Using novels in the classroom

As I wind down my 5th year of teaching, I am entering my 3rd year of teaching novels. I originally wrote a grant to get enough money to purchase 1 class set of books, 1 for each level that I teach. I hadn’t yet heard of TPRS Publishing, so I ended up getting all of mine from Blaine Ray. Over the years, I have changed the way I teach novels and how I use them in the classroom.

Year one

Let’s be clear here: I had NO idea what I was doing. Even though I received CI training during my undergrad, my little novice teacher brain just wasn’t ready for it. So my first two years of teaching, I was strict by-the-book with a few extras thrown in. Any CI was purely incidental. But I knew reading novels was good, so I asked for the money and received it thanks to the wonderful people in my school’s foundation. We read Pobre Ana when I was in high school, so I figured that was a good place to start. I ordered my texts and figured I would start reading them in 4th quarter because then the students would have learned all the things they need to know!

So technically the first year was a success because we made it through the books. In many ways, it was not a success.

-I didn’t differentiate techniques for different levels because I didn’t really have any idea how to structure questioning (in English or Spanish – remember, I’d been trained on how to teach vocabulary, grammar, and culture separately, not all three at once!)

-I tested the fun right out of the kids. Pre-test, post-test, vocab and comprehension quizzes every other day.

-I tested over WAY, WAY, WAY too much vocabulary. My thought was, ‘if we haven’t used it before, it must appear on the vocab sheet’.

-Everyone had the same final product (a vocabulary/comprehension behemoth test) regardless of proficiency level or interest.

-I had every class read more or less at the same time, and because we weren’t very good readers, I had to read the chapter aloud. For 7 periods of the day. I didn’t want to use just a recording because I wanted to be able to stop and ask questions when necessary. This was a terrible choice.

-I did the novels all at once. Quite frankly, 7 periods of doing nothing but novels for 2 weeks at the end of the year was nothing short of torture for both me and the kids.

-I had the teacher’s guides, but hadn’t had TPRS training so I had no idea what a parallel story was, why some of the questions asked about things that clearly were not mentioned in the story, and so on, so I didn’t utilize them very effectively.

Year two

Last year, I taught novels again, but I made some adjustments. Last year went much better, but there were still some problems to resolve.

-My students were better prepared to read, but we still struggled a lot, especially in the classes that were reading in past tense.

-I had found out about TPRS Publishing and realized that the Blaine Ray stories are pretty rote (there is a person/they go to a Spanish speaking country/something related to the title happens/they go home and are a better person). I think part of the problem was lack of interest, but it was too late to order new titles. I feel that the other publishers do a better job of writing more creative stories, especially for novices.

-I did order teacher sample packs of various books to browse over the summer and to use as potential free reading in my classroom.

-I changed my study guide. I cut the vocabulary down to a few key terms per chapter, and also refocused the questions in it to just be about the story. I asked personal questions during class.

-I allowed my upper level classes to choose to read on their own or as a group.

-I still was very stupid and had ALL my students read ALL at the same time ALL at the end of the year. Again, it was a terrible idea and I regretted it as soon as I realized I had planned my unit that way, but I was out of time.

-My biggest and best change was adding choice to their final projects. I ended up getting some really amazing stuff, including a trivia game about the book, many cartoons using Powtoon or Moovly, a fantastic BitStrip, and even a student who loves computers who coded his own multiple-choice quiz in BASIC.

Year three

So this year, I have 2 years of using novels under my belt. I also added free reading to my Spanish 3 and 4 classes this year, as well as primarily using storytelling in levels 1 and 2. This means this year’s students are way more prepared to read than any students I have had, and it shows. I’ll have a separate post on my FVR program (it’s extraordinarily simple) but for this one, suffice to say: it has been working for me.

This year, I am also working on a grant to add more novels to my classroom. I plan to add Brandon Brown quiere un perro to my Spanish 1s, La tumba for Spanish 2, Spanish 3 is when students start FVR and I’d rather have them have maximum time for choice reading, and in AP Spanish I intend to add La guerra sucia as part of a unit on the Dirty War. I also asked for money to add to my FVR library, although I think after this year I’ll be set up enough to use my regular discretionary funds to maintain it.

In any case, I am just now starting my novels for the year, and here’s the changes I’ve made.

-I plan to read aloud with my two classes that have the most difficulty with reading (mostly due to learning disabilities), but the other classes get to pick. The best part is, I can be confident that the students who read alone have the ability because we have been practicing all year long.

