Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Quieren acabar con todo (con la excepción de las escuelas concertadas)


On the way to Spanish class the other day, I noticed a big crowd of people standing outside the school with placards. ´What was all that about?´ I asked my Spanish teacher.  I'm glad I asked, as she spent the next hour and a half to trying to explain.

What she told us, some of which I already knew, was that there are serious problems with the Spanish educational system.  The thing that people are most angry about is that public money is being spent to fund private schools.  Yes, that´s right, public money is going to private schools, whilst the government continues to make aggressive cuts in the public ones.

It´s hard to believe that this ludicrous policy exists, but it actually started out innocently enough.  In the few years after Franco's dictatorship, there were relatively few schools in Spain to educate all of its children, so the government would provide subsidies for children to study at private schools when the public ones were full.  These were the escuelas concertadas, operating as a public-private partnership to ensure universal education.

Nowadays, however, there are plenty of schools for everyone and the only people who attend the private ones are those whose parents have made a conscious choice to send them there.  Personally, I think that there is no reason whatsoever that the government should have to subsidise this choice, not least when it serves to detract resources from the already stretched public schools.

Just to sidetrack for a moment, I didn´t agree with the idea of private/semi-private schooling before coming here and I´ve only grown in my conviction after talking to students, parents and teachers in Spain. I don´t know how it is in Scotland , but it appears to be quite normal here for privately educated people to be able to buy their way into university.  For example, in the private schools, there appear to be no qualms about raising exam results to boost league tables and one of my students even told me about a friend of hers who got into uni after her teacher changed her mark from a fail to a pass. (She had to drop out 6 months later, of course, as it´s not usually possible to study something you have absolutely no grasp of...)

Whether or not teachers fix exam results in the private schools, I also don´t believe it´s healthy for children to start their lives in an environment where all of their friends and classmates are from the same, privileged background.  I understand that many parents send their children to private schools in the belief that it will help them to get a better education and start in life, but I don´t think there is any better education than learning to interact with all types of people whilst you are young enough to be free of all prejudices. 

One set of parents told me that they sent their children to a private school because there were ´no immigrants´ in the classes there* , thinking that it was a good thing that their children wouldn´t be ´slowed down´ by having a child in the class who didn´t speak Spanish.  Sadly, though, they didn´t take the opportunity to think about what being in the same class as an immigrant might teach their children.  The important lesson in empathy it offers was demonstrated to in one of my classes just the other day.  A young Pakistani boy arrived at the school inequipped with even a word of Spanish or English vocabulary, making it all but impossible for him to follow lessons and interact with people.  It would have been easy for the other students to simply ignore him, but I was surprised to see them rallying round and trying to help him to adapt to the new environment.  I guess from seeing the boy´s lost expression, they grasped how difficult it would be for them to arrive in a school where everything was foreign.

Anyone interested in learning more about the Spanish educational system should also have a look at Chapter 4 (p.100) of a PhD thesis called 'God, gangs and grades: Constructing identity and difference among Ecadorian children in Madrid', which can be found on Google Books.

To get back to the problems which exist in both the public and the private sector, the way in which teachers are selected is another sore point.  The dream of every teacher in Spain (except my Spanish teacher because she's fantastically principled) is to become a funcionario, a teacher who is employed by the state.  These teachers are basically granted the status of civil servants, with better packages of pay and benefits than their colleagues.  They also have a far less precarious employment situation than ´normal´ teachers who are stuck on 6-12 month rolling contracts, as they are guaranteed a permanent teaching position and cannot be dismissed from their post.

The problem is how you are granted funcionario status.  In order to stamp out any discrimination, every candidate must sit an anonymous exam, but there is speculation about how 'anonymous' it really is, especially when you must do presentations to a jury in a small community like La Rioja.  My Spanish teacher told me that when she was taking her exam, a member of the jury actually went to a coffee shop to retrieve a candidate that hadn't bothered to show up.  If anyone else had failed to attend the interview at the allocated time, they´d have been crossed off the list, but it just goes to prove the old adage: 'it's not what you know, it's who you know.'

The results of the exam are calculated in a strange way, too.  Points are conferred for both knowledge and teaching experience, meaning that a young and extremely knowledgeable teacher who scores a 10 on the test might be ousted by an older candidate who got a 6, but has a few years of teaching behind him. I´m not disputing here that experience is an important factor, but the fact that you´ve taught in a school for a few years doesn´t mean to say you´re any good at it.  Also, in subjects like English, putting too much weight on experience can be a risky business, as it leads to teachers who don´t actually speak or understand very well blagging themselves a lifelong position teaching incorrect grammar.  And since they can´t be ousted from said position, is there any incentive whatsoever for them to brush up on their language skills?

I've noticed that people aren't just annoyed about the way the schools are going here, though.  Today is the eve of a general strike in Spain to protest against the introduction of the Conservative government's reforma laboral. It's a law that makes it easier and cheaper to dismiss workers in an already precarious job market and over 60% of Spaniards are opposed to it (see I'm guessing the other 30% can't get a job to be dismissed from...
Leaflet from the Union General de Trabajadores, the General Workers' Union.
'They want to scrap work and social rights.  They want to scrap everything.'
This is on a wall near my house - 'labour reform, terrorism by employers'

'Indefinite general strike'
Protest tomorrow at 7pm.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Momentos graciosos en clase parte 2


Here are some more of the highlights (or lowlights, depending on how you see it) of my attempts to educate los españoles. Happy Sunday!

Playing Scatergorries (a game where students need to think of words corresponding with a certain letter)

Letter C

Me: 'Girls, what's your verb?'
Student: 'Cock'
Me: 'Sorry, what?'
Student: 'Cock'
* I go over to the desk to see that they have written the word 'cook' *
Me: 'Ahhhh, you mean cook. Be careful with your pronunciation, “cock” means “polla”'
    *Cue 10 13 year olds laughing loudly, one girl gasping that she always asks for 'Cock-a-Cola' and the majority of the students shouting 'cock!', 'cock!', 'cock!' for the rest of the lesson. This was when I realised it's better just to correct and move on.*

Adjective: Close

I gave two students 2 points for the word 'close', assuming they meant to write the word for 'cerca.' But then it became apparent that they had wanted to say 'closed' and had written it wrongly. So the deal was they'd only get their points if they could tell me how to say 'cerrado' in English, which I told them was very similar to the word 'close.' The answer they volunteered was 'klose.' Nil points.

A girl's name:  Claire

This was accompanied by an extremely creepy 'porque siempre pienso en ti, teacher.'  ('Because I always think about you, teacher.')

Letter F

A verb – oh yes, of course two boys had written 'fuck.' I told them that there were plenty of other, more appropriate verbs they could write and that they had to change it. The response: 'I know there are other verbs, but this is the only one that's in my head.' Story of the adolescent boy's life, I suppose.

Teaching my 3rd years

The normal teacher of this class gave the students an essay to write for me because of their misbehaviour. One was entitled 'Class with Clare' (excusable), another 'Class with Clear' and another, most puzzlingly, 'Class with Cloe.' This is despite the fact that I have written my name on the white board about 5 times and emphasised that it is not pronounced 'CL-AY-REY.'

The other day, I was doing a fill in the gap exercise with different holiday verbs. One boy volunteered his answer of 'I like to come in the river', but instead of explaining to him what he'd said, I just told him that the verb 'swim' was more appropriate in this context. The constant sniggering which ensued when I told the class we were going to work on page 69 only confirmed that this was the right decision.

The textbook that we use has different phrase banks where the pupils need to translate English expressions into Spanish. One of them was 'you are right', which I explained means that you are correct and a person agrees with you. Tienes razón. Then, I asked what the opposite of that would be. 'If you are not correct,' I said, 'y si te equivoques, you are...'
Reply: 'Left.'   
Which would make more sense, I suppose.


Working with adults

I have a weekly conversation class with a group of teachers who teach in the bilingual section, where I don't have to really teach per se, just answer any language questions they may have. One of them was asking me about offensive words in English and I told him that the most offensive and taboo word in the English language started with a 'C'. He answered, “what is it, 'conservative'?”

Another of my adult students is expecting his first child soon and I asked him how his girlfriend was doing. “Ohh, fantastic,” he said, “I say her cariño, this is wonderful, you must be pregnant all the time!!'” Momentarily, my heart surged at his enthusiasm, paternal spirit and ability to find his girlfriend impossibly attractive despite the inevitable weight gain, tiredness and mood swings. Then he told me she's gone up two bra sizes. Sigh.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Cinco cosas que tengo que hacer más en Escocia.


Unlike the majority of my fellow language assistants, my current plan is not to stay in Spain for another year.  I'm not sure what the plan is exactly (hopefully it will entail a fabulous job a bit closer to home!), but I've been thinking about the things that are important to take away from this experience.  It has really struck me that there are habits that I have here that I don't have at home and I'd like to keep them.   Aquí están:

I couldn't even tell my students
if I thought the Loch Ness
monster was real!  Qué vergüenza!

One:  I'm much more spontaneous when I'm abroad than at home.  I know that this is partly because I have less work, more money and more free time now that I'm not a student, but the many times I have been bored at the weekend in Scotland, I've never even contemplated checking where the cheapest flight is going and just getting on it.  Here, it seems like a highly sensible idea.

Two:  I travel much more when I'm abroad.  I'm ashamed to say I've been to Zaragoza, Burgos, Pamplona, Barcelona, Madrid, Bilbao and San Sebastián*, but I've never seen Loch Lomond, St. Andrews, the Shetland Islands or Loch Ness, nor set foot in Edinburgh Castle.  It's definitely time I did some tourism in my own country.
*  I might have done that spontaneous flight booking thing earlier and will be adding Seville to the list in the next two weeks...
Beautiful Loch Lomond

Edinburgh Castle
Three:  I'm much more open to trying new things when I'm abroad.  Of course, it's much easier to forget your inhibitions when no-one knows you/ you're probably never going to see half the people you meet ever again, but I really shouldn't be embarrassed to try new things at home,  however crap I am at them.  So I'm going to make it my mission to sign up for a random class wherever I end up next year. 

Four:  I'm also more open to meeting different people here, be it when I'm out socialising or through Couchsurfing, language exchanges and hostel-hopping.  I want to take that trait back home too.  Ideally, I'll find some cool conversation exchange partners and experience my country through the eyes of a foreigner!

Five:  I'm always informed about events that are happening in the local area when I'm abroad because I don't want to miss out on anything good.  But I happily will miss fantastic cultural, film, music and theatre events at home through complete ignorance of their existence.  Next year, that's not going to happen.

Now, someone send me the programme for the Fringe, pronto!

For those of you who don't know, 'The Fringe' is the
biggest arts festival in the world.  It is held in Edinburgh,
the Scottish capital, from August 3rd - 27th.  Come and visit!

Sunday, 18 March 2012



For the benefit of a loyal reader who complained that my last two blog posts didn't have enough text (erm, that'd be you, David...), here is the promised lowdown on the Portuguese Capital!

Portugal is one of the countries most affected by the current
economic crisis, this piece of graffiti calls for a general strike.
I'd heard mixed reviews about Lisbon before I went, with some people saying it had a 'lot of character' and others describing it as a dirty, unexciting dump. I'm definitely in the former camp. I mean, it's true that Lisbon isn't exactly Paris and it isn't jam packed with tourist attractions, but that's really part of the charm. It has a slightly less-than-polished appearance in some places, many scrawlings of grafitti and yes, some parts of the city are a little dirty, but it was a refreshing change from the cities where everything is pristine but manufactured to extract as much money out of you as possible.

And some of the graffiti was cute!
There's also a lot more to see than you might imagine.  When you think of other European capitals, you conjure up images of many famous landmarks, but I didn't know what was in Lisbon until I went there.  It turns out that there's a 14th Century Monastery, a fortress built in the early 1500s, an old castle and a very beautiful main square just off the Rua Augusta.  There are also a number of miradores throughout the city which offer breathtaking views over a mish-mash of old and new architecture, often a rainbow of colour against the backdrop of the sea.

The Mosteiro dos Jerónimos
Me at the Torre De Belém

If that weren't enough, Lisbon has an amazing amount of museums, the vast majority of which are free!  It's perfect if, like me, you're interested in seeing a bit of everything, but admittedly, some of the collections are sparse and perhaps a bit too niche for everyone's taste.  Like my friend and I decided to have a wander round the Gallery of Modern Art, which had some really strange pieces, such as a blank canvas entitled 'Painting of A Ghost' - we didn't appreciate that very much!!  Happily though, there was also a great, free exposition on Second World War Propaganda which captured our attention a bit more.

This was my favourite!
I don't think I'd have liked the war very much...

I also highly recommend going on a daytrip to a place called Sintra, which is 40 minutes on the train from Lisbon.  A lot of hostels and tour operators offer this to tourists as a bus tour, but it's ridiculously overpriced and our friend from CouchSurfing advised us to go to the train station ourselves and buy a return ticket for 5 Euro.
All the trains are covered in graffiti too, I don't know why, but
I have a bit of a fascination with it!

Stepping off the train was like stepping into a fairytale.  Lord Byron wrote in 1809:  'I must observe that the village of Sintra is the most beautiful in the world' (and probably another 1000 lines of text if his poetry is anything to go by) and I reckon he wasn't far off the mark.  It's so quaint, beautiful, colourful and historical, I fell in love with the place after 5 minutes.  The only other time that's happened to me was in the Parc Güell in Barcelona.

The first thing we did was take a wander round the National Palace, which looks nothing from the outside, but is pretty magnificent on the inside.  It's all ornate ceiling decorations, fancy chandeliers and collections of those painted, glazed tiles that Portugal is so famous for.  Even better, you get free entry on a Sunday morning, so it's worth taking it easy on Saturday night and getting up early!

And if you think the National Palace is cool, just wait till you head up the road to the Palacio Da Pena.  It's a Moorish Castle built in 1840, which was unlike anything I'd ever seen before in my life.  The best part is that people have worked to preserve the inside just the way the former Portuguese royal family left it!  Definitely worth a visit.

Arty shot at the Pena Palace!

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Bienvenido a mi vida...


Saw this and it made me laugh cos my students swear A LOT.  I actually found myself in a class the other day saying:  'Can everyone stop saying "joder" and "cojones" and just get on with it?!'

Sunday, 4 March 2012

No te preocupes por nada, porque cada cosita que haya, estará bien!


Note to self:  listen to more Bob Marley.

Friday, 2 March 2012

'Cuatro Horas En El Autobús'


I took a flight to Lisbon last weekend (blog on the trip forthcoming!) and my book of choice on my way to Barajas was 'A Week At The Airport' by Alain De Botton. I quite liked the idea of him taking up residence in an international hub, observing the people (I worked for a brief stint in Glasgow Airport and can attest to the fact that some of them are very, erm, interesting characters) and learning what their behaviour tells us about life. Unfortunately though, I didn't spend long enough in Barajas to make any witty observations about it, I just spent four hours on a bus getting there.

The PLM (Pamplona – Logroño – Madrid) bus line is the cheapest and most convenient option for me to get to the Spanish capital. At just under 30 Euros per a return  ticket, I can afford to hop down for the weekend or book flights from Barajas without breaking the bank, and the four hour journey is just about bearable if I'm adequately equipped for it.   

I equipped myself for my last journey with the following things:

  1. An uncontrollable urge to sleep, owing to having to get up at 6am to catch the bus.
  2. A book to read when it turned out that I would repeatedly wake myself up from bouts of fitful sleep by smacking my head against the window.
  3. A cheap new mp3 player which will never replace my beloved iPod, complete with a 'relaxing playlist' which (infuriatingly) cannot be played in anything but alphabetical order.
  4. A pen and paper, just in case I had any ground breaking ideas during the journey. (I didn't.)
  5. A nutricious breakfast of two magdalenas and a bottle of Lemon Kas.

We set off at 7.15 and the first thing I noticed was that the opening scenes of 'Apocalypse Now' were being shown on the screen in front of me. Slightly disconcerting. My hazy, morning brain then realised that my bus driver friend had given me a copy of the very same book to read, and I wondered if it was a strange co-incidence or if Spanish bus companies have some sort of affiliation with the apocalypse. Even more disconcerting.

So I shut my eyes to block out the scenes of destruction in front of me and managed to fall asleep for a little while, propped against a makeshift pillow fashioned from my scarf. Happily, I am fortunate enough to be one of those people who can sleep just about anywhere, but sleeping in places other than a bed often comes at a price. After an hour, I felt like I'd been beaten up – I had a crick in my neck, a pain in my back and a sore head from its repeated contact with the window.

When it became apparent that sleeping more wasn't a very good idea, I tried to eat my 'breakfast' without the bus driver seeing me in his mirror and without getting crumbs everywhere. That was a fail on both accounts.

Next, I got my book out and tried to concentrate on reading. Some of the information on Heathrow Airport I was learning was interesting stuff, but my little book had pictures and the woman next to me was reading the Spanish Penal Code. It was time to jump on a more intellectual bandwagon.

'I know', I thought, 'this crappy mp3 player does have one saving grace, it came pre-loaded with the “Complete Works of Shakespeare.”' Geeky as it sounds, I've always wanted to say I've read everything he wrote, particularly the sonnets. (I studied sonnet 18 in high school and fell ever-so-slightly in love with him.)

So I fired up the music player, searched through some folders and brought up sonnets 1-10 on the tiny little screen.

Sonnet 1

* scroll *

'From fairest creatures

* scroll *

we desire increase

* scroll*

 That thereby beauty's

                                                 * scroll *
                                                                  rose might never die...'

And that was about as far as I got before I gave up and went back to sleep again until we pulled up in Avenida de Americas.



So the past couple of weeks have been un poco locas, owing to lots of work, things to organise, trips and of course, carnival.
It turns out that people allow you to sit on
the Carnival Throne if you're foreign...

Carnival is a fiesta I had never celebrated before and to be honest, I wasn't very sure what it was all in aid of. One of my students told me that it's about letting your hair down and enjoying yourself before giving something up at Lent and it turns out he was right, it is something along those lines.

Basically, in the olden days, you had to use up all of your good food and drink before Lent came along in order to ensure it wouldn't be there to tempt you. And no-one could think of a better excuse than this to throw a big party and don some fancy dress, not least the Spaniards.

The interesting thing I found about celebrations here is that the fancy dress isn't an individual thing, whole groups of friends go out and buy exactly the same costume. So you'll see 24 bottles of San Miguel walking towards you, 10 Rihannas dancing along the street and 20 brides walking down a makeshift aisle. It's quite an experience.

And the fancy dress isn't very much like what you'd see at Halloween in the UK or the US, where everyone tries to be desperately sexy. Just check out our outfits if you don't believe me.

'Boy Scouts on Tour 2012'