About those HUM-themes

Why Christmas comes early this year.

Burning Santa Claus in effigy. Dijon, 1951. Photo: Le Parisien.

We introduced “theme weeks” this year, to have some over-arching structure on classes that otherwise can become pretty splintered as the age difference in the group is so big. It’s nice to work on something together.

It quickly transpired that this age group needs much more than five days for a given subject, so the “week” in “theme week” quickly oozes out into a month.

I feel our “Ancient Egypt” theme went pretty well. “Ancient Greece” was arguably less focused because there were so many other things going on. At the end of the “Halloween theme”, when I asked the kids “why do we celebrate Halloween?” they all said “to commemorate our ancestors”. Not a word about candy. This felt like victory, but maybe they were just being nice.

We are starting our Christmas theme insanely early this year, because we seriously need to do some more drama. For one thing, theater is something everybody can contribute in regardless of age, and it is also perfect for practicing languages orally. Theater covers almost all the stuff self-study leaves out in language learning.

But if we’re going to do this well, we need lots of time. Putting up a play has to be guided by teachers, it just doesn’t work as a student-driven project. At least not yet.

Christmas also fits seamlessly in the historical timeline we’ve been working on this year, as the Nativity plays itself out in the Roman Empire. And then there’s the old Norse traditions around winter solstice, too. “Christmas theme” can be a veritable Trojan horse for lots of stuff.

Just so there’ll be no misunderstandings here: There will be some amount of scripture these weeks because the historical aspect of Christmas becomes unintelligible without a degree of background knowledge. What to believe or not to believe is the parents’ business.

Priming your child for a day in kindergarten

Just some ideas for things you might find fun:

  1. The week’s morning song. If possible, get your child acquainted with the song (usually mentioned in the weekly EFD Newsletter). Some of you are clearly doing this already. Many of the kindergarten kids contributed fiercely to “Go Down Moses” last week!
  2. Talk about what day today is. We review the weekday each morning in kindergarten. There’s always an opportunity to talk about what month it is too, or what season.
  3. What words contain this letter? Again, something we talk about every morning. A child picks a letter from a stack of cards, and we try to find words that include the letter. This is a game that can be played almost anywhere, any time. (You don’t need a stack of cards!)
  4. Talk about the menu: We ask every day at the morning meeting if anybody knows what we’re having for lunch. On Mondays it’s hard for Lucia the cook to know, for logistical, vegetable delivery-related reasons. But on Tuesdays there’s always soup and bread, and Lucia sends out the week’s menu as soon as she can afterwards. Knowing something about the day gives a sense of ownership and control. And the rest of the children are impressed by the ones that have appropriate and interesting information.
  5. Retell stories. We’ve read (or rather: Lise has read) and play-acted “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” this week. The kids know it more or less by heart already. (“Les Trois Boucs bourrus” in French. “Bukkene Bruse” in Danish.) It’s a fun story to tell together.
  6. Sing songs: Popular songs in the kindergarten right now are “Un éléphant qui se balançait“, “Hode, skulder, kne og tå” (“Têteépaulesgenoux et pieds“), “Hjulene på bussen” (“Les roues de l’autobus“) and “De skøre knogler”. Please tell us if the children are particularly fond of any songs at home! (In any language.)

Revenge of the EFD robots

We will be represented at the first Maker Fair in Copenhagen this weekend. We will have our own stand, and so will our own Nell, “Little Pink Maker”.

Here’s a sampling of what we have to offer:

“Maker fairs” are gatherings of assorted creators, inventors and tinkerers. There will be quite a lot of interesting stuff to see and do. Check out the whole programme.

Hopefully, we’ll also get this one running by the time the fair opens:

A god for children and war

We had our first experimental family field trip today, and visited Glyptotekets exhibition “Bes. Demon. God – Protector of Egypt”. We ended up at Islands Brygge afterwards to swim, dive and eat our packed lunches.

