I was trained to use of ACTFL's Integrated Performance Assessment (IPA) rubric. I used it for the year I was with the Chinese Curriculum Group at UH (2016-2017). For our particular context, including myself personally, we found students and instructors slowed down when trying to understand the descriptions of each of the five criteria. I found most of the criteria focused language form--are students communicating using word, sentence, or paragraph-level discourse? Only the "Impact" section on the Presentational rubric gave focus to the content--the actual ideas--in what students were communicating. In 2019 I decided to write my own rubric that would expand and make more central the "Impact" section, and flip the place of language form to become the marginal factor. I wanted a rubric that would constantly remind students what to think about when talking with, or writing for, real people outside (and inside) our classroom--not only scrutinizing language teachers. Good communication involves so much more than speaking and writing "at paragraph level." My newly designed 2019 rubric was a page long, and focused on the information being communicated. Revising it every year, my rubric is now just a half a page long--much better for students to give a routine glance and understand what is expected in their task performances. Students will find "General impressions" at the top, because this is what people typically take away from a conversation, presentation, or text--"She was really funny!" "He was too serious!" "She only shows interest in herself and zero interest in other people!" The next section, split into two subsections, focuses on the information being talked about. Is there a logical sequence between each bit of information, and is there enough information according to the task instructions? Focus on form is relegated to the bottom place, with emphasis on "can I and your interlocutor understand you?"--comprehensibility. I specifically encourage students to take risks with grammar without risking penalty of lost points. I do emphasize accurate Chinese character writing, so I take off a point or two depending on how many characters have problematic strokes. A future rubric of mine might move character accuracy to the top "General Impressions" category, to hammer the idea that Chinese people can be judgy about a person's writing--not just accuracy but general "beauty" of their strokes. There's always more to consider, but, overall, the goal of my rubric is to get students thinking about how general people--not just language teachers--will perceive them when communicating.
I'm attaching a few sample tasks and rubrics here. I created and used these with my BYU-H students, so the Hawai‘i context should be swapped with the local context of your actual students.
Click to download (rubric on 2nd page):
Chinese 102 Unit 1
Chinese 102 Unit 5
Chinese 102 Unit 6
One ice-breaker type of instructional activity that I have seen over the years is "Two Truths and A Lie." Students take turns saying or submit three statements about themselves, and then other students guess which statement is the lie. More interesting to me, however, is how topics can develop from this, and how potential opportunities for community-building can emerge.
In an online summer ninth grade writing course that I just started teaching, I adapted this activity so that the "lie" statement could become more than just a random idea. My twist is: "Two Experiences and A Wish." Here's a screen copy of the slide I created and used with my students:
It was only while we did the activity together when I added the "/ed" because some of the students were sharing routine activities they currently do in their daily lives ("I pet my dog every morning") and static truths about their current life ("I have a big dog"), while other statements were about past one-off and/or routine experiences ("I have visited Japan many times"). The wishes were delightful and surprising. Wishes in included "I study marine biology every day" and "I sleep in on weekends."
Magically, and I'm thinking about Conversation Analysis, where we often see people give accounts to clarify what they mean or why they said something, our experiences and wishes sparked additional questions from me and from classmates. I didn't tell anyone to ask additional questions after the contributor confirmed which was the wish, and I didn't tell contributors to say more about their experiences or wishes. I didn't have to. Each statement was tied to an identity they they chose to share with the group, so any hesitation, head tilt, or potential for misunderstanding led to the contributor saying a little more about what caused them to do or wish for a particular experience. In short, it got us talking about ourselves, and learning just a little more about each other.
For a language class, especially during the first four semesters, I think "Two Experiences and a Wish" could work just fine. The teacher can share a short list of supporting language patterns for students to choose from, so they can be clear about when (past, present), and how often (once, twice, routine) each experience has/can happen/ed. Of course, in a language classroom, an ever-present goal is to learn language for proficiency. But beyond use of language forms, if we teach communicatively, then we need to use language to talk about topics of interest and complete tasks that have identifiable endings. This small adjustment, from a random lie to a self-identifying wish, allows everyone in the classroom to use language to share and learn about each other, for the goals of (possible) community-building, lowering anxiety, and increasing motivation.
