Re-thinking learning for the 21st Century

Author: Jennifer Bairos (Page 2 of 3)

Interactive Oral Communication in the FSL Classroom

When I was reflecting on what I learned during Cohort 21 this year, the number 1 answer I have is that I learned so much about interactive oral communication.

I have spent a good amount of time reflecting on when my students speak French in class and when they don’t. I realized that they speak with me in French a great deal, and they find success in orally presenting projects they’ve completed. What were missing were opportunities for my students to speak French to each other.


With this realization in mind, I redirected my how might we question to focus on how I can support and encourage my students to build this skill.

What’s exciting about this realization is that it falls entirely in line with the trend in second language education in Ontario towards the CEFR (Common European Framework for Reference). In its simplest form, the CEFR encourages language learning via authentic situations vs grammatical drills and vocabulary lists. Interactive communication thrives in the CEFR.

Instead of worrying about what my students know about a language, I needed ask myself what can they do with a language. (source) And this meant that I had to increase my expectations of my students.

To help me with this, I spent the day with a teacher whom I know is rocking interactive oral communication. Richard Smith teaches Grade 7 and 8 Core French in Ottawa and is passionate about getting middle school students to speak in French.

He reminded me that we are the model for our students. We need to be excited about speaking French in class, and speak French as much as possible.

As I watched him teach and thought about my own lessons, I realized that I often structured my lesson as:

1. a teacher-directed thing – 30 mins

2. time for individual or partner work/discussions (the latter which often shifted into English) – 20 mins

I was asking my students to do the hardest part at the end of the lesson.

French is not easy. It’s a tough subject and a tough sell for a lot of middle school students. But they can do it. And we can sometimes forget that most of them want to do well and enjoy it.

However, we have to structure our lessons for success. I needed to move the hardest part of their 50 minute period to the beginning. If they are going to be speaking to each other, I need to get to them while their momentum for the class is still high.

Now my lessons look like this:

1. 2 or 3 grammar raps and a handful of oral review questions connected to the raps to warm everyone up. (see and for the best grammar raps) – 5 mins

2. Interactive oral communication activity or oral discussion. (Language teachers in the house – bookmark this Google Slide presentation. It’s Richard’s bank of communication learning activities and on its way to being my most visited website of the year.) – 15-20 mins

3. a teacher-directed thing either from CEC or AIM  (often, but not every day) – 15 mins

4. individual or partner work time (usually reading/writing) 10-15 mins

So far, it’s going well. There is still lots of room to grow. There are moments when we still need to use some English in the classroom; however, my students are all generally pretty excited about the new energy and new learning activities in the classroom. For example, my grade 7 students love the “Last Letter, First Letter” challenge with teams creating lists of 30, 40, and up to 46 words in 7 minutes!)

It has meant I’ve had to say au revoir to other pieces of our program (some of which I love so hard), but I know what we’re doing now is important and what my students most need at this time.


I feel like my teaching life is a hot mess right now, but I kind of love it

If my professional learning has done anything this year, it has turned me into a hot mess. A good hot mess. But a hot mess just the same.

Last year I was organized. I knew what lesson came next in my unit. I knew which Google Docs to use and when to use them. I knew which resources to have at the tips of my fingers in my classroom. I had my timing for lessons, learning activities, and projects down to the minute.

This year, while I’m keeping many of the overall learning goals for my classroom the same, the path to which we achieve these learning goals is changing.  And I don’t always know my next step.

Which leads me to this…

I feel like a hot mess teacher this year, but I believe my students are better off for it.

In December and January, my Cohort 21 Action Plan had very clear goals. I generated a meaningful list of items I could check off a to do list.

And check them off I did.

You see, I’m really good at organization.

I surveyed my students. I visited and observed a teacher I admired in Ottawa. I reviewed some old materials I want to start using again. I read a book. I started making changes in my classroom with new technology.

