Creating Community in Spanish Class by Michelle Nicola

Dear students,

Queridos estudiantes,

I wrote as I began my start-of-the-year letter to my students. I don’t always write my students a letter at the beginning of the year. Perhaps it’s the pressure to keep as many of my minutos preciosos in Spanish as possible, but I usually do a Google Form in simple Spanish or some other questionnaire to gather the relationship-building information I need. This year, inspired by Carla Shalaby’s book Troublemakers, I wanted to talk to my students about how we will be with one another in our classroom space. How will we teach freedom? How will love show up?

I hand wrote the letter and read it aloud to students at the end of class on the first day. I’ll admit, reading it aloud felt a little awkward. Oh gosh, did that silence mean that they thought I was just the cheesiest???

The natural next step was to have them write me a letter in response. It wasn’t something I gave much thought to, not even part of the plan I penciled out with my colleague this summer . . . it was more like twenty minutes before class started I cut and pasted some questions from Zaretta Hammond’s Culturally Responsive Teaching blog as some idea-generators for a letter to me, told the kids this was one of the five homework assignments I’ll give this year and that was it.

I’m so glad I did that. So glad I had them write letters. Don’t get me wrong, Google forms and other surveys are very useful tools for gathering information on students’ preferred gender pronouns, and gathering big-picture snapshots of our classes. But if I hadn’t paused Spanish for a beat and asked my students to write to me in English, how would I have known about the loud bird that lives with Stewart?

How else would I have known about how Lacey (not her real name; I changed all students’ names in this post) loves running, “the way the cool wind hits my face, how my feet bounce off the track pushing me forward”? Or my student who “swings from house to house,” two weeks at his mom’s, two weeks at his dad’s. Such poetry in that writing! How else would I have learned about Robert, whose birthday is on September 11, who knows exactly how many people died that day and doesn’t like to share about his birthday because sometimes he gets sad because of that?

So many of my students expressed anxiety about learning Spanish. I’m a slow learner, they wrote to me. I forgot all the Spanish I learned in 6th grade, they confessed. One student wrote, “I lost hope in learning when I got an F in 6th grade, but I’m determined to do better in high school.” Along with that anxiety was excitement. “I’m very excited about this school and looking forward to learning Spanish!” Or, “I want to learn Spanish so I can know what my boyfriend’s family is saying about me . . . if Im zoning im think about him.”

Larry wrote me a single-spaced typed, two page letter in which he told me, among other things, that his talents include “football, hide-and-go-seek, Call of Duty: Black Ops, building and creativity.” He told me, “ I have an interest in the world in general; Most things make me wonder. I often find my mind wandering off into my imagination thinking about space and time, if God is real, how, when and where everything came from.” Oh! I really get to teach this kid!? How did I get to be so lucky?

How else, if not for these letters, would I have started to fall in love with my students? As I sat in the quiet, empty office, reading letter after letter, the clock pushing 6:00 pm, I felt a small catch in my heart, a definite beat of love and honor that my students would trust me with the information they wrote. I am so excited for this school year. I am so honored to get to teach these beautiful humans. What a gift their lives are to my life. What a gift it is to be a teacher.

Con amor y abrazos,

Profe Nicola

PS- Here are Hammond’s Sentence Starters:

  • I Wish My Teacher Knew… (challenges/hard stuff I am working through)

  • I Wish My Teacher Knew…(what activities cause me to lose track of time)

  • What keeps me going when working on something hard in class is...

  • My “appreciation language” is (pick one)
    - Quality time like having special time to hang out with the teacher or other special group or person at school
    - Physical touch like a high-five or fist bump or have a dance break
    - Acts of service like having someone do something special for me
    - Words of affirmation like getting a note of encouragement or certificate for a big accomplishment
    - Gifts like small fun objects to remind me of my achievement or to mark a milestone

This last question is based on the work of Gary Chapman who discovered the five love languages of people. His more recent research is around our preferred “appreciation language”. The idea is that when we feel seen and heard, it is through our particular appreciation language. This can be important when providing praise and encouragement to your students.


Sobre ser afro-mexicano, Casa Coyolillo y el teatro con Enrique Mendez by Michelle Nicola

¡Hola a todos!

