Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Using Portfolios in the classes taught in Spanish

I would like to share my reflections on Roy Lyster's very interesting presentation in Calgary that I spoke about on January 13th . The two main ideas I got out of that day are:
  • It is essential that teachers working in bilingual program are integrating both language and content when teaching.
  • It is important for teachers to collaborate though, in my experience,  it is always a challenge in a senior high school.
During his presentation, Mr Lyster introduced very inspiring examples of best practices by some teachers working in French Immersion schools in Quebec. They used different techniques to target the improvement of language skills while teaching content.

After reading his article and the notes I took from his presentation, a question rose in my mind: do we have to assess language in the subject areas taught in the target language? If so, are there any examples available that can inspire our teaching practice?

 My experience in this matter is limited because I have never taught any other subject than language arts. However,  from talking with teachers, their answer is usually that they don't consider language in the final grades for students. I am not pointing fingers at anyone; on the contrary, I know the work load teachers have and it is not easy to collaborate with the others because of different timetables and so on. But as we can see in the example below, there are many possibilities worth exploring.

I was very fortunate to meet the team leader of languages and coordinator of the bilingual program at the IES Llanes in Seville, Spain., Lola Aceituno. It is a Gr. 7-12 school but the bilingual program goes from grade 7 to grade 10. There are several aspects I liked about their project:
  • The team leader works hand in hand with the teachers in the bilingual program to identify and create resources together.
  • Teachers work in collaborative projects integrating different subject areas and different languages.
  • They use ICT to work together and make all the resources more accessible.
  • They have adapted the frame of the European Portfolio of Languages so that students can assess their improvements in the target language in the subject areas taught in English.
I'd like to introduce some of their interdisciplinary projects which I find particularly inspiring.  Students work on a project called "Unequal population distribution" and they focus on different aspects according the subject area from which they work. After completing the assignment in all the subject areas, students complete a final task in which all the learnt skills are applied. All of the resources are online are accessible to students, parents and teachers. Click on the image to get more information:

Another very interesting feature is the self-assessment sheet that students complete after the final task. The sheet follows the structure of the European Portfolio of Languages, so they use the "I can.." statements to be aware of how much "language"they have learnt working in the project. This is a great example of how to integrate language and content and how to assess the language piece in a subject area taught in the target language.

A second example of multidisciplinary task is this one on Fables. Students worked on fables from different perspectives and integrating different artistic means: literature, art, music, drama. To make things a bit more complex, students work the same topic in three different languages .

Portfolios are flexible and can be used for any subject area taught in the target language. Here is another example developed at the same school for Maths.

This is a very inspiring bilingual school project which shows that working collaboratively, being aware that language is as important as content and assessing this knowledge is essential to have in a successful bilingual program . Portfolios can be a useful tool to make students aware of their progress in the target language. I hope you have some time to check it out!

Friday, January 25, 2013

A novel to learn about the classics

Not so long ago, while I was talking to some grade 12's in school, they showed me some of the readings they were doing in ELA. One was The Allegory of the Cave by the Greek philosopher, Plato. Again I asked them how they felt about reading such an "old" text. The general answer was that they find it hard to understand but at the same time they were surprised by the "modernity" of the ideas reflected in the text. They highly valued the fact that over 2,000 years ago, people in a corner of the world were already asking themselves such deep questions.

I thought it would be a good idea to identify a resource for grade 12 in the bilingual program that could shed some light about the classical age of western culture.  At first, I thought about Spanish translations of texts by Plato or another classical author. I also thought about a film set in the Greek or Roman periods which could reflect the life and ideas of that time.

Then a novel fell on my lap and I believe it can be a good resource to learn more about the Roman Empire. Even if it is not used as a classroom text, it could be recommended as an extra reading. The book is Continúan los Crimenes en Roma, by Emilio Calderón (Anaya). The author holds a degree in history and worked for the Archaeological National Museum of Spain. He has written several thrillers for young adults, all of them with references to historical facts (Egypt, Rome, London at the time of Jack the Ripper). More information about his works is on his website:

In this particular thriller, Manio Manlio Escévola, the son of a rich and powerful senator in Rome, returns home after two years of fighting against Parthia, now known as Turkey. Manio's father prepares to celebrate his son's return. Both watch a gladiators' combat at the Coliseum as father and son. Unfortunately, Manio's father gets killed on the way home. Manio is devastated; moreover, he soon discovers that he is to go on trial for parricide as the main suspect. Only his girlfriend, Claudia, believes his innocence and helps him to find the real murderer.

Once I took the time to breakdown the potential topics that students can learn about from this novel, I was surprised at how long the list was! (See below.)

