English Debates

I’m so proud of my students!!!

Our team just ranked second in the first round of Chile’s high school debate tournament! If they pass the next round, we’ll go to the nationals in Viña del Mar.

One of our duties as teachers in this program is to form and guide a team of 6 students. We helped coach them after class, preparing both sides of the argument, “Organ donation should be compulsory.” All teams had to research both sides, because nobody knew which side they’d be arguing, or what school they’d be going against, until the day of the tournament.

I saw my students’ faces drop this morning when they found out they were debating with last year’s champions: Instituto Salesiano. (It was like we were the Oakland A’s about to go up against the NY Yankees.)  My students were already nervous as it was: the ominous microphone, a debate in their second language, and now this.

Right before they went on, I told them: do not worry about making language mistakes…just speak with passion. And they did it!!!

With their participation certificates before we found out they ranked 2nd. (Matius was so nervous before going on, but he nailed the closing speech!!)

About to go up against last year’s winning school. Our team is on the right.

First speaker…rocked it!

The team

Woot!! Inmaculada Concepción


Arte de la calle

Chile is a land of wilderness. Living here has brought me closer to the elements, the weather, and to the calmness of nature. I’m constantly amazed by the beauty of its quiet cities and mountains, but I also want to turn the spotlight  to its human-made streets. The art in the alleyways. Santiago and Valparaíso are known for their elaborate murals, but I’ve found a lot of beauty in the streets of Southern Chile as well.

Here’s a look at Valdivia and Puerto Varas…


This one was created during last year’s student protests. “The anger of the city”- Valdivia



Puerto Varas

Dali-inspired? Valdivia.



Poster announcing the a student march for May 16. -Valdivia.


30 days later…

I’m one month into teaching.

All I have to say is hats off to middle school teachers. Teaching adolescents has been a demanding, but rewarding experience.

Every morning at 8am, I need to gather the energy to lead a class of teenagers. Not just teach them English…(that’s the easy part)…but make them engaged. Unlike teaching ESL to kids, teenagers are a tough crowd. Getting them to speak in a second language feels impossible on some days. Shyness, insecurity in front of their peers, drama, 17-year-old boys who couldn’t be bothered- all kinds of issues, personalities, and family backgrounds come into my classroom every day. My mind is constantly adapting to these various attention spans, attitudes, and English skills.

In Chile, I go through plan A, B, C, D, E, ( and F ) every day. It’s almost guaranteed that the first two plans are not going to go how they’re played out in my mind. Nope. Actually, when stuff does go exactly as planned,  I start to feel skeptical- like the fates are messing with me. (This is Chile, isn’t it!?)

IV medios (seniors)

Classes have overall been going well. My students are pretty behaved compared to other schools. (My friend ended up kicking out his entire class a few weeks ago because they wouldn’t listen to him.)

As the weeks go on, I’ve learned that altering my lessons slightly for each group is the key to a smooth class. One particular class of 4 medios loves learning about world news, so I always try and bring in a video or current event  to start the day. Last week I showed them the video of Obama’s speech saying gay couples should be allowed to marry. For the rest of the class, they worked on their dialogues for a video we’re making about Chile.  The Red Hot Chili Peppers played in the background. (There are two boys in this class who rarely speak, but they knew every word to “Californication”, and sang along perfectly.)

After the bell rang, I was erasing the whiteboard and amidst the shuffle of students leaving, I heard one girl call me. “Meees….” I turned around and she smiled, “Your classes are fun.” You have no idea how much that sentence made my day. After a long week, it felt all worth it just to hear that.

And another sweet surprise: Last week,  in my III medio class, one of my student’s asked me out of nowhere, “Meees….Do you know Berkeley?” Berkeley!? It was the last city I was expecting my students to ask me about. Apparently, she read a book by Isabelle Allende, and the characters were in Berkeley. Now she wants to go visit. That’s where I was living and working before moving to Chile. Some of my family still lives there, and it will always be my home. Hearing my student ask me about it made me smile.

I have so many stories to tell from my classes, but that post will be for another day. Right now it’s Friday, and I’m heading to Northern Patagonia in a few hours. Next up: volcanos and lakeside towns.

My III medios. Host sister’s in the middle!