Ya que estamos en pleno verano tengo por fin algo de tiempo para dedicar a repasar todos los recursos que acumulé en México. Aquí les dejo con unas entrevistas que grabé con Enrique Garcia Mendez sobre ser afro-mexicano, su trabajo en Casa Coyolillo y cómo usa el teatro como herramienta de difusión de la historia.

Desgraciadamente, mi conocimiento de grabación, el sonido, editar y publicar un video es bastante limitado y les pido paciencia a la hora de ver los videos- está claro que mi destino no va a ser un Oscar por cinematografía. Eso dicho, Enrique dice muchas cosas que nos pensar, y espero que disfruten de aprender de su mirada ante esos temas.

Writing a novel, Part 1 by Michelle Nicola

My friend Rita suggested that to get started with this project, I just write the story, and not worry about editing for proficiency level. Writing a novel for language learners is somewhat different than writing for native speakers, especially when you’re writing for students in a classroom. The goal for writing a novel for the Spanish classroom is to keep it mostly comprehensible, and sometimes just a touch beyond comprehensibility to challenge students. It should be repetitive, but not boring, make use of cognates (like elephant/elefante), and spark students’ interests.

I asked my 4th period class if they would help me with this project and they agreed. This class was the most invested in the letter exchange with students in Coyolillo, and I valued their input. Over spring break, I re-watched the interview I filmed of Daniela, my first friend from Coyolillo. In the interview, she tells a story about how she learned to love wearing her hair natural, even though in Coyolillo this is still somewhat frowned upon. According to Daniela, straight hair is the preference, and if your hair is not straight, then people will start to talk. One day, Daniela didn’t have time to straighten her hair. She was running late for her dance performance with her dance troupe, AfroBailele. No time to straighten her curls, or pull them into a bun, she danced with her hair free-flowing and natural. Later, she watched a video of herself dancing and realized that her hair danced too. She decided she liked that, and from then on took to wearing her hair natural more often.

I poured all of the poetry, dialogue, blocking, tension-release-tension and various other writing tools from my kit into writing that first draft for my students. (For those of you who speak Spanish, I’ve pasted it below.) After a few hours, I had a decent first draft to present to my review board (aka my students).

We sat in a circle on the floor. I read a chunk of text, and asked students to summarize. I got silence. I got blank faces. I got one student who has already traveled to at least 2 different Spanish-speaking countries start to translate. Oh dear. This is not good, I thought.

I switched tactics. We re-read the first paragraph, but this time I acted it out. I translated a few key words. I started to see glimmers of understanding shining in their eyes. Phew! Maybe we were all clear.

Nope. My students, bless their hearts, wanted to keep going, so we muddled our way through two pages before they asked to stop. So many times while reading I thought to myself, what was I thinking? Why did I write that very complicated sentence with those words that they have no way of knowing yet? After we stopped reading, I gave them a break, and we re-started class with the Plan B lesson I had prepared. This lesson was tried, tested and true to the level of my students.

The next class, I handed my students a half sheet of paper with 5 sentences on it. I am not sure how, but I managed to summarize the whole story about Daniela into 5 simple sentences. I asked students to underline any words they didn’t know, write a summary of what they understood, and tell me what else they wanted to know about Daniela and her story. Lots of students wanted to know how old Daniela is. So, tomorrow, I will hand them a 10 sentence story. These ten sentences elaborate the original five, and include the information students want to know- Daniela tiene 23 años. I am not sure if Sandra Cisneros ever wrote a novel this way, but I’m going to try it and see how it goes.

La historia de Daniela- Versión 1

-¡MAMAAAAAAAAAAAA! Daniela saltó de la cama y otra vez gritó -¡Mamá! ¿Dónde estás? ¿Dónde estás?

-¿Qué pasa, m’ija? Su mamá estaba en la cocina. Secaba sus manos con la toalla, y miró a su hija, con ceño fruncido.

-¡Mami, me levanté tarde! ¿Por qué no me despertaste? ¡Bailamos en 30 minutos!  ¡Mira mi cabello!

Minerva miró el cabello de su hija. Estaba encrespado, salvaje. Con pelo así, la gente iba a decir cosas.

-Bueno, m’ija, rápido. Sientate y te peiño.

-Mami, que no hay tiempo.  Tengo que ir a Casa Coyolillo para los tambores. Y Naidelin todavía no tiene su traje nuevo.  No hay manera, Mami, tengo que llevar el cabello suelto.

