Graphic Organizers for Stories

Graphic Organizers are big in the education world, for good reason: They help students to visually organize their information. It gives them another way to interpret the information that they are reading/learning in their classes. I don’t know why it never occurred to me to try to use a graphic organizer to help students organize their thoughts for stories. It’s something that other reading teachers do, things like webs and diagrams and maps. I thought I’d try it out. I took a few minutes and broke down the parts of a Blaine Ray-style story and gave them each their own box. I taught the students what personaje principal means and we got to work.

Continue reading “Graphic Organizers for Stories”


Mascots and Silly Characters

Well, the year is in full swing. Homework is assigned, assignments are being completed and collected, grades are going into the gradebook. All is going at breakneck speed from August to June. It’s already our 3rd week (almost the end of it!) and it feels like we just started.

Things have gone really well, especially my classroom mascots. All classes from 4th – 8th have created a mascot (2 grade level). Now, I am waiting on students to finish their artwork. Here are some examples of the mascots (art by students):

Jiggly Puff el Pato Rosado (incomplete, but looking good so far), Pikachu Llama Amarilla (lots of Pokemon suggestions 🙂 ), Furrari el Perro Rojo

Character Interviews

At the beginning of the year, there are always lots of posts about ice-breakers and about how to get the students to share their information with the teacher and the other students. I, for better and for worse, don’t have this issue. It’s better because I already know the students (and they know me, which means they think they know what they can get away with, more on management later). It’s worse because I have to come up with ideas to review introductions and talking about basic personal information (age, name, where you live, how you feel, what you like, etc). Luckily, this is all stuff we have talked about before, so it’s a quick review. Unluckily, the students have been with each other and with me for potentially 7 years! They all know each other!

So what to do?

To get around this problem, I had students practice by answering the basic questions about themselves in their notes and then interviewing each other. This is nothing new for them and they weren’t too engaged because they already know pretty much everything about each other.

But here’s where the hook came in. After their interviews, I had them sit back in their chairs and told them to answer their questions again. Only this time, they would answer as someone else (a famous person, a fictional character, or someone they made up). They wouldn’t share their info with others until the interviews. This gave them a chance to be creative and let their silliness take control. In the 4th and 5th grades, they interviewed each other and then reported back the information they found out to the full class. In 6th and 7th grades, the students interviewed each other, and then they had to create a comic of a story, the basic plot line of which was:

                       __(the character you created)_ needs a friend. He/she goes to all the people you                               interviewed (the other students’ fictional characters) and ask to be friends.

For the 8th grade, they had to be the person they created and answer a survey on the topic we have been discussing since the beginning of the year (the Olympics and Sports in general). Then, they interviewed each other in character about sports using some question prompts I came up with. They liked that they could make up the information they wanted (my favorite was a student saying, in a serious tone, “Señor, is Bob the Builder more of a baseball guy or a football guy?”) and they liked the unrestrained feel of the class because they could pick their partners and enjoy completing the activity with their friends.

If you have students that you already know and/or that already know each other, I highly recommend allowing them to let their creativity loose (with some constraints, of course: no politicians, no teachers or other students, etc) and play with their own ideas.

5 Things to Remember in Early Elementary FL Classes

Hi everyone, it’s been a while. I have been away from the blog for a little while starting with the rush to get trimester 1 grades in and then getting ready for Thanksgiving and all the things in between. This is the craziest part of the year (until the last few days, that is) and it feels like everything was getting away from me. But now I’m back on track and ready to write again.

And I have something to write about.

I recently received a comment from a reader asking for tips with K-3 storytelling and to be perfectly honest, that is the level that I struggle with the most. I have the least amount of experience teaching them and the least amount of time with them per week. So I’ve spent a lot of time experimenting and throwing ideas and methods against the wall to see what sticks.

Here’s what I have learned so far:

  1. Each group is different, we can’t just have one plan for all the groups at the same grade level

The individual differences of the kids’ personalities are so much more pronounced in the early grades, probably because they don’t have the ability to contain all their thoughts and emotions like older kids can. When they get older, they can reel in some of their habits that aren’t conducive to the learning environment, but early on, those habits are all out there for you to see.

