Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Friday, November 23rd 2012

Isaac and Daddy on the way to school.


      Friday, November 23rd was a long day for me, but it’s good to write about since all the twists and turns tell something about what things are like in this season of our lives. It was the day after American Thanksgiving, but of course our Czech school was in full swing. A small group of Americans and Czechs gathered at our house on the following day, Saturday, for the turkey and fellowship. To get from Thursday to Saturday was something of an epic journey.
      I was out of the house at 7:10 with Isaac. We walk to school together almost every morning now. Eight years ago, I was trudging down the same hill with Lucy and Paul Hugh. I am glad to still have a little boy who wants to hold my hand. We usually play a game while we walk. This time Isaac wanted to pretend that we were sleeping (while we were walking) and then he made different animal noises. That would get me to wake up and say something like, “Oh no! Isaac, wake up, I think there’s a cat in our house!” We were visited in our bed by two cats, a dog, a horse and a cow before Isaac decided that we were actually in a hotel. That prompted me to call the manager (Isaac) and complain about all the animals that kept waking us up. He sent us to another room (“number twenty seven three”) but there turned out to be a cat meowing under our pillow there, as well.
     At nursery school, I dropped off Isaac where he was welcomed by the other students excitedly. Every morning, every other child there seems to light up when Isaac walks in, and they call “Izy! Izy!” (That rhymes with “Size 3,” not “Fizzy.”) His teacher greeted him very affectionately as she does all the nursery schoolers. I gave him the daily stern warning to obey and earn a good behavior report. Then I kissed him on the head and he was off.
Isaac gets to work at nursery school.
      I didn’t go to BMA first, but to TGM. TGM (named after Tomaš Garrigue Masaryk) is one of Frýdlant’s two “zakladní” schools, meaning elementary (grades 1-9.) It’s a feeder school for us. Over the last few years, one of our most effective recruiting moves has been to place an American teacher in the TGM ninth grade, giving two hours of “English conversation” a week. This year, it’s my turn and I teach every Friday morning. My first move after opening up the language lab where I teach was to head to the bathroom. When I visit schools, and I visit lots, I tell myself that there is always something to be learned from the bathrooms. How well is it kept up? What’s the graffiti like? TGM is a bit baffling. TGM keeps its boys’ bathrooms spotlessly clean -- amazing clean considering the population they’re intended for. But curiously, there is never a drop of soap in the soap dispenser and never single a paper towel in the sparkling white paper towel holders. There’s no other way to dry hands so I have to wave a lot. It’s a good thing that on this visit I checked for the other critical paper product before taking a seat. Each one of the pristine cubicles was free of toilet paper. I had to wander around the hallways until I could ambush a school secretary. She of course keeps it in her closet.
TGM students respond to the Household theme: check out the camel
More on Households: do you think a boy or girl drew this?
      I have 15 TGM students and teaching them is a blast. Each week, I simply use a few of the many great games and activities the BMA team has developed over our eight years together, and for the ninth graders, everything is new and wonderful. But I am responsible for giving the students a grade, so I have developed a system of oral testing, and on this Friday, I revealed it to the victims. I showed them ten cards on which were written questions like “What did your family do last summer?” Then I showed them a deck of more than fifty cards on which were written vocabulary words from our first two months together. We covered themes like “time,” “shopping,” and “transportation" and "households," so these cards had words like “noon,” “expensive” and “motorcycle.” First, we played a big, crazy game with all the vocab cards. The winners got lentilky, a cheap candy that I knew in England as Smarties and which has kind of become my trademark (lenTILLky -- ha ha.) Then, I sat down with a courageous volunteer and modeled the test. He pulled a random question card and five random vocab cards. He had to engage in a conversation with me. I started with the question, and each time he answered, I gently prompted him with another question like, “Oh, what happened then?” or “How did it feel?” His job was to give me at least ten full sentences (subjects and verbs, please) but also creatively work in the five vocab words. Unlike some of the written quizzes I have given, there were no points off for technical mistakes. Everything depended on his ability to generate creative, original conversation that might be fictitious or even a bit silly but would be meaningful. 
Silly but meaningful.


