She’s Put Me Out of Business

Mira does it again!

Need I say more? I think everything you might need to help you with a novel is right here in this manual. I haven’t been working because of complications from hand surgery in April–but, when I get back, purchasing this will be the first thing I do. Can’t wait! Hope to post about using it with Agentes secretos y el mural de Picasso in the future.

Papelitos Mágicos

As per Mira’s great suggestions:

I started class by writing on board:

  1. Ustedes van a leer el Capítulo 6.
  2. Ustedes van a buscar su frase preferida del diálogo en Cap. 6. (I could have had them choose anything from the chapter, but decided to stick to dialogue only–worked great)
  3. Ustedes van a escribir la frase en español en un papelito.

I made sure to help them carefully examine the instructions, making certain that my lowest kids understood them.

We have worked on “ellos/ellas” + verb for a long time. Recently, I added “ustedes” to the mix. So, now I ask questions like these:

  • ¿Qué quiere decir ustedes?
  • What does the “n” mean?
  • What does “va” mean?
  • What does “van” mean?
  • ¿Qué quiere decir ustedes van?
  • ¿Qué quiere decir ustedes van a escribir? (van a jugar, van a celebrar, etc.)
  • How would I say, “You (all) are going to eat pizza?”

I’ll have to ask these questions a gazillion times–a few at time everyday–just remembering to include this structure everyday and to park with it for a few minutes over a long period–months. SLOW AND STEADY WINS THE ACQUISITION RACE.

They started to read the chapter. I started to pass out the little slips of paper. What is the most important part of this exercise to a sixth grader? Yes, the color of the papelito, of course! I knew it would be, so I had several different colors–which, of course, meant that they asked for their preferred color en español as I walked by.

Given that we had done so much work on this chapter already, they swiftly and pretty carefully (I was watching) read through the chapter again. After they’d written their bits of dialogue on their papelitos, I told them to watch me. One of the things that I have learned, after setting up so many great activities in my life only to see them fail miserably upon execution, is this:  Not only is it OK to model EXACTLY how an activity will look, it is VERY SMART.  So, I walked over to a student’s desk, looked her in the eye, and in my most romantic voice delivered my favorite line from the chapter: Tus ojos son divinos. I prompted her to read hers to me while looking at me or at her paper (if she was a bit uncertain). I did it with two more people. Of course, as I expected, one of the kids had chosen my phrase. After I said mine to him, he came back with, “Tus ojos son divinos, también.”. Talk about good listening!

We did this for a very short time–about two or three minutes. I directed them to stand up, mill around to find partners, and to speak nothing but their lines. No English, no commentary. Very cute. When they all sat down, I asked in Spanish who had chosen which phrases and we counted. Just another way for them to hear the Spanish phrases one more time and personally connect to them. A student collected the papers and recyled them.

Then I told the class I wanted them to think of one word which they believed was the most important one or most powerful one–representing the chapter. They wrote it on another tiny square and put it into a hat in front of the room. Doing this is very different from just asking for the class to throw out words. It is anonymous. It is active. Everyone participates. There is less fear.

What great answers! Of course, #1 was: romance. Others: molesto, fotos, agentes, amor, and some others that I can’t remember now. I chose them one-by-one from the hat, asked who had written it, and asked them why they thought that. Not all kids could give extended answers in Spanish, but many could. All could say something intelligible in Spanish to defend their opinions.

All students reported that reading the chapter had been super-easy.

I started to show them pictures of Parque Güell today. Internet connection was sooooo slow, that it became painful. I’ll make a slideshow (with all of my extra time–ha) for another day.

With leftover time, they worked in their table pairs to start reading/translating Capítulo 7. I didn’t expect them to finish. Their homework assignment:

  • Read Chapter 7
  • Write down any unknown words with Page #
  • Give themselves a “comprehension check” score: 0-5 on the chapter

Lots of español today. Lots of varied activity today. They listened, read, wrote, and spoke–and got a little culture, too. The hardest part was timing it all well. That’s the art of it all, isn’t it?

Secret Agent Fans Want to Know-Part 1

My students have asked a lot of questions after reading four chapters of Agentes Secretos and after their first look at Picasso’s Guernica (after reading Chapter Four):

  1. What part of Spain is  Guernica in? Why isn’t it on the map?
  2. Why did Franco choose to bomb such a small town when he could have killed more people by bombing a larger city?
  3. When did the Spanish Civil War start? Why?
  4. Was there a connection between WWII and the Spanish Civil War?
  5. Why would he bomb his own people?
  6. How did he bomb the city?
  7. Why did the Germans help Franco?
  8. Who are the Basques? Are they Spanish? What is their culture like?
  9. Did Franco die of natural causes or did someone kill him?
  10. How many years was he the dictator of Spain?

