why shouldn’t we play in the university classroom?

Students took their midterm exam on October 25. Meteorological phenomena stopped northern New Jersey in its tracks for a week: power outages, commuter interruptions, and gas shortages all played factors in our institution’s decision to keep the University closed until November 5th. Despite the wonderful ways in which technology kept us connected throughout the worst parts of the superstorm (read this great post wp.me/p2hiSW-ib /), I couldn’t impose technology on my students to keep them practicing Italian. Even if 75% of students had access to the Internet and various other technologies, trying to continue “business as usual” (via online tools) was not an option. Anyone who experienced the impact of the storm understands this.

So 14 days later, how does a language professor proceed? Which of my students, given the events they had just experienced, would be able to recall talking about past events in Italian, recalling the conjugations of the tense, the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs, and irregular past participles? I tapped into some creative juices and I decided to that playing would be a good way to reintroduce them to the classroom and the language after an unexpected absence.

The game: Tombola (Bingo equivalent)

The main board (il tombellone): I provided students with a list of 40 activities  (which I would use as caller) that they may have done during the aftereffects of the superstorm. The question to them was “Since the university was closed, what did you do?” There were a list of daily activities, including getting up, getting dressed, showering, sending text messages, chatting, sleeping, as well as looking for gas, grocery shopping, online shopping, relaxing, being bored, etc.

Students were given a blank board, resembling an Italian cartella rather than the Bingo game card.  Image

Students were then asked to fill in 5 of the 8 spaces per row, and shade in 3 per row (like free spaces). They were allowed to use any of the 40 activities in any order. The only requirement was they phrase it in the present perfect. I modeled a few of them… “Io ho bevuto molto vino” and “Io non mi sono depilata perché sono stata a casa”. In addition to getting a few laughs, I modeled both transitive and intransitive verbs. It started the recollection process for many of them. As they completed their game card, they helped each other recall vocabulary and verb conjugations.

Once they had completed their first task, I had shared with them the rules on how to win. I asked what they knew about winning in Bingo. Students told me (in Italian) that it was getting a line horizontally, vertically or diagonally, and also the whole card. I wrote the words terno, quaterna, cinquina on the board. I asked them how many spaces they needed to get in a row to win. They recognized the number base in each of the words, and so once it was clear, the game began.

I called out each activity; I had each activity on a slip of paper and pulled them out randomly from my bag one at a time. I formed a question (Chi ha dormito molto? Who slept a lot?) and students marked their card and some even raised their hand if they did the activity. If they shouted terno, quaterna, cinquina, they were required to read out their activities to the entire class and I would confirm the win (or in a few instances, tell them they hadn’t won!). We played until all 12 prizes had been won. When we were close to the end of our activity, students were anxiously calling out the activity they needed for a win.

This entire activity took about 35 minutes (of a 75 minute class) from start to finish: 2 minutes to introduce the activity; 10 minutes to write out their 15 activities on their game card; 3 minutes to explain how to win; then 20 minutes to play and verify their win.

Students were excited, engaged, and had great fun. Their disposition had changed dramatically from the start of class to the end of it. They walked in with heads hanging low as a result of the superstorm and snowstorm (which was the day before, on Nov. 7). For a little while, they were able to forget about it by reviewing, practicing and playing in Italian. Playing Tombola helped also transition into the next part of the lesson, which introduced new material via an Italian song.

