I knew something had to change...
I needed to do the following:
1. Make the speaking topics something that teenagers WANTED to talk about.
2. Find a way to encourage them to stay in the target language when I was not right next to them.
3. Find a way to quantify their participation that was fair and gave credit not just for speaking, but for listening to others as well.
It was easy to increase the interest level of my speaking topics. After all, I knew exactly what teenagers liked to talk about in English - themselves (and the more than occasional gossip about others). Including a social element, where my students became the topic of conversation, was vital. They didn't want to talk about what "Marcos", some anonymous textbook boy from Costa Rica likes to do, they wanted to find out about each other.
I found a solution for the other two problems on my fireplace mantel. I had a vase with those decorative glass pebbles in it. I dumped the pebbles out and took them to school. I instructed the students to take 2 pebbles from the jar as they walked into the classroom. I explained to them that these pebbles were their points and that by the end of class they needed to have 5. They could earn their additional pebbles by contributing to the conversation. They could also lose pebbles by failing to remain in the target language. They kept their pebbles visible on their desks and as we spoke, I was able to give and take pebbles without losing a beat in the conversation. I did not have to give any verbal reminders to refrain from speaking English - I would just happen by their desk and remove a rock. I was absolutely amazed at how much this changed the focus and environment. The next day in class, the kids returned asking if we were "going to play the rock game" again. The rock GAME? They thought it was FUN?
I am not even sure I can tell you exactly why this works, but it does. At least in part I think it works because the control over the activity has shifted to the student. They can control those rocks and how many they have, speak when they have something to say, and listen when they don't. They are tangible, visible reminders of the expectations.
The system isn't perfect but it has allowed me to get kids speaking and listening and having fun while doing it. I will still have the occasional kid that would rather take his two rocks and sit happily with his/her 60% and never utter a word. The rocks help me as well though. As I circulate, I too can see how many rocks each student has and I invite the kids with fewer rocks into the conversation with direct questions. It doesn't always work, but it works A LOT better than what I was doing before.