Gingerbread Man. On The Road Again. Unplugged.

As some of you know, my Gingerbread Man spent many years in darkness and solitary confinement before his release from the nightstand last year. Since then he has been lying on various shelves or the bedroom floor collecting even more dust. He doesn’t understand the world anymore or what he did wrong. He misses his old life of international travel and new pillows in exotic places. He misses sunlight. He misses his right eye.

So I have decided to take him with me on my school trip. Five days at a lake in Carinthia with 27 kids (one of whom – as his mother informed us – can’t sleep without his favorite stuffed animal and he’s very afraid the others will make fun of him.) I have also decided that I am going to devote my arts and crafts time to him this week. (But he doesn’t know this – it’s a surprise, so “Ssshhhh!”) He’s going to get his eye restored and his little jacket trimming replaced. That hole in his neck will be fixed and maybe a little scarf crocheted to hide the scar. There will be general nipping and tucking and spiffying.

 

So you’ve got the “Before” picture here. The “After” one will be coming in about 6 days. In the meantime we two will be offline at our cell-free camp – so have a nice week! We’ll miss you!

 

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.

 

All in a Sensibelchen’s Day’s Work

I’ve said it a few times before – I really love my job. And yesterday’s event was one of my favorites in the school year. Hummingbird Day. When all the parents come to see what their kids have been learning and doing and creating in displays and interactive stations set up all over the school. There is also usually a short show and a wonderful totally organic buffet. My contribution each year is the slideshow, i.e. pictures from the entire school year set to music. Following tradition, I finished it at 2:00 am the night before, leaving me about 5 hours to spare (read: “sleep”) before I had to go to school.

So I was a little tired and bleary-eyed yesterday and not thrilled by the news that there would be an extra meeting at the end of Hummingbird Day. It was about a recent problem with a bill for almost €1000 that had arrived in the mail. A series of subsequent discussions revealed that we had fallen prey to an email scam. Our point man for the EU project had filled out a form and mailed it off, thinking it was part of that process. The fine print, read only after the bill came, as well as a tiny bit of internet research (“Fraud alert!!”) made it clear that this had nothing to do with our project. Now we were supposed to pay some guy in Romania a thousand bucks to type our school’s name into a list of companies on his BS website. My first instinct was to simply ignore the bill, but I am not the decision maker in such situations. Hence, the meeting.

13 people were in attendance. One was a three-year old who was clearly not having any fun. To cut to the chase – we ended up writing a two-sentence letter telling this “company” why we were returning their invoice unpaid.

It took us two hours to achieve this. We were slowed down somewhat by the dredging up and rehashing of ancient misunderstandings and the necessity of each participant, in turn, having the chance to tell the group what inner turbulence he or she was experiencing. Another cycle of comments later had each person stating whether the situation was resolved on an emotional level in his/her eyes. This was followed by a 15 minute discussion of whether this situation would negatively impact our future cooperation with one another. Everyone insisted sincerely that no one was assigning blame to anyone. That, apparently, was important.

I spent the two hours alternately pining for my bed and being somewhat morbidly fascinated by this convoluted process of dealing with a single fraudulent bill. It all reminded me, once again, that I work with a whole lot of delicate-flower people (in German: “Sensibelchen”) and that my emotional detachment in such situations can make me to the school what the bull is to the china shop.

One half hour into the discussion, it first dawned on me that this might take a long time. I thought “If I pay the €1000, will you let me go home now?”  At half time, I calculated that with 12 adults in the room, we had cumulatively devoted 12 hours of our free time to this problem and that every five minutes, I could another hour to that total. (I like doing math problems in my head when I am bored.) Three hours later, I had started formulating reasons in my mind for why I had to leave, but was thwarted by the news that the letter we would eventually write had to be in English, so I would be needed. I started scratching the floor with a fingernail to pass the time, musing that, eventually, I would have a Shawshank Redemption style hole to escape through.

Then at hour 21, all of the sudden, a strategy was proposed! A consensus was reached. A laptop appeared! The two sentences were written! The letter was printed, signed, stuffed, sealed and addressed! Free at last!

Or . . . not quite. The moderator/chairman closed the meeting by expressing her feeling that there were still a few loose ends that worried her. She asked us all to reflect on what was said in those two hours and suggested we all meet again to share our thoughts after some time had passed.

I don’t know when this second meeting will take place, but I am pretty sure that I have a scheduling conflict.

Keep Calm and Panic Later

 

Occasional accusations of being cool-headed in a crisis have been directed at me over the years. I guess it is the one small advantage that comes with not really feeling my life experiences in the moment, but rather in dribs and drabs sometime after the fact.

This aspect of my mental make-up came in handy the time I started blacking out while barreling down the Autobahn at about 90 mph. With only two tiny pinholes of sight left, I instinctively pinched myself in the leg so hard and painfully that it brought me back and I could make it to the next exit. I parked the car and immediately my whole body started shaking.

