Ideas and Resources: How to start the year with a heritage class

Boo. Summer is over. It always feels so short! If you are already back in school, I am so sorry! And if you are soon to start, well, hopefully this post helps you deal with some of your anxiety of starting off the year in your heritage classes. I realized that there are seriously a million blog posts about how to start off the year in a CI classroom…but I don’t think there is a single one about how to start of the year in a heritage class. I thought one might be helpful 🙂 If you don’t already know, I teach high school in Fort Collins, Colorado, about an hour north of Denver. We have LOTS of heritage classes (4 levels, 6 sections); for a long time I taught 9th and 10th grade, now I just teach 10th grade heritage. I’ve been teaching heritage classes since 2013.

What I’m going to share in this post is pretty much all my possible activities that I use with 9th and 10th grade, as well as some I got from Mary Beth (who teaches 11th grade heritage). But please remember, I would not do ALL of these activities, and I definitely would not do all of them in this order. Mix them up, jump around, stretch them out the whole first month of school in a way that makes the most sense to you. I’ve just tried to organize similar activities into categories.

Lastly, there are A LOT of links in this post…many are links to free resources, but some are to ones that I sell on Tpt. But please know, I am not here to sell you stuff! My goal is to give you as many options as possible and to be as helpful as possible.

Objective #1: Gather information

  • Get an informal writing sample – usually an email about what they did over the summer or introducing themselves – so you can get a feel for their writing skills.
  • Do an interest questionnaire – find out what classes they’ve had, what they’re interested in, their course goals, etc. It’s also a really good idea to ask for parents’ phone number and emails. Here is the one I started with.
  • Do a home language questionnaire – this is especially important when you’re trying to find out how often they speak Spanish at home, with home, and during what activities. I have one of my own but I highly recommend this one that I got from Sara Beaudrie at Arizona State University while I was at a Bimson Seminar at Colorado State University. Please do not disseminate it without giving her credit. If you want to use it as a google form as I did, you’ll have to make a copy to your own google drive.
  • Find out how important working on their Spanish is to them, using this awesome survey developed by Mary Beth Johnson, based on the goals described in Heritage Language Teaching: Research and Practice (Beaudrie, Ducar, Potowski 2014); the data from this survey is super helpful when you start working on skills that are challenging to them. It helps establish meaning and purpose for your class.
  • Get a handle on their more formal writing and reading skills using a diagnostic exam – this is not a placement exam, but rather a way for me to figure out where their reading, vocabulary, and writing skills are. Of course, if they score off the chart, perhaps I need to move them up a level, but usually it’s just a way for me to make sure I’m working on the right skills. For the reading portion, use an excerpt from a novel you’ll expect them to read with little difficulty at the end of the year, and ask comprehension and vocabulary questions. As far as vocabulary, I usually ask them to define a few vocabulary words in the text (a easy, a few medium, and few harder words), and then for them to write down a few words that they don’t know (this is a great indicator for me of where their language is at). For the writing section, as them to write either a paragraph or 5 paragraph essay (depending on what skills you will work on in your course) about a high interest topic. Make sure they understand that they will earn completion points, not points for accuracy. You can find my diagnostic exam for incoming 9th graders here and incoming 10th graders here.
  • On-demand writing tasks are another option (I recommend you either do a diagnostic exam or on-demand writing tasks, but not both, because they accomplish similar goals). I learned about these after we adopted the Lucy Calkins and Teachers College (TCRWP) Writing Units of Study curriculum. Basically, kids get 45 minutes (I usually give them an hour) to write a piece off the top of their head (she has some basic prompts to get them started). I will ask kids to do a narrative, an informational, and an argumentative/persuasive on-demand piece at the beginning of the year (probably a few days apart, not all on the same day). Then, using the writing progressions, you can determine where your kids are at to make sure your teaching is appropriate for where they’re at. The reason behind doing all three is that as you teach kids explicitly to get better at one area of writing, the other areas will also improve. The TCRWP gives the exact same prompts for the on-demand pieces for every grade level, every time there is an on-demand assignment. You can find the prompts here, but the writing progressions are copyrighted and cannot be shared here.

