Gustavo Martín: “Social Science classes are a time machine"

Gustavo Martín, Social Sciences teacher at Agora Portals International School since 2011. He studied a Degree in History at the University of les Illes Balears and earned a grant to study for a year at the University of Salamanca. Married for two years, he is the proud and happy father to a little girl who was born in June 2015. His hobbies include reading, particularly books about history and political science, as well as Arturo Pérez-Reverte novels; he’s a lover of the cinema and good music (hobbies from which he often extracts observations and teachings in order to apply them in class); and he enjoys doing both individual and team sport and physical exercise. He’s also a black belt (first dan) in Kyokushinkai-style karate.

How do you confront the new school year? What challenges have you set yourself as a teacher?
Normally, the start of a new school year means vertigo. If you don’t experience vertigo with everything that you do, you’ve lost part of the enthusiasm with which you started on the first day. Every year, the same thing happens to me, I have vertigo. And I hope this never stops accompanying me each year on the 1st of September.

With regard to the challenges, the first and most important one is for the pupils to learn by having fun in class. And to answer the question more specifically, I would like to be able to set more group projects (since I started at Agora I have always tried to incorporate them into every group that I’ve had). It’s clear that through these projects, the pupils learn more, and better, since they are the ones who are creating their own content. As an example, last year the 4th ESO pupils did a piece of work in groups about WW2, expanding greatly on the information which appeared in the syllabus, and I’ve got to say that they really enjoyed it, and discovered things which they would never have imagined. I think this piece of work really affected them, and that they learnt about, and interiorised, everything that was the Second World War.

We’ve been told that you were able to attend the conference offered by César Bona in Palma de Mallorca last year. What aspects do you agree with in the “education boom” generated by his nomination for the 2015 Global Teacher Prize?
Bona, Master of Teachers, which is what I call him, is a teacher in the true sense of the word. In fact, he views himself as a teacher of life, and not just a school teacher. I really enjoyed seeing how he managed to capture the children’s attention – through the videos he put on – and how each day class for them was an adventure.
With regard to the education boom, it is precisely this boom which worries me. It reminds me of an explosion, of the bursting of a bubble which inflates little by little but which will explode and will fall into disuse or be forgotten. I believe that we have to influence the thousands of César Bonas and the thousands of María Acasos (author of the fantastic book, rEDUvolution) that there are in Spain, and support them on that path. Although with so many changes to the educational law I’m afraid this is almost a utopia.

What do you like most about your profession? And what do you like least?
What I like most about my profession is the team of teachers I work with, and above all, the classroom. Being with those pupils who are eager to know, to ask questions, to learn, seeing the astonishment on their faces when you tell them how Islam, in barely 70 years, managed to expand to the Iberian Peninsula from Arabia and cross the Pyrenees; or when you explain to them that in the 18th Century a group of good men tried to change the world with culture and education, and that they suddenly discover that many of the things that they enjoy today come from that time period. That’s what I like most, making them see that Social Science can be the best way, along with literature, to climb into a time machine.
Perhaps what I enjoy least about my job is the strictness of the curriculum we work with. Even so, there are always ways to leave behind the monotony of the curriculum, but, although it seems contradictory, continue to follow it.

How do you view the experience of being a finalist in the last Rafael Nadal Literary Competition?
Well, it’s interesting. You see, it all came from an explanation in class. I told my 2nd ESO pupils that they should try to write an account of something (funny, sad…) which had happened to them, and that we would then read them in class. I remember that at the end of that day at school I had to go food shopping, and it was then that I started to link one word after another until “The Tommy Hilfigher Girl” was created, and I thought that I could maybe enter it in the competition. I must say that the story was a bit sad, as I think that what I saw and heard from that girl made me think that she had been unemployed for a long time and didn’t have a job. But, about the story itself, my surprise was that I was chosen as a finalist. With that I was happy. I wasn’t interested so much in winning as in knowing that something I had written could be of interest to someone. After that, I read the story to my 2nd ESO pupils in class and one pupil told me that it could be made into a short film.

You’re a very active teacher. Tell us about the projects you have worked on in your career (literary contests, projects with pupils, activities outside the curriculum…).
I don’t know if I’m active or not, but I at least try to be. I normally set projects every school year. For example, in my first year with 1st ESO in Social Science I got the idea to expand a bit on the Punic Wars with a group of pupils. I thought that they could imagine that they were in Ancient Rome and that they were news presenters. It was hard work: suitable props (tunics included), investigation about the Punic Wars and using this information to then make a news programme, being war correspondents reporting from the field, filming it, putting it together, editing, adding music… it was a privilege to have worked with those pupils.