Bes was the god for childbirth, children, sex, fertility, play and war. An intriguing combination, and also one that makes you wonder what’s left to be a god for.

A cool thing about being with many kids at once is that some very basic truths really get hammered in. The trip went pretty well, but not so well that there was nothing to learn from an educational point of view. Here are some lessons I learned today that can probably be applied to adults and work settings as well:

Make sure everybody knows the schedule. Imagine being a child, and nobody tells you what is going to happen afterwards. Will there be lunch? Are you soon going to play? How long will you be expected to stare at ancient artifacts behind glass? You don’t know if nobody tells you, and you’re too small to have much of a say yourself.

Decide on two or three facts that you want to stick. Everything about ancient history is exciting to me. But I have some general outline I can fit every new fact into. Part of teaching, it seems, is whittling large concepts down to building blocks that can be used to build that kind of outline. If you learn two or three things, you’re way ahead of most.

Make a story. I’m sure a lot of work was put into this exhibition, but to a lay person it still came pretty close to looking like a random collection of very old and weird bric-a-brac. Creating some kind of narrative beforehand would have been a good idea. And quizes and treasure hunts (“find these figurines”, in this case) should be saved for last. Otherwise they become very distracting.

Our first family field trip has now been planned, executed and evaluated. The trip went well, the next one will be even better.

Below, we are doing Bes’ signature facial expression.

The great reading challenge

Typical EFD scene. (Anna Munch)

This year, we have an exceptionally large group of pre-readers in school. Almost a quarter of the kids have come straight from kindergarten. They all know the alphabet and most can at least read syllables, but before summer vacation few in this group could confidently read instructions in their textbooks. 

Traditional reading training, where one inexperienced child laboriously works his or her way through a text while everybody else listens in exasperated boredom, is highly inefficient. In a multi-age group as ours this can to some degree be “hacked” by pairing older kids with younger ones, allowing all pre-readers to practice more and spend less time listening to their not very competent peers. 

But the real magic happens at home. No school can surpass fifteen daily minutes of reading time with parents. 

One very satisfying method is the parent reading a short piece once, and getting the child to read it thrice. After the third reading, the child has attained a higher confidence in recognizing the more complicated words. In my experience, the time immediately after dinner is the best for these kinds of activities: It is a clearly defined time slot that occurs every single day, and a period that is normally relatively uncluttered with other appointments and activities. 

I have shamelessly copied an idea from Copenhagen Libraries, and made a bookmark you can use to note down what you’re reading with your child. We will print them out, but you can download them here, as an attachment to the ticket.

Even just reading aloud while your child is lying in bed staring at the ceiling improves reading ability and language comprehension. I am personally a big fan of reading above the child’s presumed level. Unless it’s pornography, crime fiction or political memoirs, most books for adults can be appropriate bedtime reading for children. I must admit this occasionally results in responses and conversations with the kids that do not appear to have anything at all to do with the book itself. But the very worst that can happen is the parent reads something interesting and the child falls asleep. 

Our ambition is for every recent graduate from jardin d’enfants to read at a functional level by Christmas. (Defined in this case as “able to read instructions in age-appropriate textbooks”.) This presumes a much faster pace than school authorities expect, but is doable. A group of 100% readers will release an enormous potential of learning and independent work in the Spring semester 2022. Sometimes grand ideas just don’t work out. But we have to aim at something. And no school gets anywhere without help from the homes.

The HUM update: Theme weeks

Maybe the people who made this had something different in mind. But for our purposes this is an ancient Egyptian school.

As you know, the time after lunch at school is dedicated to the students’ own projects. This hasn’t worked out for everyone. And even those who do succeed in steering their ship to port, don’t do it quite as often as I know they could. So this year we are trying out a much tighter framework: Theme weeks.

Each week this Autumn has it’s own HUM Theme, mostly centered around world history. The week will be rounded off on Fridays with presentations and a form of party or event. Sometimes these events will be during school hours, sometimes we will drum up a larger happening for parents. The point of these parties is creating a clear deadline, and offering a sense of satisfaction through completing a project and cooperating with the others.

