#MakerEd + World Language in Practice

As I learn more about Makers and how to promote Maker culture in my classroom, I keep finding parallels between #MakerEd and the emerging proficiency-based practices in world language education. Both cultures promote collaboration, innovation, authenticity and real-world application. Learning about each of these in parallel has helped me to develop a vision for what my Spanish classroom could be like as my school transitions from a textbook, grammar-translation method to something more useful and real.

To summarize some of my ideas, I used PiktoChart to create an infographic that shows how #MakerEd and proficiency-based world language practices complement and build upon one another.

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In the article “Learning in the making: A comparative case-study of three maker spaces,” the writer states that,

“Makerspaces seem to break down disciplinary boundaries in ways that facilitate process- and product-oriented practices, leading to innovative work with a range of tools, materials and processes.” (Sheridan, Halverson, Litts, Brahms, Jacobs-Priebe & Owens., 2014, p. 527)

I find it inspiring that a classroom Maker culture promotes the recombination of disciplines that are traditionally kept separate, and in doing so generates innovation and application. I find it even cooler that as I engage as an educator with technology and Maker culture, I can remix it with the best practices of world language education and develop a vision for a world language classroom that is innovative and authentic in ways even beyond the scope of either practice alone.


Aski, Janice (2009). “The Impact of Second Language Acquisition Research on Language Practice Activities”. Italica 86.1, 37–58.

Halverson, E.R. & Sheridan, K. (2014). “The maker movement in education.” Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 495-465.

O’Donnell, A. (2012). “Constructivism.” In APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues. K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). Washgington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Sheridan, K. Halverson, E.R., Litts, B.K., Brahms, L, Jacobs-Priebe, L., & Owens, T. (2014) Learning in the making: A comparative case-study of three maker spaces. Harvard Educational Review, 84(4), 505-565.

Imagining a 21st Century Classroom

I have taught in my current classroom for three years so far. It has many features that I love. I have big windows that let in plenty of natural light. I have tables instead of desks, which makes possible a greater variety of seating arrangements. As for personal touches, I have decorated with art, maps, textiles, and other authentic artifacts from around the Spanish-speaking world. Displaying authentic artifacts is important in a world language classroom to help students see that Spanish language and culture isn’t imaginary, but something authentic from which beautiful things have originated and that matters in the real world – an idea also promoted by constructivist advocates and described by Angela O’Donnell in her overview of constructivism.

Here are a couple of pictures:

Using SketchUp, a free digital design tool, I created a (simplified) 3-D version so that you can see a few more angles.


You probably could have guessed, however, that there are things that I would change given the chance.

The biggest problem is that it is crowded. The room, I have been told, was originally designed for a maximum of thirty students, but almost all of my classes are between thirty and thirty-six students. This is a limiting factor because of visibility, noise and having enough room to breathe.

The second thing I would change is the technology. If you look closely, you will see a projector cart in the middle of my classroom. It seems silly to say that such a little thing is such a big problem, but a projector that must be centered directly in front of a screen is a serious limiting factor in finding a workable desk arrangement.

These limitations result in the teacher-centered arrangement you see above, which is workable – we still frequently work in pairs and groups – but not ideal for promoting the idea that students, rather than the teacher, are the creators and makers in the space.

Using SketchUp, I played around and had fun imagining different setups for my classroom. Want to see what I came up with?


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What did I change? First of all, since we are dreaming, I removed three desks – the ones I need for the extra six students that my classroom was never intended to accommodate. I also upgraded my technology to a ceiling-mounted projector that doesn’t take up floor space in the middle of my classroom.

These two changes opened up more options for desk arrangements. I put tables in groups of three, with two students at each table. Students can easily work in pairs, in groups of three students, or in larger groups of six students.

I was also able to move my podium table to the side. This reduces the “teacher-led” feel of the space and places the focal point on what I think is the coolest feature – a mini stage.

SEE IT? It is right THERE under the big whiteboard:

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Why a stage? Allow me to explain. Communicative-style language teaching is very performance-based. The teacher will often model – that is, perform – the language in theatrical ways using expressions, props, and other tools. A raised platform makes these types of presentations easier for students to see what is going on.

But the stage is a democratic space, because in a communicative classroom, students frequently present their own work. A raised platform increases visibility and it also adds some gravitas (and fun!) to the act of presenting.

In this plan, the physical changes are not costly – a small wooden platform would perhaps run a few hundred dollars and a technology upgrade is already planned for my school next year. Especially with the new technology, I may be able to enact at least some of my vision.

It is the human changes that would be the most costly. Class sizes are growing, and my room simply isn’t designed to accommodate so many people. Apart from tearing down a wall, there isn’t much I or even my administration can do to change that.

But it is fun to imagine, isn’t it?



O’Donnell, A. (2012). Constructivism. In APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues. K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). Washgington, DC: American Psychological Association.



