Friday, November 28, 2014

Villancicos de Navidad

Thanksgiving 2014 has passed so it is now officially Christmas season!  One of the best things about Christmas, if you ask me, is the music.  I have bought quite a few Spanish Christmas songs over at iTunes so that I can play them in class during the last two weeks of the quarter. 

José Feliciano's Feliz Navidad continues to regale us year after year, and I suspect that the simplicity of the lyrics is partially responsible for its success.  Most everyone can belt out "feliz Navidad" over and over again, even if they get lost on the "prospero año" part of the song and try to fake their way through it.  I do make sure that all of my students know the line so they can seem knowledgeable when friends come at them with, "Hey, you take Spanish.  What are they saying in this song?"

 I put together some lyric sheets for the three Spanish Christmas Carols that I find are the easiest for my students to sing - Cascabel, Mi Burrito Sabanero, and Los Peces en el Río.  (I'm not sure the Christmas meaning of that last one, but it seems to be a Christmas carol by all accounts - even though I'm not seeing the connection.  There is a mention of the Virgin Mary washing diapers, so I guess that is vaguely related to Christmas . . . .)

If you would like to download a copy of the lyrics for these Christmas carols in Spanish, with festive decorations, please click here or on the image below.

And you might be asking yourself why I did not include the ever-present Feliz Navidad in the set, and the answer to that would be one word: copyright.  José Feliciano and his record label are not feeling especially friendly about sharing so, despite the fact that this blog is not widely read and is non-commercial, I'm going to play by the rules and respect the copyright.  If you wish to share the lyrics with your students in a strictly educational way, you can find them online with little effort.

Happy start to the Christmas season, amigos.  Away we go toward merriment and joy!

Hasta pronto,


Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Teaching and Learning with iPad Conference

What an interesting couple of days it has been at the Teaching and Learning with iPad Conference!  And, if I am to be frank, it's been exhausting too.  Normally when one goes to a conference, it is out of town and you get to have a little bit of a vacation experience by staying in the hotel and eating out at restaurants - well, at least that's the way I do it.  But this particular conference is held right here in my hometown.  In fact, it is co-sponsored by my school so it is populated by my coworkers, my administrators, and even quite a few of my students.  Meanwhile, I'm running around and doing all my usual stuff like taking my kids into school on Friday and picking them up in the carpool, grabbing things from the supermarket on the way home, and all that sort of thing.  It's an odd and somewhat disconcerting mix of home life and conference experience that just leaves me feeling wiped out.

The organizers of the event did a great job, I think.  Everything was well laid out and well planned.  There were drinks, tasty snacks, and friendly helpful folks all around.  There was a social hour with cocktails and in which our school's jazz band was the entertainment.   (Though I think more conferences could benefit from cocktails and jazz - this is not a good mix in front of your students.  I had to decline the temptation because I could think of so many ways - so many ways - that could go wrong.)  We had folks from all over the state here, as you might suspect, but we also had folks from other states and a whole bunch of folks from Canada too.  I heard talk that there were other foreign nationals in attendance too, but I didn't meet any of them personally.

I have one major issue, and that was the fault of the hotel - not the conference organizers, the wi-fi was terribly slow and unreliable.  In the case of a technology conference, this is simply not okay.  If you agree to host a "Teaching and Learning with the iPad" conference, then you have to expect that a few hundred people are going to all want to use thier iPads at the same time.  And there is an expectation on the part of presenters and attendees that there will be a way to get online and have access to everything we are showcasing and learning about.  When I gave my presentation on Friday, there was almost no bandwidth and much of what I wanted to show my attendees had to be skipped.  It was a shame, but the enthusiasm and the supportive energy I got from everyone made the presentation a success regardless, so I can't really complain.

In addition to presenting two sessions, I attended presentations in all available slots.  I learned about engaging active learners, gamification, flipped instruction, and blended learning.  I even got a digital badge for my participation in the gamification session.
This is the first conference that I have attended that was not focused on foreign language instruction, and that made it a bit unusual for me.  I wasn't able to hook up with as many people to share instructional ideas as I do at other conferences and I didn't get a friendly vibe off of everyone.  Maybe foreign language teachers are all just great people?  I don't know the answer to that, but it might be fun to research it - if I weren't already a bit biased.  Still, I met two folks that I like quite a bit and I tweeted to both of them today.  Maybe we will stay in touch and maybe not, but I feel like I have to make the attempt because connecting with other professionals is very important to me.

Hasta pronto,


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Amapolas Para La Conmemoración

Veterans' Day is a week past now, and I am finally finding a free moment to share an idea with you.  The idea was not mine though, it was the inspiration of one of my colleagues who teaches French.

In Europe, and elsewhere to a lesser extent, it has become traditional to honor veterans of war with poppies.  The tradition began in France around the end of World War I and has grown in momentum over the years.  So, to acknowledge Veterans' Day, my colleague spoke to all of us in the foreign language department and the arts department about having our students make paper poppies. 

The idea was to have a field of poppies that would be a beautiful memorial to our veterans - and I think it turned out great.

