Family holiday in Chapel Hill

This year I had the privilege of ending my summer holiday by inviting my younger sister and her two oldest kids to spend a few days with me in Chapel Hill. It was fantastic! We all flew at the end of July into North Carolina only to find that the battery had died on old Helmut. So the next day, after a delicious breakfast at Ye Olde Waffle Shoppe and jump starting the car, we headed out to Audi Cary where they lent us a wonderful Q5 for the day while they changed the battery!

We drove to Raleigh where we visited Ray Price Harley Davidson, with its great drag racing museum. Then we went to downtown where we visited the Museum of Natural Sciences and had lunch at the Museum of History.

During our ten days here we went to church, visited every corner of campus, the Basketball Museum, the Planetarium, the Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, Wilson Library, the Ackland Museum, Hillsborough with its fantastic Matthew´s chocolates and Ayr Mount plantation, we even went to Duke (shhhh!!) and Durham.

They met some of my favorite people from Chapel Hill: my classmate, office mate, and little sister (in the absence of my real little sister) Alejandra who picked us up at the airport, Patrick my mailman, the folks at Ye Olde Waffle Shop, Missy Julian Fox, the folks at the Ronald McDonald House, Father Bill and Adam at church, the folks at Trader Joe’s, even the High Priest, Professor Frank Dominguez.

The culinary experience was just as awesome, we went to Five Guys, Suttons, Maple View farm for ice cream, Buns for their grilled salmon sandwich, Mellow Mushroom for Pizza, Top of the Hill, Akai Hana for sushi, and the highlight being North Carolina barbecue.

Other highlights were when we played soccer on one of the soccer fields, or when we set up the big screen digital projector home theater to watch Disney’s Alexander and Annie, volunteering at the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill, visiting the Mall (and the outlet mall), Dick’s Sporting Goods, Target, and of course Walmart, which Jimmy loved.

We had a blast. My niece, infused by the entrepreneurial spirit of the land set up a table on the street to sell her hand-made bracelets. Unfortunately, living in a dead-end street in August meant that she did not have many costumers – although she did manage a couple of sales, the proceeds of which she donated to the Ronald McDonald House of Chapel Hill!

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Shameless self promotion / Job search Fall 2016

Ah yes, that time again when one has to start thinking of finding a job. Since this will be (Insha’Allah) my last (academic) year at UNC. I have to start thinking of what I will be doing come September of 2016…

One of the few things I am certain of is that I am passionate about teaching, especially my language, my culture, my literature. I am hopeful that someone somewhere will need a Spanish teacher with over ten years teaching experience and a PhD in Spanish Literature for next year.

Narrowing down my job options, I would love to be the coordinator of an American university’s study abroad program in Spain – ideally in Spain, near my family. But I know I will thrive teaching at a small liberal arts college or at a secondary school where I can also be a “dorm parent” and coach, what they call in the business a “triple threat”.

Where? You ask. Well I must confess I have fallen in love with the South – who wouldn’t? and I do love the East coast, its history, culture, and relative proximity to Europe. But I would love to explore new grounds: Asia, Korea or Japan, the Middle East, Africa, Oceania, and of course old Europe, make me an offer!!

Experience? In my first job I was in charge of training / coaching / herding? the summer interns that came to Grantham Mayo and Van Otterloo in Boston. From then on in the late 80s I have always enjoyed the training and mentoring part of my jobs. During my stint as a stockbroker in Madrid since I was not doing much in the teaching/coaching/mentoring realm I volunteered to teach English at the Colegio de Huerfanos de la Guardia Civil in Madrid  As a sales manager I was in charge of team training and later as consultant I would do the same around Latin America. Once I had my own company from ´94 to ´04 I loved all the training that happened for new employees. We even organized yearly retreats with a coach to help us improve. In 2005 I started my professional teaching career teaching at public schools, private schools and at UNC for the last three years.

