Teaching philosophy

Over the fourteen plus years I have been teaching I have been defining my teaching philosophy. Of course, this is always a work in progress as one always takes something from every lesson taught. For now, these are the main brushstrokes of my approach to teaching:

The most important things I know about being a good teacher I learned from being an average pupil. I was never a straight “A” student (until grad school), so effective teachers were particularly important in my schooldays. Going back to school as an adult for my Master’s and PhD piqued my interest in teaching technique, reaffirmed my passion for literature, and inspired me to revisit Cervantes, Tolstoy, Woolf, Dickens, Castellanos, Dante, and so many others with new, more critical eyes.

It took me twenty years in the business world to realize that my true calling in life was teaching. That was over fourteen years ago, and I have not looked back since. 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. I am a giver and a communicator; teaching gives meaning to my life.

My life has been marked by a peripatetic lifestyle, moving to New York when I was ten and then to London, Boston, Paris, Bordeaux, Geneva, Lausanne, and so forth to over eleven cities. Cities became my friends. I loved discovering what made each one unique ̶ how they got their personality. I spent my time in museums, cafés, the theater, concerts, operas, ballets, all of which unavoidably infused me with a love for the arts. Sharing my love and knowledge of cities and their cultures soon became a venue to express myself. As a teenager I gave tours of Madrid and London to friends and family, something I continue to do and enjoy, which has led me to show Madrid to British rock bands and even the Monaco Olympic Sailing Team. From there, embracing literature and language and sharing it was an organic next step and one that I pursue and savor on a daily basis. My experience radiates out in class: studying the menu of the Tour d’Argent in Paris, having students learn and perform scenes from the plays we read, watching videos of tango dancers on the streets of Buenos Aires, and of course sharing my love for Don Quixote that led me to name my Harley-Davidson “Rocinante.”

I received my undergraduate degree in business. I specialized in management, the human part; what motivates people? What makes them tick? I used these skills in my first jobs in finance, photography and management before using them to run my own business for ten years, importing and selling industrial machinery in Spain and consulting for European companies wanting to expand into Latin America. But my underlying passion crystallized when I started teaching full-time in 2005. Although I was making a fraction of the money I used to make, I felt much happier and more fulfilled. I had found my true vocation. I was able to apply my many skills developed and honed over the years in and out of the business world.

I had taught English at the Colegio de Huérfanos de la Guardia Civil in Madrid, but that was a part-time volunteering job. My first full-time teaching experience in Boston was in a budget-challenged district where I confronted underperformance and violence. I was assaulted by one of my students, dining room fights were routine, and one of my best students was stabbed to death by her brother. Although I did not realize it at the time, these challenges made me grow and mature –and learn about classroom management. It was a baptism by fire and I was happy to pay my dues and earn my stripes. From there I went to Walnut Hill, an independent upper school in suburban Boston where for five years I cultivated my craft, winning the E.E Ford Award for Exceptional Teaching, and eventually leading the Spanish Department. Seeking a challenge, before pursuing my PhD, I moved to Buckingham, Browne and Nichols, an elite independent school in Cambridge with a rigorous curriculum. Besides teaching at a variety of levels, including a Senior Seminar on Spanish film, I had the privilege of coaching soccer, fencing, and tennis, as well as the opportunity to participate in community service.

At Seacrest Country Day I  continued to hone my craft by collaborating with the Lower School so level IV juniors would teach the Kindergarten students. I continued teaching French, and re-built the Upper School Spanish program from a disarrayed state. I have also coached Girls Varsity Soccer, improving their record of wins per season. In the Spring I also coached Girls Varsity Tennis, with our Third Singles player winning the District Championship.

Besides winning the E.E Ford Award for exceptional teaching at Walnut Hill, at UNC I consistently received superior reviews, even for teaching French. My teaching steadily placed in the highest percentiles for the department. I averaged an 8.47% overall difference over the departmental teaching averages.

