Pride Goeth

It was a Saturday three weeks ago, when I finally reserved the whole afternoon to start catching up on blog reading. I started, of course, with Ly and was horrified to discover that I had to scroll all the way back to early September to find where I had left off. (Yes, I am a terrible friend.) I spent an enjoyable few hours until being interrupted by a press conference. All schools were closing till the second week of December. I switched immediately into work mode and basically stayed there till . . . well . . . till yesterday. My cushy, reduced-to-two-days work week, now extended to seven days. For non-educators out there, I can tell you that distance-teaching is about three times as time intensive. It is also relentless and exhausting.

So, everyone was happy to hear that the schools were reopening next week. To celebrate our final online English lesson, I made a special quiz game for my class that they seemed to really enjoy. After gathering on the learning platform, all the kids turned on the “Chat” function. I asked a question and they all typed in their answers as quickly as they could. I awarded points to the first three correct ones. Minor spelling mistakes were allowed.

For the final question in the quiz, I decided to ask something really simple. I said, “Question Number 20. Ready? What is today’s date?”  The answers started rolling in:

After the first 10 or so tries, the shock and horror began bubbling up inside of me. I started giving them little tips about ordinal numbers and capitalization. They kept trying.

At this point I was holding my head in my hands. Tiny whimpering noises were escaping from me. Finally, one girl wrote an answer that I could technically accept. I ended the response period and typed in a few possible correct variations. Two more guesses straggled in as I was doing so.

After 39 years of teaching English, my memory houses a fairly large collection of meaningful moments, nice memories, special experiences, highlights . . .

December 3rd, 2020 will not be one of them.

Labor Day

 

NERD ALERT!

I’m not sure there was anything in my childhood that excited me more than the first day of a new school year.

I remember how I spent the last day of my summer vacation before beginning First Grade (and every year afterward) deep cleaning my room. How I then carefully chose and laid out my clothes, right down to the socks and underwear. How I lovingly fondled my new school supplies – the notebooks and pencils and whatever else was necessary in 1968 – and placed them next to my outfit in perfect perpendicularity.

I might have added “my new lunchbox” to the collection and experienced a similar feeling of excited satisfaction – that is, if I had had one. I would soon learn that the Elementary School cafeteria was segregated into the Cool Lunchbox Kids and the Brown Paper Bag Kids. I was in the latter group. Later, in the Third Grade, I would learn that there was a difference between the kids with real Converse shoes and those with the Target version. I was in the latter group. Even later, I would learn that there was a difference between kid with real alligator shirts and those without – but by then, I had stopped caring.

Despite these repeated revelations, my excitement for the first day of school – year after year – never diminished. After all the cleaning and preparation was done, I would go to bed at a seriously sensible time and then lie awake in happy anticipation for hours on end.

I loved school.

 

Back to the Future Present – 52 years Later:

 

I went to bed last night at 10:00 pm with “school supplies” prepared, but no concrete wardrobe plan. I had no trouble falling asleep.

I don’t think our first day of school could have gone any better. The remaining usual kids arrived with smiles and stories. The new kids arrived with exceptionally engaged parents in tow. They came with baskets full of donations to our first day breakfast. They came with appreciation and excitement and a desire to contribute and belong. They came with a desperately needed new and positive energy.

All three of our groups of students had a positive experience in their first hour of being together. They talked and listened and related. In the group I was in, our “integration student” – a kid who would have been called “mentally retarded” back when I was in school – had her turn to speak. She was taken seriously and respected.

In the break, about 20 0f our 37 kids spontaneously started a soccer match on the playground. They ranged from the ages of 7 to 15, but they worked out team arrangements equitably and the more powerful kids paid attention to and took care of the younger ones.  Among the non-soccer players, I could see that every “new kid” had already found a new friend. They all had fun.

At some point, in the middle of all the action, I was in the kitchen. I looked out the window and saw two new parents sitting on a bench, watching their kid on the playground. They were obviously beyond happiness. This was just what they had hoped for.

Eventually, the buses started to arrive, and the kids and families left for the day. I wandered back to the far side of the school – out of sight of any remaining people – and sat down.

