Mind the Gap

I sit across from the doctor, a desk separating me from the slight, brown-eyed, middle-aged OBGYN who, moments ago, was examining me. From the Spanish I can comprehend, she had just informed me the prescription I was hoping to get refilled isn’t available in Spain.

Now, she is writing something down and simultaneously giving me oral instructions on how to return for a blood test, in the hopes I can obtain a similar prescription.

I nod along, giving the impression I understand. 

Internally, my mind churns.  I am both attempting to process the torrent of Spanish flying at me and subdue the anxiety I can feel rising in my chest.

I leave utterly unsettled. My unasked questions echoing in my head: My prescription isn’t available?  What’s the closest alternative?  What are the potential side effects? 

And, I need to get a blood test, in the morning, after fasting?  How am I supposed to schedule that with my teaching-hours?

The feeling of disorientation is a mixture of confusion in interpreting details, defeat in communicating my needs, and inadequacy in advocating for myself. 

And the worst part is, this feeling is no longer foreign. 


It’s been a couple of weeks since I last wrote, so let’s take a moment to check-in.  Over the past three weeks, Catalonia and Spain have been at odds. On Friday, Catalonia declared independence, and Spain imposed direct rule.

For those of you interested in a slightly more detailed version of events, here’s a brief overview:

To find out more, check out this timeline by the Independent or listen to the first 5 minutes of this newscast by BBC.

As you can imagine, it’s been a bit crazy here.  Almost every weekend there are protests or some form of organizing in the streets. In fact, as I write this, I hear the drone of helicopters outside. This noise, which I’ve come to associate with demonstrations, media and the police, has been a common occurrence over the past three weeks.


While my region is declaring independence and attempting to establish nationhood, I’ve been studying Spanish (I’m hoping it will still be useful in Catalonia), and attempting to figure out basic life-tasks, like how to best negotiate with my landlord, how to communicate with the bank, and how to navigate the private and public healthcare system (I’m also hoping these will continue to be stable).

These endeavors, which I remember as being time-consuming and confusing in the U.S., sometimes feel near-impossible here in Spain.  Not only am I decision-fatigued from attempting to navigate a new job, a new city, and new roommates, but I am often inundated with information in a foreign language, that I don’t understand well yet. I rely on translations (verbal or electronic) in order to comprehend content.  This often leaves me feeling overwhelmed and dependent on the translator.

Luckily, our school has an amazing Head of Human Resources who is willing to help with almost-anything, and I have awesome friends who are patient enough to help me with Spanish.  Unluckily, no matter how awesome my resources, there are many things I need to do myself.

Which brings me back to my opening anecdote.


I spend the night tossing and turning.  My mind is preoccupied with planning. 

Which day can I miss? We have a six-day rotating schedule at school, and I didn’t know how to arrange coverage for myself yet. How do I set up sub plans?

What transportation can I take from the bloodwork appointment to the school? I normally take the school bus with the kids, and public transportation takes at least an hour. 

If I am getting coverage, will I have enough time?  What time does the clinic open?  I can’t find the information online.

Do I have to call? Attempting a conversation in Spanish is hard!  I feel so stupid because I can’t say what I want.

Finally, morning comes. I get out of bed, unrested but sure of one thing: I need help. 

Cue our amazing HR Head, Ana.  After checking Google calendar, and coordinating both of ridiculously complex six-day schedules, I make an appointment. 

Ana, as always, is patient, gracious, and helpful.  She listens to me, sympathizes, and helps me problem-solve

“Why don’t we just get you an English-speaking OBGYN?” Ana says.

I want to cry and give her a hug all at the same time. 

“That would be perfect.”


In both this situation and many of the other institution/life negotiation interactions I mentioned, I am noticing a common theme:

My lack of agency comes from feeling like I have a lack options.  However, I am realizing there is often a gap between my perceived options and my actual options.  It just takes someone who knows the what the actual options are to show me my real choices.

In this situation, Ana served as my resource to the list of real choices.  She provided me with the name of a medical group that specializes in delivering services in English; she called and talked with them, asking about the doctors available, and then she passed the phone over to me so I could make an appointment. Afterward, we discussed public transportation options, and whom to talk to in order to arrange sub coverage.

