Spanish Smells Like Fresh Air

“I cannot be a teacher without exposing who I am

 Paulo Freire – Pedagogy of Freedom

It was almost 11:00 a.m. and I was ready to welcome one of my fourth grade classes. The Apple TV was ready and I had the image of the “Plato Saludable” we had been working on minimized in the screen. The date was written on the white board and a drawing of a big index card took half of it, illustrating where students needed to write their name and date, as they would be required to complete an exit card as part of the interpretive task.

As students arrived I greeted them at the door as I usually do. Once all of the students were inside the classroom I walked into the main area to start the lesson. One of the students blurted out “It smells like Spanish” and started giggling along with students at her table. Being the curious teacher that I am I walked to the white board, switched the sign from Spanish to English and asked “What does Spanish (class) smell like?” as I wrote the question on the board. “This is very interesting to me. Let’s talk about it” I said. Almost instantly the majority of my students raised their hand to volunteer answers.

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As I wrote down the answers I realized that the comment had to do with the cleanliness of the classroom and they all seemed to have something to say about it. After the class was over I created the word cloud below to portray their candid answers. I’m still a little confused about what “scented wet-like water” exactly is, though. 😀


Once we ran out of answers to the first question I posed a second one. “What do these answers tell you about me? Let’s look at the words and phrases written on the board. What would you say about me based on those answers?” The room grew quiet for a moment as they processed what I had just asked. It was obviously a bit more difficult for them to make inferences about my personality based on their description of what the Spanish classroom smells like. But I finally saw some students raising their hands and the answers were quite insightful.

They said:

  • “You are a clean lady” (Which is a true statement.)
  • “You are artistic” (Because I use different color Expo markers to write and draw on the board, therefore it “smells” like Expo markers in the room.The student agreed with this interpretation of the answer.)
  • “You keep things smelling good” (Yes, indeed!)

If you know me personally or have shared a classroom with me, you are a witness that these statements describe me very well. I have a super acute sense of smell and there is always some sort of air freshener in every corner of my house. I am also the teacher who would typically sweep the floor in between passing bells and wipe the tables and student desks with Clorox wipes at the end of the day. If you are an undergraduate student of mine you have seen me take out baby wipes from my bag and clean the tables (filled with spilled coffee and water), computer console, and the white boards with the notes written by a professor who used the classroom before me. Whoever he or she was, I don’t know and it doesn’t matter. All I know is that I want a clean space to work in.

I have been questioned and mocked at times for this quirk of mine by colleagues that think cleaning is not their job. The truth is that I think that every student deserves a clean, fresh, nice-smelling space to learn. As a teacher, the learning environment is my responsibility and I’ll do whatever is necessary to provide a positive and clean space conducive to learning. If in order to have it I must sweep the floor and wipe the tables, so be it!

Coincidently (or not) I came across Paulo Freire’s quote in the top of this post earlier this week as part of my doctoral studies. What happened in the classroom yesterday made me realize how true this statement is. Through teaching we expose ourselves even when we don’t intent to. Everything from our lessons, classroom decor, to what we do or don’t do, speaks volumes of who we are. Let’s keep it positive and clean! 😉

Hasta luego,


Teacher or TV Producer?

The inspiration for this blog post comes from a comment made by my mom a couple of weeks ago when I explained to her the project that I was working on. I had decided to create a green screen video as part of an assignment for grad school. I thought her reaction was so comical that I shared it on Facebook along with a selfie right before recording the video.

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To my surprise, the post surpassed the usual amount of likes and comments that I get on a post, within minutes. So when I finished the video that evening I uploaded a teaser of 16 seconds, which was received positively as well.

But as I continued to reflect on the experience I realized that my mother was on to something when she asked me if I was a teacher or a TV producer. The fact is that the role of the teacher has changed significantly in the past decades. To her being a teacher means that I stand in front of my group of students, who are seated in desks organized in rows. I then proceed to speak to them for the duration of the class, they complete an assignment, and take an additional activity with them to complete as homework.

