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?



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!


el tiempo vuela!

Hola gente!!! It has been MUCH too long since I’ve written an update, and for that I apologize. I have 4 or 5 half-written posts on various topics, but  just couldn’t seem to seal the deal on any of them lately :-p…so look for smörgåsbord of upcoming posts in the near future.

So…I’ll give you all the (very) short version of what has been happening over the past several weeks:

I finished my job in Amorebieta as an English auxiliar for the Basque Government. It was sad to say “agur!” to everyone there, but I’ll always have lots of good memories!

My last day with one of my 4 ESO (high school sophomores) classes

I visited Valencia and Alicante with my good friend Bryce during his month long trip through Europe. This is a part of Spain I hadn’t visited yet, and I absolutlely LOVED it. It is now second only to my beloved Pais Vasco. 😉

Valencia in a nutshell: a charming city with an eclectic mix of both festivals/events and people, science museums and futuristic architecture galore. Oh, and did I mention it is the birthplace of one of my favorite dishes on earth: paella? Eating paella at a beachside restaurant in the city of its birth was truly mmm-mmm-magical!

jumping for science geek joy in the City of Arts and Sciences in Valencia

Alicante totally exceeded my expectations. I knew it was going to be nice, but WOW! A city built around a huge castle fortress on a mountain that overlooks a Mediterranean beach!?? Few places are that perfect. You can (and we did) spend the day on the beach, swimming in the sparkling blue ocean waters and then head up to the castle fortress for a 360° view of the sunset. Unforgettable.

is this for real? yes, really. for real.

I landed a dream volunteering job for the month of June, assisting with social media strategy and photography for the TEDxDeusto conference at the University of Deusto in Bilbao. If you’re unfamiliar with TED, do yourself a favor and rectify that right now.

the TEDxDeusto Team and speakers

I moved in with a Spanish family to work as an au pair! This is something I was pretty sure I would never do, but two days into it I am absolutely thrilled that I did. There kids are twin 4-year-olds (a boy and a girl) and a 7-year-old boy. I spend most of the day with just the twins, as the older boy goes to German school until just before their mom comes home. The family really couldn’t be any nicer…I’m so lucky!  They live in a small village in the country outside of Bilbao, so I’ve gone from waking to the bustling sounds of city traffic out my window to waking to the sound of a rooster crowing up the road from our house. I’m loving the change of pace–it’s so peaceful and beautiful out here. Definitely more on all of that later!

And, last but certainly not least, I’ve decided to stay in Spain for another year! I applied for the same program I was in this year, but to work at a different school. I was accepted to the school of my choice, so next year I’ll be working at a language school in Getxo, Bilbao’s seaside suburb.

I’ll be coming back to the States in about a month to visit friends and family, and since my program doesn’t start until October, I’ll be staying for almost two whole months!

I hope all of you back State-side have a fantastic 4th of July holiday…grill some goodness for me!

Hasta la proxima!


surfing couches and things of that nature

One of the greatest things about living (and traveling) in the age of the Internet is the existence of such organizations as Couch Surfing is an international organization that connects travelers world-wide in a variety of ways. As the name suggests, by joining, you can list an available “couch” (or bed, floor space, etc.) in your home to accommodate travelers passing through.

Apart from the accommodation aspect, Couch Surfing (CS) provides fabulous opportunities to connect with people from all over the world within your own local community. There are specialized sub-groups within each city for connecting people with similar interests, like photography, cycling and cooking. I joined CS Bilbao’s Hiking and Rural excursion group back in November, and it has been one of the best things about my time here thus far. It’s a priceless chance to practice my Spanish and learn more about the Basque Country while making friends with like-minded, active people. A wonderful fusion!

Last week on Saturday, the group organized a trip to Orduña, a small town nestled in the mountains about 25 miles southwest of Bilbao. It was a great international mix of Bilbao-based Couch Surfers: a lot of Spaniards and Basques, a couple Germans, a Costa Rican and three Americans.

We arrived in Orduña and headed straight for Belatz Gorri, a tavern known for it’s national award-winning tortilla española (one of my fave foods in the world too…bonus!) It would seem more logical to wait until after the hike to treat ourselves, but we were forewarned that, especially on a Saturday, there might not be any left if we didn’t get it right away.

