My niece Jen teaches English in a small pre-K through adult school district in a small town (pop. 8,000) in northern Spain. The town is most notable for its Romanesque church, its castle ruin and its cookie factory – the largest in Europe.
Each morning, Jen begins her day with 5-year-olds in a classroom in the school basement decorated with colorful posters and student artwork. The letters of the alphabet with pictures (A for Apple, B for Book) ring the tops of the bulletin boards. A long, two-sided bookcase divides the classroom. On one side are several small round tables with chairs, on the other a playhouse, a large rug and a SMART Board (combination whiteboard, computer touch screen and video player). Except for the s SMART Board, it looks very much like the kindergarten my children attended.
The students begin to arrive at 9 a.m. They exchange good mornings with Jen, hang up their coats and sit around the rug. The 5-year-olds wear purple gingham smocks with their names embroidered along the front. The Pre-K group of 3- to 4-year-olds wears bright red smocks with yellow piping and a blue screen-printed border, with their names embroidered in yellow.
Jen starts up the SMART Board. A young man with a guitar appears on the screen to lead the children in a good morning song, while Jen helps the younger children settle in place and makes sure they are paying attention. Xavier, one of the Pre-K students, is Class Leader for the day. He directs the class through several phonics-based games using the touch screen.
“The SMART Board is great,” Jen whispers to me. “It’s like having another teacher in the room. Every class in the school has one.”
Next, the students practice the poem they will recite at the school’s Open House in a week. Afterward, they break into groups to color pictures for the presentation. Everything is done and said in English. The 3-year-olds are still making mistakes, the 4- and 5-year-olds are nearly flawless.
During her break, Jen takes me on a tour of the school. In the sixth-grade class, each of the students is working with his or her personal notebook computer. I am feeling a bit envious – this little town’s school seems as well-equipped as those of Silicon Valley, and the 3-year-olds are already learning English. Here is a country that really puts value on education!
However, while walking back to Jen’s house from the school, we meet one of her friends. He is an attractive young man of approximately 30, who speaks excellent English and has a master’s degree in business administration from one of the best universities in Spain. But he still lives with his parents. He has been looking for work since getting his degree. The best he has been able to manage in Spain’s economic meltdown is a part-time job on the night shift at the cookie factory.
What value, education?