Favorite Writing Activity for Spanish Class

How to Make Students Love Writing in Spanish

When I was in my second semester of teaching, I had a class that LOVED to write. Every time I gave them an in-class activity or homework assignment that involved writing, they sprang to life, eager to let their imaginations run wild. They loved writing so much that we completed an entire project above and beyond the already-demanding syllabus imposed on us by the department, a class collection of short stories inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s “Un día de estos.” Even when I tried to prank them for April Fool’s by coming up with utterly ridiculous personalized writing assignments for each of them, about half of the class did the work anyway. (Did Katie really think I expected a second-semester student to come up with a full set of military operation orders in Spanish? Apparently!)

Naturally, I was ecstatic. I had found the secret to teaching! I knew how to make each and every one of my future students love Spanish! I had become the Best. Teacher. Ever! All I had to do was build lots of creative writing opportunities into my courses, and I’d have all of my students ready to declare Spanish majors by the end of the semester.

I’m guessing you know how that worked out for me.

Unicorn asking for more writing activities
Were my students secretly mythical unicorns?

I’m now in my tenth year of teaching, and I have yet to teach another group of students that comes close to displaying the same level of passion for creative writing. If anything, I consider myself lucky when I get a class that isn’t actively resistant to writing activities. Part of me secretly wonders if that first magical class was even real, or if they were perhaps a group of mythical sparkly unicorns sent from Planet Glitter as my prize for winning the Intergalactic Teacher Lottery that year.

I’ve gone from thinking that writing is the solution to realizing that often, the trick is in convincing students that writing isn’t a problem. Perhaps you’ve heard some of the same complaints that I have through the years:

  • “I’m not creative. I can’t think of anything to write about.”
  • “I don’t know enough vocabulary.”
  • “It’s too hard.”
  • “I get all the verb forms confused.”
  • “It’s just not fun.”

To be fair, these would all be valid concerns—if they were true. But they don’t have to be. A well-designed writing activity can provide students with the scaffolded support they need to feel confident that they are able to write in Spanish, while being fun enough that they want to.

So What Is the Solution?

Enter my favorite writing activity ever: the “cuento al revés.” This is the best activity I’ve found for getting even my most reluctant students writing in Spanish. And they LOVE it!

Here’s how it works: First, you come up with a list of questions in the style of a traditional reading comprehension activity. For example, you might ask “What did Maria need to buy at the store?” or “How many people are there at Juan’s birthday party?” (But in Spanish, of course!) I usually use 10, but you can adjust the number of questions according to the amount of time you have and the level of your class. Students use their imagination to answer the questions as if they have found the information in a reading passage. Then, they write the corresponding story, using their answers as a starting point and adding as many other details as possible.

Link to a Spanish writing activity to practice the future tense
In this “cuento al revés,” students imagine their future: where they will live, what they will do, and how that treasure got in their backyard!

There are a few things to keep in mind as you’re crafting the questions:

  • This activity works best when the questions correlate to the grammar and vocabulary of your current unit.
  • Try to strike a balance between providing structure to the story and leaving room for your students to be creative.
  • The sillier, the better! I like to start with three or four questions that seem pretty straight-forward, and then start throwing increasingly wacky things at them. (Why did Mariana’s grandparents have a tiger in their kitchen?!?)

Here’s why it’s awesome:

The “cuento al revés” activity works because it solves all of those problems that students so often have with writing. Let’s revisit them:

  • “I’m not creative. I can’t think of anything to write about.”

Since students answer specific questions as the first step of the activity, by the time they need to write the story, all of the ideas are already there on the page!

  • “I don’t know enough vocabulary.”

This activity is great for reinforcing vocabulary! Since you’ve designed the questions to correlate to the current unit of study, they can be answered using the vocabulary that you’re actively working on. I like to incorporate those active vocabulary terms directly into the questions as much as possible, to further support my students.

  • “It’s too hard.”
  • “I get all the verb forms confused.”

The structure of the activity addresses both of these common complaints. In the first part, the students see all of the verb forms modeled for them in the questions. For example, when students are learning to use the preterite and the imperfect together, they can use the tense of the question to help them figure out which tense to use in their answer. If you’re working on the present tense and a student is unsure whether a verb is a stem-changer or not, they can simply refer to the question to check. Moving from answering targeted questions to writing an open-ended story provides just the scaffolding they need to succeed! (Note: You might need to point this out to students the first time you do this activity. They don’t always know how to use the questions as models.)

  • “It’s just not fun.”

This is where those wacky questions come into play! Try watching your students’ faces as they do the activity, and you’ll know exactly when they get to the first unexpected twist. There will be no doubt that they are having a blast!

Are you convinced yet?

I could keep going with a list of all the other ways that this activity is fabulous and how much more you can do with it, liking keeping a stack on hand as a fast finisher activity. But the best way to see its magic is to try it out for yourself!

Cover image for mega bundle of 30 cuentos al revés
I have over 30 “cuentos al revés” available in my TPT store! This mega bundle includes 30 stories at a 30% discount!

If you’re unsure of how to start, you can check out all of the “cuentos al revés” I have available in my Teachers Pay Teachers store. They’re a great way to save yourself some prep time! If you’re looking for a particular grammar and vocabulary combination that I don’t have yet, let me know in the comments or via my contact form, and I’d be happy to make one for you!

So yes, that one group of students may have been mythical unicorns from Planet Glitter, but now I’ve found a way to get all of my students to enjoy writing activities in Spanish, even the ones who are just ordinary human beings. And that may be the most magical thing of all.  

How to make students love writing in Spanish

What are your favorite writing activities? Let me know in the comments! And if you give this one a try, I’d love to hear how it went for you!