-No more study guides except as an optional guide to help them for their final project. In the classes where read together, we stop and talk every paragraph or so (in English or Spanish, depending on the purpose of my questioning) so everyone understands. For those who read alone, I have them fill out my FVR log. The point is for them to get the main idea of the story, not every single word.

-No more vocab. I don’t need to, because we have practiced es/está/tiene/quiere/puede/etc. so much during the rest of the year that they are much better equipped to use context clues and identify cognates as they read. I can help them with the occasional ‘out of bounds’ word or phrase. I also pre-teach new vocabulary I want them to acquire (not just comprehend momentarily for the sake of the story).

-The best change is that each class is reading throughout the 4th quarter, and each level reads on a different day. This keeps the reading from becoming tedious (for them and me) and also helps me be more flexible in my planning, since so many of my students are gone for school activities in the spring. It also leaves plenty of time for them to complete their final project, rather than having to rush it because we’ve only got 1 day of school left.

In the future

If my grant is approved, that leaves me with 2 class novels per year in each level besides Spanish 3, plus FVR in Spanish 3 and AP Spanish. I think that’s a pretty healthy number. I have samples of all of the novels from Blaine Ray, TPRS Publishing, and Mira Canion, but there are always more series starting to crop up on Amazon and other places. Even if you don’t use the other parts of TPRS, I think that attending a workshop is beneficial to learning to teach a novel because in my workshop, we explicitly discussed it, and even if yours doesn’t, learning how to question through a book makes it so much easier to teach. Maybe someday, I’ll even do literature circles… but I only get 185 contact days with the students, so I have to pick and choose.

Do you have any other novel recommendations? I also hope this post provides some guidance to newer teachers who are just starting to teach novels for the first time. Like anything else, it’s a bit of a mess the first time around but it gets easier from there!

Gender and sexual orientation in the classroom

In honor of Women’s History Month and gay marriage being almost legalized in Nebraska (so close!), I’ve been kicking around this post in my head for a while.

Wording and phrasing about gender and sexual orientation is something I struggle a lot with in my classes. On the one side, I am someone who believes that a person should be able to express their identity however they please. Truly, it makes no difference to me if a student is GLBT. (Not that I don’t care – I very much do, but I only get to make decisions about my life, not anyone else’s.) I try very hard to make it clear through my statements and actions that I am welcoming to people of all sexual orientations and gender expressions – probably even more than my students even realize exist. I know that some of my students have to be GLBT; that’s just statistics. But I also don’t want to out them before they’re ready, and I want them to know that I am 212% an ally. I freely discuss my friendships with lesbians (mostly through roller derby) and gay men (mostly through college), and I also have some transpeople and a few gender free friends in my life. In other words: I try not to assume that everyone is straight and their gender matches their biological appearance.

However, my sticking point is that regardless of my personal beliefs on gender identity, expression, and sexual orientation, many of my students’ life experiences are based on their gender. Society is really, really good at enforcing gender roles, even if those roles have expanded slightly over the years. When I was a little girl (elementary age), I truly thought that I was weird because I was a girl and good at math. Everyone knew that boys were good at math and science and sports, and girls were good at reading and doing house stuff and taking care of babies. Duh.

Obviously, as I got older I reconciled my incorrect assumptions about who is naturally good at what. What I still struggle with is that boys appear to be naturally better at some things than girls, and vice versa. One of my favorite Mythbusters episodes looked at who was better at throwing a baseball, males or females. It turns out that males are dominant… until they have to throw with their non-dominant arm, in which case the results are very similar between the two sexes. Rather, it appears that males are better at throwing because they are more likely to practice throwing a ball from a young age, as ‘playing catch’ is a stereotypical male activity. When Jamie and Adam compare world-class pitchers, their form is the same.

As a teacher of teenagers, the differences between genders become more pronounced. My female students do not have the same life experiences as my male students, and vice versa. Socially, there are different images being pounded into their brains of what is socially acceptable as beautiful and what’s not. There are different expectations of behavior. Different expectations of career choice. Different expectations of everything, really. And then there are the unpleasant statistics about male behaviors towards females.

Another major issue is that I teach Spanish. Spanish in itself is a gendered language; you can’t get away from it. Even if you can avoid using pronouns thanks to Spanish’s subject-verb ambiguity, you get stuck on the adjectives. Do you just pick the default masculine? I have no idea.

