The Kids Are Alright – (MYoM – Part 29)

As long time readers know, I spend Friday mornings making sure my cleaning lady stays happy. Today was no different. But once she left, I missed out on my usual routine of relaxing while enjoying the tidy silent home and the official beginning of the weekend. Instead, I put Dog Four in the car and headed off for the school. My twelve Secondary kids (ages 12-14) had planned another film evening – which means sleeping over in the school, ordering pizza deliveries and watching DVDs. My colleague Dave agreed to supervise them, but could not come until 4 pm. I agreed to “babysit” from 1 pm till he arrived. As a condition, though, I said I wanted to bring my dog and go for a walk for part of the time. 10 said yes and 2 no. I said that was a problem, because I couldn’t leave those two back in the school alone. They quickly agreed to join us.

When I arrived today, they were outside playing a ball game which was promptly interrupted by Dog Four excitedly greeting each one in turn. The first thing out of their mouths was that they wanted to do the walk first and cook lunch afterwards. So we set off pretty much immediately, with the kids taking turns holding the leash – working out a plan among themselves for who gets the dog and when. We wandered for an hour and a half as constellations of different kids formed and reformed. I noticed two walking and talking who had never given one another the time of day before – at least not that I had witnessed. That was nice to see.

When we got back to the school, 5 or 6 girls promptly went into the kitchen to start cooking spaghetti. I asked them if they had everything under control and they said yes. The other kids were up in the classroom listening to music or in the yard playing soccer. With nothing to do, I started tidying up the little lending library and adding some new books I had brought. One of the kids walked passed and asked me if I needed help.

When I went back to the kitchen, the table was set and all twelve were assembling for their late lunch. When we were done, the girls got up and left and the kids who hadn’t cooked started cleaning the kitchen. Fifteen minutes later it was spotless. You would never have known that a meal had just taken place. The last one to leave the kitchen had turned off the light.

In the final hour they played Ping-Pong and soccer and hockey and then Dave showed up to relieve me. I wished them a fun night and left our little gymnasium for the parking lot.

But I stopped and looked at them for a few moments through the window before I got in my car. They were all running around, whacking at the ball, laughing and talking. I realized that in the entire afternoon, there had not been a single argument. Not one kid had been slighted or excluded. None of them had said anything the slightest bit gossipy or mean. They were self-sufficient and knew how to compromise in order to come to a group consensus.

They hadn’t needed me. The afternoon would have probably gone exactly the same if I hadn’t been there at all – if they had been “unsupervised”.

They are a great bunch of kids – every last one of them.

londonI find that I am really looking forward to tramping through London with them a month from now. When we decided to do this trip, I said I would take care of the flights and accommodations, but that they would have to plan our days there. We started learning a lot about London’s history and sights. Here is what they have come up with so far – the first draft of our itinerary. I then split them into three groups, one for each day, and they are now working out the details (which buses or underground lines to take, which order to do these things in, how much time we will need, what the costs will be, etc.) My plan is to have them take charge, read maps and figure things out for themselves. They can lead me around. (They will probably end up cooking for me too!) My job is simply to be there.

Sort of like today.

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Thirty Years

April 26th, 1986. It was 30 years ago and I was nearing the end of my second year in Graz as an English teaching assistant. Suddenly there was only one thing on the all the radio and TV stations all day (and day after day). A catastrophic nuclear reactor accident in Russia had the city, the country, the entire continent . . . on edge and holding their breath. We were all gluch1ed to the TV and checking atlases. I quickly found out that Chernobyl was over 700 miles away from me as the bird flies (or in this case, the cloud drifts). That seemed a fairly safe distance.

 

The Austrian media (which apparently went immediately into calm-the-population mode) reassured us about our remoteness from the disaster’s ground zero. They added that the winds seemed to be blowing northward toward Scandinavia and not in our direction. Kindergarten kids were told to stay home just in case, and mushroom hunting was not advised. We also might want to skip eating salads for a while. Measurements were being taken constantly and the situation was being monitored carefully. They would keep us advised.

Thirty years ago today, my mother called me.

“C., I want you to get on a plane and come home. Right now. Can you do that?”

There was panic in her voice. I had never heard her sound that way (and have never since). Obviously the tone of the news reports she was listening to in the States did not include that intention of calming people who, realistically speaking, had no options anyway. My mother looked at a map of Europe and saw only a small, one-country buffer zone between me and the radiation source. It took a long conversation to allay her fears.

