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.)

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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.

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.)

Back to school review activity

Here’s a quick one. It’s not very useful for anyone who’s already a week or more back to school, but for my colleagues who don’t go back until Labor Day, this might still be handy for you.

In years past, I would typically spend one of the first few days back to school having my returning students tell me about their vacation. Usually I would just ask questions to my level 2s, but then I had the problem of everyone who wasn’t that student totally tuning out. My Spanish 3s generally would have to write their story. The 4s would have to give a short verbal description and that was okay, but not great.

This year, I decided to do something different, and it was brilliant and worked exactly the way I wanted it to. Using Google Slideshow, I made a really basic slideshow with a student’s name on each slide, and the rest was blank. Then I posted it to Google Classroom and allowed everyone editing access. All they had to do was put one picture from their summer (or a stand-in from the internet) on the slide with their name. I previewed the slides before class and prepped some possible new vocabulary needed based on their pictures (feria/parque de atracciones/equipo were the most useful). Then the next day, I showed the slideshow and asked them questions about their picture.

Like I said, it was brilliant and perfect (except for the one kid who didn’t put a picture, of course, but that’s life). The visual gave something for everyone to reference as we talked, and it was COMPELLING because in many cases, other students in the class were in the pictures and wanted to hear about themselves, or added details to the story. I did the question-asking, because it kept our vocabulary in bounds and allowed me to prepare a vocab list ahead of time. Since I was asking the questions, I controlled whether we spoke in present tense or past tense as appropriate. It also gave tons of reps on question words.

This activity is definitely a keeper in my book. It was engaging, it was repetitive without being boring, and required about 3 minutes of prep on my end. If you’re not a Google school, you could easily modify it by sharing out a Google Slideshow through the kids’ school email and using that, you could have them each bring in a printed picture to show as you talk, or worst case scenario, have them draw something to represent their summer and go from there. Whatever works for you and your classroom.

Getting the hang of it – a successful lesson

Hello, dear readers! I have been spending most of my last week preparing for (and then going to) my roller derby bout in Minnesota against the Minnesota Rollergirls. Unfortunately, my team got utterly destroyed, but MRG is a very hospitable team and the people in general were exceptionally nice. (Maybe it’s because they’re so close to Canada?) So if any of you are up near the Twin Cities, do yourself a favor and go see the Minnesota Rollergirls at the Roy Wilkins Auditorium. It’s a good time.

In any case, last week I had a fairly successful lesson. It was a lesson-within-a-lesson, if you will. My Spanish 3s were working in their employment unit and I had been sneaking in present perfect under the context of ‘what have you done to prepare for your job.’ While brainstorming, I remembered a very important short story I read in my Mexican Literature class I took when I studied in Mexico. It’s called ‘Nos han dado la tierra’ by Juan Rulfo. I loved his work so much that I chose to write my mid-term essay on his stories, which I still have posted on my fridge because I was so proud of my A in Mexico. ‘Nos han dado’ is only about 6 pages long, and Rulfo wasn’t a serial writer (he released a short novel and a collection of short stories, that’s all) but he wrote a lot about the Mexican Revolution, poverty, work or the lack thereof… see where I’m going here? What a great way to smash a cultural topic, advanced vocabulary, and the target grammar structure all into one lesson!

The unit took about 5 days total, but I think they were 5 well-spent days. Because my students had no background knowledge of the Mexican Revolution, we watched a short video about that. The video I chose is a good source of information, but we also get to have a short discussion on bias, because it is clearly angled from a revolutionary’s point of view.

The second day, we read a short biography that I summarized for my students about Juan Rulfo. His life experiences weren’t as influential in his work as some artists’ lives are, but I still think it’s good for students to know about it. It provides more necessary background knowledge to fully understanding the work.

Finally, the last three days were focused on actually going through the story. I adapted it to fit my class levels. Since my Spanish 3s have such a varying difference in ability, I actually made two adaptations. One thing I found difficult was keeping enough of the original language for my students to understand the flavor and emotion that Rulfo was injecting into his words while still keeping it comprehensible. For this reason, I also wanted them to think in Spanish as much as possible – so much of the beauty of language gets lost in translation. The first day, we grabbed laptops (we will be going 1:1 with laptops next year which will be both awesome and frustrating at the same time) and I had them look up words I had underlined as essential vocabulary. Then I gave the option to write a definition in Spanish for 5 words, or draw a picture for 10. Everyone opted to draw the picture.

The second day was working on pronunciation and our skim-reading. Something I often have students do is just read the article out loud (in groups, in Spanish) with a focus on pronouncing the words correctly. This is a great time to listen for common errors (like my personal pet peeve, speaking wonderful Spanish until running into a number which is instantly put into English – especially dates) and then address them together at the end. Then I handed out the comprehension questions and asked students to get the main gist of each section. I always do my comprehension in English because I want to know whether or not my students truly understand what they’re reading. Otherwise, I often find that they can find and copy the answer, but have no idea what it says.

The last day of the unit, we went over the story together as a class, completely in Spanish. This time, I acted out some parts and put other passages into simpler Spanish to help everyone along. I think next year, I might make little cue cards and have students be my actors as I read through the story. (I didn’t think of that until after we were done with it, of course.) I also decided to give them a quick vocabulary quiz a few days later, but it was intended to be a check for me, not for them. I picked the 10 vocabulary words that were often chosen by the kids to draw, found some images, and had them put the Spanish word with the picture. All but 3 students aced it, so I know that part of my lesson was a success.

Next year, there are a few minor tweaks and changes I’d like, and having full-time access to laptops will change things a bit, but this was a good unit and I’m glad I stopped to take the time to do it. It was far more fun to teach and use present perfect verbs in context (plus mountains of rich vocabulary – which, by the way, included words like tierra, contra, and gobierno that they are now running into when talking about the Venezuela protests which will then lead into our work with the Cuban Revolution later this week.) It sure beats going through yet another worksheet of verb drills.

If you’re someone who is trying to teach with literature and not sure how, hopefully this lesson setup and outline is helpful to you!