El Mundo en Tus Manos: Best resource ever?

Ironically, as our semester winds down here at school, I finally remembered to blog. This is a short one, but important as we consider what activities to keep and toss for the upcoming semester. I am here to plug Martina Bex’s Mundo en Tus Manos (which I am shortening to MeTM for brevity’s sake), a short newspaper for Spanish language learners.

Okay, to preface, I am completely biased because I love what Martina’s done. But if you haven’t purchased a license yet, let me try to convince you.

It’s great input for the students. Okay, first and foremost, this is most important. Martina does a wonderful job of paring down news stories and putting them in simple terms that high level novices and above can understand with little or no scaffolding. I also like that she includes footnotes of new vocabulary terms, and often tries to repeat these new words from week to week or within the same issue to get those precious repetitions for acquisition.

It keeps me updated on current news of interest to hispanohablantes. I have taken a pretty heavy duty self-imposed news moratorium since shortly before the election. I just can’t handle the negativity and anger coming from… well, lots of places. By reading MeTM, I can stay updated on what’s going on without having to put my anger filter in place. I also can have just a quick overview – reading the articles takes me about 5 minutes. (And for those of us who are distractible, I can’t fall into a news clicking rabbit hole.)

MeTM allows us to practice close reading. When it comes to in-depth reading, with special attention given to text type, headlines, and topic sentences, I find it much easier to work with non-fiction sources. MeTM is the perfect level of difficulty to make close reading potentially necessary, but short enough that the task isn’t overwhelming.

Reading the news expands our students’ minds and allows for further discussion of the topics. Many young people are relatively ignorant of the world around them – not because they’re intentionally sheltered, but because of their life circumstances. They’re young and without many resources of their own. I teach in a rural area of Nebraska. Many of my students have barely left the state, much less the country. (And if they have, they go to resorts and the like, which is not an accurate representation of the culture.) In addition, my personality leads me to expand on the basic ideas presented in the text and allow students to express their views on the topic. I love that the news stories give us some basic understanding and background knowledge of a topic, and I can expand the lesson to fit my students.

It’s a really easy addition to your reading library. For only a couple of dollars per issue, MeTM is one of the best bargains to add to any reading library. Plus, you don’t even have to go to a store or pay shipping! You just have to walk down to the printer. It’s that easy!

Finally, and one of my favorites, it is perfect to use as a backup activity or brain break. Gone from work and need something for your sub? Leave your students an issue with a simple graphic organizer. (See an example here.) Finish your lesson way too early? Grab some issues and have students summarize what they read. Having a rough day and need to plan something that’s not work-intensive for you? There are tons of no or low-prep activities that you can come up with in a pinch to save your sanity. These are especially great lifesavers for newer teachers whose pacing is still in progress and don’t have many tools in their toolkit yet.

So to sum up, there are six great reasons to buy Martina’s Mundo en Tus Manos package for the spring, and I’m sure other teachers could come up with more. I can only hope that eventually some enterprising teacher does a similar thing for other world languages.

(In full disclosure, Martina did not at any point ask me to write this review. This is 100% my own love of her products.)

September, checking in

Can you believe it? We’re already finishing the first week of September. For some schools, they are just now starting the year. My school is almost a full month in. I have a lot of things to write about, but I haven’t really taken the time and stop to talk about it. And I’m not going to do it now! I just wanted to check in to say that this year is off to a great start for me. Last spring, I wrote an honest post about my battle with depression and how it affected my teaching. Battle seems like an odd choice of word – chronic depression is a chemical imbalance in my brain that I have had for most of my life and will continue to have, but it’s not really a battle if I take my medication. This year, I can already tell the difference in starting a year without that nasty cloud hanging over my head. My lessons go much more smoothly. I get along better with my students. I not only updated my old word walls, but also added a new one of ‘random cognates you might need in a story’ which I haven’t taken a picture of yet. My body is also being much happier – I am no longer getting stress headaches, my skin isn’t breaking out like crazy, and I can sleep at night. So the point of all that is: if you are feeling like something just isn’t right, go see a doctor. Please. You owe it to yourself.

