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!