Big Fat F

imagesI remember the first one c. 1977. It was a 5th-grade social studies test. There was a bonus question: Who was Gary Gilmore? I shared my superior knowledge of current affairs and the dark return of capital punishment in the US with my classmate, Kelly Chaney, by a subtle shift of my test in her direction. From her angle, my answer of ‘He got executed’ must have looked more like ‘Head of the executive,’ because that’s what she wrote. Whether the teacher actually saw us cheating or just guessed from that preposterous answer, we were both rewarded with a big zero of a grade. These details stand out in my memory as a turning point on my previously flawless academic record, not to mention criminal history. But it was mainly the trauma of the failing grade and subsequent shock and awe treatment from my parents. None of us were prepared for failure.

I also remember the first and only year my own children went to a US public school in 2002. Things had changed. There were regular school awards ceremonies throughout the year, in which certificates the likes of Best Attendance, Best Teacher’s Helper, Most Considerate, Snappiest Dresser, Top Animal Lover, Cleanest Hands, etc. were conferred so as to leave no one out, everyone a winner at something even if they didn’t make honor roll. By the end of kindergarten, the overt praise started to feel a little like a sticky, drippy lollipop you just don’t want to hold anymore. If I had had a hard time dealing with a bad grade for cheating back in Mrs. Stanley’s class, what in the world would these kids be prepared for after 12 years of institutional ego waxing on top of the ramped-up academic expectations? Still, even though I can rattle on about how out of whack this all is with the real world, and in fact have left my country in search of a kinder, gentler –ok, messier—reality for my kids, of course I still expect them to get good grades.

Flash forward to the present: They barely manage to pass many of their school subjects and some not even. I have not so much come to terms with this as resigned myself to it kicking and screaming. Because, based on my experience, school is supposed to work as follows: You attend class, do the assignments, do your homework, study for tests in whatever way works for you (for me it was in Cyndi and Kristi Palmer’s closet atop a pile of clothes, smoking cigarettes with the door closed; for mine the pile of clothes remains, cigarettes replaced by 12 open chat windows, tweets, likes and the essential scanner for note sharing) and your grades should reasonably reflect these efforts, right? Only the very unfortunate few actually fail. There were no F’s (other than the one for cheating) in my social circle. So how can it be that my kids and any number of their friends fail subjects at the end of the year?

The fact is they are not some of those very unfortunate few; they are part of the unfortunate many who seem to almost take it in stride here. My best approach to rationalizing it is semantics. Because llevarse una materia doesn’t mean failure as much it does ‘not yet passing’ or schlepping the subject along with you until you manage to pass it. We no longer make vacation plans in Dec. because of the likelihood that they’ll have to take extra exams; and if they don’t manage to pass then, they get yet another chance in Feb. right before the next school year starts in the southern hemisphere, pretty much leaving the entire summer in limbo and impossible to plan. As if it weren’t still a major challenge for me to plan ‘summer’ in December as it is (I repeatedly refer to January as July). So I go about the business of searching for the relativity factor in all this, unraveling my previously stated view on the universal way of school, grades, etc., and try to understand it in context. After all, failure is a harsh, heavy word. Maybe it’s a hemispheric thing, maybe it’s the water. Or maybe it’s just me.

I have a problem with failure. It’s all wrapped up in competition. Although I get a sense of solidarity when talking to other local (and to wit, unfazed) parents about how many subjects their teenagers have to retake this summer, my sense of competition takes over when the subject comes up with my own parents or friends outside Argentina. Their kids are all busy overachieving, becoming honor students, taking AP classes, etc., while mine and many of their classmates can’t manage to pass math. The competitive thing gets in the way. I shut down, change the subject, can’t deal with the f-word.

But here’s the thing. There is very little coddling or micro-management of students at the school my little slackers attend. No tracking, no phone calls home from the teacher because they’ve slipped from an A to a B, no neatly quantifiable assessment of academic performance. They are expected to figure out how to study and process loads of content in 13 subjects, very few grades factor into their averages and no grade-curving. If they are lacking any single element teachers consider fundamental to their subject by the end of the year, they will likely not pass. Heavily subjective, but it is what it is. Sink or swim. Who the hell ever heard of failing art or music? Welcome to the schools of the UBA (University of Buenos Aires). Thank god they have multiple opportunities to finally pass. And who knows, maybe along the way, students learn something about falling into a pit and how to figure their way out. In my experience, this is what life serves up on a regular basis long after school is done.

