The Blog

The technology that’s making us irrelevant…and more relevant

Moodboard Photography

Moodboard Photography


happy birthday, Musicuentos

Whew, I’ve been blogging a long time.  My blogging birthday passed unnoticed but Musicuentos turned SIX on the first of this month!

A lot has changed in six years.  My teaching scaled back.  My blogging scaled up.  A kid came… and another… and another.

Whenever people talk about all that’s changed, the conversation inevitably turns to technology.  Look at where it’s brought us.  Facebook. Twitter. Prezi.  Flickr.  Drive.  Schoology.  Glogster.  All the ones popping up every day that I don’t have time to try: Kahoot.  Kaizena.  Lucidpress.  Videolicious.  Duolingo.  Even Instagram.  And every language teacher’s favorite tool to hate: Google Translate.

Google Translate stinks… right?

Ever since I started blogging, and #langchat started, and as I went to conferences, and as I got more involved in Twitter, I’ve seen them and you’ve seen them – post after post, tweet after tweet, videos on YouTube, of how bad Google Translate is.  How inaccurate.  How unhelpful.

There’s just one problem, and we’re not talking about it, because we’re afraid.  We’re afraid we’re wrong.  And we are.  Because somewhere along the line, somehow, Google Translate got good.  Like, really good.  Like, you-can-use-it-to-communicate good.

Let me show you what I mean, if you understand Spanish.  Here’s that first paragraph in this section, translated to Spanish by Google translate:

Desde que empecé a bloguear, y #langchat empecé, y cuando fui a conferencias, y como me fui involucrando más en Twitter, los he visto y los he visto – puesto tras puesto, pío pío después, videos en YouTube , de lo mal que Google Translate es. Cómo inexacta. Cómo inútil.

Look at that.  It’s not perfect, but it’s communicative, isn’t it?  The words “post” and “tweet” don’t come across great but the rest of it, wow, it’s there.  Check that idiomatic phrase: me fui involucrando más.  Want to feel even more like we’re being made irrelevant by technology?  Most videos and posts that joke about how “bad” Google Translate is do it by making fun of something run through Google Translate several times and then back into the original language.

Because you know, putting something from English into Chinese, then Macedonian, then Polish, then Creole, then Tamil, and then back into English is something people need to do.
But look what it did when I put that same paragraph back into English:

Since I started blogging, and #langchat started, and when I went to conferences, and as I was involving me on Twitter, I’ve seen and I’ve seen – post after post, tweet later, YouTube videos, how bad Google Translate is. How inaccurate. How useless.

Not bad, eh? Bottom line?
Google Translate got good.

don’t despair: why they still need us

I wonder if we’ve been so adamant that technology can’t teach language because we’re afraid of being out of a job.  Language teachers are the world’s most outspoken critics of Rosetta Stone, but I’ll have to tell you, going through half a level of Rosetta Stone Russian gave me enough language skills that people on my travel team were asking me to translate (“What? You get that I DON’T ACTUALLY SPEAK RUSSIAN, right? I can order you a green chocolate bar.  I CAN’T MAKE YOU AN APPOINTMENT.”)  Honestly?  The tech can teach them.  People who want to learn can use technology to learn.  And people who don’t want to learn can now use technology like Google Translate in more and better ways to speak for them.

So Sara-Elizabeth, what are you saying?  The tech has replaced us?  We really are getting tech-ed out of a job?

No, I’m not saying that at all.  In fact, quite the opposite.  Technology has made our job both easier and more necessary.  I felt this was true, and then I caught this article via Twitter that expressed exactly what I mean.  The title says it all: I need real people to help me learn a language.

Here are some of my favorite points from the article and I think you’ll see right away where I’m going with this:

I’ve found that my initial fondness for using the app – a sort of “hooray, shiny new toy!” enthusiasm – has waned.

It doesn’t really affect anyone whether I review old lessons or press on to new ones in the app. There’s no teacher to admonish me or (perhaps more importantly) peer group to keep up with.

Language learning, much like language itself, might be an inherently social pursuit.

Languages require speaking to other people, which is completely absent from how Duolingo works.

Without any real community of Mandarin learners to stay on pace with, I didn’t really feel motivated to practice before the next lesson.

I’m a little sceptical that any person can really learn a language without other people playing a part.