People typically choose to enroll in a language class because they want to develop abilities to use that language. As learners, we trust that our teacher will select appropriate course materials, and teach us using methods that help us on our road toward using the language. Most students are fine with their teachers explaining sounds, vocab, and grammar clearly, especially if that's what will be on an upcoming test. Additionally, students often believe that noticing forms such as sounds, word order, word endings, and so on, will be of help later on when they want to use the language to interact with other people, read books and websites, write, and so forth. However, teaching communicatively--that is, teaching language for the purposes of speaking, writing, reading, etc. in real time with other people, and teaching toward these goals through frequently using the language to interact with students in the classroom--can get a little weird when the in-class communication is framed as "getting to know each other." I've made up a few examples here in different social contexts, to show how this looks in and outside the classroom.
In an ESL classroom:
Teacher: "Did anyone do anything fun this weekend?"
Student: (raises hand)
Teacher: "What did you do?"
Student: "I visited my grandma."
Teacher: "'I visited my grandma.' Notice how she said 'I visited' with that -ed on the end. Excellent, who else did something fun?"
On a first date:
Person 1: "So, I work in finance."
Person 2: "Oh, how long have you worked in finance?"
Person 1: "Eight years now, and notice that I said 'in finance,' and not 'at finance.' The preposition there is important."
Home for the holidays:
Daughter: "Can I help prepare anything for dinner?"
Parent: "No, that's ok, I got this. You go catch up with your brother."
Daughter: "Ok, and I'm excited that we're eating at home and not in a restaurant or at a cafeteria."
Daughter: "I need to use all of the words on this vocab list that my teacher gave me in our dialogue right now."
Surfing with friends in Honolulu:
Friend 1: "Bruh, you want go surfing over there?"
Friend 2: "Can."
Friend 1: "You notice how my intonation stayed high and then dropped down at the end, bruh?"
I'm not saying I don't point out form when we use the target language to converse in class, and I do think students tend to tolerate it more than people would outside of class. But it would typically be very antisocial to do this outside of a classroom setting, maybe except in cases where a person asked for help with their speech. In class remedy this by leaning in stronger to show interesest in the person after I ask the class to notice some form in what we just said. I think there's also an extra social layer to my purpose for recapping what we just said to the class: I expect that not everybody understood what exchange just happened. By clarifying meaning, I aim to do two things in that moment: first, include everyone in the room in the discussion, and second, aid language acquisition through the clearer matching of form and meaning in the current context. I then go back into showing interest in the student I'm speaking to, to show them we weren't just practicing language to end with the focus on form as the most important purpose for our interaction. I genuinely want to build community in our classroom, and pedagogical goals are a part of the community-building. If I don't delicately re-focus our attention back to the person in the room, showing that we genuinely are interested in learning about each other, then I'm acting in a way that would be considered jerk behavior in any other context, like in the dialogues above.
In the Hawaiian classes I've been observing (and learning Hawaiian from), there are about six to ten undergrads who already speak some Hawaiian. Most of them picked it up from childhood school activities (like learning numbers), and some had more immersive school experiences. Our kumu (teacher) has been using comprehension-based approaches in our Hawaiian 101 course this semester. He added some element for everyone (I don't believe he did this for the heritage speakers specifically): he wrote on the board new rejoinders, numbers, qualifiers like "(very/somewhat) warm/cold", and other responses for us to shout out at any time during class discussions and tournaments (like our card game, "War" played in front of the class). When he calls for volunteers to play Lono-Mauli-Pau (rock-paper-scissors), he asks for volunteers, and it's usually the heritage speakers who run up first. The contestants introduce themselves to each other in Hawaiian, the whole class counts, shouts Lono-Mauli-Pau, and the winner shouts "[my neighborhood] is the best!!" The kumu glosses any new words or phrases on the board, and the activity generally keeps vocab sheltered and repeating. I see how the whole class benefits from this: (1) the heritage speakers self-select to serve as secondary discussion and activity leaders (and input-providers for everyone else), (2) the class learns their names, home neighborhoods, and other local culture tied directly to them, and (3) the fun energy and discussion content are coming from more than just the teacher; student buy-in is coming from a reliable portion of the class. There's more going on, but these are the top three observations I find most relevant here. It appears to be at least somewhat empowering for the heritage speakers themselves to have a space where their voice is important and useful for everyone in the room.
