Category: Classroom Activities

Bianca Nieves Chapter 5: El Juego Imposible

My Spanish IV class has been zipping through the novel Bianca Nieves y los Siete Toritos by Carrie Toth. It’s a little below their reading level, but it is rich in the uses of subjunctive as well as Spanish bullfighting culture. (Tangent: I am a huge believer in reading below level as long as the content is rich.)

After reading chapter 5, in which the villainous stepmother threatens Bianca with an impossible choice, I made up a slideshow inspired by Martina Bex’s ¿Es Posible? boardgame. I didn’t have enough time to create an actual game in class, nor did I have the classtime to devote to such an activity. I simply displayed each slide in order to generate discussion. This also allowed for a lot of authentic use of the subjunctive!

Patricia va a California

I have a soft spot in my heart for Blaine Ray’s Patricia va a California. It’s not the newest TPRS novel out there. The story is simple and a little clunky at times, the resolution comes too quickly, and the ending reads like an after-school special. There are no pictures, and the teacher’s guides that are out there lean heavily on comprehension questions and true/false quizzes. Yet I teach it every year. I value the contrast between American and Guatemalan cultures as well as the book’s sweet message of acceptance. For some of my students, this book has been the first time they had to confront their own preconceived notions about Latinos. Here are some of the activities I do with my students.

They even give away the pivotal scene on the front cover! Talk about taking away suspense.

Chapters 1-3

I created a digital breakout to pre-teach Guatemalan geography and culture. In the past, I have also used Martina Bex’s reading about Guatemalan geography as a hook for my students.

I have my students do graphic organizers to represent Patricia’s house, family, and mealtimes, and we do lots and lots of PQA comparing and contrasting in this section. There’s not a lot of story or plot going on here, but we just go slowly here and use it as a jumping-off point to talk about my students’ lives.

I also have incorporated Martina Bex’s chicken bus resources in this section of the book, when it talks about the dad taking the bus to work because they don’t have a car. It’s a fun break from the novel!

Chapters 4-7

I have my students listen and draw a story map to represent the action in chapter 4, since there’s a lot of movement as Patricia travels from Panajachel to Los Angeles. In chapter 5, they did a similar family tree and house drawing for the American house, and we focused our conversation on comparing Patricia’s Guatemalan house to her American one. I make a pretty big deal about all the technology and appliances mentioned in the text (COLD WATER? From the FRIDGE?!) to further emphasize the disparity between a rich nation and a poorer one. This might also be a good time to show all or part of the English-language documentary Living On One in class. Even though Patricia’s family doesn’t seem to have a lot compared to us, the reality is that they are comparatively well-off.

The antagonist Debbie Martin also gets introduced in chapter 6, and she is so cartoonishly mean that I can’t help but pronounce her name dramatically every time it comes up in the text.

I have my students draw storyboards of chapters 6 and 7, and we have lots of rich discussion and PQA comparing Patricia’s school, the California school, and our own school, as well as the role sports play in Latin American schools.

Chapters 8-11

Chapter 8 is THE PIVOTAL scene of the book, the one where Debbie Martin turns it around. We made sure to dramatically re-enact the car-jack scene using the Readers Theatre technique, and we discussed whether or not we would be so forgiving of a girl like Debbie. We then do a 5-Finger Retell of the chapter: students trace their hands and write a “Who, What, Where, When, and How” in each finger space. In the palm, they write their own reaction.

Chapters 9-11

The book winds down with Patricia and Debbie becoming friends and Debbie visiting Guatemala. By this point, my students are really comfortable with the text and I relax the graphic organizers and illustrations. We just read, discuss, and enjoy!

To review the whole book, I have my students match chapter titles (there are no official ones, so I made some up!) and then illustrate or write the key events from each chapter.

I also have developed a Socratic seminar for this novel, in which we circle up and discuss the cultural differences between Guatemala and the United States, the similarities we share, and whether or not it is important to visit another country. It’s a great way to finish up the novel and help students think about their own travel goals in the future!

Digital Breakout: Guatemala

I have a new obsession. It started with and all the fantastic breakouts that are coming out from Martina Bex. I tried the Agentes Secretos breakout in class with great success and had grand plans to create my own breakout activity. That is still in the works to go along with the novel Robo en la noche, but over spring break I allowed myself to go down the rabbit hole into the world of digital breakouts.

It’s appealing because all you need is an internet connection, a computer, and a logical brain. Solving many (too many) of the digital breakouts posted gave me lots of inspiration to tackle a digital breakout of my own. My Spanish I class is about to read Patricia va a California, and the first couple of chapters deal with Guatemala and the culture there. I tried to incorporate as much of that as possible, and here is the result: Escape: Guatemala. Take a look around and try to solve the puzzles!


