Most of my students do not understand the concepts of “personal questions” and “maintaining a private life.” My world is their oyster; my foreign ways are strange and wonderful, and my life is a fantastic enigma. Hence, I get asked odd, intrusive, but usually innocent questions, mainly to do with my love life. Without fail, the first questions asked to me are “What is your name?”, “Where are you from?”, and “Do you have a boyfriend?” Personally, my having a boyfriend or not is hardly a defining trait; of all the things interesting about me, my relationship status is like watching paint dry on a wall. But in Spain, this is a question of great interest, especially to my students, both young and old.
Batxillerat student: Do you have a boyfriend?
Me: That is a personal question.
Batxillerat student: *thinking deeply* Ah, yes, I see. But… what do you think of Spanish men?
Me: *face palm* That would be a personal question.
Batxillerat student: Ah, yes, I see your point.
Me: It may be a surprise for you guys, but I like to keep my life outside of school and my life inside of school separate. I do not need you all knowing everything about my life.
Batxillerat student: Really?
This conversation took place with a group of four rambunctious, sly, and intrigued 18-year-old boys. They, being their teenager-selves, perfectly understood what I was trying to say, but they naturally wanted to see how far they could push it. My younger students, on the other hand, are quite optimistic about my love life and have assured me that I will find my soul mate. Thanks, kids.
The students in between are a complicated bunch. My ESO classes with students aged 12 to 16 drew me absolutely nuts during the first week of school because they would be half asleep, unwilling to speak, or chatting away in Spanish/Catalan the entire time. After four weeks, they have decided that they like me and have lost fear of talking. The abilities among these students massively vary, so I try to focus on improving their individual abilities, even if that is still less than average.
One of my favorite chatty students in 4t ESO announced to me that she was failing English. I was shocked because her verbal fluency seemed quite up-to-level; how could she possibly be failing?
“But do you study for your exams?” I asked. She said that she did and proceeded to rattle off all the new verb patterns that she was going to be tested the next day. “But you seem to know the material,” I said.
“Yes,” she responded. “I will fail anyway.”
Something was not quite right. I asked her English speaking teacher why she was doing poorly, and the teacher said that she does not listen in class and that she has “problems.” I found this hard to swallow; surely Judith was learning English, as seen by her oral fluency, but her grade wasn’t reflecting her abilities. I spoke to her English grammar teacher, who said that Judith was always talking in class—but that’s why I like her!—and that she had become content with failure. Now this was a possibility.
Week 6 rolled around, and Judith announced that she had, in fact, failed the exam, scoring a 4.4 out of 10—on the bright side, it was her best score that she had received on an English exam all year. So, I told her to get her exam from her teacher and we would figure out what went wrong.
As it turned out, she didn’t study properly for the exam. She focused on one grammar concept and neglected the vocabulary, and she didn’t review old concepts. I explained that language learning is not just about memorizing one thing from the book—it builds, so you have to make sure that you study all the vocabulary and grammar from the current unit and also review previous material.
“But Judith, you speak so well! You must do well on oral exams.” Apparently not. The boys in her class laugh at the girls, then she gets embarrassed and makes mistakes. I told her that she had to block out the boys’ laughter because they were wrong to laugh: she’s one of the best speakers in her class.
“But Courtney, if I study really hard and then get a bad grade, I’ll be…”
“But Judith, if you have low expectations, you will get low results. You need to have more confidence in yourself.”
“Yes, but if I think I know everything and then I get a bad grade, it’s bad.”
“But getting a bad grade is bad too. How are you going to get a good grade if you don’t think that you can do it?”
It took awhile for her to see the point. Finally, I told her that I believed in her; I thought that she could do it, and I would believe in her until she believed in herself. I said that her next goal was to get a 5 on the exam. I hope my little pep talk works.