Real learning happens from a place of wanting to learn, a place of openness, and vulnerability. Getting the students to that place requires a relationship of trust, understanding and fairness. That is what I build from day one in the classroom. On the first day of class, having memorized all students’ names from the roster photos, I stand by the door and shake hands and greet every student by name. Then we go over the expectations for the class with a fine tooth comb. An old cell phone “planted” with the first student who walks in will fly out the window, thus ensuring that I will not see a phone all semester. After that comes a fine balance of hard work and fun. I show up early to the classroom to chat and play Spanish music videos for the students as they walk into the room and settle down. From coaching I learned the importance of constant drilling of basics. We always go over grammar, driving at it from as many angles as possible to cater to all learning styles. And talking  ̶ everybody talks about what they are going to do over the weekend, and on Mondays everybody talks about what they did. The students are encouraged to make announcements and to keep us posted of important developments in their lives. We talk and talk, about food, restaurants, sports, music. While this paints a “fun and games” picture of my classes, it is used to offset the stiff payload of work packed into the course. My passionate sharing builds an intangible bond between the students and the culture. Being multicultural, I have had to cultivate a strong, effective bridge that conveys my enthusiasm for cultural differences.

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 desire to learn ̶ from curiosity. 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 rapport. It will rarely come from a book, or from a lecture, or from technology; it will happen from a relationship.

Del Diego or everybody needs a Public house, a local.

A few years ago, while living in Chapel Hill I wrote about my favorite bar in town, the mythical Zog’s with the equally mythical crew of Mandey, James and Rob. Today we travel to this side of the ocean to talk about my favorite watering hole in this town, which, while totally different from Zog’s on the outside, has very similar DNA.

I am talking about the mythical Del Diego, with the equally mythical crew of David and Fernando. While Zog’s was a dive – and proud of it, Del Diego is as sophisticated a joint as you are going to find: sleek and minimalist -late XX C. interesting minimalism, not XXI C. boring minimalist. So what do they have in common? An authentic connection with their customers, a genuine pride in their craft – cocktails, and a keen sense of humor!

Fernando Del Diego opened his eponymous bar in 1992 with his two sons, the aforementioned Fernando Jr. and David. I saw a brief writeup in the Iberia magazine during a flight and took note; it did not disappoint, serious cocktails in a friendly atmosphere within a cool setting. I loved it, and it soon became my favorite spot (as life has moved me around I have had to pick local joints (The Parkway Pub in Boston – OK, Revere), Zog’s in Chapel Hill, and The Parrot in Naples) but I always returned to Del Diego.

The cocktail scene in Madrid was led since the ’30s by Museo Chicote, where Hemingway, Ava Gardener and hip bullfighters and locals drank like thirsty camels. Years later,  right behind Chicote sprung Cock, some say it used to be Chicote’s back room, where Franco’s people quenched their thirst out of the limelight. From that school, Fernando set up his own joint making an interesting triangle – all three bars are on the same block!

Originally I did not have a set drink, the guys were always handy to make whatever I was in the mood for. For a while -before The Big Lebowski- I had a White Russian, but then I quickly set on their Manhattan. I rarely went in the warm summer months, so I did not have a set summer drink, the Manhattan being relatively heavy for warmer weather. That was until I recently discovered an old Spanish gin from the once British island of Menorca: Xoriguer. And now I am obsessed and can’t wait for Summer to have a thirst quenching Gin Gimlet!

Del Diego is an obligatory stop when I’m in the area, or I’m with friends, or showing folks around. They are always kind, and polite, and fun.

Don Fernando passed a few years ago, but his two boys are doing a great job keeping the joint rolling; I am really proud of them.

“I drink to make other people more interesting.” ~ Ernest Hemingway

 

 

Mind, body and soul, exercise, yoga and meditation

For a few years, since 2010 to be precise, I have been actively seeking inner peace, not just talking about it with a drink in one hand and a cigar in the other staring at a sunset. It is only with breakage that one slowly lets go of the ego and matures through Kierkegaard’s three stages that we have seen before (the aesthetic, the ethic and the spiritual). With my divorce and the life changes brought about by that trauma, I started seeking solace and understanding. My first, basically subconscious moves were to exercise, to work with a therapist (the amazing Dr. Nemser), I went to church on Sunday – and have not missed a Sunday since (maybe a couple but only for reasons of force majeure), and volunteering. I started reading Scripture every night, then I got hooked on Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditations, I tried to find inspiring readings, revisiting Tolstoy’s The death of Ivan Illich, Milton, Jalics, etc. With time I started meditating, then I started yoga, then came walking the pilgrimage to Santiago…

Little by little I started realizing in my body, mind and spirit that all these things were connected, that working with one affected the other two. Yoga, even weightlifting quieted my mind, meditating relaxed my body and spirit. Breathing helped me stretch during yoga. I realized that while we are made up of many different things, we are in fact one totality of being with a single energy.

