Monday, April 29, 2013

Reading about other cultures in Spanish

I have introduced resources for the Spanish bilingual and IB classes: short stories, novels, short films, feature films, etc. Obviously the list can be endless. I also think that we need to be open to new materials for our classes without forgetting the classics. I would suggest we keep a balance between "modern" and "classical" materials.

Any time we use a resource from one of the Spanish speaking countries we are obviously opening the doors to a cultural component that our students are happy to learn about. But today my recommendation goes in a slightly different direction. We are going to learn about  the history of a person from another culture who continues to be an influential figure in the world. Students will realize that Spanish can be a resource to explore other cultures, can be a working tool and the language to enjoy literature written in neither English nor Spanish.

Persepolis (1-4) is a series of graphic novels published originally in French by Iranian born writer Marjane Satrapi. Persepolis was the name given by the Greek 2,500 years ago to the capital of the ancient Persian Empire. I am sure that the choice of the title is not a coincidence but a way of linking the author's personal story with the millenarian history and tradition of her country.

Persepolis is a series of four graphic novels divided into short chapters. The series tells us the autobiographical history of the writer, Marjane Satrapi, from 1979 when she is 10 years old until ten years later just before the moment she travels to France to continue her studies.
Through her eyes we witness all the political and social changes that take place in Iran and how they affect the Iranian citizens, the neighbour countries and also the rest of the world, included the western powers.
Thanks to Marjane we learn that in 1979 the head of the state shah Reza Pahlavi had to flee the country due to popular pressure. We also learn that, despite his apparent tolerance, he was just a dictator who got to power supported by Great Britain and did not respect the human rights of the citizens of Iran. The big oil companies got succulent contracts and the majority of the population lived in poverty. As soon as the shah leaves the country, a civil war  starts and soon an Islamic republic is founded. Life gets even harder for everyone, especially for women. Soon everyone has to get adjusted to a different life full of religious fanaticism. At this time, the problems with western countries and USA get deeper and the population suffers for it. Marjane, used to speak up her mind, stifles in this more and more fanatic society.
Things go from bad to worse when the war with neighbour Iraq starts. Thousands of young boys from the poor social classes, almost children, are sent to fight with a key around their neck. The key that will open the door of paradise for them. Under these circumstances Marjane, who has always received a liberal education, is sent to Austria when she is 14 to continue her studies. In Vienna she will find the difficulty to adjust to western culture and will suffer the racism of the Europeans. She goes back to Iran to start university in Tehran 4 years later. Although she is is happy to be back to her family and friends she hardly recognizes her country after 8 years of Islamic revolution and the war with Iraq. The social differences continue even bigger and life for women, especially young women, is particularly unjust.
Marjane tries to fit back in her country. She studies art at the university after a hard enrolment process which includes a religious assessment. At university she meet Reza, who will become her husband when both are still students. Their relationship fell apart after their wedding and although they work in cultural projects together, Marjane knows that it is over. Unable to fit in a society that denies women's rights, obsessed with the tragedies caused by the war with Iraq, she decides to continue her studies in France and start a new life.
The novels in Spanish are linguistically accessible for students in the high grades of a bilingual or IB program and some issues that students study in other subject areas appear in the novels:
  • The totalitarian regimes
  • Revolutionary processes in third world countries
  • Freedom of speech and belief: religious fanaticism
  • Colonialism and the role of the big corporations
  • The lack of women's rights in some regimes
  • The natural resources and its influence in a global world
  • The role of the western countries in the development of democracies in countries in Asia and Africa
  • The role of education to make a more just and egalitarian society
The story is attractive and the main character gains our support and sympathy from the first page. The novels gives a deep insight of events that took place not long ago and have affected the world since then. The topics that appear in the novels are very relevant in the curriculum of Alberta and can be used to promote discussions, debates and research projects. For all this and because our students will enjoy the graphic novels, they can a great resource to work with our Spanish class. Even though the story does not happen in a Spanish speaking country, we all have been affected by these events in more and more global world.

