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?


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.


Procedures: Binder Organization

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 the first entry on the Pledge of Allegiance, click here.


The next procedure is near and dear to my heart–binder organization.  I know this is a matter of personal preference, but I cannot stand the sight of students wadding up paper and shoving it in backpacks never to be seen again.  Therefore, I created, borrowed, and modified a binder organizational system that works for me and my students.  The Spanish binder, or carpeta as I call it, has been through many versions; however, this version is here to stay–I think.

The Binder.  I require students to have a binder exclusively for Spanish class.  I expect them to keep up with all handouts and even retain them from year to year.  I also keep an exact copy (buen ejemplo, pictured above) of a student binder for each of my classes.  Students use a 1 or 1.5 inch binder, and I keep a supply of extras–most of which have been donated from local businesses.  I like for students to have a binder with a front and back outside pocket, so they can store La Promesa and Fast Finisher pages (this will be discussed later).  The binder has 3 tab dividers–one for each section.

Units.  This is where the bulk of the information for Spanish classes is stored.  I divide my curriculum into units.  Normally, there are 4 units per semester, so a unit lasts a little more than a month.  The first page of a unit is a unit sheet.  I print them on colored paper, so students can find the right unit quickly.  The unit sheet functions as the table of contents.  On the front, students list Puedo (I can) statements that correlate to our daily objectives.  On the back, students list the trabajos (assignments) in the order that they are given out.

The unit section is where all of the trabajos, like vocabulary lists, grammar notes, writing activities, are stored.  Trabajos are numbered and should be kept in number order.  I have found that this simple numbering system helps even the most disorganized student keep things together.  This is important because I never make extra copies of anything.  Also, I require that students keep up with all trabajos because if it’s important enough for me to create and print it, they should at least not lose it.  Additionally, I give binder quizzes (post coming later in the series) at the end of each unit.

Para empezar.  The next section of the binder is the para empezar (Bellringer) section.  Every day there is a para empezar projected.  Students work on this when they enter the classroom, we say La promesa, they sit and finish the para empezar, and we check the answers.  Most of the time the para empezar is a review question, but I’ve been known to just ask how was your weekend or something.  I’ve found that the consistency is the most important thing. Students know that they will have one every day, and they are expected to be in their seats working when the bell rings.  I also randomly check for a particular day’s para empezar and count it as a grade to make sure students are completing them.


RWT.  The next section is for RWTs (Real World Tarea).  I found this idea on the Creative Language Class and modified it to be what I wanted.  RWT will have it’s own post later in this series.


Optional Section–Previous Spanish.  For my Spanish II and III classes, I require strongly advise that students keep notes from earlier Spanish classes.  This way they can reference notes if they need it.  I encourage students to use this section if there is something they don’t quite remember.  Some of my students have 1 or 2 years between Spanish I and II–we’re working on this, but it’s hard as a department of one.

What’s your organizational system?  Do you have similar requirements?


Procedures: La promesa de lealtad

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.

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Fittingly, the first installment in this series is the first thing that we do every day in Spanish classes–say the Pledge of Allegiance in Spanish.

Every morning we say the Pledge as a school over the intercom.  Last year, I had a Spanish III class 1st block, and I thought why not make this daily event more applicable to Spanish class?  So, I found this awesome coloring sheet from Spanish Playground, and we started saying the Pledge in Spanish along with the announcements.

At the end of the semester, I have students complete a reflection questionnaire about their experience in Spanish, and almost all of the Spanish III students recommended that I start saying La promesa in every class.  They explained how having something in Spanish memorized and reciting it every day helped with their confidence in speaking.  I agreed with them, and the following semester all of my classes (Spanish I, II, and III) started saying La promesa.

At the start of the semester, I print off the coloring page for everyone.  Usually the second day of the semester, we go over how to say each of the words.  I know there are a couple of versions of the pledge, but I like Spanish Playground’s because A) the coloring sheet–high schoolers love to color; B) the translation matches word for word, so it’s easy to see that Yo=I; C) there are examples of difficult sounds in Spanish (bajo, justica, que), and we get lots of practice with those sounds.  We practice it a couple of times then they color it.  I tell them to keep it in the front of their binder, so they can use it.

From that day on after the bell rings for each block, a selected student counts (uno, dos, tres), and we all face the flag and say La promesa.  Most students have it memorized within a week or two.  At the beginning they don’t believe it, but I’ve had students that haven’t had Spanish in 3 semesters still be able to say La promesa.

Aprendizaje.  I love saying La promesa in Spanish–even though I end up saying it 4 times a day.  I think the repetition helps students feel more comfortable using Spanish.  Also, it brings up interesting ideas like the US not having an official language and how many languages are spoken in the USA.  It also is a great way to start the class and get students focused on Spanish.

Is this something you do in your classroom?  Do you think you might try saying La promesa de lealtad?



What Do You Teach?

Inevitably, the first question I get when I say that I’m a teacher is Oh, what do you teach? My answer depends on how much—or little—I want to chat with the person. I can say that I’m a high school teacher.  This conversation normally continues on with remarks about how young I look and questions like if I ever get mistaken for a student.

Occasionally I will say that I teach high school Spanish. That brings another curious glance. In rural East Tennessee, speaking Spanish is quite a rarity. If the person seems particularly engaged, I might launch into the story of how I met my husband studying abroad in Chile or a funny anecdote from my class.

However, I know that you’re here because you’re an educator—probably a foreign language teacher—and you care about not only what I teach, but also how I teach it.

For you, I’ll elaborate on what I teach.

I teach high school Spanish I, II, and III. My classes are a mix of all grade levels (9th-12th). We are on a block schedule, so I have students for 85 minutes for half a year. In Tennessee, students are required to complete two semesters of a foreign language.

I teach in a tiny high school in rural Loudon County. It is a PreK through 12th grade school all in one building. There are approximately 220 students in the high school and about 14 high school teachers. Needless to say, I am a foreign language department of one.

Three years ago, I was hired as a student teacher to be the Spanish teacher of my school.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I never had a student teaching experience.  Talk about trial by fire.  I’ve never been one to do things as expected, so the first thing I did was banish all the dated textbooks and workbooks to the supply closet.  From the first moment, I knew that I wanted to make everything that my students used.  Little did I realize what a daunting task that would be.  However, I wouldn’t change it for anything.

I’ve had the creative freedom to pick and choose and design my curriculum, but I haven’t done it completely on my own.  I would be absolutely lost without the amazing Spanish educators that share their amazing brains with the Internet.  (I’m sure there will be a post soon about this).  Through this blog, I hope to give back to the #SpanishTribe community like so many others have done for me.

I’m no spoken word poet like Taylor Mali (seriously—this is my anthem for those bad days), but now you know a little bit about what I teach. The rest of the blog will be exploring the ever-important how of teaching a foreign language. From Teacher of the Year-worthy lessons to major flops, I plan to share it all with you.  I am by no means and expert; however, I’m glad that you’re here to experience the journey with me!