Archive | September, 2015

Ten Reasons Why I Hate Numbered Lists (An English Teacher Can Count)

25 Sep

I admit, the title is not an accurate reflection of content, but it made you click on the article, right? Everybody loves these articles, except me. I am not a big fan of the excessive amount of articles in the world that are titled X number Things You Must Know! and the like. They make life sound so quantifiable. Ordered. Simple, if you will. Easy, even. And it’s not, dammit!

They’re so catchy, all these Cosmo-style relationship ones- 5 ways to tell he’s crazy about you;  the travel expert ones- 8 places you MUST visit in Mexico City ; the pseudo-health/science ones- The 3 worst things that age you faster ; the good little capitalist ones- These 4 essentials to buy cheaper online ; and my least favorite, those self-help “just do this and everything will be perfect” type ones-  6 tips to reduce stress  (And you know with a title like that they’re going to tell you some lame crap like “Eliminate stressors.” Well tell me when you’re coming to collect my children then, buster. Call me up when you’ve got my winning lottery ticket, thanks.) There was even that movie called 10 Things I Hate about You, which I refused to see on principle. The worst part is when I find myself clicking on these kinds of articles sometimes because, shit, they make life sound so simple and ordered!

My life here is anything but ordered. I do love my personal lists, however- so I can prioritize my classroom tasks, so I remember to buy actual food and not just several different chocolate products and imported beer at the grocery store, so I can remember what the hell I’m supposed to be doing when I get up at 5 in the morning (get dressed- pack child’s lunch- pump milk- drink 2nd cup of coffee- and no my lists are not in order, thank you). But I don’t try to force my lists upon others (okay, maybe Conan has to suffer through my lists on occasion). For me, lists are a personal, intimate thing, not a way to prescribe your ideas to the public.

This week, however, I was reflecting upon my year in the university (yes, it’s been over a year!), and I ended up with a jumble of seemingly-random things to share. Thus I decided, hey, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. So here you are, folks- my cheesy numbered lists.

Three Preposterous Things Students Say During Tests

 1.    Student: “Teacher, what does this word (insert target vocabulary word here) mean?”

         Me: “That’s a vocabulary word that you were supposed to study.”

        Student (possible response 1): “So, what does it mean?”

        Student (possible response 2): “Yes but I forgot.” Bats eyelashes innocently and/or smiles.

        Student (possible response 3): Blank look. “Vocabulary?”


       (variation 1)

        Student : “Teacher, I don’t understand this question. What do I write here?”

         Me: “You write the answer, based on this question (signaling where).”

        Student: “So it’s letter B, right?”

         Me: “I can’t tell you.”

         (variation 2)

         Student : “Teacher, I don’t understand this question.”

         Me: “Well, it’s asking you to answer like in this example above.”

         Student: Points to their answer. “Is this correct?”

         Me: “I can’t tell you.”

        (variation 3)

        Student : “Teacher, how am I doing?” Points to their answers.

         Me: Shoulder shrug. “I can’t tell you.”

        Student: “Why not?”

         Me: Facepalm self.

Me, at some point every quiz and exam

3.      Student 1: Waves and says something inaudible to Student 2.

         Student 2: Replies in a whisper which I can’t quite make out.

         Me: Clear throat and raise eyebrows while approaching chatty students. “There’s no talking during exams. See you                      guys tomorrow.” Take exams from Students 1 and 2.

        Student 1: Puts on shocked, sad face, despite the whole class having multiple warnings that this precise thing would                            happen since day 1 of class. “But teacher! I was just asking for an eraser!” (Which is possible, except I’ve                              explicitly told them before every single exam to ask ME if they need something so that I don’t suspect them                          of cheating, which definitely happens.) My all-time favorite response was: “But teacher! I was just saying hi!”

        Me: “Say hi before or after the exam next time. Bye.” (Yep, I’m the meanest teacher on Earth.)

Me, according to some students

The Three Most Inspiring Classes and Quirks from the Past Year

  1. The wooooo class

I often ask the student who’s talking (practicing or reading aloud or whatever) pick the next student to talk. In this especially hormonal class of 18 year old Animal Husbandry majors, any time a boy picked a girl, it elicited a “woooo” from the class. Every time a girl picked a boy, there was a woooo. Sometimes even when a girl picked another girl, or a boy picked another boy, they still got a giggly little woooo. I thought it was adorable and started harassing them to do it some more when they forgot about it for at one point in the semester. Now they are officially “the woooo class” (at least among us English profs).