I feel this issue with Russian.  When I came back from Russia in 2008, I decided I was going to be proficient in Russian by the Sochi 2014 Olympics.  Not a huge feat, right?  I had no kids.  I had 6 years.  I wanted to go to the games as an interpreter.  I thought hey, with English, Russian, and Spanish, I’d have what, a third of the globe covered?  Guess how much Russian I speak?  Right.  A whole lot less than I did in 2008.  I can say horse, green, hi, and bye.  That’s it.  That’s what we call no measurable proficiency. Why?  Same reason the guy who wrote the article gave: I had no community to give me a reason to learn it.  Or to help me learn it.  Sitting down at the computer to learn Russian didn’t do what language always ought to do: connect us with people.

I suppose I could use Google Translate to try to make friends in French on Facebook.  I suppose I could put in what I want to say and copy and paste it into Twitter.  I suppose if I had a smartphone I could even use it to order food in Chinese at a restaurant or tell the Japanese guy at the koi show which fish is my favorite and why.  But somehow, in the act of running communication through a machine, even that connection with people loses its luster.  It’s just not the same.

Insofar as technology connects language learners with language speakers, it’s invaluable, particularly for students who will not travel much.  But even to do that, students need our help.  Where is the community?  How can I connect with them?  How do I talk to them?  And before they even ask those questions, go back to the original author of that article.  Why did he need a teacher and people?  Often they need us to help them find something that’s there but hiding: the key to it all, motivation.

That is why people who want or need to learn a language will always need people.

They will always need us.

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September 16, 2014 4 Comments

Thank you, reflective teachers

Kirk Teetzel

Kirk Teetzel


I thought about trying to tweet this but I couldn’t do it in 140 characters.

Many of you are in the middle of the 30-day #reflectiveteacher challenge.  You’re blogging and reflecting on what makes you a teacher, what you’ve accomplished and where you can improve.  By subscribing to your blogs, I’ve been able to follow your journey, and I have you tell you I’m loving it!  And I’m hating it.

There are several reasons I’m not doing the #reflectiveteacher challenge.  One is that I’m buried in the final stages of the Cajas ebook (drowning is the word that comes to mind when you add family, homeschooling, curriculum work, three upcoming conferences – five separate sessions/workshops).  But the main reason is I simply can’t.  Because I’m not a teacher.

Did I just write that?  I take it back.  I most certainly am a teacher, it’s just that I’m not teaching at the moment.  Well, Spanish, in a school, anyway.  So I can’t reflect on my classroom because I don’t have one.  I can’t reflect on my desk because I don’t have one.  I’m not going to have any teacher evaluations.  That’s why it’s sad for me.  I’m watching all of you go back to school and do such amazing things and for the first time since… well, since I was three years old, I’m not in a classroom.

And then you reflected about, of all things, me.  Allison wrote about me on her day 7 reflection and then Andrea wrote about me on her day 9 reflection.  Chalk it up to a whole lot of sleep deprivation huddled over Cajas de cartón or whatever, but your thank-yous brought tears to my eyes, because in a year when I’m not teaching, you made me feel what I know, that I am still a teacher.

September 10, 2014 2 Comments

See you this year? Conferences & Camp Musicuentos

It’s been over a year and a half since the last time I attended a conference (and three years since I attended one neither pregnant nor nursing, haha!) but the maternity leave is over!  I’m back on the conference schedule for this year and I hope to meet you at one of four conferences.

Kentucky World Language Association: September 18-20, 2014

KWLA is my nostalgic favorite, my home state conference, a place where I have learned and changed so much.  And frankly, you’d be hard pressed to find a conference with as many proficiency-focused, outstanding educators and learners.  Kara Parker and Megan Johnson-Smith of the Creative Language Class will be very busy there.  You’ll also catch great stuff as always from Thomas Sauer, one of the most influential people in my teaching, and consulting, career.  I’ll be doing one session and one workshop at KWLA ’14, as well as participating in a third:

  1. Infusing Reality into IPAs: In this one-hour session, we’ll explore how using realistic scenarios in integrated performance assessments is motivating for students.
  2. Curriculum Planning outside the Textbook: This three-hour workshop will be a very condensed version of Camp Musicuentos.  The title pretty much says it: we’ll work through how you can feel more organized and less stressed about planning curriculum without (or with, for that matter) the textbook.
  3. I’m supporting a session in which we will present the new JCPS elementary curriculum.

