Friday, March 6, 2009

Global Classrooms


This was an expression I repeated throughout the day on Wednesday, when 10 bilingual schools and 220 kids came together in Madrid for the Global Classrooms Model UN conference. Spanish students argued, discussed, and crafted a resolution about the best manner of fighting and preventing "Malaria, TB, and other infectious diseases" around the globe. 13 and 14 year olds, dressed in suits and dresses, acting as delegates from their respective countries, using problem solving skills and cooperating with people they had never met before to form solutions, all in a foreign language.

Feeling inspired? I am.

What I and and other TAs have learned this year is that the Spanish school system can tend to be a bit rigid. It is based more on memorization and tests than papers and activities. Problem solving skills and cooperation are not emphazised as much and you are evaluated in different ways. All in all it is a fairly stark contrast to the American school system. I've been the crazy American girl, therefore implementing group activities and creative thinking questions into the classrooms. This Global Classrooms exericise is great for the students, if only to improve their autonomy, letting them feel like they have accomplished something without having the teacher force feed it. Thinking outside of the box and not getting penalized for it.

There was an awards ceremony that day and I saw the faces of my kids drop as the awards went to students that had been there for two years already or who had a higher level of English. But, hopefully, they realize what an amazing thing they have accomplished.


When you think of European countries, is one of the first ones you think of Andorra? Ok, another question. Did you even know that there was a european country called Andorra? Well, if you did, you are much more worldly than most folks, including myself circa a couple of weeks ago. For those of you who are still stumped, let me give you a little insight into this beautiful, tiny country.

Andorra is located in the Pyrenees mountain range, and its main industry is tourism due to its winter sports and the fact that it is tax-free. Its total population is estimated around 80,000 people, and it is smushed between Spain and France. In fact, it's run peacefully by both Spain and France, and most inhabitants learn Catalan, French, and Spain from when they are teeny-tiny Andorrans is school.

I had the priviledge to go to Andorra for the Fulbright mid-year conference. We were treated extremely well, as we enjoyed the AVE train and chartered bus, a fancy hotel, and the company of ambassadors from different parts of the world. When you are used to traveling with only a backpack and sharing a hostel room with 6-8 other people, it can be a bit of a shock but also a treat to be standing in a multiple star hotel with plush bathrooms, chocolates on the pillows, and a pull-out couch. Luxury confronted my inner hippie and they dueled each other something fierce. In the end I decided that this was a fleeting weekend and that I should enjoy it while it lasts. Plus, it wasn't the point of the trip.

The weekend was about getting centered again, to remember why we were there. To remember who Senator J. William Fulbright was, that guy who helped start this scholarship that got me to Spain in the first place. Told from the perspective of one of his personal friends, Mr. Fulbright was a visionary, even in his old age. He had the simple philosophy "to bring a little more knowledge, a little more reason, and a little more compassion into world affairs and thereby increase the chance that nations will learn at last to live in peace and friendship." This is a gift that I've been given to be here, and I need to do everything in my power to give back. I don't know exactly what that means, but I am trying to figure it out.

During the extended weekend I got to experience lots of different things. We had a meeting with our respective groups (mine was with secondary TAs) and we talked about what we could do to make the program better for next year. We heard from researchers in the program who shined when talking about their respective projects ( everything from research on obesity to a documentary on immigration).

Mostly I just found out even more that this group of people is endlessly fascinating and inspiring. They are willing to share themselves and have helped me dig deeper to figure out who I am and who I want to be.
And, they're really fun to hang out and go out with as well. What more could you ask for?

Andorra is a hidden paradise in the middle of the mountains. Its landscape is stark, with the piercing white of the snow against dark trees and dirt where the snow has already melted. The sky is blue on sunny days and the whole valley glows with the reflection. Reds, yellows, and oranges are lacking. You come to Andorra to reflect, to relax, to cast your thoughts onto the mountains that hang above you and seem to touch the sky. While it was wonderful to reflect, I was ready to jump back into the colorful, crazy world of Madrid to gain more things to think about and to implement what I had learned.

