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Making an Impact with Biographies


By: Rebecca (Becky) Moulton

Everyone loves compelling stories and the true story of “Los 33” is definitely compelling. The account of the 33 men trapped in a mine in Chile in 2010 is one that most high school students are not aware of, which is one of the reasons I wanted to share it with my Spanish 4/5 students this fall. I remember distinctly watching the news coverage of the event and talking about it in class with my students at the time. Kristy Placido recently wrote a collection of six biographies in Vidas impactantes, including one about Luis Urzúa, a shift supervisor for a mine in the Atacama Desert. Urzúa and the men of his mining crew spent almost 70 days trapped while their families anxiously waited above ground for their rescue. 


This collection of biographies is described as being for “advanced beginner students” but I had no qualms about using it with my upper level students. A few years ago I decided to use the novel Esperanza written by Carol Gaab with my upper level students and as a result, my students and I were able to focus on the story rather than being slowed down by a more difficult read. See these blog posts Getting Buy-in for a novel: Esperanza and Final Reflection on Teaching Esperanza which document the success of my students with that novel. While reading the Luis Urzúa biography this fall, we were able to discuss (in Spanish) a variety of topics including Urzúa’s life, the facts about the mining accident, and what would be the hardest part of the ordeal. There was some vocabulary specific to the topic that students did need to acquire but primarily the overall level was comprehensible to my students.


The biographies in Vidas impactantes are not long, most range from 10 to 12 pages in length. I have found that depending on the need, the biographies can be used as a concise reading or can be extended into a longer unit of study to include other resources as I did with the Luis Urzúa biography. For example, last year, in the second trimester, when the “polar vortex” caused many “snow days” (days off) and we lost a good amount of teaching time, I reached for the Vidas impactantes biography of Julio Iglesias to replace a longer novel that we would not have been able to complete within the trimester. The teacher’s guide provides a variety of additional readings, assessments, and other resources from which the teacher can pick and choose what to use.


Here is (an explanation of) how I extended the use of the biography this fall along with photographs of some of the action in my classroom. Overall I was pleased with what my students learned and accomplished although there are some tweaks I will make for the next time.

Introducing new vocabulary

As I mentioned, there were some words specific to the topic that my students needed to acquire. My students are accustomed to using gestures to connect movement with meaning with new vocabulary. I gave pairs of students some of the target vocabulary and asked them to plan the gestures and teach the rest of the class. They had fun with this. The students and I also created a story using the majority of the new vocabulary and students acted it out. In one class, somehow they also saved a turtle within the story!

1 Vocab Students teaching w gestures

2 Vocabulary Mini cuento acted out

Reading the biography

I spaced out the reading over several days and students read in a variety of ways as well. To begin the biography, I used the audio book while students read along. (This resource is a “must have”. In addition to using it while students read along with the text, it can be used for a variety of activities, including listening assessments. In the past, I have used the audio book to introduce a novel by playing short segments for students to make predictions on what the novel is about. Check out this blog post by Kristy Placido for more ideas about using audiobooks.) Sometimes students read in pairs or small groups and processed the information with peers and sometimes we got back together as a whole class to discuss the assigned reading. Students took brief notes on a graphic organizer after each reading session. This fall I had an exchange student from Chile in one of my sections and I asked her to read the first part of the biography to us. (Note: this student was placed in my class so she could build her English skills; this was an atypical situation that turned out to be advantageous considering the location of the story!) Although she was only eight years old when it happened, she told us what she remembered about the accident and students appreciated her point of view.

