Back in the day…

Today we started one of my favorite units in my novice class:  “when I was little…”.  While this unit could definitely use some love in the culture department (working on that this year), it is a unit that interests students and keeps them engaged.  Since the weather here in the mid-Atlantic has turned gorgeous, this is definitely a plus!

In a change of sequence from how I was taught–and was taught to teach–I introduce the concept of past tenses with the imperfect rather than the preterit.  Why?  It’s easy to use, and early success helps to keep the momentum going.  It’s easy to compare and contrast with present tense within the framework of “when I was little” too.   Finally, within this framework it helps to solidify the idea that imperfect is the tense that we use to express things that we used to do.  That solid anchor helps so much when we move on to talk about the preterit!

Last week I asked students to list some of their favorite things from when they were kids–things like tv shows, movies, toys, foods, etc.  I’ll incorporate their answers into our prompts and examples throughout the unit.  They love to see their input coming back to them!

We started class with the Pollito Pío video and worksheet from Zachary Jones–always a fun way to begin class!  Now that I had them laughing and had their attention, I gave each student a small tub of Play Doh and asked them to sculpt the answer to the question  “¿Cuál animal era tu favorito cuando eras pequeño? (What was your favorite animal when you were little?), which was projected on the screen.  After a couple of minutes, we worked our way how to answer the question…and oh, yeah, what does era mean?  This was the first formal introduction to any past tense, and they just pick it up naturally.  I modeled for them, then they practiced answering the question with their partners, and volunteers shared with the whole class.

My mom loves this unit too, because she got to help me prepare for the input phase.   After Playdoh  animals, I told them that we were going to talk about life “back in the day”–a great southern expression for exactly this topic!  Thanks to Mom, I showed a series of slides like these:

Image   Image

 (Yes, that’s me.  Back in the day!!)  Each slide had a photo and a simple caption in Spanish.  There were several of me and my life, but also slides that compared technology like computers and cell phones–and even microwaves–from then v. now.  I narrated and checked for understanding, but never really talked about “The Imperfect” along the way.  I gave them a comprehension check true/false quiz at the end, but this was mostly to get them to read a little more in Spanish–the score didn’t count.

We clicked through these slides one more time, and I asked students to extract what they thought the rules for past tense might be.  Some chose to use Play Doh to express their answers:

Image Image

…while others chose more traditional means of recording their thoughts.  Not bad, though, huh?  We still hadn’t talked about the structure of any of the imperfect, and yet they were picking it up.

To close class, I showed them a second series of slides, this time with things they had chosen as their favorites.  I asked them either/or questions like ¿Cuál cereal comías más:  Cheerios o Lucky Charms?, assisted by photo prompts on the screen.  I modeled answers for the first few, but they didn’t need that help as we progressed through the later questions.

Today’s success reinforces why I left my old ways of memorize-the-vocab-drill-the-grammar-and-hope-they-can-use-it behind.  In less than an hour, students were using the imperfect appropriately, albeit in a limited fashion, were talking about their childhoods, and were excited about what is to come.  They even asked if they could do a presentation like my introduction.  Hmmm, sounds like an opportunity for some student choice projects!

The adventure is often a challenge, but it is also worth it.  Join me again soon for part 2 of this series!

PS–any ideas for cultural topics to include?  I have a few ideas, but would love more if you would leave them in the comments!

…with liberty and justice for all

My intermediate level class begins each day with the whole school recitation of the US Pledge of Allegiance.  Over the last few weeks, the words “with liberty and justice for all” have been particularly poignant as we have been exploring some social justice issues linked to La Guerra Sucia in Argentina and Chile, as well as Guatemala.  To me, one of the most important things I can teach my students is to think critically and with empathy for others. Along the way we will learn a lot of Spanish, but I want my students to be better citizens as a result of our studies as well.

