Engaging Students in Cross-Language Collaboration with “The Grey Planet”

In this guest blog post, Ann Radefeld, French teacher and Language Acquisition Department Head at Woodbury School, shares how her entire school read The Gray Planet in German, French, Latin, and Spanish, and how the students engaged in cross-language projects about the graphic novel. I am thrilled about this initiative and honored that Ann accepted my invitation to write about it:


Since 2020, when I began teaching grades 5 and 6 in an inner-ring suburban school outside Cleveland, Ohio, I have been extremely reflective on my pedagogical practices.  It was my 16th year of teaching, and I had previously taught grades 8-12.  Grades 5 and 6 were different.  And, after the pandemic, students were different.  During the 2022 school year, I decided that I needed to change the way I was teaching.  At that time, my guided notes, grammar lessons and vocabulary lists were not “sticking” with the students.  These outdated practices were boring for me and, therefore, boring for the students.  I became inspired to try something new.  I had spent most of the year listening to The World Language Classroom podcast, by Joshua Cabral, and by reading countless posts in the multiple Facebook groups of which I am a part.  

During the Summer of 2022, I read the book Common Ground: Second Language Acquisition Theory Goes to the Classroom by Florencia G. Henshaw and Maris D. Hawkins.  Additionally, I attended Comprehended! The Online CI Conference.  The knowledge that I acquired from these two experiences, led me to set some professional goals for the upcoming school year.  One goal was to speak more French in the classroom.  I would use comprehensible input strategies to give the students a greater understanding and greater confidence in speaking.  A second goal was that I wanted the students to be able to read a book by the end of the school year.  

Working as a department team

In early October, two of my colleagues and I attended a weekend language acquisition workshop.  My favorite part about being sent to workshops and PD sessions is that we are afforded the opportunity to meet and share ideas with educators outside of our school building.  Another teacher at this session began to talk to my colleagues about the books her middle school students read in class.  After this workshop, my goal shifted.  Not only did I want my students to read a book, I wanted all our students to read a book in their target language.  

As department chair, I floated this idea by my principal and my building instructional coach.  They were on board.  At my next department meeting, my department members liked the idea, so we started looking for books in our respective languages.  The more we looked, the more we noticed that there were books written in two languages, or even three languages.  In early November, I inquired about CI readers in the Facebook group “CI for French Teachers: Compelling and Comprehensible Input”.  Among the many responses, there was a post from Cécile Lainé about her graphic novel, La Planète Grise.  

My department members and I ordered some sample books, one of mine being La Planète Grise.  I shared this book with my department and they really enjoyed the images and basic language used throughout the storyWe believed that it was the one book that would interest all of our students.  When we realized that the book had been translated into German, Spanish and Latin, we decided to buy it and create a cross-language unit.

We worked on the unit during our department meetings, and we were fortunate enough to receive one day out of our classrooms to work together with our instructional coach and IB coordinator.  We began our unit by looking at the standards that we wanted to focus on.  French, German and Spanish use common standards in the state of Ohio, but Latin uses the Classical Language standards.  We decided that in order to keep our unit common across the languages, we would focus on Interpretive Reading, which was something that we all shared.  

Process and Resources

We were extremely fortunate to have Cécile meet with us over Zoom, and we appreciated all of her resources.  I worked with the other language teachers to translate the free La Planète Grise teacher resources into English so that they could translate the resources into their own languages.  They recreated all of the Blookets and Quizlet flashcards so that we could be as aligned as possible.  We decided that our culminating activities would be cross-language projects, in English, based on the choice board that was in the teacher guide, and a written assessment in both the target language, and in English.  Our unit was planned for May and we decided to dedicate two days to our projects.

We see our students every other day (on an A/B schedule) for approximately 50 minutes.  Using the slides provided in the teacher guide, our goal was to spend between 5 and 7 class periods with the students prior to the collaborative projects. 

During our reading days, we each read to our own students in our own rooms.  Students had their books and followed along.  During the first three days, we read four pages at a time.  On day four, we read pages 12-20.  We introduced key vocabulary, played the Blookets, and did a recap at the beginning of each class. Essentially, we followed the teacher resources folder.   My students really enjoyed the activity where they had to put the story in the correct order.  All of the resources that we used came from the teacher resource folder that Cécile provided.  The only resource that we self-created was a student packet, which helped the students organize their work and also complete exit tickets.

Our cross-language project

On the first collaboration day, we met students in our own classrooms to introduce the expectations.  We projected the choice board options we adapted from Cécile’s resources and explained where each group would meet.  There were four teachers and we would be using three of four classrooms.  Each teacher was in charge of one choice option, and we had one floater.  We used the choice board provided to us in the teacher resources as a springboard to create our own.  We ended up with three options for the students: Act It Out, Book Trailer, and What Comes Next?  

In each of our classrooms, students first found a partner (if they wanted a partner), then they moved into three groups: Act It Out, Book Trailer, and What Comes Next? Each group was given a “ticket” on which they had to write their names and turn in to the teacher in charge of that specific group.  All of the tickets were copied on a specific color of paper.  This made it easy for us to direct, for example, all green tickets to Act It Out in the Latin Room.  Once all students were in the room that they had chosen, the teacher in that room reminded students of the expectations.  Students were then asked to form groups of three or four, making a group with students who did not take the same language that they did.  

Throughout one and a half class periods, students worked on their projects. The goal was to have students post their completed work in a shared padlet.  We wanted to see that students had comprehended the text.  All projects were to be completed in English.  We thought that if students could take what they had read, in their respective languages, and be able to discuss the book in English, they had successfully comprehended the book.  We were overjoyed seeing the students work collaboratively, leafing through a French book, then a German book, and so on.  We often noticed that students would have multiple books on their desk.  One student would tell another to turn to a specific page in their book so that they could interpret text at the same time.  (Student Samples Folder)

Learnings and plans for next year

Overall, the students enjoyed this book!  They were excited to read it when they came into the classroom.  I received some feedback that it was too easy.  However, I also received feedback that it was too difficult.  Of course, these comments are very typical for any class.  The students liked that there were only four or five vocabulary words presented at a time, and they felt confident with the repetition of vocabulary of the course of the days we read.  They definitely remembered the words like “power” and “blind”, especially when I used gestures with these words.  There were some students who have been disengaged for most of the school year who were very successful with this book and the subsequent activities.  In my opinion, the students most enjoyed working with students who were taking a different language.  However, naturally, group work is not for everyone.  I had one student who opted to work at home with her parents.  She did an excellent job during class writing a script and involving her parents as actors.  When she approached me to ask if this was acceptable, I said yes!  She was showing me that she comprehended the book.

My colleagues and I also appreciated the comprehensible nature and engaging story of this book.  The activities that Cécile provided to us were so helpful!  We all decided that next year, we will do this unit in April.  May was challenging.  There were so many interruptions to our schedule; some we had predicted, and some came to us sporadically throughout the month. We also agreed that next year, we would like to give three days for students to work on the projects.  They enjoyed the work and many students felt very rushed at the end.  We believe that if we give one more day, we will get better products from our students.

I would highly recommend trying this out with your colleagues!  It was a great opportunity for our students.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.

Read more about The Gray Planet here.

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