But I’ve finished all of the “things” on my list and now I’m testing out what I’ve learned. I’m living in a phase of experimentation, and it’s messy. It’s absolutely not organized.

Initially, I had this great idea that I would give myself permission to only experiment with one class. If I’m only playing around with one grade, I’d save myself from this exact feeling of hot mess-ness everywhere in my day.

But (unfortunately? fortunately?) I kept learning new ideas that were perfect for each of my different classes, and I was too excited to wait. I wanted to test them all, so I decided if I was going to play with my program and my teaching practice, I’m going all in.

It’s exciting and fun, and I kind of love it. It’s make me more flexible as a person, that’s for sure.

However, my Cohort 21 Action plan for February to April has pretty much two things on it. Try out new interactive oral communication learning activites in the classroom. Decide which ones work and do them again.

This is not what I thought the end of my Cohort 21 year would look like. I’m sure by April, I’ll still be in this experimentation phase: Discover/Create new ways to get my students speaking to each other in French. Try them out. Repeat.

In a future post, I plan to share exactly what I’ve learned about interactive oral communication in the FSL  classroom and what learning activities have, so far, been successful in my classes.

For now, it’s been a learning curve for me, a person who craves a plan, to live in this space of the unknown. This phase of testing things out. It’s ironic that while I feel a bit less certain of what we’re doing, because much of it is new to me, my students are building their confidence with language.

I can already tell some of our experiments are working. Many of my students are speaking more French in class than they have in a long while.  We moved into a new classroom a few weeks ago, and I think that has helped as well. It was a fresh start in a different, new space with different, new expectations.

I don’t know if I would have been brave enough to try out so many new things in my classroom all at once if I didn’t have such wonderful support from my Cohort 21 team, my Montcrest colleagues, and our school administration. Their encouragement that I’m on the right track definitely keeps me going on days where I’m feeling particularly hot mess-y.


Two Steps Forward, One Step Back, Then One Step Forward Again

One thing I’ve learned so far though the Cohort 21 process is that design thinking is not easy. It’s messy, there are inspiring and unique ideas coming at you from everywhere, and sometimes you can even lose sight of your initial goals.

At our last Face to Face session, while I was chatting with my group about building student confidence in my class, I brought up language portfolios. I’ve dabbled with them in the past, but they always fall to the wayside because there never seems to be time to maintain them. Someone in my group brought up trying oral portfolios. I loved this idea! I’d never heard of it before, and since our school is relatively tech-savy, I thought this could be something I might really  like to dive into.

So, at the end of the day, I landed on this How Might We…..? question:

How might we increase student confidence and competence with respect to oral communication in the classroom?

What I especially loved about the oral language portfolio ideas is that it would be an excellent “thing” to show everyone (and I don’t even know what I mean by everyone) at the end.

I had this idea in my head that I needed to have a “thing” when I finish this year with Cohort 21. No one has ever said this to me. It was an expectation I made for myself, so I could prove that this year was worthwhile.

Which led me to head down a rabbit hole about digital language portfolios. Not that digital/oral language portfolios are a bad idea. I still think having students go back and listen to themselves from months or years past might be a powerful tool in helping middle school students recognize the skills they do have and identify their areas of growth. But what I realized was that I simply don’t have the time to investigate them and still focus on increasing the actual oral communication in my classroom at the same time. And what I really want for my students right now, what my students really need right now, is to be speaking more in French. To me and to each other.

I looked at my HMW question and decided it’s too big. I needed to make my focus smaller. One thing at a time, right? @lmustard answered my call for help on Twitter, and chatting with her this week was so helpful. I wanted to refocus my efforts and time back to finding ways to help students speak more French in class, but I was worried that if I took a showable “thing” off the table that maybe I’m not doing enough? Would I still be getting everything out of Cohort 21 that I could? She reassured me that going through the design thinking process, following our action plans, and trying new ideas out in the classroom is absolutely enough. That Cohort 21 will bring us to the end of the beginning, but there is still so much more that can follow.