The thing is, though, she was right. Years later, computer simulations had improved enough to show almost exactly how and where that radiation cloud moved in the days following the accident. When the five year anniversary of the disaster rolled around, this information was published and broadcast without much fanfare. I stared at the maps and thought “That’s not we were told at the time!”

As far as I can tell now, about the same time my mother and I were talking on the phone, the cloud was crossing the border into Austria. Three days later, this was the picture

ch2

Over the following years, many new policies, procedures and plans were quietly implemented in Austria, despite the fact that this country has no nuclear power plants. As we had learned, radioactivity does not respect borders and six of Austria’s neighboring countries have 29 reactors between them. So, for instance, we have a supply of emergency thyroid medication in our school to be administered to the children if something like Chernobyl happens again. If the news ever breaks that Temelin in the Czech Republic is melting down (50 miles from the Austrian border), my first tasch3k will be to find the binder of permission forms from the parents and then check which of the kids gets to/has to/ is not allowed to swallow a pill. Once that is done, I am not quite sure what the next step is. But I think I would be heading out quickly in the direction of my own children.

 

In the past three days, there have been many “Chernobyl – Thirty Years Later” reports. Fascinating camera images of the huge and de-peopled “Exclusion Zone” around Chernobyl document the seemingly thriving animal populations with their eerie ghost town backdrops.

An example exists, right now and not far from here, of what would happen if the people in this world were to disappear virtually overnight.

It makes you stop and think.

A Special Treat

How often does it happen that lilacs get to experience a winter storm? Well, here are mine right now – and yes, that is snow falling:

lilac and snow

It’s almost May (for heaven’s sake!!) Peak Blossom has come and gone. People already have their houseplants and balcony flowers outside!

Which reminds me . . .

I wonder how my (nemesis) yucca is doing out there?

PTSD* Protocol

teamWe covered a lot of ground and made a lot of decisions in our team meeting today. The field trip to the castle we just postponed will now be on the 3rd, unless the weather is bad, in which case it will be on the 10th. If that happens we will have to reschedule the Ethiopia presentation, if we haven’t already turned that into a student and parents’ evening event, in the off-chance they all respond positively to that idea and the field trip to the nature preserve will be on the 20th assuming our cuban guest teacher is flexible enough to change one of her three project dates if not we will go on the 19th and only to river part of the program that is close enough to walk to and then put off our school assembly on the 19th for another week i am glad we got all of that cleared up where is the scotch?

*(For the uninitiated, in this blog, PTSD stands for “post-team-sucking disorder”.)

Egg in My Face

Back in March, I posted “Freedom Egg” in which I lamented about my village’s affection for a certain far-right, anti-immigrant political party . . . 34% of them in the last election!! “How could that be?!” I thought. Suddenly, that number 34 is looking pretty good.

We had the presidential election yesterday. Before any misunderstandings happen – the Presidency here in Austria is a ceremonial office. The person filling it represents the people but doesn’t run the government. That is the job of the Chancellor.

There were six candidates in the running – the two major ruling parties (Socialists and Conservatives), the Green Party, the Blue (“freedomish”) party, one woman – a retired judge – who just ran under her own name with no party backing her, and Austria’s Trump. Or better, what Trump should have been – an old rich guy having fun in the limelight, seemingly delighted with his role as national laughing stock slash embarrassment.

My husband had to take my daughter to a singing gig, so about 20 minutes before they had to leave, he zipped down to the village to vote – five minutes to get there, five minutes to vote, five minutes to get back, an extra five minute window in case of delays which he ended up not needing. Yep. That is how voting works here – fast and easy.

So many things the government runs in this country are equally well done. We have no power outages, everyone has health care, the trains and buses are clean and run on time, the roads are kept in good repair, housing is mostly affordable, the food is very high quality and water drinkable, the schools are generally well kept up and the teachers well-paid, the economy is humming along, the social welfare system is multi-faceted and not punitive, 20+ years of family allowances are paid out to all couples for each child, five weeks of vacation and child-care leave are guaranteed to all workers, the homelessness and crime rates are both low and the country has been neutral – i.e. has not fought in any wars – for over 60 years.

Clearly it was time to raise some fists and shake things up and throw the bums out while yelling “WE’RE MAD AS HELL AND NOT GONNA TAKE THIS ANYMORE!!”

                   Three, Two, and One
Three, Two, and One

By 5 pm the results were in. As expected, none of the six got over 50%, so there will be a runoff election between the top two next month. That means Blue (1) against Green (2). Judge Lady came in 3rd. The two major parties washed out – each strangely getting the exact same 11.18% of the votes. Austrian Trump came in last with a bit over 2%.

