Ditch the stupid textbook.

Silvia Rosario recently made this comment about my blog:

  • I’m loving it for keeping it real. Now how you take that leap of faith and start your year without a textbook. What’s your first week or first month of school look like?

That sounds like a great idea for a post! When I was starting out, many teachers had blogs talking about how they scripted out their year, and I benefited greatly from that. To begin, I operate from a couple basic “Laws” that guide my thinking:

  1. I have to live within the realities of my school district and the administrators. Within those guidelines I do my best to get away with everything I can. I am the Loki of the Spanish Teaching World!

  2. I firmly believe that I have to do what works for me and my life OUTSIDE of school. I rarely plan elaborate activities that require lots of paper or spending an hour to create / set up. It’s what keeps me sane.

So, how *I* feel you should set up your year begins with the question: What do you want them to be able to do? And work backwards. For example, I know I want my students to read 2 novels as a whole class, have opportunities for more, get to know each other, and just flat out acquire as much language as possible, including rejoinders and academic vocabulary like DE HECHO or POR EJEMPLO. Here are some thoughts, in no particular order.

So, first thing is to pick the novels. Pick 2 level appropriate books. 1 a bit more complex than the other. Pull out the vocabulary from the teacher’s guides They are always a must buy – they have way more and way cooler activities than you have time to plan on your own. Trust me. Create a list of common vocab they must know to be confident when you get there and make sure you incorporate it through the year.

Otherwise, here are more suggestions:

  1. Hook ‘em hard with something personal or provocative right away. I like to start with Ben Slavic’s circling with balls, but instead I do it with pets. Some kid always has some weird animal. In contrast, I have a dragon. I like to get the fantastical element going right away as it breaks from the general seriousness of high school. I often segue right into a short video, conversation, and reading on Bullfighting. Is it art and tradition, or cruel and torture? They are now mine!

  2. Have a CI based curriculum to either be your backbone or to fall back on. Look, I can talk by TPRS Books or the SOMOS curriculum by The Comprehensible Classroom are my top two choices. I mix and match whenever students get used to routine. This often lasts me through Spanish 3. They’re inexpensive and worth it.

  3. Always, always do a Locura de Marzo (March madness) song bracket. Create your own if possible. If not, Señor Ashby does one.

  4. Speaking of music, there are phenomenal song activities from people like Kristy Placido and Martina Bex. I try to make 1 day a week a music day. Pick a video with a great story and movie talk it and do various activities that you can learn from the IFLT facebook group, et. al..

  5. FVR/SSR as described by Bryce Hedstrom. Low to no production.

  6. Do La Persona Especial. Also by Bryce.

  7. Every Thursday or Friday, talk about what you’re going to do over the weekend and get that future tense rolling. Every Monday, Talk about what you DID to practice the past. There are templates out there for these.

  8. Pick one day a week (I do Friday) and make it your movie talk day. Great ideas for this are Extr@ (youtube), Destinos (old but full of culture and CI), the move talk book from TPRS Books, and the Move Talk Database which is full of ideas.

  9. Find podcasts or youtube channels, and authentic resources such as NEWSELA and Martina Bex’s great newspaper articles.

  10. Señor Wooly and Textivate.

Just these things alone will fill an entire year PLUS. People are always producing free content to help out. Take it all, just make sure you eventually pay it forward. You know the textbooks suck – make the change. Pain is temporary, but acquired language is forever! As always, YMMV.


Quick and dirty Mafia

I had a bunch of people ask me to make a video of mafia. Per my earlier posts, PLEASE visit The Comprehensible Classroom and get Martina’s mafia unit. Keep the rules handy as you watch.

Now, this video is terrible, and I made lots of mistakes, but I do my best to explain quickly how the game is played and how you choose roles. I put this stuff up in like 5 minutes because it was do it today or never, so excuse the mistakes I obviously made. Martina has a ton more things you can use to enrich the conversation, but What’s on the board is what I start off with for beginning learners. This was my Spanish 3 class so I didn’t do a good job of sticking to only my word wall, but I think you can get the basics here.

