Haz el bien, y no mires a quién. -Spanish Proverb


the simplest, best ever ice-breaker for adult EFL students

I am working at a language school this year, and my students range in age from mid-20s to mid-60s. Before our first classes together, I read several ideas for intro/ice-breaker activities that work well for adults learning English. I came across one that I hadn’t seen before, and it goes something like this:

1. Give the students strips of paper and tell them they have to think of an adjective that describes them and also begins with the first letter of their first name. Then, have them write their adjective and name, in that order, on the paper.

2. Have each student introduce themselves, adjective included (Hi! I’m Musical Megan), and then tell the class a little about themselves: why they’re studying English, where they work or what they study, and any other interesting facts about themselves they’d like to indulge.

3. After the introductions, gather the strips of papers from the students and mix them up. Explain to the students that they are going to come to the front of the class one at a time, and that you’re going to tape one of their classmates’ names to their forehead without them seeing it first. They then have to show their classmates the name and then ask them questions to figure it who it is. They must ask yes-or-no questions only, and they must start with basic things (Am I a man or a woman?), move onto more detailed things (Am I an engineer?) and, if needed, resort lastly to physical characteristics (Am I wearing a blue scarf?) Finally, they have to try to remember the name of the person they’ve figured out is on their head before they take it off (Am I…Mikel?)

4. The next turn goes to the person who’s name was on the forehead of the classmate before them. If my name was on Mikel’s head, it is now my turn.

This game works really well for both intermediate and more advanced adult ESL students. For the lower levels, it helps them work on simple question structure (a common mistake for Spanish people is to say “I am a teacher?” instead of “Am I a teacher?”) and recall basic vocabulary about personal and physical characteristics. The more advanced students seem to naturally rise to the challenge of making their questions more complete and varied.

This activity makes everyone laugh (we all look and feel pretty dumb with a piece of paper taped to our forehead!) and loosen up, learn each others names and get to know each other a little bit. Meanwhile, as the prof, you get a pretty good idea of their level of English right off the bat. I think it might just be the perfect adult EFL ice-breaker.

Have you used this or a similar activity before? What other ice-breaker activities have worked well for you?



the basque factor

This week, NPR’s All Things Considered did this story on the Basque Country, highlighting the region’s ability to stay economically stable while the rest of Spain suffers unprecedented financial crisis. I encourage you to read (or listen to) the whole story, but I’ll summarize it and make some comments here.

The first thing I want to say is that it was refreshing to see an article out of the US that actually had a positive spin on the Basque Country. This is unusual. Just the other day, I was reading some articles from US news sources about the regional elections that took place here and in Galicia, another Spanish state, last weekend. Every single article, when mentioning the Basque Country, made some comment about it being a “troubled” or “turbulent” region. I’ve lived here for almost two whole years now and I can tell you that this place is anything but turbulent. Yes, the Basque separatist terrorist group ETA has caused a lot of problems in the past, but this has unfairly given this entire region a bad name, when the reality is that it is a peaceful and progressive place. Furthermore, it’s statistically one of the safest places in all of Europe. Check out this post I wrote in 2010 for more info about what living in the Basque Country is really like.

So as I said, it was really great to see a report out of the US speaking positively about the Basque Country. Other than a brief mentioning of ETA in the opening line, the report was a praise of the Basque Country’s economy and industry. While Spain’s economy is in the dumps, with unemployment at record highs and an seemingly inevitable bailout on the horizon, the Basque Country is doing quite alright.  As the report says, unemployment in the Basque Country is at 12%, which is just above the average of Europe as a whole and less than half Spain’s national unemployment of 25%. Signs of “el crisis” are everywhere in Spain, but much, much less prevalent here.

So how do they do it? How does the Basque Country manage to keep it’s head above water when the rest of Spain can’t? For one, the Basque Country is rich in natural resources like steel and has booming agriculture and manufacturing industries. Bilbao is home to world energy leader Iberdrola which serves 30 million customers in 40 different countries around the world.

The Iberdrola Tower, Bilbao’s only skyscraper

The report also attributes the Basque Country’s financial stability in part to its fiscal autonomy from Madrid. This region has it’s own government and own way of doing things, and although they still have responsibilities to the Spanish government, their way of doing things seems to be working quite well for them. Basque people are known for being hard workers, and this attribute is something they rightfully take a lot of pride in. Most people of Basque heritage don’t really consider themselves to be “Spanish” at all, and though it may seem trivial or silly to outsiders, I can understand why they feel that way. Apart from the obvious historical differences between Spanish and Basque people,  they consider themselves to be different because they really are culturally quite different. These differences, their very “basque-ness”, might just be the factor that has kept the region afloat amidst this economic crisis.

At the end of the article, Basque engineer Aitor Galarza half-jokingly says that the productivity of the Basque people might just be the fact that this region gets an average of 200 days of rain each year so workers have nothing better to do than to stay inside and work. As I sit inside writing a blog post on a Saturday night, the rain pouring hard outside my window, I can’t help but think he might be onto something…

The rain in Spain falls mainly in…Bilbao!


livin’ la vida buena

Saludos desde España! I’ve been back in the land of fiesta and siesta for a couple of weeks now and things are going just about as swimmingly as they possibly could be. I’m so grateful for how quickly things have fallen into place. Here are some of these cosas buenas:

Mi casa – in the jetlagged hours that immediately followed my return, I viewed just two apartments, lucked out and landed a fantastic living situation right away. I found an available room in a flat in the best, most central neighborhood in Bilbao. I met the people living here, a young lawyer and med student, and after a short interview they offered me the room and I moved in the following day. One of my main objectives for this year was to live with Spanish people in order to maximize the amount of Spanish I have to speak each day, and I couldn’t have found nicer Spanish roommates. That might sound exaggerated, but really: one of my roommates actually makes extra coffee in the mornings to share with me and both have offered to drive me places on several occasions (living with two people that BOTH have a car is practically unheard of here.) Not to mention, if I have any medical OR legal concerns I’m totally covered! 😉

my new room

Mi trabajo – I’m enjoying quite the job upgrade this year. While working in a rural high school last year was a…*ahem* learning experience…I’m really, really enjoying working with adults this year. I work at an official language school, where university students and other people from all 18+ walks of life come to learn English. Most are 25-35 and looking for work (unemployment for this age group is almost 50% in Spain!), thus trying to improve their credentials by gaining fluency in English: a huuuuge leg up in the job market here. Another good chunk of my students are retired and just wanting to improve their English to aid in their worldly travels. My students are bright, attentive and interesting. I’m looking forward to learning at least as much from them as they’re going to learn from me.

Mi castellano – I landed a spot in the C1 Castellano course at a language school here in the city, so in addition to living with Spaniards I am getting lots of formal practice and refining of my Spanish-or my Castillian (castellano), to be exact. By the end of the course, I should be ready to take an exam demonstrating professional fluency/proficiency in the language. The class itself is great because all 20 of us are from totally different backgrounds, and even though none of us are Spanish, the only language we all share is Spanish…so you have a room full of people from Russia, Germany, the US, India, Brazil, etc., all speaking Spanish with totally different accents. It’s pretty rad.

Mi vida, en general – I’m back to loving and cherishing all that is Spanish culture and life–the loooong lunch breaks, strolls for the sake of strolling, fantastic yet inexpensive wine, late dinners, the list goes on…I’ve reunited with all of my friends and “family” here in these recent weeks, and I’m reminded, amazed and grateful for how many incredible people I have met and continue to meet through this experience.

good ol’ Puente Colgante, just a few steps from my new workplace


I have lots more to share with you in the upcoming days. Stay tuned!

Hasta ahora! Agur!

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round 3

I’m about to board a plane to Spain for the THIRD time. I’ve had the most wonderful seven weeks at home visiting friends and family. In fact, these past couple of months have highlighted the importance of supportive and loving family and friends more than ever for me. I’m very, very fortunate. I can’t thank all of you (you know who you are!) for all you’ve done to make my extended visit to the US so great. THANK YOU! Goodbyes are always tough, but I know they’re really just “see you laters.”

I’m very excited and ready to get on the plane today. It will be so great to be back in Bilbao, and this year will be even better than last. I’ve got some exciting new challenges lined up.

I threw together a video of random clips from my past year in Spain. Enjoy!