Yet there I was creating a video, using technology that was originally used in motion pictures. So, am I really a teacher? The answer is yes, I am a teacher. I am also a story-teller, an actress, a singer, a clown, a photographer, a technician, a blogger and a scriptwriter, just to name a few of the roles I play. Above all, I am the apprentice of my students. They drive my instruction because teaching is about them and everything I can possibly do so that they can have a positive and meaningful learning experience. That is why I love teaching!

Since my assignment was completed successfully, I would like to share the outcome of my project below. First you will see the full video where I have a video chat session with Frida Kahlo.

The second video shows part of what the preparation of the video was like. Hope you enjoy the videos!

Hasta pronto,


It is not About the Bicycle

Last year during the first summer session on campus of the doctoral program I am in, we were shown the video where the late Steve Jobs compares computers to bicycles. Hence, the quote attributed to Jobs “computers are like bicycles for our minds.”

This statement clarified the notion I had of using technology in the classroom as a tool. Yet a year later and after many books and articles read on technology implementation in the classroom, I still struggle with looking at technology as the vehicle of instruction and not the instruction itself. The conflict of the concept is such that during the second summer session this year, more than one professor said to me “Ericka, it is not about the technology,” when discussing topics for my doctoral dissertation.

As I was starting my day today I had a random recollection of Memorial Day weekend in 2014. I spent the weekend in New York City with four of my closest friends whom I have known since high school. A particular memory played vividly in my mind. It was the afternoon we spent a couple of hours riding bikes. I can’t help to smile every time I think about it and experience the thrill, hear the laughter and even feel the wind blowing on my face, just like that day, all over again. It was just a simple bicycle ride yet it was an unforgettable event.

And then…AHA! Job’s quote came to mind and I thought: “If I look at a bicycle as a technological tool (and it is) then, it is really not about the technology. Just like that afternoon was not about the bicycle but about what riding the bicycle allowed me to do.”

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That Saturday afternoon, two of my girlfriends and I decided to rent bicycles at a place near Central Park. I had not ridden a bicycle in years and it felt incredibly awkward to do so. We couldn’t ride the bicycle on the sidewalk so we had to take 5th Avenue to make it to Central Park. It was about four to five blocks away. I didn’t think anything of it, until I found myself in the middle of the road between cars, buses and cabs! “What in the world was I thinking?!” I said to myself. “I’m going to get hit by one of these cab drivers and regret every minute of it.” We arrived safely to Central Park and it was glorious to ride along runners and walkers while looking at the park filled with people of all ages and cultural backgrounds.

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The goal was to visit Strawberry Fields. My father is a huge fan of John Lennon and The Beatles. I couldn’t pass the opportunity to take a picture to send to my dad in Puerto Rico. So when we arrived, we parked our bicycles, took pictures and hopped back on the bikes. Our next stop would be “Gray’s Papaya.” And as you can imagine, my internal prayer began as we ventured outside the park and into the streets of Manhattan again. We spent some time at Gray’s savoring the delicious hot dogs (yes, you can’t just have one) and the signature papaya drink. Then we headed back through the streets (I was feeling more confident in my bicycle riding skills by now) and Central Park, before getting off the bicycles and walking a couple of blocks to the place where we rented them.

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It was quite an adventure that I now have in my collection of anecdotes. But let me go back to the analogy of bicycles and computers. My experience riding a bike in New York City had nothing to do with the bicycle. It didn’t matter whether it was new, expensive or whether it had good features. It didn’t make the Saturday afternoon memorable just because it was a bicycle. The experience was memorable because I stepped outside my comfort zone, I did something for the first time, I took a chance, I felt excitement, I rode along Central Park in New York, I visited Strawberry Fields and tried a famous hot dog, along with two wonderful friends. The bicycle was literally the vehicle that helped me do all those things that brought so much joy to me. I could have walked or driven a car to those places. Yet, the bicycle made the experience unique. However, just riding a bike without a plan or purpose wouldn’t have given me such a treasured experience. Getting on the bike doesn’t magically create extraordinary memories; because it is not about the bike. It is about what we do with the bicycle and how meaningful it is.

