Season 3, Episode 8: Whole Class Novels and Building Background Knowledge with Mira Canion

Welcome to Inspired Proficiency and thank you for joining us for episode 8 of season 3. As always, please tweet any takeaways and inspirations to #inspiredproficiency.

Download the episode here: or listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts here or find it wherever you listen to podcasts!

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Ashley starts off the podcast talking about this time of year and negativity that can come with it. She mentions some ways to change your mindset and force out the negativity. She made a list of all the negative things and then a list of all the positive things about her job and life currently. She wants us to do the same and share our top negatives within our teacher tribes AND THEN our top positives. The positives list might be hard at first but then the positives will start to pour out. Use your community during the times when the negatives seem like a lot and lean on them when you need your foreign language people.

Ashley chats today with Mira Canion about class novels. There is another giveaway of her novels and Ashley promises some more giveaways in other languages for season 4. Tweet to @mcanion and #inspiredproficiency anything you want to be entered to win! Available titles include: Agentes Secretos (also available in French), Capibara con Botas, El Escape Cubano, Fiesta Fatal, La Perezosa Impaciente. Rival, Tumba, & La Vampirata.


Mira (My-ra) Canion chats with Ashley today about using novels and stories in classrooms. Mira is a teacher, author, and presenter. She has been teaching for 20+ years in Colorado at the middle and high school level. She started learning German when she was in high school and studied as an exchange student. She began as a German teacher and somehow started teaching Spanish with few credits to her background. She traveled to Mexico and lived with a family during the summer and read chapter books to help herself improve. She took intensive classes and watched telenovelas. This hard work inspired her to push students to read more and more to learn a foreign language. She would read books and if they were too hard she couldn’t finish them. She wanted to use that motivation to help students understand and still be motivated to keep reading without giving up.

Mira suggests that her novels are great to use for whole class study because there is a lot of culture embedded into them for language learners. You can just read the books and enjoy them but from a teacher perspective you can dissect a lot out of them that students may not pick up on their own. In “El Escape Cubano” implies that this escape is illegal so it’s a great jumping off point for teachers to talk more about communist societies and all that it entails.

She also talks about the great work of art by Picasso “Guernica” and how it is a central piece of her book “Agentes Secretos.” She would put a picture of that piece on the board and students would look at the art and imagine they were looking at it like the characters in the book are looking at it. She can also use this piece of art to tell several stories since there is so much going on within that work of art. It’s much more enriching to read a book like this as a class and enrich the book instead of just hoping the kids can pull these pieces out when reading independently. She also shares with us that her motivation for this book is from the movie “Toy Story” when Mr. Potato Head moves his facial features around says that he is Picasso. She relates her books to movies like this where they are funny to young kids but then they have so much deeper meaning for adults. You can let your kids enjoy the reading AND you can dive deeper for all the enrichment activities. There’s also a way to differentiate it based on your class and the students in front of you. Take stock of your kids and their interest level to see how deep you want to go when enriching the novels.

Ashley and Mira talk about background knowledge and how it may be more a determining factor in how well a person can read. Mira also mentions some cultural difference about people in Spain and people in America. In Spain two people on the street may look like they’re having an argument because they’re interrupting each other but they’re not. They’re just making sure that they both understand what’s going on in the conversation and it is the cultural norm there. Here in the United States we are much more polite and we will allow ourselves to misunderstand something in order to not be impolite and interrupt someone. We need to make sure that we have plenty of background knowledge to fully understand something.

Mira also talks about the teacher being the human dictionary in class and students asking “How do you say?” She says that is such a huge reason students need strong background knowledge to help them find the words they need to use because a simple word like “was” can be used so differently in so many different contexts. Words are used and appear in a context so words should be assessed that way for students, in a context. Use vocabulary to tell stories and it gives more richness to what is being done and it gives the kids more background for using these words. They get more context clues and visual clues, depending upon the activity, to help them when there is a background story to lean on. She hopes teachers will focus more on the message kids can extract from something and require students to isolate less words and do less code switching and translating. Enrich what you’re doing with students so they have more and more vocabulary to lean on with their context clues.

Activities to Help Build Background Knowledge

  • Images
    • Sloths are very popular right now and their full name in Spanish translates to “Lazy Bear” so students had to research that sloths are actually distantly related to bears and it helps learn the vocabulary without confusing it.
    • Lots of discussion can be head about how sloths behave, their habits, how they look, etc…
  • Cultural Knowledge
  • Experiences
  • Real Life
    • Characters might have argument with parents so get kids talking about fights they might have their parents and things they think are good and bad about parenting and what makes a good parent, etc….

Mira also writes teacher support materials for her novels. She reaches out to experts in the field of what her stories are about for the themes and the characters. She also goes through and prepares all the materials teachers might need and uses the lense of appropriateness for teachers so they can use these materials with students without having to think about if a parent will complain. It allows a teacher to delve into several different layers of the story so teachers can choose how deep that want to go without doing extra work because Mira already did it. She is also a professional photographer and includes her real pictures of travelling for slideshows to use with students so they can feel like they are in the story setting. It helps build the story line, the context, the culture, and the history behind the story.

Resources and links mentioned on the show:


Mira Canion on Twitter @mcanion

Buy her books here.

Season 3 Presenting Sponsor:

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Episode 8 Sponsors:

Stand up for all language educators –join today! And if you join online at using the code “INSPIRED” by May 31, 2019, we’ll take 20% off your first year’s membership! What are you waiting for?

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