Let's talk for a second about the Spanish school system.
From ages 6-16, an education is free and compulsory. Many schools offer a pre-school for ages 3-5, but parents have to pay a small amount. For students ages 16-18, there is a form of university preparatory education, offered at public secondary schools. Parents also have to pay a small sum for this. After this there are trade schools, universities, and so on, just as in the US. While in Palencia, I have the challenge and honor to assisting with English and bilingual classes at a public primary school.
To be completely forward and honest, I never had a primary or secondary school education. I did not go to grade school, middle school, or high-school. I was home-schooled up until I started college. And it was a very particular brand of homeschooling, which I refer to affectionately as 'unschool.' As an unschool student, I never had class time or a set time for studying or learning. My classmates were my brothers and sisters and we learned by living, by doing, by being little people in the world our parents had made for us. Our parents would read to us, helped us learn to write, and taught us basic mathematics. Beyond that, our education was entirely by osmosis. We made weekly sojourns to the library and had playdates with other unschool and homeschool families. We learned the subjects we chose through PBS and the books we read. Sometimes we took private classes on subjects that could not be learned through books alone, such as for music and language, but they were generally individual classes or small group sessions that took place on the weekend. In short, I was isolated from the reality of a public education.
To summarize my personal understanding of what a typical primary school child would be like, we have no further to look than the cartoons of the 90's that depicted school children in their daily lives. That is to say, my impression of what school children act like and learn like came from Arthur, the Magic School Bus, and Recess.
No, I never believed that public school children were aardvarks and rabbits (don't be silly), nor that children took field-trips every day and would shrink or turn into animals. But I admit most honestly that I assumed the children of 3rd Street School were an accurate portrayal of children aged 5 to 11. I assumed there would be little cliques and groups of children, that there would be a boys against girls attitude and a teachers against kids attitude. I figured that there would be children of all walks of life with home-life problems that would interfere with school work. I have been quite relieved and annoyed at times to find that all of this is true. And the older they get, the more problems there are. But I digress...
Let's get to some specifics about my kids.
At my school I am working with children as young as six and as old as twelve. The six age groups are divided into two groups each, making a total of 12 classes of about 12-18 children.
Sweet faced, full of energy, and slightly confused, these six year olds love to sing. In general, the only problem with these little ones is that they don't understand instructions given in English. Which, in part, is why I am here. I speak with them only in English and try to help them gleen accent and vocabulary from me. We'll see in time if I am making any significant differences.
These curious seven year olds are anxious for class to end so they can play and frolic. Most especially one little girl. A precocious, bright child. Perhaps, I sometimes think, too bright. She never listens to the teachers. And when she does, she intentionally follows instructions incorrectly. My heart goes out to her, wishing she could be home-educated and given the freedom she needs to go at a faster pace as not to become bored with the tedious work of second grade.
Eight is a wonderful age. I remember this age for myself with great fondness. I spend the most time with this age group, about an hour and a half with each of the two sections each week. The subject I attend is science. They are just like little sponges, soaking up all of the information we give them. Getting it back out, then, is the problem.
Excited and energetic, I am truly challenged to keep up with them. This group is particularly enthusiastic about learning, and are generally more attentive to the teacher than other groups. In one of the sections is a young boy with a learning impairment. But he is sweet, and the other children seem to accept him as one of their own. It is wonderful to see the caring acceptance that children show before they are corrupted by bias and the hateful realities of adulthood.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic class that I have the pleasure of assisting with, these ten and eleven year olds are so attentive that I could spend an hour telling them about my socks and the majority of them would be asking me which pair was my favorite. This age group is of course on the edge of entering adolescence. This means that they are all quite curious about one particular thing with me. One of the first things they asked me was "Do you have a boyfriend?" There is one student in this group that concerns me. A pretty girl that seems to think an education is superfluous. She does not listen to me, the teacher, or even her classmates. This week, during my hour with her class, she spent the entire time chattering away with whoever was sitting next to her, ignoring everything that was said, as each person described his or her self. When it came to her turn, she could not even manage to say "I have brown hair and brown eyes" even though the exact phrase was said at least a dozen times by her peers. If it were not for moments like these, I would find this the most enjoyable job I have ever had.
Puberty is perhaps the most frustrating thing about group education. With so many things about their bodies changing, putting attention to the development of their minds is a struggle, even for the bright ones. I was a horrid tween, constantly causing problems and concerns for my parents, and so really cannot blame these twelve year olds for being so easily distracted. They are noisy, cannot follow instructions, and require me to repeat myself a lot. In class, they are a true challenge.
I find that adolescence is not a good time for group education. During the ages of 12 to about 18 there are too many awkward phases and the youths seem to have too much to prove when among their peers. I prefer to handle children of this age on an individual basis. Individual teens and tweens are manageable, intelligent, and interesting people. Sometimes you have to work for it, but one can draw out the amazing developing adult and see for oneself as their opinions of the world develop and form. But in a group, they are like an angry, confused stampede. Uncontrollable and unwilling to listen to reason.