Upper level students (levels 3 and up) present a unique set of challenges for any teacher. Most upper level students are either intermediate level proficiency or are pushing toward intermediate in most of their skills. By level 3, if they have spent 2 years experiencing a comprehensible input-rich environment, they have a fairly extensive vocabulary, especially receptive vocabulary. They still enjoy listening to and co-creating stories, but do not need as much pre-teaching of structures and circling questions fade away in favor of more creative and thoughtful questioning strategies.
In my level 3, 4, and 5 classes (Yes, I finally achieved my goal of having enough level 5 students for a class all of their own! Yippee!), my focus turns away from simply acquiring language and we primarily USE the language for new learning, discussions, and entertainment. My goal is to find topics and themes that are not only culturally, socially, and historically relevant, but also to present relevant ideas that are compelling! One problem with relevant is that it can sometimes start to feel a little heavy. Sometimes we just want to have fun or experience an adventure!
Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my relevant units of study. I teach about the Mara Salvatrucha 13, one of the world’s most dangerous gangs that sprung up as a response to immigrants experiencing violence in Los Angeles after having fled a bloody civil war in their home country of El Salvador where many of these young men had been forced to fight as child soldiers. I also teach a unit on the Spanish Civil War and incorporate art and film, which the students love. However, we needed some lighters topics to help spread out these heavier units.
Last year, I was discussing this issue with Carrie Toth, another author of Fluency Matters novels who is informally known as my ‘work wife.’ She and I are both full-time high school Spanish teachers who, in spite of living a nine-hour drive apart, collaborate on almost everything we teach. She and I both agreed that this was a real issue we were facing. I had alleviated the problem slightly by creating a ‘supernatural’ unit for Spanish 3, with Carrie’s novel La Calaca Alegre and the film El Orfanato as my centerpieces. Another move I had made was moving my novel Frida Kahlo into my Spanish 4 curriculum, where it was a very easy read for them, but provided a respite from heavy topics (Don’t ever worry that a novel is “too easy.” Good stories compensate for “too easy.”). However, more needed to be done.
Carrie and I both had ideas for new novels kicking around in our heads, and we thought that if we made them appropriate for level 3 and up, it would really solve our problem, especially for me since I now had a whole brand-new Spanish 5 class to provide reading material for!
Since I am writing, I want to take a little side trip to answer some questions that we get asked frequently about writing novels. People always tell me (and Carrie and Carol) about their ideas for a novel. My advice is if you enjoy writing, make time to write a few minutes every single day. Write for your own students. I will tell you though that it is tough, especially at first. Writing for language learners has a special set of demands not inherent in other forms of writing. We not only are writing a story that we believe will be compelling to our OWN students, but in addition, we are being constantly mindful of the level we are writing for and keeping the total word count manageable. The process we have developed involves lots of collaboration with each other and other teacher-editors, read-alouds (ok, sometimes this is really fun and involves campfires or pontoon boats!), painful criticism and humble acceptance of suggestions, painstaking word-frequency counting, and then a whole separate editing process in which our novels pass through no fewer than 3 native speakers. So, yes, write a novel, but be aware that it is a PROCESS! We often compare it to giving birth, except the pregnancy is short and the labor lasts MONTHS!
My new novel, Hasta la sepultura, is a treasure hunting, bad guy evading, secret-compartment unlocking, underground passageway-exploring, history-connecting adventure with a supernatural twist. Bonus for my students: it also has an internado (boarding school) as a setting as a nod to their favorite TV show El Internado Laguna Negra that we watch on Fridays in class. I have some awesome surprises in store for the teacher’s guide too! This book lends itself especially well to the current hot activity in the world of education: Breakout boxes!
Carrie’s new novel Vector is a magical realism medical conundrum that takes the readers back in time to the construction of the Panama Canal. The main character, Antonio finds the lines between dreams and reality and present and past being blurred as he experiences the bite of “the vector.”
We hope you will take some time to consider how you can balance out your reading program for your intermediate or soon-to-be intermediate students. We welcome your comments, too!