Why Scissors Are A Language Teacher’s Best Friend

I really, really hate cutting things out. There are so many reasons why it’s awful:

  • It takes for…ev…er.
  • It’s about as exciting as mindlessly filling in verb charts. (If you’re still using this as a pedagogical strategy, please check out this talk from Bill VanPatten on second language acquisition before reading any further.)
  • Keeping millions of tiny pieces of paper organized is a nightmare. (Pro tip: small plastic Ziploc bags designed for jewelry and crafting supplies, like these, work great for keeping cut-out sets organized!)
  • Pain. Oh, the pain. That special hand-cramping pain that makes you seriously question if you’ll ever be able to properly straighten your fingers again. (Pro tip #2: Definitely, definitely laminate before you cut, whenever possible, so that you only have to do this once!)
They look so innocent, don’t they?

And there are probably about 14,732 more reasons why scissors are absolutely horrible and the thought of cutting out one more piece of paper makes me want to go hide in a cave until the apocalypse is upon us.

And yet, I keep going back to those scissors. All. The. Time.

Why? Why do I keep inflicting this upon myself, if I hate cutting things out so much? Why not just design lesson plans that require no cutting whatsoever?

Because it’s worth it.

There are so many different ways to use tiny pieces of paper in a language classroom that I will go back to those scissors time and time again. After all, I’m ultimately in this gig for my students, and anything that will help them learn and keep them engaged is worth a little bit of pain and effort on my part. By spending a little bit of time cutting, I can incorporate more movement into my classroom, allow for greater flexibility in the lesson, more easily differentiate activities, engage kinesthetic learners, and encourage my students to develop critical thinking skills, among about a gazillion other benefits. What’s not to love?

Here are some of my favorite ways to use cut-up pieces of paper in my classes:

“Ecuaciones con palabras” is a great hands-on activity to practice vocabulary!
  • Cut out vocabulary words and have students arrange them into logical “equations” – think “fruit + yellow = banana”. This is great for helping students learn to relate Spanish words to each other instead of translating back to English, which will ultimately strengthen their ability to circumlocute. (I have several sets of “Ecuaciones con palabras” in my TpT store, if you want to give this activity a try. It’s my latest obsession!)
  • Cut up sentences and give them to students to unscramble. This forces students to apply their linguistic knowledge to work out a logical word order. (Make sure to ask students to give the students a follow-up task that requires them to interact with the content of the sentences after they’ve unscrambled them.)
  • Cut up vocabulary words for students to sort into categories. For example, you could give them several foods and have your students sort them into quadrants, based on whether the foods are healthy or unhealthy, and whether the students would rate them as delicious or disgusting. By actually cutting out the words instead of just giving them a word bank, you not only engage your kinesthetic learners, but you also have the flexibility of letting students change their mind about where a particular word belongs after engaging in discussion with their classmates (without filling their papers with lots of messy erasures and cross-outs), or asking students to group the words in multiple ways.
This task card set asks students to identify logical and illogical answers to questions!
  • Instead of traditional work sheets, create task cards. There are SO many ways to use task cards in a language classroom (check out this great post from La Profe Plotts on the Secondary Spanish Space blog for tons of ideas on how to use task cards in your class!) I love using task cards to get students up and moving, and they’re fabulous for mixed-ability classes, because of how easy they make differentiation. Not quite ready to make your own? You can see some of my task card sets here.
  • Create puzzles to solve. You could have them match verb forms with subjects, vocabulary words with a picture, one half of a sentence with its logical conclusion, words with their opposites, or any number of other ideas. Puzzles are FABULOUS for student engagement! I’ve found even my most reluctant learners spring into action the second I give them a puzzle to solve.
  • Cut a story into strips and have students arrange the strips into a logical order to recreate the story. This is great for practicing sequencing skills!

These are just a few of the ways that spending a few minutes with a pair of scissors can enrich your lesson plans, but I’m sure there are about a gazillion more. So, as much as I dread the preparation, I will continue to torture myself with lesson plans involving oh-so-much-cutting, because I know the payoff will come as soon as I hit the classroom.

What about you? Do you use tiny pieces of paper in your classroom as well? What are your favorite activities requiring some prep time with a good pair of scissors? Let me know in the comments!

How I Used Mail Merge to Streamline Student Feedback This Semester (And Why I Might Not Do It Again)

There are many aspects of my job that I’m good at. My classes are fun, and I’m constantly brainstorming new, creative activities that keep students engaged without sacrificing depth of content. I’m able to strike a balance between nurturing my students and challenging them, and because I believe fiercely and relentlessly in their ability to succeed, I can get students to stretch themselves like you wouldn’t believe. I can make nervous students feel comfortable, and I’m great at fostering a sense of community in the classroom.

This is a fairly accurate representation of what it looks like inside my brain. And sometimes my office.

I’m not so good at staying organized.

I can handle it when the consequences of my disorganization fall back on me – when I have to take the extra minute to sort through the piles of paper on my desk to find the one I need, or when I feel frazzled because I forgot about an upcoming deadline and suddenly I have to do all of the things in none of the time. It’s certainly not ideal, and I may drive myself nuts, but it’s not the end of the world.

But when my organizational struggles impact my students, it’s time to get my act together. And one thing that’s very difficult to manage as an organizationally-challenged educator is feedback. Over the last few years, I’ve felt like I’m constantly apologizing for how long it’s taking me to grade this or that assignment, and while I always start off each semester with dreams of offering each student individualized feedback on a near-daily basis, inevitably, by the time we’re about a month in, those dreams have evaporated, replaced by the desperate rush to make sure that my classes at least get their major assignments back with some minimal level of feedback before we get to the next big assessment and my students have no chance of improving because they don’t know what they’ve done wrong.

