Monday, February 20, 2017

Preparing to Read a Novel: Ideas for El Escape Cubano and other novels in general

Reading novels with my students is an important element to my curriculum, as well as SSR. Preparing to read the novel involves a great deal of backwards planning on my part to ensure the students have the cultural background knowledge to understand the plot and the location to better connect to the book. Even when I am certain that the book I am going to read with the students is at their level or below their current reading level, I search the chapters for words and/or structures unfamiliar to my students, and then plan stories and CI activities to introduce those words to the students. I look for words that are high frequency and/or that are important to the plot. My goal is that when the students read those words in the novel, they will immediately recognize them and understand their meaning. When that happens, the students' minds are freed up to focus on the action and the plot and more deeply enjoy the story.

Last fall I read Mira Canion's "El Escape Cubano" with my Spanish 2 students for the first time. The book is about a family escaping from Cuba and is written from the perspective of a young 13 year old boy as the action occurs.  Most importantly, the subject matter connects with growing interest in Cuba, but as a teacher, I like that the book is packed with first person singular in the present tense. When my students read the book, I know they will be receiving an enormous amount of compelling, comprehensible input in the YO form.  In all levels, I choose a first novel that is below their reading level. One reason is because I want to give the students a confidence boost, but the bigger drive behind this decision is to accommodate the students that haven't had Spanish class for a year or longer, which is not an uncommon scenario when you teach on a 5x5 block schedule.

This year, second semester started on January 17, 2017, and I started reading the novel, El Escape Cubano, with my students on Wednesday, February 15. That's a month of CI activities, some specifically chosen with El Escape Cubano in mind. In other words, the vocabulary from El Escape Cubano is pre-taught over weeks, which allows me to provide a lot of repetitions in different contexts.

Below are a few activities to pre-teach vocabulary that are specific to El Escape Cubano, but the general ideas can be used with culture and vocabulary specific to any novel. The suggestions below are BEFORE READING activities. I will write additional blog posts to share the class activities and plans for specific chapters. 

1. Look at the CI activities and stories you are currently using with your students to see if there is an easy opening to include one of the vocabulary words from the novel. 

On the first day of Spanish 2, students receive construction paper on which they need to draw 3 things: 
- what they like to do, 
- a favorite place/where they like to go
- their favorite class from last semester or last year

Throughout the next several weeks, students take turns being "interviewed", in Spanish, about what they have sketched. Over the years, I've noticed that many students choose to draw palm trees, or beaches and swimming, for their favorite place. One of my questions is with whom do they go to the beach and then I follow that question with, "cuando tu familia va a la playa, ¿se queda tu familia en un hotel, se queda en una casa, o se queda en un apartamento?"

This was already an activity in my lesson plans before Mira's book was written, but now, since I know students will need to know se queda for the first few chapters of El Escape Cubano, I make certain to ask this question and discuss the students' answers more in-depth. I also weave in uses of quedarme and quedarse in questions or my responses/dialogue so students hear that structure also.

2. Use photos and personals experiences that include vocabulary you want to pre-teach.  
At some point in the first few weeks when the students and I are talking about pets, and this subject always comes up because everyone likes to talk about their pets, I project this photo of my dog, Cooper. Cooper has acres and acres of room to enjoy and explore on our family farm, but when he sees movement on the other side of the road on our neighbor's farmland, such as a groundhog, a squirrel, or other animal, he leaves our farm and runs after it. I show this powerpoint slide to my students and we talk about Cooper and how he doesn't STAY (se queda) at home and sometimes he CROSSES (cruza) the street.

3. Use riddles and jokes. Riddles are fun to use in the classroom because it gives the students the chance to stretch their minds and think outside of the box WHILE solving the problem in a second language.  
I gave this riddle (shown right) to my students on the day before we read chapter 1. Students had to write the solution for what object the man takes across the river and what objects he leaves behind. It can be solved in 7 steps. The arrows are helpful in reminding the students in which direction the man is going each trip. I told the students to write what the man takes in the balsa with him and leaves behind for each trip. When students work together to solve the riddle, they write sentences using se queda, la balsa, and deja. The link to access the document is HERE. If you have problems accessing it, please let me know.

