You can do better than a taco.

I absolutely love tacos. I frequently eat Americanized tacos with sour cream and shredded cheese and my mom’s breakfast tacos made from leftover BBQ meats, chopped and sautéed with onions and garnished with her table salsa, chopped raw onions and cilantro. At my house we gleefully participate in Taco Tuesdays.

So what do I mean by “You can do better than a taco”?  I mean culture doesn’t have to be contrived. For the last two years after reading Pobre Ana with my Spanish I class we spend several days doing review stations.  But stations aren’t really the point of this post. What I really wanted to share with you is how easy it can be to bring the products and practices (we covered perspectives while reading the novel) of the target culture into your classroom with food. Food can be so very stereotypical but you can make it super authentic.

6th period_boys_tortillas

One of the themes of Pobre Ana deals with worldly wealth. Ana spends a lot of time comparing her life and material possessions to those of her friends. She even laments not being able to go eat “good food at nice restaurants” like her friends and their families. After living in Mexico with a host family she realizes that her life isn’t so bad and she’s rather fortunate. The book doesn’t give any specific information about Ana’s diet or that of her host family so we had to make some inferences about what they might eat. We know (thank you Social Studies teachers) that corn plays a large agricultural role in Mexico and other Latin American countries. Also, I have some insider info about a typical Mexican diet (at least in the state of Coahuila).

I’ve actually lived in Mexico in a tiny village way, way, way up in the mountains of Saltillo, Coahuila. When I was six my parents decided it was time for us to experience our mother’s culture and meet our extended family. We moved to Guajardo during the summer and I remember chasing hundreds of Monarch butterflies (very symbolic for Day of the Dead) through the corn fields. I remember the corn harvest, the prized huitlacoche, the small fire pits that were built in the fields and filled with freshly picked corn for a tasty treat. Have you ever had fire-pit corn?! It’s amazing. In the fall and winter I remember sitting in a large circle with several relatives, desgranando maiz just like in this video, literally removing the dried corn kernels from the cobs-a difficult task for tender hands. The kernels were soaked in cal, what we know as lime, and softened for making hominy.  I remember walking to the village mill, el molino, with my grandmother to grind the softened corn. The mill was like nothing I had ever seen.

burro mill

This is not the mill from my mother’s village, although it’s very similar.  I really wanted to share a visual of what I mean by burro powered.

A true relic from an hacienda, powered by burro or very energetic children! The corn was added to the large stone and my grandmother carefully supervised the process, monitoring the texture of the masa, adding water and more corn. With this hard-earned masa my family enjoyed many delicious dishes such as: tortillas, tamales, gorditas. Some corn was ground dry for later use. All winter we had delicious atole made from that dry corn, carefully spiced with ground orange rinds, anise, cinnamon and Chocolate Abuelita.

I show my students this video: before starting the stations and we talk about the tortillerias found in the city, where city folk buy their tortillas. I also make a BIG pot of Ranch style beans using my mom’s recipe.

The tortilla station is by far the most popular. Once the tortillas are made I show my kiddos how to eat the beans using only the tortilla. That’s right, tortillas are the perfect utensil! It’s actually common practice to use a tortilla in place of utensils. I was a master at this skill by the age of seven.

See how easy it is share authentic culture via food? And to tie in cross-curricular information? We touch on the chemical process of the lime changing the corn kernel, the agriculture, history, even nutrition. Whatever your target culture, I’m sure there’s a stereotype concerning food and a way for you to debunk that stereotype with more authentic examples.

Now that you’re convinced you want to make tortillas with your students here’s what you’ll need.

#1: PERMISSION! If you plan to cook in your classroom I strongly urge you to get permission from your administrator. Or at the very least give them a heads up. If an accident happens in your classroom this would not be one of those instances where asking forgiveness is easier than asking permission.

#2. Volunteer(s): If you teach the Littles or are super concerned about your Middles doing the cooking get an adult to help you. Watching Master Chef Jr® might be awe-inspiring but be careful not to overestimate your kiddos.

#3. A griddle like this one I found at Wal-Mart: and spatulas for flipping the tortillas. I use the plastic ones to avoid scratching the non-stick coating on the griddle.

