Off to a Great Start!

First things first – my apologies for getting the blog started in the spring and then pretty much abandoning it over the summer. Summer was just too full of fun distractions! Now that September is here, I’m back in school mode and ready to attempt do the blog thing again. This year, I’m teaching five sections of Spanish III and two of AP Spanish Language & Culture.

Just a few thoughts about the start of the year.

  • For the first time since teaching high school, my 3’s didn’t seem too nervous about the amount of Spanish I started using in the first few days. I think this stems from both their eagerness to truly understand spoken Spanish and also the deliberate work my Spanish Collaborative Team has done to increase teacher TL use in the classroom.
  • As a result of my Café from last year (see post: Is the Café Open?), many of the students I had last year (in Spanish 3 and 2) came in right away doing their best to speak Spanish without being prompted! #proudteacher
  •  A new initiative my team is implementing this year is in the inclusion of a pre-AP strategy from the AP Spanish Language & Culture test in every unit in every level from middle school Spanish I through high school Spanish III. Post to come soon! As we gradually increase the rigor of these activities throughout the levels, we’re hoping to ease some of the fear of the difficulty of the AP test and better prepare students, even before they take the AP course.
  • Speaking of the AP test, in our second year of the program, we had many students receive college credit for 3’s and our first 4!  It’s a hard test and I’m immensely proud of our students!
  • I’m in year two of using El Internado as both an engagement and interpretive listening strategy. I use the incredible resources from Allison Wienhold, Dustin Williamson, Mike Peto, Bethanie Drew and Kara Jacobs to accompany our viewings every Friday. AP Spanish was excited to pick up in Season 2 and Spanish 3 was pumped to get in on the action for the first time.
  • Next week, 3 & AP will begin the TPRS novel, Esperanza. Although written for Level 1, I figured the cultural components would be a compelling way to begin the school year and “review” language from past levels.
  • Every Thursday during our school-wide study table/intervention time, I am doing a Conversation Circle for my AP students (another post to come soon!). In groups of five (plus me), students will lead the conversation in Spanish on topics of their choosing. They can use notes, their helpful phrase sheets and can ask me, “¿Cómo se dice…?” Students are required to attend at least two per semester and will receive a grade from a rubric based on their effort and participation (not accuracy). After our first session, students reported that after getting over the initial “awkwardness,” they felt good about their ability to spontaneously speak Spanish. Woohoo!

Let’s make it a great year for our students!

How Two Llamas Became Our Class Pets

Last year, my eighth hour section of Spanish III took an interest in a little llama Christmas ornament that sat on my desk for decoration. When they arrived each day, the llama moved from my desk to one of theirs. Eventually someone asked me his name, I responded, “Felipe” without giving it a second thought. Completely organically, Felipe has become our beloved class “pet”/mascot. When my husband and I were in Perú last summer, I searched diligently to find a llama friend for Felipe. On our last day, I found an adorable fluffy llama later named, Grande Mamá, by one of my students. She’s Felipe’s mother who moved from Cusco, Perú to live with him.  She primarily stays on my desk during class and doesn’t tend to be as involved in daily class as her son. Nonetheless, we love her!  Read on to learn some of the ways Felipe is a part of my students’ Spanish experience.

  • Where’s Felipe Twitter contest. I take pictures of Felipe in different locations around the school and post them on Twitter. The first student to respond (in Spanish) correctly guessing where he is receives a prize (typically candy).
  • In stories and examples to demonstrate a concept. It usually brings a smile to the students’ faces when they see or hear Felipe’s name in something. It makes it a little more personal and lighthearted.Fleece Navidad - Felipe!
  • If a student is having a rough day, I will nonchalantly place Felipe or Grande Mamá on their desk to (hopefully) cheer them up.When I was in high school, I remember my Spanish teacher giving me a tissue-paper flower when I was having a bad day.  How can you not smile with adorable llamas on your desk?!
  • Our AP Spanish team took Felipe to Spanish Quiz Bowl this year. They documented their day competing in Spanish events with Felipe via fun pictures and Spanish captions. I wonder if Felipe needs his own Twitter account? Hmm…there’s an idea!

