Things are going to get messy…

My action plan

My goal for this year was to provide more opportunities for my students to communicate orally in French in an authentic manner.

I had heard of Harkness tables from the English Department at my school, and I have been playing with this idea over the past couple of years. I didn’t realize its origins until I came across this site:

“On April 9, 1930, philanthropist Edward Harkness spoke to Exeter’s Principal Lewis Perry regarding how a substantial donation he had made to the Academy might be used:

‘What I have in mind is teaching boys in sections of about eight in a section . . . where boys could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where the average or below average boy would feel encouraged to speak up, present his difficulties, and the teacher would know . . what his difficulties were. . . This would be a real revolution in methods.’

The result was “Harkness Teaching,” in which a teacher and a group of students work together, exchanging ideas and information, around a table.”

[Note: I have taken myself out of the equation in order to allow me to evaluate while the Harkness is taking place.]

A HarkMess table moreso than Harkness?

I wanted student input on the format of the the final Harkness table, so I decided to do 2 practice Harkness tables and then a third as an assessment of learning. The students were discussing health in general (lifestyle, body image, dieting etc.). After each Harkness, I asked for their feedback with the intention of using it to improve their experience. Here’s what happened:

(I knew things would get messy! My original unit plan lies somewhat neatly in the boxes. My students’ feedback is splayed and layered everywhere else!)
Harkness table planning

First of 3 Harkness Tables

My goals were lofty – to get students to:

  • use French spontaneously in discussion
  • incorporate new vocabulary
  • use authentic listening resources to support ideas and
  • read for meaning.

As this particular course has 2 sections – one of 16 and one of 14 students – I randomly divided then into two groups. I handed out a sheet with the oval for tracking the ‘web’ of speakers (@mrcaplan pointed me to the following link for resources: .) On the other side was a page with vocabulary words (French only – I had given them this list to prepare; this was to jog their memory) and a space to take notes from the reading and video on the other side.


Whole group:

  1. Explain the concept of Harkness Table and how it’s going to work in French class. My Core French students were leery of being able to complete a Harkness table in French. They said that they did so for 35 minutes in English, but were very doubtful about being able to do anywhere near this amount in French.
  2. Show video twice (5 min.)
  3. Allow students to read article and take notes (7 min.)

Divide class into two:

  1. One half sits at desks set up in an oval while the other half observes. Their job is to create a web demonstrating who spoke in which order by drawing lines connecting the students’ contributions. The prompt is posted. It is different for each group, but based on the same theme of health. (Note: I did not give them the prompt prior because I was concerned that they would GoogleTranslate their ideas and memorize them. I wanted their authentic communication for this assignment.) After approximately 15 minutes, I signal the end verbally (“deux minutes”).
  2. Each student receives a copy of the web to see how much they contributed.(Hard to do when I had printed the paper for their own notes on the other side; instead they ended up just sharing with their assigned partner.)

My reflections:

  • Students were told to make notes as they read and watched the video, but they didn’t know what about since I hadn’t share the prompt with them. I had told them it was generally about ‘health’.
  • They should have access to their notes and the reading, but not their laptop during the Harkness Table; once again I fear the GoogleTranslating!

Student reflections:

  • Things that worked well: short reading, role of the observers, length (15 min.), 2 different prompts
  • Things to be improved: video was confusing and too fast to understand; vocabulary provided was not necessarily useful during the discussion; prompt – can this be given out beforehand, or maybe give 10-15 min. in class beforehand to work on specific prompt, or give 4 and choose one
  • Was this a fair assessment? – no because you can’t really prepare, not if you’re not good on your feet or shy

Second of 3 Harkness Tables

The procedure was basically the same as the first. I did not add any new vocabulary, but there was a new reading and a new video. The only major change was that I gave the observers tally sheets where they could track the contributions, i.e. gave details, asked a question, invited someone to join, used English words. I had also divided up each class strategically – in one, I put those with stronger oral skills together, in the other, I separated students who tended to talk a lot during discussions.

My reflections:

  • The tally sheet worked well in that students then had peer feedback as well as a list of words they had used in English; they could therefore look these up prior to the final assessment.
  • In the class in which I put stronger students altogether, I asked those students who had less French experience if they would be comfortable with the stronger group prior to placing them. Luckily no one said no, so this kept my numbers even.

Student reflections:

  • Things that worked well: tally sheet; the groups (keep the same for the final); not having a moderator since the groups were small (7-8 students); the video – it gave them more to discuss
  • Things to be improved: Signal the end by clapping/tapping the desk twice instead of saying “deux minutes”; the video – not necessary; Students also convinced me that they should be able to bring in notes because the conversation would easily stray so they wouldn’t be able to rely solely on what they had written (which was my fear – that they would GoogleTranslate their notes and read off them!).

Final Harkness Table

  • As homework, I assigned them the reading, and gave them the link to a video which was targeted to their level. I provided a sheet with useful vocabulary (in French only), and space for notes, which they could bring in with them. I gave them two prompts.
  • On the day of, we watched the video in class twice. I handed out tally sheets with boxes to check off for the observers. I wrote both prompts on the board, and rolled a die to assign their group a specific prompt. The rest of the discussion followed the same format as the previous ones.