Indiana Foreign Language Teachers Association: November 6-8, 2014

This will be my first time at the IFLTA conference, and I’m excited to reconnect in Indianapolis with teachers from districts that have previously hosted me as well as some from Camp Musicuentos 2014.  At this conference I’ll be repeating my KWLA session on Infusing Reality into IPAs.

ACTFL Convention & World Languages Expo: November 21-23, 2014

Can you believe this will be my first time at the Big (FL) Dance?  I hope to see many of you in San Antonio at the Calico Spanish booth in the Exhibitor’s Hall and/or at one of these three sessions:

  1. Kick the Vocab Quiz: I’ve long maintained that whether or not you have vocabulary lists is of no consequence.  What’s important is to approach vocabulary assessment in a way that reflects how the brain learns language.  When we do that, then our instruction will follow likewise.  In this solo session we’ll explore why and how to eliminate the traditional vocabulary quiz from the world language classroom (and take selfies, too!). (Session 0424: Saturday, 5:15-6:15 PM, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center Room 206 B)
  2. The Personalized Language Adventure: Adding Student Choice in Homework: Laura Sexton, Bethanie Carlson-Drew, and I are taking on the big H-word and turning it on its head.  We’ll present why and how we each have accessed students’ intrinsic motivation by letting them choose how they interact with language outside our classrooms. (Session 1154: Saturday, 2:00-3:00 P.M., Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center Room 212 B)
  3. #Langchat: Your Always-There Professional Learning Network: I’m also supporting this session with Colleen Lee-Hayes, Laura again, Don Doehla, Kris Climer, Amy Lenord, and more of your #langchat moderators. (Session 1794: Saturday, 10:00-11:00 AM, Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center Room 211)

Central States Conference on the Teaching of Foreign Languages: March 12-14, 2015

I’ll be presenting an all-new session based on what I learned from researching for an episode of the Black Box Podcast at this conference in Minneapolis.  It’s called Arming Students for a World of Incomprehensible Input.  Learn how and why we should teach circumlocution, and teach it often – oh, and play Taboo! with me.

Camp Musicuentos 1Camp Musicuentos 2015

One of my favorite things I did this year was the inaugural Camp Musicuentos: a one-day workshop on curriculum design and organization.  I’ve learned that calling it “A year in a day” was a bit ambitious, but you’ll still find it a workshop that revolutionizes how you look at planning curriculum, helping you feel -and be- more organized as you start the school year.  I’m bringing back Camp Musicuentos in 2015 with some exciting changes, the biggest being a new second location!  The workshop design will reflect great feedback I received this year, and we’ll particularly focus on putting your units on your calendar and creating the foundation for each: the integrated performance assessment.  Participants will see examples and choose whether and how to use them, as well as creating their own, especially in groups who can collaborate on and use similar assessments.  The workshop will still be limited to 20 participants to maximize your benefit, and registration will open in February.  This year’s workshop sold out in three days, so keep an eye out for the news, or contact me if you want to be emailed directly when registration opens.

(Base)Camp Musicuentos 2015 – June (25 &?) 26, 2015 – Louisville, Kentucky

We’ll be back at our “basecamp,” the Hyatt Place in Louisville for Camp Musicuentos 2015.  Here’s where I need your help: Some of this year’s participants said that the workshop was too short, and many said they could have benefited from more individualized help.  It was also suggested to me to break the workshop into two days, targeted at teachers of novices on one day, and teachers of intermediate to advanced students on a second day.  That way teachers could come to either, or both.  I’m contemplating how these suggestions might work together: if the teachers at the workshop are all teaching similar levels, the workshop will automatically be more relevant and individualized.  However, this would double the cost on my end, which means it would cost more for participants, and I’m not sure what the demand is for it.  If you are seriously considering attending the workshop, would you please fill out this survey to help me decide?  It’ll take just a couple of minutes.  Thanks in advance.  And please, help me make the right decision by not filling out the survey if you are sure you won’t attend.

Camp Musicuentos Northeast 2015 – July 24, 2015 – Warwick, Rhode Island

Teachers in and around the Northeast will be able to participate in Camp Musicuentos by joining me on July 24, 2015, at the Hilton Garden Inn Warwick/Providence Airport.  Again, contact me if you want to be emailed directly when registration opens in February, and please specify that you are interested in the Northeast location.

