Restart, Refresh, and Reconnect.

Since my last post in June, things have happened.

I was told that our 3rd Spanish position in our school was excessed. We would go back and teach 36-40 students each period, which meant I would have to teach a minimum of 350 students per school year. During that same time, I applied for a position for a full-time Director of Music position in Ankeny, Iowa. I honestly believed my interview, while it went well, I thought it was a long shot. I was proved wrong. They were thrilled about my interview and wanted me on board. I had a difficult choice to do. Continue and work with an insane amount of students, teach my first language and culture to 350 + kids with my friend, Sam or go back to basics and go be in a full time music position. I went with the latter.

As of middle of July, I am the Director of Traditional Music and Worship at Ankeny First United Methodist Church in Ankeny, Iowa. I am in charge of all traditional music and adult worship in 3 sites, which includes an amazing music program that includes handbells, band/orchestra, choir, and praise teams. While still in a learning curve, it’s been a awesome start! As of right now we are in the finishing touches in reorganizing and beginning a concert series, getting musicians and ensembles to perform in our spaces, and community outreach with our music.

Here’s to new beginnings, to refreshing, restarting, and reconnecting!

Reconciling #musicalpoetry, #spanish learning, #CI, and #culture

I’m a music teacher. I’m a Spanish teacher. I am a both. I am a Native speaker. How do I reconcile both in my classroom? These were my thoughts throughout #CIIA2018 this month, especially when Laurie Clarcq was speaking in her breakout sessions.

As a Spanish teacher, I constantly use music in my room. Mainly in a indirect way for my non-native & non-heritage students (if you are ACTFL fan they are Novice to Novice-low, rarely a Novice-Mid as a Second Language learner because of contact hours). I mostly use my Spotify playlist “Songs in Spanish” to keep playing in the background. All. The. Time.

When I have commented to my coworkers about this during the school year (mainly a music teacher) I told them that it grounds me. It keeps me connected to music, but there IS a method in my madness.

The madness

My first 2 years as a Middle School, MYP teacher in an International Baccalaureate school, I have 35+ students. Every class period. Yes, that means that in 2 days (we’re in an A/B schedule) I teach a max of 400 students. In my classroom, I have free seating & “you have a phone, ok. Use it to your advantage.” Policy. Meaning, that if a student has a phone, I do not go “phone-Nazi” and take them away. I purposely teach focus. I did not realize that I did this, until our technology teacher told me that she did the same thing. I want to teach focus. Intentional focus. This is hard at the middle school brain.

I start the school year telling all my students that I am a music teacher, I conduct choirs, I sing in choirs, and that I conducted choirs in Puerto Rico, my home country. They are always “shook” and as one student told me this year “show me the receipts Brenda, or it didn’t happen”. I show them the “receipts” and they’re impressed (to say the least). Honestly, that was the point of “the art of musical poetry” when this blog began: how does music, language and culture works. As a Spanish teacher, while the core is still there, it’s been tweaked as I teach Spanish.

How do I use the madness to my advantage

Using my Spotify playlist, I put on music that I will teach during their 3 years in the program, music that is fun/different, music that my students (mainly my native speakers) choose to share to the “gringo students”.

It opens up conversation that yes, in Spanish-land you have as many musical genres as they listen to in English. From Taylor Swift-like pop, to hard metal, to Spanish covers of their “omg this song gives me life” favorite songs.

While it takes them some time (mainly new students and incoming 6th graders) to adjust, they LIKE the culture in the classroom. They KNOW that if they don’t have music playing something DIFFERENT is going to happen in the room. Students BEGIN to WITHOUT prompt sing the songs in Spanish, learn their favorite songs in a Spanish cover, and even better? ASK for SPECIFIC songs. This year Corazón sin Cara, Andas en mi cabeza, and La Gozadera were huge hits.


We go back to the Why? Why would I do this? I do know that most teachers would think I am crazy for doing this. Well… I might be. But it goes back to who I am, what I do, and what I want my students to achieve and feel successful. In 3 years, in an A/B schedule, my students will NOT be awesome superstars with their output. I know that. I’ve accepted that. Now, this year’s 6th graders (next year’s 7th graders) might make me reject that reality. If so, #ChallengeAccepted.

