At the end of the class period, the pages that are left are amazing resources for future planning. You can just take one of those pages to start a new progression that could last a few days, a week or more per topic. I’ve used one with each class so far and have the rest saved for later.
Here is how I changed it for the other classes…
6th Grade Class
(Novice-Low with a goal of Novice-Mid)
For the set-up, we skipped the voting part and just took the first ten ideas that were volunteered. We used categories of words they know as well as memorized questions they can answer. Some of the categories they came up with were: Emotions, classes, Spanish class, sports/activities, animals, food, holidays/parties, family/friends, questions, body parts, clothing/colors. Their pages consisted of lists of words, art and sometimes included arrows with words that described things that were already there.
For writing time, students were only given a minute or two at each topic.
For the rotations, we also did something a little different. After they moved to a new sheet and greeted their new partner; I had them take turns reading the words that were already there while their partner did the action for that word.
For the follow-up, I was able to see some connections they were making between categories. Students also began to ask for some other words that could lead us to new vocabulary and new topics. However, while it was a jumping off point for my 7th and 8th graders, it was more of a review for my 6th grader. It also served as a chance for students (and me) to see how much language they’d acquired in just a few months.
7th Grade Class
(Novice-Mid with a goal of Novice-High + 4 NL students)
My 7th graders produced a mixture of lists, fragments and sentences. I tried to push them toward sentences. They gave their opinions and responded to others’ opinions. New students who are mixed into these Novice-Mid classes were able to draw pictures for words they recognized and add vocabulary that they’ve acquired.
(Mixed Level Class! 7 Beginners, 1 NM, 8 NH, 3 IL)
My other 8th grade class had been doing debates, so their topics ended up being a little different. I had them come up with topics that would represent two sides of a debate or two different opinions. People would write their opinion and supporting ideas on each page. To be honest, that wasn’t my initial plan. I had just asked them to brainstorm topics, and then students began coming up with do you prefer ___ or ____ questions. Once I heard enough of those, I shifted and said that would be our focus. It made sense after a few days of trying to give reasons to back up their opinions. It ended up being a way to easily engage the new students. All students were encouraged to not only write at their level, but to push beyond their level for each topic they came to.
It’s not typical that one activity takes this long. This activity actually took an entire 55 minute period. Something I heard from a couple of students was that time went by quickly. Someone also commented that we didn’t even write in our notebooks. I thought that was interesting, because they wrote A LOT more than we do in a typical class when we use our notebooks. Since this activity was a lot of the same thing repeated throughout the class period, this is a unique opportunity to share what an entire class looked like. I hope it was helpful!
Here are a few examples (I explained which ACTFL levels are represented above).