I am presently in my own process of digging my way out of this confounded notion I have of what a bad grade means, and feeling like I’m getting a glimpse of light coming from above. I am pretty convinced that the time invested in academics, sports and other varieties of competition leaves scarce room for students in the US to fail but not be considered a failure. Argentina is a messy, frustrating and in some ways broken-down place, but Argentines do manage to scramble their way out of crisis after crisis. Crossing my fingers that my kid will reap copious benefits from having failed Latin and Math this year and spent a summer learning how to pass them. Tomorrow we’ll find out.

I Am, therefore I Do

DSCN2346Just the other day I got a kiss and congratulations on an arguably un-momentous occasion: the purchase of a new car. The kudos came from the guy who keeps watch in our parking garage. He came out of his booth, gave me a big smile and warm felicitaciones. It was a genuine sentiment and made my day, not because I thought congrats were in order, but because he did. That is just the kind of person he is—the “to be” kind rather than the “to do” kind. He’s Paraguayan. A few years ago he shaved his prematurely thinning hair and actually looks much better as a bald guy. He wears nice clothes and is always in a good mood. What he does (sit in a booth in a dingy parking garage) in no way defines who he is.

My first exposure to life in a “to be” culture was in Spain. After moving there, the more people I met, the more it became apparent that nobody was asking the standard ‘What do you do?’ question. Ever. They asked about how I liked the food (Spaniards loooove to talk about food), why we had decided to move there, how the kids were adapting, if I had tried the gambas yet, but never ‘What do you do?’ Spaniards place you immediately in their own social context. Which, by the way, revolves around food. The experience of being around Argentines has been similar. Even more so than in Spain, Argentines want to know how you feel, if you miss home, your family, your friends, etc. And they are particularly keen to know your where your fútbol loyalties lie. Because for them, what team you’re on is key; for Argentines, interpersonal relationships and a sense of community are a big part of who they are. I would even venture to say that people in both these countries might consider it rude to ask about a person’s profession right away in the sense that it would be seen as a cold and impersonal question. At the very least, it feels awkward to me now to ask this question.

Googling around for interesting research on “to be” vs. “to do” cultures, I surprisingly didn’t come up with much. There’s this, which I think gives a pretty limited view of both, making “to be” cultures seem primitive and sounding straight out of an Intro to Anthropology textbook. It does at least highlight the relationship element of “to be” cultures. There are an interesting number of takes on the subject from the corporate world, tirelessly stretching its tentacles into all fields. None of this, however, speaks about the “to dos” and “to bes” in everyday terms, how living in a society that is one or the other shapes how people interact. And act. Personally, I think it is more on the micro-level that being and doing become more relevant and meaningful in different cultures. After all, most people in Argentina and Spain are certainly career-minded and can speak at length about their professions in certain contexts; however, they don’t generally refer to what they do (i.e., their jobs) when introducing themselves. In fact, I kind of take issue altogether with the English usage of ‘what do you do?,’ which really means ‘what is your job?,’ on the grounds that we all do many things in our lives. It just doesn’t translate well.

I recently heard someone say, “What you do defines who you are.” I would argue that it is who we are that defines what we do, and furthermore that one should be careful in uttering cultural maxims as if they were universal truths. The cultural relativity of what exactly makes us who we are is the only true universal here. For example, here are some lower-case “to dos” from my southern upbringing, which supposedly shaped my character: Saying yes ma’am = respectful of one’s elders. (I really wasn’t.) I can’t tell you how annoying it is every time I now visit Virginia and get yes ma’amed all the time from people of all ages. It makes me feel like I’m 80; it also evokes a visit to the parrot cage at the zoo. Writing thank-you notes = sufficiently grateful. I always thought the genuinely uttered words were sufficient. It was assumed that forming these habits would bestow these qualities upon us. Honestly? All it really bestowed was perfunctory, meaningless behavior that, if not acquired, was basic grounds for judgment being passed on your character. Not that I have anything against thank you notes when one is just overflowing with gratitude for that $20 bill in the greeting card, but guess what? Nobody does that in the other places I’ve lived. So are they therefore all scandalously ungrateful for their birthday presents?

Actually Argentines give enormous importance to birthdays, especially the party aspect. The presence of their closest friends and family is the most important thing. There are gifts of course, but they are very secondary to the social gathering and often opened after everyone leaves, so there’s no way of even knowing who gave you what. Ergo, no thank-yous; the material part of it is an afterthought. There is however something that people do that is always surprising to me. Friends and family members who cannot be present call to personally wish happy birthday and ask how your day is going. Especially amongst family, if this phone call is overlooked, the birthday person will get offended. It’s kind of like the thank-you note requirement, except the outcome is not a judgment on anyone’s character. People are just genuinely hurt that you didn’t remember, that you forgot to be there for them. It’s the being there emotionally that matters, not just the lip-service.

