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.

Hello, 27

What are we sure of? Happiness isn’t a town on a map
or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work

-Mary Oliver in “Work, Sometimes”

As I write this post, I am sitting in my room on an unseasonably chilly September-Barcelona evening. I have a steaming cup of tea nearby, candles lit throughout the room, and the scent of a paolo santo stick lingers in the air. It is the eve before my 27th birthday, and I am taking a moment to pause and take stock of the transition I’m living in.

The first two weeks of school have been exciting and challenging and amazing and overwhelming all at once.  As I write this, I have a mildly sore throat and a bit of a drippy nose- no doubt from the combination of exhaustion, the interaction with hundreds of new people, and exposure to viruses from all over the world.

Since school started, I feel like I’ve been functioning either at 100% or 0%. Either I am navigating new relationships, both at work and in my social life, or I am at home, under the covers, eating popcorn and watching Netflix, alone.

It’s a bit disorienting, these extremes; however, this is exactly where I am in the transition process.  I am constantly surrounded by people, but I don’t know anyone well yet.  I have budding friendships, tentatively-building trust, and the base laid for classroom relationships, yet, after two weeks, nothing could possibly be anymore than it is right now.

When I woke up this morning, I stayed curled up in bed, and reached for the book nearest my nightstand.  My hand grasped New and Selected Poems: Volume Two by Mary Oliver.  My first notable thought when reading this book was I really need to gather more books about Spain, because reading poetry about the U.S. makes me homesick.

My second notable thought came when I stumbled across the following lines in Oliver’s poem “Work, Sometimes:”

What are we sure of? Happiness isn’t a town on a map
or an early arrival, or a job well done, but good work

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to find happiness here.  In this new place, I’ve been alternately energized and exhausted, on-top-of-my game and completely overwhelmed, connected with the people around me and feeling lonely.

Tomorrow, at 1:52pm Barcelona time, I turn 27.

It’s my first birthday in a foreign country.  My first birthday at my new job.  My first birthday I’ve had to plan for myself in a while (shout out to Mel), and my first birthday I’ll be celebrating with friends from all over the world.

So tomorrow, when I wake up and remember it’s my birthday, I will be filled with nervousness and excitement and apprehension for my job and the day ahead.  And I will take a deep breath, and remember, the groundwork is laid.

I have my projects I am passionate about- teaching humanities, supporting ELL students, carving out time for yoga and swimming, learning Spanish, making friends.

It’s okay if I am curled up watching Netflix alone a little more than I would like to be right now.

The good work is in process and progress will come.

Hello, 27.  I look forward to meeting you tomorrow.



Readiness Mindset

It was Friday.  My colleagues and I sat down to a lunch of fresh paella and melon in our principal’s office, to debrief our weeks at the Teacher’s College Writing Institute.   After sharing our take-aways, our principal shared his.

¨The way Mary chooses her words so thoughtfully is powerful,¨he said. ¨She draws students in and inspires them to write.  That type of word choice, it takes time and care, but it is so, so worth it.¨

We had spent the morning with Mary Ehrenworth, one of the leaders of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  With Mary, we studied what teachers could learn from coaches.  The way we speak to students, compared to the way coaches speak with students, stuck with me.

As Mary analyzed, so often, coaches give one quick compliment, and move right into the feedback.  Their feedback is timely, direct, and during the work their athlete is doing. She pointed out, coaches choose one thing to focus on with their athlete.  One thing.  The thing that will make the biggest difference in the athlete’s performance. Not a million things.  Not nit-picky things.  Not the easiest thing.  The one thing that is really, truly, worth working on.

This got me thinking, how often do I talk to my students this way?  How often do I spend too much time on compliments, on fluff, before moving into the true heart of the work?

This year, I want to give my students tougher feedback in conferences.  When I speak with them, first, I want to give them a compliment, an authentic comment about what I notice that is going well in their work.  And then, an honest piece of feedback.  One that comes from a place of knowing they can and want to do the work.  One that is supported and followed up with by tools, materials, and examples to help students meet their goal.

But even more than improving student conferences and feedback, I want to give feedback to myself in this way.  If I can talk to myself like this, if I can grow my practice using a coaching framework, a readiness framework, my words will naturally extend to my students.

As a teacher, what can I solidly say I am doing well?  And, what can I identify as the one way I want to grow?  What is the one thing I can do better that will make the biggest impact on my students’ writing this year?  What is the one thing I am most ready for next?

As a writing teacher, I am clear when teaching the teaching point.  I get to the heart of the lesson and stay focused.  Now, I am ready to work on my own writing more.

My take-away from Mary was, ¨Don’t take the kids’ writing home.  Take your writing home.¨

I need to develop a repertoire of my own writing, with the intended audience of my eighth grade students, that I can use and tailor and modify to authentically demonstrate the teaching point of the day.  Just as through reading, it is the content that builds community in writing.  We connect over shared text, and in writing, we have the opportunity to share our stories.  To take risks.  To find our voice.  And through this, we have material to grow in our craft.