Dany se puso su vestido con flores. Agarró su bolso y metió su traje de danza africana dentro. No se miró en el espejo. No había tiempo.

Salió de su casa brincando sobre las piedras en la calle, como hacía cuando era niña. Sentía el olor fragante de la tierra, y su espíritu se calmó un poquito.

Llegó a Casa Coyolillo. Ya estaban ahí Karen, Kelly, Enrique, Gaby . . . ¡todos menos Daniela!

-Dany, ¿dónde estabas? preguntó Karen.  Karen siempre se levantaba temprano. Incluso después de una noche loca de bailar hasta las 4 de la mañana, Karen se levantó a las 7 para limpiar la casa. Su hermana, Kelly, dormía un poquito más pero también se levantaba temprano.

Kelly miró a Daniela y sonrío.  La sonrisa de Kelly era como un sol después de días de lluvia y otra vez Daniela se sintió con calma. -Vamos a maquillarte, Dany, apurate que ya faltan 15 minutos para que bailamos.

Kelly empezó a hacer el maquillaje de Daniela.  Nadie mencionó nada de su pelo natural. Daniela volvió a sentirse incómoda.  ¿Qué diría la gente cuando la veía bailar? ¿Le vería mal? Dany sentía la aceleración de su pulso. Seguro que voy a llevar toda la atención, pensó.  Como sus amigas sabían, a Daniela no siempre le gustaba llevar toda la atención.

Maestra Gaby entró por la puerta. -¡Chicos ya! ¡Nos están esperando! ¡Apurense! Todos agarraron algo- un tambor, una cesta, hasta el más pequeño Josefat agarró unas maracas. Dany agarró un bolso lleno de tela africana y corrió por la puerta.


En la calle, todo era una fiesta.  La gente comía. La gente bailaba. La gente desfilaba.  Los chicos del grupo Afrobailele tenía que empujar para que la gente le hiciera camino.  Y Dany no podía evitar escuchar el murmullo de la gente.

-¿Quién es esa niña? ¿Acaso que no tiene mamá para peinarse bien?

-¡Oye mujercita! ¿Te olvidaste peinar hoy?

-Mirala, ¡anda como bruja!  

Las carcajadas eran flechas a su corazón.  Tenía ganas de llorar, pero no había tiempo.  Sus amigos de Afrobailele ya estaban subiendo el escenario. Daniela forzó la línea de su boca en sonrisa y subió también.

Tan-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-TA. Tan-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-ta-TA.

La música empezó y el ritmo de los tambores llegó a los pies de Daniela.  Llegó a sus piernas. Sintió cómo movían sus caderas, sin tener que pensarlo como respuesta automática a un ritmo que llevaba en su sangre. Dany cerró sus ojos. Su cuerpo empezó a bailar los pasos de Ya Mamá y cuando la música le llegó a su corazón los malos comentarios de la gente parecían muy, pero muy lejos.

Esta vez, bailaron tres ritmos: Ya Mamá, OTRO y OTRO.  Al principio la gente del pueblo no les ponía mucha atención, pero después acumularon personas en el patio social.

Afrobailele era una comparsa, un grupo de chicos y chicas que practicaban la danza africana todas las semanas, 2 horas o más.  

Afrobailele existía porque Dany, Karen, y Kelly tenían la idea de hacer algo para carnaval. No fue fácil. Muchas semanas los chicos no venía a clase.  Otras semanas no había dónde practicar. Pero después de 2 años formaron un grupo de unos 20 chicos fieles. Iban a diferentes pueblos a bailar. Ya no sólo eran una comparsa, eran una familia.

La música terminó y la gente aplaudía. Daniela sonrió. Amaba la danza.  Amaba con locura la danza. Cuando bailaba, sentía que volaba. Cuando bailaba, sentía libre.


Al día siguiente, Bárbara y Enrique vinieron a la casa de Daniela.

-¡Dany! ¡Bárbara y Enrique están aquí! gritó su hermano, Elviss.  

-¡Ya voy!

Dany entró en el salón donde estaban sus amigos sentada en el sofá.  Dany agarró su pelo y lo puso en un rodete. Llevaba puesto su vestido color lila porque hoy no tocaba bailar y quería llevar el vestido que lo había mandado su papá.