This makes it difficult sometimes to plan for one grade. One group of first graders might be loud and wild, another might be quiet and unwilling to participate, another might be right in the middle. I have found that for some classes, I can get away with having activities where they sit still the whole 30 minutes, but others need to be up and moving. The biggest challenge has been figuring out how to get the same content in to the same grade level in different ways.

  1. For the most part, they want to be active

Especially the youngest ones-they want to be up and moving around. They love and really respond to TPR activities and to songs that have dances that go with them. And when songs don’t have dances, you can make up your own moves that will help them to get moving and focused. Remember that the goal is for them to be internalizing language. They won’t be producing much (if anything) in Kindergarten and 1st grade, so it’s ok for them to just listen and participate (especially if you only have a very short amount of time)

  1. The students can sit still and be quiet, but they need to have something in front of them 

This is why I used to rely on coloring sheets. They were “under control” when they had something in front of them and I didn’t have to constantly keep them on task. Some teachers and bloggers are against using coloring sheets in language classes at this level, but I think that they can be useful, if you are using them thoughtfully.

There are benefits to having the kids sitting quietly and focusing on something. There is only one benchmark every activity needs to reach: Does it help the students acquire? Are they getting good input in the TL?

If it is just a plain jane coloring sheet that you give them to do as busy work, then it’s probably not going to help them acquire much. If, on the other hand, you can have them working on something that forces them to listen to and comprehend the TL, then they will be acquiring the TL. It may seem difficult, but with a little thought and experimentation, you can adapt any activity to make it input-rich.

For example, I had great success with a reading and coloring activity that we did in class: I broke up the TPRS story that they heard in class into 6 boxes and they had to read it with me and then draw a picture of what was in each box. I read it with them and drew with them for the first two boxes so they understood what to do and then I just read to them and they drew their own pictures for the last 4 boxes. It worked really well—they were engaged, reading, and showing comprehension through drawing.

  1. The students might not seem to be paying attention, but they’re acquiring, so don’t stop talking in the TL

Sometimes the kids who seem like they are focusing the least are picking up the language right in front of you but you can’t see it. All of the sudden, one day a student who has been interrupting and disrupting class will start talking in the TL. It has happened to me several times and each time I’m still amazed. Even though it seemed like the student wasn’t interested at all, they heard everything I said and understood it and processed it and eventually acquired it.

Speak in the TL as much as possible and always have faith that it’s getting through to them. They will pick up a lot more than it seems.

  1. We can’t linger too long on one activity, no matter how compelling, interesting, or “good” it is

The activity needs to constantly change—I need to stay ahead of their attention spans and keep them hooked. They will get bored otherwise. And bored students are disruptive students.

This is why doing all the different songs at the beginning works well – they get to sing each song and then take a quick break, then sing another and do completely different actions (first song-“Buenos días”-has hand motions, cómo estás has faces to make, and then the students get out of their seats for linguacafé-style conversations)

In the past, after singing songs I would expect the students to be able to sit in their seats and quietly listen and participate for 25 minutes. I had great stories and great question and answer activities, but they took a really long time. I don’t know why I expected the kids to sit through it, though. Everything I have seen in my experience as a Spanish teacher has told me otherwise. If you look at what I just wrote above and think about why the songs work so well and keep the students so engaged, you’ll see that it is precisely because they have to keep moving and doing different things. Instead of just doing a chunk of activity at one time, I instead have started to keep the action going throughout the classroom by sprinkling in brain breaks and activities that get the kids up and moving.

The only requirement is for them to listening to and comprehending the language, so why can’t that be done while they are standing? Or dancing? Or jumping? Or spinning?

Sample Plan

Here’s a sample lesson plan (not the whole thing, just the list of activities that I will do in the 30 minutes) to give you an idea of what I have found to work in the youngest grades. Remember: the idea is to keep them peppy, moving, and loud (sure their grade-level teachers might not like that, but if you want them to acquire, they have to be engaged)!

