Becca Kantor: Language Assistant

Becca Kantor: Language Assistant

The auxiliares de conversaciones program is a massive initiative by the Spanish state to get native English speakers into the classroom. In Madrid alone there are well over one thousand of us—seven alone in my high school.

Becca is one of these seven. She was the first coworker I met in my current high school. We came in on the first day, disoriented and a little overwhelmed, to explore the plain yellow building that was to become the center of our working lives. This was last year, when we were both simple language assistants. But this year Becca took on the additional responsibility of Global Classrooms (see below), which switched her from an assisting to a leading role. She rose to the challenge—becoming notably less diffident, more assertive, both in and out of the classroom—and meanwhile became the unofficial leader of our group of friends, organizing and planning all our outings. She recently sat down to talk with me about her experience in Spain:


ROY: Is this your first interview?

BECCA: I guess it’s my first, other than a job interview…

R: Hopefully not your last interview, then.

B: Hopefully, fingers crossed, we’ll see how this first one goes.

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R: Tell me about your background—your family, your hometown, what you studied in university.

B: I’m one of four siblings, I have three older brothers. My dad was born in Germany but raised in Arizona, my mom is from El Salvador, they met in Mexico but that’s a different story. We moved around a lot growing up. I was born in Connecticut, but I lived near Boston, then two hours from Chicago, and ended up in Plano, Texas, and we’ve lived there ever since. So it’s easier to say I’m from Plano, even though I don’t really feel like I’m from a place. I went to the University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, and I majored in Creative Writing and I double minored in psychology and film (they have a famous film school, so I figured I should).

R: Why did you decide to come to Spain?

B: After graduation I had moved back with my parents, and had gotten a part-time job as a tutor, at a company that specializes mostly in SAT tutoring, but they also do school tutoring. And I worked there for about two and a half years. I loved working with the kids, but after so long I felt like I didn’t want to move up in the company.

So I decided to apply for a MFA (Masters of Fine Arts) programs in creative writing. I applied to five schools, but I’m the kind of person who always needs to have a backup plan. I had come to Spain about seven months before, and I really loved Spain, and I felt like I could live here. So when I saw the language assistant program, I decided to apply for that, since it was teaching English to high school kids, and I knew I liked kids and I knew I liked Spain. This was just a backup plan. Then I heard back from the grad schools, and I had gotten into one, Indiana University. It’s a great school, but I did not want to live in Indiana, just too much corn for me. So I guess the dreamer in me said, “Wow, I can live in Europe.” It made the choice easier for me.

R: What were some of the biggest challenges of moving here?

B: The language is definitely the hardest one. I had some experience of Spanish, and I had known since April that I was going to come, so I was on the app Duolingo and speaking Spanish with my mom. But when you get here it’s a whole different game. Being away from my family was also a challenge because we’re a very close family, and to suddenly be an ocean away is difficult. Thankfully, there’s technology, and also my brother was already living in Germany. And finding an apartment, that was tough. It’s crazy in August, since everybody is trying to find an apartment, and you’re also trying to figure out your Spanish.

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And it was incredible to realize how language made simple acts so much more difficult. My first few months in Madrid, I remember I would go grocery shopping and it would take me so long to shop for food. The supermarkets here were organized a bit differently than in the United States, so I didn’t know where to find all the food on my list. Asking for help from one of the workers at the supermarket would have made everything easy, but I was so worried that I wouldn’t know how to ask my question in Spanish, or, worse, I wouldn’t understand the worker’s response. So instead of asking for help, I would just wander around the supermarket, hoping to eventually find the food that I needed. I felt like such a lost child.

R: What do you think are some of the biggest takeaways from living abroad?

B: The first thing I thought of when you showed me this question is that you really come to appreciate people who are patient with you when you’re trying to speak another language. Because some people are annoyed that you’re not particularly fluent, and some people laugh at your accent, and even if they aren’t being mean it’s discouraging. So I came to appreciate the people, whose job it wasn’t to deal with my Spanish, to take the time to listen to me, even if it takes me 10 minutes to say something.

R: What did you do doing your first year here as an language assistant?

B: My first year I worked here at Antares. As a language assistant, our job is exactly that. We are there to assist. A lot of people think we’re teachers but we’re teacher assistants. We work four days a week, sixteen hours a week, and typically you have different classes you work with. So I was assigned to 1st of ESO (American 7th grade), and 2nd of ESO (American 8th grade), and I taught English, Geography & History, Biology, Art, and Music.

Each teacher was different. Some would give me something to do in the book, and I would lead the class the day that I was in there. Sometimes I would take groups of kids outside the class and play games, in groups of four, to give the students more practice speaking. In history I would give presentations about whatever we were learning or do games for review. More or less the same for Art and Biology, and Music…

R: What are some of the challenges of being a language assistant?

B: The biggest challenge is discipline. We’re in this weird limbo where we’re the teacher, but we’re also not the teacher. The kids are really fascinated when an assistant comes in. We tend to be younger, too, so that makes the students like us really quickly. They like us because we’re different. And I’m the kind of person who really likes to relate to my kids one-on-one. Like I’ll talk about Marvel Movies or Star Wars with them, because I’m a little bit of a kid myself, I like the same things that they like.

But then it would create this problem where they felt like I was their friend, but I was also trying to be their teacher. Also, it’s not clearly defined if we can discipline the kids, or how we can. Can we give them negative marks? Can we write up a parte (incident report)? And sometimes, even though I don’t like yelling, I did have to raise my voice. Thankfully, we’re not allowed to be alone with the kids, the teacher has to be there. But sometimes I don’t like that I have to rely on the teacher so much for discipline. I want to figure it out on my own. So I don’t know how to relate to them and to maintain discipline, a weird limbo.

