Thursday, January 29, 2015


WARNING: this post contains explicit language, parental guidance recommended

I have to remind myself that it is not just the language that separates me from Spanish society, it is also a difference of culture.  Today, I was not as successful in remembering that.

I was working with a class that I meet with every week but this time I was the only teacher in the room because the usual teacher was sick.  I started class with some English language practice and then as per my instructions, I started a video about the human brain.  But, there was a problem with the projector and I had to figure out what was wrong.  Just as I solved the issue, I heard a student loudly exclaim to another student "fuck...".  In the midst of my frustration I yelled at the student for cursing and further I explained that my Spanish is terrible, if he wanted to curse at a classmate why would he do so in English! This was the beginning of a cultural education for both of us!

I commonly see students flip each other off and I hear them say "fuck",  "shit", "mother fucker", and even on several occasions "I am the mother fucking shit"!!  Seeing a student raise his middle finger and extend his arm in the direction of a fellow student was a bit shocking the first time I saw it.  In the states I would at the very least reprimand the student, but here it happens often and right in front of the teachers.  I realized that this gesture which is generally reserved for people who cut us off on the road but we would usually not say in a professional setting, is basically like "shut up" here and maybe less drastic than that.

There is a difference though when it comes to cursing in another language.  The teacher who had the class after me found me at lunch and explained that the Spanish language version of "fuck" is said commonly and isn't at all offensive. In my mind that made it analogous to "screwed" as in "I have work in the morning and this project isn't done, I'm so screwed"! I don't think most Americans would find this offensive.  And at this moment I understood why I hear so much cursing in front of teachers from students that are in general very respectful of authority.  These students have learned these words from music and media, maybe even their teachers but they generally are not in the presence of someone from an English speaking culture.  To them, the words are analogous to Spanish words that aren't usually considered offensive and because they only speak them with other Spaniards, they don't realize how offensive it might be to shout in class, "fuck".

I decided it was my job to explain to them that even though they know these words and even though they might seem harmless in Spanish, they don't know how or when to use them.  Saying "hey mother fucker, can I use your pencil" might better be replaced by "hey man, can I use your pencil".  Exclaiming to another student during class "you are the mother fucking shit" might better be replaced by "you rock" or "you're awsome".  Likewise, shouting "fuck" because something bad happened, while it might be socially acceptable in front of your friends, would better be replaced by "dang it" or the like when you are at school.

It was both the strangest and the most fun lesson I have had during this whole exchange! I'd like to think that I just saved them from a socially awkward/offensive situation when they next encounter a native English speaker from the states. Either way though, I got to say all of the words we typically would never say in class. The eight year old in me was giggling the whole time!

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

"You Americans are all alike."

I have a class called "forestry" which is a vocational class and I meet with them once per week.  We have met on numerous occasions and I help them with their labs and their English while they help me with my Spanish.  In all of our previous meetings it has gone this way.  However, today was different.

We had only something small planed but in 50min. we didn't manage to accomplish it.  At the start of class a student had a question for me and that evolved into a whole period of question-and-answer interaction.

I was asked many questions that are related to American culture, politics both national and global as well as American stereotypes.  At first they were simple questions like do I hunt and by the end it was what do I think about the US-Israel relationship!  I did my best to provide diplomatic answers to questions that seemed a bit sensitive and attempted to remind them that we are all people whether from Spain or the US or wherever.

Some of the topics that were most interesting to them were our "fascination" with guns (as well as our freedom to use them in self defense if someone were to break in your house or otherwise intent on mortally injuring you) and our consumption and procurement of natural resources. 

The gun topic started out simple enough, one of the students had recently shot a wild boar and he asked if I hunt. The next question of course was if I owned any guns followed by would I use them if someone broke in my house.  In Spain it is legal to own a gun, provided that you have a permit of course, but the use of a gun to shoot another person even if that person intends to kill you is, according to the students I was speaking with, illegal. This line of questioning was facinating for them and they continued asking "what if..." scenarios. I tried to explain that you can't just shoot someone for no reason and that generally speaking that the other person must present a clear, inescapable threat to you. You can't just shoot someone who is breaking into your car if they present no clear danger directly to you.  All the while I'm thinking, I am not a lawyer and I am in NO way qualified to answer these questions! I tried to tread lightly on the specifics but to make it clear that generally Americans don't go around shooting each other and if one were to do so there is a legal consequence.  So much pressure to answer their questions tactfully though!

The other issue was about fossil fuels.  They asked if I was okay with my country going around stealing oil from other countries; no exaggeration that is how the question started!  I was a little taken aback by that one.  I tried to artfully dodge it to the best of my abilities because it seemed to involve our invasion of Iraq. It appeared like a slippery slope and a potential for an argument, which certainly is not my goal here.  I simply said that we produce about half of what we use and we buy the rest from other sources.  I asked them if they knew how much Spain produced and if they themselves owned a car. This seemed to provide me with a chance to escape to a new topic and I jumped at it!

The final question was difficult for me to understand.  A student hummed the national anthem and asked if we sing it.  Finally I figured out that they thought that we forced students to sing the national anthem at the beginning of each class. I immediately pictured some sort of fascist state... kids in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union!  I tried to explain that it isn't the national anthem it is the pledge of allegiance, it is only once a day and, at least in my experience, students may choose not to recite it as long as they are respectful while others recite it.

Ugh!  It was an intense and interesting conversation but one that I think is important for me to have with the curious students I encounter here.  I think as American's we need to be more aware of how the people of the world perceive us and thoughtful about our interactions with them.