Don Quijote: El último caballero por Karen Rowan

.My Spanish III class revolves around the history and culture of Spain, so I was eager to work with Karen Rowan’s version of the classic Don Quijote: el último caballero. The last time I taught this class, I relied on my own episodios from a more difficult student reader, and I was pleased to find that Karen’s book is vastly superior to my own efforts!  Here are some of the things I have done so far, along with what is next:

Capítulo 1:

I introduced key structures with a mini-story, acted out by my wonderful student actors. Changeable details are underlined.

Target structures:

se volvió un poco loco

decidió quemar

llegó volando

Bob es un chico normal que trabaja en Wal-mart. Un día, Bob se volvió un poco loco porque un cliente molesto lo tocaba sin parar. Así que Bob agarró una espada Nerf y atacó al cliente, pero lo mató por accidente. Entonces Bob decidió quemar toda la evidencia. Hizo un fuego grande y se escapó, pero un helicóptero de la policía llegó volando. Bob fue capturado por la policía, pero cuando le explicó la situación con el cliente molesto, la policía exclamó “¡Yo comprendo!” y lo liberó.

Students drew pictures and wrote sentences using the new vocabulary as a follow-up, and we were able to read and discuss chapter one of Don Quijote without difficulties.

Capítulo 2

I used another mini-story to introduce target vocabulary.

Target Structures:

quería buscar a una dama

se enamoró inmediatamente

todos se rieron

Bob quería buscar buscar a una dama. Quería buscar el amor. Vio a una dama y se enamoró inmediatamente. La presentó a sus amigos, y todos se rieron.

This was a super-short story, and I used this creepy granny doll as the dama in question. Any prop that you have to make the dama ridiculous or funny would be a good one!

I followed up the mini-story with a love song in Spanish (“Chocolate” by Jesse y Joy, but there are many apt songs!) since this was right before Valentine’s Day. The next day, I had a sub day and my students read chapter two on their own and drew pictures to show understanding.

Capítulo 3

This was the famous windmill scene, so I wanted to really help students picture it. After writing the structures ejército de gigantes and molinos de viento on the board, we read and discussed the chapter. Students had to draw Don Quijote’s fantasy vs. Sancho Panza’s reality, and then we did a dictation which was a summary of the episode from Don Quijote’s perspective.

The next day, we reviewed stills from the 1979 cartoon of Don Quijote and then did a Movie Talk with the Youtube video:

Capítulo 4

After writing the target structures pastores y ovejas and les tiraron piedras on the board, I read the chapter aloud, throwing “piedras” (some pencil erasers) at students during the story.

Capítulo 5

My students read this chapter first in small groups and drew scenes with dialogue from the chapter. To cement understanding, we acted out the scene with actors perched on their desks and falling off of them. We then discussed why it was necessary to trick Don Quijote instead of just asking him to come home and made predictions about how Don Quijote would react to a year with no adventures.

Capítulo 6

I am going to pre-teach se dio cuenta de que with a PQA discussion about when students realized that Santa/the tooth fairy/the Easter bunny weren’t real. Then, students will read the final chapter individually while I play music from Strauss’s Don Quijote Op. 35. (One of my students remembered playing movements of this in her youth orchestra, and was trying to match what she played with what she was reading. This will be a surprise for her!)

We will then discuss what they read, focusing on whether Don Quijote is a tragic figure or merely ridiculous.


In searching around for related materials, I came across the short film Lila on Zachary Jones’s site.


We will Movie Talk the film, then students will complete the activity sheet posted on Zambombozo, separating reality from fantasy. Then students will read the analysis of the video on Zambombazo, showing comprehension by matching the more advanced Spanish of the given text with paraphrased passages in simpler Spanish. After discussing the text, students will have a writing assignment comparing themselves to both Don Quijote and Lila and answering the central question: “¿Es mejor vivir en el mundo real o en un mundo de fantasías?”

Paideia Seminar and Comprehensible Input

I teach at a Paideia school, which means that my school focuses on Mortimer Adler’s philosophy that “the best education for the best is the best education for all.” I find that CI methods dovetail nicely into this, because they support the widest variety of learners. Slow processors get the repetitions they need to make meaning from high-frequency structures, and fast processors can hone in on things like how different verb endings change the meaning.

There are three pillars of instruction in the Paideia classroom: Didactic, Coaching, and Seminar. In my classes, I spend the majority of time in the Coaching mode, modeling the use of target structures through Personlized Questions and Answers (PQA), Story Asking, and reading stories and novels. To an outside observer, this might look like I am just lecturing. After all, a CI teacher does a LOT of talking! However, what I am really doing is modeling correct language and administering constant comprehension checks, building up students’ auditory and reading comprehension so that it leads to producing correct language in their speech and writing. Also, by asking them to respond to input, I am giving them a chance in a low-pressure environment to practice their target structures.