Sound familiar? I can’t be the only one who struggles to provide timely feedback while still keeping on top of everything else involved in being an educator… right?

If you’re one of the ones who has this feedback thing all figured out, please, share your wisdom! I’d love to hear from you in the comments about what works for you. But in case you’re like me and are still perfecting your system for offering timely feedback without going crazy, I thought I’d share my own journey with all of its ups and downs. Feel free to borrow anything you find helpful, and please—PLEASE—use my failures to help you avoid similar missteps, so at least they will have served some purpose! And at the very least, take comfort in the fact that you are not alone!

So, without further ado, here are my reflections on attempt #1 to reform my grading practices:

This semester, inspired by this post from The Goldfish Bowl, I decided to use the mail merge function in Word to create personalized feedback forms to give to students at the end of each unit. Throughout the unit, I collected data on my students’ performance and stored it all in a giant Excel spreadsheet, which I then used to populate the mail merge fields in my Word document. While this did require a significant investment of time on the front end to set everything up, my theory was that once I had it up and running, it would significantly streamline the feedback process throughout the semester and allow me to provide more in-depth, personalized feedback to each student without going crazy.

A sample student feedback sheet. Isn’t it beautiful?

Here’s how I set it up:

I created an Excel workbook containing a separate spreadsheet for each class, plus one sheet with a master list of comments. Each class spreadsheet had columns to record my students’ grades in participation, homework, and performance on each portion of our end-of-unit IPA (IPA = Integrated Performance Assessment. An IPA includes assessments in the interpretive, interpersonal, and presentational modes of communication. Check out this blog post from Becky Morales at Kid World Citizen for more on IPAs). For these assessments, I recorded their scores in each sub-category of our grading rubric, and then used a formula to convert these scores to an overall grade. I also had several columns dedicated to comments: my observations about their class participation, notes about any particular grammatical structures that seemed to be giving them trouble, recommended activities to help improve in these areas, and comments on their strengths and weaknesses in each of the communicative modes.   

A snippet of my master list of comments.

On the master spreadsheet, I created one column for each type of comment I wanted to include — participation, recommended activities, etc. I wrote out the comments I anticipated making frequently in each category, such as “I appreciate how well you follow directions and stay on task!” or “You’re mostly speaking in single words and short phrases. Try to extend your speech by incorporating more full, simple sentences.”

Back on the class spreadsheets, I used the data validation feature to link each comment column to the corresponding list of comments on the master spreadsheet, so that all I had to do was choose the comment I wanted to give each student from a drop-down list. (You can find a tutorial on how to do that here.)

Close-up of the feedback sheet in Word before I finalized the mail merge.

Over in Word, I created a new document that would become the actual feedback form my students would receive, which I set up as a mail merge linked to my Excel spreadsheet (and of course, spent more time than I should have making it look adorable with fun borders and cute fonts).

As I graded student work, I entered all of the numbers into the Excel spreadsheet and selected all of the appropriate comments. Then all I had to do was run the mail merge, and Word created an individualized feedback form for each student, complete with both their numerical grades and my comments about their performance in the various categories. I made sure to save a copy of the feedback forms so I had a record of their grades, then I wiped the data from the Excel spreadsheet and started again in the next unit.

Snippet of a class spreadsheet in Excel, with all data and comments entered.

Just as I had anticipated, this system took a while to setup, but it did significantly streamline the grading process and allow me to give more feedback to each of my students throughout the semester.

Here’s what I liked about the system:

  • It did make it easy to transform raw data into feedback that seemed more user-friendly and personal.
  • It improved my efficiency. I could get through a stack of grading much more quickly when I only had to select the comment I wanted from a drop-down menu rather than rewriting the same comments over and over again.
  • I saved a LOT of paper. Rather than printing out separate rubrics for each graded assignment, I only needed to print out one sheet per student per unit.  
  • It helped me shift my focus from correcting every last error to thinking more holistically about the feedback I was offering students. What was the most important thing for them to work on in order to improve? What one thing were they doing really well?
  • I was able to include observations and comments about their performance that wouldn’t have fit neatly into any particular assignment. For example, if I noticed a student was often confusing “ser” and “estar” on their in-class activities, I could make a comment to that effect under the general grammar notes section, as well as direct them to exercises to help them practice those verbs, even if it wasn’t a primary objective of the unit.

In essence, the system worked exactly as I hoped it would. It was efficient and easy to use, and it improved both the quantity and the quality of the feedback my students received.

That said, I may not go back to it this spring. Here’s why:

  • While the drop-down menus did streamline my process for commenting on student work, they felt limiting. Rarely did my pre-created comments capture precisely what I wanted to communicate to a student, and I often found myself choosing between giving them feedback that wasn’t quite right or typing out a new comment that wasn’t on my original list.
  • I think students learn best when we can point to concrete examples of their strengths and weaknesses within their own work, which this setup doesn’t allow for, at least not without doing so much extra work that it defeats the purpose of using this feedback system in the first place. Telling a student to work on their vowel sounds isn’t as helpful as saying “Make sure not to add a ‘y’ sound in front of your ‘u’s. For example, you are currently pronouncing the word universidad as ‘you-nee-ver-see-dad.’ In Spanish, the vowel ‘u’ should always make the sound ‘oo’ like in ‘moon’, so the word universidad should be pronounced ‘oo-nee-ver-see-dad.’”
  • While I was more efficient at grading and commenting on each individual portion of our IPAs, I had to have everything entered into the Excel spreadsheet before I could generate the feedback forms using mail merge. I found that often I would have several portions of their IPAs graded, yet I wouldn’t be able to give students their feedback on those portions until I had everything ready to go.