“So, that was it.” I thought. “My very last first day of school.”  To my own surprise, I felt the tears coming.

So happy. So sad. At the same time.

 

Moritz Revisited

 

One the cruelties of June (mentioned in my last post) is the fact that I have to write an individual letter to each of my students – this year that meant 28 of them. What these letters entail has already been covered in this blog – so I will just point you to that post of five years ago (which should probably be read first if you want to fully appreciate the nuances of the following): “Hummingbird Report Cards – (MYoM – Part 11)”.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

 

 

Little Moritz of that old letter is now, five years later, a school-leaver. That meant his letter required special attention. Here is what I came up with. (And I will leave it up to you all to determine which parts of the following were actually in the real letter, and which are embellished here in the spirit of steam-off-blowing.)

 

Dear Moritz,

I remember some parts of my earliest lessons with you way back in the Primary 2. Your group and I would meet on the carpet and I would announce that we were starting. Then I would look around the circle, count off the heads, and stop abruptly. “Where is Moritz?” I would ask.  Fast forward five years. Now in the Secondary 2, I never have to ask where Moritz is. He is where all those weird noises or pounding sounds are coming from . . .

In last year’s letter I kidded you about your “Warm-up Phase” and I have to admit, that has gotten better this year. You participated well in all the lively discussions of your English group, even though you weren’t always sure what they were talking about. Your physical attendance was almost perfect this year and, in the end, you managed to hand in some of most of your assignments. You have always seemed to see some sense in learning English – even if after the fact. Your level of English – especially when it comes to understanding YouTubers and Rappers, where YOU had to explain to ME what they were saying – is now curiously high.

Another thing I kidded you about last year was how your journal entries were mostly short and consisted of unfinished sentences. True to form, the second last sentence in your journal this year (which was complete) was followed by “Afterwards”. . . .  and that was it! The best sentence, however, was this one: “Today in german we learned about which words have to be Capitalized.”

In some ways, I feel you left the Hummingbird School quite a while ago, being ready to go on to something new. I know it has been difficult to find the thing that interests you most, so I hope that discovery will come to you soon. In the meantime, have a great summer and good luck in your new school. Afterwards

Reopening – Part Two

(This might be a long one. As Austria is one of the earliest experimenters in reopening schools, I thought it might be of interest to people in places who haven’t reached this point yet. So, I’ve decided to go into pretty much detail about our experiences, even if our school is a quirky little private and alternative one (where the parents have far too much say!) and therefore, not exactly representative. One thing I can say for sure is that the situation in the husband’s high school is running far more smoothly and that he or his teachers don’t have to put up with a fraction of the crap we do . . . )

 

As I wrote in my last post, my teaching team and I worked all last week to prepare the school for reopening on Monday. We rearranged all the classrooms and tried to meet every requirement set by the government to minimize risk and maximize social distancing. We prepared the kids for the changes and the strangeness that would confront them on their first day back. We informed the parents about every change, every measure we had to take, and we asked them for their support. We encouraged them to contact us directly if they had any questions or concerns. Then came the final weekend before the reopening.

 

Saturday

In evening, 36 hours before the first child would arrive at the school, we get this email – addressed to everyone, meaning all the teachers and all the parents(!):

I felt an urgent need to reply and immediately composed an email that I knew I would never send. Once again, my fingers at the keyboard were sputtering and stammering. Here is what they came up with:

Of course, I didn’t send it. But getting the words out calmed me down enough to get a good night’s sleep.

 

Sunday

I wake up and the first thing I see is a response to the email above from the speaker of the parents’ organization. Her main point is that we have had bad experiences in the past with email discussions and that this mother can always – and should have – contacted the teaching team first. Her words thankfully ward off any further explosion of “Reply all” responses.

Later in the day, my boss forwards an email from a second family announcing that their two children would not be returning to the school. They wanted their kids to remember the place in a positive way and not be confronted with the fear and hysteria that apparently reign now.