We don’t have time to answer all of these questions in class. Too much time in English. It tells me that they are very interested in the topic and that they want to set the story in its proper context. I just get thrilled that kids want to know about history. Next time I teach this, I hope to give them age-appropriate information to augment their learning experience.

Information that has come up that makes them think, stimulates them to make connections to today, to notice patterns from history, and makes them feel compassion for others:

  • German airplanes strafed Guernica, dropping bombs on the city and its people for three hours.
  • It was market day in Guernica, on the day of the bombing, so  many people were outdoors, in the streets, and away from home.
  • Franco was Spanish and he bombed his own people.
  • Germany was responsible for the actual bombing (helping Franco).
  • The United States also bombs and kills people in other countries (helping the leaders of those nations).
  • Franco tried to “shock and awe” the people of Spain with the attack on Guernica, very much like the American bombing of Iraq meant to paralyze the adversary and destroy its will to fight back.
  • Picasso was hired to paint a mural for the World’s Fair (Paris International Exposition). The fair highlighted the technology of the day–airplanes, being an important technological advancement of the time. That technology destroyed Guernica. The ironic connection is inescapable. How might that look today?

Cosas de la vida:

One of my kids, who works very hard to overcome hyperactivity and attention problems, told me yesterday that when he was out sick the other day, he was watching television at home. This show on the Discovery Channel came on–something about Hindenburg. They started talking about Franco and his relationship with Hitler. The kid said that it seemed very coincidental that, as we are starting to learn about this period and these people, he sees this on TV. He said he wouldn’t have noticed it at all if we hadn’t been reading Agentes Secretos. He is just a sixth grader, but he is thinking and beginning to connect important things. Hurrah for Agentes Secretos!

Simple Text

Simple writing makes for good reading most of the time (in a beginning Spanish class).

Today, we read Chapters 2 and 3 in Agentes Secretos. One of the paragraphs describes the mural, Guernica. It is quite redundant and very simple.  It goes something like this: “There were six people and three animals. There were nine heads, six human heads and three animal heads.” Yikes–a tad boring and stilted–but it was just what I needed. I set them up.

As we got close to “the paragraph”, I covered up it up with my hand on the document reader and told them in an exaggerated voice that I had possibly found one of the worst paragraphs ever written (gross overstatement, meant to grab their attention). I told them that as we read it together, I wanted them to notice what was “bad” about the writing and that we would talk about it after we finished.

The setup, alone, created great interest. As I read it slowly in Spanish, they paid very close attention and began to notice exactly what I had wanted them to notice. They snickered; they chuckled; they laughed out loud–mostly because it seemed so very easy for them. These responses would have been rude and inappropriate under normal circumstances, but because I had primed them, they took the bait. In this case, they colluded with me in an innocent critique–which gave me insight into how much they were comprehending literally and analytically. They gladly shared the translation among themselves and even my lowest kids enjoyed the opportunity to be so very smart. I realized that setting them up to read something for a particular purpose–not just comprehension–helped to motivate them to attend more carefully to the text.

During our post-reading discussion, they “noticed” that the author’s purpose had a lot to do with the “quality” of the writing. Since the purpose of the book is to give beginning Spanish students a lot of repetition of vocabulary and structures, it made sense that the writing was the way it was. They are very forgiving. The just want to understand what they are reading and feel confident during translation and discussion. It is really up to me, the teacher, to create ways to make the themes and the content as fascinating as possible for my students. They think the writing is just fine–and so do I.

The hardest part for me is to get their eyes to focus on the text (not just listen to me read) and to visualize and create meaning from it. Not all of my kids are super-fluent readers of English. I’d be foolish to expect that they would read better in a second language.

Let me be clear:  I greatly appreciate the author’s writing style. Class after class of mine, that have read her books, comment on how much reading and studying these books helped them acquire Spanish. No offense intended.

What are your strategies for “keeping eyes on text”?

Start with Art

Continued to read Chapter 1 of Agentes Secretos on the document projector, Elmo.

ACTIVITY: I chose three student’s names out of their class name box.  I ask them, in Spanish, if they would be willing to draw. After I got my three volunteers (several kids declined), I assigned each of them a character from the chapter.

