Critical thinking, literacy, Personalized Learning, Communication, Differentiation, Culture

Tech with purpose: Digital magnetic poetry.

When I first started learning my second language, vocabulary was its own exercise and not strongly connected to the unit content. Learning vocabulary often meant studying large banks of words and trying to memorize them for a quiz. And shortly after the quiz, many of those words would be forgotten because I wasn’t using them daily. The quiz was a stressful event, and I didn’t recognize that I was adding new words to my lexicon – I just cared about getting them “right”, however that looked on that particular quiz.

Thanks to a large body of research, we know that there are many advantages to learning vocabulary in context. Context is what allows a word to have multiple meanings. Learning a word in context allows students to see some of those meanings and to have a model to use for their own work. Students have to actively engage with context to decode and read sentences, making them more likely to remember things they learn this way.

For the teacher, providing context for vocabulary words means those long lists and word banks need to be edited or treated as sections. It also means providing practice opportunities for speaking, listening, reading and writing while students are learning those new words, and using them with sentence structures that connect to the students’ fluency level and themes they are learning. For example, if students are learning about interviews, it makes sense to practice different types of questions. If they are learning about basic descriptions, it makes sense to practice simple describing sentences.

There are many, many programs available to teach and learn second languages, but many of them share similar strategies. One of those strategies is to cut up words, place them in an envelope, and have students sort or organize those words to create sentences or other structures. I have spent more hours than I’d like to count cutting apart papers and trying to make sure that all the papers I needed were in the envelopes I wanted to hand out to my students, but I recently learned a new way of doing this that I think will add possibilities for collaboration, feedback, and follow up discussion that are hard to build into the paper version.

First, I need to say that this was not my original idea. I learned this in Kasey Bell’s Google Slides Master Class. I highly recommend this course, regardless of how tech-savvy you are. I’ve used Google Slides for years and I learned a lot of really useful information that I can’t wait to put into action in my teaching. If you don’t have time to take the whole course but you love this idea as much as I did, you can learn this one piece in Kasey’s free tutorial here. I’m not going to explain how to do this because Kasey does a great job of that, but I’d like to show you how I’ve adapted what I’m learning.

I have looked at this product several times and thought about how to use it in my classes.

At 550 pieces, this is a big set which can be potentially overwhelming to students. I love the idea and wanted to find a way to incorporate it, but buying, storing and organizing enough sets of the physical magnets to supply my classes would be problematic.

I loved the possibilities I saw in Kasey’s idea, so I started thinking about how this would fit in my classes. The two places where this strategy made the most sense to me were in vocabulary practice and sentence structure. I started looking at some of the exercises I’ve done in those two areas in the past to see how I could adapt them to use virtual magnetic poetry. I’m a big fan of making sure an idea or a tool can do more than one thing before I implement it, because if I’m going to invest the time, I want it to be worthwhile for both me and my students. Here’s a sample of what I’ve come up with so far.

Supporting beginning writers

Each year when I start with a new class of French 8 (the youngest group I teach), I get a selection of kids from all different levels and backgrounds. It’s not unusual to have some students who’ve never studied French at all, some who have a pretty solid foundation, and everything in between. This is an activity I do pretty near the beginning of the course, as a way to see how much vocabulary kids know, what they know about basic structures like nouns and determiners, and so on. This is a list poem about summer and fall, and I also use it as an early introduction to the skill of expressing preferences.

I’ve done this in the past using some models and then asking students to create their own, but I’ve changed things up a bit here. Early writers have wonderful ideas but are limited by their vocabulary level and dictionary skills. Giving a fixed set of expressions with some graphics to help with decoding is a good way around the obstacles to basic understanding, and allows students to experience early success with an activity they can all complete.

The background and icons on the first slide came from the image search built into Google Slides, and the icons on the second slide come from the Noun Project.

Once I share this document with my students, they will save a copy of it and use the cut (or copy) and paste functions to move the “magnet” phrases from slide 2 to slide 1. Once students sort the phrases so that they match the season, there are a number of possible combinations that can be put together collaboratively. They can talk about the reasons for their choices, read them out loud to the rest of their group, and use this simple poem as a model for one of their own.

Learning sentence structure

This example is also from French 8, but a little further on in the course. The first unit we do focuses on Canada, and students start to learn to put together descriptions of where we live, what we can see here, and how to connect place names in more complex sentences.

This model works a bit differently. I’ve used the map of Canada as a graphic organizer without place names on it, and I placed pictures on each of the provinces and territories that students need to use in their descriptions. By this point in the course, students would be able to name all of the pictures, because they’ve worked with a visual dictionary and discussion questions to learn the names, so this exercise is designed to move their learning forward to incorporate that information into longer sentences.