What all of this leaves me thinking about is the populations of people who experience the same phenomenon: a lack of agency derived from the gap between perceived and actual options.

For me, both my students and immigrants in the U.S. who don’t speak English well are on my mind.

For my students, I wonder, how often do they feel limited by their options?  How often do they not know how to navigate the school system, and therefore, are unsure of how to advocate for themselves?

For immigrants in the U.S., especially those who do not speak English fluently, I wonder the same.  How often do they feel limited by their options? How frequently do they miss out making the choice that is best for them, because they do not even know that choice is available?

 In Choice Words, education professor Peter H. Johnston discusses the importance of educators providing students with a range of options.  Johnston introduces his own ideas, and then makes a connection to the counseling profession, citing Stanton Wortham’s article, “Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis.”  Johnston writes, “In school, we try to help children open possibilities by restructuring the narratives they have available. This is also part of a counseling practice (Wortham 2001).”¹

As teachers, we have the power to introduce new and different narratives, new and different opportunities and choices, for our students.  We also have the power to teach students how to advocate for themselves, how to identify when they need to advocate for themselves, and who to talk to in order to figure out their options.

Right now, I am in the process of identifying this for myself.  Over here, I’m figuring out who I can ask for help, and when I need to ask for help.

I am continually aware of my privilege in this: Not only do I have my school, with Ana–who speaks  English, Spanish, and Catalan, and helps me navigate everything from banks to my landlord– but I also have Spanish-Speaking colleagues and friends, who understand the systems and are more than happy to help me navigate them.

For a person without a school or company like this, or without a readily-available network of people helping them, or for undocumented people, I am reflecting on how incredibly difficult this process would be. Setting up a bank account, getting a phone plan, registering my address- all of this would be overwhelming challenging if I didn’t have my school helping me.

Tomorrow, I have my new OBGYN appointment.  While I am not looking forward to another physical exam, I am looking forward to being able to communicate my needs and advocate for myself with my doctor.

In this crazy world of uncertainty and newness, that’s about the most control I can have right now.  And I have to say, I feel okay about that.


  1. Worth S. 2001.  “Narratives in Action: A Strategy for Research and Analysis.” In A. Ivey, ed., Counseling and Development Series.  New York: Teachers College Press.   Cited in Johnston, P. 2004. “Appendix A.” Choice Words: How Our Language Affects Children’s Learning, pp. 89–90.  Portland, Maine: Stenhouse Publishers.
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Catalonian Independence: Current Events in the Classroom

“I don’t think I would even really understand what was going on if we weren’t talking about it in class.”

– Eighth Grade Student, Humanities 8C

The last couple of weeks in Barcelona have been challenging.  We have seen the Catalonian people organize and hold a vote on independence. We witnessed the Spanish police react with violence to the very people it is charged to protect, and we experienced the people of Catalonia respond with a workers’ strike.  Now, we face the uncertainty of whether or not our region will declare independence from Spain.

As a foreign teacher at an American school, I have constantly been wondering:

What is my role in all of this? How do I teach about this?

Current events have always been a large part of my teaching, but in a new classroom, in a new country, most of my knowledge about history and social relations, which made me relevant and interesting in the U.S., has been thrown out the window.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.

Following-up with my commitments to learn about and discuss current events, here’s how I am approaching teaching about the conflict:

  1. I am doing my homework:  As I wrote in “You’re doing it now” and “How do we move forward?,” since Charlottesville and the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, I’ve been committed to reading the news, both about the U.S. and abroad.  Accessing U.S. news has been relatively easy.  Thanks to the Internet, I am able to use all my favorite news sources from before.  Accessing Spanish news has been more difficult, however, because I do not know Spanish well enough yet to read or listen to the local news. After scouring the web and asking friends for recommendations, I’ve settled on listening to BBC World Service radio every morning, regularly accessing BBC articles, and reading El Pais in English.  It’s frustrating to me to be getting news about the area I am living in from outside or translated sources, but it’s better than nothing.
  2. I checked-in with my students: As tensions rose about whether or not the vote would occur, I asked my students if they wanted to study and discuss current events relating to the Catalonian Independence movement in class.  Through a written vote, a large majority of students said yes. However, a sizable minority said no.  On their ballot, students were asked to provide an explanation for their opinion. Some students did not want to discuss the news because they felt it did not concern them (remember, about 35% of my students are Spanish, 20% are American, and 45% are International Students). Others were worried it would get too tense.  However, several of the no votes also expressed that although they would prefer not to discuss it, they would be okay with the decision to discuss events in class.
  3. I checked-in with my administration: Taking into account my students’ opinions, I decided to move ahead.  In planning discussions about current events, I always want to ensure I comply with school guidelines while teaching.  I’ve found policies for class discussions around controversial issues vary across schools and districts.  When I checked in, our school director, Mark Pingitore, provided guidance that staff are encouraged to discuss current events in age appropriate ways.  He offered that productive lessons may include teachers helping students learn the main facts of events and provide tools to understand multiple perspectives.  Additionally, Mark instructed that teachers are not to share or advocate for our personal position on issues.
  4. We set class guidelines.  Based on a Positive Discipline training I attended two weeks ago, I set aside time for our class to truly dig into expectations we wanted to hold for ourselves while discussing Catalonian Independence.  We first set a purpose for discussing current events in class.  Then, we brainstormed all the expectations we thought we should have.  I wrote down every student idea that was shared, exactly as they shared it, not editing their words for clarity or concision.  Next, after the brainstorm, we evaluated each of the expectations, comparing them with the purpose of our discussion.  You can see our process below:img_9905-2.jpg
  5. We used current event texts to learn specific, transferable reading, writing, and researching skills.
    Before the vote, we read news articles from multiple sources, using nonfiction reading strategies to gain information from headlines and preview texts before reading.  During reading, we made charts of facts we knew and questions we had.  We discussed the limitation of studying events occurring in Spain through news sources written in English.  We split up into research coalitions, with some students researching events through Spanish-language news sources, other through Catalan-language news sources, and yet others from English sources or sources from their native country.  We discussed source bias, and the importance of evaluating news sources to understand what we read.
    After the vote, we dug into the personal, writing narratives of how the events of the weekend impacted us personally.  We had an author’s chair, and students shared their experiences and opinions.  We studied the structure of police forces in Spain, learning about the different levels of the force (The Guardia Civil, Nacional de Policia, Policia Local), and we tried to make sense of what it means when the police attack the very people they are charged with protecting.  Then, we moved into a larger analysis, looking at global and local factors that affect and influence the Catalonian Independence Movement.
  6. We connected our learning to our current Humanities unit.  And through all of this, our current curriculum continues.  We are in the midst of an Immigration Book Group unit, another topic that is both relevant and timely.  To make all of this fit, we usually spend the first part of class studying current events and the second part of class studying immigration. Lately, a typical class will start with reading a mentor text. We spend about 10 minutes of class studying a news article, watching a video, or listening to a clip from news broadcasts or a podcasts about Catalonian Independence.  Then, I model a reading, writing, or researching skill to help us analyze and understand the content presented.  Next, students apply the skill I demonstrated to their research and reading on immigration, so they can more deeply understand their book book. Finally, students bring what they learn and are noticing both about Catalonian Independence and immigration to their book group discussions.

Yes, we are little behind in our curriculum, but it is so, so worth it. A conversation I had on Friday morning, solidified this for me:

We were on a middle school overnight trip in the Pyrenees.  On the final morning of the trip, I stayed back at the lodge with students who were not feeling well.  After resting, the students and I strolled the grounds.  We picnicked in the grass, and took in views of the mountains while discussing current events.

One of the students is in my Humanities class.  She told a story of WhatsApp group message that included many students from the eighth grade class, and discussed how people were sharing ideas and debating what they thought through messages.  She said she was thinking about the event from different sides, and realizing that she can have her own opinion on the issue.

At the end of this, she looked at me and said, “I don’t think I would even really understand what was going on if we weren’t talking about it in class.”

To watch this student strengthen her voice, realize she can think for herself and form an opinion that is both unique and informed, might be the coolest thing I’ve seen in Barcelona yet.

So, while uncertainty looms ahead, and we’re not sure what country we’ll be living in next week, for now, our classroom is a solace.  It’s a place for us to explore, to process, and to study events as they unfold.   Come what may this week, we’ll have each other to help one another figure it out.