    Felipe on our Quiz Bowl shirts
  • My artistic students have found ways to fuse their passion of drawing and Spanish class thanks to Felipe. Students have sketched him on the back of quizzes after finishing, on posters made during class for various activities and even on a pad of sticky notes that a student gave me for Christmas. I put one of the renditions onto our Spanish Quiz Bowl tee-shirts. After all, who else besides Felipe could represent our teams so well?!
  • I have to give my students credit for starting this activity. Really, I should also thank them for creating such an engaging way to practice language. While I am in the hall during passing periods, students will hide Felipe and then ask me, ¿Dónde está Felipe? (Where is Felipe?). I respond with questions to narrow down his location until I find him. Every once in a while, I “give up” and students “win” as they gleefully point out his hiding spot. Never did I imagine that a llama ornament would so brilliantly reinforce using estar with location and prepositions (you know it’s made a difference when you hear students correcting each other when one says, ¿Dónde es Felipe?). Oh and Direct Object Pronouns! Do you see him? Yes, I see him. No, I don’t see him.

Students have embraced the quirky idea of our class “pets” and I think it’s safe to say that Felipe and Grande Mamá are here to stay!

Do you have a class “pet” or mascot? Are you thinking about giving it try? You should!

Target-Language Role Playing

At last week’s #langchat, when asked about risks taken this year in teaching, I responded that I tried a new activity: target-language role playing. Since I had no idea if it would win the gold or crash and burn, I considered it a risky move.

The instructor at the AP Institute at the University of Iowa I attended last summer presented the idea of target-language role playing & provided some of the examples of roles that I used.  I did target-language role playing with my two AP Spanish Language & Culture class every Thursday as our warm-up.

How To Do Target-Language Role Playing

  • Pair up students via your preferred method. I use famous pairs partner cards from Kristy Placido (can’t remember if I bought them on TpT or downloaded them from her website. Either way, they are awesome and they came from her. Gracias!).
  • Pairs pick their roles and situation card (find the ones I use here or create your own!).
  • Examples:
    • Parent/kid: Why is the phone bill so high?
    • Best friends: I can’t believe you forgot my birthday.
    • Candidate/voter: You should vote for me!
    • Internado style! Carolina/Iván: I think we should see other people (Ouch!).
  • Students have a short amount of time to talk  about situation and how to play it, which gives them time to look up or ask about words/phrases they’ll need.
  • Pairs join together to create a group of four to “perform” (I don’t make them perform for the class because I have found that when they are more relaxed, their conversations flow smoother and they feel more inclined to be creative).
  • As the year progresses, increase the amount of time their conversation must last. We started at one minute and worked our way up to two. Next year, we’ll do more!
  • I “eavesdropped” on every student at least once during the course of the semester. After they were done, I gave them feedback on what went well and what to keep in mind for the future.
  • I always made a big deal when I heard students use an idiom they learned in class (idioms are our warmups on Mondays).


  • Was the language always accurate? Nope! Did we take the time after the activity to talk through common errors and how to say/form certain words and phrases? Absolutely! It provided great mini-lessons for pop-up grammar.
  • This was a great platform for talking about circumlocution (inspired by seeing this presentation by Sara-Elizabeth of Musicuentos). A couple students proudly told me after the AP test that when faced with wanting to use a word/phrase they didn’t know, they “talked around it.”
  • As it became more challenging to talk for longer, we talked about “just saying something” related to the topic. Who cares if you partner knew you were going to take the conversation in this direction? Just go for it! Students took a lot of pride in reaching the two minute mark. Sometimes it felt long and other times, it wasn’t enough time to get as in-depth as they wanted to go.
  • Students infused humor into their language practice! The funniest ones were the Internado-themed role plays because they really got into being their favorite characters.

To me, using the language creatively, infusing humor and emotion and conversing on an unfamiliar topic demonstrate real, solid steps toward more advanced proficiency! So really in the end, I wasn’t the one taking the risks with this role-playing activity – my students were and I couldn’t be more proud of them and the results!

Is the Café Open?

“¿Está el café abierto?” (Is the café open) became a familiar question on Fridays in my classes this past year. My café was a new idea this year designed to increase students’ use of Spanish in class. It aligns with the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports system of rewarding students for desired behavior in order to increase occurrences of said behavior.