So, I’ve changed my HMW question, and I’m much happier with it.

How might we support our students while increasing interactive oral communication in the FSL classroom?

I feel like this is exactly what I want to think about and tackle right now, and my action plan from the fall still fits.

Thanks again to @lmustard for the holiday coaching session!


The Best PD I’ve Done In Ages (other than C21 obvs)

Every fall, I meet with my assistant head to discuss my own professional learning goals for the year. This year, I’d like to shift my classroom routines and lessons to focus more on oral communication. During our discussion, I told her about a teacher I know of, Richard Smith, who took the potentially drastic step of removing desks his Grade 7 and 8 core French classroom because his focus is so high on oral communication that he doesn’t feel he needs permanent desks. (He uses whiteboards around the room and clipboards for each student when they do writing activities and assessments.)

Since my school operates with a 1:1 laptop program in its middle school, which I love, I don’t know that I’d ever remove desks entirely, but my questions were these: What oral communication learning activities is he doing with his 7s and 8s each day? How can I incorporate some of them into my own classroom?

In my chat with my assistant head, she encouraged me to plan a visit to see him teach. I’d seen Richard speak at various conferences in the past; however, being able to spend time observing him directly would be even more meaningful. Richard was graciously open to having me visit for the day; however, he is in Ottawa, and I’m in Toronto. Not exactly a day trip. To make this work, my husband and I booked a family trip to Ottawa one weekend in December, and we planned to stay an extra day, so I could see Richard teach.

To say my day with Richard was valuable would be an enormous understatement. He was so passionate, thoughtful, and generous that I spent the whole day furiously taking pages of notes. He made sure that each lesson he taught that day was unique, so I could see as many different activities as possible. He also shared many of his resources with me (yeah for the ease of Google Drive!)

Richard reminded me that I am the model for my students. They will mimic the energy for and use of French that they see.

He also said to me that his goal is for 80-90% of each class to be in the target language. This was actually a relief to hear because I’d seen Richard speak so many times that I’d built up in my head that he was conducting all of his Grade 7 and 8 core French classes in the target language 120% of the time, and that seemed like such a mountain to climb from where I feel some days. Knowing that, even with the best teachers, there is wiggle room is comforting.

I’m so grateful to Richard for sharing his classroom with me, and I strongly encourage you to find another teacher in your field and check out what they’re doing. It’s so energizing! As Seth Godin  says, “Most of the time, we adopt the scarcity model of pizza. ‘I don’t have that much, and if I share it with you, I won’t have any left…’ But in fact, the useful parts of our life are better characterized as, ‘If I share it with you, we’ll both have it.’ An idea shared is more powerful than one that’s hidden.” 


Quiet by Susan Cain

On the first day we met Face to Face as a cohort, I was in the initial phases of formulating the questions and challenges I wanted to take on this year. I knew I wanted my focus to be somehow connected to oral communication.  As a second language teacher, I spend a good part of my day encouraging people to speak. To take risks. To make mistakes in front of their peers. For my students, I recognize that this is not easy and it is not for everyone. So, how do we do it anyways?

My coach, @acampbellrogers, told me I’d probably be interested in reading Quiet by Susan Cain. This book describes what life is like for introverts and how we can harness the power of those who aren’t often the loudest speakers in the room.

I consider myself a velocireader, so I’m always happy to take on new book recommendations. I immediately borrowed a copy from a co-worker and started reading.

Quiet really has me asking myself what speaking fluidly means and has shifted my perspective. Speaking slowly doesn’t mean that a student is not speaking fluidly. Additionally, the medium is not always the message. If the message is thoughtful, there is room in second-language education to acknowledge this, even if it is “easier” to evaluate errors that are right and wrong. And my students who are fluent and don’t speak extensively in class are still fluent. As I enter report card season, this is something I am keeping in my mind much more than I ever have before.

