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Experiencing los hipopótamos colombianos with level 3

54101194283378668127593My Spanish 3 class just finished a week of non-fiction storytelling about the hippopotamuses that were living in the wild in a region of Colombia. The strange story of how a large African animal invaded an ecosystem thousands of miles away allowed us to take our discussions in several directions:  we spoke about science, of course, drug trafficking, we contrasted the worldview of campesinos versus city dwellers and ended our exploration discussing the role of government in protecting citizens. What an interdisciplinary lesson!

The centerpiece of this unit was an article published by Veinte Mundos. I really like what Veinte Mundos is doing for advanced students, but my students need a lot more structure in order to make sense of the articles on their website. Here is my lesson, with links to their original resources as well as my own.

Day 1: prior knowledge

imagesJust like the unit on ballenas that I published last year, I like to start this unit with imagesCAX6QP4Sa brainstorming session in small groups to establish everything that we happen to already know about hippopotamuses. Depending upon the class this might be greeted with a revelation that they already know quite a bit. untitledAfter five minutes in small groups I draw two columns images2on the board, one labelled La ciencia and the other column labelled su representación en la cultura popular. The first column will eventually include things such as son de África and son mamíferos. Several details will flow from that, so be sure you know how to say they give life birth and the mothers nurse their babies with milk. I avoid technical terms like vivíparos in favor of phrases like las crías nacen vivas.  Click here for a website to review characteristics of mammals in Spanish . The second column is a bit tricky but I think it is useful for high school students to recognize that the representation of an object in popular culture is distinct from their reality, so I showed some pictures like those along the side of this post. My purpose is to elicit the reaction that hippos are often portrayed as lovable, fun animals. It may be surprising to some students that hippos are ferocious man-killers!

Having already read the article that they will read tomorrow I am extremely sensitive to the information that will appear in class tomorrow.  I carefully circle relevant facts so that what may have been the odd bit of trivia known by one student becomes common knowledge (and in Spanish no less).  When I write circle, I mean circle in the specialized jargon of TPRS teachers… not literally circling the words on the whiteboard. If you have not been exposed to this powerful technique then take a look at Martina Bex´s explanations: first a link to her circling worksheet for teachers and second a link to her blog post describing how she introduces vocabulary . While I do not do it exactly as she does, what we do have in common is that presenting the vocabulary phrases is a long process that delivers many repetitions of the target structures in comprehensible utterances so that students develop a natural, automatic response.

Day 2: first exposure to the article

This year I didn´t exactly follow what I wrote above. In fact, I shortchanged day 1, cutting it short and rushing straight into day 2… what a mistake! If they had a full day of preparation with a lot of circling rather than just a fifteen minute brainstorming session then what I am about to describe may have been disconcerting, but it would not have deflated them.

I gave them a copy of the article  (scroll down to the bottom and click on PDF; I cut and paste so that it fits on one piece of paper, double sided). I played the recording provided by Veinte Mundos (downloaded beforehand so that it plays smoothly, it is the MP3 at the bottom of the article) and I asked them to follow along at the speed of the recording. I do this because I need to start preparing them for AP next year, when they´ll hear texts read by native speakers without any preparations.  Once we heard the article I wrote a spider diagram on the board with the name of the article in the middle and the following four topics branching off: en la naturaleza, Pablo Escobar, el peligro, las protestas. In pairs they reread the article and filled in the rest of the graphic organizer, adding at least four points to each branch. I moved around helping individual groups.

Day 3: breaking the article down

The next day students entered the class unsure that they really understood the article (because I did not properly introduce the vocabulary through day 1). To develop their self-confidence I created this vocabulary builder activity which reviews the main points of the article . Students first did it alone, so they could honestly assess their own understanding, and then we reviewed it together. When we reviewed the answers I could sense the tide turning as students felt empowered that they could understand this difficult article.

I now went straight back to the article and started circling the hard parts of the text, clarifying through questions the most dificult sections so that the entire reading became clear as water. Through this process I became aware of some surprising misunderstandings. I had assumed that my students in level three understood who campesinos were; it wasn´t until I was on the back of the reading and asked ¿dónde viven los campesinos? that I realized that I needed to explore the difference between la ciudad y el campo. If I had not maintained my focus on the text I would have missed that opportunity.

