Olives, & pedagogy

12 November 2008

“If they don’t come to class,” a teacher said to me yesterday of my students, on the way back to Jaén, driving down a two-lane highway that winds through the hills & is choked by olive trees, “the older ones, at least – it’s because they’ve gone to the olives.”

Kids in Bédmar, my pueblo of three thousand or so, skip school to pick up partwork in the groves that surround the town and make up almost three quarters of the land area of the province, collect pay in cash and use it to buy what matters when you’re maybe 16: a car, a bottle, something to huff or pop or smoke.

“Here, in the pueblo,” the art teacher told me in a garden with lemon trees & two dogs while his painter friend showed me his workshop and we listened to 70s Afrofunk, “the kids have no cultura.” It wasn’t just that the area was poor & rural. “All they know is this,” he said, & gestured towards the olive trees carpeting every hillside around us.


Andalucía does not have a narrative, as we do in the States (modified now by our own rural problems) of flight from blighted inner cities, of urban poverty. When I arrive back in Jaén at quarter to 3, the streets of the city throng with schoolchildren – public, private (this invariably means Catholic), the private school kids in a dozen different uniforms of every type, one of which incorporates boat shoes and powder blue sweaters. Families live in cities in droves. When the city ends, it ends directly – one moment you’re in the cathedral district, you pass through a wall of Franco-era housing developments, and five minutes later you’re on a road that looks like the mountain sections Highway 33 in Ojai Valley. No orange trees, though – this isn’t Valencia.

It’s not that there aren’t exurban developments – the ubanizaciones to the north of Jaén, the prefab district called Las Fuentezuelas to the west – but in Andalucía there is nothing comparable to the immense voting bloc & social construct that is suburbia in the United States, and none of the symptoms: immense Cold War interstate highways, front lawns, backyard grilling of hotdogs, fetishization of home ownership, baseball, an in-country population that was formerly enslaved & then kept out of the mainstream for another century.

The difference, instead, is seen as urbanized modernity vs. rural past, between having cultura and being, as I’ve heard said of pueblos more than once, cerrado. And the rural past is part of living, generational memory – I’ve seen the pictures. My kids know they’re not in the center of the world. What do you do when you know that? It eats away at you, drives you – or you stop caring.

I think. What do I know?


My instituto, like all Spanish secondary schools, covers the four years of obligatory public education (ESO, educación secondario obligatorio) – the equivalent, in the States, of 7th to 10th grade. After 16, my students take a test and are either bussed to a different instituto in Jódar that has the bachilerato(Baccalaureate) in which they take intensive college preparatory classes for two years before going to the university, or they go to vocational schools or to work. University is not the middle class socialization project it is in the States, common, taken for granted, and unspecialized. Courses begin to focus on major during the bachilerato, and you begin your principle field of study upon entering; because subsidized, tuition is also a fraction of what it is in the States.

When I ask my 2º or 3º de ESO kids what they want to be when they grow up, the boys almost invariably say mechanic – otherwise, rock star, footballer. The average of three or four whipsmart girls per section in the front row want to be doctors, lawyers, or English teachers. The other girls – hairdresser, PhysEd teacher, actress. By 2º de ESO the smart boys have learned, generally, not to show it.

My instituto, being a pueblo school, is small – two sections per grade, 15-20 students per class. The sections are listed A and B, and the Spanish educational system doesn’t seem to be shy about tracking. My A sections are generally better behaved, more attentive – and almost all girls. Part of this, of course, doesn’t have to be tracking – it’s enough to put people in a B section and treat them like they’re going to misbehave.

Because it’s a small school, and because of the newness of the bilingual initiative, my students vary in level from those who have had private tutors & understand every word I say to students who have been moved in from  French class this year and who have never spoken English before in their lives, who don’t want to learn English, and who are being made to take the class to satisfy a government requirement.

This is especially true in 2º y 3º, where there are always at least three or four kids who will sit in the back corner & expect to be left alone. If you talk to them – in Spanish – they’ll tell you No entiendo right back, say No hablo íngles, and then break off eye contact and stare into space. One kid in my 2ºB made a little gunpowder firecracker rolled up in paper in the back one day & got kicked out of class; there are also the folded papers that go bang when you push air through them by waving them in the air, balls of paper to throw, chairs to tip over, and best friends who get into little slapping fights when they invariably sit next to each other.

There are also undiagnosed learning disorders & disabilities that the school can’t otherwise serve. It’s tough to be precise about this because I have no formal training, but you can kind of sense when a kid’s being disruptive, talking uncontrollably, or can’t help but get up, and it’s something that the teacher has learned to ignore or to remind him gently about instead of get angry at him for.

As an auxiliar – an assistant who is not supposed to be in the classroom without a teacher, though in practice I teach for the full hour with the teacher sitting at the desk – they know I don’t grade them or have any real disciplinary authority. Depending on the kids, this can make the arrival of the tall, dark young foreigner with the strange accent & the bag of language games exciting – a holiday from homework – or exciting! – a holiday from having to behave!

The English teachers at my school generally can’t speak English – oral fluency was not stressed in Andalucían schools until very recently, which is part of the reason I’m here – and so classes are conducted largely in Spanish, assignments are written and corrected in writing, and both aural comprehension & the ability to speak are almost nonexistent – except where I act to change this.