Squishy Circuits en español

I was having fun creating sculptures using play dough and my Squishy Circuits kit, and I was thinking about how my students would enjoy using play dough and electricity in class.


But how could I use it to teach Spanish?


Then I saw the instructions in Spanish on my laundry detergent. Well, that was obvious.



Take a look at my lesson plan here for a three-day “Squishy Circuits en español” lab for novice-middle level students that will engage them with Spanish imperatives, play dough AND electricity!



Collaborative Problem Solving in World Language Education

Approximately four decades ago, in the 1970s, language teachers grew tired of hearing former students remark, “I studied X language for four years and I don’t remember a thing!” Educators and researchers began to acknowledge that language education had, to that point, produced students adept in grammar but otherwise unable to operate within immersive contexts. In response, language educators and researchers began developing alternative approaches to language learning that emphasized usability of language over grammatical mastery of language.

Several traits characterized this paradigm shift toward what has became known as “communicative language teaching”. One trait of communicative language teaching is the development of communicative tasks within a classroom context. Sometimes these tasks are highly structured information-gap activities, in which a teacher will provide strategically differing sets of information to different students, and the students will need to communicate in the second language in order to complete the task. Other times, these tasks could be open-ended: interview a classmate, for example, and write a description based on what was learned (Aski, 2009, p. 45-6).

These developments in language education towards collaborative, authentic tasks paralleled developments occurring in the wider field of education. In a text outlining constructivism, Angela O’Donnell identifies five features of dialectical constructivism: “(a) the importance of social participation, (b) the availability of scaffolding, (c) the need for authentic tasks in which learning is embedded, (d) the role of tools to support learning, and (e) the dialectic between the individual and the environment broadly construed.” (O’Donnell, 2012, p. 67) All of these features of dialectical constructivism complement and support communicative language instruction.  

Further studies support the use of collaborative problem solving to help students construct knowledge in world language classrooms. In Youjin Kim’s comparison of Korean language students completing story-writing tasks individually versus collaboratively, Kim concludes that, “overall, the Collaborative group resolved a higher number of LREs correctly and performed significantly better on the vocabulary tests than the Individual group.” (Kim, 2008, p. 127) Kim continues to indicate that “From interaction with a partner, individual mental resources were tapped, and the knowledge building that learners collectively accomplished became a tool for the further individual use of their [Language 2].” (Kim, 2008, p. 126)

Janice Aski identifies two traits that mark tasks as effective for language output: “Firstly, tasks are oriented toward a goal. Learners are expected to arrive at an outcome, or accomplish a goal through interaction. Secondly, a task is a type of workplan, which suggests that participants take an active role in carrying out the task.” (Aski, 2009, p. 43) In other words, the traits that make language output activities effective also fit within O’Donnell’s definition of dialectic constructivism, those of having an authentic goal and social participation.

Collaborative problem solving, therefore, fits neatly within a world language teacher’s classroom practice, and one tool that is fundamental in facilitating such collaborative tasks is the connectivity enabled by the Internet and other technologies. This is aligned with the imperative of Richard Culatta, the Director of the US Department of Educational Technology, that technology integration in classrooms should be used to educate students in new ways, not merely digitizing old methods. For example, language inputs available to a world language teacher now extend beyond the text available in a published curriculum, as teachers and students now have unlimited access to authentic language multimedia available online. Also in line with Culatta’s vision is the use of technology to promote student creativity. Using technology, students can collaborate using text, audio, and video as creative modes of language output. 

Best practices in language education, such as the use of authentic communicative tasks, paired with current theories of how students learn through collaborative problem solving, are both are facilitated through new developments in technology. World language teachers are at an ideal intersection to promote student collaboration and creativity in unprecedented ways that will engage students not only in their second language, but also in their abilities to adapt, problem-solve, and create, in alignment with the concept of Maker education. Now it is time for teachers to innovate: How can teachers design open-ended problem solving activities in a way that students can complete using creativity and collaboration, but also while using a second language?



Aski, Janice. “The Impact of Second Language Acquisition Research on Language Practice Activities”. Italica 86.1 (2009): 37–58.

Culatta, Richard. “Reimagining Learning”. TEDx Beacon Street (2013). Accessed Apr 4, 2016. https://youtu.be/Z0uAuonMXrg

Kim, Youjin. “The Contribution of Collaborative and Individual Tasks to the Acquisition of L2 Vocabulary”. The Modern Language Journal 92.1 (2008): 114–130.

O’Donnell, A. (2012). Constructivism. In APA Educational Psychology Handbook: Vol. 1. Theories, Constructs, and Critical Issues. K. R. Harris, S. Graham, and T. Urdan (Editors-in-Chief). Washgington, DC: American Psychological Association. DOI: 10.1037/13273-003.