First Class Novel – Winning with Capibara Con Botas!

I have never taught a novel before. Honestly, I didn’t even pay very close attention during my Reading in the Content Area course all those many years ago. I feel bad now, but I had no idea that beginning students could read! Certainly not novels anyway. Besides, I have only one book that was ever assigned to me by any of my Spanish teachers that I actually enjoyed reading, 17 Narradoras Latinoamericanas, a collection of writings from female Latin American authors. (Side note: Still have it, still like it.) That equals a lot of years of teachers implying that interesting chapter books were far from my mostly-monolingual grasp, an implication that isn’t easily changed. Then I started Sustained Silent Reading twice a week with my students. The words and the stories wound up in their writing, so I got them more different things to read. Would you believe they are just as excited to read in Spanish as they were in English? You probably do, that’s why you’re here, and you should because they are.

I had a mission ready for my fifth-grade class as soon as we returned from Thanksgiving break. We were going to read a real, chapters and everything, novel in Spanish. I was super ambitious and planned for four days of intensive background knowledge and vocabulary pre-teaching sessions. We worked our tails off over those four days, and those little 11-year-old minds were churning because we had never done anything so strongly driven before. Every day we worked together to construct meaning through conversation. We talked about the same things over and over and over. Then, they opened their workbooks (that I created for them, which they thought were so neat, using the amazing guide from and I would ask them one of the questions for the day, they would answer me aloud in full sentences, then I would write their answer on the board. They honestly thought they were doing nothing except copying answers off the board! They never even noticed that I was simply presenting their spoken words in written form! I laughed a lot about how they believed they were pulling a fast one.

After four days, I finally gave them the book. They were ready, I was sure of that. To say they disagreed, would be putting it mildly. They went straight in to English, saying they couldn’t do this, and did anyone else notice it had chapters? And was there really no English in the book at all?!? I let them freak out for a moment, as I had predicted it might go something like this. Then, I opened my book to page 6 and instructed them to do the same. Then I called on a kid to read, the next paragraph was another reader, and same with the third. Then, the chapter was over. They stared at their books for a moment, then looked at each other, then stared at me. They got it. They understood it all. They were so completely dumbfounded that they couldn’t believe it had happened. It might have been the most powerful moment I’ve ever experienced as a teacher. Then we continued with our regular plan of going to the workbook and answering the questions. They did such great work. I was actually sad that it was Friday and I would have to wait the entire weekend before we could do it again.

The saga continued when I was too sick the following Wednesday to come to work. My husband even had to take me to school so I could line up everything for my absence, I couldn’t even manage driving. I named two teachers and divided the rest of the students up in the most productive teams I could think of, then left the next chapter and it’s activity as their assignment. I was so thankful that the assignment wasn’t simply questions to answer, but rather an activity that came from the guide. Then I waited in fear on the couch for my cell phone to tell me that it had gone horribly, and they had burned down the school. (They are a dynamic bunch, it’s the best and worst thing about them, and why their classroom teacher and I adore them so much.) My fear was totally unfounded. The next day I was greeted with so many stories from teachers and students about how well it had gone! They managed the entire lesson with nothing more than their own brains and the legally-mandated adult presence. Perhaps, had that adult not been their classroom teacher, things might have gone differently, but it didn’t! This novel has convinced them that they are mastering Spanish!

Today, I accidentally gave them a pop-quiz. I meant to tell them it was coming, but I’m not feeling great, and I almost never give them tests, it just slipped my mind. They were hardly phased. I told them that it was only chapters 1&2, they asked to use their resources and I agreed to books, not workbooks. They did so well! They used their books to look up information, relied on the words they knew to help them with whatever word they weren’t recognizing, and handed in papers they were proud of. We even had enough time to finish our work with the next chapter! All that’s left now is to hope that this snow storm is not actually headed our way, because there are just enough days left for us to finish our book before winter break! …Any teacher have a NO Snow Dance?… Anyone…?

Want a great novel to start your kids out with? Check out Mira Canion’s books. This group is reading Capibara con Botas, and I just posted a donor’s choose project to hopefully bring them El Escape Cubano. I have read several of her books, and seen three of the teachers guides, and they all strike me as high quality material that I am excited to present to my students. (No, she has no idea who I am, or that I’m writing this.) 

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