Thursday, March 29, 2012

Grammar is not gross

I have come to a rather large obstacle with my heritage Spanish speakers. We respect each other, we enjoy our time together, they are open to new experiences in the classroom. However I cannot figure out how to successfully reinforce proper advanced grammar, good spelling and accent use for the life of me. This is an especially painful point for me for two reasons.
1. I LOVE GRAMMAR. All those rules are just so cool and make sense and Spanish is so lovely in that way.
2.  Their poor spelling and continual anglicisms make them look far less fluent than they are. In spoken speech, they can run circles around me. But put a book in their hands or ask them to write a formal letter and their comprehension and writing is years below their grade.

What do I do?
First and foremost, I ask your advice. Anything you might have to offer would be so very appreciated. Please add any ideas in this Google Doc. It doesn't just have to be for Spanish learners. Any technique is welcome, although I do prefer not to go the drill and kill route.

Here is a basic list of things that I have tried. I'll be honest, it seems like their spelling and accentuation are getting worse.
1. We read a lot. Things like The Hunger Games, People magazine in Spanish, the news, etc.
2. We have free journaling daily.
3. There is a list of approximately 30 words that are our "It words," things like "he hablado" instead of "e avlado" and "más" instead of "mas." We've had it since the third week of school. They still don't know it despite repeated testing, grade consequences, textual reinforcement, competitive memorizing activities, etc.
4. I have taught "traditional" grammar lessons.
5. They have taught each other grammar lessons.
6. We have repeated and reinforced old grammar lessons.
7. I've taught them college-level phonetics and dialectology in order to help them better understand the use of various letters.
8. I've gotten angry.
9. I've let it slide.
10. I've graded meticulously to show each potential improvement.
11. Everything in my class can be redone. Everything. So if they receive a poor grade for bad spelling, they can rewrite it for full credit.

Clearly, I'm at wit's end. I very much look forward to reading your advice and I cannot wait to convince my students that good grammar is not gross.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Slam Poetry Resources

The following is an email regarding the implementation of slam poetry from dear friend (and fellow teacher) Stephanie Nudleman. I am so appreciative that she was willing to share her resources and knowledge.

Here are a bunch of attached resources, including an amazing document from the Young Chicago Writers.  Read it, love it, take stuff from it.  Every other document is something I made myself, so steal those and modify them for your own kids.

Poems I've used for high school slamxamples:

Blue Blanket - Andrea Gibson
Bi-Racial Hair - Zora 
POW - Alicia Keys
Pretty - Katie Makkai
Grandmother - Mayda del Valle (Article from Washington Post w. review and poem)
Awkward Scars - Robbie Q Telfer
Totally Like Whatever You Know - Taylor Mali

And my goodness use all of these, because I know these amazing people:
Listen to "Egypt" and cry your face off.

There are a ton more.  Those are just the ones I thought of off the top of my head.

Specific directions:

I started class every day with a quick speech exercise.  It was usually a tongue twister on the board that the students had to say three times fast (correctly!) to be marked present.  Then, one day I wrote "blah" ten times on the white board, passed out a different tone notecard for each student, put all of the options for the tone words on the board, and had the students say "blah" ten times and had the other students guess which tone the student was portraying.  To make it easier, you can use the sentence "i notice people staring at me everywhere i go" one day and then do the Blah exercise a few days later.  We eventually did the same exercise -- with the tone notecards -- for expression through body language and facial expression.  Some of those exercises, and a bunch I didn't use but considered using, are gathered in this "hodgepodge of speech exercises" document.

Also, the day we opened with "what is slam poetry," I had them start class by writing a response to a prompt on the board that said, "if you could say one sentence to the entire world, what would you say?"  This was before we discussed what slam is and does and watched a few videos.  I very much entwined both viewing and writing slam poetry throughout the unit.  I think I had them watch a slam poem every other day.


Other documents written by Stephanie. I apologize that Google Docs has messed up her formatting.

