Tracking Writing = Empowerment and Intrinsic Motivation

This year I changed schools from a suburban, upper-middle class, majority white, charter school, to an economically and racially diverse urban school in the middle of Denver. It has challenged me and made me grow in a lot of ways.

That said, I struggled this year to give students the scaffolding, support and motivation they need.

One thing I was going to give up was my writing portfolio system. I just didn’t think it would work. But I decided to try it 2nd semester and the results have been notable.

Here is the system:

  • Students keep their notebooks in class, thanks to my sweet Craigslist find! (I would require only composition books next time.) I recommend this to everyone, junior high, high school, anyone.
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  • Students taped TWO items in the back of their notebooks: a blank graph and a writing rubric.
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  • Every time they write, they track their words per minute in the graph.
  • I walk around the room and ask students if they increased or decreased word count. I celebrate their successes. If their word count decreased, I ask them to analyze that data. What made today different than last time? Perhaps, they are just showing growth in a different way. Maybe they are writing in past test or using new vocabulary.


WHY is this great?

  1. Students are seeing their personal growth. They are becoming intrinsically motivated to improve.
  2. Due to #1, students are more engaged and less resistant to the writing process.
  3. It gives me something to recognize and celebrate. I try to find the student who needs some praise. I help them discover HOW they are growing in their writing.
    • Whenever I see a student feeling proud of their writing, I recognize them for their achievements.
    • When I see a student feeling down, I try to show them that growth is not always linear or can’t be counted.

How did we get there?

I added some steps to the Free-Write process for my beginner students. Instead of “write for 5 minutes, retelling the story, GO!” the process looks like this:

  • First 1-2 times: I write under the doc cam. Students copy what I write.
  • Next: I write under the doc cam, I underline the details (Mad Libs-Style). Students change the details, if they want to.
  • When ready, I write under the doc cam, students write on their own. If they are stuck, they can copy what I am writing.
  • Al final, they write on their own, no training wheels.

I am so lucky to have such brilliant coaches and teachers, like Diana Noonan, Connie Navarro, Sarah Rasay, Mary Overton and so many more in DPS who have helped me become a more effective teacher. It’s a lifelong learning process!


Señor Wooly Mafia

Before the game: 

TPR the words goes to sleep, wakes up, dies, helps

Basic Mafia Vocab:

go to sleep, wake up, attacked, died, wanted to help/save, helped/saved, I accuse.

Basic Mafia Gameplay: No cards necessary. Personalization, a must!

CREDIT: Nina Barber and Sabrina Janczak.
Do NOT say, “We are going to play mafia, here are the rules.” Instead, say “You are all so lucky. You live in a wonderful town. The town is called (in the case of Nina Barber) Barberlandia. Everyone is very happy. Until one day, the mafia came in. They attacked a citizen. Now, the citizens are very scared. Luckily, we have the world’s best doctor. We also have a famous police force. At night the town goes to sleep. Close your eyes and go to sleep.

Tell them that you will tap 3 members of the mafia. Mafia wakes up and silently decides on one person to kill.

Tell them that you will tap 1 doctor. Doctor wakes up and silently decides who to save. If they guess correctly, that person lives.

Tell them that you will tap 1 police officer. The police officer wakes up and silently decides who to accuse. You silently tell them if they are right or not.

The town wakes up. You explain to them that one person has been attacked. You narrow down who is could have been by describing their whereabouts. (If they play hockey, say “this person was coming home from hockey practice… etc.” Incorporate ANY details you know about their personal life, that they have shared with the class.) 

Tell if the doctor was able to save them or not.

Then have the class accuse 3 people. “Acuso a…” The class votes on who of the three people. That person dies.



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Wooly twists:

The twins don’t kill. They just dance and say their horrifying cry “es una ganga”. The people gets SO SCARED that their heart stops beating.

The doctor is VERY crazy. The person is already dead. But the doctor wants to save his life. He takes out his heart and puts it in (a shoe, a pie, a water bottle, limonada, the microwave… a backpack perhaps?)