In the course of this unit we incorporated music, film, reading, tweeting with another class, and a live Skype conversation, and I have seen impressive growth in my students’ skills as a result.  Here’s how we did it:

  1. Pinterest:  It’s important to me that students see the beauty of the places that we study as well as the struggles.  We introduced the topic by having students look for information on Argentina and Chile and pin photos to their Pinterest accounts.  They shared them with each other in class, narrating what they were showing and why it interested them.
  2. I was greatly assisted by Kara Jacobs’ work here.
  3. Stations for exploring the theme:  We collaborated with Kristy Placido’s class, completing her stations activities.  More information is here.
  4. the movie Cautiva:  Again in conjunction with Kristy Placido, we watched the film Cautiva.  The 800 mile gap between our schools disappeared through the magic of technology and our students discussed the film at various stopping points.  The characters in Cautiva continued to weave through our studies as we talked about events being similar to what had happened to Sofia and her friends and family.
  5. TPRS Publishing’s La Guerra Sucia:  I love this book because it is compelling–I had to remind the kids who read ahead to not spoil it for the others–and is just enough of a challenge to help students grow in their language.  Like the film, it also gives us a framework around which we can base the study of other materials.
  6. Maria Hinojosa’s interviews of Robert Cox (as recommended by the TPRS teacher’s guide) and Mercedes Doretti.  Doretti’s organization is working world wide to identify remains of people who were victims of mass killings and genocide, including in Guatemala.  Though these interviews were in English, I believe that their worth lies in further connecting students to the story.
  7. What Happened at Dos Erres:  This story from This American Life has haunted me since the day I heard it, and I instantly knew that I wanted to find a way to use it in class.  There is a Spanish print edition of the story here, but we simply did not have enough time to work through this and do the other things that I wanted to include.  I also recognize that it is beyond these students’  i+1 reading level. Maybe next time?  The story is also available as an eBook in Spanish or English here.
  8. Music: Maná’s “Desapariciones“; Sting’s “Ellas Danzan Solas“; Bono’s “Homenaje a las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo“.  These songs ended up leading us on a lengthy conversation about music in the 80’s and 90’s, because my students didn’t know who Sting, Peter Gabriel, Genesis, or the Police were… so I had to teach them that too.  (Thank you YouTube!).  I’ve wanted to teach this unit since hearing Ellas Danzan Solas several years ago, so this was a dream come true moment.
  9. Google Earth:  We “visited” several of the places from the book via Google Earth on the projection screen, and discovered that from La Casa Rosada, the pictures were taken at night if you head in one direction and in the day in the other directions!
  10. Skype!:  We had the pleasure of a Skype conversation in Spanish with the amazing Brittany Peterson who told of her travels, study, and journalistic work in Argentina and Chile, including this story, this one,  and especially this one.  Brittany started her Spanish studies as a sophomore in another high school in our district, and I loved the aspect of students seeing someone “like them” using the language.  By the way, Brittany was in Chile and on the ground during the Chilean spring student uprising, and covered the topic extensively.  If you are teaching this topic, search out her coverage–it is excellent!  One of my favorite questions from the students was when they asked if she had watched El Internado–they were so nervous to talk throughout the Skype call, but forgot their nervousness when it came to this topic due to their passion for it.
  11. Assessment:  We used Amy Lenord’s Conversation Circle for assessing speaking skills. This is hands-down one of my favorite tools  for intermediate classes.  Our written assessment has some music interpretation with writing and a writing from TPRS Publishing’s teacher’s guide for the novel.
  12. Grammar:  Oh, yes, there was some grammar too.  We wove perfect tenses and subjunctive throughout the unit.

All in all, this was a long unit, but a good one.  Students are reporting that they feel more confident in their skills, and it shows when they write and speak.  They loved the Conversation Circle and Skype, and have asked for specific topics to be addressed that they recognize as weaknesses/breakdown points.  They are clearly making connections with other classes–one of the threads in a recent conversation was comparing themes in Orwell’s 1984 with politics and society in our studied countries.  They were also shocked to hear that while I had read it, it was still futuristic when I did.  They brought up comparisons to the Holocaust and visits to the Holocaust Memorial when they saw the slogan “Nunca más” on Madres de la Plaza de Mayo materials.

…con libertad y justicia para todos.  I have no doubt that this phrase has taken on new meaning for this group of students, and I’m honored to have been on this journey with them.


