Learning a new language and culture

As I learned German very late, I missed the opportunity to absorb culture together with language, as I would have done in kindergarten and in school and in everyday life, were I born in a German-speaking place. I notice this gap when I write in cursive, when I sing children’s songs, when I use proverbs and figures of speech – they all come from Italian culture. I’m trying to bridge this gap by reading childrens’ books in my local libraries, and it’s always fascinating. Especially history books that -of course- center on another country. In my mind, history is so deeply connected with the history of my country that I first have to find connections with my own knowledge in order to properly place the events of German history on the time-line.

That’s why I think I can profit from childrens’ books and in general from books-that-explain-things rather than just a dictionary. With only word-to-word translations I would not get the culture inputs that I need to feel more integrated here. On the other hand, some books take their time to explain concepts that I know already, and don’t require that much attention from me. This is in converse the most concentrated and captivating collection of culture insights I picked so far:

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Source: m-vg.de

It’s a collection of German idioms, described in their meaning and origin in a short paragraph. Many expressions come from the past, and cite knights, ancient arts and crafts, farming, commerce, construction, old administrative structures. I liked how it gave me another angle of the German culture, not directly like in an history museum or book, but indirectly through many bits and pieces that survived in today’s language. My favourite is “Alles in Butter!” which means “All is OK/safe!”, and comes from the times where merchants transported fine glass manufacts from Italy to Germany, across the Alps on carriages. The risk of breaking would have been very high, if the merchants did not submerge the glasses in liquid butter, then let it become solid and protect the fragile objects from any shock. At destination, the butter was melted again and the glasses taken out and cleaned. Clever and effective!

 

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Book recommendation: “Lernen geht anders” by Remo Largo

I read this book a while ago and took quite a lot of notes about it. It’s a book that I found compact and easy to read, while talking about very broad ideas about teaching and learning. Remo Largo is a Swiss pediatrician who wrote several books about education, and is therefore well-known in the German-speaking world.

Book cover, from the author’s website

In this book, he underlines how external pressure (from parents and teachers) is not as effective as the child’s own motivation to learn, because it works as a threat and has no positive long-time effects. Small children grow following a “curiosity path” that leads them to focus on specific topics for a short time-frame (language, movements…) and it’s important that the adults notice these focus moments and support them with related learning environments and tools. He is convinced that obedience doesn’t help in building any relationship between the child and adults, and that a healthy emotional connection with teacher figures has a positive effect on the interest on the topics they explain. He proposes individually-tailored learning paths for each child, so that the speed of learning is appropriate, and the child doesn’t get bored or overloaded.

I consider this book more of a manifesto than a guide, and am curious to know more about the practical applications of these concepts. Many ideas are already part of school programs, and I find that there is significant overlap with Montessori education concepts.

Book recommendation: “Montessori-Pädagogik und digitale Medien: in Krippe und Kita” by Marion Lepold and Monika Ullmann

Source: herder.de

I read this book a while ago, looking for modern applications of the Montessori method. It is sometimes said that Montessori kindergartens and schools are against digital media, and some of them actually are, but the authors of this book find references in Maria Montessori’s publications that highlight her goal of making the child familiar to the culture of its location and time. Nowadays, digital media are present everywhere, and are part of almost all parents’ lives. Even if the child would live in a technology-free home and go to a kindergarten without any digital media, it will still see them everywhere else, and it will of course be curious about them. Uninformed experiments could be very risky, so the question is then “how  can I help a young child learning about digital media” rather than “if”.

The first chapter of the book is quite technical, but I appreciated its in-depth analysis of different kind of digital media, their uses, their downsides, and an explanation of media competence (in four stages: critical thinking, knowledgeability, usage as-it-is and modification/original usage). The authors consider that very young children should make useful experiences with digital media, and get support from the teachers on how to use these tools safely. The special difficulty in teaching digital media is connected to their very recent development: many teachers are less experienced that children, and are not able to integrate these tools in the classroom – and the same can happen at home with the parents.