3 Reading Antonia exchange student reading LU

4 Reading in 3s

9 Reading in 3s carpet

6 Reading in circle listening to bk on cd

5 Reading in 3s taking notes

8 Reading in 2s

7 Reading in pairs 5th hour

Learning Activities AKA “Games”

Students played with the new vocabulary and on another day they played the dice game “Seis” (six) with a “game board” that I wrote using the vocabulary in sentences. I learned about this fun, versatile game via this teacher’s blog. Every student has a “game board” which is simply a list of phrases or sentences in the target language. Each small group has one writing utensil and one die. One student starts writing the meaning of the sentences on his/her list while another student starts rolling the dice. When that student rolls a “Seis” (a six) and says “seis”, the pencil is immediately passed to that student who starts writing and the next student rolls the die. The game continues until one of the students (correctly) completes the list. I used another game called “El repollo” (cabbage in Spanish) to recap the biography. I read about this game a few years ago on Spanish Playground and finally used it. The “cabbage” is constructed of small sheets of paper with questions on the “leaves” crumpled into a ball. It does require advance preparation to write the questions on the papers. I used some of the questions from the Teacher’s Guide in addition to adding some of my own. I adjusted the rules of the original game slightly. Instead of being passed around a circle like “Hot Potato”, in my version, the ball gets passed around clockwise, and one at a time, a student peels off a leaf, reads the question aloud, then answers it. If the answer is correct, they keep it, if they don’t know it, that leaf gets passed counterclockwise until a student is able to answer it correctly. Students really liked the competition of “earning” the leaves. They needed to listen carefully to the question since they might need to be able to answer it. The game was a great way to review the biography and now that I’ve used it, I definitely plan to use the game more often.

10 Games Students playing quizlet live

12 Games El repollo book paper cabbage

13 Games El repollo close up of question in hands

14 Games El repollo circle

11 Games Playing Seis

There are several other readings, activities, and assessments included in the TG. After finishing the biography, students read an article called “Después de la fama” (After the Fame) with comprehension check questions. In a post-reading activity called “Digging Deeper”, students in small groups read statements listing the various hardships the miners endured during their time in the mine. The sentence strips were cut apart so students could sort them to categorize the level of difficulty of the miners’ ordeal. Then the groups placed their statements on a poster that I prepared with three “trenches” of different depths. Finally, as a whole group, students discussed why they placed their statement where they did.

15 Reading Processing reading notes

19 Teachers Guide Digging Deeper on big paper

18 Teachers Guide Digging Deeper small group 5th hour

17 Teachers Guide Digging Deeper small group 2nd hour

16 Teachers Guide Reading Despues de la fama in pairs

Actual footage and news coverage

We watched several news segments (but not the final rescue) from YouTube during the reading. At the end of the biography, we watched a news segment of the final rescue, plus a segment of CBS 60 Minutes which aired several months after the incident. The program followed up with some of the miners and supplemented the “Después de la fama” article from the Teacher’s Guide.

The film “Los 33” and film guide

After completing the biography, students watched the 2015 “The 33” film. I used the comprehension check questions from this Movie Guide and Chile Unit from Spark Enthusiasm. Students listened with Spanish audio and I paused occasionally so students could answer the questions, which helped clarify what was happening. The movie was based on the real life event, but some liberties were taken and there are some inaccuracies. For example, the movie plot focused on the role of Mario Sepúlveda more than Luis Urzúa. Luis Urzúa’s heroism seems to be downplayed but in spite of some flaws, my students did like the movie and it helped them to visualize what it was like during the miners’ ordeal. If we would have had more time, I would have liked students to find and explore the differences between the movie and the real events.


The song Gracias a la vida written in 1966 by Violeta Parra, a Chilean poet and singer, is part of the soundtrack. This iconic song, which has been covered by many others, was sung by Cote de Pablo on this soundtrack. The Spark Enthusiasm movie guide has resources for the charity single version of the song by Voces Unidas por Chile which was released to benefit victims of the 2010 earthquake in Chile.

My students and I have read three of the six biographies in Vidas impactantes and I am looking forward to adding the others into my curriculum. This collection is a versatile way to share inspiring, culture-rich stories with our students, whether it be via a whole class read, “reading club” style, or choice reading. How have you used the biographies in Vidas impactantes?


Rebecca (Becky) Moulton has been teaching Spanish since 1995 at Northwest High School in Jackson, Michigan. TPRS/CI changed her life when she and a colleague attended a TPRS workshop in 1998. Becky has presented at IFLT, CI Midwest, and Mitten CI and is part of the IFLT Coaching Team. She has written several guest posts for the Fluency Matters/CIPeek blog. Becky has 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 , and follow her on Twitter!


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