As far as I’m concerned, these drawbacks are significant enough that I need to rethink my feedback system once again, in spite of all of the things I loved about this setup. I think this system might still have its uses, but in a much more limited fashion, such as using it to give feedback on individual assignments instead of compiling a whole unit’s worth of work at once, or using it primarily to communicate information that doesn’t require the same level of personalization, such as which textbook exercises a student should complete next.

In the meantime, the search for the perfect feedback system continues. Stay tuned…

How do you handle student feedback? Let me know in the comments!

Break Out of Your Routine with a Classroom Breakout!!!

Christmas of 2016 was the most me Christmas ever. My sister got me a laminator, my mother-in-law got me this book about fonts, and my husband locked me in a room for an hour. Not literally, of course; he gave my mother and I a gift certificate to try a new escape room that had opened up nearby. I read the book cover-to-cover in about 24 hours, because I LOVE fonts, and I use my laminator constantly as I create resources for my classes that I want to reuse year after year. But my husband definitely won Christmas that year. The escape room experience, well, let’s just say that has evolved into somewhat of an obsession. I can’t get enough of them. I’ll go to any escape room, anytime, anywhere. (Most recently, my mother and I saved the world from a deadly radioactive leak caused by a major UFO crash. You’re welcome.)

Between my overwhelming love for escape rooms and my penchant for keeping things fun (and maybe even a little bit crazy) in the classroom, you can imagine my reaction when I stumbled across BreakoutEDU and realized that there was a whole group of like-minded teachers out there who had figured out how to adapt the escape room concept to become an educational tool. I immediately filled my Amazon cart with every type of lock imaginable, some UV pens, and a few lockable boxes, and set about writing my first breakout. Since then, I’ve created several of them from scratch, customized to the particular thematic units we’re covering in class, from the Guatemalan economy to Spain’s conquest of the Aztec empire.

“Must. Get. In. To. Box.”

If you’re not familiar with the concept, here’s how it works: Since you can’t lock your students into the classroom, at least not without raising some eyebrows, instead, you present them with a locked box that they need to break in to. This box can have several different types of locks on it, all of which require a different kind of code to open. You give  your students a backstory, some reason they need/want to get into the box. Placed around the room are a variety of materials that, when used correctly, provide all of the information that the students need to crack the various codes. There may actually be multiple locked boxes in the room, some of which your students must open along the way in order to get additional clues to help them open the final box. If your students successfully open all the locks and get into the final box, they win! If they don’t, they still win, because after all, if you had fun, you won!

Breakout days are always the best days of the semester, hands down. It is so rewarding to see my students 100% engaged, and naturally, they absolutely love doing them. I always get lots of comments about how much fun they’ve had, but one of my students last year “got it” on a different level. As he was leaving the classroom, he remarked to me:

“That was awesome! It was fun, but we also actually learned a lot! You don’t even realize how much you’re learning as you do it!”

And that, right there, is why I think classroom breakouts are one of the most effective activities you can do in any class, but especially in a language class. Yes, they are fun, which I am all about, but they are also incredibly powerful as a learning tool. They naturally help develop critical thinking skills and teamwork, and with all the different materials students must interact with to find their clues, they provide an amazing opportunity for practice in the interpretive mode. And of course, you can customize the breakout to cover any topic that you want, making them great for bringing cultural content to life in a memorable way.

Are you convinced yet?

If you’re ready to try running a breakout with your students, welcome to your next obsession! But… now what? How do you get started?

Don’t worry if you feel a little bit like this confused frog at first. There are a ton of great resources out there to help you, from ready-to-go breakout activities available for purchase to websites that are fabulous for creating different types of clues. Below, I’ve collected a variety of tips, tricks, and resources to help you get started. You may want to try a pre-created breakout for your first experience, until you get the hang of how they work, but if you’re ready to go the whole hog and come up with your own, I’ve also outlined my process for creating a breakout from scratch.

Sample Process for Creating a Breakout

  1. Decide on a theme for the breakout, preferably related to the current cultural unit.

2. Create the backstory – What is in the box? Why do students need it? I usually create a draft of their set-up letter/initial instructions at this point, but I often come back and add a few clues later, once I’ve figured out what all of my lock codes will be. This ensures that they actually have to read the document.

3. Search the web for authentic cultural materials related to the theme of the breakout. This may include YouTube videos, infographics, menus, city maps, photographs, brochures, Twitter feeds, websites, art, and/or anything else you can think of.

4. Make a list of the locks you are planning on using. Start looking through the authentic materials you have found for anything that lends itself to a particular type of clue. See below for a list of ideas.

5. Figure out what clues you will need to create yourself, either to point your students to the appropriate information from the authentic materials or to directly encode the information for one of the locks. Type up everything you need.

6. Create a ”road map” of the breakout. How many boxes are you using? Which locks will be on which boxes? Where will different clues be planted around the room?

Tip: If students need to crack one lock in order to obtain clues needed for another lock (ie, they have to get into a box that has the UV lights inside), don’t make the first lock one of the more challenging ones, or they will run out of time to finish the whole activity. It works best to put your most complicated/challenging locks on the final box, and use easier ones for intermediate steps. (I learned this one the hard way!)

7. Print out all of your materials. I highly recommend laminating them so you can reuse them year after year.

8. Set everything up and watch your students have an amazing time! You can adjust the challenge level by placing clues closer to or farther away from their respective locks.

