I’m Teaching Arsonists! Or, Mis Alumnos Intentaron Quemar el Cole

One of the little joys of being a teacher is the fact that work is never boring. Incidentally, it is also one of the pains of being a teacher. Last week, I one of those incidents.

I was torturing my 17-year-olds with presentations, yet again. This project was creative, which in Teacherland means there is great potential for problems, or explosions. Yeah…

But I Don’t Want a Real Job: Why I Came Back

As of September 21st, I began my second year in Santiago de Compostela, thereby avoiding getting a “real job” or even permanent residence in the USA. Why? Well, that’s a bit complicated…

I came back because my Spanish is functional, but not on level with any native speaker’s. I want to be able to sound less like a foreigner who can converse comfortably, and more like a person who speaks with a slight accent. I want to be able to use the subjunctives and conditionals without hesitation. I want to stop tripping over certain consonant combinations; I also want to stop making sounds in the back of my mouth when I need to use the front.

I came back because I love teaching but am not ready to commit to getting an actual teaching degree. I don’t know if I want to be a full-time teacher in America. I’m hesitant about committing to a career where I won’t have a ton of job security, or income security, or general respect from the population, yet will be expected to work miracles with the few resources that I have. So I’m taking another year (maybe more) to decide if this is something I really want to pursue.

I came back because my pain in the ass students are improving, some of them greatly, and I want to be a part of that again. Yeah, they’re still a bunch of lazy buttheads, but I can see their English improving by leaps and bounds. I feel like I’m actually making a difference here, and I want to see what I can do after another year.

I came back because there’s still more countries to visit and adventures to be had.

I came back because I empathetically do not want to be floating around in Portland, working boring jobs and trying to figure out what I’m doing with my post-college life. There are too many fun ways to spend my 20’s and living abroad is easily a better choice than letting time slip past me as I try to figure my life out. Oh and I’m also not ready to go to grad school.

And finally, I came back because I have friends here. I have bartenders who know me by name, bank tellers who can help me when the ATM tells me to go fuck myself (metaphorically, usually). There’s a park with an excellent view of ancient buildings, a 4-story library, and way too many bagpipes. Plus one medieval cathedral that I love walking through on my way to work.

Really, why wouldn’t I come back?

“Are You Insane?!” Going to London with 14 Teenagers

Sorry about the lack of recent updates. I’ve been running in circles in recent weeks and haven’t really had a free moment. And here is why…

The first week of May, I was in London. Yes, for an entire week. My 4º ESO students had their end-of-year trip, and I volunteered to be a chaperone. Yes, I volunteered to take a group of 15-year-olds to one of the biggest cities in Europe for an entire week. Not insane, I promise–I mean, think about it. I got a week off of school to travel (admittedly working far longer hours than I normally do in exchange) and got a cheap-ass trip to London. It’s a win-win situation for me!
(I must note, the camera is still pissed at me for dumping Belgium beer on it, so no pictures until I get it fixed)

The adventure started on Monday the 30th, with my being late to the airport. Not that it mattered, because the Santiago Airport is the size of a medium sized Walmart and you can walk through security with no problems. However, because the universe will always complicate matters, our flight was delayed for 3 hours; yay, sitting in an airport with bored teenagers! Following this boredom, where I kicked their asses at card games, we made it to London. As a final bit of stress to the afternoon, I had to wait for 30 minutes to get through immigration, while getting shit from the flunkies because I didn’t know the address of the hotel I’d be staying.
Following airport annoyances, I began the process of controlling the kids, which is a bit like herding cats…In our first hour in London, they managed to get lost on the Metro. I will forever remember the terrified sad look on Belén’s face as the doors shut in her face, trapping her and three other girls on a train without anyone else. Luckily, metros are pretty idiot-proof and I didn’t lose any students. And for the rest of Sunday, we wandered around the West End and ate Chinese food (delish).

On Tuesday, I pried my ass out of bed (in my single room, yes!) at the ungodly hour of 7:30 and devoured breakfast while noting that the kids looked even more tired than me. It turns out they’d stayed up until 4 a.m. talking and playing games, que sorpresa, no? María Jose the math teacher was less tolerant than I of our kids’ stupidity and grumpily vowed to tire them out so that they would sleep. And so, off we went to take a bus tour of the city in one of those double-decker buses. I never take these bus tours, but considering how huge London is, it seemed like a good idea. I got rained on for 3 hours, because in London it rains a lot, surprisingly. We then wandered out to Greenwich to see the Meridian and the Royal Observatory (vaguely interesting for being a line on the ground) and then raced back into the city. We misjudged the metro stop and ended up running, yeah running, from one side of the Thames, over the Tower Bridge and down to the boat dock to make our boat trip down to Big Ben. The boats were full of tourists, naturally, and snarky guides who made the kids crack up.