Objective #2: Build community

  • Have students interview each other, asking questions about their opinions on the importance of being able to read/write in Spanish, what they think of Spanish class, etc.; share out. Here are links to my interview activities for 9th grade and for 10th grade.
  • Magic carpet teambuilding game – bring a large tarp, all the students stand on the tarp, and they must figure out how to flip the tarp over without anyone stepping off. You can find more info here. You can also find lots of videos of this being done successfully online.
  • Cross the river of lava teambuilding game – using masking tape, tape off a huge “river” across the room. The whole class is on one side of the river, and each student gets one sheet of paper. The whole class must cross the lava river stepping only on paper, no one can step in the river. If someone drops a piece of paper in the river without touching it (with a hand or foot), it “burns up” (you grab it and rip it up). Find more info here. You can also find lots of videos of this being done successfully online. This activity is the one pictured at the beginning of this post, with my kiddos.
  • Engaging questions. Put the students in small groups, and give each group a few high interest questions (Would you rather… or things like, if you were in jail and you got one phone call, who would you call?). You can find a set of them here, or google some. Let the small group chat, and then either have the kids move to a new group or pass new questions to each group. At the end, everyone has to share either one of their answers or an answer someone else shared.
  • Have students cut out pictures from magazines (or print off pictures from the computer) to create a collage that represents themselves, and in small groups have the kids share what they included and why. You can find simple directions for this activity here. It’s nice to hang these on the wall to help them own the space, and know they belong in my room (and our school…and academic spaces in general).
  • Play a team game I like to call “¿Cuántos saben?”. It works best if you put the kids into groups, purposefully including kids from groups that don’t spend a lot of time together. The kids will really bond during this game, so intentional teams is helpful. Each group of 4-5 kids needs one mini-whiteboard, marker, and eraser. Have a list of 5-6 topics ready to go beforehand (TV shows, songs with Spanish in them, stores in your town, teachers in your school, science classes, etc.). Give students a topic, and ask them to write down on the mini whiteboard as many answers as their team can come up with for 30 seconds. Then, teams share, but when an answer is shared that other groups have written down, no one gets a point. Each team earns one point per answer that no one else had. It’s super fun, and a lot of times I didn’t know everything they had listed but other kids did so it allowed them to be the experts (instead of me).
  • In my class we’re going to be using writer’s notebooks all year, so I’d like to give them a chance to decorate their writer’s notebooks with personal photos or designs. First I’ll show them mine and explain the importance of all the pictures and images on my notebook. Then they’ll have at least a class period to decorate their own. In fact, this year I will probably let them all turn in like two photos and I’ll print hard copies for them to use. Not only is this time decorating notebooks kind of a brain break, but they have time to socialize with each other and me, and talk about their photos and what’s important. I might even have them share their notebook covers.
  • Try the “Communities of Knowers” activity. This is for more mature students or for students that can handle some more profound conversation about how who we are can affect our perspective. The idea is that we have different types of knowledge, based on our own life experiences, and it influences our “Knowers Perspective” (this is an IB MYP learner’s profile attribute). We did free this activity as a full staff, and it was awesome (make sure you download it, the preview file is not correct). I translated it into Spanish with the intentions of using it with my kiddos, but didn’t get to use it yet (again, make sure you download the word doc and open it, the preview doesn’t look right).
  • Dialogic Interview. This is a more open-ended interview with questions that are meant to initiate conversation and hopefully lead to a more meaningful conversation. This one is tough with 9th graders, but my 10th graders did better. It works great with even older students and adults…people who know how to have a conversation not just for a class, but in order to get to know someone.