Heritage and native speakers are fequently placed into novice-level language classes. This can be motivated by administrators' expectations of lock-step textbook learning of linguistic rules as revealed in a discreet-item placement exam--showing the learner doesn't yet know the program's grade-level sounds, grammar, and specific vocabulary. Intro-level placement can also be motivated by particular aspects of proficiency, like the person can understand daily conversation just fine but they can't read or write, or speak on topics covered in the program's classes. Intro-level teachers who teach for proficiency often point out that when they speak at the levels of their true-beginning-level learners in the target language, for example, "What (pause and point to the board) do you (pause and point) like (pause and point) to do (pause and point) on Saturday (pause and point) mornings (pause and point)?" the heritage/native speaking students start to show an attitude. What is this attitude, we might wonder. I'm going to share a story about when I found myself in similar shoes. I hope as you read this, a certain heritage perspective will become obvious and clear. I'll end with notes for a solution, from a Hawaiian class where I've seen heritage learners integrated very well into novice-level discussions and activities.
Quick story about me. I finished my Masters degree at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, in 2011. At the start of my third semester there, I, along with a classmate from New Zealand and another from Canada (English was our first and primary language), were called into the International Students Office. The office secretary informed us: "All international students are required to complete an ESL course." We protested: "That requirement is for students who don't already speak English...our classmates from Thailand, Japan, and Korea." She was firm, repeated the rule about ALL international students needing to finish the ESL requirement, and she told us the room and time to attend. The class would be around two hours long (it may have been three, but it's been years since already, so I'm going to play it safe and say it was two hours).
So we went. A local Chinese teacher (there is nothing wrong with a non-native teacher, in my opinion, but I believe her being non-native did influence our interaction in this particular story) presented English listening activities and discussion topics around the ACTFL Intermediate-mid to Advanced-low levels. Besides us three, everyone else in the class was was from East and Southeast Asia. I remember sitting for a while, and feeling very bored. I remember the teacher looking around the room, but avoiding eye contact with us native speakers. About half-way through the class, the teacher passed out a question sheet, and then played a recording. We were asked to listen three times to the recording and use the information to answer the questions. The recording was confusing, and went something like this, an elderly British man saying: "For this holiday, we are going to need to bring an umbrella, a jacket, and other warm clothes. We plan to visit [place X], [place Y], and [place Z]." And it ended a woman saying something like, "Nothing leaves a person more tired than a vacation!" The teacher read aloud to some of the higher-order thinking questions, asking us to infer from the details why the woman at the end said that. The other students seemed like a shy bunch, so I raised my hand. The teacher showed a sudden combination of surprise and disappointment--she made a kind of slouching down movement--as she called on me. I answered in an American-college-style, higher-order thinking-style, musing on hypotheticals-style (so intentionally asinine-style) exploration of the woman's attitude toward travel and the relevance and irrelevance of the details offered by the man. I talked for two to three minutes (it may have been five). The teacher nodded and said, "Oh. Thank you," and then moved on to another activity. At the end of the class, the three of us spoke with her. She said, "You don't need to be here. Write your names here, and I'll mark you as present for the semester." And that was the end of that.
So I've been a native speaker in a room full of "learners" (I put that in quotes because everyone is a learner throughout their lifetime, but everyone is also many identities), and I understand the frustration and boredom of misplaced students.
But what about our first question about heritage learners placed in intro-level classes? I'll write that up on this post, here.
