a day at a vietnamese kindergarten

My sister-in-law, Quyên, runs a kindergarten out of her home in Danang, Vietnam. She and her husband had to take a trip to Huế this weekend, so Quỳnh and I came over to help out. Here’s how the day went. This post was originally blogged at doberman pizza.

classClass starts early in the day. It’s 7:30 AM, and a table’s worth of children, aged around 4-5 years old, have already arrived and have started studying, dotting their i’s, crossing their t’s, and hooking their ơ’s. Quyên teaches handwriting, which is a bit advanced for kindergarten, but appeals to many Vietnamese parents who want their children to be well-prepared when they get to primary school. That’s her specialty, but it’s not all she teaches. Children learn reading, writing and arithmetic, sing songs and listen to stories. This year, Quỳnh’s brother Nu (who studied architecture in Ho Chi Minh City) has also started teaching art classes after hours, to which parents can send their children separately (although the classes happen in the same place).

Some children start studying as they arrive. Some of them have signed up to have breakfast in the morning, so they sit at the table and eat first. Some of them are playing together in another room, using building blocks to make and break fanciful contraptions. A few others sit and watch children’s programming on television—although they’re restricted to short, intermittent periods of screen time, until the next activity starts. All together, it gives the schoolhouse—Quyên’s home—a playful, varied ambience, as a kindergarten should have.

I get a lot of amazed looks from the kids due to my height (nearly 6″). One of the children gazes at me and mutters quietly, “cao quá… (so tall…)” Another asks why I’m so tall, and one of the teachers insists it’s because I ate all my vegetables when I was young. (I did, too.) I try to kneel down and squat a little more to make them feel a little more comfortable with me. After a while, the children get used to my presence, but I get a lot of attention. Many of them may never have seen another foreigner in their lives, so I try to leave as good an impression as I can. That I can use my (still broken, but sufficient) Vietnamese to communicate with them helps a lot.

classThe morning rolls on, and around 10:30 it’s time for the children to eat. Lunch is served in the dining room, between the classroom and the kitchen; it’s a typical meal of rice, vegetables, and various bits of seafood, all served in the same bowl. When they finish eating, children sit back against the classroom wall to rest and digest, and prepare for what comes next: the several-hours-long naptime that’s common to almost every Vietnamese work day. Wooden pallets are laid out, and upon them, woven bamboo mats. After taking their potty breaks and washing their hands, the children settle in with their pillows, the curtains are drawn, and massive mosquito nets are strung up. Naptime lasts from around 11:30 to 2:30 PM—a bigger lunchtime break than any Canadian worker (barring CEOs) could ever dream of. During the break, the teachers and helpers—five of us in total—hang out in the dining room, watching over the children and having our lunch of bún cá, or fish with rice noodles. Something doesn’t quite sit right in my stomach, though, so I go home to pop some antacids and take a nap myself, returning around 3:00.

The afternoon proceeds much like the morning. Children continue to copy down letter forms in their books, in neat little rows, while others play. They repeat sounds out loud as they write down different combinations of letters, to help them learn proper Vietnamese pronunciation. A few younger children—siblings of the older students—have arrived too. A couple of three-year olds tag along after me, shouting to get my attention and offering me cups. I thank them, pretending to take a drink, and they move away. Then they come back again, offering the same deal. And so it continues for the next half-hour, every twenty seconds or so (I timed them). As in all cases with very young children, you gotta adapt, so we gradually turn it into an opportunity for them to practice addressing their elders politely: “Chú ơi (Uncle)! Please have some water!” instead of shouting. They eventually get sidetracked by other things, and I manage to go back to the classroom where I assist Quyên’s boys, who are off to the side learning English. What’s a table? What’s a chair? What’s an eraser? And how do you spell it? The silent e’s in “make a circle” cause no end of confusion. Oh, English. You crazy, haphazard patchwork of a language. How exactly did you become so universal? Don’t answer that.

classThe afternoon is drawing to a close, and parents will soon come to take their children home. The benches are rearranged to form rows, and Lâm (Quỳnh’s mother) takes center stage for game time. The game is some sort of traffic police game: someone acts as a traffic cop, and the rest are all sitting on their benches, riding motorbikes. As far as I could tell, the traffic cop gives directions (like “turn left”, “stop”, and so on) and the rest of the players have to follow the directions. If the traffic cop catches anyone who misses a command, they have to come up and pay a fine(?), which amounts to singing a song. I’ll have to inquire further to see if we could use this game in our children’s class back home. Anyway, little by little, parents drop in to drive their children home. One by one, boys and girls graciously go to each of their teachers to announce their departure—“thưa bà, con về”, “thưa cô, con về”—as the Vietnamese culture of respect for elders demands. Eventually, only Quyên’s boys remain, along with one more girl whose parents let us know that they would be at work late. We sit down for dinner—bánh canh cua, or thick noodles with crab. By the time I Ieave the schoolhouse, it’s past 6:30 PM, for a work day of eleven hours.

classEleven hours and sometimes more, six days a week. And yet Quyên doesn’t complain. Not only because she enjoys teaching, but because it supports her family quite well. Teachers are generally well-respected and well-paid in Vietnam, but Quyên is particularly respected by parents for her teaching skill, her sense of discipline and her trustworthiness. People simply know she does a good job, and they’re proud to send her their children.

