Goals for Secondary Immersion Programs

As I prepared my review sheet for the final exam last week, I was struck by the fact that it can be a lot harder to measure what students are learning in a Spanish Language Arts class (or any language class) than in a class like Math, where you solve problems, or Social Studies, where you learn about specific historical events. I worry that if students can’t itemize specifically what they’ve learned over the semester they will think they aren’t learning anything. So I got to thinking, “what are my bigger class and program goals? Do students know about them?

I’ve always had these overarching goals in the back of my mind, but finally wrote them down and even put them in an infographic. Amazing how much you can get done during a long weekend!

At the start of second semester I plan to bring these goals to my students and have them evaluate how they have grown this year based on these goals. I hope to put the Spanish version of this poster in my classroom and refer to it during the reading of the daily lesson. Maybe students will need to be the ones to say how the lesson connected to one of these goals.

Either way, I hope that this will give students a better overview of the goals they are working towards throughout the year.

National Writing Project: You have to be a writer to teach writing

Have you ever had a moment when you realized you weren’t good at something that you thought you were good at? I had my first such moment in 4th grade when I realized that even though I had won some medals in gymnastics, I was never going to be an olympic gymnast. It was a devastating moment for a child, but it also allowed me to move on to other things. I had another such moment this summer at the National Writing Project.

I had always thought that I was a good writer: I got As in English class, could throw together a coherent college essay in a few hours and could tell the difference between there/their/they’re, all signs that I had pretty decent writing skills.

And then I was asked to actually write.

I wrote narratives, humorous anecdotes, stories with dialogue, and poetry. And they were horrible.

As a teacher, especially a non-English Language Arts teacher, when was the last time that you wrote a narrative? For me, if you don’t count the simple stories I make up for my novice Spanish students, it was way back in high school. Yet, I teach narrative writing as part of my Spanish Language Arts course. I teach students to be better writers but I haven’t actually written in 15 years? Clearly this is a problem.

One of my biggest challenges going from being a World Language teacher to a Spanish Language Arts teacher has been teaching writing. As a World Language teacher I thought of writing as something that was used for learning the language, doing projects, or as an assessment. After all, my students came in already knowing how to read and write in English, all I had to do was transfer those skills into Spanish. This line of thought seemed to work fine when I taught in international schools where students were at or above grade level, but teaching heritage speakers has shown me how problematic it is. Some of my students are at or above grade level. More are below grade level in both English and Spanish. If they don’t have those strong writing skills in English they can’t just transfer to Spanish. I have to actually TEACH writing skills, not just differences between Spanish and English like spelling and accents.

Honestly, as I began to realize how big this responsibility was I was terrified. Nothing in my World Language teacher certification courses had prepared me for this. We had had a few professional development seminars with some good AVID strategies, but I had no idea how to teach writing and there was no Spanish Language Arts writing curriculum.

Seeing this big hole in my teaching skills, paired with the encouragement (ie. relentless hounding) of a colleague who had done the program, I let myself be reluctantly persuaded to join my local chapter of the National Writing Project for a summer institute. Normally I love professional development, but this was nearly a month long commitment of 8 hour days and this was my summer break! I imagined myself constantly looking at my watch and staring longingly out the window at summer passing me by.

The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. First, the institute was held at a botanical garden, so we were outside multiple times a day to take advantage of our beautiful surroundings. Second, we spent most of our time talking and doing, not listening to some expert at the front of the room.

This idea of not listening to an “expert” is vital to the philosophy of the National Writing Project. Founded by James Gray in 1974, the main idea of the National Writing Project (NWP) was that teachers-teaching-teachers is the best way to help teachers to improve their teaching of writing, and thus students to improve their own writing. Gray, like many of us, was disillusioned with the idea of an “expert”, who may not have been in the classroom for years, coming in to tell teachers what best practice was. Teachers, he thought, were already using best practices, they just needed to be connected to other teachers to share and grow. Essentially, teachers were the experts.

The National Writing Project has now expanded to all 50 states and a number of other countries around the world. Universities host the sites and provide a focus on the local community, including offering programs for K-12 students. Each local writing project is slightly different, but adheres to the NWP Core Principals.

Olbrich Gardens: not a bad place to sit and write

For us in the Greater Madison Writing Project, this meant a daily schedule that looked something like this:

Write-In and write-out: A ten-minute writing period to open or close the day that was based on a prompt that someone brought in. Questions, videos, pictures, quotes, and objects were all used and participants had the freedom to take their writing in whatever direction they chose.

