Learning About Novels

When I accepted my new position this year, one of the things I was most bummed about leaving behind (aside from great students, colleagues, and a job that I really enjoyed) was all the novels! Over the last couple of years I had received several local grants that had allowed me to purchase a whole lot of FVR materials as well as several class sets of novels, and I was really buying into reading as a great way to build proficiency.

Then I found out that my Spanish 3 predecessor had already purchased a class set of Rebeldes de Tejas for this year, and had encumbered some money for things she wanted. My new school told me that they hadn’t placed her order yet, and if I wanted something else, to let them know. Of course, I couldn’t turn down the opportunity to get tons of books! I ended up ordering a whole lot of individual novels from Fluency Matters, as well as class sets of Robo en la noche, and La Llorona de Mazatlán for Spanish 3, and Brandon Brown quiere un perro and Fiesta fatal on the chance that I could fit them into my Spanish 1 curriculum this year.

So far, it’s going great. This is my third year teaching novels and each year I get a little better. In Spanish 3, we have finished Robo en la noche and are about halfway through La Llorona de Mazatlán. After Christmas, Spanish 1 is going to read Brandon Brown, and my other colleague who teaches Spanish 1 is excited to use it, too! At this point, I’ve kind of hit a stride with reading that looks like this:

I got a tip from Allison Wienhold at Central States last year – preload all the “extra” activities as introductory to the novel, that way you can move through the book itself more quickly and it doesn’t get stale. (Sidenote, if you’re thinking about teaching with novels, don’t miss Allison’s blog – here are her posts about novels, she has so many great tips!) With that in mind, I searched Pinterest, TeachersPayTeachers, and combed through the teacher’s guides for activities that I felt would go well before each novel. For Robo en la noche, we spent almost a week on preview activities. With La Llorona de Mazatlán, the kids mostly did them on their own while I was doing interpersonal assessments over Robo.

Each week, I plan on reading 3 chapters of the book (except the first week with each novel so far we’ve gone a little slower and just read two). With Robo, my 3s’ first novel ever, I read the whole book to the kids and paused to check comprehension frequently to make sure everyone was following along and understanding. With Llorona I am letting them choose whether to read with me, in small groups, or individually. Most are choosing to read with me, but that’s all right.

Then, usually, we follow up right away with comprehension questions from the teacher’s guide (seriously, if you’re thinking about novels, you have to get the teacher’s guides!). I typically project them and have the kids answer them in groups (you can read here about how I grouped kids at the end of the year last year. I am doing it again this year and it’s still working!). After the kids have had some time to answer the questions, I randomly draw names to share their answer with the class to make sure everyone is on the same page. Sometimes for variety, if I have time, I turn them into a Kahoot! or Quizlet Live game and we play that individually.

Next, we typically complete some kind of extension activity (not for a grade), followed by some more personalized connection questions to wrap up the current chapter and preview themes or ideas for the next one. I have compiled some discussion questions or topics (mostly from the teacher’s guides, sometimes from my own brain) for each chapter and I project the topics one at a time on the board. The groups are required to keep talking using no English on the current topic until I move on to the next one. I’m really trying to get them to stretch their ability to keep a conversation going, and to branch out from or deepen a topic – because that’s what happens in real-life conversations, right? I just wander the room, listen to conversations, occasionally jump in, and enjoy hearing my students speak Spanish. I’ll be honest – I think there’s value in what we’re doing, but the kids don’t love this. I hope to find a better way to implement it in the future, but for right now we’re going with what’s working, even if it’s not perfect.

Every Friday, we either do a mini-project or take a quiz over that week’s 3 chapters (these I do grade). The quizzes are typically pretty straightforward (and, again, usually come primarily from the teacher’s guides). Not to mention, they are quick to grade, which is always a plus. The projects tend to be a little more in-depth, but I have found that with effective rubrics I can design valuable activities that also don’t take me ages to assess.

This week I plan to post a list of ideas for both chapter extension activities and mini-projects, so keep an eye out for that if you’re looking for ideas. I really feel like these are the places where the “fun” comes into the novel. The stories are interesting, but just reading the same way and answering questions every day could get old quickly. By the same token, constantly repeating the same two or three extension activities would get old – even if they are student favorites, so I’m always thinking about what else we can do. This is how I keep things fresh and extend the value of each chapter to help students push proficiency in some area.

Generally I am loving using novels this year because it gives us all an expected routine. I know when I’m planning that it’s basically going to go Chapter-Questions-Extension-Discussion 3 times and then either a project or a quiz at the end of the week. With that in mind (and another tip from Allison), I can put all my plans for a single novel into one PowerPoint and we just click through. If I forget what’s next, well, it’s right there. If we are short on time, I can skip something, or if we are ahead, we just move on to whatever is next. If I decide when we get there that I want to do something in a different order, I just move the slides around. Even though we have only read half of Llorona at this point and this is my first time teaching this novel, I have had all the plans done for a couple of weeks. I don’t have all the materials, rubrics, quizzes, etc. totally finalized yet, but it is so much easier to make those things and keep up with grading when I’m not also worried about what’s coming up next period or what we’re going to do tomorrow.

I’ll just leave you with a quote (unsolicited) from one of my students, “I feel like we’re reading so much and learning so many words and things that it’s just getting so much easier to string sentences together than it was at the beginning of the year!”

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