an afternoon at the park (first try)

some nice shade to sit inIt’s late and I’m exhausted! but I thought I’d jot down a few notes about today before bed. A few weeks ago, we did some outreach in a park at the other end of our neighbourhood, and made connections with families who might be interested in having their children attend a class for 6- to 8-year-olds, studying the lessons from Ruhi Book 3, Grade 1. Today was the day we arranged to start the new class, at the same time as our regular Grade 2 class.

We ended up just having the two younger girls who had already been coming to that class, which was great, but not what we had hoped for—despite having called ahead of time and gotten a confirmation for two more children, they never showed up. Oh well. We still had a great time together, even though all we ended up doing was playing together in the park. The girls introduced us to a friend of theirs who lives right across from the park, a 10-year-old. Although she was a little old for this new class, she expressed an interest in joining us anyway, so we went to meet her mother to get permission. There, we learned that she has an older sister who’d turned out to be interested in joining a junior youth group. Woohoo! Things ended up better than we expected.

The main point of sharing all this, beyond keeping you all up to date, is to show that there are always ups and downs when you’re a teacher of children’s classes. These tend to be pronounced when we take on more difficult projects such as gathering support for a new class. Things like no-shows may happen a lot when a class is first starting out, before a strong relationship is built with families. We have to try hard, show steadfastness and perseverance, and eventually, progress will happen. Sometimes the same challenges keep coming back, and it takes us a while to get things right. Sometimes, like that class in Toronto from the Frontiers of Learning video, it takes years for a neighbourhood children’s class to fully mature and come into its own. I sometimes wonder whether the main limitation we experience is really ourselves—our own willingness to do whatever’s needed to apply what we’ve learned from our training with the Ruhi Institute. In that light, I’m trying to work on my capacity to nurture relationships with families and parents, as well as to effectively engage youth. Hopefully, that’ll make a big difference with our new class—so that, with the support of our team, we can rise above these challenges and transform our neighbourhood into a wonderful, vibrant and united community.

year-end celebration

After seeing how well a “graduation” ceremony went for our local junior youth group, we decided it would be fun to have a similar event for our children’s class. Some time in August, we paid home visits to the kids and their families to introduce the idea of having a community celebration—something that would involve not only the families of the children in the class, but neighbours and friends as well. The kids would present some of the things they had studied during the past school year, and there could be refreshments and games too. Everyone agreed it would be a great idea, so we found a good date in early September, booked space at a nearby park, and forged ahead with our plans. As a first activity, we asked the children to create invitations to pass to their friends and family, which they did with gusto.

paper puppetsIn our teaching team, we decided on a few activities that might make for a good presentation. We settled on a couple of good songs: “The Human Race Is One” by Gina and Russ Garcia (available from the Ruhi Institute), and “This Little Light of Mine“. We also decided to make a puppet show out of one of the activities we had done during the year—specifically, the sketch about the village harvest from our lesson on justice and fairness (Ruhi Book 3, Grade 2, Set 4, Lesson 11). For the whole month of August, we practiced these with the children. Practicing the songs was simple enough, since they were already familiar with both of them. As for the puppets, we decided to go with paper stick puppets to keep things simple. We printed out a whole bunch of characters for the children to colour—a schoolteacher, villagers doing different things like harvesting vegetables or repairing the rooftop, the sun and clouds, etc. They had a lot of fun with this. After all the colouring was done, we put sticks on everything and voilà—puppets! In our spare time away from class, we had developed a script based on the sketch; when we put everything together, the puppet show began to take shape. Everyone really got into it; they each had their favourite puppets and enjoyed huddling behind our makeshift stage waiting for their cues.

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the fruits of our labours

pickin' berriesThis was one busy week for us, in a lot of ways. I mentioned before that Quynh and I are preparing for our first child to be born this fall, and that’s been taking up an increasing amount of our time: check-ups with the midwife, getting major projects finished up at work, preparing for baby showers, attending pre-natal classes, and so on. In the interest of shoring up our efforts to serve, we’re also preparing to move into an apartment that’s closer to the neighbourhood where our children’s class takes place. All of this has to be done soon, since the baby is due in October—so the stress level is starting to rise. Apart from personal preparations, though, I wanted to paint a little picture of what went on during this busy, yet joyful weekend—a picture bright with the colour of confirmations.