Still wondering if you should come?  Here’s what the 2014 participants had to say:

It was fantastic! I don’t want to miss it!

The structure is really helpful.

Interaction with everyone was amazing. So kind and helpful.

Loved the emphasis on standard-based backwards planning. I have been hearing this from the beginning but am just starting to grasp it, and the way that you shared with us how you brainstorm was really helpful.

I am grateful for the opportunity for this workshop. I hope to be able to encourage some change in my department, as well as in my own teaching.

I will attend this again if you decide to have another one!

It was so helpful to sit down and hash out ideas with other language teachers especially since I am the only one at my school.

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September 4, 2014 4 Comments

How I teach La ciudad de las bestias

coverI’ve been asked several times lately, particularly by teachers starting out their AP Spanish classes, exactly how I teach the novel La ciudad de las bestias as part of the course.  Here’s the answer.

  • If a class has higher proficiency, I set deadlines for chapters.  We do read on one set day per week, but students are responsible to finish on their own for the day a chapter is due.  Students finish the book in one school year.

  • In a class with lower proficiency, I coach them through the reading every week (whatever day is our reading day).  Students do not finish the book in the school year, but after the AP exam, they finish a set of questions I wrote to get them through the plot to find out what happens.

  • We read aloud taking turns in class.

  • Students sometimes have a reading day in a group together when I need to grade some of their work or if several students are absent.

  • We frequently stop to explore the book and enhance comprehension in the ways described in my guide under “Para comprender más.”  We’ll look up pictures of a guacamaya or find Manaos on Google Earth or diagram who is on the explorer team and what their jobs are.

If you’re interested in teaching this novel using the ebook reading guide I developed, you can find more information here.  It’s on a back-to-school sale at 20% off ($39.95) for the rest of this week only!

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August 28, 2014 0 Comments

Putting homework in their hands: Sample systems

hwoptions snapWhen I posted last year about my latest update on the Elige tu propia aventura homework choice activity, the post quickly became one of the top 10 of the year.  Accordingly, I frequently receive requests for my list of options and how I divided them into a point system.  The problem is that I was experimenting with InDesign to develop my ebook resources and chose it to make my AP syllabus and the Aventura document – and your average teacher isn’t going around with InDesign on her computer.  So the best I could offer was a PDF.  Plus, I’ve only done this activity with intermediate and pre-advanced students and many teachers wonder what the options would look like for lower levels.

Wait, what?

Screeching halt.

If you haven’t been with me for the journey through giving up the pretense that trying to excessively manipulate my students’ out-of-class time is going to predict to me what they learn, you could always browse through my choice tag.  If you don’t have that kind of time, here’s a run-down:

  • Autonomy and intrinsic motivation are high predictors of success in learning.
  • Language for communicative purposes cannot be learned in isolation.
  • Frustration is common in traditional homework because there’s no one around to help.
  • Frustration blocks language acquisition.
  • I give two and only two homework assignments per week.
  • These assignments are always the same: do an aventura activity and post a free-topic blog
  • Student autonomy in these assignments is very important to me.
  • These two graded assignments free me from grading or entering grades for most other formative activities.
  • As time passed I realized that not all assignments are worth the same either in time commitment or in usefulness for language acquisition.
  • Assigning choices a point value allowed me to require students to challenge themselves and to adapt the same list for various learning levels.
  • This idea is one of my most widely-used and several other teachers have developed their own lists and systems.

I’m so excited and impressed with how other teachers have adopted and adapted this idea and thought it would be helpful to link all the documents for you here.  Plus, I took all the content from my InDesign file and put it in a Google Doc for you to copy/paste and adapt for your situation.

Choice activity documents

My options and point system

Kara Jacobs‘ system

Noah Geisel‘s system

- some Pinterest ideas Noah found useful

Laura Sexton’s options

Tana Krohn‘s list

Bethanie Carlson Drew’s updated list (and I stole the name from her!)

And how could I leave out-

The Creative Language Class’s Real World Homework

(developed completely on their own creative genius!)



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August 26, 2014 6 Comments

The First Day Story: Empowering with CI

In trying to tell a French teacher what I do the first day of school, I realized that my explanation of the first 12 days of Musicuentos Spanish 1 was, well, all in Spanish.  So, here’s some English for you.

