Accessing prior knowledge

Using an idea I found on Pinterest, I started new units today with a collaborative poster. Each table had a large sheet of butcher paper and each student in the group had a different colored marker.

In Spanish 3, we are preparing for a unit that compares biodiversity, deforestation, and habitat destruction in our community with similar issues in Panama. In order to acces prior knowledge, I asked them to create a poster that represented all of the words and phrases that they already knew about the world and nature…



After 10 minutes, they had exhausted all they knew so I asked them to use the first few pages of our book.

Then they had another 15 minutes to explore the text and come up with new things they could say about the rainforest and nature in general.

The text is easily accessible at level 3 with lots of cognates and visuals!




Now they’re all geared up to head into the rainforest tomorrow and our posters look great in the hallway! Hooray to Pinterest for another great idea!!

We did a similar activity in Spanish 4 as we activated last year’s knowledge of the Spanish Civil War before beginning our unit on imagery in art and film!


The scene of the crime: past narrative

Review… Can it be effective in WL classrooms??? We need to get a feeling for what our students have acquired and yet honor the fact that memorizing and really using grammatical concepts are different! It’s hard to find a balance… Hard until I saw Martina Bex’s post about a crime scene investigation… The perfect scenario for a past narrative! Here is my experience in day 3 Spanish 3 and 4 today:

Students entered the room and found that someone had robbed us!



Chalk outlines marked the scenes of the crimes… Two large beanbags and a blue rug. Evidence was everywhere!



First, I explained that there had been a crime. I set the scene by telling students that the police thought that the robbery occurred around 11pm and that there were a lot of clues to the identity of the robber.

All students took a silent evidence gathering tour of the two crime scenes. When they returned to their table, they had to create a police report that detailed all evidence and missing items.




After the lists were complete, they took a second tour of the evidence looking specifically for clues to the criminal’s identity. They found a “to do” list signed SMS and an English textbook that pointed toward our English teacher neighbors.

With a suspect in mind, groups made a questionnaire for their interrogation. What questions could they ask to prove she had done it?

I collected the papers and then the students narrated the night’s events in the past tense. Finally, we typed out their theories about why she had not “destroyed the evidence” as she planned to on the “to do” list!

Tomorrow we will start by discussing our investigation and then will watch the newly released “crime scene video”… And she will probably end up behind bars!

Lots of great past tense reps in a fun and funny context!! Even if you’re already back in swing, this is worth the work involved in setting it up!

An idea from an old dog learning new tricks!

My Spanish teacher… yes… MY Spanish teacher…  (We used stone tablets and chisels!!) and I had lunch this week.  Although he was quite a grammarian, somehow he managed to get us really excited about speaking our new language.  He told me that as an ESL teacher at a university in Korea, he has discovered that his novices benefit the most from hearing and speaking the language in context and his teacher candidates from the explicit grammar rules.  It makes a lot of sense!  I feel the same!!  He also shared some activities he, as an old dog, has learned!  He wants to get his students communicating in the target language.  One was so good that I had to share!  “Storytelling Dominoes”

Chuck makes approximately 20 pictures that represent main events or characters of the story (now remember, this can be a TPRS story OR a retell/summary of an authentic text) into rectangles of equal size.  He makes one copy per team of 4-5. Students cut apart the “dominoes”, put them in the center of the table face down, and draw until the pile is gone.  Their hand will contain 4-5 dominoes.  These pictures should be familiar to students.  (He recommends using them in class as a review before asking them to complete this assessment.) The student with the first event in the story should lay down the first domino and tell the first part, the second event second, and so on until all the dominoes are laid side by side on the table and the story has been retold.  What a great (and interactive) way to have students revisit ANY type of story!! 

Classroom Themes: And even theme songs…

I teach high school. Some may think that at the high school level, a classroom theme is too silly… But I am about to give it a try!

In my collaboration with Kristy Placido (@placido) over the years, we have come up with some pretty great lessons… I think our plan this year is going to be one of our most compelling! She wanted to gamify the classroom a bit… Have a theme of the Amazing Race that ran throughout the year! Kids will have missions to complete and roadblocks to overcome as they study each unit throughout the year… The classroom content will still be the same (well, I guess that isn’t true since I am always changing something) but the classroom will be surrounded by this theme of the Amazing Race!

I plan to: Seat students in 4s at my tables, each table is a team for the year. I will take the team’s picture and post it on a year long bulletin board that will keep track of the teams’ progress on each obstacle! I think the kids will love seeing who is in the lead at each stop on the path!