#4. Tortilla Presses: I bought the aluminum because they don’t weigh too much (think smashed fingers or toes if dropped) and they’re not as expensive as the cast iron ones. You’ll also need gallon size plastic bags for cutting out liners for the press.

#5. Maseca: One bag goes a long way plus some salt and water. Just follow the directions on the bag. Once mixed you’ll want to keep the dough covered or it will dry out. You can adjust the consistency of the masa by adding water.

#6. Time to practice making tortillas if you’re rusty or brand new to the process. First mix your masa flour with salt and water following the instructions on the package. Once you have your masa mixed you’ll want to experiment by making golf ball or billiard ball sized spheres to gauge how far the masa will spread (the size of your tortilla press will determine how big). You’ll need to cut 2 circles from a plastic storage bag (use gallon size and trim to the desired dimensions) to line your press. Place one plastic liner on the bottom, then the masa sphere and then the other liner. Close the press and push down gently. If you spread the masa too thinly just scrape it off and start over. When you make a successful tortilla round carefully remove the top liner, place the raw masa round onto palm of your empty hand and carefully remove the other liner. Gently lower the round onto the griddle. Be very careful doing this. You can’t just plop the round down because it will either fall apart or smoosh together. Also, don’t try to place the round on the griddle with the plastic still attached. The steam escaping from your cooking tortilla will melt the plastic. Cook for a few minutes on each side until the tortilla “puffs” and you see little brown speckles. If you burn any don’t worry, that’s just ranch style! Check out this video to see the process.

Here’s a super interesting and very long article about tacos from the online journal Feast:

What’s all the hype about interactive notebooks?

Interactive Notebooks in the World language classroom: Who’s using them and what makes them worth your time? I think the use of this particular tool has gained steam because so many teachers have moved away from the textbook and worksheet model.

I actually started using them before I crossed my first Puente to CI. They were magnificent…ly overwhelming. I had designated sections for each unit, an elaborate and painfully extensive table of contentsa spot for the syllabus, and more documents than I can remember. I even graded my students on all kinds of criteria including the accuracy of their table of contents, completion of worksheets and the thematic unit cover sheets they designed and colored based on the units topics.

So why do I still use Interactive Spanish Notebooks in my class? As my teaching style evolved my notebooks evolved.  I work hard to make the content as CI friendly and useful as possible. While I do inculde some (textbook) thematic vocabulary the majority of the content is centered around high frequency vocabulary, including the Super 7 and Sweet 16 verbs and they Key Structures that we use in our stories. The foldables I’ve created tie in almost seamlessly to Personalized Question and Answer activities or Special Person Interview extensions.

After 4 years of using interactive notebooks, this is what I’ve learned.

What is an Interactive Notebook (IN, ISN, INB)?

An interactive notebook is a student created notebook with teacher given notes or Input pages, generally on one side (of a two page spread) and student processing or Output pages on the other side. Some teachers prefer to have even-numbered pages reserved for input and odd-numbered pages for output, while others may choose to keep the pages in sequential order. Input usually consists of class notes or vocabulary sometimes presented in foldable form while the output pages are for processing the given information, such as a written reflection/journal entry or graphic organizer.

2 Page Spread_ISN_Example

This 2-page spread has vocabulary flippables on the input side. Students lift each tab to read the Spanish vocabulary word. On the output side are sentence starters with a graph for a class survey on pet ownership. I use this activity as a Personalized Question and Answer follow-up. Students walk around the classroom talking to their classmates about pets using the target language while recording pet types and numbers.

Why use an ISN?

Using INB can help students with their organizational skills, provide an outlet for creativity, and create a sense of ownership. The notebook itself is a valuable study guide and resource. Sections of the INB can be reserved for curating assessments and reflections as well as goal setting. Teachers may also find the notebook as a useful planning tool for the following year.

What goes in an ISN?

Anything and everything! Notes can be copied directly on the pages. Timed writings, partner/buddy pages, foldables, and worksheets. Graded quizzes, grading rubrics, choice boards. Comics and Smash Doodles (OMG have you seen Elizabeth Dentlinger’s post on these?! Amazing). I CAN statements! Whatever you normally give your students that they would lose or throw away.

What can go wrong?