There are so many, so very many great language learning principles, right?  So much second language acquisition research that shows students need

  • time
  • input they can understand
  • opportunities to use meaningful language
  • lots of time
  • interaction involving negotiating meaning
  • meaningful repetition
  • more time

to be successful in acquiring a new language.

But oh, my teacher friend, if I could figure out the words to communicate how powerful it is to put in practice what is, to me, the most important thing every language teacher needs to realize:


It’s taken me a long time to come to the place where I’m willing to say that if we believe that motivation is a key factor -perhaps the key factor- in language learning success, our practice ought to reflect it – always.  I’m still figuring out what that looks like.  We can give the homework and give the assessments and put the grades in the gradebooks, we can put up fancy posters and duct tape and send home fancy infographic newsletters and syllabi, but if we haven’t accessed what students are motivated by – not how we can motivate them, but what factors within them motivate themselves – we’ll lose them as soon as the requirement is fulfilled, or there’s a schedule conflict, or they move to another city.  And if native speakers can lose proficiency in the language they were born into, our best long-term-memory-building games and techniques aren’t going to stand against the test of years of ignoring the L2.

Okay, /soapbox.  It’s me, and I always have to start with a bit of theory before I apply it.  My application here is pretty simple: in the magic, difficult question of what motivates students, one answer that many teachers have found is that students are motivated to keep learning simply by a little success in the first place.  I’m sure you’ve experienced it before; when you succeed at something, you want to keep doing it.

Students don’t come into your classroom expecting to succeed.  If you’re going to speak to them in the target language, they expect to be lost.  If you can communicate to them on the very first day that they can understand, it’s incredibly empowering.  And it’s fun.  You get to watch their eyes light up as they think

Wait a minute.

She’s speaking Spanish. (or French or whatever)

And I understand her.

And I’m answering her!


In my classroom, my policy is students get their syllabus and they know how to read and they can read on their own time (I refuse to publish grades until parents and students have signed and returned my syllabus).  We can talk about procedures on the second day.  The first day is all about fun, and it’s all about understanding.

So my suggestion is to spend the first day showing students that they will be able to understand you, and I start by explaining this:

Welcome to Spanish class.

It’s Spanish class, so I’m going to speak a whole lot of Spanish.

But whether you understand or not is primarily my responsibility.  Your responsibilities are to 1) listen, 2) watch, and 3) tell me when you don’t understand.  If you do that, and I’m doing my job, you’ll understand.  I promise.  Don’t believe me? Let’s try it.

And then I launch into a story.  Your story will vary depending on your student level and demographic and so on, but basically, it’s just something to show them that because you’re willing to draw, gesture, act, sing, or whatever, it’s going to be fun, and they’re going to understand.  Here’s my first-day story for Spanish 1 (100% in target language):

Let’s draw a boy (girl). [I draw a girl, students do as well.]
What’s the girl’s name? Jane? Emma? Angelina Jolie? (Girl in class)? No.  What’s her name? [Students choose a name-María. Write 'María'.]
Okay, her name is María.  Hi María.  Everybody say hi, María.
What color [emphasize] is her hair? Blue? Red? Brown? Black? [Point to colors or use color cards until students understand and choose a color - this is the pattern through the story. Point, students understand, draw.]
How does she feel? Is she happy? Is she sad? Is she angry? [Students choose, draw facial expression.]
What’s the girl like? Is she fat? Is she thin? [Choose, draw.]
What’s the girl wearing?  A shirt? A dress?  A tutu?  What color?

I know, it’s not really a story, but you get the idea.  We may get into what kind of hair she has (curly, straight), whether she has glasses, how old she is, where she’s from, and so on.  I do this on day 1 with Spanish 1 and students understand the whole thing and answer all the questions and draw everything, because I’m coaching them through it.  Do they acquire the ability to use this language? Of course not!  But that wasn’t my point – my point was to empower them with the knowledge that they can comprehend in this class when it’s all in Spanish, and it will be fun.  In this first class we might also playfully work on learning names (using “his name is…” etc.) and play a song that’s fun and targets some goal (such as Aserejé to simply show them that part of learning language is wrapping your mouth around the words, and to get them having fun using language)  Later, the character they created becomes a character in the first stories (she makes friends with a Martian penguin and then disappears as the penguin and Garfield become our primary Spanish 1 characters).

How will you make the first day of school about helping students find that they will understand, they will have fun, and this motivates future learning?

