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


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It’s hard to believe we’re well into June! Now that things have slowed down a bit for me, I’ve had more time to reflect. May was a seriously great month. Hands down, it was one of the very best of my life. It started with great travels with my parents and continued to be full of experiences, fun and unforgettable times with friends.

On May 19 in San Sebastian, I ran my sixth half-marathon (third one on this side of the pond, after doing the half at the Bilbao Night Marathon in 2011 and 2012.) I’ve changed to minimalist-style running over the past year, and although the adjustment really took an entire year, it has finally paid off big time. I beat my half-marathon PR by 8 minutes, meaning I knocked almost an entire minute off each mile. It was a beautiful race in a beautiful place, even when the pouring rain and high winds kicked in during the last mile. Maybe you can find a happy/exhausted American girl crossing the finish line in this video.

The weekend after the race was my birthday weekend and it was…the…BEST. I’ve made so many great friends from a variety of circles in these past couple of years, and many of them were able to join me  to help me celebrate with a Mexican-style potluck in my apartment. I put together this GoPro-recorded account of the night:

My main job here as an English auxiliar for the Basque Government ended at the end of May as well. I’m much more sad about that than relieved or anything else. My job was seriously amazing: my boss and coworkers were super friendly and easy-going, and my students were intelligent, creative, engaged and extremely appreciative. There probably aren’t many teachers in the whole world that can say all of those things about their work. Thank you, EOI de Getxo, for EVERYthing.

one of my classes at the EOI, goofing around like they do best ;-)

one of my classes at the EOI, goofing around like they do best 😉

One fabulous month rolled directly into another, and June is off to a great start. I can’t wait to see what more great things this summer has in store.

I hope you are all doing well in your various corners of the world. Let the summer fun begin! 😀


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do not leave us speechless!

This year, I am fortunate enough to be both teaching (English) AND taking (Spanish) classes in two of Spain’s “Escuelas Oficiales de Idiomas” (Official Language Schools). These schools exist all over the country and offer classes in a variety of languages including Spanish language classes for foreigners like myself. The schools are public and very low-cost. I paid just 70€ (about $90) for an entire school year of classes–4.5 hrs/week or a total of over 120 hours of class. That means I pay less than $1/hour to attend classes. When I started attending classes at the University of North Dakota back in 2006, I remember learning that my cost per hour of class instruction was around $20/hour. And I’m sure it has increased substantially in the past six years. Put another way: attending classes in 2006 at one of the cheapest universities in the US cost me twenty times more than attending classes in 2012 in the center of one of Spain’s largest cities. Go figure.

With Spain’s economy in the dumps, many educational programs are on the chopping block. Just like everywhere else in this recession, cuts need to be made somewhere, but I definitely side with the argument that education should be one of the last places to be making cuts. The whole reason why I’m able to be here in Spain today is because of a program that was created for the need for Spanish people to learn English so they can compete in the global job market. If language programs continue to be cut, the young Spanish people currently out of work (currently almost 50% of young adults in Spain) will fall behind even more. The low-cost language classes offered at these schools are crucial for Spain’s future.

Side note: If you are a native English speaker, take a second to be REALLY grateful for that. Somewhere along the way, English became the most important/useful language in the entire WORLD, and you’re already a master at it just because of where you were born. Now, more importantly, realize that the fact that you are indeed a native English speaker: 1. is by pure chance 2. does not make you better than anyone else, and 3. shouldn’t make you feel like you’re off-the-hook for learning another language. Learning another language (or two or three) will broaden your worldview astoundingly. In summary: don’t be an ethnocentric a-hole.

Below is a video created by the Oficiales de Idiomas de Cádiz y San Fernando in the South of Spain to raise awareness of the importance of keeping Spain’s Official Language School programs alive. The video is subtitled in Spanish, but the people in the video are all speaking the languages they’re currently learning (French, Italian, English, German, etc.) at one of Spain’s Official Language Schools. Even if you don’t know Spanish, it’s worth watching.

The text at the beginning of the video says:

“I don’t learn languages to speak. I speak languages to learn.” Isn’t that beautiful?

Near the end of the video, the creators sum up their plea by saying: “¡Que no nos dejen sin palabras!” which means “Do not leave us speechless!”


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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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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


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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 🙂


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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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Back to Bilbao!

Shortly after I wrote my last blog post (over a YEAR ago!) a professor at UND told me about a Spanish government program that hires native English-speaking college graduates from a variety of backgrounds to teach in English classes in schools all over Spain. I remember thinking, “Yeah, I think I’ll do that.”

Nine months later, I was offered a spot in the North American Language and Culture Assistants program (NALCA) for the 2011-2012 school year. The placement came late and therefore unexpectedly, but when I received word that I had an opportunity to live and work not only in SPAIN but in a school just a few miles outside of my beloved former home of BILBAO, I knew I couldn’t pass it up. I’ll be working at a school in Amorebieta and living in downtown Bilbao.

Tomorrow morning, I’m flying to Chicago to pick up my approved visa from the office of the Consulate of Spain. Yes, you have to actually physically present yourself at the nearest consulate to pick up your visa. No one knows why. The visa process was horrendous and stressful, and it consumed much of my free time for the better part of the summer. The details of the process are hazy now as I’ve selectively extracted them from my memory due to the pain they caused, but I think this pretty much sums it up:

By this time tomorrow, I should have my Spanish visa in hand. Then it’s back to ND for a few more days to say my last goodbyes and throw my life into a suitcase.

For now, however, I’m off to Chicago.

¡Deséame suerte!