When my students said something in Spanish (besides hola, gracias, por favor, etc.), I gave them a Mexican “peso” (purchased here from Teachers Pay Teachers).  It didn’t matter whether what they said was accurate – they earned the peso anyway. The idea was to reward their effort at communicating in another language. That’s hard stuff!  Every Friday, students could proudly spend their pesos at the class café stocked with candy, cappuccino, tea, hot chocolate, lemonade and a favorite of many, agua de jamaica.

I’m a list person, so here’s the good and the not-so-good about the café experiment.

The Good

  • It truly increased Spanish usage for a lot of students! They were motivated by the extrinsic reward of pesos they could spend.
  • Students took chances! It was messy sometimes, but as we know, learning a new language is undoubtedly message.
  • Inspired by working at the Concordia Language Villages, I wanted to infuse more opportunities to “live the language” in my classroom. It was always impressive to hear Villagers using Spanish to shop, send mail and do many more real-life tasks at the Villages. With my café, “living the language” meant helping students order and pay for food items in Spanish. Besides posting a menu of café items, I included helpful phrases for carrying out the exchange (How much? I would like, etc.).
  • With the addition of agua de jamaica, (cold, hibiscus tea popular in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean), students were exposed to a culturally-authentic product available at real cafes in some of the Spanish-speaking world. One student loved it so much, he got his own and said he wanted to use it instead of Gatorade during baseball games!

The Not-So-Good

  • I know putting yourself out there can be challenging and potentially nerve-wracking for shy students, some introverts and for students who struggle with self-confidence. While students do not have to speak in front of the class to earn their pesos, even just talking to the teacher in another language can be daunting. I am committed to continuing to foster relationships with all my students to decrease the anxiety around trying to speak Spanish (lowering their affective filters, if you will).
  • This is where I acknowledge the controversial side of this concept. A teacher that I respect brought up the fact that I am “paying” students to do something they should be doing anyway in my class. Deep down, I know this. While I speak primarily in Spanish in all levels I teach, I’m not at the point personally where I feel comfortable requiring only Spanish from my students (I know lots of teachers who do this successfully and I admire them!). While I do encourage it whenever possible, I don’t want it to become a negative experience to the point where students are stressed about Spanish class or even worse, don’t want to take it. I look at the café as changing the attitude and culture around speaking Spanish in my classes in a small way. Hopefully one day, I won’t need the peso aspect of it and we can enjoy café-style treats during small-group or class chats in Spanish once a week. Until, I’m going to keep plugging away and increasing TL usage however I can!

Welcome Summer! (But First, Let’s Reflect)

Before I get too far into summer mode (read – sleeping late, running, reading, traveling and hanging with friends), here are some reflections on the school year.

Things to Consider for Next year

  • Need more interpersonal communication! While I am very proud that my students spoke more Spanish this year than last, they usually answered prompt questions. I want them to have the tools to carry on a conversation, as opposed to only responding “sí.”
  • This was my first year teaching the preterit/imperfect (as opposed to reviewing previous knowledge). The language lover in me wants them to understand all the intricacies “just in case” they need to use it. In reality, if I make it simpler (a “one and done” past action versus repeated past action), they are more likely to  feel confident using it. A professor always reminded us, “Less is more.” So true with those tricky past tenses!
  • After the AP test, my students suggested more practice with the multiple-choice section in the future. Last year’s students did not feel as comfortable with the free-response section, so we focused hard-core on that this year. As a result, they felt fairly good about that part (success!).  Next year, every Tuesday, I plan to use a recent article from BBC Mundo or CNN Español with five multiple-choice questions. My hope is to increase their comfort with not only the multiple-choice format, but high-frequency vocabulary used to describe current events/news in our world.

