The Voices of Germany

 

The exceptional musical talents of my two daughters have come up one or twice in this blog (see “Glinke’s Clinkers” and “Fame 2.0 – Stage Mom”) In that second one, I ranted for a while about casting shows and why I forbade my daughter participation in any of those. As a successful cabaret artist / musician / friend of mine once told me, the best path for a budding musician is the most natural one. It begins with singing at family gatherings. From there it goes on to participating in musical events at school or in the village. From there one goes on to singing at weddings and baptisms and then local concerts and festivals. Good results in music competitions help too – first local ones and then ones encompassing larger geographical spaces. The child musician should slowly expand the circumference of their audience or those who recognize his/her talent. All the while, the budding musician should also benefit from having a normal childhood and a good all-around education.

My younger daughter is a wonderful pianist, but does not really enjoy the competitions or performances. She plays in two local concerts a year, purely for the sake of her teacher. The elder daughter, on the other hand, was clearly born for the stage. And her development and trajectory have been right on track. At seventeen, she is now in a band along with some of the best local musicians (all 10 to 20 years older and more experienced than she). Her successes at competitions in singing and songwriting have made her a known quantity in the province’s music scene. Last week, she hit a new high mark when performing at an international symposium in Vienna, attended by music teachers and professors from 25 nations. The concert consisted of nine varied contributions by music school students, one from each of the country’s provinces. Mitzi was “Miss Burgenland” so to speak. She played piano and sang two of her own songs. I realize I am not exactly impartial, but I will tell you anyway that she was fabulous.

And absolutely on the right track.

Yesterday, the husband came home from work and dropped a bombshell. He had received an email from a “scout” for one of the biggest casting shows in the German-speaking area, called “The Voice of Germany”. He (or she) had seen a video of Mitzi on the school’s website and wanted to contact her about participating in the show. (I am not sure if they realized they were writing to Mitzi’s father as well as her school principal . . . ) The fact that Mitzi was being actively recruited meant that she could skip past the first round of auditions – she would begin already in the “finalist” category. The husband added that he had called Mitzi’s singing teacher who was all for it. “Why not?” she had added.

Why not?

I confess, the whole idea creeps me out. I see in my daughter’s eyes that she wants to do it. I see in my husband’s eyes that he could be brought to a “yes” – his mouth is already forming the word silently. I hear my own voice repeating the mantra of earlier years: “No casting shows!” I smell danger. I picture thousands of anonymous voices of Germany whispering in my daughter’s ear for the proverbial fifteen minutes: “You are a star. I love you.” I feel her confusion about just how real these oh-so-unreal reality shows seem to feel. I envision the sudden spike in her trajectory and the deep and drastic dive that follows it. I sense I am alone in my rejection of this whole idea, this detour which will temporarily catapult all of our lives into the realm of sensationalism. I taste the bile of adrenaline as I contemplate the coming conflict.

 

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Other People’s Secrets

 

For the first two and a half years of bloglife, I was skipping along . . . riding a wave . . . whistling my way down Easy Street. Meeting my self-imposed, randomly chosen goal of posting three times a week turned out to be no prob. Ideas arose, ran down from my brain through my nervous system to fingertips on a laptop keyboard and then on to the WordPress Dashboard and then out into the ether. I had no qualms about publishing my own personal stuff for the world to see (albeit when I say “the world” here, I am talking about a total of zero to 20 readers). Surprisingly, the husband and daughters were also okay with me telling their stories from time to time – possibly as a way to make up for not being part of my blog’s reading audience. Having a job in the real world that I loved and no ambition to see my name on a book jacket helped me to concentrate on the fun factor. It propelled me along hummingly in my hobby.

Something changed.