Now the important part: After the poor victim is killed, THIS is where you spin a story. In my video, I only did a simple guilty/innocent thing. But after the first couple games, spin each death into a detail. How, where, when exactly, and under what conditions did they day? I circle all the details as much as possible and build the suspense. The possibilities are ENDLESS.

(ex: last night it was raining. Suddenly, a body is discovered underneath a table in Mcdonalds. Whose body is it? What were they wearing? Who was the last text on their cellphone? Did they just break up with someone?)

Here is the link to the video. Hope it helped, kiddies. As always, YMMV.

moving mafia up the chain

For those who don’t already know, Mafia is a game that might not have started there, but was destined to be played in the foreign language classroom.  Each student takes a role of either Mafia, Police, Doctor, or Townsperson. There are a multitude of variations but this is the most standard. The roles are random.  The goal of the mafia is to kill enough townspeople so that they can run the town, and the rest to survive, find the mafia, and put them in jail.


The teacher’s role is the storyteller which makes it a natural Comprehensible Input activity, and the kids are GLUED to it.  In the beginning, you have to put up a lot of words on your wall like GUILTY, INNOCENT, I ACCUSE, and so forth. The students quickly acquire an understanding of the basics and you can move on.


So, how do you hack the game to get the kids to acquire MORE MORE MORE like we all want?  Here are a couple subtle things I do:


  1. Pick a random structure like WEARS that you want to teach.  Use the game to quiz the kids about the poor victim. Class, the victim wears red.  He wears a red sweater. (they love finally sussing out who the victim is). Then move onto questioning the kids.  Is the victim wearing a red sweater or a blue one? You can really hammar things like clothes, jewelry, hair, etc. Pick any verb you’re working on and use it.
  2. Pick a non-random structure and reinforce.  Currently I am using the phrases GOT CLOSE TO, CARRIED AWAY, and vocab like swimming pool.  I am concentrating on the preterite tense for Spanish as well. So in the case of each victim, the mafia entered their house, carried them away (to a swimming pool), and drowned them.  Yes it’s gruesome. Know your audience and adjust.
  3. ADIVINA:  I really like asking my students to guess.  Jennifer, guess! Who is the victim? Oh, you think it’s Ron? No, it’s not Ron.  Ron, Guess! When is the victim? The tension mounts as kids get safe.


So here’s what I focused on this last go-round.  gana/pierde,fue matado, anoche, el asesinato, el asesino, un cuchillo en el cuello, se ahogó, intentó, no tenía éxito, and inodoro.  Yes, we had a kid drown in a toilet. Swirlies for everyone!

FYI, you can find information on Mafia on Martina Bex’s blog the Comprehensible Classroom, and the G-rated variant Bad Unicorn from Profe Peplinski

Take it and run with it.  As always, YMMV.

When stories don’t work

Hi kiddies, it’s your friendly neighborhood Profe. Today on facebook a teacher mentioned that they were thinking about going back to the textbook because they were having trouble keeping the kids involved in the stories, classroom management issues, and the like. I have a viewpoint or two I’d like to share.

  1. We all know the textbook sucks. If you’re like me, that’s why you finally went to a training or saw a video and accepted Comprehensible Input as your lord and savior.

  2. You, like me, may not be the cutesy, high energy teacher that has 14 million props and gets an insane amount of enjoyment out of acting a fool in front of their class all day. Some days I just don’t have the energy, and I don’t want to spend my own money on props and dance around. I start the year having kids respond with OOOHs but quickly abandon it once kids get in the flow of learning, unless it’s something really interesting. You CAN make it fun without all that stuff. You have to find a style that is YOU. I have a ton of respect for those teachers, but it ain’t me.

