World Poetry Day

Yesterday, according to various emails that I found in my inbox, was a trifecta of world celebrations. In no particular order, it seemed as if the stars had aligned so that we simultaneously celebrated World Recognition of Down-syndrome Day, World Poetry Day, and World Commonwealth Day. And here I thought my own calendar planning was poor as I battle mistaken double-bookings and overstretched responsibilities.

Recently I found myself fielding a number of questions about my blog, and why I write one. I let it be known to a small gathering of people that I also enjoy poetry, and when I said that I write a blog, I know in my heart of hearts that there are really blogs that I write, not just this one you may be reading now.

Poetry, fiction, general writing, and for a large part, English classes, were not seen as a highlight of my academic career. More a point of humorous embarrassment and ineptitude. English was a subject for other people in my family. I cannot ever recall learning the building blocks of English grammar, and I think that I grew up in an era of English teaching reform where the students would just ‘know’ English and come to practice it without having to go into all the details; something like ‘new maths’. As such, I tend to blunder my way through writing but get immense pleasure from reading and writing. I even like the sound of words and marvel at people who have provided the world with silly rhymes, or majestic marvels (like Gerard Manley Hopkins). If I was to compare my English studies and eduction, it would be not dissimilar to building furniture from IKEA without the directions — you could manage, and in the end you have something recognizably like a sofa, but with a lot of left over metal washers and screws. So far, the sofa in our house is holding together, and I suppose the same is true for my writing and general use of the English language. Just don’t move it around too much.

Family will likely read this, or if they are smart, only see that a new post has arrived in their ‘inbox’ and promptly ignore it. Reading, writing and general composition were painful events. I read faster upside-down than right side up, and especially when tired, I will simply turn the book around and read upside down as it is not as difficult. These actions truly annoyed professors as they thought I was mocking them, but in reality it makes my brain hurt less. I get emotionally attached to what I have written, so much so, that I will sulk and pout if others wish to edit and correct. I am not always as clear as I think I am in my writing (or at any time), as I feel that my brain jumps to conclusions that are easily made, but others tell me that they cannot follow. Catch up!

In order to enter university studies I needed to take English classes until my final days of high school. I think I skimmed most of the reading, and played dumb for a lot of the response that was needed to speak about plays, novels, and poems, especially poems because only girls read poems. That’s what was the underlying message from my peers and so I, wanting to fit in, acted in this way. I think that I have now, later in life, rediscovered the books that I read in school or was suppose to have read, and have gone and done my penitence and re-read all of them. Well, there is still Doctor Zhivago, but I enjoyed the movie more anyway.

My mother and sister are the English buffs, as the bookshelves in our family home can attest to a prolonged love and study of English literature. I have to admit that as my grades were not good I needed to take a test for English in order to register for English 100 in school. Those of my peers who had done better at English 12 immediately jumped into English 101 which was only one digit higher, but held a infinitely greater prestige.

To this day I do not know what I did on that placement test, but I now look back at it with a smile. After standing in a long line of students at a registrars office I received my test score which allowed me to try for enrolment, not in English 100, but (gasp!) English as a Second Language classes.

So why am I writing this blog? Why do I like to read poetry? Why do I even bother? I suppose a lot has changed in my attitude about how I learn and in what ways I have progressed enough in my own self that allows me to write more publicly. When pressed by friends and acquaintances as to the reason why I write at all, let alone on a public forum like a blog, I need to think deeply about this question. I can say I don’t often enjoy it. No, it isn’t like that. I enjoy writing, but it is hard work. It feels like something I just have to do. Perhaps it is a compulsion or a laborious event that just has to happen.

Writing is something that takes a great deal of effort, and at times, I cannot be bothered and have learned other methods to express myself. When re-taking the English placement test, I did get into the regular English classes. Mostly those tests taught me absolutely nothing about English, and everything about my own determination, desire, and destiny.

German Education: Lions, Tigers and Trees

The school year is coming to a close and so begins the season of school projects, class parties, and general year-end celebrations.  The various activities keep parents busy either attending events where the children proudly show off their projects, or skills; or there is the effort of getting children to different locations be it a forest grillplatz, or a outdoor swimming pool.

For my oldest daughter she is staring in a theatre production where the children have written the script, set the scenery and will be acting out their show for two different groups of parents, family and other school children.  As for my youngest daughter, there was the year-end grill party where we all got to say goodbye to one of her much loved teachers who will be moving.  A few weeks ago the same daughter performed with her entire school in a circus.