Beyond their already fabulous woo, this class loved my enthusiasm- one girl always imitated my “I’ve seen the light” arm gesture with my “aaaaaaah” sound I make to signal that they should be excited about whatever I’m about to teach them. (Was she making fun of me? Of course, but very affectionately!) This class inspired me to create extra class interaction activities, thanks to making me laugh all the time. They always tried to distract me from the task at hand by asking personal questions (in Spanish, which I told them I would answer if they could ask in English, and then the whole class was capable of working together to string a real question together- amazing work, level 1!) They also complained constantly about having to come to English class and were always trying to make up reasons to not come, but they complained with a smile, and they had the best attendance of all my classes that semester. These guys secretly love English, and I loved them for it.

2.  The Physics professor who had class the slot before me at 12pm

He absolutely couldn’t manage to end class on time. Every day, I stood outside the classroom door, waiting for him to quit babbling, mentally adjusting my lesson plan based on how many minutes he was taking from my class. Then I’d go in and he’d have left his intricate drawings and accompanying mathematics all over the board for me to erase. “He’s trying to help build up my arm muscles,” I assured my students as I erased every day. “How is this great?” you might be wondering. Because karma is real, and the students despised his class! Which means they were thrilled to see me, and to have English class every day! Thank you, boring, long-winded professor, for inspiring my students to love English (even if I did have to mentally shake them awake)!

3.  Constant classroom entertainment- IN ENGLISH- provided by Miguel Angel, Abel and               Charlie

Think Ninja Turtle’s Michaelangelo- this Migue is a party dude, too, complete with badass motorcycle. Abel (pronounced like ah-bell) had a girlfriend in the class, but they never sat together. Instead, Abel sat with his bromance partner-in-crime Miguel. They were my class clowns, with constant banter about each other and everything else. They also provided commentary about what we were learning (“I think it was Mexican immigrants who built the Egyptian pyramids, too”), fun errors (“Did I approve my exam?”), making up Spanglish words (“I’m very tired; I need a siestation”). They contributed a steady, comical participation, and they did it mostly in English! If you’ve ever learned a language, you know how hard it can be to be funny in your foreign tongue. And these guys always had something to say. I like to think that these two inspired other students to learn more, thanks to using their wit and charm in English.

Okay, Miguel and Abel don’t look exactly like Matt and Mike above. Abel would totally be the guy on the left, though, if you added glasses. You get the idea.

Theirs was my favorite class that semester because the whole (level 3) class, compared to many others, was so responsive and participatory. Their class also included Charlie (not Carlos, thank you, but Charlie), my super adorable, fast-talking, pretty boy, English genius with the worst attendance ever (“I’m sorry, I fell asleep during lunch!… Listen, teacher, I have this opportunity to do modeling, but it’s justamente during class hour.” Convincing excuses when you can say it in English, let me tell you.) Charlie was one of the only students who ever used my actual name instead of “Teacher” sometimes, and he went on to tell me I was adorable (in a puppy-dog, head-patting kind of way) on more than one occasion. If I hadn’t been so amused by it I might have had to smack him. But instead I looked forward to Charlie and his thinly veiled false modesty. The lesson here is that you can get away with just about anything in my class when you do so in English.

See, English Teachers Can Count!

There you have it, folks. I used numbered lists to organize my thoughts and shared it with the public. Was it effective? It wasn’t so bad for me after all. Maybe I’ll convert and start communicating everything in numbered list. Titles to be used include: 5 Reasons Why Dora the Explorer is Taking Up Too Much Space in my Brain, 18 Things The Supermarket Had Last Week that No Longer Exist, and finally, 2 Small Children and the Infinite Ways in Which they Refuse to Sleep. Because some things just can’t be quantified.

“Errors” are the Best!

20 Sep

My Nonna, my mother’s mother, had to learn English twice, due to moving back and forth between the States and Italy when she was little. At one point, she got sent home from school daily for not speaking English, and every day after her mother returned her to school anyway, arguing with the nuns who ran the school that she was never going to learn if they kept sending her home!