How to write a SLAM poem 

A hint to Stephanie/SLAM vocab taken from the Speed, emphasis, facial expression and tone activity :

·       Speed:  How quickly should your poem be read?
·       Emphasis:  Which words should be said louder or softer?
·       Facial Expression:  What emotion should your face show?
·       Tone:  What tone should you use when performing?
Student assessment rubric and self-evaluation worksheet. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The power of social media and our students

A student of mine asked me to share this with you.

This video describes the horrible actions of Josephy Kony. It is a very important issue, without question, and I am proud that she has decided to take it upon herself to help spread the word.

The fact that she came upon this information also reiterates the power of social media, especially in the lives of our youth. When I asked her how she found it, she said, " I got home today logged onto tumblr and it was all over the place."

The student can be contacted at

The concept of self, Part 1: analyzing Spanish-speaking artists and self-portraits

I am lucky enough to teach Spanish to 8th/9th grade heritage Spanish speakers. While it does mean that most textbooks are absolutely worthless to us, it also means that we get to study any material that strikes our fancy... as long as we do it in Spanish. 

This time, my goal with was to define the idea of "self" and work towards describing ourselves through word and image. Given that students this age find themselves to be an important issue, it had special resonance with our class.

We started by asking the following question: Does the image of the person have to be in his/her portrait in order for it to be a self-portrait? Most students felt that, yes, the image of the portrait-ee must be in the portrait.

Then we started looking at portraits by famous Spanish-speaking artists.

In Velazquez's "Las Meninas" there are clearly multiple subjects and a story. However, it also contains the artist... so is it a self-portrait or not?

(We fought about it for a few minutes and then moved on.)

Then we moved on to Goya. I was curious what he was trying to tell us through this picture. We also talked about the role of the viewer -- what is the viewer doing here? Where are we in the scene? Does Goya know we're there? What does his face tell us?
And, of course, we talked about if the purpose of this work was to be a self-portrait, or if the author had some other intention.

(They didn't think that it was meant to be a self-portrait, by the way. Do you?)

I decided that we were ready to go a little farther.

 When I showed them this Dali, there were a lot of titters at first. And then they were just plain curious. Kids got up and gathered around the projection, questioning what the symbols meant, why the dog was there, is he underwater?, I swear that's la Virgen, Profe!, etc.

This time, we went in deep, questioning the goal of a self-portrait. The students decided that:
- the purpose of a self-portrait is to express the individual that the portrait is about.
- a self-portrait expresses things that are important, emotions, or ideas that represent the person
- a self-portrait includes the person itself in the image.

This is all happening in rapid-fire Spanglish. I'll be honest, we didn't know all the technical words that we needed, in either English or Spanish. But everyone had something to say, and the vast majority was taking place -- without second thought -- in beautiful Spanish.

Botero's "First Communion"

At this point, I just changed the slide and let them discuss amongst themselves. The majority of the discussion revolved around religion and the winged creatures above the subject's shoulder. They also made it clear that they could not decide if it was a self-portrait or not until they knew if the artist's intention was to paint himself. I decided not to tell them that the title of the painting is "Self-Portrait on the Day of My First Communion."

The turning point in our discussion came with this image, provided through the London Telegraph, of Gabriel Orozco's "Yielding Stone."
After much conversation, some students decided that this work was in fact a self-portrait, given that it had traveled and documented the artist's actions, because Orozco lives in New York City, and because it weighs as much as he did. Other students, however, felt that it was not a self-portrait. Orozco did not title it a self-portrait and he is not in the ball and we do not know what he looks like after seeing this piece.

I was happy for the divergence in opinion. I decided that they would be ready to write after one last piece.

Although they were intrigued, I think that they had reached their saturation point. After a set of jumping-jacks, we all sat down to answer our original question: Does a person's own image have to be in his/her self-portrait in order for it to be considered a self-portrait?

The responses that I received were truly exceptional. (I did this activity in early October, not even two full months into school).

This student had never spoken to me before.

"...the definition of a portrait is something that represents you. So, a self-portrait is something that the person drew that represents him/her self. ... If the person believes that this work of art represents them then it is a self-portrait. It doesn't matter if others don't think it is..."