Cool-headedness also helped in an English class once when a young student of mine tripped and hit his head on the edge of a low table. The kids started yelling and I ran over to him. He was lying face down. A pool of blood was spreading out from under his head.

“Tommy! Can you hear me??” There was a low, mumbled groan in reply.

The other kids were all standing around staring at us. I started barking orders. “Lea! Go get Sandra! (my fellow teacher). She zipped out of the room just as I had an afterthought. “Amy! Follow Lea! Tell Sandra to bring her cell phone.” (I was pretty sure we would have to call for an ambulance.) Amy ran off and I turned back to Tommy.

“Does your neck hurt? Or anything besides your head?” He groaned out a “no”.

“Do you think you could roll over on your back? Carefully! I’ll help you.”

As he rolled over, I saw a fairly deep gash in his forehead with blood spilling out of it. A lot of blood. I looked around for something, anything I could use to press against it. I looked at my own clothes and was about to take off my sweater to use, when I spotted a crumpled up napkin on one of the desks. “Niles! Give me that napkin!” He handed it to me and I said “Now go down to the kitchen and get some clean towels – make one of them wet!” He and another boy ran off.

“Tommy? Can you talk to me? It’s important,” I said as used the napkin to put pressure on his wound. “Tell me where you live.” He answered. “Do you know where you are?”  He did. “What is your mother’s name?” For some reason that made him smile a little and he answered again. Sandra rushed in and then went out again to make the phone call. The towels arrived and while replacing the napkin, I could see that the bleeding was slowing. I thought it would be good to get his head elevated.

“Tommy, do you think you can sit up? Do it slowly. I’ll help.”

We got him into a seated position and then I just kept talking to him. I got him to slowly turn his head to the left and right. Eventually he could stand up and we started our slow walk to the kitchen. The bleeding had stopped, so we cleaned him up a bit, sprayed some disinfectant of his gash and held a moist cloth on it. We talked till the ambulance arrived. They took over and asked basically all the same questions and then carted him off to the hospital for stitches.

As soon as they had left, I sat down and, once again, got those full body trembles.

 

So what made me remember these events?

Because yesterday, while blogging, I heard a loud scream coming from the basement, then a crash, and then the sound of my daughter tearing up the stairs.

“THERE’S A SNAKE DOWN THERE!!” she shrieked.

“Really?” I asked in a mildly interested tone. “Let’s go see.”

She cowered behind me on our way back down the stairs. I was already 99% sure we wouldn’t find a snake, but a harmless blindworm – which is actually a type of lizard and really common around here. An “anguis fragilis,” as Wikipedia tells me. And sure enough, that’s what I found.

I took the nearest object and used it to poke the worm. It slid an inch, keeping its form. It was not only dead, but dried stiff.

“It’s dead,” I said as I picked it up and waved it in the air. My daughter wasn’t convinced. “Look!” I said as I hit the floor with it a few times. It made a little knocking sound. I confess I found it sort of neat. “Here – do you want to look at it?” I asked. I held it out toward her and she backed away and signaled her disgust. Alas, my enthusiasm was not contagious.

Her anguish over the anguis fragilis was not fragile. She has since declared herself officially ophidiophobic.

And she’s not buying the “it’s a lizard, not a snake” line either.

Worrywart Worries

It’s March 31st, 2017. I want to remember this date.

In March 2016, two things were set into motion that have kept me internally rocking and reeling ever since. In March 2016, I enrolled my daughter officially in the Milwaukee Public School System for her high school exchange year and in March 2016, my school team officially applied to take part in a two-year European Union project in partnership with institutes in Portugal and Italy. Had both “projects” gone smoothly, I would be heading for Vienna on Monday to take part in a big Kick-off Meeting. I would also probably be skyping daily with my distant daughter from my very quiet household.

Things didn’t go smoothly. In either case.

The first enrollment set off a series of visa nightmares and disappointments, but then – as a silver lining – a year+ long quest through the bowels of bureaucracy to get dual citizenship for my (adopted) daughters. The second application set off a yearlong series of frustrations and added stress that had my idealistic and hard-working colleagues nearing the burn-out point. (Did I mention that the EU project aimed to find good practices for preventing Burn-out?) Both issues have kept the back of my mind working on overdrive for most of the year.

Today, within a span of 3 hours, both issues resolved themselves abruptly and unexpectedly. Shortly before noon and six months (!) after our original application, the mailman arrived with a registered letter from the Austrian government granting my daughters permission for dual citizenship. Two hours later, I left a meeting at the school in which we had extricated ourselves successfully from the EU project – with no bad feelings, no lingering resentments and no danger of tanking the project as a whole.

My inner worrywart doesn’t know what hit her. It’s like she suddenly has no reason to exist. She’s dazed and confused and I almost feel sorry for her.

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.