Clue Ideas

  • Build a fake Facebook page for a historical figure, novel character, or celebrity from the target culture and hide clues inside. Here is an example of one I created to accompany a conquistador-themed breakout. As you scroll through the entries, certain words have letters that are inappropriately capitalized. When combined, they spell out “MATAR.” (Note: This was a particularly challenging clue, and I recommend starting with something more straightforward until your students are more used to breakout activities.)
  • Use infographics for 3- and 4-digit lock codes. You can find them on any topic imaginable, they are full of numbers (making them great for number combinations), and because of the high level of visual support, even novice students can comprehend them.
  • Give students a map and a series of places to visit as a clue to a directional lock. This works best if the city is roughly on a grid. Subway maps also work well.
  • Have students answer questions on a reading or listening passage, and use letters from the answers to open a word lock.
  • Create a table with a statement related to your theme in each box, only some of which are true. Students have to follow the path from one true statement to the next to get the code for a directional lock.
  • Have students work with foreign currency as a clue to a 3- or 4-digit lock.
  • Use invisible ink and UV lights to hide any kind of clue anywhere in the room.
  • Have students do a sequencing activity as a clue to a 3- or 4-digit lock.
  • To incorporate listening comprehension into a breakout activity, use QR codes to send students to YouTube, Edpuzzle, or a voice message you have recorded on a site like Clyp. (Snapchat can read QR codes, so if you allow your students to use their phones, they can all access the clue. Alternately, you could have a classroom computer with the webpage preloaded as part of your activity setup.)
  • Print out a photograph or piece of art and write a clue on it before cutting it up into a puzzle.
  • Incorporate directional words into a story to create the clues for a directional lock.
  • Create fake concert tickets and plant a clue as to which field(s) they should use to find the combination to a 3- or 4-digit lock (ie, the price, date, row/seat number, etc.)
  • For a key lock, if you have multiple groups, you can either print out pictures of keys that students can bring you to represent having found the actual key, or you can hang on to it and create a password that students must give you to get the key.

Free Breakout Games Available on the Internet

Martina Bex has an excellent blog full of great resources to use in the Spanish classroom, so I highly recommend poking around her website while you’re there! Both of these breakout games are appropriate for novice level students.

Breakout Games Available for Purchase on the Internet

Teachers Pay Teachers is a website where teachers post resources they have created and used in their own classrooms. It’s a fabulous way to get high-quality materials for your own classroom, typically much cheaper than buying from a textbook publisher, and the best part is that you are helping support other teachers when you do so. In addition to pre-created breakout activities, you can search the site to find anything from grammar worksheets to cultural activities.

Other Helpful Websites for Creating and Running Breakouts

  • Breakout EDU Website — You can order a “breakout kit” that comes all of the materials needed to run a breakout, as well as access to their platform, which includes several pre-created games across a variety of subject areas, plus the ability to build digital breakout games on their website. This is a convenient way to get started, though it is   definitely cheaper to order your own materials through Amazon.
  • Breakout EDU Design Videos — While platform access on the Breakout.edu site costs money, everyone can access their game design tutorials with tons of tips and tricks for how to create your own game.
  • Breakout EDU on Facebook — You can participate in this group even if you do not have platform access to the official Breakout EDU site. It’s a great place to ask questions, and members often post ideas and links to other resources they have found on the web.
  • Breakout EDU en español on Facebook — Very similar to the above group, only focused entirely on breakout games for Spanish classes. If you’re looking for a breakout on a particular topic, this is a great place to ask, because often a member will have one they are willing to share.
  • “How to Build Escape Room Challenges” — Blog post with tips and advice from Pathways 2 Success.
  • Breakout EDU on Pinterest — A Pinterest board dedicated to all things related to classroom breakout activities.

Websites for Creating Specific Clues

  • Edpuzzle — A website that lets you take any video and add quiz questions to it. The answers could provide the combination to a lock when given in order.
  • QR Code Generator — You can turn any website into a QR Code. This is especially useful for incorporating listening comprehension into a breakout.
  • Classtools.net — Contains several tools for generating a variety of fake materials, such as Facebook profiles, text message exchanges, breaking news headlines, tweets, and name badges. You can also create different types of interactive quizzes.
  • Clyp — A free digital audio recorder.
  • Snotes — Creates secret messages that can only be read when held at a certain angle.
  • Fake Ticket Generator — A website for creating fake concert tickets.
  • Ransomizer — A website for making any text look like a ransom note.
  • Fake Receipt — A website for generating fake store receipts. Not all of the text can be switched into the target language, but much of it can be customized. The currency can also be switched to €.
  • Eye Chart Maker — Type in any text and have it converted to an eye chart.
  • Big Huge Labs — A website that will let you create lots of custom materials from your own photographs and text.

Have you done a breakout in your class? Leave me a comment and let me know how it went!!! I want to hear ALL your breakout stories!!! 

Back to School Resource Library Plus an Amazing Giveaway!!!

It’s almost that time. The summer days are slowly (okay, quickly) rolling by, and the back to school season is sneaking up on us. It’s an exciting moment, filled with so much hope and possibility – This will be the year I finally get my class the way I want it! These will be the students that I will share a deep and lasting bond with! I will be organized! I will be inspiring! My classroom will be a magical place filled with glitter and unicorns!

But alongside the excitement, there’s maybe just a teensy weensy little bit of panic setting in. All those plans we had for everything we would accomplish over break… well, it all seemed possible two months ago. But now, you’d need 6 more weeks working 32-hour days with the help of a magical fairy assistant to get it all done. Oh, and coffee. Lots of coffee.

If only there were a place you could go to find tons of incredible resources that you could use in your class to save you hours of lesson prep and activity creation. Guess what?!? There is!!! I’ve been fortunate enough to collaborate with several Spanish teacher friends to create a library with 27 free resources for you to download and use in your secondary Spanish class!!! My colleagues are some amazingly talented people with so many creative ideas – you definitely won’t want to miss this! If you teach elementary school, we’ve got a version for you too!

