Archive for the 'kids' Category

Bad news and good news

The bad news is that Madrid has never looked uglier than now. The streets are strewn with trash thanks to a nearly 10-day strike by the city street cleaners and garden maintenance staff to protest planned layoffs of more than a sixth of the current staff and salary reductions for the rest. The whole thing started with a demonstration on the 4th of this month, which was followed by some of the workers deliberately throwing trash (opening trash bags waiting to be collected) on the streets to call attention to something they, understandably, find completely objectionable. While I don’t agree with the tactic of pouring our carrot peels, bags of dog poop, onion skins, and chicken bones all over the place, I empathize with their outrage. Somehow the whole thing is very symbolic of what’s happening in Madrid and Spain at large—lots and lots of rubbish.


On the bright side of things, we have the peonza, the spinning tops that are driving kids crazy all over Madrid. Somehow it’s refreshing to see kids gathered around to see a top spin, trying to balance it on their noses or throw it the air. At school, the primary-age boys and girls have all got one, and I’ve seen them spinning in metro stations and on street corners in Lavapiés. Yes, these kids are the smartphone and tablet generation, but it’s comforting to see such a relatively old-fashioned thing take hold, however briefly.

Scenes from school

Making plans, fifth-grade style:

Girl 1 to Girl 2: “Llámame. O dile a tu madre que llame a la mía.”
(Call me. Or tell your mom to call mine.)

Sad truths revealed in exams:

Write questions. Then write true answers.

3. your dad / have lunch / at home yesterday?

Did your dad have lunch at home yesterday?
I don’t know because he is in Germany.

A conversation with one of my 7-year olds on the street

I was on my way to tennis class this afternoon when I caught up to Christian, one of my second grade students. He was alone, walking quite slowly, and clutching a bag of chuches (candy).

“Hi, Christian!” I said.


“Where are you going?”

“To the computer.”

“Ah,” I said, thinking a moment. There was an internet café a few meters ahead and I motioned towards it. He nodded.

“Where’s your mom?”

“At the restaurant.”

Geez. Poor kid is trying to entertain himself while Mom works. “Where’s the restaurant?”

Without missing a beat he told me the address and then the name when I asked. We had an entire conversation in English. On the street.

I smiled the rest of the way to tennis.

Mi cole

girlsMy school is different from a lot of Madrid schools where American friends of mine work. For one, the student population (somewhere around 260 children aged 3-12) is 90 percent or more immigrant, or children of immigrant parents. Also, a substantial number of children at school reside at one of three nearby homes: either the one for abused mothers or one of the other two for children of parents deemed incapable of taking care of their children. The teachers at school like to say that we have “special” students. I like to think that my students are the face of the new Madrid.

plantsOne might think that a bilingual public school in a central neighborhood would act as a magnet, drawing in the neighborhood children to reap the benefits of a bilingual education. Not so in the case of my school. We are one of four bilingual elementary schools in the immediate vicinity. In addition, just three blocks down the street from school lies a colegio concertado, or semi-private Catholic school. This school receives some money from the government and has become a “refuge for middle-class Spanish parents” who fled with their children from our school when they saw it filling up with immigrant children. In turn, our school has become a sort of immigrant ghetto while the government subsidizes an escape route for Spanish parents who don’t want their children schooled with the frequently more disadvantaged immigrant kids. Where’s the logic?

blue teamIn the meantime, enrollment at school is getting lower and lower. In some ways this isn’t a bad thing: my second graders are just 14 per class. But perhaps one day the school, in its lovely old building, will have to close? One of the problems with the student population is that it is constantly changing. The kids from the home for mistreated mothers leave when they receive a new house. We’ve had students return to Ecuador for several months or forever. One of the boys in my second grade class spent a month in Colombia this year. We also receive new students throughout the year. Several months ago we had an influx of Paraguayan children and a few Bolivians. And many families leave the center of Madrid (and the school) as soon as they earn enough money to live in one of the housing complexes on the outskirts of Madrid.

danielaIn addition to some instability about where they live, the parents of these children are often working so hard to make money that the children spend lots of time on their own. And in general, because they have lower income, they don’t have as many resources at home as other children. One of the questions for the Trinity exams is about what the child’s parents do for a living. The parents of my kids work cleaning houses, as security guards, and selling lottery coupons. I got used to practicing with the children and avoiding asking some of them about what one parent or the other does because some parents just aren’t in the picture.

Thus, the auxiliares at my school really play an important role. If we can get these kids speaking English well, they’ll have an advantage for the rest of their lives that they maybe wouldn’t have had otherwise. The tricky part is ensuring that this happens.

Thoughts about bilingual education in Madrid

This post (and the one that follows) has been a long time coming and feels appropriate somehow because I am about to start my last week working as an auxiliar de conversación, or English teaching assistant. I have worked at the same public school in the center of Madrid for the last two years.

I joined the auxiliar program the first year that the Madrid government opened it up to Americans and Canadians. A Spanish professor I had during my last semester of college had sent us an email with a bare-minimum description of the brand-new program, and I, having no idea what to do when I finished college, applied and later accepted, thinking, “Spain could be cool.”english

The Comunidad de Madrid (the regional government) created the bilingual project to add more hours of class in English in the public elementary schools, presumably to improve Spain’s lag behind most other European countries in speaking English. Public schools in Madrid wouldn’t just have your standard English language class; Science (sort of a mix between science and social studies) would be in English, as well as Art, Music, or Physical Education. The idea is that the children, starting in first grade or primero de primaria, have at least a third of their classes in English (or a minimum of nine hours). The program started in the school year 2004-05 with British teaching assistants in 26 schools, and in 2005-06 grew to 80 schools and added auxiliares from across the pond as well. During the current 2006-07 academic year, the number of bilingual schools climbed to 122, and for next year will rise to 147.

The auxiliar serves as the school’s native speaker, collaborating with the bilingual project teachers, but never with the full responsibility of teaching a class. I (and many other assistants) had never studied to be a teacher. I had worked at summer camps for several years and worked as a baby-sitter for many more. During a fairly useless three-day orientation in September 2005, our bosses at the Consejería de Educación (Madrid’s Education Department) instructed us to never speak in Spanish with the children. And then we were off.

Working inside a public school has given me an incredible perspective on public education in Spain. The bilingual project sets lofty goals and provides many resources for schools that are part of the project, but falls short in some ways. The project is only just finishing its third year; it’s completely normal for there still to be hiccups and for all of us in the project to be sort of guinea pigs for the future. I admire the project for the high standards it sets, but its flaws are apparent every day at school.

The most apparent failings in the project stem from the teachers. If you are teaching in the project, you must be committed to speaking only in English with the students and NEVER ever translating. Most of the time the teachers in my school do speak only English, but I always cringe when they translate things. It is one of the worst things they can do. The goal of bilingual education is not for the students to be able to literally translate everything from Spanish to English. We want them to be learning in English, creating structures themselves: en fin, thinking in English. Kids are sponges, they pick things up. And there’s always a gesture that can be used to explain without resorting to Spanish.img_2263.jpg

If anything, these two years working in the system have made the discrepancy between the Comunidad’s standards for the program and the reality within the school more than apparent. Another of the big problems I witnessed in my school was that teachers taught the same children in both English and Spanish. This confuses the children about what language to use. When a class in English rolls around, they need to know that they can’t speak Spanish–the teacher and the assistant only speak English. At least in the case of my school, this appeared to be a logistical impossibility. The teachers who taught English as part of the bilingual project also taught Spanish language and Math to their respective homerooms.

Teacher training for the bilingual project consists largely of taking a four-month long English course at the British Council and then going to England to live and study for four weeks in the summer all on the Comunidad’s dime. This does not make teachers bilingual. In most cases, the teachers in the bilingual project are motivated and enthusiastic, but still not perfect English teachers.

This is where the auxiliar steps in: to be the native speaker, the usage and pronunciation expert, and the ambassador of another culture. That’s all fine and dandy, but those teachers who we are assigned to help need to know how to use us, about how to get the most out of having a young, eager English speaker in the class. I firmly believe that the teachers need to receive a lengthy training on this, and attend training sessions with their auxiliares (we go to three sessions per academic year) to learn how to work together. Some teachers do better at this than others, but in general they all need to have a clearer understanding that the classes should be a true collaborative effort, using each instructor’s strengths to create an effective English-speaking classroom.

Finally, everyone needs to understand that creating a bilingual program takes time. The program isn’t truly “bilingual” yet, especially with the way some teachers teach. Though my kids know that I only speak English with them, they still speak to me mostly in Spanish, aside from a few key phrases like, “Can I go to the toilet, please?” and “Can I sharpen my pencil?” You hear a lot of Spanglish from the kids: “Tengo three!” and “Me das el blue?” They understand me nearly perfectly, but I frequently have to remind them to speak in English back to me.helen

That said, my kids have learned tons of English in the last two years. By the end of last year, the kindergarteners could recite the book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by heart. The first graders presented a (very brief) dramatization of “Little Red Riding Hood.” We made brownies (in English) during Cultural Week. This year the second graders prepared for the Trinity exams and, in doing so, started speaking more English. The highlight of the year was undoubtedly preparing for the musical the first and second graders performed, “The Wackadoo Zoo.” Though we didn’t win a top prize at the school theater competition we entered, we won 1,100 euros for the school. English has become a reality for them in many ways.

The Trinity exams are one of the ways the Comunidad like to boast about its successes with the bilingual project. These are 6- or 7-minute interviews conducted at varying levels by a British examiner. Questions range from “Where are you from?” to “What does your Dad do?” and “What do you do when you get up in the morning?” The Comunidad requires both second graders and sixth graders to take the exam, and by comparing the results (the younger children have a much higher rate of passing than the older), they demonstrate how the bilingual project has succeeded in getting these children to speak and understand English. And it’s true: the sixth graders, who have only had English as a Foreign Language several hours per week, know a lot less than the little ones.

In the end, we all know that the children who participate in the bilingual project are getting plenty of exposure to English, which is a fundamental step in mastering a language. The program may have a long way to go, but in some ways, the basics are there. Now we just have to fine tune everything.

Concrete schoolyard

Recess is a whirling chaos. On the “patio,” the concrete schoolyard ubiquitous in Madrid, children are throwing themselves at each other, down the slide in the tiny playset, or on the ground, as is the case with the majority of the three-year olds who waddle around like tiny penguins with snotty noses and pint-size clothing. Dramas are acted out daily on the school playground, complete with accusations, tears, and denials.

I never went to school in the center of a city (well, until college in New York), so I spent elementary school on expansive playgrounds with fields, lots of play equipment, and serious amounts of space to chase boys.

Here in Madrid, everything is confined to a smaller space, and tensions run high on the concrete schoolyard. The seven-year old second graders are the big kids, towering over the likes of the pre-school children, concerned with scoring a goal at all cost and hardly noticing if they knock over one of the waddlers or send a ball flying at the head of one the teachers who has recess duty. The first graders were five-year olds last year, and still waver between pre-school immaturity and joining the big kids’ game. So they dangle from the tiny, overcrowded playset, waiting for the right moment to go for the ball.

The three-year olds still don’t know they actually go to school, and stare with mucus-filled faces at the more experienced kids whizzing around them. Or they fall over and entertain each other on the concrete. The four-year olds are too cool for the three-year olds. They know how this playground thing goes, and have the guts to run around with some of the bigger kids and tattle on those who commit offenses. The five-year olds play among themselves—confident in their position as oldest of the infantil classes. They only call the teachers’ attention when one of them gets knocked over and all of her friends make sure that she’s properly attended.

At 11:30 the bell rings and it’s all over. Until tomorrow.

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