Education, Travel

Coping with the highs and lows of learning a language

How a visit to a bizarre Welsh town in Argentina encapsulated the peaks and troughs of studying Spanish

About half way down the coast of Argentina there’s a town called Gaiman where people speak fluent Welsh. It turns out that Welsh immigrants moved to the area about 150 years ago to escape religious persecution. They also wanted somewhere remote to preserve their language from the increasing influence of English.

Despite the 1 hour 30 min journey (on two separate buses) the locals insisted that going to this typical Welsh town – along with its afternoon tea house – was well worth the visit. I think the concept of afternoon tea is considered to be a bit exotic here.  It turns out that Princess Dianna went there in 1995 so with a shrug we decided to give it a shot.

After a long, uncomfortable journey we jumped pe5avjj2zimgznbwwk8yoff the bus and began following a huge sign which read ‘Casa De Te Galés -260m’. Despite the area only having 14.8mm of rain per month, the experience was made all the more realistic with some truly Welsh, persistent drizzle. After a 30 minute walk through muddy paths fighting off farmyard animals it became clear that the tea house was not 260m away. Growing more and more frustrated (and wet), with the help of a lumberjack, we eventually found our way to the front door and rang the bell.

A poe-faced Professor McGonagall lookalike poked her head around the door and glared into our souls. The question, ‘Esta arriba?’  (it is up?), asked by my girlfriend, helped set the tone for the ensuing confusion. Those who have attempted to learn a language will be forgiving of the mistake as – if they’re anything like me – the ability to speak fluently deteriorates when feeling flustered/ stressed in any way. After failing to understand most of what she was saying, we did grasp that they weren’t open until two. She proceeded to shut the door in our face thus leaving us to wait in the cold and rain in the full knowledge that we were in the middle of nowhere – I’m guessing Princess Di didn’t get this treatment.jjplhnn77vwhqcx2oclv

It’s at times like this I curse myself for not having the language or quick thinking to sort the situation. Why had this role play not been covered by our Spanish teacher? Even when they eventually took pity and served us early we couldn’t understand a word the waitress was saying. I found it difficult to appreciate dainty little Welsh cakes when feeling damp, embarrassed and frustrated. Even when I asked how to get back to the bus station she looked at me like I was a maniac.

At this point everything changed. A couple next to us overheard we were going back to Puerto Madryn and offered us a lift back. The prospect of an awkward, hour long car journey with our fleeting Spanish initially put us off. However being spared a taxi ride and two buses was far too tempting. The couple – both from a rural area of the Santa Fe district – spoke to us slowly, clearly and we exchanged pleasant small talk for the entire journey back.

This was a timely reminder about why learning a language was great. We were able to discuss sport, travel and culture, however basic it may have been, with a rugby-loving sheep farmer and his wife from the other side of the world. I was indebted to the couple not only for their altruism, but for teaching me that persistence pays off; don’t fret when you hit a trough because you never know when a peak might be around the corner.


“Aquíííííííííííííííííííííííííííí!!!” scream the selfish Valencian children

King’s Day, bigger and better than Christmas, seen through the eyes of a teacher

The greedy masses anxiously await their delivery of caramelos

As an overly-cautious teacher – still very much fearing my first full-on student uprising – I distribute sugar-based snacks to adolescents very rarely. When I do, it is preceded by a thorough reminder of the conditions: eat after the lesson has finished, don’t snatch, say thank you, and put all wrappers in the bin. As the swarm of children began to descend upon Plaza Ayuntamiento for the annual Cabalgata de Reyes Magos (King’s Day Parade), I braced myself for a complete and utter disregard for my guidelines.

On the 5th of January every year, the Three Kings (whose Biblical gift choices called into question their perception of target audience) are paraded through the streets of Valencia, hurling sweets into the screaming faces of children and the bewildered faces of pensioners. As Balthazar, Gaspar, and Melchior are wheeled along the street they are treated like rock stars. Each had their own unique football-style chant sang at them as they progressed with Balthazar seeming to be the most popular for some reason (was he the one that brought gold rather than the notably worse ones?).

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The entrance of the Kings was preceded by a bizarre range of rituals: the booing of the Roman soldiers; the shouting of ‘guapa’ by middle-aged fathers towards scantily-clad dancers; the parading of a giant, ginger naked baby; and the solving of the puzzle ‘which racial stereotype is this float trying to convey?’ However my favourite float was the man dressed as a giant tube of toothpaste, wielding an impractically large toothbrush at the crowd. His well-intended message was not received by all as a desperate-to-please mother barged me out of the way whilst lurching for a stray caramelo by my feet.