Things to Celebrate

  • I enjoyed teaching Spanish II for the first time. My two sections were a mix of freshman and sophomores. I had a lot of proud-teacher moments as I heard my students exploring the language as they worked to communicate with each other and with me. In one section in particular, I can’t count the number of times I overhead students using Spanish to talk to each other completely of their own free will.
  • “Situaciones” in AP Spanish. This activity I adapted from an idea at an AP Institute last summer at the University of Iowa. Look for a future post with more details, but here are the basics. In pairs, students receive roles and a situation (examples – roles: best friends, situation: I can’t believe you forgot my birthday; roles: parent/kid, situation: A kid at school told me Santa doesn’t exist.). Students had to prepare a bit for the conversation and then carry on the conversation for another group. As the year progressed, I upped the time they had to talk.  I observed students becoming more comfortable conversing, improvising and even infusing humor into their Spanish. A definite keeper for next year!
  • I jumped on a few bandwagons this past year and the first was one using TPRS novels. Verdict: LOVED THEM! I used Felipe Alou with Spanish III and La Guerra Sucia with AP Spanish (posts to come). Both were eye-opening culturally and made them proud of their ability to understand a whole book in Spanish. Next year I’ll be using Esperanza (Spanish III) and Vida y Muerte en la Mara Salvatrucha (III or AP, haven’t decided. Thoughts?).
  • The other bandwagon was El Internado! I was inspired by Allison WeinholdMike PetoDustin Williamson and Kara Jacobs. Mil gracias for sharing your ideas and resources. Thanks to El Internado, vocab and grammatical structures “stuck” with students (example: lots of repetitions of “se cayó.” So much falling in the first episode!). The various story lines and compelling characters kept students engaged (to say the least!). One of my summer goals is to contribute resources and be able to give back to the amazing community that has given me so much related to El Internado.

Welcome to My World!

A little about myself and my teaching

Hola! My name is Laura Catherine and I teach Spanish in Iowa. For five years, I taught the equivalent of Spanish I to 6th-8th graders at the school I attended. Looking back, I had no idea what I was doing those first few years! I hadn’t discovered #langchat or blogs yet, so it was one big experiment. Thank goodness a mentor in another building introduced me to the Iowa World Language Association Conference (IWLA)!

I just finished my second year teaching Spanish II, III and AP Spanish at a local high school. This year was the most confident and organized I felt in my seven years of teaching! I am looking forward to sharing some ideas that my students and I found effective in all three of these.

Thanks again to IWLA, I learned about the Masters of Education in World Language Instruction through Concordia College and completed the program in 2014. The two summers I spent with my cohort in Bemidii, Minnesota were two of the most challenging and exciting in terms of connecting with passionate language educators and pushing myself to improve my practice. After visiting the Concordia Language Villages with the Masters program, I then brought groups of my middle schoolers to the Villages over two Spring Breaks and then spent a summer working at El Lago del Bosque – Wilder as a credit teacher.

In terms of my “methods,” I tend to be a mixed-bag. I’ve started learning about Comprehensible Input and I want to learn more! For the first time this year, I taught two TPRS novels (La Guerra Sucia in AP and Felipe Alou in 3). We’ve already put in an order for three more for our department and I’m stoked! It’s always my goal to use Spanish as much as possible and encourage students to do the same. In summary, I try to keep my lessons focused on communication through a variety of (what I hope are) engaging and interactive activities. Oh, and I really want to focus on incorporating more culture.

So there you have it. I certainly do not pretend to be an expert about any one thing related to teaching Spanish, but I do think I have learned a few things that might be helpful to someone out there, so stay tuned! School is out, so expect a few more posts this week!

Here We Go!

The language blogging journey begins!

My first musing is a confession: I have been a language-blog stalker for a couple years now. Frequently at our Spanish department meetings, I find myself beginning a comment with, “Well, I saw this great idea on a blog about [insert relevant topic here.]”

A few people have mentioned blogging to me recently (gracias, Señor Noble!), which gave me the final push to start. Muchas gracias to all my world language blog inspirations out there (including but certainly not limited to Mis Clases Locas, Musicuentos, My Generation of Polyglots, Language Sensei, PBL in the TL, The Comprehensible Classroom, En Francais, SVPWilliamson CI & TPRS, Aventuras Nuevas and the Creative Language Classroom). Wow – I could go on forever! I have been so grateful to these people for their creativity and generosity and I would like to do my part to contribute.

I realize summer is not necessarily the ideal time to begin a blog as most of us are counting down the days until we do not have to think about teaching (2 for us!). However, I plan to use these summer months as a chance to reflect on my past year and learn the blogging “ropes” before sharing more ideas in the fall.

Good luck as your year finishes up! Let’s finish strong!