Perhaps because of this, or perhaps just due to her love of language and expression, my Nonna went on to learn perfect English. She kept her Italian as well and added fluent Spanish later in life, both of which she taught me bits of at different points in my life. But more than the Italian phrases she taught me I remember the ways she would give you a hard time to correct your English grammar errors- things my mom repeated to us, too.

Like if you said “I’m done with my homework” instead of “finished,” she’d say, “You’re done? Dinner gets done! Can I stick a fork in you?”

Or if you asked, “Where is it at?” she’d say, “Behind the at,” because “Where is it?” needs no “at” afterward. Nobody even knows or follows half of these rules that she enforced, but by golly, I learned them, thanks to her and my mom. So I come by it honestly- my need to know the correct way.

But language is an art, not a perfect science, and I love it for that, too. I’m also an English teacher, and I certainly don’t teach perfect English to my students. I teach my students correct English as I know it, sure, but I don’t expect them to get it perfectly all the time (or ever), and I actively encourage them to make mistakes. I want them to try to communicate, to use the language to express themselves, not to sit around worrying about whether have or has goes with the subject the students. Of course I want them to learn the correct thing, but I teach them that it’s better to say, “The students has too much homework” than to say nothing at all.

Despite my encouraging, mistake-loving attitude for language learners, I was still sitting around with another foreign teacher bemoaning the spelling situation here in Mexico. While I don’t expect anyone to spell well in English, I’ve discovered that many Spanish speakers can’t spell well in Spanish. And Spanish, unlike English, is phonetic. The vowels only make one sound. There aren’t 3 ways to pronounce the same consonant-vowel combo. The spelling actually makes sense.

“So, why, oh, why,” I whined, “can whatever teacher who posted that notice on the kindergarten down the street not spell the word please (por favor) correctly?” Why is it that some of my students didn’t write haber correctly on an activity, even when they just had to copy it? How could you so drastically change the word hacer to aser or voy to boi?

If you know Spanish at all, though, you know that these are mistakes because Spanish is phonetic. The h is never pronounced. The v sounds exactly like the b. The s, z, and often c are more or less interchangeable phonetically. So what difference does it make? Boi, if you read it aloud to yourself, sounds exactly the same as the correct word for ‘I go’.

Sort of like it doesn’t really make a difference that people here always use “quotation marks” incorrectly (like I did just now). Like when they write se vende “chorizo”  (“sausage” for sale). Because everyone consistently uses quotation marks to highlight or underline a word (especially in names of stores, too), I am pretty much the only one walking around giggling about their apparently not-real chorizo. So, you know, I guess if everyone’s agreed about the meaning, then it really doesn’t matter whether it’s officially correct or not.

As for my semi-rhetorical “why” in the matter of “why can’t everyone spell this right?” I could speculate on the situation. For one, many people speak Spanish as a second language anyway (speaking another indigenous language as well). Also, I think spelling is not a priority for much of anyone. A lot of people are too busy getting by to have time to give a damn about reading and spelling. I suspect that a lot of spelling correctly is due to seeing the word written correctly time after time. At least for me that’s the case. I’d never make it in a spelling bee because with many words I have to write it down and look at it like I’m reading it to know if it’s correct or not. So reading all the time is one way that many of us learn to spell.

But here, there are a ton of barriers to reading for pleasure. (Dear Cheyenne, I found an appropriate place to talk about books and libraries, finally!) First off, the cost of books is outrageous! Here in my small town, there’s not even a bookstore. Sometimes there are book fairs, where somebody sets up a stand to sell books. But a new book sells for 200 or 300 pesos (about 12-18 US dollars, which is more than lots of people make in two days!) Even used books are much more expensive than you’d find them in the US. And there are libraries, but the couple I’ve been in don’t have much selection and don’t have great lending policies. In one of them you had to leave your ID to borrow a book, which is problematic if you need your ID for anything. In another, they give you a library card, but you only get the book for a week. I’m spoiled rotten by my Louisville library system, where you get a book for 3 weeks and can renew on-line or over the phone.