For more ideas on comprehensible input on the first days of school, check out this great post by Cynthia Hitz and Martina Bex’s First Days tag.

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August 17, 2014 3 Comments

Keeping games communicative

Powerpoint templates can make for great games!

Many teachers are back in school and last night’s year-starting #langchat topic was, by a large majority vote, review techniques that get students moving forward quickly after a long break.  I was sick and wasn’t able to join in the conversation but I’m going to assume that someone mentioned games.  I would have!  Who wouldn’t want the back-to-school routines broken up with some great games?

As you start your year and think about games to review and practice, here’s some advice.

Fun = learning! (Not!)

Research tells us that when students are having fun (or other emotions are attached to an activity) that memory is encoded more easily and more permanently.  After all, don’t young children learn the most through play?

That doesn’t mean, however, that students are learning whenever they’re playing.  In order for a game to be helpful, it has to involve content that is worth being remembered.  So how do we make sure that’s happening?

One is the loneliest number

We’ve all seen them and tried them – games that involve students using discrete (individual, disconnected) words without attention to what they mean.  (Word search, anyone?)  Well, being realistic, there will always be those days when there’s more to do than minutes to do them and I just need my students to be occupied doing something while I grade a few papers I couldn’t stay awake for last night, but as a general practice, discrete word games aren’t helpful.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do vocabulary practice, just that we should always connect words to their meaning.  On the one hand, you have an app game like Ruzzle, where players connect letters to form any word.  It’s fun and I love playing it, but I often don’t even know what the word I just made even means.  I’m just glad I got points for it.  Or a word search along the theme of “At the beach.”  Okay, so I know the words have something to do with the beach, but otherwise I’m just searching for words in the grid, without any attention to what they mean.  On the other hand, you could have a vocabulary game where you describe the meaning and students have to come up with the word.  I like to use the Align the Stars powerpoint game for a game like this.  It’s a challenge, but so much better (and always in intermediate classes) to give the definition in the target language.  Doing this with a Jeopardy! game from Jeopardy Labs is fun too – try doing them in categories like “people at the park” or “words you hear from a teacher.”

Tweak & share

I rarely come across a game that’s simply unredeemable.  If you see a game suggested and it has some qualities that don’t quite match what we know about language learning, think about how you can tweak them.  I went to a games session at Central States Conference one year and came away with a lot of ideas about how to use games I didn’t quite agree with but could tweak to do what I wanted to do.  Check out how Martina Bex has been trying to add meaning value to Wordoku to see what I mean.  I’m not sure her changes are quite contextualized enough for me, and they target chunks too much in the TPRS randomness that bothers me, but I think she’s asking all the right questions about games!  Look at this blog post from an EFL teacher; what games there are keepers?  What might need a little tweaking?

Then share with the rest of us! What games have worked for you to review and practice?  What games get your students using real language in fun ways?  For more ideas of games that have worked for my students, check out my games tag.

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August 15, 2014 3 Comments

Let’s talk tacos: Informing parents & students on proficiency

Evan P. Cordes

Evan P. Cordes

It’s a new school year and for many of us that means talking to new students and new parents about something they’re very unfamiliar with: language proficiency.

You may have caught this document on the wikispace for the workshop I did with the Webb School of Knoxville this summer; it’s something I put together to help you inform parents and students on how and why your classroom is focused on language proficiency and nothing else – not grades, not direct objects, not fluffy food projects.  To make it useful for as many teachers as possible, I didn’t refer to any school or language in particular in the document.  To edit it, simply click “File” and “Make a copy” and Drive will save the file to your own drive for you to edit.

Here it is (click the title):

Let’s talk tacos



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August 12, 2014 2 Comments

Regreso a clases! Ciudad on sale

It’s back to school time and also feeling like time for me to ease back into doing what I love, while I enjoy the memories of my dad who was the conduit of love for Spanish in my life.

cover.JPGThe events of this summer have delayed several things, including new Black Box Podcast episodes and changes to the podcast, and the release of the ebook guide to Cajas de cartón.  I’d intended to put the ebook guide to Ciudad de las bestias on sale at 20% off to celebrate the release of Cajas, but with that book delayed I didn’t want to delay the Ciudad sale as well, until you’re all back in school and “guide-less”!  And so, until September 1, you can buy the ebook guide to Isabel Allende’s novel to Ciudad de las bestias at 20% off, only $39.95.