I hope that this helps and if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to let me know!

Introduction activities – 4-6 minutes

  • TPR actions (stand up, sit down, jump up and down, breathe in, breathe out—I add some funny sound effects to this part, spin around, repeat nonsense words, etc)
    • These actions get them up and moving and get their blood flowing and get them into the mood for listening to and responding to the TL
  • Songs – with words and actions
    • Standard “Buenos días” song (to the tune of Frere Jacques) and I invented some hand motions (waving, shrugging, thumbs up, etc)
    • “Cómo Estás” adapted from a Basho and Friends video I found on Youtube called Cómo estás?
  • Conversations to get them out of their chairs and talking with their friends in the TL
    • (como estas and answers that they practiced for a few months with the song mentioned above)

Vocabulary review – 5-8 minutes

  • Back to the seats and stand up for TPR actions for adjective review (tall/short, fast/slow, etc)

Reading/Storytelling – 8-10 minutes

  • Then students sit in their morning meeting spots for story time – then we read “Perro grande…Perro pequeño” translated from the PD Eastman book
    • Lots of story-asking throughout the book
    • Editing the text of the book as I read it to make it more comprehensible
    • “Getting it wrong!”

Review story – 5-10 minutes

  • Students draw pictures of their favorite scenes
  • Or
  • Students tell the story to a partner in English
  • Or
  • Students draw a comic strip of the story (more for the older students)

Ending “Sponge” Activities (a term one of my professors taught me about the activities used to “soak up” the extra time in class and keep it all in the TL) – 3-4 minutes

  • If time after reading, students will play a game (veo veo or simon says – something to keep their brains working in Spanish and their production level low so that they don’t feel any pressure to produce until they are ready)

Practical and Common-Sense Tips for Personalizing Stories


Personalization is one of the most important things we can do to make our input compelling. As a new CI teacher, I found that I was focusing too much on making input comprehensible and forgetting to make it compelling. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I have gotten to the point where I need to do some things a little bit differently in order to keep the kids attention. I have tried to stay positive (when the kids say, “We’re hearing another story about someone who wants something…aw,” I used to get frustrated, but now, I say to myself, “They know enough of the language to be bored by it!” It’s all about being positive!)

I know now that I can make lots of not-very-interesting stories comprehensible. So it’s time to take the plunge into making the stories more varied and interesting for the students. They crave something different. I think that’s why TPRS was so successful at the beginning of the year: it was new and fresh and different. But like having pizza and French fries for dinner every night, something that seems awesome can get old after a while.

That’s what this post is about—how I have taken stories to the next level by involving the students to a greater degree. Personalizing the stories keeps the kids involved and interested. These are some of the things that I have learned in the 7 months that I have been using TPRS with Kindergarten through 8th grade:

Continue reading “Practical and Common-Sense Tips for Personalizing Stories”

La Navidad

Usually, around this time of year, I have students make Christmas cards for Their parents. They have the usual Christmas-y things on them–holly, mistletoe, Santa Claus, etc. And they always say, in big colorful letters, Feliz Navidad.

Then we sing Feliz Navidad by José Feliciano.

We have fun, but I’ve always felt that this way of celebrating in Spanish class was a bit empty. The students don’t know the words for the things that they are writing about I (the Christmas words above) and they don’t retain them–if I ask them how to say any of these words, it’s a struggle to remember any of them except for navidad. On top of that, the students generally spend the time in class goofing off with friends and not hearing, speaking, or using any Spanish in any realistic sort of way. They might as well be writing gibberish on the cards and calling it Spanish.

This year is different.


Continue reading “La Navidad”

One Minute Dance Party, or: Learning to Let Loose a Little

Sometimes I come in the classroom and kids are wired. They are keyed up beyond belief and they are jittery and wild and can’t sit still. This happens at all grade levels, but especially in the lower grades.

Other times I come into the classroom and the kids are zombies. They are bored and half-asleep and they are more lethargic than little kids should ever be. Like the wildness, this happens at all grade levels, but this occurs especially in the upper grades.