As another example, in 2nd ESO we carried out projects in the style of documentaries on the channel “La 2”. I remember that a group of pupils, the same ones who the previous year had made the Punic Wars news programme, created a documentary about the Route of the Conquest of James I. It was an amazing piece of work. A 20-minute documentary, with their involvement, music, outtakes… So much so, that in November last year I was invited to attend a conference at the University of les Illes Balears to talk about projects for high-ability pupils carried out at the school, and I took that piece of work as an example. I remember being very nervous in front of an audience of 300 people (including university pedagogy teachers) but in the end, between what I said, the video, and the questions they asked me, I think it turned out well. In fact, one of the attendees said to me “It shows that you enjoy what you do. We saw you laugh and smile many times during the video.” I think that was the best thing they could have said to me.

Finally, I don’t want to miss the chance to talk about how in the 2013/2014 academic year three 4th ESO pupils participated in an Amnesty International competition about Human Rights and Education, and asked me to be the teacher to offer them the guidelines to follow. It was a superb piece of work which was named the winner of the competition. The work is titled “The key to education”

Speaking of the curriculum, what is your opinion about the changes proposed by the LOMCE (Organic Law for the Improvement of Educational Standards)? How do they affect your work and your pupils’ learning process?
Well, this is a tricky subject. Leaving aside the political interpretation I could make about how this law has been made, I believe that the LOMCE will not solve the endemic problem that Spain has. Over the last two centuries, Spain has often failed to reach the modernity which would have linked us culturally and educationally with the countries around us. The LOMCE is mistaken in placing little importance on Humanities subjects, such as Philosophy. I believe this limits pupils’ capacity for Cartesian thought, which this subject could offer them. This is just to give an example. In addition, there is a lot of conflict about R.E counting the same towards the average mark as Biology or History. I think it would be good if we had the subject History of Religions, as this would mean greater diversity when it comes to studying religion.

Furthermore, there are the exams which have been suggested in order to earn the qualification (although not long ago I heard on the radio that these may not become a reality), which I don’t think solve the problem with the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) results. Often, when an educational law is created, it is done without observing what’s around us: a television of doubtful quality and exhausting working hours which don’t allow the pupils’ families to be with them after school. If these two things were fixed, we would save ourselves many future educational laws.

Changing the subject, what do you think of technology and social networks as another tool for learning?
I believe that we can’t deny a reality. Technology must form part of education, no question about it. However, last week a report came out in which it was stated that there is no correlation between a greater use of technology and social media and better results, as was happening in South Korea, where the average number of computers per pupil is less than Spain but where in the PISA reports they are among the first. However, even so, I believe that ICT is a fundamental tool. I don’t think that children are digital natives, but I do know that ICT is another tool in their day-to-day tasks. In fact, I now use a teacher and pupil social network on which I post videos that we look at in class, and they love it, which for me requires more work as I normally look for lots more things for them. Even so, I have a great time doing these things. And they do too.

What is your best memory or anecdote from the classroom?
I think there have been many. I remember that one boy wrote me a rap telling me about the life of gladiators. I really liked it, and he knew how to make history something more enjoyable. Another anecdote is something which happened to me last year, that a girl in 2nd ESO said to me “Mr. Martín, you always talk very poetically”. No one had ever said anything like that to me before, and the truth is that it was a complete honour that she thought that about my way of expressing myself.

What do you ask from the future?
Culture and education. You know about my passion for Pérez-Reverte and his books. The last one I read was “Hombres Buenos” which, as I already said in my answer to another question, was about the attempt of these men to improve the world through reason, ideas, culture and education. That’s what I ask for from the future, culture and education. Without these, there’s very little we’ll be able to do.

To conclude, and continuing with Arturo Pérez-Reverte, who is very active on Twitter. In a tweet he said the following: “We should triple teachers’ wages. Make them a well-paid profession, rigorous, and elite. They are our only hope.” What do you think?
As a teacher, I agree completely with the academic’s tweet. Sometimes I think that the vision society has of the teacher is negative, and full of stereotypes. In this sense, there has been a regression in terms of the figure of the teacher in general, I’m not talking about myself in particular, but about teachers in general. The problem with the work of teachers is that it is a background career, whose economic productivity (I dislike using this term) in pupils will begin to be seen from the age of 23 or 24 onwards, when they have finished their higher education. But it should be understood and recognised that this is thanks to each and every one of the teachers from Infant Education to Baccalaureate, it would be fair to admit and reward it. We take many hours away from our families in order to carry out our work in the best and most honourable way possible, to benefit those pupils who sit down in class every day.


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