Carnaval (and no, I haven’t spelt it wrongly!)

One of the (many) things I love about Spain is the interesting festivals that are held here. I particularly like it when said festivals are accompanied by a public holiday, and a day off school…

But I digress.

Anyway, next week is Carnaval, and preparations are already in full swing. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, Carnaval is a “festival of the libido” which occurs before Lent.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when I first heard the word “Carnaval”, I imagined Brazil, and scantily clad dancers parading down the street to the sound of Latin music.


But given that it was SNOWING in Madrid last week, bikinis are never going to be a part of the Carnaval here.

Instead, the carnaval involves getting dressed up in some kind of costume, and having a party. Costume parties seem to be extremely popular in Spain, and near my house, there is a very large shop which stocks all manner of disguises. Here’s a photo from today:


I’m assuming that it’s “supreme leader” Kim Jong-un, but I really don’t know. In a panda onesie. And gangsta sunnies. With a cocktail umbrella on the side. And hardcore arm folding. Plus a marijuana leaf lei. Talk about a bizarre combination…

(Aside- You’re not going to believe this, but the Kim Jong-un costume wasn’t even the strangest in the shop. That award was won by one of Mariano Rajoy, the Spanish Prime Minister, clad in a red lobster onesie, with a cigar in his mouth, and a skimpy shell bikini over the top. Dear god. The mind absolutely BOGGLES…).


Anyway, at my school, the Carnaval celebrations are (comparatively) tame. On Wednesday, the students have to come in a disguise, which is different for each grade. For instance, the Grade 4 group have to come as artists, and the Grade 5 group as firemen, fire, water, or policemen.

But, for me, the best part of the Carnaval is the appearance of the peluche. Every day, in the week before Carnaval, the peluche gives the children “homework.” This homework is typically a bit naughty. For example, on Tuesday, the peluche told the children to wear something silly on their head. On Thursday, it told them to wear their socks in a funny place, so they turned up with socks on their ears. And so on…

The problem with the peluche is that, umm, it isn’t young (that’s putting it mildly). Rather, it appears to have been hanging around in a cupboard or similarly salubrious locale for, well, 20 years. After a few days sitting on its seat, it’s not looking its best. Rather, it appears ready for a visit (or, more precisely, a permanent move) to the nearest garbage bin…

Another of the more interesting aspects of Carnaval is the ritual burning of the paper sardine. After the children have paraded through the school in their costumes, someone brings out this gigantic paper sardine, covered in hundreds of carefully constructed scales. Each of the scales belongs to one of the kids, and on the back, they have written something they would like gone from the world e.g. war, bullying. At the finish of the celebrations, the sardine is burnt, and the bad things are “symbolically destroyed.”

It always amazes me that this symbolic burning proceeds incident free. It would seem to be asking for trouble to set a giant paper fish alight amidst a crowd of small children, but perhaps I’m too much of a worrier.

And I suppose, in the end, there was always the kids dressed up in the firefighter costumes to put out any unintended blazes…

My favourite students- Part I

I was reminded yesterday that I have been pretty lax in posting on this blog, though more from lack of motivation than from an absence of interesting occurrences. So, with this in mind, I decided to write an update. And not just any update. No. An update about a positive subject (Fear not, I doubt this will become a regular theme!).

A few months ago, I wrote a post about my three least favourite students, and so, for the sake of completeness, I thought I should write a post about my favourite students.


Disclaimer- in some respects, I feel ashamed to admit that I have favourite students. It doesn’t seem fair or just. But this being said, I think it’s inevitable that just as I prefer certain adults to certain other adults (this is, after all, the difference between friends, acquaintances, and enemies), it’s probably not a surprise that I prefer certain kids over others.

But, let me just say, whilst I might like some students more, when grading papers or giving marks or asking questions in class, I am scrupulously fair.


OK, with these caveats in place, I am going to write about my first favourite student, who I’ll call Matías.

Matías was in the (somewhat infamous) Grade 5 class (which also contained José Luis). I didn’t notice him at first, as he wasn’t particularly remarkable. He came to class every day. He wasn’t the best student. He wasn’t the worst. He was smart, certainly. But he wasn’t noticeable. He was just kind of, well, there…


But, about four months into my stint at the school, he approached me, and asked for my autograph. I thought this was a bit odd, and the class teacher recommended that I write something fake, lest Matías be up to something devious. So I wrote a dreadful false signature,  inscribed “To my favourite student, Mateo!”

