Leonardo Viewpoint


In an effort to showcase our school’s strength in English education, something of extra importance in this era of bilingualism in Spain, my colleagues and I have created a quarterly online English magazine featuring student work as well as articles that could be of interest to our readers.

In our hot-off-the-press summer issue, you can find the following:


  • video tours of our school and of Algonquin Regional High School (Northborough, MA), created by my juniors and their American penpals
  • the ABC books written by my 7th graders and by 5th graders from Peaslee Elementary School in Northborough, MA (more info about this activity here)
  • a video interview with yours truly, conducted by some of my favorite 8th graders


  • a reflection written by Ángela, a student teacher who joined us in the English department for two months this spring
  • an impressive book review written by Eric, a sophomore
  • a reading of a Robert Frost poem by María, an 8th grade student
  • comics created by the juniors



tech savvy

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For an explanation of this video and a link to watch it, scroll to the end of the post.

As I’ve mentioned before, my school is one of 15 in the entire Madrid region that is participating in the Technology Innovation Project.  For the students in 7th-10th grade, this means using a virtual classroom (similar to Blackboard) in each of their core subjects, integrating technology into many class and homework assignments, and having a retractable computer at their desk to facilitate said integration.  For me, it means having a SMART Board and internet access in most of my classrooms, giving me the chance to bring more authentic, current and entertaining English into my lessons than I likely would have otherwise.

Just last week, my 9th and 10th grade students worked in small groups to analyze top Super Bowl commercials from recent years, watching them on the computers at their desks, identifying target audience, marketing strategies and commenting on their efficacy, and then showing their ads to the whole class on the SMART Board.

In the past, I have used these resources to take the College Board college placement survey with my juniors, view interactive images of the Hurricane Sandy destruction with my 7th graders and do a mini research project about festivals of light around the world with my sophomores.

As a teacher of teens in the 21st century, the opportunity to use this type of technology in the classroom is without comparison.  My students, who have been studying English since kindergarten, have digested their fair share of vocabulary lists, role plays and artificial recorded conversations as listening practice.  Plus, they’re products of their generation, their lives even more naturally intertwined with technology than mine. It’s rather impossible for me to get a room of 25-30 of them in complete silence for an explanation on the whiteboard, or to get them to allow me, or a classmate, to finish a sentence if the bell rings in the middle of it.  However, when the activity involves a YouTube video, it’s not uncommon for pin-drop silence and begging to stay a minute longer to finish the clip.  Of course, excellent teaching can happen with nothing more than a stub of chalk and a blackboard, but access to these resources has made my experience as a new, young teacher that much easier and more successful.

To showcase the work that our school is doing within the Technology Innovation Project, my talented colleague Elena made a video complete with interviews with participating students and teachers as well as shots of the technology at work.  For those of you who speak Spanish, it’s a great listening exercise.  For those of you who don’t, it’ll at least give you a peak into my daily life at work with images of the facilities, students and my coworkers.  And finally, for those of you who have repeatedly asked me to “Say something in Spanish! Anything!”, I appear at minutes 3:20 and 4:10.  Enjoy!

Watch the video here.

seasons greetings from my dreidel-spinning students

In honor of the holiday season (and its corresponding teacher laziness and student zaniness), my classes of all ages wagered dry chickpeas and enthusiastically chanted and cheered for shins, gimels, hays and nuns during the weeks leading up to vacation.  Here’s a glimpse of the action.  Felices fiestas, friends.IMG_1971 IMG_1972 IMG_1973 IMG_2012 IMG_2013

dispatches from the classroom: round two

It has been an entertaining month or so at school, as my students of all grade levels have impressed me with their creativity, enthusiasm and English skills.  Here’s another installment of highlights from the classroom.

My sophomores, often the most difficult age group to engage, voluntarily stayed a few minutes after class to finish an activity in which they had to guess which hypothetical tattoo was designed by which classmate.  We laughed a lot and learned some interesting things about each other through this simple assignment, which I originally feared would be a flop.

Top chefs
My youngest pupils have been involved in two big projects lately.  Some have created their own imaginary restaurants and then written and performed skits in which customers order food and waiters solve a restaurant mishap of the students’ choice.  We’ve seen everything from choking incidents to kitchen fires to sinpas (a Spanish phrase for eat and run, stemming from the words sin pagar — without paying).

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Tall Tales
Other 7th grade classes have read a story about Paul Bunyan and the creation of the Great Lakes, the Grand Canyon, and Mount Hood, and then have written their own creation stories about a feature of Spanish geography of their choice.  With varying degrees of assistance, the kids have done some excellent work!

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It’s also been a fun month or so with my bachillerato students (11th and 12th grade).  I had my last class with the seniors a few weeks ago, during which we listened to the “Wear Sunscreen” graduation speech made famous by Baz Luhrmann, and I handed out Reese’s as a sweet send-off.  I’m impressed by these students’ hard work, both in English and in their other subjects, to successfully complete bachillerato (a bit more complicated than graduating from high school in the US) and move on to college, and I’ll certainly miss them at IES Leonardo da Vinci.  The graduation ceremony was long but lovely; standout differences from the American version include a lack of cap and gowns (replaced by almost prom-like attire), catered tapas by the school cafeteria, and a heavy dose of politicization from both student and faculty speakers, as Spanish public education faces more cuts and roadblocks than ever.


