Country Mice, City Rats

 

(My Years of Montessori – Part 40)

 

A few blog reading friends have expressed concern about my slow countrification as evidenced in recent posts. In the last few months it has been all checking chickens, migrating mice, and hoeing hedgehogs. I even got a short-lived crush on a donkey. But never fear! In a cosmically orchestrated twist, I get to reverse this recent trend and relate my adventures in the big city (Vienna) with 24 young country bumpkins (Hummingbird School kids) in tow.

While planning the trip with my three fellow teachers, we concentrated on things like Schönbrunn or Belvedere? Technical or natural history museum? Lunch packets from the hostel or supermarket stops?  What we didn’t think so much about was:

  • how do you get 28 people on and off a crowded city bus or tram in one go?
  • do our kids know the rules of city sidewalks?
  • do our kids know how to walk in pairs for more than 30 seconds?
  • will they be capable of standing still long enough for us to get a headcount?
  • will our more free-wheeling kids take our statements as instructions or mere suggestions?

Our first inkling that these things would be issues came when we changed trains on our way there. All twenty-four kids made it on to the connecting train, but only twenty-two of the suitcases did too. Mark grabbed the abandoned bags and tossed them inside before getting on himself. It took the guilty parties almost a half hour to realize what they had done.  The next sign that we were in for some troubles came during the walk from the train station to the hostel. Our kids walked in packs of five or six, taking up the entire sidewalk, practically plowing down other perplexed and/or peeved pedestrians. And not only that – they kept jostling around, shoving or trying to trip one another. They were excited and laughing loudly in the way pubescent kids do when nothing is truly funny. They were oblivious to the sights and sounds around them.  Despite having no idea where they were going, they just took off in any old direction with inexplicable confidence.

Schönbrunn Palace and the technical museum were planned for the arrival day. Halfway through the palace gardens, Mark and David were already prepared to start sending this or that kid home early. By the time we left the museum, I, too, had the first name on my own mental list of potential early departers.  (Lucy of “Power Girls and Hoodies” fame. Panting, sweating and with a face flushed red, she declared that I was unfair for accusing her of running through the museum – right before tearing off again.) Later, back in the hostel, as the kids played “Spin the Bottle”, argued the superiority of their respective hostel rooms, and planned their nighttime visits, we four teachers began a second list: “Things We Will Do Better the Next Time We Plan a Vienna Trip”. Not only were the questions above on the list, but also some new issues including:

  • should we confiscate the energy drinks (to be returned) or just toss them?
  • what should we do about kids with way more money than agreed on (or worse yet, ATM cards) and who were already starting to make loans to others?
  • should we teach them how to put sheets on a bed in advance? (as most of them have clearly never had to do this before)
  • what do we do about the kids with unlimited internet access on their cell phones?

 

Had Day 2 gone similarly to Day 1, we may very well have ended the trip early. But, as kids often tend to do, they surprised us the next morning by suddenly behaving themselves. Our system of forming groups of 8 for bus and tram rides worked almost flawlessly. On approaching a bus stop, seven of my eight magically appeared around me. They started calling me their “Vienna Mama”. (The eighth kid was Moritz of “Hummingbird Report Cards” fame.) He kept wandering off and joining other groups. “Where is Moritz?” became a mantra of our group. They watched out for him along with me. When Moritz got off the tram one stop early on our last ride, the entire group screamed his name. He heard, turned, and got back on the tram at the last second.

Back to Day Two.  The vast majority of the kids were attentive and interested during our inner city tour (thanks to a fabulous guide who adapted her content for a 12-13 year old audience). They did surprisingly little complaining about the fact that it was really cold, and when they did get a bit tired and cranky, it turned out that the cure was a playground in the City Park where they ran around like wildlings until they were no longer tired.

Memorial to Maria Christina in the Augustinian Chapel in Hofburg:
In the park:

 

The final stop on Day Two was Time Travel Vienna which is an attraction like the London Dungeon – an entertaining introduction to the history of the city. The kids were generally enthused, but also pretty sophisticated in their critiques of the experience. (Some of it really was a bit cheesy.) Only our autistic Katy had major problems dealing with this part of our trip. She couldn’t handle the 3D film and didn’t know enough to simply close her eyes (which I did half of the time).  In one part we saw rats running through medieval streets and then puffs of air blew around our feet in the theater, making it seem like rats were running past us. Poor Katy kept talking about it for hours afterward – with tears running down her eyes; it was real for her. She was so afraid we were all going to come down with the Plague . . .