Everything. NOT EVEN KIDDING. Students might lose their notebooks, forget them at home, sometimes they go for a walk. Some students will not keep up with their notebooks. I’ve even had someone use the wrong notebook without even realizing it. There will be glue disasters because students will use too much glue (even when you carefully show them exactly how much they need). Markers might bleed through to the other side of the page. The Master NB will disappear or students will fight over who needs to see it -RIGHT NOW! Your (limited) copies will be wasted because someone always cuts his page the wrong way.


If you spend all your time stressing and trying to grade the notebook you’ve already lost. I don’t assess my students’ neatness, organizational skills or creativity. I assess their language gains, period. When you do choose to assess an entry or assignment in the notebook consider staggering your classes so that you don’t have 150 notebooks in limbo.

Most importantly, teach students how to references the notebook. Include a note with “helpful pages” when you give an assignment.  Otherwise it isn’t really a resource. Just another pile of papers.

Tips and Tricks

  • Before running your copies of a handout, write the notebook page number(s) where it will go in the notebook on your master copy. Explain and demonstrate how to cut, fold and glue pages before actually passing them out to students.
  • Teach glue and scissor skills EXPLICITLY. Do not assume that your students mastered these skills in kindergarten. If you teach the Middles like I do, give them the Riot Act. Do not cut your hair. Do not cut your neighbors hair, clothes, booksacks, etc. Glue goes on paper, not people. You get the idea.
  • Assign each student a number and write it on the cover of their notebook (and anything you take up). Way easier to order quizzes for gradebook entry. You can even have a student put them in order for you.
  • Get a broom and dustpan, the kind with a long handle. The Dollar Tree carries them for $1 each so you might spring for 2 sets. Assign a classroom helper to tidy up before class is over.
  • If you don’t have shelf or counter space to store each class’s notebooks use crates like these:

tools of the trade.png

  • Store notebooks grouped by rows, quadrants, groups. Assign several student to pass out and pick up notebooks if you choose to house them in your room.
  • You can color code each classes’ notebooks with painter’s tape on the spine. You can put just a piece or cover the whole spine. One roll covered the whole spine of 30 notebooks for me.
  • Match the tape color to the storage crate or use a piece of the tape to designate the shelf or counter space.
  • Use paint stirrers as dividers for notebooks on shelves.
  • Give students manila envelope for works in progress.
  • Have students make a Buddy Sheet in their notebook during the first weeks of school. Use for the semester or throughout the year. Here’s how Bryce Hedstrom explains how to use his Amigos Maps.

What do you need?

Notebooks, enough for each student, glue or tape, scissors.


To make your own glue sponges check out this blog post:

More info:

PBL in the TL

The Deskless Classroom

A rather extensive investigation of interactive notebooks:

First Day Stations

I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE doing first day stations. I learned about them from Laura’s post on PBL in the TL . First day stations are so much fun and send a clear message. This class is going to be different. That being said, they do present a few challenges.

 Challenge 1: You have a brand-new batch of students you don’t know.

How will you anticipate who gets along with whom?  As in who are friends, enemies, and frenemies.

Well, you can’t always tell but you can read their body language. So be extra vigilant in your observations. Also, set the tone that you are in charge and will be making seating and grouping decisions.

Use a grouping strategy.   Since I’ll be using Martina’s First Day Seating Cards (free download) I can group:  all same color, all same character, or get crazy specific with different monsters of different colors for each group. I might call one character give him/her the group sheet (printed in color with L2 words next to each character) and then teach the L2 phrases: “Who is ____? I am ____.”

Challenge 2: You don’t know how long it will take students to complete a station.

From experience some classes work through stations much faster than others. So how long should they spend at each station? I’ll be using this interval timer to keep them moving.

Our classes run about 45 minutes. I know I’ll need to do a brief introduction, take attendance, give a rundown of the stations, set the expectations (6 inch voices, all hands up if you have a questions, re-read the directions, stay together no matter what) and save a few minutes for clean up/pack up and to teach the closing call-and response (a la Bryce Hedstrom).

