Reading the Book “Felipe Alou”

I know that a lot of teachers are winding things down or are already out of school for the summer, but for me, our summer semester is just getting started! I started teaching a new class this semester, a Level 3 class. I decided to start out the semester by reading the book Felipe Alou, written by Carol Gaab, with my students.

Felipe Alou: From the Valleys to the Mountains – Novel (English version)

I know that there is some debate about whether or not it’s a good idea to have the whole class read a book all together. Honestly, I’m still figuring out for myself whether or not I think a whole-class novel is the best approach. But for now, I’m still continuing to do some whole-class novel reading in my classes. Maybe someday I’ll write a full blog post about my thoughts on this topic, but for now, I’ll just say that I’ve found whole-class novel reading to have a lot of benefits, and I think that it can be engaging for the students, as long as the book is interesting and the teacher doesn’t commit “readicide” by overloading the students with lots of comprehension questions, long discussions, or pointless activities.

I’ve seen a few other blog posts by teachers who used the Spanish version of Felipe Alou with their students, but I haven’t read anything by any other ESL/EFL teachers who have used it, so I thought I would write a little about how I used it in hopes that it will help other teachers who might be considering using the book.

The book is the biography of Felipe Alou, a man from the Dominican Republic who came to the U.S. in 1956 to play professional baseball. He encountered a lot of obstacles along the way, but he ended up having a very successful baseball career. Honestly, when I first heard about the book, I was not too excited. I’m not a baseball fan, so I kind of immediately discounted it. But several months later, I decided to actually read the book, and I discovered that it was really interesting! Although the book does focus somewhat on Felipe Alou’s baseball career, it also talks about his struggles in coming to the U.S. without knowing any English and the racial discrimination he faced.

One big caveat: I would only recommend using this book with students who speak Spanish (unless you teach advanced-level students). The book was intentionally written for native Spanish speakers who are learning English, so it is packed full of Spanish-English cognates. That’s great for native Spanish speakers, but since a lot of the cognates used are pretty low-frequency, “advanced” words, if you have any non-Spanish speakers in your class, the book will be much more difficult for them.

I used it with my Level 3 (low-intermediate) students, but I think it could also be used with high-beginning level students (as long as they are Spanish speakers!) The book was pretty easy for most of my students, which was what I was hoping for. I think most of the students in this class have previously been in English classes in which they mostly learned grammar rules and memorized vocabulary words, so they’re not really used to reading a lot of English. None of them had ever read a book before in English, so I really wanted them to have a positive, easy experience in reading their first book.

We read about one chapter each day in class. Usually, I started by previewing a few words in the chapter that I thought might be unfamiliar to them. For a couple of chapters, I did a word sort or some other short pre-reading activity. Then we read the chapter together (I read aloud while the students followed along in their books). After reading a chapter, I sometimes asked a few comprehension questions to make sure they understood the main points. We also discussed some of the issues brought up in the book and talked about our own reactions and opinions.

With a book like Felipe Alou, it’s easy to bring in other cultural and historical topics that are related to the book. We talked some in class about the civil rights movement in the U.S. and about the #PonleAcento campaign in 2016, in which Latino baseball players fought to have the accents on their names included on their jerseys. (This ended up being a very interesting discussion. Even in my class of all Latinos, the students were pretty divided on the issue—some thought that it’s extremely important to include accents on people’s names on jerseys as well as on drivers’ licenses, etc., but other students said it doesn’t really matter.)

When I ordered the books, I debated about whether or not to purchase the Felipe Alou Teacher’s Guide since it seemed pretty expensive ($59), and I wasn’t really sure what to expect. As I mentioned, I try not to use tons of comprehension questions and drag out a whole-class book too much. But I decided to purchase the guide, and I was pleased to see that it was not all comprehension-check activities. There were also a few supplemental readings that gave background information related to the book, and there were a few pre- and post-reading activities that I liked and used with my class.

I think a lot of my students liked the book because they could relate to it in many ways. They all said they could relate to Felipe Alou’s struggles in coming to the U.S. and not speaking any English, as they had experienced the same thing. And several of them said they had a similar experience in trying a delicious hamburger for the first time in the U.S.!

I also think this book was a good way to help students understand a little more about U.S. history. As a supplemental activity, we talked and read about Rosa Parks. None of my students had ever heard of her before! Sometimes I forget how little most ESL students know about U.S. history, but I think it’s good for them to at least know some basic information. Part of our job as ESL teachers is to help our students become well-informed U.S. residents/citizens, and knowing about some important events in U.S. history can help with that. That’s one of the reasons why I think that reading books like Felipe Alou together as a whole class can be really beneficial (rather than just having students read on their own). Reading the book together creates a great segue to learning about historical and cultural issues.

My students definitely seemed to enjoy the book. As soon as we finished reading it, two students piped up and asked, “So when are we going to start the next book?” And one student even asked me for information about where he could buy the book online.

Whether you decide to use it as a whole-class book or as an option available to students for free reading, I would definitely recommend the book!

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