Alright.  I have the goal: work on my writing for lessons.  I will report back on my progress.

Social Justice is in the Small Things

“Social justice is not just joining marches and protesting. It’s all the small ways we treat each other.”

-Mary Ehrenworth

We’re mid-session the first day of the Teacher’s College Institute.  Teachers are crowded around tables in the library of the American School of Barcelona, simultaneously nervous, excited, captivated and jet-lagged.  Mary Ehrenworth, the instructor, has drawn us in with her stories, modeled specific areas of the workshop, and now, she tells us to get into writing partners.

There is a flurry of commotion as teachers look across their tables to pair up.  Before Mary even finishes uttering the words, my table mates and I have done the math.  There are six of us.  Three pairs of two.  We make look at each other, making a visual contract: a pair on either end and a pair in the middle.  I’m in the pair in the middle.

We finish, looking up at Mary.  We are pleased with ourselves for having made our pairs so quickly.  However, Mary quickly shatters our feeling of self-importance.

“Whenever you give students talk time, it is important to give them feedback on their work,¨Mary says. ¨So here’s feedback on yours: Social justice is not just joining marches and protesting. It’s all the small ways we treat each other.  How many of you looked beyond you and your partner to help others at your table?  How many of you looked beyond your table to see if other people needed partners?  This is where we have room to grow.”

That’s when it hit me.  In my reflections from this past year, I felt that I developed a strong relationship with most of my students.  However, in the last few weeks of school, I realized that they had not developed strong relationships with each other.

A collaborative mindset, is what Mary called it.  ¨Sink or swim together¨ are the words Prof. Gloria Ladson-Billings writes in Dream Keepers.  Building trust between students and developing a sense-of-self as a classroom is how I’m thinking about it as I am reflecting and planning for this upcoming year.

I moved to Barcelona two days ago. I will be starting at the American School of Barcelona in fall, as an eighth grade Humanities and English Language Learner (ELL) teacher.  For now, I moved here early to attend the first International Teacher’s College Writing Institute.

I showed up on Saturday full of hopes and fears and dreams, and a keen awareness that I currently do not speak Spanish. Upon my arrival, my soon-to-be roommate,  who I did not know before moving here, cleared her schedule to welcome me.   She is from Tunsia, and has been studying here in Barcelona since April.  While she is new to the city herself, she took time to show me the neighborhood, taught me how to rent locks and carts at the grocery store, and helped me navigate the tram.  She ate with me, laughed with me, and shared her story with me.

Social justice is in the small things.

How will I foster a sense of social justice in my classroom this year?  How will we include the student who is ostracized, the one everyone prefers not to work with?  How will we push each other to grow?  How can we realized that the greatest form of respect in school is building up each other’s learning?

I’ll start with Mary’s words: “We don’t leave anybody behind.¨

Every students deserves to be here.  They deserve to belong, and they deserve to fit in.

On Learning the Language

I am not quite sure what I thought learning Spanish would be like.  Actually, that’s not true. On some level, I thought that once I heard a word once, I would remember it.  As in, I would learn one word at a time, and learn some language patterns, and then it would be fine.  I would be go to good.

Turns out, for me, learning Spanish is not like that at all. Here are some updates on my Spanish-learning journey:

  • After being confused as to why my yoga teacher kept referring to milk during yoga class, I learned the difference between la leche, milk, and derecha, right.
  • After an embarrassing and confusing ordering mix-up, I learned the difference between jamón, ham, and salmón, salmon.
  • After describing a woman as ¨wearing cats,¨ I learned the difference between gatos, cats, and gafas, glasses.

Like with any learning process, we learn more from our mistakes than from our triumphs.  However, I am noticing some patterns in my language acquisition.  I’m realizing it takes me about six or seven times of hearing the word, and being given the knowledge of what it is, before I am able to recognize it consistently, and about six or seven times of using it in context before I am able to authentically integrate it into my vocabulary and recall it at will.

When I discovered this, I spent about two days feeling extremely frustrated I couldn’t remember a word after I heard it or looked it up once.  Then, my mom gave me a good reality check.  She said, ¨Lauren, it takes human beings about 18 months before they start talking, even a little bit.  They spend all that time listening.  Calm down.¨  After going to another yoga class, and listening, I realized, she is right.  Calming down, is a good idea.

Honestly, the acquisition of new vocabulary words in English isn’t all that different for me, even at this stage in my academic English career.  For completely new or unknown vocabulary words, it takes me multiple times of using and hearing the word before it is integrated into my everyday vocabulary.  I am not sure why I thought learning a different language I didn’t know at all would be easier than learning a language I’ve studied extensively and use daily.

Now though, I’m committed to the process. I’m accepting the fact that it’s going to take me about 14 times before I consistently get it right (or almost-right, at any rate).