Halloween was an interesting day. The only costumes in sight were a group of 4t ESO girls who dressed up as zombies; I personally liked their costumes, but everyone else thought it was quite strange. There was no candy or trick-or-treating, but we did talk about pumpkins a lot. “Halloween” became my lesson plan for the week. However, I learned a little bit more about my students’ Halloween habits than I would have liked to know. Things I would like to erase from my mind:
“I am going to have a party at my house and we are going to play games with closets and bottles.”
“Wait, you’re 12 years old.”
“I am going to have a party at my house. We are going to order Dominos pizza because it is big and cheap, and we are going to drink the alcohol…”
“Don’t worry, I’m 17.”
“That’s still illegal. And I’m practically your teacher! Would you tell that to [normal English teacher]?”
“Oh yes, he is very understanding of these matters.”
The students thought it was very cute that I was appalled by their behavior. Being teenagers, they naturally continued:
“And then we are going to take drugs and have very very sex!”
“You mean a lot of sex, not very sex… ugh, never mind.”
The things I wish I could un-hear.
At least Halloween morning went better. At 8 am, I was ready to execute my first full-length lesson plan for a class of 24 13-year-olds (2n ESO). They tend to be nonresponsive critics first thing in the morning, so I figured that the class could go really well or really badly.
During the previous week, the head English teacher asked me if I wanted to try teaching a full- or half-length class to get more experience: I wanted to show the teachers a more dynamic way to teach English, so I leapt at the opportunity. I wrote up a detailed lesson plan with procedures, worksheets, and activity materials, and gave it to the teacher for review. She was impressed by my thoroughness and professionalism, and the lesson plan made its way around the teachers room with surprise and interest.
Before the lesson started, I was incredibly nervous, but the lesson actually went well. I got just enough response from the students to get a rhythm going and the students listened and followed directions really well. It was a success, and now the other teachers for 2n ESO want me to do the lesson for their classes. I’ll have some time to re-work the lesson so that it goes even more smoothly for the other two 2n ESO classes.
One last interesting thing that I got to do on Halloween was to be la castanyera, the little old lady who comes from the mountains bringing roasted chestnuts for all the boys and girls. This is a big Catalan tradition celebrated on November 1. Without shame, I put on a long skirt, a shawl, a handkerchief to cover my head, and ornery glasses to disguise my true identity. Apparently, a different teacher plays la castanyera each year—this year, this American girl got to play the part! It was so fun to see the children’s excitement and curiosity. Instead of chestnuts, I handed out candy to all the infantil classes and then got to throw candy at the primària children from a balcony. I mean, throw candy to the children. Not at. Right.
I enjoyed my three-day weekend and got to explore a bit of the Catalan countryside with my host family (pictures to come and maybe some writing if I can fix my wandering mind to a theme), and I returned to school on Monday feeling refreshed for Week 6.
The week started out with a major ego boost. For the past month, I’ve been participating in an intense cross-training fitness group on the beautiful Montjuïc hill in Barcelona, and the results are definitely showing. Working out is my “me time” and kicks any stress from work. At school during one of the physical education classes where I assist in English, a little boy had the audacity to say that girls were not as good as boys at sports…and he said this to his wonderful female P.E. teacher. While she gave him an earful, explaining passionately how many of her friends were professional soccer players and just as good, if not better, as the boys, I merely took off my sweatshirt and flexed my arms. “Mira como fuerte es la Courtney!” Heck yes, Teacher Courtney is very strong.
In addition to being strong, it has also been decided that I speak Spanish and Catalan very cutely. Any little phrase that I say is met with surprise by the younger children and coos of adorableness by my ESO and batxillerat students. Well, cute was not exactly what I was aiming for. Knowing Spanish and Catalan has been rather helpful as a teacher because I can better translate words and concepts that my students do not understand. Also, I try to use my language-learning experience as a way to get “on level” with the students; this way, I can empathize with the confusion and frustration that comes with learning a new language.
I’ve also been able to get to know some of the teachers. A few of them are fairly young and have been really welcoming, always making sure that I am happy and being around if I have any questions about teaching and living in Barcelona. These little notes of concern have made it easier to feel like I belong at the school and serve a real purpose.