This means both that classes are used to being taught in Spanish & can’t speak English out loud, or are embarrassed to do so. That said, the Andalucían public classroom is an almost constant hum of kids talking to each other and answering in Spanish questions posed to them in English. When I go online to look at the vast, infinite reservoirs of variable quality that exist for teachers and students of English as a second or foreign language, many of the notes, written for teachers in Japan, Korea, and China, address the problem of getting students to talk in cultures that have hierarchical modes of address & overdisciplined, silent pupils (a generalization, unavoidably).

This is not my major difficulty. To say Andalucía is a discursive culture would be to understate the case. That’s part of the problem – these kids know how to talk your ear off, they live in a culture that values being able to talk face to face, and when they encounter a language where they can’t do that & haven’t been taught how, the degree of difficulty is enough to make them give up all together.

As I can attest, if someone is talking to you in a foreign language, it requires real concentration to understand & parse; especially in my first couple of weeks here, if I was tired in the morning, or it was late at night & I’d had a few drinks, or if I hadn’t had my coffee yet, without trying hard the Spanish around me could become a kind of accented white noise. This happens to me with the Spanish talk radio my teacher puts on in the car at 7 in the morning or so when we’re driving the rural highway towards the rose-fingered dawn.

My kids deal with this too – more so, because the language they can understand is in the air alongside the English. My first couple days, I lied to them about speaking Spanish, said I only knew how to speak English – this was an attempt to force classroom immersion. The funny thing was, I could tell this to the kids, and then while explaining something, slip a Spanish word in, or answer a question in English that they asked me in Spanish, and they wouldn’t notice that I was speaking a different language – none except the really sharp ones, the bright ones. As far as they were concerned, someone was talking nonsense to them, until suddenly, out of the blue, a little voice whispered a word in their ear that made sense, that required no effort, that they knew.


It’s difficult to imagine secondary education in Spain for the American reader until you see, in black & white, the differences: High school does not exist in Andalucía. From 11 to 16, you attend secondary, and then maybe you go to the bachilerato, work your ass off, and go to the university to study one of the professions (doctor, lawyer, professor), or the conservatory to study the arts. Otherwise there are two-year vocational training schools. There are no sports in Spanish schools – no jocks, no lettermen, no cheerleaders, no raffles for new varsity uniforms, no college teams to have questionable scholarships & communications majors for. Sports in Andalucía are community-based – every town & pueblo has its local youth fútbol team, and it continues like that, club sports, up through the divisions. No high school car culture, no parking in parks overlooking the city to make out, and, with a drinking age of 16, no fake IDs or house parties.

These are my challenges: No pedagogical culture of spoken or aural English; classroom management, as symbolized by little firecrackers and maybe by the sullen kid near the window whose notebook is decorated with swastikas; my own lack of formal experience; – but maybe most important, a class full of kids, many of whom aren’t going to college, who will terminate their formal education at 16, pick up partwork in the olive groves, get jobs as mechanics, electricians, hairdressers, maybe half of whom have never traveled outside of Andalucía. Why should they think to care about English?

On the other hand, I have my compensations. Roughly half of my classroom hours each week are with 1º de ESO, the only year to be fully bilingual at the insituto, in its first year of bilingual education. I teach music & natural sciences for 50 minutes, once a week each; two sections of 1º Íngles (A & B), and a Thursday afternoon class called activadades en íngles, where, my Emerson readers will be happy to know, I usually put on WERS streamed online in the background.

Fully bilingual classes started only this week, so pedagogy is being worked out live on the ground. Last week, I acted like a zombie, a pirate, a princess, & a werewolf for my Halloween mime guessing game, and threw out my back on Thursday with my ninja impression. There are blocks of text recognition to match to the correct picture of the planets in natural sciences. Today I sang the “Do Re Mi” song from The Sound of Musicand tried to explain what a “pun” is. Every week, I make news headlines in 26 pt. Georgia Bold for the English corner posted on red construction paper at the top of the stairs.

My kids in 1º de ESO, despite everything I’ve written so far, are uniformly a pleasure, and well-behaved to an extraordinary degree, & better at English than anyone else in the school.

3 Responses to “Olives, & pedagogy”

  1. Jackie Says:

    Your students must be getting an excellent musical education with ERS in the background. Good choice.

  2. John B. Says:

    Reading this brought back a flood of memories from my teaching days twenty years ago (!) in Durango, Mexico. There and then, the system was different from what you describe, but since then it has changed so that it’s closer to Spain’s. Also, I taught a range of ages (and abilities) during my two years there. But, like you, I taught what amounted to a cross-section of the city’s youth: everyone from the sons of candidates for governor of the state (two of whose sons were in one of my classes) to kids in secretary school training for jobs somewhere, anywhere, in a city where I knew of people with law degrees who washed cars to help make ends meet. The well-off were already set for life, proficiency in English or no; the kids in secretary school were required to take English by the government, as were all students who continued their education past the mandated grades, and so varied in their enthusiasm for English instruction.

    But somehow, out of all that and despite the fact that I had no formal training in teaching, let alone ESL instruction, I figured out I wanted to teach. Go figure.

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