Aspects of Roman life:

a) slave system    b) judiciary system   c) roles of politicians, the Senate and the Emperor
d) funerary traditions   e) culinary recipes f) norms and customs   g) role of culture and education

Higher level students in the bilingual and IB programs should be able to comprehend the novel with little trouble. Although the language is complex at times, with its continuous references to specific Roman terms. To clarify these terms, the writer supplies footnotes for his readers. Students can be taught to use this tool to increase comprehension of the novel. The narrative rhythm is agile, thanks to the numerous dialogues in the text.
The author skillfully weaves fictional text with factual information. He uses fictional characters to introduce readers to historical figures like the Emperor Tiberius. Interestingly, he author actually uses a primary source to describe Tiberius written by Roman historian, Suetonius, from his book The Twelve Ceasars.  
If you are looking for a book which can enlighten students about the founders of Western civilization, this novel is for you! This novel is also ideal for interdisciplinary teaching.

Click on the book cover below to read the publisher's suggested teaching activities:
Note: I'd like to thank my resident editor (my fiancée, Annie) for her help with reviewing my blog entries. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Choosing original material for our Spanish bilingual class

I have already spoken about the criteria for producing good CLIL resources. I am sure that we all have our own methods for identifying good resources and we probably follow most, if not all, the steps in this previous post. I am always on the look of good authentic resources, that is,  materials that are not specifically created for teaching purposes. The possibilities are endless: magazine articles, newspapers, novels and short stories, commercials, travel brochures... and of course, feature films and short films.

I have already mentioned my interest in short films, they are very flexible and, if we choose correctly, they can be a very good way of introducing "authentic language and authentic language use, which is an important criteria in creating CLIL resources.

These are some ideas that I pay attention to when I choose a short film for a Spanish bilingual class are simple:
  • I look for a story first that can be of interest for the students and fulfills some of the general outcomes in the programs of studies of SLA.
  • In terms of language, I always try to find materials that can "foster academic language proficiency" and can be a linguistic challenge for the students, but always under the umbrella of the curriculum outcomes. 
  • Materials that lead to the creation of projects, students' research and the use of different cognitive tools would be considered "best choices".
  • Resources that can be linked to activities done in other subject areas. As educators, we have to be able to include our teaching in a broader educational frame.
I would like to introduce two short films which can be very useful in a high school bilingual program, which fulfill the above criteria.

Paseo by Arturo Ruíz Serrano. This short film is a homage to all "los paseados", all the prisoners that after a war are taken for a walk (paseo), from which they never return. We don't know exactly the historical backdrop of this particular story but we can assume it takes place right after the Spanish Civil War (the countryside where it is set, the outfit of the characters, one of them states that he is from Águilas, Spain, the similarities with Lorca's death). However, the poem the poet recites in the film was written much later in time by Mario Benedetti, from Uruguay.  The director wants to keep this ambiguity to focus in the main ideas of the film:
  • the fate of helpless people under an abusive ideology
  • the need of solidarity, even in the hardest situations.

From a linguistic point of view, the richness of accents and registers used in the film are very realistic and useful. Two of the characters use a very colloquial Spanish whereas the poet uses a much higher register. To fully understand the story, students will need scaffolding in the language.
Naturally, one more activity we can do is to read and critique the poem recited in the short film. Mario Benedetti, the writer, is a very example of an artist who always cared for human rights all his life.

Voluntario by Javier San Román. The second short film is about the importance of volunteering and the reasons that drive a person to help others in an altruistic way. The main character in the film decides to help others after his personal experience when he was a child. A member of the Red Crescent saved his life when he was on vacation in Morocco at age 10. Many years later, he revives another child from another culture who is living in Spain. To fully understand this urge to help others, you only need to understand the eyes expressions of another person, as it is stated in the short film. This topic, altruism and solidarity, can lead to discussions, research and to talk about our experience as a person and as a member of a community.
Another very important topic in the short story is the role of social media in society. The short film is presented like a TV program in which the volunteer is asked about the search of a ten year old boy lost in the mountains for four days. The presenter is only worried about giving a professional impression in front of the camera. She doesn't show any sympathy about the fate of the young boy who is lost and she addresses him with distaste. Does she appreciate the volunteer's perspective? Can she not see the boy's look of distress?

In conclusion, two short films which can be used in a high school Spanish bilingual (or IB ) program. Both fit some of the general outcomes of the Program of Studies, both are linguistically challenging and can lead to discussion, research and collaborative work for the students, who can link some of the these themes with previous knowledge from other subject areas.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

#Etmooc, an open online course

I am currently taking part in a very exciting project called #ETMOOC. A huge group of educators of K to university levels from over 60 different countries are sharing ideas on  using numerous ICT tools in education. The concept of sharing and network participation is encouraged; therefore, all participants will have a space to share their expertise and learn from the others.

