Man’s Best Friend


Do you have pets?  Are they important in your life?  Natalie, my wonder rescue dog in the photo above (with her favorite bone, of course) has been my constant companion for the last 10 years.  She’s getting up in years now, but is still my shadow almost everywhere we go.  She is very protective of us and our kids, and though she is a marshmallow at heart, she will make it clear that all unknown people and squirrels had better stay clear of her people.

Many of our students have deep attachments to their pets too, and I’m trying something new this year in my novice classes to leverage this attachment and innate interest in animals.  We are working on the structures of tengo/tienes/tiene, quiere, se llama, and tiene # años as well as introducing the concepts of physical descriptions.  This fits into the greater framework of a unit on family, with the goal of “I can describe my pets.”

I’m thinking that by starting with pets, we have something that is highly interesting, focused, and concrete to use as our things to describe before we launch into family as a whole–which can get a little messy.  Pets only come in a few colors, with a few places they can live, and a limited range of descriptors…but people bring more options!  My hope is that by doing this we will be able to work on descriptions and topics like adjective agreement in a way that makes sense to the students before turning them loose on families.

Here’s an outline of our three day mini-unit so far:

  1. I read Karen Rowan’s book El Secreto de Isabela  to students as it was projected on the screen.  At various points through the book we stopped to ask questions like:
    1. ¿Sacas muchas fotografías?  ¿Sacas fotos de animales?  ¿Sacas muchos “selfies”?
    2. ¿Tienes animales en casa?  ¿Cuántos animales tienes?  ¿Quieres animales?  ¿Cuántos animales quieres?  ¿Tienes un perro?  ¿Quieres un perro?
    3. ¿Comes helado?  ¿Cuál helado es tu favorito?
  2. We used Martina Bex’s listening/drawing dictation forms as I read three key sentences from the story to students.
  3. Drawing inspiration from this post, I narrated a slide show of 10 common pets in the US… and then talked about some common pets in other countries.  They will never look at guinea pigs the same way again!  I love this aspect of bringing in culture to this topic.
  4. Whiteboard drawing vocabulary review
  5. Fast Five activity:  After modeling the question/answer sequence of “do you have”/”Yes, I have…/No, I don’t have…”, each student interviewed five other students about whether or not they had several of the pets we had discussed.  They took notes on the answers (aka collected data!) they received.  After brief modeling of the words pero and también in sentences, students wrote a 3-5 sentence summary of the results of their surveys.
  6. We worked with Sie7e’s awesome song called Tengo tu amor with activities from the amazing Zachary Jones.  This song has 20+ repetitions of tengo/tiene and is a class favorite from last year.
  7.  Tomorrow we will start describing our pets’ coloring, place of residence, size, and name.  For students who don’t have a pet, I ask them to pick one that they had in the past, or they can temporarily “adopt” one from a friend or family member.  If they still can’t choose one, they can describe a stuffed animal that they have/had.  Students will write a brief description of their pet and submit it for editing and feedback.
  8. We will read an infographic about pet ownership & expenses.  I can’t find the original, but it was in the NY Times and I translated it to Spanish.  Later in the week we will read another brief passage about pet ownership in other countries for comparison.
  9. We will watch and enjoy 🙂  the Pollito Pío video.


The round up:

  • Language skills addressed:  listening, speaking, reading, writing
  • Modes addressed:  interpretive, interpersonal, presentational
  • Cultural aspects:  products and perspectives
  • Opportunities for feedback/formative assessment:  in class q&a, fast five summary, dictation, descriptions of pets

The take away:

  • This is a keeper!  Students are engaged, and are quickly absorbing some key skills that will be necessary for future units.  The cultural aspects are also very interesting to many students.

Want more ideas for using animals/pets in class?  Check out this collection from Zachary Jones.


War and 99: Two high interest card games to practice numbers

We’ve now been in class for about two weeks, and things are humming along.  In my novice class, we’ve worked on numbers off and on for a few days, and it was time to give numbers a purpose greater than page numbers, age, and telling time: a couple of good, competitive games.  In addition to giving us a practical purpose, it also introduced a level of fun and novelty that was a pleasant change of pace.  While neither game is linguistically complex, I maintain that they have earned a valuable place in our lessons, and the kids loved them and wanted to answer correctly in Spanish. That, my friends, is academic gold!  I hope you will find them helpful too.  The dollar store carries decks of cards, and after stocking up once, I’ve been able to use them for many other uses too.

War (adapted for class)

Each pair of students gets a deck of cards.  One student gets all the red cards, the other all the blacks.  They turn over one card from their piles simultaneously.  In the traditional version of the game, the higher card wins.  In our version, the person who looks at the two cards and calls out the sum of them in Spanish first wins.  We also play it with multiplication instead of addition.  In the event of a tie, rock-paper-scissors is the tie breaker.



Each group of 3-5 students gets a deck of cards, and someone deals 5 cards to each student.  The remainders go face down into a pile, and the top card is turned up in a second pile.  The player who starts selects a card, lays it on the pile, and calls out the sum of the two cards.  He then draws a card from the deck before the next player makes a play–speed is part of the strategy of the game.  The second player lays down his card of choice, and again, calls out the sum of the running total of the pile plus his card.  The goal is to be the last person who can play a card without the pile total exceeding 99.  In order to make this possible, certain cards have special values:

Ace = 1

4 = resets the pile total to 0 AND reverses the direction of play

9 = automatically sets the pile total to 99

10 = -10

Jack & Queen = 10

King & Joker = 0

all other cards are at face value

A key part of the strategy is to force the other players into a position where they have nothing that they can play.  Again, the total of the collective pile can NEVER go over 99.  Therefore, if player #1 plays a 9 card and calls out 99, and player #2 doesn’t have a 4, 10, King, or Joker to bring the total down under 99, then player #2 is out.

Finally, I have a Donors Choose project going now that is about halfway funded.  However, through Sept. 7, there are matching funds available if contributors use the code INSPIRE at checkout.  Would you consider sharing this info on your networks? The project is posted at

As always, thank you.