Another point for our mental list of what to do better next time:

  • consider what activities are okay for our spectrum kids.

 

Day Three had only one activity – the kids could decide between the natural history and the art history museums. A week earlier at school, two thirds decided for art, but as we were standing there between them, the “Dogs and Cats” exhibit sign on the natural history museum made many kids change their minds. I ended up taking only five of them with me through the art history one.

It was probably for the best.

The Egyptian mummies and hieroglyphs held their attention for about fifteen minutes, but from then on they spent most of the time giggling and taking cell phone pics of historic breasts and butts and penises. 2000 years’ worth of them. But even that got old. At one point we sat in front of a huge painting of Prometheus having his liver ripped out by a bird and I told them the myth. I was surprised when one of them asked me if it was a true story.

I suddenly saw the masterpieces in this museum through the eyes of a 13 year old country bumpkin. When Moritz proclaimed on leaving the museum that people in the past were “sick in the head and disgusting”, I couldn’t really disagree. At least by modern standards. It was a nice reminder that, despite all the trouble in the world right now, there has never been a better time to live in than now. I mean . . . there is no Camelot time in the past when people – generally – had it better than we do. The best lesson of most history is reminding us of how lucky we are to be beyond it.

 

While standing outside the museums again, waiting for the final stragglers to return from the bathrooms so that we could make our way back to the train station and home, Mark fell into conversation with another teacher in charge of a nearby school group. He had only about 15 kids with him and all of them were 8th Graders. He had noticed how we had so many kids and of mixed ages  (the oldest 14 and the youngest 10). He asked us how we managed them all.

What we learned from that conversation is that “Vienna Week” is a staple of the Austrian junior high school curriculum. In most cases, schools all over the country simply apply to the Education Ministry and get their excursion to Vienna organized and implemented for them by professional guides. A few teachers go along for the ride, but don’t have a lot of responsibility. The costs are minimal.

Go figure.

Should we decide to do this again, I’m not sure we are going to need our mental list about “What to Do Better Next Time”. Or maybe that will be the only list we need. We will deal with the energy drinks and the spectrum kids; someone else will deal with the Lucies and Moritzes.

 

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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.”

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.

 

Kids in Their Cells – The Epilogue

My Years of Montessori – Part 37 ½

 

Movie Night was a mixed success in the end. Despite the lovely afternoon, it seems that the later it got, the more bad ideas the kids had and the more they acted on them. Cell phones reappeared and then after midnight, without my (sleeping) colleague’s knowledge, a third movie (not rated for their age group) was watched. For four of my five fellow teachers – this incident was the proverbial last straw. Time to take action against the increasing number of – and increasingly dishonest – provocations before our trust in them disappeared altogether. Cell phones would now be banned from the school.

I got tasked with letting them know. Right then and there. I trudged up the stairwell toward the classroom, thinking this is going to suck.

I called the whole class to the carpet and they sat in a circle. They were eerily quiet and uncharacteristically attentive. I think they knew what was coming.

“I have something to tell you all. It’s about the cell phone situation. We teachers have decided it is time to disappear them completely.”

The room was silent. There were no objections or groans or complaining noises. No one whined “But whyyy??” So I continued . . .

“We decided this because our original agreement on how and when cells can be used is not being kept to. So . . . from now on, they should stay in your schoolbags, turned off or in flight mode, for the entire school day. Basically from when you get out of the bus in the morning to when you get back in after school.  And . . . I guess . . . that is all. Does anyone want to say something?”

Tommy raised his hand and asked “Why does this have to apply to everyone in the group? The girls didn’t do anything wrong.”

I was stunned. All eyes were on me and all mouths remained shut. I surveyed the other boys’ faces and they were all looking back at me expectantly. Where was the protest? Tommy had essentially expressed a group confession, a collective acceptance of the consequences, and then tossed in a fine, fair, and socially mindful proposal to protect the innocent. I didn’t know how to respond. So I said,

“I don’t really know how to respond to that.”

