Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Not Your Mama's Tasks: Recipes for Communicative Tasks in the CI Classroom

I haven't written about using Tasks in my classroom since I wrote the White Elephant Task post two January's ago. That's not because that's the last time I used a task in my classes--just the contrary--it's just that things got away from me--and I had trouble articulating in a useful way what I've been doing in my classes since then.

I've talked before about my concern over sharing big ideas with you and then not leaving you with any good way to use them in your classes. That's mostly because of my own frustrations with similar experiences. I've had that fear with Tasks. How can I share this idea, which is a big one, and not leave you with a half-baked concept and no real notion of how to use it in your own classes?

But I'm going to dive in! Because I think Tasks are game-changing.

So here goes.

What is a Task?
I'm going to start with a definition. Miriam teases me on our CI podcast (which we share with Bob Patrick) about being predictable, because I believe whole-heartedly that no real intelligent conversation can move forward without clear definitions (it's my debate background).

A Task, for our purposes, is a linguistic activity that has a purpose outside of learning language.

Some non-linguistic purposes could include:
  • find these clues to an animal we're going to read about, then use them to create a drawing of what you think the animal might look like.
  • read a passage for support and then choose sides and form arguments for a debate.
  • survey student opinions on a topic and create a class overview (this is the prototype Task that is generally offered as an example by Bill VanPatten and others he recommends as resources).
  • take a Buzzfeed quiz to find out what ___ you are (could be: Hogwarts House, animal, color, dessert, etc.) or to find out if you are more country or city, etc.
  • create a character, read stories for clues to prepare you to fight the next enemy, and role-play through a scenario. 
  • choose your own adventure stories.
  • follow instructions to create something.
Any of these things are tasks.

The point of a Task is to get students using language to accomplish things and effectively immerse themselves, and so forget the fact that they are using the target language while they strive to successfully complete the task.

This leads to another necessity of a task that may not be an explicit part of the definition of a task but falls naturally within the scope of a task: a task must be comprehensible and compelling

For a student to forget he or she is using the target language, the language must be comprehensible enough that the student does not interrupt linguistic flow. It also must be compelling enough that students are invested in the activity and care about the purpose they have been given; if they are only completing the activity because they are getting it done for a grade, then they start thinking about the language and not in the language. 

For more on tasks and to follow our own journey of discovery on Tasks, you can listen to our book study on Tasks and Communicating in Language Classrooms or you can listen to back episodes of Tea with BVP for various discussions of Tasks and what they are (here is Episode 24 on the Nature of Tasks to get you started!).

The Types of Tasks
Miriam and I are by no means experts on tasks, but I think we have refined our own use of tasks into a few types or categories of tasks that we generally go to. I have also provided a sample of each task type.

Survey Tasks
These are the first types of tasks that Miriam and I started with when we formally began experimenting with Tasks™.
  1. Checklist surveys are a convenient means of pure input. This makes them especially fitting for a Latin I or 2 class. We can fit them to either our own vocabulary or thematic needs (what pleases you, what scares you) and still the students' purpose for taking the survey is informational. We follow the checklists with group tallies and whole-class tallies of the information, which allows for heavily-supported student discussion in the target language.
  2. Buzzfeed quizzes are another way to survey students--and they are naturally engaging. Students somehow find esoteric things like what "Skittle flavor are you" fascinating, and while I don't create quizzes on these topics, to paraphrase Field of Dreams, offer to classify them, and they will come. I did create a "Are you more City or Country?" quiz to go with their City Mouse and Country Mouse unit and Miriam has written a quiz that helped students find out "What Animal are You?" Students automatically want to share their results, so this automatically engenders discussion, but I know that both Miriam and I like to make sure that there is directed discussion at the end of the quizzes.
Effort vs Yield: This task takes some work to create and maybe generates 30-40 minutes of input, depending on how long you can extend the discussion. The Buzzfeed style quizzes are actually harder because you have to create a result system. So I think these tasks, while the "prototasks," maybe fittingly for the prototasks, are the highest effort for the lowest yield.

Example Survey Task: Are You Country or City? Written in Buzzfeed style, but followed with survey style steps, so you get the best of both worlds.

Instruction Tasks
I have chosen to divide this category into two types, traditional and scavenger hunts.
  1. Traditional instruction tasks. To be honest, this idea itself is not new. Giving kids instructions in a target language and having them follow those instructions is as old as teaching language; keeping the instructions comprehensible and compelling so they can forget they are learning a language is the trick here (maybe--I don't want to invent wheels). I was privileged to do an entire unit of instructional tasks (among other things) when I taught a Roman food unit last semester to my fours, and it was an amazing mix of live moment-to-moment TL instruction and handing over recipes with some wandering guidance from me. This can be done at lower levels as well. We are teaching Minerva and Arachne to the Latin I students and I have been considering a very simple instructional task where I help them create a cardboard shuttle and loom and weave a bit of yard using a technique I learned from Miriam years ago!
  2. Scavenger Hunts and QR Code Hunts. These are tasks that ask students to follow clues to find something--in the case of my Harrius Potter unit, students had a scavenger hunt to find their Hogwarts school supplies (with some false leads if they did not follow the list in their acceptance letters). QR Code Hunts are similar, except students find QR codes with a Latin sentence to write down and a clue to the next code. The sentences usually add up to a story or are clues to a creature or a mystery needing solving. Miriam and I have presented over QR Code Hunts several times and posted over them here and here.
Effort vs Yield: I'll start with QR Code Hunts. Medium effort, though it can be more the first time you make them, but the yield is high. Students stay engaged, stay focused on the purpose of the clues, not language, and, as a bonus, it's a low effort day for you, so if you need a down day, I recommend it. Traditional instruction tasks are also medium effort and high yield, but you will be just as engaged as the kids the entire time, so high energy for them and you.