-¡Hola Dany! Bárbara se levantó del sofá para abrazar a su amiga y darle un beso en la mejilla. -¿Quieres ver el video de la danza de ayer?

-¡Ay no! No tuve tiempo de peinarme.  Mi cabello estaba loco. Daniela cubrió su cara con la mano.

-Bueno, pues, Dany, el pelo no lo es todo. ¡Bailaste súper bien!  Y personalmente a mí me gusta cuando lo llevas así, natural., dijo Enrique.

Dany se sentó en el sofá al lado de su amiga.  Bárbara sacó el teléfono y empezó el video.

Tan-ta-ta-ta . . . al sólo escuchar la música y Daniela sentía feliz.  Miró el video con ojos absortos. Miró como su cuerpo movía con gracia y también con un aire de poder, de ser una mujer empoderada. Miró su cabello y se quedó boquiabierta. Su cabello . . . . ¿bailaba?

-¡Bárbara, Enrique miren! Mi cabello baila. ¡No puede ser! ¡Guau! ¡Qué hermoso!

Bárbara asintió con la cabeza. -Te dije que ibas a gustar el video. ¡Mira qué hermosa te ves!

Enrique se levantó y se acercó a Daniela. -¿Me permites? le preguntó, señalado con su cabeza al cabello de Daniela.

-Sí. Dany se dio la vuelta para que Enrique pudiera sacar la goma que tenía su pelo en el rodete.

-¡Pero qué pelo más voluptuoso, más abundante, más hermoso, por favor! Enrique sacudía el pelo de Daniela hasta que ocupaba un espacio tremendo alrededor de su cabeza.  Lo agarró todo con sus dos manos y lo ató en una cola, pero una cola que más bien parecía una corona.

-Ve a verte en el espejo, a ver si te gusta.

Dany se levantó y se fue al espejo.  Cuando se miró, sonrió. Sacudió su cabeza y su pelo bailó. Su pelo brincó. Era feliz. Pensó que sí era verdad que cuando entró en el patio social hoy, sí iba a llevar toda la atención. Pero llevar la atención no era cuestión de cabello, sino de su esencia. Se miró una vez más en el espejo y sonrío.

-Oye, amigos, que ya vamos, no? Es que ese cabello mío tiene ganas de fiesta hoy.

How I'm Bringing What I Learned Home by Michelle Nicola

It’s been a busy few months since I’ve returned home.

I’ve started a new job teaching Spanish and instructional coaching at a new school, finished my Summative Report and Inquiry Project (a requirement for all Fulbright Distinguished Teacher Awardees), re-joined my Climate Justice Team colleagues to help strategize about how to teach our students to be climate change activists, re-wrote component 3 of my National Boards submission (because I found out in December that I didn’t pass by two points, smh!), re-joined my district’s world language leadership team to align curriculum district-wide . . . and started writing a novel?????

That last bit has five questions marks because a) I like odd numbers and b) I want to express my trepidation at taking on such a daunting task. I love writing. I love telling stories. My 7 year-old-self once aspired to be a writer, and my 12 year-old-self used to jam up the phone line for hours on end as she and her friend Amanda wrote what might have been an epic romance novel if we had not spent all our time debating the names of our characters. Committing myself to the project of writing about my Afro-Mexican’s friends’ stories, in a novel, for Spanish language learners, and proclaiming my commitment ON THE INTERNET no less . . . that makes me nervous.

I might fail.

I might not. I might write something useful, maybe even beautiful.

There’s a part of me that wants to not blog anything until I’ve written the book, found a publisher and have a fancy cover that I can snap a photo of for the blog post. But there’s another part of me that wants to document this process because if I get it right, then maybe other language teachers who want to write books can use it as a guide. And if I get it wrong, then it can still be a guide, just more of a “All the Things Not to Do" type of guide. Either way!

What’s clear to me is that writing a mini-novel a la TPRS mini-novels, is the best way to get this information in my novice-level students’ hands. I teach Esperanza by Carol Gaab every year, and my students learn so much about Guatemalan history and culture. We talk about immigration and this year I’m teaching them about the meaning behind the symbols stitched into indigenous clothing that I bought while in Guatemala. My dear friend Rita just published her first novel, Libertad, about her friend Dionisio’s journey from Cuba to the US. Rita told me that when she wrote her novel, she wrote a chapter, gave it to her students, they gave her feedback, and then she’d write another chapter. So . . . read on to the next blog post to see how I followed that lead.