A question about how to organize whole-class discussions, tasks, & activities in preparation for IPAs/performance-based assessments came up in an intermediate teaching Facebook group. I will put my thoughts here, for posterity (Facebook posts get buried fast):
In my experience with university students using performance-based assessments, the classroom experience leading up to the assessment should treat the assessment goals as a "pole" to keep coming back to, and extending from, instead of a "container" to always stay within and never stray from. Straying is good. So if my performance-based assessment requires that learners use the target language to request food in a restaurant, then we whole-class discussions like PictureTalk, PQA, Story-asking, Read & Discuss, etc. should all contain many reps of the phrases needed for the assessment. However, these whole-class discussions also contain whatever else the students find interesting that can remotely tie to the general topic of restaurants. This way, they (1) get the input reps needed to have the backward-designed patterns in their heads (phrases for requesting food in a restaurant), and (2) the whole-class discussions included language for whatever else they wanted to talk about. Over time, these non-targeted linguistic bits provide enough input-data to allow the learner to creatively talk about whatever they want on a broader range of topics.
I've been extremely fortunate to know Kumu Kekeha (Hawaiian: teacher Kekeha) at the University of Hawai‘i. We met at a Blaine Ray TPRS® workshop about four years ago. Years later, Kekeha invited me to present a similar comprehension-based, beginner-level teaching workshop for his graduate course, Teaching Hawaiian as a Second Language. Cut to present day: we have agreed to do a trade-off: I sit in on his Hawaiian 101 classes in exchange for emailing him notes about his teaching and how he can continue to help his beginning learners. I'm gaining a lot in terms of language comprehension, word and grammar familiarity, and local culture and history. I'm also seeing Kekeha make leaps and bounds in his ability to use the language comprehensibly with everyone in the class--a mix of heritage and beginning learners. I see people around the room show that they comprehend through responding with words, head nods, and laughter. Now, just a month into the course, the slowest learners are beginning to respond in full sentences on their own.
Kekeha and his colleague, Ka‘iuokalani, spend time after class on Fridays to talk shop about teaching. I brought up one one of the features of Kekeha's style of speech during class that took me many weeks to begin to parse for myself: his natural, razor fast fluency. I gave an example in Chinese of how I would write and gloss my words on the board on the first day, and how I would talk in a slow and segmented manner, as I pause and point. I do this at the start because day-1 beginning learners typically don't have the implicit (unconscious) phonological (sound) and lexical (word) knowledge to parse the teacher's speech stream on their own yet. I showed Kekeha and Ka‘iuokalani how different it feels as a total beginner in a new language to have the teacher parse the sentences for them. Kekeha expressed how much mental work it is for the teacher to keep track of all of these micro-skills at once. I responded: "Teachers needs to chew the food for beginning language learner because these baby birds aren't developmentally ready to do it for themselves." We laughed about the metaphor--it's a little gross, to be sure.
Whatever a teacher says about fast speech being more helpful in the long-run, I've never met a teacher who was comfortable hearing fast speech during a day-1 demo in Chinese, Vietnamese, or Hebrew. More data is needed to compare effects from the two kinds of experience--immediate effects on learning from fast versus slow speech from teachers during the first days of classroom interaction, and the long-term effects as well. What I have seen over and over is this: beginning learners show they don't understand fast speech, and they then struggle to use the language in any kind of productive task after the lesson. Conversely, learners who experienced slow, segmented speech do show comprehension during the lesson, and show greater confidence and fluency in using the language after just that first demo lesson. For beginning learners, I identify slow and segmented speech as a higher-leverage teaching practice (stronger outcomes toward a desired learning goal given one teaching practice over another in a given period of time).