Teacher’s workshop: Each participant had to give a 90 minute workshop on a topic of interest that they researched. I’ll be honest, this was stressful and a LOT of work (think grad-school level research), but I’m so glad I did it. My workshop turned into an amazing unit on bilingual writing that I then had all prepared for first quarter. And, even though our group had teachers from all different ages and subject levels, to my surprise I learned something from every single presentation, be it incorporating grammar, writing as therapy, or getting away from the 5-paragraph essay.

Reading Groups: We had two different reading groups, one for a book about how to write and the other for a book on how to teach writing. For both groups we were given 4 or 5 options so we were able to find something relevant to us personally.

Choice Time: A big chunk of our time was spent doing what served each of us best. This could be doing the assigned reading for our reading group, working on our workshop, walking around the gardens, sitting by the lake and writing or continuing a conversation with a colleague.

Writing Groups: We met in small groups to talk about the writing we were doing and get feedback on it. Peer editing so often is just filling out a sheet and not giving actual relevant feedback, so this was a chance to see how peer feedback could be done in a way that was useful and constructive.

Author’s Chair: To end the day anyone who wanted to was invited to share their writing. I had never done this with my class, so it was a great experience for me to see how nerve-wracking but rewarding it is to share something you’ve written with others. It was a good reminder for me about the importance of being vulnerable.

Fun: Scattered throughout we had a good number of pot-lucks, walk and talks, t-shirt designing, games and other things that made the institute fun and gave us a chance to connect with each other. It was a really wonderful atmosphere of caring professionals.

While my time with the Writing Project didn’t give me a set curriculum of how to teach writing, it gave me things that may be more valuable. It made me realize the writing experience that I was lacking. It let me see what it was like to be a writer, something that I had never had. It made me realize the therapeutic value of writing, and that writing can be enjoyable, not just a task to be completed for a grade. And finally, it showed me that even though I have a long way to go in my work teaching heritage speakers, in a way, I am an expert and I have valuable things to share. Since then I’ve given presentations on bilingual writing and started this blog, a place to share with and learn from others. We are all experts.

Click here to find National Writing Project sites.

Teaching about tough issues: gangs and violence

“Con todas las clases de español que tomé no eran sobre cosas tan real como eso, como la inmigración y las pandillas.  Nadie habla de eso.”

“Lo que me sorprendió más sobre esta unidad es que hablamos sobre algo real que está pasando y por fin estamos como facing el problema, viendo lo que es el problema.”

“Yes!” I thought as I listened to my students’ conversations about our unit, “They get it and they learned something!” Major teacher moment right here. These comments I heard from my students as we wrapped up our unit on group identity/gangs really affirmed that teaching about tough issues is tough, but it provides so many benefits for our learners.

Teaching is hard. Teaching about tough issues like gangs, race, immigration, sexual violence, and gun violence is even harder. But when we do so in a way that is culturally sensitive, thought-provoking, and inquisitive, the results can be amazing. Like eyes watering when a student who has been unmotivated for two years gives you their best work ever amazing. Like pumping your fist in the air and shouting “Yes!” when reading students’ essays amazing (ok I know that’s kind of weird but it occasionally happens when they are awesome). I believe that when we treat our students like young adults who can think and reason and face the issues of the world that they will rise to the occasion.

My students certainly rose to the occasion on this last unit. The unit I created sprang out of a desire to teach about the dangers of gangs, because I knew that it was unfortunately an issue in our generally safe city. Students know that there are students at our school who are involved in gangs but instead of pretending that the issue doesn’t exist, let’s call it out and understand why. With any problem, understanding is the first step to a solution. I wanted to teach this in a way that let students discover for themselves the causes, consequences, and potential solutions to this problem. In order to help frame the unit this way, the overall theme was not gangs but a more holistic Group Identity. After all, when a person joins a gang it is usually because they want to be a part of a group, but by doing so lose personal autonomy as they are subjected to the will of the group.

We started out the unit by looking at groups around the world where members may lose their individual identity, for better or worse, as they become a member of the group. Some examples were the military, religious groups, sports teams, and police officers. We looked at common symbols of group identity like tattoos, hairstyles and clothing. Next we researched the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment, whose website is also available in Spanish (whoo!) and talked about what happens when you are influenced by members of a group.

While I encouraged students to make personal connections to themes like peer pressure and friends encouraging you to try new things, I did give students some guidelines at the beginning of the unit. When talking about personal experiences, whether they are yours or something that happened to a friend or family member, say “someone I know”. This prevents students from oversharing private things (“my X was in a gang”) or things that might lead others to be uncomfortable.

