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


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16 and Spanish

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to go along with two other teachers at my school to accompany our 4 ESO (high school sophomore) students on their Viaje de Estudios, or class trip. This gave me some extra insight into the lives of Spanish teenagers, and I’d like to share with you some of the differences I’ve observed. I may be getting old (24 next week!!!), but I don’t think I’m so far removed from my teenage years that I can’t remember what it was like. As far as I can tell, being a teen here is VERY different from my experience at that age.

Difference #1: The Thrill Factor

We kicked off the trip with an action-packed couple of days in the Pyrenees Mountains on the France-Spain border: white water rafting, paint-balling and “canyoning,” which is essentially descending a long, cascading waterfall using a variety of techniques including rappelling, jumping, swimming and climbing.

This brings me to Difference #1: Spanish (or maybe specifically Basque) teens are overall, for lack of a better term, more badass than American teens. Tell me: if you went on a HS class trip, what sort of activities did you and your classmates do? I’m guessing it probably didn’t involve any extreme sports. You know, with wet suits, helmets, carabiners, cables and plunges into icy pools at the bases of several waterfall drops. I suppose it helps a lot that the teens here are just generally more active, thus in better shape, than most American teens. The fact that the people of this country don’t have an obsession with liability lawsuits like in the US probably helps facilitate these opportunities as well.

white water rafting with my students in the Pyrenees

one of my students inside one of the many cascade drops of the waterfall we descended

the whole crew at the last drop

Difference #2: The Fiesta Factor

The second half of the trip was spent in Salou, a beachy resort town and notorious teen party capital of Spain’s Mediterranean coast. When I told anyone we were going to Salou, the unanimous response was “Ooooh…mucha fiesta!” It made me wonder, and still sorta does, why a school would willingly put a notorious party town on their high schoolers’ class trip itinerary. My school wasn’t alone in that decision either. In our beachfront hotel alone there were two other high school student groups from other parts of Spain on their class trip. On the nights in Salou, the kids would scurry down to our 9pm dinner, scarf down some food and head out on the town. The other chaperones and I hung out and had a few drinks before meeting up with the kids around 1am at whatever club they may be at. Just to do a headcount. To make sure everyone was still upright. And they were! All 35 of them could handle a night of partying better than a majority of American college freshmen. Their final curfew, around 4am (early by Spanish clubbing standards) was obeyed by every last one of them. That’s more than can be said for the average American teen, my former teen self included.

Sunny Salou

Difference #3: The Apathy Factor

Teenagers across the globe are known to have attitudes of apathy and angst unmatched by any other age group, but I think this attitude is stronger here than in the US. When I was in high school, most of the “cool kids” were also the smart, academically achieving kids. Though this may not be the case in the US as a whole, I’m pretty confident in saying that the relationship between high academic achievement and level of “cool-ness” is a lot more inversely related here than it is back home. For these teens, failing and repeating classes is the norm, not the exception. They talk about failing classes really openly and joke about it.

School performance isn’t the only place I’ve seen this attitude. To use an example from the class trip: we spent an afternoon touring Barcelona, and though the tour guide we had wasn’t stellar, I was appalled by how little the students paid attention during the tour. They slept when she was talking to us on the bus and wandered off when we were walking around with her. For many of them, it was their first time in Barcelona, and they just acted like it was the lamest thing they’ve ever done. I couldn’t figure it out. I remember going to Chicago and NYC for school music trips and being completely enthralled with the experience of seeing a new city. And don’t think I was the lone travel dork–my classmates were right along with me.

I’ve made a lot of generalizations here, and it is of course important to consider that my personal HS experience could be quite different from someone who grew up in a totally different corner of our vast land mass that is the US of A. And even though Spain isn’t geographically all that large, there are regional differences galore here too.

What do you think? Are Spanish teens better off than American ones? Does the significantly lower drinking age help them adopt a healthier attitude towards drinking and socializing in a party environment? How does their attitude of apathy and angst compare with that of American teens? I’d love to hear any of your thoughts–feel free to leave a comment!

I’ll leave you with a tune that’s very popular with the kids these days (one that I got to hear on repeat on our bus trip :-D):


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some people’s kids!

