Slaying the AP Argumentative Essay Beast (Structures & Strategies for supporting student success and teacher sanity)

In the AP Spanish Language & Culture course, one of the free response questions is for students to write an essay arguing a position on a topic while integrating three provided resources in their essay. This is a tall challenge for students at this age, and even more so when doing this in another language

After struggling through this process for years without much success–but with much stress and occasional tears–I reached out to some ELA colleagues and resources for recommendations on how to improve this process for students AND for me. At the time, I had approximately 90 students in AP, so teaching the process plus grading 90 essays was daunting at best just to get through them. However, I wanted to do more than just get through them AND my students needed feedback and coaching in order to do this task well. The overwhelming feeling was soul-crushing.

Until I read this post about writing group essays. By having students work collaboratively in groups, the instruction piece is similar, students support each other, and most importantly, the grading/feedback demands are reduced to a manageable level for me. Instead of trying to coach 90 students through writing a good thesis statement + intro paragraph, I only work through about 30. Same thing for the rest of the essay–we go chunk by chunk, but in a much more manageable quantity. This means that students can actually get feedback in a reasonable amount of time when they actually remember what they wrote!

Here’s the handout I use with students and an outline of the process I used when working on the essay in Spanish for the first time:

  1. Introduce the concept of the FRQ.
  2. Students read/interact with source documents individually. I like to use Formative activities to support & verify comprehension. As they read/listen, they take notes on ideas that are for and against the topic question.
  3. Students do an activity in Formative where they sort information from the sources into pro/con/neutral categories and then write a first draft of a thesis statement. You can see an example here. This can also be done collaboratively.
  4. Based on student responses, I place them in groups of 3 with similar points of view. These will be their essay writing groups.
  5. We review thesis statements, providing feedback. Formative is very helpful for this, as I can project their responses from step 3 above without their names. We talk about the features of a strong thesis statement and work together to improve others.
  6. Groups take their 3 individual thesis statements and read them and mash them up to make an even better thesis statement for the whole group.
  7. Groups draft 1 intro paragraph for their group and then hand in for feedback.
  8. I provide feedback and explain the CER structure for body paragraphs: Claim, Evidence to support the claim, and Reasoning. The group divides and conquers, with each student tackling ONE of the three body paragraphs.
  9. Group members peer check each other with a checklist (in handout) of critical pieces like identifying sources, transitions, etc.
  10. Groups submit their 3 paragraphs for feedback.
  11. I hold feedback conferences with each group.
  12. Groups edit their work based on feedback + write a collaborative conclusion paragraph.
  13. Groups submit final draft for grading.

In addition to streamlining the grading/feedback process for me, I have noticed improved student performance and confidence as a result of the process. Using tools like Formative to allow interactive real time feedback in the early stages has improved students’ vision of the task as we begin. Being able to collaborate with peers helps students get help that they need as they work and I am able to go from group to group to intervene and support as needed. I do believe that the most powerful aspect of this process is the personalized, timely feedback which is possible by this process.

Eventually students do need to write this type of essay individually. We will do a few group essays with significant scaffolding support before asking students to tackle it individually. The first time takes us several days, but each successive time it takes us less and less. The collaborative process is powerful and liberating, and I am thankful to Building Book Love for sharing this idea in her blog!

Watch Party + AP FRQ

A quick activity for AP Spanish Language + Culture built around the concept of offering/responding to an invitation to a World Cup Watch Party in the form of a directed conversation.

This is actually two activities in one: we start with doing the conversation as a text conversation to work through how to do the task and what kinds of things are required. Then we do it in the classic form with students responding to the spoken prompts (which are the content of the first column of the text conversation). I have found that approaching this FRQ in this manner has been very helpful in boosting student confidence AND performance.

I hope you find this helpful! You can get a copy of the activity here.

Welcome ACTFL 2022!

Matt and I are thrilled and honored to present at ACTFL this year. Here are some resources from our presentation:

Matt has a “how to build a sentence builder” document here:

From Gianfranco Conti: and samples here:

Free Weekend Chat Mats here.
See Amy Lenord’s resources here.
Sample sentence builders here.

My presentation remote control is available here.

Trying to choose a book: ¿Por qué no los dos? Why not both?

Hello blog, it’s been a while!