It is now fall, which has always been my undisputed favorite season. It reminds me of my childhood excitement for the first day of school and how I always laid out my carefully chosen outfit the night before, next to my beautiful new school supplies in an un-customarily neat room. Fall reminds me of later pleasant backaches induced by hours of stacking firewood or gathering chestnuts to roast and then not eat because they don’t really taste good, but still somehow manage to seem romantic. Fall is the time when everything begins anew even as it is changing into glorious colors shortly before dying.

This fall has been different. It seems to be ALL about endings and few foreseeable beginnings. As I navigate my way through a successful start of the school year with my three new English groups, I can’t ignore the world around them disintegrating. My beloved school is in deep trouble on the parental level. Some new personal conflict arises among them every week, spreading quickly through the social network and ultimately to the kids in the classroom. Our sociocratic experiment has hit a rough patch. Something tells me the path to resolution will be a long and disruptive one. I assume the school will continue on for the next four years – my last four before retirement. But I am preparing myself anyway for eventuality that it won’t.

At the same time, in the other half of my professional life, I am also realizing that the end is nigh. The stream of students into Business or Economics majors at the university has been drying up because, on graduating, too many of them find they are over-educated for the jobs most companies want to fill these days. (They want lower level staff and techies.) With fewer and fewer students enrolling, my GDE course tailored to them is also shrinking out of existence. This is officially my 30th year teaching this course, but I think it will be the last.

Then there is my expatriate life and morbid fascination in the quagmire American politics has become. Unfortunately the daily twumpian absurdities combined with the sheer distance between me and my ability to affect anything there are leading me to detach.

And my more immediate private life? It has revolved completely around – been infiltrated and consumed by – Other People’s Business.

 

In this autumn of endings, day after day, week after week, my thoughts have been chock full of events and concerns and news and ideas and developments and amateur psychology sessions – none of which are technically my own and none suitable for blogging.

 

So, once again, I will write about chickens.

They also incessantly squawk and squabble and peck at one another and make everything a mess. But they are chickens. So it kind of suits them. And night after night, they all waddle into the coop together where a few sorry ones on the lower bar get pooped on by others who managed to get a better perch higher up.  I suppose it is still better than being outdoors at night and risking being eaten up by a weasel or a fox.

After that glorious first egg my alter-ego, Blackthumb, told you about, a second one was found – lying on the grass and broken. After a closer look around, we discovered a pile of destroyed egg shells – maybe four or five of them. One of our chickens was breaking and eating the eggs (of another one, I assume). As for the layer of the destroyed eggs, I suspect the Sulmtaler (“Trump”). Despite being the same breed as our rooster, he doesn’t give her the time of day. She spends the day waddle-darting from here to there, acting all nervous and confused (not to mention looking silly with that awful hairstyle). As for the Egg Killer, I immediately suspected the Swedish Flower Bully. She then further incriminated herself by beginning to lay one egg a day in the quarantine coop. A half dozen so far. Thanks to this whole episode, she finally has a name: we call her Darwin.

 

Tomorrow her six eggs will be fried or scrambled and eaten along with some bacon and buttered toast. I will do my best to find them distasteful.

 

Morning at the Improv

 

(My Years of Montessori – Part 39)

 

At some point – I assume – every teacher will have a lesson when everything goes differently than their best laid plans. They arrive in class only to discover that some crucial piece of technology refuses to work, or a flu epidemic has halved the class size, or as is often the case with me, they suddenly look at what they prepared and think “This is stupid. I don’t want to do this.”

So they improvise.

And many teachers will tell you that these improvised, spur-of-the-moment lessons can be incredibly fun and much more memorable than the usual fare.

 

I went into my class Monday morning with a plan. We were kicking off a big, school-wide project around the theme of “Art”. Starting the next Monday, the kids would be able to try out different art forms for themselves – from ceramics, to painting, to sculpture, to carving, to weaving, etc. – but beforehand we would be learning about various artistic movements and different epochs in art along with their historical backgrounds, from cave paintings to Picasso, from da Vinci to Banksy. So all their lessons this week, whether World Studies, English, German or even Math, would somehow be connected to the topic of art . . . starting now. This lesson –this moment  – would be the big Kick-Off. I had it all planned out.

