Archive for May, 2014

Maria's First Communion!

Maria’s First Communion!

It's all their fault!!

It’s all their fault!!

Biblioteca Nacional Madrid

Biblioteca Nacional Madrid

18th C. Padre Isla manuscript

18th C. Padre Isla manuscript

"Uptown" Madrid

“Uptown” Madrid

Alfredo's Barbacoa

Alfredo’s Barbacoa

Niece and Nephew

Niece and Nephew

Home of 10 Champions leagues!!

Home of 10 Champions leagues!!

It has been a couple of weeks since I arrived in Madrid. It has been intense, full of family: my sister was here from Tenerife in the Canary Islands and my niece had her first communion. Being home also means that my way of life is totally different and I also have a physical and temporal distance from the end of the academic year at Carolina.

My way of life is different in that I go from living a fairly monastic life alone, dedicated to reading, to a life full of family and friends. The food is fortunately different and better, the coffee and the wine are far better, and I live in downtown Madrid as opposed to downtown Chapel Hill, which, as much as I love it, is a glorified village. Last Sunday was my niece (and goddaughter’s) first communion, and we had a very nice celebratory lunch with all the family. As I was at the buffet serving myself, a very nice lady in her horseback riding gear (the lunch was at a riding club) introduced herself. She was my ex-wife’s old massage therapist from when we used to live in Madrid ten years ago! It was a scene out of a Woody Allen movie, so I just chuckled to myself and carried on. I have also visited with family, taken my nieces and nephew out to lunch to Alfredo’s Barbacoa, my favorite burger joint. I have had lunch with dear friends and enjoyed some brief escapes around town, including my favorite bar Del Diego, and some favorite book stores.

Although my exams are over, I now have to prepare the prospectus for my thesis, which means… more reading, this time in my specialization area as I formulate the core of my thesis. When I arrived, I already had books waiting for me that I had ordered to be delivered here for the summer, I also had a chance to renew my library card. My library is a bit special as it is the National Library which is only a twenty-minute walk from here. It is the equivalent of the Library of Congress, only older. I have the privilege of walking over every morning and reading original 18th C manuscripts! Speaking of bumping into people, the other day at the library I shared a reading desk with Margaret Greer, a Professor of Golden Age Spanish Lit. at Duke. Unfortunately I was not wearing my Carolina blue, although we did have a nice chat – yes, we whispered. I am excited and looking forward to making some progress on the prospectus front so I can have a rough draft by the end of the summer…

Reviewing my teaching of this past year, (see previous blog post) my dear friend John Jenner: philosopher, connoisseur, MMA fighter, bon vivant, gourmet and gourmand explained it best when he valued my being pushed out of my comfort zone in order to do precisely this, to revisit my teaching. You gotta love friends that tell it like it is!

Graham Memorial, a great place to read.

Graham Memorial, a great place to read.

Wilson Library Reading Room

Wilson Library Reading Room

On the porch

On the porch

Even in the Harley dealership

Even in the Harley dealership

Spring

Spring

 

Five Guys

Five Guys

And just like that my second year at UNC is finished. As with last year, the academic schedule is so demanding that I did not have time to blog. This semester has had one theme and one theme only. My PhD qualifying exams. Every week since last semester I read, and read, and read. Every week I met with my incredibly patient professors to go over the readings, chat, and be quizzed. Spring Break was dedicated to reading, Martin Luther King Day was dedicated to reading. Although I have been reading for this exam for over the last two years, the pace for the last three months was intense, I read non-stop January, February, March and halfway through April.

For the oral exam, you are in a conference room with your three professors sitting around you. The first, very pointed question about the prologue of the Libro del Buen Amor threw me off kilter. I bungled through it best I could and from there the exam became a bit more conversational between the four of us. At some points during the exam, the three professors would get into a discussion about this or that, and I must admit it was really exciting to see them spar at such a level, it was very inspiring. My exam was at noon, right after I taught my Spanish for Business class. I had time to eat a sandwich and to make espresso for myself – and to treat my committee to, which was nice. After being grilled for almost two hours – although it feels much longer, I passed my orals.

A week later, Holy Thursday in the afternoon, I received my written exam. In this exam each professor gives you two questions and you choose one question for each. Then you write, write, write for that afternoon and the next two days straight. It is grueling. Trying to coherently put on paper everything you have learnt over two years in sixty hours. Basically you eat, sleep and write and write and write.

Surprisingly and fortunately I passed both oral and written exams, with a rare High Pass on my Medieval written exam! The sense of depletion after the exams must be somewhat similar to post-partum depression. The shifting of gears, the changing of tempo, of lifestyle, is very peculiar as the pressure to read – although not entirely gone, not for at least two more years – is lifted and you have time to look around, smell the roses, watch a movie, take more time doing things that you have rushed over the last two years, like going to the gym, or even eating.

I did manage to squeeze in some great concerts: Wynton Marsalis, the Israel Philharmonic, the North Carolina Symphony, András Schiff played Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Yefim Bronfman’s Beethoven’s Piano Concerto #2, The English Concert Orchestra played Handel’s Theodora, The Carolina Ballet performed the obligatory Nutcracker, I saw Shakespeare’s Tempest, Mary Zimmerman’s hilarious Metamorphoses – both with a pool cut out in the proscenium!, Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi and it’s sequel Buoso’s Ghost by Michael Ching both performed by UNC Opera, all the UNC Baroque ensemble’s recitals. With the UNC Gearhead Club I went to see a Porsche exhibit at the Raleigh Museum of Art, that was fun.

