Oceans Away

Oh boy! Another long pause followed by another long post!

Two months of living in Spain, and I am beginning to find my stride. I have several students for clases particulares (private classes), several intercambios (language exchanges), and have just signed up for a yoga class offered by the community center next to my school. I’ve made a few American friends and a few Spanish friends, so that I have some relationships to neglect now that my schedule is getting busier. I’ve had the opportunity to go on two field trips with various classes: one to a nearby park where the 2nd graders learned about traffic laws (including the chance to practice on a bike course complete with signs and traffic lights), and another to Jijona to visit a turrón factory and some caves up in the mountains.

On the bus with the entire Secundo Ciclo (3rd & 4th grade)

We could see Alicante from the mountain! (The kids were curious... ¿Dónde está tu casa en Michigan?)

Las cuevas...

Field trip finish early? Don't want to go back to school yet? Let your students run around in the park for approximately three hours!

In between, during the normal school day, I think I am finding my place here. (The next step? Learning to be content with that place.) I have four English classes a week with the teacher, with the fifth and sixth graders, and the rest of my sixteen weekly hours are in plásticas (art) classes. The English classes are wonderful – I feel like I am learning a lot about teaching ESL, and even though I only have one hour a week with each class, I can see progress. This week I am starting my Fulbright side project – a pen pal exchange with elementary classrooms in the United States. I’m excited about this project – the Fulbright side projects are meant to be aligned with Fulbright’s goals of intercultural exchange, in a way that is challenging and educational for both the auxiliar (me) and the students, and I think this will be all of those things.
I feel less excited about the plásticas classes. With the older grades, I sometimes am able to plan my own activities that combine art with language – or at least I am given ten or fifteen minutes to teach some vocabulary related to what they are working on. The teachers let me do Halloween activities with the kids, and most have agreed to let me bring in other holiday activities and lessons. The rest of the time I am circulating around the room trying to find things to say in English. Particularly with the first and second graders, whose plásticas activities are primarily coloring, cutting, and occasionally gluing, I am finding it hard to impart more language than “Oh, great job! That looks good! I like his red hat! What a nice blue house! Do you know where your scissors are?” They’re experts at colors, because it’s difficult to talk about much else, when I don’t have time for songs, activities, or more direct lessons… so often when I say anything to them in English, they just start holding up their crayons and saying proudly: “Green! Yellow! Rrrrred!” I think they see me as a weekly visitor whose sole purpose is to check that they know their colors in English. (It’s understandable. That’s a pretty fair assessment of the role I am currently given.)
After spending three years teaching in Detroit, building a language program from scratch, and preparing six or seven lessons a day at different grade levels, and letting my teaching job devour nearly all my free time, it feels foreign and increasingly frustrating to spend so much time hovering around at the back of classrooms. You would think that being this useless would be less tiring – but between the extra strain of speaking two (or three!) languages and the long days, I am just as exhausted by the time I go home.
It might sound like I am whining, but I’m not. (At least, I shouldn’t be.) It is easy to whine. It is easy to compare the current situation to others and to some imaginary ideal in your head, where you have boundless time, materials, support, and the rapt attention of (no more than a reasonable number of) bright, clean little faces. Teaching is never going to occur in an ideal situation, because it is a job working with the most young and chaotic members of our already-unpredictable human race. Especially as a teacher in ESL and/or foreign languages – which are not on the big standardized tests and often less funded or organized – I can expect a career full of unreasonable expectations, meager resources, and creative solutions.
So here I am – teaching English, learning more Spanish, and most importantly, trying to foster intercultural exchange. I think the only thing more eye-opening than teaching itself is teaching in a foreign country. There are so many confusing, revealing, and thought-provoking reminders that I am oceans away from my comfort zone.
Por ejemplo…
  • The loud THWACK of a plastic folder on the head of an overly talkative student, when an irritated teacher smacked him with it hard enough to send a bit of plastic flying across the room. Back home this event might have been followed by a lawsuit – here it was followed by a collective gasp, a brief tirade in Valencian, and restored order in the classroom.
  • The birthday celebration for some teachers during el recreo last week, where the teacher’s lounge erupted into activity: snacks materializing from somewhere, a few liters of beer circulating in little plastic cups, regional pastries unfolding themselves from paper cartons brought from someone’s pueblo, congratulatory dos besos for the birthday folk, and a loud jumble of laughter/Valencian/Castellano/Spanglish. I sipped beer self-consciously (with the noise of the students on the playground outside) while the primary school teachers tried to refill my cup whenever they noticed it was empty.
  • The very, very young students in the building – although I don’t work with infantil, it is bizarre to see the tiny three year olds in the hallways, in their little gingham smocks called babis, hanging onto each other to create very slow-moving and haphazard trains, or occasionally carried by their teachers (also dressed in babis, which is pretty genius if you are going to be hugged by so many grubby little people.)
  • A distinctly European level of comfort with the human body, with anatomically correct posters to teach all the bits and pieces, a detailed discussion of childbirth in the kindergarten class, a student changing into his karate uniform in the fourth grade hallway, the discussion about the Birth of Venus (and a student’s commentary: We have that picture in my house – but my dad cut out the face and replaced it with a picture of my mom…) Let’s not even talk about the fair where I stumbled upon a father helping his small son pee on a wall at the side of a crowded street…
  • A general lack of anxiety that has been hard for me to assimilate, as approximately a hundred 3rd and 4th graders ran amok on a field trip – wrestling, piling on top of each other, hanging off railings over a very scenic and very high cliff. The other teachers must have noticed the panicky look in my eyes, because they just shrugged and said – “eh… es normal para los niños.” There isn’t the paranoia that I am used to in lawsuit-happy America – the paranoia that manifests itself in safety railings, warning signs, first aid kits, fire escapes. Then again, maybe there is something to be said for a lack of paranoia. I haven’t noticed an inordinate amount of children falling off of castles or down into caves.
  • Further nonchalance in the area of sanitation. I am used to certain things in American schools – the vats of hand sanitizer, availability of tissues, and reminders to cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze – that simply are not here. (Terrifyingly enough.)