 

First I was going to do a general survey of what the kids associated with the word “Art”. Then I had a set of 26 cards based on the book “Museum ABC”. Each card showed 4 very different works of art with some object in common. And these 26 objects each began with a different letter of the alphabet. They had to identify the objects (in English!) and lay them out from A to Z. After that, I would point out examples on the cards from different art movements (Realism, Impressionism, Expressionism, Art Nouveau, Abstract, Surrealism, etc.) and have the kids come up with differences.

 

So back to Monday. I sat down on the carpet in the circle of kids and announced the official beginning of the project.

And then there was a weird, fairly long silence because I suddenly found it difficult to bring the banal question “What is Art?” over my lips. I knew instinctively that it wasn’t going to work.  Talking about art was not going to edify these kids. To really learn something, you need to experience it.

Time to improvise.

“We, humans,” I said, “all see the world in our own unique way. And most of us want to show or communicate to others how we see things. Art gives us an almost infinite number of ways to do this. I want to do a little experiment with you guys to demonstrate what I mean. Now close your eyes.”

The kids eyed me somewhat dubiously, but then decided to play along.

“Picture a chair.”

There were some murmurs and short requests for clarification. (“What kind of chair?” – “That’s up to you.”)

I looked around the circle of kids with their eyes closed, and added

“As you are imagining your chair, think about a few details . . like, what color is it? What is it made of?”

I waited for a few seconds and then asked, “Does everyone have a picture in their minds?”

After everyone had said yes, I told them to open their eyes, then handed them a piece of paper and said “Now go draw it. You can use colored pencils if you want.”

There was a mild but palpable excitement in the room (which surprised me) and they all spread out.

About ten minutes later most of them had wandered back to the carpet with drawing in hand. I had them lay their pictures in a circle on the carpet around the word “chair”. We all then sat down around them and compared for a while.

“Clearly, we all have different ideas about what a chair is and we used different styles in drawing them. One style is called ‘Realism’ – it means trying to paint the object as realistically as possible – exactly like it is. Almost like a photograph. Which of these is ‘realist’?”

About 11 fingers immediately pointed at Benny’s drawing. He was the only one who had used a ruler and thought about perspective.

“Not all artists draw objects exactly. Instead they show the object the way they see it or feel about it or experience it. Their impression of it. This is called ‘Impressionism’ – which of these looks a lot like a chair, but not like a photograph of one, somehow softer, less exact, more creative, lines that aren’t straight . . .

Fingers pointed at several pictures this time. A discussion started up about one of the choices because it didn’t look enough like a real chair.

“But it reminds you of a chair. Or makes you think of chair without really being a chair, doesn’t it?”

Most of the kids agreed.

“That is called ‘Abstract’.  The form of the object is distorted but usually still recognizable – in this case as a chair. Though . . . sometimes you have to be told what it is before you can see it.”

From there we found something Expressionist (in which the emotion was more important than the object) in Fred’s attempt to draw a dentist’s chair. He had gotten frustrated and scribbled over the part where the patient’s face would be. The result was slightly frightening. We discovered a Cubist chair (a collection of rectangular forms) and Symbolist executive chairs – one of which could be mistaken for a (middle) finger (salute). There was even one slightly Surreal chair (with fluffy looking jetpacks).

I was amazed at how long this little demonstration held their attention and at how they really seemed to get it. Even young Jonathon, who was clearly embarrassed about his own chair and reluctant at first to add it to the others on the carpet. I could almost hear him thinking “Benny’s chair is so good and mine looks so stupid and wrong!” Ten minutes later he was beaming about his cool, abstract style of drawing.

