Teaching Felipe Alou: a blog post by Rebecca Moulton

Teaching Felipe Alou: a blog post by Rebecca Moulton

becky 1Felipe Alou: Desde los valles a las montañas, written by Carol Gaab is one of my favorite novels to teach in my Spanish 2 classes for several reasons. I like that it is a biography which tells the true story of a young man from the Dominican Republic who came to the United States to play baseball in the 1950s. I welcome the opportunity to share stories of perseverance with my students. While it is about baseball, the novel also illustrates Felipe Alou’s determination and hard work, and it is a compelling story of how he overcame obstacles to become a well-known and respected baseball player and manager. I also appreciate that my students are able to use their previous knowledge and studies of the Civil Rights era in the U.S. to make connections with the events and setting of the novel. Connecting with other disciplines and acquiring further knowledge via the target language fulfills a world language standard at both the state of Michigan and national levels.

A teacher recently asked me for advice on using the “Felipe Alou” novel after seeing one of my tweets about my students reading it. This is an opportune time to share what I do in my classroom with this novel. Responding to those questions via several emails back and forth helped me get my thoughts together for this post! Be aware that there are a variety of ways to teach with novels. You can read more here and here.

In this post, I’ll explain how I approach teaching the novel and share some of the supplemental resources I use to complement the novel. I use a lot from the Teacher’s Guide for the novel and use materials I have created for my classroom as well. I also appreciate learning about how other CI teachers use the novel. You might find some inspiration via the following helpful resources for teaching this novel shared online by Dustin WilliamsonCynthia Hitz, and Allison Wienhold,

I recommend checking these out after reading this post and then tailoring your plans as appropriate for the level of your students and your teaching objectives, etc.

This is the third time I’ve used this novel in my Spanish 2 classes. My school purchased a class set of the novels, the Teacher’s Guide, and the audio book CD. The Teacher’s Guide is well written with comprehension questions for each chapter, a variety of supplemental readings, and suggestions for other resources. Each year I typically add something new to my repertoire for our novels and make adjustments to what I had done before. This school year I had two sections of Spanish 2B in second trimester and currently have the other two sections in third trimester. This means I get the chance to make a few minor tweaks now and can plan bigger tweaks for the next school year.

First, here is a bit of background information about my classes regarding reading novels. This is the second novel my students have read in level two. In the first trimester we read “Los Baker Van a Perú” by Nathaniel Kirby and students from Pinelands Regional Jr. High School. In Spanish 1, students have read “Piratas del Caribe y el mapa secreto” by Mira Canion and Carol Gaab and “Robo en la Noche” by Kristy Placido. In level 2, students are able to read and comprehend the novel quite well by this point in the year and frequently read in pairs or small groups of three or four (although we read the first couple of chapters as a group). I try to vary what we do as the novel progresses. I use the audio CD of the novel quite a bit (but not for every chapter) and the students follow along. If students are working in pairs or small groups, I stop after several paragraphs and they can discuss it within their groups and ask questions as needed. Sometimes I ask a few comprehension check questions aloud before moving to the next audio portion or sometimes as I walk around the room, I’ll ask each group specific questions. As I walk around, I can overhear students’ discussions and get a good idea on how students are doing.

Before we begin the novel, I have already started to include some of the book’s vocabulary into my regular set of vocabulary which I teach via storytelling. There are words related to baseball which I teach as they appear in the chapters. We are able to get a lot of repetition on those because they are used quite a bit within the novel and when we talk (in Spanish) about what has been happening in the novel, those are words students and I can include in descriptions and summaries. We also focus on learning about the Dominican Republic prior to reading the first chapter. There are a variety of short videos on YouTube about the Dominican Republic for example, which show the “tourist’s view” of the country and this one from Habitat for Humanity which acknowledges the poverty and economic problems in the country. I like the Habitat for Humanity video because it shows the family’s focus on schooling which echos the Rojas Alou family’s emphasis on the importance of education which students learn about in an early chapter. Plus, it is a perfect segue to tell the students a bit about what Habitat for Humanity does! There is the opportunity to extend students’ knowledge about some of the geography and history of the country including the era of General Rafael Trujillo. This short video about the Mirabal sisters gives a good overview of that time. I do not show the full length film “In the Time of the Butterflies” which is based on the story of the Mirabal sisters but hope to make the time to do that next year.

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I show the movie, “Road to the Big Leagues” when we are almost done with the novel. I realized this year that not everyone has a working knowledge of baseball and next time I will include something more about the basics of baseball. I am not a sports fan and usually ask students who know more about baseball and softball to explain batting averages, etc. I found this website, “The Society for American Baseball Research” and this article, written by Mark Armour helped me learn more about Felipe Alou.

