When I first started my Master’s program, what I was most anxious about was the thesis. It hung over me like an academic specter and I dreaded the day I’d have to start working on it. I felt very unprepared.
For whatever reason, I wasn’t too worried about the mechanics of having to develop, implement and analyze the data generated from a project and somehow conjure 100 pages out of thin air.
My main mental hurdle involved coming up with ideas. Since the program was only a year long, we were told to start thinking of topics ASAP to then decide on a final one around Christmas. I’m sure they meant well, but it threw my internal monologue into overdrive.
It went something like: how would I come up with a topic? We had barely gotten past the introductory sections, at that stage how was I to know what gaps needed to be filled? Hadn’t everything worth doing already been done? Are there really no original ideas? If so, how did I ever stand a chance? What do I do??
I probably shouldn’t have worked myself up so much over coming up with a thesis topic, but that’s a realization I usually come to after the fact. I didn’t need to spend hours pouring over academic journals with a fine-tooth comb, looking for holes in the literature. A cartoon lightbulb didn’t switch on. There was no productivity montage set to “Eye of the Tiger” except in my head during the more highly caffeinated periods. It ended up coming to me in one of the most banal of ways: through work.
While planning for the Master, I had originally intended to subsist on savings and private lessons in order to concentrate on schoolwork, but San Sebastian’s higher cost of living and my class schedule rendered that plan unfeasible. It could have probably been done, but I also wanted to finish the program with all of my hair (and sanity) intact and also have some pintxo wiggle room.
So, I contacted the local Department of Education to see if they had any English teaching openings nearby. As luck would have it, there was one at a small trilingual public primary school on a hill in a 500 person pueblo south of San Sebastián. In homage to all the thigh buster workouts it took to get to school from the bus stop, I affectionately gave it the pseudonym Mendia, mountain.
Not to be dramatic or anything, but Mendia ended up changing the course of my academic life. The school introduced me to aspects of language teaching and learning that still make me all tingly inside. Because of this last minute placement, instead of me happening upon a thesis topic, a thesis topic happened upon me. It started me down a path that I am still following a year later as a PhD student in a different part of the country.
In Basque, eskola txikia literally means small school. In the province of Gipuzkoa, there are 26 of them. To be considered one, there are a number of requirements that must be fulfilled, including being the only school in the village and having no more than six classrooms.
The year I was at Mendia, less than 60 students from the ages of two to eleven were enrolled (from the first year of infantil to 6th of primary). As to be expected in a town of that size, many of the students were related through family or friendship ties. What really captured my interest, however, was the way languages were integrated into the fabric and culture of the school.
Although Basque was the primary medium of communication and the first language of nearly every student, Spanish and English were integrated into the curriculum by way of Project-Based Learning. Project-based language learning has since become a pet project of mine, and will undoubtedly feature prominently in future posts.
Rather than cramming everything into one intimidatingly lengthy post, I will be parceling out my eskola txikia love story into more manageable, bite-size pieces.
For the consonant-phobic, the scary looking tx is pronounced ch. So, the whole thing sounds like es-koh-lah chee-kee-ack. Unlike in English and Spanish, plurals in Basque are marked with -k. Eskola txikia is singular (small school), eskola txikiak (small schools) is plural. Isn’t that fun?
Stay tuned for Eskola Txikiak Pt 2: Where Everybody Knows Your Name