So at the end of the day, I always try to figure out, how can I best meet the needs of all my students? How do I acknowledge that there are major differences in the perceptions of men and women, and that most people ascribe to the gender binary, without feeling like I might be excluding that one kid who says ‘no, this doesn’t describe me’? How do I show, not just tell, my students that my room is a safe space for freedom of gender expression and sexual orientation? How do I reliably keep my room a safe space for those students?

I don’t have the answers, but at least I’m thinking about them.

Reflections on storytelling (part 2)

On Tuesday, I posted the first half of my reflections on using storytelling in the classroom. I documented my success, but there are still some things about storytelling that give me pause.

Stuff to work on!

1) I learned very quickly that my original intent of two stories per week at the Spanish 1 and 2 levels was not going to work for my kiddos. Even if the two stories were very similar, it was just story overload for them. This also upset my mode balance – I was doing all interpretive, all the time, and their output skills suffered. After Christmas, I cut back to one story per week. If I do a story on two days, then I do different activities with the same story for more reps.

2) Another big issue with story overload is that I was doing the same activities every single time. After a well-meaning whine from a student, I decided to do something about it rather than getting mad. After all, my students are people-in-progress and what my student was REALLY trying to say was ‘Miss Johnson, we do the same things all the time and I would like to learn in a different way.’ So in addition to cutting down the number of stories we did, I remembered to add in different ways of getting reps besides tell story – ask questions – choral response – timed write. They really enjoy drawing, and it gives them confidence when I ask them to do a retell in Spanish. Sometimes we act the stories out. Sometimes we work in pairs, sometimes in larger groups. However, it’s important to also mix up the new activities as well, or I end up with the same problem all over again!

3) Maybe this is a personal teaching failure, but I really do not like doing verbal stories. I have a hard time keeping a grip on not losing the story while handling classroom management at the same time. I figure it’s okay to do mostly written stories (or if I do a verbal story, the kids HAVE to have something to do like draw it) since I use videos, music, and other sources of audio input. And I almost always read the story to the students anyhow for that dual channel learning.

4) Sheltering vocabulary is hard. Really hard. In my first post, I implored to you not underestimate your students. When it comes to sheltering vocabulary, you also cannot overestimate your students. They can only learn so much at one time. But I struggle with how much they don’t know yet – I want them to learn so much stuff so they can love Spanish the way I do! If I only do one story a week, that means I’m really only focusing on 3-5 new structures per week. I have to fight the tendency to give them 20 new words per story. One way I combat this is by introducing an extra ‘flavor’ phrase into a story (this week in Spanish 1 it was ‘se ríe’ and in Spanish 2, it was ‘estaba preocupado’) and recycle that through a few stories. So rather than hitting an intense practice of it for one week, it just kinda keeps showing up over and over and eventually will get acquired. I hope.

5) I need to use ClassDojo more consistently, and next year, with my Spanish 2s. I made the mistake, of course, of believing that my sophomores had matured enough to not need some sort of accountability system to participate. One of my classes is. The other class is not. My Spanish 1s absolutely need it to stay on track, and they enjoy trying to beat their participation record from the week before. Because I am not above bribery, if we hit our goal for 3 weeks in a row, then the 4th week we get a free day. I figure the good work I get out of them on the 3 story days makes up for it, rather than mediocre-to-terrible work for 4.

6) I need to do timed writes more consistently. I didn’t end up using them for an assessment grade (just their daily participation points) but either way, my students really need regular practice to keep up their writing skills. It’s also hard to judge when it’s appropriate to start going from writing-for-practice to writing-with-accuracy. I’m still working on figuring out that line.

7) My students totally rock the yo, tú, and especially él/ella forms. Nosotros and ustedes/ellos… eeeeeh. They can recognize them, but I’ve done a pretty awful job of getting reps in with those two particular forms. That’s a personal problem, though, that I can easily fix.

Final thoughts

Overall, I am digging the storytelling technique and I am glad I switched. My students are able to handle almost anything I put in front of them. I am always amazed that I can hand all but my novice-mids a page-length story and they are able to read it with ease. It’s also making the transition to more authentic resources much easier. Since we know so many of the little words and are much better at using our context clues to understand passages, my older students are now tackling things like reading TPRS novels without hesitation or complaint. It’s a really great position to be in. There are still some tweaks to be made, but I would encourage anyone who is wondering if they should take the plunge to do it. (At this point, I would probably wait until next year because student resistence to change can be very unpleasant to manage.) I am very excited to see what my program looks like in 2 years when my students have had 4 years of storytelling-transitioning-to-full-authres under their belts.

