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.

Close reading retell

In my last post, I talked about doing close readings with my Spanish 2s. I decided to combine the idea of a close reading and a retell all into one activity. The students read a story about a girl, Barbara, who was really clumsy and had a lot of accidents. (This was for the injury unit.) After reading the story and doing various comprehension activities, I asked the students to work in pairs. Borrowing a close reading technique, I asked them to pick out the 10 most important sentences of the story – no more, no less – and their story still had to make sense with those 10 sentences. In other words, I tricked them into summarizing (without calling it summarizing, which elicits moans and groans). Then, I asked them to illustrate each of their Spanish sentences from the story with a picture. This is how I was able to check for comprehension (again). This was an easy plan with no preparation required on my part, but I got some really great results. Here are just a few of the interesting – if a bit gruesome – retells I received.


A good example of what I asked students to do.


This group amused me by pasting their ‘Barbara’ face into every one of their photos.

A paradox of priorities

Even though I like to think of myself as a smarty smart pants, sometimes I am a really slow learner. I’ve been doing a TPRSish style of teaching for about 2 years now and the other morning, I was reflecting on something that the coach said during the workshop I attended. One of my fellow attendees asked if he used thematic units or just taught whatever happened to come up. He explained that you can do it either way (and it’s a matter of preference) but his focus was on the high frequency vocabulary, so his style was stories strictly based on trying to get students to learn said high frequency vocabulary.

When I did the switch, I still kept my thematic units – I just made stories to match. However, I figured out this year that it meant that I still have a hodgepodge of different strategies going on, and they’re not meshing very well anymore. I can’t focus on high frequency vocabulary AND all the bonus vocabulary at the same time, if that makes sense. There’s simply too many words. On top of that, when I taught thematic units, I could remember that in this unit in this class, we learned these words. Well, that doesn’t necessarily happen anymore, because some units are more story-focused and some are not nearly repetitive enough for students to acquire that vocabulary. I can tell you right now that my Spanish 2 students this year are not going to remember a thing from the recipes unit, and that is 10,000% my fault. I didn’t do the reps. I got lazy.

The Spanish 2 class is the one that is actually bringing my problem to light, because the recipe unit used to go in the spring. My problem was, however, that part of the unit involves cooking and sharing food (yay!) but it always landed during Lent and wrestling season. With a high Catholic population in my school plus very serious wrestlers (especially around conference and districts), I felt bad that some of the students couldn’t fully participate. I decided to move the cooking unit to the fall, and push the childhood unit to the spring.

So here I am in the spring, and about to teach this childhood unit. Except, it is not a good unit. My unit plan goes something like: PQA, PQA, PQA, some stories I guess, Pobre Inocente embedded reading+watch the episode of Modern Family. We did the Pobre Inocente story before Christmas (it’s a Christmas story, after all) and that’s really the only chunk of this unit worth keeping. You see, the childhood unit is a legacy unit left over from when I used to teach by grammar point – of course, it’s the unit where we introduce the imperfect tense. But… this year, my Spanish 2 students have been using imperfect and preterite together from the beginning. It makes no sense to have a unit where we focus on just one of the two past tenses. On top of that, after coming out of my fall semester black hole, I can’t remember what words we’ve focused on in preterite and which in imperfect. I know they can’t apply the rule to conjugate, but how many of our high frequency verbs did they really acquire? This is a problem. I don’t know. And if I don’t know what they don’t know, I can’t lead them to the next chunk of words.

This also affects part of my behavioral plan, the preferred activity time. The way I do it involves earning points for both time on task and individual points for participation (using ClassDojo). However, I only use this system when we are working through a story as a group. So if I do a lot of non-story specific or individual tasks then the students don’t earn any points and therefore have no minutes accrued when it comes to use their time on Fridays. It hasn’t become a problem… yet. But it could be, so I worry.

So this is my paradox of priorities. Do I stay with the thematic units, or do I restructure everything around stories and high frequency vocabulary? There’s always something that has to give if I’m going to take pieces of something else – I only have so many days to work with them. But it would certainly be easier if I knew exactly what basic structures I taught that EVERYONE knows and everything else is nice-to-know since I can’t control that anyway. But then should I just do random stories, or switch to a novel-based format? I don’t have the answers yet (and I probably will change my mind another 20 times in my teaching career, even if I do think I have AN answer). But I’m thinking hard about it.

