I despise traditional homework. I think in language acquisition, it doesn’t help. If you want kids to learn to drill conjugations, give them worksheets, but otherwise, keep ALL your assignments and assessment communicative. For me, this means that most of what I could ask them to do at home, they’ll get frustrated doing on their own. I’d much rather they collaborate in class. Language is a social tool, not a solitary home exercise. So, if you’re going to assign homework, make it social. For me, this means the only exercises my students do outside of class are reading, some sort of developing fluency activity, and blogging. Here are some tips for starting a blog in your class.
* Make the blog private. I know some of my Twitter friends like to tweet what their students are blogging, but I think that is walking on very thin ice in any class with minors. I’d love to link my students’ blogs here, and tweet about what they write, but I choose the high road rather than risk it. I set my student blogs on the most private setting Google allows. You can’t find it on a search engine and you can’t find it unless you know the address, which is pretty well coded for me and my students. Then when you get there, it asks for a username and password to sign in.
* Get permission forms. Even if you’ve set it extra private, still get a permission formed signed by parents. Give them an option to be added as a reader of the blog. Most parents tell me just to go ahead with it without them (most can’t read Spanish anyway), but several do ask to be a reader and I add them. Only once have I had a parent refuse permission altogether, on the grounds that you can’t be too careful on the internet, and that student turned in his blog on paper all year.
* Let them write about WHATEVER THEY WANT. Research shows that we acquire vocabulary that is meaningful and useful to us. You know this. I’m a teacher, reader, techie, Christian, blogger, new mom, hiker, and that’s where my vocabulary is. Get me in a conversation about building houses (either in English or Spanish) and my language breaks down. I had a student who will always remember the word for ‘deer’ and ‘hunt’ because that’s what he always blogged about. He’s a hunter. It’s important to him. I can’t stress this enough-let them write what they want!
* Define what the rules are.
–I set a reasonable word count (answering questions in Spanish 1 first semester, 25 words in Spanish 1 spring- Spanish 2 fall, 35 words Spanish 2 spring-Spanish 3 fall, 50 words Spanish 3 spring-AP Spanish).
–NO English. My students know that if there’s a word in English that’s not a proper noun, they cannot get an A.
–Grammar does count some. Above Spanish 1, a subject with an infinitive cannot get an A either. They have to show me they know something has to happen to the verb, even if it’s the wrong thing.
–Translation websites are an automatic zero. You can tell if they’ve used one. I can often even find the one they used to prove to the parents they used it. wordreference.com is linked on the blog and it’s the only site they can use.
* Skim to grade. Set a scale that makes it easy for you to grade them quickly or you’ll give up on them. Look for outstanding = perfect grade. No English, met word count, no infinitives with subjects = A. Translation = 0. And so on.
* Accept them handwritten for students who just won’t blog. You can’t force technology. Also, sometimes students’ power goes out or their computer dies. It’s an alternative.
* Set a time when they’re due and rules for accepting late. Mine are due by 8 am Friday morning (yes I’m aware they can change the time-stamp but I tell them that’s lying and leave it at that). Handwritten ones have to be signed by the secretary because I don’t get to school until 10:45 (I’m part-time). The grade is 25% off at one day late and 50% off at 2-5 days late. At 5 days late the student has to complete the blog in a forced after-school study hall. All of that is part of our school-wide policy.
* Encourage creativity. Reward/compliment students who post video, songs, pictures, links, etc. I once had a student write FIVE HUNDRED WORDS about Dropbox and give me links to tutorials and the download. I gave him a pass from the next two blogs.
* MOST IMPORTANT: Resist the temptation to accept English or to suggest the topic. It’s not the purpose of a blog. Let them make the post their own. PLEASE. They’re going to acquire the vocabulary that’s meaningful to them whether you like it or not. This gives them a way to do it without fighting you.
Give your students the chance to express themselves and you’ll be amazed at the progress in their communicative competence, at least in writing!