  There are two reasons for this approach. First, I am charged with teaching a “conversation” class to this group. Someone else at TGM does formal grammar, spelling and so forth. Second, Czech language education puts enormous stress on memorizing lists of information. Actually, most Czech education does this. “Literature” class, for example, puts a premium not on reading and understanding texts but on memorizing lists of movements, the names of representative authors, the dates of their lives and the names of their works. I believe that American education could do with a stronger dose of facts to undergird the curriculum, but when it comes to teaching a living language like English, list-memorizing is woefully inadequate. When I came to the Czech Republic, the dramatic culmination of a student’s high school education was the oral exams in the spring of the fourth year. These are called “maturita.” They used to require the student to speak for fifteen minutes in front of a committee on a topic chosen at random from a pre-published list. I liked some things about the format, such as the maturity called forth by the young man or woman who had to deliver a fifteen minute monologue to a panel of well-dressed professionals in order to graduate. There’s a reason the ordeal was called “maturita.” But a lot still depended on memorization of lists.   
Our Patrick doing one of the last old maturity in 2009

      The government has recently revamped “maturita.” It is still the be-all and end-all of high school, the word which a teacher can utter in a crowded classroom to instantly cast a spell of silence. But for all the language departments, the government has greatly expanded the test. Students must now write two essays, work on pages of grammar, and engage in conversation with their teachers as well as deliver a monologue. The speech has been mercifully shortened to five minutes. There are actually three conversations as part of the test, and no amount of memorizing can prepare the student for them.
      A few weeks ago, one of my BMA students -- a girl in my home room, which is the fourth year -- asked me for some extra help for English maturita. She’s nervous. Interestingly, her mother teaches at the the same zakladni school, TGM. As are many teacher’s daughters, this young lady is serious about her education and very diligent. We spent an hour together in the upstairs hall outside my office. I gave her some prompts to make conversation. At first, she flatly refused. I urged her to try and not worry about mistakes or details. In all other situations, this girl is unfailingly respectful, but at this point, she became unbelievably stubborn. She would not speak with me, even in a casual, simulated English conversation, because she had not gone home to prepare the material.
      On the one hand, you can understand a student’s resistance to engage in a conversation with an adult in a foreign language. There are many, many times I seize up and don’t want to use my Czech. In fact, on this particular Friday, I ended the day loudly declaring that I wasn’t going to speak Czech again for another week. I know this is pretty donkey-headed, but as you will see, this was a very long day and I was stressed. (I have spoken Czech faithfully each day since.) On the other hand, a fourth year student preparing for maturita has to realize that conversation without preparation is a part of a living language and will be a part of the dreaded test. So I worked hard to coax my student out of her stubbornness and in the end she was speaking cleverly and effectively. However, she canceled our next appointment for extra help. I wonder why.
      After my TGM classes, I walked across town to start my BMA day. The first event was a difficult one: meeting with a student who has been skipping school. Because I am the home room teacher for the fourth year, I have to keep track of their absences. What American schools do in the secretary's offices and on computers, Czech schools do in old-fashioned class books. Information must be recorded in a thousand tiny little boxes and only a blue, ball-point pen is acceptable. Early in the game, I protested that I make a lot of mistakes, especially with Czech spelling, and that a pencil would be better for me. The rest of the staff was shocked. Their reasoning was that if the class book were written in pencil, people would write false information, or make illegal changes. My argument -- that people can lie in blue ballpoint pen as well -- fell on deaf ears.
Students and me outside my office.
      One young lady had missed lot of classes in a row, and still hadn’t returned to school. I called her mother to ask if anything was wrong, and the mother stiffly reported that the daughter had gone off to school regularly every morning. We quickly established that the girl had been lying to everyone for two weeks. Thankfully, the mother was willing to come in immediately for a conference. That happened on Thursday. Between the phone call and the conference, mother and daughter had it out together. The Mom was able to tell me about some of the trouble. But the daughter maintained that someone at the school had said something that angered her. This was the reason for her skipping school. However, she could not reveal the name for fear that this staff person would give her a bad grade on maturita. The mother promised me that her daughter would return to school on Friday so that I could speak to her myself. The “I have a secret” defense is a very tricky one. On the one hand, a student who says that she has a secret problem with a teacher must be listened to. Teachers must be held accountable for what they do and say with students. They must be held to a very high standard. On the other hand, there is nothing more convenient for a creative student who has gotten herself in trouble. If she blames a mysterious event and refuses to give names or details, she can play the victim and get away with all kinds of behavior. The secret nature of her accusations makes the staff scurry around feeling guilty and playing a guessing game, instead of asking the student to take responsibility for her own actions. How can a professional educator know the truth when a student makes a mystery accusation? That is itself a great mystery. In this week’s case, the only relatively good thing was that mother and daughter maintained that the nameless teacher’s offense consisted of unkind words, and nothing more than words.