The second chapter summarises Maria Montessori’s life and works, and the third chapter outlines the integration of digital media in Montessori pedagogy. The child is progressively made familiar with them, first only by passive observation when it is very young, then by usage, then afterwards by increasingly critical thinking about how the tool works, if it fulfills the child’s needs in a particular activity, what are the consequences of its usage. The authors underline the importance of using digital media not just for entertaining but mostly as a support/expansion of learning. I liked the point where they state how the child should be deciding what to do and then pick the best tool, rather than picking the tool first and then adapt to what the tool can do – it showed me how the child focuses on its ideas rather than being led. The chapter ends with a reflection on teachers, who have grown up without media, and have no personal experience to rely on. With a good plan, this gap can be successfully closed.

The last chapter deals with the practical aspects of introducing digital media in a Montessori kindergarten where they are currently absent, and takes into account many levels of interaction: with the direction, with fellow teachers/colleagues, with parents. In many cases the path has to be explored as new, and great importance is given to tech-competent people (teachers and parents) who can contribute a lot in sharing useful information in the group. Last but not least, the addition of digital tools in the classroom have to abide regulations and good practices about privacy. All of this aims to create a learning environment for the child in the field of digital media, promote awareness in their potentials and risks, and foster responsible use from an early age.

I really liked this book and I think it will be an important reference when I’ll be teaching. As a former software developer, I wish to share the knowledge I acquired, and the proposed framework will definitely help me promoting the idea of introducing digital media in kindergartens. Unfortunately it’s in German… but I bet there are equivalent publications in English and many other languages. If you know one or more, I’d be curious to read them!

 

On giving and receiving feedback

Today I visited a Montessori classroom (around 30 children, 9 to 11 years old) and had the chance to attend a presentation about animal welfare, created by one of the children. First, it was a feast to see how much information she collected, how she organised it into a meaningful sequence, and how she presented, both reading texts written by herself and initiating brief guessing games where all children gladly took part. The presentation lasted almost an hour, and awoke the general curiosity. Many children set precise questions and she answered with sincerity.

Obliques

The most touching part for me was the final feedback from most of the people present, both children and adults (the teacher, the girl’s parents and a few guests including me): it felt sincere, accurate, carefully worded and spontaneous. I have read many articles and books about giving feedback and I thought I knew a lot, but was overwhelmed and almost surprised by how experienced everyone acted in that circle. I was equally moved by the quiet joy of the girl answering with a few words to each person, often with a simple, soft “Thank you”. It felt so right! She did a terrific job, put a lot of effort, time and passion into it, presented it to the whole group with an enviable nonchalance, then her classmates gave her positive feedback and a few points to improve: she deserved to be proud for that. It made me think of the times when my parents scolded me for looking too proud when I received compliments, and I am so glad that this girl, and the other children in that group, can practice this healthy feedback exchange from an early age so that it can become a natural, fully functional part of their growth.

Die Sonne genießen. N'Jumo, Orientalisch Kurzhaar.

On disappearing while observing

At the last concert I attended as audience member, I happened to think about my love for observing. I loved to be for once in the audience instead of on the stage; to have the privilege to be still, to receive music without the need to interact with the musicians, except by clapping and cheering after each piece. The moment I loved most was after the concert when I stood near the stage, looking at the drummers packing up their gear: concentrated, efficient, relaxed after the show. I didn’t feel the need to interact with them, it would have been an interruption, even if I approached the stage with the wish to greet one of them. After a while he noticed me and walked over for a quick greeting, then had to come back to his instruments. I felt like a birdwatcher, briefly approached by a curious bird. I then wondered how I could ask (or even pretend) attention and recognition, when I feel so blessed as I get little or none of it. Maybe it’s because this is how I make sure to get sincere attention, instead of artificially-induced positive feedback.

I thought that attending a concert is one of the many setups where I am not the centre of attention, and not even an active participant in a communication. I felt the same positive sensations when I was observing wildlife during my university studies, and I realise that it was the strongest reason for me to enter the wildlife management field: this ability to disappear from the eyes of the animals, while working behind the scenes for their well-being. Well, sometimes they did notice me, like “Gina”, a female red deer rescue, who loved human attention, especially when it came in form of food 🙂

La Gina

I felt a similar heartfelt call when I met Maria Montessori’s concept of observation and her way of enabling children to learn by themselves, by stimulating their curiosity rather than actively keeping their attention on activities designed by myself. Even my friends sometimes make me the wonderful present of their spontaneous life, free from interactions with me. With my closest friends I notice that we have communication phases and observation phases, and we found our way to stay near each other with the possibility, but without the obligation, to interact. I feel it is a true mark of respectful closeness.