My II medio student wrote a biography of himself. Dreams include: marrying Megan Fox and having many kids.

Niebla Sunset

Except for when I’m teaching,  I only speak English on the weekends. All of us foreign teachers live in different towns, so when Friday rolls around, there’s always a massive migration to Valdivia to meet up.  (Speaking our native language over a beer has become one of life’s little pleasures.) 

Even though winter’s approaching, Saturday was gorgeous, and Fred, Sophie and I spent the afternoon in Niebla, a small coastal town 20 minutes from Valdivia. The drive there reminds me of Northern California’s winding, coastal highways. The road passes by local breweries, lush forests, and fishing boats and bays. We bought empanadas from the market and just chilled out the entire afternoon. Dusk set, and people began showing up with blankets and ice chests to watch the sunset. It reminded me of a lazy sunday evening at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

I can be anywhere in the world and feel at home with the ocean.

That’s right.

Niebla totally reminds me of Baker Beach. (Sans GG Bridge)

Pacific Ocean, te amo.

It’s fall down here in the southern hemisphere, and the sun sets at 6 pm.

The path to our Niebla Beach.

la música

These are the songs that will stay with me long after I’ve left Chile. From Chilean rock bands to latin club hits, these are the songs that have creeped into my life.

Los Bunkers.  This band’s very popular here.

Los Vasquez.  This song is everywhere! I can count on hearing those accordion notes at least six times a day, whether it’s coming from someone’s car as they’re waiting at a stoplight, to my host sister humming it around the house.

Los Prisioneros. I’ve just been getting into these guys…

“Gustavo Lima”.  Yes. Let the good times roll.


All is good on the Valdivia front. It’s a rainy Sunday, and in Chile, Sundays are always spent with the family, eating a big lunch and socializing.


Rainy day & the back porch.


Candles in the kitchen on a rainy day.

Sundays are also the day for lesson planning and getting ready for the week.

This week I’ll start coaching our school’s debate team for a national competition. The provincial and regional rounds are here in Valdivia, and the national round will be in Viña del Mar. (I’ve definitely used that as a motivating push for the students!)

My team consists six, 2 Medio students. The topic this year is “Organ donation should be compulsary.”  It’s kind of an intense topic for my 15-year-olds, but I’m confident in them! Coaching them on body language, having a convincing tone of voice, and how to make counter arguments against the other teams are the most important things we’ll work on. The first round is May 23, so we have less than two weeks to prepare.

In other work news, Fred and I gave a workshop last Friday on the importance of bringing theater games into your classroom. All of the English teachers from our region attended. It went really smooth, and we’re giving another workshop next month. After Friday’s workshop, one of the teachers from a local public school approached me, and asked if I would like to visit her English class.

This teacher, like many others, have told me how difficult it is for them to try and teach a language without the right resources in the classroom. “In Chile, there are good and bad schools. There is no between,” she told me. This goes for all subjects and effects the entire quality of education.

Even at this latest teacher’s meeting, many of the professors were voicing frustrations about how the government’s mandated English lesson curriculum is not matching their students’ levels. “Who can we talk to about this?” my co-teacher asked our regional representative. Apparently, the textbooks and/or methods of teaching English aren’t getting the job done. It’s still too advanced for their students, the teachers said.

That’s one reason the English Opens Doors program was created in 2003. Chilean students were scoring below average on national English proficiency tests, and the government wanted to raise their scores. This is an article from The Guardian a few years ago about what the country’s trying to accomplish, and where my program fits into it all.

I’m constantly told that my school is a drastic exception to the norm.  Next week, I’ll see a different reality when I visit a public school.

Mate tea, bicycles, and Argentina

I hit several milestones this past weekend in Bariloche, Argentina.

First, I ate a steak the first night our hostel made us a BBQ. (Any final hope of holding onto vegetarianism in South America is over.)

In Chile, I only eat meat if there’s no other option, but since I was venturing over to Argentina, known for its steak, I wanted to follow the “when in Rome,” wisdom at least once.

Another highlight of the trip was having a great conversation in Spanish.