All of the “magnets” get moved around on the second slide, and this time there is a set of right answers that we can check at the end. This is not a creative writing exercise, but could certainly lead to one. I color coded the different building blocks of the sentences and provided a model to show students how to place words in order to make these descriptive sentences.

The complexity of the building blocks reflects what students have learned at this point. The verb conjugations are all the same, and are already matched up and ready to be put into sentences. The names of the provinces and territories are already put together and connected with hyphens where they should be. These are long, complex names, and I don’t want spelling mistakes on these components to get in the way of understanding how to put the descriptions together. Using colors to represent blocks of sentences allows me to talk to students about yellow words, green words, blue words, and so on, and to refer back to them easily afterwards when we go into more detail about what these components are called and how students can form them and use them in their own writing.

If I want to assess student work on this slide, I have a few options. I can use discussion questions, go through the answers with the class, or have students hand in their slide show or an image of the last slide showing their work. I can also follow this up the next class by giving them a shorter version of this exercise as a quiz to see if they remember how to put these sentences together. The next time students see these words they will not be color coded, and so part of the discussion would be to look at features and relationships of these words that can be helpful in working with them without the colors.

Writing a poem

This example is much more complex than the previous two. This is an exercise taken from French 11. In this exercise, students are still using a limited set of vocabulary, but their vocabulary is much bigger by this point. The organization of information on slides 2 and 3 mimics the organization of unit vocabulary in the student text. By the time they encounter this exercise, students will have done some of the first assignments in the unit and will have been introduced to the words. They will also have a copy of the list in their own resources that they can refer to for support as needed.

Although I’ve started with the unit vocabulary, I’ve also embedded several grammatical concepts that students work with in this unit. Before asking students to compose their poems, they will need to think about how these components can fit together.

  • La fréquence – depending on which words students select from this list, they may or may not be able to logically follow them with a verb in the past tense I’ve given them (passé composé).
  • Les qualités et les défauts – in the student text, all of these words appear in the masculine singular form. In the options for the poem, I have deconstructed these words where possible, and included options for masculine, feminine, and plural forms of these words. Working with a limited set of vocabulary they will put root words and endings together. Before placing these words in their lines of poetry, students will also need to think about placement of these words in relation to other elements of their sentences. This would learned in previous years, but can be reviewed as needed when introducing new material.
  • Le passé composé – students are working with a limited set of verbs here, but they will need to show their knowledge of which verbs are conjugated with avoir and which verbs are conjugated with être.
  • Les infinitifs – students will need to know how to incorporate just an infinitive in a sentence, without conjugating it, to talk about a verb in a broader sense.
  • I’ve included more words here than are needed, in order to provide opportunities for discussion before beginning to compose the poems. The forms of verbs and adjectives provided give them the option to write from the first person, second person, or third person point of view.
  • Because there’s so much embedded here, this exercise is also a great opportunity to use a post-writing interview or reflection and ask students to talk about their thinking.

This particular activity is also a great opportunity to incorporate a cultural connection by including information about the Festival de la Poésie de Montréal. This article from Radio-Canada shows an example of large format magnetic poetry being placed on a set of steps on the streets of Montréal, which is another idea I’d love to use in my classes.

Other applications

I’ve only just started to play with the possibilities of this idea, but some other applications for second language classes include:

  • Make the background a T-chart or a Venn diagram and organize phrases on it to complete a comparison.
  • Make the background a timeline or a plot diagram to organize events from a story in sequence after viewing a video or listening to an audio track.
  • Make the background into a visual organizer that allows students to sort words from a paragraph into categories like repeated words, background information, keywords, etc. and follow it with a discussion of what makes a good keyword.
  • Sort descriptions to complete a character analysis or description from a story or video. Use the results to write paragraphs describing that character.
  • Add connecting words to sentences or paragraphs to complete a sequence of events, to show cause and effect, etc.
  • Sort words from a song or poem according to rhyming sounds and have students practice those sounds while noticing different spellings.
  • If students are able to go beyond the options presented by the “magnets”, ask them to use the insert – textbox function, and change the color of the fill in the textbox to make it easy to locate for grading or discussion purposes.

One final note – my school district uses Microsoft products rather than Google. Although I’ve created these examples with Google Slides, I can also download them to Microsoft PowerPoint and the magnetic poetry element still works perfectly in that format. I hope this information is useful to others as well – please share what you create with it!

Featured image by Jason Leung on Unsplash

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