So that leaves about 30 minutes for stations including transition time. Now because my kiddos are Middles I know they need to move every 11-13 minutes (1 minute of sustained attention for each year of their life) which is just about perfect. They’ll have 10 minutes at each station. But there are 7 stations! Yes, this is true. From experience I’ve found that having an extra station is a good idea for your kiddos who are zippy at completing tasks. If you have an early finishing group just guide them to the incognito station (that’s right, don’t put it on their handout). Also, have students reflect on how they worked as a team, how much they liked the station and what contributions they made as individuals. Use a handout for accountability.

 Challenge 3: You don’t have a ton of space

Go vertical! Use your wall space for a Gallery Walk version of the station. You don’t have to limit your students to desks or tables.

Use the floor. Especially if you do something like the Cup Challenge or Marshmallow Towers. Besides, kids love sitting on the floor. Someone is always asking if s/he can work on the floor in my class.

If you have tables stack your chairs out of the way. Don’t worry, the kids will probably spend the rest of their day sitting…

 Challenge 4: You have monster sized classes.

Kim Campbell suggests groups of 3 and I’m on board with her reasoning. For regular stations during the year or group work I’ll be using 3. For First Day Stations I go for 4 but no more than that.

Consider making double stations: Make 2 sets of materials including directions, and separate stacks of handouts instead of a communal pile. If you have tables divide the table into 2 parts-one for each group. Set clear expectations about staying with your own group and not interfering with the other group.

Try compound stations. Have 2 distinct activities within the stations. Assign two groups to the station with clear instructions that they must switch tasks half-way through the time interval.

Punish yourself and make enough stations for each group. So if you have a class of 30 with groups of three you need 10+ stations. Yay for you!

 Challenge 5: You really want to do stations but are feeling a little chicken.

That’s ok! Stations can be very intimidating. Stuff goes wrong and it’s hard to anticipate the randomness of an adolescent. Try controlled stations. This is what I used to do until I felt comfortable.

Make enough station tasks for as many (horizontal) rows of desks/chairs/tables you have in your classroom. Duplicate each task for each pair of students. If you have six students in each row you need three sets of each station task.

Set the timer. When the time is up everyone from the first row, having completed task 1 moves to the row directly behind him to work on task 2. Students from the very last row moves to the first row. Continue until all tasks have been completed.

You technically have groups of 6 in this situation but because students are working in pairs, everyone knows to move at the same time and directly back one row in a super controlled fashion it feels a tiny bit less chaotic. Here’s a picture if my explanation is a little convoluted. Controlled Stations.png

I prefer to do low tech stations for a couple of reasons.  Laptops aren’t handed out when we first go back and cell phones are strictly forbidden and I’d hate for internet issues to derail my first day plans. Here are some activities I’ve tried with great success.

1. First Day Graffiti: For the life of me I can’t remember where I learned about this activity (so no link). All I have are my notes. What you need: big paper, markers, sentence starters, and stapler or tape (if you want to go vertical). It’s fun to see what your students say in this activity.

On big paper write one sentence starter at the top and leave space for students to write at the bottom. The first time I did this I was very silly. I made 6 sets of these! But I learned. Instead of handwriting everything multiple times use it as a permanent header and divide the bottom paper into enough sections for each class or replace the paper after each class.

first day stations jpeg.png

Some sentence starters I found:

  • “I learn best in classes where the teacher…”
  • “Students in courses help me learn when they…”
  • “I am most likely to participate in classes when…”
  • “Here’s something that makes it hard to learn in a course…”

2. Team Work: This will be a compound stations with 2 activities. What you need: cups, rubber bands, string, direction sheet, marshmallos, spaghetti, tape.

Cup Challenge: For this activity make sure your instructions are clear and make a visual for each part of the challenge. If you want the cups stacked pyramid style show them the pyramid. If you want a vertical line show them a picture of the cups in a vertical line. I found this activity on a science teacher’s blog (linked above).

Marshmallow Challenge (Tower Challenge)  This links you to a free handout on TPT. It has clear directions.  

3.Consensogram Gallery WalkHere you get to find out about students preferences. This is a great mass-data-gathering tool for guiding your lessons and stories. Students can remain anonymous with this activity by making a mark to cast their votes. I like to go vertical with this activity because there’s not too much writing involved. On Pinterest I saw something similar with paper chains so this year I’m going to modify by having students make a paper-chain link to “vote.” You can use the target language with many of these because the pictures will make it comprehensible. Just don’t go overboard and freak all your students out.