Haven’t checked out the guide yet?  You can read all about it and buy via Paypal here, including a sample and information on how to use a purchase order to buy it.  Briefly, I recommend Allende’s novel and this guide for Intermediate Mid to pre-Advanced students, AP, IB, and heritage classes.  I taught it for six years as part of AP Spanish.  With your purchase you receive a license to copy the guide for all of your students for as long as you are teaching (not transferable after use).

Planned to use the Cajas de cartón guide this year and frustrated by the delays?  If you’d like to start using the guide with your students, please contact me and ask for the first three chapters absolutely free.  There’s no introduction or dictionary yet, and illustrations are limited also, but you’ll have the beginning to get you all started as I work to get the book released by September 1.  I am recommending this novel for Intermediate Low to pre-Advanced students.

Be energized!

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August 6, 2014 0 Comments

Oso de Mantequilla: A tribute

wedding parentsI grew up in a fundamental Christian church in the South, where everyone referred to the men as “Brother” and their first or last name.  My best friend as a toddler could not pronounce my father’s last name – “Brother Blair” – and it came out “Butter Bear.”  And so my mother’s favorite nickname was born.

Later, when my dad decided to pick up Spanish after 20 years of not studying it (he could do that sort of thing), my mom asked a friend how to say “Butter Bear” in Spanish, and so her favorite nickname for him morphed again, into “Oso de mantequilla.”

One thing about having your own blog is that you can write whatever you want, and today, I write a tribute to my dad, who died unexpectedly at the age of 68 on July 16, 2014.  A tribute to Oso de Mantequilla, which I also delivered as the eulogy at his funeral last Sunday.

When I tell you that I grew up in a fundamentalist church in the deep South, I can feel the stereotypes rising and I plead with you to let my father smash them all.

Yes, my dad lived and worked in east central Georgia for 30 years.  Yes, he retired as a Texas rancher.  But not only was my dad a highly valued specialist at a nuclear plant, he also knew how to pronounce the word nuclear. He adopted a love for collard greens but still used the word “pop” to refer to soda.  He spoke two languages, sometimes three, and could assemble and disassemble a computer or a radio or a chicken coop.  He taught me what a fulcrum was, he taught me CPR, and he taught me how to sweep a sidewalk without being a perfectionist.  He took me to the space station and took me to the jungle in Ecuador.  He taught me Spanish and how to use it to help people who were lonely and lost.  He taught me how to plan my Spanish curriculum and sent me games for my students to play.  I called him my assistant teacher from a thousand miles away.  He was one of the best friends I ever had.  I know intellectually it sounds weird for a 30-something woman to hold hands with a  60-something man -even to me this sounds like it would look odd at Walmart- but that was me and my dad, it was us, and it wasn’t weird.  He was my friend.

My dad with my son, March 2014

My dad with my son, March 2014

I wish I had more space to help you know him more.  I wish I could tell you why he called me “girl with legs” and where the word frubbies came from and what it means.  I wish I could tell you the story about the “really big shoe,” how he taught me not to flip a canoe by flipping us both into an alligator-infested lake, how much he hated New York, how “abracadabra” fit into our breakfast routine, why he had a scar on his upper lip, or how he made me change my own flat tire. How he always said “Let’s say prayer” instead of “let’s pray” and every mealtime prayer started with “Father, thank you for our home and our family.”  Our home and our family.

He was my family and he was my friend.  But of all the places he took me and all the things he taught me, what’s most important is that he took me to church, and he taught me who Jesus was.

When my dad and my brother were living near Chicago, a church sent a bus by to see if they could take my brother to Sunday School.  My dad let them but decided that he needed to know what they were going to be teaching him so he went to church.  God did not use that bus ministry to change my brother’s heart, but He did use it to change my dad’s.  My dad was a man of logic and faith working together in perfect harmony and it just made perfect sense to him – that the human heart with its intricate valves and movement, the cells and molecules that work together to pump for five years or a hundred years or sixty-eight years, four months, and thirteen days, that

with my daughter, March 2014

with my daughter, March 2014

 Someone had to have designed it, and that other transcendental idea we call the human heart, that thing that in us wants to do right but just so we’ll be recognized for it or wants to do wrong and cheat, lie, steal, kidnap, kill, and lash out at people we say we love, that human heart could only be fixed by the One who made it.  That’s what my dad knew, that’s what made sense, and then there was faith.  He had faith that the One who would fix it all, who would bring us the very good ending to all this mess, was Jesus Christ, the perfect Son of God who lived a perfect life and died a perfect death to pay the terrible price for the sins of all those who would ever have faith in him, and then rose again.  Rose again to live.

