Looking Forward

10 Things I learned as an assistant teacher in bilingual kindergarten

  1. Expect the unexpected. It’s a cliché that very much applies in a classroom of 5 year olds. This week, one of my students came in from recess with her shoes tied together. Another recounted the tale of the rat skeleton his family found in the attic. You never know what’s coming…
  2. In kindergarten, kids contemplate the big questions (“Anne, how long will I live?”). I’ve heard them discuss gender and sexuality, marriage, politics, religion, and the weather. They make complicated things simple in the most beautiful way.
  3. Don’t wear white to school. Clothing must be fingerpaint -, cleaning product – , and snotty hand – proof.
  4. “Sit down and raise your hand” must be rule number one. Otherwise, I am accosted by small bodies with loud voices, all with the expectation that they are my first priority. If I could have more hands and another brain, please, that would help.
  5. In my class, there are children raised by the rules of one culture, of another culture, of a mix of cultures. There is an actual difference between children raised strictly in French and children raised strictly in American. Neither makes a perfect child (but they are perfect to me).
  6. Play. The best class is full of humor, and nothing motivates or pleases children of any background like games.
  7. Read. Books are the most important thing to child-brains. When I have kids, words will be magic and stories will be magic come to life.
  8. Smile. There is no better way into a child’s heart. Except perhaps candy, or showing animated films (such as these).
  9. I have made unparalleled use of my multi-tasking abilities. I can simultaneously pour paint, help someone spell a word without giving the answer, prep snack, clean countertops, and empathize with a child who’s hurting from a bobo.
  10. People who teach kindergarten are straight-up superheroes. The creativity, the energy, the organization, the patience, the people skills…I can’t think of another job I’ll ever have which requires the same level of each all at once. I will miss it.

Why will I miss it, you ask? I have a new job for next year. It may require very similar skills. It may be just as challenging, and will hopefully be just as rewarding. It’s an almost total change of gears.

I’m going back to my second home, my alma mater, to teach upper and middle school Latin. I couldn’t be more excited. I’ll be following in the footsteps of one of my favorite mentors and teachers, I’ll be in charge of my own subject, I’ll still be teaching language, and we’ll have a lot of fun bringing a dead language to life.

Au revoir aux enfants, and salvete discipuli!

As the sun sets on this chapter, I’ll be climbing new mountains.

IMG_6415.jpg

IMG_6542.jpg

P.S. Seattle is beautiful.

Looking Forward

Playing Teacher

IMG_3141

There’s what “playing teacher” used to look like.

I guess now I’ve been a real “teacher” for two years: first of French high schoolers, then of some rambunctious bilingual kindergarteners. Although those experiences were entirely different, one thing remained the same: I feel like a teacher who still thinks she’s a student.

This week, my head teacher left for a teacher training in California, and I was the head teacher for three days. I was nervous about it, having never been responsible for the learning of a class of kindergarteners. I shouldn’t have been; everything was prepared for me, and the only real work of a teacher I had to do was being present, engaged, and organized enough to lead the class through the days and hope they learned something.

Turns out, being present, engaged, and organized takes a lot out of me. It’s hard to describe teacher fatigue. I’ve tried in other posts, but the only real way to empathize is to be there. The little expectant faces, the way they all scream “ANNE! ANNE! ANNE!” at me until I acknowledge them, even if I’m talking to someone else…the way they bring me cookies and watch me until I eat them, the way they glow when I praise their work, the joy I feel when I see them mastering something new, and the patience it takes to explain something five times and five different ways, all while being pulled and tugged and poked and otherwise distracted…it really is a job in its own category.

In high school it was obviously not the same — they stayed at their desks, they didn’t yell out in class…they didn’t talk much at all. Responding in English class was probably social suicide. But there were similar moments of inspiration and learning — when I decided to teach them about country music and they all started singing along, for example… when I taught them philosophy and I saw the scrunchy puzzled face turn into a comprehending smile.

Regardless of the context, I still feel like I’m playing teacher. I’m too young, I’m too inexperienced, I haven’t encountered enough situations to know how to handle them all, I don’t have enough education, I don’t have any natural authority: all of these are things I’ve thought to myself in the past two years, over and over again.