The reduced number of little “dos and don’ts” in these cultures of course makes for less polite, more unruly, louder and unrestrained interactions among people on an everyday basis. (I invite you to watch fights among taxi drivers at rush hour here.) However, I don’t notice the bitingly judgmental nature of “to do” societies in people here. Furthermore, not being constantly asked what you do for a living is liberating in that you are free to describe yourself in any terms and not limited to the label of your profession or lack thereof. I paint, I write, I travel, I raise my children, I work. (I have a friend who refuses to be labeled professionally; when he has to fill in official documents, he writes Worker in the blank by Profession even though he holds a Ph.D.) Not having to adhere to the constraints of certain “dos and don’ts” means you are free to act based on who you are and what you believe. If I am a generous person, I will give to others naturally; if I am not, dumping my old clothes at Caritas or Good Will does not make me generous. However, even if I am not a generous person, perhaps I am a good listener or a great teacher or even a hero. So don’t judge me based on the small things I don’t do.

My garage attendant’s name is Christian. In addition to being a nice guy, he is also a huge fan of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano and can talk at length about his books on Latin American history. He’s always reading something. Imagine if I had met Christian at a dinner party and started our conversation with ‘What do you do?’

What happened to the lazy days of summer?

Last day of school

One of the most gratifying things about keeping this blog is that, in hashing out things that bug me about the school experience in Buenos Aires – things that are lacking, broken, perplexing – I often end up discovering the flip side of those concerns in the US system. This gives me a deeper understanding of where my own fears are rooted and often leads me to the realization that, actually, this “otherness” that my kids are immersed in is not nearly as scary to me as the opposite end of the spectrum. And I end up learning something about myself. The subtitle in my header, cultural bone-baring, has to do with this – laying bare my own cultural moorings as well as those I begin to uncover in Argentine culture.

Case in point: The length of the school day/year, or in other words, net time spent in educational institution. I have mentioned the short school day here several times in previous posts. If we add to that the increasingly long list of feriados (thank you, Cristina), missed days due to strikes, and whopping summer vacation (3 ½ months for my kids!) – well, you can see where I’m going with this. It is a major red flag when I plug it all into the ‘net time’ formula. Will it all add up to them being something like a year behind by the time they finish high school? And that’s only compared to the 180-day US school year; god forbid I should start comparing it to the Chinese!

Well, now that I’ve brought the Chinese into it, as a matter of fact that is exactly what has been going on in the States in recent years. Comparisons to the Chinese, I mean. And apparently the quantity over quality approach is at the forefront of current proposals to lengthen the US school year to 12 months. Because we must keep up with the Chinese. However, more disturbing to me than the idea of no proper summer vacation are the reasons given by US high school students in opposition to the 12-month school year in this telling example in Teen Ink magazine. The essay focuses on summer internships and jobs in its argument, as do many of the follow-up comments (except for the one from China, ironically.)

Even though the teenage author and responses are obviously opposed to 12 months of school, their arguments seem to echo the same culture of work, work, work that’s behind the 12-month proposal in the first place. Not that I have a problem with summer internships and jobs (I would actually love for my kids to have those opportunities), but what I found oddly missing in the essay or follow-up were any protests about having to forego the social aspects of free time in summer, travel or just having time to read for pleasure and hang out with friends. For me, the kind of emotional and social maturity and self-exploration that comes with having the time to enjoy these things is right up there with more math. And the long break is good for the soul. (Ok, maybe not 3 ½ months worth, but still…) There is something sad in the fact that those teenagers don’t lobby for their right to sleep late in summer. And what this implies is that American teenagers – at least the ones who participated in this debate – are well on their way to having acquired the uber work ethic in their already jam-packed year-round schedules, so much so that the ‘sleeping late’ argument doesn’t even cross their minds.

Well. My Argentine teenagers are masters of the ‘sleeping late’ argument. They seem to think it’s some kind of divine right, becoming truly flummoxed and offended at the mere suggestion of getting up early to take advantage of their summer days. In fact, Argentina is really just one giant lounge-fest for most middle-class teenagers when they’re not in school. They hang out in parks, play their guitars, sing, drink mate, stay out all night – in other words, they’ve got their priorities straight. They truly take their leisure seriously and would no doubt take to the streets to defend their right to it if faced with the threat of 12 months of school. Like I said, I’d love it if my kids would do something a little more productive with all that free time in summer – get a part-time job or volunteer — but deep down, I actually kind of like that they so militantly defend their right to just hang out. I guess because if I dig way back to my own adolescence, I can relate. And honestly, I find it hard to relate to this generation of teenagers in the US who clamor for their right to spend the summer working. So there it is: perhaps I’m more Argentine than I think.

