Posts Tagged ‘cervantes’

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.

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.

 

 

This has taken me a couple of years to bring to the Interweb. The idea of publishing my thoughts in an academic journal kept me from using my own blog as a platform. Now that I have some distance from the toxically self-important ivory tower that is academia, I feel liberated enough to use this humble vehicle to say my thoughts.

The idea is quite simple: The Danish philosopher Kierkegaard (1813-1855), who comes up with the idea of existentialism, even if not in those words – he is known as the grandfather of existentialism –, was a fan of Cervantes’ Don Quixote, writing extensively about him. Kierkegaard influenced many of the philosophers who came after him: Friedrich Nietzsche, Miguel de Unamuno, Martin Heidegger, José Ortega y Gasset, and eventually Jean Paul Sartre (although it would be fairer to say Simone de Beauvoir) who finally came up with a formal theory of existentialism. Unamuno relied heavily on Kierkegaard and on Don Quixote to form his theories.

In 1605 Cervantes creates a man who decides to live life by his own rules. Bored with his bourgeois life, he becomes a knight in somewhat shining armor. Don Quixote is a celebration of free will with all the beauty and issues that that carries. Therefore Don Quixote is the great-grandfather of existentialism. As you will be able to see from the bibliography, remarkably little, if anything has been written about this topic.

This is my Master’s thesis which I wrote in 2008 at Simmons College in Boston, for the great professor Louise Cohen. It has not been peer-reviewed by a bunch of pompous, self-serving academics, which is not to say that this paper is any good, it is not. If you have read any of my work on this blog before, you know I write like a horse’s ass. So read at your own discretion. Oh, haha, FYI it’s in Spanish.

el-existencialismo-en-el-quijote

April 23rd marked the 400 anniversary of Cervantes’ death. UNC had two great events to celebrate, and as a Cervantes and Quixote fan I am very happy and proud to have participated in both.

The 22nd Annual Carolina Conference for Romance Studies hosted the “I Am Quixote Festival” panel… and I was asked to be the chair! Needless to say, I was thrilled to be asked and I jumped at the opportunity.

Given the importance of this 400 anniversary the conference room was packed, and the panel was filmed. The panelists were Alexandra Veronica Combs from UNC-Wilmington who presented on “The Heroines of the Quixote who Challenged Narrative Structures”, our own Colleen McAlister, who presented on “Violence and Fame in the Quijote: Corporeal Manifestations of the Search for Identity”, and finally, University of Texas at San Antonio professor Santiago Daydí-Tolson, presenting on “The Contrasting Diets of Don Quixote and Sancho”. They were all awesome and great sports to boot. I must confess I was as proud as a schoolboy when my Dissertation Director, Irene, came to the event. In case things got out of hand, I picked up a copy of the Riquer edition of the Quijote.

One of the main responsibilities of a panel chair is keeping the panelists from exceeding the time limits. This is always a delicate matter that can – if the panelist ignores the time limits – result in awkward situations. The problem is that it is also difficult for the chair to elegantly interrupt the panelist to let them know that they are running long. Of course part of the problem with this is the culture of these events where the panelists just sit there and read their papers, it would be much more interesting and fun if they just talked about their research! But that is not something I am going to change regardless of how wildly popular my blog is. I thought long and hard about how I was going to deal with my panelists if they ran long. The solution came from football (soccer if you are American). I bought a yellow and a red piece of paper and cut them down to card size. The first warning when the panelist was approaching the time limit I would slide the yellow card under their noses, sorry, eyes. If they still kept going, We would pull the red card, just like in football!! Fortunately, or unfortunately my panelists stayed well within their allotted time and I didn’t have to use my revolutionary new technique.

The second event was a marathon reading of Don Quixote. For this event my whole class signed up to read (ok, I bribed them with a free class period – but it was well worth it – and they all read in Spanish, in front of an audience). You can see them all read on the attached video, my bit is at 5:08:50. For this event I sourced a real suit of armor from a great theater costume shop in Raleigh and wore bits and pieces as Don Quixote, it was a great way to promote the event and it was a lot fun. As luck would have it I read the hilarious bit where Sancho is tossed in a blanket at an inn while his master looks on from outside the inn’s wall. I was – as I always am – reminded of how funny, brilliant, clever and well written this book is, and how fresh it remains at 400 years old.

Now, if you have not done so already, go read Don Quixote, the first modern novel, it makes a great summer read, extra points if you read it in Spanish.

Don Quixote Marathon reading at UNC

When I “discovered” 18th Century Spanish literature, something that really struck me was what a critical element it was in the history of literature and how little credit it gets. The 18th Century is a literary hinge in the evolution of literature. While it can be argued that every century, or era, is a “hinge” era, a time between times, the 18th Century exercises as a flexing point in what has been called the pendulum of literary movements. Being the philistine that I am, I can only use Spanish literature for my example:

The ilustrados (18th C educated Spaniards), whether they liked it or not, were actually building on the shoulders of the Baroque, with its chiaroscuro and trompe l’oeil, which they hated. This, in turn, was a reaction to the Renaissance which was short lived in Spain in favor of the more mysterious and why not, fun, Baroque, more suited to the Spanish temperament (perpetuating stereotypes, the Spanish are a Baroque people. Disagree? Go watch an Almodovar film). For the Spanish literati, the solution to what they considered centuries of muddle was to build a one way bridge to the classic ancient Greeks and Romans as Luzán proposed in his Poética (1737). As much as the Enlightened writers wanted to, they could not get there without the rich legacy of medieval letters and art and everything that followed. For example, my man, Padre Isla (1703-1781), a precursor to the ilustrados, indeed goes back to the ancients, but he also relies heavily on St. Bonaventure, St. Thomas Aquinas, and especially Cervantes and Quevedo, creating his narrative from a blend of centuries of letters. Consciously or not these are the foundations the 18th Century had to build on.

On the other hand the Enlightenment’s obsession with societal good which even led to the elimination of the novel in Spain due to its reliance on the first person singular, is the launching pad for the Romantic movement where that “I” is all important. Equally, the Enlightened enthusiasm for scientific enumeration led to the naturalists. The reaction to those developments will be realism, modernism and postmodernism.

In big bold brushstrokes there are the Classics, Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque eras leading up to the Enlightenment, and the Romantic, Naturalist, Realist, Modernist and Postmodernism after it. How do I then explain the fact that my sides, arms or rays of my angle are lopsided? Well it must be taken into account that both the Classical and Medieval periods encompass centuries, while the last big three movements occurred within the 20th C. due to the advances in communications and technology, so just counting movements is not the same as considering the influence and repercussion of  those movements. This of course is taking into account all the differences in labeling periods and movements. No style is 100% unique, as one genre blends into another.

Thus, a solid grasp of 18th Century literature opens up an understanding to what happened before and after on the literary continuum. From a teaching standpoint, understanding the enlightenment offers the key to the past as well as to the future of literary history.

P.S.: When I explained this idea to my thesis director during one of our coffees, she liked it so much she took a picture!