Topics to Poll:

  • Favorite class/elective (don’t get your feelings hurt if it’s not your class)
  • Favorite food (you can use sticky notes for this one. Students can draw a picture of the food)
  • How do you do your best work?  groups/partner/alone

4. Photo Booth: Compound station. What you need: Camera, name tags, photo booth, novles, magazines, story books, markers, scissors, bookmarks. I figured taking 4 pictures wouldn’t take much time some I made sure to give them several tasks.  In addition to the photos my students will cut out a bookmark from Bryce Hedstrom (can you tell I’m a huge fan?!)  and answer some questions about the strategies he suggests.  I’ll also have a QAR (another Martina resource) anchor chart at this station for students to familiarize themselves with those strategies.  

What’s your name?: Students will make name cards and take a picture with their card. I picked up this trick from Martina Bex for learning your students’ names.

Shelfies: Several teachers use this activity to pique their students’ interest in reading. Laura’s post (linked above) give a great explanation that she picked up from Sandy Otto.

Instagram Photo Booth from Allison Wienhold! I had a poster made using this template. The kids love it.

5. R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Compound station. This one will lead into 2nd and 3rd day activities including an open discussion about the RULES of our classroom. What you need: sticky notes, markers, paper.

Characteristics of a Good Classmate I think for this activity I will match marker color to sticky note color so that I don’t have to make 6 different charts. With the answers color-coded I can easily sort into piles and use as a discussion tool later.

Defining Respect: I learned a lot from Kim Campbell’s book If You Can’t Manage Them, You Can’t Teach Them. Kim gives solid advice on how to help students really understand the concept of respect. You need to first find out what it means to them then make sure everyone understands what respect looks and sounds like as well as what disrespect looks and sounds like. I might even have student make their own behavior rubrics.

6. Syllabus Speed-Dating : I’m still working out the details but I did find a WordDocument file (no link because it starts an automatic download) from a science teacher’s blog. These are her instructiosn:

Hand out syllabus and Class Procedures and Expectations.  Allow students to look them over briefly.

Form 2 lines of chairs facing each other.  May have to have a second group.

Ask students a question from the syllabus and one that is more personal.  They take turns answering with their partner.  One group shifts seats so they are sitting across from someone new and play again until they have had the opportunity to talk to many other students.

or Scavenger Hunt: I’m leaning in this direction so that I can be free to walk around and supervise. 

My first day stations will span 2 days, the Thursday and Friday students start back. Hopefully by Monday my rosters will be (mostly) set and I can facilitate a discussion based on their responses from the R-E-S-P-E-C-T Station. I’m really looking forward to this discussion because I think (hope) the pay-out will be significant in terms of building a positive classroom community.

7. Some other stations I’d like to include (but need more time to figure out):

  • Preview of activities with opportunity for students to ask questions and make suggestions
  • ACTFL Proficiency descriptors with information about the standards, benchmarks and Can Do statments.
  • The methods behind the madness of E-104. Information about why I teach the way I do. This is usually in the syllabus and PowerPoint presentation but it’s kinda boring presented that way.

Tips for your sanity:

  • Give each group a sheet for recording their names, put a spot for misbehaviors and give them a check or initial if they don’t behave, give stamp for completion.
  • If your students will rotate in a specific order (numerical or clockwise) make sure to alternate the order of activities. For example: First Day Graffiti involves writing. That station would rotate to the Cup Challenge because it involves movement.
  • I strongly suggest you act as dictator and control the rotation order to avoid arguments and fights.
  • Have an extra camera for taking photos of your kiddos in action!

Find more great first day ideas on this Pinterest Board or this helpful blog

See you at the next Puente.

Class Competition: Keeping it Novel

Have you seen La Maestra Loca in action? If you haven’t been on Annabelle’s site get over there quick! Annabelle has this awesome points system that will keep you and your students focused and energized. Read more here.

