La Fuerza de Voluntad – Focus!

Good focus, for students in CI classrooms, is key to their successful acquisition of their new language. Not only is it a challenge for students to focus, it is a challenge for the teacher to help them focus without constantly nagging. What are good strategies to keep students focused on a language that is not always 100% comprehensible to them? How do we help them develop that exquisite attention they need to make the language gains we desire?

The mind naturally wanders–often. As an adult, I have enough awareness and mental discipline to regulate my attention toward things I judge important–bringing my attention back over and over to what it is I want to know. Kids, with poor attention regulation, don’t have that. What can we do?

An excellent psychology teacher from Stanford, *Dr. Kelly McGonigal, has written an article about children and focus. She has a simple idea we might try in our own classrooms with our students.  Do you agree that this could help?

When are times in a reading class where we might use this strategy? How could we keep it from becoming just another nag?

Mr. Willpower/Sr. Fuerza de Voluntad

*Kelly McGonigal, PhD, is the author of The Willpower Instinct (Penguin 2011) and Yoga for Pain Relief (New Harbinger 2009), a psychology lecturer at Stanford University, and a senior teacher for the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education.

Capítulo 3 – It’s called La Invasión, but it’s much more than that!

Henry Morgan y sus bucaneros saquean el mercado. Capturan y torturan a la gente para forzarles a hablar.

Cruelty, chaos, intrigue, love and betrayal! This chapter’s got ’em all and begs to be acted out. So, I did not pass out the books.

Instead, I chose two names from the box. I told them that one was Henry and one was Carlos. They came to the front of the class. (Before we began, I reminded them–in English–that this chapter required skilled, active, acting with lots of vocal and physical expression–and to gracefully bow out before we began if they thought they weren’t up to the job. Works every time. Everyone wanted in.)

In the first scene, Felipe gets away, the pirates capture Carlos, and Henry tortures him until he tells who has the map. The scene has just the right tone of threat and humor. It never gets too dark. I won’t tell you what happens to Carlos, but it’s not good.

As I narrate the text, the two students act. I often repeat sentences, ask for brief translation from the class, include the class in extra dialogue. I don’t want to lose them.

I love the dialogue parts. At this point in the year, their tongues are loose and willing to mimic my speech. They are quite familiar with the structures and much of the vocabulary. I say part of a line. They say part of line, mimicking the volume, intonation, emotion, etc. Sometimes we do it again, repeating it together. If it’s a really good line, the whole class gets in on it. One of my Henry’s took on a Marlon Brando Godfather voice during the speaking parts. Big fun. If my students were not so facile of tongue, I would do the Gaab Dialogue Trick:  I stand behind the student and speak the dialogue while they just move their lips. It is always hilarious and relieves them of producing before it is really time.

When they speak, they don’t receive any CI (but, of course, they just got some the very moment before). What they get is an intense reason to listen and understand, so that they can sound “real” and get positive feedback from their peers–the most important thing in the universe. The dialogue in this book is cunningly repetitive. Hats off to the author one more time.

I chose two more actors and they came to the front. In this scene, we find Felipe with Antonio. Antonio realizes his life is in danger and that his girlfriend, Raquel, is in the market , trapped by the pirates, and doesn’t know where he is. Antonio comes up with a plan to use Felipe to find Raquel and get her to the arranged meeting place so that they can all flee Puerto del Príncipe. In this scene, we see that Antonio indeed appears to care for Raquel. We see his intelligence and strategic thinking. Felipe doesn’t show a lot of leadership qualities, but seems dutiful and loyal.

OR IS HE? I can’t tell you what happens next, but in the last scene, both Antonio and Raquel (another ticket from the box) end up with shattered hearts. My students watched, rapt during this part. The actors had little to actually do. However, I can guarantee the student audience received 100% comprehensible input as they SAW the action and emotions while I read the text–compelling content, for sure. (You’ll have to get the book!)

Their minds were abuzzin’ after that! Class was over and they wanted to make PREDICTIONS about where this story was going. Had to shoo them out. I wonder if they realize that the entire thing was in Spanish.  🙂

Capítulo 2 – Una Pistola especial

Una Pistola especial

Chapter Two is a bit long for beginners. Slogging through the reading and “meaning making” (translating) is sometimes onerous for me, the teacher, too. I get nervous that I may bore them, go too long, lose their attention, etc. So, I broke the chapter up into three chunks and did it on three separate days.

It worked pretty well. After we finished, I played the book on cd that comes with the Treasure Chest. It is very fast (normal speech speed), but the kids all say that it is much easier to understand because they have gone through the first reading and translating. I notice that there are very few kids who are taking their eyes off the text in this class. It may just be that they are better readers, in general, than students I’ve had in the past. When I asked for the comprehension check (five fingers), I got three to five. All reported that they easily understood the gist. Many reported understanding in a more detailed way.

