Monday, January 28, 2013

Grammar Rant

I'm sure anyone who is working as a lectora/auxiliar of conversation in any classroom round the world will tell you that it's an awkward position to be in. Do I have authority? Autonomy? What is my role in the classroom? Am I to be told what to do each day? Am I to work as if there were no other teacher in the room? Do I read presented texts as if I were an MP3 on a language CD? Do I grade exams?

Can I call myself a teacher?

I think everyone would answer these questions differently, as they depend on work ethic, one's coworkers, and the surrounding institution, amongst other things. For me, it depends on the class. In one class, I feel like a robot. A monkey could do my job. The teacher points to me, and I speak. I'm treated as if I have no prior knowledge of anything whatsoever, except perhaps English pronunciation (which is then even called into question due to my being americana). I've been lectured extensively on mind numbingly basic concepts (e.g. manufactured vs. raw goods) by a teacher who can barely pronounce any hard syllables without covering me, or nearby students, with spittle. Don't blame me if I make funny faces at him while his back is turned.

About how professional my "bad class" makes me feel

Luckily, that far from represents my overall experience. The rest of my classes are a dream, and I feel free to enter into the conversation of a bilingual class freely and with authority. In my English classes (not so much in PE or music), I'm even charged to plan lessons and activities. Awesome!

If you've been reading since last year in Brazil, you'll know that I value creativity in teaching. This year in Spain is my first year working in a system that values completion rather than comprehension. The teachers complain to me that parents want their students to "finish the book" as a way to justify their money spent.

Well, what if the book sucks? What does completing written exercises all day really accomplish, besides total boredom of all parties involved? So, whenever given half an opportunity to chip in, I try to find games, role-plays, dialogues, and other creative activities that give the students a chance to talk and think for once in their short lives. I, "the teacher," gladly shut up and let them take over.

Normally this works wonders. With young students though, especially my 12 year olds, they revert to Lord of the Flies type civility in seconds without the imposing structure of bookwork. With them, I have to be pretty stern. Yes, I'm learning how to discipline. God save us.

But in the midst of the repetition and mundane bookwork that make up my day job, I found this inspiring passage in an unsuspecting Cambridge University Press book titled Grammar Games:

"Meeting and interiorising the grammar of a foreign language is not simply an intelligent, cognitive act. It is a highly affective one too. Little work seems to have been done by psychologists or linguists on learner feelings towards specific ligaments of the target grammar and the change in these feelings as the learner moves from one level of language command to the next... I have found it helps to make students more conscious of what is going on inside them if you ask them to introspect from time to time during a course as to which structures they like in the target language and which they dislike, and why."  

Wait, introspection? Are we still talking about grammar? Never in my long road to Spanish fluency and my general linguistic career (can we even call it that?) have I ever been asked, "Lauren, how do you feel?" The author, Mario Rinvolucri, goes on to give pages of examples students gave him when asked what is structurally "nice" about English and what is, as he puts it, "UGH!" Here's an "UGH" example:

"A native speaker of Italian learning English at a post-beginner level strongly objected to the construction: 
How old are you?
He found it particularly ridiculous that English speakers even say this to a very young baby."

HA! So, we all know that language doesn't really make sense. If anything, secondary language learners are more aware of the inconsistencies and utter nonsense of a language than its native speakers. Shouldn't we acknowledge their perspective? It's insightful, funny, and mutually useful. I, the native speaker, become more aware of what the hell I'm saying in English, and I also learn another speaker's perspective and consequently a bit of their linguistic background.

Also, as Mario points out, you can track these feelings and opinions over time. As I've been writing this, I've been trying to think of examples of Spanish phrases that don't make sense to me or don't "feel right" to me as an English speaker, and I can barely think of any! I have a really high level of Spanish, so speaking it is more natural for me. If I were to ask myself this same question, maybe, 5 years ago, I'm sure I'd have pages and pages of complaints!

One example, just because I've never liked genderized nouns. Why is a table feminine? Why is the floor masculine? Who cares? What does that even mean? Why anthropomorphize everything? The only examples that ever made sense to me were that "el problema" (the problem) is masculine and that "la solución" (the solution) is feminine. HA! With that, I leave you. ;)


Snow Day

With my return to health this past week I launched into many things I've had on my to-do list for some time: making friends via language exchanges, shopping winter sales, and playing in the snow. The latter was arranged thanks to my friend Corina. I had no idea there were ski resorts so close to us! Figure almost 2 hours. Her sister came up to visit for the weekend, so we all rented a car and headed down to Navacerrada.

View Larger Map
The drive was interesting. For one, the rental place gave us a red, sporty Alfa Romeo when we had reserved "the cheapest car in the lot." Gotta love free upgrades. Also, I had thought that the majority of the group going (5 people total) knew how to drive a manual. Not the case. It was just me and Corina's sister who knew how, and her sister, Margarita, was used to driving on the opposite side of the road. They're from Australia. So, of course, she was pretty nervous about driving. I was actually quite excited to drive until I realized I had forgotten my driver's license in my apartment. I have no idea what the Spanish police would have done to me if we had been pulled over. Luckily, I drove somewhat conservatively on the way down with no incidents.

Our arrival. So cold!

Can I just say how amazingly I drove up those winding mountain roads? I've only driven a manual in relatively flat Atlanta! These were seriously steep S turns. I should probably give most of the credit to the car, but I think I did a good job.

Clouds flew across the top of the slopes. It was really windy!

The higher we got, reaching an eventual 1900 meters or so, the foggier it got. We weren't allowed to go skiing at all that day unfortunately because the wind was gusting so hard. We made the most of it though by renting sleds and assorted snow gear. The sun came out eventually, and it turned out to be an awesome day. Skiing would have been fun, but I was pretty nervous considering I haven't gone in over a decade. I don't honestly mind being short a few bruises.

Right before a brutal sled race

The slopes at the end of the day

Wait, we're near Madrid???

Not too excited about starting another work week, but hopefully I'll set up a few intercambios to mix it up a bit. I'm also hoping to take a local trip this weekend, maybe to Salamanca again or somewhere new like León.


Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Back in Action

I'm back in Valladolid after spending three weeks in Atlanta! I'm so grateful I had as much time as it did, but my god did it pass quickly! It was a hard, fast marathon run of me trying to fit in as many of my favorite foods and people as possible into the short time I had available. I think I did quite well. I did a lot of cooking and baking, went to Taco Bell more times than I'm willing to admit, and got to see friends I hadn't even expected to be in the state. All in all, a success.

Oh, my favorite foods!

Saw Bassnectar and Pretty Lights

I really went home to see my grandpa. Now that he and his wife are living with mom, I wanted to help at home and see how everything was going. I'm so glad I went. From the time I arrived to just a few days ago, he improved dramatically. He seems to really be responding to the treatments he's taking. We're all optimistic about the future, so I feel much better coming back to Spain to finish out the school year here.

Being home was like someone pushed the reset button on entire perspective on being in Spain. Being here was starting to chafe back in November, so having a break made all the difference. Now I feel like I can start all over, do everything better, and be happier because of it.

So, what did I do to start the year off right? Well, I took a nice weekend trip to Madrid thanks to Matt. It was a friend's birthday, so we met there for a couple of days. The highlight for me was getting to see this amazing fusion jazz/flamenco band at Cafe Berlin. That and wandering around parts of Madrid I hadn't really seen before.

A bonus to having musician friends: amazing music is always in your life.

But then I got sick and got to stay in bed for a week straight...when I wasn't working that is. Nope, I have yet to miss a day of work due to sickness. Don't worry; I'd stay home if I had a fever or anything really brutal. Now I just have a lingering, annoying cough and am constantly stuffy.

The weather here definitely isn't helping things. As much as I've always loved the cold and snow (not that there's much of that in this particular city...just in every other city surrounding us! strange geographic phenomenon), it's different now because I don't have a car. Think about it! Having to walk everywhere, wait for the bus, all outside in the cold. It changes the game completely. That might sound like a very obvious realization, but, hey, I've had the privilege of having access to a car since I was 16. That and living in suburbs for most of my life...

Otherwise things have been great. My school finally found a substitute for Javier, the permanent English teacher out on medical leave, so now I'm not alone in the classroom doing things I'm not being paid to do. The sub's name is Chus. She's amazing: younger than all the other teachers, sweet as can be, great English. I've found a friend!

And speaking of friends, I put out an ad on an English class website advertising my interest in language exchanges (intercambios) where I'd basically meet someone at a cafe or bar and talk for an hour, half in English half in Spanish. I've received loads of emails back, and I've already set up three meetings this week. So far I've only responded to girls because I don't want guys to think the meeting is a kind of date. And if anyone would interpret it that way, it'd be Spanish men. Am I right? Ooohhhh, just kidding!!! ;) 

This weekend there's a potential ski trip in the mix. I haven't gone skiing in a decade, so I thought that would be a potentially nostalgic, most definitely painful experience. We'll see if it ends up happening.

I also applied to renew the grant to stay in Spain another year. That doesn't mean I'm 100% going to stay, but I figured since I'm undecided as of now I might as well file the paperwork. I once again applied to be posted in Madrid. Not sure if I'll get it, but I thought I should try. It'd be such a different experience!

Until next time... when there will be many more photos. Promise.