The circus culture is alive and well in Germany with any number of travelling shows that make their way from village to village setting up a large tent in some generous farmers meadow.  There are also, to my surprise, professional circus performers that travel from school to school.  The children get a week of circus training in areas which they can choose to participate.  Students get to sign-up for their top three activities in the hopes that they will get to be part of the team in that particular area.  Unfortunately, (or maybe fortunately) ours was not picked for anything she signed up for – the top being fire juggling.

I will admit that my initial reaction was a bit harsh and critical as I heard that there would be no homework, nor classes (in the strictest sense) for a whole week as the children practiced their ‘routines’ in circus training.  Maybe I was just a bit jealous of the deal.

A huge amount of effort was put into the production of the circus.  Two shows were offered, each show being about 3 hours long (including the 20 minute intermission) and had all that you could think of in a actual circus.  There was music, song, trapeze, lion taming (kids in the lion costumes were very funny), clowns (not so funny), rhythm and dance, fire juggling, acrobatics, magic show and even intermission snacks and toys sold by the kids.  The large gym hall was full of around 300 parents for each of the two shows, and the decorations around the room were made by a team of kids working as stage hands.  The various acts all had special costumes and the adult supervisors were very discreet in their stage presence so as not to detract from the show.  After having seen the show, it did occur to me that it was a bit sexist in that all the flame juggling kids were boys, and all the trapeze kids were girls. I guess this is my own resentfulness in not letting my own daughter play with fire.

As for my older daughter who performs in her class production in the evening, she has recently had a two week school trip into the Black-forest. This two week long trip was a forestry practicum where the class learned about the care and maintenance of the forest as a economic resource for the country.  As well, the kids had to work every day helping to construct wooden tables and benches that are frequently seen all over the place in parks and forest.  The professional foresters helped to supervise and teach, and the day’s were packed with activity and learning.  The students returned home with a growing sense of appreciation for the forest and plant-life, as well as, a sense of pride in the work of some basic carpentry skills have all been the result of a two week trip into the woods.

This evening we are set to watch my oldest daughter preform in her class theatre production and I am sure that we will be amazed and entertained at what has been learned, achieved and celebrated.

Despite some of my personal challenges and disagreements with the way the school system works in Germany, on the whole, the process of learning is good.  While I still disagree with the ‘streaming’ of kids at an early age that sets them up for a certain path in life; I do appreciate the style of learning which gets the children outdoors and active.  The circus week and the forestry practicum have certainly added to the learning accomplishments of our children, and their parents have been entertained and rewarded with all the learning and accomplishment that is put on display at the end of the school year.  Lions, and tigers, and trees, Oh my! – we are not in Canada anymore.

 

Religious Education Class

In Germany students receive Religious Education as a weekly subject and the classes are usually divided into Roman Catholic and Protestant, with a small group of ‘others’ that have instruction in another religion, or none at all.  The classes may be taught by specialized teachers and/or clergy from the local area.  I know from my colleagues in the local German churches that a great deal of their time is spent in classrooms.  The Religion teacher for my youngest daughter got in contact with me to see if I would be interested in teaching the class about the Anglican Church.  I think the words, ‘fear and trepidation’, would nicely describe my agreement to come on a Thursday morning to speak about the Anglican Church.

I spent some time going over what I might like to say.  What, in a nut shell, could be something easy enough for both the students to understand, and that I would feel comfortable speaking about in German?  Needless to say I steered away from the Doctrine of the Trinity and Atonement theology because even in English I would have a difficult time with explanations.

Well on the morning of the class I packed my laptop into the bag and my daughter and I set off on our bicycles toward school at a little before 7:00 AM.  As we sped along the bike path I came up next to my daughter and said, “we can take it slower if you want.”  To which she replied, “Why? This is my usual speed.”  Well, as we zoomed along with me clearly lagging behind we made it to the school where many of the students gathered at the front door waiting for the classrooms to be unlocked and to greet their teachers.

The Religion teacher greeted both myself, and another father who would be speaking about an ‘Evangelical Free Church’ in the area, as he worked as the youth pastor beyond his usual ‘day-job’ as a health professional.  As the classroom door swung open the other father and I were presented with the Audio Visual corner which was a nest of wires and plugs for all sorts of makes and models of computer.  Having both laptops tested out and working I graciously let the other father present first. Phew! I though, I don’t have to present first, as I was already nervous as it was.

