Saturday, June 02, 2007

Debriefing: Schools

First: BLARGH!!! The photos from our Aachen/Blegny/Bastogne/Boullion trip were lost to thin air...I thought I moved them from the laptop to a USB drive but I think I moved them from the laptop to the laptop and then deleted them. So sad. Guess we'll have to go back. At least we have all the other photos, but darnit there were some really good ones in there. I am kicking myself!

Second, I got an interesting insight from a neighbor last night, who told me that the difference in the girls before and after our trip was startling, that they are so much more outgoing now, that they seem so much more comfortable talking with her than they used to. I see more confidence in their approach to new situations and people, but it was nice to get independent confirmation.

I think it's going to take me much of the summer to come down from the winter and spring. Inevitably, I compare the way we do things in the U.S. with the way things were done in Antwerp, and right now Antwerp is winning in many categories, though not all. In order to stay focused (difficult to do these days), I'll limit discussion to one topic at a time.

Perhaps because I'm writing a guide for families who do the JMU Antwerp program in the future, I'm thinking most right now about parents and children, and how things are for them here and there. Take school, for instance. We had the tiniest peek into the school system in Antwerp. We got to see the fundamentals of how the school is run, got to know other parents and children, and observed how teachers and students relate to one another, their assumptions, their demeanor, the rules. There was formality and order, there were uniforms and straight lines, yet there was love. The teachers instilled self confidence in the children through high expectations and consistent strict discipline. I will always remember the day when I stopped by the school during the day to drop something off and saw JieJie (she didn't see me) running gleefully from her classroom to the recycling bins with a basket of paper. How important she felt to have a job to do! I often tell the story of the day we came late and found JieJie's class in a different room--it was so quiet behind the closed door that I didn't believe there could be 40 preschoolers in there, but there they sat, still, hands folded, paying attention. Then there was the day when MeiMei had a little accident in class, so unusual for her, and coped with the embarrassment by sticking her tongue out at her teacher...she got in a heap of trouble, as well she should have, but the next day she apologized and her teacher welcomed her with open arms and it was clear that the lesson of forgiveness had been attended to. The day to day communication between teachers and students was not all huggy-huggy and self-esteemy, but when we left that last day, the teachers (both of whom are also moms) lifted the girls in the air, hugged and kissed them and cried that we were leaving. When there is a foundation of love in a school, the formality isn't cold at all. It feels more like giving each child a kind of dignity in the endeavor of learning. I really grew to like that, and I miss it.

Contrast that with Kindergarten Orientation for JieJie this past week. First, let me say that we are certainly happy with the school. But it is part of a larger system (nationally, not busting on Harrisonburg at all) that has some really messed up stuff going on, almost as though it has reformed and assessed itself so many times it has lost its connection to the original idea--and I say this as someone who studied toward teaching certification as an undergraduate, and studied the history of the American educational system in grad school.

We walked into the school, and JieJie was beaming with excitement. First of all she had us all to herself, since MeiMei was playing at a neighbor's. Then she saw that they had a name tag with her name and picture on it, a nice touch that says "we know you and this is your place." Then when we took our seats in the cafeteria, her little friend Sara (funny that there's a Sara on this end too) ran over and hugged her, saying "I missed you so much!" and normally reserved JieJie said "I missed you too Sara." It would be so sweet if they end up in the same class. I looked around at the diverse crowd (Harrisonburg's school district goes back and forth with Arlington near DC for the title of most ethnically diverse school district in Virginia) and then the principal introduced the translators who were able to assist parents who speak Spanish or Kurdish. There was a positive feel in the room.

But then...the principal didn't wait for quiet before she began speaking. COME ON! I'm thinking, this is her first opportunity to set a tone, and she's talking while scattered groups of people in the room are still talking--and it wasn't just the murmuring of translators. Oh well, I think, it's different here, and we'll all get the information. Then she talked a lot to the kids about having fun and making friends, learning new things (yay) and about lunch. Then she spent the remainder of her time going over the security protocol for the school, so that no unauthorized people are able to come in and endanger the children. In Antwerp, the front door was locked all day and if you wanted to get in, you rang the doorbell, which would be answered either by the principal or the secretary, both of whom knew who belonged in the building and who didn't, 'nuff said. I know, I know, fire codes and practicality. We couldn't just lock the door.