Black is Beautiful by Michelle Nicola

I taught parts of Kara Hinderlie’s Black is Beautiful lesson in Coyolillo, and again in two towns outside of Pinotepa Nacional, Oaxaca: the town of José María Morelos and the town of Lagunillas.

It took a lot of preparation to get all of the materials I needed to teach this lesson, and I am so grateful to two of the best librarians in the world, my friends Ross Betzer and Emily-Jane Dawson. Thanks to their efforts, I was able to use a YouTube video of students in Seattle reading Ann McGovern’s book, Black is Beautiful, and borrow a digital copy of My People, Langston Hughes’ poem coupled with stellar photography. 

Both books are in English, and I knew students would need my help understanding the words, so I typed up a translation of each and had copies on hand, just in case. What I really wanted students to focus on were the images, so if they didn’t get all the words, I was ok with that.  

To start the lesson, I asked students to think of all the things they could think of when they thought about the color black. As students called out answers, another student wrote the answers on the board. In Coyolillo the list was primarily objects- clothes, phones, pens, until at one point Jesús called out, “People!” and the class laughed. “Jesús is right,” I said, “people can be Black too.” In both Morelos and Lagunillas, students readily shared that people are Black, and there was no laughter in the comment.

We looked at the list. What did they notice? Were these things beautiful? 

In Coyolillo and Morelos, I used my laptop and a projector to show McGovern’s book. As we looked at each image, I asked students, “What do you notice? What colors do you see? Are there fancy things or everyday things in the photos?” 

“Why did Señora McGovern write this book?”

”Because she likes the color black?” came a response.  

“It’s possible. Any other ideas? What is she trying to get us to think about?” 

”That Black is beautiful?”  

“Great, yes, but why is that an important message?” 

”Maybe some people don’t think it’s beautiful?” came a tentative reply. 

Next, I introduced them to Langston Hughes. I told them about how at one point in time, in lots of places in the States, Black people and white people couldn’t eat in the same restaurants, couldn’t use the same bathrooms, couldn’t marry each other. As I spoke, I noticed students’ eyes growing wide and the room growing quiet. 

“The thing about oppression,” I said, “is that it doesn’t fit with who we are. We were born to be free. And when we are not free, we will fight until we get back to our natural state of freedom.” I talked about the civil rights era, and how everyone used their talents to fight for freedom. Langston Hughes’ talent was his poetry. He wanted everyone to see his people as beautiful. 

Before we read My People, I asked students if they knew what a metaphor was. Most didn’t, so I gave them an example. I then asked them to turn to their partner and try giving their partner an example. 

We read My People the first time for meaning. I helped students translate words they couldn’t get collectively. The second time, I asked them to look at the images. Why that image? What does it say? The third time, we found the metaphor.  

Next, we tried to write a few verses as a class about the town where the students lived. Breaking down how to teach metaphor has always been hard for me, but by the time I taught the lesson in Langunillas, I had something that worked. I ask students, “How would you describe the people in your town?” Then, we wrote all the adjectives they shouted out up on the board. From there, I said, “OK, so people in your town are happy. What plants, animals, objects represent happy?” Students made a list, and from there we used Hughes’ poem as a sentence frame to write our own verses. With more time, I would have them break out of the sentence frame and into their own creativity, but I used the time and the resources I had on hand.

The final piece of Hinderlie’s lesson that I taught had to do with hair. In Hinderlie’s lesson, she uses the book Hair Dance by Dinah Johnson; for my lesson I thought of Sandra Cisneros’ book The House on Mango Street. There’s a chapter in the book where the main character Esperanza describes each person in her family based on their hair. A quick Google search provided me with a pdf of the Spanish version. 

I asked a few students to read the text out loud. Then, I drew 5 smiling, bald faces on the board. I invited students to come up as artists and draw each family member as I read each one. So much laughter! I asked, “What do we know about each person’s personality, just based on a description of their hair? Does Esperanza love her mother? How do you know?” 

Next, students drew their own families. I asked them to write words that described the hair for each member. What did it look like? What did it smell like? How could their hair be a metaphor for their personality?