So, Steve Jobs was right. A computer (and technology in general) is like a bicycle for our mind. And my professors are right. It is not about the technology. Using technology in the classroom focusing on a piece of equipment or software does not guarantee an effective lesson. It doesn’t mean that the students will automatically be engaged either. By doing so we, educators, run the chance of using technology as a mother would use a pacifier with a crying baby. It is the purpose and the elements of the lesson, along with the experience and approach of the teacher that makes teaching with technology valuable and hopefully life changing for our students.

Hasta pronto,


Knowledge is Wealth, Share It!

I’ve taken a very long time to complete this blog post. The original idea was to share some thoughts about my first year as a doctoral student and what was the most meaningful lesson I learned. But as life happens every day, I get new insights about the doctoral journey.

In a recent conversation with one of my cohort members over coffee, we reflected upon the qualities that made our cohort productive in the first year of the program. All fifteen of us made it through successfully, a task that is not always possible. We talked about the presence of intention, commitment, honesty, humility and kindness in our group.

But what do these qualities have in common? How did they help us in succeeding at a major professional undertaking? How did they translate into productive outcome? The reality is that we come from all walks of life and have different cultural, personal and professional backgrounds. What was then our common ground, besides being doctoral students in the same program?

Well, for me the answer lies in sharing. I can’t speak for my fellow cohort members. Nevertheless, to me maintaining the intention and commitment of sharing my thoughts, feelings, expertise and experiences, honestly, kindly and with humility, was the key in contributing positively to the group and having a successful year. The more I shared the more I learned.


The interesting part is that I didn’t come to this realization through a long meditation or hours immersed in deep thought. It came as an “AHA!” moment while reading an Instagram post by @WodDoc.  Dr. Tim Simansky is known in the Crossfit world as “The WodDoc” and posts a daily video sharing strategies to optimize performance. His Instagram account is geared primarily towards Crossfit athletes but it also offers useful tips for people like me, the hopeless-dreamer-athlete-wannabe. 😉  I met Dr. Simanksy in the spring as I started suffering from “tennis elbows” but that’s a story for another blog post.

On every Instagram post Dr. Simansky includes the following statement: “…And don’t forget…the only worthless knowledge is the knowledge that you don’t share…Share the wealth!!!” Every time I read this statement I have to pause for a moment and think because it speaks to me in several ways.


Primarily, it has given me new perspective on a motto that I live by: “Education is the only treasure that no one can take away from me.” Hence, my pursuit of higher education is founded in the idea that education is my most valuable treasure. So then, why would I share my knowledge? It’s mine! I earned it! Yet, one day I won’t be around and the time invested in learning will be useless if I didn’t pass it on to others; just like monetary wealth. So in that case, all the knowledge that I acquire is worthless unless I share it.

Secondly, being in the position of the learner once again along with a group of colleagues forced me to think of myself as a collaborator. I soon realized how limited my precious knowledge was. I could only partake in someone else’s “wealth” if they shared. The trick though, was that I had to share first. As a result, my wealth of knowledge has grown. Not so much because of the endless hours of reading books and scholarly articles. But largely due to the opportunity to share what I know and listening to what others have to share.

I’m currently on vacation and have about three more weeks before the second year of the doctoral program starts. Unfortunately, I’m still on physical therapy as I’m recovering slowly. The cool part is that I get to pick Dr. Simansky’s brain during my weekly visit, as he is very generous with his knowledge. In the meantime, I invite you to follow his advice and “…Share the wealth!!!” as I plan to do the same.

Hasta pronto,


¡Chanfle! Chespirito’s Legacy is Alive

I frequently struggle when deciding what videos to show my students. I want for their Spanish learning experience to be as culturally authentic as possible. Therefore, my first resource is to think of my own experiences growing up in Puerto Rico. What did I watch? What did I sing? What games did I play? Of course many years have passed since I was in fourth grade. But my students are immediately engaged the moment I tell them that what I am about to show them was part of my childhood.

So this week I decided to go on YouTube and check out some videos of the Chespirito shows. If you are one of the few people who don’t know who he was, Chespirito was the pseudonym used by Roberto Gómez Bolaños, a Mexican screenwriter and actor (just to name two of his many creative roles), who passed away last November. He was the creator of shows like “El Chavo del Ocho” and “El Chapulín Colorado.”