Another interesting point is that the rise of social media and the Internet has given introverts a “voice”, especially with writing. My question is, “How can I transfer this to oral communication?” Flipgrid is a start.

Being mindful of seating was something else that I had never thought of before. Don’t seat quiet students in “high-traffic or high-interaction” areas. It will increase anxiety, decrease concentration, and they won’t actually speak more.

And finally, never underestimate the power of empathy. I’d like to find more opportunities to check in with my introverted students before presentations. To encourage them. To tell them that I also get nervous, but it does get easier with time. I loved reading how we should teach our students the importance of rehearsal and practice. This is a concept I’ve been hammering home with my students more recently, and it’s validating to read that I’m on the right track with this one.

I’d definitely say that Quiet is a  must-read for second-language teachers. It certainly gave me quite a bit to think about!


FlipGrid – A Success Story!

I don’t mind trying out new technology in the classroom, but it has to be dead easy to navigate, both for me and for my students. Nothing frustrates me more than when I try out something new tech-wise in my classroom, and the lesson ends up being 10% about speaking French and 90% about the technology.

Out our first Face to Face session, I was chatting with a fellow French teacher, @mneale, and she showed me FlipGrid. FlipGrid is an easy to use website/app where students can make videos of themselves speaking about a topic. Students can also take a quick selfie at the end of their video, as well as “like” or reply to each other’s videos giving it a very social media-esque feel.

I knew immediately that my students would be excited about this platform, so last week I gave it a go with my Grade 6 classes! To make room for all of the technological bumps I was sure would happen, I planned nothing else for our 50-minute lesson except “Make a FlipGrid video.”

We’re using D’un océan à l’autre as our jumping off point for our current module, so we’ve been brainstorming and practising a lot of vocabulary about festivals. I set up the task with these instructions and a sample video:

Without any other real instruction (because I honestly didn’t have any to give), I told my students to go make their own videos. They found the big green record button, used the anchor charts of vocabulary we’d previously brainstormed, and away they went!

The engagement level for this activity was off the charts! My students were so excited about their videos and especially about the selfies and stickers they could add at the end.

They were so quick making their initial videos that we had time to go into listening and video replying to each other’s videos en français. Some students even asked me if they could reply to the replies they were given! In their replies, I encouraged my students to give feedback about the video or find something they had in common. Ex. “Tu aimes manger la barbe de papa? J’aime manger la barbe de papa aussi!”


After class, I quickly went though the videos myself and deleted any that were either in English or just students being silly (and we had  a quick chat about that the following class.) I was then able to send a link to our FlipGrid to the parent community so they could see the videos and even add their own if they were interested.

I love this activity because there was so much spontaneous speech happening and they were having so much fun at the same time. Every single class since then, my students have asked me if we’re doing this activity again which is the best feeling as a teacher!

Notes I’ll remember for next time:

  1. Now that we are all familiar with how FlipGrid works, I’m going to encourage them to make longer initial videos.
  2. I need to remind students that their reply videos must be in French.

FlipGrid has so much more included in it with assessment as well. I will look into this moving forward. For now, I’m simply excited to hear my students speaking French and having fun.

@sthompson – maybe you can try this with your storytelling? I picture a student making a video starting a story and then each reply is the story growing and growing and growing.


Increasing Student Confidence and Competence in FSL – An Action Plan

A few weeks ago, I had another powerful Face to Face session with my fellow Cohort 21 class. Our goal for the day was to think about our learners, their challenges, our challenges, and begin to create an action plan that connected to a How Might We…. goal/question.

This is certainly a lot to pack into one day, and now that I’ve had a few weeks to sit with it all, I think I have some ideas and next steps ready for action!

My goal for my students is this: How might we increase student confidence and competence with respect to oral communication in the classroom?