The meat of the unit was based on a book and a film that fit perfectly together. The book is Vida y Muerte en la Marasalvatrucha. Want more evidence that teaching about gangs is tough? The author of the book wanted to remain anonymous. The book is available from Fluency Matters and follows the story of a boy who grows up in the MS-13 and later finds redemption through tragedy. Regardless of my thoughts about using non-native resources (post on that coming soon), this book is a quick, easy read for heritage speakers and DLI students, but one that will keep them engaged.

Next we watched the movie Sin Nombre. It is one of my all-time favorites because it is brutally honest. It follows two characters, Casper, a member of the MS-13 in Mexico and Sayra, a young immigrant from Honduras, as their paths cross on the way to the United States. It is a hard movie to watch (and rated R so get parent permission first) but it connects perfectly with Vida y Muerte en la Marasalvatrucha and provides a great segue into our next unit about immigration.

This book and film are often taught in a Spanish 3 or 4 class, but heritage speakers are capable of much more than just reading comprehension, so their final assessment was to write an essay comparing the journey of the narrator from the book and Casper in the film. To do so we worked on making comparisons (great place to do some grammar work in context) by looking at the journey that the characters go through, evaluating whether their actions were good or bad. Here is an example of one of the charts a group made:

Prepping for the essay by plotting out the characters’ journey

As someone who is still struggling to make the switch from Spanish teacher to Spanish Language Arts teacher, I’m often at a loss for how to help students prep for essay writing. This activity seemed to be a great way to help my students scaffold what they wanted to say and get ready to dive in to some deep character analysis.

This unit with worksheets and teacher notes is available on my Teachers Pay Teachers store if you want to try it in your classroom. I would love to hear your comments. What tough issues do you teach about? What advice do you have for tackling a tough topic?

Meeting Cuban Bay of Pigs Survivors in Miami

Photos, newspaper articles and memorabilia cover the walls at the museum.

“Everyone smile for the photo”, our museum guide instructed us as four small groups of visitors tried awkwardly to pose for a group photo with our smiling guides. “This is the most we’ve ever had” he added proudly.

Posing with our guides

I guess they don’t usually get many visitors. The small museum is located off the main tourist street of Calle Ocho in Little Havana, Miami and trying to find it was an adventure. It showed up on Google Maps-The Bay of Pigs Museum, but other Google searches said it had moved years. When I asked the waitress in Little Havana she shrugged and said she didn’t know. That only made me more determined to find it.

“Sorry guys, this might be a waste of time but I really want to see it,” I apologized to my friends as we walked down the block and into an empty parking lot. On the other side of the fenced-in parking lot was an old house. We never would have guessed it was the museum until we saw a historical plaque depicting the importance of the Bay of Pigs on Miami. Even then, the lack of visitors, the high wrought iron gate and a sign on the door about being closed on New Year’s made us think the place was closed. We stood there for a minute, deciding what to do, when the door slowly opened and an older gentleman in black pants and a button up collared shirt walked out and invited us in.

He was one of the guides of the museum. There were four of them there that day and each must have been over 75 years old. All four had been members of the US-backed Brigade 2506 that had attacked Cuba in 1961 in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro.

It’s not often that you visit a museum and get to hear the story from a person that was actually there, so this was a special kind of living history. We got to hear first-hand how the Brigade members went to Guatemala to train, how the first Brigade casualty was a man who fell off a cliff in the jungle there and how they started their numbering system for soldiers at 2000 to trick Castro’s government into thinking they were a bigger force than they were.

We saw a picture of prisoners sitting in rows in a courtyard and were informed it was the soldiers trial in Cuba after they had been captured. They were imprisoned for months until the U.S. cut a deal with the Castro regime to extradite them in return for millions of dollars worth of equipment, food and cash.

The museum itself was curated by members of the Bay of Pigs Veteran’s Association and contains photos of all of the Brigade members, newspaper articles and other memorabilia from the attack. Not surprisingly, it’s one sided, that is, you won’t find any Fidel Castro supporters here or anything that questions the validity of the U.S. government’s intention to overthrown another sovereign nation’s government.

But, it was a place for great dialogue, and when I shared that I was a teacher I was asked what I thought about the attack. In my best diplomatic response (real life ACTFL Superior level conversation!) I tried to explain that I thought what they did was very brave and Fidel Castro had done some very bad things but on the other hand the U.S. has a history of overthrowing many governments in Latin America and where do you draw the line? Who should be the world’s policeman when a leader (dictator) is bad and violating human rights?

