Saturday, February 26, 2011

Santa Águeda

As I have mentioned in earlier posts we are in the mountains and back before the days of global warming they used to see lots of snow here. Not unlike what we have known in Wisconsin. Of course hundreds of years ago there weren't ways to bring fresh foods and not much grows in the winter. So, in late January/early February many people were hungry and they took up the tradition of going from door to door singing the praises of those who lived there and asking for a little food. These songs and chats were in Euskera, the language of the Basque people.

Today the tradition has evolved a bit. Groups of people still gather together, sing and chant going from door to door, business to business but they usually are representing a cause for which they hope to earn a bit of money instead of food. The song is in Euskera and they have a stick decorated with the colors of Euskadi, the Basque region, which they rhythmically pound on the ground. At night there are groups of adults dressed in traditional clothing going through the streets in front of businesses singing for their cause and stopping for glasses of wine along the way.
School children also do this in groups and here is a 2+ minute video taken with my point and shoot camera of what Morgan and Maia's school performed in the streets near their school.

Here's a bit of what I learned about the history behind the festival. When the Catholics moved in to take over and spread their religion, they arrived in the Basque region and were a bit lost in what to do. They had no ability to understand the language as there are no Latin origins found in Euskera. They couldn't grow their wheat or their grapes for wine because of the cold climate. They did however want to infiltrate their beliefs. They realized that the Basque people are strong and not willing to give up their lifestyles and celebrations. So, the Catholics decided to let them celebrate as they always did but that they must name their holidays after saints.

This particular celebration took on the name of Santa Águeda although there is not any relation that we can find other than suffering. Santa Águeda back in 200 AD was a virgin martyr. Apparently a senator named Quintianus wanted to take her for himself as part of the persecutions realized by Emperor Decio and she refused. He had her tortured and killed.

There is no relationship to the Saint and the celebration but the Catholics get credit for realizing the best way to move their beliefs into a culture they had no connection with was to simply rename their holidays.

Monday, February 14, 2011


We finally found an SUV.

Although it appears that someone put it in the washer using very hot water (as Dean suggested)...

For those of you who haven't traveled to Europe, the vehicles in general are much smaller. As I learned today from some of my new friends, they like to take pictures of our GIGANTIC vehicles when they visit us as much as we like to take pictures of their miniature ones.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Día de Paz--Day of Peace

A couple weeks ago there was a celebration on a Friday afternoon at the kids school called Day of Peace. All the students including the preschool kids participated. Each class had a word that was their contribution to a school poster. The words represented part of what was necessary in order to have world peace. Morgan was the representative selected from her class to put the word on the poster. Unfortunately I haven't been able to get a picture of the final product but it had words in Spanish such as friendship, listening, understanding...
Following the poster there were various songs including one by Morgan's class, poetry by several students of varying ages, and flute playing by Maia's class. I have a short rather poorly done video of the kids doing their parts. The video was taking with a point and shoot camera being hold up high to be able to see over peoples heads. In case you dare to watch...

Día de Paz-Larrañazubi from Lauren Rosen on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

School and Parents: How Procedure Effects Learning & Behavior

The girls have been in school for a few weeks now and we've made some interesting observations. I want to share those with you as well as my perspective/thoughts as a parent and an educator.

Assignment Notebooks
Maia wrote to her Madison classmates in response to their questions that the teachers here are really strict. She noted that they expect you to have all your books (they have textbooks that they need to complete their homework) and they do not except forgetting your materials as an excuse for not completing your homework. Students are penalized for not completing their work and awarded for doing it. The homework is graded based on effort to complete it, not necessarily on correctness and is most often corrected in class so students learn from their mistakes.

The work they are doing is definitely not busy work. It clearly is reinforcing the topics they are studying and it is teaching them higher order thinking skills. The work typically requires a level of reading comprehension/study concept, followed by the student analyzing or synthesizing information. They are asked to write in their own words to explain concepts and give their own example. They can't simply copy from the book by the time they are in 3rd grade and beyond. There is a clear progression in the level of expectation from one grade to another.