That being said, I am doing some great things in my classroom this year. I am doing La Persona Especial with my Spanish 1s rather than starting with stories right away. There are tons of benefits to the activity, but one thing I am finding is that students are acquiring high-frequency vocabulary that applies to them first thing in the year. Words like hermano, juega, abuelo, and so on that I normally don’t get into until later are becoming commonplace. I even have Spanish 1s spouting off short, self-created sentences! It is so amazing, you guys. It is my plan to record myself doing one of these in the near future… maybe within the next week! Then I can share it with you all for feedback/instructional purposes/etc. and we can all be better teachers!

In Spanish 2, we are starting to really hit the comparison of past and present tenses. This is really what sold me on storytelling/comprehensible input as a teaching method. I remember the absolute misery of trying to learn ALL preterite forms and ALL imperfect forms AND when to use them… within a few months. With storytelling, understanding the forms and differences seems natural. My students don’t seem to find it nearly as mind-melting as I ever did.

In Spanish 3 and AP, I started using Gran Hotel on Fridays this year. We’re only about 10 minutes in after 4 weeks of watching it. I am using the guides on Teachers Pay Teachers (so helpful – thanks to the contributors!) and we did 3 weeks of watching with me talking our way through it. Then last Friday, we rewatched the first page’s worth of video (from the study guide) without my talk-through, then completed said study guide page. I’ll probably assess them in some way eventually, but I don’t want the  threat of assessment to outstrip their enjoyment of the show. My class of 5 boys is not super thrilled yet, but I think they’ll be more interested once there is more action going on. The other two seem to be enthralled and really enjoy it. It is also an AWESOME opportunity to practice those really deep and complex grammatical patterns students will find in AP-level readings, especially ones that use the subjunctive.

I also looked at some of my goals from last year (big one: to do better with AP) and am working on those. I preloaded AP vocab this unit and it is making the rest of the teaching go much faster. 3 of the 4 students are in sports that keep leaving school early for events, though, so that is a continual challenge.

I hope everyone else is off to a great start of their school year! I will hopefully be able to post more of my ideas soon.

accidental IPA

I will be the first to tell you that I don’t really use IPAs (aka integrated performance assessments). I know, I know, they’re a great form of assessment but they require a level of strategy and pre-planning that is just not my strong suit. Except this year, I realized that I think one of my assessments is accidentally an IPA. It comes at the end of my Spanish 1 food unit, which has morphed over the years from a matching test with words and pictures to writing about favorite foods to now, preparing for a party and presenting it to the class. (If I had time, we’d also potentially pick our favorite party and then have it in class, but we had snow days this year so that didn’t work out.)

I originally got the idea to have a party plan assessment from Chris Pearce’s amazing teaching comic, Teachable Moments. (Side note: if you don’t regularly read Chris’s comic, you should.) One of the things that he did with his class is a Killing Mr. Griffin party project, and I thought it sounded super cool so I wanted to recreate a similar thing with my classes. I also wanted to be able to recycle my target vocabulary, and through some teaching wizardry, my party project accidental IPA was born.

The presentational mode

My students worked in groups to create a party theme with invitations, snacks, decorations, and activities. They were given 2 days in class to do this. On the 3rd day, they presented.

The presentational mode instructions and rubric

The interpretive mode

When the students were presenting, I didn’t want the rest of the class to be sitting around doing nothing. (In my experience, this means I have to ask every group to restate something at least once because I was busy telling the other members of the class to be quiet.) So I created an interpretive listening organizer with some very basic questions for them to fill out as the other groups presented. This kept them on task so I could focus on the presenters.

The interpretive graphic organizer (I have two pages since I have a different number of groups in each class)

The interpersonal mode

Finally, when the groups were presenting, I also warned them that they would be asked a question or two about their party. Since they’re novices, I stuck to pretty familiar topics that rehashed what they told me about their party – stuff like ‘So, was your group bringing chips or pizza? What kind of pizza?’ or ‘Wait, I forgot, is the party on Wednesday or Friday?’ Of course, I can push the limits by asking my more advanced students more difficult questions or follow-up questions, or lob an easy yes/no question at my strugglers.