Of course, none of this really does anything to resolve my inner debate about the short schoolday in Buenos Aires and what sort of long-term consequences it will have. However, it does ease my mind a little about the intrinsic value of what teenagers do with the rest of their time here, either in summer or in after-school hours and the cultural relevance it has for me personally. They definitely have plenty of time to explore music, art, sports, whatever, without the stress of so many hours of school and homework. Who knows; perhaps the freedom to have a good time and lack of pressure in high school actually leads to more mature college students. This is certainly the assessment offered by the guys at BA Cast podcast in their education series, when they claim that university in Argentina is about serious study after all the partying in high school is over, whereas it is often just the opposite in the US.

I was recently watching a documentary about the history of jazz. There’s a part where Wynton Marsalis talks about how jazz is so fundamentally American that it could never have emerged anywhere but the US. He attributes this to the unique ethnic and cultural diversity of late 19th-century New Orleans and how this bred the ability to improvise, both in everyday life as well as in music. The Argentines know something about this as well. Thinking about that and the current trend in the US toward getting students to perform like the Chinese, I wonder if great jazz could ever have come out of a country like China?

University Prep Schools in Buenos Aires: The case for ILSE

I have lately come to believe that the education debate is kind of in free-fall, with different solutions, alternatives and panaceas up for grabs. I suppose this is the product of having dealt with three different systems in as many countries, rendering me muddled and confused as to what’s really best for my kids at the moment or in the long run (not necessarily the same thing.) I have gone from leaving No Child Left Behind far behind when we moved from the US, to a public school in southern Spain that appeared to be mainly about getting through all their textbooks and memorizing long lists of bones, muscles, plants and provinces; then we crossed back over the pond to a “progressive” private elementary school in BsAs. that often seemed more like a cage of monkeys than a school. This last finally led us to our current best option for high school: ILSE (Instituto Libre de Segunda Enseñanza), a traditional, uniformed – some might say old-fashioned – school that came with the initial filter of a heavy-duty entrance exam (see previous post). Who knew such a school would turn out to be the least of all evils and perhaps even the best of all worlds?

Despite my continued misgivings about the education my children are getting, when people ask if we plan to stay in Argentina, to my surprise I find myself mentioning school as one of the most compelling reasons for not moving on to cleaner, cheaper, more first-world climes at present. How did this happen, me and all my complaining and second-guessing of so many systems? To be sure, I’m definitely not convinced that their schooling is suddenly fantastic, but I’m also not convinced that the alternatives available to them in the US would necessarily be better, at least in terms of the big picture. Yes, they would have a full school day, elective classes, better facilities, more resources, sports, etc. – all things I wish they had – but I am not so sure that they would in fact be learning more. And then there are the social realities of high school life in the US that don’t need pointing out…

Honestly, I started writing about my kids’ schooling when they began first grade in Spain as a way to hash out my concerns and frequent bafflement. These have always at heart been largely due to my foreignness to the system and local codes, and compounded by the fact that my brain has been constantly fed by the education debate in the US conveniently coinciding with my kids being educated abroad. So in my surprising present state of quasi-satisfaction, I set out to clarify some of my lingering doubts about ILSE and how it differs from the other colegios universitarios de la UBA (see previous post for basic description of this unique system of university prep schools). In an interview with ILSE Vice Principal (Vicerrector), Roald Devetac, I had the opportunity to discuss several issues that may prove interesting for other expat parents looking for high school alternatives for their kids in Buenos Aires.

My first question was regarding the school’s academic focus compared to the Nacional Buenos Aires (humanities), Carlos Pelegrini (historically more business-oriented, although has undergone a shift in recent years) and the new Agronomía (agro-technical). According to Mr. Devetac, ILSE’s focus is comprehensive and humanities-based, much like the Nacional Buenos Aires. The latter being historically the most prestigious of all these schools, I told him we had chosen ILSE over the Buenos Aires because it was similar academically (actually, nearly identical; see curricula for both at ILSE and CNBA), but differed in three key aspects for us: no third shift, no teacher strikes, no student takeovers. I was curious as to why the last two issues do not seem to come up at ILSE as part of the public university system. As such, it has never been sufficiently clear to me everything implied by the assertion that these schools all “dependen de la UBA (Universidad de Buenos Aires).” If they all “depend” equally, then why do neither ILSE teachers nor students go on strike like they do in the others? The answer is that ILSE’s relationship of dependency (more aptly translated as ‘governance by’) is limited to the UBA-designed academic curriculum. While this relationship extends to politics, policy, administration and student council in the other schools, ILSE is an independent institution on all fronts except its curriculum. This independence is also reflected in the fact that its subsidy is only 70%, the remaining fee of 30% effectively rendering it a private school, while the others are completely public. For me this guarantees that my kids’ classes will be equally challenging academically, but they won’t be cancelled due to walkouts like the one that went on for weeks at the Pellegrini last year due to parent, student and faculty opposition to the choice of new principal there.

