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Sometimes students long for something real

Working with student-created images does not have to be frivolous

I was looking through some of my favorite One Word Images that my students created in 2017 and I came across the story of Coco, the tale of a transgender piece of paper born with all of the biological parts of un papel but self-identifying as “una hoja” de papel. I made this with a Spanish 3 class.

I did not walk into class that day with the intention of creating a heavy story. I did sense that students were not in the mood for another crazy adventure with wacky details and a nonsensical plot. Sometimes they like that; when they take ownership of such a story there is no better use of class time than following that crazy story. But when students get burned out on stories, sometimes what they really want is to talk about something real.

The trick to eliciting these kinds of stories is to zealously protect a classroom culture of trust. Adolescents constantly monitor social boundaries. When a student makes an off-color remark, every adolescent in the room is watching to see what is permitted by the teacher. When a student makes a racist or homophobic comment, a stern but silent look of reproach is not the right response. Silence communicates to some students that there are some things which are left unsaid in polite society, but we essentially agree. It took me a long time to realize that the stern glare of reproach does not condemn intolerance, instead it pathetically pleads “not here, please don’t ruin my class”. Every other student observes this dynamic. Students in such a class learn that their feelings will not be protected, that there is no line that cannot be crossed. I developed a routine that I call “the cool generation” to create a safe space in my classroom. Click here to read about it; the key is to make sure that you get a full, hearty class response that they reject the hatred of past generations.

On that day I chose the drawing of a piece of paper from a pile that students had created weeks beforehand. Sometimes when class-created stories are not clicking I will “press the reset button” by having students draw for ten minutes in silence, and then we will move on with a student interview or a movie talk. For that reason I always have a pile of drawings on my desk that we can later use as inspiration. As I held up the drawing and we established some basic information about the character, I listened closely and did not jump at the first crazy idea that was offered.

This is the character that my kids came up with. Totally respectful, these kids embraced the metaphor in our character and created a serious, meaningful story. Here is the set-up to “Coco” that we created on the first day:

En un bosque mágico hay una hoja de papel que se llama Coco. Coco nació con todas las partes biológicas de un papel, pero ahora que tiene ocho años y seis meses ella se identifica como “una hoja”, no como “un papel”.

Todos los árboles del bosque son las madres de Coco. Coco tiene muchas mamás.

Ella tiene un hermano mayor también. El hermano es un papel grande que le pega a Coco cuando sus madres no están mirando. Coco se pone maquillaje (líquido corrector) para que sus mamás no vean los moretones.

That took us a good half hour of discussion in Spanish to develop the idea while making sure that each development of our story remained perfectly comprehensible to everyone. When the student came up with that first powerhouse idea, that Coco self-identifies as “a piece of paper” (feminine noun) although she was born with all of the biological parts of “un papel” (masculine noun), I paused and in English told the class that we could not move forward if we could not do this respectfully. “I am willing to follow this story to see where it goes, but we are not using this as a code to make fun of somebody real in this school. Are you with me?” I think that pausing and explicitly setting the boundaries in English was important, even though that was a norm that should be expected of any class story. I think it also served as a social cue that we were doing something extraordinary in that story, and so the engagement was quite high.

The next day was one of the most emotionally draining classes I have ever taught. At first everyone was silent, reluctant to face what we constructed the day before. I let them brainstorm in pairs for a few minutes and then an avalanche of violent, vengeful plots came forward… pushing her bully brother into a paper shredder, for example. Finally I turned to them and admitted (in English) that I really needed a hopeful ending. An ending that did not walk the road of violence. An ending that is not pure fantasy but maybe, with the help of a little poetry, could help us imagine a brighter future. Wow did they come through. The ending is bittersweet.

This was an effective language class because students were so engaged. It is not a question of how many repetitions did I get on a particular target structure– when students are highly engaged, they pick up more with less repetitions. This is how my students learn the subjunctive, this is how they learn advanced grammatical constructions like si clauses. We were also hitting so many AP and IB themes in this story that it is no wonder that my students can spontaneously respond when they take those exams after only four years of classes.

Here is the rest of the story that we created together on the second day:

Coco se culpa por el abuso de su hermano. Ella se dice que no debe decírselo a nadie. Ella cree que es ella la mala. Ella cree que si dijera algo a sus mamás, sería una mala hoja de papel. Nosotros sabemos que ella está equivocada, pero muchas veces las víctimas se quedan en silencio. No debe ser así, pero desafortunadamente es normal.

Un día Coco decide decir algo a su mamá. Ella dice a una de sus mamás que su hermano le pega y primero la mamá no cree que sea la verdad. “Mi hijo nunca te pegaría”, dice la mamá-árbol. Después la mamá le dice que “papeles serán papeles” y que Coco no debe provocar a su hermano. Coco se pone muy triste.

Coco decide que necesita irse. Ella se dobla y se convierte en un avión de papel. Vuela muy lejos. El hermano está solo. Después de años él se siente solo, muy solo. Él quiere hablar con su hermana, pero ella no está.

Un día el hermano recibe un regalo. Cuando abre el regalo, él ve que el papel alrededor del regalo es su hermana. Ella volvió solo cuando él estaba listo para verla.

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How to add 15 new beginner level texts to your classroom library EVERY WEEK

“Recreational reading is the most powerful tool we have in language education”
-Stephen Krashen, presentation at CCFLT, February 2017

These are the readings we need most for our classes, the easy easy readings that low level readers can read independently. Almost impossible to find. This is how you do it:


Like the idea? Click here to download the template for the pamphlet cartoon stories.

