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.
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.
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.
I have my sixth grade students practice their family vocabulary by building three-tiered family trees using the chairs and tables in our classroom. Grandparents stand on the tables, parents on the chairs and children sit cross-legged on the floor. This year I borrowed one of my colleagues handmade puppets so that the students would get a better visual of the age and gender of the family vocabulary words. It was also fun to include a pet dragon in the family.
I am incredibly lucky to have Callie Rabe, an extraordinary teacher, as a colleague and mentor. Because she used to have my position as a middle school teacher, she is able to give me great insight on what is developmentally appropriate for each level that I teach. As I say to anyone who will listen, all of my best teaching ideas come directly from Señora Rabe. This year, I’ve implemented her Culture Points project with my students.
Culture Points is an independent project where students have the opportunity to connect themes of Spanish language and Spanish-speaking cultures to an area of personal interest or passion. I give the students a list of ideas for things they might do being sure to let them know that these are only suggestions. Students then fill out a Culture Points contract which explains what they are planning to learn and how they will present their learning to their peers. Their project is graded on this rubric criteria.
I have been really impressed with the unique and interesting projects that have been presented so far this year. At the top of this post, you see a student perform his rendition of José Feliciano’s “Feliz navidad” to our small class. Above, you see one student’s drawing Blue and White Day, one of our school’s signature traditions, in the style of the great Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada. He told me, “Señora, I couldn’t color in the t-shirts blue because all of Posada’s drawings are in black and white.” Other projects have included students taping themselves ordering food in Spanish to a native speaker in a Mexican restaurant as well as a “Name That Tune” style gameshow where students had to guess the English language song that a Spanish language cover tune was based on.