A few of the girls quietly added that they would still like to listen to music during the break, and that it was true they had always stuck to the rules.

“Well, I can’t change the Team’s decision on my own. But if you all have an idea for a better solution in this situation, you can bring it to us and we will consider it.”

One girl then said, “I think we all agree with Tommy’s suggestion.”

“One set of rules for the girls and another for the boys? Is that true? Who of you thinks Tommy’s suggestion is a good way to go?”

All fifteen hands immediately shot up into the air.

“Okay,” I said, “I’ll bring it to the team and let you know. Until that happens, the new rules apply to everyone. Does anyone have anything to add?”

Another boy raised his hand.

“Should we go put our cells in our school bags right away?” He seemed eager, as if hoping to hear a “Yes”.

 

“How can it be,” I asked myself as I left the room, “that they all seem  . . . relieved?!”

 

I later came to believe that the kids had talked among themselves before this circle discussion ever happened. I think they knew the hammer was going to come down and came up with their own solution – as a group – that everyone could live with when it did. If so, that was a great sign. They were on their way to becoming unified again. I thought it would be a positive development to respect their unanimous proposal.

My fellow teachers, unfortunately, didn’t tend to agree. Especially my Movie Night friend wanted us to take the hardest line possible and saw all of this as just the next attempt to bend rules. I had to argue for 45 minutes till we came to an agreement.

Today, I sat with the kids in a circle again and had each individual one say in turn if they still felt the same, still agreed to Tommy’s proposal. No one had changed their mind. So I told them that we teachers see this as their decision, not ours, but that we will respect it because it was unanimous and had its own kind of fairness. Still, I asked the girls if they would think about alternative ways to listen to music as a show of solidarity and they all nodded yes. Then we wrote up the new arrangements and everyone signed:

 

Cell Etiquette

cells in schoolbags, flight mode, from bus to bus

music for the girls

ask before calling or texting (e.g. parents)

 

Kids in Their Cells

 

My Years of Montessori – Part 37

 

I spent five hours of my normally free Friday with my Secondary class. They were having their annual “Movie Night”/ sleepover at the school. It was very good timing, too, because the once good atmosphere in the group has been slipping away. And for one major reason: cell phones.

We have a general agreement that we teachers don’t take their cells away from them during the school day. They should be on flight mode and only used for listening to music during the break. I don’t know exactly when it started, but it is now the school’s worst kept secret that the five boys huddled on the couch for the entire 40 minute break are NOT listening to music. They are stealthily clan clashing or mine-crafting or subway surfing or Pokémon going. (I assume I revealed my ignorance about these games with that last sentence.) The non-gamers in the classroom are increasingly bothered about it – not only because of the dishonesty, but because these boys are no longer available to them. They are missed on the soccer field and in the rounds of Werewolf or Activity. They are missed in simple conversation. As they sit there staring into their screens, thumbs waving, they are unresponsive and inaccessible to everyone else. And they resent being asked to stop by their classmates, then compensate for their tinges of guilt by being extra snippy or sullen. As these cell phone games draw them in, they also draw them away from their friends, isolating them in a sort of self-inflicted solitary confinement.

So as I wrote at the start, it was a very good time for a class event like the Movie Night. Just like last year, I agreed to chaperone until 5 pm, when my younger and more idealistic colleague arrived to take over for the night shift. And just like last year, I agreed to do this on the condition that my Dog 4 came along and that we ALL went for a walk together.

When I arrived, most of the kids were cooking lunch already. The missing five were up in the classroom, on the couch, staring into screens with thumbs flashing. I sat down next to one of them and asked him to show me the game. Technically the school day was over and they had the right to do this openly, but my presence seemed to take the fun out of it. They broke off and, one after another, meandered down to the kitchen where all the laughter was. The one last holdout could not be talked into joining the rest, so I left him there alone. He finally showed up for lunch when the remainder of the spaghetti was cold and sticky.

We cleared the table and immediately set out for our walk. The girls set off at an enthusiastic pace, singing songs, while the boys lagged behind in a demonstration of their reluctance. Our destination was a sort of natural playground next to a stream that had been recently restored to its original course as part of a regional conservation project. It’s a beautiful area that now attracts more bikers and hikers than tractors or pesticides. Part of the project was planting hundreds of trees and special plants in an effort to bring back the bees. The restoration of the original river will hopefully bring back the native fish.