Unfortunately, because this was all unplanned, I didn’t have examples ready to show them right then and there, but I prepared this poster in the evening. The following morning, we ended up talking about it again for almost a half hour as one kid after another asked me questions about one of the movements (mostly the one their own chair drawing was assigned to . . .). Then we finally got to the Museum ABC activity that I had originally planned. It turned out to be way too easy and they were done in two minutes flat. So – Thank Goodness for spontaneous inspirations!

The next time I try this – and I definitely will (!) – I’ll have the example pictures ready to go. But I can say with confidence already that it won’t be the same magical experience. It is also entirely possible that two minutes before class starts, I will suddenly think, “This is stupid. I don’t want to do this.”

From Night Owl to Early Bird

 

Speaking as a confirmed Night Owl, I’ve got a bone to pick (or as German speakers would say “a chicken to pluck”) with all the Early Birds out there. It is so unfair that you get to decide the timetable of the school day – and therefore my professional life, now that I have a day job. I didn’t notice this during the first 35 years of teaching because I almost exclusively had afternoon and evening courses. But then I switched to teaching at an elementary/middle school and – BAM! – I was confronted with the 6:00 am alarm clock alarm (which –after 6 years, I still find alarming). It was cruel and unusual. (Yeah, yeah, I know the cliché about he who “gets the worm”, but, honestly, who wants to get worms?)

My summer vacation has been long and relaxing and regenerating, and yet I am staring down the reality of the coming upheaval with a certain amount of trepidation. I have three more evenings/nights to enjoy my natural rhythm – that means going to bed when I feel like it and getting up when I wake up. That means being somewhat slow and lethargic during the Peak Sun hours and then being energetic and creative and productive after sunset.

Then it will be Sunday. I will try to force myself to be in bed by 11:00 pm, alarm set for 6:00 am. I will lie there, tossing and turning, eyes sending signals to my brain that they would prefer to be open, feet playing patty-cake of their own accord, various spots on my body alternately itching or aching, requiring me to scratch or adjust my position continually . . .

. . . and all this for at least three hours, possibly more, before I finally drift off . . .

. . . and then there will be the alarming start to a new school year.

 

Each year in fall, articles appear in newspapers or online about some initiative or another to change the school day to 9-3 rather than the current 7:30- 1:30. These articles make salient, pedagogically sound arguments about the futility of trying to teach teenage brains who are too tired to be receptive in the wee hours of the first period. Each time I read one of these, I feel a tiny glimmer of hope.

These hopes are then quickly dashed – usually by some Early Bird who is happy to be home from work in the afternoon, in time to partake in the last bits of Peak Sun. “It will never happen,” they tell me. “Too many lives would be thrown into chaos and stress. People have to get to work, and they have to have their kids safely sent off beforehand. Everything would have to change – store opening hours, factory shift hours, bus and train schedules – the list is endless!”

So, (sigh), no, this is not likely to change in the next and last five years of my career. We all will continue to conform to a 19th century farmer’s pre-electricity daily schedule, requiring us all to get up when the sun does and to go down a candle’s-length after twilight.

And I will force my body and mind to do the same. Resistance is futile.

 

A Moment in Teaching

I encourage my university students to consume non-commercial media like BBC, PBS and NPR. I also try to turn them on to podcasts – there are so many good ones out there. This year, one student in particular took my advice to heart. Each week, he would come to class and tell me about some new English language show or podcast he had discovered. A lot of it was pretty sophisticated stuff.

One time he was really excited about a fascinating find – it was called “Dead Dogs”.

“Dead Dogs?!” I asked, incredulously, “That sounds awful! Are you sure that was the name?”

 “Yes, Dead Dogs. It’s about all different themes in science and technology . . . it gets millions of clicks every day.”

“And . . . so . . . why is it called ‘Dead Dogs’?”

 “I don’t know. I’m not sure what ‘Dead’ stands for.”

“Spell out the name for me, will you?”

“D – E – D . . .”

“Wait a sec. ‘Dead’ is spelled D – E – A – D.”

“No, I am sure that it is D – E – D.”