I am currently in week two of a Level A1 intensive Spanish class, and I have my third and final week of  summer class next week.  I’ll start up again in fall, and my goal is to pass the exam so I can enter Level A2. 

In the mean time, that’s going to mean a lot of studying, practicing, and messing up.  I’ll keep you posted.

Chicken Salad & Yoga

I was hungry and crabby. I had been in Barcelona for two weeks, and I had yet to cook myself a proper meal. Don’t get me wrong- I was eating plenty- but eating out was expensive. The task of cooking, however, seemed daunting. ¨What do I cook?¨ I thought.  ¨Where do I buy it? How can I cook traditional Spanish dishes?¨

After walking by six fresh fruit stands, three grocery stores, and two meat stores – all on my four-block walk home from the metro stop- I noticed I was being ridiculous.

¨Lauren, you’ve been feeding yourself for years,¨I told myself. ¨You can clearly make this work.¨

Nevermind the fact that we don’t have an oven in our apartment (Note to self:  In the future, no matter how beautiful the floors and ceilings, be sure to check if the house has an oven), I was going to figure this out.

Chicken salad.  It was the last thing I made myself in Madison before I moved.  It was a family recipe I knew by heart.   And gosh darn it, I could poach the chicken rather than bake it.

After bouncing from shop to shop assembling the proper supplies, I came home, put on my audiobook, and got to work in the kitchen.  I poached the chicken, and assembled the fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Celery, grapes, pecans, fresh pineapple and fresh oranges (the Barcelona markets have a leg up on the canned fruit the recipe calls for), and dressed it with the signature dressing: mayonnaise and nutmeg. 

I even bought a fresh loaf of bread to serve it on.

The finished product was on the counter.  I arranged my plate and was feeling pretty proud of myself for the first meal I cooked Spain, when my roommate walked in, stared at my chicken salad and said, ¨That looks interesting.¨

My face fell.  My heart fell.  My stomach fell. My chicken salad no longer seemed appetizing. 

That’s when I realized, this wasn’t about the chicken salad.  This was about wondering, ¨Who am I in Spain?¨

Yesterday, at my new yoga studio- which I discovered exists directly below my apartment- two blonde women about my age came to class.  Based on their general demeanor, and listening to them muddle through a Spanglish conversation with the man at the front desk, I immediately had an inkling they were two American women traveling through Barcelona.

Now, you might think that the appearance of two women from my home country, around my age, who share an interest in one of the hobbies I am most passionate about, and who speak a language I actually know, would immediately spark a connection for me.  Naturally, I would want to reach out to them.  But no, my first response was to stay as far away from them as possible.  ¨I don´t want to be associated with them,¨I thought.  ¨They are clearly traveling Americans.  I live in Barcelona.  I fit in more than that.¨

Then I remembered that the only thing that really separated me from them was the fact that I can say the phrase, ¨Mi español is no bueno¨ in am almost perfect Spanish accent.

I quickly got over myself and reached out to make the connection.  ¨I heard you speaking English,¨I said.  ¨Where are you from?¨ I went on to have a lovely conversation with two women from Boston having a trip of a lifetime.

The conversation left me thinking,  ¨I don´t want to fit in;  I want to belong.¨

Right now, for me, ¨fitting in¨ means staying silent for long periods of time and using exaggerated body language to communicate so no one discovers I don’t actually speak Spanish yet.  That leaves me not being able to speak Spanish and not having any friends. What kind of adventure is that?

Yes, being American is complicated.  We are one of the most powerful countries in the world.  We have with a complex and storied history, a controversial leader, and an uncertain future. Most of us grow up speaking English, and not much else.  Our news is more likely to focus on things happening on our soil than around the world, and often, we get a bad rep for being entitled and self-centered.

However, when I see a fellow American, or a fellow native English-speaker for that matter, I don’t want my response to be to shrink away.  I want it to be to reach out.  I speak English.  And yes, I am learning to speak Spanish, but let’s be real, I don’t speak it well yet.  And even when one day, with practice, I will, my first language will always be English.

Belonging means having all of me be here, and probably not fitting in.  It means claiming who I am, and being mindful of my privilege as a white, American woman, but also bringing all of me to the table anyway.

Tonight, after yoga class, I sat down to dinner with my roommate.  She had made salad (the traditional way- with lettuce), and I was eating my chicken-salad concoction.

¨Do you want some?¨ she asked, motioning to her lettuce-salad.

¨Sure!¨ I said.  ¨You want to try some chicken salad?¨

¨Why not,¨ she replied.

And you know what?

She liked it.

Not only did she eat her whole plate, but we spent the evening talking about our favorite foods from childhood, dishes our countries are famous for, and what we always cook when we go home.

Who knew?

Turns out chicken salad – mayonnaise and all- can be a pretty good form of belonging.