by Jennifer Prescott
Teacher of French & Spanish, United Nations International School of Hanoi, Vietnam
As the “Free Time” unit loomed over my Middle Years Program French class yet again, I felt myself dragging my feet about going over the same ground. The unit was designed to teach the past tense using very familiar sport and leisure vocabulary. If I felt this way, how could I hope to engage my students? This desire for change coincided with a Master’s unit I was completing: Game Based Learning. I took my chance to revamp the unit into a PBL project and apply what I learne
This project did not involve using technology to play games, or off-the-shelf games used to learn French. It is hard to find commercial off-the-shelf video games which exactly fulfill learning objectives, and difficult to design compelling ‘edutainment’ games. But it is possible to take the psychology of what makes video games exciting and addictive – an area where millions are spent on research and development – and apply some elements of it to keep students engaged in a PBL unit.
The project idea was born. Students would become superheroes and hone their French skills for a final fight to defeat an evil villain.
Aligning the Project to Standards
What needed to be achieved? For curriculum continuity, the same grammar points and vocabulary needed to be covered. How to let students move at their own pace, mirroring the structure of video games but allowing PBL to take place meaningfully?
Step one was the creation of a narrative. If students were to be fully engaged in the project they needed a goal and a story. I decided on a traditional hero-in-training-defeats-evil-villain narrative. To encourage students to buy in to the project, my colleague and I created a trailer as the entry event to generate curiosity, as this is a key motivator. The driving question was, “What makes a superhero?” Using a selection of unit grammar points, the students were tasked with creating their avatar, in the form of a superhero, who would navigate a dangerous path to confront the villain.
Quests & XP Points
To maintain momentum I decided to break the project up into quests, the completion of which, at students’ own pace, accumulated points (XP). Quests were loosely based on the grammar points from the old unit and were written to practise vocabulary from prior units. As the school is international, we have a significant proportion of new students entering each year. This project dealt with revision of personal descriptions, clothes and identity. XP could later be traded for superpowers.
For example, Quest 1 was to read about Batman and fill in a table with some basic details to encourage students to find out the French vocabulary they would need to describe their own hero—words such as superpowers, mission, costume, weakness, true identity, which were all featured and could be deduced.
As students finished, they showed me their work and I recorded the points on a chart.
To gain points students had to write about their mission, what they can and cannot do and what they have to do, using modal verbs. Each hero needed a costume, a motto, a real-life identity and a weakness. Points were accumulated as they completed their avatar’s profile and traded up for better powers.
At first students had to choose ridiculous powers as they did not have the necessary points to trade for more impressive ones. This song inspired the list, for example being able to predict what day it will be tomorrow, seeing through glass walls and making toast pop out the toaster from a distance.
Some students were able accumulate XP more quickly, so I added “side quests” with extra points for complexity. For example, students could create a sidekick and write about him, or design and describe an alternative costume. These ran through the whole unit and could be completed at any time. Students quickly asked if they could author their own side quests and asked me to approve and assign points to them before adding them to the shared list. Suddenly I had students not only requesting extra work, but using their own voice and agency to shape the project. Some students who found completing the basics challenging also wished to complete side quests.
The completed avatars, published on our Learning Management System, were ready to face the perilous journey to confront the villain.
Reflections on the Results
After students completed the design of their avatars I reflected on the experience. Generally, students were engaged and working at their own pace. The project lent itself to extension activities and allowed student agency in directing the project. This project was a successful way to help students tackle a tricky grammatical point at their own pace whilst going over some of the basic vocabulary. This unit has since been adopted by other teachers and adapted for other schools. Parent feedback has been positive but most importantly students singled it out as being their most memorable unit in French that year.
Although we did not gather quantitative or qualitative data, anecdotal evidence from teachers and students supports the intention that PBL was a successful and engaging way to deliver the content. The unit continues to evolve. This year it is the first unit of the year and the focus is more on personal descriptions to allow students to revise without feeling like they are going over old ground. We have also linked the superpowers with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, in line with our mission as a United Nations school.
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