      As soon as I got to BMA, I met with the student in my office. She asked if we could close the door and I said that no, I don’t meet in our little office with girls, alone, behind closed doors. We could speak quietly in the office with the door open, or we could choose one of my colleagues and proceed with doors closed. She preferred the former. She then proceeded to make a very long and eloquent apology. She ended with a pledge to work hard to regain my trust. I offered her my forgiveness and my assurance that I wanted to be back on a trusting basis. I still had a list of things to cover. I wanted to make sure that she had no problems with me personally -- that I wasn’t the cause of the trouble. No problem. I wanted her to promise to apologize to the secretary whom she had spoken to rudely. Maybe she will. Then I wanted to discuss the secret problem. She became very animated and suggested that this was more about her than about anyone else -- her bad emotional reaction to stress. I gave her two choices. First, she could decide that the mysterious incident wasn’t important and she could move on. Second, she could choose a support team -- me, the school counsellor or the director -- and meet with the offending staff person to deal with the problem in a mature way. I said that no third option -- continuing to complain about a secret problem but giving no details and making no progress -- was available. The student said that she wanted to move on. I told her that I really wanted to work on the problem if someone on the staff was speaking offensively. She didn’t want to pursue it.
      It’s nice to have the student back in the program. It’s nice that I wasn’t accused of anything. These days, when students or parents talk about terrible offenses, I have the sinking feeling that they are going to accuse me of something super-Christian. Last term, a girl in my home room dropped out of school. For three years I had been begging her mother to come to parent conferences to talk about the fact that her grades across the board were very weak, that her English was in serious peril, and that her attendance rate (she came to school about 70% of the time) wasn’t likely to help her academically. I pleaded that they find an English tutor. They did, but the girl didn’t show up for the sessions. Her grades got worse and one day, without warning, she transferred out of our school. At the new place, she started telling everyone that the Christians had persecuted her by being too aggressive with the faith. A few weeks later, another young lady in my home room made a similar move, telling everyone about the over-aggressive Christians. This second young lady failed to mention that she had been twice punished for cheating but we hadn’t kicked her out and had given her many second chances.
      I’m not sure which broke my heart more: the rumors the students spread, or the simple fact that neither those two girls nor their parents ever faced me to tell me about their concerns. The first mother, who resisted so many of my appeals for parent conferences, sneaked into the main office one day because she needed a certain transfer document from our secretary. I met her there by chance. I asked her in my best Czech and politest manner if she could please help me. I had heard that her daughter left because of certain reasons, but no one had told me the truth directly. Could she please tell me their concerns? How could we have done better? The mother made an awful face and told me that it wasn’t worth discussing. I said that it was. She said that it wasn’t and brushed me off and left.
      So I am glad that on this particular Friday, I had a student sitting right across from me making an open apology. But I wasn’t satisfied with the meeting. If one of my colleagues is speaking unkindly to our students, we have to work on it, and this looked like a lost opportunity. On the other hand, what if my student is just an accomplished actress and none of it, including her accusations and apologies, was real? I think time will tell. All of this gave me just enough time to finish preparations for my very important teaching assignments.
Invitation used at feeder school visits: write me for the explanation of the komodo dragon!
      Starting at 11:30 a.m., Friday was officially Open House Day. This is a critical event in the life of any school that competes for students. Our school is the only one in the region with a rising number of applications every year, but we can’t take anything for granted. Open House Day must be a hit. For several weeks, I have been visiting the feeder schools in the area, doing demonstrations classes and inviting students to our big day.
      My first class was supposed to be a “normal” class, part of the actual BMA curriculum with actual BMA students. Visitors would be welcomed into the back of the room to observe. I had everything prepared. In fact, I was very excited. It was a third year class, evaluating the essays they had just written and drawing some lessons about how to write good essays and especially good paragraphs. I wanted to use several examples from the real homework (with names removed) and I needed to scan them into my computer. But our very fancy new Xerox scanner/printer/copier refused to oblige me. The toner cartridge is low. “But I don’t want you to print anything!” I shouted at the smug little beast. He was unimpressed. Without a proper cartridge, he was unwilling to show off any functionality whatsoever, even ones requiring no ink. Thank heavens for my little phone. I took pictures with my phone, uploaded them onto my laptop, found the necessary cables and thought I was perfectly prepared for an awesome Open House.