Students worked together on their family portraits. The energy in the room was jovial, despite this being my last lesson with them. I asked students to share their portraits with a small group, and then, just like that, my time was finished teaching in Coyolillo. We didn’t get to the final part of Hinderlie’s lesson, in which students choose a Black historical figure to write about. And it’s really, really hard to know the impact this lesson had on students. Did it change their perspective? Did it reinforce a sense of pride they already possessed? Did it plant a seed for future insight?  

My next steps with this lesson will be to adapt it for students who are learning Spanish. I will be posting on that at some point! 

My homebase was Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz. I taught in Coyolillo 2-3 times per week.

My homebase was Xalapa, in the state of Veracruz. I taught in Coyolillo 2-3 times per week.

I visited two towns in Oaxaca (Lagunillas and Morelos) toward the end of my Fulbright where I taught the Black is Beautiful lesson.

I visited two towns in Oaxaca (Lagunillas and Morelos) toward the end of my Fulbright where I taught the Black is Beautiful lesson.

Here are a few of the “Pelos” family portraits by the students in Coyolillo.

Decisions and Doubt by Michelle Nicola

The truth about teaching is that as much as we want it to, learning doesn’t move in a straight line. As much as I backwards plan, set goals, write objectives, plan the activities, assess, reflect and start the whole process over again, it’s not a guarantee that I will move a whole group of kids from point A to point B. 

I so want to be that teacher who has her whole year sketched out, who has all her lesson objectives tied to the big picture unit goals, and all the units circle back on one another, reinforcing and deepening and refining the learning in the previous unit. I want to be that teacher who scaffolds and differentiates and modifies and takes my kids’ learning from Point A all the way through Z in a nice, neat orderly fashion, based on lesson plans that include Garder’s multiple intelligences, Bloom’s Taxonomy, Teaching Tolerance’s Anti-Bias Standards, World Readiness Standards, ACTFL’s Proficiency Guidelines, forms and functions, maybe some OWL techniques, oh and the Five C’s of language learning- Communication, Comparisons, Communities, Cultures, .... is anyone else getting tired reading this list? 

The truth is, I am that teacher some of the time. Some of the time, I do some of those things. Lots of times, however, teaching is about making quick decisions in the moment, based on the students you have in front of you.

At this point, teaching in Coyolillo, I had to make some decisions. Due to holidays, my trip to Coahuila and inclement weather, I really only had a handful of lessons left to teach students in Coyolillo, 2 maybe 3 hours tops. My goal of creating a unit to answer questions about how our ancestors affect our identity seemed way out of reach. Coulda shoulda woulda’s bamboozled my mind. I coulda taught a smaller group of kids. I shoulda focused on writing a mini-novel, not this unit. I woulda planned things differently had I known about the holidays. I shoulda kept things simple!

I took a deep breath.  

I heard my dear friend Rabbi Brian’s voice in my head, “Honey, are you doing more good than harm?” 

Yes. I am.

I thought about a conversation I had with my cousin Jill. She’s a teacher too, and a damn good one.  She told me, “I think good language teaching is about setting up really engaging conversations.”

Bill Van Patten, author of While We’re On the Topic, might agree. In his book, BVP argues that language teaching is totally different from any other subject, and yet we try to teach it in the same way as we teach math- by going from point A to B. He outlines a compelling argument for why we are crazy to think that we can teach language by moving from one grammar topic to another- just think about it; did anyone ever sit you down at age 2 and say, “Ok honey, first you need a noun or a pronoun, then you need a verb in the correct tense, and then an object . . .” My guess is that the people surrounding you engaged you in conversation that was compelling to you. For my nephew Adam (age 2), this means we talk a lot about trucks, backhoes, and construction sites.

So here’s what I decided to do: engage my students in conversations that mattered to them. That meant teaching my colleague Kara Hinderlie’s Black is Beautiful lesson to the middle school students. I knew from my conversations with my friend Daniela and my own observations that none of the middle school girls wore their hair natural, which is not a problem, but as Daniela told me, “I just want them to know they have a choice.” I hoped that Hinderlie’s lesson could help them see beauty in many ways of wearing hair. 

For the high school students, I designed a timeline lesson that would hopefully get them thinking about their town’s history, and how they are a part of that history as well as get them to start questioning “official history.” It was a risk because I was effectively building the curriculum ship while sailing it, but I wanted to explore where this idea could go.