A Mouse That Makes House Calls


Perspectives, Products, and Practices:  the three components of a culture.  Our standards call for our students to be able to navigate these concepts within their language of study, yet cultural study is often relegated to the back burner or reduced to trivia facts in a box in the corner of a textbook page.

I teach a professional development series for practicing world language teachers, and we talked about why this takes place.  The five most common answers were that “it’s too hard to do in TL in novice level classes”, “it gets saved for the upper levels”, “I don’t know enough about places other than where I studied”, “it takes so much time”, and “I have so much other stuff to get done”.  I will offer alternatives to these viewpoints in this post.

These ideas–and some encouragement from some colleagues–are what lead me to start this blog. When I heard the responses above, they solidified for me in one central thought:  I don’t know how because I’ve never seen it done.

So today I’d like to show you how one cultural point can provide a launching pad for rich language instruction embedded in culture for both novice and intermediate levels.  If you haven’t read The Language Educator’s article Integrating Cultures into your Language Instruction, I suggest that you do so now.  Here’s a link.

Now that you’re back…Have you ever heard of Ratoncito Pérez? How about the Tooth Fairy?  Do you have any special memories of when you lost your teeth as a kid?  Did you get anything in return for your teeth?

These questions are samples of some of the stage-setters that I use when we are talking about our lives as kids. Some people would call this the “imperfect” unit–I prefer to center it around the cultural components of the products (Ratoncito Pérez and related accessories), practices (what do we do when we lose a tooth), and perspectives (what does this mean to us) connected to this rite of passage as kids.  Who is Ratoncito Pérez? He is a mouse that collects baby teeth (called dientes de leche) from children who place them under their pillows at night.

In my novice classes, we do a unit based on traditions, holidays, and festivals. This unit serves as an introduction to the imperfect tense in an organized fashion, though students have seen it in context in other places before this point.  Ratoncito Pérez is an excellent example of a tradition within that unit, and is one that naturally invites comparison between cultures.

In my intermediate classes, episode 5 of season 1 of El Internado makes several extended references to Ratoncito Pérez that are embedded in the story line.  We study Ratoncito Pérez before watching that episode to improve their comprehension of Paula and Evelyn’s actions.

And to me, this is the point of studying culture.  We understand why Paula and Evelyn would think the way they do and act the way the do (the perspectives) because we understand their culture. We also understand what they are saying because we are familiar with the cultural references that they make.  In short, cultural understanding is necessary to comprehend fully what is going on in our “other” culture, be it on tv or in real life.

Regardless of level, here is the outline for this lesson:

  1. Conversation starters from above with pictures of RP & Tooth Fairy
  2. Authentic resources rich with necessary vocabulary
  3. Comparison/Contrast with native and other cultures
  4. Some form of output
    1. novice: write several sentences comparing and contrasting RP & Tooth Fairy and/or express opinion on which tradition you prefer
    2. intermediates:  write a letter to RP as if you were Paula or Evelyn in El Internado and/or retell the RP story from photo cues

This lesson overcomes the obstacles mentioned by my student-colleagues in several ways:

  • “it’s too hard to do in novice levels”:  It can be done in novice levels. Choose authentic resources that are attainable for the novice levels and adjust the tasks accordingly. Infographics and picture books can be excellent sources of material.
  • “it’s saved for the upper levels”:  Most students would choose studying about a kids’ story and other cultures to learning another verb tense.  It’s not just the language that captivates them–it’s the culture.  Embed the learning of the other material into the culture even at the lower levels, and we might see an improved enrollment in our upper levels.  Cultural study is inherently interesting and engaging (kids call it “fun”).  Why would we want to delay that?
  • “I don’t know about cultures other than where I studied”:  In our technological day, this is less of a problem than the days where you had to actually go to another country to find out about it.  Use the internet for its good aspects.  Join Twitter and follow news and cultural icons from other countries. Become a regular reader of Zachary Jones.  And here’s a secret:  you don’t have to know it all.  You do have to know enough to send the kids off on a guided exploration and be willing to let them teach you too.
  • “it takes so much time”: Yes.  Excellent lesson planning does take time. But since you are planning anyway, why not use your time to develop lessons that are culturally rich, proficiency oriented, and standards-based?  And who knows, not only might you learn something new, but you also might be reinvigorated about what you teach!  (And then you don’t have to start from scratch next time either.)
  • “I have so much other stuff to cover”:  Responding to this could be a blog post on its own.  My response in a nutshell: Cover less and students will probably retain more. Embed the “stuff to cover” into the cultural unit (and students will probably retain more). Using authentic resources–or semi-authentic resources–exposes students to concepts that will look familiar when it comes time to “learn” them… which will save you time and students will probably retain more. 🙂

