Wednesday, September 15, 2010

teaching with cucumbers and pine cones

This day did not have an auspicious beginning. I was late and due to the recent jail break of 36 insurgents the police were searching every car which meant that I was getting later by the minute. The road out of the city is terrific for about 3 miles and then, to add to the police surveillance, it turns into a sea of potholes. In any case my agenda for the day was to spend it in a oblast school that had been part of a school improvement project.

The school is typical of the region. A long white concrete two story building with blue trim and a court yard where the kids can hang out and wait for the day to begin. All Tajik children wear uniforms. Boys are in little dark suits and ties and some wear matching vests. The girls are in white blouses and dark blue skirts and the little ones have amazing puffy white bows in their hair. They actually sparkle in the sun and look as if a falling star and got caught in a little girls hair. Some of the bows are bigger than the child .

My first stop was first grade. Tajik children do not come to school until they are six years old and sometimes seven. There is no such thing as pre-school or kindergarten. Thus all the children in this room had been in school for exactly ten days. They sat in small groups at tables with brown tablecloths. Each one had a copy book, a pen and that was about it. The teacher was Tajik and teaching in Tajik. She was dressed in the traditional long sparkling dress common to the region with a matching equally as sparkling head scarf. She was probably in her twenties and as she began the class reminded me a bit of a hummingbird. The windows were casement with the traditional lacy curtains that are everywhere. She had them wide open with a terrific view of a field of cows and a farmer scything hay. The cow, farmer, and hay were not more than 20 feet from the window. No distraction there as the little ones were glued to the "humming bird" at the front of the room.

In about five minutes I knew that I was in the presence of a master teacher. Without benefit of spiffy materials or extension materials or really any materials she had her charges totally in hand as she began the lesson with cucumbers. She was teaching patterns and numbers. She held up the cucumbers and asked the kids same or different. Then she grouped and regrouped the cucumbers and asked more questions as the kids answered her, sometimes at the top of their lungs, sometimes one by one, sometimes in pairs and sometimes without making any noise at all. From cucumbers we moved quickly on to onions which were followed up by corn and finally the ultimate in mathematical manipulative s - pine cones. It was stunning.

The pacing of the lessons was perfect. We went from whole group, to small group to individualized instruction without a hitch. Periodically, when things were looking a bit ragged, the beautiful humming bird would stop, everyone would stand up and then have a little song that required moving around and wiggling their fingers. After the oral work we went swiftly to seat work which had been painstakingly prepared by hand the night before. As there are no copy machines and also no classroom scissors she had cut out shapes herself to prepare a sorting and pasting activity that was differentiated by group from easiest ( ie; those kids who had problems with the pasting jar) to difficult those children who, for no apparent reason, could already add and subtract.

As the pasting group was running amok, I abandoned any pretense of observation and began working with the children. Clearly this paste business was a very new thing in their lives and even more interesting was was the top of the paste jar which required very weak hands to get organized and open it. Thus we had a bit of a practice and then did some left to right work just on the desk with out benefit of the marvels of paste. It took us a little longer than the other groups with some false starts like pasting the cut out on the wrong thing and upside down but once everyone got the hang of it this the group did a stellar job.

From cutting and pasting and discussing math stories which each group presented , the children opened their copy books and yes.. copied. Each book had a sequencing and pattern model for the child to practice and follow. Each groups was different according to levels and it was all done again by the teacher. Some were practicing writing numbers up to three and some were simply practicing writing plus and minus signs. I got to switch from the pasters to those kids having trouble holding the pen and writing the numbers. Thankfully I had a large number of unread reports that could instantly be pressed into service as scratch paper. There wasn't any scrap paper and in fact there was hardly any paper at all except for the copy books for which every page had a designated use. In any case i found an infinitely better use for reports as the paper was big enough to make tracing activities the little ones could use to practice. The humming bird and I worked away as if it was the most natural thing in the world to have an American teacher just drop in. As the children called out Mirmamy ( it is actually written in Cyrillic this is a phonetic pronunciation) we happily circulated the room helping kids as they worked.

I graduated from the first grade to the fourth and the Tajik language class. I was greeted by a wonderful young woman who was dressed from head to toe in irradescent turquoise covered with bright pink flowers. Her hair was covered with a light white headscarf . She greeted me in English as follows. Hi, how are you, you are very beautiful, i am the Russian teacher and I am learning English how do you think i am doing? ( all said in ritually one breath. It was GREAT.

After another hour of intense Tajik instruction the teacher and the 4th grade applauded when I managed to not bollix up more than 3 out of the 12 words I learned. As this class progressed, I couldn't help think what a lot of work it is to learn a language and why do we as educators expect children to do things we can not. At the end of the two hour class I was exhausted.

I had planned to go back to the city but was happily kidnapped to join the primary staff for lunch. We walked across the courtyard, down a few small roads, a couple of turns and went to the humming bird's house where this huge meal was laid out on the carpets. We sat cross legged , drank tea and do what teachers do .. talk about the kids. The English teachers asked me a million questions and I tried hard to answer. The food was delicious.

As i drove away from the building the children in the second shift were just coming. There was a new sea of fallen stars and little suits. The teachers had to go back to class for the second shift and perhaps, if the school was really over crowded, there would be a third. I promised to call which I will but I couldn't help thinking what a big bucket of blackboard paint and a sheet of plywood could do to improve the conditions. Schools like these and teachers like these shake the very foundations of what we believe to be necessary in the world of education. I was indeed humbled by their expertise, their engaging good will, their generosity to accept this lady from America and feed her and teach her some new lessons.


  1. gosh...this so reminds me of so many of the schools we visited while in Costa Rica this past summer...uniforms, shifts of students, natural resources for manipulatives, lunches in the homes of teachers, etc. you really paint a vivid picture. can't wait to read more.

    love ya, birdlet

  2. I am a friend of your cousin, Kathy Pearce. I used to teach high school English. Your description is wonderful. I would have liked to teach children who were more appreciative and enthusiastic. It makes a lack of materials secondary. I would like to know how you came to be doing this.