Typical projects will be decorating the school according to the theme, making 3D maps and paintings, learning and telling stories, making appropriate food, practicing appropriate music. There’s hardly any limit, really. Casting tin figurines, putting on plays, making costumes. There will also be quizes and games to keep knowledge retention at an acceptable level.

Kids who are busy figuring out how to split atoms or discovering alternative solutions to Fermat’s theorem, completely divorced from any school-mandated theme, will of course encouraged to pursue this. But from experience most children need some kind of scaffolding. Later this semester we will do some brainstorming and let the students decide on themes themselves.

To be honest, I have been continually amazed at how much our kids clearly learn even while goofing off and avoiding formal school work. A typical example is seeing six-year-olds manipulate six-digit numbers while playing board games. However, we all need a distinction between free time and work. Worming oneself out of doing any kind of assignments is no longer an option. Kids who just don’t take to the cursed projects will of course be given other options.

World history and all it’s adjacent pleasures (civics, economics, religion) thus being taken care of, we free up time during the “HUM days” to concentrate entirely on Danish, English and French during the morning work hours. Even here, though, we will look into theme-related texts and assignments.

I’ve tried to set this up so that subjects encountered during HUM theme weeks crop up again later. Archimedes and Pythagoras in ancient Greece turning up in math, Roman costumes being recycled several months later in the Christmas pageant and so on.

It is all very clever. On paper, at least.

Any encouragement from parents to create excitement about these themes is greatly appreciated. We will have some theme related, voluntary field trips for the whole family outside of school hours. Tickets for various projects will be posted well in advance and linked to in the EFD Newsletter, giving everybody a chance to decide in advance what they want to do. (See here for an example of project options during the upcoming “Bootcamp week”.)

What matters, in the end, is if this works for the students. Fortunately we evaluate every week at conseil on Fridays, so any displeasure will not be kept a secret for long.

An experimental excursion

An ugly ancient Egyptian demon monkey god. What’s not to like.

Just checking the waters here: Maybe it would be nice to visit museums and exhibitions more. But school time is limited, and not every exhibition is interesting or relevant to every student. Furthermore, our field trip competence is now a little bit low after corona.

To cut through this Gordian knot, I thought we’d start with a voluntary excursion to Glyptoteket on Sunday, August 15th to check out the current exhibition on the ancient Egyptian god Bes. We meet up at the entrance at ten o’clock, parents are very welcome to join. Entrance is free for kids under twelve.

I realize ten o’clock on a Sunday morning might seem downright evil to some, but at this time Glyptoteket has few other visitors and after we’re finished we still have almost a full Sunday to do other things.

A reason for choosing this particular exhibition is to gear up for our ancient Egypt theme week. Glyptoteket has a marvellous permanent exhibition on ancient Egypt too, but that’s for another occasion.

There’s a lot to see and do at Glyptoteket, but the school-organized excursion will only focus on Bes, otherwise we will wear each other out. The café is insanely expensive and absolutely off-limits. Bring a water bottle and a sandwich.

We will start with a small snack (provided by me) and a short introduction in the lounge by the wardrobes, see the exhibition, and then meet up again for a quiz by the fountain. Depending on weather and the parents’ wishes, we either then go home or head for Islands brygge to let off some steam and eat our madpakke. Maybe even take a swim, depending on the number of adults.

There will be some pestering on email, the parents’ group on Facebook and when you drop off and collect your kids.

You can sign up on Facebook, or by emailing me.

Some words about the school library

Still not showing what the new, redecorated library looks like. But we’ve named it “Le jungle”. You’ll find out why. (Picture: Source.)

I have sifted through the entire library upstairs at school and culled quite a few books from the collection. This made me very philosophical about the state of school libraries in general.

When I was a kid, books were restricted resources while time to read them was almost unlimited. I could either read books, or run around with a mullet on my head and a rusty pocket knife in my pocket. In rain or snow. Alone.

