How Our Kids Enjoyed Schools in Spain: Our Story

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Our kids spent the past year at local schools in Spain, and I’m thrilled to report just how well it went. If last week’s post sounded overly negative (I didn’t mean it that way), then this post about schools in Spain will tell a different side of the story.

How Our Kids Enjoyed Schools in Spain: Our Story

In this small series posts, I’ve tried to my best to describe different aspects of our first-year saga living in Spain. For more tips on Spain residency and living in Spain, look here:

SCHOOLS IN SPAIN: OUR STORY

You can catch up on the story and learn from our many, many mistakes by clicking the links above. Otherwise, I’ll move on and describe how the kids’ first year in schools in Spain was worth all the trouble we went through.

Our experience has really given legitimacy to the name of this site because it has been an education of epic proportions for all four of us, and we are all better people because of it. Despite setbacks and other obstacles, we have accomplished our main objective.

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How Our Kids Enjoyed Schools in Spain Our Story PIN 1

What was our main objective? It wasn’t to secure a Spanish residency visa or find an apartment. Nor was it to collect our paperwork or merely to get our kids into local schools in Spain. No. Our objective was for our kids to make friends, learn a new language and have a deeper experience with a new culture.

Mission accomplished.

KIDS, IMMERSION & SCHOOLS IN SPAIN

How Our Kids Enjoyed Schools in Spain: Our Story M & S with umbrellas in Cuenca

In other words, our kids speak Spanish now. Not fluently, but comfortably and competently. It took less than a year for them to become comfortable in the language and culture of Spain. In that short a span of time, both the boy and girl can navigate their way through life in Valencia in an astoundingly fluid way. Keiko and I, unfortunately, are another story, but in this post let me focus on the kids and their experience with schools in Spain.

Square One: Entering Spanish Schools with Zero Spanish

Our children’s scholastic life began in Japan. Both were in the government-run daycare system, which is fantastic. Then they went to local public Japanese elementary schools, which are also great (much of the memorization & conformity you might associate with Japanese schools starts in junior high school).

When we left Japan to travel full-time, we based ourselves in Taiwan, Thailand, and Malaysia, homeschooling them as we went along. We were also catching them up on their English. At that time, was a distant second language to their native Japanese.

That brings us to September 2015. After two years of homeschooling, they were going back into a school system in a language they didn’t know. At that point, their knowledge of Spanish was just common greetings, counting to 20 and a handful of other basic phrases learned from Duo Lingo.

We wanted our kids to be in local schools in Spain partly to make friends and be around peers, and partly for them to get a firm grasp on a third language and culture. Our belief was that if they learned it — and lived it — with local kids around, they would learn five times faster.

It worked. Man-o-man, it totally worked!

A Supportive Environment

Our son and daughter went to different schools (more on that here), but their experiences with schools in Spain were quite similar:

  • Classes were mostly taught in Castellano (Iberian Spanish) and some in Valenciano (the local dialect).
  • Teachers were sharp, warm and supportive.
  • The kids made lots of friends. Both son and daughter experienced a small amount of amiable teasing at first, but neither was bullied or ostracized. Ever.
  • They both love their schools.
  • Neither of them failed out or will be held back a grade.

We were fully prepared for them to flunk out and told them that if it happened, it was completely ok. They hadn’t been in a classroom in over two years, we explained, and now they’d be starting at a conventional school with a full load of classes in a completely new language.

Correction: in TWO new languages. Sure, Valenciano is a derivative of Spanish, but you see where I’m going with this. Despite all of this, both kids managed to keep decent grades throughout — not all A’s and B’s, but well above the bare minimum.

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How Our Kids Enjoyed Schools in Spain Our Story PIN 2

Low Expectations

During the first week of school, we told both of them that as long as they worked hard, it was completely ok if they flunked out. We weren’t here for the grades, we told them. Our goals were to make friends, learn Spanish and have a cultural experience. We told them this repeatedly, with the full expectation that they probably would come home with failing grades. At least for the first semester. How could they not?

Our boy made friends quickly and was then afraid to be held back if he failed. He was determined to move on to the next grade with his classmates. So…he worked very hard. It was occasionally painful to see just how hard he studied.

Our girl had it slightly easier than her older brother. She had a bilingual classmate from Australia, and this girl had gone through a similar experience when her family moved here. We’ve come to know her family as well, and they’ve been super supportive, and we’re incredibly grateful for them.

Essentially, our daughter had someone to translate when needed, which was great for her. As you can imagine, this could turn into a crutch, and so now they speak mostly Spanish in class.

Homework for All

Schools in Spain assign a lot of homework — at least our kids’ schools have. As you can image, homework assignments were a time-consuming process for us, because none of us knew enough Spanish to understand anything.

Our first step was to simply understand what the question was. Then, we would go to Khan Academy, Wikipedia or other online tools to understand what they were supposed to learn. Once we could answer the question, we would use Google Translate to write it in Spanish.

Up until December, this was a daily routine for all four of us. We completed their homework together, step by step, every day. With a mixture of frustration and triumph, this was the most challenging period of the year for us.