Either way, the students are not participating in class and they have a hard time following along with anything. This frustrates me to no end. One of my biggest faults lies in the fact that I take things the kids do too personally in class. It gets under my skin. After the fact, I always feel bad. I objectively understand that they are just kids with 8 other teachers who demand just as much from them as I do. I just get bent out of shape if they’re not into the lesson. They often show their lack of interest in the ways that I mentioned above: They sleep or they are not even trying to pay attention. Not. Even. A. Little.

So what to do? Continue reading “One Minute Dance Party, or: Learning to Let Loose a Little”

Class-Created Stories

FLES is popular!

I’ve recently gotten a lot of views on my post about using CI in the fles classroom. I’m so glad that everyone likes it! I’ve just started using CI in all of my classes this year and it has been pretty great. Some things I still have to work on, especially keeping middle school kids interested, but the elementary school kids LOVE IT! I highly recommend using some CI methods in your elementary class if you haven’t already.

One of the most popular things I do with the kids is Getting it Wrong. In the lower grades, this never ever seems to get old. I’ve found that with the upper grades, I get a lot of rolled eyes and big sighs, but the little ones can’t seem to get enough of it.

Class Stories

Another thing that has worked really well is creating a class story together. This activity is described in the Sixth Edition of Fluency Through TPR Storytelling by Blaine Ray and Contee Seely. If you don’t have this book, I highly recommend* it! It is a great resource for how to do everything in TPRS. Continue reading “Class-Created Stories”

A little help from my friends: How my curriculum has been shaped by many

Let me admit it here and now: I am constantly using other people’s ideas. I love to look at activities that other people have developed and use them or adapt them for my own classroom. There are several reasons why I devour posts about activities. These range from the practical (I just don’t have that many innovative ideas at this point in my career) to the more esoteric (I like seeing how other people approach similar objectives – I am a one-man department, so I have no one to bounce ideas off of), but they always get a little Señor Fernie flair.

For example, late last week, I did a MovieTalk activity from Martina Bex from a Canadian prank show. It worked really well for multiple grades and ages from 4th – 8th grade. It is a funny video and it made for great input opportunities for the students. I highly recommend it for any time you want to try MovieTalk with your students.

This is not the first activity from Señora Bex that I have used and I am sure that it will not be the last. In fact, there are a lot of people in the blogosphere (is that still what I’m supposed to call it?) who have ideas and activities to share: Señora Bex and Señor Peto and Señora Cottrell and Señora Sexton and Señor Howard and Señor Stolz and Michael Linsin and so many more people have shared so many great ideas (see the “blogs I follow” on my blog page).

I didn’t always have this affection for adaptation. Almost everything I have has come from somewhere else (books, blogs, other teachers in my district) and I used to think of this as a bad thing, as something shameful. I thought, “I hope my administrators don’t find out that I’m getting my ideas from other people.

I have written before about how I was thrown into my position with a slap on the back and the advice of “Good Luck, Have Fun” by my previous principal. I had no idea what I was doing. Luckily, there were so many resources available online for me to start to make headway in designing a curriculum from scratch as a brand new elementary and middle school teacher. Google and I became far more acquainted than we ever had before. I adapted FLES curricula from different states, I devoured all the blogs I could find about FLES and Middle School methods, and I became an expert at Pinterest, still one of my favorite tools for finding new ideas.

Again, I was a bit ashamed of all of this. I felt that since I didn’t come up with everything myself, that there was something wrong with me, that I was some kind of charlatan and imposter who had no idea what I was doing. I had just finished a master’s degree in foreign language education, but I had no elementary or middle school experience and no books to use. I was lost…

…But after a little while…

…after some research, some panic attacks, a new baby at home, and blatant theft of other people’s ideas, I started to find my way. I figured out the work-life balance. I figured out how to grade (and, more importantly, what to grade). I figured out how to make things work and how to teach 430 kids once or twice a week.

As the next 3 years passed, I branched out and made the hodge-podge of methods and lessons into a cohesive K-8 curriculum. And things went pretty well.

Then, I went to a TPRS workshop. Now I’m starting all over.