Perhaps the most exciting activity has been with my juniors, who have been participating in a project with my alma mater, Algonquin Regional High School.  After contacting my former Spanish teacher, we paired up our students, who then spent the last few months exchanging photos as well as bilingual letters and videos (in addition to the tweets and Facebook posts they chose to exchange on their own time).  Recently, we took a field trip into the city and recorded videos, showing the American students Madrid’s most important sights, sounds and flavors.  It was some of the best work I’ve seen out of this group of students, and we had a blast doing it.  Here’s a sampling:

Recording Stars
Finally, I have recruited the assistance of many of my friends and family back at home to help me with an assignment for next year.  As we prepare the virtual classroom activities for our students in 4° de la ESO (sophomores), I have been put in charge of the listening exercises.  After writing monologues and dialogues with appropriate vocabulary and grammar from each unit and sending the scripts to family and friends, I will be adding recordings of these familiar (and now internationally famous!) voices to my students’ workload for 2013-2014.

With that, the school year is rapidly coming to a close.  I’ve had quite the crash course in teaching this year, learning (but with so much left to learn) about what works and what doesn’t in classroom management, curriculum design, and student engagement.  Here’s to a second year with fewer kinks and even more successes.

fringe benefits

Any good educator will tell you that teaching is a two-way street – we impart knowledge upon our students, and we also learn a great deal from them.  Of course, this is true.  Depending on the age level and subject matter that one teaches, this student-to-teacher flow of learning may provide the teacher with ways to improve his or her pedagogy, inspiration to persevere in the face of adversity, concrete subject-matter facts, or a change of perspective that can only come from seeing the world through the eyes of a child.

While I certainly have had this experience while working with my kids at IES Leonardo da Vinci, bidirectional knowledge exchange is even more obvious in the conversation classes I teach.  In addition to my regular classes at school, I hold a weekly conversation group for my coworkers, have four private classes outside of school, and I also teach twice weekly at an English conversation group at a bar, where students come for an hour and a half, are organized into small groups by level (no more than three students and one teacher), and chat in English over drinks and tapas.  In the latter, we always have a list of five topics, often ripped from the headlines, to spark conversation among hesitant students, but we usually end up meandering across a wide variety of subjects, most of which are not on the list.  In fact, I judge a successful session by how little I rely on the cheat sheet, since the goal of the sessions is to recreate, as authentically as possible, a casual social meet-up of friends at a bar in an English-speaking environment.  My job, of course, is to guide the conversation, ensure equal student participation, and correct grammatical errors while offering new words and phrases to enhance students’ vocabulary, both during and at the end of each session.

English conversation groups at Chapoo Restaurant and Bar in Majadahonda, Spain.  You can find me in the back corner wearing a blue sweater.

English conversation groups at Chapoo Restaurant and Bar in Majadahonda, Spain. You can find me in the back corner wearing a blue sweater.

In both my private classes and the conversation groups, the truth of the matter is that I more or less get paid to speak in my native language.  Easy peasy.  Yes, I have to prepare material, and I must focus carefully on students’ use of English and delicately maneuver in-conversation correction without disrupting conversation flow or discouraging participation.  But beyond that, I’m paid to talk.  I can think of many a friend and family member back home who would do really well with this job description (ahem…you know who you are…).  Being someone who is shy in new situations and quite chatty once comfortable, this has been an excellent crash course in being talkative from the start and managing a wide variety of personalities in a group setting.

But what does this all have to do with the idea of education being a two-way street?  Well, while I coach my students in pronunciation, colloquial phrases, prepositions and false friends, they tell me about their lives.  Their rich, varied lives.  Save one high schooler, all of my students are 4-40+ years older than I am, and they each have a unique set of experiences and advice to impart upon me as they practice their English.