 

We stared at one another for a while in silence and confusion.

 

“I have an idea,” I said, “write down the name so I can see it.”

 

Here’s what he wrote:

TED Talks

 

The following week we did some work on pronunciation.

 

 

Where’s That Conch When You Need It?

(My Years of Montessori – Part 38)

 

It all started out so innocently.

Our school playground presented a perennial problem in that there was no part of it that the P1 kids – the six to eight year olds – could call their own. Their games were continually frustrated by older kids shooing them off or setting artificial borders for their games of Tag or Hide-and-Seek. So at the end of last year, my colleague, Mark, suggested extending the top end of the playground a few meters by co-opting a part of the adjacent kindergarten’s yard. He got the green light from the Team. Over the summer, he moved the fence and created a sort of protected space. He then piled a bunch of huge branches and various other natural materials there. The new school year started and we all watched as the little kids first cautiously approached, then discovered, and then started redesigning the new space.

It began with anarchic building. Trees and sticks and rocks were moved around by anyone who felt like it. Eventually, a sort of imaginative space began to emerge and suddenly changes were only allowed after consultation. A group of fort builders crystallized and rules were established.

Of course there were a few kids unwilling to follow the group directives and they found themselves banished. One of them, Davey, set up his own enemy camp in a huge flowering bush around the schoolhouse corner. It was from there that he and his two or three more or less willing followers launched their first attack on the Fort Camp.

But never fear! A force of Fort Defenders quickly formed to beat back the assaults. Sticks emerged and were carried around as weapons and then arsenals of them were stored, both in the Fort and in the newly created Bush Camp. There were more forays. Then surprise attacks.

I have Playground Duty only on Mondays this year, so each week I observed how the roles had developed and expanded since my last recess supervision. I watched to see that sticks were held properly (pointy end downward) when the forces were on the move. I made sure that no sword fights with actual contact occurred. I checked to make sure that there were smiles on both sides of the battlefield and that the game’s progression was mutual. The Fort Camp clearly liked the excitement of the enemy’s advances and they, in turn, had found their way out of exile in this new and accepted role within the game.

All the while, I was sort of haunted by some memory that I couldn’t quite grab hold of. I had experienced something like this before in my own childhood – but . . . what was it??

A week or two ago, things changed. It was precipitated by the addition of a large piece of cardboard to the Fort Camp which was quickly fashioned into roofing for one section. The coolness of this renovation coincided with the bush of Bush Camp starting to look decidedly droopy which caused alarm among the teachers. This was simply not the optimal place for them to reside. Bush Camp became disgruntled with the restrictions and the general inferiority of their situation.

And then the Fort was vandalized by unknown but suspected culprits.

This was totally unacceptable.

The imaginary war entered real life as the kids yelled at one another outside of recess and inside the school. They started telling on one another and name-calling, using furious vocabulary that raised the eyebrows of all the teachers. The Fort Situation officially became an agenda point for our weekly Team meeting.

I need to add here that I only knew a tiny portion of all these developments. I don’t have a lot to do with the littlest kids and only observed the more harmless parts of this Fort War. It was fascinating to hear about all the peripheral stuff. As my colleagues discussed, I was once again plagued by some vague, unattainable, distant memory. Ann talked about how a password had been introduced and I thought momentarily that a low point in my own childhood involving passwords and cruelty might be what was haunting me. But the situations were so different in every other way . . .

Then my colleagues started planning how the discussion with the kids should be conducted. Mark half-joked about having a “speaking stick” to make things go more smoothly. And that is when it hit me.

The conch.

“Oh my god!” I blurted out. “It’s Lord of the Flies!!”

The rest of the team all went silent and looked at me with curiosity. I decided it would be better not to explain my outburst and made a waving “Please continue” gesture. I listened to how all grievances would be aired and peace talks begun. How the Bush would be declared a nature conservation area and that the spot around the corner from it officially laid free for fort building – supplies forthcoming! I was relieved to hear that the adults were about to land on this island playground, bringing the insanity to an abrupt end.