The advantage that I have with starting over now, though, is that I feel no shame in using the ideas published by other teachers. I see no problem with using the activities, lessons, and curricula that others have developed and made available for the public to use.

I know that it’s tough to start out with no experience and with no materials. But, now at least, I know that there are LOTS of people out there who have helpful ideas. Not only do they post their activities, I guarantee (a guess, but it’s what I would want) that they are actively looking for feedback and constructive criticism; they want to know that you have been using their stuff and whether or not it has worked for you. They want you to let them know the adaptations that you’ve made that worked better for you than the originals…They just might use your new idea in their own instruction because in our connected world, collaboration is the name of the game.

If you don’t believe me, search for #langchat on twitter and you’ll see what I mean.

In the end, this post is for those foreign language teachers who feel like they don’t know what they’re doing or who feel lost in the shuffle of school life. This is for the foreign language teachers who feel like their program is just an afterthought to their school’s mission. This is for the foreign language teachers who feel like they are just babysitters who get to watch the kids for an indoor recess period while their “real” teachers get a free period.

Those words describe EXACTLY how I felt in the beginning, but thanks to the ideas of the people I mentioned above, along with the people at TPRS (who publish the Look, I Can Talk text that I currently teach from), I have been able to make my class compelling for the kids. I took a program made up of teaching 5 years of colors and numbers followed by 3 years of present tense regular verb endings and put together a program that creates students who are thinking in terms of proficiency and Can-Do Statements. Instead of (sort of) knowing verb endings, the students leave the school with conversational skills that they can apply outside the classroom (that’s the goal, at least 🙂 ).

The point is, I took lemons and I made lemonade and you can do the same. Some of the teachers didn’t start out with much respect for my program, but they definitely have respect for the students’ abilities to use the language.

We can all achieve this in our classrooms. The key is to borrow unashamedly from those who have been there before you. Take the ideas that you find and make them your own. Once you feel comfortable with your program and your abilities, then you can start your own blog and make your own activities or observations and share them with the rest of us out here in the blogosphere—I promise I’ll be among the first to use your ideas in my classroom.

“I like that we don’t learn anything in Spanish class”

I gave one of my classes a reading assignment today. Generally, they like the stories that we act out in class, but they aren’t too fond of the reading. Today, though, I gave them a reading and the assessment was to draw a original comic based on the reading. The structure of the story is one that we have covered many times before-someone wants something, doesn’t have it, and goes several places to find it. This is the basic structure of the stories I have done so far using Blaine Ray’s book, “Look, I Can Talk.”

In the beginning of the year, I had students write stories or summaries using the vocabulary, but this group today was a particularly artistic group, so I thought that I would set them up for success by giving them something that they would be more interested in doing.

On the back of the story handout, the students had six empty squares in which to draw their comics. Their only instructions were to draw an original comic based on the story structure. I told them beforehand that I wouldn’t be their dictionary and that I wouldn’t answer their questions for the first five minutes-they just needed to get started on drawing and writing something interesting and based on the structure of the stories.

One student said to me, “This is fun, I like when we have days in class when we don’t learn anything.”

At first, I was taken aback. I told her, “Well, yeah, today you’re showing me what you already learned.” And I continued walking around the classroom.

I came back a few minutes later and said, “So, how much have you learned in class this year?”
She said, “Nothing, really. You tell stories about people wanting stuff and having to travel around to get it. It’s more fun than before.”

I laughed and looked at her paper. This is what I saw:

photo 3

She was definitely having fun with the material, but also using Spanish pretty well. I went around the room and I saw these, too:

photo 1 photo 2 photo 4

I thought about it more and more as the day went on. “We don’t learn anything in here.” It sounds bad, almost insulting. But I’m not choosing to look at it that way. She was telling me that she likes having fun.

That is exactly how I described the TPRS method to the administrators at my school when I talked with them about changing the curriculum. I said that my goal was to tell and read stories and make it interesting enough that the kids wouldn’t even know they are learning anything. They just come in, comprehend the stories, and show me what they know in writing, story re-tells in class, or writing summaries of the stories. I posted about that earlier.

