by Lora Beth Escalante
Happy Thanksgiving to you all (y’all, for some of you)!
This very American tradition has me reflecting on cultural differences and similarities. I occasionally forget that not all students in our classrooms know why we celebrate Thanksgiving. As teachers who receive and help educate students from across the globe, do we take the time to explain this holiday’s significance to our nation’s heritage? Most students would not be familiar with this national holiday, and yet they are given days or possibly an entire week off school to celebrate. Why do you find it important or unimportant to incorporate these types of discussions in your classroom (and I’m not just talking to history teachers)? What other American traditions or cultural caveats should students learn about?
Due in large part to a teacher friend’s generosity in loaning us his house and vehicle, my family was able to take a nearly month long adventure to Southern Spain. Note the use of the word adventure over vacation (because little ones were involved). We mostly relished the experience of feeling like true foreigners, even if we technically shared a language. Some of these experiences were positive (we love seeing new places, meeting new people, eating olives and ham, and speaking Spanish), and some were a bit shocking or even insulting to my American mindset. As an educator (and mom), I recognize the benefit of feeling this way, and it gave me some much needed perspective for working with immigrant students in the United States.
Given my work in education, I was particularly fascinated by observing Spain’s school system and culture surrounding education. I was grateful for the many opportunities I had to converse with teachers and visit schools. I often asked myself, “Is this common sense or culture?”
Cultural Lessons from Spain
“Si no lo beso, me muero.”
“If I don’t kiss him, I’ll die.”
Who do you suppose uttered this line to me when I was holding my sweet, wiggly 23-month-old on a long flight from Miami to Madrid? An incredibly sweet, patient, and affectionate Spanish flight attendant. My response? “Pues, no quiero que te mueras…Por favor, bésalo” (“Well, I don’t want you to die. Please kiss him!”) I laughed, trying to imagine an American flight attendant saying anything similar. That would just never happen, I thought. But why? I’m pretty sure my sweet son was not the only toddler who has received her affections. And of course I knew what she meant. He was so lovable with his plump grin, quick to laugh, and flashing his newly acquired mouth full of pearly whites that she just couldn’t resist him one more second. Why was it such a natural reaction for her to address us in this way? I’ve certainly felt this way before, but I wouldn’t dare say it to a total stranger. Wasn’t it just common sense to keep those thoughts to yourself? Or was it culture? Why did my mind immediately snicker at the thought of an American reacting similarly?
Although I understood the meaning behind her words, they gave me enough pause at the onset of our trip to remember that I was the foreigner.
The first day we arrived in Madrid (horribly sleep deprived after wrestling that same sweet bear of a toddler all night on the flight), we picked up our rental car and headed toward Granada. We stopped soon thereafter to grab a coffee at a small roadside gas station that also happened to have a small restaurant attached. I ordered a coffee and a few sandwiches for our kids and sat down to wait. Soon, a server was at our table asking if we had ordered off the menu. I stated that yes, I had in fact just ordered and was waiting for the food. He reiterated that the table where we were sitting (the only distinction from surrounding tables was that it was topped with a disposable checkered tablecloth) was reserved for those customers eating “del menú.” After several exchanges, we were both equally baffled by the other’s cultural ignorance. I learned that day that in Spain, “menu” doesn’t mean “menu,” and by that I mean that a “menu” to me was the list of food a restaurant offered, and a “menu” in Spain is more like a lunch special. i
Spaniards like to eat late. And I don’t mean late by most American standards. It is perfectly normal to see families (including small children) eating dinner in town between 9:00 and 10:00 at night. We once had a pizza delivered to our house at 12:30 a.m. and no one (except us) batted an eye. Furthermore, breakfast doesn’t include eggs. That’s right, not scrambled or fried! That took some getting used to. Thankfully for this caffeine addict, it does include coffee. Wonderfully strong café con leche. And it does usually include toast with deliciously fresh tomato puree on top. Granada, Spain, is known for its tapas, appetizers that come gratuitously with your drink order. But if you happen to be served a tapa that you really enjoy, you won’t necessarily be able to request it at the next restaurant or even on a repeat visit to the same restaurant. That’s just not how it works. Tapas are chosen at the discretion of the chef, not the customer’s request. This can be a challenging shift for an American who is used to the general system of “the customer gets what he wants” or “the customer is always right.”
Because the friend who offered us his home was a teacher, we were able to visit two very distinct schools during our stay. One was rural, and one was metropolitan (downtown Granada). I was able to have my own children participate in two full school days. The vast differences in educational systems between Spain and the United States commence with the schedule, itself. School in Granada is from 9:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m., with students eating breakfast and lunch at home. Students may choose to bring a small snack to enjoy at school during rest or recess time, which for my pre-kindergartener and first grader lasted an hour. An hour.
When I asked teachers about their teacher evaluation system, they just looked at me, confused. Maybe I just didn’t know the right terminology to translate the concept. After all, how would one translate T-TESS? Turns out, it basically doesn’t exist. How, then, are teachers held accountable for their teaching practices? Several teachers pointed out that administrators would know by word of mouth (colleagues, students, parents). They are simply treated as professionals and expected to teach as such.
After witnessing a teacher utilize turn and talk, physical movement with gestures, and visuals during his lesson, I asked him what type of professional development teachers receive. Again, puzzled looks reflected back at me. I asked in another way. How did he acquire the skills I just saw him use with his students? “We go watch each other and pick up ideas.”
When visiting the class my first-grade son was attending, I walked in to find students writing their dictation sentences…in cursive. He was completely baffled. Although I plan on teaching him cursive at some point, it never crossed my mind to start with cursive. I was able to ask the teacher about this routine, and then it made perfect sense to me! It helps students cognitively connect sounds blending together, and the brain then puts the words together. It also helps with punctuation and spacing in between words.
I noticed during a few hours in one classroom, three teachers had rotated in and out, teaching different lessons to the same group of students. Again, I was caught by surprise, and asked why this was the case. Teachers mentioned that it made it easier for them and for students. Students don’t have to pick up supplies, waste time with passing periods, etc. Teachers brought minimal supplies (sometimes one small anchor chart) and were able to share ideas and see their colleagues throughout the day. How many times have I heard teachers in the United States complain about being “on their islands,” having very little contact and time to share ideas with fellow educators?
And finally, I learned about the funcionario system. The best I can relate it to is a sort of tenure system that is often in place for college professors. This is an incredibly fascinating topic for most Spaniards. Some disagree, some whole-heartedly agree with the system. But the fact is, it is a rather different cultural practice from our tenure system.
Bringing Cultural Conversations Home
As we prepare to celebrate the Thanksgiving holiday, let’s take a moment to ask ourselves a few questions about the way we approach culture and cultural differences in our classrooms:
- How does our understanding of cultural differences change our view of our students, our teaching, and our schools? How can we help students understand their new country and our culture?
- How does our culture dictate the way we teach (and relate to students from diverse cultural backgrounds)? Can we take the time to find out what students know and don’t know?
- Can we be open enough to acknowledge skills that come from other cultures, as Luis Moll describes in Funds of Knowledge, and integrate effective teaching strategies from educators who come from other countries (e.g. Dictado, teaching alternative algorithms)?