On Friday of the first week of school, Spanish teacher Lisa Sobb opens her Spanish III class by addressing the elephant in the room. “Okay, so it’s time to be honest. How many of you have actually used Google Translate?” Every hand in the class shoots up, amid some laughs and more than a few comments. One student responds, “Only when I know what word to type in the first place.” More laughter. Lisa discusses the tool that many world language teachers abhor for a minute before surprising students with “I’m going to ask you to use Google Translate today.”
This is part of the introduction to a class activity that will help students understand how to efficiently use technology not only in Lisa’s class, but in the study of world language generally. Lisa does not want merely to forbid her students from using a shortcut or to throw a Chromebook in front of them without guidance. She wants her students to understand the appropriateness of such tools, see their limitations, and realize why teachers feel as they do.
To accomplish all of this, Lisa has developed a self-guided, Google Slides-based activity where students complete a series of tasks, guided by tutorial videos and texts, all at their own pace. The tasks include using split screen views for increased efficiency, turning on the international keyboard for access to proper accent and punctuation marks, and exploring dictionaries and translators. Students must complete a Google form to report their findings.
The students dive into the work without incident, and initially, silence descends. After about five minutes of work, though, talk increases, students start helping each other, and hands shoot up for Lisa’s help. Some students pull out their phones, which may seem like distraction, but is actually an effort to increase efficiency. They are using their phones to access Spanish dictionaries while using the Chromebook to follow instructions and report results. Lisa floats around the room, assisting students stuck in problems and sometimes calling out answers to called out questions. The period ends all too soon, and some students ask how to finish the work outside of class. Of course, this is simple since the work is so portable.
As students explore, they come to a few important realizations. First, they can type Spanish with just a little practice on an international keyboard. At the beginning of class, only about half reported typing Spanish papers previously, but all now see how they can and how Lisa will expect them to. Second, when they use translators, they often write nearly nonsensical gibberish, which can be prevented by intelligent use of a dictionary. The forty-two minutes of class have accomplished quite a lot, setting a tone for the rest of the year.
Lisa’s work here is simple and straightforward, but it rests upon a couple of vital assumptions: students can critically reflect on the practicality of technology shortcuts and technology is a tool to be used, not shunned. Lisa observes, “One of the things I’ve personally noticed is that our kids NEED direct instruction about how to use the Chromebooks, however much it may take from our own classes. Even though this generation is the ‘digital native’ generation, it’s turning out that they know much less about using computers than we have previously assumed, especially now that desktops/laptops are becoming less common than cell phones and tablets.” With those assumptions, Lisa will proceed to extend these students’ learning of Spanish language and culture for the world they live in, as well as the one they will.