I graded the overall project on two metrics: 5 points for their written product and for their interpretive paper. The major focus was on their speaking ability as assessed through the interpersonal and presentational mode, worth 15 points. Overall, the students did wonderfully and I think the project is finally how I like it.

An easy weather lesson

Even though I am a comprehensible input teacher, I still follow thematic units. These units tend to follow the pattern of Realidades, the text we used back when I still used one. The real key is comprehensible, engaging, repetitive input, but as a Mega Planner I’m someone who needs thematic units to keep me on track. Otherwise, I would literally just tell stories all day without any rhyme or reason, and I would get myself lost.

In Spanish 1, I still like to hit all the basics (time, weather, colors, etc.) at the beginning of the year because then they are words I know I can throw into stories, or offer as options when teaching new chunks. I only spend 1-2 days on each of these because of course, we are going to hit them pretty much every time we do PQA or a story in the class, and many students in my district come in knowing at least 1-10 and some colors, thanks to Dora.

One way of using authentic resources AND having students feel successful right away is to have them interpret a weather forecast. (I used to do the ‘make a weather’ forecast activity and it was always a mess, because I was asking for way too much output way too soon.) The lesson is really simple and requires little prep work on your end.

After introducing weather phrases (however you choose to do so), introduce a sample forecast. I always choose Brainard, the town where I teach. After that, the lesson might look a little different depending on your technology available. Some different ways of doing it are:

1 – If you have internet access AND the website is unblocked, have students look up cities on espanol.weather.com and browse the forecast. I usually have them do this in pairs or small groups. I also assign them capital cities – Tegucigalpa, Madrid, Mexico DF, Buenos Aires, etc. It’s also a good time to remind them of the seasonal switch in the southern hemisphere, and the time switch in Europe. (So for example, if you’re looking at the forecast at 2 pm your time and it’s the day forecast, it might already be 10 pm in Madrid and showing the evening forecast.)

2 – If you don’t have internet access, you can visit the website on a different computer and then screenshot the cities you want to use. I try to cut out all the ‘junk’ and focus on just the weather information. Since the website is inexplicably no longer loading from my work computer, I used my home computer to do the screencapping and uploaded the images to my Google Drive. Then I printed some copies of each of the cities to distribute to the students.


An example of a screenshot I took from espanol.weather.com.

3 – After the students look over their city, I had them present (en inglés) what they thought each section meant. This is a great time to also throw in super-bonus vocabulary like probabilidad de precipitación and humedad.

I really like this activity for two reasons. Number one, it reinforces cognates and the strategy of using what you already know (What does a weather forecast look like in English? How is it set up? What do the pictures represent?) to infer meaning, even if you’ve never seen the words before. Number two, it gives all students a high level of success reading a WHOLE PAGE! of native speaker Spanish within the first few weeks. That feeling of success can help keep them motivated when working through tougher material, so I try to foster it whenever I can.

You could also easily extend this activity in a number of ways. As the groups present, the other students could fill in a chart and then you could ask questions about the different cities. For multiple tenses, you could compare yesterday’s weather to today’s weather to tomorrow’s weather. You could probably even hit subjunctive, for languages that have it, by deciding if it’s possible that it might rain tomorrow, it’s possible it might snow, etc.

I think one of the most fun things about comprehensible input is the variety of ways you can work with just one simple piece of input. What do you think? How do you like to teach weather in your classroom?

Música miércoles/baile viernes

In my Spanish 1 and 2 classes, I always start the day with a bellringer that I call my ‘principio’. I like to use bellringers for a variety of reasons: we only have 2 minute passing periods, so students don’t really have time to get a drink or use the bathroom. It helps students get started right away with something to do in Spanish. It gives me time to wrangle the absentee slips, attendance, and all that other day-to-day stuff we have to manage before we can get to the teaching parts of our days. They have evolved over the years – last year, they mostly took the form of a few PQA questions to get our day started. They were great for that purpose, but doing them 5 days a week was kinda blah.

