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Keeping it Real: Using Seesaw to Facilitate an Authentic Language Exchange

In 2003 I moved to Osorno, Chile to teach English grades 8-12 at Osorno College. A one year contract sounded like a long time when I was first approved for the Fulbright exchange, but the time flew by and before I knew it, I was back to Atlanta. Even though it went by quickly, I did manage to do quite a bit in that year.

I traveled nearly the entire length of the country (from the Atacama desert in the north to Punta Arenas and las Torres del Paine in the south - nearly 3,000 miles), directed the first ever musical at the school entirely in English, and had a Chilean boyfriend who my seven-year-old son was convinced was the "nana", the Chilean term used for the house cleaner/cook/caregiver.

One of the things I was most excited about when I moved to Chile was being able to give my students an authentic cultural and linguistic exchange by connecting them with real pen pals. It seemed like it should be so easy. Doesn’t every language teacher dream of giving their students an opportunity for authentic language use?

My exchange partner was in Atlanta at my school and I was in Osorno at hers. So we did it! We got our students to write post cards...yes, post cards! This was before social media, mind you! So the language exchange began, and then just as promptly, it ended. It fizzled. It fell apart. It failed. You get the idea. There were a number of reasons it failed, but the fact is we couldn’t maintain what was probably the most rewarding use of the target language for our students. :-(

Well the technology has improved since then and I now find myself living in Guatemala so I'm back at it! This time I think it might actually work!

Here's how I've set up the language exchange of which my students are currently a part.

1) Find an international buddy. I posted on Facebook that I had an interest in finding a Spanish teacher who'd be interested in having his/her students communicate with my English students. If your Facebook friend network doesn't extend far enough to find what you need, try posting in the International Teachers Facebook group. Once you've found a potential buddy, take some time to chat about the goals you have for your students and how often you'd like the interactions to occur. It's important that you're both on the same page and excited about the exchange. It takes work to keep the exchange going on the part of both teachers. Even when both teachers are fully committed to the idea, it doesn't always work out. Sounds a little like my dating life.

2) Find a class partnering that works. Consider the following: the students’ language level according to the ACTFL proficiency levels, age and grade, motivation level, number of students per section and how much, how often and in what language your students will interact. My grade 9 scholarship students, ranging from novice-mid to intermediate-mid, are highly motivated and pair nicely with Spanish 2 Honors students in 10th grade in Atlanta.

3) Create your classes in Seesaw. I set up a class titled YSA Language Exchange and another called PBA Language Exchange to identify my different sections. Then, I added the collaborating teacher for each class. In the free version of Seesaw, you may add one collaborating teacher per class so be mindful of this if you're collaborating with more than one teacher. Give students from both schools the code to join the class and viola!

Seesaw is my platform of choice for speaking tasks both in and out of class and I’ve recently figured out how to make it work for a Language Exchange as well. The great thing about Seesaw is that students can make a video, an audio recording attached to a photo, a drawing, an uploaded file, basically everything to allow your students to demonstrate their language. Seesaw essentially keep a portfolio of your students’ work and you and your students have permanent access to it. The platform is very easy to use; I am not a techy teacher and I had no problems getting used to it. You can check out the features from the students’ perspective as a sample student. Just dive right in!

4) Match your students with a Language Partner. Making sure students had a voice in their language partner was important to me. I wanted students to choose a partner they thought they may have things in common with and to express their preferences so I followed these steps:

1. Student Introduction videos - Each student made a video introducing him/herself.

Students recorded one minute in English and one minute in Spanish giving basic

information about themselves along with likes and interests. For this particular video, I wanted students to be able to show their language level by speaking in the target language and to show a bit more of their personality by speaking in their native language. I allowed for class time to ensure that every student made a video that was spontaneous. Assignment was created in the Activities tab and was called This is Me!/¡Soy yo!

2. Students watch videos and complete survey - Students in both countries had one week to watch the videos from the cooperating school and then fill out a form

indicating their preferences. I asked questions like “Do you prefer a male or female exchange partner?” with the following options: (a) male (b) female (c) I don’t care. We’re all human. I think the way you word options makes a difference. I also asked if students would be willing to have more than one language partner.

3. Match ‘em up! I did my best to match students based on their preferences expressed in the survey. It actually worked out quite well because many students had no preferences.

5) Post your first week’s topic on Seesaw! Here’s an example of a prompt:

6) Sit back and relax as your students dazzle you! It’s a win if your students are communicating in the target language and understanding a lot of what their partner says. The focus of this language exchange is on communication, learning how to express ideas so they can be understood in real life, building confidence and learning about another culture from the perspective of a real life teenager in that country. We all want our students to improve their overall language, which includes grammar, but let go. That’s not the objective here.

CAG students initiated with a video in English that was 2-3 minutes. NHS students replied with an audio response in English and then switched to Spanish for their written response. Finally, CAG students answered questions and provided any information they hadn't yet mentioned. That's it for this week's interaction!

So that’s it. We’ve had three weeks of successful interactions and my students are loving it! We’ve had some bumps in the road while getting things started, but it’s definitely worth the growing pains. Hopefully hearing about my experience using Seesaw to establish and maintain a language exchange will help you and your students. I’d love to hear about your language exchange!

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