 

Yesterday, the day after the Peace Talks, I ventured out into the Playground during recess. I saw that Davey was inside of Fort Camp. I quickly conferred with Mark to see what that meant. No, Davey had not been welcomed back from exile. It turns out that he had been captured and forcefully dragged into the Fort for trial.

But there were smiles on all the kids’ faces – even Davey’s. So I feel fairly certain that we won’t be finding his head on a stick anytime in the near future.

 

The Lemonade Stand

Ever since mailing off my daughters’ applications for US citizenship, I have been tracking the package in my mind. On Saturday I thought, “OK, now it is in motion.” On Tuesday I figured it had left European soil. Friday was the first time I thought, “It must be there by now.” Meanwhile, my mind has shifted to what comes next. I’ve been (uncharacteristically) checking my mailbox and email inbox more frequently. I’ve started answering the landline when it rings.

Experience should have taught me by now to be prepared for more obstacles and bureaucratic hassles coming my way – maybe even a big disappointment. Instead, I find myself thinking positively, wondering what preparations we should make for their interviews in summer. Will they be asked questions about the US government and history? Should I make them memorize the Pledge of Allegiance?  What qualifications and experience are necessary for applying to be American?

In a way I have been preparing them their entire lives.

We have been incredibly lucky to be able to travel to the States every other year and to spend basically the whole summer there – thanks to my generous sister, her equally gracious husband, and their roomy house. That means my younger daughter, Lily, has spent over 6 months there all together and the elder, Mitzi, about 9. In all of those trips, it was important to me that they have some of the same quintessentially American childhood experiences that I had growing up. Little stuff like running through sprinklers and drinking from bubblers. Wandering the Streets of old Milwaukee and pushing the rattlesnake button at the museum. Going to festivals and watching airshows. Bike rides through the park and trips to the mall. The taste of custard, the clickety-clack of the Zoo train, the song of the Ice Cream Truck, the smell of brewery yeast, the flash and bang of fireworks.

One summer, my sister discovered that they had never heard of lemonade stands. She was appalled. Such a gap in their cultural education had to be addressed! Brother-in-law put up the starting capital for cookie dough and lemonade concentrate and Sister helped them with the signs and the baking – right down to the fork prints on the peanut butter cookies. Brother helped in setting up the stand at the edge of the park across the street from the house. Sister took on the photo-documentation of the enterprise.

 

 

      

Business got off to a booming start. Within a half hour they were already running back to the house to replenish their stock. Later, though, things slowed a bit. Sister suggested they offer “free Cheetos with every purchase” and made them a new sign. Later, Mitzi started a delivery service. She walked up to people on benches and blankets in the park and made her pitch. Meanwhile, Lily held down the fort.

 

The girls’ supplies of both lemonade and patience were almost depleted, but not quite gone, when some nice neighbors came (to the rescue) with their bulk orders, bringing about an abrupt and successful close of the business day. The girls came rushing back to the house with wads of cash in their box. The next step was working out how much they needed to reimburse their start-up investors. Once all debts were repaid, their eyes shone with excitement about their 500% ROI and Mitzi proclaimed that she had a new favorite English phrase: “Keep the change.”

 

They were officially American kids now, fully initiated into the wondrous rewards of free market capitalism. The way to have cookies and sugary drinks while still making easy money! I confess little bubbles of my own skepticism of this system rose to the surface.

“Can we do this again?” one of the girls asked excitedly.

“Sure,” I answered.

And when that time comes, I thought, maybe I should throw in a few new elements. For instance, sales tax, advertising costs, rental fees for equipment and furniture, trading license, health inspectors, insurance, maybe even arrange for a policeman to come by and fine them for selling in the park. And if any money is left over, I can confiscate half of it for the IRS.  We can call it “Capitalism – Lesson 2”. It will be good for them.