El mundo de Sra. Brown

Live your language learning!

Leave a comment

Middle School Service Fair

Service learning fair 1

On Thursday, November 13th, Allendale Columbia Middle School hosted its first service fair showcasing five service organizations from the greater Rochester area.  Representatives from Foodlink, RAPA (Rochester Association of Performing Arts), the Center for Environmental Initiatives, Rochester Greenovation and GRASP (Greece Residents Assisting Stray Pets) spoke to students about their organization’s outreach in Monroe County.

Service Learning Fair 3

Each organization brought in evidence of their work, from Dexter, a stray Basset/Daschund mix who had been fostered by GRASP to an upcycled fork crafted into an octopus necklace by an artist at Rochester Greenovation.  Kimie Romeo, who works with the Center for Environmental Initiatives, spoke eloquently to students about their role as stewards of the Great Lakes, our world’s largest source of potable water.  RAPA Director, Allan Cuseo, talked about how theater can change people’s lives and Jared Longmore outlined the Foodlink’s recent grassroots outreach in urban neighborhoods.

Service Learning Fair 2

Students then broke out into advisory groups to discuss the potential of service learning.  They thought that service learning at the middle school level would inspire awareness, compassion and gratitude in students.  They expressed interest in becoming more aware of who they could help in their community.

They also talked about how they could convert their personal hobbies and passions into service work.  A student interested in sharks expressed interest in working with organizations that aimed to protect coral reefs.  Another student passionate about swimming thought she might offer a water safety course to youth who don’t have the opportunity to swim very often.

Students were eager to tackle a wide variety of difficult issues with their potential service.  Some worried about saving rain forests or helping victims of natural disaster.  Some were interested in working with people with health issues or special needs.  Others were preoccupied by world violence, illiteracy or access to vaccines.

At the end of the session, each student set a personal service goal.  Some goals were small, others very ambitious.  “I would like to get a better understanding of the needs in my community,” said one student.  “I would like to be out there helping,” wrote another.




Leave a comment

Homework Required. Studying Encouraged?

At the close of our first quarter, my students spent some time reflecting on their performance and setting measurable goals for their future Spanish learning.

Before they completed their written reflections, we discussed the difference between class participation and class preparation. In my experience, my students usually have more difficulty defining class preparation. This makes sense because most middle schoolers are just beginning to develop an independent awareness of how they learn.

My students identified homework and studying as the two main elements of class preparation. When I asked them to compare and contrast these two aspects of preparation, one student raised his hand. “Well,” he said, “Homework is required. Studying is only encouraged.”  The majority of students also felt that studying was more difficult than completing homework.

Screenshot 2014-11-09 13.12.54


It was clear that students recognized studying as important, however they seemed to have difficulty with how to define and execute a self-directed academic task.  In their experience, the teacher usually defines and checks homework.  Studying was more nebulous.

As we talked further, however, it was clear that students had innovative, individualized ideas about what it meant to study.  Some liked to study in a quiet, dark room while others preferred bright, busy spaces.  Some students turned the target concepts into a song or taught them to a younger sibling or pet.  Other students used drawings and photographs to create visual markers of their conceptual understanding.

Over the weekend, I couldn’t stop thinking about our class discussion.  The more I thought, the more I realized that “Studying required, homework encouraged,” might be a more effective instructional mantra in my classroom.  What if I gave the students a suggested homework activity, but I encouraged them to work with the target concepts in a way that made sense to them?  What if I asked students how they wanted to show they understood the concepts we were working with and had them design their own homework and review activities?  It seems that these challenges will help them develop critical academic self-awareness in a way that my prescriptive homework cannot.  I can’t wait to see what they come up with.



Snap if You’re Where I’m From

A series of community conversations on racial equity continued on Wednesday, April 10, when Dr. Judy Márquez Kiyama, Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Rochester, visited Allendale Columbia School  to discuss issues of identity and social justice.  This was the culmination of the students’ exploration of race and identity coinciding with Race: Are We so Different? exhibit at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.

Students visited the exhibit and participated in classroom discussions addressing the scientific myths and truths of racial biology, the legal and social history of race as well as the current lived experience of race in the United States.

Race Exhibit Photo

They also had the opportunity to interview Dr. Yolanda Moses, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California at Riverside and chair of the National Advisory Board of Understanding Race exhibit.

Dr. Moses 1

Dr. Moses talked about the construction and evolution of the exhibit and shared personal anecdotes related to her work as a nationally recognized cultural anthropologist.  She encouraged students to examine the structural foundations of oppression as well as their inherited beliefs about race and culture.