In 2007 a film based on the graphic novels was released in France. The original writer co-wrote the screenplay and co-directed the film, which gained  general recognition except in Iran. The film was released in black and white, like the graphic novel. The Spanish version is available in YouTube:

Monday, April 22, 2013

Commercials in Spanish: a classic

I have always been a great fan and follower of TV commercials. They are amusing and visually attractive.  It is true that on occasions commercials portray stereotypical situations which are not acceptable but even then, we still can use them as an "example". They can also be integrated into class activities very easily and act as a springboard for additional activities.
  • They are authentic materials, and in this blog I have always encouraged teachers to use them. 
  • They normally have a real use of the language.
  • Their length is very manageable (around a minute) but at the same time they are a complete entity. That is, they are like a miniature film in around 60 seconds.
  • They are supported by musical and visual devices that make the message even more clear.
  • We can use the linguistic content but also the cultural component.
  • Students are all familiar with the language of publicity, despite the cultural differences.
The first commercial won a lot of awards for its innovation and creativity. It uses a small doggy, Pancho, and its master, Ramiro Benítez, as the main characters. The idea was to promote the Spanish lottery. Everyone can get rich playing it, even a smart dog.

The commercial portrays Ramiro, a very effective dog trainer, who asks a TV program to broadcast his plea for help to find his dog (who became a millionaire after winning the lottery). The commercial makes a parody of an actual TV program that was very successful on the Spanish TV. In the commercial we realize that Ramiro was not a good master and we are happy that Pancho took the money and left him.  The commercial offers lots of possibilities to work with our students: the vocabulary of house chores, the use of the past subjunctive after introductory verbs in the preterit, etc. Because it is visually clear some teachers have used it in ESL classes to create scripts in English.

Pancho and Ramiro Benítez became stars and some more commercials with their "adventures" came out. Ramiro continues his search for Pancho by appearing on different TV programs: a cooking show, a talent show,etc.. Despite the fact that there is some TV criticism in the commercials, it is also true that the spectators can identify what is going on very easily. Pancho and Ramiro were so popular that two years after the series of adverts were produced, a new commercial was released. Ramiro comes to North America still trying to find Pancho. 

Pancho and Benito commercials can be used to introduce the use of TV advertisements in our classes. We can use them to introduce vocabulary, grammar topics and cultural aspects. Following the series of commercials on Pancho we can also talk about the language of advertising and have a look at how commercials are made. The clip below is a "behind the scenes" look at how the Pancho commercials were produced.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

INTEF, Best Practices 2.0

INTEF, Instituto Nacional de Tecnologías Educativas y Formación del Profesorado, is the branch of the Ministry of Education of Spain responsible for encouraging and integrating the use of the ICT in the K12 programs.

INTEF offers a wealth of resources on its website. There are sections on resources for teachers, families and students as well as a very interesting online teacher training program. In addition, there is a repository of didactic units created by teachers that were entered into the annual competition organized by INTEF. The competition winners to the best teaching units publish them on this website.

I will speak about these sections in the future but today I am going to introduce the section that deals with examples of best practices using web 2.0 technology. The examples are organized by levels. For those who are not familiar with the Education System in Spain please notice that:
  • Educación Infantil, students are 3 to 6 years old.
  • Primaria is basically the same model as in Alberta, grades 1 to 6.
  • ESO, stands for enseñanza secundaria obligatoria,  (1 to 4) goes from grade 7 to 10.
  • Bachillerato (1-2) is the last two years of secondary education, grades 11 and 12.
  • EOI, stands for escuela oficial de idiomas and it is second language programs for adults. They follow a national curriculum and are aligned to the CFER.
  • Formación Profesional are vocational courses.
  • Programa de cualificación profesional inicial are courses for students who have not the required credits in high school.
  • Educación de Adultos is Education for adults who for whatever reason did not finish their secondary education.
We have a lot of examples of blogs and other web 2.0 tools and how teachers have used them as a pedagogical tool. I will highlight three resources amongst the many useful ones that exist on the site.

The first blog is Take the Pen, a blog created by Belén Monreal for her English class in the elementary school Parque Colegio Santa Ana in Valencia. The teacher explains in this video the reasons that moved her to start her blog. She also explains the different sections and the rationale behind the classes and the different parts. Two ideas stand out in her presentation:
  • One of the reasons to launch the blog was the lack of appropriate resources for her class and we have seen this so often in our bilingual programs.
  • The blog is not something isolated but something integrated with the rest of the subjects and a new approach to teaching in the school.

