Hispanic Heritage Month PBL

One of my favorite times of year in Spanish class is Hispanic Heritage Month. For those of us who start class after Labor Day, September 15 marks that magical time when kids are jussssst starting to come out of their shells, when we’re starting to get into the rhythm of working and learning, and when it’s time to really start getting down to business. I love that Hispanic Heritage Month falls into this magical start-of-learning time, and maybe it’s no coincidence that I use Hispanic Heritage Month as a springboard for one of my favorite Project-Based Learning units.

A quick note on my PBL philosophy. PBL can feel like one of those flavor-of-the-week education initiatives, but this is a flavor that I always was intrinsically drawn to. One of my first blog posts was about service learning in a Nicaraguan slum and what it taught me about bringing a real audience into the classroom (or bringing your classroom to a real audience). When it’s done right, an in-depth PBL can be a magical time for a kid. It can push them to do things that stretch them outside their comfort zones, build presentational skills, solve a solution to a real problem, and create something they can be proud of.

My Hispanic Heritage Month PBL was something I jumped into at the beginning of Spanish 1B as a review unit. In my middle school, we taught Spanish 1 over the course of two years, the first half in 6th or 7th grade in Spanish 1A, and the second half in 7th or 8th grade in Spanish 1B. Spanish 1B was always my favorite class as a creative instructor (as a creative instructor, all my classes were my favorites, I promise kids!). There was so much more time in the curriculum for proficiency-based instruction, and it gave me a launching pad for some of my most creative lesson planning (I’m a nerd for creative lesson-planning, if you couldn’t tell).

This PBL could also be used as a review unit in Spanish 2, or in any high Novice-low, low Novice-mid classroom. It assumes that you can meet a few Novice Low indicators about describing people’s appearances and personalities, so theoretically you could also use it in a Spanish 1 class towards the end of Hispanic Heritage Month, which is over October 15.

The basic premise of this PBL is that students are in charge of raising awareness for Hispanic Heritage Month in their school. A friendly administrator is key for this, which was NEVER a problem for me (I had the number one principal in the universe, no big deal), but mention “cultural awareness,” “project-based learning,” and “21st century skills” enough times, and I’m sure your principal will nod approvingly.

The basic flow of the unit is as follows: you start off with some authentic resources about Hispanic Heritage month (here’s a link to a Pinterest board of my faves). Introduce some comprehension and discussion questions to get kids to figure out what Hispanic Heritage Month actually is. This is also a great time to talk about the difference and importance of the words “Hispanic” versus “Latino” versus “Spanish.”

After kids start to get a feel for what Hispanic Heritage Month is all about, start to brainstorm famous people they know with Hispanic Heritage. A good start is by asking if anyone in the room celebrates some form of Hispanic Heritage (hello, building real connections). I love brainstorming lists like this in groups or partners on paper or with whiteboards. You give kids a fixed amount of time to work with their group or partner to think of as many famous Hispanic people as possible, and write the list down. Then you have each group meet with another group to circle the names they have in common and add the names that the other group has that are different from theirs. You can do this exchange a few times to get the most complete list.

After this you introduce the project. Tell kids that they will be working with a partner (or alone, up to you, I just love love love student collaboration) on one particular Hispanic celebrity and will be using that person as a springboard to bring awareness of Hispanic Heritage Month to their school. This turns into your pretty standard “create a presentation describing a famous person” project, but you’re way too cool for that, so you’re going to add a few elements of technology and authentic audience to the deal.

