by | Feb 13, 2018

Many years ago, when I first started this project, I had never heard of Bryce Hedstrom and his amazing “Persona Especial/Special Person” process.  I created this Spanish Pets project as a way to encourage my young learners to speak more Spanish outside of the house, and to entice them into learning about the world around them.  I had no idea when I started it how creative students would be with their answers, how much they would connect with the community, and how much they would love the process!  After attending IFLT 2016 (International Form on Language Teaching) and listening to Bryce Hedstrom talk about the Persona Especial process, I am excited to refine my ‘Pet Project’ to make it even more meaningful for my students.


To start the project, I chose an animal from different Spanish speaking countries for each grade level I teach.  I tried to pick animals that would have a cultural connection and be interesting to talk about with the students.  I also tried to choose animals that were not too expensive, as I wanted my students to have actual physical animals to take home.  You can also print and laminate pictures of the animals if your school does not have the budget for stuffed animals.  I ended up with a bull for Kindergarten, a llama for 1st grade, a jaguar for 2nd grade, and an eagle for 3rd grade.  More on these choices later…

To introduce the animals, I told my students that I had made some very special friends during the summer, but that my friends did not like to live in my classroom (all in the TL for older learners).  I then introduced the ‘pets’ to my students via a slideshow and asked if they would like to help me care for them.  I used basic Spanish that my older students knew (or younger students could guess) with vivid but simple pictures.  This was a great review for returning students, and fun for new students as they tried to see what they could understand.  I purposefully leave the last slide blank, as one part of the student activity is to name the pet.
After introducing the pets, I explain that a different student will get to take the pet home every week.  I will choose this student based on who I think did something amazing in class that day.  It could be someone who took a risk with their Spanish, it could be someone that helped a friend, it could be someone that went the extra step when we completed a project. I like to vary the reason I give the animal out to students.  This lets me honor students for different types of contributions to class.  Some are Spanish superstars, and some are caretakers and create a warm classroom environment.  Giving the animal out for different reasons helps me celebrate something unique to each of them.  It is also an easy way to motivate students to behave well.  I do not give the ‘pet’ out until the very end of class after we have cleaned up. If it is the first time the ‘pet’ is going home with someone for the school year, I have the whole class do a drum roll (tambor, por favor), if it is not the first time the pet has gone home, we talk about the adventures the pet had with the student that is returning the pet before giving the pet back out. For example, if Sally was bringing the pet back, and Jack was taking the pet home; Sally would share about her time with the pet before we passed the pet back out to Jack.  I make sure to use the target language the whole time during this process when possible.  For example, when I give the pet out I say “Tambor, por favor’ (drum roll please).  Then, I say, “Ayer la llama fue a la casa de Sally.  Hoy, la llama va a la casa de Jack./ Yesterday the llama went to Sally’s house, today the llama goes to Jack’s house”.  This year I am going to describe the next student before saying their name to sneak in some more comprehensible input (for example before I say: “The llama is going to Jack’s house; I can say “The llama is going to a boy’s house.  The llama is going to the house of a boy with brown hair (blue eyes, a green shirt, likes Minecraft, etc.)


When students take the pet home, they get to pretend they are the pet and ‘personalize’ their experience.  Each student gets a worksheet.   At the top of the worksheet (not pictured below), there is a section for students to take a picture of themselves with the pet.  Many students get very creative here and I have loved seeing the variety of pictures students bring to class.  Some students photoshop a picture of themselves, some practice “Spanish” by watching a video of me with their pet, some take them to sports games, or on vacation.  When students are unable to print a picture at home they have options.  Their parent can send me the picture to print at school, I can take a picture of the student with the pet and print it at school, or students can draw a picture.  The questions on the worksheet are designed to practice high-frequency words the students learned the year before.  It is a good chance to get some repetitions in, to learn something about the student, and to be a little silly.  After students share with the class, I hang the pictures in the hall for the school year.  Not only do I see students reading this all year in the hall, but it is a favorite piece of work to take home at the end of the school year.  This year I am going to try to find time to create online albums of the “Pet Project” so students can browse through them any time of the year.  They love reading about their classmates in Spanish!



I chose each of the animals as I thought each had an interesting relationship with a part of the Spanish speaking world.  We talk about the bulls in Spain (G version for Kindergarten), the llamas in Perú (and Machu Picchu), the jaguar and the cultural ties to México, and the Eagle as a tie between México, and the large Spanish speaking population of the United States.  Connecting the Spanish speaking world to animals is a lot of fun and very interesting for the students.  After we introduce the pets I always start to see students using these animals throughout the school day (llama shirts, jaguar toys, eagle drawings, and bull moves when they run).  Parents often want to know where I get the animals around the holidays, as many of the students want to keep their pet.
Three years into this project and the animals are getting to be quite well known in the community.  My students love to take them to community events and locations.  A popular place to take the pet is to ‘Mi Zarape’ a local Mexican restaurant.  I had a normally soft-spoken Kindergarten student take the bull there when it was her week.  Not only did she end up speaking Spanish with the server, they also took her back in the kitchen to take pictures with all the Spanish speakers in the building.  I love both the connection this student was able to make with members of her community she might not have had before, but also the pride in her smile knowing that she can speak Spanish to heritage speakers successfully.

When I started this project I had no idea how popular it would be with students, and how much I would be able to get out of such a seemingly small activity.  For those of you worried about the animals being dirty, a simple run in the washer and dryer actually makes them sterile enough to take into an operating room. I ask students and families to give their pet a ride inside a pillowcase and the washing machine before returning to school.
If you can not get the funding for the stuffed animals, I think the project would work just as well with laminate cutouts of the pets.  You can start this project very easily by yourself by choosing questions appropriate for your students, and creating worksheets and cutouts.  My worksheets, complete with the parent note to explain the project, slideshows to introduce the pets, student worksheets, and a possible cut out (if you don’t have the stuffed animals), are all available in my store here. 

For Older Students
This project can still be completed in a similar matter with older students.  My recommendation is to replace the ‘pet’ with a laminated cut out of a famous person you would like your students to learn about (Frida Kahlo, Barack Obama, etc.).  Have them take the cut out around with them and take a picture.  They can then answer questions about what they did with the cut-out, write a short story about their time with the cut out famous person, or share a true story from the famous person’s life.  You may even have a bin of different famous people cut-out for students to choose from.

One last mini story about this project. As I leave it very open-ended, students often get very creative with their projects. Below,  shared with permission from the parents, is a video that two of my students were inspired to make (on their own, because the input was compelling).  In the video, a 3rd-grade student of mine narrates, while his first-grade sister moves the pet.  A great example of compelling input, showing understanding without verbally communicating, and creative output (they even made a Minecraft world for the llama)!



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