I have even experimented this mindset by standing near an intersection for several traffic light cycles. For ten minutes, the traffic lights lost for me the usual meaning of “Wait! Walk!” and my attention moved to the approaching cars, bikes and pedestrians. I watched how impatient each of them was, how some people scanned the surroundings while waiting and others kept their attention on the traffic lights; how some children on bikes negotiated the intersection with careful attention; how few people noticed me while others didn’t. At the orchestra’s rehearsals, it happens that I have significant gaps in my notes, or I plainly have nothing to play for a whole piece: wonderful! Time to disappear and observe! Time to watch other musicians and better understand which parts are hard for each instrument; time to better hear each one of them in the sum of sounds; time to enjoy their concentrated faces.

I sometimes think there is something odd in my fascination for this kind of disappearance. At the same time I find very healthy to practice invisibility and experience the world without being the centre of it, at least for a little while.

Any of you made similar experiences? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

Find the difference #5: what you say vs. how you say it

I have been thinking about what has made discussions among me and others become heated, and most of the time it was not what people said, but how. Here are the two sentences I wish to compare:

  • You are not allowed to say that!

vs.

  • You are not allowed to say that this way! which could mean: You can say that, but the way you said it hurts me!

It makes me think a lot of parents and children. How many times I hear: “Don’t cry!” or “Don’t complain!” and I guess that it’s because seeing the suffering of others make us uncomfortable, at the point that we could prefer to silence it completely. There is a great article about this dynamic on happinessishereblog.com, and a shorter post on The Badger’s Smial. But what happens when we try to silence the cries, and worse, when we succeed? The suffering person feels even worse: oppressed, unable to both deal with the issue and to get support. I (among many) noticed that children get increasingly upset when they feel that their message doesn’t get through, and with an immense sadness, that some children (and adults) stop communicating and are therefore considered “good” – just because they are quiet.

I find that if I were a parent, I would promise to listen to all messages my children send me, eventually suggesting to express them a way that makes it easier for me and other people to help, but in no way editing the original content.

A similar censoring reaction happens often also when people get aggressive during a discussion: it seems easier to stop fighting if the other party stops pushing its idea forward, while it could be that it’s a matter of how the idea is expressed, and if the atmosphere calls more for white/black outcomes, rather than mutual understanding. I am trying to practice this form of de-escalation with my friends: I notice how the most vibrant advocates of a given idea calm down when they understand that I am OK with them owning their idea, and I am focusing on the way it is expressed. I think it takes a lot of pressure away, because there are endless possibilities to improve the formulation of a message. It could make me look undecided, when compared with people who get heated when they feel that others don’t agree with them; but I don’t feel comfortable being so assertive. It is actually a reason I left OSGeo Board a few years ago, because I felt that I could not fight for my/our ideas, but it was expected from my role. Now I would come back to OSGeo with a new  awareness, that I can contribute, move things forward in this equally firm, but more understanding way.

Book review: “Sachgeschichten”, published by Duden

I regularly check the children section of my local libraries, because I find witty and instructive books written in way that is easy to understand. I appreciated this one a lot:

sachgeschichten

It is edited by Duden, unfortunately out of print. It features several one-page summaries of various topics, with accurate and funny illustrations, followed by two pages of related words. I like the open approach that permeates the book: each topic is presented in its various facets and with a lot of questions, suggesting further research. The final chapters explain how to prepare an oral presentation and a poster, and tips on how to present in front of classmates. I wish I had such a book when I was a kid! My schoolbooks were usually on the oversimplified side, while scientific literature was too complex. I am nevertheless happy to have found it now, because it is a great way to learn German! I noticed that I know around half of the words presented for each topic, so I have a lot to catch up 🙂