Wednesday was museum day, which was super fun for me and evil torture for the kids, mwahahaha! We went to the National Gallery first, which is a giant art museum, and spent the entire morning roaming the building. It was a little much, even for me. By the end, when we were looking at Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, the kids were slumped on the bench, or the floor, looking like they wanted to die. After a lunch in the square, we headed off to the National History Museum, with my feet throbbing and my caffeine addiction giving me a phenomenal headache. We abandoned the kids to the dinosaurs and we teachers found a ton of coffee. (Sidenote: British coffee is TERRIBLE!! As in, I had to drink Starbucks all week, because it was the BEST I could find in the entire city!!) Upon leaving the cafe to hunt down our bratlings, we found them collapsed on a bench, not 10 feet from where we’d left them. Special…
“You didn’t see anything?”
“No. No, we see things,” they insisted. “But we tired now.”
Whatever kids.
After being completely museumed out, we went in search of food. Or rather beer, because we only had a short time before our musical started, an the place my co-workers headed, after dumping the kidlies, was a pub. Yum yum British beer! We then made it to the theater to see Shrek; yes, Shrek is a musical now. And they show it on Drury Lane, perfect (if you don’t get the joke, you fail). It was epic, pretty hilarious: Farquad was fabulous (in more ways than one) and they had the dragon SING!
My sleepy self made it back to the hotel, completely wiped out and not sure which direction was up…

Thursday morning I decided that I couldn’t stand another 16 hour day of babysitting or I was going to snap and shove all of the kids into the Thames. So I begged off the trip to some science museum and headed off in search of coffee and shopping. I found myself in Camden Town, which is huge, epic version of the Saturday Market, complete with all the freaks and weirdos that you can find in London. I made friends with people selling cool clothes and spent too much money on street food. After getting all shopped out, I headed back to the center to meet up with my responsibilities in time for our tour of Westminster Abbey. I found everyone hiding from the rain next to a grocery store.
The Abbey itself was interesting, though completely overcrowded. I nerded out over the Poet’s Corner, naturally.
We then went on the London Eye, which is a giant Ferris Wheel thing right off the Thames. Apparently the locals think it’s ugly as f**k, but as long as tourists will pay 20 bucks a person, it’s going to be around. Now, I loathe Ferris Wheels with a passion; they irrationally creep me out. However, I went up in this thing, which is enough like a Ferris Wheel to annoy me and make me nervous, even though we were in a bubble with absolutely NO WAY for me to fall out. However, the view was definitely worth dealing with my paranoia.

Friday was British Museum Day! Which means, 6 hours in a museum looking at all the things England “obtained” from other countries over the centuries. Fascinating really, ancient creepy mummies and Easter Island statues, as well as pretty much anything the British Empire could get its sticky fingers on. I “lost” the kids pretty early on, and enjoyed my museum without the addition of grumpy teenagers. I kind of fail as a chaperone, I guess…
We went to an Indian restaurant that night, and to my delight they actually knew how to spice things! Of course, because I’m used to Spanish definitions of spicy, my curry set my lips on fire and made my eyes tear up after 4 delicious bites. I think I scared my poor Spanish coworkers.

Saturday I froze my ass off while watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham palace. As the entire world comes out to watch, most of what I saw was the back of people’s heads, and grumpy policemen ordering me to get my ass out of the way. However, there were some good views of guys in giant fluffy black hats, haha. We then wandered off to Kings Cross Station and saw Platform 9 3/4, which isn’t anywhere near the actual platforms, but is really a tourist spot right next to the donut shop. Still, I was nerdishly pleased. We then wandered off to the Tate Modern Art Museum, which was full of really weird modern art: think sculptures made of light bulbs. Or, my favorite example of post-modernist anti-form pretentiousness: A piece of paper in the shape of a hexagon that was glued to the wall. Oooh! Aaah!