  1. Paula, the romantic symbol observer
  2. Luis, her impatient friend, who wants to find the Spear of Destiny for his father
  3. Luis’ father, a politician, who is competing with General Francisco Franco for the “lanza” and the power to dominate Spain.

Their task:  to start drawing a portrait of the character they were assigned–probably more like a “character map”, as we read the chapter and translated. I hope to put these up on the wall as a way to keep characters straight, watch how the characters grow, and keep students noticing what they are learning.

The text seems within their range judging from their ability to translate it. I still marvel at how difficult more sophisticated facets of reading are for some kids:

  • finding meaning from context
  • connecting what they just read to what they are reading now
  • recognizing cognates
  • making connections with real-life events or human motivations, etc.
  • and then, adding the increased “weight” of doing it in a foreign language–whew!

The children who volunteered to draw were very excited about the task. The funniest thing was that one class didn’t really get far enough for two of the artists to do anything. Their characters were not introduced in the reading yet. They handed in blank papers and quipped about the beauty and complexity of their work. All look forward to adding on to the drawings tomorrow and beyond. Others asked if there were more characters. Luckily, there are.

Already, questions about this particular historical period are increasing in frequency and sophistication. Today, the concept of a “general”, from one’s own country, attacking politicians from that same country was a difficult concept to get their heads around. We will look for some modern-day, as well as historical, examples of that very thing.

As usual, Mira Canion, the author, has found a way to pique kids’ curiosity about the places, people and periods of time she writes about—even though the language and the story are simple.


  1. Autonomy – choice about drawing or not
  2. Mastery – noticing and tracking “what they are learning” by adding on to drawings.
  3. Purpose – Does it matter? This will be the hard one.

Hmmm. I’ll probably have everybody do something like the portrait maps, although it won’t be drawing for all.

Agentes Secretos y el Mural de Picasso – Mira, the Method, and my Kids

In Mira’s foreward, she describes how the writing of the book came about. She mentions that she and her students take a few important core structures and create stories together with those structures. As I was reading the foreward aloud, my students read the page along with me, but silently, on the document camera, ELMO. Just as I finished reading the part I describe above, I heard this spontaneous comment from one of my sixth-graders: “Oh, just like us. We do the same thing.” I noticed lots of heads bobbing up and down to the comment and a general “Oh, we get it” kind of look on their faces. In other words, complete trust of the author. They understood that Mira understands how language acquisition works with the narrative. They feel safe to read her book. Kids know.

Agentes Secretos y el Mural de Picasso

I have one copy of Agentes Secretos by Mira Canion. We are going to read it as a class on the ELMO and see how that goes. I read it and found it rather boring. Duh, I speak Spanish. My students are beginners. They DON’T think it’s boring. I forget that, because they are beginners, they are curious to “figure Spanish out”. They are also rather intrigued by the time the novel takes place (1937) and what was going on in the world at that time. They know nothing about the Spanish Civil War. They have heard of WWII (barely). I have to give it to Mira. She knows how to capture “male” interest: war, legends, spears, power. Luckily, my girls are quite happy having the main character be a female.

So, how can I help to make this book come alive for them? I must remember that reading the simple text is just a jumping off point. The real payoff will come from personalizing their experience with the text. I hope this book is as successful an experience for students as Piratas was (a hard act to follow).

We began Capítulo Uno today. We only read and translated the first page or so, but the students really got into it right away. It was AT an appropriate reading level: only a few words they couldn’t figure out. Mira is the master of “cognate use”. However, for 11 and 12 year olds, I have noticed that it is one thing to read words and “know” what they mean. Pretty easy. It is an entirely different thing to really comprehend all of those words together in meaningful text, getting the “whole” sense of it. In a foreign language, that task is much more difficult than in one’s first language. Just to remember the last sentence and connect it to the one that I am reading is an arduous task for my brain. To remember a whole paragraph, a whole page, is high level in my opinion. SLOW, SLOW, SLOW. We will continue tomorrow.

Challenge #1:  How do I keep them engaged when I only have ONE book?

Possible ideas to get started:

  • Get a really good online copy and hard copy of Picasso’s Guernica.
  • Read more about the mural:
  • Think about how to “round out” the rather flat characters in the book. (have kids make large, color illustrations to put up on the walls which they add to as the characters develop)
  • A large map of Europe
  • Have class make a timeline of events going on in the world in 1937
  • Some period photos – powerpoint?
  • Find a lance (make a spear)

Where can you buy this book for a mere $5.95?