Oh, and did I mention we can help with the coffee too? Along with the free resource library, we’re also hosting a HUGE giveaway, where you can win one of EIGHT different gift cards, including $50 to Starbucks!!!The Rafflecopter ends Wednesday, July 25 at 11:59pm (Pacific Time). Here are all the prizes you could win:

  • $100 Target gift card
  • $100 TpT gift card
  • $100 Amazon gift card
  • TWO $50 Target gift cards
  • TWO $50 TpT gift cards
  • $50 Starbucks gift card

My friends on Secondary Spanish Space are hosting our giveaway on their site, so head on over now to enter!

The giveaway and free resource library may not be quite as good as a magical fairy assistant or a 32-hour day, but we think they come pretty darn close, and might just be what you need to take some of the panic out of back-to-school season. Enjoy!

To Get the Most Out of a Music Activity, Turn the Music… Off?!?

Click here for my activity packet on “Vamos on la playa”, but beware! This song is VERY eighties!

It sounds counterintuitive, right? You’ve found the perfect song — it has a catchy tune that your students are just going to LOVE, the lyrics are comprehensible and full of examples of the exact grammar point you’re working on, and it ties in perfectly to your thematic unit. When you find a gold mine like that, you absolutely cannot wait to pull up YouTube or iTunes and get the music cranking. At least I can’t. I just want to rush into the classroom and yell “YOU GUYS! WAIT UNTIL YOU HEAR THE AMAZING SONG I FOUND! WE ARE GOING TO HAVE THE BEST CLASS EVER!” (And I have to make good on this 99% of the time to make up for the one class period I will spring Righeira’s “Vamos a la playa” on them!)

As much as I want to turn up the volume right away and get my students up and out of their seats for an impromptu dance party, I’ve found that this isn’t necessarily the most effective strategy. After all, I’ve got a long list of objectives that I’m trying to accomplish when I bring music into the class: reinforcing vocabulary, working with examples of grammar in context, practicing a variety of listening comprehension strategies, and mining both the lyrics and the music video for cultural content, not to mention convincing my students that Spanish is awesome and fun and totally worth learning. In the past, even when I’ve warmed them up with a pre-listening activity and given them a targeted exercise to complete while listening to the song, I’ve found that my students can feel more overwhelmed than inspired if we try to do too much at once. We make it through the song for the first time, and I’ve got one group of students who have dutifully completed their cloze activity, but kept their eyes so focused on the paper that they didn’t see a single second of the music video and barely even heard the music, so now they are no more engaged than if I had read to them out of the dictionary; and another group of students who were definitely rocking out, but got distracted and now have half-completed worksheets and are sitting there bugging their friends for the answers; and a third group that’s all stressed out because they didn’t know that one word in the first verse and by the time they finished sneaking out their phones so they could look it up, because they need to understand every single word or they haven’t understood anything, they’d missed 6 more verses with 8 more unfamiliar terms.

So one day, I tried something a bit… unorthodox. I turned the volume off. Our first time through the song was completely silent. And it. was. awesome.

Click here for my activity packet to use “Hoy es domingo” in your classroom!

I first tried this with “Hoy es domingo,” by Diego Torres. (Side note: If you haven’t used this song yet with your students, you absolutely have to give it a try! This is one of my all-time favorites!) We were doing a unit on hobbies and pastimes, and I was SO excited to find this gem – not only is it comprehensible and filled with tons of thematically relevant vocabulary, but it is a gorgeous portrayal of Latin culture and lends itself naturally both to making cultural comparisons and to exploring the connection between cultural practices and perspectives. (ACTFL for the win!)

For homework the night before, I’d asked my students to create a schedule of their typical week. Our pre-listening activities involved sharing these schedules with a partner, focusing especially on the weekends, and then working as a class to brainstorm a list of the most common ways that American students spend their free time. “Hoy es domingo” is from an album called Buena vida, so for the next activity, I gave them a list of factors that could be considered necessary elements of “the good life,” such as family, money, friendship, and a career, and asked my students to rank them in order of importance. The combination of the two activities not only activated the relevant vocabulary related to hobbies and pastimes, but also got them thinking about the relationship between how we spend our free time (cultural PRACTICES) and what we value (cultural PERSPECTIVES).

In the past, I would have played them the song at this point, and I did pull up the music video, but I muted the sound before I hit play. We sat there in complete silence for 4 minutes and 36 seconds while watching an assortment of people walk their dogs, brew coffee, grill food, and break out into spontaneous dancing in the streets. My students’ task was to determine how they thought Diego Torres would have completed the first two activities — what does he do on a typical Sunday, and how would he rank the various factors of “the good life”? — based only on what they could see in the video.

It was magical. I had been worried that the visuals alone wouldn’t be enough to hold their attention for that long, but they were completely rapt. After it was over, I heard a few students exclaiming that they were ready to move to Latin America already, several more talking about how much they couldn’t wait to hear the song after seeing the video, and one girl who had to leave early lamenting the fact that she had to miss the rest of class.

The rest of the class followed a familiar routine. We watched the video again, this time with the sound on, and they completed a variety of activities to check their comprehension, reinforce the relevant vocabulary and grammar, and dig deeper into the cultural content. The difference was in how productive that work was. My students were completely engaged for the entire lesson. They dug into all of the activities and made really thoughtful cultural connections. It was one of those classes that just works, where everything comes together in all the ways you had hoped and both you and your students leave feeling completely energized. And the highlight came a few weeks later, when I heard one of my students playing music from her personal playlist and realized she was listening to “Hoy es domingo”!

