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El almohadón de plumas (Horacio Quiroga)

0 prereading - the nightmareThis is certainly a difficult text to teach due to the advanced language. Yet I find the story to be irresistible. On one level El almohadón de plumas is just a good horror story that is fun to act out in class. It is also fun to misdirect the reader; Quiroga leads us to believe that the life of the young wife is slowly being drained away due to the lack of love in her new marriage. It almost sounds like a proto-feminist fable and I like to point out the cues that lead the reader to condemn Jordán and his cold, passionless behavior.

When I teach this story I use embedded readings to build up from a very simple version of the story until, by the end of the week, students are reading the original version written by Horacio Quiroga. I taught this story this year with a larger unit about love, dating norms and gender roles.

First step: essential vocabulary

Click here to download the phrases  that I use in class telling class stories and PQA until students have developed an automatic response to the phrases. It may take more than one class. I did not give this sheet to students until I felt that they already knew the words so that it did not feel like a vocabulary list that we were plugging through but rather some spontaneous conversations. When I thought that they were ready I gave them the list and they translated the list on their own in class, verifying their acquisition. Finally we completed this power point vocab presentation together. Rather than fly through it be sure to linger and discuss why some options are wrong; have fun imagining that the casa de los reyes es un rasguño rather than a palacio.

Second step: embedded reading

I have students fold this embedded reading into quarters so that they are only looking at the relevant section. Do not let them skip ahead! We read each part as a class, discussing line by line, acting out and finally writing five questions per section. Simple questions that have an obvious answer within the text. For example, an acceptable question for the first section might be something like: ¿Amaba Jordán a Alicia? Once everyone has five questions we go around the class, each asking a question and the whole class responding in unison. In practice this did not always work, but it did keep most students focused on the text. This process is so intense, requiring so much focus on part of the students, that the class period passed quickly before we were able to finish the reading.

Third step: el cortometraje

Before reading the original text I like to discuss and watch this video , which you should warn students is not a faithful reproduction of the short story. I interrupt the film often so it takes us about 25 minutes to watch a nine minute film. If you have time you might start the class with a discussion of the painting that I placed at the beginning of this post. In both cases they are getting many targeted repetitions of key vocabulary structures that they´ll need when reading the original story.

Fourth step: the original text

I edited this text very lightly to make it more comprehensible for my students, but for the most part this is the original version . I have included quite a few comprehension breaks including vocabulary reflections, comprehension questions and prompts for illustrations. Students already know the story; they just have to be able to comprehend this version. I certainly read the first two pages as a whole group activity to keep any of my students from giving up when they get to a stretch that is difficult for them to understand. I talk it out, orally simplifying passages.  Nonetheless the assessment I made, which you can download here, does get to how well they have developed a familiarity with the final, complex text.

Definitely discuss the difference between movie and original story prior to the assessment and require them to know the story version for the assessment. If you want a little more time you can have them complete this biographical sketch of Quiroga´s tragic life using the Spanish Wikipedia page (I made this a few years ago, so it might be worth double checking to see if the information is still there).