The students were very well behaved.  A ritual of lighting a candle and passing to each person gave the students a chance to say what they were grateful for, and what concerns they may have in their lives.  I did not expect to be passed the candle, but soon found myself with it shining brightly in my hands.  I stammered out that I was glad to be here, but that I was also a bit nervous speaking German since a great deal of my work is conducted in English.  This seemed to break the ice for myself and for the students.  One student happened to be a new arrival from elsewhere in Europe and also finds learning German a real challenge. It seemed to brighten this pupils day when an adult made all sorts of grammatical errors.  Then it was my turn to feel more relaxed as the other father grasped the small candle and said that he also felt a bit nervous, so we were all a bit on common ground to begin with.

I watched with growing anxiety the first presentation which had a lot of slides and copious notes.  I began to think that I had totally underestimated what I should be doing with the class.  It was a good presentation with some questions to grill the students and I was not too sure that my work would go over so well.  The presentation was going on a long time too, and I wondered as I watched the big school clock which hung over the doorway, exactly how much time I really had before some bell would ring and students would want to change subject lessons.  Unfortunately, do to the gremlins that seem to always get into the technology, a video of a church outing did not work, so that seemed to put a spin on the mood of the class as they wanted to see, but could only hear what was going on.  That’s when my turn to present happened, and low and behold, the computer still worked for my presentation.

After a brief introduction, and having my daughter stand up beside me to help with any translation that might be useful, students arms were quickly in the air to ask questions.  I was stuck with what to do.  On the one hand if I let them talk now I may, because of nerves, loose my train of thought.  Yet, on the other hand, if the kids talk now it could be like what sometimes happens at church and an overly excited child gives an excellent second sermon about how God has been in their life, which would have the effect in this scenario of using up a lot of my time; which would mean, less speaking by me and more speaking by the kids.  In the end I quickly decided to hold off on the questions for the moment until I could at least get to the second ‘slide’.

The old Kodak slide carousel had its day, and could bore people to death over family trips and other adventures.  Now with electronic powerpoint presentations we can go on for infinitem with gigabytes of stored photos seeing possibly several hundred slides at a time.  So, I won’t bore you with the details of all seven of my slides, but I can say that I opted to have only pictures.  A picture speaks a thousand words anyway, plus no one could report me for poor German grammar.

Having briefly taught children at Christ Church Cathedral School in Victoria whilst being the Assistant Curate, I am a big believer in the pedagogical style of thinking like a child so that they learn what I want them to learn.  Images, stories and objects all help to make links from what may be called theoretical to the practical.  I may have an idea of the Anglican Church, but it just floats around as an idea until you tie it to something that a child can comprehend and then you link the idea or theory, with the practical and experienced.

Well, the photos flashed up on screen and we talked a little about each.  More and more hands were shooting into the air so I started to field questions and even got to learn some of the students names in the process.  I felt like some kind of relationship was growing and that I could really pull this off.  For me, the important picture was a photo of a Mohnschnecke a sweet desert like a cinnamon bun but with sugar and poppy seed.

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 Mohnschnecke                             (Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com)

It is often a familiar lunch item, or treat for kids so they all have an experience.  The students all agreed with me that the best part of the pastry is the very centre.  So, the Anglican Church with all its long and winding history, its debates and traditions, the best part of it, the central thing, is that we are called to love God, and neighbour, just as God loves us.  There were lots of nodding heads.

 

My presentation wrapped up with an activity in which each student (and  the two other adult’s) in the room had to find a partner.  I know that the kids play a game in the school ground called, Michael Jackson, where you quickly clap hands together, do silly dances, and swivel your hips like you are playing with a hoola-hoop and then as you pronounce each syllable of ‘Mich-ael-Jack-son’ you swivel your feet outwards making your legs spread further and further apart with each round of the game.  The game continues until one, or both people topple over because they cannot spread their legs any further (unless they can do the splits!).  In using this fore-knowledge of a fun and silly game, I had all involved use different words, and similar actions to remember that the Anglican Church has ‘Orders’ (Archbishop’s, bishops, priests, deacons), that prayer is very central to our lives, and that reading the Bible is important.  The classroom erupted into fits of laughter as the students tried to imitate my daughter and I as we slowly approached the point of tipping over.

 

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In the end, there was a small presentation from the teacher, a round of applause from the students and a small token of thanks which is meant to be a small oasis in the hot days of summer.  I tiny message in a bottle to take with me as I left the classroom and would enjoy a more leisurely bike ride to my next appointment.

 

Threading the Needle

I am of an age that can simultaneously recall mocking my elders for not being able to pass a thread through the eye of a large needle, and having the shame of now not being able to do the same myself.  My daughter, from across the kitchen informed me that I had succeeded in my endeavour to thread the needle.

