Archives for the month of: May, 2012

The Library

In my mother´s family manners came before everything else. In fact they had a phrase `FHB´ which my grandmother would hiss at my mother and my aunt. `FHB’ meant ´Family Hold Back´ this was to remind them that the guests came first. In some ways manners became a tyrant for my mother and even now she is occasionally imprisoned by the fear of being ill mannered or rude. As a consequence my mother and Aunt are the heavyweight champions of manners; they take politeness to new extremes. They are the premier league, no one can be thanked enough, everything they taste, see, hear or sit on is wonderful, they can´t do enough to help. When they are together a hardcore politeness battle is played out and there is rarely a victor.

I had a small family gathering one Christmas and I was ready for the onslaught of superlatives. I knew all my efforts would be appreciated, but I also wanted some reality. As with my pupils unless the praise given is specific and real it starts to fall flat. So I told them both, your mission for today is to find fault with something, tell me something you don´t like? This was unfair of me. For both of them the idea of being a critical guest was unthinkable! They couldn´t do it, even when they had permission. I did fear for a moment that if I allowed them to unleash, 50 years of repressed criticism would come pouring out and I would regret having given them carte blache to find fault…

However, I am proud to say they have instilled in me some of their gracious good manners. Although I am more comfortable than them in declining something I don’t like. In general I am good guest. I rarely arrive empty handed, I don´t overstay my welcome and I don’t make a mess on the carpet.

Now I am a guest at a bigger party, I am the guest of a whole country and I want to display the same respectful good manners instilled in me by my family. I am a welcomed visitor to a new world. I am aware of myself existing in an unfamiliar place. Constantly supported, aided and enabled by those who are confident in this new world of mine. I have been fortunate in that the system which educated, trained and employed me as a teacher, provided me with skills and knowledge which are currency here in Brazil. I am fortunate that the school I work in now has allowed me to share my knowledge, that it is populated with staff ripe and open for new ideas. I am fortunate that the language I was born to, which I learnt through osmosis which I have continued to study and worship all my life, is considered a prized skill. Although I know I worked for these things, their value in Brazil is so much higher I don´t really feel like I earned them. I am a guest in this beautiful country, a guest made welcome by friendly supportive people. I am a resident, a tourist and a visitor. I am acutely aware of this. I am a guest welcomed for the luck of my language, valued for this random linguistic ability. But I am here and for so many reasons I want to make it count.

The opportunity arose when my wonderful Brazilian colleague told me about her dream. Her dream to create a library in place where they had few books. She invited me to visit a rural school with her to see if we could share our love of language and books with this community. I saw a chance for me to give something back to Brazil. When I worked in the UK I constantly advocated reading. I believe literacy is empowering, life changing. Words can save you in your darkest times, bring comfort and support. Written language is a gift to be savoured and shared.

I had read many times that Brazil was a land of contrasts, this vast country with a rapidly growing economy, a diverse mix, extremes of rich and poor. This guest was given an insight as the donations of books and toys flooded in. I stood at the gates of my school as bag after bag of toys and books arrived and the pile grew and grew. Overwhelmed by what we had collected, I was struck by how much we had to spare in this part of Brazilian society I existed in.

We drove 2 hours to the rural school, along with 26 pupils. On the journey I wrestled with my dilemma. What was I teaching my pupils by taking their discarded toys and books? What were they really learning about here? How easy is it to simply give away something we no longer want or need? But books? Books feel different. Books can only ever be good to share. There is never shame in giving away a book. I always had a rule for myself, no matter how poor I was, how little money I had, I could always buy books guilt free. Buying and sharing books is always right.

Then we arrived, a never ending procession of bags, books and toys filling their playground. The children of the school, well mannered and instructed to stand still to greet us, eye wide, feet giving away their excitement as they watched the toy mountain grow in front of them. Of course it felt good; giving a toy to a child always feels good. But there was so much more happening there that day.

Far more important than the toys was the Wormery, donated and paid for by a parent. Lessons on how to use it, from a teacher and his daughter. The recycling bins given and the games planned and led by our pupils on how to use them. The playground games we painted the murals we have planned. The long term empowering changes we are trying to support the school in making.  Sustainability, exchanges of teacher’s knowledge and expertise, the building of playground toys from recycled materials. And for me, most important of all, the library. A growing collection of books for the children to read at school and at home. The gift of reading, a precious commodity. My momentary dilemma about the toys was irrelevant. I believe this was my chance to show my gratitude to Brazil for welcoming me and I will try to continue to be a polite and respectful guest.

It is a mistake to buy a can of beer and wine mix…

I´m fighting failure but I don´t doubt error. I have made mistakes. I have made many mistakes. Some I regret, some gave me gifts, some took me on journeys and some made me cry.

When you are a teacher you quickly realize children are afraid of mistakes. This seems to be an international truth. The children I teach in Brazil are as afraid of making mistakes as English kids. They want to know how to be right, how to be correct, they want the answer. I rarely feel like I have the right answer. It feels like I am doing them a disservice if I allow them to believe that if they try hard enough they will always be able find out what is right. The right path, the right partner, house, car, weight, decisions. How many of us can say we truly know how to make the right decisions? That we are never wrong, we always have the answer? Just as we should not fear the arbitrary criteria of success and failure, we should strive to accept the inevitability of mistakes.