I started yoga lessons in North Carolina about six years ago. It was the perfect thing for saturdays after friday night soccer games. And just like that I was hooked. I normally find a gym or a studio that has lessons, but in a pinch I use an app called Down Dog which is very scalable!

For meditation, I usually wait until the end of the day so I have nothing left to do that day. Or I parcel out a time to mediate. I sit and breathe, focussing on my breathing for twenty minutes. I use a great app called Insight timer where I can time myself, take courses, dial into guided meditations – and it keeps track of your progress!

Then I started using these techniques with my athletes when I coached, most recently and successfully the tennis players at the Hun School. Yoga on days in between games, a bit of meditation before games, it all translated to happier, less injured, more understanding players.

Volunteering has been a key factor in my recent growth and maturity. First at Community Servings in Boston cooking for sick, homebound families. In Chapel Hill I volunteered every monday night for four years at the Ronald McDonald House. In Naples I helped out the St. Vincent de Paul charities. Now in Madrid I’m helping at the Ronald McDonald Family Room at the La Paz Hospital in Madrid, for families with premature babies.

My second pilgrimage to Santiago I really focused on walking, meditating, stopping at churches for contemplation, doing yoga after the day’s walk. It really was magical, and I noticed a holistic improvement!

Healing is a long process that there is no way to rush. Acceptance, gratitude, patience, forgiveness, compassion, perspective, humility, understanding, generosity, none of these knock on your door overnight. One must consciously work at healing, it is slowly working for me, give it a try!

 

Homecoming

And so, fourteen years after leaving Spain, I return home to my beloved Madrid. My exile is over. There are two main reasons to explain my homecoming: a personal and a professional:

The first is family. My mom is 85 years old and not getting any younger, health issues start popping up with more and more frequency, her hearing is diminishing. So I decided to be with her. She lives in a big old apartment downtown and it is wonderful to have breakfast with her, help her with the cleaning and maintenance of the apartment and hang out with her throughout the day. My sister lives nearby with her three great kids who are growing up so fast (13, 11 and 7). Last week I went to my nephew’s soccer game and it was marvelous to see him score two goals. My oldest niece and god-daughter is just starting her teenage years and I am happy to be here to support her. As for the little one, the other day she was dropped off at home with an eye infection that kept her away from school, so I took her with me for my coffee and errands and we had a blast!

Just like family there are friends, old friends, real friends, friends that I have missed, friends that listen, that help you, that make you laugh, friends that are not afraid to call you out. And last, but not least, as the great late Robin Williams as psychologist Sean says to Will (Matt Damon) in the awesome Good Will Hunting: “I gotta see about a girl.”

The second and also important reason is a professional one, a pedagogical one. Over the years I have gotten tired of the narrow American definition of success, and of teaching in schools that thrive and endorse this way of life implicitly and explicitly. I have been fortunate to teach at schools like Seacrest and Walnut Hill, where the emphasis was much more on the humanistic development of the child. Even “pressure cooker” schools like Buckingham Browne and Nichols in Boston had a solid notion of a quality of life not necessarily related to money or the rat race. I believe that everybody in a school, (and in any community for that matter) students and teachers, benefit from playing, from hanging out, from conversation. Maybe as I get older I value quiet, and time, I believe in the beauty of conversation, of enjoying a chat and a coffee. We have the scientific evidence that happiness is not based on your SAT scores.

So I grabbed my bag and came home.

 

 

In vino veritas, a good glass (or bottle) of wine

 

Not to be too much of a hedonist here, but in the world we live in, sometimes it is better to enjoy a nice wine than to try to change people who do not want to change. So let us talk about wine.

My dad enjoyed a good glass of wine. He knew many growers and vintners, so growing up I was spoiled by trying wonderful wines. Having said that, they were mostly solid, serious, dry, old school Riojas and the occasional Ribera del Duero, ok and a glass of bone dry sherry before lunch, oh, and nice Champagne at celebrations!