This trimester I will add a discussion about the #PonleAcento (put the accent on it) campaign by Major League Baseball (MLB) which began in 2016. This short video describes the campaign to put accents on the names on the jerseys of MLB players and encourage journalists and others to include diacritical marks on names when writing about Latino players. In May 2016, Adrián González, a player for the Dodgers, tweeted a photograph of his jersey with the accent marks on his name and encouraged his teammate Enrique “Kiké” Hernández to get accents on his own jersey. Kiké Hernández then posted a photograph of his new jersey on both Twitter and Instagram with a message to his fellow Latino players to do the same. MLB continued the momentum in 2016 during the entire month of September when it annually honors the impact of Latin American players in baseball. Read more about it herehere and here.

Here are several other topics related to teaching the novel that may help fill out the picture of how I do things.

  • How long does it take to teach and read the novel? I usually do this novel over five weeks although we typically read two chapters a week and on a third day, I plan something related, whether it be working on vocabulary, watching a short video on the Dominican Republic, doing reading and listening comprehension activities related to topics in the novel, etc. Frequently after reading the novel, the “warm-up” question the next day will be a follow up question about the chapter or a prompt related to the reading. For example, a prompt early in the novel would be: Describe Felipe cuando era un joven. (Describe Felipe when he was a teenager). We also play some games like Kahoot for comprehension checks. Those activities usually do not take the whole period. Our class periods range from 65 minutes to 72 minutes–we have three (count ‘em!) different day schedules.
  • As you read, do you have students fill out a vocabulary list or reading guide? I made a notes sheet for students similar to ones I do for all novels, which has space for main characters, setting, culture points, and on the other side, lines for students to write a brief summary on each chapter. As I mentioned above, much of the vocabulary that is new to students has been pre-taught. Some students like to write down other vocabulary on their own, so I also hand out a lined double sided sheet for students to write that type of vocabulary. Before students read a chapter, I have some vocabulary up on the interactive whiteboard as needed. This year I designed chapter “recap sheets” which are graphic organizers with images representing what happened in the chapter. Students add details (in Spanish or English) after reading the chapter (or as they read it). You can see what one of those sheets look like in one of the photographs included in the post.
  • Do you focus on reading the book and less about the work that goes with it? Do you give reading quizzes along the way? Do you give a final test/project? The success of reading a class novel is that the chosen book is not super hard and doesn’t have a ton of vocabulary that the students don’t know. You want reading the novel to be enjoyable, not like pulling teeth and having to define many words per page. My Spanish colleagues and I strive to encourage students’ positive attitude toward reading. By making reading commonplace and sharing the benefits of reading in the target language we hope to foster readers (in both English and Spanish). At each level, we discuss reading strategies and why it is important to read in Spanish. The majority of our students “get it”! Our focus is on reading the novel, enjoying the story, and finding out how it ends rather than doing a myriad of worksheets and quizzes for each chapter. That said, as you read in the previous Q and A, the students do take brief notes and have some comprehension activities but the majority of it is not collected and graded. I do two graded tests about half-way through and at the end. Students work in pairs a few days ahead of the test to brainstorm possible questions–they usually focus on the main ideas and it helps them to “compare notes” and discuss with someone else. I do not do a final project on completion of the novel. The past several years at my high school we’ve all had to include a writing piece on the final exam (in English) so my Spanish colleagues and I do a question related to a cultural topic we’ve learned about and explored during the trimester. I use a writing prompt asking students to write about the challenges Felipe Alou faced and how he overcame them (using “evidence” from the novel).

As I said at the beginning, this is one of my favorite novels. And the feedback from my students attests to the fact that their comprehension skills have improved and they’re proud of being able to read the novel. Even a student who said that she knows nothing about baseball and that it doesn’t interest her reported that she has noticed an improvement in her understanding and reading. Next time by including some baseball basics (in the target language) I hope to address the fact that not everyone knows about baseball. Here are a few other responses from students both at mid way through the novel and at the end. The reflection prompt was “how well are you understanding the Spanish? Have you noticed an improvement? Explain.”

  • I am understanding the Spanish in the novel very well. I have noticed improvement from the last novel we read because I’ve gained more vocabulary and have had more practice. I really like this book so far! (10th grade female)
  • I love this book. The other books were okay but since it’s about a sport I care about I love it. My reading is pretty good. I comprehend a lot of the book with no help. (10th grade male)
  • I have noticed a big improvement. Something I have noticed is that I used to always ask other people for help, but now I’m helping my primos (“cousins” in Spanish; what we call our “class partners”) understand because now I understand. When I’m reading I can usually read it and when I don’t know what a word is I use the words around it to figure the word out. (9th grade female)

Have you used this novel in your classes? What has worked with your students? Here’s to helping our world language students develop into strong readers! Readers are leaders!becky3

Rebecca (Becky) Moulton has been teaching Spanish since 1995 at Northwest High School in Jackson, Michigan. She has been teaching with TPRS/CI since 1999. She earned a BA from Alma College in Alma, MI. After a career change, Becky received her teaching certification from Northern Michigan University and later earned an MA in Common Learnings in Curriculum from Eastern Michigan University in Ypsilanti, MI. Contact Becky at Rebecca.Moulton@nwschools.org or Twitter: @SraMoulton