Growing up, my usual after school routine was to get home, eat a snack and watch the show that was broadcasted daily. As I grew older I didn’t make it home on time to watch the shows, and little by little I started forgetting about them. This week, as I browsed through the original episodes on YouTube, I was laughing like a kid again.

One particular song that touched my heart was “Joven Aún.” Of course I knew the words but the knowledge that I now have as an adult helps me appreciate it more. The chorus says:

“Si eres joven aún, joven aún, joven aún,

mañana viejo serás, viejo serás, viejo serás.

A menos que con afán, que con afán conserves

Tus inquietudes y así nunca envejecerás.”

(English translation)

“If you are still young, still young, still young,

tomorrow you will be old, you will be old, you will be old.

Unless you maintain your interests with eagerness

so that you don’t grow old.”

This particular song is from the late 70s. The lyrics could very well be from a song written today. On a daily basis, the Internet is filled with quotes about how age shouldn’t matter when pursuing your goals. If today, in 2015, we still have labels to define people by age, I can just imagine what it meant to encourage children to stay young at heart by having a positive attitude, and being lifelong learners, over forty years ago. At that moment I understood the wonderful legacy that Chespirito left through his work.

I then decided to take a chance and show an episode of “El Chapulín Colorado” to my fourth grade students, while I conducted one-on-one interpersonal assessments. And guess what? They loved it! To see them watch the video attentively and laugh hysterically at the clumsiness of “El Chapulín” just like I used to do, was priceless. More than the opportunity to learn a few phrases in Spanish, they were able to experience a little bit of my childhood and the one of so many children in Spanish speaking countries. At the end of the day, those are the moments that make me feel accomplished as a Spanish teacher. They might have trouble remembering some of the vocabulary words they are currently learning in the future. Yet, I am confident that they will never forget who “El Chapulín Colorado” is. So, like Chapulín would say “¡Síganme los buenos!” and let us consider the cultural value of Chespirito’s legacy and how we can incorporate it in our lessons.

¡Hasta pronto!


Let’s Talk. En Español?!!

When I ask my students about their goal in Spanish class the answer is usually the same. They all want to be able to speak in the language. Yet, having students communicate effectively in Spanish is the number one challenge I have as a teacher. Regardless of the age group, students tend to experience an incredible amount of stress when asked to participate in a conversational task. Some refuse to do it while some wait to be the last one to be called on the list. Others just giggle nervously through the whole conversation. But one thing is for sure; improving their proficiency through regular conversational tasks is the most rewarding experience for everyone.

Since I usually teach the beginner levels of Spanish, I have developed a system of using focus questions in Spanish for each lesson, that can be used as conversation starters. These questions grow in complexity as the class progresses and are practiced regularly. At first, the students memorize the questions and possible answers. Then, I ask them to “mix and match” with vocabulary words so that they can create their own message. Eventually students have a repertoire of phrases and questions that help them in feeling successful in Spanish, in and outside the classroom.

Below are some of the activities that help me in assisting students practice their conversational skills. Having a routine is key in making students feel comfortable. The more familiar they are with the activities the more relaxed they will be during the activities.


Ball Toss
I recommend using a plush ball. Throw the ball to a student and ask a question. Once the student answers, he/she throws it back to you. Continue until all the students have participated. A modification could be to have students ask you or a classmate a question.


Craft Sticks
Write the questions and phrases on the sticks as students learn them and place them in a cup or Ziploc bag. Once you have five or more, ask students to pick a craft stick randomly and answer the question or respond to the phrase.



Rueda de Casino I started doing this exercise inspired by the dance. If you have ever seen a “Rueda de Casino”  you get the idea. Dancers start with a partner and then switch. In this activity, students stand in a circle facing a classmate who is their beginning partner. They start by greeting each other and have a conversation based on what they have learned. Once finished, they both move forward and switch places. At this point they are facing a new student with whom they start a conversation. Once they meet with their original partner they can sit down.


T.A.L.K. TALK’s are meant to be conversations between students that can be assessed quickly. It can be part of any lesson in which a couple of questions are introduced. Students can turn to the nearest classmate and have the conversation. During this task the four areas being assessed are: exchange of specific information, accuracy, comprehension and knowledge of cultural etiquette.


