Read Alouds!

In a language classroom, there’s no substitute for interaction. It provides opportunities for the ever-important “negotiation of meaning” that leads to meaningful language acquisition, and it helps students to feel like their work is more worthwhile if they have an authentic audience. It can also be frightening or overwhelming for students, though, especially if they’re just beginning to learn a new language, or if they haven’t been required to use language for real-life interaction very often.

Writing projects can provide great opportunities for structured interaction, since students have had time to develop their ideas, revise their work, and become more confident in their own words and voices. I like to have “publishing parties” at the end of a significant writing project, where I invite the students to share their work out loud with staff, parents, other students, or another audience.

I taught an intensive English course during the first four weeks that I was here in Carmen Pampa, and at the end of the course we had a publishing party with two nuns who are part of the campus community. Students shared short stories they had written, and the sisters asked questions and gave positive, constructive feedback to the class. The students were nervous, but they felt such a sense of accomplishment at the end of the morning. For some, it was the first time they had presented in English to an audience outside of their classmates or teachers! Presenting their own work made them feel proud, capable, and more confident in speaking.

A student reads his story while another takes notes.

A student reads his story while another takes notes.

A student answers questions about her story.

A student answers questions about her story.

A student reads her story aloud.

A student reads her story aloud.

This project reminded me of my first ESL class in Minneapolis, where students did a similar project. Students in my beginning-level class for newcomers read stories they had written about their families to parents and staff members, and they experienced the same sense of pride and accomplishment that my UAC students experienced here. It’s one of my favorite memories from my first year of teaching, and I love these pictures because they capture the way I wish my classroom always felt: full of students who are engaged, taking risks, and becoming more and more confident in their own voices and stories.

Students read their stories aloud to other teachers and staff members.

Students read their stories aloud to other teachers and staff members.

The whole class reading!

The whole class reading!


La Huerta Orgánica

The UAC has an organic garden, and I’ve started spending my Tuesday mornings working with the staff and students who manage it. It’s a beautiful place, and the woman who directs the garden is a graduate of the UAC’s agronomy program. She has such a depth of knowledge about how to cultivate the plants, and she’s very dedicated to helping students learn through working in the garden. I’ve already learned a great deal about using organic fertilizers, harvesting seeds, and preparing beds for new seedlings. It’s been a wonderful addition to my weekly schedule, a time both to relax and to focus intently on the specific and particular, to interact with the earth and the plants, and to feel like a part of a productive, living community.


Baby plants in the nursery.

leeks and lettuce

Leeks and lettuce.


garden with mountains

View of the garden with mountains in the background.

I’ve appreciated the opportunity to garden especially this week, given the events in Egypt, Syria, and other war-torn places around the world. I recently came across a poem about gardening in the book Word of Mouth, edited by Catherine Bowman; it’s a collection of poetry featured on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” published in 2003, and it has some really beautiful, unique, and varied pieces. This one expresses so well the healing and wellbeing that working in the dirt with green, growing things can bring, especially amidst the bewildering tragedy and horror that fills so much of the news:

“Song of the Gourd”

C.D. Wright

In gardening I continued to sit on my side of the car: to drive whenever possible at the usual level of distraction: in gardening I shat nails glass contaminated dirt and threw up on the new shoots: in gardening I learned to praise things I had dreaded: I pushed the hair out of my face: I felt less responsible for one man’s death one woman’s long-term isolation: my bones softened: in gardening I lost nickels and ring-settings I uncovered buttons and marbles: I lay half the worm aside and sought the rest: I sought myself in the bucket and wondered why I came into being in the first place: in gardening I turned away from the television and went around smelling of offal the inedible parts of the chicken: in gardening I said excelsior: in gardening I required no company I had to forgive my own failure to perceive how things were: I went out barelegged at dusk and dug and dug and dug: I hit rock my ovaries softened: in garding I was protean as in no other realm before or since: I longed to torch my old belongings and belch a little flame of satisfaction: in gardening I longed to stroll farther into soundlessness: I could almost forget what happened many swift years ago in arkansas: I felt like a god from down under: chthonian: in gardening I thought this is it body and soul I am home at last: excelsior: praise the grass: in gardening I fled the fold that supported the war: only in gardening could I stop shrieking: stop: stop the slaughter: only in gardening could I press my ear to the ground to hear my soul let out an unyielding noise: my lines softened: I turned the water onto the joy-filled boychild: only in gardening did I feel fit to partake to go on trembling in the last light: I confess the abject urge to weed your beds while the bittersweet overwhelmed my daylilies: I summoned the courage to grin: I climbed the hill with my bucket and slept like a dipper in the cool of your body: besotted with growth; shot through by green

Word Wall

A great vocabulary strategy that I’ve seen many wonderful teachers use is a Word Wall. I’m fortunate in my current classroom to literally have an entire wall that I can use for our vocabulary words.

Borrowing from the marvelous Minneapolis English teachers Tara Ferguson and Nicole Brinza, who divide their word walls into “language of life” and “language of literature,” I’ve divided the wall for my tourism students into “language of life” and “language of business.”


Deciding where to place the words leads to some great discussion among the students, and it helps the class explore the ways that words have different meanings depending on context. We will keep adding to the wall throughout the semester, helping keep track of how many new words we’ve learned!

List – Group – Label

As I’ve learned more about teaching English in a Spanish-speaking community, I’ve realized how important explicit vocabulary teaching is. It’s important in all contexts, obviously, but being in an environment where my students have very few outside opportunities to practice English makes it especially apparent.

One of my favorite strategies that I’ve used quite a bit here is called List – Group – Label, from Janet Allen’s Inside Words. Students generate or receive a list of vocabulary words related to a certain topic, such as adjectives. They work in pairs or small groups to sort the words into logical groupings and then create labels for the groups.

lgl                        lgl2

As you can see in this example, students in different groups come up with different ways to categorize the same group of words. This provides great substance for discussion about reasoning and word meanings. I like this activity because it requires students to think carefully about what words actually mean, and about the relationships between them. It also requires some higher-order thinking skills, as students group words and justify their logic. My students really enjoy it as well, since it’s interactive and engaging.