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Engaging World Language Students Through Social Media

Editor's Intro: Keeping world language students engaged in their learning can sometimes be a challenge. Kaitlin E. Thomas, a Lecturer of Spanish at Norwich University (VT) and an online Instructor of Spanish for the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, decided to use social media projects to pique the interest of her students. Here's what she did. 

 By guest blogger Kaitlin E. Thomas

Effective integration of instructional technology in learning environments is the unicorn of successful curriculum design and implementation. Yet, one can almost hear the groans during discussions on the benefits of incorporating technology into lesson plans and curricula. Often times the pitch as to what technology could facilitate for learners and educators is aspirational while the actual execution of tech in the classroom is overwhelming, finicky, and unreliable. Indeed, classroom tech setups often appear to be on par with spaceship mission control for the uninitiated.

Why then even bother suggesting an engagement with students in their cyber worlds? For one, social media has become ideal to enhance language learning. For instance, the depth of connective resources (AltLatino, Radio Ambulante, Buzzfeed Spanish, Bien Tasty, etc.) within the peer sharing world means that, as instructors, connecting the dots between the existence, prevalence, and applicability of Spanish in the "real world" is easier than ever before. We can also utilize the realms (Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, etc.) and the lingo (vocabulary, hashtags, and even emojis) most familiar to our students.

social media.pngThis semester I took the leap into incorporating social-media-based technology for my beginner, intermediate, and advanced Spanish language classes. An experiment for sure, but one that with constant monitoring and tweaking confirmed my hypothesis that current iterations of several peer-sharing resources augments the foreign language learning experience. I still do not advocate simply using tech for tech's sake, but rather using it to support the inclusion of what are already staples of most millennial interactions. 

Consider implementing the following peer-sharing tools to enhance foreign language connectivity and application in and outside of the classroom:

Instagram Scavenger Hunt

This is particularly effective for a rural setting where interaction with native speakers and language is limited. The challenge is to replicate as much authenticity and applicability as possible, particularly for beginner and intermediate students.

 Instagram's exclusive focus on image and short video sharing makes it ideal to support pedagogical objectives of connecting students to tangible native speakers. Create an Instagram handle for the class, and design a scavenger hunt of ten to fifteen items, people, or places in the school, related to the language you are teaching. Students must identify them, snap a picture with them, and "post." They can tag the classroom handle or use a classroom-created hashtag so that the class can track the results.

Students are challenged to physically and creatively identify visible proof that diverse cultures are alive and well in their immediate surroundings, often times in ways and with a depth that they did not previously realize.

Facebook Global Journalism

To up the ante in advanced Spanish reading, writing, and vocabulary acquisition, a semester-long group noticiero (journalism) project proved ideal. I sought to complement the literary and abstract grammar concepts we covered in our textbook with examples of authentic and brief written language in action. 

Create a Facebook profile as the course instructor, and from there you have full capability to design and administer a private group, accessible only to you and your immediate students. Provide a list of several reputable online news sites in your target language (for example, in Spanish, I used the New York Times Edición Español, El Huffington Post, CNN en español, El País (España) or El País (América) that students can use to locate an article of interest. Alternate article criteria according to specific countries, regions, or topics of interest, and ask students to post a brief summary and personal reaction to their selected article (they must share the link!). They should comment on at least two of their peers' posts as well to create a weekly, on-going virtual dialogue about current events, doing so entirely in the target language.

YouTube Cooking Videos and "Two to Tell"

YouTube provides a creative forum for two distinctive purposes in two very different groups: vocabulary at the beginner level and culture at the intermediate. 

It is no novel observation that many students thrive in learning environments in which they physically participate. A fresh interpretation of this involved students creating their own two- to three-minute "how to" cooking videos modeled after the prolific Tasty and Bien Tasty. Students should pick a recipe of choice, and work in groups of two to three to create their own culinary tutorials. An optional component once all videos are completed is to have a viewing party during which students decide on which recipe they'd most like to make. Extra credit if they do, following the instructions in the video!

A second YouTube project was modeled after the innovative "Two to Tell" competition, originally created by Professor Emeritus Ana María Wiseman of Wofford College. Students select a cultural topic of their choice to draw together a theme that piqued their interest during the term. My students' selections spanned everything from salsa to arte callejero with many others in between.

The challenge is to limit the presentations to only six slides consisting of twenty seconds each. Students should use visuals as creatively as possible to serve as a dynamic backdrop to their voice overlay, the result of which is an inventive short film created exclusively by them. As with the cooking videos above, an additional motivation is a "big reveal" party during which peers share their work with each other. 

Current iterations of social media and peer-to-peer sharing offer unique opportunities for educators to engage with students within their digital worlds and expose them to the vibrancy of the native language speakers all around them and abroad. All that is needed for innovative foreign language instruction facilitated by the likes of Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube is a bit of ingenuity, enthusiasm, and of course supervision, the results of which will leave you and your students with visual and oral evidence of their linguistic and cultural progress.

*Student safety and privacy are paramount in all of these suggested activities. It was made clear to each and every student that cyber-bullying, unsanctioned sharing, and other inappropriate social media behaviors would not be tolerated in any circumstance, and would result in immediate course dismissal and disciplinary action.

Connect with Heather on Twitter. 

Quote image courtesy of Pablo.

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