Even people who do read for pleasure and grew up in the library (like Conan) still frequently change around bs and vs and the like, so I think it just brings me back to the idea that nobody cares about it but me. And why do I care? Despite my training in youth and my personal adoration of grammar as a fun pasttime, I don’t speak or write perfectly in English or Spanish. Furthermore, thanks to international travel, I’m well aware of the plethora of differences in countries and even regions that people are always declaring as rights and wrongs, when really they’re just differences in use. They’re differences that actually make language more fun, more interesting- what makes it alive, and changing all the time. If I can accept that hueá means huevada in Chile, or that vos sos in Paraguay is just as legit as tú eres, that half six in Ireland can actually refer to the time 6:30, then why does it bug me if grasias is spelled with two s?

Yet part of me still cringes when I see it. Part of me wants to cry out that NO! It’s wrong, wrong I tell you! I suspect that this part of me that unconsciously buys into those mean old nuns who sent my Nonna home from school. This is the part of me that needs to know the correct answer so that people don’t treat me like I’m ignorant. But really, not spelling correctly is not what makes people ignorant, and incorrect spelling doesn’t speak at all about people’s character. It’s way more legitimate to write por fabor any which way you please (yay for having manners!) than to treat people poorly based on their usage of language. The real reason I love language is because it is, after all, a tool to be used for expression, not a set of rules to further oppression. So stop me the next time I palm-smack myself over some inconsequential error, and remind me what I tell my students: “Errors are the best!” Let’s all keep learning, folks!

Who’s the Student Here?

13 Sep

“These days you don’t know who’s going to school- the child or the parent,” my mother in law would say, tsk-tsking, whenever her neighbor would talk about what she had to be doing for her two kids in school. I wasn’t sure if the tsk-tsking was mostly a social nicety, or if it was just to highlight the differences of the time periods, or if what was expected of parents with school kids really was absurd. At the time, Lucia was still a baby, and it all seemed so far away that I didn’t pay much attention.

Fast forward and pan in on my three year old, and here we are in the big league of obligatory preschool. In Mexico, there are three years of preschool / kindergarten before they start elementary school. If your kid has their birthday between September and December, they won’t even have turned three when they start going to school. This is great for little social butterflies like my child, but I witnessed a little boy in full-blown tantrum / panic mode on the first day of school, refusing to let go of his mother’s leg, and thought, “Maybe 2 is a little young for some kids to start school.” (And a couple of kids in Lucia’s class are still in diapers, which must be a bummer for the teacher.)

Regardless, Conan and I were excited about Lucia having the routine / structure of going to school while I’m at work. The schedule is from 9-1, so when she gets out coincides nicely with my lunch break. It sounded so great for her to get out of the house, to have someone else be in charge of her safety and stimulation for a few hours every day. Little did we know how much work it would entail on our part.

We’d started sending her to the 2 year old, non-official school program at this private school. For that, we’d had to go ahead and buy her two types of uniforms- one for the two days of physical education and one with the khaki skirt and collared pollo shirt. Everyone here wears a uniform to school for their entire education, up to university (and some universities even have uniforms, but not mine, thank goodness). This is probably good since there is so much poverty here that not having uniforms would instantly reflect huge inequalities. It’s weird for me, though, since I was one of those kids who definitively associated my (thrift store-bought, punk rock) clothing with my identity expression. I picked out my high school based on the fact that other “weird” kids went there and you didn’t have to wear a uniform. Here, whether it’s public or private, you wear a uniform- once again, taking options off the table in a way that just doesn’t happen in the US. I imagine it won’t be a big deal for Lucia since there won’t be any other options. She already just takes it for granted that she wears a uniform to school.

Her little uniform...(yes, a white shirt for small children. sigh)

Her little uniform…(yes, a white shirt for small children. sigh)

But buying the little uniforms for my pint-size kiddo was about as seriously as we took the school situation at first. She only went for a couple of months before (the only 5 weeks long) summer break, but it was a nice, easy introduction to school. It might have been misleading for me, though, since now she’s in “real” school and I’m still having a hard time taking it seriously. I mean, what does she really need to learn at this point? She already knows colors and numbers and all that jazz. I figure it’s mostly about social skills and it’ll help her level of Spanish language. If there were a Montessori school around she’d be there instead, and I’d be a bit more impressed, but there’s not Montessori here.

But sending her to school really is serious business! I had no idea how much work and money it costs to ship kids off to someone else for a few hours a day. It almost is like we, the parents, are students, too, getting graded and judged, and getting  lots of homework! My mother in law wasn’t just saying that to be nice!