I decided a quick internet search on the names and descriptions of real juvenile birds might provide a useful model to help language teachers see how we help our beginning learners, largely toward keeping them confident in their abilities to comprehend and interact in the target language*:
necessary for flight or independent activity,
also: to leave the nest after acquiring such feathers"
Note that not all learners need to show outward signs of talking to progress in each of these stages. It is common in comprehension-based communicative classrooms to see learners who almost never speak to suddenly start talking in full, creative sentences. An observant teacher can often see who is struggling to process in the normal non-verbal cues the students give in response during classroom interaction, or on free-speaking assessments (e.g. "say as much as you can about this picture," or "narrate a story from this series of pictures").
*There is already good research on input and song practice in song birds (for example, here), but that is beyond the purpose of this post. The focus here is on a metaphor teachers can use to treat beginning learners differently across early stages of language development.
**I found all bird terms and descriptions here, except for the term, 'brancher', which I found here.
The 2017 National TPRS conference was my first experience being approached by many teachers who more or less said: “Oh you teach Mandarin? Ni hao! Wo xihuan he kafei. Wo meiyou shui. Wo yao he cha. Baba mama ai wo.” When I asked when and how long they had learned Chinese, most said it was from one demo lesson (or several consecutive days of demo lessons) at the National TPRS conference the year prior. Some had experienced the demo a year or two earlier, and some had done it fresh, just days prior. Later that year (2017) at ACTFL, Diane Neubauer and I attended a TPRS teacher’s party. There we met a TPRS Spanish teacher, Andrea Schweitzer, who similarly approached us and showed off the Chinese sentences she remembered. I had an idea, borne out of the need for immediate convenience.
I exchanged phone numbers with her and texted her a Chinese character based sentence. It was something like this:
I recycled the same words in a few more sentences with minimal variation. Something like:
Our reading interaction went like this (I’m approximating what happened partially to illustrate how I did this each time with different teachers after).
Me: “This is going to be easy. I’ll read the first sentence to you: baba you kafei. Now you read it.”
Andrea: “baba you kafei”
Me: “Awesome! Now read the next one.”
Andrea: “uh (looks at line above, then at second line again)... baba you ...
Me: “ That’s water.”
Andrea: “Oh! Baba you shui.”
Me: “Awesome! Next line, that’s mama.”
Andrea: “Ok. Mama...”
Andrea: “meiyou... oh! Doesn’t have. Ok. Mama meiyou shui.”
Me: (points to next line)
Andrea: “uh... mama meiyou kafei”
Then I started texting questions:
She would read each new question or statement out loud in Chinese and I helped her recognize each new character (which I had typed only if I had heard her say it before). I helped by either saying the meaning of the word in English or by saying the Chinese word. Both proved equally helpful. She would read the question out loud and then say the answer to me, all in Chinese. If she showed hesitation in saying a word in Chinese, I would check comprehension after by asking for an English version of the whole sentence.
This year at the 2018 National TPRS conference, as soon as Andrea saw me we immediately sat down to do more Chinese texting, with one big difference. I showed her how to set up a Chinese pinyin keyboard on her iPhone, and after each question I sent her, I showed her how to type in pinyin and choose the characters to send responses and questions back at me. Throughout the rest of the conference we sent each other silly texts about chocolate and beer, who likes it, who wants it and who has it, it. If she sent anything worthy of corrections (e.g. 我要和茶 which should be 我要喝茶), I would first respond with a reaction to the meaning (meaning: “I want to drink tea”; so I wrote 茶!!!!!!!!!) and then I would use the corrected character in a relevant response (我也要喝茶!!!) and I might add a pinyin version after to confirm the sounds (wo ye yao he cha). She often added pinyin in a text just under mine so she could look back and remember each character and the sound that matched to it.
Andrea soon started texting with Linda Li and the two of them had fun, they each told me. What makes me most excited is the relative quickness Andrea made from receptively sounding out sentences I sent her, to then enjoying sending me sentences back, to then texting with other people without my help.
At this year’s National TPRS conference I did this again with about four other people. Each time I started this, I first needed to hear what words the person knew and how they used them in a sentence. From there character recognition came fast, so long as I made the character repeat five or six times before moving on. Terry Waltz calls this “proximal repetition” in her book, TPRS with Chinese Characteristics (2015), and I find the term and concept very useful. The Chinese texting we did is essentially Cold Character Reading (CCR) as Terry conceptualizes it (having people read Chinese characters that they already have the sound and meaning for firmly in their heads), but instead of introducing Characters in a story text, it’s through real-time interpersonal communication on an everyday communication device: our phones.