This isn’t part of the regular curriculum…perhaps games should find a more regular place in our teaching, even at the university level.

mobile language learning apps

I have decided to delve into MALL (mobile assisted language learning)  to better understand language learning apps, the philosophy behind the app and to explore current and future trends in language learning. Yesterday, I came across a timely infographic that asks if we are wired for mobile learning (it is from 02/11, but I have been out of the loop a while 😦 ). One of the first questions that came to mind upon reviewing the data is whether we are wired for mobile teaching. Clearly, for the most part, we teachers do not meet the criteria of “digital natives” (according to Wikipedia, “people who grew up with the technology that became prevalent in the latter part of the 20th century, and continues to evolve today.”), or if we do, it is quite a challenge to bridge technology with education that we are always working on how to get it right. But I digress a bit now…

Current trends are moving towards mobile apps on smartphones and tablet devices. Apps, in my opinion, are quite panacean; anything we want or feel we need to do can be simply remedied by an app… “there is an app for that.” So I want to learn a foreign language, and I can’t justify investing in Rosetta Stone nor do I have the time to take a formal course (there are multitudinous, but this goes beyond the scope of this post!), so let’s shop the app store. Searching for apps as, if you will, a layperson (i.e., not as language professor) is surely overwhelming. So many apps (this morning’s quick search of “language learning” numbers  728 iPad apps and 1135 iPhone apps!), that it would take an army of research assistants far endless weeks to investigate them properly (and as we all know in academia, assistants and time, together with money to pay for the apps, is something we don’t have).

So, I would like to ask you, professionals and laity, which apps have you downloaded, which would you recommend, and which would you dismiss. I’m interested in all apps: the good, the bad and the ugly (you’re not too surprised that I make a cultural reference with Ennio Morricone, are you? ;))

Thanks in advance for sharing and helping me better understand mobile assisted language learning.

I’m still here

Finding it difficult to juggle end of term and many other “ends” right now so I haven’t blogged in about a month! 😦

I will be blogging soon because Seth Dickens and I have a virtual meet-up planned for our students on Thursday morning. Looking so forward to it because after a good number of weeks of tweeting, our students will have a great opportunity to chat via Skype.

Will provide more details very soon 🙂

Arriverderci AP Italian?

Just 4 years into it…and now this!

In the fall, I had published an article on Italian teacher training in Foreign Language Annals (the journal for the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages). Shortly before its publication, the editor had asked me to comment on the then recent decision of the College Board to no longer support the financial costs of administering the Italian Advanced placement exam. Here is my comment:

Worth noting are the results of the inaugural year of the Advanced Placement Italian Language and Cultural Exam, particularly with respect to New Jersey. Villa Walsh Academy in Morristown was recognized as an Exemplary AP Italian Language and Culture Program for small-size schools that “lead the nation in helping the widest segment of their total school population receive an exam grade of 3 or higher . . .” (The College Board, 2007, p. 52).

Notwithstanding the national results for the inaugural year, the College Board has announced the imperiled position of the AP Italian exam. Practitioners, politicians and ambassadors, and community supporters alike have mobilized in support of the exam (as evidenced by messages from the president of the American Association for Teachers of Italian, various letters of support, a recent meeting of the Ambassador of Italy to the United States with the College Board, etc.). It is the hope of this author that the ongoing negotiations with the College Board will soon yield positive results for the future of the AP Italian exam.

Here we are, just months later, the AP exam has been discontinued, with this ray of hope from the College Board:

[w]hile AP Italian will not be offered in 2009-10, if at some future date the funding partnerships needed to support an AP Italian program arise, the Board of Trustees will consider renewing work to develop and offer the AP Italian course and exam.

Between the two announcements, the Italian community came together and worked very hard to try to raise the $1.5 million (originally $4.5 but reduced in negotiations) required. This community raised a good chunk of the money, but everything was contingent upon the Italian government’s contribution of more monies. Unfortunately, the Italian government did not come through.

In an email sent today to the AATI, the president of the teacher’s association made the following comment:

By not having an AP in Italian, the Italian language acquires in certain quarters of society a de facto second-class status.

My personal take on this situation

I first read about the College Board decision on Jan. 8 in an article in the NY Times. Once the initial shock wore off, I did two things: tweeted it and then wrote an email to the president of the AATI. In his reply to me, he referred me to two other news articles: The Washington Post and the LA Times.