This sounds very lofty, but what I truly wish for my students is simple. I want them to build their oral language conversational skills and I want them to have confidence that they do know how to say things in French.  As a middle school French teacher, it’s not uncommon to hear, “I suck at French.”  Students at this age tend to see things in black and white. There are the students who can speak French and the students who can’t and there is no movement between those groups. I want them to see the whole grey space in the middle!

I think building a growth mindset around French in particular is challenging with middle school students. Many of them know they “just need to make it to Grade 9” and then they can drop French. I want them to see that we’re not biding our time here. We have lots to learn and lots we can learn. And it doesn’t have to be painful!

Some logistical background

We use AIM Language Learning as the main program in our FSL classes from SK – Grade 5. My students come to me after many years of storytelling and plays and choral speaking and song. It’s a wonderful program that works well for primary and junior grades.

By Grade 6, our students tend to get AIM fatigue, so we move into the C’est parti!/Odyssée programs as our jumping off points for language learning. The topics are engaging for our middle school students and the reading/writing components are quite strong.

My action plan!

One thing I’ve noticed about my students when we transitioned away from AIM in middle school is that while our new program had so many strengths, it didn’t have the same power as AIM in the area of oral communication. I want to bring this back, but at an age-appropriate level. So here’s my plan

December Goals:

  • Visit Richard Smith and watch him teach for a day (a fantastic Grade 7/8 teacher in Ottawa who focuses primarily on oral communication in his classes)
  • Revisit our old Grade 6, 7, and 8 level AIM teacher guides and tab all of the activities that I could still incorporate into my program. Try some out in class.
  • Watch this Ted Talk: Learning a language? Speak it like you’re playing a video game. Maybe show it to my students as well!
  • Try something on Flip Grid.
  • Speak only French in class myself!
  • Share my how might me question and action plan with my students.

January Goals:

  • Investigate Quizlet
  • Wonder about oral language portfolios. What tech could I use? How often do we revisit it? Try it!
  • Pick one idea from Richard Smith’s class and try it out.
  • Bring more songs and raps into Grade 6 and 7 French. Make lists for each grade. (They love DJ DELF!)
  • Try using the “On Bavarde” sections from the C’est Parti and Odyssée lessons (that we always skip because there’s never enough time at the end of class) as oral review at the beginning of the next class.


We’ll see how far I get on all of that, but I am hopeful that after I try all of these experiments, I’ll be able to see which ones work best for my learners and what we will move forward with long-term!


@sthompson @mneale @eimrie

GMorning, GNight by Lin-Manuel Miranda – Book Review

While I haven’t yet been able to see a Hamilton production (gasp!), I still have so much love for Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter. Social media can be a catalyst for emotions of negativity and not enough-ness. Thankfully, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Twitter account is a bight light in what sometimes feels like dark noise.

Awhile ago, he started beginning and ending his day on Twitter with little pep talks. Phrased for us, but written also for himself, these short bursts of encouragement will fill your cup as you take on, or recover from, whatever life brings you. (Side note – Lin-Manuel Miranda was an English teacher once upon a time, so to all of the educators in the house, I’m sure he feels us!)

Now you can get many of these inspiring tweets all in one place with GMorning, GNight! little pep talks for me & you. Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda and illustrated by Jonny Sun (who is Canadian! 👏👏), this little book is charming and heartwarming, and your heart will be so happy you’ve picked it up.

No matter how you spend your day, whether it’s in an office, or home with your little ones, or in a classroom, GMorning, GNight will be a meaningful and calming addition to your morning and evening routines. I know it has felt that way to me.



Confirming My Wonderments

I recently wondered about the three most urgent needs of the students in my classroom. This is what I came up with:

  1. Improved conversational French skills
  2. Larger classroom space + headsets with microphones
  3. Open and positive mindset about learning French

A new classroom is on its way (yeah!), so, this year, I’m hoping to motivate and support my students with one main goal: speaking more French in class.