It is a very exciting experience. Although the main topic is not Spanish bilingual programs or second language acquisition, a great deal of the discussions and the resources can be useful for us working in a Spanish bilingual school.

The project is open to everyone interested, so join in! The principles behind the project are the following (as taken from the website):
  • The course is developed with a weak ‘centre’. While etmooc.org will provide a level of aggregation, detail, and direction, the majority of interactions are likely to occur within groups & networks, facilitated through various online spaces & services.
  • Participants are strongly encouraged to develop their own reflective, learning spaces. We’re hoping that every learner in #etmooc creates and maintains their own blog for continuous reflection, creativity, and resource sharing.
  • Sharing and network participation are essential for the success of all learners in #etmooc. Thus, we’ll be needing you to share your knowledge, to support and encourage others, and to participate in meaningful conversations.
 More information can be found here:

In closing, I would like to recognize the hard work of the "conspirators" who put together this incredible project.

Monday, January 14, 2013

CLIL II, CLIL Lesson Plans Samples

I have spoken about CLIL, its foundations, where to get theoretical background about CLIL education. We need to start to see some examples of activities, resources created by teachers in their daily practice. Examples which can, I hope, help us to better understand the theory but also to inspire our own production of activities.

I find  the approach to bilingual education that Andalusia in Spain is taking particularly attractive. Every new teacher in a bilingual program takes an intense course that includes theoretical instruction, presentations by researchers and work sessions with teachers with experience in the program. The teachers also spend time during their introduction to the program creating activities that can be used in a class following a CLIL approach.  It doesn´t finish here, teachers keep on working together and producing activities that are normally placed online, using either a blog or a wiki. The best part of all this? All these resources are online available for us to look at, explore and reuse for our purposes and needs. And I honestly think that some are really inspiring.

First, we can have a look at the several templates they have created to create a CLIL lesson plan. The first one elaborated by Isabel Pérez, whose website I have already introduced, is very thorough and has all the components we need to include in a CLIL lesson plan. It also includes links to clarify some of the sections and links to pedagogical background behind CLIL.


All these resources can be found in the wiki created by the CEP (Centro de profesores) in Granada. The wiki is for teachers to have a common space to work together, share resources and learn form each other. It was created after one of the professional development sessions for teachers in bilingual programs and has been used as a meeting point for everyone interested in developing bilingual programs under a CLIL approach in the province.

Another template is available in the blog of Pilar Torres who is the Language Advisor in another CEP, in Córdoba. I will spend more time talking about this blog which offers a lot of useful and valuable information on CLIL and many other subjects. Today, let me just introduce a different proposal of template to create a CLIL activity. This one is more simplified but it can also be useful for our needs in Alberta.

I find it essential to  have a consistent approach to the way we organize our lessons plans making sure that the key linguistic, pedagogical and cultural components are included. It will help our work to a great extent and it will be the only way we can work collaboratively with other teachers in a bilingual program. In my next posts, I will talk about the CEFR (common European framework of reference, MCER in Spanish) and I will introduce some of the activities from the blogs we talked about today.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Readings to better understand CLIL

On Thursday we are having a very interesting presentation by Dr. Roy Lyster, professor of Second Language Education at McGill University. The title is Planning for Teachable Moments: Integrating a Language Focus in Content-based Instruction. To get ready for the event, attendants are asked to read the article Content Based Second Language Teaching. The article introduces some of the issues all of the teachers working in the Spanish bilingual programs have dealt with. For example, how do we integrate language teaching in a subject area taught in Spanish? Is content teaching the most important in non-language classes like maths or PE? Do we need to assess language skills or just the content? In any case, as Lister suggests in his article, collaboration among teachers is key to success. I found the study with English and French teachers in Quebec particularly interesting. I think it reflects the situation in many schools and it sheds light on the fact that results are tangible as soon as teachers collaborate with each other. To read more about the study, read the article, Linking languages to a read-aloud project.

For those who are unfamiliar with the CLIL concept, two introductory readings on the topic can be found on the British Council website by Professor Steve Darn (Content Language Integrated Learning & CLIL a Lesson Framework). Both articles give thorough insight of the rationale and principles behind CLIL without a high level of jargon and also give ideas on how to implement CLIL in a classroom.

In my experience, another common problem that teachers encounter when trying to use CLIL in bilingual programs is finding useful resources. It is not an easy task to find resources that match the Program of Studies with the linguistic needs of the students. Sometimes the content is good but the language is too advanced or vice versa. Resources that incorporate concepts such as content and language scaffolding or the use of authentic language are not easy to find so teachers need to create their own resources. And we all know the work load teachers already have.

I think following a framework that guides the production of CLIL resources can increase accuracy and can be time-saving. The article Criteria to Producing CLIL Learning Materials, by Peeter Mehisto, gives a step-by-step guide, on how to produce resources that can help us to implement a CLIL program. Peeter Mehisto is co-author along with David Marsh and María Jesús Frigols of the book Uncovering CLIL, a must-read for teachers starting a bilingual program and for those who want new ideas in the field.

The last article I would like to recommend is Creación de Actividades para el aula CLIL / TIC by Isabel Pérez, in a website I already mentioned in a previous post. Isabel gives us very clear tips on how to create a CLIL activity and how to integrate the use of ICT. She has even provided templates in her article.
The CLIL approach is very exciting but much learning must be done through our journey and no doubt I will be revisiting this topic again. While it is expected that we will have to create some of our own resources, it makes great sense that teachers can also increase collaboration to build up students’ linguistic capacity without jeopardizing content acquisition in our second language classrooms. With collaboration, results and our enjoyment of teaching will improve for sure.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Inspiring students' writing

Weak student performance in writing is a general trend in bilingual programs of all languages. And the same proves to be true when students take external exams such as the DELE (Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera). There is little doubt that student writing may have bee negatively affected by our increase in orientation towards becoming a more audiovisual, web 2.0 oriented society.

Is there anything we can do to change this pattern? I'd like to introduce a very inspiring teacher working in Spain, Elvira Laruelo, even though she doesn't work directly in a bilingual program. She is enthusiastic about reading and writing and she knows how to transmit this enthusiasm to teenagers who, of course, don't have any interest whatsoever for both activities (or so many may think). Her working blog is:

Elvira is an expert in children's and young adult's literature. She is a devoted reader and she is always on the look out for good stories to share with her students. She has also published short stories and poems, some of which have been turned into songs by local artists in her province. Students get engaged with the positive energy she transmits towards reading and writing.
In her blog there are sections to give students information about their syllabus, cartoons and short texts about "the value of education", "freedom" or "solidarity.  All of them very interesting  but I would like to bring your attention to two other sections related to today's topic:
  • Actividades de lectura y escritura: These are the activities she has designed to increase students' love of reading. Every school year, Elvira recommends the reading of different novels to her students. These stories can be read every month as a way to obtain bonus marks. I can tell that every month most of the students in her school take the challenge and read at least an extra book. Good readers make good writers. To improve students' writing skills she also organizes different writing projects that target different interests. Short stories, photos, and personal experiences are used to inspire good quality writing. Students are motivated to keep on improving their writing skills and build their love of writing by entering writing competitions that are held three times a year. 
Using picture prompts or a short film to inspire student writing is certainly not a novel idea; however, with   easy access to the Internet, teachers can find thought-provoking resources that will inspire students' imagination.
  • Click on the picture to visit this section with all the details.

  • The second section I would like to point out is, naturally, the students works, Textos de Alumnas-os. In this section we can read some of the texts that the students wrote. There are  poems inspired by the heart shaped potato, poems or short texts on friendship and love. I particularly enjoyed reading the work of the first competition's winner, a text that mixes reality and dream to create a thrilling story. Surprisingly, all the students are from grade 8 to grade 10. Spend some time reading the texts because they are beautiful pieces of writing.
Is it possible to encourage our students to read and enjoy it, and consequently to produce better  writing? I am positive about it! We not only need to be consistent and persistent and providing good writing instruction but also model a passion for love of literature ourselves. We also need to remember that enhancing students' imagination and the production of quality writing go hand in hand in a bilingual program. This blog is a clear example that this can be achieved.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Hot topics

I have just finished unwrapping all of my presents. The Three Wise Men have been particularly generous to me, likely they found some good deals during Boxing Day. I hope the new year brings you new ideas and inspirations. For me, these are the ideas I would like to explore some time this year on the blog:
  • CLIL, examples of resources created in different schools. What are the key features that enhance the quality of CLIL resources?
  • Do we need to assess the language or just the content in the subject areas taught in Spanish? Are there examples of best practices available?
  • How can we improve students' writing skills? Any inspiring activities around?
  • Short films: how to use them to talk about topics that can can be related to other subject areas such ELA or Social Studies? What about a Cinema Studies subject area for high school bilingual, could it be possible?
  • Explore more examples of international collaboration between schools.
  • Continue identifying suitable texts (novels, short stories, poems) for our bilingual programs that can also complement other subject area studies.
  • Continue my research of ICT that can help our bilingual programs.
These are my blog new year's resolutions. I just hope that they don't fall into oblivion, like it happens with many new year's resolutions of the past! .