Tweens, teens and screens.
They go together like bread, peanut butter and jelly.
I mean, what middle school teacher ever announced a movie day only to receive a chorus of groans?
Probably has never happened in the history of education.
Which is not really surprising, considering that today’s adolescents spend the vast majority of their free time looking at screens. It’s what they love, and we, as teachers, would be crazy not to tap into that.
But of course, there’s good and bad screen time. To paraphrase the ancient Roman poet Horace, we teachers should aim to both delight and edify our students. But while cat videos may delight (and let’s be honest: they do, especially the piano-playing variety), they rarely edify.
Nevertheless, when used correctly, film can be an especially valuable and effective educational tool when it comes to teaching Spanish, or any foreign language and culture for that matter.
Grab the Popcorn: 4 Ways to Use Spanish Videos for Middle School
One reason film works so well for teaching culture is that videos can demonstrate cultural characteristics in real, authentic ways that students see firsthand in a real-life context rather than through explicit teaching.
Another reason videos fit the bill is that they meet Horace’s criteria for learning through delight. The best worksheet on earth can never compare to a movie! It stands to reason that kids are more likely to pay attention to something that grabs them on a personal level; even adults learn best when they’re entertained. With film, students absorb information without even realizing they’re learning, making grammar and vocabulary lessons more enjoyable than ever.
So, which videos work best for teaching middle school Spanish learners?
Let’s have a look at two educational resources and two popular children’s movies that are guaranteed to engage your adolescents.
1. Fluent Spanglish YouTube Channel
A resource of a different kind, this YouTube channel for learning Spanish won’t fail to delight middle school students. Hosted by brother-sister team Atua (age 15) and Ki’ili (age 11) Mo’e, the series gives middle school viewers an up-close view of the culture of Costa Rica through the lens of young people like themselves.
Moreover, the channel is a great way to provide deeper insight into Costa Rica and its local flavor of Spanish, by offering:
- Interesting Topics: One of the best things about Fluent Spanglish is the topics it covers, many of which are of particular interest to middle schoolers. Everything from surfing and snorkeling to how to build a bike ramp. The children of a Hawaiian father and a Canadian mother, Ki’ili and Atua spend one video discussing the animals that roam free around their tropical home, including the monkeys who poop in their yard!
- Bilingual Videos: The series is easy to follow for native English speakers because, while Atua and Ki’ili speak fluent Spanish, their first and dominant language is English. They speak Spanish slowly and clearly, in full sentences that are often supported by visual content that provide context for their remarks. Furthermore, they say everything in both languages, in captioned Spanish, making it easy for even beginning Spanish language learners to follow along.
- Costa Rican Culture and Slang Words: While the videos in the Fluent Spanglish series cover some standard vocabulary in Spanish (day and month names, colors, etc.), they also put a specific focus on the culture and language of Costa Rica. In one episode, the siblings introduce popular Costa Rican dishes, using slang words like chuza (cool).
Because the Fluent Spanglish videos are especially interesting for middle school learners, they could be assigned as homework or extra credit for students to watch and respond to outside of class. Students might make cultural comparisons—either writing about similarities and differences between Costa Rica and the U.S. (or their home country), or for making connections between different Hispanic cultures.
Offering the perfect mixture of authentic and educational material, FluentU is a fun and engaging way to help your middle school students improve their Spanish proficiency. FluentU draws upon real-world material like clips from movies, television shows and popular commercials, as well as songs, magazine articles and other engaging resources, giving your students a truly interactive learning experience. Instead of completing workbook activities and repeating verb tenses, your students get to practice Spanish while learning about things that interest them, which is very important when teaching middle school.
With FluentU, you’re given an ever-growing range of videos to cover, including:
- Popular Culture: Let your students practice Spanish while watching music videos from Spain and Latin America’s most popular musicians.
- Spanish Grammar: When students learn grammar with FluentU, they aren’t given the same confusing, lengthy explanations that are found in most textbooks. Instead, grammar is taught through entertaining and informative videos that offer deeper context and easier-to-understand explanations, as well as demonstrations of how the language is used naturally in the world.
- Natural Conversations: The videos you teach with on FluentU are real Spanish videos, comprised of real Spanish speakers having real conversations. This means that your students don’t have to bother with unnatural conversations that aren’t practical in everyday life. Instead, they learn how to communicate clearly and effectively, like a native speaker.