So I come by my hobby honestly. I started enjoying a glass, ok, or a bottle, seriously in college. I learnt a lot from my french classmates and other budding enthusiasts, but, like most, could not enjoy a solid bottle for pecuniary reasons. That is until I got my first job after university and then things got serious. My palate was used to those heavy, dry Riojas, so when one of my summers in university I went on an internship to Bordeaux I was baffled by the awesome flavor of those much lighter wines – that is why Bordeaux used to be called Claret (for clear). Through time I slowly discovered more and more wine regions and could, never mind identify, but more importantly, enjoy different wines.

As I got older I fell in love with different regions, producers, even specific bottles. Here are some of my faves:

Any “old school” Rioja Reserva or Gran Reserva: Marques de Caceres, Ygay, Muga, CUNE, Marques de Riscal… It is a long list, but if I had to pick a couple, they might be Remirez de Ganuza and LAN.

With the Ribera del Duero I am a bit more picky. Real Riberas have very high tannins and only the older, aged, wines have “tamed” those tannins. So my favorites there are Alejandro Fernandez’s Pesquera Reserva – this was a long love of mine. (It’s little brother Condado de Haza is pretty good as well).

I have been lucky to meet and visit a few growers myself, and that makes all the difference, as you get a much better understanding of the wine making process, the land – terroir, the whole shebang!

One such visit was to the Marques de Griñon in Toledo. He is a lovely fellow and clearly loves each and every single grape he grows! While there I tasted his Syrah (Shiraz, you say potato…) and it was love, sorry, taste at first sight! While I have enjoyed many great Syrahs over the years, that one was a spectacular moment.

Another love story might be with Pinot Noir, but not just any Pinot. You see I was never really impressed with this grape, until one good day not too long ago I had a California Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and it changed my life: light, but packing a whole lot of deliciousness. These are normally tricky (and expensive) to find, as the region is quite small, so good luck!

This summer while doing the Camino de Santiago I crossed the Bierzo region, which until recently was only known in Spain. Well, some of those wines really blew my mind!!

But my fave non-Spanish wine region is Châteauneuf-du-Pape, yes I know I am not very original, but I love the full bodied goodness of these guys!!

Given a choice I drink red, but if I have to pick a white, it usually is an Albariño, followed by a Verdejo, after that I’m not all that interested.

There you have it, a short but sweet list of my favorite wines, without getting all pedantic with technical bits, but still making myself a wine snob/nerd.

Torrente, el brazo tonto de la ley

Years ago, while getting my PhD, I promised I would upload my writings for my courses. Well, I did not fully keep my promise… But I am going to fix it, little by little.

You see, I recently came across an unpublished article I wrote about one of my favorite films: Torrente, el brazo tonto de la ley. It is a disgusting film and I love it.

Torrente poster

As my habitual readers will know, my writings were not peer-reviewed, so they are fairly raw and rough. But do let me know your thoughts and opinions in the comments section.

So there you have it, I hope you enjoy the article!

Click here: Torrente a XX Century Quixote

Oh, and here is the trailer (for the full 5 film package – although the article is only about the first film)

 

 

 

 

Brené Brown on vulnerability

First off I must apologize for my long silence. Life has been a bit crazy lately and I promise to explain soon. In the meantime I really want to bring this video to light.

While the pendulum of history continues its inexorable swings, it never moves back to the same place. I say this because I am confident, hopeful that the world is slowly becoming a better place. If you are quiet for a moment and tune out the nonsense and the screaming, there are plenty of signs we might be on the mend. But I am not here today to list everything I find encouraging on our planet, just to highlight this wonderful video.

You see, I was chatting with the bright and talented teaching fellow Andrea at work the other day about being open to love and to life and she mentioned this Ted Talk.

Of course, one of my spiritual guides Richard Rohr (see previous post about his teachings) also talks about vulnerability. Here he mentions it in the face of trauma:

It was in this process that I came upon what I call the axial moment in which our most intimate experience of who we are turns, as on a hidden axis of love, down through the pain into a qualitatively richer, more vulnerable place. It is in the midst of this turning that we discover the qualitatively richer, more vulnerable place is actually the abyss-like, loving presence of God, welling up and giving itself in and as the intimate interiority of our healing journey.”

I am not going to ramble on and on about it, I am just going to leave it here and you can watch it. Let me know your thoughts on the comments area. Enjoy!!