A tried and failed attempt by Michelle Nicola

After writing “De Dónde Soy” poems, I wanted to dig in to the question of how our ancestors shape our lives. I thought of another one of Linda Christensen’s lesson gems, Sweet Learning.  

In the Sweet Learning lesson, students start by making a T chart and listing all of the people who taught them something in one column, and what they learned in the other. The idea is to then write a short narrative piece about when they learned to ride a bike, cook a favorite recipe, the meaning of kindness.... the list could go on. 

I helped students with their lists by first asking students to share whole group. Jorge shared that his uncle taught him about respect. Jazmín shared that she learned her strong will from her dad. Haydé shared that her cousin taught her to do well in school.  

Once we had about 10 or so items on the collective list, I asked students to make their own lists of as many people as they could think of and what they had taught them. 

Then, we read two different mentor texts, “Mi Raza” by Rafael Figueroa and “El pan de Siria” by me. “Mi Raza” was a poem that I found on Facebook at the perfect time for this lesson. Professor Rafael Figueroa, an ethnomusicologist who I’d met a few weeks before when I interviewed him about the African presence in the music of Veracruz, had written the poem for Día de la Raza. In it, he pays homage to his three grandfathers, the Spanish one, the indigenous one and the African one, celebrating what each of these three roots taught him. It was an authentic text written by one Spanish speaker for others and it was perfect.

I also decided to write a narrative piece about how my Lebanese grandmother taught me to make Syrian bread. We had just finished writing a poem, and I wanted students to be able to choose between a poem or a narrative.  

We finished reading the two mentor texts, and students decided on poem or narrative, then got started writing. Here is where I could have done things differently. I needed to build up students’ writing chops with a shorter piece first.  I needed to teaching setting and dialogue a bit more, and guide students in figuring out to to develop both. 

At the end of class students turned in their narratives and poems. While some succeeded in using narrative techniques, most wrote things like, “I learned from my grandma to be respectful. She is very respectful.” When I asked students to talk to me about how their grandma taught them respect, they looked at me blankly, unsure how to answer. I had needed to ask them better questions.

After a first draft, students handed in their work and I wrote feedback on each paper. I had every intention of revisiting the drafts the following week, but then the penpal letters arrived, and the week after that school was cancelled because the town needed the salón social (a covered patio where school was taking place until the high school was rebuilt after damage from the earthquake), then it was Día de los Muertos.... it got to the point where I decided that the best course of action would be to scrap it and move on.  

Suffice it to say the lesson wasn’t the success I’d hoped for, in that the writing students completed will not be used for my inquiry project. My friend Rabbi Brian does this thing where he asks people how they feel when they are making a mistake. “Horrible!” “Awful!” “Embarrassed!” are all common replies. Rabbi Brian’s eyes twinkle as he leans in and says, “Nope, that’s how you feel when you realize you’ve made the mistake. When you were making the mistake, you didn’t know it was a mistake, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it!”

In my classroom in the States, I’ve hung the same poster for the last four years. The poster says, “In this classroom, everyone gets to make mistakes,” and in the corner is a picture of Britney Spears with a speech bubble that says, “Oops! I did it again!” As the years go by, I find myself having to explain to students who Britney Spears is, but the point is made - we’re human, and making mistakes is part of it. Often what we do after the mistake matters more than the mistake itself. In the case of my tried and failed attempt, I took the knowledge I gained about my students’ writing abilities to design a better lesson for the future. I listened for what was true of their stories- maybe they didn’t writing the most dynamic dialogue, but now I knew that Jazmín identifies with her dad’s quick temper, that Brian spends time with his uncle camping . . . there is always an opportunity to grow. I may not have advanced my inquiry project in a tangible way, but I did learn more about my kids, and that relationship building, though intangible, is the more important learning, if you ask me.

Students at Coyolillo High School sitting in a writing circle. (October 2018)

Students at Coyolillo High School sitting in a writing circle. (October 2018)

Here are a few Sweet Learning essays!

De dónde soy by Michelle Nicola

As I thought about creating curriculum that focused on Afro-Mexican stories, I realized that I didn’t want to tell the students where they are from- how ridiculous would that be?! I wanted my students to tell me about their heritage. What makes Coyolillo, Coyolillo? What are they proud of and where does their identity as a town of Afro-Mestizos show up? 