I steered the conversation to what the future looked like for Cuba, as more Americans travel there and there is a U.S. embassy in Havana again now. Despite these changes the museum veterans were pessimistic about any improvements to human rights or any major changes in Cuba in the future, at least while the current regime is still in place. And unfortunately they are probably right.

These elderly men, who were all there as volunteers at a free museum, were so proud to be able to share their story with others. The excitement in their voice was evident as they greeted new visitors from Spain, France, and the US who came after us. Our group became increasingly larger as our guide was the only one that spoke English and I was glad to be able to chat in Spanish to get the real story.

As a teacher this made me think of what an amazing opportunity this could be for our Spanish classes, especially heritage learner classes, to connect with these men, listen to their stories and experience living history at the same time. I know that I won’t think about the Bay of Pigs again without thinking of the stories of the men who were actually there.

National Geographic Educator Certification

National Geographic has been a part of my life for, well, pretty much forever. Before Youtube, evening entertainment included tuning in to public television NatGeo specials to watch elephants give birth (no cable TV for this girl) and doing the geography quizzes in my dad’s National Geographic Magazine. NatGeo found a permanent place in my heart when I was runner-up in the elementary school geography bee in 5th grade. More recently, Nat Geo Magazine had a great issue about race, where they included an honest and groundbreaking analysis of their often racist past. Good for them for encouraging dialogue and not shying away from the hard issues.

For teachers National Geographic has always been a great place to go for resources for social studies and science. Now they are offering a new opportunity for teachers: National Geographic Educator Certification. This certification is FREE and is a must-do for globally minded educators at any level and of any subject. The course teaches eductors how to include more global issues into their teaching through the National Geographic Learning Framework, which is definitely helpful for curriculum planning. Working with a mentor and in groups with other educators provides the opportunity to network and get ideas from other like-minded teachers, plus get access to NatGeo educator online resources.

Learn how to cultivate an explorer mindset

There are three phases and the whole process takes 15-20 hours of work:

Phase 1: Certification workshop (videos and the NatGeo Learning Framework)

Phase 2: Classroom Activities (use one of NatGeo’s great resources in two lessons)

Phase 3: Capstone Project (document and reflect on the lessons in Phase 2)

Why get NatGeo certified? If the thought of free PD from NatGeo isn’t enough for you, certified NatGeo eductors are eligible to apply for coveted NatGeo grants like the Grosvenor Teacher Fellowship where small groups of teachers participate on real NatGeo expedition ships to places like Antarctica and, for you Spanish teachers, Central America and the Galapagos Islands.

There are usually three cohorts a year and the next one starts in January. If you start one cohort late and realize you don’t have time to finish it by the deadline (like me, gulp) you can easily save what you’ve done and move to the next cohort a few months later. Basically, there are no excuses not to do this great PD opportunity! Click here to get started.

Map activities for World Languages

There are so many reasons to use maps in the World Language classroom: They are culturally authentic, they provide a visual, so they can be accessible even to novice learners, and they are interactive.  Here are a few of my favorite activities:    

Students design their city map

An ideal city

A great way to start a unit is to have groups of students create a map drawing of their ideal city.  Using big butcher paper always makes it more fun and ensures that all students can participate at the same time.  With novice learners it’s helpful to scaffold by making an example on the board first, asking students simple questions about what the city should have.  Students are given a vocabulary list but are welcome to draw anything they want.  Once in their groups, I usually require that students label at least 15 things in their city in the target language and then orally present their city to another group or the class.  It’s nice to hang up the maps so your students’ work becomes the vocabulary wall for the unit.  

Beware the city monster!

Driving directions

A few lessons later we use the maps again, this time to practice with directions.  Each group gets a plastic car or truck to drive through the city and students need to ask each other how to get to places in their city.  Even high schoolers love driving toy cars!  Following along with a physical car seems to help their ability to follow directions, too.  Small plastic cars are available at dollar stores for $1 or at garage sales.  

3-D classroom maps

If you are blessed with a small class or a large classroom turn your entire classroom into a map!  Chairs and desks can define roads, or clear furniture and make roads out of painter’s tape on the floor.  Print pictures of various places in the city and put them around the room for students to direct each other.  Or, make a scavenger hunt where students have to read about places and they go and find that place.  Information on the back of the card will tell them if they are right.  

A virtual map of Madrid for students

Digital Maps 

Google Maps and Google Earth are great ways for students to be able to actually see cities around the world.  After learning about a city students could make their own Google Map, pinning important places, choosing pictures, and writing about each location that they choose.  Alternatively, the teacher can make a Google Map with directions and the students follow the directions to visit the locations and respond to questions.  These work well for intermediate and advanced levels, including heritage speakers.  Check out this pre-made map and questions for Madrid.   