That email is followed by another one saying two more kids would be leaving the school at the end of the year. This family – like the one above – had stopped paying the fees way back in March and would continue not doing so. But the kids were going to be there for the reopening the next day. “How can this be?” I wondered. (I have since found out that there at least three other families doing the same, i.e. not paying, yet still sending their kids or expecting distance instruction to continue.) My nervousness about the coming day increased. If the kids behaved anything like their parents, it was going to be a tense and tough one.

Then a third email arrived. A mother wanted to give me a little joy and sent a picture of her son in front of the computer at home. There on the screen was me, with a goofy expression and gesticulating weirdly. It made me smile.

 

Monday (– Reopening Day)

7:30 am. My job was to stand outside and greet the kids as they got off the buses or out of their parents’ cars and to make sure they knew the drill. (Go through the right entrance, shoes off, hands washed, on to the classroom – and there you can take off the mask.) It turned out to be easy. The bus kids all had masks on already and the car kids put them on unprompted as they neared the school. All I had to say after “Good morning!” was “Everything clear? Do you know what to do?” and they all said yes. They were so cool! Not one of them seemed embarrassed, fearful or resistant. They just took it in stride. You could tell how happy they were to be back and to see one another again. These were the older kids in the school (the younger ones would start on Wednesday) and apparently, they did not share all of their parents’ views. Or at least that was how it seemed at the start. But I am getting ahead of myself . . .

Halfway through these arrivals, a mother walked up to a foot away from me, mask-less, and handed me a box of disinfectant and masks. She was a doctor, too. I asked for the bill to reimburse her and she said, no, she was donating the stuff. Then she turned to me and said nervously: “You aren’t really going along with all this nonsense, are you?” She went off on a tirade about how dangerous mask wearing was and pulled out a form to show me. When signed by a doctor, it freed her son from having to wear one. She began filling it out. Meanwhile, I saw her son pull a mask out of his back pocket and put it on just before entering the school. I asked the mother to wait a sec and called for reinforcements. A second teacher and I together made it clear to Dr. Mom that we were indeed following the required guidelines but added that the amount of time her son would be wearing a mask could be measured in minutes. She changed her tune and said that the school part was okay, it was the bus ride she was worried about. Luckily, we don’t have any influence over those policies and could dodge this particular bullet.

After this one jag, the rest of the day jigged remarkably well. We had great talks with the kids and then began the lessons. I’ve never seen them so attentive, receptive and, simply put, happy to be taught. Some of them handed in reams of worksheets, posters and essays; others sheepishly confessed to having done almost nothing in the 9 weeks of the closing. In each case, it was entirely predictable. We had already gotten a good idea about which parents were on top of things and which were helpless when it came to home-schooling. We had been supplying the kids with a steady flow of inputs and assignments, but mostly through their parents’ email. I estimate that in about a third of the households, the information or materials never reached the child. And in a few cases, I assume this was intentional. In order to keep up the pretense that the teaching team was not providing a service and therefore school fees did not have to be paid, all of these efforts on our part to reach out to and help their children had to be ignored.

As far as the hygiene measures were concerned, the kids cooperated with aplomb the whole day. Once or twice we hit a snag and had to pull out the one-meter stick to refresh their memories about what that distance is. In general, though, they kept each other in line. Near the end of the day, I asked one group how they felt about it, how it went. I got this reply:

“I didn’t expect at all that this day would be so much fun!”

As the last school bus departed and we teachers were alone again, we all agreed that the day could hardly have gone any better. Despite all the trouble from some parents, the kids were totally cool and impressive. Then the phone rang. It was a notoriously nervous mother complaining that, from what her son told her, we weren’t enforcing the social distancing enough. Another boy had touched his face . . .

 

Tuesday – Day Two

I could tell in the morning that some kids were already getting a bit too relaxed about the new policies and we had to go through some of them again. But otherwise it was a day of successful teaching and absorbing. During recess, two of my oldest girls actually started asking me questions about English tenses and then requested extra homework in them. This is my ninth year in the school and that has never happened before! All four of my groups seemed almost excited to get their homework assignments. They all would go home with a clear plan about their work not only for the rest of the week, but for the remainder of the year (each group will only have five more lessons). And finally, the one girl being kept home by her parents sent me a (secret) message through one of her classmates. I returned it with an invitation for her to show up at our English chat over the internet on Friday.