I immediately thought of Linda Christensen’s Where I’m From lesson. Christensen uses George Ella Lyon’s ‘Where I’m From’ poem as a mentor text, a text that students can look to for guidance on writing their own poems and gather inspiration. I’d taught this lesson to Spanish learners in the past, but always had to either a) use a poem written in English as a mentor text or b) write my own poem in Spanish for students to follow. Both of these choices have drawbacks. In the first, students aren’t getting the Spanish language input they need to produce the language output. And in the second option, it’s not an authentic (written by Spanish-speakers for Spanish-speakers) resource. In my classroom, ideal mento texts are poems, stories and essays written by other students because it’s easier to envision yourself achieving something your peer has also done. I was hopeful that I could use this lesson to guide the students in Coyolillo in writing mentor texts for students in Portland. It was also an opportunity for student in Coyolillo to tell me about themselves and what it means to them to come from a town that’s “Afro-mestizo.”

First, I needed a mentor text for the students in Coyolillo. I decided to go with Option B and write a mentor poem for them for the simple reason that their English was not advanced enough to choose Option A.  

I passed out copies of my poem to my students. We read the poem aloud read-a-round style, meaning each student read one line until we finished the poem. I asked students to use a highlighter to highlight their favorite lines, which they shared with a partner and a few with the class. I accidentally forgot to put my name on the poem, but I used this as a way to get students to delve into its meaning.

“What do we know about the person who wrote this poem?” I asked. 

“That she comes from a cold place!” someone shouted out. 

”How do we know that?” I asked. 

”Because of the line about the blankets,” came the response.  

“Great! What else?”  

“That she’s got a family.” 

”Tell me about that- who is in her family?” 

I asked them questions for as long as it seemed they had answers and then I finally asked, “So who wrote this poem? 

”You!!!!” came the chorus of replies.  

“So how do you think a person writes a poem like this?” I asked. 

They looked at me blankly until one student ventured, “By writing it???”  

“Yes of course, but I want to teach you a technique that poets sometimes use to get started. Notice here how I mention things that are in my house? What other things do I mention?” 

The students noticed the places, the foods, names of people, things in my neighborhood and things in my yard. I wrote these topics on a piece of poster paper as headers for lists.  

“Ok,” I said. “I want you to copy down these headers. We are going to make a list of things for each one of these categories. Try to write as many things as you can think of, the more the better.” Because I have taught this poem to middle school students in the past, I knew to add, “Don’t just write TV in the list of Things In My House. Try to choose things that are really unique to your house. And if the TV is a central item, then tell me what’s always on. Is it soccer? Soap operas? The news?”  

Students got started working on their lists and I wandered the room, helping where necessary.  At that point, class was over, and unfortunately we wouldn’t get back to this poem until two weeks later. 

When we did get back to the poem, I asked students to look at my poem and figure out how I went from lists to a poem. I wrote what students said on the board, and let them spend the rest of the time crafting their poems. 

As I walked around the room, I noticed a lot of lines that said, Soy de carnaval- I am from Carnival. I challenged students to write a few more lines describing carnival with their five senses. What do you see? I asked. Smell? Taste? Feel/touch? Hear? A few students provided more detail after that description, but for the majority it was something I needed more time to work with them on. 

After students finished a draft of their poem, I read each one and provided feedback: “I can really see the church based on these lines,” or “I can tell how much you love Coyolillo by the way you talk about its food- delicious!” were the types of comments I wrote. Because this was our first assignment together, I decided to focus on what worked in each student’s poem. That said, I started creating a list of common areas to work on for our next assignment, such as descriptive language, metaphor and exploding a detail. Many students “borrowed,” lines from my poem, and I was OK with that. We learn new things by first mimicking others. With time and practice, our own creativity starts to grow out of those first seeds that were planted by someone else. World Language standards allow for this - novice students “use memorized words and phrases,” while intermediate students start to “create their own sentences.”

I’m including videos of a few of the middle school students reading their poems. The sound quality is unfortunately not where I would like it to be. My Fulbright experience was one of compact personal growth - of learning my strengths and uncovering some growth areas (like filming and video editing!) Please be kind and patient as I learn and grow! :)