So what lessons did the children of Valencia take away from the event?

  • Territory is key – the weak children in the parade were unable to throw their sweets far enough, thus greatly benefiting the first two rows.
  • Strangers are Gods if they dress up and throw free stuff in your general direction.
  • Ignore and possibly scorn those who offer nothing – the elaborate jellyfish costume is impressive but meaningless without gifts. Force them to make apologetic gestures as they potter along.
  • Throwing surplus sweets at less-fortunate children at the back is a fun demonstration of power.

The parade confirmed for me what I already suspected was true: that Spain’s dream of a socialist utopia is indeed buried under a sea of plastic wrappers. Cabalgata de Reyes Magos is an ‘every child for himself’ environment. Resources are greedily hoarded with the weak going home empty handed. Some may say this is a great bit of fun, tradition and Spanish culture. However, as an educator who witnesses the development of these young people on a daily basis, it’s clear that events such as these are rotting away the gums of society that the toothpaste man tries so valiantly to protect.


Education, Politics

Fighting extremism with British values

Do Cameron’s anti-radicalisation policies contradict the role of education?


In September 2012, the Department for Education launched its updated set of teaching standards. Many teachers despise these standards due to their involvement in tedious box-ticking exercises, but to politicians these standards play a crucial role in defining what the role of a teacher should be. One particular inclusion stood out: the requirement not to undermine ‘fundamental British values’. In addition, the ‘Prevent Strategy’, launched in 2011, is now in full swing to try and cut off radicalisation at its core. But what do these government-led interventions actually mean for teachers in the classroom? Am I now required to be a mouthpiece for the state’s system of values? Are the Conservatives constructing an Orwellian network of thought police to report subversive opinions? Over the past academic year I’ve been looking to clarify what implications these projects have on our young people as well as the teachers who are supposed to be driving them.

In January, my Year 9 form approached me to ask if they could discuss the Charlie Hebdo attacks. After a few initial comments about whether the law should protect religion or not, a Muslim called Hasan (name changed), very calmly told us that the cartoonists deserved the violent repercussions that were dispatched. With the new anti-radicalisation strategies fresh in mind, I immediately flagged up Hasan’s provocative position to his Head of Year and logged my concerns onto his record of behaviour and conduct.

Several months later, Hasan, along with two other Muslims in the form, asked if they could present on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Worried about what views might be expressed in a form which includes both Muslims and Jews, I considered asking them to choose a less culturally sensitive topic. Nonetheless we proceeded and in the twenty

minute session Hasan led an articulate, fact-driven presentation followed by a whole-class discussion. I was blown away by how respectful, lucid and inquisitive the students were in their contributions. I would say it was my proudest moment as their form tutor although pride suggests that I had something to do with the debate; I simply sat at the back of the classroom and at no point felt the need to intervene.

The greatest danger is that Muslim-sympathetic opinions become stigmatised. School must be the arena in which opinions are expressed, discussed and –most importantly – scrutinised. Flawed arguments tend to self-destruct upon exposure to reasoned debate. I felt ashamed of myself for not fully engaging the class in discussion about Hasan’s Charlie Hebdo comments and for almost asking him to change his debate topic. My experiences have taught me that young people are more than capable of debating major issues if they are given an environment in which to do so.

Teachers have failed in many other areas by creating taboos. When setting my Year 9 students a task to write a speech about a subject of their choice, I was shocked at how many wrote about the prevalent use of racist and homophobic language at school. Students have worked out that they shouldn’t make jokes about race in earshot of teachers for fear of being labelled racist. Nevertheless racial slurs (particularly the use of the term ‘freshie’) remain part of the student lexicon but in an environment where the nuances of their jokes are not discussed or challenged. They know they should not say ‘that’s so gay’ in front of a teacher but do not always understand the wider implications of the phrase – and I don’t necessarily blame them. If we condition students to conceal beliefs they may view as too subversive for the classroom, such views will never face the scrutiny they may well need.