I realized, this week, that teaching isn’t really about any of those things. It helps to have experience, which comes with age and encountering situations, and it helps to have education and natural authority. But most of being a teacher is about being present, engaged, and organized enough to  lead a class through a day, or a period, and hope that they’ve learned something.

I just found this perfect quote:

1382342_953944691350509_7702406124426586841_n

 

I want to become an educator, and the only way to learn how is by playing at it. Sometimes, I’ll get things right.

Playing Teacher

On Kindergarten

IMG_5154

How I feel at school is analogous to how I feel in life. I’m a barely-adult. Sometimes I feel like I’m underemployed; my immense skills and talents gained from world traveling and an education from a prestigious university are wasting away, unused [in a fit of eyeroll-worthy pretention].

Other times, I end up sobbing in Mommy’s backyard, locked out and overflowing with self-pity, and life is just so hard. Those are the moments I want to be a kindergartener, not teach them.

I’d die to have someone pick the seeds out of my orange slices. I want someone else to receive an e-mail saying I need to bring a potato and a leek to school tomorrow, to put those vegetables in my backpack without letting me know I had that responsibility. I’d love to ask an all-knowing all-powerful adult to validate my drama, and to make my friends apologize for hurting my feelings. I’d happily burst into tears and jump into some strong person’s arms when I’m tired, or frustrated, or I just can’t go on.

I want it to be okay that I’m young, and I’m learning, but I can’t do what the older kids can do yet. I want someone wise to remind me of that undeniable truth: that we are always learning and never perfect, and if you’re perfect what’s there to learn?   

But something happens when you’re in the repeat-childhood that is your 20s — you get to be “independent.” I became my own wise adult. Not only that, but I get to be the wise adult for my little almost-students, who are totally dependent. I have a wise adult voice, a wise adult air of confidence. My wise adult self makes sure they wash their hands with soap and teaches them it’s L M N O P and not ello-meno-pee so maybe they can read someday. 

But inside I know the truth: I am not a wise adult. Sometimes I can’t remember to bring my own potato and leek, and I can’t find the words to validate my own drama or make my friends apologize to me for hurting my feelings. All that feels like my fault and my shortcoming, because now it’s my responsibility.

Maybe the illusion that barely-adulthood is shattering is that wise adults “know what they’re doing.” Maybe they’re all just doing what they can, and that’s either enough…or not, sometimes. 

Or the true illusion is independence. Maybe I am only slogging through “becoming wise” because I know there are people behind me who would tie my shoes and help me zip my coat, if my fingers were numb or I didn’t know how.

Maybe we’re all still kindergarteners, inside, and we still need each other. 

On Kindergarten

Chatting with Children

I used to think that the most interesting minds were adult ones. More experiences + more language = more valuable things to say, right?

I was wrong.

The antidote to a frustrating day with the class is to also have lots of positive moments. (Unless the day ends badly, from which one can never recover. Never.) Overall, it’s mathematically neutral…but spiritually, I think the positive interactions lift the soul more than the momentary frustrations bring it down.

At lunchtime, I walk around and sit at each table for a few minutes. Upon my arrival at a table, all goes quiet…I’m scrutinized by searching child eyes. Did we do something wrong? Does someone need food opened? Is it time to clean up? Why is she here? 

When it’s decided that I’m not a threat, I become the center of attention. “Why are you looking at us?” “Were you ever a baby?” “Can you open this?” “Do you have kids?” “How old are you?” “Do you have a cat?” “When is it recess time?” (Because, yes, maybe, no, 23, yes, soon)

Someone kicks a chair, and I exclaim, “Apologize to Madame Chaise! She doesn’t like being kicked.” The room dissolves into giggles. “Why are you being so silly, Anne?” says the child.

“I know I’m a little bit sick, Anne…I have a lot of bless-yous.”

“Anne, he called my food gross!” “Apologize to her food please! You hurt its feelings.” [cue giggles]

“Anne!! Anne!! I can’t find my water bottle!” “It’s under your arm, silly!” [giggles]

I may not be convincing you that my time in the classroom is so interesting by means of these mundane little snippets. But, what I am quickly learning is that there is nothing mundane about kids. The mundane is not even mundane. The garbage truck is the biggest event of the afternoon. The fire drill once a month is traumatic. Creating 6 identical plastic egg characters is the funnest thing they’ve done all day. Cutting paper in zig-zags is summiting Mt. Everest.