To maintain interest in the point system Annabelle has many variations including:

class vs teacher

class vs class

girls vs boys

So every quarter or whatever time period you like, the system changes. This year I’ve made skeletons for one (or more depending on feedback from my students) quarter. I found this packet on for Day of the Dead and have copied the skeleton template onto very bright card stock in six different colors. I also recruited some students to cut them out. Twice. That’s right. I LAMINATED them for multiple uses! Behold the glorious bones!


I haven’t quite worked out all the details but what I’m thinking is this… Each class will start with the skull of the skeleton. If the class beats me that week they can choose the next body part and the class that completes the entire skeleton first gets a reward. And knowing my Middles I’m betting they’ll choose other classes’ skeleton parts to spite them! Having a (large-I’m going big!) designated area for the competition will hopefully get lots of buy-in from my kiddos and act as a reminder for me to reward positive behaviors or give myself points when the class falls short. I could also assign numerical values to the bones and let student buy pieces using their points. This could get really fun if I allow my students to pose the skeletons!

I can’t wait to revisit this post with pictures and a reflection. See you at the next Puente.

It’s ok to admit that you suck.

Well, maybe that term is a little harsh. But you get the idea. We all have struggles and shortcomings. My albatross (is that too dramatic?) has been classroom management. Through much reflection I’ve been able to pinpoint exactly which part of my classroom management has been lacking.

Classroom management is an extremely broad topic which encompasses numerous aspects. This is both good and bad. Good because it means there are more things I can get right, bad because, holy moly, it’s a lot to juggle. There are a lot of things I’ve been doing well for some time now.

Areas where I ROCK:

  • I have fun with my students.
  • My class is a unique part of my students’ day.
  • We have good relationships.
  • I have high expectations both for behavior and academic achievement.
  • My students are reading novels and actually understanding what they read!
  • I am (usually/mostly) patient and calm.
  • My classroom has established routines and rituals that include procedures for a call-and-response, passing out materials, storing personal items, blah, blah, blah.
  • I will never stop trying to do my best.
  • I actually have and use Bryce Hedstrom’s Think Sheet.

So what have I been doing wrong? What is the missing ingredient that has been wreaking havoc on my sanity and effectiveness?

 I don’t have good follow through and I lack consistency.

Once I figured this out I found myself facing another challenge: How can I fix this?

 The answer is obvious, “Just start following through on your threats and be consistent (duh).” But that’s about as helpful as all the obvious remarks and sanctimonious platitudes I’ve already heard.

“You need to have procedures in place.” (Scuse me? How else have I been herding cats for 6 years?)

“You need good classroom management.” (Yes, I’m acutely aware.)

“You need to have high expectations.” (Why do you assume that I don’t?)

“Just don’t take anyone’s crap.” (Right, I’ll show them.)

“You’re going to have to make an example out of someone.” (Because “All shall love me and despair!” and they’ll all fall in line after this?)

You might be wondering how I got to year six and still struggle with this aspect of classroom management. Largely because of my passive nature (sometimes passive-aggressive) but also because I made a fundamental error in my grading policy. When I switched to Standards Based Grading I realized going into this process that my students would not be graded on their behavior. I only assess their proficiency and their performance (as best as I can without having received formal training to do this).

This is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! Of course I have to assess behavior and provide corrective feedback. If I don’t how else will students know how to meet expectations and improve in their own areas of weakness? What I failed to see is even though I DO NOT GRADE behavior it’s still my responsibility to coach and guide my students in these areas. Especially since they are Middles.

Back to how I’m fixing my problem. A few summers ago I attended the Nuts and Bolts Symposium and had the awesome experience of attending several sessions lead by Kim Campbell. She also did a workshop at my school and talked about classroom management. Anyway, I felt very confident that her insights and expertise would help me figure out a plan so I bought her book If You Can’t Manage Them, You Can’t Teach Them. Kim has a very straightforward writing style without being patronizing. The book has pages for self-reflection, real-life scenarios, and is chocked full of great advice. One of my favorite quotes is: “…if you are redirecting individual students more than twice during a class period, it is too much and you are not being effective as a classroom manager.” I actually howled with laughter when I read this because here I’ve been congratulating myself (seriously, as in patting myself on the back) on my endless patience. Face-palm, I know.

