Vocabulary: reimagined!

My husband does not speak Spanish, despite having studied it in high school for four years.  While he does not remember most of the basic conversational phrases, he can tell you how to say pencil sharpener, shark and purple.  Needless to say, he didn’t win me over on the first date by speaking in Spanish.  😉  He’s not alone, however – in speaking to many adults who studied a language in high school, their response will often sound something like, “Oh, I can’t speak it.  But I do remember how to say umbrella!  PARAGUAS!”

As noted in previous posts, Nipmuc’s World Language department is making a shift in our approach to language instruction from grammar based to proficiency based, placing an emphasis on authentic communication instead of memorization.  We’ve been hard at work creating opportunities for students to showcase their practical language skills, and this year many of us are attempting to reinvent how we teach vocabulary.

In years past, I covered several topics of vocabulary per year on topics ranging from office supplies to household appliances to farm animals.  And, while it may have been useful to some students, it mostly rewarded those who were simply strong memorizers.  When we started thinking about reimagining what learning would look like in our World Language classes, vocabulary units were a logical place to start.  How powerful, exciting and fun would it be for students to be able to proficiently communicate about something that interests them, rather than cows, washing machines or scotch tape?  Why not let students identify a topic they already love and use that as the focus for their vocabulary units?

Here’s how we’re changing things up in my Italian 3 and Spanish 2 courses….

First: We started the year with a brainstorming session about our interests and discussed some options for possible topics.  I was thrilled with the initial response from students – and was relieved that the topics chosen in each class were as varied as the students themselves.  We have students focusing on horseback riding, medical careers, hiking, biking, dance, travel, animation, photography, space, gymnastics, painting, cooking/baking and so much more.
They were pumped.  I was pumped.  But what to do next?

Our first project: SketchNotes
I figured the next step would be to identify the most crucial terms associated with the topic, so I had students choose 10 important terms.  Since we were reviewing present tense verbs, I also had them use the words in a sentence.  While this was helpful to review grammar points, it felt a little stuffy, so we added in a short paragraph explaining why they each chose their respective topics.  Lastly, I wanted to give them an opportunity to connect the target language with their topic.  Each student found a native speaker who has an online presence (via a Twitter account, YouTube channel or website) that writes/speaks about each particular topic in Spanish or Italian.

Each student gathered all of the above information (new terms + sentences + “why I chose this topic” + native-speaker online resource) and created a Sketch Note.  Sometimes referred to as visual note-taking, Sketch Notes allow students to convey ideas and information using both text, graphics and creative structures.  I think the end results really speak for themselves – students invested so much time, effort and excitement into their projects and it really shows.  Check out a few sample Sketch Notes projects below:

10 Expert Tips about…..
Italian 3 students created their Sketch Notes projects right before we covered a new grammatical concept: commands (or the “imperativo” tense).  To blend the two ideas together (commands + our individual vocabulary topics), we decided to create our own “expert tips”.  I based the project on commonly-encountered clickbait, like “10 tips for new homeowners – you won’t believe #4!”  Instead, students focused on their individual topics and the results were great!  Here are some fantastic examples below:

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What’s next?  Term 2 projects
The possibilities with these vocabulary topics are endless!  During Term 2, Spanish 2 students will be using their topics to create projects for the preterite (past) tense.  In the past, I’ve assigned a home renovation project in which students describe various home improvements that they make (using the preterite tense and house vocabulary).  There’s no reason that they can’t instead create their own projects to utilize their own topics – and I’m sure the results will be phenomenal!

Italian 3 students typically create a “how-to” video using the imperativo (commands) and culinary terms to create a cooking show.  Instead of limiting students to this topic, students can showcase their own expertise in customized “how-to” videos on their own interests.  I can’t wait to see the final projects!

Do you have any fun ideas that could allow students to blend their personal interests with target language communication?  Please leave a comment!  I’m happy for any feedback as we get this idea off the ground!

Spanish 1 update!

Hola todos,

It’s been a busy first term for Spanish 1 students, and I’m happy to report that students have accomplished our lofty goal: they can now introduce themselves and flirt with someone in Spanish.  Here’s what we’ve been up to….

Chatting it up!
It’s great to learn the correct spelling and the behind-the-scenes grammar, but learning  new language is really all about the SPEAKING!  We’ve found lots of small ways to sneak in some speaking practice while still having fun.  We’ve created fortune tellers (sometimes called “cootie catchers”) that require students to state colors, numbers, greetings and more.  In addition to our Flipgrid assignment from earlier this year, students also worked in pairs to create puppet shows!  Each puppet show included a wide variety of introductions/greetings and AR verbs, plus hilarious and creative puppets and backgrounds.  (Seriously….have you ever seen a coyote and a duck chatting at a news desk?  I didn’t think so).

