A SEMESTER IN CHICAGO by Almudena Gardeazabal

I believe a story like this should start by me introducing myself. My name is Almudena, I´m sixteen years old and I´m currently a junior at Orvalle School in Madrid. I´m going to share with you my experience of spending a semester in Chicago last year. I want to write about the main differences I found through this experience.

I arrived at O’Hare International Airport on a sunny August the 25th, 2015, at 2 p.m. My host sister Caileigh and her father Mark picked me up and showed me around the neighbourhood and then we went to the beach where Caileigh had been a lifeguard that summer. There I met a tanned 25-year-old woman who ended up being Caiti, Caileigh´s older sister. The three of us went to have dinner where I tried the famous “Mac n Cheese” for the first time. I didn’t particularly like it because it looked like dog food! It was very cheesy, quite hard and didn’t taste like the macaroni I was used to having at home.

This was a good example of how the food was during my time in the States and for me food was one of the biggest changes I encountered. My friends and host family loved fast food and things that were quite greasy and maybe unhealthy by Mediterranean standards so I had to be careful and try to always pick the slightly healthier options, especially I didn’t want to come back to Spain bouncing!

At the end of my first day I met my host mother and she threw a barbecue with a few friends. After it was over she came to my room and introduced herself properly. I got a shock because she was quite strict and wanted to lay down the rules very quickly. I struggled a little bit with this because I wouldn’t have welcomed someone into my home that that way but I knew it was really important to understand the differences in culture and the different ways people act.

At the end of the day, you have to adapt to a family that has lived with their ways which may be very different from yours. It can be tough at first but it has helped me loads to be more understanding of cultural diversity and to be more adaptable!

Anyway, the bottom line: I survived my first day in my new home!

Now I want to tell you about my first day at Willows Academy, the school I went to while I was in the States. It is a school very similar to Orvalle in their curriculum and their ideology.

The day started with me having to go and “rent” my uniform since I didn’t have one.  The Head of International Students took me to my class which was the 9th grade, otherwise known as Freshman Year.

The US school system is a little different to Spain. In the U.S there are four parts of to school education: kindergarten, elementary school, middle and high school. In high school there are four grades: freshmen year would be the equivalent of 3rd of ESO in the Spanish system, and after that are the sophomore, junior and senior years. Freshmen year is the typical year when students transfer schools to start high school and that was a huge advantage for me because it meant that nearly 60% of the class was new which made things a little bit less scary.

I went into my classroom and sat down on one of the stools because there weren’t any chairs left. The teachers were Mrs. Warsinske, a short, brown haired nice woman, and Ms. Diklich, very blonde and also very nice. They were taking attendance and it was hilarious when they got to my name: Gardeazabal. They took almost fifteen minutes for them to try to say my name out loud and they were looking at it strangely, almost like if they didn’t know which language it was in.

After taking attendance we started some games which they called Icebreakers. The goal was to get everyone to know each other better. After that the real lessons started and straight away I could see a huge difference in the teaching system. What America lacked regarding nutrition they made up for in school!

I’ll explain it with an example: science.

In Spain it feels like there’s a lot of material to go through and not a lot of time so the lessons are really fast-paced and filled with information. In America, they stretch the subjects out longer and we had class every day, so they went into a lot of depth which made it easier to understand new concepts, practice and experience with them and get to really know the material.

At Willows Academy there’s only Biology but its taught five times a week and on Fridays we did lab (doing things like classifying five types of animals into their kingdoms, or studying the cells of onions and so on). In my opinion lab was great because you took all the theory that you had been taught during the week and put into practice. Afterwards we had to fill in activities describing what we had observed during the experience say why and what connection it had with what we had been studying.

It made learning very different, very hands-on and very practical, which made it really easy to remember it all long term.

And it wasn’t only in Science: every time I walked into any class there were two things waiting for me. First, a whiteboard with what we were going to be doing that day and, the most surprising, the aim of the class. This absolutely blew my mind because no one ever in my life had ever explained the purpose of what I was learning! The second thing was an assignment of that day´s class that we had to take home and turn in the day after so we put into practice what we learned.

In Spain, by contrast, you have to learn everything without knowing exactly why you are doing it. Sometimes we just read through the book and highlight the most important sentences which can be a little bit frustrating and hard to get motivated.

Another thing I loved about the American system is the importance they give to projects and assignments. At Willows, exams weren’t the most important part of the course as assignments were a big part of your grade. The course was continuous assessment so you didn’t risk your whole grade with just final exams and that was something I miss.

I don’t want to end up criticising my school too much so I want to finish with something my school has but I didn’t find in the US: spiritual and human development.

In Orvalle we have an hour per week that helps us build a relationship with God through either meditations or priest talks and also being a better human being by being given talks about values such as friendship, fortitude or kindness, and that´s something I missed in the US experience that I always get in Orvalle.


Almudena Gardeazabal is a student at Orvalle School in Madrid, Spain.