I’ve barely scratched the surface of my experience with teaching English, but I wanted to share a little bit based on my initial impressions with the kids. All I’ve done so far is give an introduction Powerpoint with some basics about myself to each class, and afterwards they practice their English by asking me questions about other things they want to know about me or the United States in general. The questions have ranged from basic to cute to entirely inappropriate. I will give you some of the more entertaining examples, in order from the most frequent to a few oddball questions that I’ve only gotten once:

Have you got a boyfriend? This has come up in every single class, even after I tell them that I’m 23, making me 5-10 years older than all of them depending on the class. Upon seeing a photo of my family, one girl even asked me how old my brother is. I kindly informed her that he is 13 years her senior; not to mention the fact that he is married and is now a father. See, even North Dakotans are considered exotic in some parts of the world :-p

Do you have Facebook and Tuenti (like a Spanish Facebook)? This question has luckily only ONCE been followed by “What is your surname?” (there’s that darn British English they’ve all learned) and none of them have tried to add me on Facebook…yet.

Do you like Justin Bieber? A couple of them have even asked whether I’ve seen him “in the street.” Yeah, all the time. He just walks around in the Midwest in his freetime.

Found this a block from my apartment. Very standard Bieber Fever graffiti.

Does everyone in the US own their own gun? Heck yes, we live in AMURIKA!

Do you go to London a lot? This question clearly demonstrates their general lack of geographical knowledge. I’m sure my geography wasn’t stellar at that age either. I mean, maybe I thought London was in the USA too. They ask me a lot where I’ve traveled, and mostly they want to know if I’ve been to NYC, LA, and Miami. One girl, however, asked if I’ve been to Mississippi. That one threw me off.

When they ask about the weather, their eyes about pop out of their heads when I tell them it regularly reaches -40 degrees in North Dakota in the winter. Then the question is whether that is in Celcius or Farenheit. Curiously, the two actually intersect at that exact point. For simplicity’s sake (and to not seem like a total nerd) I just tell them “Celcius.”

Fahrenheit Celsius Kelvin
212 100 373.15 water boils
32 0 273.15 water freezes
-40 -40 233.15 Fahrenheit equals Celsius
-320.42 -195.79 77.36 liquid nitrogen boils
-452.11 -268.95 4.2 liquid helium boils
-459.67 -273.15 0 absolute zero

I had a fun time explaining to them what “auto-start” is the other day. They could hardly believe it existed, let alone the fact that a majority of people where I come from have it installed in their cars.

As a general rule, the secondary school (middle and high school) students in Spain are far less well-behaved and disciplined than students in the United States. That may seem an ambitious claim to make given my small sample size together with the enormous size of the “secondary school” population in the US, but I still don’t think it’s an incorrect assumption. The teachers here told me this would be the case right from the start. “The newspapers all over are saying it,” they say, “the kids here are loud and disrespectful when compared to their peers in other countries.” I have to say, I agree very much. There is a good handful of them that are very polite and eager to learn. For the rest, school is just another facet of their social life, and they do what they can to see to it that it is not hindered by silly rules and lessons. I feel like I’m shouting over them about 70% of the time, and for the rest of the time there is almost always at least one or two students talking amongst themselves that I have to compete with. This simply wouldn’t have flown in my middle or high school. One class I attended on Monday was completely out of control. They maybe paid attention for five minutes, but I spent the rest of the class watching their main teacher yell at them in Basque and Spanish as he unsuccessfully tried to bring order to the chaos.

Some kids practicing handball right outside my school

The tavern/bar on campus where teachers (and some older students!) hang out during coffee and lunch breaks

Speaking of Basque, the school I teach at is VERY Basque—as in, every sign in the school is in Basque. At first, I wasn’t even sure which bathroom I should enter. There is almost no Spanish. Anywhere. The teachers speak to the kids in Basque in almost every class, meaning I have no freaking clue what’s going on except for when I occasionally hear them say my name, or when we finally switch over to English. From my standpoint, it goes something like this:

“Kaixo, klase! Hona hemen Megan da! Blahblahblahblahblah…eta…blah bat blah blahblahblah? Bai. Bat blah blah blaaaah blah. Bat blah. Blah blah MEGAN blah…blah blah…BAI? Okay class, now we are going to speak in English!”

The English that these kids have been learning in school all their lives is, as mentioned before, of the British variety. It’s adorable most the time, but frustrating at times too. The differences seem subtle when you’re a native English speaker, but they become quickly problematic when you’re teaching someone who has learned a different type of English than the one you normally speak. I’m sure they’ll soon adjust to my less proper, American English 🙂

My experience at IES Urritxe BHI has just begun, and I’m sure I’ll soon have lots more fun stories to share. If you have any questions about things I’ve discussed in this post, or if you’re also an ESL teacher and can share in my sentiments, please feel free to write in the comments section below!

Thanks for reading. ¡Que tengas un buen fin de semana!


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The “study” part of Study Abroad

I’ve hardly said a word about school here in Spain, partially because I don’t want to bore anyone and partially because it really is only a fraction of the entire experience itself. The most tangible goals of studying abroad are to earn college credit (in my case, for a Spanish minor) and to beef up your résumé, but as anyone who has studied abroad knows, that goal is almost secondary to the learning and discovering that comes from the experience in its entirety.

That said, I AM attending college courses at la Univerisdad del Pais Vasco (University of the Basque Country), and I’d like to tell you a little bit about it… 🙂

My classes are part of USAC‘s program, so they’re specially designed for foreign students and not part of UPV’s “normal” curriculum. That is how most study abroad programs work, I assume. This program has four “tracks”, or levels, and I was (somehow) placed in the highest track. I can say now, halfway through the semester, that being in the highest track has really been bittersweet. I feel like it’s a good challenge, but at the same time I could really use the review of some of the basics of grammar and verbs, etc. that I didn’t learn very well the first time around. It takes being in another country to realize how little of their language you really know! I need to do a better job of brushing up on some of my basics in my free time.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, I start at 11am with a conversation class. I ended up being the only student in the Track 4 conversation class, so it’s just my teacher and I, and I really don’t mind that it turned out that way. There’s certainly no room for slacking off or zoning out, but I just view it as an hour-long private Spanish lesson. Not bad at all. At noon, I head to my Civilization and Culture class (there’s a whopping TWO students in that one!), which I really enjoy too because I’m learning so much about Spain’s history, customs and traditions WHILE living here. That comes in quite handy on several occasions. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have two classes starting at 10am with the same professor, Juan. My friends and I lovingly refer to him (amongst ourselves!) as our Spanish grandpa. He is always teasing us about the amount of chocolate and coffee we consume, accusing us of chasing boys, and telling us to lay off the kalimotxo on the weekends. After arriving late to two of his classes in a row, Juan now refers to me as: Megan…My favorite disaster. I have two classes with him back to back: Stylistics, which is largely an advanced grammar/usage class, and Spanish Literature. Taking a literature class, for me, is like pulling teeth. I always want to and try to enjoy Literature, but at the end of the day I’m just a science geek…I have a hard time slowing down to the pace of literature interpretation, though I do think it is valuable and meaningful in its own right. The lit class I’m taking here is growing on me, though. I appreciate that it’s teaching me more about Spanish history, giving me practice with reading comprehension and maybe even making me more reflective and other profound things like that :-p …Thanks for that, Juan 🙂

I find that, when it comes to studying, I have a bit of study-abroad-induced attention deficit. Knowing that such an exciting new world is literally out my front door, it’s hard to stay in and study. Needless to say, I get a lot more homework done on rainy days than on sunny ones.

I haven’t posted any pics of the campus of UPV because, well…there’s truly nothing to see. And I wouldn’t just say that. There are two campuses–one homely-looking one in Leioa where all the Spanish classes are and one more handsome-looking one in the center of Bilbao. Since I’m only taking Spanish classes, I only experience the unaesthetic one. One big difference between campuses in the US and campuses here is that here, there is no emphasis whatsoever on “campus life” like in the US. In the States, we’re encouraged to hang out with friends on campus, meet up for study groups on campus, eat on campus and even spend our leisure time at on-campus activities. And a lot of us do most of those things. Most of us live on or very near campus for at least a part of our time in college, whereas here there is no on-campus housing. Most students in Spain live at home with their parents at least until they graduate college, and if they don’t live at home there is no dorm-style housing, so they just live in off-campus flats. Moral of the story: the need for a campus to be visually appealing is a lot less, since students simply come here for class and maybe a coffee or lunch, and then they leave.

Now, having said all of that, the people at UPV would probably appreciate if I mention that the campus IS under a lot of renovation right now, and within a couple of years will probably look a lot less disheveled. I do have one nice picture, taken from one of my classroom windows looking out into the open center courtyard inside the main building on campus:

UPV Biblioteca Central

UPV Biblioteca Central

Speaking of school, I have a couple of presentations tomorrow so I really should be getting around to preparing them.

¡Que pases una buena semana!