Wednesday, October 13, 2010

First Week of School

Darkness. My alarm goes of at 7:00am and outside my window it's complete and total darkness as the world comes to life. I take my pills (Lisinopril/Hydrochlorothiaz—for blood pressure—when you take it on an empty stomach with a mouth fulla coffee it throws you into an excellent morning head rush) and down a glass of water. Next comes a shower, instant coffee, OJ and I'm out the door by 8:00am, still in darkness. I head south on the number 3 (yellow) metro line until it reaches the end. As I wait for the commuter train that takes me to Parla, where I work, the first rays of the new rising sun begin to peak over the eastern desert horizon.1 By 8:30am the tumult of the Spanish madrugada, dawn, is in full swing. And thus begins my day every Tuesday through Friday as I make my way to the small primary school I'm assigned to just South of Madrid.

My first full week of school was kind of like learning to swim. Sometimes, learning is easy. There's floaties, kick-boards, and shallow ends. The kind of week I had had some of that easy learning—where I sat in the back and watched the teachers, or where students harangued me with questions about whether I'm married or what my favorite soccer team is (of's Real Madrid...I guess...I feared pulling some other famous soccer team out of the few names I can remember). Then there's the other kind of learning to swim: where an older cousin just kind of chucks you into the deep end and tells you to start kickin'. This sums up most of my first week, since two teachers were out sick and one's been on her honey-moon. That experience required a lot of patience. Eventually I got the hang of it and even learned to calm the kids down with a round of stretching, wiggling, and some primitive meditative controlled breathing exercises.

You see, Spanish children are hard to control, and some of the teachers here don't seem to know how to, or want to, assert their authority and maintain order in the classroom. One 1st grade teacher on my first day instructed me (as I walked in the door) to “do whatever you can to get calm them down.” Teachers seem to treat the children like babies, and so...they act like babies. One British ex-pat journalist blames part of this characteristic on certain demographic and cultural factors:

   “The imperious little princes and princesses of the, now typical, one or two child Spanish family are   a wonder to behold. The centre of attention of parents, grandparents, neighbors, aunts, uncles, and an endless list of admirers, their life is as golden as it can get. They issue instructions to adults in loud voices. A cry of '¡Agua!' and water is brought. '¡Galletas!' and biscuits [cookies] appear. '¡Cola Cao!' and the chocolate drink that appears at almost any time of the day is brought out. '¡Quiero ver la tele!' and the television is switched on. There are, of course, many exceptions but it seems that childhood is often an obligation-free experience. Adults tidy toys. Adults get food. Adults are there, in short, to serve.”2

This is way different than my notion of growing up, which meant chores, setting the table, and generally, being told what to do (thanks mom). This trend seems to carry on even in the public sphere: “...when your child karate-chops his glass of mosto, sweet grape juice, onto the tiled floor, the waiter appears not just with a mop, but with a smile and a new, full glass. If the children then choose to roll around the floor practising infant all-in wrestling, well that is just a sign of robust, endearing good health. Other diners are likely to agree.”3  This pattern of slowed down maturity and spoiling (at least by Anglo/North American standards) even continues well into the 20s.4

This of course means that, as Red as I feel I am in my bones, the fascist in me bubbles up from time to time. This is particularly true in the 1st and 2nd grades, where I've resorted to threatening stares, abrupt stops in my lesson, loud bangs against the chalk board, and even the age old practice of humiliating dissidents by pointing them out and making stand against the wall (so they can stare at it and contemplate their misbehavior). So far, it has worked, and seems to be a fresh sight for some of the normally irritated teachers.

On the bright side, I do often times get paid to play. This was especially true when, last Friday, I brought my guitar to school. With the kindies and 1st graders, we practiced our ABC's and sang classics like “Four Little Monkeys” and “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” But my real shining moment was with the 4th graders. It was in the fourth grade that I introduced them to the Blues. I told them about how it developed from the music that African-Americans invented to cope with the horrors of chattel slavery , “Jim-Crow” segregation, and discrimination. It was difficult for them to comprehend, but I think I got across the point that we need to look at our pasts, critically, so we can identify our mistakes and not repeat them. And most importantly, even though suffering can produce beautiful art, we mustn't treat others differently because of how they look or who they are.

I painted up a “Family Tree” of Rock n' Roll, starting off from African rhythms, moving through Jazz, and into the Blues. Finally, I talked about about the Blues' cousin Reggae, and even got them to sing “Stir It Up” by the late great prophet of the Third World, Bob Marley.

The culminating moment came when I taught the kids probably one of the most important mantras in history: “All You Need is Love.” Let's hope they take it to heart.
Until Next Time

2Tremlett, Giles. Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through a Country's Hidden Past. Chatham, United Kingdom: Faber and Faber Limited, 2006. 234-35. Print.
3Tremlett 236
4“...Spanish children are now staying even longer in their parents' home. In 1990 a quarter of twenty-six to twenty-nine year olds were living at home. Within a decade that figure had risen to a half. Women leave slightly earlier than young men, presumably because they know how to cook and do their own laundry.” Tremlett 238


  1. I totally feel you on the lack of discipline. UGH!

  2. I feel like Spanish kids get whatever they want. I went from teaching chatty teenagers to teaching unpotty-trained little babies, and even when I tell a mother that her son painted the wall of the bathroom with fingerpaint he brought from home, she just says, "You should probably make the class more interesting." So, it's my mission to make these kids more american-style disciplined, despite my coworkers telling me it will never work.

    If all else fails, bribe. Or tell them the reyes Magos are watching! ánimo!

  3. Esteban,
    Great blog! I really have enjoyed reading about your experiences in Spain. I'm so jealous. It seems like you're having a great time. I wanted to type up a few hints on classroom management that may help. I'm in a rush though because I've got an insane amount of homework to do.
    Get the kids moving. It is difficult for children to sit in their seat for long periods of time. Their attention span is a lot shorter than ours. Sing "The Ants Go Marching On" and have them march around the classroom in 2x2 during that verse and 2x3 during that one etc. They will learn English and have fun doing it. It is ok for kids to sit on the floor. In the awesome video you posted, it looks like there is plenty of space in the front of the class. Seat them in a circle and have them lightning share in English. Quickly go through everybody in the circle and say "my favorite sport is" or "my favorite color, activity, movie...etc". You may also choose 3 kids to share one day. They can share anything they'd like that is appropriate and then take 3 comments or questions from other students. Another idea, seperate them in groups of 4 and give tham a card that says toaster, microwave, blender, etc. Give them 2 minutes to talk amoungst each other and figure out a way to act out the appliance. Have them act it out in front of the class and allow the others to shout out ideas until they get it right. Readers theater is another good idea. You can google them or just type up a children's book. Have a group practice and then act it out in front of the class.
    Sorry I have to go... You're are doing a great job. I love you and am SO proud of you cuz!

  4. Esteban!!!! This video is amazing! Those kiddos are so lucky to have such a fun teacher. Let's skype soon?
    Espescially love the chica in the back rockin out :-P

    Great voice too!!

  5. No lo tomes a mal,ya sabran votar mejor la proxima vez,no dejes tu Blog,nos debes una nota pronto!
    Un abrazo de tu Papa.

  6. Este!!! Wow! I have had such a great time reading your blog, you are such an informative and captivating writer (reminding me I should check it more often)! I was in a store the other day and "Wish You Were Here" came on, and it reminded me tremendously of you, so you can imagine my pleasure in getting to see you and your guitar jammin' like old times!!! Great news about the blues, too. These kids have no idea truly how great of a well-rounded education they are getting. You seem like an amazing teacher, and I'm sure the kids all love and respect you, even when you don't clean up their messes. I'm so glad you are loving it there, keep having adventures and don't ever let a moment be dull. Berkeley has lost just a touch of it's sparkle since you've left, but I'm glad to know your brightening up a new land. Keep writing, and I hope to hear from you soon!! (ps, I'm taking Português and will be studying abroad in Brasil next Spring ('12), so let's plan a meeting somewhere spectacular!)