One of the common themes in my classes is that we have so much good stuff to explore, but never enough time. This spring I was trying to decide which comprehensible readers we were going to read in my Spanish 4 class. Faced with the decision of Selena or Santana, I chose… both. While at various points I questioned the wisdom of my decision, it turned out well. Here’s how we did it:

  1. About 2 weeks before I wanted to start reading, I book talked both books, telling students a bit about both–that both had glossaries to support them, they were approximately the same length, and I thought both would interest them.
  2. Students picked up copies of both books, then chose 1 to start. I set a timer for 5 minutes and asked students to read the back cover + start in chapter 1. After 5 minutes, switch books & repeat.
  3. Students filled out an online form showing which book was their preference.
  4. I started preparing to teach two books!
  5. One helpful discovery: it’s possible to run simultaneous games in platforms like Gimkit, Blooket, and Quizlet Live. It took a little getting used to, but we would generate two games/game codes–1 per book– to play our favorites at the same time.
  6. Another helpful lesson from an English teaching colleague: we read the book in chunks of chapters rather than each chapter by chapter. This helped us to keep up the momentum of our stories but without us bogging down. Also, because our schedule has our classes on alternating days, a chapter a day drags!
    1. Selena was broken down into these chapter chunks: 1-3, 4-5, 6-8, and 9-10
    2. Santana: 1-4, 5-9, 10-12, & 13-15.
  7. The teachers’ guides would have been very helpful, but I didn’t have access to them. I made study guides and materials for each chunk of chapters that included vocabulary, guiding questions, cultural investigations, and personal connections. Students worked on these + reading in small groups in class.
  8. I loved being freed up to be a facilitator of groups rather than being the one leading class as students worked in a blend of semi-independent and small group work. Certain groups needed more support and I was able to work with them as needed while also allowing groups who didn’t need it to move on.
  9. We did a few whole class activities spread out through the unit.
    1. Two song activity packs–one by each artist. You can download a copy of what we did at these links: Corazón Espinado by Maná & Carlos Santana & Como la Flor by Selena.
    2. SmashDoodles at the midway point to review what we’d learned so far
    3. A small group speaking assessment based on this activity by Carrie Toth.
    4. A re-enacted graphic novel version of their books. More to come on this fun activity soon!


  1. The gap in prep time was really helpful. It allowed me to get fully ready to tackle both books, including a thorough reading, breaking down the book into chunks, and thoughtfully creating supporting content.
  2. Students reported a boost in their confidence in being able to read a book like this. After our experience with pandemic learning, this benefit cannot be overstated. Though both books are rated for lower level classes, they were right on target for what these students needed. Plus these students had skills to be able to extend the content further.
  3. Students who had an opinion were in favor of this method. Some of their unedited feedback from exit surveys:

Based on their feedback, we are doing this again with Minerva & Felipe Alou. I’m being even more intentional about building in conversation moments as we progress through the books and encouraging more intentional collaboration. Since these books take place in approximately the same time frame, we will also have more activities that all students will do and encourage them to make comparisons and connections regardless of the book that they are reading.

You can see other activities that I’ve done with Felipe Alou and the film In the Time of Butterflies in these previous posts. I hope this is helpful!

Exploring Music Beyond the Cloze

I’ve always used a lot of music in my classes, knowing that it is a high interest topic for me and for my students. Back in the day using songs in class was synonymous with doing a cloze/fill in the blanks activity. It also meant buying one CD or cassette at a time and selecting songs off of those media–with none of the video and social media resources to go with them. However thanks to ideas from Sally Barnes’ amazing presentation at ACTFL 2020 and strategies from Breaking the Sound Barrier by Conti and Smith, I now have a wider repertoire from which to draw. While I continue to use targeted cloze activities–generally focused on the chorus and first verse so that we can enjoy signing along, I now also add content that explores each song in greater depth. While I want to explore each song more deeply, it’s also important that we not suck the joy out of the experience. As a result, there are times where we do all the activities that I’ve added to the activity pack while other times we pick and choose.

Here are two sample activity packs:

Bajo el mismo sol by Álvaro Soler based on ideas from Sally Barnes

César Chávez by Los Tigres del Norte–based on ideas from Breaking the Sound Barrier. Click on link below to access.

Hope you enjoy these! More to come…

Weekend Chat Collection

Working to condense all of the weekend chat versions in one place as the options have grown!

