McFarland, USA

Tonight my family–including my 86 year old grandma–had the treat of seeing McFarland USA in the movie theater.  Everyone–including grandma and my skeptical husband–enjoyed it.  Our “Ukrainican” exchange daughter said she “loved it”!

So a family movie night might not seem to relate to a blog about language learning and teaching, but indeed it does!  McFarland USA is a new inspirational sports movie by Disney that is based on a true story.  It stars Kevin Costner as a coach who moves to McFarland, CA and starts the first ever cross country team at McFarland High.  His runners are “pickers”; students who work in the fields picking produce to help support their families.

In the course of the film there are many connections that can be drawn to use in class: pursuing your dreams/American Dream, quinceañera, lowriders, prejudice, family values, and music!  Juanes’ song Juntos–which he performed at the Grammys recently– plays over the final credits.  I believe this was the first time that there was a live performance in Spanish at the Grammys.  Here’s Zachary Jones’ activity to accompany the song.

The film is rated PG, and the “Disney” aspect helps to keep it clean and fresh as a family movie.  Nonetheless, it is well done, and there is enough suspense and drama to keep it from feeling too sugary.  The majority of the film is in English, though there is a fair amount of Spanish at various points in the film.

I hope you enjoy the film as much as we did.  I’m toying with several ideas of how to use the film for class, but haven’t decided quite what that will be yet.  In the meantime, here are some resources that you might find interesting and helpful.


  • See some reviews from Roger Ebert’s site here and Rolling Stone here.
  • Here’s a trailer with an intro by Juanes… and also in Spanish!  Interesting that they use a Juanes song (A Dios Le Pido), but not the Juanes song that’s in the film.  The Disney site where both of these trailers are located has a bunch of trailers in both languages if you scroll down a little.
  • Some activities to accompany several of the trailers film are here.   If you know the source of this file, please share it with me so I can credit the original author.  I think it was one of my Twitter connections, but I can’t locate who it was.
  • Find out more about the true story behind the film at PeopleWikipedia, Sports Illustrated, and on ESPN.
  • More about the family highlighted in the ESPN article above here
  • A peek behind the scenes here.



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And the winner is…

In the novice class, the next unit is centered around what’s trending in entertainment, fashion, and how they spend their free time.  We are continuing to develop functional skills in expressing opinions, asking original questions, and expanding descriptions.  We had grand plans of how we were going to pre-load this before Sunday’s Oscars, but Mother Nature had other ideas and we are currently on our fourth straight ice/snow day.  Nonetheless, we will continue using the topic of recent awards shows to help generate conversation and discussion.  The Oscars are this Sunday, the Goyas were a few weeks ago, as were the Grammys.  I saved a bunch of tweets to use as reading comprehension resources, and we used them as an introductory activity to the unit.  While my amazing student teacher is taking the helm with this year’s activities, I’ve included last year’s below.  Use it if you wish!  We will update with the new one soon.

Oscar Tweets

#Teach2Teach: The “Ketchup” Post

Some amazing friends, Amy Lenord and Karen Tharrington, got together and hatched a plan to have veteran teachers answer questions from pre-service teachers as they embark on their aventura nueva of a new career.  I promised I’d join in, but it’s taken me a bit to get to that line on my to-do list.  However, today was an ice day and that made it a “ketchup” day–where I “ketchup” on many of the things on my list that have been lingering for a while.  Here are my responses to a few of the questions posed so far.

“How do all these teachers balance the workload between teaching and planning?  Now that I am getting ready to perform all this work, I am beginning to wonder how anyone manages it at all.”

Number 1:  it’s never all done.  You will need to set some priorities and boundaries around your workload, but never expect to be all caught up–except maybe after several snow days!  Once you come to terms with this idea, it helps.  Figure out what has to be done, and make sure it gets finished.  Then start chipping away at other things.  Over time you will find some ways to help automate tasks and some strategies for speeding things along.  Here are some that have worked for me:

  • No schoolwork on Saturday.  It’s a guilt-free day of rest and recuperation and time with my family.
  • Always have something to grade with you.  When you are at lunch duty, waiting for a meeting, or sitting in carpool, take advantage of those precious minutes to get a few more things done.
  • Schedule certain things for certain days.  Fridays in our class are pretty much always the same, which means that all grading that I have to do is in on Thursday, and I already have the planning done.  In one of my classes, Mondays and Wednesdays always have one activity that’s the same, so that’s one less thing I have to plan.  It also means that I probably have 1-2 planning periods to deal with paperwork before more comes in.
  • Feedback is more important than grading.  Seek ways of providing feedback, but don’t collect every.little.assignment.
  • Be proactive with contacting parents. See some trouble spots?  Call now.  Introduce yourself, and explain to the child’s parent that you want him to be successful, but ___ behaviors are getting in the way.  Solicit the parent’s help and suggestions in how to deal with the situation before it escalates.
  • See if your school has a program of teachers’ assistants who can tackle some of the clerical work for you.
  • Remember that school is important, your students are very important, but your health and family are the most important.  Put them first so that you can take care of the other two.
  • Every lesson won’t be totally awesome the first time around… or maybe the second… or the third…  Commit to improvement before complete perfection in your planning.