Our culminating speaking project each term is a face-to-face interview.  The World Languages department here at Nipmuc has made significant strides in the past few years to focus on speaking proficiencies (rather than checking off grammar goals).  As such, each class takes a quarterly interview at each level.  I provided students with 20 questions, which we’ll practice over the next week.  Next Thursday, Spanish 1 students will sit with me and chat about 10 of the questions (randomly chosen) to count as a final speaking grade.  I can’t wait to hear from these hard-working students!

Here are the questions, if you’d like to take a peek!  Feel free to ask your students any of these questions and see how they respond!

New Words…..Alligator, Winter, Lighthouse, Thursday, Socks, January, Butter
Whoa.  We have learned a lot of words you’d expect to find in a first year language course: days of the week, seasons, months of the year, basic greetings, numbers.  We’ve ALSO learned a lot of bizarre words you might not find in any Spanish textbook, like toaster, pumpkin pie, cicada bug.  In addition to learning the “same old” stuff, we’ve also added a fun tradition to our class each day.  I choose a student by picking out of a hat, and that student comes up with the “Word of the Day” – it can be an everyday object, something related to their interests or a wacky, ridiculous word.  We use this time to practice using Word Reference, a comprehensive online dictionary.  Students in all levels struggle at times to find the “right” version of a word, so we’ve been reviewing the abbreviations for different parts of speech and have built a pretty awesome Word of the Day wall so far!  The goal is to stretch the wall around the classroom…..we’ve got a ways to go!

¡Los Números de Nipmuc!
When learning numbers 0 through 20 in Spanish, students created some excellent projects based on what they see at school each day.  I asked students to think about Sesame Street and the short video clips that show counting in everyday places: in the park, at the grocery store or in the street.  Then, they used the school as their inspiration, finding objects to represent each number from 0 to 20: from 0 students (in an empty hallway), 13 stripes on the flag, 19 lockers, 17 students in our class, 5 seats in the auditorium and four big windows in the lobby.

Coming Attractions….

To say I’m excited about Term 2 with these students would be an understatement.  I’ve really enjoyed getting to know this group: we are a tight-knit small group of 17 in which everyone brings something unique to the table.  There are actors from our drama guild, athletes from a variety of sports, artists, musicians, tech experts and more.  I’m looking forward to finding ways to incorporate their interests in our class in the coming terms!

Parents and families: please note that Nipmuc will hold teacher conferences on
Wednesday, November 8 (12:00 pm to 2:00 pm) and Thursday, November 9 (6:00 pm to 8:00 pm).  Of course, attendance at conferences is completely optional, but I’ll be here to chat about your student’s experience in Spanish 1 and to answer any questions!  If you can’t make it to conferences, but would like to talk, please feel free to call me (or email) anytime!  I’m at (508) 529-2130 (ext. 1236) or lblackburn@mursd.org.

¡Adiós! 🙂


That moment when….

…..your Spanish 2 students know the present tense so well, they can write their own memes!

Today we tried out a new activity to practice using the present tense (not just regular verbs, but boot/stem-change verbs, irregulars and even our new reflexive verbs).  Thinking about authentic uses of the present tense, I stumbled upon the idea of a meme.  Lots of memes begin with the phrase “that moment when….” which (conveniently) provides an ideal opening for use of the present tense.

I gave students this example….

Ese momento cuando mis estudiantes dicen que no quieren hacer el proyecto.
Here, Dwight Schrute is sharing many teachers’ frustrations, that moment… “….when my students say they don’t want to do the project.”

meme for assignment sheet

After brainstorming some ways to incorporate our verbs into the memes, students were off and running!  I’ve gotten some hilarious examples (see below) and I’m so happy to have found a way to use the present tense to create some fun “real life” projects.  Can you guess what these memes say?  I’ve put the translations for each at the end of this post – ENJOY!

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1.) That moment when you go to bed, then realize you have homework.

2.) That moment when you drive for the first time.

3.) That moment when you don’t remember the homework.

4.) That moment when you wake up and it’s Saturday!

¡Buen trabajo, chicos!

Italian 3 Student of the Week: Stefania!

Ciao tutti!

This week’s Italian 3 Student of the Week is Erin Murphy, or Stefania, as we call her in Italian class.  I recently learned that Stefania is a twin (just like me!) so we’ve been enjoying chatting about being a gemella.  Stefania is also interested in horseback riding and is focusing her vocabulary for this semester on horses!  Here’s a picture of Stefania and of her first project – a Sketch Note sheet (visual note-taking assignment) on her topic (horseback riding)!  Check back soon for more on these FANTASTIC projects!