They say in Spain “el movimiento se demuestra andando” (something like movement is proven by walking) so here are a couple of videos of me trying to teach. One at Walnut Hill, the oldest private arts school in the US and my first semester at UNC. In case you are really interested I have also included my abridged CV, feel free to ask for any more info!!

Antonio Balsón CV Academic -abridged-

Romance Studies Department Graduate Student Soccer!!

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Last year a couple of our classmates organized a very informal indoor soccer scrimmage on Friday evenings. For some reason I took up the responsibility this year. I booked one of the outdoor fields and had a great time every Friday evening. We were blessed with great weather all through the Fall semester. Basically we allowed anyone who showed up to play. We had a 59 year old Colombian fellow, middle school kids, undergrads and grad students from other departments play, so we re-named our scrimmage: Romance Studies Community Soccer. By opening it up to the community we hope to provide and give back a little bit.

In the winter we moved our games indoor to one of the courts, and by the end of the year, we received official acknowledgement from the department’s Graduate Student Government to legitimize the position and I have passed the baton to a young fellow in the department who did not miss a single game!

On being a Graduate Research Consultant

This Spring, I was my Thesis Director’s Graduate Research Consultant for her undergraduate Spanish Literature since 1700 survey class!

Prof. Gómez Castellano and I had to apply for this position to the undergrad College of Arts and Sciences, and we got approved. The job entails being a resource to help the students with their research. But since Irene and I were both very excited about this, we took it to the next level. I did a presentation on Goya… at the Ackland museum, who pulled a bunch of their Caprichos prints to show us in their special viewing room. I organized a visit to our specialist librarian, superstar Teresa Chapa to whom I should devote a whole blog post to – and her equally awesome partner in crime Becka, sometimes the three of us just chat in their hidden away office, deep in the inner sanctum of the library, and chat books and gossip. But back to this Graduate Research Consultant business. Basically it is a great opportunity for me to be immersed in an undergrad lit class. I was there to help, but at the same time I learnt a lot from the experience.

The class was a full 19 students, which is a lot for a higher level lit. class, but the more the merrier!, a big class at this level is also a very healthy sign for the department, and for the major and minor in general.

Technically there is no need for me to go to class – the pay is very low and I am only payed to work X amount of hours (I don’t even know how many), but I love the class and I learn so much from my Thesis Director that I went to all the classes anyway. Of course some of the students did use me as a research resource and met with me to go over their work, which was very interesting and fun work.

The experience is highly recommended, I hope to do it again.

On teaching French

Since I arrived at UNC, every time I bumped into the Director of French Studies – which was often because she is a keen supporter of the North Carolina Symphony which I also follow (although not as keenly), I would always offer my services to her as a French teacher. Little did I know that one day she would offer me to teach a section of French 105, French for High Beginners, i.e. students that have had previous exposure to French but are too rusty to go into intermediate level.

I cannot lie, my French grammar – which was never my strong suit to begin with – was, was, hmm, rusty. But my course coordinator who also happens to be my desk neighbor in our office had fantastic Power Point presentations covering the grammar.

French came to me later in life. I started taking classes in high school in London, which were complemented with great summers at the International Teen Camp in Lausanne in French Switzerland. I continued taking classes during university and spent those summers working in Paris, Bordeaux, Lausanne and Geneva, taking classes in the evenings and immersing myself.

After that I worked for a stint for a French stockbroker in Madrid, and tried to practice as much as possible with friends and work colleagues.

More recently, for my studies I have loved revisiting Montesquieu, Voltaire and other 18th C French authors.

So my speaking and reading are fine, but I struggle with the writing, due to the grammar, so teaching was not a total shock, and I compensated with total immersion from the music video to welcome the class to using only French all the way to the end of the session. The mix of students was as good as anyone could ask for. From quiet and shy overachievers, to frat bros, (to continue perpetuating stereotypes) to the whole demographic. I believe this always makes for more enriching classes. Our classroom in the Urban Planning Department building was nice and cozy and coincidentally had a massive wall sized reproduction of an antique map of Paris!

French Class outdoors

French Class outdoors

Summer field research

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!

On teaching and learning

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.)