For most kids today, the relationship is inverse. They have plenty of access to colourful books of excellent print quality but not a whole lot of time to read them. The amount of books available is simply so large, it’s impossible for a child to feel much excitement about books as objects. This is no fault of their own, of course. They observe that books are insanely plentiful and they have judged, correctly in my view, that most of them are not very good.

Our school library at EFD had, for example, an enormous amount of books based on Disney movies. These books might have made sense when they were issued, when the films themselves were extremely hard to come by. (Where I grew up, they were screened in cinemas on a seven year rotation schedule. If you missed La Belle et le Clochard, tough luck. You had to wait seven years to get another chance.) Today these books, hastily thrown together in some Franco-era Spanish sweatshop (Spain had commercial art as an export industry), just don’t make much sense. On top of that, they’re boring, trite and ugly, even when the movies themselves were excellent.

I never saw any child at school look at these books with even the slightest flicker of interest.

Too many children’s books, I’m sorry to say, have been made with no love whatsoever. It’s very easy to see which books might spark a passion for reading in a child, and which will make a child think: “This is bullshit, I’m off to see if Lucia has any rugbrød I can eat instead.”

I’m not absolutely positive about this, but it seems as if the school library has become the depository of books parents didn’t want at home. Maybe the family received these books as gifts from clueless, childless uncles, bought in a mindless, frothing panic before visiting. There were very, very few classics in the selection. Some abridged versions of Mark Twain and Jack London, one and a half book by Astrid Lindgren.

I kept all the books in the “Martine”-series, they are priceless windows into a previous age. But there was no Dumas! No Jules Verne! And I totally understand. I don’t want to give away my kids’ nicest books either.

There are still quite a lot of books left in the library. Much more than any kid will ever read while attending school. Quite a few collections of fairy tales, a whole bunch of novels, some very nice picture books and reference books. In my view, the only things that has been lost by reducing the number of books are obstacles to finding a volume actually worth reading.

A few of our kids faithfully bring their own books to read at school. Teachers have previously tried to encourage more to do the same, but with little long-term success. I think there are several reasons for this, one of them being that reading is a much more social activity for children than adults often realize. For many kids, bringing a book from home that nobody’s heard about just feels weird.

I have some plans for what to do about reading, to be revealed with the rest of the school program in August. Until then, permit me to post a reminder that research indicates reading aloud to kids gives them crazy advantages on almost every level. School is all very nice and good, but the real magic happens at home.

Renovation update

Not showing real pictures of our redecorating project, because we want the results to be a surprise. But we have looked almost exactly like this the last weeks.

One parent commented to me once, in a fragrant French accent: “When I first came to the school, I thought it was so cool. And also so ugly.”

We are extremely proud to announce that we are now less ugly. We have upgraded the entrances, cleaned and tidied up the school’s wardrobe beyond all recognition and even made that scary room between the gymnasium and the school quite nice. We have cleaned the outdoors aluminum staircase, rinsed and applied oil to some of the outdoors furniture. We have upgraded the school’s workshop and even created an entirely new workshop for the jardin d’enfants. We have made a new napping room for the smaller children. That recurring source of endless joy for all parents, the cleaning room, is now actually clean itself, and thouroughly reorganized. We have also installed Linux on a bunch of computers, fooled around with lighting and sorted out the library, among other things. We have used half a kilometer of painter’s tape.

And the pillow room for the jardin d’enfants, which some parents previously had painted in a colour hideous beyond belief and other parents thought was a room for some bizarre form of Franco-Danish punishment, now finally looks presentable. (The kids helped repaint it. They were crazy adorable, all in turbans, while doing it.)

A hearty thanks to all parents who have contributed. The opportunity to talk with parents and colleagues about the school, about teaching and learning, feels as essential as the physical upgrades themselves.

Looking forward like crazy to see you all at the beginning of the school year.