  1. Students will be making a shareable presentation on Google Slides (or any other shareable digital platform like Prezi) about their person. Pretty standard.
  2. Students will be making a poster of their person to post around the school, and link their poster to their digital presentation with a QR code (oooooo).
  3. Students will come up with a few sentences about their person to share on the morning announcements during Hispanic Heritage Month. I did this English, but if you have a ton of native speakers at your school (or your kids want to show off) you could do both English and Spanish. If you have too many students or too many pairs to cover the school days in Hispanic Heritage Month, you could ask for volunteers and draw names out of a sombrero to get the right number of announcements for September 15 – October 15.
  4. Students will write a Tweet to their famous person (in Spanish of course) with a link to their presentation, that you will then use your teacher Twitter account to ACTUALLY TWEET TO THE FAMOUS PERSON (omggggg). I was disappointed that no famous people responded to my kids last year (come on, famous people!!!), but this is still a really fun thing to do. Obviously, some famous people don’t have Twitter, or your kids could even have chosen a dead famous Hispanic celebrity. I had a couple girls last year that Tweeted their project on Roberto Clemente to the Pittsburgh Pirates account – you can get creative.
  5. For super fun bonus points, have your students find a picture of their celebrity to add themselves to. This was one of the coolest cross curricular  things we’ve ever done with our librarians (they are rockstars). The kids used the library green screen to photoshop pictures of themselves into pictures of the celebrities they studied. It was SO. COOL. I had a group of kids in Messi jerseys and Barca scarves posing as part of the audience next to Messi in Camp Nou. SO great. We added these pictures into their tweets to celebrities too. I understand not everyone has a green screen and amazing librarians at their school, so you can also try your hand at creating your own using one of the cheaper green screen apps out there.

There you have it! This is one of my favorite projects ever, and I hope you can steal some of it and make it yours. If you want to save a few hours of your life, I spent some time putting together a packet that includes rubrics, worksheets, celeb lists, and instruction sheets, available for purchase here (or if you like this project, but aren’t celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month yet, there’s a more generic celebrity PBL here). This is one of my fave lessons, so please tweet me your kids’ work if you end up stealing any of these ideas on Twitter @SraErwin. I am obsessed with this project and would love to see how you use it in your classroom. Happy Hispanic Heritage Month!

First Day Prep Series: Stations

I know most people are back-to-school or at least back-to-teacher-work-week (GOOD LUCK). If you’re not quite back yet, or you’re in the middle of first-day-over-prep syndrome, here’s some fuel for your lesson-idea fire. I’m going to talk you through my favorite First Day stations. I am a HUGE fan of using stations in class throughout the year. There are so many opportunities to work in reading, listening, speaking, writing, culture, and it gives those antsy teenagers a chance to get up and move as soon as their attention span on a given task starts to wane. The stations below are all about ten-to-fifteen-minute activities that you could use as stations or as a brainbreak/closing activity throughout the first couple of weeks of class to build classroom environment.

Last year was my first year I jumped immediately into stations on the first day of class. I had taught an overwhelming majority of my students the year before, so I felt brave, and wanted to do something a liiiiittle different with my kids besides your standard get-to-know-each-other/read-the-syllabus kind of day. The stations worked well in classes where I already knew all the kids and our environment was pretty well-established AND in classes where everyone was new to me and new to Spanish. I would definitely recommend giving them a try.

First, a word about how I do stations. In my classroom, I have assigned seats at tables, so it’s relatively easy to put kids into station groups based on where they sit. On the first day of school, people are mostly still figuring each other out, so you don’t have to stress too much about grouping people perfectly. I had 90 minute blocks, which meant with 5-10 minutes of warm-up and 5-10 minutes of clean-up and conclusion, so about five or six stations of ten to twelve minutes each was ideal. At the end of each ten to twelve minute time block, I’d play some popular Latin music (last year it was Soy Yo) to cue that it was time to rotate to the next activity.

The key with stations is to make sure each activity is SUUUUPER easy to figure out without much teacher guidance. Nothing is worse than spending five minutes explaining an activity to one group while another group is waiting for you to get over to them and keep them on task. Usually it works best when you can just wind them up and set them loose. That’s why having written directions at each station is key.

For the first day of school, my goals were always that students would understand their ownership in the classroom and its environment, that they would be held accountable for their behavior and work in class, and that they would be supported on the intimidating mistake-filled journey of language learning. Proficiency, setting language goals, and the importance of studying Spanish were saved for the second day of class. So my first day of school stations dealt a lot with the social-emotional sides of language learning and with the decorations I had in the room, so that students started the year off associating meaning with what was in front of them on the walls and buying in to the classroom environment.