This morning, the numbers from every little village in the province – hundreds and hundreds of them -were published in the paper. So I could see, for instance, that 55.2% of my village’s votes were freedomish. I scanned the entire list for places with higher percentages. I only found three.

Maybe I should become an Austrian citizen and start voting here . . . get that percentage down to 55.1.

Educated Away – (MYoM – Part 28)

Every other year there is a big Montessori conference in Lower Austria visited by teachers from all over the country. For the past three days, three of my colleagues and I have partaken.  (Hence, the interruption in my . . . prolificness? prolificity? prolificacy? in this blog.) It’s a part of my continuing education, which German speakers call “Fortbildung”. I love that word. The root Bildung means “edification” or “development” or “education”. The prefix fort means “away”  – or in more Shakespearean terms, “Begone!”

And there is something utterly true about that term if the education you are continuing happens to be in the realm of Montessori. Most of us spend 12 years in the established school system learning the norms. Then we spend the rest of our lives trying to “unlearn” them. Looking for alternatives. Looking for solutions to our various discontents. Trying to rediscover our unstandardized selves. Trying to reignite the fires that fueled our preschool imaginations, the ones sometimes extinguished prematurely and sometimes violently by an over-regulated and over-worked, frustrated, dissatisfied, distracted, oblivious, impatient, or simply unsuited-for-the-profession teacher.

It occurred to me today that all this, THIS, is what Montessori is about. Whether the actual practitioners can really achieve this non-educational edification is another matter. I left the conference with mixed feelings.

The lectures were impressive. A woman with Asperger’s Syndrome gave an amazing talk. Hypersensitive to sensory overload and out of sync with those around her, she had somehow managed to survive her school years and successfully go on to college and Medical School. She became a doctor. She went on to specialize in Autism, gain respect, write books, and get invited to speak at conferences. In ours, she was admired universally as much for the self-deprecating stories she told as for her unique insights. She admitted in the speech that she had no friends and would like to have one. When she was done, and after listening to the sustained two minute long applause, she thanked us humbly, adding: “But . . . my! . . . you are all very loud!”

On Day Three, a Montessori Guru and object of much lavish idolatry related his evolution as a teacher. His talk was charming and full of truths. His love for the profession was clear and he encouraged us all to emulate it. What he didn’t seem to realize, however, is that his effervescent personality was something that maybe 5% of the crowd shared. He was a star teacher. The rest of us sloths could dream of his success, but without the larger-than-life personality to make it happen, we were not likely to achieve it. We would have to find our own ways, authentic for each individual us.

Day Two was Workshop Day. I had chosen one called “You are the toolbox – children are teachers.” Why did I choose it? 50% because it was the only workshop with an English title. 50% because the deadline was looming ominously, I didn’t understand any of the workshop descriptions, and I figured “whatever”.  Click! Registration accepted. Workshop #11 it is.

Five minutes into the 7-hour workshop, I decided that I had struck gold, however unscientific my choice had been.  The two teachers were immediately likeable. They put us at ease. We laughed a lot. And then we got into it.

It was all about breathing. And becoming aware of our own physical well-being. Finding our centers. Being in-the-moment. And looking into our own inner selves to discover the answer to the questions: “Where am I?” and “Why am I here?” and “What do I want?” These were questions I had dealt with over 40 years earlier. It was going to be a long day.

Then we introduced ourselves, one after another, around the circle. Of the 20 people there, 17 of them were the same person with a different hairstyle – a frustrated Kindergarten teacher, working within the established school system and looking for help. She wanted to find herself again because she realized that her own well-being was essential to being happy and effective in life and work (one or both of which was not satisfactory at the moment.)

At some point, it was my turn. I confessed to NOT being stressed out or frustrated – to loving my job. This made me immediately obnoxious.  My accent, however, worked its usual charm. From that moment on, the workshop became bilingual.

We breathed. In and out. We defined friendship. We breathed again. We lay down and breathed again. Lunch time came. In the afternoon, we did yoga. Lots and lots of yoga. The cameras showed up – so somewhere out there in YouTube World is a video of me leading the group through a yoga routine in dubious English. If you watch closely, you will see the moment when I almost wrenched my shoulder out of the socket in the process. I felt fairly blasé about this at the time – all the breathing and stretching was taking its toll.