Niños in high places.

Note the welding that is going on while we are below in the caves. Not only is this very loud during the tour, but there is also a lot of sparks and a half-constructed railing as we all file past on the wet steps...

On the other hand, there are some things that have been comfortingly consistant from one continent to another:
  • Students are excited to see me anywhere outside of the classroom: at the store, on the bus, in the city center, in a nearby pueblo at a fair… just like my students in the United States, they are fascinated to discover that teachers do things outside of the school.
  • Being a teacher is a like being a rockstar. People are always screaming your name in the hallway or in the street.
  • In drawings, if there are people dancing there will always, always be a disco ball present.
  • Tattling and whining are both phenomena that easily cross the language barrier.
  • First graders will always be a little bit insane.
  • No matter how strictly or tightly controlled the lines are, the creativity of children will always, always spill through the cracks in some way.
(I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.)

Halloween Jack-o-Lanterns

We talked about the difference between scary and fun when it comes to Halloween. Most people chose scary. The sweet little third graders were particularly bloodthirsty.

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2 Responses to Oceans Away

  1. Chelsea says:

    so many things!
    1) what you are doing in the art classes reminds me of the books we got at marshalls, the eric carle ones? you should give them themed projects, like “draw a house” or give them things to draw in english, you know? maybe you are already doing this. the more time i spend around grace’s preschool, the more i fall in love with the education of young children. in my other life, i am for sure a preschool teacher.
    2) grace is so, so obsessed with you being in spain. she talks about it CONSTANTLY. we are having dinner at arika’s on sunday with paul (who lives in your room now, and adam chase is moving into paul’s room, and it’s a big round of musical rooms) and it will be interesting to see if she notices that it is your house too. we had a playdate with twins from her class, aiko and sala, whose mother is from japan and she has a lot of questions/thoughts on early childhood education, the gap in education there and here, and how to handle teaching her kids japanese when they still haven’t mastered english. i had no help to offer, but i thought of you… 🙂
    3) in light of the body-comfort, how do they talk about death? this has been an interesting one because of day of the dead and me wanting to tell grace things and her little mind was like…well, people are frozen in ice blocks at the cemetary (headstones), and i told her when you die you go back to the earth like all of the apples on the ground that we saw at the apple orchard, and then she said “and i can be a flower?” yes, yes you can. but this still doesn’t touch on the reality of LIVING and DYING, you know? how do they handle it there?
    4) folder on the head. i like it.
    5) disco. grace got pink sparkle shoes. she says they bring disco where ever she goes.

  2. saracita says:

    1) Yeah, I brought those books, and I have tons of ideas for activities for that age group – some new, some from my three years with that age group in Detroit, and I’m sure I could come up with way more – but I’m not given any time. The teachers don’t want me to take time away from the “talleres” they are already doing. That’s the frustrating part.
    2) I’m confused by the musical rooms, but whatever. As for the bilingualism – kids can handle it. I’m continually amazed at little ones’ abilities to pick up languages (even though I’ve studied this many times before.) They are little sponges.
    3) I’m still curious about this one, too, because there’s certainly random body parts in glass cases all over.
    4) I’m going to come back to the U.S. with my new classroom management observations… and lose my job.
    5) This is awesome.

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