After, we finished the second reading, I put the “event order” activity from the Treasure Chest up on Elmo. There are fifteen events on it. Instead of having the kids order the events, I put three different color dots on the page.

  • Azul – al principio
  • Rojo – en medio
  • Verde – al final

As a class, we read each item on the list, starting at the top (which is out of order).  We decided, more or less, in which part of the chapter the event occurred, and marked the item with a colored dot instead of a number. Because we had read the chapter in three parts, this was perhaps somewhat easier than if we’d read it all at one time.

The next day, today, I gave them the sheet with the events on it to number in correct order. They also did the character comparison Venn diagram which included comparing “a friend” with Carlos and Felipe. I asked them to finish the “event ordering” first and then move to  the Venn activity.

When I saw that everyone had finished, I chose groups of two or three to get together and compare answers. If they found differences, they were to circle them. Then, they had to go back and find proof in the book to defend their choices.

Things I noticed:

  • One girl said to me: “This is really hard. When you go back to find the proof, you have to figure out where to look in the chapter or you’re going to have to read the whole chapter again!” Me: “How might you make that easier for yourself?” Other student in the group: “We know if it happened at the beginning, middle, or end, so we don’t have to read the whole thing. We just have to think about where it might be and read before and after.” (Hmmm. I love being useless.)
  • They were seriously enjoying “proving” each other wrong.

After they had finished (those who finished early went on to work on the Venn diagram), I read each item individually with the answer from the kid’s paper who was nearest to me. Each time I read an item, the students were to give a thumb up in agreement or a thumb down in disagreement. I waited to see that each person had made the signal and we looked around. When there was disagreement, I chose someone to give the proof from the book. It worked great!

Why I liked it:

  • No one was “checked out” during correction time. Thumbs up, thumbs down keeps them physically involved.
  • When they read the brief passages that held the “proof”, they read beautifully in Spanish–gorgeous accents and intonation (proud Spanish teacher am I).
  • The plot action of Capítulo Dos got solidified in their brains.
  • New vocabulary was repeated over and over in logical context–it’s getting in their brains!!!

They worked a bit more on the Venn and class ended. We’ll find out how their friends match up with Carlos and Felipe tomorrow.

Tomorrow, we will also play a “numbered-heads together” question game about things that happened in Chapter Two. (Basically, it is “intermediate circling of new vocabulary” in a game context–one more attempt at making the content and structures compelling enough for them to pay attention to–we’ll see how it goes.)

Se bajan del barco y llegan a la costa en canoas. Después, caminan 50 kilómetros a Puerto del Príncipe.


THE SPECIAL CHAIR – La Silla Especial

Four legs on the floor. Wooden seat. A back. It’s a chair, just a chair. Is that so?

I asked my fifth graders to give me their thoughts on “the chair”:

Antonia and others:

“It’s cool. It’s different than any other chair in the room. It’s higher. You can swing your legs and they don’t touch the ground. When you sit in it, you’re higher than everybody else. You can see everything. You feel empowered. It’s the chair the teacher sits on sometimes, so it’s kind of prohibited or something.”


“When you are on the chair, it is a safe environment. You can be whoever you want to be. It feels natural that it’s in Spanish. You just think about making the story better. Other people add to the story when you’re up there. It’s like a circle. You have to listen and then you think about how to make the story better. I don’t have to think how to say it. I just think about how to make the story better.”

My thoughts on the chair:

• How do I keep all of this 11-year-old energy contained?

• How do I keep the kids’ focused on the language and the story (board and teacher)?

• How do I keep from boring the faster processors or losing the slower ones?

• How do I keep from losing control of “everything”?

I had always known that having young children come to the front of the room to stand while I asked questions (circling) and helped the class weave the story/mini-story/PQA could be a disaster in the making: the fidgeting, the fiddling with stuff on the chalk tray, the turning around, the touching each other, the kicking the wall, the goofy behavior of all kinds. Yikes! So, I have always hauled a chair or two from behind their desks to the front of the room for them to sit on during the process. It was always a pain, and most of the other students couldn’t see the kids anyway.

However, it kept me from losing my mind and having to redirect behavior every three seconds. The kids in the front stayed still, got up to act only when directed to do so, and returned to home base after each change of location in the story. The rest of the class focused more easily since the target (actor/actress) wasn’t moving all the time.

When my friend, Beth, gave up teaching to live a life of sanity and happiness outside the classroom, she left me her teacher chair. It was really a stool with a chair back. It was tall and kind of cool looking.