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the cool generation

cholasIt happens without warning, catching me by surprise. We might be watching a video in which a Bolivian chola comes on screen, or perhaps a very dark-skinned person, an overweight woman wearing a hijab or a homosexual couple dancing in the background of a music video. I hear a snarky murmur, mean-spirited chuckling… nothing that I can precisely distinguish but I know what this is about.

You cannot let this fester. This has to be addressed immediately and unequivocally, but winning hearts and minds can be trickier than just shutting down the rude comments. I have developed the perfect tactic to address this situation. This is not an overall strategy (every teacher should carefully plan how to honor diversity in their classrooms), but rather a tactic to remind students of their better selves. I like this tactic because it rapidly turns the tables and invites them to join us in the 21st century.

When I sense such an undercurrent, I stop whatever we are doing and quickly say, “I thought yours is the cool generation, the generation that refuses to carry hate in their hearts, to hate people for what they wear, how they were born, for being different”. I pause and frequently somebody in class will say, “we are”. They really are the cool generation. “I admire that about your generation… all of that bullshit is over with your decision to end it here and now”. Sometimes I make eye contact as I say, “right?”, but often I am addressing the whole class when I say that. More students will respond affirmatively. “We´re together on this one, right?”, and the whole class responds affirmatively. Most often I can find a reason to fist bump the offending students within ten or so minutes, and they are fully back into our class community.

I do not know why this works so well, but every time I refer to them as the cool generation they immediately take it on as their identity. I am hoping that in the future when my students hear hate speech, when they see white supremacists in public spaces, when they observe powerful figures making harsh generalizations about minority groups, they will think to themselves, “that is not a cool generation, those are not my values”.

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The little sign that saved my February

I have been thinking about a recent blog post by Cynthia Hitz about the basics of story-asking. The first time I taught a TPRS lesson was a revelation: everyone had so much fun and learned so much. But try doing this every day, all year long, and the magic can fade. How devastating it is to be greeted by a class of moody teenagers groaning, “another story”, as if it were the worst thing to happen to them all day.

Carol Gaab points out that the brain craves novelty; switching things up, keeping it fresh, adding a dose of the unexpected will go a long way towards building a class that kids actually want to attend. There is another side to this, however, that has to do with consistency rather than novelty. When I watch this video of Alina Filipescu, for example, and I see her students´ synchronized responses I cannot help but admire the results of her clear expectations for students. The interpersonal skills rubric that came out of Ben Slavic´s group is what I use at the beginning of the school year to norm my class behaviors. At the beginning of the year I point and pause until I get the behavior I want. This can be excruciating, and I am not as consistent as I should be. At this point in the year, however, I simply need to restate the norms in a concise, “novel” format. Here is what I have written on the board:

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I hate the way it is so tied to a grade, as if we cannot just hang out and have fun speaking Spanish. Yet I also feel like this is working better than anything else I have going on at the moment. Perhaps it is because I am so terribly bad at managing the bureaucracy, at keeping class jobs assigned and placing check marks on little lists, but this sign has saved me from the February blues that seems to weigh on many classes at this point of the year. It quickly, wordlessly redirects our attention so that we can get back into a delightful story, or a discussion about El Internado, or a discussion about the fictional life of a classmate. I like it.

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Béisbol, baseball

A little tweak that makes life easier for struggling beginners

béisbolMy Spanish 1 kids are at the point that they mostly understand many cognates when I say them in my wonderful Spanish accent, but there is always someone who cannot hear the elephant in elefante. And everyone, even my superstars, occasionally have their slow processing days when the word hospital sounds nothing like hospital.

We have come up with the perfect class routine to tune all ears to the cognates. When I say a cognate I pause, then say the word béisbol to which the entire class responds “baseball!!”. Now that they are alerted to the presence of a cognate I repeat the cognate and the students who understand (usually most of the class) shout out the word in English.

I love this little routine because students who did not instantly understand the cognate have a chance to process before I give them the answer, the students who did hear it are proud that they can demonstrate their mental agility, the quiet students who are not willing to admit that they did not hear the elephant in elefante are able to comprehend, and the entire routine is so quick that our class story is barely interrupted.

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An unusual class job

Many people have written about the positive impacts of creating class community through class jobs (for instance, click here and scroll down to “Classroom management” on Bryce Hedstrom’s website for a very comprehensive list of class jobs or click here to read a post on the public part of Ben Slavic’s PLC blog). Here is one additional job that we created in my classroom that has added an great element of fun: the class cat.

cat class 2Whenever someone not from our class community comes into the classroom, the class cat starts whispering the words gato gato gato (cat cat cat) in a steady voice to inform me that there is someone new in the classroom. I may be deeply absorbed in the story we are creating… or I may just want to finish whatever we are doing, but the class comes first! The rest of the class, however, is sitting on the edge of their seats waiting for their signal to act. They are waiting for me to utter the phrase “había un gato”, at which point every student says “MEOW” at exactly the same time in a loud, confident voice. At that point I address our visitor as if nothing unusual had happened. My kids really enjoy this.

One of my colleagues, Tammy Cullen, has taken this further. Every several weeks she changes class jobs and, with that, the class votes on a new animal. Of course she then teaches them the Spanish voice for each animal so that the class remains in the target language whenever a visitor arrives. Here are a few that they have done:

el pollito (baby chick): pío pío pío

la paloma (dove): cucurrucú

el pavo (turkey): gluglú

el gallo (rooster): quiquiriquí

el burro (donkey): ji jo

el perro (dog): guau guau

la rana (frog): croac croac