Now I have a plan and will be making some changes. My biggest change will be actually posting the (progression of) consequences because I need the visual reminder, it will keep me accountable and provide transparency, my students will know exactly what the consequences are without me having to do anything more than point, pause, smile and nod. I’ll also be making a R-E-S-P-E-C-T station for my first day stations. I’m super excited to hear what my kiddos know about respect, how they feel, and what they think it looks like. We’ll also be using behavior rubrics to facilitate self-reflection and discussions.

I’m hoping to suck a little bit less in the classroom management arena and am looking forward to a fresh start in August.


Planning Lessons & Breaking Down a Novel

If you follow other CI teacher’s blogs you know that there is some great information out there about how to teach a novel. The very skilled are said to be able to teach a novel from day one. Sadly, I don’t possess that particular talent. My approach is rather methodical but it has proven effective (for me). I know many teachers are having great success with Untargeted lessons but I’m not there yet. I do my best to backwards plan using the novel as an anchor while tying the novel’s theme and cultural information to one of the Spanish AP Themes. Once I have the overarching theme established I borrow some Big Ideas, Enduring Understandings and Essential Questions from Arlington Public Schools because 1) they have the good stuff, 2) I’m always pressed for time, and 3) people smarter and more experienced than me took the time to make this awesome, exhaustive resource (and hopefully meant to share it).

I then set the assessments to reflect my students’ expected language gains. By the end of the first semester my students can (usually): describe their physical appearance and personality; say from where they hail; give their age and phone number; describe their family as small, large or “normal” (the number of people not their girth!); talk about various relatives (in a limited capacity-relationsip, name, a few adjectives about personality and appearance); their pets or lack thereof; and of course describe their preferences. By this time they’ve also acquired several high frequency verbs from Terry Waltz’s list called The Super Seven and are on their way to acquiring more high frequency verbs like the Sweet 16 from Mike Peto’s list. They can also write summaries of the novel, answer questions about the main character and his/her experience and retell parts of the story.

Because the novels are written using high frequency vocabulary you can hit a lot of these terms through various activities. You can look at the glossary section of a leveled reader and determine which words can be “chunked” together. For lessons and activities building up to the novel I like to put the vocabulary into the following categories:

  • DAILYWords and phrases that I know I’ll hit throughout the day or week such as: greetings, date related words (numbers, days, months), listen, write, book, talk, please, thank you.
  •  Total Physical Response: A magnitude of verbs can be taught using TPR and you can easily incorporate various nouns, adjectives and adverbs.  I try to use movement as much as possible with my Middles by making it part of the lesson. Use during transitions, as brain breaks, or warm ups. Try the 3-Ring Circus when your kiddos need lots of movement.
  • TPRSword chunks that I can make into stories. I like to use Martina Bex’s SOMOS for this. This is the meat and potatoes of my lessons. 
  • EMBEDDED READINGSthe use of a series of three or more readings of increasing difficulty, created from the same outline. Students are exposed to repeated versions of the text and engage in a variety of activities with the text in order to build language and gain a deeper understanding of it.
  • PQAUse targeted vocabulary and phrases to talk to your students in the TL. Fish for details! This is a great way to get to know your students and show interest in their lives. Use the information you learn to make stories for your classes.
  • Special Person Interview: One of my favorite activities is conducting Special Person Interviews. Bryce Hedstrom (with the help of many teachers) has generously made posters available for free on his site in the following languages: SpanishFrench,  Japanese, RussianLatin, German, and Hebrew.  The teacher asks a series of questions, the student responds, and the teacher reports back to the class. Great way to get reps of different conjugations. Make a big deal out of your students! Use celebrity guests if a student is too shy. 
  • MOVIE TALK: “A technique developed by Dr. Ashley Hastings for language learning. It was first used as part of a FOCAL skills program for teaching ESL.” Read Martina’s post here:Movie Talk
  • COROSUse #authres like music to teach vocabulary! Find a popular song or a classic. Listen to the song. Make a cloze activity. Learn the chorus and sing together. Learn more here and here.
  • PASSWORDSUse fun phrases or questions as a password! Each student must whisper the password phrase to you in order to enter the classroom. Examples:

    How gross!          Now way!

You’re kidding!       I beg your pardon?

Be careful.      How’s it going?

Very nice.      Good luck.

