Our current school year is dominated by figuring out how to teach in a pandemic, and thoughts about improving practice or exploring possibilities may not be top of mind. Now that we are edging towards the spring of 2021 and vaccinations are rolling out, I’m hopeful that teaching can return to “normal” within the next year or so. In my school district, we know that we will likely be continuing in the quarter system in September of 2021, but we hope that we will be doing less blended or online learning and more face-to-face learning with our students.
One element of a second language class that students always find engaging is culture. Figuring out how to incorporate culture and collaboration when students are not allowed to work facing each other (and some cannot be in the classroom at all) has been a challenge, and time constraints have limited the opportunities to build reading and literacy skills this year. In this blog post, I’m trying to incorporate cultural content and literacy into one activity. Although this event has passed for 2021, I wanted to share how I recently used informational texts for a critical thinking exercise in my French 8 class.
In a recent newsletter from my professional association, I noticed a lesson plan on Chinese New Year, put together by my friend and colleague, Rome Lavrencic. The lesson plan has been published on the TeachBC website, and can be downloaded here. The focus of this lesson as written is learning more about the cultural significance of this event, and practicing the curricular skill of asking and answering a variety of questions. The reading material included in the original lesson has been adapted to be appropriate for students in French 9. I wanted to use this with students who are a year younger, and so I made a few changes and chose a focus that would allow me to get them to think deeply about the cultural content in the lesson, continue working on their budding reading skills, and encourage some conversation between partners.
Step 1: Activating background knowledge
The quarter system that we are currently using doesn’t leave much room for getting to know students before jumping in and planning instruction, so I designed a dictionnaire visuel (a picture dictionary) to help my students connect some aspects of New Year’s celebrations that I assumed they would know with some elements of Chinese New Year that I wasn’t sure that they had seen before. Connecting the two in one document was a way of finding out what they knew, as well as implying the links that I wanted them to draw from when they thought about their prior experience. In the L2 learning environment, knowledge must be transferred from L1 to L2. Using pictures ensures the ideas are easily understood, avoids translation, and encourages students to use the desired language in their oral communication. When I chose the images for this picture dictionary, I purposely chose some images that were similar and some that were different, as well as some that were obvious and some a little less so. I wanted to set up some ideas for the cultural comparison activity which follows.
In the images above, I have included both French and English, but when I used this document with my students in class it was just in French. They are learning to use a reading strategy called “mots amis, mots connus” (friendly words, words that I know) where they use two colours of highlighters when they are starting to read a new text. The first thing they highlight is the mots amis (friendly words, or words that look like English, also known as cognates). They switch colours after that and use a second highlighter to identify mots connus (words they already know). Neither of these categories requires the support of a dictionary for comprehension, and students can then focus on whatever is left, some of which can be figured out from context. This strength-based strategy helps students to realize that they are bringing some background knowledge to the table when it comes to literacy as well as culture, and allows them to conserve cognitive capacity for new information, making it more likely that they will remember it. The space at the bottom for additional details that may come out of a partner discussion can be added in writing or in pictures, or a combination of the two.
Step 2: Reading authentic text
The text shown in the images below has been adapted from the original lesson plan. In the original, the text was adapted from the two websites cited: http://www.NouvelAnChinois.info and http://www.teteamodeler.com/culture/calendrier/calendrierchinois.asp. The changes I have made were implemented to simplify the text for readers who are slightly younger than those targeted in the original lesson plan, to streamline the document visually, and to use headings for small sections that can be used as search terms later in the activity for those students who want to look for more information. Simplifying the information doesn’t mean that I’m lowering expectations for this activity. It allows this document to become comprehensible input for the level I am targeting, and recognizes that students need to be able to understand the factual knowledge in order to be able to solve problems in the second language. I’m asking them to do some pretty complex thinking in the next step, so I adjusted the text and asked students to read with a partner, using the mots amis, mots connus strategy.
To preview the activity which follows, I let students know that they will be asked to compare what they read in the information about Chinese New Year with what they have experienced or know about New Year’s celebrations in their own culture and/or from their life in Canada so far. As they read, I asked them to underline the similarities they see between the two cultures, and circle the differences. This keeps the focus on the critical thinking task instead of being focused on the vocabulary they encounter, and they can discuss their selections with their partners or groups as they go to co-create meaning and maintain focus on the thinking.
Step 3: Critical Thinking and Cultural Comparison
I adapted this part of my lesson from a lesson plan published on the website of the Critical Thinking Consortium (https://tc2.ca/en/creative-collaborative-critical-thinking/resources/t4t-tools-for-thought/), designed to guide students through a comparison of two versions of something. The comparison lesson plan is intended for middle school students, which meant that the thinking skills are on target for my students in French 8. It’s also designed to focus on broad features of the two things being compared rather than requiring a detailed understanding, making it perfect for the literacy level of my students.
I adapted the original worksheet to create instructions in French focused on what my students had read. The document is somewhat similar to a Venn diagram, which all my students were familiar with, and so the structure was easily understood. There are three columns in the chart: one for categories (including one which students are asked to generate themselves), one for similarities between the two things compared, and one for differences. For those who wanted to dig a little deeper, I included a link to another website for my students to explore (https://www.voyageschine.com/fete-chinois/le-nouvel-an-chinois/). This website is in French, but the level of language is accessible enough that my students would be able to understand some of it. It’s well organized with an index of subtopics on the left (a familiar organizational strategy), headings that are similar to the vocabulary used in the reading students have already done, an infographic, and a short video (in English) that gives some interesting observations from the perspective of a cultural outsider who is invited to share a Chinese New Year’s celebration with a Chinese family in the UK. Being able to see similarities is an important first step in intercultural understanding, and hopefully will lead to curiosity, understanding and empathy towards other cultures.
Concluding thoughts: Assessment and extension
This lesson can be assessed in a number of ways. Teachers could assess the thoughts recorded in the comparison chart, ideas added to the dictionnaire visuel, and/or asking students to use an adapted version of the partner discussion model to talk about the ideas they have included in their chart. This structure can easily be adapted to focus on comparison of other cultural celebrations, two texts on a similar topic (for example – teachers could ask students to compare a poem and a story), two works of art from different cultures, and so on. As students become more skilled at comparison, they can generate more of the categories, rather than using teacher-generated categories. Once the structure is introduced and understood by students, this becomes a model that can be used over and over, and in a year when time is short and students crave interaction I hope this is a useful tool.