Don’t get me wrong. I can understand that it’s important to be involved in your child’s education. But where do we draw the line between being a support person and taking over your child’s education?

There’s a lot of stuff that’s a shock to my system but that’s not unreasonable to expect from parents. We need to buy uniforms, books. In a private school there’s the enrollment fee, the monthly tuition, the events fee. If it’s a public school they still ask for / demand money for events, and you have to buy a bunch of supplies that are for the school, not specifically for your kid. Plus you have to go to a ton of meetings and volunteer your time for all kinds of stuff, and if you don’t do it you often get fined. Then there’s all the other stuff that we just didn’t have to think about and incorporate into our agenda in such a strict way. Like making sure her hair looks a bit more tamed every day. Making sure her fingernails are short enough for the school’s standards. Hanging our heads in shame if we forget to send a spoon in her lunchbox for her oatmeal. (Gasp!)

Most of that stuff is within reason, in my opinion. But schools (public schools more than private ones) assume that there is a stay-at-home parent to be full-time involved in school. Mothers (and it’s pretty much always mothers around here) are expected to go to meetings every month or more sometimes. They often have to volunteer to clean the school and put on events. I remember helping a woman I know in Juquila write a play for a Christmas event that groups of moms were going to turn in to the teacher who would pick one to be the Christmas play. And it wasn’t voluntary play-writing, it was mandatory. I don’t know if I’m just being an anti-involvement parent (go ahead and wag your finger at me here) or if my eye rolling is justified. It’s one thing if you volunteer for the PTA and bake your brownies for the bake sale or whatever, but obligatory play-writing seems a bit much. Who has time for all that?

Even stay-at-home moms don’t really have time for all that, because they’re too busy doing their kids’ homework and delivering lunches at the precise time each day. Imagine dropping off your kid at 9AM and going back home. Then you return at 10 or 10:30 bearing their lunch (preferably good and hot, too, since almuerzo is a big meal at midmorning after a light breakfast when you first get up). Then you go back home after you drop off lunch. Then you go back to pick them up at 12 or 1. And if you’ve got them in different schools- one in preschool, one in elementary school, for example- then you’re on double duty! It’s crazy. All the moms who do it think it’s super stressful, but they still do it. Some schools won’t let you send a packed lunch, so the other option is for your kid to buy lunch at school from a private vendor (which might be another mom or group of moms at some schools). But that option is not usually as healthy and it’s more expensive. There’s not a cafeteria where they make some kind of effort to provide a nutritious meal, and it’s definitely not free for anybody.

At private schools, they are more likely to have an on-site vendor who sells food, with cost and quality varying. At Lucia’s school parents are actually discouraged from bringing almuerzo, for which I am eternally grateful. Instead, parents can either send a packed lunch or buy on site. That eliminates one absurdity from our lives, but there’s still the homework issue.

I occasionally give homework to my university students. Mostly I don’t bother, because they’ve already got enough to do and half the time they just copy off of their friends anyway. But for me, when I do, it’s because I want to really, really encourage some extra practice with whatever we’ve been doing in class.
For three year olds, who can’t even read to see what the homework assignment is, I’m really not sure what the point is. It does seem like homework for parents rather than students. I’ve been reading articles lately, too, on this precise thing producing helpless adults in the US- where parents are still, like, filling out their kid’s college applications for them. In Mexico, in many ways, people tend to raise much more independent children, so I’m a bit baffled by this kind of homework thing.

Lucia just got her first couple of homework assignments, and I don’t really understand. The first one was to paste pictures of her immediate family members and label their relationship (mama, papa, brother, etc.). This one kind of pissed me off because 1) getting pictures printed here is expensive, and who has extra pictures of individual family members just laying around that they want to ruin by pasting them into their kid’s notebook? It’s not like we had time in that afternoon to run out and get some extras printed, either. 2) This is totally homework for the parent to do. There was pretty much zero participation for Lucia. I had to go find spare pictures. I had to tape them in because we didn’t have a glue stick (Lucia helped push down on them once they were taped- what an educational feat). I had to write the family relationship because my three year old can’t write yet! What was the purpose of this? Are there 3 year olds who can’t yet recognize their mom and dad?