Lessons from La Cosecha Dual Language Conference

intro.jpg The highlight of my November was attending La Cosecha, the dual language (DL) conference in New Mexico.   It took place in Santa Fe in 2018 but will be in Albuquerque in 2019.  If you teach in a bilingual or immersion program you MUST attend this conference.  I had never met another teacher who taught high school Spanish Language Arts before, and at the conference I was able to connect with dozens of them.  The conference itself was well organized with good food, engaging evening activities, relevant exhibitors and most importantly a wide-range of interesting sessions and workshops.  Plus, who from the Midwest wouldn’t want to enjoy the sunshine of New Mexico in November?

Throughout the conference a number of themes stuck out that I wanted to share.PL44JBs6ReiDp3SdaosqbQ

Dual Language Is Everywhere

I assumed that most educators I met would be from the Southwest and New York because those states have bigger populations of Latinos.  One of the biggest surprises was that dual language programs are everywhere!  I met secondary DL teachers from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Illinois, Nebraska, and Virginia, in addition to educators from countries like Costa Rica where Spanish is the dominant language.  Dual language is truly all over because (not surprisingly) the students we serve are everywhere.

A map of where conference participants were from

Qualified Bilingual Teachers Are Nowhere

Every program, no matter how established it is or where it is located, is having trouble finding qualified teachers.  See this post I wrote about paying bilingual teachers more to see what some districts are doing to find bilingual educators.  Many districts are starting “grow your own” programs that will help their current employees who are bilingual get teacher training or their bilingual license.  And we can’t forget our own students.  How cool would it be to have a student from your DL program come back and be a DL teacher!

Dual Language Leads To Better Student Outcomes

We all know this already, but it’s always nice to hear that what we do is the best program for our students.  Over and over I heard from educators and researchers like Jim Cummins that DL programs lead to higher achievement rates, higher graduation rates and a more positive sense of identity for our traditionally marginalized students.

Secondary Dual Language Is Still New


I heard from multiple speakers about the paucity of research specific to secondary DL programs.  Again, no surprise, but as I struggle with knowing what to do and where to look for support, it is reassuring to know that I’m not finding much because it actually doesn’t exist yet.  Most of the “flagship” programs that were presenting at La Cosecha had only had their high school program for four to six years.  These are the most developed programs in the country and they’ve only just started graduating students.  We need to remember that we are doing groundbreaking work and learning as we go should be expected.


There Is Finally A Resource Specific To Secondary Programs

Dual language advocates Drs. Virginia Collier and Wayne Thomas published a book that was just released in November 2018 about Secondary dual-language programs.  It has essays from researchers, admin and teachers at some of these more developed secondary programs like the ones in Albuquerque and Omaha.  I can’t wait to read it!  I scored a copy at the conference but it should be available on their website soon.

No Two Programs Are Alike

Each district and school has a unique combination of factors that affects how its program is set up.  Some programs are almost 100% Latino students while others are closer to 50-50.  Some include native speaking newcomers.  Schools with lots of bilingual teachers can more easily add content classes like science and math taught in Spanish.  Some programs are in big cities and others are in smaller towns or more isolated areas.  All of these factors will affect how a district or school organizes its program.

Some aspects that were common to all programs were the inclusion of a Spanish language arts class and at least one other subject taught in Spanish at each grade level.  Often this was social studies, but in some of the bigger programs science, math or electives were offered in Spanish.

Not surprisingly AP Spanish Language and AP Spanish Literature are vital to the programs I heard about, but there was no consensus on when students should take these courses.  Some districts have students take AP Language in 9th or even 8th grade, others in 10th or 11th.  Some schools have International Baccalaureate (IB) and take AP before IB.


Seal of Biliteracy

All the teachers that I heard from have programs where the Seal of Biliteracy is the crowning achievement of 12 years of participation and hard work in a Dual Language program.  Again, each school and state is different, so the requirements vary.  Many have two levels of achievement, a regular Seal and a distinguished or honors Seal.  Some were based on the classes taken and GPA, others on exam scores from AAPPL, STAMP or AP tests.  Some had community service requirements and some required presentations.  My favorite idea came from Albuquerque High School, where they require students to do a bilingual portfolio and 30+ minute presentation to bilingual community members reflecting on their education and their plans for the future.  What an awesome way to show what they’ve learned and get the community involved!



Overall I’m coming back from La Cosecha energized and excited, with a renewed commitment to making my school’s DLI program the best it can be.  And also with a lot of chile peppers 🙂

Have you been to La Cosecha?  Comment and let me know below.