How do you stay inspired and not get bogged down by the politics of teaching?

Choose wisely.  Who are the people who are positive in how they deal with challenging situations?  Who are the ones who seem to have positive, healthy relationships with students?  Seek out these people.  If you have a teachers’ lounge/workroom, it can be a good thing… but if you’ve seen Mean Girls, then know that those people age but don’t necessarily grow up.  The lunch table scene from the movie holds true at some schools only it’s in the workroom.  PS, if you haven’t seen the film and are planning to teach high school, you need to queue it up soon.

Develop a PLN locally and beyond–#langchat on Twitter is an excellent place to start.  FLTeach can be good too.  It’s an email-based service that has been around for ages, and it has a deep archive of ideas and lesson plans that are real treasures.  Developing a network outside of your day-to-day world often helps to add perspective to tough situations.

Invest in your language skills.  The more time I spend doing things I enjoy, but in my chosen language, the more ideas I get for class, and the more inspired I get about what we are doing.  This in turn adds more enthusiasm and excitement to planning and to class, which then inspires me to do more… and on it goes.

What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you handle it?

A trip through history on this question:  I had to deal with an aggressive parent bordering on stalking and sexual harassment at point where neither were illegal and/or commonly recognized yet.   In one case a parent followed me, blocked my car in with his to prevent me from leaving, and did some other way over the line things that would now get him in trouble. At that time the laws were such that since he didn’t *do* anything to physically harm me in the eyes of the law he hadn’t done anything illegal.  Fortunately, one of the veteran coaches and another parent saw this happening and stepped in and it ended there, but it was a scary time to be young, female, inexperienced, and feeling alone.  All the more reason to develop positive relationships with your colleagues!

In the case of the sexual harassment situation, the climate has changed dramatically in 25 years.  Whereas putting up with that used to be part of “being a team player”, now cell phone video availability + district policies make the overt harassment situations much less likely.  If it were to come up today, there are procedures in place to address it and I would follow them. Your administration should take these types of situations very, very seriously.  Document what has happened, record it if you can, and report it to your administration.  You don’t have to go through this alone.

I hope this has helped!  What other questions do you have?  Submit them here!

Who in the world…?

This is a post in progress–I’d love input from you!  I want to have my intermediate class research cultural icons in the Spanish-speaking world and present them to their classmates.  I have some other ideas for what will happen with them (hint: costumes will be involved!), but right now I’m trying to perfect the list.

Criteria for inclusion on the list: a native Spanish speaker who is so intertwined with everyday life that it’s hard to take two figurative steps without bumping into him/her.  Likewise,  they are people who play such a role in culture that it’s hard to understand common cultural references without knowing who they are–like why there are so many schools and streets named after Cesar Chavez.

I’d prefer that the person has a generally positive reputation (think Oprah, not Manson), from a variety of fields, and that they aren’t all male.

Here’s the list so far:

  • Celia Cruz
  • Diego Maradona
  • Gael García Bernal
  • Gabriel García Márquez
  • Shakira
  • David Ortiz
  • Penélope Cruz
  • Pedro Almodóvar
  • Juanes
  • Cesar Chavez
  • Evita
  • Pele
  • Lionel Messi
  • Jorge Ramos
  • Don Francisco
  • Antonio Banderas

Who else do we need?  Please send me more ideas!

What’s going on?

I find that while my students are curious about the world around them, their experience beyond our community is limited–even to the extent that they haven’t explored our state capital and all its offerings despite the fact that they are only 20 minutes away. My intermediate students have also indicated to me that they want more practice with listening, and I think I’ve found a tool to blend the two together.

Thanks to an idea from Karen Goering’s handout from ACTFL, I’ve started using BBC’s Boletín once a week for a source of listening materials for my level 4 class. Following her ideas, we’ve been listening to one of the 60 second newscasts a week and completing some comprehension, vocabulary building, and summarizing activities that I’ve created to accompany it. Using iPads or their phones and headphones, students listen and watch at their own pace.  The original site has a text summary, but so far I have not had students use it, preferring to just use the video and audio sources.

I’m finding that this is pushing all my students–native and non-native alike. Both groups are growing in their awareness and their comfort/understanding of spoken Spanish (based on their feedback). I have also found that, having heard of some of these topics before, when we come across common “news” vocab again or mention countries/continents/government bodies, that they recognize them.

Here are links to this week’s activities:

Boletín–5 de febrero

BBC Boletin 5 febrero 2015  –activities to accompany video