 

About halfway along, one of the girls blurted out: “Could we maybe forbid cell phones in the school?” That set off a flurry of discussion and revelations about what was going on in their classroom and how they felt about it. I mostly just listened and learned. The discussion continued all the way to the playground where we sat down and waited for the stragglers to show up.

They (the stragglers) eventually arrived and plopped themselves down at a distance from us, apparently exhausted after their 30 minute trail of tears.

But then something happened. The playground started to work its magic. They slowly, one by one, got up and moved toward some piece of equipment. They started playing. And competing. And laughing. Cell phones appeared – but only to take pictures.  As we all soaked up the sun, some of their adolescent lethargy melted away and the factions started intermingling.

The walk home happened in different constellations and unhurriedly as we stopped along the way for more games by the river.

Two hours after taking off, we returned to the school and . . .

. . . the five went directly to their classroom couch, dove into their cells, and were once again lost to the others.

But not for long. Protests from their classmates pried the first two out and back to group games. They went outside to play soccer, leaving just three. After five minutes, I said to them “Everyone else is outside playing – why don’t you join them?” I pointed to a cell phone. “You can do that anytime.” It was enough to get another one to move. Three down, two more holdouts: the biggest gamer of them all and a recent convert who I guessed was only doing it to fit in with the others. I set my sights on him.

“You know, I don’t think you realize what that device in your hand is doing to you. Those 12 kids outside are your friends and their feelings are hurt. You all only have about three more months together. They want to spend time with you. And you are up here doing something you can do alone in your room.”

The convert paused for a second, put the cell down, sighed an “Okay” and went to join the others. That left one. The leader of the lost pack.

“Are you coming too?” I asked him.

“Maybe. Later.”

It took no more than a few minutes before the convert was running around whooping after scoring his first goal. Another five minutes after that, the final holdout appeared at the side of the soccer field. The others noticed him and squealed out his name, letting him know how glad they were to see him. He smiled.

 

Trash Wednesday

Well, actually “Ash Wednesday”. Which means yesterday Austria celebrated what they call “Fasching”.  It has nothing to do fascism – quite the opposite really. It is the big blow out before we all, or most of us, or actually just some of us give up something we really like until Easter, or at least for a few days, or sometimes maybe for just for a few hours. Nowadays on Fasching Tuesday, Austrians of all ages either make themselves ugly, or they don the usual Halloween-type costumes – witch, pirate, cowboy, angel, devil, etc. But I have read that the old tradition was to slip into the opposite of one’s usual role. So men dress up like women and women like men. A king (- in American terms, the president) dresses up like a court jester while a fool becomes a president.

With that old tradition in mind, I chose my costume for our school party:

cook

Full disclosure: that last sentence was a fib. Actually, my husband bought and wore this costume at his own school’s Fasching party last year. And, no, I am not this large. The costume has a little motorized fan that blows it up like a balloon.

As I walked into each classroom yesterday, a loud round of shrieking broke out first. The kids then approached me carefully and made little tentative pokes. Those became jabs. After 10 minutes, I felt less like a cook than a punching bag and had to reassert my teacher authority to stop the abuse. The wooden spoon came in handy. The best part of the celebration was dancing in the disco in this get up – doing all the hip-hop moves I learned from my daughter as my students freaked out. Some of them were laughing, but others were staring at me with a questioning look on their faces: “Who ARE you?? And what did you do with my English teacher??”  I am fairly sure there are quite a few pictures of me currently floating around in various teenage WhatsApp groups.

I don’t care at all.

I used to really dislike Fasching and everything connected with it. I didn’t have this tradition growing up, so seeing all these grown-ups dressed strangely and acting crazy was sort of creepy. And the village festivals were just obnoxious puke parties as far as I was concerned. Ash Wednesday became one of my favorite days, because 1) being a heathen, I enjoyed not having to give up stuff I like for six weeks, and 2) it meant Fasching Tuesday was over. Then I changed jobs.