Some folks are not naturally crafty so I decided to put together a set of instructions for those who might want to do this project themselves for a future Veterans' Day celebration.  It has written instructions, visual instructions, a template to follow, and reference photos (for those people who like to be precise).  Click here to download a PDF of the instructions or click on the image below.

 If you make poppies with your students, I would love to hear from you!  Send pictures or leave comments.  It's great to stay in touch, amigos.

Hasta pronto,


Saturday, November 8, 2014

¿Cómo Cambiarías el Mundo?

How would you change the world?  It is a question I asked my Spanish IV students as we were beginning a chapter on ecology.  With so many ecological issues very present in our everyday consciousness, we hear a lot about cleaning up the air we breathe and the water we drink.  There is a lot of talk about getting trash up off the roads and recycling - both in our textbook and everywhere around us.  I thought my students would all be drawn to conversations about climate change and the environment, and many of them were. 

But many others chose to focus on things that were issues of personal importance to them instead - hunger, religious freedom, equality of education.  I was surprised by how honest they were and how they resisted the path that had been laid out for them by the textbook.

The project consisted of choosing a topic of personal importance, stating a desire to improve the world using the present subjunctive, and presenting it in an attractive way on a 10" x 10" square.  I provided class time in which we wrote our statements in the subjunctive, peer edited them, and I helped with grammar and phrasing.  (There are still errors in some of them.  It is student Spanish, after all.)

The creativity part was done, by in large, outside of class.  I did provide materials and artistic suggestions, but the students were given full creative privilege to do what they chose.  We discussed symbolism and how to represent our ideas using pictures, and I suggested that students might want to use three-dimensional elements in their design.  (The one above has actual sand on it.)  When I displayed them all together, wow . . . the results were beautiful and the message was so positive.

Hasta pronto, amigos.


Sunday, November 2, 2014

Feliz Noviembre

November again?  I know it is not just me, but November always makes me feel as though time is passing too quickly.  I look at my pacing guide and see where I am . . . sigh.  I look at the calendar and see that midterm exams, semester grades, and Christmas are coming up fast.

Still, there is beauty in November - at least toward the beginning before winter's grasp has taken hold.  And, here in North Carolina, there are spectacular fall colors that continue to awe us in the first weeks of November.

I am not much of a photographer.  It's a sad skill to lack when one is a blogger, but it is the truth.  I'm handy with a paintbrush, with crafty things, and with decorations.  I put up one heck of a bulletin board, but photography . . . not so much.  So the following pictures are not ones I shot myself.  They are ones I found online and I tacked November phrases onto them.  (Photoshop I can do!)  But I thought they would make a nice addition to my lessons this month, so I figured I would share them here with you.

Feliz noviembre, amigos.  Que cada persona deje que el corazón llene de gratitud y los ojos de los brillantes colores de esta magnífica estación.

Hasta pronto,


Saturday, November 1, 2014

How To: La Ofrenda

This year our chapter of Sociedad Honoraria Hispánica decided to put up an ofrenda to celebrate Día de los Muertos.  It makes a lively cultural display in the lobby of the school that gives everyone a little taste of the holiday and the history behind it.

Over the years I have done this activity with various groups of students and I have learned some things along the way, so I've decided to gather my thoughts and share them with you.  In my opinion, there are a few crucial things to do if you are going to be successful.

1.  Get Permission:  First things first - before you even start planning to put up an ofrenda in your classroom or in a public display somewhere in your school, talk to your administrator and make sure that it will be okay.  Let them know the cultural significance of the project, what it will look like, where it will be, and how long it will be on display.

2. Be Religiously Neutral:  This is important, especially in this day and age where some people seem to be looking for any little thing at which they might take offense.  My strong suggestion to you is that you avoid the word altar at all cost and consistently refer to the display as an ofrendaAltar has very strong religious connotations in English and Spanish, and the idea is to educate students on the history and culture - not to upset them or their parents about religion.  Talk to your classes about the culture, the history, and some of the Native American beliefs that are related to Día de los Muertos, but make it clear that you are simply studying these ideas to understand them - not to practice them or believe them personally.

3. Avoid Real Food: Ofrendas are traditionally covered up with tasty goodies like sugar skulls, bread, mole, and fresh fruit.  This works great in a home or a small venue where it can be carefully monitored, but in a school where people are constantly coming and going there might be the temptation to sample something.  (I had one kid tell me he thought it was a buffet one year!)  You also don't want  to invite pests like ants, fruit flies, and cockroaches to the table.
  • Fruit - There are some very convincing fake fruits out there at local craft stores.  You might be able to find some at discount stores too.
  • Bread - Fake bread is for sale online, believe it or not.  Here is an Etsy Store where you can find it.  And it is also for sale at Amazon.  If you actually have time in your schedule for such things, you might be able to make it yourself.  Here is a website that shows you how, though I've never tried this myself so I don't know anything about it.  Lastly, you might want to talk to the teachers in the Arts Department - I found that theater teachers often have fake bread they use as props and art teachers often have fake bread they use to set up still life scenes for their students to draw and paint.
  • Candy Skulls - This year I bought some plastic skulls at the dollar store and spray painted them white.  I then gave some artistic students the task to look up pictures of sugar skulls and recreate the look with acrylic paint.  It worked out very well.  (That is a real loaf of pan de muertos in the picture - not a fake one.  A student made it for extra credit and we ate it.  It was only on display for pictures.)