I hope more people try this.
At language teaching workshops and conferences a very common complaint I hear from teachers goes something like this: "That presenter told us to do X, but I remember another workshop where a (possibly more authoritative) presenter told us to do Z. Well, which is it?"
I'll give a metaphor to illustrate how I understand this statement: "I was recently at a woodworking workshop where the presenter said if we want to secure nails down, we need to use a hammer. Now this new presenter says if we want to secure screws down, we need to use a screwdriver. Well, which is it?" The difference clearly is in the purpose of each tool.
What I think needs to be made clear in presentations is the particular purpose for each teaching practice--that is, what it does to help learners do during the lesson, and what outcomes are achieved in terms of acquisition, skills, and explicit knowledge? A large part of a teacher's choice over what practice to teach with will depend on their own understanding or beliefs about what each practice does. I'll give some examples according to research and my own observations and conversations with teachers. I of course welcome disagreement over the accuracy of my descriptions:
1) Input: If you are a teacher who believes input is simply a model for practicing speaking, then you probably want to use input briefly to model the language needed, and then have your students go and practice speaking with each other according to that model. And if you are a teacher who believes input allows learners' minds/brains to repeatedly process information so that sounds and meaning become automatically associated and sorted into mental categories (and possibly that a Universal Grammar acts on that input to further represent sentences in the mind), then you probably want to spend much more time providing input through whole-class discussion (where the students and teacher negotiate what to talk about, but the speaking is mostly coming from the teacher in the form of open questions to the students).
2) Output: If you are a teacher who believes output is any form of speaking and writing (in meaningful situations, of course), then you probably want to help your students save time and effort by having them read from scripts to each other. And if you are a teacher who believes that output is only language that comes out of a person's mental representation, then you probably want to ask students to talk (about pictures, their opinions, etc.) without any textual sources to read from.
3) Authenticity: If you are a teacher who believes that only talk and writing that is created by and for monolingual native speakers counts as authentic, then you probably want to have your students watch lots of movie clips and read lots of menus and newspaper clippings, and you will also probably want to suspend that definition when you have students role-play as waiters, bankers, customers, etc. And if you are a teacher who believes that a classroom is itself a real place with real people who bring with them their real experiences and real opinions, then you may want to use a lot of class time to use the target language to talk about each other and the people you are familiar with.
My comments here are directed at both presenters and teachers. Presenters should be clear about their claims regarding what each "tool" (teaching practice) is intended to do. What we should not say is this: "REMEMBER! [Person/Organization] says we should always do X, and never do Y." What exactly is missing from this advice? Well a purpose of course. Teachers as well should be looking for that purpose in addition to quick solutions. As a teacher it's always easiest to hop around sessions and say, "Oh that looks fun! My students are going to love this one!" My response to that is this: "Great! So I'm hearing that engagement and motivation are your purposes for that activity. Additionally, is that activity also meant to achieve acquisition, skills, and/or knowledge? I'm guessing it is, but you should be clear on these purposes before you add it to your teaching toolbox.
Update on July 11, 2018:
Reid Wyatt and I developed “IMASK” as an initialism to capture the five goals/objectives that teachers should consider for any new practices:
Institution: secures a teacher in their department, makes colleagues, administrators, and other stakeholders outside her classroom happy, including articulation with courses students will go in to;
Motivation: increases student engagement and participation;
Acquisition: effectively puts language into the learners heads;
Skill: develops acquired language into socially useful purposes, e.g. making compelling speeches to audiences;
Knowledge: explicit awareness and memory for cultural products, practices, perspectives, and people.