Monday, February 23, 2009


(Sidenote: I´m kicking myself for not keeping this updated.)

¨It´s the journey that counts, not the destination.¨

This weekend was the epitome of this phrase which I believe in so much. The plan was to head to Gibraltar, hike a little, hang out with some monkeys, and then head over to Malaga to catch the train back. I wanted to use my railpass, but mostly I wanted get out of Madrid to clear my head a little. Has anyone has ever read the book Blink, about how the brain can make decisions in the ¨blink of the eye¨that are very accurate? Its basic premise it that before one is able to express why they think a certain thing is correct, his/her brain has already worked it out. The brain is pretty smart sometimes, and just because you can´t verbalize why, doesn´t mean there isn´t a logical reason for it. So, that brings me to this pit in my stomach feeling I´d been having the past week and a half. My brain was doing things and connecting it to my body (this is eliminating the possibility of food poisoning or too much tortilla espanola), and I couldn´t figure out why. Hence, with a pen and paper, Into the Wild, a day pack, and some food, the plan was to get fresh air and find a way to connect my body and mind again.

After being told that I couldn´t get a ticket the day of, I decided to catch the earliest train the next day. I could have either went to Malaga and then taken a bus (the shorter journey) or just taken a train straight to Algeciras, the closest part of Spain to Gibraltar and the point where the ferries leave to nearby Morocco.

I chose the train to Algeciras since it would be most direct and I wouldn´t have to worry about catching a bus. Here the irony comes in. The train kept stalling until, eventually, it stopped completely in Ronda. The driver walked through the coaches to tell everyone that they would have to repair the train, and that we would be taking a bus the rest of the journey. So much for the simplicity of a train ride.

If you open yourself to talking to others, you will learn much more than alone...Every person you ever meet and take the time to listen to has a unique story, and something about their past, their present, or their aspirations for the future is sure to strike a chord with you in some way. The whole world would be a much better place, with less prejudice and I go as far as less wars, if everyone just had one positive contact with another culture or way of life. This is another one of my basic philosophies. I could name countless stories already in which this phenomenon has occurred--just from these last couple months. There is the older woman at the drogeria who decided in her eighties to take up a drawing class and yoga...and now draws every day and does yoga twice a week, because ¨you should live your life, every day, and never stop living.¨ Or the taxi driver from Kenya who was so excited to hear that I was from the United States because one of ¨his people¨ was the president, who has lived in Spain since he was five and knows more about Madrid than his home country, but still talked about it nostalgically...

The crazy ways that life moves, that people undulate together and apart at distinct moments, makes these encounters possible. If that second of contact doesn´t occur, you will go on to live your life and never be the wiser. You could even meet someone else that is flowing on a different path instead. But, I tend to believe that these encounters happen for a reason, to help them or strengthen yourself, for example. In this manner I met Shen, from Florida, who was travelling through Europe on his way to Africa. When I saw him on the train sitting across from me, my first thought was that if I was escaping from the cops that this is just the disguise I would don to completely cover my identity. He had on a Jamaican flag colored cap that presumedly hid copious dreads, a pair of thick dark-rimmed sunglasses, and had grown out a beard. When the driver came around with news of the bus switch Shen (which means Spirit and is referenced in Tai Chi) turned to me to ask if I spoke English, and was suprised by the fact that I answered him not only in English but in clear American English. Turned out he went to high school in Allentown. Talk about a small world that just keeps getting smaller. We got on the bus together, and went on a sweet ride through the mountains to get from Ronda to Algeciras.

By the time we got to Algeciras it was getting pretty late and I would be cutting it close to get to Malaga. Plus, I´d have to pay for the bus ride there and back, with two hours each way. Hostelworld, my go-to site for hostel information, does not list one hostel in Algeciras. Finding information on Google was not much better, as the only site listed was for a youth albergue that was 8 miles outside the city. However, within 5 minutes of walking around town, there were many hostels in plain sight. I decided to stay there, and found a cheap hostel.

