November 8, 2015: ~1.5 hours, 6 children, average age 9. It was a busy week this week, so I wasn’t able to prepare quite as well as I would have liked, but since I was familiar with it already from previous years, everything went fine all the same. We had a new family of children attending class this week, bringing our total up to six: one girl from a Bahá’í family, and two of her friends, both girls. They’re a little old for a Grade 1 class; in fact, the oldest girl indicated that she might be open to joining the junior youth group that takes place in the community centre at the same time as our class. As well, the Bahá’í girl has already attended a Grade 1 class elsewhere. The idea was that they would stick with this class until we can free up enough human resources to start a Grade 2 class. Sound familiar? Let’s hope we can make it happen this time.
Two teachers were present this week (including me), and I’d have to say the class went smoothly, although we had to contend with a few logistical failures: A lack of whiteboard markers, a missing “Love” card in our deck of Virtues Cards, and a dead battery in my portable speaker. No worries, we made the best of everything with what we had. Prayers first—we helped everyone practice the “new version” of “O God! Guide me…” one more time, and invited others to contribute other prayers they may have memorized. Our agenda was a little confused (since we had no whiteboard markers to write it down with), but we continued with an overview of the lesson on love, using a tiny lamp to illustrate how the light of God’s love shines on everyone, no matter who they are. Then we practiced the song “Love, Love, Love”, which many of the children were already familiar with. To make it interesting, we threw some rhythm into the mix, asking them to listen to the rhythm (1-2-3-4) and to clap at different points as they sang (on the 1 and 3, 2 and 4, 1 and 4, etc.) We continued with the story of the unkind man, and then progressed to the game, “The Bridge”, in which children had to cross a very narrow bridge two at a time, helping each other to get across safely. Finally, we ended the regular part of the class with some colouring time, with the beautiful roses found in Ruhi Book 3.
Afterwards, some of the junior youth came upstairs to join us for a cultural presentation about Vietnam, which I gave. I explained about the Vietnamese New Year’s holiday, Tet, and tied it into the day’s lesson by explaining the importance of family in Vietnamese culture: We show our love for our family by visiting them during Tet, showing respect towards our elders, sharing gifts with them, and so on. The children showed a lot of curiosity, and asked about other holidays: Do they celebrate Christmas? Hallowe’en? (“Do they get candy??”) One of the new girls—the one who had completed Grade 1 before—was surprised to hear us talking about Vietnam during Bahá’í class, until my co-teacher explained the “world citizen” theme of the class: We had already heard about India and China, for example, and we would learn about many other cultures throughout the year. It was my first time actually attending a cultural presentation (although it was mine), so I don’t know how they usually go, but I suppose we’ll see how they’re received as time goes on.
Another year of classes has gone by, and here we are, well into the summer season, looking back on what we’ve accomplished this year. Since the baby came last fall, our biggest challenge has been to adapt to the new constraints on our time and energy. That’s involved bringing in new teachers for the class, and working on creating a good team dynamic. We gathered up enough teachers to try to establish a new class in a park at the other end of the neighbourhood. We hoped starting this new class would allow us to address the issue of age gaps, since many younger siblings and cousins are now starting to follow their older relatives into the class, with often chaotic results.
We ran into some problems, though. First were the scheduling hiccups: after no new children showed up for the first gathering of the new class, we ended up having to skip the next two weeks due to other commitments, losing momentum. Then suddenly, my co-teacher for the new class had to drop out due to a change in personal circumstances. I could have continued and taught the class alone, but we all thought it would be best for there to be two teachers, both to support each other in the class and to facilitate relations with parents. With no one else ready to step in, we decided we would put the new class on hold for the time being, and regroup for further consultation.
July 13, 2013: Due to some logistical problems—our usual host and some of the children were away, we couldn’t get rides for the rest—we decided to do something a little different. We brought gloves and bags, gathered up the children we found in the neighbourhood, and picked up garbage around the apartment building where we hold classes. They were so excited. “I’ve never picked up trash before!” one of them exclaimed. They did a great job of it, each one of them going out of their way to fill up their bags before tossing them into the bins nearby. All the while we talked about keeping our shared spaces clean, taking care of our planet, and above all, the importance of service, noting how wonderful people would feel when they see that the neighbourhood is clean and garbage-free.
After the cleanup was done (and we dunked our bags in the garbage bin, NBA style) we surprised the children by taking them to the local corner store for popsicles. I don’t even have to say how excited they were—you can guess. It was only fair though, seeing as the weather was getting close to 30 degrees Celsius (86 F). The best part? As we were walking back to their apartment building, we pointed out to them how excited they were to pick up trash, without even knowing that they would be getting popsicles at the end—that they had shown enthusiasm for service, regardless of rewards. We asked them, would they consider picking up trash again, even without the popsicles? “Yes,” they answered in unison.
