When it comes to designing and curating interpersonal activities, especially at the novice levels, I used to feel like I was setting students up to hit tennis balls against the garage door: repetitive, not much value, and not particularly similar to an actual game of tennis. When there is a Partner A/Partner B slant, the lack of value is especially evident because the students aren’t really required to think much; they merely parrot or fill in the blank with what they think they’re “supposed to be doing”.
Before anyone grabs their pitchfork and torch, ready to storm the castle, I am not saying that there isn’t value in communicative activities with another person. The emphasis, though, must be placed on the communicative part, namely the goal of the activity (spoiler: the goal isn’t just to finish the activity; rather it’s obtaining information or a result that we didn’t have before). This is a constant point of reflection for me because, gulp, I was really good at designing Partner A/Partner B activities, and when I look back, though I was good at making them, they weren’t good in helping students communicate real thoughts in real time. So, what changed? And, how can we still use partners, groups, etc. effectively?
Thomas Sauer rocked my world when he asked me in the summer of 2015, “But what’s the point?” The context was interpersonal and presentational activities, namely in-class conversations and unit projects. I had been creating learning objectives for all of these things, but they weren’t very valid—they were, “Students will be able to use preterite tense irregular verbs,” which isn’t a learning objective. Rather, I should have been closer to, “Students will be able to tell us about their most embarrassing middle school experience” because that’s what they’re actually doing, and my learning targets would then have included grammatical points and vocabulary.
There is no denying that they need the latter to complete the former, but the grammar doesn’t guide the objective’s cog wheel, it’s the bolts within it. We aren’t ignoring the grammar when we teach students using proficiency—rather, we are merely acknowledging that form follows function, not the other way around. “But what’s the point?” I continually ask myself when assigning something. If I can’t think of the point pretty quickly, I may need to scrap the activity all together because my motives are perhaps unfounded (“But I love this game! And the kids love it!” “It’s fun!” “It’s easy to grade!” These aren’t bad reasons; heck, we’ve all been there. But, they need not consistently guide our lesson planning if we want to teach authentically and communicatively.)
In the context of that most embarrassing day from middle school example, the point of the activity may be to compare our experience to that of other people in class, and then write comparatively. For example, students are first taught the tools to craft the story of their most embarrassing middle school experience (lots of input in context, vocabulary, any questions answered, and so on). This could be my, the teacher’s, most embarrassing experience written up for them to read, then parse out the grammatical points, some comparative tense work with past versus present, circling, questioning, the list goes on. Then, I follow up with the interpersonal mode. I like to do so by giving rosters to my students of the whole class so that they get a chance to talk to everyone at least once. Students circulate and talk to each other, in this case telling each other their most embarrassing moment while the other student dictates onto their paper and either comments or asks a question (they choose). Now, after a couple of days, say students are to talk to six people per day, by the end of the week, their roster should be full, and they’ve heard everyone’s story without time going toward in-class, high-pressure presentations. Furthermore, when listening, students interacted in a genuine way, not by using a script or a pre-made question. My follow-up assessment would then be a three-part writing quiz: 1) tell me your most embarrassing moment from middle school, 2) tell me someone else’s embarrassing story (grammar level-up: third person), and 3) compare your story to another person’s and add your own thoughts. Ultimately, the underlying objective of communicative activities in my levels one and two classes are aimed toward social justice and come back to how are we similar? How are we different? I constantly want them to consider others’ experiences with empathy, even when they can’t relate, processes like the aforementioned help me do that. Sure, I really want them to be able to tell a story using the past tense(s), too, but with a proficiency-based rubric and genuinely communicative activities, that’s a biproduct to feelings of belonging, enjoyable conversations, and funny stories, because who wasn’t a disaster in middle school? I certainly was!
When I started to regularly ask myself, “But what’s the point?” and got away from the point leading with grammar, I realized my lesson planning started to reflect how I go about other parts of my life. I don’t walk into IKEA looking for something gray; I go into IKEA looking for a couch, the color of the one I like just happens to be gray and works with the rest of my house décor. Function first, form second; what do students need to be able to do, then how do they do that? We don’t plan trips saying, “Let’s just get in the car!” and end up in Seattle realizing we hate rain. We say, “We need a vacation! Somewhere sunny? How about Florida?” and then we figure out the timing, most cost effective way to get there, and the details fill in – function first, form second. First comes the what, then comes the how.
For more examples and resources, a video can be found here and all my materials are attached to the calendar at my website here. (Explanations of attaching files to a Google calendar are here and here.)