For example, let’s talk history. The boy’s homework had some questions about some guy named Carlomagno. Who the hell is Carlomagno? We go to Wikipedia Español, and voilà: it’s Charlemagne! I know about Charlemagne! Let’s talk about Charlemagne! The boy and I would then discuss the related subject matter and then answer the question in Spanish as best we could.

Another challenge was math: Our girl had already learned division while we were in Penang, but now she had to face the new way of answering the problems. You see, schools in Spain use a different method for solving division. Same answer, different steps.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, just check out a video clip for long division in Spain made by our good friend Lars from Wagoner’s Abroad. This new system took a while to adjust to — even for Keiko and me.

SCHOOLS IN SPAIN: THE REALITY

How Our Kids Enjoyed Schools in Spain: Our Story Valencia primary school christmas place

Our kids have had a great Spanish school experience, but for the sake of balance, I’ll concede that it could be possible we just got lucky. Maybe teachers at other schools are mean. Perhaps the kids and parents at one school or another are cold and unwelcoming. I don’t know, but that was not our experience. Everyone is great! I have my reservations on the method of instruction, but we couldn’t have asked for better people.

It could vary by city, by neighborhood or by many other factors. Or hey, maybe lots of places have people just like we’ve experienced. All I know is our experience, and it was fantastic. Same with many of our other friends whose kids attended schools in Spain.

To further clarify, I am not making a statement on the academic integrity of Spain’s schools, or on the quality of the curricula that my kids experienced. I’ll be honest with you and say that I’m not crazy about the amount of homework and testing that goes on (and I wouldn’t like it in America or Japan, either). That said, our experience with schools in Spain is that they are a place our kids want to go.

We haven’t made a lot of parent friends — busy schedules and language barriers are at least partly to blame there — but many moms and dads have made us feel welcome.

It’s the students, teachers, administrators, and parents that make a school great, and with that, we are extremely grateful, especially since we had to choose these schools so quickly.

Hard work required

As I mentioned earlier in this post, both Keiko and I were expecting our kids to repeat a year. All we asked them was to apply themselves and improve their understanding of language and culture. We told them that if they worked at it, that was enough.

In this, they went above and beyond our expectations, almost to the point of embarrassing their parents. Why the embarrassment? Well, Keiko and I still don’t speak Spanish. At all. I mean, it’s embarrassing. But our kids? Wow. We are extremely proud of them.

Ordinary & Extraordinary

Both kids had low grades in several subjects, but by the end of the year, the girl had around a mid-C average, while the boy’s GPA was slightly higher. I made my views on the educational methods in another post but suffice it to say that the schools they attend believe in testing. A lot. Way too much in my opinion, but my point is that the kids were assessed regularly.

I could simply brag about my kids’ academic capabilities (too late), but understand this: neither of them is a genius, a prodigy or even overly ambitious. Nor are Keiko and I “tiger-mom” style parents who force our children into a relentless cycle of achievement.

No, we didn’t push the kids very hard at home — in fact, Keiko’s and my Spanish is still so bad that we didn’t even know what was going on at their schools sometimes.

I think that this is less about IQ and more about opportunities. If given the same opportunity, lots of kids would do exactly as mine have. Possibly better. I know that many families can’t just pull up stakes and move to another country for language immersion, but if you leave this post with any takeaway, then take this: immersion works.

Immersion Works

The kids enjoyed their schools and their friends so much, so they wanted to stay. The result: they did the work themselves. By simply being around these other kids in a warm learning environment, language acquisition just happened.

And voila: our kids speak Spanish now. They’re not fluent, of course, but it’s no exaggeration to say that they’re both very comfortable in the language. Perhaps their parents still struggle with the basics, but now the kids can help us out when we’re stuck.

The school system and the methods we used to do all of this are far from perfect or universally successful, and we continue to stumble in so many other aspects of our home, education and family life. However, our goal of moving to Spain for a language and culture immersion was a complete success.

Please forgive me if this post comes across as pompous or boastful. That’s not my intent. To be honest, I started writing this more out of shock: I honestly can’t believe how well they did. I am gobsmacked at how effective ten months in local schools in Spain has been.

IMMERSION IN SPANISH SCHOOLS: CONCLUSION

How Our Kids Enjoyed Schools in Spain: Our Story Valencia parks under bridge

To sum up, I just want any parents to know that this kind of thing is possible. Not every Spanish school, Spanish city or Spanish teacher will be the same. Surely, results will vary. We only know our own experience and the experiences of a few friends who have done something similar, but in basically every case, it’s been a roaring success.

If you are considering doing something like this, good luck! If you are doing it now, get in touch or tell us about your experiences in the comments!

Further Reading:

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Comments

  1. Tiffany Braun says:

    This is so helpful. Our family is moving to a small village in Southern Spain (Jimena de la Frontera) this summer! We have 3 children – ages 6, 8 and 10! We have similar expectations – to see a big world! To learn as much language and culture as we can! Thank you for sharing!!

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