Here are links to previous posts–look here and here for a wide range of options + various languages

By request, here’s a winter/holiday version in English:

1/2/22: Winter/holiday version in French. Thanks to Stephanie (@MmeCarbonneau) for the translation help!

1/1/22: Here’s a winter/holiday version in Spanish to make the return to class just a little bit easier! There’s also a version without hunting–scroll down just a bit.

Here’s one for fall activities in Spanish (past tense) and simple future

And now one for future tense:

Let’s talk! Semi-Spontaneous Speaking for Intermediates

No matter the year–COVID impacted or otherwise–students need opportunities to speak the languages that they are acquiring. What sounds like a simple task can also feel daunting to design & execute, especially in the sea of other challenges.

Enter Semi-Spontaneous Speaking. These activities have been sitting in my “do this someday” files since Central States Conference of 2017. I ran across notes for them when I was purging some files and realized that I had re-discovered a gold mine! Betsy Houchins & Nicole Clement created & shared these ideas, and then I turned them into slide decks / card decks to use in class. Wendy Farabaugh then converted the Spanish decks to French. Merci Wendy!

Each activity gives students a short prompt within a framework that encourages them to think & speak using the language that they already know. Some–like the 3 in 8 activity–are gameified, while others like Parejas de Palabras are a solid introduction into later activities that require comparison. All are engaging, challenging, and have been classroom tested.

You can find the folder of activities for Spanish and French here. German is in the works and will be added soon. I’d love to offer more versions in other languages–please reach out if you are interested in contributing.

Patria y Vida

The song Patria y Vida is causing quite a sensation throughout the Spanish-speaking world. It is a fantastic resource to accompany the book Casa Dividida and a deeper dive into Cuba, especially with upper level students. Here are some resources to help teachers dive in to the topic:

A bit of background information for teachers:

Brief intro/overview

Alt.Latino podcast

Activities for students–aimed at students in upper level courses (approximately intermediate mid):

Interpretive reading–pre-listening: background before the song

Song activity pack–including running dictation pre-listening

Lyrics translation/matching (Formative activity)

Current Events in AP Spanish Language & Culture (now with French too!)

I’ve had students explore current events connected to our class periodically, but this was one of the activities that was the casualty of remote/hybrid/pandemic learning. As I bring it back this year, I wanted to revamp it and strengthen its impact. One feature that I’m adding regularly is small speaking/discussion groups based on what they’ve researched. This will also help us to turn our interpretive task into a mini IPA as we discuss the content and then can roll into mini presentations about connections and comparisons that they discover. I’ve also added sentence starters to spark deeper thoughts and sharing.

Here’s a copy of the handout that I’ll give students in my AP Spanish course. Scroll down for a version in French.

How do you use current events in your classes?

Leveling Up Comparisons with Cyber Sandwiches

Today I’m sharing another strategy that I use throughout my classes to scaffold student interaction, moving us from input to discussion, and finally, output. Not only is the Cyber Sandwich an excellent tool for scaffolding language, it also supports collaboration and comparison/contrast. As with many of the strategies in my classes, I love that it is a low prep/high yield tool easily adaptable across levels, languages, and units.

The Cyber Sandwich protocol is from the book Eduprotocols is explained in detail here (including a helpful explainer video). The highlights are:

  1. Students read/view/listen to a source of content and take notes on it. The content can be the same for both people or can represent differing viewpoints.
  2. They meet in pairs to discuss that content & create a Venn diagram
  3. They individually write a summary paragraph that incorporates content from both participants.

The activity is run through Google Slides, so it is easily adaptable to any version of the in person – remote teaching spectrum.

While at first glance this activity seems like something that teachers have been doing for a long time in their classes, the template with scaffolding for writing is what sets this version apart for me. Injecting sentence starters and connectors–much like in roving paragraph frames–supports ALL students in taking the next step on their language journey. Struggling students get help in getting started while more advanced students get help in creating more complex output. Another important point to consider is that working with structures like this throughout the curriculum is incredibly helpful for students who continue their studies through AP and IB classes (and their teachers too!).

You can download a copy of the slides with the Spanish sentence starters + connectors here. A request: If you teach a language other than Spanish and adapt it to your language, would you share it back? I’ll post it for others to access as well.

Update 4/19/21: Thanks to Stephanie Kasten (@amulsolo) we have a French edition too! Grab a copy here.