Procedures: Descanso

For first few posts of Me llamo Profe Hess, I will be describing procedures in my Spanish classes.  When I first began teaching (only 4 years ago), I read tons of blogs explaining the importance of establishing procedures at the beginning of the year or semester.  However, I couldn’t figure out how to accomplish this.  I will be sharing some successful procedures that I use in my Spanish classes.  To see previous entries, click here.

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Imagine it.  A brand new teacher, who never had a student teaching stint, trying to survive teaching 90 minute block classes.  Some days she would have way too much content; some days she would teach her little heart out for 35 minutes then look at the clock and want to cry.  Well friends, that teacher was me 3 years ago.  Every day I struggled with timing, which led to misbehavior because students were often left to “work on something.”

Luckily, I had a wonderful vice principal who shared a trick that I have found works exceptionally well for block classes.  She suggested that we take a break halfway through the class everyday.  This helped me in two ways:  1) I knew when half of the class was over and could adjust my plans, and 2) it functioned as a reward for the students.  As long as we covered enough material and they behaved well, they get to take a break.

Thus, the descanso (break) was created.  I made a PowerPoint with links to my favorite songs (in Spanish) on YouTube.  Each slide has the name of the artist, country the artist is from, and the name of the song.  I set an alarm on my phone for approximately halfway through each class.  When the alarm sounds, I get to a stopping point, and a student picks the number for the day.  Students have an assigned number based on their last name in my class, so I go in number order.  They have to say the number of the slide they pick in Spanish, which is a great review of the ever-important numbers!

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Here is one of my favorite descanso songs from Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux.  It focuses on the battle for free education in Chile.

I project the song on the board, and students can move around and socialize the entire time the song is playing.  The primary rule is that students must be back in their seat ready to work before the song ends.  I keep the red bar on the screen so that students can see the time remaining.  Thanks YouTube!  If all students are not in their seat by the end of the song, the class loses the descanso for the next day.  It’s amazing how they police each other.  There’s almost always a student that announces 30 seconds left.  Another rule is that students have to stand the entire time of the song.  This is a physical activity break, so standing is a must.  Students can finish an activity or work on something at their desks, but they must stand.

Aprendizaje.  I look forward to descansos almost as much as the students do.  I get to listen to my favorite music, and I get a 2-5 minute break as well.  Overall, the descanso has helped with my timing of lessons and class management.  I think that it’s a good use of time, especially with block schedules.  I have found that having the descanso to look forward to makes students more productive at the beginning of class, and they are ready to work again after the break.

Soon this will be available for download.  If you would like a copy of it, please post a comment with your email address!

Do you do something similar in your classes? What are your thoughts on a descanso?


An Open Letter to That Parent

Dear that parent,

Yes, you, the one over in the corner talking in hushed whispers, and you, the one starting comments on Facebook, I’m writing this letter to you.

As you type away behind the anonymity of your computer screen or huddle in the bleachers bashing me, my grading policies, and my decisions, I’m sitting here at 5:00 on a Friday afternoon grading papers, organizing art supplies (which I purchased with my own money), and counting money from fundraisers for that dance with the stupid theme. Is this how I dreamed of spending my evenings, weekends, late nights, or early mornings?   I can safely assure you that it most certainly is not. But yet, here I sit in my room long past when the automatic lights in the hallway go off until my car is the only one left in the parking lot.

Why do I do it? You have no idea how many times I’ve asked myself that very question. When I’ve been at school over 15 hours and am still sitting at a basketball game waiting until you pick up your child, I ask myself.  When I’m at school on Saturday to make copies and decorate for homecoming, I ask myself. When I’m busting my butt to fundraise for my homeroom class’s senior dinner knowing that I’m going to have to come up with the outstanding balance myself, I ask myself.   When I’m spending my “free time” organizing cheerleading tryouts, I ask myself. When I’m grading quizzes or planning lessons “off the clock” while my friends get to leave their work when 5:00 hits, I ask myself.  When I’m putting aside that $20 a paycheck so I can buy that class set of books for my students, I ask myself.