And now… resources!

  • My class packet for intermediates–direct tie-ins with El Internado
  • How to brush your teeth with Ratoncito Pérez:
  • A Spanish primary school’s Ratoncito Pérez club blog
  • Reading from the excellent Veinte Mundos (This is what I will adapt for my novice classes.)
  • The Tooth Fairy Meets Ratón Pérez at Amazon

Happy adventuring!

photo credit:

Veamos la tele: Let’s watch TV

Today was our first day back from Spring Break, and the kids were energized and ready to learn.  Don’t I wish?! Knowing that all of us were going to need a little pick me up, and also knowing that we needed to review and build upon the concepts of expressing opinions and descriptions, I planned a mini-unit around watching tv, and the contemporary concept of “binge watching” of series.

Our essential question continues to center around “how do we spend our spare time?”, and the cultural focus is on comparing products and practices as represented through tv watching habits.  We will talk about Sábado GiganteDon Francisco, El Barco, and El Internado.  In fact, as we are wrapping up registration for next year, I’m going to use the intro to El Internado as a carrot to encourage students to continue their studies in the intermediate class in the fall.

We started with questions based on prompts around screen title shots for tv shows that the students had indicated that they liked to watch.  Questions emphasized repetitions of phrases like te gusta, te interesa, te apetece, prefieres, and qué opinas for opinion-giving, and also a quick review of descriptions and comparisons. We followed up with color-categorizing content from tweets about binge-watching and extracting some relevant vocabulary.

Tomorrow we will continue with stations!  One of my favorites! Stay tuned for updates.

You can download the packet complete with the audio prompts for listening here.  Audio prompts are from

Roll Out the Red Carpet! (part 2)


In the previous post, I described some of the activities that I used with my students to work through describing our favorite movies. To me, though the proof was in the pudding when we got to the end of the unit as evidenced by their assessments.  Our goals in the form of “I can” statements for this unit were:

  • I can describe the activities that I do in my spare time.
  • I can describe movies and shows that I’ve seen.
  • I can ask and understand about movies and shows that others have seen.
  • I can make plans to go out with friends.

The assessments for this unit took on four forms: informal listening assessment with feedback provided, reading assessment based on authentic resources, and presentational assessment about an impressive film, and an interpersonal assessment in the form of a guided, but improvised conversation.  More details follow…

presentational assessment

Students were asked to select a film that was meaningful to them, and to present about it.  I borrowed a template from Crystal Barragán, and developed questions that walked students through the basic skeleton of a movie review.   You can download it here.  Students started a first draft in class, were asked to finish it overnight if it needed more work, and then submitted it for feedback. I handed it back and we spent some time revising and answering their questions.

Next they received the assignment of presenting their film in class a couple of days later, but I still had one more trick up my sleeve.  They would only be able to use a symbolic notecard for their presentations; that is, a notecard with no words other than names. Instead, they can draw symbols, stick figures, etc. to represent what they want to say, but cannot read directly from the card.  I have found this technique to be very helpful in providing notes for students as they create increasingly complex presentations but yet requiring them to know their content instead of just reading the card to us.  Here’s a sample of a card from a student–can you guess which film he was describing?