During my first two years in the school, I had to jump over my own shadow to participate at all in these parties and the enjoyment factor was non-existent. Slowly, but surely, I started to get into it. I slipped more and more into my new role-for-the-day and had fun with it. This year I came the closest yet to that coveted feeling of abandonment. One NOT achieved in a cheating way with chemical help (see “puke parties” above.)

As an immigrant to this country, it has become very clear to me how much a person’s character is defined by the culture they grow up in. I used to tell my (university) students that, as far as I could tell, it is impossible to “become an Austrian”.  People’s identity here is so tied up with the real estate they were born on – the country, the province, the city, the village. The Carinthians make fun of the Styrians and vice versa, the Lower Austrians make fun of the Upper Austrians and vice versa. Everyone makes fun of the Burgenlanders. No one outside of Vienna likes the Viennese . . . When my husband is asked where he comes from, he answers with the name of a city he spent only his first five years in. I couldn’t imagine myself ever saying “I come from Brown Deer.”

I basically emigrated from the States at the ripe old age of 20. I came back for one year to finish my undergrad studies. I came back again for 7 months to finish grad school. I have had many month long vacations there over the years. But . . . total it all together, it still doesn’t come close to the 31+ years that I have lived here in Austria.

Have those 31 years gotten me closer to being Austrian? Hardly. But yesterday, dancing in the disco along with my bearded colleague in his fairy butterfly bride costume and a hoard of young costumed confetti-throwing kids, I moved a tiny notch closer.

 

Once More Unto the Breach!

(My Years of Montessori – Part 36 – partially plagiarized from Part 6 – but this time with pictures!)

 

On my very first day in my “new” school (which really isn’t new anymore, seeing as how this is my sixth year there) I watched with morbid fascination at how awful the kids in the “Sekundaria”  – the 13 and 14 year olds – treated one another as well as the teacher who was trying so hard with them.

Traditionally, in this first circle discussion of the school year, the group comes to a consensus on seating arrangements and general rules concerning classroom etiquette, independent study time conditions and shared space. This includes a wide variety of topics from the use of cell phones to eating in the classroom, from quiet versus social areas to music volumes, from which kids are allowed in which rooms to respecting others’ property, from doing chores to not running in the hallways . . . It was quite a list. And a surprising one. In my introduction to the ways of this school so far, I had heard it contrasted to “rules schools” quite a few times. And here were the same prohibitions you would find anywhere. The only difference was that the kids were supposed to come up with and agree to them on their own. The teacher’s goal was to have them create a poster of the rules that would then be signed by all and hung in the classroom to guarantee a peaceful and productive school year.

That poster never came into existence. In this long excruciating hour, the kids teased and interrupted one another constantly. They chatted with neighbors rather than listening to the one who currently held the conch, oops, I mean the heart-shaped pillow. Elbows were dug into other kids’ ribs. Squirming was constant and adversarial. Barely audible but clearly snide comments and subsequent chuckles were made at other people’s expense. Pseudo-laughter over things that weren’t really funny was a constant feature in general. Arms were crossed in a defensive posture as one student after another leaned back and signaled their anger. All the while, the well-meaning and not un-respected teacher kept cajoling and lecturing the kids, trying to make them admit that they were old enough and smart enough to understand everything he was trying to accomplish. They were and they did – but none of them were going to actually admit that out loud. At some point, the clock struck 10, signaling recess, and the group discussion was over.

I went home and brooded over the experience for hours on end. In less than two days, I would have to face this group for the first English lesson (a subject they had collectively rebelled against in the past). How could I get this troop to give me and English a chance? I would have to hit the exact right tone and fairly quickly – these kids were clearly not receptive to lectures. They were tired of being talked to, reasoned with, and they immediately tuned out. And rules? They turned out to be enticements – the kids were very creative in finding ways to break them. I was going to have to get equally creative.

The first question was how to deal with all the rebellion. By sheer coincidence, it was an election year, so one of our first topics was democracy. I introduced them to the American history and governmental system with an emphasis on rights and responsibilities. We moved from “I have rights” to “Everyone should have equal rights” to “Everyone should respect the rights of others.” The final project in these lessons was to take their classroom rule list and reframe it. For instance, instead of “Rule #1 – No running in the hallways”, they wrote “We all have the right to safety and security, so we don’t run in the halls.” They may have been wildlings, but they were also impressively smart. Suddenly breaking the rules for the sake of breaking the rules didn’t seem like such a great idea to them. But there was still a problem in how they treated teachers and one another on an emotional level . . .