Another feature that sets ILSE apart from the other universitarios is its reputation for strict discipline. Notably, students are required to wear uniforms and stand up when a teacher enters the classroom. There is also a very clearly defined system of sanctions for non-compliance with the rules. As I mentioned in my original post on Argentine schools, for some parents who grew up here, this kind of requirement may be reminiscent of the years of harsh repression in schools during the dictatorship of the 1970s. (For a good film depicting that atmosphere in the Nacional Buenos Aires, see La Mirada Invisible.) In fact, a number of our friends overtly criticized ILSE and discouraged our choice for this reason when we decided on the school. However, not having lived through those dark times in Argentina myself, but rather having lived through the backlash of its aftermath, my initial impression of ILSE was one of clear rules aimed at students’ best interests, genuine prioritization of academic excellence, and quiet, focused classrooms with thoughtful and accomplished adults in charge. What really stayed with me from that first visit, though, was the impression Mr. Devetac made on me with his obvious dedication to students’ wellbeing and commitment to providing the best learning environment. So when I asked him what he thought about the school’s reputation as heavy-handed, or even military in the eyes of some adults, he chuckled and said in no uncertain terms: There must be rules for there to be learning. Honestly, the kinds of sanctions my kids have had to suffer during their first year at ILSE have amounted to being written up – if you accumulate too many write-ups, they affect your academic standing – for forgetting permission slips, talking in class, etc. They have served the purpose of breaking bad habits, so I fail to see how this is repressive.

As for the academic side of ILSE, this has been a year of transition for us. Perhaps not as demanding as I had expected outside of school hours, although the work has definitely ramped up the second half of the year; they spent a lot of time working on group projects the first part. I asked Mr. Devetac about this, given the comments from many expat parents here on the issue of group vs. individual work. He assured me that ILSE takes a balanced approach to the two, and that as of second year, students begin to produce term papers and other demanding individual projects. He also mentioned the worldwide shift in education toward prioritizing teamwork, alongside the importance of individual work and the self-discipline it requires. In the context of global education trends, we also discussed new technologies. Mr. Devetac acknowledged the need to incorporate them, with the caveat that not all of them have yet been proven to add value to education; in other words, the real benefits of new technology should always be kept in perspective.

Going back to what I mentioned earlier regarding the learning factor at school, I think it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between excellence and superior learning, especially for Americans since we come from such a competitive society where excellence always refers to top performance in school. I personally have really struggled with this issue this year. My kids, their ILSE classmates, and friends attending Pellegrini and Buenos Aires all seem to be focused on passing grades. Not top – just passing with a 7 or above. (It is a daily exercise for me to subdue the nagging alarm bells that anything below 88 is a C, mediocre, not up to par.) The fact is, they struggle to achieve these grades, spending hours studying for tests, producing charts, summaries, lists of definitions, etc. to prepare for long essay answers on everything from music history to Greek and Roman mythology. Not a multiple choice in sight, no standardized testing, no grading curve here. Then in my other ear, I get to hear from my friends and family in the States about their kids in wow high schools, all of whom are taking AP classes, in IB programs aiming for the best universities and jumping through the necessary hoops to get there: the coveted 4.0, stellar SAT scores, extracurriculars and all of the above. Bs are frowned upon. A friend recently sent me her daughter’s schedule, which ran from 6am-9pm and included scheduled activities on Sat. and Sun. in addition to the loads of homework. We don’t have that kind of “excellence” here. However, we do have lively conversations in which the kids spontaneously discuss things over dinner like the differences between the societies of  Sparta and Ancient Greece. They have strong opinions about learning Latin and syntax; they’re definitely much more verbal about school subjects than I ever was at that age. In fact, they seem to be learning a lot without being focused on the competitive aspect of top grades as a means to get somewhere else in the long-run. And I wonder if this way  of learning is really such a mediocre thing after all, what with so many paths available to them.

En fin, it turns out that ILSE was probably the best of all choices for us. I wouldn’t trade this for the kind of schedules kids have in the US, no matter how great their sports facilities, theater programs and state-of-art classroom technologies. My kids are engaged, challenged, well cared for, developing good habits, at times stressed about academics, but still have time to learn outside of school as well, which is equally – if not sometimes more – valuable. Perhaps I will write about that another time…