Trustworthiness, I’m coming to believe, is one of the keys to sustaining prosperity. Since the turn of the 21st century, we’ve seen ample evidence of the opposite—untrustworthiness—everywhere around the world, from Enrons and Worldcoms through Fannie Maes and Freddie Macs. How long do you think economies, which are fundamentally based on trust, can keep going when the people and institutions that make up those economies are not worthy of that trust? The alternative, says Bahá’u’lláh, is to “be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor”. This, He says, is “the supreme instrument for the prosperity of the world”, and “the greatest portal leading unto the tranquillity and security of the people”. Beyond her teaching skills, her smiling face, and her beautiful handwriting, that’s what impresses me about Quyên—how trustworthy she is, and the effect that has on the people around her. She may only teach kindergarten, but the whole world has a lot to learn from people like her.

knowing god

Today’s lesson: knowing god.

January 26, 2013: We had a great, dynamic class. With just a few hiccups. When we arrived at our hosts’ home, we found one of the children was sick, so we poured some hot water for her and started with a healing prayer, after discussing some things she could do besides praying that would help her get better. After prayers, we reviewed the lesson and started on the story. The children loved the imagery of angels bringing raindrops to the ground; they come from a Christian background, and I guess they have a strong belief in angels. We reiterated the contradiction pointed out by the blacksmith, and we were about to ask the children what conclusions they could make about the illiterate blacksmith leaving a great scholar unable to address those contradictions, when our second hiccup arrived. The other half of our participants arrived late, due to a power outage (and a late meal) at home, so we stopped and greeted them. After starting over, we decided to keep the energy going with a few games, which we had planned anyway. We often play the detective game, so they loved playing it again; they also enjoyed charades, although some of them had trouble imagining how to express certain things with their bodies—how would you show a volcano, for example, or snow? Finally, we ended the day by making nine-pointed snowflakes with them.

snowflake modelling

such beautiful symmetry.

We actually had three teachers present, since I had to leave early for a meeting elsewhere in town. Quynh, who usually facilitates our neighbourhood junior youth group nowadays, helped out. I should also mention that the children who arrived halfway through actually came with their older sisters, who take part in the junior youth group; both of them joined in with the class and enjoyed it a lot. We’re planning to ask them to help teach the children’s class as an upcoming service project, so it was great to have them around. After the class, they even went with Quynh to talk to one of their friends—who’s come to the class before—about joining them in a new junior youth group. Apparently it went really well, and their friend is excited about joining the group! Awesome. Seeing this kind of coherence in action is so refreshing and feels like such a confirmation: both of our efforts, and of the course we’re following under the guidance of the Universal House of Justice. We’re really seeing a community being built before our eyes, slowly but surely.

“for the love of my beauty”

Today’s lesson: “for the love of my beauty”.

November 14, 2012: The class went well, although we focused mainly on memorizing the prayer and quote rather than the story and other activities. Since several children were showing signs of wanting to let out pent-up energy as we approached the house, running, jumping and screaming, we spent a little time at the outset playing some circle games, such as our usual name game (say your name and associate it with an action) and Tap Hands. Then we continued with the Unity Prayer, asked them about their understanding of unity, and then continued on to learn the quote, identifying difficult words. We had started late and had already spent much of the beginning of class on games, so we skipped straight ahead to our art activity—blow painting, with another brief game as we stepped aside to prepare the paint. We prepared six cups with diluted acrylic paint—red, orange, yellow, green, blue and purple—along with a bunch of straws and coloured paper. We showed the children how to pick up the diluted paint with the straw—just cover the top of it with your finger—and asked them to drop bits of paint onto their paper, and then blow it around with the straw. The result was quite impressive!

blow painting

And fun to make!

The point of the exercise, of course, was to produce a backing for the prayer we had read—copies of which I had printed out before coming. Of course, some of the children put so much paint on their papers that they couldn’t stick the prayer on right afterwards, and had to wait a while before trying again. That just shows that we really need to practice these kinds of projects at home before bringing them to the class, so we have a good idea of how to do them properly. (I’m reminded of the time I tried to teach origami without having learned to do it myself beforehand.) All in all though, this was a fun class, but I’m worried that because we spent so much time on games this time, we might lack time to finish all the other activities next week. Watch this space, I guess?

the fortress of god’s love (take 2)

Today’s lesson: the fortress of god’s love.

October 30, 2012: Not bad at all! We held class one day early due to Hallowe’en—we figured there’s no way we could compete with the sheer attractive force of all that candy. All the same, things went really well. We started by gathering the children from outside the apartment as usual; we noticed there was a new girl we hadn’t met before, so we invited her to join us. She’s eleven years old, and fairly articulate. It seems as though she goes to Sunday school, because she easily grasped many of the concepts we shared in class and related them to Christian concepts. After prayers and a short talk about the lesson, we continued with a few games, including the “Freeze & Think” game. When that was done, we embarked upon the painting project we had planned last week: creating a large banner to post up in our host’s home, based on the lesson. It turned out the new girl was very good at drawing, so we asked her to draw a version of the “Fortress of God’s love”, like the one in the colouring page from Ruhi Book 3. Everyone then worked together, paint pots and brushes in hand, to decorate the banner.

the fortress of god's love

initial drawing done

the fortress of god's love

and then we painted!

the fortress of god's love

the (almost) finished product

the fortress of god’s love (take 1)

Today’s lesson: the fortress of god’s love.