Speed Convo This activity can be done in different ways. The idea is the same. Students are given certain amount of minutes to talk to a classmate. Then, at the sound of the timer they switch. In my adult classes of Spanish, I align the desks in a way that students face each other. I give them about two minutes (depending on the amount of information I know they can exchange) before asking them to switch. They do this without their notes and I don’t ask them to write down any information about their classmates. At the elementary level I like to give students a sheet with guide questions and they have to write the answers provided by their classmates. I also give them more time and they only talk to two classmates. The reason why I do this is because they feel successful when they have time to ask all of the questions rather than being rushed to start a new conversation.


One-On-One Conversation The opportunity to sit down and have a conversation with each student is invaluable! It is not always easy to accomplish but it is the chance to know how well your students can communicate, and provide feedback that will help them improve. Did I say provide feedback? YES! Without feedback the purpose is defeated. Giving students personalized commentary about their performance and what they need to work on is what makes the positive difference. I like to have these conversations once per semester with elementary students and once per exam with adult learners. When working with high school and middle school students I used to do them at the end of each marking period.

Click on the following link for some sample rubrics for the tasks described above

Can’t find one that suits the level that you teach? FLENJ has rubric templates for all the proficiency levels that can be easily modified at the following link:

¡Hasta pronto!


Reaching Happiness through Education

I recently finished reading the book “Transforming the Mind: Teachings on Generating Compassion” by His Holiness The Dalai Lama.  It touches upon the transformative power of meditation and the different schools of thought in Buddhism.  Although I found it difficult to follow at times due to my restless and creative mind (reason why I started meditating) it was worth reading it until the end.  It is the transcript of a public talk given on May 10, 1999 by HH Dalai Lama called “Ethics for the New Millennium”, included as an appendix, that has made me think about my views of education and my role as a teacher.

Below are some of the statements made by HH Dalai Lama. My intention is simply to share them because I think that it could positively impact what we, teachers, do on a daily basis.

“Modern education is very good, but it seems to be based on a universal acceptance of the importance of developing the brain, that is, on intellectual education.  Insufficient attention is given to the development of a person as a whole, in the sense of becoming a good person or developing a warm heart.”

“Right from kindergarten up to university, I think it is important to address moral questions related to the whole life of the individual, including his or her role in society and in the family.  Without that, you can’t be a happy person, you can’t have a happy family, and so you can’t have a happy society.”

“…it’s very useful to introduce children to the idea that whenever they are faced with a conflict situation, the best and most practical way of resolving it is through dialogue, not violence. […] I think it is good to introduce the idea of dialogue into schools from an early age, and train students to debate different views.  In this way they will practice debating, and the concept of dialogue will gradually be instilled in them.  Dialogue is the appropriate method, the effective method, the realistic method.”

“The development of that kind of attitude (to choose dialogue over violence) is related to basic human values, that is, a sense of caring, a sense of responsibility, and a sense of forgiveness.  We could call them basic spiritual values.  Whether we believe in a religion or not is a matter of individual choice, but regardless of whether or not we have a religious faith, so long as we are human beings, and so long as we are part of human society, without these good human qualities we cannot be happy.  The very purpose of life is to find happiness, so there is no point in neglecting those very things which are directly related to making us happy.”



Sos Argentino?! Then don’t read this post…

Or you may want to…

I often get questions from my adult students about the differences between how words are used in Spanish speaking countries. Usually I share vocabulary words that might change from one country to another, ask them to make note of it for future reference, and leave at that.

However, recent conversations with my fitness coach, whose family is from Argentina, sparked my interest in the famous “voseo.” Until now I had seen the use of “vos” as a mere pronunciation difference. But after looking into it I’m considering to expand a little more on the topic, in my future Spanish lessons.

Here are a couple of facts that I found:

-The “voseo” or use of “vos” was common in Andalucía, Spain until the 19th century. However, it is in Argentina where is continued to be used orally and in writing. Other Spanish speaking countries may use it yet it is viewed as a “rural” way of speaking.