It was THAT bad. I didn’t even know his name!

But after this incident, I began to pay more attention to my “fan.” And I realised that Matías was actually a lovely kid. So I guess it’s no surprise that within a few weeks, he had become my firm favourite.

And he still is.

What I like about Matías is that he doesn’t worry about what others think of him. For instance, after the autograph incident, the class were doing a project on beans. They had four different types of beans- lima, black, green, and chickpeas- on pieces of cotton wool, and the idea was to guess which would sprout the fastest.


Let’s just say, the level of interest in the class was pretty low.

Except from Matías.

Every day, he would come to the teacher’s table, and see if he could water the beans. I’d ask him which was growing the fastest, and when there was a sprout, I inquired if he knew why one was growing more rapidly than another. Talking to Matías, I realised that, crazy as it may sound, he was seriously, genuinely interested in the beans. And when it was the school holidays, and someone had to take the beans home, I knew EXACTLY who to nominate…

But when Matías returned from the holidays, I was a bit shocked, because he had:

  • removed each of the little bean plants from the communal pot;
  • planted them in individual containers; and (my heart skips a beat just writing this)
  • tied them all up with tiny stakes, to give them extra support.



I probably sound pathetic, because I can’t express myself adequately. But what I like about Matías is that he’s a total individual. He liked the beans, and that was all that mattered. If someone made fun of him, he didn’t listen, because he was too cool for that. And I don’t mean too cool in a “Wow, guys, I’m just WAY above this!” sort of way, or in terms of an attitude. He didn’t have an attitude.

It was just that he was interested in the beans, and if someone else couldn’t understand that, well, that was their problem, not his.


I love this.

And I wish I had been like that when I was 10 years old.

One of my biggest worries is that as he grows older, Matías will succumb to peer pressure, and lose his appreciation of oddness.

But I am determined to do my best to ensure that he NEVER feels ashamed of his interests. If, after two years at the school, Matías is still the individual that he is now, all my time will have been worth it.

(One) Spanish school compared to (one) Australian school

A few times, I’ve been asked how school in Spain is different to school in Australia. I’ve thought about this a bit, and decided that I should write a post about some of the key disparities.

BUT (here come the caveats…), at the very start, I want to say that this post is based solely on my own experiences of a public primary school in Australia, and a public primary school in Madrid. This is not exhaustive. It’s a one person, subjective sample. And I certainly appreciate that things are likely to be VERY different in other types of schools and areas. Additionally, I am not making a value judgement- the fact that things are different doesn’t mean that one is “better” than the other.

This being said, hopefully, it provides an insight into some of the differences. And I’d love to learn what others think!

Key differences between the Spanish school I work at and the Australian school I attended:

  1. Uniform.

There’s no uniform in the Spanish school. I’m still not too sure what I think about this. I appreciate that it allows students to express their individuality, but I also think that it can be problematic for those whose economic circumstances are less privileged.


2. “Grading” of classes.

In the Spanish school, all the students are together. There’s no grading (or streaming) of classes, as opposed to the Australian primary school I attended, where the more academically inclined students were grouped together. The reasoning for the lack of grading in Spain is that in the workplace and in life, you will be expected to interact with people with different abilities, and so it’s appropriate at the school to be in a mixed class.

OK, so this is true. But I do wonder about how effective this method is. In the Year 3 class, there are some students who are a few grades behind, and a couple who are way ahead. So there’s students at a Year 1 level with students at a Year 5 level. And I’m not sure how useful this is for anyone.


3. Use of textbooks.

In Spain, all of the classes follow a textbook. And by “follow”, I mean religiously. There is no deviation. No experimentation. Rather, it is a word for word regurgitation of the chosen text. In my opinion, this can make for lazy teachers and lazy teaching. Some teachers make a real effort to make the lessons interesting and fun, but others don’t. This makes me so, so sad. In the Year 5 class, I see the pupils are SO much more interested when the teacher discusses what she and her boyfriend did on the weekend (in the past tense) than when they learn the grammar rules (third person singular past tense of “went” is….).


4. Level of studies.

In Spain, the impression that I get is that students are exposed to material much earlier than in Australia. For instance, in the Year 2 classes, the kids are currently learning about the troposphere and the layers of the earth. This seems to me to be WAY more advanced than at home. I can’t remember learning this stuff until Year 4 or Year 5!