The area where I have struggled most to incorporate CI methods is Paideia Seminar. A seminar draws on Socratic-style questioning methods to guide students to a deeper understanding of an idea or a text. It is a formal discussion in which students sit in a circle and do not raise hands to speak, but rather wait for an appropriate opening. The teacher functions more a a facilitator, with the goal of keeping the discussion on-task, but not deliberately leading the students toward any one conclusion. In my school, all students participate in both weekly school-wide seminars on a particular text and in content-specific seminars. As a Comprehensible INPUT teacher, how could I expect my students to produce OUTPUT at the level that Paideia Seminar demands?

As a result, I tend to use Paideia Seminar very sparingly, deploying it only after students have already received ample input and have something highly discussible to talk about. My most successful Spanish seminar happened earlier this spring, in my 8th grade class. We had been reading Noches misteriosas en Granada by Kristy Placido, and there was an activity in the Teachers’ Guide for chapter 7 (where the mystery really ramps up) in which students had to agree or disagree with certain statements about the text and support their opinion with text evidence. Well, in the world of Paideia, we are constantly hammering “text evidence” into their brains, so I decided to use that activity to prepare them for a formal seminar. Remember, we were seven chapters into the novel, and I had built up their vocabulary previously with stories containing key target structures that I knew would appear in the novel. My students engaged in a lively debate about the true nature of the mysterious Alfonso and Soraya, completely in Spanish. The words were just falling out of their mouths, with almost no effort, even from some of my students who struggle the most and have been the most resistant to my methods! I was truly amazed at what they were capable of. One of my strategies when conducting a seminar in a foreign language is to reserve a couple of deep-thinking questions in English to ask at the end of the discussion, but these students didn’t even need them. They were fully engaged in the target language, even asking questions of their own in Spanish. The very best Paideia Seminars are ones in which students take the lead in the discussion, and I never expected that to happen in a Spanish seminar.

Their success has inspired me to develop Paideia Seminars for other texts as well. When I teach Esperanza next year, I can see a having a debate about Alberto’s role in things. (My students this year had strong opinions about his seemingly cavalier attitude about leaving his family behind.) When I teach Robo en la Noche, I want my students to delve deeper into Cecilio’s role in the theft. Do his reasons absolve him from his crimes?

Paideia Seminar is such a great tool for exploring characters and themes, and with enough CI prep, students can do it all in the target language, too!

El monstruo de la laguna

I’ve talked before about using Name Cards on the first day of school to get to know students and provide content for creating mini-stories in the first days of school. Favorite activities are a no-brainer for novice students, but what about second year students? I like to get the ball rolling with the phrase “tiene miedo.” Students draw pictures of what they fear, and we build scenarios of students finding clowns in their lockers or sharks in the bathroom. It’s very useful for reviewing past vocabulary, too.

A natural segue for “tiene miedo” name cards is this little comic strip I found on Zachary Jones’s site. The language is super-simple for returning students, but you can use circling techniques to build up a background story for the little green monster and the redheaded girl. I like to finish by having students draw what happens next, then displaying possible scenarios, discussing them in Spanish, and voting on a class favorite. Whatever my students decide, I write up into an extended reading for another class period.


You can extend this little comic even further if you have access to Señor Wooly’s fabulous site! His video for “Guapo” makes for a perfect contrast. After viewing and discussing the video and accompanying readings, I like to have students do a Free Write in Spanish on who the REAL monster is: Victor,  or this little green sweetheart.

OR you could connect the monster in the comic to Canticuénticos’ “Cumbia del monstruo,” a catchy little dance song with lots of opportunities to teach different body parts.

One of the things I love about teaching with Comprehensible Input methods is how easy it can be to link authentic resources from different sources. How could you use this comic in your classroom?


Or, How To Make Your Math Department Love You.

Numbers are so useful, yet so boring to teach. One thing that I have been using in all my classes throughout this year is a Matedictado, or Math Dictation. I originally got the idea from Ben Slavic’s blog (the source of many great CI ideas!), but have put my own little spin on it.

First, students have to practice the numbers. If they haven’t worked with higher numbers before, I like to drill them using Martina Bex’s Final Countdown Brain Break: I say “uno,” the next person stands up and says “dos,” and we see how high we can get without two people standing up at once or messing up the pattern. We get to do higher numbers if I start with a different number, forcing them to count by threes, fives, tens, or hundreds. Another way to practice numbers are to include them as details in stories. Some teachers use a Sesame Street-style Number of the Week for this purpose.