IMG_5155

They are full of joy and imagination. I probably won’t ever forget the first self-portrait lesson, where one little guy looked up at me with a face of pure glee, held out his drawing, and whispered “I love it!”

Do you remember when you couldn’t read or write? I can’t. For all I know, I popped out with perfect handwriting, able to read all of Nancy Drew in a week. It’s fascinating to go back to K, where they learn the alphabet, and how to count to 20, and see how I learned it. And we don’t just teach that…we teach behavior. Respect. Listening. Self-regulation. Self-discipline. Self-expression. All of the fundamental parts of a person are there for the cultivating.

It just kills me when people don’t think of children as people. They are all of us…uncensored. Talk to them, you’ll see.

Chatting with Children

Working it Out

“If a doctor, lawyer, or dentist had 40 people in his office at one time, all of whom had different needs, and some of whom didn’t want to be there and were causing trouble, and the doctor, lawyer, or dentist, without assistance, had to treat them all with professional excellence for nine months, then he might have some conception of the classroom teacher’s job.” – Donald D. Quinn

I’ve only taught my “patients” for 12 days, and I already feel the truth of this quote. Teachers have always been superheroes for me, given my mom’s legacy, and they are perhaps even more so now. I would be honored to become one of them.

For now, thank goodness I’m only an assistant. I get to do some fun low-key English and French teaching, hang out with the children all day, butter and jam some baguettes, and clean/organize/wrangle. If I added planning, preparing materials, communicating with parents, and meetings on top of that…I’d be my mother! And I am definitively not ready for that yet.

The best way to learn is to do, though! And I have been doing all I can find to do.

Anyway, the added complication of the classroom is also one of my favorite things about it: diversity! We had parent info night last night: out of nineteen children, there were parents from at least 8 different countries, who speak ~7 different languages. And that was only one of the 7 classrooms at our level! It felt like I was abroad again, in that expat group I love so well, except these parents ex-patted to the U.S.A.

Basically, I want their lives.

But, envy aside, I was inspired. I was standing at the front of the room helping explain some of the rhythms of the classroom to the parents and I realized how much I already care about their kids. There’s a whole lot of teamwork going into their upbringing: parents, teachers, and teaching assistants. And I am soo happy to be on their team.

And it also made me think about my own future, and how I think my destiny is to leave the country again. Grad school 2017, here I come!

Working it Out

Little Linguaphiles (or not)

I’m jealous of my students.

I was 15 years old when I started learning French, and it took me 8 years to become good at it.

There are students in my kindergarten class who speak no French, but I know that by the time they’re in first grade they’ll be semi-fluent. In other words, it will take them one year to learn what it took me 8 years to learn. And their language skills will be developmentally appropriate. Instead of cramming 20 year old thoughts into (maybe) 15 year old language skills like I did for a while, they’ll be caught up to themselves.

There are a zillion articles about how learning a second language is good for your brain. Most of them say something like: it connects the parts of our brains better. It makes us more flexible. It makes us more precise with our words. In my personal experience, I can’t really compare my brain with someone else’s — but, speaking another language has helped me become more thoughtful and articulate than I was before. It made me love words. And, I wouldn’t have been able to have half the experiences I had abroad without my hard-earned skillz. Just that makes it all worth it!

Some of the children who are still learning French are already bilingual (Spanish-English! Japanese-English! Chinese-English!). In a year or two at the school, they’ll be trilingual. Maybe they’ll be true polyglots (I met a girl abroad who spoke SEVEN languages! Fluently!)

This is the future of the world. We need more people to be bi- and tri-lingual. The U.S. is known abroad for having poor language skills…maybe this is changing. One school at a time. I’ve even heard of Japanese and Mandarin immersion programs in the Seattle area, which is cool too. The more diversity, the better!

Maybe I should have learned a different one. In one of my old diaries, from when I was 6, I wrote:

IMG_5126

Ah, the irony, given how my life has turned out.

I’ve had a couple of the kids tell me the same thing: “but I don’t want to learn French!”

Cue heartbreak…until I rediscovered my journal. Maybe one day their tune will change.

Little Linguaphiles (or not)

What’s an American?

Paradoxically, I have thought more about “being American” in the past few months than I had in my entire life.

It’s what I introduce myself as. As such, it’s become one of my most well-known identities.