Having read the latter article, I was a tad annoyed that the presentation of stats compared Italian AP examinees and Italian high school programs nationally and in the state of California to Spanish. Uh, hello?! Did the journalist not reflect on the status of foreign languages in the US and realize that Spanish is not just another foreign language but rather a language of the US (since it does not have an official language)? I also emailed him and tried to explain to him that his presentation of the statistics was not an equitable comparison for Italian. I used the adage “comparing apples and oranges” and that Italian has always been and should be compared to French and German, the other foreign languages that maintain a foreign language status in the US, unlike Spanish, which is a second language for all intents and purposes. Well, his reply to my request for a follow-up paragraph accurately representing the reality of the Italian AP exam within the context of foreign languages was rather dismissive. So I will, for the sake of making some noise, post it here. In 2008:

  • Italian AP had 1,529 examinees and increased by 18% since 2007.
  • French language AP had 20,675 and German 5,259.
  • Both, however, experienced a decrease since 2007 (-5% and -3% respectively).

Yes, economically speaking, the exam is not financially feasible…but we are growing, not at the initial projected rate, but let’s face it, we aren’t Spanish!

What options are available?

First and foremost, the idea of taking the test via computer vs. pencil and paper. Terminally Incoherent’s blog post about electronic test taking gives some examples as to benefits and pitfalls of these types of tests. Financial justification by the College Board cannot be the only reason to go this route.

Next, find more money. We are in the midst of the worst recession since pre-WWII across the globe. Can we really be expected to find more money? Unfortunately, Italian has been considered the “stepchild” of modern foreign languages, given the limited number of speakers of it world wide (according to Wikipedia, Italian ranks 20th in terms of native speakers, and it is an official language in: Italy; Vatican City and San Marino, both geographically located within Italy; Switzerland; Croatia; Slovenia). So to whom can we turn for financial rescue? Obviously, Berlusconi’s government is unable to fulfill previous promises given Italy’s economic turmoil. Italian Americans? Many of them who have already generously promised monies must be applauded. They recognize the value of maintaining language in tandem with culture (funny how many people label themselves Italian American but cannot speak the language and for the most part, don’t encourage their children, grandchildren to study the language/cultural formally).

Another possible strategy? Find ways to lower the cost of grading the exam. I have never been involved in grading it (but I have been invited to be a reader this summer), but I can appreciate the entire grading process. Language learning isn’t just right/wrong answers, it is negotiation of meaning, free writing, persuasion, narration. There is also an oral component that needs to be evaluated. Finally, the 0-4 grading scheme is revisited every year in light of the test-takers.

What else can be done? I’m not sure.

I hope that we can reinstate the AP exam in the future.

Using the right tech tool for teaching…how did you decide?

I have deliberated this post to death, wanting to ensure that I made a positive contribution to the discussion of social network sites (SNS). As an educator, my use of SNS is always from a professional perspective (yeah, right), wanting to investigate different tools for language learning and teaching. 😉

During one of the umpteenth revisions to my chapter on Twitter and teaching Italian, I came across a series of articles on identity, community and SNS. danah boyd, sorry Dr. danah boyd, has been very instrumental in much of the research on community and SNS and from her and co-author Nicole Ellison, I give you the history of SNS. If you haven’t seen this, it is the intro to a volume available online.

Can you pinpoint your introduction to SNS ?

I must admit that I am a late adopter of SNS, joining this wave of new technology at the personal level only in late 2006. I deliberated very briefly introducing Facebook to the classroom, but there was too much happening on Facebook and I think it was more a personal reluctance bring it to my language students…I couldn’t focus on a single community with its multiple apps (really so many fun things happening—invites, “poking” and updates). I do know some teachers who have incorporated Facebook to their classroom as a learning management system. If you are an educator but are not yet a member of http://www.classroom20.com/ I would strongly urge you to join and read the forums available there for Facebook (and other SNS) and share your own thoughts.

Next, I joined Twitter…and I discovered I could tweet with people around the world. Immediately I knew that I had to integrate Twitter into my Italian language curriculum. How could it not be successful?

