A Moment in Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“D – E – D . . .”

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

“No, I am sure that it is D – E – D.”

 

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

 

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

 

Here’s what he wrote:

TED Talks

 

The following week we did some work on pronunciation.

 

 

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

 

. . . or the first day of it anyway . . .

 

 . . . but before I get to that, where can I get my hands on one of these T-shirts? It is perfect. All three of these crazes came to our school this year – much to the irritation of most of my colleagues. When it came to bottle flipping, I agreed – how is this an achievement?? However, I confess that I did the dabbing (aka “Usain Bolt”) gesture myself many a time and that fidget spinners also have a certain fascination for me. My colleagues were continually demanding that the students put them in their pockets or anywhere out of reach/sight. I never had to insist on that. When I came into the classroom, all the kids quickly disappeared their fidget spinners for fear that I would “borrow” it, start spinning myself, and not give it back. One of my students gave me one as a farewell gift and I blurted out “HOW COOL!!!” The sad thing is that I was honestly excited about it. Here it is (and notice the background!):

I got that gift on Friday morning – the last day of school filled with tearful farewells (but no tears from me, I’m not a wimp). The afternoon was spent carting daughters here and there, going last-minute-shopping for stuff they needed for their trip to the States, and finally at the Fair Trade Festival, where Mitzi’s new band had their incredibly successful premiere:

The night was long and moist for everyone except us designated drivers. I confiscated the husband’s car keys after he told the story of our kitchen renovations for the fifth time (a story, I might add, that he stole from me): “We wanted a new refrigerator. We are getting a new kitchen.”

Eventually, we made it home and fell into bed. We had made it. We had survived. Except that . . . (full disclosure) . . . the last day of school is not the last day of the school year. There was one more week of “Post-readying” to get through. And there were still “a few” things to do before our new kitchen could be installed starting Monday morning . . . i.e. 48 hours later . . .

 

Backtrack.

In the exhilarating process of planning and ordering our new kitchen months ago, we somehow found it feasible that the last week of work before summer vacation would be a good time for having the kitchen built. We didn’t really consider everything that would have to be done beforehand – the water lines, the electric cabling, the heating pipes, the subsequent plastering and mess. We didn’t consider the fact that my husband would be out of town for half of the last month of school and glued to it for the other half (mostly due to graduation exams) and that I would be feverishly working on the year-in-review slideshow for a week and then writing 28 farewell letters to my students the next. We also didn’t consider that our kids would be reeling from one year-end recital or party or performance to another while packing and preparing for their first solo flight to the States. Or that the hubby was taking part in a barbecuing competition that would keep him from home from noon Saturday to the wee hours. Or that we would have to leave for the airport in the middle of the night (2:00 am) to get them to the airport, driving for two hours there, two hours back, and then reporting for work at 9:00 am on Monday morning.

 

And because we hadn’t considered all of this, we woke up on Saturday morning in a bit of a panic. The fridge and dishwasher were still standing in the middle of the room which had to be emptied, cleaned and painted. But before that could be done, we had to go get the hubby’s car and Mitzi’s keyboard. And we had to tape up plastic everywhere to protect the windows and rest of the house. And the husband had to get everything ready for his barbecuing competition – that meant cleaning grills and finding all the equipment in our now disastrously chaotic household. We managed and he took off at noon. I walked into the kitchen and considered where to begin . . .

I decided on emptying the last load from the dishwasher and moving it. I opened it up and was greeted by some kind of new life-form. It seems we forgot to actually turn the machine on after that final loading five very warm days earlier.  I had to transport all those green and fuzzy dishes and glasses and cutlery to the bathroom and wash them by hand. It was truly one of the Top Five low points of my life.

Next task – moving the refrigerator. This required emptying it out completely and then sliding it into the living room and filling it back up again. Seems straightforward enough, but it took hours. And there was a lot of toting things to our one water source in the bathroom and back. More green fuzziness was also involved.

After that came vacuuming and mopping and daughter chauffeuring and mopping and unsuccessful attempts at online check-ins and mopping and then some more mopping. The kitchen had now gone from this:

to this:

 

And I went from this:

to this:

 

Sunday was painting day.

 

 

Monday.  We had left to take my daughters to the airport at 2:00 am and got back home around 7:00 o’clock in the morning. The workers arrived shortly thereafter and everything was hunky-dory as far as the kitchen project went. I drove off to school relieved and then had . . . the worst day of my entire six years there. (Details are unimportant here, but will probably be dealt with in some future post.) I can say I came home demoralized and ready to quit. I tracked the progress of my daughters and saw that their flight had been delayed. It was almost midnight before I got word that they had landed safely, gotten through the airport procedures, found the right bus, contacted my sister and were safely arrived. I went to bed.

On Tuesday morning, the workers arrived again and continued installing the kitchen. I drove off to school  . . . reluctantly . . . almost unwillingly.

I arrived and walked into the kitchen. My “boss” was crying and the other members of the teaching staff were in intense discussion with her. I realized that all of them had felt as deeply bad about the meeting as I had and that they were equally exhausted. We talked through all the crap from the preceding day and reaffirmed our solidarity with one another. The efforts to drive wedges between us had failed.  We even got a few things on our list done.