“Hi, I’m Anne! I’m American.”

It’s usually replied to with a comment about Americans. I can’t say that everyone I’ve met has had the same opinion on the United States. I can say that everyone I’ve met associates something with the U.S. and its people.

Some people assume I own a gun. Some people ask me if we only ever eat hamburgers. Other people think I spent my college days partying away in a dirty frat house, like the ones in the movies. Some people revere our pop culture, expecting that I meet celebrities in the street on a regular basis. Some people might assume I’m arrogant and entitled, overenthusiastic, naive, or that I didn’t learn French before coming here because “everybody speaks English.”

I have been met with all of these reactions, communicated to me in various forms. What this tells me is nothing conclusive about the views of Europeans on America, other than everyone I’ve met seems to have a view on it. What that tells me is that we have a privileged (or maybe not) position on the world stage, in that many people are watching us (but many others aren’t, let’s not get too assumptive).

There are, in my mind, two extreme approaches to process an incident through which one discovers a stereotype of the U.S., neither of which are all good or all bad:

A) Reject the USA, or its role in the world, and send everyone back home the message, “we need to improve our reputation abroad.” I have adopted this stance once in a while. It’s tempting for critical thinkers who enjoy reflecting on identities and the issues facing our nation/how we can eliminate them to work toward a better society (aka, liberal arts future grassroots movement champion kids). This position leads to becoming an expatriate and/or extreme political activist and/or considering oneself “basically French” at heart.

B) Reject everyone else and decide that life in America is better, compare everything to it and become immensely dissatisfied, count down the days until home. Argue that nobody sees the true diversity in America and that therefore their conclusions are untrue. This person moves back and criticizes the “other countries” that don’t have it as good as we do in the US of A. There is value to this viewpoint as well, in that the person recognizes what our privileges are as US citizens. (However, just so y’all don’t get me wrong, I do find this 2nd view pretty problematic.)

Here’s the approach I’ve eventually settled on:

There is truth in stereotypes. Question it, without rejecting or accepting it. Where is the truth? What does it say about US culture? What does it say about French culture? How can one inform the other?

I find myself staunchly between the two camps, trying constantly to see both sides. Maybe Americans think French people are rude because they try to give a French person a hug (like we do back home), not realizing that French people reserve hugs for intimate and familial relationships. Maybe French people think Americans don’t speak French because they’ve only met Americans who don’t speak French. Even if a stereotype has become generalized and extreme, it must have arisen from some primordial stereotypical act that someone witnessed at some point, and that analysis by an external source could be a window for us, as we travel, into what it means to be “American.”

We are all our own kinds of American. Sometimes my particular kind might confirm a stereotype, and sometimes it will disconfirm it for some unsuspecting Frenchman. But I’m not worried anymore about being or not being American, I am using how people analyze me to figure out my kind of American.

I do think that, back in America, we think that French people eat baguettes and cheese all the time, drink copious amounts of wine, and that rudeness and snobbery are somehow more common in France (but so are romance and sexiness). In short, all of France is reduced to Paris. There’s truth in that too, and falsity. They do eat a lot of cheese and baguettes, but most of the French people I’ve met have been just as warm and friendly as we’re used to, maybe even more authentically so sometimes. It’s all complicated.

The most important thing, to me, in coming here, was not to confirm or disconfirm these assumptions, but to gain a richer understanding of how and why we’re different. Sometimes I encounter the illusion (in Americans) that Western Europe is culturally the same as us, and that in going there we will not encounter as much difference as we might in a more exotic place. This is true in that our lifestyle was at some point based on theirs, and a lot of us have ethnic roots in Western Europe so we look similar. This is false in that even countries within “Western Europe” are, culturally and linguistically, vastly different from one another. Different languages bring different cultures with them. Different aristocracies, histories, roles in world wars, political and economic systems, culinary traditions…all of these make “Western Europe” vastly diverse, and totally different from the United States of America.

It is so fun to think about why those differences exist. Being here is about encountering difference, for me, for one reason: it makes us reflect on “the other,” reflect on ourselves, and come to new understanding of both. We can be more informed people about both sides. Being here is precisely about “thinking more about being American than I ever have in my life.”

And my identity conclusion? I’ll keep my “American” enthusiasm. But I could do with being more choosy about my cheese. 😉

What’s an American?