My stations were as follows:

  • At station one, I gave them a worksheet that listed a lot of the words and phrases posted around the room, and asked them to work with the people in their group to write down as many meanings in English as they could guess or remember. Each of these words and phrases (question words, which you can find here, and classroom expressions, which you can steal here) is written in Spanish with a picture next to it, so even students with zero Spanish experience could potentially try to make a guess at meaning. I like that they have the support of their new classmates for this activity as well. I also gave them the freedom to get up and look closer at each picture if they wanted to (movement in middle school is a good thing).
  • At station two, I gave them the answers to station one (except for the kids who started at this station, obviously), and gave them their syllabus. Their task at this station was to read through the syllabus and write down three or more questions about the class, me, or learning Spanish. This task usually doesn’t take a full ten minutes, so I’d also give out their student surveys at this station, which I usually give as homework on the first day of class (yes, I’m evil, but whatever kids like talking about themselves).
  • At station three, students would sit down and chat with me. This was my FAVORITE. They’d arrive at the conversation station with questions they’d prepared in the syllabus station, and after that conversation ran dry, I got a chance to get to know kids and chat with them about their summers. Student relationships are the best, so this was a fun one for me last year. If something comes up at a different station that you have to tend to, the kids also can work on their survey homework while they wait for you to bounce back to them, which is also a good deal.
  • Station four was supposed to be a “silent” station, but I had a hard time enforcing this from where I was sitting at station three. At station four, I had written down the six activities from our syllabus that are essential to learning Spanish. I stole some of these from La Maestra Loca last year and tried out a version of her “chalk talk” idea for this station. I cut out titles of the activities and glued them to butcher paper on the wall. I asked students to write or draw pictures about what each activity meant to them close to each title. I left these up for the first couple of weeks as a reminder too.
  • I directed students to my handy dandy Meme wall for station number five. Basically I had them read through the Memes and write down the meanings for as many as they could. This was a great activity in Spanish 1B and Spanish 2, but resulted in some blank stares in Spanish 1. I didn’t quite have enough scaffolding about cognates before this activity for my Spanish 1s, which made this my weakest station for them. You could do a similar activity with whatever posters or cultural materials you have in your room for upper levels.
  • Station six directed the kids to a series of maps. The goal of this activity was to get them immersed in culture and get them thinking about the concept that language is different everywhere. I listed a few countries, then had them fill in what continent each country is on, what the capital is, and how you say “cool” in that country. I thought about using this bro map as well, but the language on there is pretty strong for middle school. Overall, I loved this station as a review/introduction to the variety in the Spanish-speaking world.
  • I know a moment ago I said five or six stations were ideal, but I also used a seventh station in a couple of my classes, or as a conclusion activity depending on time and the number of kids in the class. The last station was to come up with a class “silent signal” to use in our class when we transition from group activity to silent activities. Each group would propose a signal and then the class would vote on their favorite. They’ve used the silent awkward turtle, the silent llama, and a “live long and prosper” butterfly in previous classes (middle school is the best), but some classes like making up clap rhythms too. It’s a fun team-building exercise that you can use or change as the year continues. I just love giving them that extra additional ownership in the classroom routines.

Whew! These are a lot of different activities for the first day of class, but I hope you can steal something fun. I love group work like this to start the year and build some strong community from Day One, since it’s so necessary to that risky, brave process of language-learning. Let me know if you use anything! Good luck with your first week!


For more in the First Day Prep Series, check out my intro post, free decoration ideas, and infographic syllabus.

First Day Prep Series: The Infographic Syllabus

While I know many of you are already back to school this week (omggggg), we’re still holding it down until after Labor Day in Virginia, so this is the time of year I usually reexamine my class syllabus. I totally bought into the Infographic Syllabus craze a couple of years ago, and I wanted to share a bit about what I’ve found the past three years I used mine. 


  1. The kids tend to view it positively. I think they get a little excited about seeing a syllabus that is catchy and exciting, and while it is full of the same information they’re getting from every other teacher on the first day of school, it’s a different way to get the information, which signals to them immediately that your class is different.

  2. The parents tend to not be AS excited about it. I only ever received compliments about the infographic syllabus, but I definitely had people look at the piece of paper full of weird symbols and colors on back to school night, eyes glazed over, and then say “This is so neat! Can I have your supply list?” I ended up making a “parent-friendly” copy of my syllabus that was just straight text with supplies and grading information on it, as that is what they were used to, and what they tended to care about the most on back to school night. My syllabus for the kids usually focused more on the welcoming environment of the classroom, so I’d give the more “fun” copy to the students.

