CIEE Barcelona Program: Liberal Arts
Semester: Fall 2011
Home School: Vanderbilt University
I did an 8 hour/week part-time internship here in Barcelona. I was assigned to teach English at a public elementary school here in Barcelona. It was such an eye-opening educational and intercultural experience.
Before anything else, I need to explain the vast differences that exist between the public system school here and in the States. First and most importantly, here in Barcelona, all teaching is done in Catalan -- the official provincial language. This means that students learn math, history, literature science, geography, music, etc. all in Catalan. In addition to this they also get 2 hours per week of Spanish literature and English classes. School begins around 9am and ends at 5:05pm. It's a bit different because Spanish families have long lunches (also called siestas, but Catalonians don't really do much of a siesta) and many students return home to have lunch between 1-3pm.
The public school in Spain is divided into 4 sections: infantil (ages 3-5), primaria (6-11), secundaria (12-16), and bachillerato (college prep; 17-18). Students aren't necessarily assigned to grade levels, but there are 'cycles' that they go through for each of these divisions. As you can see, a public school can have students that range from 3 years of age all the way to 18-year-olds! It's quite interesting, really. In the school I taught at, the 3 to 5-year-olds had the entire first floor, the one right above the administrative and reception areas. The floor above that one is for primaria, while secundaria and bachillerato share the top floor. At my school, a class period for each subject is about an hour long and the teachers (not the pupils) move to different classrooms with the bell at the end of every hour. Therefore, I have five classes each week -- one with 14-year-olds, two with 13-year-olds, one with 11-year-olds, and one with itty bitty six-year-olds. It doesn't seem like a lot, but turns out to be quite a long and exhausting day!
I did not have a hand in grading students' work or administrating exams, since I am clearly not a certified teacher and I can't even speak Catalan. Instead, teachers allowed me to lead activities in class. The first couple of days of my internship, I was asked to stand in front of the class, introduce myself in English, and allow students to ask me questions in English so that they can practice speaking and pronunciation skills. Of course, this meant that I was asked similar questions multiple times each day by different English classes... questions ranging from "What is your favorite FC Barça football player?" to "Are American high schools really like High School Musical?" Then the teachers would show me parts of the English workbook or worksheets I can use with the students. Each class period, I would take a small group of students from the class and work with them on various things in a smaller classroom. This ranged from reading comprehension activities to helping kids come up with creative superheroes of their own. Working in small groups was often a lot easier for me, because it's a lot less attention upon myself and a lot more attention for each student, getting to know their learning styles and building a relationship.
Students here start English classes at the age of four, but even after two years of English classes, students have a very limited knowledge of English and can't really hold conversations with me in English. With the six-year-olds, the class begins with a song that you can find here. It's a fairly simple song, and they all know it by heart probably because they have sung it ever since they began English lessons. After screaming the song at the top of their lungs, I tell them stories with colored flash cards and the students work on English workbooks full of stickers, stories about various animals, and a ton of pictures to color.
It's a lot more fun with the little ones, who always welcome me every Wednesday with waist-squeezing hugs (still too short to hug me properly). Honestly, though, it's also a lot more work, because it requires running around to catch kids jumping up from their seats and running from place to place. This might also be because the classroom setting in Spain is a lot more informal. To give another example, the kids all call their teachers by name (this ensured that the entire school knew my name within several weeks of the start of my internship), and they talk endlessly during class because supposedly Spanish folks talk with no end in sight.
So yesterday (Wednesday) was my last day at the elementary school. I was requested by one of my teachers to give a presentation about a typical American Christmas. So I stayed up until 1am the night prior, making a PowerPoint full of the most stereotypical Christmas traditions that my family personally has never followed. This included photos of Christmas trees and stockings, cookies for Santa, a big lunch with ham and potatoes, so on and so forth. I also added slides about how Christmas is celebrated in different states (i.e. Hawaii, as opposed to New York) and holidays that some folks celebrate alongside/in place of Christmas (i.e. Kwanzaa and Hanukkah), because Spain is fairly homogenous in terms of religious affiliation and practically everyone celebrates Christmas. I also had a little surprise for the class at the end of the presentation -- a sing-a-long YouTube video of "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" in English! I've always believed that music is a powerful tool with which one can learn a language, and an immensely popular one among youngsters.
So my other teacher caught word that I was speaking about American Christmases, and so I eventually ended up giving the same presentation four times to four different classes. And you know what? It was a huge hit! In my 3-4pm English class, the students were so enthusiastic that the second time we sang the song, they stood up, danced, and clapped along with the music. I wish I could have recorded it someplace other than in my overly faulty memory; the kids looked so happy! They also wanted to reciprocate, so they sang to me a Catalan song about towers and bridges (as far as I could understand) which involved a lot of drumming on tables and hand motions. And these are 14-year-old rebellious, hormonal teenagers that we are talking about... even at the start of this very class, there was a girl sobbing in the corner and refusing to participate because some boy in class had broken her heart. I was incredibly thankful to see her singing along and clapping with the rest of her classmates by the end of the hour.
At the end of the day, I was exhausted but ecstatic. I received probably hundreds of hugs and twice as many kisses (that's another awesome thing about European kids, too; they aren't afraid of kisses, not even the boys!) as a special goodbye, and got trampled by the herd of six-year-olds, who all wanted to hug me at the same time... I said my thank-you's and farewells to all the teachers, the internship coordinator and the principal of the school, which was very special as well. They gave me a regalito -- the school t-shirt and engraved pen! It was a perfect and appropriate parting gift... so don't be alarmed if you see me sporting a t-shirt with funny Catalan words on it sometime in the next few months.
All in all, it was the perfect little ending to my semester. I was so happy and grateful that perhaps -- just perhaps -- I might have been able to teach these kids a little something. Honestly, this internship was one main factor that greatly heightened my study abroad experience. I could have chosen to take a normal course which would have definitely allowed me to sleep/rest more. A semester-long course here in Barcelona is about 40 hours in classroom time, while my internship practicum plus the seminar was a good 130+ hours. Ultimately it did take up a lot of time, and the hour-long commute each way was clearly not too fun... I'm not going to miss the sardine-packed metro rides at 8:15am!
Yet, it was so incredibly rewarding in an inexplicable sort of way. When else would I ever get this type of an opportunity to directly interact with and teach students of such a wide age range? When else would I converse with locals in Barcelona and be able to practice listening to Catalan? It was an awesome cross-cultural experience, full of priceless moments that I had been given, for some reason, to enjoy and love.
I love school. I love learning. And now, I can say this... I love teaching.
For more on Monica's experiences during her travels, check out her great blog!