-When conjugating the regular verbs in the present indicative there is a difference in the pronunciation of the word as the stress is on the last syllable; therefore requiring an accent mark on the vowel of this syllable.

-From a Spanish language learner perspective, it might be easier to use “vos” instead of “tú” when conjugating stem changing verbs as there’s no change in the stem.

-“Vos” can also be used as a prepositional pronoun instead of “tí”. For example the phrase “Thinking of you” could be translated into “Pensando en vos” rather than “Pensando en tí.” The use of the prepositional pronoun “tí” tends to be a challenge for the language learner as they automatically use the personal pronoun “tú.”

I’m not a linguist nor I pretend to be, but I think this is quite interesting and wanted to share it. I’m sure that I’ll discover more facts about the “voseo” as I continue to learn about it. As a reflective practitioner I always think of ways of improving the information that I pass on to my students. For that reason, I created a chart that includes the “vos” as a pronoun and some of the conjugation patterns. I’ve also added the plural form of you “vosotros” used in Spain as an attempt to provide a more comprehensive study guide. Click on the link to access the document:

As always, your feedback is greatly appreciated. For now I’m taking a break, there’s a soccer match I need to watch 😉 ¡Vamos Argentina!

What?! ! I can’t read Spanish!!

Whenever I give my students a reading in Spanish for the first time they react with a “How am I supposed to read this, I don’t know Spanish!!” I then have to calm them down by explaining that I will teach them some “tricks” so that they can understand a reading without having to translate word for word.

The thesis I completed for the MA in World Language Education from NJCU, was about the transferability of reading skills between English (first language) and Spanish (target language). The results of the research led me to the conclusion that students do transfer skills from their native language to the target language. You’re not surprised, right?! I wasn’t either. My question, however, was how could I teach students to make use of these skills consciously so that they can understand a text in Spanish even though they don’t have enough vocabulary.

Based on the findings I chose the following strategies, and designed a lesson I could teach in the beginning of the school year: looking at the text format, title and illustrations, scanning for cognates, tapping into their background knowledge and focusing on the context. I also created a study guide, and what I call a “reading warm up” sheet.

The execution of the lesson has varied but it basically consists of: introduction of the vocabulary, completion of a reading warm up as a class using a selected text, and individual practice. This year instead of giving the information to the students first, I posted the keywords on the board and asked them to write down their own definitions. Surprisingly, the students came up with great ways of explaining the different terms. We all learned that they underestimate the knowledge they possess.

After the initial lesson I usually reinforce it throughout the year by the use of reading strategies in the following ways:

• Weekly reading journals in which students choose a reading from a magazine and complete a reading task (combination of reading warm up with a summary and inferring of the main idea).

• Regular reading assignments (same text for all students) accompanied by the reading warm up and an interpretive task specific to the reading.

At this point students no longer yell at me for asking them to do the seemingly impossible but start asking questions that can help them complete the reading task successfully.

Happy reading!

For the forms go to

Ten Comandments for Good (Language) Learning

In setting up my Spanish classroom this year I started thinking of what kind of tone did I want to set for the rest of the year.  What matters the most to me? What do I want the students to remember? What impression do I want to give? What atmosphere do I want it to have? Were just some of the questions I asked myself.  I then remembered that my philosophy in teaching has always been that if my students don’t recall one word in Spanish years after they had my class, I want for them to have at least a positive attitude towards language learning so that they continue at some point. 

Going through boxes of materials, I found a poster I’d made a couple of years ago but since the message was fading I reprinted it on letter size printer paper and posted them under the main blackboard.  I call them “Tips for Success in Language Class” but they are based on H.Douglas Brown, author of Principles of Language Learning and Teaching, commandments for good language learning. 

What I love the most is that they can be applied to any lessons we need to learn in or outside a classroom.  They promote citizenship and good character, qualities that a life long learner should have.  I share the list below:

1. Challenge your fears!

2. Dive in! 

3. Believe in yourself!

4. Seize the day!

 5. Care for your classmate!

 6. Get the BIG picture!

 7. Cope with confusion!

 8. Go with your hunches!

 9. Make mistakes work FOR You!

 10.Set your own goals!




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