In my private classes, I have a student who is a camera operator on movie, TV and commercial sets as well as an avid mountain climber.  His girlfriend, also my student, studied forestry and spent time living in Finland.  I also teach a high school junior who knows more about European history than the Encyclopedia Britannica.  Once, I tutored my landlady’s Italian daughter-in-law who is studying a Master’s in English literature, and had to brush up on my iambic pentameter (something I never quite mastered in 12th grade AP English and certainly didn’t master the second time around while preparing for this tutoring session) before an exam.  Among my coworkers who participate in my conversation class at school, there are psychologists, avid travelers, economists, mathematicians, biologists and ingenious engineers, all of whom are also passionate and dedicated educators.  And this is just the tip of the iceberg.  In the conversation groups at the bar, I’ve had the honor of teaching dozens of Spaniards from all over the country, as well as people from Argentina, Switzerland, Cuba and Ukraine.  One gentleman is looking to improve his English to get a job in Qatar to be closer to his wife who is working in Kuwait.  Another woman joins us because she has extra free time in retirement and wants to keep up her English while studying French on her own and Italian at a language school.  We have doctors, nurses, statisticians, pilots, businessmen, housewives, jewelry makers, journalists, chemists, architects, engineers and musicians, all of whom end up, through the course of a 1.5 hour session, teaching us a little something about their profession (and often philosophizing a bit about life while they’re at it).  I have even learned about the world of corporate gifts (i.e. the pens you end up stealing from hotels and the calendars that real estate agents send you in the mail) – not a fascinating topic on paper, but the ins and outs of the field were actually quite interesting.  Just this week, a young woman told us about her favorite hobby: scuba diving.  And of course, we have lots of students who are also teachers, of both primary and secondary school, who share funny student anecdotes and useful tricks of the trade.  To top it all off, I have received countless travel recommendations, as well as names of books, bands, films, restaurants and websites that I need to check out.

And all of this over a glass or two of wine and some mussels or patatas bravas.  Not bad at all.

where’d all the good people go?

In the song “Good People,” Jack Johnson asks, “Where’d all the good people go? / I’ve been changing channels I don’t seem them on the TV shows.”

After a fortnight that has seen both tragic catastrophe for Boston and minor inconvenience for me, I can tell you that I know exactly where the good people are.  They’re all around us.

Last Monday, I was eating dinner at home when a friend gchatted me and asked if I had seen the news.  I quickly plugged into all of the media outlets I could get my hands on and learned that there had been two explosions at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Luckily, I confirmed pretty quickly that all of my friends and family were safe.  But as the events of the week unfolded, and images of bloodied victims at the scene, a shut down Copley Square, and army tanks rolling through deserted Watertown streets dominated my computer screen, I felt a strong pull toward the other side of the Atlantic.  My city was calling my name, and it felt stranger and stranger to be so far away.  I know now that my homecoming in late June, which was already slated to be emotional, will send an extra shiver down my spine.  I also know exactly where I will celebrate July 4: watching the fireworks and listening to the Pops alongside the Charles, enjoying my beautiful city with my friends and fellow Americans.

The tragedy was all over the news here in Madrid as well, and the kindness I received from concerned friends, colleagues and students about my loved ones back home helped ease the pain a bit.  Of course their kind words were nothing compared to the outpouring of heroism seen in Boston.  Runners finished the race and continued on to local hospitals to give blood.  Emergency officials and regular people ran straight to victims’ aid with no concern for their personal safety.  Later, the Chicago Tribune sent pizza to the Globe to help energize tired journalists, and the Yankees and other teams around the league played Sweet Caroline as a tribute to the Sox and Boston.  David Ortiz swore on national television, and the director of the FCC chose not to fine him because of the emotional support his words gave the city.  There are billions of people in the world.  Some of them are evil.  But most of them are far from it.

While I don’t intend in any way to compare the horrific events in Boston last week to a tiny personal problem I recently dealt with (I’ve gone back and forth on whether to share them in the same blog post at all), I think that the stories show the same kind of humanity, though on incomparable scales.  So I’ll continue, as long as you know that I know these two events really can’t be compared.  After dropping my cell phone in the toilet and navigating Spanish customs and other bureaucracy to finally receive my brother’s old phone in the mail, I went to get the phone unlocked and was subsequently screwed over, lied to and laughed at by the employees at the store.  Amid a nine-day annoyance of red tape, rudeness, and thus, phonelessness, I was blessed with offers from friends to give the jerks a piece of their minds, as well as above-and-beyond kindness from the man at my phone company’s store, who bent the rules, gave me a discount, and offered not-in-the-job-description help in dealing with the phone unlocking guys.

And when doubt still remains about the goodness in the world, we can always look to children to find innocence, big ideas and even bigger smiles.  In honor of El Día del Libro (Book Day, which celebrates literature on the anniversary of Shakespeare’s and Cervantes’ death) on April 23rd, two of my seventh grade classes cowrote a story with fifth graders at my mom’s school in Massachusetts.  As paragraphs, illustrations and voice recordings were sent back and forth across the pond, we ended up with a hilarious and adorable story about multicultural Mr. Potato Heads.  My colleague Elena compiled it all into a beautiful online format, which can be seen here.

reading together across the pond

Did you know that March 6 is World Read Aloud Day?  Yeah, neither did I.  But, having an elementary school librarian for a mother allows you to learn these things.  And, having an innovative and passionate elementary school librarian for a mother, combined with enthusiastic and spontaneous colleagues and bosses, combined with smart and energetic students, allows you to do wonderful projects like this one:

The 4th and 5th graders from Peaslee Elementary School in Northborough, MA play the role of Cinderella, while one of my classes of primero de la ESO (7th grade) are the evil stepsisters.  This cross-cultural collaboration came together in less than a week, due to the hard work of the students and educators involved.  I must say, I’m quite proud of my kids!