      This, unfortunately, was not true. Our creative team of four had thought through the Open House carefully. Since previous Open Houses have felt chaotic, we agreed on some principles to help this one run smoothly. As it turned out, every thing we decided got turned upside down. 1) We agreed that those doing presentations (mostly the director and I) could each stay in our own rooms to avoid moving around, juggling our limited supply of chairs and confusing people. For simplicity, I would get my home room. Instead, I had to teach the first Open House class in a different classroom, then move myself and my visitors downstairs, and -- both times -- get volunteers to scramble to find chairs from all over the building. 2) We agreed to a specific schedule so that it would be clear who was giving which presentation at which time. In the end, two competing and contradictory schedules were written and posted. No one knew where to go or when. 3) We agreed that a small number of responsible first year students (3-4) would be chosen to act as guides in case visitors came and needed to know where to go or what was happening. The entire first year class appeared in the halls claiming to have been chosen as guides. They spent most of Open House having a wonderful time flirting with each other, laughing, joking, playing chess, play-wrestling, moving chairs to and fro and occasionally meeting visitors.
      At a critical moment in the early going, I sensed a disaster was brewing. The stairs and halls were jammed with people. Half were the first years just being silly. Half were visitors of all ages looking very confused. The crowd was so thick that no one could make progress in any direction even had they known which direction to choose. I decided to take matters into my own hands. I leapt up the stairs to a commanding height, and used my very loud voice to announce in Czech exactly what was supposed to happen next. This got everyone moving and I felt satisfied until I learned that my colleague, Jonny, had just succeeded in settling a dozen visitors in his classroom, had just started a promising demonstration and then watched it fall apart as his visitors hustled out the door to find out what the other American was shouting about.
      Within the context of confusion, there were some very effective presentations. My work with essays went exactly as I intended. My next presentations were overviews of the whole program, and I had great participation and great interest from the visitors. The most dramatic moments came in the overviews when I explained how we use the Bible in English class. There’s always a moment when those new to BMA frown angrily as if to demand an explanation for our outrageous position. I explained how we do read the Bible every week, and we have open conversations about important spiritual concepts that students really care about. I confessed that I am a believer and I do share my views, but that I do it respectfully and that students are encouraged to express themselves with that same respect. In the end, a few people stayed on to tell me how excited they were about our educational philosophy. I had at least two conversations with parents who were thrilled that we seem to care about students, their ideas and their spiritual well-being more than just lists of information.
A portion of one student's great effort.
      I think my favorite presentation was my first one, the one in which I projected students’ essays on a big screen and used them as examples to talk about how to write good paragraphs. In each case, I eliminated the names and I said at the beginning of my talk that I we weren’t going to play detective to find out who wrote what. Even so, when I richly praised something a student had written, it was fun to watch her glow quietly in her seat. In fact, the best of the essay examples was written by one of the weaker students, and she used her essay to advance an argument that I totally disagreed with. I told them how the key was not agreeing with me but using language and logic in an effective way. In the last five minutes, I handed back the kids’ homework. I had graded them using the system that the Czech government devised to grade the written part of maturita. Many students mobbed me afterwards to ask if they could rewrite their work for a better score, and I encouraged them all to do so. Open House Day ends when the visitors stop coming. After doing my presentations many times, encouraging the first years to start their weekends elsewhere and starting the process of cleaning up the mess of displaced furniture and refreshments (which this year, for the first time, included Oreos) it was four thirty and it really looked as if we were done. I was exhausted and my throat was sore. I put on my coat, hat and scarf and called Sharon to tell her I was ready to walk home.
      As I headed downstairs, my colleague Jonny informed me that a new pair of interested families had just arrived. Before I could rip off my coat, Jonny graciously offered to give them a brief presentation of everything they needed to know. I took that offer and hiked home. I thought to myself that there are two kinds of schools. Maybe all institutions of any kind can be summed up with the same dichotomy. There are schools that have excellent structures in place, with smoothly running systems that project an image of sophistication and security to newcomers. Then there are schools that are constantly trying to catch up because their organizational systems are non-existent, new-born or just a little hare-brained. BMA is not the first. It is the second. But the thing about the first kind of school is that sometimes, unlucky students get caught under the weight of the well-polished structure. By “unlucky” I mean the students who want to ask tough questions, or have unorthodox perspectives, or who are afraid, or who are drowning in English class, or who don’t come to class at all. Efficient and effective systems put these people in their places (sometimes, just out) and move on swiftly. At BMA, we try our hardest to catch those people. We use any creative approach to find them, hear them out and most importantly give them another chance. As this story shows, we don’t always succeed. We have occasionally lost the ones we tried to reach. But it broke our hearts.
      Of course, the perfect school balances good systems with flexibility, creativity and a personal approach. We want that balance. By creating a new, functioning board of directors, for example, we have taking a giant step towards maturity. But right now, I am at peace with the fact that my school is of the second kind -- the very personal, slightly crazy kind -- but is one in which the believers try their hardest to meet each person with the love of Jesus.

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