  3. It backs up the interpretive skills we emphasize in language learning. This is a bit of a stretch, but hear me out. I think that having pictures associated with our words on the very document that explains the class starts to expose kids to the different tools we use to interpret meaning – think of how many times you tell your kids to use “context clues.” If you’ve got visuals on your syllabus, it gets them started on the first day getting used to associating meaning with something besides the written word.

  4. It’s helpful to back up the syllabus with a signature sheet, either on paper or on a Google form. I love using Google forms for parent and student information surveys at the beginning of the year, and use that form to also make sure that parents and students check a box on important policies like grading, homework, absences, testing retakes, etc, so that if there is ever an argument, you can gently remind people about the policies they signed that they understood in September. (This is what we refer to in the biz as a CYA move: Cover Your Bum!)

  5. It’s (selfishly) a fun August ritual for me. I love revisiting the syllabus every year to tweak it and make it relevant for the kids and courses I’ll be teaching. The first time I made it, it took HOURS, but now I have a version ready to go that I can easily switch up. Every year I make mine more and more simple, as most of the kids don’t remember the intricacies of every policy until they apply to them anyway (see: the first time a kid bombs a test and loses her mind with joy when her classmate reminds her about the retake policy).

I’ve loved the infographic syllabus, and while I’m not entering the classroom this year, it still makes me smile to look at it. Like most people, I created mine using Piktochart (don’t fret, it’s free). You can check it out below:

syllabus

If you’re interested in an editable version of my syllabus, it’s available for purchase on Teachers Pay Teachers here (in French too!).  What have you experienced after a few years with the infographic syllabus? Similar experiences? Different ones? Let me know!


For more in the First Day Prep Series, check out my intro post, free decoration ideas, and fave First Day stations.

First Day Prep Series: Free Language Class Decor

One of the most exciting (and stressful) things about the first day of school for me is prepping classroom decorations. There’s no shortage of inspiration online, but I thought I’d share a post on what I’ve used in my classroom in the past, with a special focus on the decorations that are free (yay!).

One of the favorite things in my classroom that I love adding to and changing slightly every year is the Meme Wall. Here it is in all its glory:

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There was this very ugly piece of white plywood nailed over top of a door that used to be an exit in my trailer, and Memes were such a great way to cover it up with authentic resources (maximize what you’ve got!). I ended up bribing the teacher that runs the lamination machine in our building with candy because I felt so bad asking her to laminate all of these cute images, but it was perfect for my little classroom (#trailerlyfe).

The best part about the Meme Wall is that with the glorious world wide web at your fingertips, you have free resources for years. For a short cut, here is a link to my Spanish Meme Pinterest Board.  Since I taught Spanish 1 and Spanish 2, I tried to pick Novice level language and loved hearing kids throughout the year understand more and more of them as their proficiency level increased. I’ve found that jokes seem funnier and more satisfying when you “get” them in another language, so my middle-schoolers tended to get a kick out of it. It’s also a great idea to have kids bring the memes in themselves as part of a choice homework or participation deal. Anything to get a little bit of buy-in in your classroom is a plus, and when they feel like they’re building the environment themselves, even in the classroom decorations, they start to feel like a stronger part of your community.

Another one of my favorite ways to use Pinterest is for the theme board next to my handy dandy Scholastic Calendar. Sidenote – does anyone else use one of these pocket wall calendars? After four years, mine has a ton of numbers missing and is wearing and tearing. This is what mine looked like after I told some of my lunch kids to decorate it for the end of the year:

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Gotta love it. I think the only one available on the Internet right now is on Amazon, but I hate to say bye to the Scholastic one. Such a mainstay. ANYWAYS, I bring up the calendar because of the free stuff to put NEXT TO the calendar: authentic cultural resources. My goal in the past (which I, admittedly, have never achieved) has always been to rotate and change the bulletin board next to my calendar each month based on cultural occurrences of the season. I’ve always envisioned beautiful info-graphics and photos dealing with a holiday or an important historic event that occurred that month. Zachary Jones’ Zambombazo is a (free) goldmine for this type of thing.