Enter Allison Wienhold, who uses música miércoles and baile viernes in her classroom. I won’t give you the full explanation here, as she’s already done a wonderful job. (And if you don’t read her blog already, you should.) I incorporated these into my principios this week, and here’s how things went:

Spanish 1 música: Tengo Tu Love by Sie7e. Spanish 2 música: Celebra la Vida by Emir Sensini. Spanish 3 música (even though they don’t do a principio, I wanted to do a song that day for funsies): Pura Vida by Don Omar. AP Spanish, ironically, ended up studying some precolombian music as we prepped for our unit on precolombian cultures, so it was a very musical day in my classroom.

I picked Tengo Tu Love for my Spanish 1s since it’s the first week and Tengo Tu Love has a lot of references to brand names in English, and the chorus is Spanglish. As I am remembering very quickly, it is also REALLY important to have students to have a task to complete while listening to the song. If you just say ‘listen to the song’… they will not. But if they have a task to do, then they have to listen to the song in order to accurately complete the task. So I had them count how many times they heard the word ‘amor’. Amor is a high frequency noun, especially in songs, so it was worth the repetitions. I think the students enjoyed the song (the freshmen are still giving me a honeymoon period so it’s hard to read their mood) and I am really digging Tengo Tu Love and Sie7e’s songs in general – I can’t believe this is the first year I’ve used it!

I chose Celebra la Vida by Emir Sensini because he is the Justo Lamas Group‘s new singer, and we will be attending one of his concerts in October. Last year, I found out about the concert about 3 weeks before the show and tried to cram 5 or 6 songs into 2 week’s worth of lessons. Bad idea – kids like music, but they don’t want to do it every single day in the exact same way. (Mediocre teaching on my part.) This year, I wanted to get an earlier start so that they can enjoy the concert more. The song starts off a little slow but then picks up – the chorus is really catchy. I had students decode the chorus and we talked a little bit about what it means to celebrate life. I then used the song as a lead-in to a couple of days learning about quinceañeras. (I used Martina Bex’s awesome plans/level 2 reading for this – she includes an activity for the students to do while completing the reading which I chose not to have my students do… bad idea. That’s when I remembered that they ALWAYS need to have a task, as mentioned above. It was a rough day.)

For the Spanish 3s, we did Pura Vida because I like the song and the chorus is very easy to understand. I copied the lyrics and deleted words/phrases that were familiar to my students (baila, todo el momento, la vida, etc.) and the entire chorus. Then we filled them back in as we listened. I think it’s important when doing these kinds of activities to only delete words students have already acquired – unless they’re native speakers, trying to get their ears to hear the correct sounds if they don’t already know the word only ends in frustration. I know this because it happens to me, and I’ve been listening to native speaker Spanish for over a decade.

Baile viernes went… okay. I did The Ketchup Song as advised by Allison. My classes were pretty split. I normally will only do this for Spanish 1 and 2, but I offered it up to my 3s as well. (I don’t want my students to feel like they got into Spanish 3 and then there’s no fun anymore, especially since Spanish 3 is now ‘Pre-AP’ in my brain.) So I had 2 classes where I had about half participation, 2 where I had no participation, and 2 where I had half-hearted participation from 1 or 2 students. The ones that participated were fun and we had a good time. The others, well, it’s kinda weird dancing by yourself in front of a group of 10 kids. Peer pressure is a huge thing – if one kid could get their friend to do it, then I’d get a whole bunch. I also had to have a quick conversation on gender.. shaming? I don’t know what to call it. But I think I’m going to have to pull some of my male students aside and have a serious talk on why it’s offensive to use ‘does [X activity] like a girl’ as an insult.

In the end, I will keep doing música miércoles (and if I’m awesome, be able to tie it to my lesson for the day) and baile viernes. I hope that in time, I can get some more kids to participate in the dancing. Not only is dancing fun, but it’s good for both body and brain.

Locations markerboard game


El oso está en el estante. Está encima de las revistas y a la derecha de los libros.

Recently in Spanish 1 we had a quiz over location prepositions. Normally this falls within the boundaries of unit 4 which ends the first semester, but I missed over a week of school this fall for various activity and medical things. (Not all at once, thankfully! But a day here and a day there sure adds up.) So then I had this weird little section where I needed to cover things, but it’s not enough for a full sized test. A bonus to this conundrum is I was teaching the school unit – a particular target for teachers who argue against ‘legacy’ teaching. The argument against ‘legacy’ units like stuff around the school is that it’s not useful and super boring. But it doesn’t have to be useless or boring! After all, how many of us have to ask our students where their pencil is, where the paper is, and so on? It’s part of the normal classroom patter we use every day.