There was only one jag.

I was sitting with my First Year group – just three kids all about 10 years old – on a carpet and talking about their assignment for next week. Right now we are learning to use “doesn’t” and “don’t” so I showed them a poster I made years back with a different group and asked them to do the same. They should find pictures in old newspapers, magazines or ads of things they like or don’t like, cut them out, paste them and then write the English words. One of them pointed to the picture of Barack Obama and asked about it. I said he was the former president, which they didn’t really understand, and yet they started talking excitedly all at the same time. It was when one of them said, “That’s all not true!” that I started listening more carefully. The child went on. “The media are paid to say bad things about him . . . the whole thing was started by Bill Gates . . . He’s not a bad man or a racist – he built the wall to protect Mexican children from human organ traffickers . . .”

There was no way I was going to get into a political discussion with a student, and especially not a 10-year-old one. I wouldn’t have been able to in any case because I was so dumbfounded. Where does such a young kid get ideas like that??!! Please god, let it not be his parents!

(This story is not over, and I will surely be returning to it in a future post. But first, I need to consult my team to figure out what, if anything, I should do about this.)

 

So, that was our start in the new normal.

 

I’ve spent all day rethinking these past events – not just the reopening, but everything all the way back to that first rushed and panicky teleconference about closing the school down completely and immediately. The idea was to fire the entire teaching team, stop school fees, and yet, somehow, magically, keep all the kids enrolled and say they completed the school year. We managed to stave that off, but at a pretty hefty psychological and financial cost to the teaching team.

My own feelings toward the school and my future there have been changed too. In the past I had always kept a distance between me and the parents, but Corona and home-schooling made that impossible. I got dragged into the middle of the organization’s multiple crises and then had a crash course in history behind all of the parents’ idiosyncrasies. I began to mentally sort them into groups: the Seriously Supportives, the Hysterical Hyperventilators, the Squawkers, the Stay out of the Frays, the Hopelessly Helpless, and the Silent But Deadlies. After Day Two (and the revelation of a Ten-Year-Old Twumpist), I added a new group: the Conspiracy Theorists.

As might be obvious by this uncharacteristically cynical description, with some notable exceptions, I no longer trust the parents. After years of listening to yapping about solidarity and the bonds that hold us together and commitment and obligation and collective responsibility, the crisis made it crystal clear for which people this was just blah blah all along. When the road of solidarity hit the rubber of their pocketbooks, they quickly switched to personal agendas. A lot of these people are either going or gone now. But not all of them.

The question is if I should go too. Technically, I am still unemployed and could walk away, especially if the crisis management team reneges on their promise to fully reinstate the entire teaching team 10 days from now. On the “Stay” side of the equation is the team itself. We have stuck together in a truly remarkable way and we have gotten closer through this whole ordeal. I think they are fabulous people and, past conflicts aside, working with them has been a great enrichment of my life.

And then, of course, most of all, there are the kids.

 

Empty Nests

My four-week stint (or eight, depending on how you look at it) of experiencing unemployment has come to an end. I just had my first day back at work. The Hummingbird School has survived its own initial incompetence in crisis management, and starting Monday, (most of) the kids will be coming back. To comply with all the requirements set by the government and school board, we had to prepare a whole new physical environment in the classrooms – new nests, so to speak. Gone are the couches for lounging and the big carpets where we sat for circle discussions. Gone are the balls to play sports with during the recess. Gone are all the chairs in the small kitchen. Gone are the Montessori materials that get passed from hand to hand or are not conducive to being disinfected. Gone are the glasses and pitchers of water in the classrooms. Gone are the computer stations for common use. Gone are the musical instruments and board games. Instead, the room is filled with socially distanced, individual desks where the students will sit for most of the morning. In the front of the class there is a space for me to stay put and – for the first time in my career – teach lecture-style to a captive audience.

We’ve divided the students into 4 groups of roughly 10 kids apiece. Two of the four will come each day on an alternating schedule and each group will have it`s own entrance into the school. The ones who will be filling this empty classroom will disembark from their school buses in masks, enter the building, and immediately wash their hands before going to the classroom. They will take a seat and only then remove the mask.