Finally came presentation day, and we tried a new technique that was a real winner!  Martina Bex had written about simultaneous presentations, and I decided to try it out.  Overall, students loved it. Their comments after the assessment indicated that it reduced their anxiety about presenting and that it gave them additional practice, and this was evident in their body language.  They were relaxed and chatting, not stressed and fretting.  This process also resulted in the first time all year that all students met the proficiency target on the first attempt.  It has been a long journey getting to this point and we’ve had many obstacles to overcome.  Now it’s time to build on our progress!

interpretive assessment/interpersonal assessment

1.  Students completed a brief reading assessment based on reading information about a theater in Madrid as well as movie offerings.   2.   One of the other major objectives of this unit was to work on asking original questions of others. Amy Lenord’s questions workshop was very helpful in developing an approach to doing this successfully. After completing the reading assessment, students wrote out some questions they might ask in order to invite another person to see one of those films.These questions were not graded, but served as a security blanket for students who wanted it on their oral interpersonal assessment.  I called students back in pairs and asked one of them to invite the other to a movie on the reading assessment page and another activity (like going to eat), including other arrangements like time, place, and my favorite original contribution:  who’s driving.

Next up: we complete our free time unit with the topic of tv–especially the concept of binge watching a series at a time.  We’ll pull some things that still need work from the movie unit into some targeted practice in this unit to see if maybe we can’t clean ’em up a little.

Until then: happy adventuring! Only 9 school Mondays left!

Roll out the red carpet! (part 1)


photo from Wikicommons

My teaching situation is unique in several ways, but one of the aspects that I like best is that my “level 1” students in the fall become my “level 2” students in the spring (we’re on a 4×4 block schedule), with very little variation.  They may change class periods, but the students basically stay the same. This means that instead of focusing on what to teach in each level, I can generally look at the year as their novice experiences and their second year (levels 3 & 4) as their intermediate experiences.  This also ties in with the exit standards of my state. 

What a liberating experience! In January, we were running out of time to do the last unit I’d planned, but because the students were so enthusiastic about the sports unit.  So what to do? Simply move the “free time” unit to “level 2”, which just meant that we’d get to it in the spring semester. Conveniently, we started a loosely themed free time unit a couple of days after the Oscar awards. Hoping to replicate our success from the sports unit and take the students a few steps further down the path to proficiency, I edited the free time theme to the language functions of expressing opinions, describing, making recommendations, and making plans. Our cultural focus was around the Spanish-speaking Oscar winners Lupita Nyong’o, Alfonso Cuarón, and Emmanuel Lubetski.  Students completed a reading and vocabulary extraction activity using tweets in Spanish about the Oscars ceremony and also a listening activity based on a video interview that Nyong’o gave in Spanish. I completed our introduction to the topic by presenting biographical information about Nyong’o, Cuarón, and a few other key players in the Spanish-speaking film world.  You can download many of the introductory activities here.

One of the amazing things that I appreciate about this culture-first approach is that we can practice the necessary concepts as many times as needed without boredom or staleness. Talking about the scariest movie you’ve ever seen is a different conversation from talking about the funniest movie that you’ve ever seen, yet it employs many of the same structures.  This allows us to get the repetitions we need without losing student interest and engagement.

Recent #langchat conversations on Twitter have discussed the use of a vocabulary list. For me, a list is like a map of a place you’ve never visited before. Without some guidance from a map, you’d be lost, and it’s hard to get an image of your surroundings if you only can rely on asking others for directions. So a vocab list for my classes is like a tourist’s guide. It has some key places (phrases) that you probably don’t want to miss, as well as some general directions where you might want to go. It also has options so that you can tailor your adventure to your personal preferences. Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell convinced me to give up vocabulary quizzes with this post, so now the list in my classes serves the function of a well-informed tour guide.  Students have it and are encouraged to use it, but are certainly not limited to what is on the page. We keep a running list on the board in each unit of words that they request, (such as “popcorn” for the movie unit), and I also solicit their input on the topic before I prepare the list for them.  

Since a major focus for this unit is describing, I wanted to make sure that they had a wide range of vocabulary at their disposal to describe films that they had seen. This is demonstrated on the vocab list–which also has a lot of vocab recycled from the sports unit where we were also working on giving and supporting opinions and descriptions. From there we spent the rest of the unit working on building progressively more complex descriptions and making plans to go out with friends.  I received invaluable assistance in creating these experiences for my students from Neil Jones (see his amazing blog here), Zachary Jones (see his awesomeness here), and materials from Mary Glasgow magazines. Download the unit packet here.  I was very pleased with the outcomes of the unit! I’ll describe assessment in part 2 of this post soon.