ONE: an overarching question: What are you doing?
TWO: a limited message size: 140 characters.
THREE: people would read my tweet if they saw it…it is really hard to ignore tweets if you are using Twitter when others’ tweets appear.

Then, finally, FOUR: I could communicate with people I don’t know. OK, there’s a FIVE: just because I wanted to communicate directly with someone doesn’t mean that twitterer will reciprocate (but that didn’t discourage me, eventually some did answer me and I have made many virtual connections!).

Bringing Twitter to students has not been an easy task—initially, students are a bit reluctant to join this community because, after all, they are “being graded on it” and perhaps it should be an “extra-credit” component. They also think it is too much work for a language requirement course (“I just need to get my credits to graduate”).

However, for the most part, college students generally like it once they are comfortable with what it accomplishes in terms of connections and the building of a community outside the classroom. And they tweet—one student this semester tweeted 400% more than expected (245 vs. 52 tweets required) over the 13 weeks of the course. This student has also made connections with Italian twitterers in Italy (beyond the 4 introduced to her in the class community) and it seems like she’ll be tweeting in the future.

What’s next? Well, my head is spinning…there are so many Web 2.0 tools (just look at http://www.go2web20.net/) that I really have to think through what I’d like to accomplish next and how best to achieve my goals. I’m going to be looking at some other investigations conducted by language colleagues and use that as a model.
So I ask you to share with me:

  1. What was the first SNS you used personally? in your classroom?
  2. What would you like to investigate that you haven’t yet?

Your comments would be invaluable not only to me but to many others. I would be more than happy to share what I have done with anyone who asks and hope you would do the same.

counting, counting & more counting

I have just tried to update my vita with my accomplishments (?) from this past academic year. There is a specific layout which I am using (strongly suggested from my institution) that has me do a literal head count of my teaching, research and service. At my four year mark, I have accomplished the following:

  1. I have taught over 500 students in language classes capped generally at 25 students
  2. I have presented at 16 conferences
  3. I have been invited to review 2 books (but volunteered to review 3 more)
  4. I have written endlessly and still have two completed articles and a book proposal waiting to be accepted (2004 to date, refereed publications 6)
  5. I have served the university endlessly, on at least 13 different committees

I have to stop counting, my head hurts…
And the fun doesn’t stop here. I must prepare my narratives and organize my binders to provide supporting documentation to the university that my tenure application is worthy of consideration.

In addition to outlining what I have accomplished, I must demonstrate that I am continuing to conduct research: my fall semester will commence a pilot project that use of pageflakes as a course management tool (& I’m still keeping my fingers crossed … the grant for which Patty, Michael & I applied); the use of a wordpress blog (yes, I have another one) for a grammar & composition course; AND a teacher’s workshop symposium in which I will be presenting, partially organizing then publishing the proceedings. Oh, I forgot. I will be teaching 3 classes and sitting in on committees too. Wow, I’m exhausted just thinking about all of this.

Fortuitously, faculty at the university is accustomed to this grueling, rigorous and challenging self-promotion. To different degrees, the appointment process has us go through the motions annually. Really, it is not THAT bad.

For me, this year is the most demanding. If I am denied tenure, I must start the job search again. I won’t be advised of the university’s decision until late November so maybe I’ll be proactive and start perusing the classifieds early fall.

So, if on Sept. 5 you remember me for some reason (given it is my b-day too), keep your fingers crossed as I will be submitting my tenure application. Good karma never hurts 😉

to learn italian or english? both…

One of the greatest rewards of teaching is when your students teach you something. I have taught one of the most challenging courses in my 4 years here this spring semester: Advanced Italian Grammar a.k.a intro to Italian linguistics. I attempted to present students to the scientific study of language, from phonology to morphology to syntax to sociolinguistics. Interspersed there was also the history of the Italian language as well as a unit on dialects. I was very enthusiastic about this course and we all know that a good dose of enthusiasm is contagious…

As part of the course requirements, my students were to keep a linguistic diary. I wanted them to consult various forms of media and reflect metalinguistically on Italian. These 10 journal entries for many were expected: influences of foreign words in the Italian language, phonetic and semantic variations of dialects, denotative and connotative significance in newspaper headlines, web, etc. Then, a few students surprise me: YouTube videos, movie clips, Italian corporate websites & advertisements to provide great examples of living language and how the scientific study of it is actually relevant.