It changed my life. 😉

For each class I have some sort of small container with their class number on it. Inside each container lives a small binder clip and a ticket with the name of each student written on the back.

Each time we do a story, act out reading, or do a parallel story based on a reading, I choose a kid’s ticket out of the box (sometimes more than one). It is truly random. I ask the child if they would like to take part. It is not mandatory.

Rarely, does a child refuse. It’s only a matter of time before they will “kill” to get picked out of that box. I still marvel. They come to the chair while I put their now used ticket into the binder clip. They are now “a clippie” until everyone else gets a chance to do something in class. Keeps it fair. This is important to them.

Having the kid sit in a “high” chair means that when I stand next to her/him and talk, we are almost at eye-level–a small, but very meaningful detail when communicating with another human being.

The chair has rules, of course–basic classroom courtesy and the “special” rules.

•  No dissing of the person in the chair, not ever, no way, no how.

•  You do not have to tell the truth while sitting in the chair. It’s up to you.

•  People may disagree with you, but they may not change your mind. Only you do that.

•  You have the last word and then Profe has the last word after that.

•  You must follow the rules or risk being replaced by the next lucky person in the class box.

If you think they follow the rules just because the rules are explicitly stated, you would be mistaken. We practice them and practice them and then, practice them again. Much modeling and much “replay” happen when someone makes a mistake–much elation and praise when they follow the rules. Emotional SAFETY for my students is my #1 concern. When students feel safe, they can take in the meaning of language. Worry and anxiety not only affect language “ingestion”, they greatly affect language “production.” “If it can’t get in, it can’t come out!”

Please read more of the students’ reflections about the chair. I got a beautiful peek into what their experience in Spanish class has been like. They think it’s the chair! They are sold. I am going to miss them so much. I hope you can connect the dots from these remarks and try to create a little of this kind of magic with your stories, pictures, songs, chairs, or whatever! If you are teaching with compelling comprehensible input, you likely already are.

My students were very pleased to know that I would include their thoughts here.

Colin: “All of the attention is on you.” (Me: Is that always a good thing?) “YES.”

Omar: “When you go up there (on the chair), you wonder what’s going to happen. It’s exciting when it’s like that–like a mystery.”

Benny: “Going on the chair is an incentive. We want to get picked. We start thinking about the things we want to add on to the story–which makes us want to know more words in Spanish. Going in the chair inspires you to want to know more.”

Karson: “We learn so much Spanish in the stories that we don’t think about it. It just comes out.”

Ellie: “We don’t have the chair in any other class. It reminds us of when we were little and when we got to do “make believe”.”

Jeannie: “You don’t have to tell the truth when you are sitting the chair if you don’t want to; and that is really fun. People don’t really argue with you and make you stay in reality. I like that.”

Anna: “After class, I can’t remember if we were speaking Spanish or English. I am not aware. It’s weird, but cool. I just “know” what we talked about.”

Alex: “When you sit in it, it turns into a magical, wonderful chair.”

Henk: “The spotlight is on you when you sit in it.”

Jack: “Sometimes you get a little nervous, but it’s ok. It’s much easier to be on the chair if the class is behind you (rooting for you).”

Gloria: “You never have to do it if you don’t want to. You always tell us what things mean.”

Cameron: “When you’re on the chair, it makes you feel powerful. I like the acting the best.”

Byron: “You get to be in charge when you’re on the chair. There should only be ONE special chair.”

Nicole: “When you get to contribute to the story personally, with your own ideas, putting yourself in the story, you remember it.

It’s fun to share a bit of yourself (fantasy or real) with other kids in the class when you’re on the chair.”

Griffin: “I enjoy the experience of sitting in the chair and making “new worlds” that the class helps you create.”

Sam D: “I think the chair is important, but I think there’s something else that is more important–the teacher–because you make it all work out; you help us make the story good; you ask the questions; you repeat the things so much that we feel like we know stuff.” (I reminded him that none of this can happen without the students’ cooperation and willingness to play the game. Without them, there IS no story.)

Sam P: “Even though the story stuff we make up is crazy, we can use the things we learn to talk about other regular stuff. (gave examples)”

Sam got extra points for his reflections. (I was sitting in the chair when I wrote the part about the extra points. He, he.) Jody


Una silla en la finca, Havana, Cuba



Showing What We Read – Reprise

The six-ring circus went off without a hitch. *Something in me always worries that if I ask a class to do something “again”, I will get a lot of negative flack and lack of “ganas” (desire).

I told them what I wanted to try:

  • dividing them into groups of four (chosen at random from the box of names)
  • having them choose roles (I could have assigned them–just didn’t feel like doing it.)
  • me reading Capítulo 6 one more time (They had no access to the written text.)
  • them hamming it up to the max
  • them gesturing everything I said when it was something that no particular character was doing or saying

Result:  They were eager to get started. *Teacher needs reality check. Silly me.