In past years, I haven’t had time to pore over Pinterest each month, but this year I do! Here is a Pinterest board that has lots of fun printables and authentic resources for a beginning of the year culture board in your classroom. The themes I picked out this year were Regreso a Clases, Viva Mexico (16 de septiembre), Fiestas Patrias de Chile (18 de septiembre), and Hispanic Heritage Month (15 de septiembre). I’m sure you could find plenty more on other Central American Independence Days, but this felt like enough of a start for August/September. If there’s something else for August or September you want me to dig up for you, let me know in comments below!

Creative Language Class has a few resources that I’ve used in the past that are free and beautiful and useful in the classroom. If you haven’t seen their question word posters, print them out today. When I walk into a Spanish classroom that uses them I automatically smile because I know I’m in a teacher’s room that loves the same blogs I do. This year they’ve also released some awesome greetings posters and “how are you” emoji posters that are free and functional as well. Sidenote: I love using emojis in instruction because they’re fun and kids get them, but the language nerd in me sees them as a universal form of expression which I think is SO cool and fits nicely into the conversations we have with our students on guessing meaning by facial expressions, using context clues etc. Someone write a dissertation on the emoji in language learning; get on that please!

I’ve also stolen a page from Creative Language Class and created a proficiency scale in previous years that I hung at the top of one classroom wall as a reference for everyone throughout the year. Mine was an adaptation of ACTFL language that I brought to life using different colored masking tapes, much like the one featured in this post. I honestly didn’t use it as a reference too much once the year got rolling, but every year my goal was to use it more and more. I start out every year with a big talk on proficiency as a concept (a post on that soon), and in previous years that theme has been buried beneath a pile of mandated curriculum materials, but I hope to share more proficiency-based activities this year so that you can be a better teacher than I have been in the past.

Beyond that, I also created my own “key classroom phrases” using Piktochart; you can steal them here. Those phrases are the ones my students used the most, but this packet is also a free and useful set of posters that you could get kids to color as a brainbreak, early finisher, or stations activity to give them ownership of the decorations on the wall.

The rest of the decor in my classroom changed based on whatever we had recently studied, but I LOVED using twine and clothespins to show off their most recent work. At the beginning of the year, I use this section to post advice from previous students, which is an excellent filler activity on those days at the end of the year when everyone is just totally over it. My new students often get excited when they see their friends’/siblings’ advice, so it’s a fun thing to put on the wall at the start of the year to build relationships in a small way.  Here’s a picture of what it looks like with some novice low comic strips:

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The only other resource I’ll mention is this beauty on Teachers Pay Teachers from Brooke Hahn. It’s only $3 if you want to buy hers, but you can easily make your own version of this with words that you think kids will need. I posted mine on the ceiling as a very generous way to give kids those key conjunctions and linking words they need to climb up the proficiency scale. Yes, this meant that they spent testing blocks staring at the ceiling hoping the word they wanted was up there, BUT I saw no problem with that. In my view, it gives them an opportunity to learn while they test, and eventually they’ll remember the word and won’t need to agonize at the list above their heads.

Whew! Good luck to those of you who are already getting your classrooms ready. If there’s a particular resource or theme you want me to gather for an October culture board, please let me know!


For more in the First Day Prep Series, check out my intro postinfographic syllabus, and fave First Day stations.

First Day Prep Series: Intro

So I’ve been living under a pre-wedding/wedding/honeymoon rock for several weeks now (yes, it was a beautiful and amazing day and my name is Mrs. Erwin now yippee!). Because of this about two days ago I had the shocking realization it is August. This year the knots in my stomach that form when I see back-to-school displays in July have been a little bit muted since now I am a year-round teacher in the business world, but I definitely did a double take when my rockstar third-grade-teacher cousin posted a “first day of school” Instagram picture of her classroom WITH KIDS IN IT. Where did summer go y’all???

In Virginia, we’re on the start-after-Labor-Day school schedule, which means when August hits the reality and excitement of a new batch of kids is really starting to heat up. For me, this usually means three straight weeks of prepping and planning for the first day of school. And ONLY the first day of school. I don’t know why, but Over-prepping-for-the-First-Day-Syndrome plagues me every year. I always get sucked down a wormhole of post after pin after article after tweet about building community and setting expectations and establishing relationships and creating the environment and the First-Day-of-School is just really important!!