We received a text message just before lunch on Friday, inviting us to an “arts night” presented by a group of junior youth who had been attending a weeklong camp. “Please try ur best to come and support them,” the message read, “They are going to be sharing their reflections on what they learnt this week! It’s going to be great!” Although I felt exhausted from a long, stressful week, something told me that the best way to improve my frame of mind would be to enjoy the company of youth and junior youth. Thank goodness for that inner voice! After discussing with the rest of our teaching team, we all decided to attend together. We arrived just in time to take our seats and to enjoy a little chit-chat. A few of the junior youth we met in another neighbourhood were there, and we happily caught up with each other. They weren’t part of the camp, but were showing up to encourage one of their friends who was. The camp consisted of several groups studying two different books called Spirit of Faith and Power of the Holy Spirit, both of which cover Bahá’í principles and history in a fair bit of depth. Each group made several different presentations, singing songs, showing artwork, performing skits and dramatic readings. What was really special and heartwarming, though, was seeing several young people who were once a part of our children’s class taking centre stage, eloquently reading poems about the true nature of love, explaining the principle of progressive revelation, and more. Seeing how they had progressed from the moment we first met them, six years ago, until now reminded us how our time together was just a part of a continuing process of education that will eventually span their whole lives.

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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.

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?

prayer, a loving conversation with god (take 2)

Today’s lesson: prayer, a loving conversation with god.

September 5, 2012: Week 2 of this lesson! Our first weekday evening class, and it seems to have gone off brilliantly, all told. We’re starting to get a better sense of the needs in the neighbourhood—and the evidence points to the need for a junior youth group to complement the children’s class. We had more older children than last time; out of eight children attending, five were 11 years and older. Some of the older girls said they intended to invite friends and siblings who were of their age. The two teachers present today discussed the situation and agreed that a junior youth group was needed urgently; the question, of course, is always about resources—who will teach it? Fortunately, there’s currently a big push in our city for Baha’is to complete Ruhi Book 5, which should provide a number of able-bodied animators who may be able to help out. We’ll see how things go, and in the meantime we’ll do our best to provide the junior youth with a program that adapts more to their needs, as well as meeting the needs of the younger children.

I think evening hours are more challenging for us as teachers, to be sure. Not having a car, and working 9 to 5 at a fair distance from the neighbourhood, I’m dependent on public transit to get to the class on time, and today it really failed to deliver. There are new schedules for the fall season that just came into effect, so I guess I should have taken that into account and left work earlier so that I could manage the delays in connecting between stops. Not having a car is a wonderful choice financially and ecologically, but it really seems to limit your ability to work through the logistics of a children’s class. We started late, but my co-teacher was able to spend some leisure time with the children and JYs; most of the parents were still coming home from work at that point.

Briefly, we started with prayers, and continued memorizing the quote we had started learning last time, this time reading through it in its entirety: “Intone, O My servant, the verses of God that have been received by thee, as intoned by them who have drawn nigh unto Him, that the sweetness of thy melody may kindle thine own soul, and attract the hearts of all men.” We wrote it out onto a sheet of bristol board so that we could practice it together and explain difficult words, and then we tried a new strategy: using pictures to help represent words. For example, the word “intone” was represented by a picture of a person reading out loud from a book, “melody” by musical notes, and so on. We gave everyone cards with pictures printed onto them, explaining what each one represented, and asked them to glue the picture onto the bristol board.

piecing togetherOnce this was done, we read the quote again, reading the associated words whenever one of the pictures came up. Afterwards, we went through the dramatic exercises given with the original lesson in Ruhi Book 3, Grade 2: first working out and stretching inside our invisible boxes, acting out certain movements, and then pretending we were plants in a dry field praying for rain. They really seemed to enjoy this, drooping sadly when we asked them to express the desperation of plants praying for rain, waving their arms broadly and energetically as they expressed the joy of a watered plant with their bodies.

At the end of the class—which ended up lasting about an hour, by which time the sun had already started to set—we joined our friends outside, set a time for the next class (next Wednesday at 6:00) and spent time together, playing games and talking to their parents, who had arrived home by then. One of our goals this year was to get to know the families in the neighbourhood better, so that we can build stronger bonds of friendship. The time we spend with them before and after the class, and during home visits on the side, should help us move forward with this goal, and help us gain a better understanding on how a strong neighbourhood based on ties of universal love and fellowship is built.