The second blog is used in a quite different way. It is used as the working tool of a class project for grades 7-9. Una ruta lingüística y solidaria a la tierra de los mayas by José Luis Lomas at Colegio Pedro Poveda uses the blog frame to showcase a web quest project. I found goals of this project particularly attractive:
  • Students have to become aware of the different varieties of Spanish through this project that will take them to Mexico.
  • And they will become familiar with the native languages spoken in Mexico.
  • They will need to use ICT to create their final materials
  • The project is done in partnership with a non profit organization and the main goal of it is to bring water to a small community in Mexico.
  • Students have to combine resources and knowledge from several subject areas to complete the assignment.

The results are outstanding and as important is the fact that the process requires students to apply skills and techniques and to use resources from several subject areas.

The third blog I would like to introduce is produced by two students on the subject of Spanish Language Arts. They are students in Bachillerato at INS Castellar and coordinated by the teacher Ester Falip Ibarz . The students had to read 3 literary works, a novel, a play and a short story. They are set in three different periods of Spanish History:  the years prior to the Spanish Civil War, the Civil War and the years after it. This explains the project title.

Besides the reading and analysis of the 3 works, students conducted interviews, visited exhibitions and compared the works with the feature films based on them. The result of the project is the blog, a time line project using Dipity and a digital book using Calaméo. The final product is great as it is the level of satisfaction for the students.

This website is a great source of information about best practices of web 2.0 that teachers are using in their daily work. The suggested blogs are just three examples but we can find many other inspiring experiences in the INTEF website. These blogs can give us lots of ideas if we want to start a blog or improve the one that we already have.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

International CLIL Lesons Plans

The European Centre for Modern Languages is in an institution created by the Council of Europe "whose mission is to encourage excellence and innovation in language teaching and to help Europeans learn languages more efficiently."

The ECML goals are clearly stated on the website:
  • focusing on the practice of the learning and teaching of languages
  • promoting dialogue and exchange among those active in the field
  • training multipliers
  • supporting programme-related networks and research projects
To achieve these objectives the ECML organizes international projects on language education. Some of these projects are complete and many of the resources and materials derived from these projects have been placed online. They can be very inspiring and helpful to us.

The most recent 4-year project runs from 2012 to 2015. There are 15 ongoing projects and their results will be published in due time. The list of ongoing projects is extensive and very interesting. All the working teams are international and, in many cases, there are many participants from different educational institutions in Canada. I am particularly interested in three of them. I look forward to their results! They deal with some of the issues we encounter in our schools every day. Topics I have tried to discuss and reflect in this blog:
  • Literacies through Content and Language Integrated Learning: effective learning across subjects and languages
  • Using open resources to develop online teaching skills
  • Plurilingual whole school curricula - PlurCur
One of the already completes projects is Conbat + Content Based Teaching + Plurilingual/Cultural Awareness. I think that the name of the project gives us clear information of the objectives and they are detailed on the website.  What is very interesting to have a look at? First the training kit for teachers available online. And second, the didactic units produced by teachers in several countries in three different languages, English, French and Spanish.
The units are mainly for junior and senior high school and cover most of the subjects areas. There are sections for the teachers to get the pedagogical needed insight and also the working sheets and handouts for the students. The fact that there are examples in three languages, produced in different countries makes them very rich and inspiring.

My suggestion is to spend some time reviewing them, even if we are not very fluent in some of the target languages. We will get some inspiration from them for sure.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

Crisis, a current topic for the Spanish class

It is always important in a bilingual program to keep track of the cultural and social changes in countries where the target language, Spanish, is spoken. For example, at Western Canada High School in Calgary, they are doing research and studying the situation in Venezuela just after Chavez's death. Students have seen a documentary on the political, social and cultural situation in Venezuela and are reading two newspaper articles about what the future development of the country will be like. Then they are asked to write their views on the issue and how the situation in Venezuela can affect all of us globally.

In the case of Spain, unfortunately, the main conversation topic nowadays is the economical crisis. It seems that we will feel the consequences for many years to come. A possible topic of study of research could be how it is affecting people's lives.