After seeing how well that class went, I now turn the music off anytime I want to introduce a new song to my students. But why does it work? Here’s what I think:

  • It lets students focus on one aspect of the song at a time. Trying to process loads of new linguistic input while being bombarded with flashy images can completely fry their poor brains. By turning off the sound, they can relax and concentrate just on the visual information before they dive in to processing the language.
  • It encourages students to practice using context clues to interpret what is being communicated. This translates into better listening comprehension skills in general, as they become more adept at looking for nonverbal cues like facial expressions, gestures, and body language. I think sometimes students are hesitant to believe that this “counts” as understanding Spanish; they feel like they’re cheating if they only know what we’re saying because we acted it out or pointed to a picture. By taking away all of the words, we can reinforce the message that not only are they not cheating when they use these interpretive strategies, but that we want them to do so.

    Click here to check out my newest Spanish song unit to incorporate a silent predictive pre-listening activity!

  • It results in a more meaningful interaction with the target culture. Students aren’t just relying on what we say about the culture, but rather are drawing their own conclusions based on their interaction with the culture. Of course, we still have to guide them by giving them a carefully crafted task to help them hone in on the most relevant images, but I think sometimes we get so focused on working with the language of a song that we forget just how much cultural information is encoded in the visual imagery.
  • It prepares students to better understand the lyrics once we turn the music on. Add this into your repertoire along with KWL charts and discussion questions as a great way to activate their prior understanding and get them to make predictions about what they will hear.
  • It gets them really excited about the music. Delayed gratification is so much more… well, gratifying. Seeing the video is like a little teaser that lets their enthusiasm build!

So next time you’re ready to crank up the tunes in class, think about turning them off first. It might just turn out that the proverbial wisdom is right – silence really is golden… as a teaching tool!

Did you give this a try? Let me know how it went in the comments, or share other fabulous strategies you have for incorporating music into your class!

 

Help! My Spanish Teacher Is Crazy!!!

Or, how to start the year off right in a foreign language class

Do you ever have one of those moments where you plan the best activity ever for your class, and it falls completely flat because your students would literally rather die than participate? No? Just me? Am I the only one who sometimes thinks maybe I just should have gone into dentistry, because getting students to talk in class is a lot like pulling teeth? Ever ask a question and have a room full of students looking somewhat like this guy?

My last post was all about the importance of being willing to risk looking ridiculous in the foreign language classroom, but how do we get students to do this? Students have to feel safe making mistakes, and it’s up to us to create a classroom environment where it’s okay to step outside our comfort zone, and even okay to look a little bit silly doing so.

Day 1 of any class is about setting expectations. Often, this means going over the syllabus, talking about major assignments, or reviewing grading policies. (Pardon me for a moment while I yawn. Is it REALLY a good idea to bore our students to tears before we’ve even taught them anything?) That’s probably what students are expecting when they walk through my door. But I always have something a little different up my sleeve for day one. Don’t get me wrong — I’m still setting expectations. I’ve just chosen a different set of expectations to focus on, and a rather unorthodox method of addressing them.

The class looks something like this…

I survey my students, looking for that perfect first victim, preferably someone who gives off a bit of a class clown vibe. Don’t get me wrong, none of them are safe, but it usually helps to start things off with someone who likes to be the center of attention. I see one of my athletes, already joking comfortably with his buddies… perfect! I catch his eye and make the “come here” gesture with my finger.

Now I’ve got him up in front of the class. I smile, then turn and start banging my head against the wall (gently, mind you, but very theatrically). He looks at me in confusion. The rest of the class is caught somewhere between laughter and bewilderment. I pause just long enough to point at him, then at the wall, indicating that he should copy my behavior.

“Wait, you want me to… naww… do I have to? You really want me to bang my head against the wall?!?!?”

I nod and smile, then do a few more head bangs myself just to make sure he’s got the point. He laughs, but complies, to the great delight of all of his classmates. I leave him to his head banging and move on.

Next, I find a couple of my girls who look particularly outgoing and use hand signals to indicate that I want them to stand up. All the way up. Yup, I want them up on top of their chairs or desks or tables, depending on the particular classroom setup. Of course, in order to show them this, I have to climb up on top of my desk too. (Mental note: Make sure never to wear a dress on the first day!) I just get up there when I notice my head banger has stopped banging, thinking I’m done with him. Oh no, not yet. Back down I jump, heading over to his spot on the wall and repeating my pantomimed instructions to keep the head banging going.

Now that he’s back in action, I can return to my girls on top of their chairs. I hop back up on my desk and start disco dancing à la John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever. (Disco is great for this, because you can look pretty darn ridiculous without having to move your feet much.) My girls start giggling, looking somewhat embarrassed, but they do comply and start busting out some moves.

By now, everyone knows what’s coming. I go around the room, sometimes taking one student at a time, sometimes groups of two or three, and giving each of them something utterly preposterous to do. Occasionally I have to swing by an earlier group and restart them if they’re slacking off (I’m looking at you, head banger!) Before long, the entire class is filled with teenagers doing everything from square dancing to strutting around like chickens. I step back and watch them for a minute or two, then finally, I give the signal that they can stop what they’re doing and go back to their seats.

Then, and only then, do I say my first words to them. We have a discussion about the activity – how did it make them feel? Why did I start our Spanish class off this way? And what on earth have they signed up for?