  • MISCELLANEOUS: For words that only appear once or twice you can either let your students make meaning from context, provide the meaning yourself or let them look the word up in the glossary.

I really enjoy doing a whole-class novel study with my Middles. Especially for our first time reading. There’s a lot of hand-holding through this process but many of my students have expressed that they like the extra support. Sometimes my 2s like to do Literary Circles. We take a vote after the first novel during their second year about which titles are available and how they’ll read them (whole class, small group, lit cirlces, mixed title lit circles, Free Voluntary Reading).

Check out thes posts for some awesome ideas once you start reading the novel:

Martina Bex  Kristy Placido-Kinesthetic Activities  Kristy Placido-Audio Books

Some very generous educators have openly shared their Puentes  and I’ve become a better teacher because of their guidance and insights. Pay it forward and find, cross and build your own Puentes to CI.

The Dangers of Teaching in a Vacuum

When I started teaching I had all the misgivings, bravado and zeal of your average graduate which helped me survive as a first year floating department of one. Propelled by determination and armed with all the experience and know-how my methods courses, field observations and student teaching hours had to offer I stumbled through that first year, doing my very best to cover a self-imposed curriculum I had cobbled together. I wisely knew that my lessons had to include comprehensible input and that the content needed to be scaffolded and differentiated. Oh, and engaging.

Piece of cake! I could prepare and deliver a lesson with my eyes closed! Lesson planning consisted of preparing: vocabulary lists (thematically grouped of course); grammar points, as sequenced by one of the many texts I wisely used as guides; verb paradigms; cultural presentations and occasional documentaries for an authentic cultural experience. Each aspect of my lesson was efficiently delivered using a slideshow and a Cloze notes handout (to maximize engagement). Sounds dreadful, right? And maybe a little too familiar…

I did the best that I knew how. For three years I worked really hard and it paid off. Just kidding! Even though my students dutifully took notes, filled out worksheets, made flashcards, and played games they made no real language gains. Sure, it bothered me that they couldn’t understand what they read, answer my questions or write an intelligible sentence.  I had covered everything they needed to know. If they weren’t “getting it” I wasn’t to blame.

Therein lies the danger of teaching in a vacuum. Without collaboration it is very difficult to reflect. By this I mean true pedagogical introspection. Are you certain that your practices are not unintentional pedagogical malpractice? For example, do you really know how to scaffold a lesson? Differentiate? Provide comprehensible input? I thought I did but for three years I was guilty of pedagogical malpractice.  Is your instruction guided by current research in your respective field? Collaboration leads to innovation. Have you tried new activities borrowed from a colleague? Helped a colleague trouble-shoot a lesson? Are you growing as a teacher? Nothing grows in a vacuum. You need someone to challenge you and (gently) ask you hard questions. You need a sounding board, a cheer section, and a rescue and recovery team.  Likely, someone needs you to do the same.

Sometimes all it takes is asking “Why?” Like the time I declared that interactive notebooks were awesome. When I was asked “Why?” I was stumped. And I spent a lot of time reflecting on their usefulness and role in my classroom. Since then I can no longer justify spending lots of time on them in class, as I now know that class minutes are pretty precious and should be optimized for comprehensible input. I still consider them a valuable resource to my students so we use them  judiciously and with clear purpose.

The only thing more dangerous than teaching in a vacuum is failing in a vacuum. Emotions may (will) get the better of you, self-doubt, insecurities and resentment (possibly directed at your students) will sap the joy right out of your job. A job without joy becomes a chore which really warrants no explanation. Furthermore, it’s hard to build a trusting and healthy teacher-student relationship if you resent and blame your students for your failure as a teacher.

If you are in a vacuum it’s time to break out. If you’re a department of one start a Professional Learning Community with a teacher within your district. Part of a stagnant department of many? Turn to social media! There are Twitter chats, Facebook Groups and blogs galore! Just recently I was able to find 82 CI teachers’ blogs! CI_Teachers_United_Mapped.png I made this little map with hyperlinks if you’d like to check it out: CI Teachers United. It took me three years to find a local tribe here in Louisiana (six years into my teaching career!) which was only possible after I found a Professional Learning Network with  #langchat. Don’t be afraid to find, cross and build your own Puentes to CI.