Project-based learning, the USA and Authentic Video in the EFL classroom

Part 1

The Globe Trekker/Pilot Guides video collection is a treasure trove for any English teacher. It encompasses extensive material from every corner of the world, and especially English-speaking countries are lavished with attention. Australia, Canada, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England – you name it. Even individual cities are endowed with an approx. 50-minute complete video of its own, like London, New York City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans to name but a few.

Covering the United States satisfactorily in the language classroom is a daunting project, especially if you want to give your students more than a superficial understanding of its history, geography, language and people. Most textbooks for EFL students fall short in this respect, and it’s understandable – time available is limited and there is so much more that needs to be covered. But the situation can be remedied to a certain extent by taking your students on a virtual tour of this enormous multi-faceted, contradictory country, which, in spite of its young age, has so many fascinating stories to offer, and by giving them the visuals to go with these stories.

To date, Globe Trekker offers a range of videos on the USA, covering practically every individual state, and, so it seems, more is coming every new season.

Every video is about 50-55 minutes, which, of course, means that you have a few decisions to make – viewing all of them in the traditional classroom is a big no-no, at least if you want to keep the students’ attention. You can choose one to view in class and base all your allotted USA-time on that, but then again, which one? Which part of the country is so representative of the USA as a whole that you can disregard the rest? That’s a hard one to answer, and I won’t even make an attempt to do it. One of the other alternatives is to give every student one video plus an assignment to carry out in connection with it. That is the one I personally went for. Another option would be to have the students work in pairs with one video, which means you didn’t have to include the city guide videos but could concentrate on the states. It all depends on how many videos you have at hand, as well as how many students you have. And, of  course, what the post-video phase will be.

In addition to making this initial decision, there are quite a lot of follow-up issues to consider:

  1. 1) Should the students be able to choose what video they are going to work with, or could this choice be made for them (without the teacher being dictatorial)?
  2. 2) What will the assignment be all about?
  3. 3) How could the sharing of all the gathered information best be implemented?
  4. 4) What is the time frame to work within?
  5. 5) What tools / skills will the students need in order to fulfill the requirements?

Part 2

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My guess was that if the students were to choose their own videos, there would be parts of the USA more popular than others, like for instance California and New York. This wouldn’t be quite fair to those whose turn to choose came last, or those who didn’t participate the loudest in the shouting match that would probably ensue, because they would end up with the least popular ones and that might have a negative impact on their inner motivation. I had to come up with another solution, one that preferably involved the element of suspense, which I knew from experience is an automatic attention grabber. I started the class by writing the numbers 1-17 on the whiteboard, as there were 17 students and I had 17 videos. The students were to choose one number – there wouldn’t be much fighting or shouting about favourite numbers. Moreover, it would be fair to all students as they could recognize that nobody had any advantage here, the video they ended up with was a random act of chance not a deliberate move from anybody in particular. And, as I said, they had no idea what the numbers were all about anyway. One by one, names were added to the numbers. This would work also if you had fewer than 17 students in class or if you had more than 17 videos; any remaining numbers would result in the corresponding videos being left out of the project (NB! The names shown here are all entirely fictitious and merely serve the purpose of illustration).NumbersWhen all students have been assigned a number, it’s time to show what the numbers signify. I told them that they were all going to work with one particular part or aspect of the USA and that they had, in fact, already “chosen” what that part would be.NamesThis is actually a research project like any other, but here their background material was in the form of one video instead of books or web sites. They could, of course, use Google to look up names or other facts mentioned in the video, but the whole idea was that the contents of their end product would be based on what they had seen and heard in the video. Therefore, the ever-present risk or temptation in any research project to copy/paste would be eliminated. To use video in this way has many advantages at least when it comes to the language classroom. You get a multi-sensory (is there such a word?) activity based on several language skills:  listening and writing (and the more optional one of reading if they use Google), and depending on the end product, the added skill of speaking, which leads me to what the students were actually supposed to do.  The project would for each video lead to two end products: a PowerPoint presentation with nothing but images and a poster with both pictures and captions. The PowerPoint presentation would be needed for an oral presentation in class and the poster for an exhibition on the classroom walls. Now you might ask why there was to be no text in the PowerPoints. The answer is quite simple – I want the students to get as much practice speaking freely in front of others as they can, and speaking without reading aloud is a prerequisite for any good presentation. The images they choose for their Powerpoints should therefore be chosen for mnemonic devices, to help them remember what to speak about, and not so much for looking nice, which, I have found, seems to be the only purpose pictures normally serve in student presentations. This adds real communicative speaking to the skills involved in this project. The students need to do some real attentive listening in order to get the facts straight, they need to do some real writing in the form of notes for themselves, and they need to practice their oral presentation before it’s time to step up in front of the class and deliver. Also, of course, they learn a lot about the United States, as well, and learning about target language countries is a predominant requirement in the national Finnish curriculum. In the next chapter I will talk about guiding the students as to content and scope of their project.