I’ve done this for the past 5 years, and as goofy as it sounds (and, in truth, it really is pretty ridiculous), I have found the activity to be an incredibly effective way to establish the classroom environment I’m shooting for, right from the opening minutes of the semester. I find it helps me communicate two very important messages to my students:

1. There is absolutely no need to use English in this classroom

There will be times when you will feel like do not understand a single word that is coming out of my mouth. That is okay. That is normal. I am fully prepared to use body language and other forms of non-verbal communication to help me get my message across. If I can get you playing leapfrog and doing the can-can without ever speaking a word, then seriously, what’s the limit? I’d rather have you resort to gestures and signs when you don’t understand, rather than flipping back to English. English is a crutch. You will think you need it, but you don’t. 

2. This is a classroom where risk-taking is encouraged

You will make mistakes this semester. It is absolutely unavoidable when you are learning a language. You may feel really silly when you do. You may feel embarrassed. You may worry that other people are judging you. Guess what? You will never look more ridiculous making a mistake than you just did dancing around this classroom. You have already experienced your most embarrassing moment in this class! The worst is over! It’s all downhill from here! So go ahead – take a risk, give it a try. You might get it wrong, and that’s not only okay, it’s something to celebrate. We learn when we make mistakes. 

Every semester, I have to remind myself of my own lessons, particularly the second one. Every semester, I consider starting my classes off more traditionally. Every semester, I worry about that all-important first impression; I worry that my students will have no respect for me, that they’ll think I’m just a goof who thinks she’s fun but is really just super uncool. And every semester, I take a deep breath, walk into that classroom, and start banging my head against a wall again. I’m always glad I did.

Did you give this activity a try with your students? What else do you do to encourage your students to take risks? Do you have a special technique you use to help lower the affective filter in your classroom? Tell me about it in the comments!

Being Willing to Look Ridiculous

I get it. We all hate looking ridiculous. It’s part of the reason I’ve toyed with the idea of starting a blog for years, but am only just now writing my first post. Will anyone read it? Do I even want them to? What will they think? Will anyone find my ideas interesting, or will everyone just think I’m dumb and boring? Is this whole blogging idea just… ridiculous?

Yet here I am, starting a blog.

As usual, my students were my inspiration, even now, on summer vacation, when I haven’t seen them in over a month. I started thinking about how much I love watching them take risks in class and how hard I work to cultivate a classroom atmosphere in which it’s okay to make mistakes and look a little silly, and I realized that it’s not exactly reasonable to expect my students to put themselves out there if I’m not willing to do so myself. And thus, this blog was born.

In the spirit of being willing to look ridiculous, I’ll start this blog off with a personal story from last summer, when I took a group of students to Spain. We all stayed with host families for three intensely hot weeks, with temperatures soaring well over 100ºF (That detail is important to the story, as you’ll see in a second). I’m guessing most of us have experienced something similar, because, let’s face it, learning a language is a messy process, and even as the “experts,” we’re all still going to make mistakes from time to time. Why not be willing to put our flops and failures out there, for each other and for our students? What better way to show them that we really mean it when we say that it’s okay to get things wrong, as long as you’re trying? So without further ado, here’s mine:

***

It turns out that the heat in Spain is not ridiculous. Heat cannot be ridiculous, in fact. I learned this the hard way, when my señora asked what I thought of the heat and I replied “Es ridículo.” She looked positively flabbergasted.

“Pero Jennifer, ¿qué has dicho? ¿Ridículo? ¡No! ¡El calor no puede ser ridículo! Espantoso, horrible, horroroso… sí, pero ridículo, no! ¡No puedes decir esto!”

“Vale, entiendo. No lo digo nada más,” I replied.

“Pero, ¿por qué has dicho ridículo?”

I tried my best to explain that in America, or at least in Jennifer-speak, “ridiculous” can be used to exaggerate or indicate that something is well beyond what we would normally expect. She just kept shaking her head no, and saying something along the lines of “¿Cómo te lo explico? ¿Cómo te defino lo que es ridículo? Una persona puede ser ridícula, pero el calor, no.”

Again, I try to indicate that I’ve got it. Ridiculous does not describe heat. Then she becomes worried that she doesn’t have a dictionary, and tells me that she always tells her “chicas americanas” to look words up in the dictionary when they misuse them, which of course won’t be helpful because it’s exactly the word for what I was trying to say; it’s just not an expression they use here, apparently.

Then Antonio, her husband, returns home.

“Antonio, ¿sabes lo que ha dicho Jennifer? ¡Ha dicho que el calor es ridículo! El calor no puede ser ridículo, ¿no? A ver si tú puedes explicárselo. Vale, Jennifer, el profesor te lo explica.” (Antonio is a professor – of agriculture, mind you, but this still apparently makes him an expert on all the ways in which the heat is definitely not ridiculous.)

Antonio agrees. Heat is not ridiculous. Espantoso, horrible, horroroso, sí. Ridículo, no. This prompts María José to run through the list of adjectives again. Wanting to show that I am not, in fact, incapable of producing the Spanish language, I add “¿insoportable?” to the list, with a questioning intonation, seeing as there is definitely a guest list for this party, and not all adjectives are on it. Her eyes light up. “Sí, insoportable, eso puede ser. Pero ridículo, no.”

I think we’re just about done with the whole thing, when her daughter and granddaughters arrive on the scene (the girls are around 8 and 10, lovely, lively girls I’ve shared a few meals with over the past three weeks.) Back to square one. “¿Sabes lo que ha dicho Jennifer?…” You know the rest by now. The daughter and granddaughters agree, heat is definitely not ridiculous. Carmen (the younger of the two) tells me that if she were to go out with her hair uncombed, that would be ridiculous. My señora and her daughter nod – that, yes, would be ridiculous. My señora seems inordinately pleased that the 8-year-old has finally found a way to explain the concept to me.

So now you know. The heat in Spain is not ridiculous. Calling it so… now that is ridiculous, and I’m pretty sure even María José would agree.