The second assignment was from English class. While I’m really pleased that they already have English class in preschool, I’m not sure why they had homework in it since they can’t read to see what the assignment is. It was a picture where they were supposed to color one part green and one part red. But if they can’t read what they’re supposed to do, that means parents need to tell them. And what happens if parents don’t know enough English to tell them what to do? Then parents have to go find someone to help them (the parents) translate their kids homework so they can then tell them what to color. Then for kids who haven’t learned colors well enough in English, they’re going to end up just being told in Spanish what to do. And if they’ve already got it down, why do they need homework in that? Is this really helping their kid learn English? It seems unlikely to me.

Parents and teachers, please weigh in here. Save me from being an eye-rolling, uninvolved parent! Give me some research or reasons to buy into this stuff. I’ve seen some research that early education might help with future educational success, but I don’t think it applies here. Unfortunately, despite 3 years of obligatory preschool, Mexico has some of the worst educational outcomes compared to other countries worldwide, and our state ranks worst in the country. So help a mama out here. How do you cope with a much-less-than-ideal educational system? What do you do about homework that’s more for you than your kid? How do you support your child’s education without taking it over for them?

LTR Piropos

6 Sep

My relationship with the construction worker down the street is advancing to whole new levels these days. I see him every day on my way to and from work, ever since they started construction there. It’s been at least a month, so we’re already into long-term relationship mode.

We were taking things slowly. First he just whistled at me. Then one day an older man was walking down the street at the same time as me, in the opposite direction, and I told the man, “Creo que le está chiflando a Ud.”- I think he’s whistling at you. I thought he’d laugh, but instead he nodded seriously. Maybe he didn’t get it. I don’t know if he went to complain to the construction worker or what, but soon after that the construction worker started yelling, so I’d know his whistle was intended for me and not other old men, or, say, the dog walking by at the same time.

“Guera!” he calls out after the whistle, “guera” meaning something like “light-skinned person, feminine” (guero being the masculine version, and both words being slang only in Mexico, I’m pretty sure). Still I ignored him, because, well, I didn’t have anything to say to him. Without getting into all the personal-political ramifications, I’m pretty convinced that catcalling of this type is much more about posturing for other men than it is about expecting any response from the woman.

But Friday morning he stepped it up a notch. He whistled a couple times, and then shouted, “Guera! Te amo!” Wow! He loves me! He said he loves me! Considering the fact that I’d never even turned to look at him, it’s a pretty drastic statement. If he’s already capable of loving me and we’ve never even locked eyes, imagine what could happen over dinner and a movie!

Even though I don’t respond to his unsolicited attention, I have to admit that his declaration of love brought a smile to my face. First of all, it’s beautifully absurd. He didn’t even say “te quiero” which could imply wanting me as much as loving me. No, straight to the verb amar, pure love. Did I mention we’ve never been closer than 10 feet to each other? So it’s pretty funny.

Secondly, it kind of reminded me of the piropos – the catcalls- in Paraguay. There was never any crudeness to it. Paraguayan men would whisper things like “Qué hermosa sos”- how pretty you are, or “Bonitos ojos”- nice eyes, or the really outlandish, “Hola, linda”- hello, pretty. They’d say stuff like this as they passed me, not being hostile or intimidating. Or they’d invite me to drink tereré, the national green tea beverage that people share from the same cup and straw. I even did stop and drink tereré with strangers a couple of times. That’s how comfortable I felt in the situation. (Granted, I don’t know if all men in Paraguay always catcall in this polite, respectable manner or if I just got lucky in the couple of months I spent there.) Of course, there’s still underlying sexism and rape culture in the fact that men feel entitled to comment on women’s bodies/attractiveness constantly, which is anger-inducing and wearisome when it builds up on you. But if it’s going to happen anyway, let it be Paraguay-style, please! Or let it be someone professing their love to me like the construction worker down the street!

It’s much better than some of the straight-out-of-a-porn comments I’ve gotten in the U.S. It’s much better than hostility. It’s much better than the aggressiveness, like the young guy on the scooter the other day, who asked me where I lived and tried to insist on accompanying me home.

So on my way home on Friday, when my construction worker yelled “Guera!” at me, I actually turned in his direction. I laughed a bit, because I was still thinking about his great love for me. He waved from the roof and said “Adios! Guera, adios!” There’s a piropo I can live with long term.