The Ultimate Fiesta PBL

It’s getting to be the end of the year for many folks around the country, so I thought now would be as good a time as any to share my go-to end-of-the-year PBL: La fiesta perfecta.

The driving question for the PBL is “How would we celebrate a holiday from a Spanish-speaking country?” or “¿Cómo celebraríamos una fiesta hispanohablante?” With that question in mind, you divide them into groups, and give them their challenge: they are to create an authentic, safe, affordable, feasible, and fun end-of-the-year celebration based on the Hispanic holiday of their choice. They’ll need to be able to set-up, clean-up, and celebrate within one class period, and they’ll have to use materials they can either get at school or easily get at home. Once they have the idea for their celebration, they’ll present it to their classmates to have them vote on a favorite. The winners will present their proposal to a member of the school admin team (hey authentic audience!) for approval. They’ll either get approval, or modify their celebration as needed, and then they’ll get to throw a huge party with their classmates!

I love this project at the end of the year because it brings some meaning to those days after testing that seem to be hard to fill up. I’d do different versions of many of the parties that got presented, not just the winners, when I was desperate for another class period to fill. Those weirdly scheduled days during standardized testing can be a struggle, and this helps to keep it engaging and light. It can be easily scaled up or scaled down too, depending on how much time you need (i.e., some of my classes ended up with 5 extra 3-hour blocks due to testing, some with a couple of 90-minute periods; this project can be stretched or shrunk to fit the time needs!)

Okay, let’s break this PBL unit down:

Guide them through a review of holidays and celebrations from Spanish-speaking countries. Before we design a party based on a Hispanic holiday, we need to research the Hispanic holidays. I’ll usually have some sort of table they need to fill in that has a list of holidays on the y-axis and different questions about each holiday on the x-axis (when, where, why, food, clothing, music, traditions, etc.) I’ll have them review stand-bys like Día de los Muertos and Navidad, but I’ll also throw in others that don’t get as much love (Carnaval, San Fermín in Pamplona, La tomatina, El cipotegato, Las Fallas, La mercè in Barcelona, Días de independencia en varias paises, etc). I’ve done this a few different ways, from doing one holiday a class-period as a warm-up with authentic video for a few weeks, to doing a huge jigsaw activity in one 90-minute block, to having them work through all the holidays in groups with a sub. The idea is to get them thinking about different celebrations, but I don’t limit them to the ones we go through together. I’ll leave it open to them to research other holidays if they want to (why not!)

Set up the make-your-own-fiesta idea with strong boundaries. I go through a long speech when I introduce this project about how this is an opportunity for them not only to dive deep on one Hispanic holiday, but also to apply their problem-solving skills to design an entire event, on a $0 budget, with approval from the administration, that they can complete in one 90-minute block, that they’d actually ENJOY. For some of them, this is the first time they’ve taken a stab at event planning, and it’s fun to see them start to realize how much goes into planning a simple class party. I’m there as a reality check when their imaginations start running wild, and I try to help them get creative about designing something for admin approval, so that I don’t become the bad guy who shoots down dreams (i.e. “do you really think they’ll approve lighting a bonfire in the middle of the football field guys? yeah, me neither, what’s a good substitute for open flames…”) When you get enough teenagers determined to have a good time, their imaginations start doing impressive things, and those boundaries force their creative juices to start running wild.

Give them very specific guidelines and a very specific rubric. I gave them pretty strict specifications on what they needed to include in their party proposals. For me, they needed a slide on:

  • The holiday: the authentic holiday they’ll be imitating (using the same info from our pre-unit holiday dive – when, where, traditions, etc).
  • Our party activities: How will we turn traditions from the authentic holidays into a school-appropriate party? What we will actually DO at this party?
  • Set-up: What we need to do to help set-up this party beforehand the fun starts
  • Materials: What materials and supplies we need to pull this off, and how they will get them? I tell them to be VERY specific about this – Will they bring things from home? Whose home? Will they need to borrow materials from the PE department? Who will ask the PE teachers? I put as much responsibility on them as I possibly can.
  • Clothing: Do we need to wear anything that will help us celebrate the holiday more authentically?
  • Food: Will there be food? What will we eat? Who will make it and bring it in?
  • Safety: How will we ensure that this fiesta will be safe for everyone involved?
  • Clean-up: How will we clean-up after the fiesta? What will we need to clean up? Who will clean up? I remind them they’ll only have one class period to get this all done!

I also tell them they will be graded on whether their party is safe, affordable, authentic, feasible (i.e. materials are easily accessible, it’s likely to be approved by admin), time-appropriate (can you really set-up, clean-up, and have this party in one 90-minute block?), and fun (with a rubric for each category).

Give them all a chance to present and be the reality check for one another. Every single group will have a chance to present in class, and every single group will have to ask and answer questions about each party (this was an awesome interpersonal task at the end of Spanish 2). Then, classmates will vote and tally each group on the same criteria they’re getting graded on (safety, affordability, authenticity, feasibility, time, and fun). I used Google forms for this to help me easily figure out which celebration was the winning party.

Get them all to help out the chosen group for the admin presentation. While I coordinate getting a school administrator into class for the big “approval day,” they help each other brainstorm any admin concerns. Which parts of the party do they think the principal will have questions about? How are they going to address safety and clean-up thoroughly? I also have them pick who is going to translate if needed (they still have to show off present in Spanish for the admin team, but they’ll need to translate for the folks who don’t speak Spanish).

Once the party is approved, execute the plan! Once the admin team approves our celebration, now it’s time to put the plan into action. Since the kids were forced to be really specific in their presentations, hopefully this is easy. They’ve already brainstormed who is asking whom for what, and which students are bringing in which materials for set-up and clean-up. I also grade them on participation – if you said you’re on clean-up duty, you’re on clean-up duty!

Enjoy making these memories. My classes came up with some AWESOME ideas for these parties. We did a capture the flag version of running of the bulls, a huge Carnaval celebration, and a version of Las Fallas where we drew “fallas” on eggs and smashed them on a huge tarp outside to signify the Fallas bursting into flames. It was the last big hurrah for some of my 8th graders, and I loved helping them bring their nutjob ideas to life. It’s a fun one!

And there you have it. If you like this project, you can purchase a version with instructions, rubrics, and all on Teachers Pay Teachers here. Please share with me any crazy party ideas your kids come up with. I’d love to hear how this project is going in other classrooms. Good luck getting to the last day of school!

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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!

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!