FluentU combines versatility with effectiveness, bringing you a curriculum that can be adapted to virtually any situation. You can use its videos, games, flashcards and other interactive resources as part of a standalone lesson, or you can use video clips to supplement lessons on grammar, speaking, listening, cultural activities and more.
Hands-down one of the best resources for teaching Mexican culture, Academy Award-winning “Coco “is also heavy on entertainment. With an all-Latino voice cast, the film follows 12-year-old Miguel as he travels through the Land of the Dead seeking a long-deceased relative. Its fantastic soundtrack features everything from traditional Mexican folk songs like “La Llorona” (“The Wailing Woman”) to original compositions like “Remember Me,” winner of the 2018 Best Song Oscar.
What’s more, “Coco” is filled with a wealth of topics you can cover with your class, including:
- The Day of the Dead: “Coco” is an absolute treasure trove of images of the Mexican celebration of Day of the Dead, with altars, ofrendas (offerings of things the deceased enjoyed in life), papel picado (cut-paper flags) and cempasúchil (marigold) flowers adorning the cemetery in the living world and the Great Beyond. Miguel paints his face like a catrín (a skeleton-faced dandy) as he rubs shoulders with the deceased, along with his Xolo dog Dante. The pair even crosses paths with an alebrije (a mish-mash mythical animal from Mexican folk art).
- The History of Guanajuato, Mexico: The story of “Coco” may be fictional, but its setting is very real. When the Pixar crew began to work on images of the city where Miguel lives and the Land of the Dead, they drew on the actual architecture and landscapes of Guanajuato in central Mexico. Even minor details, like that the state of Guanajuato is the shoe-making capital of Latin America, are accurate.
- Family Relationships: It’s no exaggeration to say that family relationships are at the very heart of Mexican culture. Respect for elders, many generations living in the same household and veneration of the dead are all aspects of this cultural trait that the movie captures perfectly.
One fun activity to follow an in-class viewing of “Coco” would be to have the students construct a Day of the Dead altar with photos of a beloved relative, a write-up (in English or Spanish, depending on students’ proficiency level) and ofrendas of things the person enjoyed in life.
Another activity might be to make a travel brochure about Guanajuato (or another Mexican city), demonstrating tourist attractions, typical food and the traditions and customs of that region of Mexico.
In this charming movie about a gentle bull who doesn’t go want to be involved in bullfighting, names like Moreno (Blackie), Guapo (Handsome), Valiente (Brave), Máquina (Machine) and El Primero (The First) provide students an opportunity to learn Spanish even if they watch the film in English. “Ferdinand,” which was nominated for Best Animated Feature (it lost to “Coco”) is set in Spain and includes a variety of real locations. It also features the voice talents of a diverse cast, including gay comedian Kate McKinnon and Grammy-winning Colombian pop singer Juanes.
Popular topics you can use “Ferdinand” to teach include:
- Bullfighting: At the center of this movie is the debate over the ethics of bullfighting, a Spanish tradition that dates back to the year 711. Some of the action of the film takes place at the real Las Ventas bullfighting arena. And while “Ferdinand” comes down firmly against bullfighting’s cruelty, it would provide students with an opportunity for meaningful debate on the issue.
- Geography: The movie is set in three Spanish cities: Seville, Ronda and Madrid. It gives students an opportunity to see Spanish architecture and learn about real locations, like the historic Atocha train station in Madrid.
- Festivals: If there’s one thing the Spanish are known for, it’s their parties! Even a partial list of festivals in Spain turns up dozens of events, everything from the Tomatina (where participants throw tomatoes at each other) to Las Fallas, a week-long celebration involving enormous figures that reference political and pop culture icons.
A viewing of “Ferdinand” offers the perfect set-up for a position paper (perhaps followed by a class debate) about bullfighting.
After reading about Spanish festivals, students could design their own festival, choosing a location in a Spanish-speaking country or even their own hometown, as well as coming up with activities to include in the celebration.
Students could also complete written worksheets on the film.
Using Videos to Engage Middle School Learners
Depending on their Spanish level, students can watch videos in English with Spanish subtitles, Spanish with English subtitles or Spanish with Spanish subtitles. This is a way of killing two birds with one stone—teaching Hispanic cultures and reinforcing language instruction at the same time.
This is only a small sample of the many wonderful films and other videos that exist for Spanish learners. When used properly, these and other videos are among the best resources out there for teaching culture to our screen-loving students.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to teach Spanish with real-world videos.