In my room, silence needs to be important. Just like music. It has to have MEANING. It reminds me of what Laurie Clarcq said at CIIA (I’m paraphrasing)

The Teacher is the conductor of the orchestra. They know (or should know) the music, the theory, and each student must bring their “instrument” or kill so that they can continue to improve.

But let’s be real, most of the students do not have some skills, what ever skill you’re looking for (reading, writing, social-emotional, etc) so we have to address it and teach it.

How do I teach it

1. Student’s who are notoriously late: Conversations.

As of this year, students have a grade that directly ties their attendance. It’s a small rehearsed conversation: Hola Maestro. Me llamo ____. Como estas? Now while it was surprisingly spanish (Sam Finneseth) who started this year, I followed suit and it gave me a lot of rewards. Students who are shy and are more receptors rather than “sayers” they have at least 1:1 interaction with me. Most importantly it teaches students that they need to be on time, is simple and parents are supportive.

2. It can be used as a warm up.

3. I use it to actually remember students and their names. (I am horrible with names)

4. Students with phones: Teach self-control

I am a phone-a-holic. I am. I let my students know this. I even check my phone (sometimes) while they are working. It’s part of life and these kids never lived in a time where people have smartphone (and I feel old about that). So I have to teach them, just like a part of the orchestra, they do not need it at the moment. IF you are grabbing the phone its to check time, listen to your OWN music when SPANISH music is not plating (which is almost never), using Quizlet in class (when we need to), etc.

5. What to do with silence

If we have silence in the room, we are using it when we play mafia (listen to be understood. Listen to comprehended), when we are reflecting on our process, when I am talking about our CFA’s, Scales, and/or “big things” like real-life connections of culture and what we are reading, etc.

Would love to hear from you, what are some things that some peers think is “unorthodox”, “crazy or mad ideas” or simply how do you mix music, culture in your classroom that might be out of the norm?

My first experience in #CIIA2018

I honestly thought that these things would be a waste of time. It’s probably because I’m a second career Spanish teacher. Music is first, so I always go to ICDA (Iowa Choral Conductors Association) instead or I just simply saved my money and go to Puerto Rico to see my family. This year has been different. Way different.

This year, as I may have mentioned in a previous entry, my friend Surprisingly Spanish suggested that since I have been dabbling in the arts of Comprehensible input, that I should go to CIIA or Comprehensible Iowa this past weekend. I was surprised. Very surprised. In a very good way.

I like that CIIA is made for teachers by teachers. They talked to us in a very real way that was not what you sometimes experience in these types of conferences. Everything was directly “from a classroom” and how “it has worked in a class” and “how it can be better”. I also enjoyed that there were moments where you truly can reflect. Ergo, Laurie Clarq, the keynote speaker. which took us back to basics. Her 3 rules in a classroom: a) one person talks, everybody listens, b) listening with the intent to understand, and c) self-control as a necessary skill where not groundbreaking at all, but it reminded (at least me) that if I want a positive culture and community these need to be part of my expectations and priorities in my class.

41wvjgctxvl-_sx331_bo1204203200_I went to 3 of Laurie’s sessions which were amazing. I also went to Sam Finneseth’s Heritage students in a CI classroom. I loved this presentation. I believe that it was very real as mostly her reflections on the past school year as a Spanish teacher for Heritage students. As a native speaker, I hear constantly that these students should not be in a Spanish classroom. While I had this mentality during my first year of teaching, I was able to create a Heritage class at my school and I could see what was Finneseth’s thought process. I do know that we NEED an active NEED in our state and nation in how to help these types of students. I already have my book by Mike Peto to help me for this next school year. I also had a lot of people asking me what I actively do with my 8th graders when it comes to curriculum, which that will be a post in the near future.

In all, I believe that CIIA is a great resource in our state and midwest area for teachers who actively teach with the CI methodology, but also for newbie teachers like myself in helping us get acclimated to this CI world.

I am excited and looking forward to next year’s CIIA and Iowa’s and Midwest professional opportunities!

What to do if you have a Exploratory Spanish with self contained students

This school year, I had to teach an exploratory Spanish with self contained students. What do I mean by that? Teaching 10 students who were in our SLC (structured learning center) from our Special Education program. I had students that were visually impaired, hard of hearing, down syndrome, non-verbal among other Individual Educational Program & 504 (behavior programs).