During the night, when the twins attack, I play the Ganga karaoke soundtrack.

The townspeople want to help. When the townspeople decide who they are accusing, I make the whole town give an expressionless stare at the person before they kill them.

Note: I have NOT taught Ya Está Muerto. I am using this game to teach the vocabulary. I have also NOT taught Amnesia. I am trying to enhance the creepiness of the town and the Ganga girls before I get to it.

Do you see the vocab?! Ya está muerto vocab. Amnesia vocab “el pueblo quiere ayudar”, maybe ¡qué asco! with 

Check out my powerpoint so you can see how I weave the story and make it comprehensible.

Wooly Week: Memes!

Here’s how to make some incredible student-driven memes for your class! If you do not have a subscription to, I feel sad for you. However, you could totally do this with any MovieTalk or PictureTalk you are using. 

This activity was taken straight from Annabelle Allen’s presentation at CCFLT, only I used pictures of Es Una Ganga, and added the meme part.

PART 1: How to Collect Student-Generated Jokes 

  1. Go to Extras and download Slideshow of Stills. Print out your favorite 8-12 stills from the powerpoint from Screen Shot 2018-02-14 at 11.24.30 AM
  2. Tape them around your room or in the hallway. Tape some blank paper below it.
  3. MODEL HOW you want them to complete this activity. (silent or not? can they move on their own or do they have to wait to switch? are they writing in Spanish or English? are they writing BIG or little?)
  4. As you pass out markers, be aware of the 1-2 students who may write something inappropriate and give them a specific color marker. Also, give a specific color to someone who needs a little recognition that day. Praise those answers at the end, without revealing their identity. (This ideas are ALL from Annabelle Allen!)
  5. Round 1: Students write as many sentences as they can in Spanish, for as many photos as they can.
  6. Round 2: They have 2 minutes to choose 1-2 pictures and write a meme. ***English allowed.*** IMG_8641
  7. Have one student in each class take a picture of the memes with your device, so you know which jokes/descriptions belong with which pictures.
  8. Have one student take down the writing, leaving up the pictures for next class.

I am so happy I permitted English for 3 reasons:

  1. It gave students a chance to be creative and be funny.
  2. It gave them some background knowledge and buy-in for the next day’s activity.
  3. They didn’t waste time looking up incomprehensible words on Google.

Part 2: How to make the meme

  1. I chose my top favorites from each class.
  2. I translated them into comprehensible language.

Then, I saved the picture from the ppt to my desktop.

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I Googled “Meme Creator” and got the site

Click “Upload your own image”
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Grab it from your desktop.

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Add the top and bottom text.

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Drag them to your desktop. Drag them to a new powerpoint.

Part 3: Ok, that was pretty fun. But what do I do with them?

  1. Students find a partner. (Three ways to partner up: show me how many brothers/sisters you have, find someone who has the same number. Show me how many brothers/sister you have, find someone with a different number. Find someone who is wearing the same color shirt/shoes/socks as you.)
  2. Grab one whiteboard between the two of you.
  3. Work for 20 seconds to translate the meme on their board. (I walk around and praise and help and personalize.)
  4. They hold up the whiteboard on the count of 3. I look at all of whiteboards quickly.
  5. I do a tiny pop-up grammar if necessary (what does the TE do in TE habla?). Or I show one of the best ones to the classes. Or I ask a student, who I had previously checked in with, to explain WHY they wrote the ‘to you’?

OR: Save them for Meme Martes and share one each day. Use it as a launching point for PQA.

Here are mine!ganga memes Share yours with me if you do this!



Post-Reading Activity from Cynthia Hitz

I wanted to share with you this gem of a reading activity from Cynthia Hitz. It was highly engaging, low-prep, and student-centered. Thank you, Cynthia!

Read all about it in her blog post here:

The only prep it really requires is:

  1. a reading that the students are already pretty familiar with
  2. a way to group/pair your students

I am going to add a 4th step and make a quiz for tomorrow, using their questions.