Thursday’s activity (after a few days of comprehensible input) was a simple game that you can play in your classroom with zero prep. Here’s what you do:

1) Use something as your main object to be located. In my case, I have a drawer full of various stuffed animals that I had placed around the room yesterday when we practiced as a group. (This is also a great way to reinforce animal vocabulary and if you’re feeling really spiffy, you can do some quick group mega-easy-by-now questions like ‘Is it a cow or is it a monkey? What color is the monkey? Is the monkey big or little?’)

2) Put your kids into groups. Give each group a markerboard.

3) Place the object somewhere around the room. Make a big deal out of it.

4) Set a timer for 1 minute per round.

5) Each group has to write a sentence about where the object is (no notes!). My very competitive period 3 class enjoyed trying to one-up each other. They went from something like ‘The bear is on the table.’ to ‘The bear is on the chair and underneath the table.’ To make sure everyone was participating and not just the superstars doing all the work, a different student in the group had to write each time.

6) Here’s where you can get creative. I gave one point per correctish sentence. (I didn’t take off for missing or incorrect el/la/de or spelling.) You could give more points for perfect sentences, correct use of accent marks, or bonus creativity. For example, if another group wrote the same sentence, their points cancelled each other out. I liked to put it in a place where there were multiple correct answers to get them thinking about different ways they could answer. Plus, this works on communication strategies – if you can’t remember how to say what you originally wanted to say, how can you restate it and still be understood?

7) Preferably, everyone writes great sentences and then they’re all winners!

TPRS Workshop (June 26-28, 2014)

Hello everyone! I am back and ready for the new school year! Okay, maybe not really ready to go back to school, but I had my month of laziness (sorry to all of you who just got out last week) and after attending a 3 day TPRS workshop in Council Bluffs, I am ready to do some unit plan cleanup.

There are plenty of other people who know more about what they’re doing with TPRS, so if you are new and don’t know what it is, the two best places to learn the basics are from Blaine Ray and Ben Slavic. In my travels around the blogosphere, I think they tend to have the most ‘pure’ form of TPRS. If you’ve heard about this TPRS thing but are not sure a workshop is worth your money (or your school’s), let me assure you right now: it is 100% worth it. Although I had some of the basics down, it was nice to practice techniques like parallel characters or events. I’m not sure I have the skill to do them until later in the year, but that’s okay.

My workshop group was very small. There were only 7 of us, plus our presenter. We came from eastern Nebraska, western Iowa, and even one from Kansas. Our instructor was Craig Sheehy from Idaho. I liked that Craig was not just someone on the lecture circuit, but a real-life teacher who goes back to his own classroom 9 months out of the year and knows what it’s really like to teach. Interestingly enough, all but one of us taught in tiny rural or parochial schools, so we are all our own department. It was very refreshing to be able to spend time with other teachers and bounce ideas off each other. In addition, everyone was a Spanish teacher. This was nice because we ended up speaking in Spanglish, but made the actual practice sessions a little less helpful since we all spoke the same second language.

Day one

My workshop was a 3 day workshop, though they offer different versions in different cities. The workshops are also appropriate for people of all levels and teaching abilities. I was one of the youngest teachers there with very little TPRS experience. One of the teachers there had gone to a workshop last year, but returned to see what she could tweak now that she had the basics down. Another one had been using TPRS for 6 or 7 years. She was there to see the updated techniques.

Day one was mostly an overview and demo of the technique. We spent the morning talking about the research behind TPRS (mostly Krashen’s input theory) and the basic steps of TPRS. In the afternoon, Craig told us a story in German. First, we practiced the new vocabulary with gestures. Then he quizzed us on doing the gestures with our eyes closed. Once we could do that, he transitioned into the background of the story. Once the background was established, we continued with the standard format: background information, introduce problem, go somewhere, problem is not solved, go somewhere else, problem is solved. Because we are all language teachers, he introduced more vocabulary than we would with truly novice language learners. It was exhausting. By the end, my brain was full of Mädchens and Zimmers and froh and geht.