I had to teach this exploratory Spanish twice a week (I teach on an A/B schedule) Tuesday and Friday’s. I had 2 awesome associates and me. I am grateful considering that before when I had them in a “gen ed” classroom, I only had one. So what did we focus on curricular wise?

The curriculum

I honestly had little to no formal feedback for their “Spanish curriculum”. My class is essentially a break so that their SLC teacher can have her planning time or her lunch. I mainly focused on:

1. Colors
2. Numbers
3. Estoy (emotions and school locations using CI methodology)
4. El/Ella/ (person) es (bueno/a, malo/a, amigo/a, enemigo/a)
5. A LOT of children’s songs, motions, dancing, etc.

The day-to-day

After taking attendance we always began with the Buenos Dias song. Every.Single.Day. Most of these students had little to no formal output in their L1, Native language, choose your favorite title or simple they were non-verbal. I had one student, an 8th grader, who NEVER talked to me before this year. In MAY, he looked at me, said his name and then looked at me in the eyes and said “EO… IA”. Which mean EO = buenos, IA= Dias. GOAL. HIGH FIVES. Insert me aggressively dabbing in the classroom because of the teacher win. Yes, I did that. Yes. I am THAT teacher.

After the Buenos días song, we had days that were “brain break days” which easily meant, we just did Spanish Dance Revolution to songs in Spanish OR a song that was sung by a Latinx artist. These students needed a chance to move, dance, and do something that was different from what they see day in and day out. I used a LOT of Atención Atención, which if you don’t know who they are, you need to. They’re essentially the Wiggles of Latin America and they come from Puerto Rico (shameless plug in from my country). Most of the days we just did part free draw as we listen to songs in Spanish.

If you have had classes with Special Education students, let me know!!

Reflections of a Native speaker teaching native and heritage Spanish​ speakers.

The school year is over. OVER. Is this the time where I do my happy dance? Is this the time where I begin to burn things from the previous year and purge myself of all the bad juju? No to the first one. Second one? I don’t know. What I do know is that I am still having “teacher dreams”. You know, the ones where you are still lessoning planning in your sleep. Telling Bobby to “sientate por favor” for the millionth time. Also the “I need to start planning for next year” bug began to itch… 2 weeks before the school year was done. I think I have a problem. But, hey. If you are not doing that…. #blessyou.

So, what was I going to talk to you again, oh yeah. That thing we teachers have to do (or should do) at the end of a school year. Reflect.

If you have read some of my previous posts, mainly Building an MYP Spanish program, you will see how the Spanish program in my school works and How to integrate music… on some reflections on what I’ve done in my class. For the sake of this post, I will make a quick view of our Spanish program.

The program

This year we had 3 Spanish teachers (we will go back to a 2 teacher team because of budget cuts). Our school has roughly 800 students so I had around 250-ish students every 2 days (next year will be up to 400). We are on an A/B schedule with rotating Wednesdays and next year it will be a fixed A/B schedule. I teach 6, 7, and 8th graders on the south side of Des Moines, Iowa.

This school year

This school year was the first time I actually had a classroom. I was a traveling teacher for two years, so I felt like I received a promotion. No longer was I traveling between 6-13 classrooms per week. Spanish would have a home base, and we would all be close to each other. I was also not teaching ALL of the native speaker classes and we actually had a plan. My partner-in-crime Surprisingly Spanish collaborated throughout July and created a scope and sequence that made sense for our students. We built on what I had done the previous year and she pushed me. A lot.

She challenged me constantly through the year to advocate for our students, mainly our Heritage speakers, more than I did before. She also was pushy (in a very good way) into poking at my thought process for my instruction so that it wasn’t in an “I am a native speaker, so therefore here’s Spanish”, but to go through the lens of “what will be attainable and comprehensible for students”.

This was my first year teaching with some CI (comprehensible input) techniques and methodologies. I, surprisingly found myself being “me” not a “native speaker teaching gringos”  and creating authentic materials that were fun. I jokingly tell coworkers that this has been my best year ever. Not because of “I have a classroom”, but I was more “me” and kids received it.

The #strugglebus

I’m very appreciative that my administration authorized me to go to IWLA this year AND to the National Heritage Spanish Speakers symposium in Iowa City, Iowa. I think that one of my #strugglebus moments this year was ironically my native speakers class or Heritage. Not because they were Latino/a, but because it was my 3rd year with my 8th graders as their teacher. They knew me. I knew them. And collectively (in a macro perspective) we didn’t grow as much. Them as students, and quite honestly me as a native Spanish teacher. I know that surprisingly Spanish grew a ton mainly because it was her first “go” with a full native speaker class.

I think that, again, I bit more than I could chew with them. Now, don’t get me wrong. I believe that overall, my students enjoyed my class. We had awesome and deep discussions about Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Latinx rights. We talked about immigration, we listened to a lot of music, we talked about Argentina and the Dirty War. My 6th graders talked about Agentes Secretos y el Mural de Picasso (not in the way that I thought we would, but hey it was still a win). But quite honestly, I struggled on how to teach “my people”. How do I teach Native Spanish or Heritage students about our language and culture when they are on so many different levels in their Language Acquisition.

This weekend, I am attending CIIA or Comprehensible Input Iowa. I will be attending a crash course on what is CI and CI methodologies, activities and strategies. Hopefully, I can learn a lot more about how to service our latinx students in the USA. My non-native students or students who are just beginning their Language Acquisition journey, those are fine. I have struggled to some extent with them on how not to overcomplicate concepts, but there are quite frankly so many resources and strategies for them, that I just need to go back to basics and just “do”. But for Native/Heritage students? Everything feels still overwhelming. Most of it in a good way. The doors are unlimited and open to experimentation. But the perfectionist in me. The musician in me. The “musical poetry” in me is still striving for excellence. I believe we, not just me as a professional, we’re green. as in REALLY GREEN when it comes to this population. I know one size doesn’t fit all with ANY student, especially students who are ESL, Native/Heritage Spanish speakers, students that may have a language core (many or most do not have one), but we have to do better. I have to do better. I should and must do better. Next year my focus or goal (for now) is to use what I know. Help these students native, heritage or just beginning students acquire knowledge with music. We’ll see how I do…


How to integrate music with a Native/Heritage Speaker class or Non-Native Speaker

Since I am a music teacher first, many people have asked me how I integrate music into an L2, Heritage, and Native Spanish classroom. Every day I use my Spotify playlist “Songs in Spanish” (which I am trying to also make one on iTunes since I’m trying to slowly integrate Apple products into my room).

I use the playlist as a way to never have unintentional silence in class. As a musician, silence has always had meaning. A purpose. I want the same thing in my room.

I also use my playlist as a classroom management skill because if students are talking in their pods my go-to is: “Si no puedes escuchar la musica, estas charlando/hablando demasiado de alto” (If you cannot listen to the music, you are talking too loud). I use the playlist as an ice-breaker at the beginning of the year. My native speakers give suggestions to the Spotify playlist and that way they can show songs that they want their peers to listen to, especially our non-heritage/native speakers.

The music I pick vary in tempo, instrumentation, countries, and genre (style). I pick music from my college music friends with their EP’s, #throwbackthursday 90’s music to the Top 20 of 2017. I have not done “muévete miércoles” or “Baile viernes” like some other blogs suggest as activities, mainly because it doesn’t work with my students in my district. They do better with a CLOZE listening or listening to various styles of music.

Here are my suggestions if you’re creating your own playlist:

1. If you like the song, just add it.
2. If a student gives you a suggestion and it’s school appropriate, add it. You will be surprised at the relationship you can have with a student just because you add a song that they like.
3. Add songs from different genres, eras and topics. Even if the students cannot truly comprehend the message, they are at least getting used to the speed and accents of the artists and their respective countries.
4. If it’s songs you will do as a CLOZE listening, put it in your playlist and let the students listen to it through the school year.
5. Too elementary? You will be surprised. I have students who have listened to a Buenos Dias song from “Atención Atencion” and they will sing it as silly as it sounds. If you teach a song with motion, they will still do the motions as they’re working individually, sometimes without them knowing it!

If you have some suggestions, ideas, or feedback, let me know!

Songs from Spanish Class