In my last post I made a mistake. The word explore was autocorrected to explode; ´I wanted to explode the city’ I noticed my mistake but I liked it better. I did want to explode the city and examine the pieces. Through this error my writing was improved. When teaching writing to children who struggle with literacy, the children for whom most linguistic rules are mysterious and confusing, their mistakes create moments of utter joy. They are not constrained by the rules, they don´t understand the rules, this allows them to use language in creative and innovative ways. And now the multi-lingual pupils I work with, swapping effortlessly between 2 or 3 different languages, misapplying rules but generating new and interesting uses of vocabulary.  In language, mistakes can create beauty.

I was working with a Maths teacher this week (numbers baffle me most of the time). He showed me how he was working on using questions without a correct answer to elicit understanding of processes and to break down the hierarchy of ´correctness´. In Maths, there is no longer an assumption that simply finding a correct answer is a demonstration of true understanding. I´m starting to like Maths teachers more. I´m realizing true Mathematicians are philosophers at heart, existing in a numerical daydream through which they explore or (explode) the world.

It was mistakes and poor decisions which led me to Brazil. In my errors I have found a wonderful new life which grows better by the day. I am forever grateful to my fantastic friends, who over time have demonstrated true love and forgiveness of my mistakes. Who in gently propping me up, encouraging and supporting and forgiving me, gave me the strength to let the errors carry me here. Part of friendship and love is forgiveness and understanding. We are fallible human beings, usually striving to do our best in a confusing world. Mistakes happen, we don´t always have the right answer.

Life isn´t black and white with clearly defined parameters of right and wrong. When I told my mother I was coming home for Christmas her first question was’ Is it terrible? Do you hate it?’ in her polarized world, things were terrible or fantastic. She and I are learning together that things can be simultaneously both good and bad. That I can love my life in Brazil and also miss home.

So I will continue to make mistakes; using form instead of from, buying something I can´t afford, kissing a frog instead of a prince. But each kiss, new coat and spelling mistake will led me to new things. I´m not perfect and I have no desire to be, my imperfections make me human and I intend to celebrate them.

Failure pushed me to Brazil. After 5 years of hard work SEN progress in my school was deemed unsatisfactory. I was reassured by kind colleagues, the reasons for the decision, it wasn´t my fault, hundreds of kind and supportive words. But I couldn´t agree. Firstly, I felt that the pupils were making progress. I could see it, I could feel it. Secondly, I felt responsible, despite the kindness of my colleagues, and the reassurances of friends. So I cried, put on more black eyeliner and looked at jobs abroad.

In the UK education system progress is constantly checked and judged. A pupil, a teacher, a school is seen as a failure if there is a lack of progress. I want to move forward, I want to change and progress. However, we can be labeled ´unsatisfactory´ or sometimes ‘Special Needs’ when we fail to meet external criteria. When we don´t meet expectations.  When we don´t follow ´normal ´patterns of behavior. My issue is not with progress but how we measure it.

My progress through life could be considered unsatisfactory if judged by certain criteria.

1. I’m fat. I’m not a size 10-12. I weigh at least 3 stone more than is considered socially acceptable. I don’t mind because I’m happy and I get to eat a lot of cheese.

2. I am one of lifes non-drivers. I can’t drive. I don’t own a car. I don’t expect to own one and I won’t measure my self esteem based on engine size or type of gear box.

3. I don’t own a property; I don’t want to buy a house. The thought of having to fix a boiler fills me with such dread I have to go and eat more cheese.

4. I’m not married; sometimes I don’t even have a partner. I enjoy spending time on my own; I chose to spend time on my own. Not because I have nothing else to do but because I enjoy my own company.

So, I am a fat, lonely, cheese eating, bus taking, tenant. But, my life doesn’t feel ‘unsatisfactory’ or ‘D’ grade. It doesn’t feel like a failure. I have a job I love, which has carried me 5000 miles across the world to a South American adventure. I have fantastic friends who are intelligent, funny, supportive and kind. Plus I am continually meeting new intelligent, funny, supportive and kind people. I write, I read, I laugh, I cry, I look, I listen, I am happy. I can see my progress.

I have been in Brazil for 9 months. I remember arriving, I was terrified. I clearly recall waking up that first morning jet lagged, wrung dry from emotion and the sadness of leaving. I was too frightened to leave the apartment. I peered down from my 19th floor balcony to the Brazilian street below. I had to force myself out to explode the world, the world that is now safe and familiar. As I walk home from work each day now, stopping to buy the things I need, fully functioning in my new life, I see my progress. Judging by my criteria (very simple: are you still here?) I think I´m doing pretty well.

If I’m in a lesson which I know OFSTED would call ‘unsatisfactory’ because I am ‘only’ reading to the class, is it a failure? I dismiss their criteria for success. I see 30 faces looking up in rapt awe, entangled in the narrative, entranced by the characters, living in the story. When the bell rings and nobody moves, as I hear a sigh of disappointment when I close the book. When I see the true and genuine joy and pleasure in the communication, in the connection. In this moment when we share an understanding of the real value of language as it binds us together as human beings. Is this unsatisfactory?

It feels as though we are living in a reductive world, constantly looking at what we have failed to achieve. I haven’t managed to lose a stone, go to the gym, save money, learn to drive, buy a big house. The pupils, who haven’t managed to get a C grade, make two levels of progress, get their attendance above 90%, complete homework on time, read a book, finish school or avoid exclusion. What has happened to the celebration of success? Why can’t we look at what we have achieved rather than what we have ‘failed’ to do. Progress should be about seeking out the movements forward no matter how small or insignificant they seem. I refuse to waste any more of my life lamenting what I have failed to achieve. I am here, I am happy, that is enough.

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