"Yeeeeah, we're gonna need 23 orders of your finest tortilla española, por favor!"

With sunshine on our faces and tortilla in our bellies, we began our ascent of the mountains surrounding the village. We took a break to take in the breathtaking views of the canyon and waterfall:

Panoramic view of the Orduña valley

Panoramic view of the Orduña valley

El Salto del Nervión

We stopped for some lunch on the balcony at the canyon’s edge:

…and then had an impromptu magic show performed by the very talented and hilarious Asier:

We got side-tracked by a slack-lining sesh on our way back down:

Anja, slack-lining like a boss

It was a day full of great conversation and laughter in the great outdoors. And that is my kind of day.

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Beyonce: my new teaching assistant

Those of you who know me probably know that I’ve long been an admirer of the fabulous Beyonce Knowles. But I mean…who isn’t? She’s beautiful, talented, elegant and humble: a perfect mix that is hard to find among today’s celebrities.

And, as it turns out, some of her song lyrics are just purrrrrfect for ESL lessons.

I remember when the song “If I Were a Boy” came out. I heard it on the radio, didn’t listen to the lyrics very carefully, and quickly dismissed the song as “lame.” Then, I saw the video. Boom. Crying. Pitiful girly tears.

Is the song sexist? Yeah, probably. Girls can be just as shady and treat guys like crap too. But the lyrics bring up some things that I’m betting most people, perhaps girls especially, can relate to from past or current relationships.

This song uses a number of beautiful examples of a grammatical joy known as the “second conditional.” This refers to the verb structure used when referring to impossible situations. For example:

“If I WERE at my house in North Dakota right now, I WOULD BE stuffing my face with Thanksgiving goodness with my parents.”

I cannot possibly be at my house with parents at this exact moment (*tear), therefore this is an impossible situation and a classical example of the “second conditional.”

(Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving BTW!)

I can personally attest to the fact verb structure in the second conditional is one of the trickiest facets of grammar in both Spanish and English, and I’d imagine it’s difficult in other languages too. And what better way to learn a difficult grammar topic than to dissect the lyrics of a Beyonce song?

This has been my most successful ESL lesson to date. I’ve used it in 3 classes thus far, all with students age 16-18, and it has been a big success every time. I have them listen to the song twice to complete and check the first 4 exercises. Then we watch the original video and do the last section of the worksheet, which is a discussion of whether the song is sexist and whether they agree or disagree with the differing perception of boys and girls in relationships, etc. It has made for an interesting discussion/debate to say the least! 🙂

Here you go, people: watch, listen, and flex your “second conditional” muscles (the exercises from my worksheet are below the video):

1. Listen to the first part of the song and fill in the blanks with the words in the box

wanted, confronted, day, girls, stick up, beer, chase, bed, wanted

If I were a boy
Even just for a _______
I’d roll out of_______in the morning
And throw on what I________ and go
Drink ________ with the guys
And _________after girls
I’d kick it with who I _______
And I’d never get ________ for it
Because they’d ___________for me.

2. Put the verses in the right order

If I were a boy
I swear I’d be a better man
When you loose the one you wanted
And everything you had got destroyed!
Cause he’s taken you for granted
Cause I know how it hurts
How it feels to love a girl
I’d listen to her
I think that I’d understand
1. _____________________________
2. _____________________________
3. _____________________________
4. _____________________________
5. _____________________________
6. _____________________________
7. _____________________________
8. _____________________________
9. _____________________________

3. Put the verbs in brackets in the right tense

If I were a boy
I__________ (turn off) my phone
Tell everyone that it’s broken
So they _________(think)
That I ___________(sleep) alone
I___________(put) myself first
And _________(make) the rules as I go
Cause I know she __________(be) faithful
__________(wait for) me to come home

4. Fill in the missing word.

It’s a little too late for you to come _____
Say it’s just a _______
Think I’d ______you like that
If you ______ l would wait for you
You thought wrong

5. Read the following verses and say or write if you agree or disagree with the notion that boys and girls feel and behave in a different way in relationships. Do you think the message of the song is sexist?

But you are just a boy
You don’t understand
How it feels to love a girl
Someday you’ll wish you were a better man
You don’t listen to her
You don’t care how it hurts
Until you lose the one you wanted
Cause you taken her for granted
And everything that you had got destroyed
But you are just a boy


money, honey.

If you split up the stipend of an auxiliar in Spain into an hourly wage, we make a very decent income, especially considering the widespread economic crisis. Heck, at least we’re employed! But there’s one tiny detail to remember: we only work 12 hours per week. Not because we’re complete slackers or easily overwhelmed, but because our contract says so. You won’t hear me complaining about my über lax work schedule (did I mention we also get 34 days of paid vacation in the EIGHT MONTHS of our contract?), but let’s face it, even with decent “hourly pay”, working 12 hours/week is only enough to squeak by for rent, bills, food and a few “1€ caña” nights.

So what’s a girl to do? Surely, you’ll need new shoes at some point. The sharp increase in mileage covered on foot here is no joke. And you simply can’t go around in your Nike’s all the time, both for cultural (helloooo, dorky tourist!) and functional (the rain in Spain falls mainly in Bilbao) reasons. Also, once January hits and Spain’s annual “rebajas” sales hit EVERY store, it will be almost impossible to avoid a little spree here and there. Oh, and did you want to travel at all? Sure, it’s fantastically cheap to jump around Europe when compared even with domestic US flights, but it adds up quickly. All of the sudden, you need muuuuucho dinero…

It’s no secret that a vast majority of participants in this program are making extra money (or in many cases, almost doubling their income) by giving private lessons and/or tutoring students in English. The minimum going rate, in northern Spain at least, is 15€/hour ($21/hour) for a one-on-one lesson. You can charge more if you have lots of experience and/or special certifications, or if you are tutoring/teaching more than one student at a time.

make money, money

People in Spain are paying big bucks to learn how to speaka da eeengleesh. Why? Well, if you haven’t heard, the economy in Spain is not-so-good. As this NY Times article points out, people here are slowly realizing that, to get the jobs they want, they need to learn English. For better or worse, it’s considered the “universal language of business.”

I have done exactly ZERO work to seek out private lesson clients. I’m just about “booked up” with clients at the moment, and so far, they have all sought me out in one way or another.

Before I even arrived in Spain, one of the teachers I work with was arranging for me to give lessons to her son’s classmate: a totally brilliant 16-year-old girl, Fatima, who is studying for the “Cambridge First Certificate”, a prestigious English proficiency exam. I meet with her once a week for 1.5 hours. We review and practice the intricacies of advanced topics in English grammar and usage. This girl has a better understanding of the inner workings of the English language than most native English-speaking American high school graduates. I have the pleasure of working up from this advanced level by explaining colloquial phrases, idioms and the numerous nuances of English. I also usually choose a podcast on a topic that she has told me she is interested in, such as environmental issues. Last week we listened to and discussed this NPR Environment podcast about the oil boom in western North Dakota.

When I began tutoring this girl, her mother (who is a medical doctor) approached me about tutoring her and her husband (who is also a medical doctor!) in English. This whole discussion happened in Spanish, so I really had no idea of their English ability. In my first lesson with them, I quickly discovered that we would be starting from scratch. They haven’t had any English education since their early 20s, and even that pales in comparison to the English education that high school and university students in Spain are receiving today. This is a common theme for middle-aged professionals: the realization that any hope for advancement in their career is likely to require acquisition of proficiency in English.

So last Tuesday, I went from discussing advanced English grammar and the geopolitics of the global oil industry with a 16-year-old girl to teaching her highly intellectual parents how to count and tell time in English. Ironic perhaps, but very fun 🙂

My youngest “clients,” if you can call them that, are a 3-yr-old Xabier and 6-yr-old Aiala who are (aside from my adorable nephew Alex!) the cutest kids I know. Their father is the director of the study abroad program I participated in here in Bilbao last year. We’ve kept in touch, and he wanted someone to come by once a week to “play with the kids in English.” Lucky for me, he thought that I’d be perfect for the job! These kids think that having a “REAL American girl” come to hang out with them once a week is the greatest thing ever. I usually spend the first part of my time with them helping Aiala with her homework (she’s a VERY serious student…seriously!) and keeping Xabier occupied with books and tickle fights. Then, we move to the playroom to rock out to some tunes in English. Or draw pictures. Or play robot (Aiala) vs. mom/son (me/Xabier). Or cars. Or Wii. It’s a tough job, but somebody’s got to do it. 😉

I’m in the process of setting up a few more sessions with advanced students around my age. I met with one of them today: she is in her mid-20s and preparing for Cambridge First Certificate like the 16-yr-old mentioned earlier. I’ve been hooked up with these potential clients in a variety of ways like local language exchange groups and through coworkers. I even met one potential client while shopping for shoes: at the checkout, she cross-checked my ID (I carry my ND Driver’s License) with my credit card, told me it was the most unique ID she’d ever seen, asked what I was doing so far from home and subsequently asked if I’d be willing to tutor her and her sister once a week or so. We’re working out the details now. A beautiful example of how shoe-shopping can actually be profitable.

I really prefer the one-on-one atmosphere of these private classes to the one-on-twenty chaos of the high school classrooms. It’s a no-brainer: people taking private lessons obviously have a desire to learn the material. High school students? Not so much.

Even so, I’d better keep both jobs. I’ve got some exciting upcoming trips in the works, and there’s a pair of much-needed rain boots at Calzados that is just waiting to be mine.

Feliz miércoles/jueves a tod@s!

Hasta pronto, chicos 🙂


speaking spanese

Here in España, there exists a godsend we Americanos call “Chino Stores”. They’re one-stop-shops run by Chinese expats, and they have just about everything you could possibly need. Imagine a Walmart condensed to a hundredth its original size with less selection and significantly less organization: seemingly no rhyme or reason to the arrangement of the products. For example, you can find bras right next to the kitchenware, and home decor in the next aisle over. Probably next to the dog toys. Regardless, I’m eternally grateful for Chino stores and their provision of cheap EVERYTHING.

A bulletin board (un corcho) has been on my list of “things to buy” for weeks. On my way to the market tonight, I stumbled upon a new Chino store in our neighborhood: not-so-creatively named “Tienda de Regalos” (Gift Shop). I meandered in, dodged a couple stacks of floppy hats and a giant teddy bear, and immediately saw a shelf FULL of corchos (bulletin boards.) ¡Que suerte tengo! What luck! I snatched up a medium-sized one and headed towards the smiling Chinese cashier.

Suddenly it occurred to me that I only had a few euro coins and my debit card with me. “¿Aceptas tarjeta?” I asked. No, he did not take credit cards. ¡Joder!  I checked my coin purse and I had exactly €3.10 in change. The bulletin board cost €3.90. “No pasa nada,” he said. No prob, I could just return another day to pay the remaining 80 cents. What a guy!

So as I’m presenting him with my insufficient payment, he makes a correct assumption when he asks “No eres de aquí, eh? (You’re not from here, huh?)” So I tell him no: I’m from los Estados Unidos (the United States).

El Chino: ¿Eh….dónde? (Where?)

Me: Los Estaaados Uniiiiidos. The United States.

El Chino: ¿Ehhh, no sé...? (Ummm…I dunno)

Me: Ameeeerica. Muuuchos estaaaados. (Maaaa-ny staaaates.)

El Chino: A ver…a ver.…(let’s see…)

Me: País muuuy grande! (Very big country!) California! Hollywood! New York! Miami!

El Chino: Pues no sé...(well, I don’t know…)

Me: Vale, da igual. No pasa nada. Muchas gracias señor, regresará el miércoles para darte los 80 céntimos. (Okay, whatever. Don’t worry about it. Thanks a lot, sir, I’ll return on Wednesday to give you the 80 cents.)

Alright, so I’m more than 99% sure that this man knows exactly where the United States is. He could probably even point out New York and California. And I don’t think that’s an ethnocentric assumption.

What this kind Chinese man and I were dealing with tonight was a classic case of language barrier-induced misunderstanding. Our native languages, English and Chinese, are ultra-different. The Spanish he has learned is probably very tailored to running his store, and it isn’t unlikely that, in this neck of the woods, I was the first American he has done business with.  For whatever reason, our conversation was just not clicking for him (which happens to me all the time, I can totally relate!) and it led to a pretty comical misunderstanding.

I will return to this particular Tienda de Regalos on Wednesday (because tomorrow is an arbitrary holiday here, invented just this year, wooooot!) to give this man the 80 cents I owe him. I may just pick up the rest of the items on my list of “things to buy” as well.