Il tuo nome (your name): Erin Murphy

Il tuo nome italiano (your Italian name): Stefania

La tua classe (your class): Italian 3 CPS

What is one thing you want me to know about you? Hobbies, unique talents, cool facts about YOU – anything fun or non-school related!
I am a twin, my favorite animal is a horse, I play soccer, and I love animals

By the end of this year, I want to be able to _______ in Italian.
Speak better.  (Blackburn side-note: check out this post about how we’re working on speaking skills in Italian 3 this year!)

If you could have lunch with one famous person (fictional or real), who would you choose?
Tyler Seguin

The #1 country on my travel bucket list is…
Fiji or Hawaii

Grazie, Stefania!  🙂

Spanish 1 Student of the Week: Jack

This week we’re kicking off our Student of the Week for Spanish 1, Spanish 2 and Italian 3!  Our first Student of the Week for Spanish 1 is Jack Thompson!  Jack is a 9th grader in Spanish 1 Honors.  He recently completed a creative puppet show with Owen (more on that in a future blog) and has been a wonderful addition to this amazing class!  

Here’s a bit about Jack!


Tu nombre (your name): Jack Thompson

Tu clase (your class): Spanish 1H (D Block)

Tu cumpleaños (your birthday): el 8 de abril

Right now, I know I can ____ in Spanish:
Speak in little phrases like “¿Cómo te llamas?”

By the end of this year, I want to be able to ______ in Spanish.
Be better at being able to understand people in a Spanish conversation and knowing how to respond.  

What is one thing you want me to know about you? Hobbies, unique talents, cool facts about YOU – anything fun or non-school related!
I am in the band.  

If you could have lunch with one famous person (fictional or real, dead or alive), who would you choose?
John F. Kennedy

The #1 destination on my travel bucket list is…

¡Gracias, Jack!


Learning to flirt (and other things too): Spanish 1 is off to a great start!

My first group of Spanish 1 students is already impressing me with their creativity, excitement and quick transition to high school world language classes!

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve been slowly creating a collection of greetings to use in daily conversations.  We started covering the greetings (los saludos) by watching two videos.  Check out the links to view them!  (They’re funny, I promise!)

What we DON’T WANT

first semester

What we DO WANT:

Speaking video

It got a few giggles, but I really did mean it: after watching the second movie, I explained that our term 1 goal is to be able to flirt and introduce ourselves in Spanish.  We brainstormed the basics of what we’d need and got started!

Since beginning the greetings, we’ve added a new one each class, slowly expanding our conversation each day.  We’ve practiced as a class by throwing a beachball and racing to answer, by introducing ourselves as famous characters or people and most recently by creating short video introductions!  Using the Flipgrid app, students greeted their audience, stated (and spelled) their names, explained where they are from and added an ending “adiós” salutation.  Flipgrid also allows adding stickers and fun, colorful images to your video, so students were able to showcase their creativity and have a little fun.  (Even I got in on the action, recording my demo video with a T-Rex on my shoulder!)  Parents/family members: ask your Spanish 1 student to show you their video!  Here’s our final result – a full grid of target language speaking!

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Needless to say, I am so impressed.  While a few students have had an introduction to Spanish at the middle school, most students are exploring this language for the first time. To see them embracing the challenge and venturing out of their comfort zones has been so exciting, rewarding and fun for me.  Stay tuned for future blog posts about this fantastic group!


Andiamo al caffè!

Thanks to a fantastic idea from my Italian partner in crime, Signorina Reardon, I had a fantastic Friday morning with my level 3 Italian students!

Last year Signorina Reardon and I were brainstorming about ways to help our students speak more in the target language.  Talking in a new language presents a few challenges.  Cognitively, it takes time to craft a response in your native language and consider how to communicate it in another language.  Socially, it’s difficult to allow yourself this time when your peers and your teacher are watching you and expecting an answer.  In past years, full class “chat” sessions can get awkward pretty quickly.  As the teacher, I would find myself choosing the next victim instead of facilitating a conversation of volunteers.

Signorina Reardon’s idea was simple, but fantastic: why not create a more casual setting, like a cafe, in which students can chat and drive the conversation.  (You might even see a “Caffè Signorina” sign on her door!)  Each day that our levels 3 and 4 classes meet for first block, we’ll pause with content and assignments and hold small conversations.

This morning was my first caffè/chat session with Italian 3.  This is a relatively large class (22 students) and I wanted students to feel comfortable.  So, I divided the class in half.  One group worked collaboratively to read the first chapter of our novel Destinazione Italia (more on that later!!)  The other group put some chairs in the back of the room, brought their coffee and enjoyed some Munchkins….and only spoke in Italian.

