Two documentaries that captivated my students

whichwayMy level one students are slowly reading the novel Esperanza (by TPRS publishing), which is based on the true story of a Guatemalan family that is forced to escape their home country when threatened by violence. The main character is on her way to the United States but has left her children with their grandmother because the journey is just too dangerous for them. Several of my students thought this was odd… after all the main character simply got on a bus! In response I found a wonderful documentary called Which way home  that is about a group of children who travel on their own from Central America through Mexico in the hope of being reunited with family, getting an education or finding a job that will provide a better future. Which way home is almost entirely in Spanish, but you can play it with English subtitles. While it is a heavy topic, my students found it extremely high-interest and I felt that it added a lot of emotional immediacy that I will refer back to when we come back from break and pick up Esperanza once again..

My upper level students have been working through a unit on migrant farm harvest_poster_pngworkers in the United States. I was not going to post anything about this unit because feel like there are already a lot of units floating on the internet that take advantage of Francisco Jimenez´s biographical short stories in his book Cajas de cartón. We finished the unit this year with two days left before Thanksgiving break, so I decided to show the documentary La cosecha/The Harvest . Once again, wow! Focusing principally on the children who work in the fields, this is a film that had my students searching on Netflix that night because they could not wait to finish it the next day in class. While I previewed the film I was worried that the pace would be too slow for my students, but seeing kids their own age on screen helped them develop a bond with the people portrayed in the film.

The links provided go straight to the official websites of each documentary


  1. How have you been going through the book with your Level I students? Do you “plow through”, do you circle, do you do a little every day combined with stories? I am a first year teacher and tried some Pobre Ana and Tumba but feel like the students aren’t that interested. Your book, combined with the prospect of the movie at the end, sounds like it might engage them more. I have three weeks between Thanksgiving and Xmas – would you recommend doing it then as a break from stories?

    1. I read novels on Fridays with my level one students, although my colleagues reserve Fridays for PAT activities and instead read novels on Wednesdays. I try to do a chapter each Friday, which means that I am not circling the way I do every other day of the week. On other days I don´t have a goal to read X pages, I just go as slow as the class needs and try to circle everything like crazy. Other days are much more student friendly because they control the pace. I do keep Friday´s 100% comprehensible via group translation and a little circling to check comprehension, but the need to finish the chapter means that I am moving at a quicker pace and I just quickly translate words like gobierno.

      As for student engagement… I think this is an important activity, but I build goodwill during the week with the class stories and the movie talk activities. Some of my students are becoming more engaged in the novel as we go on, but some of them merely tolerate me on Fridays. This is a skill that I am still learning.

      As a first year teacher, if your students are enjoying the class stories then just keep writing them up so that they read them after you co-create them. Change a few little details to surprise them. When I run dry I teach one word and have my students write their own stories using that one word… last week it was the word liar. I am currently sitting on 30 student-created stories about liars that I will edit and turn into readings. They tend to like those readings best. For me three weeks would be too quick to do a novel, especially with Spanish 1… especially if those three weeks were the crazy three weeks between Thanksgiving and Winter breaks!

      1. Thank you for your response! I will just push forward with reading books on Fridays (and Thursdays when we read the typed up version of the story we asked during the week). When you say “On other days I don´t have a goal to read X pages, I just go as slow as the class needs and try to circle everything like crazy,” are you referring to circling your structures for the week which you use to ask a story, or structures from the chapter they will be reading on Friday? Thanks again.

      2. Just the structures of the week, I did not mean to imply that we are preparing throughout the week for reading the novel. Some teachers plan the entire week (or unit) revolving around the novel they are reading, so they pre-teach the structures throughout the week. In fact many of the novels have teaching guides that presume you are dedicating all of your class time to the novel. I tend to treat the novel as a separate thing and translate in class what has not come up otherwise (I read novels aloud with the class). Perhaps pre-teaching the structures is better, then you could allow them to read in pairs. I just don´t want these novels to control my class for weeks on end, I feel boxed in by them. I prefer to focus on really high-frequency structures throughout the week and do a little hand-holding on Fridays to make sure they understand the novel.

        HOWEVER… you might find that your students are more engaged in the novel if you DO spend the week pre-teaching them the structures because the reading will be easier for them to do. Have you seen Crystal Barragán´s blog? She just posted about starting the first chapter of a novel for her level 3 students:

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