Sunday was our last day in London and we managed to, by threatening mostly, get the kids to be packed up and ready to leave the hotel on time. And then we went off to go shopping in Camden Town!! Woohoo, more shopping for me! On the way over, we met some Steampunk freaks on the metro, one of who decided she was going to be our new best friend. She picked the shyest kids to talk to, and I giggled as my poor innocent students, from a tiny village in north Spain, tried to figure out how to react to one of London’s more interesting citizens. We let them lose in Camden, with strict orders to not get lost or kidnapped, and then went shopping. We found a shop that specialized in rave clothes (think neons with UFO-style, futuristic) that also had a fetish shop in the basement. I also managed to buy some books in English, and devour a delicious Turkish snack.
After leaving Camden, we went back to the hotel, grabbed the luggage, and raced off to the bus station, only to be told that we were early for our bus to the airport.
When we FINALLY got to the airport, I had a headache and a half waiting for me. I had to wait in a long line to get my boarding pass stamped, and then security was a wait of American-proportions. Plus, for some reason, my luggage set off the anti-bomb technology of Stansted Airport. So…I had to wait while some over-friendly dude rooted through every single item in my backpack, trying to figure out what was so dangerous about my makeup and books. He kept calling me “madame” which was just annoying.
I finally made it to the plane, all the while mocking the kids who were wearing 5 layers of clothing to make their suitcases light enough to pass Ryanair restrictions. And then…back to Spain!! And bed!! And decent coffee!!

Me Da Vergüenza: Public Speaking in Spanish Classrooms

Rant time: This happens far far too often in my class.

I’ll ask a question. And the crickets chirp while the students look deliberately at their desks, books or the wall, as if hoping that eye contact is the magical key to getting called on in my English class. I “volunteer” some luckless floor-gazer, and hear the inevitable whisper of “No sé”. I’ll prod them, because it’s never a question that “I don’t know ” is the correct answer to.
“Come on, you must have a story about your weekend/an opinion on the video/ some vague English vocabulary cluttering up your head,” I’ll verbally poke them. But…silence, until I give up and move onto another one.

Some days, it’s like pulling teeth to get even my best students willing to speak up in class. And if I want them to stand in front of everyone and say more than two mumbled words, forget about it!

The problem is, the very nature of my job requires the students to at least attempt to participate in class. I don’t stand in front of everyone and give long presentations while the students “listen” to be me (more likely completely tuning out my English rambling). I try to get them SPEAKING. Unfortunately, even with a group of high school students that loves to talk among themselves, they are ridiculously shy when it comes to speaking in English. Cue my frustration, which because I am me, usually manifests as forcing the students to stand in front of the class and speak in English, no matter how shy they are. (Yeah, I’m mean, so?)

I guess I’m frustrated in this regard because I am applying American norms to Spanish students. Specifically our norm of having oral presentations, speeches, skits and in-class speaking as a central part of education. And here…well it’s not normal to make the 14 year olds give a 3 minute speech in Spanish, let alone in a foreign language. They haven’t had teachers who get a sadistic thrill out of assigning 5 speeches a semester, and have never done impromptu speeches. While American high schools definitely have their share of the mumblers and floor-gazers (I was one of them until about 13), the general trend seems to be making the shy ones get over their fear early on. And here public speaking is seen as “something they’ll learn in college”!

You Can’t Learn a Language by Osmosis

I hear your sarcasm right now, thinking “Really? Give me more fascinating insights.” But just think about it, you would-be language learners. How many of you have taken a class, or bought a grammar book, fulling intending to learn the language by yourself? I’m not even going to get into Rosetta Stone or other computer software. And honestly, you were expecting to learn, to improve…by simply doing this:

Okay, you weren’t consciously planning to learn a language by napping on your dictionary. Learning languages takes time and conscious effort (unless you’re an infant). And we’ll get excited about the idea of learning a language, buy the books, register for the class, and then….nada. Just owning a half-dozen books on Spanish grammar doesn’t make me perfectly fluent (yeah, I have a sparse library over here, what can I say?). Getting a major in Spanish doesn’t mean I feel confident explaining the problems with my refridgerator. It can, both can. 

I keep running into Spanish people who really really want to learn English. So they’re “taking” English classes and they meet up with me to drink and chat. But they stumble through basic conversations and relapse into Spanish. Because taking an English class, skipping 2/3 of the class, and sleeping on your textbook will hardly improve your skills. Because having English classes all the way through school (preK-12th) does nothing if you don’t actively use the language. Yes, it is a royal pain in the ass to practice, to constantly mess up and be the source of mockery for your friends.