I went home and checked the progress of our kitchen. I recognized that it was going to be gorgeous. I checked the mail. The letters confirming my daughters’ citizenship interviews had arrived.

My husband suggested a shopping trip to pick out new dishes and pots and pans. It had been quite a few days since we had thrown money to the wind. In the store, we actually found dishes that we both really liked.

When we got home, we chatted with our daughters about their impending canoe trip and concert and civics lessons (to prepare for their interviews).

I hung up and felt that the world was a different place.  After a week, no, make that a month, no, make that a year of recurring anguish and frustration, things were just falling into line. The kitchen was taking shape. The citizenship process was becoming clear and comprehensible. The dimmed lights of my professional future had just brightened. The end of the tunnel was now . . . not quite in sight, but the lightness of the walls indicated that there was just one more curve ahead of me and then . . .

Sunshine.

And nothing.

But, sunshine.

 

PS.  A few days have gone by since I wrote the above. The school year is now officially over. The kitchen is now done. Have a look:

 

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.

 

A Piteous “Pentafecta” Impedes Posting

I’ve been a bad blogger. Very very bad.

In the lead up to the glorious outbreak of Easter vacation, a whole slew of life circumstances intensified and all came to a head simultaneously. I realize “pentafecta” is not a real word – and if it were, it wouldn’t really mean what I am forcing it to here. But I can’t think of another way to express five sets of circumstances colliding at once.

Starting with the outermost realm of my reality – so external, in fact, that it is more of an alternative reality – is my ongoing, time-consuming obsession with American politics. Like most people, I too am guilty of letting the news of the world flow to me through a filter. In my case the filter is NPR and left-leaning cable news and websites. What they present me is a badly cast reality-show-presidency, flailing and mindlessly counter-punching. And that is it.  All un-pwecedented twump, all the time. As a consequence, I have not heard of a single positive political development since January 20th that wasn’t steeped in Schadenfreude.  (Goodbye and Good Riddance to Flynn and Sessions and Ryancare, to Bannon and now Nunes and the Muslim ban  . . . and whichever of the Best People or Beautiful Promises is next to go. My only regret is that your departures were not more spectacular and categorical.)  The increasing intensity of the daily outrages combined with my self-imposed limits on political content often left me with nothing to write about. I could either sigh once again that “Twump is ruining my blog” and leave WordPress without posting, or I could take the bait and add my two cents for the 50th time – like I just did in this paragraph here. That makes $1 dollar so far. If and when I hit the two dollar mark, I will change the name of this site to “Rant*”  –  (*Resisting American Nutcase with Tirades”).

Luckily, I was regularly forced to leave Alternativeworld and go to work.

Work was wonderfully distracting in its way, but the load kept getting heavier.  Also, I have had trouble explaining to my Austrian colleagues how insane the outside world is and why I was more tired than usual. The American daily outrages do not flow all the way to them. They are concentrating on their own problems and the daily school issues, local politics and why various trees and plants are blooming way too early this year. With them, I debated the effect of cell phones on kids and how to deal with adolescent protest. I defended my “homeroom” kids with a protective passion while still mentally carrying my fellow teachers’ concerns home, along with a new stack of homework assignments to add to the existing ones on my chaotic office desk. Occasionally, I considered bringing order to the Home Division of Workworld, but then this tidied space would no longer go with the rest of the house. As usual, the (mental) energy-sucking powers of my work led me towards procrastination.

But! Procrastination actually did have its benefits when it came to other aspects of Homeworld. My permanent mountain of ironing was all done by my mother-in-law (best birthday present ever!!) and my longtime plans to turn the basement pit into a guest room was mostly accomplished by my daughter (as a condition of being able to invite a friend here for two weeks.) Still, the list of household jobs awaiting me was a daunting one, made worse by the addition of a hundred little details to be accomplished (tax returns to file, bills to pay, prescriptions to fill, emails to answer, phone calls to make, flights to book,  . . .

. . . blogs to read, comments to make, posts to write . . .

And then came the fourth sphere of my realities: The issues going on around me in my home, or my friend’s and relatives’ lives. All of them occupying my mind but all of them OPS* and/or NSFB**. So with rare exceptions, my writing experience of the last few weeks was sitting down to the laptop way too late in the day, mentally mucking around in the swirling brain, finding nothing to inspire a first sentence, giving up and clicking on MSNBC.

* other peoples’ secrets
** not suitable for blogging  

 

That was then. This is now.

It is Day Five of Glorious Easter Vacation and here is the state of things:

House picked up. (Check!) Basement cleaned. (Check!)  Translation done and certification arranged. (Check! Check!) Also – Reports for Ethiopia written and sent. Garden weeded. Laundry done. Office tidied. CDs organized. Flights booked. Mail sorted. Documents filed. Application readied. Easter decorations put up. School photos organized. Book finished. Emails answered. And now . . .

Blog post written.

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.