When I first started whole class readers, I would dive right into the vocabulary and start reading from the first day. I couldn’t understand why students didn’t care about these characters as much as I did! I mean, after all, their lives were so fascinating and so different than ours, so why couldn’t they just care more?! Over the past 4 years, I’ve really been working on creating an environment where the students feel invested in what we are going to read before we even begin. If students feel invested in what they are reading, they will want to continue to read and also create personal connections to the characters. We don’t want them to read for reading’s sake, but rather truly learn about the content that the comprehension-based reader presents.
First and foremost, if you haven’t purchased the Teacher’s Guides for Fluency Matters comprehension-based readers, you are totally missing out! There are great hooks that allow for student connections before you even crack the book open. Sometimes the key in student buy-in is to get them invested in the lives of the characters before even knowing that they are reading a book. Students just don’t read as much as they should sometimes, so we really want them to read and learn to enjoy the reading! There are also great ideas for hooks on Kristy Placido and Carrie Toth’s blogs if you need more ideas.
One of the other great ways to allow your students to feel personally invested in a reader is through a service project connected to the content of the book itself. A few years ago, I was looking for a tangible way for students to truly understand the aspects of poverty that are presented in Esperanza. Carrie Toth had used the Pulsera Project as a service learning project for her Spanish Club, but I wanted to take it one step further.
The Pulsera Project is a non-profit organization that allows students to sell bracelets and small purses in order to help provide jobs to artisans in Nicaragua and Guatemala. Their core principals include educating students in the U.S. about issues of poverty and daily life in Nicaragua and Guatemala, providing dignified work for artisans, and investing in the communities in which the artisans live to help empower them even more. I’ve also had the opportunity to travel with them twice on their teacher tours, so believe me when I say that they are a complex organization that always keeps their principles at the forefront of their practices.
Before we even began the reader, we discussed cycles of poverty, which is super easy to do with words students already know! I teach in a very poor rural area, and I wanted them to understand how poverty is different in Latin America and thus leads to mass migrations. I also wanted them to understand that these issues of poverty still very much exist today as they did during the time of the Civil War in Guatemala, not to mention the ever-present theme of workers’ rights.
Throughout the book, I would add different components of the Pulsera Project’s educational materials (free for all teachers!) in preparation for our service project of actually selling the bracelets. By building momentum throughout the book, students really felt empowered to sell the bracelets. They fully understood the plight of Esperanza and felt personally connected to the artisans whose bracelets they were selling. They could tell other people so much information about the issues in Guatemala and Nicaragua and it allowed them to be active sellers because they knew the why behind the what.
Even though they can’t solve the world’s issues of poverty, by allowing them the opportunity to connect with artisans who are in similar situations as the main character of Esperanza, students really opened up their eyes to world issues. They were more open to reading this book and were able to have real discussions about ways that we can help provide dignified jobs to those who need it. This was what I wanted from my students all along: to connect to the characters through more than just the words on the page. Many of them bought their own bracelets and had a physical reminder of all that we learned through the process of reading Esperanza. It wasn’t just reading a book anymore; it was making the story truly come to life.
Melisa Lopez has been teaching Spanish at Centralia High School in Illinois since 2011. She holds a Masters degree in Spanish from New Mexico State University. She enjoys collaborating and networking with other teachers and looks forward to continuing to bring the world to her students through classroom experiences and travel!