Reflections on storytelling (part 1)

Here at East Butler, we’re wrapping up the third quarter and I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the storytelling techniques that I’ve picked up and used over the last year. I started using TPRS-like elements this time last year, but this school year was the first that I made the complete switch to using comprehensible input strategies as my main focus. As a whole, I think using storytelling has been a major success in my classroom, but there are still some things that could use some work.

The original post ended up being a behemoth, so I will split this into two parts: successes and stuff to work on.


1) My students have acquired way, way, way more at this time of year than my previous students. The difference isn’t so noticible in Spanish 1, but my 2s and 3s are clearly ahead of the game. A huge amount of this has to do with the amount of input students are receiving. I plan to do a much more in-depth post on this in the near future but basically, I feel that my first few rounds of students had lower abilities because they spent more time doing activities to try to artificially push along their acquisition, rather than doing activities to increase input – which will increase acquisition naturally. That’s how I ended up with students who could reproduce vocabulary flawlessly on a discrete word translation quiz, or correctly conjugate the forms of tener in present perfect… but couldn’t actually read or write them in context.

2) Speaking of acquisition, certain forms that used to be my bane are now easy. Instead of explaining ‘le’ (and how indirect objects work) and ‘dice’ (and how e-i conjugations work), I just teach them ‘le dice  = h/she says to him/her’. Done. Acquired. Same thing with reflexives. Since I no longer explain how conjugations work before the students see and hear them a million times, I also no longer get weird things like ‘yo tieno’ or ‘él poda.’ The kids just know it. They also are much faster at answering questions because they have acquired question words much, much earlier.

3) Instead of wasting my students’ time on taking notes (which again, loses valuable input time) I can do grammar pop-ups to speed acquisition. When students are ready, then they will ask more in-depth questions. Today I had a Spanish 2 student ask me why my story said ‘buena comida’ and not ‘comida buena’. Which is awesome because it shows that he acquired that adjectives have to match, and generally go behind the thing they’re describing. I’m actually going to do a bit of conjugation practice on Friday with my Spanish 1s because we’re far enough into the year that even my average processors are asking me how the whole matching pronoun-verb thing works (not in that wording, of course).

4) I don’t have to follow ‘the script’. You know, the one that says in Spanish 1 you teach present tense (and if you’re really fancy, one of the past tenses). Spanish 2 is all the other main tenses. Spanish 3 is subjunctive. Spanish 4 is review of everything. I personally prefer to stay mostly in present tense for Spanish 1, and Spanish 2 focuses on the past tenses for the first semester. But right now we’re hitting present perfect because our stories call for it, and I even threw in past subjunctive the other day. So for those who are hesitating, I implore you: do not underestimate your students. If your students know that  ‘toma la medicina = he takes the medicine’ and ‘tomó la medicina = he took the medicine’, they can understand ‘tomara la medicina’ with no trouble.

5) For the most part, my students are far more willing to participate. I still get the occasional ‘I don’t want to do this’ or ‘Do we really have to tell another story?’ but it’s few and far between. Since I’m a department of one, I can see the differences between class levels. I recently asked this year’s Spanish 3 do a very simple task (read an authentic blog post with lots of infographics and summarize what they read in English). Last year, the students had an outright meltdown when I asked them to do it. This year, they said ‘okay’ and got to work. It was no big deal, because they’ve spent a goodly portion of their Spanish experience reading lengthier Spanish passages.

6) Storytelling is highly customizable. I mean, that’s part of the whole appeal to students! Although I do have the Blaine Ray book, I stopped using it after the first month. The Look, I Can Talk curriculum is based entirely on input of high-frequency verbs and not much on thematic units. Since I still much prefer to have units to work within (and especially as I create my AP Spanish course, which is required to hit on certain themes), I don’t find it as useful as other teachers might. However, it provides a good framework for the beginning TPRS teacher and is even more invaluable for beginning-teaching teachers because it gives sentence-by-sentence directions on how to do everything. But once I figured out how to pattern a story, it became easy to create one that hits the vocabulary and grammatical concepts I want to cover at a specific point in my program. It is also very easy to differentiate for different levels of learners through different difficulties of readings or verbal questions.

Stay tuned for part 2 (stuff to work on) in a few days!