Example Instruction Task: Caseus Recipe. This is a recipe I used to lead the class as a whole through making cheese. The posted instructions are simple and allowed me to expand as needed aloud. 

There is no easy way to discuss this without touching on my obsessiveness with games, so I had to divide this into two categories. I'm starting with the less strenuous party games, however.
  1. Party Games. I am going to start this section by saying you can bring simple games into your class and they can be really worth it. Think of party games that are conversationally focused and create a strong lexicon for support. I recently created a version of "Never Have I Ever" (also known as "Ten Fingers") to accompany my unit on the House of Atreus to review events we have read and to preview potential upcoming events. It generated a lot of TL discussion, with the purpose of finding out more about other students or getting them out of the game, as well as a lot of laughter, and was something I wrote fairly quickly in the exhausted haze of the Sunday after I got home from State Convention.
  2. Gamer Games. [Surgeon General's Warning: I love games and identify as a gamer. So I am willing to sacrifice health and sanity to bring gaming into my classroom. So if that is definitely not you, feel free to skip this portion, or read it, shaking your head and tsking at me, like my husband does (and he is a gamer too).] Some gaming influences Miriam and I have brought into our classes are: 1) choose your adventures, which require intense planning, because that's a much more involved story to write. Miriam started these last year--it feels longer--and I have started playing with them this year. 2) Breakout rooms, again requiring intense planning! I did my first one in October based in Harrius Potter, after discovering Breakout.edu at a presentation at AWLA last year. Miriam just completed hers over Roman medicine. They are SO cool! But they require weeks of planning. 3) Miriam and I have also done a strategy/Risk-esque game when teaching students about Hannibal in Latin II. Miriam's version took my beginning of an idea and developed it into a much better system that helped students use the target language more than mine did. 4) These last two years I have had role-play games in Latin III and IV, one in which students played major historical figures from Caesar's Civil War and, this year, a more traditional D&D style game in which students created heroes, fought monsters, and saved the world (I will be doing a write up about that one in about a month). These games give students a purpose outside language--kill an enemy, make a deal with Caesar, outmaneuver Hannibal--and that purpose is so much more engaging than anything else I could create that it's worth the exhaustion and, yes, sometimes tears, in my opinion.
Effort vs Yield: Traditional games have low effort for medium to high yield. They only take a small adjustment to prepare, students know how to play them, and they are easy to personalize to your needs. Gamer games are high to intense effort for high yield. The yield length can very between short-lived (choose-your-own adventure and Breakout rooms) and extended (role-play games).

Example Party Game: Never Have I Ever. This has an extensive lexical guide so students aren't left trying to produce Latin they may not be ready to produce (instead it's actually Comprehensible Input disguised as output!), but it does leave room for students to produce if they're ready. One of my favorite spontaneous moments was by a student who used his unique vision against his group: "Numquam umquam colores vidi." ("Never have I ever seen colors.")

Debate and Analysis Tasks
These are the headier tasks and I am having a harder time describing them. They are Miriam's strength more than mine--she is fantastic at building these. One example from her Jason and Medea unit is when she built a task that had us divide students (by their choice) into teams to argue as either Jason or Medea's divorce attorneys. Students reread through the novella to gather evidence, as well as using some additional evidence: a visual, a letter, a legal document. Their purpose was to gather evidence and build a case, then argue it. Miriam has also had students analyze dreams, and, recently, in their medical unit, they have had to look at symptoms and assign Roman cures. This is a task type I am hoping to personally improve in--I'm just not there yet. My analysis activities often end up linguistically-focused as well as thematic, automatically making them not tasks.

Effort vs Yield: Debate and Analysis tasks can take high effort to prepare but they also offer high yield; not only do they provide rich opportunity for input, but the depth of discussion is significant, and students find themselves thinking in the language at a level that they simply do not when they are not guided to do so. These tasks take students to that depth without the fear of drowning, so they are more willing to engage and forget about the fact that this heavier discussion is not happening in their first language.

Example Analysis Task: Dream Analysis. Students roll up a dream and then proceed to analyze it using a dream guide. Students then discussed their analyses and what their dreams meant to them and about them. This was part of a larger unit on games and fortune telling. All of their reading in this task is for the purpose of understanding the imagery they have been given in their dreams.

So what now?
Hopefully you try your hand at any of these types of tasks, or you come up with your own, completely other kind of task. The thing about tasks is, as long as you have students interacting with language in a way that is comprehensible, compelling, and caring (which is a given, if you've created something like this for them), and for a purpose outside of language learning, then the sky's the limit. That's really all there is to it. And if you make some, please share them in the comments below! I'd love to see what you write and learn from you.

That said, if you want even more examples and resources, plus six presentations organized around various topics over tasks that Miriam and I found important to help focus this discussion (including two 45 min long live sessions), and to hear the word "purpose" more times than you can count, we did a webinar over the topic on steppingintoci.com as part of our paid subscription. We are now past the time of live feedback for your tasks as you write them, but the videos and all written materials remain available.

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