Wednesday, April 8, 2015

"Fiesta Fatal": A novel adventure

Photo by Christopher Michael license
What do you get when you combine a Mexican fiesta de quince años, a spoiled teenage girl who constantly fights with her mom, and a drug cartel? 

Fiesta fatal, obviously! 

I came across this TPRS novel by Mira Canion last spring and thought it would be perfect for my mixed middle- and high-school Spanish II class this year. The language is easy for novices to understand, and the plot is action-filled. There are many opportunities for students to understand how the two main past tenses in Spanish, the preterite and imperfect, are used, while facilitating comprehension by employing a relatively uncomplicated use of vocabulary. My students enjoyed it a lot: they called it "funny," "suspenseful," "interesting" and "fun to read." Here's how I used the novel in class. 

Positive and negative stereotypes
In addition to the language objective of telling a story in the past, I wanted students to meet a cultural objective of considering Mexicans' perspectives on Mexican culture. I had established at the beginning of the unit that my students' knowledge about Mexico was shallow at best: their impressions of the country consisted almost entirely of stereotypes. (They made lists in Spanish of ideas that came to mind when they thought of Mexico, and I wrote them on the board. I love it that they pointed out that what they knew about Mexico was stereotypical. From there, they could formulate questions about what they wanted to know about the culture.) Because the novel involves some negative aspects of modern-day Mexican culture (drug cartels and drug-related violence, illegal immigration) as well as some very recognizable Mexican cultural products and practices, such as food and parties, I wanted to make sure that my students moved beyond their two-dimensional view of Mexico. I turned to Zambombazo to find resources to supplement the novel. I adapted several of Zambombazo's activities from the Narcoviolence in Mexico unit, including the Tucanes de Tijuana song "No solo de traficante", the Julieta Venegas song "Tuve para dar", the collaboration "México lindo y querido", and the Coca-Cola commercial "Hay razones para creer en un México mejor". These media resources, along with the novel, exposed students to differing perspectives on Mexican culture and the problems facing Mexico today. 

Making comprehension engaging
Because Fiesta fatal is relatively easy to understand, even for second-year Spanish students, I felt confident that we could read three chapters per week, finishing the novel and meeting its accompanying language and culture objectives in about a month. While the TPRS teachers' manual has yet to be published, there are already some good resources out there. Martina Bex (@martinabex) has some excellent comprehension activities for Fiesta fatal here, and general activities for TPRS-style comprehension here. Cynthia Hitz's (@sonrisadelcampoFreeze Frame activity for Chapter 5 was also mighty helpful (and incredibly fun).  Finally, Carrie Toth (@senoraCMT) posted about a Musical Chairs Retell that I used after students had finished the novel, but could be done at any time after students have processed and comprehended part or all of a reading. 

I also made many of my own materials for written and spoken comprehension checks. I varied the type of check by chapter so that students wouldn't get bored. For some chapters, they did written Q&As individually or in pairs; for others, they drew or acted out key chapter events. To help them understand the use of preterite and imperfect tenses in the novel, I chose clear uses of each of those structures to emphasize how preterite was used to narrate past actions and imperfect was used to describe people and places in the past. Here is an example of a written activity using text from chapter 5 that I created to help students understand that distinction. And of course I made Kahoots: Chapter 1Chapters 1-3Chapters 1-5

It's important also to give students time to process what they've learned and get their feedback about it. Here is a "literary critique" form that I have used in various guises for many different types of materials: movies, TV shows, units, stories, poems, etc. 

For a summative project, I gave students choices, which resulted in several Kahoots, as you might imagine, but also some really thoughtful writing and one very exciting movie trailer. See a screenshot of the assignment below:

Connecting with others outside the classroom
One of the most exciting aspects of this unit was having my class connect with Mira Canion via Twitter and Skype. Not all of my students are on Twitter, so I created a class account so that they could ask her questions via social media and connect with students in other areas who were also reading the novel. After modeling appropriate use of Twitter several times in class, I gave them the login information so that they could access the account on their own, and tweet for homework. (A note on management: my class is really small--only nine students, eight of whom I taught last year too--and I knew that misuse of this account would be unlikely. I'd recommend a group Twitter only if you set behavioral expectations and can ensure vigilance.) Amy Cooper (@SraCooper43) actually did a tweet chat with some of her students! (Rock star.) 

And of course our Skype conversation with the author was a high point of the unit. (Cynthia Hitz wrote a very informative post about how to make the most of a Skype interaction in class.) It was incredibly gratifying for me to see my students interacting comprehensibly in Spanish with a total stranger, and while they didn't feel totally comfortable doing it, I thought it was valuable for them to experience what it's like to interact with people in a foreign language in the real world.

Worth the work
When I first envisioned this unit, I imagined integrating TPRS, the 5 Cs, 21st century skills, intercultural competence, reflection, choice, technology and community engagement. That's a really high bar, and I invested many, many hours to make it work. There are still--always--elements to improve, but I think that finally I have designed a unit that includes all of those really important parts of language learning in a balanced and meaningful way. 

And of course I couldn't have done it without my amazing PLN! Mil gracias to Mira, Cynthia, Martina, Carrie, Amy and Zachary. 


  1. Thank you for this detailed post. It is helping me a lot since I'm teaching with Fiesta Fatal for this term. How many lessons did it take you to go through the book?

  2. Thanks so much for sharing such a detailed account of everything you did with this novel. I am excited to get started with my students! How much time did you give students to complete the final project assignment? Did you provide any class time? Thanks!

    1. Hi Jennifer -- thanks for reading! I think I gave students about a week to finish the project, and I definitely allowed some class time, which is one of my standard practices.