We can say that after the Second World War every generation in Europe, Spain included, had a better standard of living than the previous one. Up to now. New generations in Europe face a bleak present and even darker future. The crisis is generally spread in Europe but in the case of Spain there are two features that make it even deeper:
  • Political corruption and the lack of confidence of Spanish people in most political institutions
  • The fact that a significant number of the university graduates in Spain have to leave the country to find a job related to their capacity and studies
We are able to gain access to almost an endless and updated supply of articles, TV programs almost every day that deal with this topic. However, I would like to use works of art, such as short films or graphic novels to help students "humanize"and gain insight of the situation. Naturally, artists, film directors and writers have been reflecting on the topic since around 2008. There are plenty of material that we can use. I wanted to focus on works that portray how the crisis is personally affecting people, their dreams and their lives. There are not so many examples showing the people directly affected by the crisis, the real protagonists.

My first choice is a very short film, Clarividencia by Luis María Ferrández. A divorced father is trying to explain to his daughter why Santa Claus is not bringing her any presents to his place this year . There are many other children who need them too and everyone needs to collaborate and share. She will get presents at her mother's. The reality is quite different as we find out at the end of the short film. The short film shows in a simple but powerful way the situation lots of families are going through. Tender, sad and with an open ending.

The second work of art is the graphic novel Andando by Torres, Carreres & Riego. Andando is the story of three different people, Andrés, Sergi and Claudia living in Hospitalet, Catalonia. They come from different social classes, have different jobs but the three of them are directly affected by the crisis that means, among many other things, that they lose their jobs.

Andrés is 60 and is unemployed for the first time in life. Pressed by the circumstances, he is made to reach an unfair agreement with his former employee. He feels a bit worthless because of his unemployment so he tries to find something to fill up his time. To make things worse, he has to financially support his daughter´s family, like so many families in Spain.

Sergi is an electrician running his own small company. Things go from bad to worse and eventually he decides to get rid of it and start a new career from scratch. He is always supported by his partner, a teacher in a school who also has her share with the crisis every day: lack of resources, neglected children and so on.

Claudia, the third character, is a senior associate in a prestigious law firm. It seems that she is so far away from the crisis until she gets pregnant and her employers, wanting to be rid of her began emotionally abusing her until she decided to quit her job and emigrate to Norway. It is "cheaper" for the company not to pay her maternal leave and to let her go. Still the old prejudices against women are the norm in some Spanish companies.

Andando shows in a  realistic way how crisis affects three totally different people. It deals with lots of topics but always focusing on how the crisis is affecting people directly. A very good choice for the higher levels.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Graphic Novels II

Another Graphic Novel I would like to talk about is also a very emotional one. Miguel Gallardo is one of the most prestigious comic and graphic novel writers in Spain. In María y yo he tells us a very personal holiday story, with Maria, his daughter with autism.

The author found that his drawings were a very good way of communicating with Maria. He always drew to get closer to her but also because Maria needs everything very clearly organized. Her dad's drawings and schemes are a great tool to have things under control. Gallardo also kept a journal of the days theyspent together. The graphic novel came from the journal he wrote during a holiday with María in the Canary Islands. This is an honest portrayal full of humanity and paternal love.

We get a deep understanding of what life is like for many families in the same situation. The story is told in a tender, sensitive and humorous way but without forgetting the difficulties that children with autism and their families still encounter in our society. However, the feeling the reader gets is optimistic, we end up with a smile on our faces. Moreover, our perception of autism will be changed in a positive way.

The graphic novel became a great success and soon a short film was produced.


Félix Fernández de Castro is a Spanish film director. He learnt about María y yo, read the story and suggested that he and the writer worked together to produce a film based on the novel. The film was a challenging project but after its release in 2010 it became a great success.


Versión Española is a TV program that shows films from Spain. There are always guests who speak before and after the film is played. Normally the director and other people directly involved in the film. In this case, the writer and the director speak about the diary that was turned into a graphic novel and how they decided to create a film out of it and the challenges they faced. A very interesting dialogue that can give us plenty of ideas on some topics to use the novel in our class.

As one can see, María y yo is a tender and humorous graphic novel that our students will enjoy but would also allow students to explore and reflect on how books become movies. By using a story with other primary sources, students can get a more three-dimensional look, feel, and appreciation of real-life stories.