And now we get to the sub-title of this post.

Two years ago, on a different blog platform, and before any of my current readers (except one) even knew I existed, I wrote about my eventual solution to the “wildlings” problem:

. . . After three weeks I introduced them to my group dynamics box.
Sitting on the floor in a circle, I explained to them that sometimes I wanted to send them a message, but didn’t want to do it in a lecturing way. So everything in the box was a symbol and a message. The first object was a Stop” sign but with some words added underneath. It meant things were getting too rowdy. Time for them to collect themselves:

stopsign

The second object was a little music box that played a particular melody – that one was sort of self-explanatory for them.  They were, after all, 13 and 14 year olds and they inherently understood the concept of momentary brainlessness.

music-box

The third objects were for the cases when a student was disinterested in everything –– the idea that something is “”Boorrrinngg!”” can be so contagious in a classroom. I said, ““I don’t expect you to find every topic interesting, but if everything is boring to you, then you are not really living. You might as well start building that coffin.” I put some big nails on the floor. Here are some coffin nails. You can get started.””
coffin-nails
Also in the box was a Socrates doll (teacher/student relationships / listening goes in both directions), my replicas of the Constitution and Bill of Rights (the classroom is a democratic space), and a little stuffed bird. This last one referred to a German expression “”You have a bird! which is actually an insult and means You are crazy.”” I told the kids that, in our class, “having a bird” was a compliment – like thinking outside the box or being original / creative.

         socrates replicas bird

Im not sure what Montessori, Steiner, Wild, & Co would think of this method, but the kids loved that box and it worked like a charm. The few times I did use it, there was always some laughter and then an easy course correction. They showed it off proudly and explained it to their parents on Hummingbird Day . . .  
My box of objects has gone through three adaptations based on the group dynamics and the personalities in the class each year.

 

About those adaptations. I had a subgroup in Year 3 that loved to make ridiculous requests. The first two or three times, I actually explained, almost apologetically and in words, about why I had to say “No”. Then I realized it was just a game for them. They wanted to see how I reacted. Enter the flying pig:

flying-pig

chickenNot all of my inspirations worked out. In Year 4, I added a chicken to deal with two boys who refused to speak English. It completely backfired and was quickly remr-potato-headmoved from the box. But also in Year 4, Mr. Potato Head joined the collection to deal with problems in circle discussions. He had big ears and no mouth. He turned out to be a keeper.

Last year I had such a harmonious class that I retired the group dynamics box all together. But lately, I have been considering reactivating it. I have a pack of five boys who have started rebelling collectively, mostly against journal writing. (For ten minutes at the end of the school day, the kids should reflect on the day and write something – anything! – about it.) The vast majority of our kids seem to like doing this. They write creatively and/or review what was new or fun for them that day. They add colorful illustrations or fitting song lyrics. But for the past month, the entries of the Pack of Five have included a lot of illegible scribbles or swearwords or penis drawings, etc. Or they provokingly write the same two sentences day after day after day: “Before the break we had (Math) and after the break we had (German). It was cool.”

This rebellion came to the Team’s attention and since then the battle fronts have hardened. (To be honest, I kind of admire the boys’ tenacity.) The schedule was tweaked so that I am now there for journal writing time twice a week to support my sorry young colleague who had been taking the brunt of the incoming up to that point. I also identified the weaker links in enemy force and have been employing a divide and conquer strategy with some success. Last Tuesday I challenged the whole class to write five sentences without ever using the German phrases for “I/we had” or “I/we did” – and that led to a few creative workarounds. I think I am weakening their defenses, but the battle is far from over. They still want to win.

I have been racking my brain for some symbol that might help in this journal feud to add to my magic box before I reintroduce it. One idea was a little white flag of surrender and a message like “I know you don’t want to give up. The problem is that you already have.” Another idea was something to do with wolves or sheep – though that might be too harsh. Basically, I am still waiting for an inspiration.

So I’ve decided to enlist YOUR help, my blogworld people – you are all so creative. Any suggestions?