Great Expectations

I try not to have unrealistic expectations for most things–people, rush hour traffic, the final installment in a book series, new versions of Apple products, Game of Thrones characters, myself. But I am guilty of idealizing places. This comes partly from a love of travel and culture and all things far away and different, and also from a smattering of absolutely magical, short-term visits to European cities. So when I arrived in Madrid, I arrived with high expectations, and in a way I set myself up for disappointment.

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The post office in Madrid. Not too shabby!

I expected that I would be able to buy stamps at the post office. My first visit to Correos became the first in a series of dreadful encounters with the Spanish postal system. (This translation might not be 100% accurate, but it’s pretty close.)

Woman Behind the Counter: What do you want?
Me: I’d like to mail these letters, please.
WBtC: They don’t have stamps on them.
Me: I know. I’d like to buy some stamps.
WBtC: Have you been to the tobacco store?
Me: Um. No. Is it nice?
WBtC: That’s where you buy stamps.
Me: At the tobacco store?
WBtC: [yelling] Next!
Me: I’m sorry, I don’t understand. I can’t get stamps here?
WBtC: Does this look like a tobacco store to you?
Me: No. It looks like a post office…
WBtC: Exactly.

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I expected to speak Spanish like a Madrileña by the end of my first year in Madrid. It turns out that it’s really, really hard to learn Spanish when you spend 80% of your time teaching English immersion classes. Admittedly I didn’t put much effort into learning Spanish over the past year, and it turns out that learning a language isn’t effortless even when you’re surrounded by it. Plus, I fell into the trap of meeting a lot of lovely people who happened to be native English speakers, or who were non-native speakers thrilled to have an opportunity to practice their English. Mostly I was just lazy.

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Just your typical street jam-packed with people at 1:00am.

I expected to become a night person. Dinnertime in Madrid is around 21:00 or 22:00, and the nightlife doesn’t even get started until after midnight. I figured I would adjust to this and become a night owl. No such luck. I found myself yawning and staring at my watch while families with young children were just sitting down for dinner at the table beside me. I was always one of the first of my friends to go home on a Friday nightand while I know I missed out on some good times, I’ve had to accept that I’m going to be a morning person in any time zone.

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I thought I’d travel around Europe every weekend. Sure, RyanAir flights are cheap, but I quickly learned that I would have neither the money nor the time to make this kind of crazy travel feasible. Plus, I didn’t feel pressured to travel that often, because…

I thought I had one more year in Europe. But, always full of surprises and arbitrary decisions, the government of Madrid didn’t renew my work visa, and in September I suddenly found myself unable to work legally in Spain. Now, it’s not particularly difficult to work illegally in Spain, but this kerfuffle felt like a sign that I should move home for a bit and concoct a new life plan.

I was really lucky, because I was able to hang out in Spain for about a month after my last day of work. I went to Valencia and Barcelona and Lisbon and got in a lot of quality time with some fantastic friends.

I haven’t quite decided how I feel about being back in the U.S. I feel more confident in my ability to buy stamps, but less confident that I am not going to be shot while in line at the post office.

I always feel better about life when I’m planning an international trip, so I’m trying to decide on my next travel destination. I’m torn between visiting new places and old friends in Europe, or exploring a different continent. I’m open to suggestions.

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SPS Strike

Even when life in Madrid is at its very best (which can be pretty darn good), I know that I won’t stay here forever. My heart is in the Pacific Northwest. Going home for a visit confirmed that. I got to see my friends and family in Oregon. I got to eat fresh salmon and watch the Mariners win (no hitter!) and get lost in the rain in Seattle. I talked to lots of teacher friends who were preparing for the start of the school year, and I felt certain that one year from now I want to be setting up a classroom alongside them. I’ve always wanted to teach in Seattle.

I’ve been following the Seattle teachers’ strike very closely. I’ve been wishing there was something I could do, even something small, to show my support. I decided to write a letter to the Superintendent. This is not a decision I took lightly. Since I hope to teach in the PNW next year, I considered writing an anonymous letter, protecting my identity so as not to create any animosity between myself and the administrators who I hope will hire me in the near future. But that sort of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it? I want to show my solidarity with the teachers who are picketing in Seattle and using their voices to speak out for themselves, their schools, and their students. The automated ‘Your email is important to us message I received in response did not give me confidence that the Superintendent will ever actually see my email, so I’m posting it here for posterity. And I’m asking all of you, especially those of you in Seattle, to educate yourselves about the issues at stake and do what you can to support our teachers and students.

9 September 2015

Dear Dr. Nyland:

I want to teach in your district. When I left Seattle after finishing my undergraduate degree, I knew I would be back. I love the schools, the teachers, and the students in Seattle. As I worked toward my M.Ed. at the University of Oregon, everything I did was done with Seattle schools in mind. How could I adapt my curriculum to make it relevant to students in Seattle? How would I use the community’s resources to enrich and expand my future classroom? I wrote research papers analyzing the demographics of Seattle schools. I began to collect books for a classroom library. And then I graduated, and I moved to Spain.

I did not become a teacher for the money, trust me. As the daughter of two educators, I have realistic expectations about teacher salaries. But when I looked at the rising cost of living in Seattle and the average salaries of teachers, my heart sank. It seemed irresponsible to move to a city where I would be barely be scraping by; I have student loans to pay off. So when I was offered a job in Madrid that would allow me to live comfortably, make loan payments, and have a reasonable workload, I had to accept it. But after a year of living in Spain, I still think about teaching in Seattle. I still want to move back.

If I am going to move halfway across the world to teach in Seattle, I need to know that I will be able to teach in Seattle. I need to know that I will have the resources and support that allow me to work in the best interest of my students, that I won’t be moving halfway around the world only to spend my days administering standardized tests. I need to know that every school in Seattle is prioritizing issues of equity and working to close the opportunity gap. I need to know that I will be respected as a professional, that I will be paid for every hour I am required to work. I need to know that my workload will be manageable so I can meet the needs of every student who enters my classroom.

I am following the current teachers’ strike with great interest, as the outcome may determine my future. I want to follow my heart back to Seattle, but I can’t work in a district where the voices of teachers and students fall on deaf ears. I know you value the success of Seattle students as much as their teachers and parents do. Please work with the SEA to form an agreement that will allow teachers to work in the best interest of each and every student in Seattle.

Sincerely,

Ali Morgan

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On Being American

Happy 4th of July, America! I celebrated by eating burgers with a bunch of Italians and drinking craft beer. Not bad.

Until this year, I have not considered my nationality to be an important part of my identity. In fact, when I am surrounded by Americans, I generally feel quite un-American. I talk quietly, I hate guns, I hold my fork in my left hand, I know almost nothing about pop culture, I like learning languages, and I don’t eat a lot of hamburgers.

In Spain, things are different. The first thing everyone notices about me is my American-ness. I cannot count the number of times that people here have commented on how American I am. No one has ever followed this up with an explanation, so I could only assume it was an insult. Recently, I’ve started asking my international friends what about me is so American, and I’ve received a surprisingly wide variety of answers. Here are twenty of them:

  1. My accent (obviously).
  2. I spend a lot of time talking about (American) football.
  3. I think soccer is boring. And I call it soccer.
  4. I always carry hand sanitizer and tissues in my purse.
  5. I smile a lot.
  6. I don’t think there’s anything special about Levi’s jeans.
  7. I own a lot of clothing from my university.
  8. I want and expect to have a job that I love.
  9. I like spicy food.
  10. I like craft beer.
  11. I find myself involved in a lot of conversations about race and religion.
  12. I am organized.
  13. I have been to a lot of weddings.
  14. I have a lot of student loans.
  15. I feel really guilty if I don’t tip at restaurants.
  16. I hate having a 3 hour lunch break in the middle of my workday.
  17. I have a picture of Abraham Lincoln hanging in my living room.
  18. I get nervous when cars come within two inches of other cars, people, or buildings.
  19. I struggle with the metric system.
  20. I’m really bad at geography.

Most of these aren’t really good or bad, I don’t think, but many of them are quite specific to the U.S. Others of them (i.e. spicy food) are things that are just unusual in Spain. I can’t argue with any of them.

I tend to be a bit of a Negative Nancy when it comes to talking about the U.S. This is amplified 1,000 times when American gun violence and racism are making international headlines and my students ask me to explain why on earth anyone would want to live in a place where these things are happening. But in honor of today’s holiday, I am going to focus on the positives. Here’s a list of 20 random things I miss and appreciate about the U.S. (Most of them are food-related. I started writing this when I was hungry.)

  1. Unlimited free ice water at restaurants.
  2. Friendly customer service.
  3. Organization.
  4. An incredible variety of international cuisine.
  5. Backyards.
  6. Coffee in to-go cups.
  7. More than one beer option.
  8. Banks and public offices that are open before 10am and after 2pm.
  9. Potlucks and barbecues.
  10. Air conditioning in all public places.
  11. Punctuality.
  12. Target.
  13. Free samples.
  14. Restaurants with kitchens that are open all day.
  15. American breakfasts.
  16. Eating dinner before 10pm.
  17. Efficiency.
  18. Real bacon.
  19. College sports.
  20. Bubble space.

There are more profound things I could say about my current perspective on the U.S., both positive and negative, but I think that’s a topic for another time. For now, I hope everyone at home is enjoying the hot dogs and fireworks and apple pie. Happy Independence Day!

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Disclaimer: I realize that America is a continent and the United States is a country. In Spanish, people from the United States (estados unidos) are called estadounidense. English needs a word for this. United Statesian? United Statesite? I’ll keep working on it… Anyway, I’m using “America” as a synonym for United States in this blog post, and I don’t feel great about that.

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Blogging for Norway

Why hello there. Remember me? I haven’t written a blog post in four months, because I haven’t done anything particularly noteworthy. I’ve just been traveling around Spain and learning two languages and writing a novel and teaching Europeans about the
Seahawks. You know, the usual.

In fact, I was thinking I may never blog again. There are probably about ten people who read this blog, and they are probably ten people who are actually a part of my life and don’t need to read about it in blog format. I checked my WordPress stats just to confirm this. Not surprisingly, I saw that my ten readers are from Oregon, Washington, and Spain. But then something caught my eye: an eleventh reader. From Norway. I am quite certain that I don’t know anyone in Norway. This poor person is probably devastated by my four months of blog silence. In fact, poor Norway probably thinks I’ve died. Without further ado, I dedicate this blog post to you, dear Norway.

Speaking of Norway, I had the privilege of seeing the Globe Theatre’s touring production of Hamlet in Madrid last month. It was great. (If you actually care about Hamlet and want my full review, please contact me next time you have a couple of hours to spare.) They are touring for two years with the goal of visiting every country in the world. If this production is coming your way, I highly recommend that you see it!

I went to Cuenca, a lovely Spanish city famous for las casas colgadas, the hanging houses built into its jagged cliffs. As usual, I failed to take any pictures, so I have stolen some from a friend. (Not only does my friend Maria take excellent photos, but she has an excellent blog on language learning at https://lingualista.wordpress.com/. Check it out!)

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his trip was fantastic. It was also bittersweet, as it was a sort of farewell trip to my friend Tim whose four years in Spain were coming to a close. This is the great and terrible beauty of living abroad. You cross paths with people from all over who are fun and adventurous and interesting, but inevitably your paths will diverge as everyone moves on to bigger and better things. I’m surprised by how quickly I’ve found friendships here and how sad I will be to say goodbye to some of these people as the school year draws to a close and the hoards of English teachers in Madrid begin to disperse. It will, however, be quite convenient to have friends to visit throughout the world. I’ve decided to stay in Madrid for one more year. I haven’t mastered the metric system yet, much less the Spanish language, so I’m not quite ready to return to the land of inches and miles and “English-Only” laws.

One of the obvious perks of living in Europe is being able to do things like travel to France for a few days. My mom came to visit during Semana Santa (Holy Week). It was her first time in Europe, so obviously we had to see Paris. Despite wanting to kill each other a few times, we had fun exploring the city. Sadly, the Maison de Victor Hugo was closed for renovations. I missed this last time I was in Paris, so it was extra disappointing to find it closed. Fortunately, I was able to console myself by buying a couple of hundred-and-something-year-old Victor Hugo novels from Shakespeare & Co.

The highlight of my mom’s trip was visiting Segovia, a beautiful village just outside of Madrid. My awesome friend Sara and her parents were kind enough to chauffeur us around the city, make sure we saw the best views of the castle (my mom’s first castle!) and the incredible Roman aqueduct, and invite us into their home for a delicious lunch.

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This post is starting to feel both word vomity and braggy, so I’ll end it here. But be warned: I just started reading Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There, which has given me the notion that I too can write hilarious prose about my mishaps in Europe. I’ve got a few posts in the works, coming soon. Please tell me they’re funny even if they’re not.

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Winter Vignettes

There are two kinds of people that I generally find annoying:

1. People who are happy all the time.

2. People who blog.

Even worse is the combination: a happy blogger. Everything is going so well right now that I can’t help but fall into the first category, so I’ve been avoiding the second. Just for the sake of keeping things updated, here are some vignettes from my first winter in Spain.

Quitting my Job

This process, like most parts of my life, was awkward and full of misunderstandings. I wasn’t really sure how to quit since it was somewhat unclear who I worked for, nor was I sure what language I should use for quitting. I was relieved to get all of that sorted out, but surprisingly sad on my last day. Despite all of the terrible things that went along with that job, I really loved the kids. Many of them brought me gifts and chocolate, and one class wrote me a letter that made me get all teary-eyed as I read it on the bus. It didn’t feel like anything I did at the school mattered, but in this letter some of the students told me that they noticed what I was trying to do, they appreciated my efforts to create a more positive environment, and they actually remembered a few things I taught them. Bittersweet.

Travels

I visited Sevilla, Córdoba, and Salamanca. I loved all three of these places. Sevilla and Córdoba are beautiful, and the region of Andalucia is home to the most breathtaking architecture I’ve ever seen, with its mixture of European and Arabic history and influences. I loved seeing the Christmas markets and colored lights, but I’d also love to go back when it’s warm enough to take advantage of the rooftop terraces and swimming pools.

SevillachurchIMG_0385cordoba

I plan to return to Salamanca one day as well. Not only did we decide to take the train there and back in one day, but in true Spanish fashion we arrived late and then spent about three hours eating lunch. It was a delicious lunch with fantastic company, but we lost a serious chunk of sightseeing time. Plus, all of the university students were on holiday, so the streets and bars were somewhat deserted.

IMG_0478 Salamanca

Amigos & Familia

I thought spending Christmas in Madrid would be fine, but it wasn’t. Not only did I hate spending the holidays away from my family, but most people I know in Madrid went home or spent the holidays traveling, so it was disturbingly lonely and quiet. Luckily, a few of my friends were in the same boat, so we scrounged together enough people for a Christmas lunch and some drinks at the only pub in Madrid that was open.

I have been missing my friends from home, because they are some of the greatest people on earth. It takes a lot of effort to stay in touch when we are so far apart, and I’m honored that some of them have gone out of their way to talk to me at weird hours of the night, send mail across the Atlantic, and keep me updated on their lives.

Housewarming

My friend Mohammed and I moved into a new apartment about a month ago. I am in love with it! It has three balconies and came furnished with plenty of bookshelves. We decided to have a housewarming party to show off our new home. We were pretty sure that we knew about four people who might show up, and we prepared accordingly. More than four people showed up. It felt so good to see my Madrid friends all gathered together in the same room. I realized that I have met some truly incredible people here, people who come from all over the world. People who travel and speak lots of languages and play music and read good books and make the world a better place. Shockingly, none of our neighbors complained about the noise that lasted until 5am, although someone did leave a lemon in our mailbox the following week. What does that mean? Is it bad? I don’t mind that all of my mail has a nice citrus scent now.

New Job

Now I’m working at a language academy. I teach English to adults. The maximum class size is seven. I almost fainted when they told me that. I am really enjoying my coworkers, my students, and my schedule. For now, this job is great. It’s certainly not what I want to do forever. I don’t find it fulfilling in any way, and sometimes I wish I could be spending my days convincing angsty teenagers to write poetry and read literature instead. However, I have a lot of freedom to develop my own curriculum, and I have a lot of free time. For now, I’ll take it. I am so happy that I decided to stay in Madrid!

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December

December is here. Madrid is decked out in Christmas lights, and holiday markets are popping up on every corner. There’s an ice skating rink in the plaza by my apartment. I’m re-reading one of my favorite novels, The Night Circus, and I’m drinking a lot of tea. I have a new coat and a new scarf. We’re entering the second consecutive puente (three-day weekend), and Christmas break is right around the corner.

More importantly, November is over. November was rough. For the first time in my life, I absolutely dreaded waking up in the mornings. I felt like I was becoming this negative, Debbie Downer kind of character that just isn’t me. In fact, I spent last Saturday looking up flights to the U.S. I was 99% committed to moving back to Seattle. I knew I would be happy there. I had an awesome teaching job lined up. I had figured out which friends would be in Washington for the holidays. I had emailed potential roommates with questions about utilities and bookshelves. I was ready to move. And then I just couldn’t do it.

For every miserable moment of November, there was a moment of learning or laughter or breathtaking beauty that couldn’t happen without this place and these people. I visited new cities in Spain. I went to three Thanksgiving dinners, battling homesickness with turkey and American friends while introducing friends from other places to pumpkin pie and overeating. I wrote 50,000 words. Would I have time to do that if I were teaching in the U.S.? Absolutely not. I can always go back to the Emerald City and have a home, but leaving Madrid seems somewhat irreversible.

So I’m staying. I’m looking for ways to darle la vuelta a la tortilla (a Spanish idiom that I find incredibly annoying when I’m in a bad mood, but which appropriately means to turn a bad situation into a good one). I’m going to be a little bit selfish, to stay here and learn Spanish and write fiction and eat croquetas. I’m still not sure if it’s the right decision. I guess we’ll find out!

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Education: Spain vs. US

This post has been a long time coming. Although I have spent most of the last two years thinking about education, I have been struggling to come up with a way to talk about my experience in a Spanish school as objectively as possible. Then I realized that there is no possible way for me to be objective about this subject. I come from a family of educators. I have spent twenty years of my life as a student. I have taught over five hundred students in two different countries. So this post is not going to be objective.

We all know that there are a lot of problems with the education system in the U.S. If you haven’t already, check out this letter written by high school vice principal Nancy F. Chewning in response to the Time magazine cover that said “Rotten Apples:  It is nearly impossible to fire a bad teacher.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2014/11/12/what-it-really-means-to-be-a-public-school-educator-today/ Chewning does a much better job than I can of articulating the major problems with education in the U.S., many of which are related to money and high-stakes testing, but all of which are related to a general lack of understanding and respect for what teachers do.

My friends who are teaching in the U.S. work at least 60 hours a week. They are missing out on time with friends and family because they devote even their evenings, weekends, and holidays to creating a rich, fulfilling education for their students. The crazy work hours for U.S. teachers are part of the reason I decided to spend a year in Spain. I suspected that teachers here would work less, and I was right.

In fact, a Spanish teacher said to me, “I hear that teachers in the States write lesson plans for their classes. That must take a long time!” Yes. It does. But as a result, their classes flow in a logical order from beginning to end. They have clear goals. They have engaging activities and formative assessment. They take into account the individual needs of each student. They provide extra supports for English Language Learners and students with learning disabilities. The teachers I am working with in Spain have plenty of free time outside of school, because they are making up their lessons as they go. Each day they open up a textbook, point to an activity, and tell students to work on it. If a student does not understand the assignment, the teachers often yell at them or humiliate them in front of the class. If a student becomes bored with the monotonous routine and mind-numbing work, they are often told that they are not taking their education seriously enough.

what-if-i-told-you-reading-off-powerpointThe lessons never start or finish on time. Students are rewarded or punished for how well they complete the cookie-cutter activities. They are not offered extra support, nor are they taught to learn from their mistakes. But teachers aren’t stressed. They don’t stay up at night worrying about a student who is struggling, or thinking of a way to challenge a student who is ahead of their peers. They don’t spend their own money on supplies for projects, or bring snacks for students who aren’t getting breakfast at home. They yell at students for acting out in class rather than working with them to discover the causes of and solutions for behavior issues.

I want it to be clear that I am not saying these things are true of all Spanish schools, but they are true of all classes I have seen in my own school. And it’s not necessarily because teachers don’t care about their jobs or about their students. Here, teachers aren’t required to have the same levels of education or teacher training as we are in the U.S. Most of them have never learned effective strategies for classroom management or methods of helping struggling students. Most of the teachers I work with aren’t even experts in their subject areas. They are hired to teach in the bilingual program because of their proficiency in English, and then assigned to whatever subject area needs a bilingual teacher.

Schools in the U.S. are far from perfect, but most teachers I know are going above and beyond the call of duty to reach every single student, and it does make a difference. Even when it doesn’t feel like it. Even when no one notices. Your students might never realize what you’re doing for them, but their lives truly are changed for the better by every extra hour you put in. Trust me, I’ve seen what happens when teachers refuse to work outside of school hours (and often inside of them). It is really quite heartbreaking to see how much the students suffer as a result.

As much as I am enjoying my free time in Spain, I think I would rather spend less time drinking tinto de verano and more time teaching content that’s actually meaningful to students.

One last thing: With the holiday season approaching, please consider sending flowers, chocolate, or a giant bottle of wine to your middle school teachers. As much as I love teaching, there are days when being a a room full of sweaty, hormonal 12-year-olds feels a lot like the seventh circle of hell.

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