¡Paz y amistad!



The Aventura Begins…


A major milestone in my journey of aventuras this year was the post from Creative Language Class about teaching sports and culture through comprehensible input. I’m not sure what it was, but something clicked with that unit that sent me–and more importantly, my students, in a new direction for our Aventuras Nuevas. When the author Megan mentioned that students would already know most of the sports because they were cognates with English, I thought–she’s right!  But now what do we do? And do I really want to teach the unit like I had before?

I knew about CI, and knew a lot of theory, but had previously been in a very tightly controlled curriculum where if it was day #_, then you should be teaching _. Those boundaries made it hard to implement strategies that I knew could be effective.  In truth, even though I knew the “should do’s”, I had had limited practice in implementing them.

Seeing Megan’s lessons and realizing that we could embed deep culture and vocabulary while maintaining TL use at the novice level was profound.  At the time, I was struggling with keeping students engaged in class for the first time in years, and finally, this was our breakthrough.  Borrowing heavily from what Megan shared, I started teaching about Victor Cruz, Robinson Canó, and of course, Lionel Messi. Suddenly students who didn’t seem to care about Spanish were intrigued by salsa lessons, that Messi likes Candy Crush, and that Jay-Z was Canó’s agent, and that there actually is a Lucha Libre name generator to accompany their LL identities–and they got all of this in Spanish.  I was astonished by what they picked up–and continue to be amazed by what they have retained–because of this unit.  A couple of weeks ago, I was about to remind them about the word oro for “gold”, but they thought I was a little loca.  After all, hadn’t we talked about Messi’s Balón de Oro and his Botas de Oro.  Oh, yes.  Yes, we had. 😉

So what to do next? Find a way to keep the enthusiasm alive. After all, we are on this aventura together!


I’ve finally done it–I’ve joined the language blogging world. I’ve resisted it for a long time, but now I’m ready to give it a shot. This year has been an amazing adventure, and has been filled with firsts. Why not this?

My hope is that we can learn from each other as I continue to reinvent my classes and explore new tools that make my daily classes move toward matching my vision for what could be.

Will you join me? Aventuras Nuevas await us all.

It’s a cultural revolution

One of the primary changes that has taken place in my planning is the concept of beginning with culture. I think this is what resonated with me the most about the sports post I referenced in my last entry; that we could teach cultural literacy in a way that made the language compelling.  Since beginning on this journey, I came across this article from The Language Educator (April 2012 edition) that solidified so many of those ideas for me.  The brutal reality is that many of my students saw language learning as a chore, even those who chose the class on their own accord. Injecting culture as a primary focus has been a game changer.

“Rather than telling their students what to think about culture, my advice is to give them tools, authentic texts, that they can use to compare and contrast. The students themselves should be coming up with the comparisons and cultural insights, not being fed them by the teacher.” –Sue Barry, The Language Educator, April 2012

What an “aha” moment!  This means that students will be inherently engaged in the process and have ownership in it. It also means that the process will be a little messy… but that is material for a future post.  Finally it means that a re-arranging of content order was needed. Instead of learning countries, capitals, and geography at the beginning of their language study, we would be embedding them in the course of our study of other topics. We learned about Uruguay when talking about an incredible sandwich called El Chivito. We learned about Puerto Rico, Argentina, Spain, and la República Dominicana in the course of a sports unit. And along the way, my students have picked up language beyond what I could have imagined.

During the sports unit, I developed a few resources to accompany our studies and I end this post with them here. They are some of my first attempts to embed cultural experiences and investigation into our studies. Enjoy!

  • Movie guide/I can statements to accompany the movie Sugar
  • Copa Mundial reading & speaking activities
  • ESPN deportes & Lucha Libre activities  (Thanks again for the idea, Megan)
  • Template & tutorial for lucha libre masks