  3. You do what you can. If you’re a beginning CI teacher, you may just not be ready to be let loose with stories. It’s perfectly OK to step back and try one again when you’re ready. For my first ones, I scripted out a hundred questions before I did it with kids to make sure I had something to rely on. It helps. You really need a mentor, preferably someone who you can observe in the flesh. And regardless of cost, if you want to be a CI teacher you must go to some conferences. They will change your life. Now, in my 4th year of CI, I can riff off of things kids say and go totally random. No way I could do that my first 2 years.

I’ll post a video below of a recent class session. It’s easy to see I’m not dancing around, but everybody’s having fun and learning. It’s my style and no one else’s.

Now, What if you are reasonably practiced, bringing your A game,and still have a class of miscreants that just won’t play along? That doesn’t mean you have to go back to a text.

Take a step back and analyze. Is it just 1 or 2 kids? Why are they doing what they’re doing? If it’s persistent, they may have stuff going on in the home or they may be left behind and not understanding. They could be ADD and gazing at their navel the whole class. They are now teacher’s pet. Every time I ask the class a question, they get asked to answer, both before and after the class. Every statement, they trey are asked to translate. Now some are just shy and as long as they’re learning, I let them do their thing. I’m something of an introvert myself. But the disruptors? Nu-uh. Even if they can’t or won’t answer your question, they’re too busy getting them ASKED to them to start much trouble. And you’re providing an extra rep for the rest of the class. Win-Win. I make participation a must-do with rejoinders before class can leave. Passwords are mandatory. I love my kids, but I won’t let them get in their own way. I have 1 kid who skips class and will likely fail, but I have 99 who will pass with flying colors. If I can do it….

What if it’s the whole class? Well, it may be a classroom management thing. Read some other blogs on management. Implement a points system with rewards maybe. Maybe you can’t do this, but I got rid of desks and kids can keep nothing in their hands or lap. I have phone caddies on my walls to keep kids from staring at their crotch and I am VICIOUS about taking up cell phones if they don’t caddy their phone. I only have to do it a few times a year. Once the first week, and likely once for every new transfer kid. Once every other distraction is gone, generally even the worst kid will learn at the minimum passing level. It’s never stopped any kid from loving my class.

Ot just stop doing story asking. Write out the story yourself, hand it to the kids and start asking it like you would an embedded reading. Instead of PQA for vocabulary you have them practice with quizlet or other tech heavy feature. More boring? Yup. But anything to keep from using the textbook. More MovieTalk, more news articles from Martina Bex or whatever source. Instead of asking, the script is already done and kids gets reps and questions. “The boy’s name is John” and you’re done. Now ask a million questions. Up the stakes by asking your trouble-maker or a play along student, “Do you prefer John or do you prefer Homer?” Oh you prefer Homer? Well, too bad, it’s already written in stone, me boyo! Give the story another go after a few weeks of this.

Back to textbooks. Funny story – we had adoption last year. I wanted a CI curriculum and was told no. I told them I wouldn’t teach with the new textbook any more than I did with the old one, and they were OK with that. They wanted a grammar text for if/when I leave. Then I got yelled at this year when I didn’t use it. Funny, right?

Yeah. funny.

Hope this was useful But as always, YMMV.

Here’s a link to my most recent story when i was tired. It was the fifth time I’d done it that day. Not my best, but you can see the flow of the class still works.


So one of the things I intend to do most with this blog is expand on my ideas from questions being asked by facebookers about various things.  I think it’s a place where I have something to say that might be valuable. I have no desire to babble on about the things that go on in my classroom every day, or the things that you can find in a hundred other places.  I also feel that there is sometimes a lack of pragmatism on the Facebook and the Twitter and among some of the folks who make $$$$ from CI. There are some who don’t recognize the realities of being a teacher confined to a textbook and get pretty uppity when you can’t do it there way.  I ain’t that guy, and that’s not what this blog is for.