We finished the day by switching back into Spanish and practicing the circling technique in small groups. Circling is the key to getting enough repetitions to make the words stick.

Day two

Day two is the time for everyone to practice doing a chunk of a story and receiving feedback on it from an experienced teacher. This was so helpful, although it’s far more intimidating to get up in front of a group of people who will actually notice if you make a mistake. It was also nice to see how the other teachers approached the same technique and what their strengths were. Like all teaching, TPRS is an art form and we each bring our own piece of flair to it. Watching the teacher who had been doing it for years was wonderful. She added simple little things, like crouching down and talking to her actor in a stage whisper voice to feed them their lines (so she was ‘out of the scene’, so to speak) then standing up and speaking loudly when verifying the detail to the class. Small difference, huge impact.

Of course, I got up there and felt like a dork because I was so nervous. Plus, it was right before lunch and everyone was hungry, so I didn’t want to take forever. It was definitely not my best teaching, but I made it through!

In a larger group, the workshopping part of day two takes longer, but since we only had two groups, we moved into the embedded readings. Since I am a highly visual person, the readings were far easier for me than the verbal story. We finished our day by practicing a timed write. The timed writing is something I will add into my grading scheme, because it’s so easy, and keeps the students accountable.

Day three

Day three was fun for us because we had basically covered all the scripted TPRS portions of the workshop by the end of day two, but we made the third day very worthwhile. We talked about how to use the TPRS novels and different techniques that Craig used to teach them to his students. The past two years, I’ve used them, but was basically making it up as I went along. It was nice to see affirmation of things I did right, and how to enhance the parts that where I struggled. (Pro-tip: do not read the entire story in one big chunk, like they might do in English class, and definitely don’t do all the books at the same time in all your classes. I often read the book aloud, which means my voice is shot by lunch. It was a terrible idea.)

We also talked about assessments, and Craig showed us examples of how he does his tests. We also talked about the variety of activities you can have students do. I think, as an outsider, it seems like TPRS is gestures – stories – free writes – nothing else. Craig’s list of ‘recap activities’ showed us that that’s not true. The biggest difference is the lack of student-to-student communication.

In the afternoon, we talked about the elephant that is in every classroom: classroom management. Craig is going to be presenting his classroom management plan at the National TPRS conference at the end of July, so it was practice for him and we got to learn, too! His whole plan is overwhelming for people who are not him, but there are pieces that will help me during the storytelling portions of TPRS that I don’t currently have a solution for in my own management plan.

Final thoughts

Overall, I think this workshop is one of the best things I could do for myself as a teacher at this stage in my career. Even experienced TPRS masters could learn a lot. The ‘textbook’, the Look, I Can Talk! mini-stories, was recently updated (as in, earlier this month) to be much more in line with itself and the basic principles of TPRS. For novices of the technique, this book literally walks you through every step and every question for the first few stories, and then gradually lessens the amount of scaffolding as you progress. The technique now also uses both past and present tenses from the beginning. The story itself is told in past (which means for Spanish students, they get tons of era/estaba practice from day 1) but the teacher converses with the student actors in present. For the readings, the accompanying book has the stories in both tenses. (As a side note, the level 2 book has not been updated yet but is slated for changes in the nearish future.)

For someone just starting teaching, you could very likely come in and do a weekly story from Look, I Can Talk and you will have a successful year. After going to the workshop, I am still not swayed that I should entirely do away with everything else I’ve been doing over the years, but I intend to use TPRS in levels 1 and 2 to really hammer the most common, essential vocabulary. In TPRS, students also pick up a ridiculous amount of implicit vocabulary, which lessens/eliminates the need for monstrously large vocabulary lists. That way, when students get to Spanish 3 and 4, we can focus more on accuracy when they have enough language to necessitate cleaning it up. It’s also a lot easier to understand the language when you aren’t constantly trying to manage tiny, common, and essential words like pero, en, a, con, el, la, le, se, nos, de, para, and so on.

Now, it’s time to get to work on those unit plans!