So, how do they do this and keep it all organized? Every elementary student is given an assignment notebook. This is the primary communication between the teachers, student and parent. Assignments are written on a special space on the board in the classroom and students are given specific time and direction to copy it down in their assignment notebook each day. The teacher walks around to ensure this is being done and makes a special effort to check in with the kids that tend to have trouble keeping track of things. The expectation is that the assignment notebook is the first thing that comes out and the last thing that goes into their backpacks both at school and at home. As parents, we need to look at it everyday as well to make sure that we know what our kids need to do.

The second purpose of the assignment notebook is communication between the teacher and the parents. Teachers don't have time during the day to check their email so if there is an important message to send in, it gets sent in through a note in the assignment notebook. If your child was really sick and didn't get to complete their work, that can also be put in the notebook alerting the teacher so she will go easier on the homework issue with your child for that day. They still need to complete it though. If your child has an appointment or will leave early, that too is sent via the assignment notebook.

My thoughts on this are, why don't we start with higher expectations in our elementary schools in the US? Why don't we prepare our kids for middle school by teaching them earlier how to organize? We spend several weeks in the fall starting in 3rd grade on test taking skills for standardized tests yet we spend very little effort teaching them to be organized and take responsibility for their work connecting school to behaviors outside of the classroom. The main point being that the systems exist in the classroom. Our teachers do a great job of that but it doesn't get carried home in a systematic way. Those are life skills that will help a child in all aspects of what they do and learn.

As a former 7th & 8th grade teacher I remember the transition being incredibly hard for parents and was dumbfounded by those parents who didn't understand why it was so important for students to remember to bring their materials to class. If those expectations start earlier, our students are prepared for the rigor of middle school and high school.

In my opinion the assignment notebook is a transformative experience. They start this as soon as students enter primary school. I have learned that this is in all primary schools not just where our kids attend. By high school, there is no such requirement. It is assumed by then that students have developed their system of organizing and taking responsibility in their own ways. In Madison, I know high school students may purchase schedulers/assignment notebooks especially designed for the school with important dates (school events, breaks, etc.) indicated. There is no such thing in our Madison primary school. Why wait?

So what would a first grader write? Perhaps together the class could generate ideas of three important things they learned that day. The teacher could write it on the board and the students could copy it. I would have loved to know more about what my kids were doing in school at that age.  The typical answer I got was "nothing." Or how about a suggestion for what to continue to practice with your kids at home to continue to build on what they did in school? Perhaps not all families will do this but the suggestion certainly doesn't hurt.

Some parents don't live close or have the opportunity to stop in school. Those parents have many fewer avenues for communicating with the school and the assignment notebook would be a potentially great way for them to stay a little closer to what their child is learning and have it come directly from the child.

What changes have we seen? An organized motivated child takes responsibility seriously. That child is concerned about making sure that the work is done and done well. She seeks additional systems to keep herself organized. This is the child that probably doesn't "need" the notebook but likes having it and feels mature using it and taking responsibility for her actions. Her parents like keeping up with what she is doing and have an opportunity to ask more specifically about her activities.

A disorganized child who cares what the teacher thinks, struggles. She finds it hard to develop a system to remember to bring home all the books she needs. Yet, with a suggestion, she developed one. As soon as she finishes with a subject for the day, she puts what is needed for homework in her backpack attached to the back of her chair. She is proud of the responsibility she has taken. The teacher does help check to make sure that her assignments are written correctly in her notebook. The parents ask to see it as soon as she arrives home. For a student less inclined to share an assignment notebook, a system of signatures between the teacher and the parent could be developed making sure the messages are getting shared between home and school.

What we have seen in just three weeks is some change in the amount of effort as a result of higher expectations. While the content practiced isn't always done well or right, the process and organizational procedures are in place. The disorganized child is beginning to develop systems for better organization with respect to school related content. While she may not like taking the responsibilities expected of her she is understanding that it is her responsibility to do so.