We cleared a few spaces in the room for them “to act”. I did not let anyone sit on chairs or desks. We got started.

Of course, it was a hoot! I read and tried to observe at the same time. Every time I saw someone doing something cool, spectacular, risky for them, funny, on task, whatever, I would make a huge thumbs-up gesture in their direction and say something positive about what they were doing in Spanish. I loved watching them lose their inhibitions in the smaller groups because no one was really watching except for me. Everyone was busy listening, gesturing, and acting. There was lots of laughter and lots of moving of bodies. Was it kind of loud? Yes. All good. I paused several times (without chastising them), so that they could calm down, quiet down, and center themselves to hear the next chunk of text. One interesting thing I noticed was some kids’ willingness to switch gender roles in their play. Nobody went over the top or was disrespectful. I may have just been lucky. I think they like this kind of thing so much that they don’t want to lose the privilege by “going too far out-of-bounds”. Many of my more shy children didn’t look very shy during this activity. I was really surprised at some of them. Yes, there were a few reticent ones (very few), but the others in the group really included them and made it work. Much of that has to do with the text itself–it really lends itself to “connecting” all the players.

After we finished, I told them I had some observations and some questions.


  1. Everyone appeared very engaged in listening and trying to make meaning of what they heard. Most students really got into the activity using their bodies and their voices to express the meaning of the text.
  2. When someone didn’t “act” in the group, others in the group helped them, repeated the text to them, showed them what it meant, etc., so that they could act.
  3. They seemed to “know” the dialogue before I even said it. They appeared to know what was coming before I said it.


  1. Was it true that they knew a lot of the dialogue already? Yes.
  2. Why did they think that was? There had been several repetitions of the text.
  3. Did it feel natural and easy? Yes.
  4. Why? Because we’ve done it a bunch of times now.
  5. Was it fun? Yes.
  6. Why? Because we got to act, move around, be a little silly, and have fun.
  7. What is the value in doing something like this (repeating an activity several times in different ways)? Yes, it starts to get easy. It feels natural. Things stick in your mind.

Mira Canion, the author, tells me that Chapter 8 and 11 will also be great ones for dramatic play. What are some things people do in their classes to bring text to life through acting it out? Please share.

Jody’s favorite line from Capítulo 6: “Tus ojos son divinos.” I say it to every kid who walks through the door. They can’t believe that people really speak this way in Spanish. I tell them that they do. Great jumping off point to talk about cultural differences.

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”?

Actors and Directors

Susie Gross taught me the art of whispering. She did it often to help kids who were disruptive. This is my take on “the whisper” when working with actors during story asking or a parallel story:

When I need an actress/actor to “up” the emotion, acting, etc., I get really close to her, whisper in their ear, and say something like:

“I notice that you’re doing exactly what I’ve said to do which means you are really focusing on understanding my Spanish. I’m impressed. AND NOW (not BUT), I need you to use your hands more, increase the volume of your voice, make your face livelier (or whatever instruction you want to give her). Do you think you will be able do that or should I choose someone else? I really believe you are the right actor to have up here. What do you think? Can you do it?”

100% of the kids, to whom I have asked the last question, say yes, and then proceed to improve immediately.

If I get an actor up in front, who just wants kids to laugh at them, is distracting, speaking English, making obnoxious sounds for attention, being vulgar, or doing things that I haven’t said to do, I have a similar whispered conversation:

“I notice that you are “fill in the blank”. (I am neutral and blunt with them about what it is I see.) I need you to “fill in the blank” or I will replace you. That would be terrible because I really want you to stay up here. Maybe you forgot our class rules for acting up here. This is the last reminder. Do you think you can do what I have asked?”

—all delivered in my kindest, most understanding, compassionate whisper. I have never had a kid say, “No, I can’t.” When I see improvement, I lean over and tell them I noticed how they are helping the class acquire Spanish. VERY rarely has it not worked. If I have to “fire” someone, it is with a silent, neutral look in their direction and a thank you for their participation.

The conversations are super-private. Of course, everyone wants to know what we’re talking about, but I don’t say anything in front of the class. There is something about the intrigue of super-quiet whispering and no loss of face for the perpetrator which seems to keep the disgruntle factor low. I still get what I need–a more focused and compliant actor.

My biggest challenge is “staying neutral”, watching my facial expressions and voice tone. I have the power, as their teacher, to model compassion and set proper limits in the classroom. I also have the power to humiliate. I am working everyday to be more compassionate with others and, in the end, with myself.

Susie’s a genius–as we know.