At the end of the workshop, we all had to choose one or two picture postcards from the large number laid out on the floor. Then one-by-one we showed our selections to the others and said why we chose them. We saw a lot of butterflies and rainbows. Some of the participants cried. I chose two that reminded me of the scenery I had seen in the past two days and explained my choice by saying I was happy to be where I was at the moment. The saying on one of them was “When you lose your way, you get to know it.” I interpreted it to mean that always concentrating on the goal or finish line will make you to forget to look left and right – to see where you are and what is actually around you. Then I wondered with a little shudder at how uncharacteristically esoteric I was becoming.

But I WAS happy to be there. The conference was located in the Wachau – a particularly beautiful stretch of the Danube dotted with medieval villages and vineyards. I was not only relaxed from all the breathing and stretching, I was in travel-mode – i.e. just leaning back and letting things happen. Taking in the surroundings. Not thinking about all the unfinished work and details I would have to take care of when I got back home.

My peaceful state of mind was doubly obnoxious when I met up with my three colleagues after the workshops. They were all exhausted, restless and slightly fed up. They had also spent the day with variations of the same frustrated Kindergarten or elementary school teacher, listening to revelations they had personally come to at least 10 years earlier. In their cases, though, the other participants had left with the feeling “That all sounds great, but unfortunately it won’t work in MY situation. I’m handcuffed to the rules of the system.” I tried to infuse my colleagues with my newfound inner peace and equilibrium. I suggested we all breathe and do some yoga. They opted for beer and a good dinner instead. After comparing notes on our workshop experiences, we all agreed on one point: Thank goodness we don’t work in the established system. We’ve got it so good in our little school – and with one another.

Some impressions of the Wachau:

Positively Medieval – (MYoM – Part 27)

We have been doing a project on the Middle Ages at school, which explains why everywhere you look, there is a well-fortified cardboard castle complete with dungeon and a gallows in the courtyard for public hangings. In addition, half the older students are obsessed with witch burning and torture and the stocks and people throwing the contents of their chamber pots out of the window onto passersby below and . . . how did those knights in armor go to the bathroom anyway? I suppose this is to be expected when Maria Montessori meets The Game of Thrones.

court1Today I threw some gasoline on the fire by reenacting a medieval court in my English class. The six older girls acted out a series of short trials, while the 12 younger students sat in two rows of six chairs and played the jury. Towering over the proceedings was the Lord’s Steward who tried to quell the pandemonium by yelling “SHUT UP!!” a lot. To keep the jury in line (and speaking English) I added a little rule: any jury member who spoke German would immediately be accused of being a member of the Barbarian Hordes and have to stand trial next. And what was the punishment for treason? Death by hanging of course! Unless you were a nobleman – then it was “Off with the head!” That kept them in line – the results were hysterical.

First case: Mathilda was accused of lying about being sick so that she didn’t have to go work in the fields. Two witnesses testified to seeing her outside her hut. She was, of course, “GUILTY!!” Since she couldn’t pay the fine, she had to spend 24 hours in the stocks.

“Guilty!”

Second case: Cedric stole a neighbor’s chicken and ate it. He was, of course, “GUILTY!!” A long discussion ensued about whether he should lose one finger, two fingers, or the entire hand. I can’t remember exactly what the decision was, but, needless to say, Cedric will have trouble counting to 10 in the future.

Third case: Benedict was accused of public drunkenness and swearing. Two witnesses testified to seeing him. Benedict won’t be able to continue those two bad habits now that he has no tongue.

Fourth case: Alice accused John of mugging her. In this one case, there was a witness who was actually sympathetic to the accused. John also seemed kind of nice. He was found “Not Guilty.” One jury member – Little Leonard –was not happy about this decision and said so, but unfortunately not in English. He was immediately accused by four fellow jurors of being a Germanic Barbarian Horde-ist. We added his case to the docket.

Fifth Case: Margaret was accused of setting Hugh’s hut on fire. No one actually saw her doing it. But the jury still contemplated their front row seats to her burning at the stake. Except that, by now, the kids were getting a little weirded out. Where was the proof? They ended up only making her pay a hefty fine.

We interrupted the trials and talked about the concepts of hearsay and innocent until proven guilty (versus medieval guilty until proven innocent). One student noted that you could accuse a person of anything! Hardly anyone got the benefit of the doubt. That didn’t seem right. And why were the punishments so extreme? What about second chances?

But then again, in the final case of Little Leonard, they had heard him speaking German with their own ears! I’m afraid the trial did not go well for him.