Parent Involvement
This is an area that has been a bit of an adjustment for us but it certainly helps us to understand some of the differences in parents in our Madison community who come from other countries into our district. There are clear lines drawn between parents and the school building and learning in the classrooms.

It seems that each teacher has an additional classroom assistant to help with kids that need academic support. The classes are up to 25 students per class at all age levels of primary school. Parents are not invited into the classrooms to assist as they are in in the US. The school is a gated area and we wait outside the gates until the bell rings or we are otherwise invited in to pick up our children. Similarly for a school event during the day, we wait outside the gate until we are invited in for that event. When the event is over, the students are in a line with their class and head back to the classroom. They generally don't get to go visit with their parents at the end of the event.

What we observe is that the students are more orderly. The expectation is that order is not disrupted and the children are not distracted by their parents presence. This separation is a bit of an adjustment for all of us, although Morgan has more than once run over to hug me and then gotten back into line. I haven't seen many other kids do that with their parents.

I'm a strong believe in parent involvement in our schools as it is their kids education that is at stake. What's curious about all this is that there is still a partnership between the parent and the school, although it is much more through the assignment notebook and requested meetings with the teacher. All teachers have one afternoon a week designated as "office hours" for which you can request an appointment or they may contact you requesting to meet about your child.

It is out of concern for your child that they require order and maintain high expectations for behavior. I'm not sure how well orderly behavior works in larger elementary schools but I may try to investigate that a bit. My sense is that the physical distance between parents and their child during the school day is common for all schools, not just the one our girls attend.

So, we would love to hear from you how your school works and if you are part of Madison schools experiencing the same as we do at Thoreau, what you think about the ideas/experiences we are taking away from here.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011


So much has change in 20 years and I see two of the primary causes as:giroa
  1. Age: everyone is older here, well older than we were 20 years ago. That's not to say there aren't any young people, as there are. But age and change work a little differently here.
  2. This first picture is the entrance into a place I used to hang out with my friends. It had a white and black tile floor, not much if any seating and you could just order something to drink, no food. Well, maybe a bag of chips but not real food. Now on the inside it has fancy modern comfortable seating, pintxos (small appetizer size portions of food), and the clientele is my age, not 20 years younger.
  3. Engineering/technology: there are some innovations in place to help those who have aged so that they can continue to live as they always did.
This may not seem new as that happens everywhere. I find it a bit curious though to see what time has done here. It is quite typical for people to buy a flat in a building and never move. College students most often live at home and go to the nearest University. The exception to that rule is if they are choosing to study something that simply is not taught in the area.

In contrast, in the states, often when people age they look to move to a home or apartment where all they need is on one floor, no steps.

Since this area of Spain is in the mountains, and people don't tend to move, you can now imagine how older people may have some difficulty with the hills. Or the flats that they own, since the first floor, known as the planta baja, is simply an entry and the flats start on the 2nd floor, known as el primer piso, that means stairs in most cases.

This is where engineering and technology enter. The building where I lived in Portugalete in 1985 now has an elevator. It wasn't there back when I was living on the 5th floor (6 flights up) but as those who live in the building aged, they decided to add an elevator taking up some of the space in what was once a narrow inaccessible courtyard-like area in the middle of the building.

OK, so that fixes the buildings but it doesn't help people to get up the step hills that lead to their homes or to the fruit store they like to shop at, for example. Here are some pictures of what we now see...
outdoor escalator
This set of outdoor escalators heads up the street to where I used to live.
moving sidewalk
In various places we also find moving sidewalks along side the regular sidewalks. While there isn't nearly the snow here that we have in Wisconsin, it rains quite a lot in the winter. These moving sidewalks can get slippery, which is quite fun for the younger crowd to slide/skate on.

This final picture is an outdoor elevator of which there are many as well.
outdoor elevator
So, I wonder what this area will look like 20 years from now. What changes and innovations will we see to continue to make life a little easier for everyone? I guess it is up to those kids that are currently skating on the moving sidewalks to decide.