After screening Dr. Moses’ interview, Dr. Márquez Kiyama presented a series of ground rules for promoting frank and respectful talk about our identities, shared and different.  She encouraged students to consider their multiple roles, roots and internal contradictions.  She also shared her own “Where I’m From” poem, a poem integrating her many identities.  “Most of all,” she read, “I am from the ranch.  Where doors aren’t locked, people aren’t fake, horses don’t judge and having a PhD is no better than the strings of an apron.”


The Race Card Project

Our students recently visited the Race: are we so different exhibit at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.  Our Spanish III class took the opportunity to reflect a bit about how our culture treats race, comparing and contrasting it with how people in Latin America conceptualize race.  After watching some excerpts from Henry Louis Gates’ PBS series Black in Latin America, we talked about each culture’s definition of blackness and the historical reasons for this.

As a way to open discussion about race in the United States, students explored the “Guess My Race” iPad app which was created as part of the Race Awareness Project.  The app shows a photograph of a person and asks you to choose which category the person self-identifies as.  We took the quiz as a class and only got two out of ten right.  Our guesses and mistakes provided a lot of opportunities to explore the implications of our preconceived notions.

To continue our exploration, students listened to this description of the Race Card Project, a collection of six word reflections on race.  Students then selected one card from the Race Card Wall that resonated with them in some way and also were given the opportunity to submit their own six-word card.  What resulted was a respectful, personal conversation about how race and culture affect how these students see themselves and relate to the larger world.

Here are some of the cards that the students selected from the Race Card Wall, and the resulting discussion.

Race card selection:  “You’re Jewish?  You don’t look Jewish.”

Student reflections:

  • People come up and say this to me all the time.  I don’t know what it means to look Jewish.  People say I look Catholic, but I don’t know what that means either.

Race card selection:  “I’m gay but at least I’m white.”

Student reflections:

  • Wow.  Anyone can be racist.  Even if you are part of a marginalized group, you can still be racist.

Race card selection:  “I can’t speak my own language.”

Student reflections:

  • I was born in Guatemala, but I was adopted by American parents.  When I came to the United States, I could still understand Spanish.  But now I can’t understand it or speak it.  People sometimes assume because of the way I look that I can speak Spanish. They will come up to me in public places and start talking and I don’t know what to say back.
  • My mother speaks to me in Dutch and I answer back in English.  It’s easy for me to understand her but it takes longer for me to answer back in Dutch so I choose English.
  • I wish my father had spoken Spanish to me more growing up, because now I can’t speak it.  My Greek is better.  When my grandparents talk to me in Greek I answer back in English.
  • My father is Indian and he speaks his native language with his brother but his brother answers back in English.  I think he is trying to be polite to me because I can’t understand.

Students were thoughtful and sensitive in their discussion.  I was inspired by the trust and care they showed to each other.

Leave a comment

Life Without Pronouns

As sixth-grade students learn subject pronouns in Spanish, I find it useful to give them an exercise that helps them to see why subject pronouns exist in the first place.  Sometimes the best way to learn the utility of something is to try to live without it.  I ask students to try to eat a meal without using a single subject pronoun (I, you, he, she, we, they, it).  The next day we have a discussion about the function of subject pronouns.  Students usually conclude that subject pronouns shorten and streamline conversations but they are vague and sometimes ambiguous.  This experience helps students develop a nuanced understanding of pronoun usage in English and in Spanish.

1 Comment

Heritage Speakers

I am privileged to get to teach a number of heritage speakers of Spanish.  I define a heritage speaker as someone who has parents or grandparents who speak Spanish and have been exposed to it in their home.  The levels of exposure to Spanish varies quite a bit, as does each student’s proficiency in understanding or speaking Spanish.  I find that these students often can understand much of what I say and pronounce words with near-native accuracy.  However, they often struggle to produced meaningful prolonged speech.  I try to weave the background knowledge of these students into the fabric of instruction, and I find that once the students develop trust they are excited to describe their families’ stories and traditions as well as vocabulary and expressions in Spanish that have special personal meaning.

1 Comment

Medios de Transporte

transporte 1

In seventh grade, we focus intensely on the verb ir which means to go in English.  We learn vocabulary associated with public transportation and as part of our practice we take viajes to different countries in central and south America.  Below, Quinn shows what happens when you try to take the train to Cuba.

Transporte 2

Transporte 3