5. Language learning is technical.

OK, so my language learning consisted of two semesters of French (what can I remember? “Open the window”) and two of Japanese (memories- “I am the teacher!!!!”). But in Spain, the kids are learning really technical stuff REALLY early. The Year 4 class are studying modals, and they call them “modals.” I didn’t even know what a modal was until last year, but I could use one just fine…Seriously, is this the best way to learn?!


6. Punishment

I feel a bit uncomfortable writing this, but I think it’s best to be honest. In Australia, the focus is very much on positive reinforcement, and encouraging students to do better. In Spain, it is on punishing students who have done badly. So, if a student hasn’t done their homework, they are told off in front of the class, and they are deprived of their playground time. OK, homework is important. I understand. But to me, such punishment seems excessive. It’s better to see WHY Juan hasn’t done his homework for the past week, and try and solve this problem, rather than punishing and humiliating him. This is something I find REALLY hard to cope with. When the students are embarrassed in front of the class, and made to look foolish, I want to go and give them a hug, but I’m not allowed. This breaks my heart, because there’s often MUCH more to it than lazy students.


If someone has tried, but simply CAN’T do the task, I can’t punish them because it’s cruel and unfair. OK, I might be a pushover. But I can’t do it. And I won’t.

So, these are some of the differences between Spanish and Australian public primary schools. If you have any other ideas or questions, let me know!

I didn’t expect this…

I´m not sure whether I should or shouldn’t be writing this post, but it’s something I’ve been thinking about all day, so I want to share it. Obviously, identifying details have been changed.

When I started helping at the primary school, I was made aware that some of the children have what could euphemistically be described as “problems at home.” Being incredibly naïve, I wasn’t entirely sure what this meant, but assumed that it wouldn’t be anything too out of the ordinary.


How wrong I was.

A couple of months ago, one of the boys in the higher grade classes, let’s call him José Luis, started giving me hugs and holding onto me when I entered the classroom. There was nothing untoward in the hugging- it was the sort of hug you’d give a friend who you hadn’t seen in years- but I thought this was a bit unusual for a 12 year old boy.


Still, I didn’t say anything.

When school returned from the break, something had changed with José Luis. Normally, he would be smiling and fooling around in class, but he wasn’t anymore. When the class went on an excursion, he didn’t go, because he didn’t have the permission slip signed. He continued the hugging, but it was more desperate. I noticed that he was really grabbing onto me, and I had to pry him off my legs.


It was like this. Except with a child, not a panda. And only on one leg. And I didn’t have a camera. Actually, it wasn’t a lot like this at all, but the picture is cute 🙂

Last Thursday, José Luis was absent from school. Yesterday, he was vomiting, and had to go home sick. Today, he was absent again. So I asked his classroom teacher whether he was OK.

“No, not really,” she explained. “He’s got problems at home. His dad left when he was a baby, so he’s been living with his mum. But now she’s left, too. So he’s with his grandparents. And they can’t deal with it. So he’s missing lots of school.”

“Oh. Right.” I answered inadequately.


But I felt really sad. José Luis is a pretty good kid. Sure, he doesn’t always pay attention. And yes, he could try harder and study more. But he is friendly and he’s kind and he (usually) listens, which is more than many of the other students. I guess he may be totally different at home, and put his relatives through hell. That’s a possibility. But from what I’ve seen over the past 4 months, that doesn’t seem particularly likely.

I just stood there, trying to think what to say, when the teacher continued…

“You know, that’s why he always wants to hug you. I’ve seen him doing it. He’s looking for someone who can be like a mum to him. He thinks that’s you.”

Oh. Dear.


I didn’t know how to respond, so I made some banal comment about it being nice to be chosen, and that I hope José Luis is feeling better tomorrow.

But I have NO IDEA what to do now.

I feel incredibly sorry for José Luis. However, I don’t want to be his surrogate mother. I don’t know the first thing about being a mum, and I was employed to teach English. That’s all that I’m equipped to do, and even that is difficult sometimes. Both the school counsellor and the classroom teacher are aware of the situation, and are helping.

And yet… I don’t know…but it doesn’t seem to be enough. Now I know what’s happening, it’s hard to forget it and pretend I don’t know.