R: Can you explain what the Global Classrooms (GC) program is and what was your role in the program?

B: The Global Classrooms program has been going on for about ten years, and it’s a program that the Comunidad de Madrid does with Fulbright and also the British Council. It’s basically Model United Nations. Only bilingual schools get to participate. Typically, a Fulbright assistant (language assistants who won a Fulbright award) will work with third year (American ninth grade) at a bilingual school. And they teach GC to the entire third year. For some people, that’s 40 kids. For me, this year, it was 145 kids.

For the first part of the year, from October to December, I was teaching them skills they need for Model UN: how to debate, how to write a research paper—and a lot of these kids have never done that in Spanish, much less English—how to find sources, cite sources, how to build an argument, how to write a speech and deliver it, and really, more importantly, just how to engage with the world and think critically.

In GC you get a specific topic for the year, and this year ours was income inequality. So I was trying to teach these kids about this problem in Spain, but also in a lot of different countries around the world. Again, typically this is what the Fulbright assistants do, but now GC has grown so much that they don’t get enough Fulbrights for it. I’m not Fulbright, but I volunteered for it, because I wanted the challenge. So that was October to December.

After that, there are two conferences, a preliminary conference and a final conference. Every school that participates in GC goes to the preliminary conference. Obviously, we can’t send 145 students, unfortunately, so the teachers and I picked a group of 10, which was really difficult. These formed five teams of two. Each of these teams was assigned a country for the preliminary conference. Of all the bilingual schools at the preliminary conference, 28 are chosen to participate in the final conference. After this conference there are interviews.

Of the students who participate in this final conference, each school is allowed to send a single student to be interviewed. That means 28 kids are interviewed in all, and of those, 10 are chosen to participate in a final, final conference that happens in New York, along with teams from all over the world—Mexico, Germany, the United States.

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R: And this year one of your students won, right?

B: Yes, this year it was great. The past two years we had always made it to the final conference but our students weren’t picked at the interviews. But this year, our student María Romero was picked to go to New York, which was really exciting. I had her last year and she really deserves it, she’s brilliant, confident, and works hard. She’s right now in the process of working with her partner, who goes to a different school, and she’s writing her research paper. And in three weeks, she’s going to New York City for the first time.

R: What are your plans when you finish your school year?

B: Again, last fall, I applied for grad schools, MFA programs. And I got into Vanderbilt University. So when I finish this school year I’ll be moving back to the United States, to Nashville Tennessee, to complete a two-year Masters of Fine Arts in the Creative Writing program. Which I’m really, really stoked for.

R: What originally drew you to writing?

B: That’s a good question, but I’ve always loved writing, so it’s hard to know what drew me to it. I think it was just reading. My mom really instilled in me this love of reading. I remember when I was learning how to read I was so scared that I’d have problems. Do you remember Hooked on Phonics?

R: Yeah!

B: So I remember watching those commercials, and I remember they were for the kids who were struggling with reading. And I had so much anxiety as a five-year-old that I wouldn’t be able to learn to read. I thought I would need Hooked on Phonics and would tell my mom, you need to call that number in the commercial and order it. But I didn’t end up needing it. From the minute I started learning how to read, I loved it. And I think what originally drew me to writing was reading stories—I would read these stories and put the book down, and the stories would live on in my mind, and I would wonder what I would do in this situation, or come up with my own characters in my mind and play them out in my head. So it was like an extension of make-believe, which I always loved doing with my friends.

I remember one time I put on a show for my family, God bless them, with my Beanie Babies. I think it was like a Zorro story, because I really liked Zorro at the time, I was in love with Antonio Banderas. And they watched, and told me “That was really good, Becca,” even though it was probably terrible.

R: What do you hope to be doing in ten years?

B: Well, I hope that in ten years I’ve published something. A novel, a short story collection, or even just a short story. It would be nice to have published something, to still be finding the time to write the stories I want to write. But I also hope I’ll be teaching, because the two years in Spain have really taught me that I love teaching. I knew I liked kids from my tutoring job, but I wasn’t sure I would like teaching in a classroom, but the Auxiliar program taught me that I really love that.

I hope I’ll find myself back in Europe, maybe not forever, but to live again. Hopefully in Spain, since it’s going to be really hard to say goodbye to Spain. Hopefully, I guess, married, with kids, we’ll see… Have a dog, a German shepherd.

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R: And how you think you will look back on this experience?

B: I think I will look back on this experience as extremely formative, not just career-wise, but just as a person. I’ve made friendships here that I hope will be long-term. It’s always a little scary when you move to another country, and think “I don’t know how I’m gonna cope,” but I learned that, yeah, I can be independent. If I can take care of myself in another country, where I struggle with the language, it gives me confidence to do other things. I think living here has taught me to be more empathetic, to other cultures, to other people. It’s certainly helped my writing, just with all the new experiences.

When I approached it, I thought “Oh, this will be a fun year or two in Spain.” But looking back I realize that it wasn’t just a break from life, it was actually a really big stepping stone. It was necessary to get me to where I needed to go. It wasn’t a pause, it wasn’t a breather, it was an important part of my life.

A Conversation with a Music Teacher

A Conversation with a Music Teacher

I have been teaching music classes with José Ramón since October. As a teacher, he really takes advantage of the available time: dividing the class between performance and theory. In the performance section we accompany the kids on guitar as they play songs on Glockenspiels, such as Gary Jules’s “Mad World.” In the theory section we learn about how music works—key signatures, meters, dynamics, instruments, and so on. Last week JoseRa (as people call him) sat down with me to tell me more about music education in Spain.


ROY: Tell me about your background. What did you study in university?

JOSERA: I got a bachelor’s degree in the history of music (musicology) and in the philology of Romance languages. I also got a professional degree from a conservatory, in classical guitar and music theory, harmony, counterpoint, and so on. And I have a masters in comparative literature.

R: So you have four degrees, in musicology, philology, guitar performance, and comparative literature?

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JR: That’s right.

R: What kind of literature?

JR: The masters was focused on Mediterranean literature, specifically in the Iberian Peninsula—Catalan, Basque, Gallego—and their connections with the wider Mediterranean culture. I did this degree because I wanted to diversify my CV. I’m very interested in the humanities in general. For example I studied quite a bit of philosophy, too.

R: How did you get interested in music originally?

JR: It was because of my neighborhood. I came from a working-class area, and in my neighborhood there were a lot of young boys and girls who played guitar. And we were very interested in underground music. I started to play guitar, and I tried to play Lou Reed, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie. That was very hard here. We didn’t have any video recordings available. In those days Spain was a very closed country. It was the last years of Franco. We couldn’t see the musicians, we could only listen to the music and try to imitate how it sounded.

R: Why weren’t there videos? Was it censored?

JR: No, it wasn’t illegal. There just weren’t a lot available and it was too expensive for us. For example we commonly listened to pirated versions of cassettes. In my high school, when I was around fourteen years old, if one student had a record everyone else in class had a copy too. We also used to listen to the radio station. But if you tried to imitate the music by just listening, it was very hard. I would go to concerts and try to stand in front of the guitarist, look at their hands, and try to do the same. But when I got home I didn’t know. It was hard.

R: Were there any bands or musicians that really caught your attention?

JR: Oh yes. For example, The Velvet Underground, Lou Reed, and some Spanish bands, like Leño, La Banda Trapera del Río, which is a punk band from Cataluña. And Sex Pistols, Bowie, and new bands like Chameleon. Psychedelic music, punk rock.

R: How old were you when you started playing guitar?

JR: I was twelve, more or less. But I started playing seriously when I was fourteen. My first guitar was my brother’s guitar, a Spanish guitar (with nylon strings). To buy my first electric guitar I had to save money for four years. It was very expensive to buy a guitar here. Very difficult.

R: Now that you’re a teacher, do you still play and perform?

JR: Yes, nowadays I play with a band. But I can’t play classical music because I don’t have enough time. It’s very depressing. Because you know how to play but you don’t have enough time to play it how you want to. In my rock band we play covers of Spanish, English, and American bands, like the Strokes, Sex Pistols, Thin Lizzy, the Rolling Stones, and a song by Judas Priest. There are five of us in the band. We’re called “Disorder” (Desorden in Spanish).

R: Can you give me some idea of music classes in Spain. What is the curriculum like?

JR: We have a problem because, in Spain, there isn’t a tradition of learning music in public schools. And it’s very difficult, because the students don’t think that music is important. In primary school there are only 45 minutes per week, and the teacher can’t do a lot of things in that time. Here in high school, in the second year [American eighth grade], we try to explain musical terminology, and play recorders and xylophones. In third year we study the history of music and listen to some pieces of classical music. In the fourth year music is not compulsory, it’s an elective. For me it’s more attractive for them; we learn about rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, musicals—modern music.

R: In the United States, schools often have many performing groups. For example, in my high school we had at least five separate performance groups (band, orchestra, chorus, etc.). Why isn’t this the case in Spain?

JR: It’s impossible here, because we don’t have this kind of tradition. If you want your children to do an activity like this, you need to pay a private academy to do it after school. Instruments and other resources are very expensive. And our national policy is not in favor of such programs. Of course, it would be a good thing to have these performance groups, but here it’s impossible. It’s strange because Spain is a country that has exported great musicians. But people here don’t think that music is an important skill.

R: Why do you think we have music classes in high school? Is it really necessary?

JR: I think it’s an important subject, and not just because it’s my subject. Music helps you to concentrate, work together… It is holistic knowledge. So on the one hand it teaches general skills. On the other hand music itself is very important. Everyone listens to a lot of music. But many people don’t want to learn it. They think that music is just for entertainment. This is a mistake.

R: In my case I think that music classes helped me to become a more dedicated and focused person. Music requires a lot of practice.

JR: Yes, music has a lot of benefits.

R: What are some of the challenges of teaching music to adolescents?

JR: Oh, to maintain their attention. Nowadays they are very narrow-minded. They don’t know a lot of things about modern pop music, and they don’t want to learn more about it. You play punk rock and they think it’s very strange. Another challenge is to convince them that music is important in itself. Music has the magic touch, so to speak, that allows you to discover more things. It is a sentimental education, important in the development of your emotions. Music can take you out of your comfort zone. Arts in general do this. And many people don’t like to study music and the arts for this reason. Art changes your life; and people don’t want their lives changed.

R: Some people insist that they have “no talent” for music. Do you think that’s true?

JR: I don’t agree with this idea. I think you can discover your place in music. We have this idea from the Romantic age of the musical genius. If you are going to do law, medicine, economics, you don’t think you need to be a genius in these fields. But people that start studying music think they have to be geniuses. This is wrong. Amateurs are the base of any artform. All people can play some instrument. They just need to discover which one. Maybe not everyone can be Mozart, Beethoven, or Miles Davis, but they can do it.

R: Do you think music classes benefit society in general?

JR: Yes. The upper classes always try to keep music for themselves. And this is because music helps us to develop our skills, our emotions, our culture, and this can be dangerous.

R: Would you recommend any Spanish musicians, styles, or bands that Americans might not know of?

JR: Nowadays Spanish pop has a good level. There are some bands that I think are quite good, with well-written lyrics. People can be very demanding with the meaning and poetry of lyrics in Spain. Bands like El Columpio Asesino, León Benavente, Mucho, Perro, Leño, Radio Futura… In classical music one of the best musicians of the twentieth century is Andreś Segovia, the famous guitarist, or Jośe Luis Turina, who composes atonal music. A philosophy teacher here sings in a good indie band, Ornamento y Delito. Check it out.

An Interview with a Bilingual Educator

An Interview with a Bilingual Educator

Helena Massó is the Bilingual Coordinator in my high school—which basically makes her my boss. She was there on my first day of school, welcoming us into our new workplace, doing her best to make us comfortable, giving us our schedules and explaining how everything worked. She handles every administrative task for us, from renewal to vacation to scheduling, in addition to her many other duties. Not only that, but she is a working teacher. (In Spain administrators commonly double as teachers.)

She took some time from her busy schedule for an interview about her career. Here is the edited transcript.


Roy: Have you ever been interviewed before?

Helena: Yes, a couple times. Once was to become a certified Advanced English teacher . The interview was about why my name starts with an “H.” [In Spanish the “H” is silent; and so the sonically equivalent name is commonly spelled “Elena”.] I was annoyed that this topic was the main criterium to decide whether I was prepared to teach Advanced English, after passing my official tests in English to become a teacher, after getting the Proficiency certificate by Cambridge University, and after getting the Official School of Languages certificate of English. What about my professional development and career?

R: So… why is your name spelled with an “H”?

H: Well, because the Greeks are so weird. Really the explanation is too long. (See below for the story.)

R. How did you learn English so well?

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H: I started learning English when I was 8 years old. My school didn’t have English as a foreign language. At the time it was more fashionable to have French. But my school introduced extracurricular English classes. And from the very beginning I became very interested in the language. So I went through my primary school taking English this way, as an extracurricular, and then took regular classes in secondary school. Then, when I had to decide to study something in university, for me it was clear that I wanted to study English. I studied English philology. I really liked the language and the culture. I studied some history, geography and literature of England and the United States. I forgot to mention that music was also a strong reason to enjoy learning English. I love traditional Irish music and rock, so I would enjoy listening to music and translating lyrics. 

R: And have you ever lived abroad?

H: No, no I haven’t. Just short stays for courses abroad or holidays, no longer than a month or so. I am a product of public education. My family wasn’t poor but we couldn’t afford any extra resources. So if I hadn’t studied in a public school I couldn’t have become an English teacher.

R: So what brought you to teaching?

H: One thing leads to the other. The career possibilities out of English philology were very restricted. My first thought was that I wasn’t good enough to be a teacher, I didn’t feel prepared for that. Eventually I became a tutor for private lessons. And I liked to see how students improve with your help, and I liked helping them develop their learning skills. So one thing led to another. But my first thought was to become a translator.

R: What are some of the challenges of teaching a second language?

H: Teaching is very challenging in general, and teaching a foreign language… Well, it depends on the context. Before I began teaching in a bilingual program, the challenge was getting the students to express themselves in English. I remember I would start my lessons every year speaking English, and the students’ reactions were, in most cases, “We are in Spain, so you have to speak Spanish.” And my answer was “But we are learning English. We have thirty students, fifty minutes, three times a week.” My students had focused a lot on reading and writing, but not on speaking and listening. So it was a challenge to get them to react in a different way, not being so reluctant to speak.

And this changed totally when we started the bilingual program. Because those students who have studied primary in a bilingual program feel that it’s more natural to have classes in English. So you don’t have to fight against them to speak English in class. This is a very big improvement I’ve noticed.

R: So how do you overcome the challenge of students who are reluctant to speak English?

H: In our school, it’s easier, since it is a bilingual school. When they are being lazy and don’t want to speak English, I pretend that I don’t understand Spanish. So it’s just being consistent, insisting on English every day, so that it’s natural. It doesn’t matter if they make mistakes but they have to keep on trying.

R: Why do you think so many people take a foreign language for years and years, and yet hardly retain anything? I ask this because I’ve met many Spaniards who took English throughout primary and secondary school, and yet their level is absolutely basic. The same thing happens in my country, too.

H: That was one of the reasons for the bilingual program, just to shock the whole situation. And I agree with the initiative. Probably I don’t agree with the way that it was put into practice, the implementation. But why weren’t people learning? In my generation, this happened. The focus was much more on reading and writing a good paragraph, than on keeping the balance between the four skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) and creating someone proficient in English, not perfect in grammar. Nowadays I think it’s different. But I hear a lot of adults complain about how their English courses were boring. Having lots of grammar exercises, focused on accuracy, rather than anything related to their interests.

R: Can you explain some of what you do as the Bilingual coordinator?

H. One of my responsibilities is to try to help teaching assistants feel good and comfortable at school, and empathize with you, because if you are happy working here your impact is huge. And I’m a mediator between teaching assistants and teachers. Another thing I do is keep track of which students might be struggling in the bilingual program, using feedback from teachers and assistants; and if English is their primary difficulty I may formally suggest that a student switches to the non-bilingual track. There are other responsibilities, such as fostering collaboration between CLIL (teachers who teach content in English, but aren’t themselves English teachers, such as Carlos of the history department) and English teachers in the bilingual team; leading the bilingual team; and promoting consistency in approaches and methodologies within the bilingual program, which is quite challenging because this tasks relies on collaboration.

R: Can you explain your approach in the classroom? For example, what sorts of activities and exercises to you find the most helpful?

H: It depends on the level, and it depends on the group. I try to analyze the groups’ needs. Some years ago I had a very good group of year-one students [equivalent to American seventh grade]. (And, by the way, one of those students is the one who won the global classrooms competition.*) I had a great situation and an enthusiastic, creative assistant, and a motivated group of students. That year, I managed to work on To Kill a Mockingbird, which is incredible for that level. This isn’t always the case. This year we need to work on basic stuff, grammar and vocabulary, to get them ready for next year. And my priority is to get them to change their mindset from primary to secondary.

I don’t really like to stick to the books. The books do give the students a sense of order and progress. But I like to do extra things related to the subject. The most challenging issue is to keep the balance between meeting content official content requirements and having enough time to make learning affordable and enjoyable by introducing some creativity in the lessons. Now we’re working on comparatives (better, stronger, faster, etc.), and we are collaborating with visual arts to do comparisons between pictures. So I like to do more creative activities. And I love working on literature. As a whole, I like students to change their mindset from “I can’t do that” to “I can’t do that yet.”

R: Do you think you need natural talent to learn a foreign language?

H: Not really. I think learning a foreign language is a matter of degree. It depends on what your expectations are. If you want to speak a foreign language perfectly of course you need some talent. But there are many ways to be able to express yourself in a foreign language. So I think that’s a mistake in our case in Spain because we want to be perfect, and when we are not perfect we quit. To me learning a language is like doing music or sports: you can enjoy music or sport even if you are the worst singer in the world or if you are not really fit.

R: I ask this because I hear a lot of Americans saying “I don’t have the language gene” or “I just can’t learn a foreign language.” So they don’t try.

H: I think that this is wrong, I think that it is a matter of degree. You need to ask: What do you need the foreign language for? To get access to a new culture? To new ideas? In that case you don’t really need to be perfect. I think it’s much better to think, “Okay, I can get to this level, so now let’s try the next level. If I can, great. If I can’t, no worries.”

R: Do you think that engaging with English media, like TV shows and movies, can make a big different for students?

H: Yeah, for sure. I think so. I’m really surprised when students say “I can’t read this, it’s too hard.” And I say, “Imagine you are working out the instructions for a game console, and they are written in English. You’d probably work it out.” So this is the way. If you are connected with the topic, you will find your way to make sense of that. If you enjoy watching something in a foreign language, one way or another you’ll learn things.

R: I find that my best students are the ones who watch movies and shows in English.

H: I think it’s kind of a loop, a virtuous cycle. The higher your level, the more you can make of what you watch, and so you learn more, and you have more motivation, and so on.

R: What are some of the challenges of a bilingual school, as opposed to a monolingual school?

H: It is difficult to summarize quickly. We could spend our whole lives discussing this. It involves politics, in involves educational views, it involves school and classroom management… And every school is different. So I heard of bilingual schools selecting the students that they want to include in the program. And this is not my view of how bilingual programs should work. The challenge is being fair. A bilingual school should be a social escalator. If we have a bilingual school, we are giving our students, regardless of their background, the opportunity to—who knows?—maybe in the future get a grant, go abroad for studies, and have further opportunities. But I know that in other cases bilingual studies aren’t implemented this way. So the challenge is to be fair, keeping the balance between being a special program and providing equal opportunities to all the students. We are a public school. We have a social role.

Bilingual programs are often criticised when they are implemented in public schools but I’ve neved heard criticism about bilingual programs implemented in private schools. This is looking down on teachers and students of public education. We are giving a particular type of students the option to meet someone like you, someone from a foreign country telling them about their experience with hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, for instance. Widening their horizons.

R: Do you think that learning a foreign language is important for society in general? And I ask this because, in my country, we are very monolingual.

H: I think that we should all get a taste of as many languages as we can. That doesn’t mean we have to be fluent in five languages. It means that we should be exposed to as many languages as we can. In Spain I think that it is a big mistake not to have some exposure for kids to all the languages spoken in Spain.** Some basic knowledge. And hopefully somebody decides that they like the way it sounds and they want to learn more. Because it’s our country, it’s part of our culture, our heritage. This way we wouldn’t have these political problems and controversy we have at the moment.***

The more you know about languages, the wider are your views about how the world works.

(By the way, I changed my name into Helena with and H before going to University because my parents had registered me as Mª Isabel when I was born and then baptised me as Mª Isabel Elena, but they would call me Elena. I found out about my official name when I was …eightish?? and told my mum that I wasn’t happy about being called Elena. I though that other names were cool, not mine. Then she told me that I should sign official documents as Mª Isabel but in my daily life I was Elena. I decided to fix such a mess and had to apply for the change in front of a judge and show evidence of my name. I decided to include the H because at the time I was interested in philology, this etymological spelling was quite unusual then. I added my own stuff to my identity, it was cool.)

 


*Madrid’s public schools participate in a program called Global Classrooms, which is essentially mock-UN. In a future post I will interview the assistant who was responsible for the program this year.
**Aside from Castilian Spanish, Spain has three other official languages: Gallego, Catalan, and Basque. And there are many other regional languages and dialects to be found in the country.
***There is a lot of controversy over the use of Catalan vs. Castilian in public schools in Catalonia. 

A Conversation with a Historian

A Conversation with a Historian

I have been working with Carlos Lázaro for two years now, as an assistant in his history lessons. His class is inevitably enjoyable. Students who, in other classes, are noisy and disruptive act respectfully and dutifully in Carlos’s classroom. Indeed, the students are so assiduous about taking notes that it can be hard to get them to stop.

The high school in which I work is “bilingual,” which means that some subjects, such as history, are taught in English. Carlos is the head of the school’s history department. Together we work with students in 2º ESO, which is equivalent to America’s eighth grade. The curriculum we follow is, in many ways, strikingly different from the sorts of stuff we learned in my high school in New York. Most notably (for me at least) are the lengthy units on art history—architecture, sculpture, painting. Our textbooks in the states mainly focused on social, economic, and political history.

In addition to his job as a teacher, Carlos is an accomplished academic and author, having written several books. I sat down with him one day to ask him about his work and life.


ROY: Have you ever done an interview before?

CARLOS: No.

R: Really?

C: No, no, not in English. Though I was interviewed on Spanish television, TVE1.

R: Tell me about your education. What subjects did you study?

C: I grew up in a working class neighborhood in the southwest of Madrid. A very violent neighborhood with a lot of drugs. Carabanchel Alto, it’s called. It had one of the biggest prisons in Spain. I went to a religious school for my whole primary and secondary education. But as early as middle school I was interested in history. When I was a kid I learned to read and write through history books that I got from my older schoolmates. Yes, I love history and this is the reason I was interested.

Originally, I was more interested in ancient history—Rome, Greece, Ancient Egypt. But when I got to university I changed my interest to Native American anthropology. In fact I got a PhD in this subject. My thesis was related to the tribes that refused or expelled the Spanish conquerors. I was specialized in the Chilean Mapuche. But my final book in anthropology was related with the treaties that the Spanish Crown signed with Native American tribes, covering about 200 signed agreements. I saw the original documents in the archives, both here in Spain and in the Americas.

R: How did you get interested in aviation history?

C: In the university I met former Republican fighter pilots, and it was an overwhelming experience for me. But I had been interested in aviation long before that. For 24 years I had lived near a military airfield, watching the planes take off and land. So when I met these pilots I got so excited about the histories of their lives. They had fought in the Spanish Civil War and they explained what they did afterwards. For example, some of them fled to the Soviet Union after the war. Some went to the United States or to Mexico, and also, in some cases, were in prison. It was, as I said, overwhelming for me, so from this moment onwards I began to do research about them.

R: Tell me about some of your books. What are they about? Why did you choose those topics?

Herreraspacesuit
The space suit designed by Emilio Herrerra

C: The book I’m working on now is a collection of memoirs of pilots—foreign and Spanish—who fought in the Civil War. But with one main goal. Our main problem in teaching history, not only aviation history but in general, is that we don’t have titles like “A Brief History of the Spanish Civil War” or “A Brief History of Aerial Warfare in the Spanish Civil War.” So I’m trying to provide people with these memoirs in order to be able to hook the public’s interest. This is the same thing I do with my teaching, to try to hook my students on history.

I have written 10 books. Three of them were about anthropology and the rest are about aviation history. My most beloved book is a biography of Emilio Herrera, a Spanish engineer who designed, in 1934, the first space suit in history, designed for a high altitude balloon flight. He was both a pilot and a scientist, and was in contact with Einstein and von Braun. I also wrote a book about a pilot, a Republican pilot. My personal goal, as I said, is to popularize aviation history and also to make it available in both Spanish and English, a bilingual version, for the many English and Americans who are interested in this history. As you know we are sitting near the battleground of the Battle of Jarama (a battle in the Spanish Civil War), and not every American knows that there were American pilots fighting in this battle.

R: What brought you to teaching?

C: Well, I like explaining and summarizing historical events—and I like history, of course—so, this is the reason that I got my PhD and also took the oposiciones (the required state exam that all public servants must take) in order to get my teaching position. My teaching definitely helps my writing, and vice versa. Every day I try to improve what I’m doing, reviewing my classes in order see what works and what doesn’t. Presenting information accessibly in my books helps me do the same in class; and my students’ reactions help me decide how to present information in my books.

R: What are some challenges of teaching history? How do you deal with them?

C: I think the most difficult challenge of teaching history is providing students with accessible information. Making it accessible. I think that history couldn’t be “unverbal,” and thus couldn’t be, in a sense, boring. You need to be patient, giving them tips, clearly organized topics. Summarize as much as possible: don’t try to fill their brains with data because they are going to erase everything when they leave the classroom. I’m trying to get my students to love something about their past.

R: What are some tips you have for history teachers?

C: Define your goals. Strive towards these goals. Provide your students with accessible information—and most of all, information that is useful in their daily lives. Old pupils have gotten in contact with me, and say they love history because it has been so useful for them—reading books, traveling, visiting museums, something like that. When I was teaching in a village in Toledo we made a trip to an old airfield that was nearby, and I explained how it was used during the war. It was an extraordinary experience for them. They had no idea it was there.

Besides giving lectures, it’s great to have the students do research and give presentations. Also different media are useful. For example today I showed them a short documentary about the Renaissance. Jokes, anecdotes, and open-ended questions are good for engaging their attention. Try not to be monotonous.

R: How do you get your students to work so well?

C: It’s a mixture of mastering them, being tough in some cases, and in other cases giving them self-confidence. Some students are not self-confident, and you need to show them that they have a lot of interesting things to work with. In the beginning of the year it’s important to go over classroom rules—sitting properly, raising your hand, taking notes. Establish very clear rules from the very beginning.

R: How is teaching history important for society in general?

C: Someone* once said, “People who forget their past are condemned to repeat it.” It’s a good way to learn about our mistakes, to think about what happened in the past, to try to avoid the same problems and avoid risks in the future.

R: Why do you think many people find history boring?

C: I think because, for them, history is repeating facts and not thinking. And of course in some cases you need to learn the names of battles and so on. But history is, fundamentally, a way of thinking, a way of organizing your brain, so that you can understand what happened in the past.

But for many students history is just a pile of dates, names, battles, events, nothing useful for their lives. I’m trying to provide them with another face of history. How could history help them? What does history teach us? Why did our ancestors face these problems? And what solutions did they find? What lessons do these have for the new problems we will face in the future?

To hook their interest it helps to explain something to do with their behavior or their language that they use in their daily lives. For example there is a Spanish word “flipado” that is like “dizzy,” which comes from the English word “flip.” This was a drink that buccaneers drank, a kind of alcoholic mixture. So this common Spanish words has this English origin, and most of my students have no idea. This is a small example of how history can explain our daily reality.


*George Santayana is the originator of the English quote, “Those who do not remember their past are condemned to repeat it.” The nearly identical Spanish phrase “Los pueblos que olvidan su historia están condenado a repetirla,” is attributed to Nicholás Avellaneda, who is said to have taken it from Cicero.

A Conversation with a Philosopher

A Conversation with a Philosopher

Carlos Gómez is a retired teacher who spent his career working in a public school in Rivas-Vaciamadrid. He taught philosophy, mainly to bachillerato students (the final two years of high school), but also a class called “Ethical Values” to lower levels. He has been my student for over a year now; and, despite his constantly humble insistence that his English is “so bad,” he is remarkably articulate in this second language, which he learned later in life.

We have our classes in his personal library. The walls are lined with bookshelves, stuffed full. Around me I see Newton, Locke, Bentham, Hobbes, Schopenhauer, Kant, the complete works of Unamuno and Ortega y Gasset, a multi-volume history of private life, and several histories of Western philosophy. On one shelf sits a bust of Voltaire, looking impish. In his office hangs a poem by Antonio Machado; and on an easel sits a painting he is working on.

Carlos recently agreed to turn one of our classes into an interview, focusing on his experience in philosophy and education. The following is an edited transcript.


CARLOS: This will be the first interviewed I ever answered.

Carlos_Portrait

ROY: Are you excited?

C: Yes, I feel like a like a VIP. All people like to have other people interested in them, I think.

R: Okay, first question. What originally drew you to philosophy? Were there any particular authors or experiences that inclined you to study the subject?

C: It was really the influence of a teacher. When I was in secondary school, my main goal, until the age of 17, was to study chemistry. But then something happened. And that was to have a very good philosophy teacher. He was, indeed, a student of Ortega y Gasset. His name was Antonio Rodríguez Huéscar. He was a student of Ortega y Gasset during the Spanish Republic (1931-35), and he went into exile at the end of the Civil War. He ended up teaching philosophy at Puerto Rico University, but he eventually decided to come back to Spain. He was an old man by then. And he decided to get a post as a philosophy teacher here, but he wasn’t allowed to teach in a university, because of his past. So he taught in a secondary school.

Well, he came to my public school, and for me that was amazing. I discovered philosophy. At that time philosophy was taught in the two last years of Bachillerato. I had him as a teacher these two years, and I saw that philosophy was “my way.” That was my only reason to study philosophy. A great teacher.

R: What made you decide to become a secondary school teacher?

C: Here in Spain, professional paths for a philosopher are few. One of the most important is to be a teacher. Another one is to publish and to translate other philosophers, but most graduates become teachers, either at secondary school or at university. This is our fate. In my case, I became a teacher just when I finished my degree.

R: Can you give me some idea of the process of becoming a secondary school teacher of philosophy?

C: To be a teacher in a secondary school you need to have a degree. In fact, if you are trying to be a philosophy teacher, your degree need not be in philosophy. You just need a degree in general. Of course, most people who teach philosophy studied the subject, too. You also need to pass the oposiciones.

The oposiciones are a special public examination in which there are a determined number of posts to be got. People need, not only to pass the exam, but to beat each other. This is why they are called “oposiciones,” because everyone is opposed. There is a writing portion in which you need to write about one subject chosen from 150 possible subjects. Most of these were about the history of philosophy, specific philosophers, aesthetics, ethics, etc.

The second part of the exam used to be called the encerrona, because they locked you in a classroom with some books, to prepare a topic that had been given to you randomly. You don’t choose it. I had 4 or 5 hours to prepare the topic, and then I had to give a presentation about it. The last part of the exam was a kind of pedagogical test, about how to teach philosophy, how to organize your materials, what exercises, what resources you could employ to make your subject more attractive.

R: What are some of the challenges of getting adolescents to grapple with philosophical questions?

C: I don’t know if I got it, I tried but… Well, today I think the main obstacle to gain teenagers to our cause is that they live in a visual culture. They don’t usually read. And they understand mostly things that they can see or that they can imagine. Or things that they can find in their everyday life. Philosophy, on the other hand, as everyone knows, is a quite general, quite abstract subject. So the question is to unite both things. So, to me, this visual culture is the most difficult obstacle. How do you overcome that? Well, with difficulty. I don’t have an easy solution, but I think you need to bring philosophical questions closer to their lives.

Carlos_bentham
Carlos with the “auto-icon” of philosopher Jeremy Bentham

I’ve discovered that you have to begin to treat any problem by asking for their experience in that field. Of course, you don’t ask a teenager “Does God exist?” But, perhaps, “Do you think we’re alone in the universe?” or “Do you think have any idea about the meaning of life?” or “Have you ever thought about death?” Or something similar. Trying to attract them to problems that, eventually, can get them to your field—to a field in which you, eventually, can ask “Do you think there could be another kind of being different from us, more powerful than us, a creator, or a judge for our actions?”

But I repeat that I have no magic bullet for this problem. You have a saying, in English, “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” And I think that this is the way. The other thing is to have the will.

R: In the United States we do not teach philosophy in public secondary schools. Are we missing out?

C: Well, I don’t know if you are missing out. We have always had a subject of philosophy in secondary schools. And I’ve learned quite recently that this is not very common, even in Europe. But I think that it has its function. Why? I would say that everybody should have the opportunity to think about the persistent problems that afflict human beings. As Popper says, if you don’t have a philosophical idea, you will have a philosophical prejudice. In any case, you won’t have any conscious idea about what to do in an ethical context, or about what is going to happen when you die, or about what it means to live in a fair society.

I think that it’s better to be trained to use your mind to solve these problems. And I think, in any case, you will be a philosopher, as Kant said, since everyone faces philosophical problems. The important point, for me, is that philosophy in secondary school should be understood as training, a training to be conscious of problems, to have a reflective attitude. For me, it’s nothing but that. To be reflective.

R: Do you think that philosophy classes contribute to the health of society?

C: I hope so! For me the answer is the same. Societies where people make their decisions consciously is definitely preferable to a society where people make decisions in a random way. And to make a non-rational decision, for me, is to make a random decision. Would this be the solution of every social problem? Absolutely not. But if we had this kind of society, a rational society, a society in which all its members think through their decisions—this would absolutely be better than the reverse. Some philosophers have had their utopia in which all people are rational and discuss every issue rationally, and make their decision without any interest or interference. Of course this is far from real. But I think that the main idea is a good one, even though this is a very difficult, in some way unreachable, ideal—but an ideal that attracts us so much that it makes us walk in its direction. And this is good in itself, even though we never reach the goal.

R: How would you respond to those who find philosophy pretentious nonsense or completely impractical?

C: In some sense they are right, because there have been, in history, a lot of pretentious philosophers and a lot of impractical philosophers. Even from the point of view of a philosopher. This can be said of some number of philosophers, but not of philosophy in itself. As happens in every realm of culture, there are people who aren’t at the level they are supposed to be. But is philosophy in itself pretentious? Absolutely not. For example, Ortega y Gasset is, for me, an example of a clear, practical philosopher. He wrote understandably and he brought his ideas to the political arena. He gained a seat in parliament. He wrote many articles about the political situation.

Carlos_Wittgenstein
Carlos at Wittgenstein’s grave

In general, I don’t think it’s necessary that philosophers be considered as men who live above the clouds, not interested in real life. This is not true. On the other hand, it is true that philosophers who write in a very complicated way have created a “black legend” about philosophy. But that is something we have to fight against. We don’t need to take that as something essential for philosophy.

R: Do you have any suggestions for improving Spain’s educational system?

C: Today, I am an outsider, out of the public educational system, so I can speak more freely. But I don’t really have a magic bullet in this case either. But for me there are two general lines to develop. One of them would be to get rid of charter schools. Why? Because I think it doesn’t make sense that we have schools that are at the same time public and private. If it is private, it must face the challenges that private companies face. And they should not have any public benefits. They should not have public aid. I think this because, nowadays in Spain, public schools have to compete with a kind of school that offers them benefits that public schools, with their limited budgets, cannot. This is not fair. The charter schools, as a result, get the best students. Because students are attracted by things like indoor pools and dancing programs, and so on. So private schools shouldn’t use public funds.

The other idea that I always had is that… Well, you know, we have all the students from 7th grade to 12th in the same schools, with the same kinds of curriculums. That is to say that they all study the same academic things, in the same classrooms, with the same level of depth, and the same teachers. For me this is not functional. When I was a child there were two curriculums. There were two paths. A more academic line, which led us to university. And there was a practical, professional line which led into vocational schools. I think this model is better than the one that we have today. And I would go back to it. Of course, you must allow people to switch back and forth, if they want. Teenagers change their minds. Many problems we have in secondary schools nowadays come from this lack of differentiation. How can you teach a class when one half is interested and the other half isn’t?

R: Are there any thinkers, ideas, or books that you find yourself returning to again and again?

C: I am interested, basically, in questions of epistemology (the theory of knowledge), ethics, and politics. I don’t know enough about aesthetics, for example, and hence I am not interested in it too much. I also do not care much for ontology. My preference for the above mentioned topics has been constant from the beginning. And the philosophers who have contributed the most to these fields are the ones I like best. For example, Aristotle more than Plato, though I recognize that Plato was more creative. In modern philosophy, I like the empiricists (such as Hume) more than the rationalists; and among the rationalist philosophers I like Spinoza, but not Descartes very much.

But my very favorite philosophers are those from the age of Kant and afterwards. Kant himself is the father of contemporary philosophy. And there are the greatest of the nineteenth century, Marx and Nietzsche. Mill is interesting, too. In my early days I liked Ortega very much, but Ortega is a philosopher who I don’t read anymore. I also like philosophers who are involved in the social sciences, like Karl Mannheim, about whom I wrote my thesis.

I am particularly interested in questions of technology, like whether technology is releasing us from nature or is exploiting or manipulating us, or is leading us to a new form of slavery. Technology is bringing new philosophical questions to light. Such as the old problem of immortality. Soon it may be, indeed, literally possible that we live longer or, even—why not?—that we live forever. Well, I don’t know. The question of human nature, raised by Hume, is also more important than it has ever been. Since today the possibility of changing human nature does exist. But for me the questions are more interesting than the answers.

I think you can find philosophical problems everywhere, if you have the proper sight. There are people who would never find a philosophical problem anywhere. And there are people, like us, who find philosophical problems everywhere. For me, these problems exist. Philosophers can be detestable people. But that doesn’t affect philosophy itself, and philosophy itself matters. And I think it will matter forever.