My reflections:

  • Students who wanted to perform well prepared at home and came in feeling more at ease.
  • The students were right – they didn’t actually read off their notes! They had to react spontaneously to join in the conversation.
  • This was relatively easy to mark so I could give the students their results quickly. While writing everything down during the discussion was challenging, calculating their mark was easily done.
  • I had started to record their discussion, but  then ran into storage issues on my laptop. I’ll either have to look into this before next time, or accept that I might not have a recording available as reference for the future.
  • Note: I will be opening up a lunchtime Harkness table next week for those students who would like to try again. It will be a mix of both classes, so dynamics will be different. It will be a different prompt than the previous ones, but still based on the same reading and video.

Student reflections:

  • Things that went well: practice Harkness tables were a big help; they liked having their notes with them
  • Things to be improved: more time was needed (I stopped them after 18-22 minutes, depending on the flow of the conversation; I wanted to get 2 done in a period); the roll of the die was frustrating; give time for closing remarks

Assessment as learning

Here is a selection of comments provided by students after all 3 Harkness tables were completed (apologies for the format, not sure how to change it):

Is this a fair assessment of your oral skills? Why? Why not? How is an assessment like this helping you reach your goals in French class? Which feedback from this assessment do you think will be most helpful in the future?
I think that this is a pretty fair assessment of our oral skills. I believe it is pretty fair because we were allowed to bring in our own notes and think about the things that we are planning on saying. This is helping me reach my goals in French class because I am able to practice speaking French which I think is more useful. I think that the part about my pacing when talking was the most helpful, since now I know that when I’m presenting I talk slower from pressure. I should practice talking more often to become better when put on the spot.
Yes, I believe this is a fair assessment because it showcases a conversation with the student among their peers, overall demonstrating their oral skills. However, I wish there was more time. It teaches you how to have a constructive conversation in French which mimics a fully french environment and immerses the student which is a major plus. Better intonation and learning new vocabulary
No, this type of assessment is completely biased in terms of grouping. If you were to group people together and told them you were evaluating them based on their discussion, of course there would be people who would grab this chance and take all the time given to them. I am not the type to talk for a long time, so this assessment isn’t a fair representation of my skills. I think this assessment helped with my goals by letting me practice speaking in conversation and trying to come up with ideas in french on the spot The feedback that is most helpful is to ask more questions and get other people involved in the conversation.
I believe that this is both a fair and unfair assessment of my oral skills. It is a good simulation of real life situation. However, sometimes it is difficult to speak while others are trying to speak as well. My goal in french is to be able to speak it and understand, so oral assessments are really helping me to reach my goal. (although oral assessments are harder than writing in my opinion.) Getting feedback on my grammar, pronunciation and how to be further involved in the discussion will help me in the future.

I was very pleased with the outcome, and the students were so proud of themselves! They couldn’t believe that they could hold a discussion for that length of time in French! As I mentioned to them, #thatwasn’tsoawkwardafterall!

  • Have you ever tried this method in your classroom?

12 thoughts on “Things are going to get messy…

  1. A few things strike me here Vivienne: you are modelling learning with your students – truly a co-learner, and reflective practitioner. Your students’ voices are heard and you respond to them effectively, so that, in the end, they know more about how to speak French, and have practiced it; but, they also know more about themselves as a language learner.

    Very powerful action plan here. Thanks for sharing your process, frustrations, successes, questions, and the student feedback.

    You’re a real resource for Harkness and FSL teachers.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts, Garth. When I first got back into teaching secondary after years at the elementary level, I was very concerned about not looking so ‘sage-on-the-stage’-like. I had vague memories of standing in front of eye-rolling teens – and this was before the world was at their fingertips with the internet and a 1-1 laptop program! Now I feel the relief and opportunity that co-learning brings me. Truly more of the ‘guide on the side’!

  2. What a rich example of how assessment for learning is BOTH an assessment and instructional tool. And the clarity with which you wrote this made me feel as if I was in the room, and therefore able to try it myself.

  3. Wow! What a great process! I remember back in my first year of C21 – Garth suggested I use the Harkness App to drive the communication in my classes and it worked really well. I abandoned it for some reason – I think my students were seeing it in English quite a bit but you’ve inspired me to get back at it. We do round table discussions but this is excellent!

    The rumours are true… Mme Kraus has ways of making your talk! I really enjoyed reading the student reflective excerpts as well!

    Thanks for this great post – you’re moving French forward in a big way!

      1. Merci pour le lien, Derek. I’ve somewhat hesitated using the debate format as I’m not too familiar with it. To me, it can seem like less natural and more of an attack; this seems like a gentler format.

  4. This is amazing! It’s obvious that your students were pushed to new, challenging areas of discussion and could learn effectively from each other through this Harkness experience. I just have to say how difficult this kind of learning is in a student’s native language, but being able to do this in French is a completely different ball game. I’m in awe!

    1. Merci, Celeste. It was truly satisfying to hear the students speak from my perspective as well. Now I wonder…how might I record their progress from one year to the next so that the students could have an auditory record of their progress?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *