This week, I semi-snapped out of my antisocial ways. However, the people I spent the most time socializing with barely come up to my knee.
Because of Ash Wednesday and a field trip, I ended up spending some extra time with the children I teach in infantil. Infantil, in Spain, is free all-day education that begins in the year the child turns three and goes until the year the child turns five (so there are three cycles: three-year olds, four-year olds and five-year olds). Each year has four classes and each class has 25 students! So, for those of you who are non-mathematicians, that’s 300 snotting, yelling, wiggling, snuggling little ones.
I teach them all during the week as I go from class to class to class. They are nuts, of course, but they learn really fast. In my studies and from my experiences, I am becoming more and more convinced of several things involving language learning:
- The earlier you start, the better. The five-year olds know more English than my first-graders. They pick it up much faster, and with less work.
- Learning a second language from a young age is ALWAYS a good thing. It helps your brain function, helps you think about things in new ways, and increases your appreciation for other cultures. It’s too bad that in the U.S. we turn our noses up at the opportunity to become a dual-language society.
- Learning a language as a school subject will never make you fluent. The best way to learn a language is in context, i.e., to learn a subject THROUGH a foreign language. An example would be to do all of your social studies learning in English, as opposed to just memorizing vocabulary lists and grammar rules. Spain is currently trying to increase its amount of English speakers by developing bilingual schools where students spend about 30% of their time learning subjects in English. I think if it’s done the right way, it will make a big difference.
I digress. As I was saying, this week it was Ash Wednesday. On Wednesday afternoon, when I was supposed to be trying my hardest to get 25 five-year olds to stay still while I taught them English, they had to go to the chapel part of the school instead to get the ashes put on their heads (I did mention that I work in a Catholic school, right?)
I was interested in seeing the chapel (I know it’s there but I’d never been inside), I was interested in seeing the ceremony, and I was interested in seeing what it’s like to sit 300 tiny children in a chapel and expect them to be serious. So I went along.
I sat on a pew in the back with some five-year olds. The one I sat next to immediately snuggled against me, which was nice. The priest sang some songs and talked to them about how they were all sinners because they do bad things, and then some kids got up and recited some rehearsed speeches about what they do that’s bad, “We don’t listen to our teachers”, “We tell lies”, etc. We asked Jesus for forgiveness. Then they were told that especially during lent, we should stop doing bad things and try to be good. So then kids came up and said what they’d like to do to be good. I think some of this was rehearsed, but some of it I think wasn’t. Anyway, we said the Lord’s Prayer (I’ve officially memorized the first half in Spanish) and Hail Mary. Then they came around and put ashes on everyone’s forehead (except mine. I’m not sure what it was that gave my non-catholicness away. My horrible morals?) Anyway, that was that and we filed them all back out because it was time to go home. I found it absolutely fascinating, and the chapel was really pretty, too.
Thursday was their field trip to the “Stories Farm” or, La Granja de los Cuentos. Officially, I was not scheduled to go, but my co-worker, Ana (she teaches English with me in infantil) said I should ask if I should come. So I did, and they said I could. Everyone seemed so excited for the field trip (teachers included). I was sort of excited, but sort of had my doubts.
I was picturing a real farm with pigs and horses and crops and cow-milking. I was picturing mud and manure and slop. I was picturing rain and 300 children and an adult-to-child ratio of 1 to 20. I was prepared to work hard at the farm and to be a big help.
It wasn’t until the day before we went that they told me the teachers do nothing at the farm except eat cake.
We arrived at the “farm” which was in the middle of some small city outside of Madrid, and this is what it looked like:
It was a bunch of small houses linked together by small stone paths. Good thing I didn’t wear my overalls and mud boots like I originally planned.
When we arrived, we unloaded the children from the bus and the staff at the farm immediately took charge. Each class was assigned to a leader and had a schedule to follow. They were immediately off and experiencing activities while the teachers were led to a small rustic cabin.
The staff explained to us a little about the farm, and what the kids would be doing that day. The farm has a different theme every year, and this year the theme was chickens and eggs. So the kids got to learn at different stations all about the cycle of chickens and eggs (there was a room that had eggs hatching, then chicks after 3 days, one week, up to four weeks) there was a room for other animals that come from eggs, there was a room of wild birds, etc.
After the brief explanation, we were given a tour of the farm.
A class of four-year olds helping their guide find the missing ferret.
A class of five-year olds sitting in the room with wild birds.
(I was careful to watch what was above my head in this room.)
A class of three-year olds learning about animals that hatch from eggs.
The horse. Not exactly a friendly horse. I tried to pet him, and all he wanted to do was bite me. I guess I’d be cranky too if I had to walk around in circles with five-year olds on my back all day.
The trainer showing off for me and a couple other teachers. I wasn’t that interested in the horse tricks, I really just wanted to document his haircut and point out that this is COMPLETELY NORMAL IN SPAIN. Perhaps you can see why I don’t have a Spanish boyfriend.
After our tour, it was time for “breakfast” (it was 11:30a.m.) We went back to our rustic cottage and were given lots of coffee and giant cakes that the farm is famous for. All the teachers said that the cake was “to die for” and, I will say, it was pretty damn good. We ate TONS of it (because it was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me, for them it’s once a year) and then we were free to roam around as we chose.
Some five-year olds making cake. We each took home a fresh-baked mini-cake as well.
I ended up exploring a lot on my own because I love animals and wanted to see them all. The other teachers do this every year, so they didn’t have the same curiosity as I did.
I loved these tiny monkeys! No one else cared.
We stopped in and watched a theater show. It was about a scarecrow who is friends with all the birds. Everyone went on and on about how much I would like it, and to be honest, I was really disappointed. First of all, the scarecrow smelled BAD. I think my American nose was the only one that picked up on that. Second, the ENTIRE SHOW was lip-sinked! How cheap is that!? Not only the singing, but the talking as well. I guess Spaniards are used to dubbing, so lip-sinking isn’t that far off for them, but I would have been much more impressed with a live show.
Anyway, after that, it was time for lunch. I was still really full from stuffing my face with cake, but what could I do? They sat us down and we had water, wine, and soft drinks to drink. The first course was tortilla española and stuffed peppers. I was full after the first course. The second course was seafood paella. I was full after the second course. Then we had dessert (vanilla pudding) and coffee. I was full, full, full, but so happy! The food was delicious and it was nice to be waited on. Also, it was fun sitting and chatting with the teachers over a meal without a million children screaming in the background.
Some scenes from the children’s dining room.
I don’t understand how Spaniards can eat so much for lunch, drink wine, and then continue with their day! But, lucky for us, immediately after lunch we loaded the kids back on the bus and had a relaxing ride back to the school.
In the end, was I a big help? No. I was pretty much in the way. Did I help young people learn English? Um, I think I said “horse” to one child while we were petting a pony. Did I have a good time? Most definitely. Did I speak a lot of Spanish? Yes.
It was a great day.