4. Short films (MovieTalk) and TPRS. Look at the film shorts you currently use to see if they would serve their purpose better at a different time in the semester, i.e. before a novel. If you can't find anything that specifically meets your needs, write a story that includes vocabulary and structures from the novel and "storyask" a la TPRS.    
My school subscribes to Discovery Streaming and there is a video series on Discovery Steaming named My Tienda de Luis. I use the first segment (videos 1,2, 5 & 6) in Spanish 2 to provide a large amount of comprehensible input at the beginning of the semester. (This was part of our curriculum even before Mira's book, El Escape Cubano, was published.) Fortunately, the actions SUBE and BAJA occur often in this segment. I also have a story that I "storyask" my students that involves a taxi driver and the people that get in and out of his cab. If students didn't know SUBE and BAJA before entering Sp2 they know/have acquired them after the Discovery Education series and the TPRS taxi story. 

5. Culture - Vimeo. Everyone knows there are videos available on YouTube for any topic, but have you considered checking Vimeo first? Do a search on Vimeo for the country or for an event/celebration in a country, and you will most likely find a short film that is appropriate for class.  
There are two videos about Cuba on Vimeo that I use to help the students envision the land and people of Cuba.  The first one is "Cuba 2016" which you can find HERE. I give the students a paper with a grid of the following categories: la ciudad/las casas; deportes; transportación; terreno; animales, la escuela; cosechas/agricultora; pasatiempos; and música. Students watch the video and write information about the above category that is shown in the video. They also have to guess which country it is. There are a few seconds near the beginning of the video when it the title is on the screen so I disconnect the computer from the projector for those few students so the answer isn't shown. Then we discuss what they have written about Cuba.

The second video on Cuba I show is also from Cuba. You can find it HERE. This gives more footage of Cuba and it's people.

6. Culture - powerpoint. You don't have to create everything by yourself, especially when there are excellent resources that teachers sell on TeachersPayTeachers or that they share on their blogs and at conferences or even during Twitter chats such as #langchat.   
I used this Fidel Castro powerpoint (pictured at right) by Martina Bex to introduce students to Fidel Castro  and Cuba. One of the slides that my students found particularly interesting was how food was rationed for the people in Cuba. In the future, I am envisioning expanding this with an activity to demonstrate to the students how difficult it is to live with such meager rations. I have some ideas, but they'll have to wait until summer.  

7. Maps and facts. Do the students know where the novel takes place? Could they find it on a map? What does the location itself tell us about the country? Cuba is 90 miles from the coast of Florida so I made a powerpoint with the map of Cuba and the United States to give the students a visual of the distance. I listed two cities that are 90 miles from our high school to compare that distance with the distance between Cuba and the US. There are also photos of Cubans trying to cross the stretch of water between Cuba and Florida. Those pictures help impress upon the students the cramped space, primitive boat/raft structures, and the dangerous conditions that people endure in their attempt to reach Florida. Those photos are followed by I statistics on how long the trip takes and the number of people that die each year.

The above are examples that I specifically used before reading El Escape Cubano, but there are other possibilities depending on the novel and the level of your students. Think outside of the box. Take a risk. And then share with others so we can continue improving our teaching.       

I'm excited to share in other blog posts what I've done with some of the chapters, but it's 60 degrees in February and we have off school for President's Day, so it's time to go enjoy the weather, with that crazy dog Cooper.  :-)

Saturday, February 18, 2017

NEWS made Comprehensible

Weekly news publication by Martina Bex
Do you have routines in your language class? I have a several that I follow (almost) without exception. Some of those are Monday's "weekend talk" to start the week, Tuesday and Friday's "El Encierro" game with my Spanish 4 classes, and starting in January of this year, all Wednesday classes begin with noticias (news) with Martina Bex's publication, "El Mundo en tus Manos - Noticias del Mundo Hispanohablante". (Note for French Teachers: A similar publication is available in French by Cecile Laine. Search for her sources on TeachersPayTeachers.) 

Noticias del Mundo Hispanohablante is a weekly publication that Martina Bex creates and makes available each Monday morning. There are five articles in each edition on current events in the Spanish speaking world such as sports, health/nutrition, politics, celebrities, science, and other subjects. 