I wanted to make sure I was on the right track (plus it was my Cohort 21 homework this month!), so I interviewed three of my students to get their thoughts and ideas. These are the questions I asked them:

  • Can you tell me about a time you had a lot of fun speaking French in class?
  • What makes it easier to speak French in class?
  • What do you need from me to help you speak French more often in class?
  • What prizes would be fun to earn with your group?

The students were kind, thoughtful, and delighted to be given a voice. Each student I spoke with agreed that speaking French in class is the right place for us to focus next. When I read over all of their responses, I am taking away these three insights:

  1. Students like talking about things that feel authentic and fun. Students want to believe that what they are learning will apply to them in “real life”, for example, ordering at a restaurant. Skits and games are highly-popular.
  2. Students want opportunities to practise.  Since I stopped using AIM as my primary program in Grades 6-8 a few years ago, I’ve noticed I miss the “pleasant repetition” that was so naturally built into the AIM lessons and activities. It was interesting to me to see that some of the students seem to miss this as well. I feel there are ways to apply this philosophy into the new program we’re using. I need to speak less during lessons and help my students speak more. The people who are doing the speaking in the classroom are the people who are doing the learning. As one of my students said, “..the more we do it, it will become more natural.”
  3. Free time is a great reward. When my students participate in class, they earn points for their monthly group. We’ve moved away from using food as rewards and prizes in classrooms, and my students said they are too old to be interested in small items from the dollar store, so today I tried out a new prize – free time. 10 free minutes at the end of class for the winning group was a huge hit!

So, that’s our starting line. You can see how I had a quick check in with all of my Grade 7 students about oral communication in the classroom here. I feel like I have a big task in front of me, but I’m so excited, and I know that there is some excellent growth ahead, for both me and my students!


Taking Our Oral Communication Temperature

While the exact wording of my Cohort 21 goal and action plan are still to come, one thing I know for sure is that I will be exploring the area of oral communication in a core FSL classroom. In particular, I want to dive deep into how I might get my students speaking more often, not only with me, but also with each other.

I have a few ideas that I’m hoping to try; however, before I got too far into the phase of testing new things out in my classroom, I wanted to take the temperature of where my students are at right now. Last week, I put together this Google Form for my students to complete anonymously. I thought of all of the different ways we use oral communication in our classroom, and I asked them to rate their confidence level with each.  My plan is to use this same survey in May to (hopefully!) identify areas of success and areas where we can still do more work together.

This survey was completed by 28 Grade 7 Core French students with a variety of backgrounds when it comes to learning French as a second language. Some students come from immersion programs, some have been in a core French program since kindergarten, others since Grade 4, and I have a few students for whom this is only their second year learning French at all.

This might be the way many of my students speak French in class most often. We read chorally, we read and perform skits, and students read sentences, paragraphs, stories, or speeches they’ve written. I’m glad to see a good number of students feel confident with this skill.

This question is interesting and fun to analyse. Last year, when these students were in Grade 6, we used many DJ DELF/Etienne songs in our classroom to learn new vocabulary and grammar. They were so enthusiastic that we even had a DJ DELF concert at the end of the school year. It doesn’t surprise me at all that this is the highest area of confidence. I need to capitalize on this!

Speaking in complete sentences without much support is tricky, so it’s natural to have lower levels of confidence than simply responding to a question or sharing an idea quickly. One FSL teacher I know says he always expects each response to be a complete sentence (hint – listen for a verb in their response), even if it slows down the class. I think slowing down is a huge part of what I’m going to have to look at moving forward, so I can do this as well. Less is more.

The last question is the part of the survey that shocked me the most. Here, my students seem to be more confident speaking French with their classmates than they actually show me in class. I want to interpret this result to mean that students can do this, and my next step is finding out how to get the language out of them more consistently. Many of my students will speak to me in French during class, but getting them to talk to each other in French during class, that’s the dream.

I was nervous putting this survey out there for my students to complete. I taught many of these students last year as well, so it feels a bit personal; however, I’m pleased to know our starting point and excited to see their growth by the end of the year!




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