Several months ago I had a dream about my dad and it moved me so much I knew I had to tell him about it.  But when I just tried to tell my husband about it, I cried so much I knew I couldn’t tell my dad on the phone, so I wrote him a letter.  I knew he’d have kept it so I went looking for it and sure enough, I found it on his desk.  Let me print it for you here.

Dear Dad,

I had the most amazing dream last night and I wanted to tell you about it, but when I tried to tell Joshua I cried so much I knew I couldn’t tell you on the phone so I’d have to write it.

I dreamed you and I and Mom and many other people I knew and didn’t know were in a place that was like a nursing home but was a meeting of the worlds: there were young people alive and old people alive and also old people who had died and I was the only one who could see and interact with them all.  At first you were there and worked there.  Then one day you packed up your office and became one of the ghost people.  I had the sense that I needed to figure out what to do with all the books and knick-knacks in the place but I didn’t process the event as a death and I could still interact with you, but only visually.  You were like a ghost, so I couldn’t touch you.  I don’t remember feeling sad because I could see and talk to you.  But one day I saw you in the hallway and I knew you weren’t like the ghost people anymore – you were real again.  I was overwhelmed with happiness and ran down the hallway to hug you.  I wrapped my arms around you and was completely overjoyed to actually touch you again, but what really struck me was your smell.  I was breathing in and it smelled like my dad and to breathe in that smell again, I was so happy I thought I could float away.  I woke up with a sense of joy and peace in my heart.

So I have to tell you – you can’t ever leave me because I have to know where to find you and your smell.

I love you so much -


I believe God sent me that dream early to remind me to cherish the moments with my dad because He knew there weren’t too many left.  He knew my dad was leaving.  I told my dad not to leave me, but he did.

with my daughter, Christmas  2012

with my daughter, Christmas 2012

It’s a complicated story, but we were driving to Rhode Island when my dad’s condition got very critical and I needed to get on a plane in Cincinnati.  We booked the flight and had a couple of hours so we found a park nearby and had a picnic together, my husband, my kids, and me.  My one-year-old son Judah was climbing on a bench and found this paper.  My husband said, look what Judah found, and gave it to me.  It said “Expect a miracle.”  The paper made me smile and gave me hope.

But where’s the miracle?  The park bench told me to expect a miracle, and then my dad died.  We didn’t get a miracle.

Or did we?

My husband told me he thought my dream was about the resurrection, that God was reassuring me that even when my dad did leave, that one day I’d see him again, that he lives, and maybe even God will use the same laundry detergent so my dad will keep his smell.

My dad lives, and I will see him again.  I don’t tell you this because it makes me feel better.  I don’t tell you because I want to believe it so badly.  I tell you because this is what my dad would tell you if he could talk to you now.  He’d tell you that some of you have a spiritual heart every bit as dead as his physical one is now, and he’d tell me that you can’t be argued out of it.  God has to open the eyes of your heart.  Even right now you’re sitting there thinking, this is what you believe and I’m glad it makes you feel better.  See, God knew you would think that.  He knew you’d think, so you say you’re God, so you say Jesus was your Son, so you say He died to bring the hope of a very good ending to this very bad middle, so you say you get to tell me how to live, so what? Anyone can say that.

And to that, God said, oh yeah? Watch this. I can say that.  And I can make My dead Son live.

I make the dead live.

John 11 tells us that Jesus said, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.”

Expect a miracle.  This is the miracle.  People throw around the word “miracle” as if it were a sandwich topping but a miracle is actually something that defies all explanation, and I mean any other explanation except God did it.  A doctor can take the valve of a pig’s heart and put it in the human heart and put off death for a few more years, and that’s amazing, but it’s not a miracle.

But make the dead live?  Only God can do that.  Here’s what my dad would say if he could talk to you now:

You want to see a miracle? I died.  And yet I live.


Write to your dad.

Take care of your heart.

If you care to know us a little more:

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July 24, 2014 10 Comments