Then, I went around with Shen for the night to explore the city. We went to a Moroccarestaurant next door, where the waiter/ owner was really friendly and we ate some delicious food. The tea was also outstanding, as assured by the waiter who said that it was tea from Morocco and his own brew, thus the best you could get in Algeciras. Upon leaving he said to come back any time. When I told him that I´d be leaving the next day, he said that the next time that I visited I should come there, since now it was my ¨casa.¨ Then, we went to the center of the city, which was recommend as the place to go ¨after 10 pm for ¨fiestas y mucho ambiente¨ by the owner of the hostel. We grabbed some oranges off the trees for dessert, ¨the uglier the better they taste.¨ Then, we headed into a bar with a Marylin Monroe type of theme, that was packed due to the soccer game.

I am not naturally a sports aficionado, but I am slowly learning about soccer in the way that I learned about football at Penn State, being thrust into it by friends who are crazy about it. My first experience with soccer in Spain was two years ago when studying in Sevilla. The big rivalry there was SFC versus Betis. I was an Sevilla Futbol Club fan, although the reason was shameful(they had cooler songs). That coupled with John Interrante being super caught up on all the stats, games, players, etc. and going occasionally to the SFC bar to watch the games with an old man hunched in front of the t.v. cursing every 15 seconds at a play, made me more aware and more excited about the game.

This weekend there were a couple of big games going on simultaneously. I was very proud of myself to know which teams were which. Also, I got to root for SFC against Atletico, against Betis for Real Madrid, and against Espaynol for Barca. I felt connected to the teams I wanted to win since I loved SFC, saw a Real Madrid game and like them more than Betis (the first big rival I knew) and saw a Barca game and kind of just like them because they rock (usually, this game not so much but we won´t talk about that). So, we stayed for the 3 games and highlights and then headed back.

The next morning, Shen and I got some food at a Buffet (whaaaaatttt??? Bufffffeeetttt????) There´s a joke among some Europeans that if you want to get all of the Americans into a restaurant, the only thing you have to do is put Buffet after your name. In this case it worked. I snagged a sandwich and some fruit for lunch (I´m still in the college kid and broke mentality) and the ate some yummy breakfast.

The breakfast place had a great view of Gibraltar and the day was clearing up. I got a copy of a song from the Buena Vista Social Club from Shen before saying my goodbyes. It´s a pretty wicked song, and I just realized that I can play the piano that´s in the auditorium at my school. I can´t wait to start playing it. I checked the train schedule and it said it would be a six hour ride to Malaga--eep. The bus was only two hours but was sold out for all times except one. I decided to by a ticket and then just take a walk by the water until the time came.

I finally got to Malaga and then went to the beach to put my feet in the sand and walk around. There are few feelings I like more than sand between my toes. After collecting some rocks and taking a nice walk, I went back to the station and got on the train. I wrote on my way home.

I learned some more things about myself on this trip. First, I want to keep exploring, keep active, and never close myself off to the world. I have a desire to be free, in other words as my roomate Alex says, I'm "part hippy." There is so much world to see still, and the fact that a guy can grab his drum say "peace" to everyone for a couple months and then head to Africa to get to know the world and the people in it a little more is pretty cool. I'm very happy I'm in this program and I feel very fortunate to have seen as much as I have seen, but I don't want to become complacent. Like the 80-some year old Grandpa that was backpacking through Europe with his grandson when I met them in Berlin, who had been back and forth many times and had an interesting story at every stopping point on the tour, I know that travelling is something that is in my blood and soul, something that is a life-long experience. I also know that I love to meet new people, but that I cherish alone time and getting to know nature more. This year, if I decide to go work somewhere instead of heading off to a new spot in the world, I have to remember this thirst for the unknown and the desire to explore and learn. If I forget it I will feel like I'm not really living.

It was a great, mind-clearing weekend, and I´m happy that the journey to Gilbratar was also a journey in every other sense of the word. Also, that little pain in my stomach that I'd been feeling the last week or so: gone.


Hasta luego amigos,