4. No Fire: This is surely a no-brainer, but you clearly cannot light real candles or incense at your school ofrenda.  To do so would be to invite disaster.  I really hate fake candles that look fake, but there are some pretty nice ones available nowadays that flicker and look real.  If you do have fake candles on your display, make sure to give a particular student the job of turning them on in the morning and turning them off in the afternoon.  Otherwise they might get left on over the weekend and exhaust your batteries.

5. Silk Flowers Last Longer: Everyone loves fresh flowers but they are very expensive and short lived.  Silk flowers will endure so that you can use them year after year and they will keep their color and their fresh look.  If you want to put some fresh flowers up too, that is a great idea because they actually work well together.

6. Organize Donations Digitally: You cannot buy all the supplies yourself, unless you have lots of time and money.  Make a list well ahead of time of anything you feel you might need for the ofrenda.  I used to make sign-up sheets, of course.  But in this marvelous technical age in which we live, there are digital sign-ups that take away all the guess work and make life easy.  I use Sign Up Genius and I highly recommend it.  It is free, it is easy, it automatically sends reminders to students and parents, and it doesn't take too long to do.  You can quickly look and see who signed up for what and use it as a management tool.  I love technology!

7. Table Cloth: Real table cloths are spendy and you don't want to ruin one, so for my ofrenda I used a $5 bed sheet from Wal-Mart.  You could also get a plastic tablecloth for a dollar from your local dollar store. 

8. Empty Boxes for Levels: Ofrendas look better when they have two or three levels.  You can create the look by using empty cardboard boxes.  I recommend going to the copy room - all the boxes there will be sturdy and of a uniform size.

9. Papel Picado: In my opinion, papel picado is a must for the ofrenda.  It gives color, it looks festive, and it is very traditional.  You can have your students make the papel picado themselves or you can buy some very inexpensively.  I got mine for less than $6 at Teachers' Discovery.

10. Students Pick HonoreeOfendas honor the spirits of the departed, so it makes sense to choose someone to honor.  I usually nudge my students in the direction of a famous Hispanic person.  We've done Frida Kahlo and Salvador Dalí in the past, but this year they wanted to honor Robin Williams and, since that was someone meaningful to them, it made the project much more personal.  (If there was a recent death in your school community, students might want to honor that person.  I recommend that you talk to your administration before you decide to do something like that.  Emotions can run high and you don't want any misunderstandings or hurt feelings.)

11. Put Up a Sign: Explain what the ofrenda is all about - In English so everyone can read and understand.  You don't want people thinking it's a shrine or a religious altar.  You don't want people mixing it up with Halloween or any other manner of ridiculous interpretations you can't even imagine.  Have the students make a poster to explain the holiday and it's significance, then display it right next to your ofrenda.

12. Rein In Your Perfectionism: If you have perfectionistic tendencies and can be a bit of a control freak, force yourself to let go and stand back while the students put the ofrenda together themselves.  This project is about learning and having fun - not about how neat the flowers are, how the candles are spaced, or whether the papel picado is hanging straight.  I don't know if other people struggle with these things or if it is just me.  But I have to remind myself that this is a project for the students to do, not for me to get obsessive about.  Let them put it up and praise them for it - don't micromanage.


And, of course, have fun.  The holiday is about being joyful so be sure to do some of that too.  I hope this advice has been of some use to you.  May you have a feliz Día de los Muertos!

One last bit of advice, if you want to get a head start on next year's ofrenda, go to the craft store between Halloween and Thanksgiving and you can rack up on cheap decorations.  They want to get stuff off the shelves and get ready for Christmas so you will find skulls and flowers at 50% even 75% or 80% off.  ¡Viva la ganga!

Hasta pronto,


Feliz Día de Muertos

Don't you just love Día de los Muertos?  It's such a colorful holiday - filled with color, delicious goodies, great music, and cultural richness.  I look at it as Halloween's good twin, and a way to keep on having fun for a couple of extra days.

I started each of my classes today with a brief explanation of the two holidays - what they have in common and how they are different.  I then showed an adorable little animated video that does not have particularly strong educational value, but it is entertaining and beautiful.  And it shows the message that I take from the holiday - It's not about being afraid of death or about being sad for those we've lost, but rather about celebrating their life and understanding that death is just another phase of our existence.

There is no dialog in the video - neither in English nor in Spanish.  Students can just watch and soak in the images and the ideas without any stress.

I played it completely straight with my students today.  I told them it was a short video and that I required their attention, that I had not made a worksheet or an activity to go with it, I just wanted them to watch and enjoy.  They responded well and gave it their attention.

We also put up an ofrenda at school - but I will save that story for later as I'm tired now.

Hasta pronto,