Whilst I have no doubt that the Prevent Scheme is well-intentioned – indeed, it acknowledges the need for serious debate in the classroom – its rhetoric triggers alarm bells. Whilst I don’t know many people who would disagree with the Department for Education’s final list, the obligation to promote British values goes against one of my fundamental instincts for what an English teacher should be: a neutral facilitator for the exchanging of ideas. Why shouldn’t we scrutinise freedom of speech? Why shouldn’t students be allowed to criticise or disagree with our current system of democracy? My fear is that, unless we think carefully about implementing anti-radicalisation strategies, we will confirm what American journalist H.L. Mencken once wrote: “The plain fact is that education is itself a form of propaganda – a deliberate scheme to outfit the pupil, not with the capacity to weigh ideas, but with a simple appetite for gulping ideas ready-made. The aim is to make ‘good’ citizens, which is to say, docile and uninquisitive citizens.”



Why democracy is overrated

Should the public be trusted on Brexit? Should inexperienced ministers be in charge of education, economics, immigration and welfare?

On the 23rd January 2013, David Cameron promised an in/out referendum on membership of the EU. It’s a sentiment you would never hear a politician (publicly) express and it initially appears undemocratic, perhaps even faintly fascist, but when are we going to start accepting that experts and academics are in a better position to make certain decisions than the general public?

The ministers who end up in charge of immigration, welfare, education and the European Union are inevitably individuals who are in no position to introduce an informed, pragmatic system that will benefit the country; they are weighed down by pressure from backbenchers, the media and the electorate and – in the vast majority of cases – lack any kind of relevant experience in the field. Furthermore, these are the people who drive the national rhetoric and shape public opinion. It therefore came as no surprise to me to learn that the general public hold drastically inaccurate misconceptions about crime, benefit fraud and immigration.

Despite an abundance of published research, pro-immigration arguments underlining the economic benefits of immigration were almost non-existent in the election campaigns. Why? Because when a voter in a marginal seat expresses his annoyance at hearing a group of foreigners not speaking English on the local bus, a rebuttal about the futile nature of this complaint followed by references to the positive effects of immigration is a sure fast way of losing their vote. Why do our leaders keep up this pretense that: a) the voter is always right; and b) politicians have the expertise to handle all of the country’s problems? Moreover, convincing people about such a sensitive, complex and emotionally charged issue takes time, patience and a willing listener. In a world of Twitter, soundbites and quick headlines, politicians will never have these luxuries. I would therefore like to see media outlets (like this one) giving more importance to those better placed than us to advise on immigration.

As education secretary, Michael Gove gained an infamous reputation for completely ignoring the advice of academics simply because they disagreed with his vision for a future curriculum. This petulancy would be just about acceptable if the only consequence was the alienation of millions of teachers and academics. The real victims however are the country’s next generation of young people who are being educated in a system that has never had the backing of education experts. The lack of respect for educational research in Britain is reflected in the slashing of research funding over the last five years. What social and economic benefits might we be missing out on by ignoring the advice of education experts?

By the end of 2016, the British people will have decided whether or not they should be part of the European Union. I find it hard to believe that Cameron – a man who has presided over austerity, welfare reform and privatisation without any consultation from the general public – genuinely feels that the British public are in the best position to make a decision of this magnitude. The fact that Cameron is willing to risk disrupting the longest period of peace and co-operation in Europe due to Conservative Euro-sceptics, speaks volumes about the contrived nature of modern politics. It’s a calculated move dressed in democratic robes. Call me a cynic, but I think that xenophobia, patriotism and scaremongering will play a bigger role in determining the referendum outcome than a reasoned, informed debate weighing up the pros and cons (just look at the negative campaigning during the Scottish referendum). If I’m right, then politicians clearly think that the public lack either the intelligence or desire to familiarise themselves with EU economics, law and politics. I am not an expert on any of the above and am therefore more than happy to let experts do what they do best when the stakes are this high.

It is nothing ground-braking to suggest that a combination of education and engagement is the way forward. This starts with teachers. Young people need learn to question everything they see and hear with a desire to seek truth surrounding complex national issues. Politicians need to stop using referendums as a political tool and need to value expert opinion over the whims of their cabinet. Let’s stop putting celebrities on panel shows and instead magnify the importance of experts. I’ve lost count of the number of times during a debate I’ve thought: “can someone well-informed just come on and tell us what the right answer is please?” More extreme views make better T.V. but it’s patronising to the general public. I no longer wish to hear two polarised views provided in the name of balance and entertainment. Because it’s the experts stood on the fence that probably have the best view.