For the Matedictado itself, I teach operations vocabulary for plus, minus, or multiplied by, give five or ten problems. Students have to correctly hear and write down the two numbers for the problem, then solve it. Students get to hear the numbers again when they trade papers for grading.

Beginning the Year with Name Cards

Although some teachers and students are still enjoying their summer vacations in other parts of the country, today was the second day of school in my neck of the woods! And it is running smoothly thanks to an adaptation of Ben Slavic’s Circling with Balls routine.

The original Circling with Balls has well, actual balls. The teacher takes a basketball, asks who plays basketball, and students hear all about how Susie plays basketball with her friends, but Johnny plays baseball with his brother. You introduce the structure “he/she plays” and circle it to death.  I have done this with likes/dislikes for years, but only ever with beginners.

Now, I have the same routine for all my classes, regardless of level. Students get a sheet of cardstock and on one side, they write their name. On the other side, they draw a picture. My 8th graders have to draw something they are afraid of. Then, I weave a story using a willing volunteer’s picture. On the first day of school, we spent almost 30 minutes talking about evil clowns. We were having such fun, I ran out of time to give them a supply list.

This activity (which I still call Circling with Balls though  it needs a different name) serves three purposes. First, it sets the tone for the class, and helps to establish classroom norms. Second, it is a diagnostic activity in which I can what vocabulary and grammar my students have acquired and where gaps in their knowledge is. Finally, it helps me learn their names and their personalities faster, adding to the sense of community that I want to cultivate.

There is very little planning that goes into Circling with Balls, because the students ARE the curriculum.

Julieta Venegas “Me Voy”

My Spanish I class has been reading Blaine Ray’s novel “Pobre Ana” this quarter, and doing quite a good job with it. In chapter seven, Ana says goodbye to all her friends in Mexico, and I decided to use the catchy song “Me Voy” by Julieta Venegas to pre-teach that structure.

First, I wrote the following structures on the board:

Quiere despedirse de = She wants to say goodbye (break up with)

Me voy = I’m going

Me despido de ti = I’m saying goodbye to you

(Reflexive pronouns can make verb forms look quite different, so at this level I treat the infinitive and the conjugated form as two different structures.)

I used them to tell a story:

Hay una chica que se llama Julieta. Julieta tiene un novio, Romeo. Romeo es un novio muy malo. Juega videojuegos, come la pizza, y bebe Mountain Dew todos los días. Nunca presta atención a su novia.

Un día, Julieta quiere despedirse de Romeo. Le dice, “Adiós,” pero Romeo no le escucha. Entonces, Julieta le escribe una carta. La carta dice,

“Querido Romeo, Me despido de ti. Adiós, Julieta.” 

Pero Romeo es muy peresozo y nunca lee la carta. Por fin, Julieta toca la guitarra y le canta. Le canta, “¡Me voy! Qué lástima, pero adiós. Me despido de ti.” Después, Julieta se sube a un globo aerostático y se va. Romeo llora porque ahora no tiene una novia.

After circling the story for a bit, I showed the video, and students had to match Spanish lyrics with their English equivalents.

The next day, we read Pobre Ana with no problems because students recognized the vocabulary!


It was a Wednesday afternoon during the last 15 minutes of the last class of the day. My students were mostly finished with a quiz about a chapter of Mi propio auto, and were just hanging out while we waited for the stragglers to finish. Enter one of my admins, coming for one of my six required observations.  One minute later, my laptop and projector are fired up, I have my favorite site pulled up, and we are off on a mini-lesson that combines two of an observing admin’s favorite things: technology and the Common Core.

That site is, and I first heard about it from Robert Harrell on Ben Slavic’s blog. It’s a game in which you are dropped on a random street that could be anywhere in the world usingGoogle Streetview, and you win points by plotting your location on the map. The closer you are, the more points you earn.


How does this relate to Spanish? I narrate what is happening in the picture in the target language. I talk about the lines on the road, about the presence of mountains or desert or snow, about what the weather is like. We look at the cars, houses, people, and signs, and then I call on volunteers to make a guess. We can then further talk about what it’s like in different countries, and about where they are in relation to other places in the world.

Students love it because it’s competitive, and because they can get down on street level to real places from their backyard to Australia. It feels real to them. I love it because it provides me with a rich source of comprehensible input. Administrators love it because I am using technology to create a cross-curricular lesson, and also because I am forcing students to make inferences based on a text (the pictures). I would never spend a whole class period on it, but it’s great for eating up 15-20 minutes here and there, especially at the end of the year when we all need a change of pace!