Note: the title of this entry is a quote from Die Hard and it is what popped into my head when I thought about the topic of this entry! 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Cold war

Madrid is hot in the summer.  Madrid is freezing in the winter... it's winter. Worse yet, our place isn't well insulated, it has electric heating and electricity is demasiado caro (too expensive)!

It is a Herculean task to keep this house warm and even if we could, it would be, financially speaking, a pyrrhic victory. 

The cold has launched its "feliz ano" offensive and has now driven us from the living room. It became to costly to hold that position. We have fallen back to three main strongholds, the playroom (new family room), the kitchen, and the master bedroom. The kids room is currently an active engagement area. We take it in the evening but by morning the cold has over run us and we fall back again to one of the strongholds.

We are staying hopeful that there will be a break from the cold war by next Monday but the war is likely to go on for several more months!

Stay warm out there!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Spanish classrooms?

People ask me what I have found to be the biggest difference between the Spanish and American classrooms and I haven't really known how to answer that question.  I don't fully comprehend the events that occur in class because I cannot fully follow the language especially when spoken as fast as it is in conversational settings.  Also, due to the nature of my position and the limitations of my perspective, I am only at one school in all of Spain after all, it is difficult to say for certain. I would not want to paint with too broad of a brush. 

But with those limitations firmly in mind...

My first observations were that Spanish society is far more social than we are in the States.  Spanish children are always touching and/or talk to each other, always... during passing in the halls, lunch, and even class.  It Is typical to see teachers pat students on the back for a good job or give students a playful swat on the back of the head for a silly error (softly, the way we might smack ourselves on the forehead for doing something we should have known not to do).  Conversation and contact is a way of life here.

It put me on edge at first, because it so contrasted with my understanding of school norms.  I have on multiple occasions, though never in a classroom, witnessed boys burst into a wrestling match and once even a friendly fist fight (I didn't know those existed!). The boys were never angry with each other and never did the contact erupt into an actual fight in the way it might between two American boys especially when one of them goes "too far".  Physical contact or play is just a social norm here and although a wrestling match is unlikely to appear in the classroom, it is not uncommon for a boy to flick the ear of a distracted student next to him or for a student to be poked with the end of a sharpened pencil or given a rather rough backrub by the seatmate behind him or whatever the case may be.  The general agreement seems to be that as long as it doesn't cause a distraction to the other, uninvolved students, all is fair. And I would say that in general, these things go mostly unnoticed.

More than the physical contact, it is the desire to talk that stands out as the biggest difference for me.  Spanish classrooms are rarely quiet.  My instinctive reaction is to interpret it as unproductive.  For me, it looks a little chaotic with students interrupting the teacher with questions and wonderings about tangentially related topics.  Don't misunderstand me, I don't expect silence in my classes but there are times that are better suited for conversations than others.  When my American students are solving problems in the classroom or in lab, I expect small group discussons and encourage them to question the content and the process as they work to understand the material.  These interactions are an important and necessary part of the learning process.

However, while observing a class one day, the chaotic exchanges between various students and the teacher began to look different to me.  There was a legitimate academic conversation taking place and while the norms of the conversation differed from those I am accustomed to, it was clearly a productive exchange between an engaged class and a knowledgeable teacher.  The students freely expressed both their doubt of some aspects of the topic as well as their desire for clarification of certain components.  They connected the content with their everyday lives and had questions about how the topic could be used to explain their observations. 

After this event, I have noticed it much more often, perhaps because my Spanish is slightly improved.  I love the boldness with which these students ask questions.  They are seemingly unencumbered by the stigma that might be attached to asking the perceived "stupid" question.

I live for these experiences in my own classroom and work to create an environment where kids feel safe enough and free enough to express their curiosity.  But, I admit that it can be a struggle.  There are many factors that act to quell the curious nature of young learners.  I fear that our tendency in the States to pack more content and students in the time and space available is amoung those factors.

Nonetheless, I now observe my Spanish classes with a fresh eye and am excited to get back to having those experiences with my own students.

Back to work...

School started again on the 8th not on the 5th as is did for most schools in the States.  In Spain, there is the Christmas holiday, New Year's Eve, and then the Three Kings day.  Three Kings day represents the day that the three wise men arrived in Bethlehem and brought gifts of frakenscence, myrrh and gold; this is the day that Spanish children get gifts sort of in the same way American children get gifts from Santa. That happens on the 5th of January and therefore students start back to school on the 8th.

I found myself procrastinating and basking in the two bonus days rather then finishing my lesson plans for the first weeks of school.  As I typical for me, I didn't sleep well the night of the 7th because I was thinking about what I would need to get done in the morning.  I woke up early, got to work early, opened up my computer and got to work. I had to print of documents and finish up a couple of presentations and I was highly focused!

As more people arrived at work I soon found myself surrounded by people who were not consumed by the details of lesson plans and last minute details but instead they all greeted each other, embraced, and said "feliz año" (happy new year!).  Try as I might, I couldn't help but join in, they insisted actually!  There were a lot of handshakes, hugs and kisses on the cheek (as is typical here).

What a great way to start the week back to work.  In the states, I would have been obsessed with getting back in the rhythm of teaching. I would have been solely focused on my tasks and my work, to the neglect of these critically positive interactions with my peers.  It changed my whole outlook on the day, I wasn't stressed about all of the little details and I would have been exhausted by the end of the day.  Instead, my first day back was energizing and exciting and the details just took care of themselves.