It was with a man selling gourds for maté tea on the street. One month ago, I could barely walk into a store and ask a question. I will always remember my first day alone in Chile, navigating a new language, a new city, and feeling a bit nervous without a cell phone or a familiar face on this new continent. But as I walked away from this street vendor in Argentina, I realized we just talked about many things: my teaching in Chile, where he was from, a little about the Mapuche natives, and finally, how to prepare mate tea. It was very basic Spanish, but knowing I could connect with someone more than I could a month ago was a great feeling.

Mate & breakfast

Lago Guiterriez

Our first day out was kayaking. Chris and Pablo were our guides, and after sharing mate with us on the beach, they told us about some bars where the locals go…especially La Cantina. “It has a Rolling Stones and Manu Chao kind of people,” Chris told me.

That night, our first stop was “Bar del Sur,” on a narrow, cobblestone street with smoky, dim lighting from the street lamps above. It reminded me of something from Paris. After many hours here, Ellie, Sophie, and I left to check out La Cantina, right on the banks of  Nahuel Huapi Lake. It played everything from West African rap to the Rolling Stones.

Sophie and I didn’t get back to the hostel until 7:30 am. It wasn’t until I was climbing into my bunk  that I realized that I would be waking up in a few hours for a 17-mile bike ride.

The next morning was tough. But before tackling the hills, we all took a gondola ride up Cerro Campanario, one of the world’s best views, according to National Geographic.

From the top of Cerro Campanario in Bariloche.

One of the best 360 views in the world, according to National Geographic. From Cerro Campanario in Bariloche, Argentina.

Gondolas down from Cerro Campanario.

After the lookout point, the plan was to bike the Circuito Chico, the route that winds around the lakes and bays of a national park. All of us are in pretty good shape, but this route was tough. Sophie and I were functioning on two hours of sleep, and I began wondering why I thought this would be an awesome idea.

After the first three hills, we were all out of breathe. Sophie joked that she should be like the mom in the Triplettes of Belleville movie, who rides behind her son in the Tour de France, blowing a whistle for encouragement. (At one point, Sophie did get out her plastic whistle, as we tried to peddled up the hills. I was cracking up at how sad our situation was.)

During the first hour, I think we made every possible excuse to stop. Lunch break at a lookout point? Definitely. A sign on the side of the road is pointing us to hot chocolate and waffles? Sure, ok! After that, we promised ourselves that we would push ahead. (For real.)

Lunch break.

Next we circled around the winding roads of Bahía López, slowly peddling up steep hills as our poor bikes clinked and sputtered as we tried to switch gears. (Poor James’ bike was mystery bag of chains and spokes that never switched to the right gear when he wanted.)

At Bahía López. Halfway there.

Rest stop

Totally riding our bikes up all the hills.

Hours later we stopped at this bridge and met a group of British lawyers who were hiking the same route we were biking. We carried on past them, but we ended up taking breaks to enjoy the views and lakes. They always caught up with us, belting out Billy Joel’s “Uptown Girl”, as they marched. (Whenever we heard the echos of that song, we started picking up the pace. We couldn’t have people who were walking pass us up.)

Five hours later, we made it back to the rental place. Faces red and legs burning, we handed over our helmets triumphantly.

Later that night, James and Fred made it their mission to eat a steak the size of a football. It was well earned.

After the bike ride, we were dead to the world.

Fred and Sophie. All smiles.

The next day was pouring rain, so James and I decided we needed to have a San Francisco hipster moment in a cafe. Drinking coffee in the rain and writing brought me back to lazy sundays in the Bay Area. This low key afternoon was much needed.

We all came to Chile for different reasons, many of us quitting our jobs, be it corporate life in London to managing a bookstore in Santa Cruz. And we’re all here looking for something. Maybe it’s because I’m older than I was when I studied abroad, or maybe it’s just being in this place, but South America has taught me to stop asking so many questions. I love questions. But being here has taught me to enjoy not knowing, to be comfortable with uncertainty, and to just exist without trying to always understand why. Once you stop trying to understand the process, you can find peace of mind. (Maybe.)

It’s already Wednesday night, and I have a busy week of lesson planning, coaching my school’s debate team for a national competition, and giving a workshop on Friday to the English teachers.

Hasta domingo!

8am. Heading back across the Andes to Chile.