In level 1, our theme is going to be “Who Am I?” and as we go about our regular TPRS stories and novel readings mixed with our authentic pieces, we will try to figure out what it is that makes us who we are and where we fit in a global community. I have a Who Am I logo that will appear on various critical thinking pieces throughout the year!

In level 4, I have a quiet group. Our theme for the year is going to be “Thinking outside the box.” For each unit of study I am actually going to pack items into a box and as we unpack the obvious, I will be encouraging them to think deeper. Again, I have a logo that will appear on any activity that I want them to think critically about! I am hoping it serves as a reminder that not everything has an A,B,C or T/F answer!

Not by level but by individual class, I plan to allow students to choose a theme song. Their theme song will represent them throughout the year and will (hopefully) create a bond within each class! Again, I’ll keep you informed on how it is working!!

I’d love to collaborate Spanish 1 and 4 with a like-minded classroom! My level 1 will read 4 novels and will be acquiring structures in the first 5 chapters of Carol Gaab’s Cuentame Mas curriculum… Plus lots of cultural things on the side! In level 4, we will be studying legends, bullfighting, Evita Peron, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and the Dirty War in Argentina…

Sending home a newsletter!

There are so many things to tell parents on the first day of school and it is so hard to ensure that a note actually goes all the way from class home!! This year I am going to try having students address the envelopes in class and then stuff in the newsletter! I’ll just drop them in the mail!! I hope that this will lead to increased parent enrollment in my Remind app, increased blog traffic to see what’s happening in class, and increased interest in some of our programs! It also gave me a platform to talk about the importance of language study! There are never enough of those!

Feel free to adapt for your own classroom!

Back to school for level 3 and 4: Batalla de las vacaciones

Several years ago, I discovered Ben Slavic’s circling with balls and have been using it as my go-to back to school activity in level one ever since. It allows me to get to know my students very well, very quickly! I’m able to instantly hit the 90% ACTFL target in a completely comprehensible way!

Levels 3 and 4 have been a little harder for me to pin down. I’ve tried variations of the circling with balls technique but I haven’t had much success finding just the right one. Every year I try something new and every year its back to the drawing board.

I am hoping that this year’s back to school idea is going to be the big winner. It will allow me to do a lot of past tense pop-ups and will encourage past narrative from students. It will reinforce question asking and will really rely on interpersonal communication…. I hope!

Batalla de las vacaciones (As it looks in my head… time will tell about real life)
1. I share an exciting event from one of my summer trips and allow students to ask further questions. I encourage students to add a funny/outlandish event as they ask me about it. I choose one of the funny/outlandish events and finish describing my trip as though it actually happened.
2. Another student shares a vacation memory and we repeat the process… now comparing this student’s vacation to mine as he/she describes the vacation including any funny events suggested by the class.
3. After many students have had the opportunity to share vacation highlights, we will poll everywhere to determine whose vacation was the most incredible. The winner gets something cheesy like a red solo cup with a cut out of a palm tree that says “mejor vacacion”…

In my mind it will require us all to work together, create with language, and hopefully do a lot of laughing. I’ll let you know how that works out!

Ex. This summer, I spent a week in Denver, CO at North High School. I went to Denver to attend a conference but some really crazy things happened while I was there….

photo by Dustin Williamson

Keys to incorporating novels into an existing curriculum

I received an email from a teacher who is interested in incorporating novels in his classroom and his questions were great! I think anyone who is in the same situation might wonder the same things! In case you were afraid to ask, I will share his questions and my answers. If you disagree or have something to add to my answers, please don’t hesitate!

– I see that you incorporate novels. How do you present the vocab for a novel like ‘La Guerra Sucia’? I looked at the preview of the teacher’s guide and there are many words.
There ARE many words. The thing about the TPRS Publishing novels is that we write them having read the other novels so there is a LOT of overlap… If kids are reading the lower level novels, they’re acquiring a lot of the same structures that they’ll see in the upper level novels… Once they have those basic structures, there is a relatively manageable amt of new vocabulary specific to each novel… As a backward planner, I try to look at vocabulary like this:


The yellow circle are the things from the novel, (textbook unit if its required), authentic resource that I think kids will need to know to be fluent speakers in the future… To have, to need, to go, to come, to want, to like, to be able to, etc… Those are my focus points for our study. I would choose those to be the structures everyone is responsible for knowing. Next circle is the important to know and do circle. If my weakest students can’t remember these things, I’m fine with that. They’ll still be able to say what they need, want, have, etc. But my faster processors will be able to say it with more flair because they’ll know these words. The last circle is the green- worth being familiar with. This would be impress me vocabulary. Stuff that my superstars will remember and use in their presentations, discussion but that I don’t think is important to know for life. An example- the verb destapar comes up in guerra sucia. My superstars were using destapar like crazy as they discussed secrets that governments hide from their citizens but my slowest processors just stuck to revelar… The chuck-it bucket should be big. Words that students will probably never need to know. For example in the novel, one of the characters is tortured and they talk about some of the tactics. I would throw those in the bucket. Kids may well remember them but providing a quick translation in English is sufficient to move on through the text. I would never ask them to know what submarinas (dunking ppl underwater as torture) were… but they actually are morbidly fascinated with it…

How do you typically present grammar lessons? I know that this is a requirement in most dual-credit programs.
Our dual credit program gives students 8 semester hours credit or the equivalent of 101-102.. All I am required to do is teach present and past tenses. I do grammar popups in both present and past from level 1-4 and so it is easy for me to prove that those have been covered. We are far beyond what they learn in level 102 but I like not having to jump through all the hoops.

More specifically, do you have a special way of teaching the upper level grammar like conditional, subjunctive and past subjunctive?
Ok, here is where I may lose you. They don’t need to know that. Period. They should be exposed to them. They are definitely in that outer circle- worth knowing about… but they are not attainable for many of our students. In growing a flourishing program, one that focuses on proficiency, we have to realistically look at all of those tenses and ask how much can they honestly acquire in a short time without leaving so many behind that we are only teaching to the top 10 students? (I am not saying you do this, I am just not sure if you’ve heard anyone speak such heresy before.) Just to put it all in perspective, students move through the novice level relatively quickly. When they are successfully creating with language (however messy), they are pretty much intermediate… BUT intermediate is LONG! It takes forever to move from intermediate to advanced low… Check with local universities and find out what their OPI requirement is for their language teachers. Here in IL it advanced low. That’s after graduating from college… and you know what? Our language education majors who don’t study abroad have a hard time getting past intermediate high. In order to get an advanced low, they have to consistently speak in 3 times… present, past, and future. Not use subjunctive, conditional, etc, just those 3 main time frames… and college grads who haven’t studied abroad struggle to do it! So our focus becomes clearer… If we want our students to get great OPI scores we just need to hit those tenses hard and prepare them to use language in a lot of situations!! Not that we don’t show them all the others! Mine (through popups) recognize them in reading and can tell you what they mean and some of the best can even create with them but I don’t make them a focus.

Since my Spanish 4 guys will be coming from a strictly grammar based, mostly in English setting, do you think it would be wise to start them off with the Felipe Alou novel and then go into Guerra Sucia or would that be too big of a jump? If they’re coming from that setting, you may have some initial pushback! The problem with CI based methods is that we expect engagement and many students come to school and disengage! They also may not have read novels before! I would say starting with Felipe would be a GREAT idea! It is intimidating to read a novel, no matter how easy, if you’ve never done it! It is a LONG jump from that to Guerra… do you have time to add one more? Maybe Robo en la noche (Costa Rica/conservation) or La Calaca Alegre (Chicano culture/Identity)? Not impossible to jump but they might build another bit of confidence with one in the middle…

One more…

– We have a general curriculum for Spanish II already in place. How would I incorporate a novel into that curriculum seeing that there would be a difference in vocab, etc. Or could I just base my instruction on the novels?
A lot of my curriculum is based around novels, but you don’t have to do it that way… If you’re tied to a general curriculum and want to try out a novel, I would try to find a place that you could skip or skim a chapter and throw the novel in instead. For example if they’re doing a chapter on dining out at a restaurant and you want to throw in Robo en la noche, you can try to really hit on that chapter vocabulary when the family is dining at the Costa Rican soda and not do the chapter as written in the textbook??? I don’t teach level 2 so I don’t have a curriculum of my own but I am sure my colleague would share hers. She is entering her third year teaching and I know she made a lot of changes last year and probably will again this year but was relatively happy with the units she had developed! My stuff (as I think you may know) is all on my blog! Happy to share anything new I create… watch the blog, I’ve got a big rain forest/biodiversity unit in the works and Kristy Placido (you need to visit her too if you haven’t has a Frida Kahlo coming!! And my new book (coming soon) is going to be the center of a level 1/2 bullfighting unit… so much excitement…