Casas de cartón, the song from Voces inocentes

The following newsletter was written in April of 2016. I use my pre-made music bail-out activities (scroll down to #8 for French, German & Spanish) frequently in class, but I usually choose one song to play for every class, all week long. 

The song Casas de cartón is different. I pre-teach this song a week before watching the film Voces inocentes due to the unique emotional impact that the song creates while viewing the film.

Taking the time to thoroughly pre-teach the song will add emotional impact when viewing the film

We just finished an emotional week that included a viewing of Voces inocentes. If you have not seen this film about a young boy escaping the violence of civil war in El Salvador, preview it. There are many films about violence in Central America, but few that elicit the empathy of students as well as Voces inocentes.

The first time students recognize the song in the film there is a rush of excitement. Cool, I understand this! The second time that the song is played they have a deeper understanding of the context and there is no confusion concerning the danger faced by the main character. The third time, even the most immature students are appropriately shocked by the rebellion implicit in the actions of the boy and the priest. During the final credits, after a moment of silence in the dark as students emotionally recover from the ending, that first stanza is devastating. Qué triste, starts the singer, se oye la lluvia, and my students are choking back tears.

In past years I have paired the language learners novel Esperanza with a documentary called Which way home?. They complement each other well to tell a story, but some of my students seemed especially hardened against the experience of immigrants. My school is located right on the front lines of the immigration debate with about 40% of our students hearing Spanish at home, over 50% living in poverty while another portion of privileged students live behind the walls of a gated community the size of a small city. You might recognize some elements of my school community if you have ever read The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle. Our region made national news in 2014 when, just a few miles away, several buses of Central American immigrant children were blocked by protesters.

Given the polarized demographics of the community, I am not going to teach an immigration unit with a friendly debate at the end to understand multiple perspectives. The fire is just a little too hot here, and it is not fair to implicitly debate whether a portion of my students even have the right to be in my class. What I do like doing, however, is leading my students to recognize their common humanity with people that they have otherwise cast out as the others. Taking the time to thoroughly pre-teach the song helps students become emotionally involved in the movie.

The process that I follow to teach the song

(1) On Monday I start by quickly telling the story of the song in very simple language that students can easily understand. I strive not to introduce much new vocabulary. I talk about the rain, how much I like the rain, and I draw on the board showing rain hitting mountains and the city below. Then I talk about the casas de cartón built on the hillsides of many Latin American cities, including Tijuana (which many of my students have visited). I draw the houses. I have a cardboard box ready so that I can pick it up as I describe what the houses are made of.

When the rain falls, the water inevitably gets into the improvised shacks. When it rains hard, sometimes whole hillsides collapse. Families die. I am always a little surprised and sickened by a jovial undercurrent among some students as they understand the reality that I am describing. Sucks for them, I have heard grinning kids whisper. I shut that down without hesitation, but I know that I am not yet winning hearts and minds.

(2) This is the step that provides the repetitions to make the entire song highly-comprehensible. Every day this week our warm-up activity is this matching activity. At first students will simply listen to pick out a high-frequency phrase, pulling out one word from a phrase. The first few minutes will be difficult for students. You can make it easier by sending them up to the computer in pairs and standing at the board, guiding them. You’ll only need to do this a few times on Monday; they get really quick at this game. I like to think of those first few times through as establishing meaning. Slow and deliberate, point and pause. The students will soon be racing through the activity. On Monday call on the brave ones, but by Wednesday you’ll be able to call on any student to do this activity. Let the class help by calling out the answers. The magic truly is in the repetition.

Once students get really quick we do an “aural choral translation”: I turn off the overhead projector so that they cannot read the translations and, after hearing part of the song, everyone translates aloud. It is fun if they sing their translation to the rhythm of the song. A lot of repetition, but the pleasure of good music makes this bearable. Maybe even compelling. I like to be at the board (with a student controlling the computer) so that I can write the phrase in Spanish after it is played. The writing seems to bring it all together.

On Thursday and Friday they are restless. “This is too easy“. Do it anyways! Get them all processing at the speed of a native speaker.

(3) On Friday I movietalk this music video made by students from La Universidad Francisco de Paula Santander. Now that we have heard the lyrics quite a few times out of context it is easy to point, pause the video and describe what is happening using known vocabulary and the lyrics. Introduce yourself and your students as parallel characters to add more repetition with verbs conjugated in the tú and yo forms. Together as a class write the story of the song on the board (not the lyrics, but the story). Be sure to use some of the lyrics, but make it natural like you and the class are collaborating to create the story on the spot. The text created by each class will be slightly different, and that is okay.

By the following week, when we start the movie, students have a really good grasp of the song. Students tend to identify with the child actors and that, surely, helps build their empathy. But I think the emotional impact that comes with understanding the lyrics at crucial moments in the film also plays a part in winning the hearts and minds of my students.

The repetitive nature of the activity, tightly connected to meaning, makes this activity successful. Moreover, it is quick– a five minute warm-up– and they are hearing and understanding the language spoken by a native speaker with a radically different accent than mine.