Objective #3: Establish purpose

  • Using their feedback on the personal information survey, talk about their future goals and their future careers. Have kids write, in large letters, their future occupation on a piece of cardstock, and decorate it. Hang these in a prominent part of your room and refer to them often. When you get the ever-present, “Why are we doing this?” question, connect it to this board of future goals. Here are a worksheet I used for this purpose and the careers I ended up posting the first year I did this in my room.
  • Do a chain reaction activity. You can use this worksheet if it’s helpful, but basically the idea is that kids brainstorm what could happen if they got better at Spanish, if they could read Spanish, if they could write Spanish. They might say…if I get better at Spanish, my parents would be proud of me. If my parents were proud of me, I’d be proud of me. If I were proud of myself, I’d have more confidence. If I had more confidence, I would take more risks… etc. The goal is just to explore…what if? Then, the kids write each set of statements on a strip of construction paper, then put them together as a chain. Each pair shares their chain, and we hang them from the ceiling as a visual reminder of why we’re here.
  • Talk about the real statistics…as a group, how prepared are hispanics in your high school to graduate? Do they graduate as often as non-hispanics? Do they go to college as often as non-hispanics? What are the numbers? Have a real conversation about the real reason this class can be helpful for them. If you’re interested, here is a news article that we discussed in my 9th grade class with some sentence starters.
  • If you need more, try this poster activity. In small groups, kids research four important benefits of a heritage class, and write down evidence of stats they find to support it. Each group shares and the posters stay on the wall all year.
  • (This one is repeated from above) Find out how important working on their Spanish is to them, using this awesome survey developed by Mary Beth Johnson, based on the goals described in Heritage Language Teaching: Research and Practice (Beaudrie, Ducar, Potowski 2014); the data from this survey is super helpful when you start working on skills that are challenging to them. It helps establish meaning and purpose for your class.
  • Before the honeymoon period ends, start your reading program!! Check out this post and this one to help get that rolling!

Before I go on, I want to point out that if you are interested in purchasing several of these beginning of the year activities, you might consider saving a little money and buying the bundle here. But I’m not here to sell you stuff! I’m just here to share ideas that might be helpful to someone else in this boat! 🙂

Objective #4: Develop a plan

All of these things are super important: knowing your students, building a community, and establishing purpose. But they are setting you up to actually DO something this year…and the question is, what will you do? Once you have their attention and their respect, what will you do with it? Here are some ideas and places to start.

  • It’s no secret that I am a huge proponent of a literacy, Language Arts-focused curriculum because I believe it will set them up for success in other classes and eventually after high school. Here is a free list of the topics I cover in my 9th and 10th grade classes. If you are designing your own curriculum or not sure which way to go, I’d also recommend looking at this daily activity list and course outline for 9th grade (I also have a daily activity list and course outline for 10th grade too). If you’re interested, I do sell those curriculum bundles for 9th and also for 10th grade. I have had many questions about modifying the 9th grade curriculum for use in middle school, and my answer is this: I definitely think it’s doable, but you may have to modify the pacing, and you definitely should pick different novels, so make sure to purchase the bundle without novels.
  • I also very highly recommend you purchase the book Practical Advice for Teachers of Heritage Learners of Spanish: Essays by Classroom Teachers which is available on Mike Peto’s website here or from Amazon. There is a whole section dedicated to how to organize and write your own course curriculum for heritage speakers.
  • Keep your eyes peeled for great heritage units on Tpt, shared on Facebook, or developed elsewhere and share them with us!!

Whew! That was a monster post! Remember, don’t do ALL THE THINGS. Just do what works for you and what is DOABLE. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. And please comment and share your favorite beginning of the year activities and resources!!


One thought on “Ideas and Resources: How to start the year with a heritage class

Add yours

  1. ¡Excelente información! No sé como vamos a hacer para el 2019. Abriremos una clase por ahora y tendremos estudiantes mezclados desde freshmen a seniors (es lo que tengo ahora en SPA3: 21 HH y 8 L2). La propuesta que pasamos es tomar Clase SPA3, luego HS1 y luego HS2. Veo que ustedes tienen cursos separados para 9 , 10, etc. ¿Alguna sugerencia? Gracias por la información que publican. ¡Ustedes son fantásticas!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: