Fulbright U.S. Student Program: Teaching Assistant
Madrid, Spain, 2018-2019
Morning: Greeting the day with dance
The primary reason I applied to Fulbright is because I work in the field of intercultural education and lacked the experience of living, working, and learning in another society. But I had already experienced some of the world through dance: in my college and post-grad life, I learned and performed American east-coast swing and lindy hop, Gujarati garba-raas, Egyptian/Turkish belly dance, and a few Chin Burmese new-year dances. Dance is a primary vehicle through which I encounter culture and has continued to be a critical part of my self-development and cultural exploration here in Madrid. So far, Spain has introduced me to gitano flamenco, tribal style belly dance, latin salsa, the tarantella, and, through my students, the Floss. Noticing that dance has become an expansive part of my personal life and increasingly relevant to my professional work, I have started practicing belly dance for the first half-hour of my day. Some mornings I make great progress in solidifying a technique or trying something new; some mornings it’s just a delightful way to wake up.
Day: Planning classes “old school”
I charged into this position with a tsunami of ideas for lesson plans in my classroom. Powerpoints, video clips, music, an enthusiastic plunder of the million online ESL resources I have saved on my computer. But here’s the thing: none of my classrooms have technology. No computer, no projector, no speakers, nada. All my elaborate, tech-heavy schemes flopped in the reality of 10 squirmy kids circled around my 14-inch laptop.
I found these limitations frustrating until I realized that this circumstance is actually an immense blessing for both my students and me. Some of my students are so attached to their phones that they start to panic when they have to let it be during class. One student, having a particularly stressful day to boot, started to hyperventilate when I asked her for a third and final time to put her phone away. “I know it’s hard,” I said, “but let’s focus on this game together, okay?” She calmed, participated, but went directly back to Instagram the second we were done. At such a critical juncture of brain-development, childhood is no time for a tech addiction. I, too, have been struggling to balance my relationship with technology and learned to appreciate being “unplugged” during my month-plus without wifi.
Thus, my tech-free classroom thrives. Are my lesson plans “all they could be” according to my internal perfectionist? No. But they are a precious opportunity for unmediated human-to-human interaction. And that is perfect in its own way.
Afternoon: iTengo hambre!
Madrid is an easy place to live if you like meat, bread, and eating really late. So it’s a tough place to live if you’re a quasi-vegetarian, Ayurvedic-recipe-making, gluten/soy/dairy/corn-free health nut like me. Typical Spanish meals include a personal baguette, oil-fried fish or meat, and some side like potatoes, salad, or legumes. Although I find it endlessly annoying to have to thoroughly research and plan every time I want to just grab a bite somewhere, such is life with food sensitivities. Other than this difficulty (which I also experience at home, though to a much lesser degree), I appreciate the food culture in Spain because meal time is just that – time, set aside and honored, to feed yourself.
At FSG, lunch time is a time of community and rest, true rest, from the operations of the work day. People unfold their personal table mats, use actual silverware, and lay out spices they’ve brought from home to enjoy their lunch as if it were a meal at their own table. Unlike my experiences back home, here lunch is not sacrificed in the name of productivity. (I described the idea of “working through lunch” to one of my coworkers, and she replied, with eyes bugging and jaw dropped, “they do WHAT?!” Equally shocking is the idea of eating “on the go”.) Gathered together for this reprieve, people sample one another’s dishes, pass around various baguettes of bread, pour cola and other canned refreshments into glasses, and nourish themselves with food and friendship. Lunch is paced slowly to allow time for rest and socializing. Finishing my food within the first 15 minutes of our 45-55 minute lunch break always elicits some sort of reaction from my co-workers like “how fast!” or “did you run out of food? Here, have some of mine.”
I can’t help but compare this slow, community-based lunch culture to that at one of my previous jobs at which my coworkers and supervisors often worked through lunch, were forced to eat quickly because of hectic schedules, elected to skip the meal all together, or sat in awkward silence next to their long-time coworkers in a small, grey breakroom with no heat. Here, the feeling of meal time is nourishing, slow, friendly, grounded – the very context our bodies respond best to being fed.
Evening: Teaching and learning
In general, my students are wary of English education. Many from the ESO levels have been suspendido in English and are exhausted of that frustration. Every student in the young-adult vocational program has told me that they understand English at an intermediate or low-advanced level, but are afraid to practice speaking for fear of sounding foolish. And a majority of the primaria students are reluctant to participate in my classroom activities because they find English “feo”.
Thus I quickly came to understand that, unlike my fellow Fulbrighters placed in classrooms who are charged with co-teaching academic subjects in English, my role at FSG is more nuanced and emotional. Rather than being primarily guided by content objectives, my teaching strategy here has more to do with facilitating a comfortable regard with English, encouraging effort, and building confidence. My class plans mask academic study under the guise and intrigue of recreation. So far, this strategy is successful in terms of classroom activity and, I believe, in terms of student perception of English. As opposed to September when they couldn’t care less if I was in the room and did not want to try any of the lesson plans I prepared, now they are eager to hear what activities I brought with me and excited to share what new English they are learning in school. This enthusiasm doesn’t always extend past the first few minutes of class, but it’s an excellent start.
Night: The learning continues
Gabriela is about as skilled in English as I am in Spanish, and Najari (nai-ah-REE) and Nahir (na-YIR) are interested in learning more. In service of our mutual linguistic development, we created El Pared (the wall). When of us doesn’t understand something the other has said or wonders how to say, spell, or define a word in the other language, we determine this the “word of the day” and promptly write it on El Pared in the appropriate color – pink for nouns, green for past-tense verbs, you get the idea. Some of my favorite additions include “I put a spell on you”, “I’m a flying penguin”, “nick-name”, “snowbird”, “shawty”, and “pointy eyebrows” (because I have pointy eyebrows). We’ve had a lot of fun already and yet have so much space to fill.