 

Part 3

Utskrift

The first question in any student’s mind is how long any project presentation should be. The second one is what he/she is supposed to concentrate on. The answers to these largely depend on how much time you can allocate for the project, and, of course, what you want the students to learn from it all. In this instance I wanted the students to really experience the USA firsthand and come away from it with quite a lot of new insights from as many parts of country as possible. Therefore, the project should be worked on in detail and presented as if they had undertaken the journey themselves. In order to achieve this, I felt I needed to give each of them a route plan, a guideline on what they were supposed to tell the other students. So, each student – or student pair if they worked in pairs – receives a card with listings of places or things to visit and experience (see above), but not until they’ve done step 1 – watched the video as a whole. If they get them at the very beginning, they might skip this first step altogether which might be detrimental to a comprehensive approach to the subject at hand. Left to themselves, students generally tend to take the easy way out here and go directly to Wikipedia or similar, so if you, like I do, really want to stress the listening and watching part of the process here, it might be a good idea to stress that all content in their own presentation should derive from the video, and if it is not to be found in the video, it’s a waste of time to have it in their presentations.

The ideal time frame of the presentation would be about 10-15 minutes, and every presentation is to start with a map, giving the audience a clear understanding of the geographic route for the journey as well as information on what US states will be covered. This is included in each of the videos and can be captured by pressing the Print Screen button on the keyboard or by using the Snipping tool. (All my references here are to Windows machines as those are the ones we have at my school and the ones I know best.)

 

The route travelled in the video "Deep South"

The route travelled in the video “Deep South”

 

When it comes to the actual learning and preparation work time frame one needs to consider each step of the process and allocate lessons and homework according to that. Now, as I’ve previously stated, each video is about 50 minutes, give or take, which means the first lesson of full-time project work would be spent doing an all through-viewing of the video material in order for the students to get an overall picture of their journey.

The next step is more work-intensive. They need to collect pictures, ie. screen shots, along the way, make notes for themselves, check with the route plan, google facts, maps and names; all activities that are surprisingly time consuming.  Allocated time can be anything from 4 lessons upwards, depending on how much homework you presume the students can and will manage.

Putting the screen shots or the images together in Powerpoint and planning the presentation in itself, is not altogether a piece of cake either and will demand time and effort, too, especially if you want the students to make a proper job of it all. Also, allow a lesson for practising presentation skills in pairs or on their own.

For the poster,  the students select their most representative images from the PP presentation, compose captions, and print it all on paper.  The final step is the physical putting together of the poster itself. The poster step could be left until later, as well, until all the oral presentations have been delivered, and it could be replaced by an online photo album, for instance. It might be nice for the students though to have something tangible in the nonvirtual world to look at after all their hard work.

Altogether you might need as many as 10-15 lessons, not forgetting to allow yourself ample time for the initial instruction phase. I think it’s important that every student needs to know exactly what they are supposed to do, how much time they have to do it and what will be the outcome of it all. Also, it might not be enough with oral instructions at the beginning of the project; at least my students need continuous access to the instructions and the time frame where they can go to remind themselves of all the different steps along the way. Putting the printed instructions on the classroom wall is one option here; having them online, where they can be accessed from home and by their parents, too, might even be a better one.

In the next part I will talk about the presentation phase and different options here, in order to optimize learner engagement and communicative activity.

 

Part 4

USA2When it comes to the final presentations there are a few things that need emphasizing:

  • 1) it needs to be interesting and enjoyable for the audience
  • 2) there cannot be any reading aloud, not from the PP itself or from a manuscript – the images in the Pp should be chosen for mnemonic as well as illustrative reasons
  • 3) check that all the points in the given route plan are present
  • 4) did you remember to include the map?

Now, a regular presentation in front of the rest of the class usually tends to be rather an angst-ridden experience for most students, even more so when it is to be delivered in a foreign language. On the other hand, it is usually taken more seriously than if you have the students sit in small groups and present to each other. 