So okay, we go to the rooms where the kids got a chance to see the classrooms they might be assigned to. In the first room, one of the teachers read a story. Several boys in the front row snickered after every sentence, though the teacher ultimately made eye contact with them and they got the message. Then another teacher presented a coloring activity where each child was supposed to color a person-shaped cutout. Great - JieJie loves coloring, especially in restaurants (ha) but then the American detail emerged: each person would be decorated with a sticker that said "I AM SPECIAL." Is it me, or do kids see right through that stuff after a while?

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I was in the first generation of kids who were smothered with self-esteem language, which in a way starts to give people the idea that we are all just so fragile that we need to be told that we're special every becomes empty words. I was born in 1970, grew up on Sesame Street, and when we moved to Edina, Minnesota from our (in my memory) more down-to-earth neighborhood in South Minneapolis, I had quite a surprise. One day a teacher I didn't know showed up in my classroom and wrote on the board Project ChARLiE, which stood for Chemical Abuse Resolution Lies in Education. She had all of us wear these signs made of cardstock and tied around us with yarn that said IALAC, which we were told stood for "I Am Lovable And Capable." I remember thinking about some of the other kids in the class and wondering why they were allowed to wear the signs (what a weird kid I must have been), because I had certainly experienced their most unloving behavior!

But back to kindergarten orientation. We finished in the first room and went into the next room where the kids were going to do a science activity, planting a pumpkin seed (which JieJie is watching over vigilantly and watering almost too much, hoping to see a sprout). I liked that activity because, since they chose a pumpkin seed, I bet you some of the kids are actually going to be able to bring in a pumpkin this fall that they grew themselves. JieJie has already decided she wants to make hers into a pumpkin pie.

So all in all, it was a successful night, but one that certainly pointed up the differences between Here and There. Oh--and did I mention that the principal at JieJie's new school does a "stunt" at the end of every year? Last year the students voted that she should spend the day on the roof. This year she will spend a day on roller blades. Harmless fun, you say. And I'm probably just being cranky. But Juv. ("Yuf", meaning Ms.) Hilde from the girls' school in Antwerp would never.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Away again, then home again

So what do you suppose the Globetrekker family would want to do after five months of go-go traveling? That's right: we went to New Jersey! We were home for a week (much of which I have no recollection of whatsoever) and a week ago we headed to Point Pleasant, New Jersey, John's home town. There were a number of reasons for the timing. We hadn't seen my in-laws since Thanksgiving, for one. Second, looking at their summer plans and our summer plans, if we hadn't gone last week we'd be looking at sometime in July. Finally, considering the Jersey Shore is a prime summer destination, the difference between a motel room last week and this week was about $200 per night. We basically got three nights for the price of one by going before Memorial Day weekend.

It was a good visit, and the Amethyst Motel worked beautifully. It's two blocks from the boardwalk. Rooms are clean and quiet. There is a pool in a center courtyard somewhat protected from the chilly winds. JieJie and MeiMei spent quite a bit of time in that pool, and where JieJie used to sort of float-hop while moving her arms in swim-esque ways, she actually seems to be swimming underwater now--exciting to think where she'll be with that by the end of the summer. I was also pleased to see that her little sister, who wants so much to do everything her big sister can do, displayed basic common sense and limited herself to the pool's steps instead of insisting that she was tall enough for the 3-feet deep (both girls often think the numbers are for age, not depth..."I'm 3! I can go there!!").

We didn't do many earthshattering things at the Jersey Shore, just the usual. We played skee-ball and some other arcade games, and I got lucky on one game of chance, winning enough tickets (325 points!) to get the girls something beyond the usual bamboo finger trap and plastic ring. We ate at Brielle Omelet, which has to be the best breakfast place in America bar none. We also ate dinner at the Shrimp Box, which has a nice view of the Manasquan River. Food was nothing to write home about, but then we are SO spoiled.

When we got home, I said a silent prayer of thanks that we are not going much of anywhere until maybe August. We're not sure where we're going yet, but we are strongly considering returning to Peaks Island, Maine, which is one of the resort islands in Casco Bay / Portland area. Peaks Island is great because once you're out on the island the pace is very slow, walking or biking...there's a restaurant or two, and a little grocery for necessities, a family beach for playing and swimming, and the rental cottages are quite reasonable. If you crave city activities, you just take the ferry to Portland for some of the best shopping anywhere. There's Portland Green Grocer, the Whip and Spoon kitchen store, Foreside Company catalogue outlet, and a whole indoor shopping pavilion that reminds me of Quincy Market in Boston.

More later

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