Student work sample

It’s funny to note that, for the last 2 years I’ve been blogging, my post count dips significantly in October and November. One act takes up a lot of my time, and pretty much any time I have outside of work, I am desperately trying to do fun and exciting things with my friends. (Not that I don’t enjoy play production or spending time with my students, but it is definitely a draining and exhausting season.)

So in lieu of a substantive post, here’s some student samples of work. These are from my Spanish 2 classes, about 6 or 7 weeks into the school year. We are recycling our school words and adding phrases like ‘arrived late’ ‘was mad’ ‘yelled at him/her’ and so on. I asked the students, in pairs, to write a story using the vocabulary from the unit and illustrate it. I collected them at the end of the period. The next day, I projected their pictures with the document camera and read a sentence from their story. The class had to match the sentence to the picture and show me their answer on individual markerboards. After doing this for a few stories, I mixed it up/upped the difficulty level a bit by adding some dictation for a few sentences. I don’t do a ton of dictation in my class because it’s not particularly engaging or exciting, but I do think it has useful applications of checking for spelling errors (I had a few students mix up llegar with llevar, for example) and training to listen for those Spanishy sounds, when used sparingly.

This example is from a group of students that are reaching their proficiency goal, but not really going above and beyond. Their writing is still bridging the gap from novice high to intermediate low.


This example is from a group of students who are two of my superstars. They are chugging along into intermediate faster than expected for this time of year.


Upcycle your output

One thing I am trying to do better this year is to ‘upcycle’ the output my students create. By that, I mean I am taking things that they wrote and reusing them the next day (or even a few weeks later). This is for two reasons: number one, it gives some students ownership of their work and lets other students see the awesome things their peers are doing. It’s different to write something just for me than it is for their peers, and since my class has gone digital/mostly paperless, I don’t have a lot of student work posted on my walls. For my lower ability students, knowing that someone else will see their work helps them push through to complete the task. For my higher ability students, it’s good practice on ‘staying in bounds’. There were fewer things that frustrated me more as a language learner in college than the student who had native speaker practice and told a really great story/gave a great presentation/whatever… or at least, according to the teacher, they did. Because the teacher was the only person who could understand them.

The second reason is that it saves me time. I’m not a particularly creative person (or at least, I’m not inherently a creative person. Using TPRS is forcing me to learn to be creative) and my students come up with way better ideas than I ever could. Even if their ideas aren’t particularly riveting due to the restrictions on their language level, 10 students can still come up with way more ideas than me by myself.

This also integrates some ideas from the blended classroom language workshop I attended last spring. The presenter showed us how you can differentiate by asking your students to complete different tasks. Your below-target students can work on remedial activities (working in a small group or one-on-one with the teacher, depending). Your on-target students can be working on an input activity. Your above-target students can be working on an output activity. But then you take the output activity and turn around and give it to your on-target students, to give them more input, which will then foster better output. I haven’t actually tried this system yet, but I think it has merit.

So how have I been using it this year? Here are two specific examples:

Example one: A few weeks ago, I had my Spanish 2 students write a story based around some pictures relating to our mini-unit on quinceañeras. It was a nice review activity to start the year – most of the vocabulary was review except for quinceañera and velas/candelas. Anyway, so they wrote the story in pairs in present tense. Last week, we started pushing into reading past tense, so I took the stories they wrote about the quinceañera and put them into past tense. Then I distributed the stories to the students, and had them complete a read and draw activity with the mini-stories. It was a good refresher of the vocabulary we’d learned, as well as using very familiar stories to introduce past tense.

Example two: On Friday, I had Spanish 3 write some stories in past tense. At this point, they’re very familiar with the most common verbs and can sometimes accurately produce preterite vs. imperfect. (They can definitely accurately interpret it, which is what I care about!) So the purpose of their writing activity was to work on descriptive past vs. action past. Then, again, I took a few of the student stories and fixed any errors, then redistributed them to the class today. Their task was to flip the past tense verbs back into the present tense.

In both these situations, I used output as a sneaky way to really introduce more input. Output is a formative assessment, and by Spanish 3 and AP it’s important to start including more output activities in the class structure, but I’ve been learning that you can never have enough opportunities for comprehensible, engaging input. The stories are comprehensible because I’ve fixed the grammatical mistakes and the students wrote them, so we know they stayed mostly ‘in bounds’. They’re engaging because the students want to see what their peers wrote – what kind of silly story did So-and-so write this time?

(There’s also the wonderful side benefit of student-created-output-turned-input being a REALLY easy way to throw together a lesson plan if you’re in a time crunch. You can also use them as makeshift sub plans for planned or unplanned absences! See this set of posts by Martina Bex for more details.)

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.