Gems, gems, everywhere, sparkling and bright. What a joy it is to help uncover them.
As summer arrives here in the Northern hemisphere, the time is ripe for reflection on another season of our neighbourhood children’s class. While we definitely can’t say we’ve achieved some of our most cherished goals—like establishing new classes to accommodate cousins and friends with different schedules—we’ve made other kinds of progress in our path of service. Our core participants, all cousins and siblings, are well engaged with the class and seem to be scaling the language barrier with more confidence and ease than before. Although our vocabulary builders made an impact in that respect, two other decisions we made seem to have made more of a difference: choosing shorter, simpler quotes to account for the children’s reading level, and increasing the number of times we repeat each lesson (from two times in a row to three or four). Focusing on getting the children to practice prayers inside and outside class has also made a big difference in the children’s engagement. We’re starting to think of doing something like the prayer books we’ve made in the past, so that the children would have something that they could take home to help them study their prayers on their own—not a bad idea to help kick off a new school year in September.
We’ve worked a lot on our functioning as a neighbourhood teaching team this season, too: there’s a core of three of us passing the duties of junior youth animator and children’s class teacher back and forth between us, accommodating vacations and other scheduled absences without sacrificing the regularity of the class. The result is that we’ve barely missed a class in the past six months, except that one time when we all ended up sick on the same weekend. That’s a pretty good record for a neighbourhood children’s class, and it’s all because we have a dedicated teaching team. Acting together as a team really makes us stronger than we could be on our own, and keeps us from feeling too much discouragement as we persevere along our path of service—as I sometimes did when I was teaching alone.
Now that it’s summertime, we’re expecting to have more time to regroup and reflect on next steps. One of those steps will probably be to expand the team, since at least one of us (my wife) will be giving birth to a baby boy in the fall and will probably be less available. Engaging neighbourhood youth, including some of the older siblings and cousins of the children in our class, will be a priority, especially considering the focus on youth in the latest guidance from the Universal House of Justice. We’ve already asked one youth to help out with activities during the summer and floated the idea to others; beyond that, there are many more eager youth out there who we need to follow up with. Lots of home visits will be in order, as we reconnect with families who’ve dropped off our so-called radar and renew the ties of friendship and fellowship with them. As always, watch this space!
Speaking of watching this space, you may have noticed a change in the layout and design of our website; welcome to the long awaited “version 2.0”! If you’re reading this via email, then please take a moment to check out the new look and let us know what you think in the comments. Our hope is that it’ll be easier for you to find what you’re looking for, whether it be lesson plans, activities, downloadables or insights and experience.
June 15, 2013: 5 children, 7–10 years old. For the past little while (starting this winter, in fact), our junior youth have been planning a service project: come to the children’s class and serve hot chocolate and cookies to their younger siblings and cousins. Everything finally worked out this week, and they were able to follow through. The children loved it, of course—who would turn down hot chocolate and cookies? It also gave us the opportunity to discuss the qualities we show when serving, and reinforced our lesson about the need for cooperation and reciprocity—when we all serve together, everyone benefits. Unfortunately, the junior youth were so busy with other activities (football matches, family visits, and so on) that they couldn’t stay for long, but it was nice that they were finally able to put their plans to serve into action. We learned a good lesson, too: when you make plans, whether in a children’s class or in a junior youth group, make sure that you act on them sooner rather than later, in order to avoid losing the enthusiasm to serve, which could lead to discouragement. (Not to mention the fact that we had expected to be serving hot chocolate in February, not June.)
To finish off the class, we printed out colouring pages for Father’s Day, for the children to colour and give to their fathers. I got one, too, signed by all of them, since our own baby boy will be coming soon. (Quynh got a mother’s day card last month, too.) They’re all very excited to meet the baby; they spent a while during last week’s class thinking up and writing down names. Most of the names seem to come from boy bands and other celebrities, like Justin, Harry, Niall, Liam, Zack, Cody, and so on. Some were a little more unusual, like “Toutou” for example. This week, we challenged them to come up with some really unusual (even crazy) names, and they obliged, serving up gems such as Kratos, Tim Horton, Muscle, Goomba, Scorpion King, Benkie Barn, Crustino Ronundio, Spirit Bomb, Special Beam Cannon, Lightning Tsunami, President Of The United States, The Strongest Zeus In The World, and—probably my favourite—The Best In The World Is The Boy Who Love His Father. We shared some good laughs, and revelled in the children’s creativity. (I hope they won’t be disappointed if we choose more commonplace names!)
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.
Class 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.
The 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.
The 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.
Eleven 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.