If you’re also in this mode of overplanning, my message to you is this: take a deep breath. The First Day of School yes, is important, and yes, presents a ton of opportunities to start the year right, and yes, only happens once a year, but at the end of the day, you only have one class period with each group of kids. For me, this was 90 minutes. There’s only SO much you can do in 90 minutes to set the tone and get to know every child and establish behavioral systems and introduce proficiency and get kids excited and ready to start the work of learning. You have to pick and choose what you do in those 90 minutes. And for the kids, the first day of school is such a blur anyway, that the real good stuff doesn’t start until a couple weeks in. Give me September 15 and the start of Hispanic Heritage Month, when a kid gets really pumped to talk about his obsession with a Colombian soccer player and realizes that 1) no one is judging him and 2) we all WANT him to be excited and 3) he can use that passion as part of LEARNING AN ENTIRE LANGUAGE. I wish I had the time (don’t we all) to put just as much love and nervous planning energy into every day of learning, not just Day One, which is such a weird day anyway.

That all being said, my goal for the coming posts is to go through my standard August First-Day-of-School crunch with you. I’m going to present to you a lot of ideas (most of which I’ve tried, some of which I just have never had enough time to put into action), with the hope that you can pick and choose at least one to put into action during the first day, week, or month. Part one of my First Day Prep Series: the best free classroom decorations for the proficiency-based classroom and where to find them. Get excited!


For more in the First Day Prep Series, check out my free decoration ideas, infographic syllabus, and fave First Day stations.

Why Study Spanish: A Lesson Plan

Every year for the last three years, I’ve completely devoted my second day of school to the topic “but why are we even learning Spanish.” Since I teach middle-schoolers in an area where there aren’t a ton of native speakers around, sometimes it’s hard for the kids to think outside of their bubble and understand that Spanish has real world importance, relevance, and benefits to them. My second day of school is all about getting them to buy into the fact that learning Spanish is a skill that will help them in their real lives outside the classroom.

I love this lesson the first week of school not only because it’s important to talk about why we’re doing what we’re doing, but also because it’s super easy to update every year (an easy prep for me)! Since it’s a very learner-driven lesson, it lets me stay in the 90% Target Language zone to give instructions, even though the meat of the lesson and the students will be mostly in English. If we’re going to have a lesson in English, at least I can stay in Spanish myself the whole time.

After our warm-up, I start class off by explaining to students that it is very important to me that they are able to answer the question “why are you taking Spanish,” beyond a default “because my mom is making me.” I emphasize that I teach Spanish because I think it’s fun, but I also teach Spanish because I think it will greatly improve and enrich their lives. I usually have to use a little bit of English here in my Level 1 classes, but not my Level 2s. I point to the blank bulletin board at the back of the room that says “¿Por qué estudias español?” on it, and tell them we’re going to be filling it up today. While I’m talking, I hand out a blank chart with a list of resources on the x-axis and two columns on the y-axis that say “Three reasons to study Spanish presented” and “Best reason to study Spanish presented.” This paper is the anchor of our lesson for the day (preview an example here).

The first resource listed is always a video. The past few years I’ve used Lindsay Does Language’s “9 Reasons to Learn Spanish.” It’s modern, quirky, and pretty funny, and I can always give them some solid input in Spanish beforehand to set it up (she is a girl from England and she’s funny but she talks really fast, etc). This is a good opportunity to introduce “escribir” and “mirar” as well when giving kids instructions.

After we watch the video twice, students write down their favorite three reasons to study Spanish from the video in the middle column, and then pick their favorite out of the three for the last column. I emphasize to them that the last column (the personal favorite column) will be different for each person and will depend on each person’s life experiences and goals. Starting with the video is great since we review the first resource as a class and can work the kinks out together. After the video, the real fun begins.

The meat of the lesson centers around a jigsaw activity. If you’re not familiar with a jigsaw activity, it generally goes like this:

  1. Students are divided into groups. Each group receives a different resource, and that group becomes “experts” in their resource. In this case, each “expert” group receives a different article or infographic about why learning a language is important. Since my students are seated at tables in groups of four, I generally will take one person from each table and divide the class into four bigger groups (so they’re all in groups with no one who sits at their normal table). Then, I give each group one of four resources (this year I used Why Learn Another Language When You Already Speak English?, The Benefits of Learning Languages Infographic6 Reasons Why Everyone Should Really Learn Spanish, and Why Learn Spanish? 10 Great reasons)
  2. Students become “experts” in their resource. In this case, I give students 2 minutes to silently read through their article or infographic and decide individually (silently!!) which three reasons to study Spanish presented in their article are the best ones. After two silent minutes, they must come to a consensus in their expert group about which reasons are the best. I like making them come to a consensus because it forces them to argue with each other about which reasons to study Spanish are more important (love it).
  3. Once each expert group has reached a consensus about the most important points of their resource, they have to go back to their original tables and report on what they read about. Again, none of the kids at their original tables have the same resource, so the students depend on each other to be able to complete their chart for each article. If you have a slacker in an expert group, his or her table group suffers, which forces everybody to participate (peer pressure!!).
  4. Before they start presenting to their original groups, I instruct them to stand up and present their ideas formally to their tablemates, NOT to just switch papers and copy down each other’s answers. I do this to start getting students used to talking with their peers, and also to get them used to standing up and presenting. Spanish is not a class where you can sit quietly the entire year, so I think it’s important that they get a chance to stand up and talk during the first week (even though it is in English). I love that they’re only presenting to their tables, not the whole class. This reduces anxiety, since there’s so much noise while everyone is presenting at the same time, and eases them into the scary idea of talking in front of the class.
  5. Each kid fills out their paper based on what their classmates present, but they also have to grapple with the material a bit individually when they think about which reason presented in that article is most important TO THEM in that third column. To complete their table, they have to pick out the reasons from each presentation that are most relevant to their lives, so the activity stays very personal.

Once the jigsaw activity is over, I bring the whole class back together and show one last video. I love this one because it’s short; it makes them think, and it makes a bunch of really great points about language learning in general that can be applied to Spanish. After they’ve filled out their tables based on the last video, the students have about 18 different reasons to study Spanish that they’ve gotten from videos, articles, and each other (NOT from me, which I love). The last row that students have to fill out asks them to list their top three reasons for studying Spanish, and at this point they can add their own if their reason to take Spanish hasn’t been presented that day.

Their exit ticket is that they have to write down their number one reason for learning Spanish. On small cut-out pieces of paper, and I also ask them to write down their goal for learning the language. I tell them that this isn’t a class goal (I don’t want a million papers that say “my goal is to get an A”), but this is a language-learning goal for life (like “I want to be able to have a conversation with my aunt from Puerto Rico,” or “I want to be able to talk to my friend in Spanish and not have people understand us in the hallway”). I’m always surprised by the quality answers some of the students come up with.


My favorite part of the lesson is that I staple the exit tickets to the bulletin board at the back of class, and that is where they stay all year. I love that we have that constant reminder of why Spanish is important, and a constant reminder of a real world goal for learning language. The best thing of all about that reminder is that it comes from the students themselves, not from me.

I’m really excited to be finishing up the first week of school and to dive into the Spanish learning next week, but I do also always love starting the year off with big picture reflection on why we’re spending time together in Spanish class. If you’d like to use this lesson in your classroom, but don’t want to go through the work of putting it all together, you can purchase it on Teachers Pay Teachers here.

Do you spend time on “why Spanish is important” at the beginning of the year? How do you get your classes to buy into 36 weeks of language learning? Let me know 🙂

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2020 update: I’ve updated this lesson for the distance learning classroom by making it a Google Slides presentation instead of the student-led jigsaw project outlined in this post. Check it out here.

What a Nicaraguan slum taught me about PBL

I just wrapped up a pretty inspirational week in Granada, Nicaragua, as part of my summer professional development abroad. Through a Spanish immersion trip with Common Ground International, I spent the week with some awesome teachers, doctors, physician assistants, and nurses, working in a Granada shanty town in the morning and taking Spanish classes in the afternoon. I learned a lot about Nicaragua, but the biggest takeaways from the week centered around our morning community service projects.

One of my goals for my summer professional development is to seek out opportunities for my students to use their Spanish outside the classroom and give back to the global community (all the more important since our school is officially embracing Project Based Learning next year). Common Ground did a great job of finding us a service project that both met our goals of practicing the language AND helped out a local organization in a direct, meaningful way. Our service in Granada made me think a lot about student service learning, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was the PERFECT service project for us as Spanish students “at that time in that setting,” as our friends at the National Board would appreciate. I saw three reasons for the project’s success that would be applicable to any PBL service learning attempts in my classroom: 

1) There was a genuine need for our help, AND we were able to meet that need.