October 24, 2012: Our first lesson from the set on obedience! We started off by reviewing what we had learned about prayer, and segued into the lesson on the love of God as a stronghold. To be honest, it was difficult to keep things rolling smoothly this time, as the children were nice and distracted. We tried to mitigate it by starting off with a name game (since we had a new teacher helping out this week) but I think the cards may have been stacked against us from the start. Anyway, we did our best to present the lesson as quickly and smoothly as possible, but found ourselves swimming upstream through a torrent of hands-up-for-unrelated-stories-about-the-latest-movie-I-saw instead of answering the questions that were being asked. should we have given the children more time to decompress before launching into the class? I don’t know. They did well with the prayers, and showed reverence, courtesy and respect, so we expected the rest to go well. And to be honest, things didn’t go that badly—we just had to switch over to doing stretches in our squares and playing a game sooner than we would have liked, which meant less time for memorizing the quote. We did try our best to explain the quote in our own words, though. Oh well—we’ll have another chance next week. Sometimes up, sometimes down. The children were happy to see the finished poster from last time, and we posted it up on the wall of our hosts’ home, with the mother’s permission. We had a long drawing session too, giving out two things for them to work on: a copy of an imagination worksheet I found on Pinterest recently, and a copy of the drawing for this lesson.

my love is my stronghold

“My love is my stronghold…”

We also discussed with them a painting project for next week’s class: to create a large banner to post up in our host’s home—again with the mother’s permission, and based on our lesson. After some consultation, we figured that the banner would likely feature the following: large letters reading “We love God” or something to that effect; a fortress; a moat; a bridge leading into the fortress; a queen in a carriage; lovely flowers; and sharks with lasers (???) We also plan to copy the quote from this lesson onto the banner, to explain the context (at least, I hope). Wish us lots of luck and confirmations!

how do we pray?

Today’s lesson: how do we pray?

October 17, 2012: It’s been about a month and a half that our neighbourhood children’s class has been focusing on prayer, as part of the lessons given in Grade 2 of the Ruhi Institute’s curriculum. This week we had a class of six children—three boys and three girls, ranging in age from five to nine—and one junior youth who just turned twelve. Of course, we’ve been working to establish a regular junior youth group in the neighbourhood to engage the many young people in that age group; it’s been slow going, but as we work at it and get to know the people in the neighbourhood and explore their networks, we strengthen the foundations of the group. We’ll have more news on it as that comes.

A word about the topic: I must say that thanks in no small part to the past few lessons, the quality of our prayer time is markedly different from previous classes I’ve had the pleasure to teach. I mentioned before that I really appreciate the way Ruhi Book 3, Grade 2 is laid out in sets, with the first set giving us three whole lessons on the topic of prayer at the very start of the curriculum, which we’ve split up into six whole weeks of reinforcement on the subtle art of praying. This week’s lesson deals with the mechanics of prayer, and we talked about what we do with all the parts of us when we pray: close our eyes, put our hands together or cross our arms, and clear our minds of the things of the world, so we can show humility and reverence in the presence of God. One idea we had was to create a poster with one of the drawings from Ruhi Book 3 that features children praying, and to use it to show the children what sort of posture we can take with our bodies when we pray.

four part poster

A pretty prayerful poster.

The children had a better time with the quote for this lesson, since it’s a little shorter than some of the others in this set. This being Grade 2, the readings we study tend to be longer with more complicated words, which is fine for native speakers but a bit of a test for people (such as many of the children in our class) who are only just learning English. We’ve noticed some progress, though—at least one of the children has been with the class since Grade 1, and her capacity—and engagement with the class—have grown steadily since, to the point where we can consider her to be one of the key participants. The issue of language is still a sticking point for everyone, and it seems to be especially discouraging for the boys, who often end up distracted during the memorization section of the class, going off to sit on the couch and read picture books or play computer games, which is always a black hole that sucks the attention away from the rest of the class. How do we deal with it? By doing our best to make our activities, well, active. Our best memorization happens when we present it with a dynamic attitude, incorporating movement, music, rhythm—anything that brings it out of a purely verbal mode to a mixed mode of learning. An example would be the step game we came up with during one of our very first neighbourhood “outreach” classes. We’ve been trying out ways of using images and pictures to represent words, too—for example, in this lesson, the children took pictures representing certain complicated words and glued them in the order they appeared in the quote, and we used these to recite the quote without looking at the words. Lesson learned: It’s not easy to find a picture that represents the word “essence”. As well, we’ve started creating worksheets that the children can work on in class, for example, drawing lines between the pictures and the words they represent, as well as their definitions. The parents, who are also learning English in city language schools, jumped on the chance and filled out their sheets too. Is this what one might call potential for social action?