If you want your students to take the task at hand seriously, but get the anxiety a notch or two down, there is an alternative, which is generally perceived as fun for all participants involved, practically angst-free, and concluding in having your students much more fluent and proficient speakers than before the presentation stage – based on the Gallery Walk idea. In this instance we could call it The US Travel Fair.

Let’s assume for argument’s sake that we have a class of 17-18 students, and each student has worked individually on one video, one part of the USA.

Option 1

Arrange the class  so that you have a row of desks for the number of students who are going to do their presentations in the first run. The simplest choice here would be to have half the class sitting down doing the presentations whereas the other half  moves around from desk to desk, listening and taking notes. When they have moved a full circle, the presenters and the fair visitors will change places and the second run is ready to start. That means we have two runs of presentations – but each student has only heard half of all presentations. 

Option 2

Arrange the class so that you have 6 fair stands (for 1/3 of the students – students 1-6). The other students – students 7-18 – circle in pairs from stand to stand, listening and taking notes. When they have moved a full circle it’s time for the second run, where students 7-12 go behind the desks, and the other students form new pairs. A new full circle and then the third and last run with students 13-18 taking the presenter roles. This will take more time but now each student has heard at least two thirds of the presentations (plus his own).

Gallery walk

Let’s look at it from an individual presenter’s view of the situation. With the first option he has done his presentation from beginning to end about 8 times, with the second 6 times. For every presentation he becomes more confident, more fluent in his role and at the end of the game he is pretty proficient in talking about what he’s seen and experienced in the video. One might think that this would be perceived as boring and repetitive, but surprisingly enough most students find it deeply motivating and gratifying as they themselves become aware of their progress as speakers. 

The Travel Fair visitors have come to the fair in order to decide which part of the USA he/she would like to visit based on the presentations. He’s to take notes, listen carefully and then at the end of each run make a Top 3-list, with  carefully elaborated arguments for his selection based on the presentations he’s seen. 

Final discussion and debriefing

When the fair is over, the students can sit in groups of four (Option 1) or six (Option 2) to compare and discuss their Top 3-lists, and agree on a new Top 3-list for the whole group. Each student has to defend their choices based on the arguments he has formed for himself, and verbally “fight” for his candidates to make it to the Final 3. Their own presentations will not be included in the discussion because no one in the group has heard any one else’s – they sit in groups according to their roles in the different runs of the fair. The teacher might help here with a list of things to consider (language use – how enjoyable/interesting the presentation was – how informative etc)

When they’re done or when time is up, each group will present their new Top 3-list to the teacher and the rest of the class.

Finally it’s time for the wall posters to be put up on the wall. Here it might be nice to have a formal exhibition opening, where the students are invited to walk around, discuss what they see and what they recognize from having heard at the fair. Alternatively they could be given a list of questions based on the posters and their task would be to find the answers, an activity which might ensue in a gamified quiz in class teams with prizes to win.

My end notes

The teacher’s role in this whole project has been minimized; it is highly student-centered every step of the way. The students have  used all language skills – listening, speaking, writing, and reading – with an emphasis on listening and speaking, skills that tend to be secondary in school project work. It has been a large project, both in terms of time spent and effort made, and it has been described in a very subject specific way. It can, however, very well be modified to suit any topic really in the language classroom. One might not have a 50-minute long video on 17-18 different aspects of one single topic, but one video really is sufficient to meet these particular project requirements – it’s just a matter of cutting that one video into smaller segments and have the students work on these. Alternatively the students can work in pairs and not individually which means that the need for video material has been cut in half. If the video segments are smaller, less lesson time is needed, and the whole project could be done in a week or even less.

On the whole, students find it motivating to work with authentic video. Not only do they get accustomed to hearing and understanding accents of the target language from speakers around the world, they also get to broaden their horizons and learn about things in real life, never to be encountered in language textbooks. It also stimulates more than one of the senses and a student’s performance is not dependent on their writing and spelling skills, something that is highly welcomed by students with any kind of dyslectic diagnosis. From a teacher’s point of view there is no risk for cheating by using the copy/paste functions, and everybody, shy and extrovert students alike, will have equal opportunities to shine. Laziness and failure to make an effort will, however, take its toll on the performance, and, if not before, it will be conspicuously evident in the sharing and debriefing part of the project.

 

 

 

 

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