Day 4: extending perspectives

6620_109339870068_654880068_2636993_3469554_nI had several video clips to play today which explore different perspectives on the issue. I found it useful to review Martina Bex´s graphic on how to use an authentic source in a CI classroom for ideas of how to work these videos so that students get the most out of the experience. If you take a look at Martina´s handout you´ll know why I only had enough time to analyze two videos. If you do a google video search you´ll find plenty of videos; I settled on these two: Militares asesinan hipopótamos and Manifestación . These two allowed me to explore the government´s responsibility to protect its citizens, the perspective of the campesinos endangered by the hippos and the perspective of city dwellers who came out to protest the killing of the animals.

Day 5: assessment and musical extension

As an assessment I asked them to take out a blank piece of paper and simply write about los hipopótamos en Colombia. I warned them that I was grading based on content; of course being able to understand them is crucial, but as long as I could understand I was looking for as many distinct points as possible. The idea of distinct points encouraged them to consider the variety of perspectives through which we explored this issue.

Here is a copy of the quick-write written by one of my middle of the road students. Plenty of grammar errors, some that would impede communication if the reader were not his teacher:

student work 001

But wow… look at what he can communicate. Seriously, he has plenty to say and remember that this was a quick write. No drafts, no time to go back and review. Ten minutes. And if you are really grammar-obsessed then I want to point out something super-interesting: at the end of the first paragraph he wrote  Pienso que el gobierno mataría los hipopótamos. I never taught the conditional tense. That phrase is not in the article. I must have, at some point, circled some question or comment with the conditional, but none of us were paying attention to the endings. We were paying attention to the meaning of the phrase. That´s language acquisition, occurring because he was following a meaningful conversation. It humbles me to see it happen so naturally.

After students finished their quick-writes I projected a website that I have recently rediscovered (now that youtube is no longer blocked from teacher accounts at my school). We opened up lyricstraining.com to my favorite Juanes song . The connection is tenuous… Juanes is Colombian. That´s all I needed. A volunteer came up and, after playing the Juanes game on intermediate,  we then discovered that two currently popular songs have versions in Spanish: Titanium David Guetta & Mey and Si yo fuera un chico by Beyoncé.  By the way, I recommend enlarging the computer screen so that you are looking at just lyrics… that way you don´t have to worry about questionable images from a music video. An enjoyable ending to an exciting week in room 804.

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Not giving up on homework

So many teachers that I admnewspapersire have given up altogether on giving homework that I am often tempted to follow their lead.  Reading Alfie Kohn is enough to make any teacher cringe at the idea of piling on more homework. Yet there are useful assignments that are worthy of my own and my students’ time. Furthermore, I teach on the block; my students need to be thinking in Spanish more than three times per week. My rule is that all homework must be meaningful, not just to me but also to my students. Here is my set assignment for every Tuesday night for my Spanish 3 & 4 classes.

Once a week students must find and read a newspaper article in Spanish (don’t give up, there is a twist).  Although it is a Tuesday night assignment I always say “once a week” so that students who do not have internet access at home understand that they should not wait until Tuesday night… they can use school computers or go to the local library or have a friend print out an article for them. Either way, it is due on Wednesday in class, no excuses.

When students arrive to class I am standing at my door with a list of 12 students who will write the headline of their article on the whiteboard. Every student passes in a fifty word reaction to the homework bin, so there is accountability for all, but the fun starts with the 12 chosen ones. As a class we start by asking a few questions, making sure that everyone understands 100% of what is written (and that the 12 students have some grasp of the article that they chose). Then we decide which headline is the most interesting. Or rather, which headline will lend itself to creating the most interesting class story. At this point input from the person who actually read the article is no longer required because we, as a class, are not interested in creating a factual retelling of the news story; instead we are interested in creating the most interesting backstory that could possibly explain what led to the event reported.

If you are a TPRS teacher then you already know what it means to “ask a story”. Starting with a simple statement the teacher asks a myriad of questions, constantly recycling target structures in the questions and answers so that students acquire the phrases. As students volunteer possible answers to the questions some of the answers are accepted, some are not, and slowly a complex, often absurd story is created.

What I like about the news stories is that, when the class culture is just right, students are seriously motivated to find an interesting article.  The entire class takes ownership of the story as nearly everyone contributes something, but there is a certain special pride in having your article chosen as the most interesting starting point. The class quickly acquires advanced vocabulary used in newspapers, and this is an entertaining lens through which to explore current events.