Of course, I realize that there is English in some of these comics and the grammar and spelling aren’t great, but they show that the students are responding to the material and are branching out and trying to expand their abilities in the target language.

The students are not learning rules or grammar or spelling in the traditional way. There are no worksheets here, no blanks to fill in, only stories that the kids had fun creating. They will get better as they build their proficiency. If I were using the traditional paradigm of grading, I would have to give many of these assessments Cs, Ds, and Fs-the kids use too much English, they misspell things, and they use the wrong verb conjugations. It would be disheartening for them and for me. Instead, with a new way of thinking about how to assess the students – a more holistic and proficiency-based grading model – I am able to praise the things that they are able to do and help to shape where they can go next. It goes from a “sage on the stage” model of teaching and assessment to a mentor model. Rather than me telling them what they did wrong and making corrections, I can praise what they have done and use the data to evaluate what they have and have not yet acquired in the language. I can then target those things in my stories.

Hispanic Heritage Story Part 2

I posted part 1 of a story for Hispanic Heritage month last week. The story went over well and the kids enjoyed it (although, it was a little too advanced and too long for some groups).

Here is part 2, ready to go. I used this in class today and it also went over well. One thing that I changed was to make the main character different. In the written story (below), I kept the same main character, but in the classroom, more kids were itching to participate and I decided to change the character. We decided what her name would be (Nancy) and we went from there!

You’ll notice that the story is quite a bit shorter, this is to allow for more time to circle on details, such as the grocery stores (Tía, Carrefour) and the people that Nancy met in Baranquilla and Havana.

Story part 2

Forms to preteach/have written out on the board before starting – Tomó, Le/s gustaba/n, Necesitaba, No lo tengo, Pero, Amargo

Tim tomó su café.  A él le gustaba el café, pero el café necesitaba algo.  El café era amargoNecesitaba azúcar.

Tim le dijo a James Rodríguez: “Este café es amargo.  Tienes azúcar?”

James le dijo: “No, no lo tengo.”

Tim estaba triste.  Tim fue al Tía en Baranquilla. Había una chica en el Tía.  La chica se llamaba Shakira. Shakira le dijo: “No tengo azúcar.”

Tim estaba triste.  Tim fue al Carrefour.  Había un chico en el Carrefour.  El chico se llamaba Juanes. Tim le dijo a Juanes: “Tienes azúcar?”

Juanes le dijo: “No, no lo tengo, pero hay mucho azúcar en Cuba.”

Tim estaba triste, pero Tim necesitaba azúcar para su café.

Tim fue a Habana, Cuba.  Fue a una plantación de cañas de azúcar. Había una chica en la plantación. La chica se llamaba Cameron Díaz.

Tim le dijo a Cameron: “Tienes azúcar?

Cameron Díaz le dijo: “Sí! Tómalo!”

Tim estaba feliz y su café estaba muy delicioso!

In English:

Tim drank his coffee. He liked the coffee, but the coffee needed something. I was bitter. It needed sugar.

Tim said to James Rodriguez: “This coffee is bitter, do you have sugar?”

James said to him: “No, I don’t have it.”

Tim was sad. Tim went to the Tía [a supermarket chain in South America] in Baranquilla. There was a girl in the Tía. Her name was Shakira. Shakira said, “I don’t have sugar.

Tim was sad. Tim went to the Carrefour [another supermarket chain in Europe and South America]. There was a boy in the Carrefour. His name was Juanes [at this point, I played a video of Juanes singing “Muévete” on Sesame St. to show the kids who he is]. Tim said to Juanes: “Do you have sugar?”

Juanes said to him: “No, I don’t have it, but there is a lot of sugar in Cuba.”

Tim was sad, but Tim needed sugar for his coffee.

Tim went to Havana, Cuba. He went to a sugar plantation. There was a girl in the sugar plantation. Her name was Cameron Díaz. Tim said to Cameron: “Do you have sugar?”

Cameron Díaz said to him: “Yes! Take it!”

Tim was happy and his coffee was very delicious.