The gearheads

The gearheads

20140125_135234

With my limited graduate student budget I only managed to discover a couple of new restaurants: a sushi place in Raleigh, an Indian place and Al’s Burger Joint, both in Chapel Hill. Another highlight was when my course coordinator gave me tickets for the Greek Festival in Raleigh, great food!

Other than those occasional outings my life was limited to working, the library, the gym, church, and the supermarket.

That is about it for my academic year. I received half a Summer Research Grant in order to do some research in Spain, so I will spend some time in musty Spanish libraries…

Here is the visible part of my work this year: the reading list

bibliografia firmada

 

This has been a very difficult semester from a teaching standpoint. I feel that my teaching capacity, ability and integrity has been questioned. So looking over stuff that I have written about teaching, I found these thoughts that I wrote last year to apply for a teaching conference (I later found out it is basically only available to All But Dissertation candidates, so I have to wait). At any rate, here it is:

It took a mid-life crisis for me to realize that my true calling in life was teaching. That was nine years ago, and I have not looked back since. Teaching, I discovered, is my passion, my raison d’être. Although I recognized my enthusiasm for literature when I read Hemingway and Borges in high school, it took me twenty-two years to learn what I wanted to do for the rest of my life: To return to the classroom as a teacher and to devote myself to work in a field about which I feel so strongly.

Sharing is what motivates me. Sharing my knowledge, my culture, my language. My first full-time teaching experience was in a budget challenged district, where I confronted underperformance and violence. I had to press charges against one of my students for assault and battery (one of my dad’s journalist friends even wrote an article about the event – somewhat distorted, as journalists do), one of my best students was stabbed to death by her brother, who was then shot by the police instants before he tried to kill his other sister, dining room fights were de rigueur. Although I did not realize it at the time, these challenges, made me grow and mature. It was a baptism of fire of sorts and I was happy to pay my dues and earn my stripes. It also taught me what is really important as a teacher. From there I went to Walnut Hill, an independent upper school in suburban Boston (and the oldest independent arts high school in the US) where for five years I honed my craft and eventually led the Spanish Department. Before coming to UNC, seeking a challenge, I moved to Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, in Cambridge, an elite independent school with a rigorous curriculum. There I had the privilege of coaching soccer, fencing and tennis, of getting involved in Community Service, and even teaching a Senior Seminar on Spanish film.

In my first semester at UNC I found that teaching at the college level requires a more intense and in-depth approach. Due to their higher maturity and experience level, the students are more demanding academically. This calls for more preparation and sharp execution and delivery from the instructor. The students have a clear idea of what they want, they have been in school for over twelve years and our duty as educators is to deliver.

Hand in hand with good teaching, goes meaningful, practical, applied professional development. Ever since Walnut Hill sent me on a new teachers retreat organized by the Association of Independent Schools of New England (AISNE), I have been a strong supporter of learning and improving the craft. In this respect, my twenty years corporate and business experience came in handy, applying motivational techniques, mentoring and fostering teamwork. Another byproduct of my business experience is my devotion to Kaizen, the Japanese technique of continuous measurable improvement. In this vein, as a department in Walnut Hill, we mapped the full Modern Language curriculum, involved the students in year-end course improvement meetings, even held a Modern Language “Summit” inviting other academic and arts department heads as well as teachers from other schools to define and improve our department.

What little I know about being a good teacher I learnt from being a bad student. I was never a good student, so good teachers were very important in my schooldays. They marked my life, they made a difference. Going back to school as an adult for my Master’s and my PhD renewed my interest in teaching technique, what works and what does not.

Real learning happens from a place of wanting to learn, so a place of openness, of certain vulnerability. Getting the students to that place requires a relationship of trust, understanding and fairness, and that is what I build from day one in the classroom. First day of class I stand by the door – having memorized all students’ names from the roster photos – and greet by name and shake hands with every student. Then we go over the expectations for the class with a fine tooth comb, in English so there are no misunderstandings later. This avoids misunderstandings later on and sets the tone. From there comes a fine balance of fun and hard work. Showing up early to the classroom to chat with the students and set up a music video in Spanish for them as they walk into the room and settle down. At the end of the year when I informally ask them what they liked and disliked about the course, so many of them mention the Spanish music videos! Then there is the grammar. I always go over the grammar, which they should know by now, but just so I know that I have gone over it with them and they do not have the “oh I never learned that” line. And talking, everybody talks about what they are going to do over the weekends, and on Mondays everybody talks about what they did over the weekend. We talk and talk, about food, restaurants, sports, culture, whatever. Once we spent a whole class period talking about bullfighting, something that I am passionate about.

So basically, as much as we want to implement scientific approaches to language learning and teaching, and to a certain extent we can, the basis of teaching has to come from an organic need/want/desire to learn. Our jobs as teachers revolve around making that need happen. The motivated student must be kept motivated while the unmotivated student has to be inspired to want to learn. That is best done through building a relationship, it will rarely come from a book, or from a lecture, it will happen from a relationship.

Putting my money where my mouth (pen/keyboard) is, here is a video of me teaching Spanish 203 an intermediate level in the Fall of 2012, my first semester at UNC. (Yes, I do have a FERPA release form signed by every student.)