***I did tell them to COPY sentences from the reading, so they are giving each other correct input. However, some went a little rogue. I plan to make that MORE clear next time.

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Dewey Finn: Highly Effective Educator

Upon re-watching School of Rock this weekend, I have evaluated Dewey Finn aka Ned Schneebly as a highly effective educator. Despite his lack of experience and teaching license, “Mr. Schneebly” creates an engaging classroom community.
How does he do this? He employs many of the techniques we already employ in our language classrooms!
1. He personalizes his classroom.
  • He gets to know his students, their interests and their frustrations.
  • He identifies their strengths as he watches how they interact in their specials class.
  • He co-creates new content based on student input.


2. He is asset-based in the way he communicates with his students.
  • He always praises strengths and never focuses on weaknesses.
  • He helps them find their strengths and capitalize on them.
3. He provides leadership roles based on students’ strengths and shares the power in his classroom.
  • Every student has a unique role in the class and has freedom to make decisions based on their expertise.


4. He coaches his performers and models his high expectations. (A skill that I am trying to improve on.)school-of-rock.jpg
5. He employs multiple modalities.
  • He provides music and movement for the auditory and kinesthetic learner.
  • He brings in realia such as instruments, costumes, and concert footage, for the visual and hands-on learner.


6. He is willing to put his authentic self into the class, modeling how to be vulnerable and strong in your own skin. 
  • He teaches them how to embrace failures.
  • He teaches them to question authority.
  • He teaches them how to accept criticism.


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This clip is among the best of his teaching strategies:

If you are looking for a boost before starting second semester, spend some time over your break watching this gem of a movie.

La Casa de la Dentista Graphic Novel

Señor Wooly’s newest graphic novel, La Casa de la Dentista, is ALMOST here. I was lucky enough to sneak a peek of it before its release and I have to tell you, I was gripped. The two main reasons I loved it and I want to re-read it are:

The story was gripping.

The art was stunning.


The story kept me on edge. One of the ways it did that was through suspense and creepiness. I took a professional development session from CI-master Sarah Rasay and she noted that one way to keep your class engaging and compelling is through the use of creepy input.

Creepiness has been among the MOST successful ways I have engaged my classes. From the Talking Doll episode of the Twilight Zone, to spooky short films like Closet Space, to La Dentista music video, I have noted that students are WAY more into creepy/spooky themes than, say, romantic ones.

La Casa de la Dentista played on some key horror movie elements that were delightfully unsettling, yet not too scary. The world-building of the creepy town and the undercurrent of the Legend of the Dentist were fascinating.

The art was beautiful, intriguing, and completely unique. The format of a graphic novel is genius. The visuals keep the reader engaged, provide supports for language learners, and make the reading that more satisfying.

A few weeks ago I was in a Mexican restaurant in Denver called Machete. Its restroom was wallpapered with a graphic novel in Spanish. I couldn’t keep my eyes off of it. I needed to know what was happening in the pictures. The art drew me in, but I relied on the text to make sense of it. The case is true for La Casa de la Dentista. The art draws you to read and re-read it.

I offered a couple students the chance to read La Casa de la Dentista: two Spanish 2 students at widely different ability levels. One of the students chose to put it back because the vocabulary was too difficult for him. I had forgotten to point out to him the glossary in the back. The other student devoured the book and when I checked in with him at the end of class, his eyes sparked and he told me “Me gusta MUCHISIMO.” With just that small sample size, I would recommend this for students who are past their first year of language learning.

How I will implement it:

Señor Wooly has made paperback copies available in set of 10 or single hard-cover copies. I will be adding the books to my FVR library.

Over the course of the next school year, I would love to work this novel into my curriculum because I know that the level of language combined with the visual supports will be compelling for all levels of students. I am also excited to try out the teaching tutorials and tips from his blog. There is such a wealth of resources to draw from, thanks to Jim Wooldridge and Carrie Toth.

I struggle to teach novels because I am personally not as invested or engaged. However, with this graphic novel AND all of the resources, this is a novel that I would get excited about teaching.