We were collaborating with a small Christian school run by American missionaries in a very poor shanty town in the outskirts of the city. The neighborhood is extremely impoverished, with high crime and unemployment rates and low health and literacy rates. The school is trying to start classes and lectures for the community to help address some of the health problems there (nutrition education to decrease diabetes, smoking cessation, alcoholism supports, etc). Before giving these talks, the school wanted to conduct a survey of the neighborhood (affectionately named “el Pantanal” or “the swamp”) to determine their needs and figure out which health programs would be most beneficial. Our mission as Spanish students was to walk door to door conducting these surveys. The organization NEEDED these surveys to be completed – if not us, they would have looked for someone else to complete them. It wasn’t a contrived project, which made us feel like our work was worthwhile – a crucial component to guarantee student buy in. 

2) We were stretching a little bit outside our comfort zone – where the learning really happens. 

At this point I would like to be real with you and say that this project COMPLETELY freaked me out. As a tall skinny blonde girl, no part of me wanted to skip around a Nicaraguan slum knocking on doors to ask if anyone in the house had a history of alcoholism, depression, or chronic diarrhea. (“HOLA! Soy de los Estados Unidos and no I am not here to give you anything, I just want to ask you fifty extremely personal questions!!”). Despite my gringa fears, the experience was predictably eye-opening and rewarding. We stayed together in a big group with some help from people in the community, so I always felt safe. The majority of the people we surveyed were super open and helpful, and full of hope. Adriana, the missionary growing and running the school in Pantanal, spoke to us about the difference between poverty and misery, and the people we spoke to all morning were poor, but they weren’t miserable. They all talked about the importance of education for their kids and how they want them in school to advance their future. They spoke about health issues and problems getting food on the table, but never in a way that tried to evoke pity. They just were telling us about their lives, which brings me to my next point.

3) The project met our instructional goals of using and improving our Spanish. 

When we started our surveys, we were all focused on making sure the pronunciation of each question was right and trying really hard to read our script correctly, but quickly the surveys became less about a Spanish reading exercise and more about human connection. We stopped worrying about language accuracy and started doing everything we could to communicate understanding – our affective filter and our fears of making mistakes went out the window as we listened to these people share their fears and their wishes. It was a truly language rich experience, and hit those Cs of culture, community, and connection really hard. It was a perfect way for us to learn, give back, and feel good about doing it. 

Okay, so how am I going to apply these concepts in my classroom?

I went into my service trying to find ways for my students to give back in Nicaragua, and I discovered that the only genuine need my students could realistically meet that would help out the work Americans are doing in el Pantanal is : hit up their parents for money (ughhh! Such a frustrating realization). The folks we were helping in Pantanal told us that even classroom supplies and donations aren’t the best to contribute, since it would be best to give money that the school would then spend in the local community, supporting the local jobs and the local economy even further. Since we have so many fundraisers at our school already, I had already crossed financial donations off the list possible projects. It is possible that we could have a Spanish event that we charge admission to as a fundraiser (like an after school feria/market to go with our shopping unit; a Hispanic food festival to go with our food unit; etc). My mind is already moving through ideas for them that would both help out the neighborhood financially AND help us with our linguistic goals. 

Beyond trying to figure out a way for my students to help out in Nicaragua, however, my biggest takeaway was the need to WORK to find opportunities for my students to help out in our own community. Trying to find a genuine need students can meet in a language-rich way requires research, and networking in the local community to find people who are already working with Hispanic populations in town. Possibilities could include tutoring elementary school kids or partnering with an organization who works with new immigrants to the US. The folks at Common Ground did a lot of investigating before partnering with an organization that had a need that Spanish students could meet in a meaningful way. I came away with a reality check – that finding a meaningful student service opportunity requires research, time, and networking, but I also came away with a renewed sense of social responsibility and a desire to show my students how important and rewarding it can be to give back outside your comfort zone. 

It truly was an amazing week, and I gained a lot of perspective and inspiration as I head into our school’s first PBL year, but that hasn’t turned into concrete service ideas yet. What are your awesome student service activities? Have you found some meaningful service learning projects that also meet your instructional goals? Let me know in the comments below!