Like the clichéd saying goes, time truly does fly, and suddenly 2016 is here! As the new year rolls around, I find myself thinking about the excitement each yearly turn brings with it. Not only the ubiquitous resolutions to eat healthier and exercise more, but also the feeling of promise, of yet-untapped possibilities just waiting for one to explore them. Accordingly, we make resolutions to be bolder, discover these new possibilities, and to experiment with what life has to offer.
This feeling of excitement and possibility is something that, every year and without fail, is present for me in each new semester of teaching German. A new group of students arrives, eyes bright and countenances rested from the holiday and Grandma’s apple pie. As we slowly work our way back into the spring semester—the hectic pace of which starts more quickly every year than anyone anticipates, despite our knowledge that it will be so— I see students who express interest, who want to learn, and to whom learning really means something. Let me be clear: this is not to suggest that students miraculously and immediately come imbued with this desire. But the potential for it is there, if I can do my job as an educator and manage to unlock it.
One way I have found to do this is to center the language-learning activities, whatever they may be, on the things that seem to matter most to the students in their own daily, native language interaction. Although this is quite a basic concept in language pedagogy and I am certainly not the first one to employ it, it is worth noting that almost all of these things that matter on a day-to-day basis for students (and indeed, also for me) now exist in some kind of digital form. For example, students set their morning alarms on their phones, check the daily weather progression on their weather apps, enter their schedules into their calendar apps, shop through an app for a store, chat through a communication app—in short, if it exists in first or second semester German, there are a multitude of apps for that.
And the apps do not necessarily need to be in German (or in any other L2 target language) for students to have meaningful and worthwhile learning interactions with them. Aside from just being an interesting way to interact with students on their level, using these apps in the language classroom allows students to do the same things they do in English every day (using in many cases the same apps) but to do it in the target language. For example, I was recently introduced (thanks to Vivian Finch at the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching) to a nifty weather app called “Swackett” that not only informs users about the weather, but also suggests what clothing might be appropriate for the local temperature and time. What a perfect way to practice weather and clothing in a logical and useful task! The upside: students most likely already have the app. If not, it is free and easy to get for computer or smart phone. Similarly, I have heard of other instructors using iCalendar to have students input their schedules in the L2 language. I also find myself wondering about the possibilities of Whatsapp and my own personal favorite, Instagram in the first semester German classroom (more on my experimentation with this in a later post). Perhaps most importantly, the use of these apps may help students move towards what Virginia Scott’s model of “multicompetency” in language, or “a person who knows and uses more than one language” (19, italics mine). Rather than learning languages as separate systems to be used at separate times, students are able to see the target language as an extension of their own native one through these activities.
As I was lesson planning before the start of the spring semester, I thought about my goals and hopes for the students of this class. What did I want for them to learn, beyond simply “ich heiße Kelsey“ and “ich komme aus Milwaukee”? What sorts of skills and competencies did I want them to walk out of here with? Then, in the spirit of the New Year’s resolution, I resolved to make 2016 a year of digital experimentation in the language classroom, to boldly sally forth and try out new ideas pertaining to digital pedagogy, and to blog about various parts of this process here.
What do you think about using various apps in the language or more generally, humanities classroom? What have been your experiences? I’d love to hear more about your impressions, so please feel free to comment below.