One student used this as a sample of the development of oral proficiency for an Italian ESL (English as a second language) learner and takes this discussion to the concept of sociolinguistic awareness. The ESL student asks the Corriere della Sera’s resident expert of Italians why it is so difficult to understand spoken English. Beppe Severgnini (columnist, author) replies to this question:

L’inglese, come mi ha spiegato il guru Giles Watson con cui ho aggiornato “Lezioni Semiserie”, è ostico per l’orecchio italiano. Noi – come i francesi e gli spagnoli – parliamo una lingua “syllable-timed”, in cui la velocità di pronuncia corrisponde grosso modo al numero di sillabe che contiene. L’inglese è una lingua “stress-timed”: la durata della frase corrisponde al numero di accenti con cui chi parla sceglie di scandirla.

English, as it was explained to me by the master Giles Watson…is unpalatable for the Italian ear. We (Italians)-like the French and Spanish-speak a “syllable-timed” language whose pronunciation tempo is determined by and large by the number of syllables contained in an utterance. English is a “stressed-timed” language: the length of the statement corresponds to the number of inflections that the speaker wishes to articulate.


Even more interesting are the “one-a-day for a month” reasons Severgnini provides to encourage Italians to learn English. I will highlight those that I found utterly amusing 😉 (all translations are mine…)

1 Perché siete stanchi di dire “Non parlo l’inglese, ma lo capisco…”.
1. Because you are tired of saying “I don’t speak English but I understand it…”

2 Perché parlare con le mani, alla lunga, stanca.
2. Because speaking with your hands, in the long run, is tiring.

3 Perché capirete come riempire quel modulo su internet (un terzo della Rete funziona in inglese).
3. Because you will understand how to fill out that online form (1/3 of the Web is in English)

4 Perché così, quando vi insultano all’estero, evitate di ringraziare.
4. Because when Italians are insulted abroad, you won’t thank them.

6 Perché in America saprete leggere i cartelli stradali (one way non è una canzone di Frank Sinatra: vuol dire “senso unico”).
6. Because in America you will know how to read street signs (one way is not a Sinatra tune:…)

14 Perché quando sentirete “Vorrei shiftare la vostra attenzione sul break-even del nostro business, un must che stressa la necessità di downsizing”, almeno lo sapete: vi stanno licenziando.
14. Because when you hear “I would like to shift your attention to our business’ break-even point, a must which stresses the necessity to downsize”, you will know that you are being fired.

15. Perché un po’ già lo parlate. No comment, in fondo, è una frase completa.
15. Because you already speak it a bit. No comment, is in fact a complete sentence.

20 Perché comunque è impossibile far peggio di quel ministro italiano che, a New York, ha chiesto “gamberetts and fagiols”.
20. Because it’s impossible anyway to speak worse than that Italian minister in New York that asked for “gamberetts and fagiols”.

26 Perché capirete le canzoni inglesi e americane, e vi renderete conto che spesso sono più cretine delle nostre.
26. Because you will understand American and English songs and realize that often they are more idiotic than Italian songs.

27 Perché se George Bush dovesse invitarvi a cena, potrete commentare la cucina della Casa Bianca (Good heaven! How can you eat this junk, old boy? Now I see why you’re so nervous all the time and you ended up messing around in the Middle East…).
27. Because if Bush were to invite you to dinner, you could comment about White House cuisine (Good heaven! How can you eat this junk, old boy? Now I see why you’re so nervous all the time and you ended up messing around in the Middle East…).