Then I remember your child. That high school boy that was so excited when he made an A on his quiz that he asked if he could take it home to show his grandmother. Or that girl that is so nervous to try out for cheerleading because she might not make it. The one who never volunteers in class, but always makes excellent grades. The freshman boy who wants to act tough in front of his friends but always holds the door open for me. The sophomore girl who is so desperately in love but needs a gentle reminder that she doesn’t need him to validate herself. The one who tells me how much he enjoys coming to my class everyday. Finally, the one who told me that she was able to tell a customer at her work the total for her groceries in Spanish. That’s why I do it. For your child. And every other of the 90+ children that walk into my carefully decorated room each and every day.

Although you might disagree with my grading system, coaching philosophies, or choice of prom location, I make the very best decisions that I can every single day. You can bet that I’ve thought through all of your concerns and analyzed all the possible outcomes. You can bet that I’ve weighed the pros and cons so much that my husband and mother can repeat them verbatim. You can also bet that I’m not getting paid to do a lot of the things that you take for granted. I donate my time, effort, organizational skills, and money (yes out of my pocket) for your child.

Please just remember that even though you want what’s best for your child, I do too. So, you can continue to bash me on social media, email my bosses, or cuss me at home. I will continue to love your child and make the best decisions that I can for them every day.



Teaching Cultural Topics

One of the most difficult tasks as a teacher is how to best approach controversial and cultural topics.  As a foreign language teacher, I find this challenge very important.  Although grammar is what most people think of when they think of learning another language, it is not the only component.  Another very important aspect of foreign language is studying the cultures and people that use the language.

Here are my top three ideas for teaching controversial and cultural topics.

1.  Be as subjective as possible

When dealing with cultural issues, it is easy to get wrapped up in how “different” cultures can be.  I like to start all classes where we will be discussing cultural topics by setting some expectations.  #1: I am not trying to make you believe anything.  Your beliefs are yours.  #2:  My primary goal is to expose you to another cultural and way of thinking.  Although it is different from yours, that does not make it better or worse.

I find this to be particularly beneficial when discussing religion.  I try to highlight different cultural celebrations throughout the year, and most of these center on the Catholic calendar.  I teach in a predominantly Protestant community, so this is challenging in and of itself.

I try to present religious celebrations as facts.  This is what happens during El día de los muertos or Semana Santa.  I also like to allow students to share how these traditions are similar or different from their celebrations.  Here’s an example of one of the activities that I do for comparing Halloween and El día de los muertos.

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2.  Explore both sides of controversial issues

Another tip for dealing with controversial issues is simply to explore both sides of controversial issues.  In my Spanish III class, we are reading Esperanza by Carol Gaab.  This novel is an amazing true story about an immigrant family from Guatemala.  Clearly immigration is a central theme of the novel, and it’s a hot issue in today’s politics.

As to not unfairly influence students, throughout the novel we’ve been discussing pros and cons to immigration.  To start the novel, I showed the controversial 84 Lumber Super Bowl commercial.  It was relevant and got the students thinking about the heartbreaking journey that many immigrants embark on.  I love the ending, and it fits perfectly with the novel.

Another activity that we completed was this simulation by Jason Noble.  It is set up like a game where you must decide whether to stay in Guatemala or immigrate to the USA legally or illegally.  It was fascinating to see the students make the same decisions faced by the characters in the novel.

Another activity that I plan to do is have students come up with a proposed solution for immigration.  I haven’t exactly worked out the details of this assignment, but the final product will require them to think about immigration from both sides.

3.  Let heritage speakers tell their stories

This is difficult for me because my school is 97% white; however, I have had the privilege of teaching heritage speakers before.  I traveled to another school in our district for half a day last semester.  Although it was terribly exhausting, the best part of it was having heritage speakers in my classes.  I learned so much more from them than I could ever teach them.

If you have heritage speakers, take advantage of it.  Showing a video from some random girl’s quinceañera is alright, but showing the video from a student in the class is so much better.  I had a student bring in her pictures from her quince, and we spent the whole day discussing the tradition.  This student was the expert, and we all learned from her.  Before Halloween, we were discussing scary legends from the Spanish-speaking world.  A student shared with me how her grandmother saw La Llorana.  Talk about bring a scary story to life!

Heritage speakers can bring so much to the classroom.  Allowing them to tell their stories is one of the most beautiful parts of learning another language.