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Language Learning at University of Michigan. Using Harmonize to Connect.

May 5, 2021 12:30:00 PM

There’s a lot involved in language learning, and countless methods to teach it. But most language instructors would agree that successful students practice their target language in a variety of ways to strengthen reading, writing, listening, and speaking skills. 

Sabine Gabaron has been teaching French at the University of Michigan since she came to the US as a graduate student 25 years ago. She has always had an interest in how new technologies can support language learning, so when a colleague from the Language Resource Center at the University of Michigan suggested she try Harmonize to augment her remote teaching, she jumped at the chance. 

After attending a short workshop on how to get started with Harmonize, Sabine incorporated Harmonize into classes she taught in the fall and winter semesters of 2020 and 2021. In a year of academic challenges, Sabine faced one more: teaching five required courses remotely for the first time. (Three courses fulfilled the University’s fourth-term proficiency requirement in a language other than English and two fulfilled requirements for the French major and minor.) 

Getting students talking. (And reading. And writing. And listening.)

In the remote classroom, helping students find ways to connect is always a great first step. For her language classes, Sabine knew she also had to find ways to help her students feel confident about contributing to discussions in the target language.

For most assignments, Sabine models what she would like to see her students doing. While all of her students understand what’s expected of them from the rubric she provides, modeling a good original post, or a good comment provides language learners with a concrete and referenceable example. And, because Harmonize is so familiar to students who use social media, getting them involved in discussions early has been more natural. 

For an ice breaker, Sabine asks her students to post an image along with a sentence in the target language describing why they chose it. “The fact that Harmonize is so social media-like and that it’s so visual really helps engage students,” she told us. “Because they see an image, students are immediately interested.”

Sabine also uses Harmonize throughout the semester to pinpoint students who may be feeling less confident about their language skills and works with them one-on-one to help them improve. 

Deepening the discussion.

Sabine encourages her students to focus on content, rather than process.

Early in the semester, Sabine asks her students to create a short personal video and post it to Harmonize. “I didn’t have to do any training to get students to use Harmonize,” Sabine said. “I really wanted to minimize the time I spent on instructions.” Her post was simple: introduce yourselves, use visual details to help engage your peers in your story, and be creative. And with Harmonize, that’s simple. Students know intuitively how to upload a video--or even create one directly from Harmonize.

As the semester progresses, she uses other techniques to engage students in their language learning. For a course that explores “bandes dessinées” (French comics), Sabine asks students to find a panel that interests them and post on Harmonize, along with a description to justify their choice. Students are then instructed to respond to three student posts and engage in a conversation around various aspects of the panels. Students naturally use the vocabulary and grammar structures studied in class to exchange ideas and opinions.

The discussions are often lively and illuminating. 

Creating community.

Across all of her courses, Sabine uses Harmonize to create a sense of community--along with that sense of trust that’s so important to language learning. For Medical French, Sabine divides her class into smaller groups that are each assigned a topic: how French and American hospitals differ, health care and human rights, and the often esoteric language of health care in France, for example.

Groups work together to gather information and formulate opinions and then Sabine has students use Harmonize to share their conclusions with the rest of the class who, in turn, offer their own insights.   

What did they think?

At the end of the fall semester, Sabine conducted a survey to understand what students liked and didn’t like about their remote experience and working with Harmonize. Students can be frank about what they like and don’t like about a course, but the surveys overall were quite positive.

Some students remarked that they felt self-conscious about their language skills in such a public forum. In response, Sabine now asks students to come to her if they want extra help or are feeling self-conscious. Others suggested that Sabine herself may have been overly zealous when it came to the number of activities she assigned (she has since landed on a more judicious number). She was thrilled to see that these were the only negative comments. 

The positives? We’ll let the students speak for themselves:

It’s nice to have smaller writing requirements that are more frequent.

I liked that we could react and reply directly to other students as it made it seem like we were having proper conversations which enhanced my French.

I genuinely looked forward to having other people comment on my posts.

The work seems like it is more applicable to real-world French (purpose is communication not just homework).

I liked getting to know my classmates. It was more personal than just a regular discussion forum because of the videos, pictures, etc.

You can learn more about how Sabine uses Harmonize to engage and support language learners by viewing this on-demand webinar. Sabine explains each of her activities in more depth and answers questions from attendees.

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