There is a general thrust that I look for in my own teaching of language (mostly Chinese Mandarin, though I also do demos in Vietnamese for language teachers who already speak Chinese). Proficiency is a fancy word that takes too much time to define in each conversation about it, so I prefer the word "use". Can learners use the language? Use where? Use with whom? And use when?
Taking functional "usage" as my guide post, I've taken A LOT from other teachers, and we all have taken, in turn, from each other. Of the thousands of teachers I plug in with on social media (mainly Facebook groups), I have seen over and over how any one teacher will borrow a teaching idea from the group (for example, creating a lending library for the class), try it with their own group/s of students, discover new needs that are special to that group (including the teacher's unique needs), and then share their modified version back with the larger group of thousands of teachers (e.g. adding sticky notes that students can leave in their book with comments and star-ratings for the next reader, adding intrinsic motivation for the next borrower).
What I have been very slow to take from other Chinese teachers is "culture". I put this in quotations here because I do not believe that most of the cultural lessons that I've seen many Chinese classrooms is knowledge or skill that can be used after the lesson. And I mean anywhere, ever. Not in the classroom again, not outside the classroom, and not with communities of people who speak the language (native, non-native, or even classmates).
I'll start here with an example of "culture" that I think was appropriate for the class I used it in. Teaching a small group of 2nd and 3rd graders, we discussed a cartoons made small children in China about moon cakes, during the Mid-Autumn Festival. The kids enjoyed it. And then it never came up again. It's possible that they kids will grow up, and say to someone then, "Oh yeah, Mid-Autumn Festival. I saw a cartoon once about that when I was really little." But for me as a teacher, that's not enough.
Let's look at a stronger example. At a STARTALK program I lead, where the theme was "A Musical Journey Through China", we showed Wang Lihong's Twelve Zodiacs music video. This, I believe, was age appropriate for our high schoolers. They requested to see it again on the following days, and I caught some of them watching it with headphones on their phones during breaks, of their own free will. I was happy to see that they had learned about someone relevant that they could talk about with Chinese speakers (native, non-native, and classmates). And this is what I really want: something learners can use in talk with people, be they native, non-native, or even classmates, and not just because the teacher told them to talk about it, but because they find it meaningful to bring up on their own out of their own personal interest. That means I have to get to know my students and their age group, and frequently check with them about what they're into. (note: if learners show they find a fictional story entertaining, then I think it's perfectly appropriate for that group, as they may choose to read more about it, discuss it with classmates and the teacher, write about it, etc. This differs from the Chinese cultural presentations and activities I see where students, for example, tie a Chinese knot, and then never talk about it again unless the teacher pushes them to).
Too often I see Chinese teachers think like the adults I grew up with in Los Angeles (general white Americans), trying to introduce things to kids and teenagers while always betraying that they really had no idea what we liked. If language is going to be useful for communication, then teachers need to know what learners want to communicate about, and, in addition, learners need to see the language as relevant for their own communication. Things I don't want to do in a classroom include: showing Chinese cartoons to learners over age 10, unless they show it is nostalgic to them (but how could they if they didn't grow up with it?), singing songs intended for small children, showing calendars and pictures that teach holidays without reference to what people do then (including examples from real people's lives). I also can't imagine a speaker of the language (native, non-native, or fellow classmate) having any interest in talking about these things ("Do you know Mid-Autumn Festival?" "Yes, I do." "Oh, so you know Mid-Autumn Festival" is the best I can think of). My perception is that most of what shows up in textbooks and teacher materials (found or created) is boring to learners and to anyone they might find themselves conversing with (or reading about, or presenting on).
So what do I like? I like these links for talking about current trends and news in China:
In sum, and most importantly, I want to keep asking "Is this useful for my particular group of learners, given their age and learning goals" (again coming back to use as my guiding post). I hope more Chinese teachers might share what they are doing with up-to-date resources like these in their classrooms, so that I, in-turn, might further adapt tasks and activities into something new again, and we can all work together to keep the profession developing.
 Special thanks to Diane Neubauer for suggesting PictureTalk and MovieTalk as activities here.
Reed Riggs (Author)