Was it awkward at first?  Yup.  But, did it lead to some fun, non-academic conversation in Italian?  YES!  SÌ!!!!  I learned so much about my students today!  Some students work after school (from serving as a host at a restaurant, to lifeguarding, to working at coffee shops).  Other students talked about their involvement in sports, clubs or activities. I have students who are ballroom dancers, piano players, year-round athletes, and more. Drama students explained the basic plot of the upcoming fall play.  They shared details about their families, interests and asked how to say goofy phrases in Italian.  Even I shared the mortifying tale of my experience trying out for my high school tennis team. With a little time (and sugar) we fell into a conversation that was fun, organic and really rewarding.

Looking forward to this fun new tradition!  Do you have ideas about topics we can cover?  Leave them in comments below!

caffe italiano


Week 1 = done!

The first two days of school in Room 236 were a blur!  I learned dozens of new names and shared lots of details about me (I’m afraid of cats, have an identical twin and wore braces for 6 horrible years….all true).

While everything had a little Italian or Spanish “twist” on it, this week’s activities were all about getting to know my new students!  I created five stations for students to complete, each with a different task.  We practiced conversation skills with Jenga, learned about each other (and Sra. Blackburn….ha!) and worked as a team to accomplish some fun, different tasks.  Level 1 students took some time to think about starting to study Spanish, and what their goals are for the year.  Some pictures are below at the end of the post.

As former students know, I am bizarrely excited about Spanish and Italian, so it’s hard for me not to jump right into (what I consider) the “fun stuff”. However, we took some time in these first two days to really chat about what we like (not what we like about Spanish verbs or Italian regions) but what inspires us, excites us and lights us up.

This conversation was a great way to introduce some new initiatives our department is trying out this year and hopefully demonstrate to students that languages reach beyond conjugations and verb tenses: they are simply new ways to express ourselves, our passions and our lives.  I am SO EXCITED to start some fascinating new projects that will capture each student’s individual passion and excitement.  (More on this next week!!)

To my students – you re-energized me about being back here at school and I’m ready for a great year with you!  Happy 4-day weekend!

Ci vediamo….nos vemos! 🙂


True or false? Students learned a lot about me this week!

Are you ready?

To my students this year:

As a teacher, I’ve always thought of the first day of school like the best fresh start of the year – even more than January 1st.  So….happy new year to you all!

Room 236 is ready to go: my door is covered in tacky bright (?) pictures, my pencils are sharpened and I’ve had a whole summer to drum up some new crazy Blackburn ideas. All that’s missing is YOU!  I am so excited to get to know you and discover together how a new language can help you fuel your interests, ideas and passions.

So….you ready to crush it?



¡Adios! Ciao!

And just like that – we’re wrapping up the 2016-2017 school year!  It’s hard to believe that another year is in the books and also hard to think that I’ll be saying adios and ciao to my wonderful students!  As we head for the beach, I thought it would be nice to look back on a few fun memories from this year.

Italian 3 has been an absolute pleasure to teach this year.  Both sections (A and E blocks) brought more creativity, innovation and humor to our projects than I’ve ever seen! From creating cooking shows to movie trailers, these ragazzi really displayed such genuine excitement to use Italian in a variety of authentic situations.  We had the opportunity to go on a field trip to explore DaVinci’s legacy at the Boston MOS and explore Italy’s culinary heritage by visiting Eataly.  Students wrote fairy tales, performed skits and read two mini-novels in Italian.  We had our first group of inductees in the Società Onoraria Italica in March and many of these students are off for more Italian adventures next year in Italian IV.  I look forward to chatting them up in italiano in the halls and to traveling to Italy with them next April!
Bravi, ragazzi!  Grazie per un anno indimenticabile!

Here are a couple of class photos we took at the end of the year.

This is my third year at Nipmuc, and my third year teaching Spanish 2 – a course I love for a lot of reasons.  Perhaps the most exciting part of a level 2 language course is the progress that students make from September to June.  Students arrive with a well-formed base in the present tense, but leave being able to speak/write about the past, future and hypothetical situations.  As a teacher, it’s so fun to watch as students realize how much they expand their communication abilities with each tense.  This year, students made this transformation with lots of interesting projects that got them out of their seats and using the language in fun new ways.  From creating iMovie trailers to introduce next year’s Spanish 2 students to the course to making mystery celebrity timelines and taking on the challenge of one-on-one quarterly interviews – these students impressed me each day.  Level 2 students also participated in a new (and amazingly fun) project for World Language Week – creating mock food trucks for a community-wide competition!  As an added bonus, some students were able to join Nipmuc’s April adventure in España!

Some photos from D, G and B blocks over the past couple of days:


Wishing everyone a safe, fun, adventurous summer!  See you next year!
Signora/Señora B.