How do I use this valuable resource? 
First, I chose Wednesdays to be the day to start classes with the news because I already had routines in place for others days that I didn't want to change. Sometime between Monday morning and Wednesday morning, I download the weekly edition and make 31 copies to use with my students. (I used to print out the basic version and the slightly expanded version for my upper level students, but now I print out the basic version for all classes to cut down on copying.)

from weekly publication by M. Bex
I greet the students at the door, every day, and if I have a paper that I need to distribute at some point in the class, I hand it to the students to save that time later in the class period. On Wednesdays, the paper I hand to them is the publication, Noticias del Mundo Hispanohablante. This semester I have Spanish 2, Spanish 4 and Spanish 4+ classes, but this Noticias del Mundo Hispanohablante can be used with all levels.  

Students have 8-10 minutes to read the articles and to prepare to share the information with the class. The first two times I used this resource, I asked the students to be prepared to talk about the article.  Some students need the full 8 minutes to read one article, but most students read at least two articles, and I've watched some of my higher level students reach their fifth article in that time frame.

Summarize in English
Then I ask for volunteers to tell me about an article they read in English. Yes, in English. They read the news in the target language and when they share the information with the class in English, I am able to tell how much they understood. 

The first two times I used this resource, I asked the students to be prepared to name two facts from the article, but the students didn't stop at two facts and it eventually morphed into a summary of the article. (Don't you just love it when students go beyond your expectations!) The majority of the time I expect my students to communicate in the target language, so when they have an opportunity to talk in English, there is little hesitation - in other words, I don't have to wait long for students to share what they have read. 

Extended Discussion in Spanish
If students know something that the first student didn't mention, they can add to the summary. Then the students and I discuss the article and related topics in Spanish, at the appropriate level for the students, for as long as there is interest from students, even if that means I never get to the rest of the day's lesson plan! Then we move onto the next article.   

The following day I save some of the printed copies and place them in a binder for students to use during SSR. 

Why I like this resource
Wednesdays' news article reading and discussions has quickly become one of my favorite resources and class activities because:
- the articles are interesting and educational
- Martina writes the articles with the goal to keep it comprehensible for second language learners
- unfamiliar words are glossed
- the length is perfect: long enough to inform the reader, but short enough to keep the reader's attention
- there is a photo for each article! (with only 1 exception thus far)
- teachers can contact Martina with suggestions for the publication. If your students are interested in a national/international news story, suggest it to Martina and there's a possibility she will include it in the following week's edition, which will provide more input on the subject matter for your students.
- there are articles that correlate with novels that my students are reading. For example, my Spanish 2 students are currently reading Mira Canion's "El Escape Cubano" and the January 15 edition has the article (shown on the right) about Cubans fleeing to America and the change in the US "wet feet, dry feet" policy.

But, wait, ... doesn't it cost money?
Yes, it does. Obviously, you can find free news resources in Spanish on the internet, but you will have to search long and hard to find something that you can copy or project onto your board, exactly as it is written, and use with all the levels you teach, without modifying it. It's ready to go! Martina does the work for you (and sometimes on Sunday nights I actually think about Martina and wonder if she is at her computer writing and adding recent news stories that happened over the weekend).

When I purchased the Spring 2017 edition of Noticias del Mundo Hispanohablante, I justified the cost because I knew it would serve as a weekly resource that I could use with my students. There are 21 issues and with 5 articles per issue, that's over 100 comprehensible Spanish news articles. The extra benefit, is that I'm being informed about news events, many which I would not have read about in other sources and I'm learning new vocabulary in context. As a native English speaker, I recognize that I will forever be a Spanish language learner.  :-)   


1. I bought this resource with my personal money to use in my classroom. I am not receiving any reimbursement from the writer of the publication in exchange for writing about it on my blog. I wrote this blog post because I view Noticias del Mundo Hispanohablante as a valuable resource and I want to alert other Spanish (and French) teachers about it

2. I included screenshots from the publication with the written consent of Martina Bex. As a reminder, if you purchase this resource from Martina on TeachersPayTeachers, and for other materials that you buy, you need to honor the copyright laws regarding what you may and may not do with the purchased materials.