29 Perché un brasiliano, per chiedere a un tedesco in Italia di presentargli un collega francese per discutere dello svedese Ibrahimovic, parlerà inglese.
29. Because a Brasilian asking a German in Italy to introduce him to a French colleague to discuss the Swedisch Ibrahimovic will speak in English.

31 Perché è trendy, baby.

courses taking on a new design in SP09

The end of another academic year is coming to a close and this brings me much relief. I would like to focus my efforts on my tenure package and continue to ride on the wave of teaching with technology in my department. This is an exciting time for the department, the most exciting in fact in the last 4 years. There has been some experimental redesigning of course syllabi with technology, but now, there is going to be a more concentrated effort on offering these courses in a more official manner.

One of the greatest downfalls in teaching with technology, as I have found, is that so many people implement technological tools to such varying degrees but then do not necessarily share this information, so it always feels like you are reinventing the wheel when you have a brainshower and want to do something pedagogically sound and technology-enhanced. Case in point, how many of my colleagues know that at our institution this spring term alone offered 26 online courses (many in the MBA program) and 34 hybrid courses. These numbers are surprising because I don’t know how many of us are aware of whom else is experimenting with this new course format and I wonder if there have been any conversations that have arisen from it…

Our college has now initiated a dialogue about hybrid and online courses with our first meeting scheduled Thursday. One question that has always intrigued me about hybrid courses is: how do we define it? By what parameters are we limited? After some research, I’ve discovered that there is no singular definition. This may or may not be disturbing (depending on just how prescriptive one may wish to be—or not!) but I think it is time that we share ideas with the hope of creating a model that works within our community, with our student population and with the support of administration. Our personal objectives will always remain very distinct (as they should be), but we really need to come together to enhance our common vision and promote it, as I believe this is very important.

The great thing for my department is that we have all been given the thumbs up to explore the degree to which and the manner in which we will develop our hybrid and/or online courses. So what is new in my department in Spring 2009? Well, there will be some fully online courses (intro Italian I & II courses), the use of SL in another major elective course, and a hybrid course for FL teaching methods. There is one additional member of our department who will also be teaching a hybrid course for a further major elective course, but I am unsure of how she will approach it.

Given the array of courses and course designs, we must remember that as with all good teaching strategies, to understand teaching styles with respect to technological tools is just as important as appreciating different teaching styles and types of teachers; each one of us can all constructively contribute to the dialogue of this new direction for our college/university.

So I’d like to ask you about your experience with hybrid/online courses. Have you ever been a teacher or student of one? What would you rate positively? negatively? Any words of wisdom you’d be willing to share?

teaching with twitter…the epilogue

Update: as a prelude to this presentation, I was interviewed by lead instructional designer Peter Campbell of Montclair on Twitter. Here is the link to three podcasts recently made available on the University website. I hope you may find some value in my words and my academic use of twitter. It was a truly memorable experience. Thanks again to all my friends and colleagues who have been instrumental in the twittosphere and beyond…

today I presented a faculty forum on teaching with Twitter. I had a good turnout (small group but they were interested) and a cheering section. At the end of the presentation, I went live to my fellow Twitterers to say hello and I want to thank all those who replied. The response was instantaneous–and the audience impressed. 

some of the things that people who didn’t attend may have missed included: 1) my stunning Italian linen dress 😉 ; 2) some notes and observations on twitter in education; and 3) good questions about twitter. Below, I give you some of the key ideas on twitter & teaching and I hope they might encourage you to think about it as a tool in whatever line of work you do.


I want to thank a group of followers for graciously providing me with screenshots for my presentation, which really provided a grasp of the various ways to tweet: Francesco, Luke, Milos, and Sharon, and, of course Michael, for retweeting and saving me, yet again.

Anyone interested in developing twitter as a FL classroom tool, in more defined ways, please contact me as I think it’s truly valuable.

P.S. Thanks also to AJ, who was tweeting about my presentation during my presentation! Didn’t see this until today.