I confess that I feel uneasy in more ways than one about these first steps into the new normal. While planning with my team members, we talked about whether it was a good idea to assign yet another text about their experiences in the lockdown and distance learning. I suggested that the kids reread the reports they handed in near the start and then write about what changed over time. In my case, I worried about feeling confined at first. Now at the end, I find I don’t really like the idea of leaving the house if I don’t absolutely have to.

I wonder if this feeling is normal. Clearly, I have had it easy. Between my spacious house and big garden, my family situation and hermit genes, it’s not like it has been hell. I’ve honestly enjoyed having my whole family around me, not to mention so much time that I stopped monitoring its passing. (“What day is it today?”) I could have continued on like this indefinitely.

But this is not where we are at here in Austria, so I guess it is time for me to come out of my hiding place. The rest of my household is doing so too (if somewhat more eagerly than me).

Whereas the school nest shown above is about to be filled up, my home one is emptying out. Last week, our refugee son moved to another village to be near his brother. The plan is for him to transfer to a school in Graz for his last year. (There is a long story behind these decisions that I won’t get into here. I will only say that I hope he will be happier and more productive with this new living situation.) Yesterday, my elder daughter moved back to her apartment in Graz after two months with us. She took my daily concerts with her. That leaves just one – my youngest daughter – who will be taking her graduation exams starting a week from now. Her original plan for a work/travel gap year got nixed by Corona, so she will be starting university in the fall and, of course, moving into the apartment with her sister.

It was while listening to a conversation between the daughters about decorating the place and the timing of Lily’s move, that the realization finally washed over me. They were talking July – or August at the latest. “Wait!” I thought, “It’s almost June already!” Too months from now, it will be just me and the husband and a whole lot of silence.

Somehow I thought “reopening” would feel different.

 

Teachers in Arms

 

Just when you think things can’t get any worse, the pwesident manages to find a new level even lower than last week’s rock bottom. I have been shaking my head and waving off comments all day long about his latest idea to arm 20% of every school’s faculty. (In the case of our school, one colleague noted, only one of us would have to start going to the shooting range and taking  lessons. Then they all turned and looked at me . . .)

The thought that I, or any teacher I have ever had, or worked with, or know (and that is a lot of them) could whip out a gun from . . . wherever (a purse? a classroom locker?) and then go out Rambo-style in search of an active school shooter to confront is,

to put it very simply,

ABSURD.

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.

 

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.”

He’s Back

 

Gingerbread Man left home for the first time in decades. After overhearing me talk to a colleague about my cosmetic plans for him, he had high hopes of returning a new man – fully restored to his former glory. Things turned out somewhat differently.

At first he was thrilled to finally reach a pillow in a new place, but then one day passed, and then another, and nothing happened. His euphoria waned as he heard all the kids playing and laughing just outside his window. He listened to a bunch of them spending hours and hours doing stupid soapstone carving instead of needlework. He began to doubt his time would ever come.

So on Day Three, still in his sorry, tattered, one-eyed state, he cautiously ventured out into the open air. He chose an empty chair by the campfire and sat there for a while, lonely and friendless.

But then something wonderful happened. A few girls expressed interest in him – wanted to know who he was. They weren’t at all repelled by his appearance, in fact, one of them even called him “cute”! They invited him to sit with them and later he joined them in a ball game.

      

The spiffying finally began on Day Four, but there was only time for some jacket trim repair and a preliminary procedure to restore his right eye, before it was time for everyone to head down to the pier. In the meantime, he returned to his pillow to recuperate.

      

On Departure Day, he was thrilled to be asked along on a final walk to the pier. He sat with his new friends and contemplated the beautiful lake. This was quite possibly the greatest day of his life. The water was so enticing – he couldn’t resist:

    

All too soon, it was time to get back on the bus. Gingerbread Man did so in a physical condition only slightly better than the one he arrived in. Still, he spent the ride home basking in the sunlight of poignant memories and renewed hopes for a brighter future.

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.