Family reading this will likely be overjoyed at the turn of events.  I blame the strongly calcified water that I drink in Germany on my increasingly poor vision.

There are many things that while they seemed easy before, now seem like Herculean feats.  Getting over the fact that there are ten eggs in the container rather than the expected dozen seems like a small thing, but it makes a big difference when you want to cook, or bake something, and you realize that your planning is off.

Going to school for the children, while a normal event, can be more arduous than before.  The daughter that so clearly saw the needle finally being threaded is at a stage in life where the future is laid out before her.  The school system begins the classroom streaming this year, and for many young children, and their parents, they are forced to cast their gaze to a wide horizon and imagine what they want to be when they grow up.  The categories, levels, abilities and temperaments of the children (and to some initial extent, the parents) are all piled up and muddled through as career planning starts to get going.  Of course, one can always change streams, or continue on with more schooling; it is the initial segregation of pupils into academic abilities that feels so different.

If I look back on my experience of grade 4 it is not a pretty picture.  Even more scary is the idea that my abilities then would subject me to a certain destiny.  While I can see some reasons and rational for streaming the children at this stage in life, it does go against the grain to think that we, no matter what age, are always growing.  Surely, if we are not growing, we are likely to be dead.

Grade 4 was a terrible year.  It must have been as I can remember it.  I recall running away from school and having the police looking for me.  I had a terrible, dictatorial, sadistic and torturous teacher.  To think that that year would determine my placement in a future school…it just doesn’t really end well.

I’m happy to say, that my daughter doesn’t have the same feelings of her grade four teacher, but I still feel for her as we look at a big step in life.  I hope that she can understand that it may seem like a huge stage in life (as it is for her, or anyone who is in that moment), but that in the grand scheme of things, it is pretty small.  Small, but memorable; just like threading the needle.

We are all learners

In a short while school will resume for this area of Germany.  For those young children beginning school there is the Schultütte which is a large paper cone usually flamboyantly decorated and containing all sorts of small gifts, and/or sweets for the new student.  I was corrected by my own children that this ritual does not happen at the beginning of every year.  What I was really thinking is that I might get a Schultütte myself once my integration classes resume.

The beginning of school is matched by the end of school – the Abitur.  The ‘Abi’ as it is also known, is a difficult and challenging test which forces the student to recall years worth of material from their studies.  The end is an often feted day for those who ‘graduate’.  The rites and rituals of beginning and ending are important and the church can help bring meaning, celebration and liturgical presence to these special days.  Yet it is in the ‘ordinary time’ between these big events that learning continues to take place.

There is some old nugget out there that says, “You learn something new everyday”, despite the converse approach that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks”.  So what is it that I learned today in this ordinary time between beginnings and endings?

A few things, but one is: that mystery and story have an important place in the way we experience the world.  During the lunch hour I put my phone away as I had been glued to it all morning with pastoral calls, planning sessions and emails.  An hour to refresh and recuperate which I would do walking the path next to the river that cuts through town. After all, we are intentionally celebrating the ecumenical season of ‘Creationtide‘.  To my surprise I found only a dried up riverbed with only small pools of water that held small but active fish.

This was not what I was expecting! However, this is (so I’ve been told) the norm.  That in the hot dry months the river drys up and disappears.  Despite this I did walk.  I encountered a small forest glen with carved wooden figures of people, animals, and things out of fairytales.  On my refreshing, yet dusty walk, I thought of the sweet German story of the Water Sprite.  I had read it in English, but the tale, and the illustrations, set the mind thinking of mysterious things.  61bnRAdWctL

In playful thought, I wondered if now, of all times, I might get to see a water sprite’s home at the bottom of the dry river.  It may sound silly, but not long ago in Germany, and in other areas, the tales of forest and water creatures were told to fascinated children (and adults) –  think of the Brothers Grimm and the enduring tales.

There is certainly a place for the supernatural in our structures of reality.  Think of the popularity of such books and movies as Narnia and The Lord of the Rings.  Besides being entertaining tales of adventure, there are symbols, metaphors and mystery that speak deeply to us.  For some, we need to re-learn our sense of adventure, creativity and mystery.  Surely adults can recall a time, perhaps in the what they express as their prehistoric past, as a time when imagination ruled.  Countless hours acting out made up stories, or watching yet again your small metal car ride roughshod over the dirt motorway that you have built around the base of a tree.

For the students soon to begin another school term remember that we never stop learning.  To the rest of us who think we have done our time and have learned all we know: remember that we can also relearn, and re:create.  Now, is that the river I hear, or is it just my imagination recalling the melody of a Water Sprite playing a flute song?