Tuesday, January 25, 2011

First Day of School!

Proud members of the Lawnton State School - and Aussie - community.
Aussie smiles are even broader than usual. Mums are practically dancing in the streets.

Okay, maybe it's just me.


I should have posted photos on Monday but the commentary would have been even more smug and cloying than usual. With way too many exlamation marks.

I remember the first day of school in Germany, sometime in September. Stressed moms. Worried kids. Harried teachers. Really. My American friends always found this hard to believe – they dance in the streets in early September – but sending the kids back to school in Germany SUCKS. (Honestly, what can you really do in a school day that ends at noon with the kids coming home expecting a warm meal?)

Two Septembers ago, after that wonderful summer where Ryan and Andrew went to visit my parents in the USA, I decided it was mind over matter, and that I was NOT going to buy into the stress. But it was not all in my head. Mutters around me were panicking. Over the notebooks. And the fact that their kids hadn't learned the multiplication tables over the summer break. Or still had lousy handwriting. That the kids were behind academically. AND didn't have the right color binder for maths class. Mind you, this was BEFORE the first day.

No heavy Schulranzen.  School supplies made easy.  Gotta love the Aussie way!

Then the rude messages from school starting coming. The book Ryan had destroyed. (I only wish, I thought!) Her bike wasn't up to specs and she wouldn't be allowed to participate in the bike safety program. (I was so proud when she finally told the Polizei that a blue light was just as visible at night as an orange one! And passed!)

Children in Germany are routinely shamed in front of the class. Germans don't realize this is wrong. (Or that there is another way to do it.) Because their teachers are doing what they know. And noone knows anything else. Fit in or suffer the consequences.

Oh wait. School started in AUSTRALIA today!

The night before I coordinated drop-off schedules. How to get all four to three classrooms. I needn't have worried. One nice effect of the climate here is that the school is able to have a very open design. There are no halls. There is a courtyard. (With koalas in it, if you are lucky!)

The first day of school was like a party. Parents and families strolled to classrooms with their children. Doors were open. Teachers AVAILABLE. Even Miss Egan, the PRINCIPAL, was mingling with the commoners. And SMILING! No serious looks of how busy she was and how important her job was and how she was way way too busy to be talking to the likes of PARENTS!

Andrew sat himself in the front row and dismissed us. Ryan's teacher – a Canadian/Australian – passed out maple sugar lollipops and cookies from her trip home.

Can't wait to start.  Andrew in the front row of his new fourth grade classroom.

The prep classroom was a wave of parents and kids. All learning how to sign in, where to hang sun hats and place waterbottles. Finding names on cubbies. It was chaos. Except that it was fun. In Germany, serious stressed-out parents would have been worried and pushing their kids in front of others. Here everyone knew it would work out. (I think that's the key here; even in other everyday interactions, people are treated with respect and their needs are met. It allows you to relax because you know you WILL be taken care of.) The emphasis was on smiling – to kids, to parents – on making sure the kids were comfortable and happy. And the kids all seemed to feel really comfortable in such a social situation. Out of 25 kids, 4 -5 year olds on a first day in a new school, only one child cried when her parents left.

Maybe it was because everyone seemed to be concerned with making sure THE KIDS were happy. THE KIDS came first. Not making sure MY KID was happy and first.

Ryan just wants us to leave.  She's in fifth grade.
Aidan and Matthew were not next to eachother, except for signing in. Two kids. Two lives.

Uh yes, someone mentioned something about a Prep school?!

At 8:50 AM, as parents were still talking and mingling, Ms Dance and Fiona started the Good Morning Song wi!th the kids all seated on the rug around them. Complete with sign language.

Then she looked up, smiled kindly, and asked us all to get on outta there! Politely of course.

Day Two was even better.

After the first day, all four kids came home bursting with stories. I had to ask them to speak one at at time. Aidan and Matthew were going on about some birthday party I had to prepare. (Because Ms. Dance said so and that seems to make it final.) And Andrew about soccer. And Ryan about having Emily and Jessica come over to swim. And starting a German Club.

Then Andrew started doing some funny dance. Shang. Hands up in the air. Sha. Hands to the ground. Wye. Hands out to the side. Lee. Hands to his middle. Yo. Swo. Right and Left. Ho. Chien. Behind. In Front.


(Sorry. This would have been MUCH WORSE if I had written in on Monday!)


Aussie sun hat.  And speaking Chinese.

Queensland is still working on its curriculum, to meet up with the Australian one. How exciting to come in at a time where the curriculum is evolving, CHANGING to meet the changing needs of the children and the community.

The older kids, Ryan's grade 5 and up, will continue on with German. (Which works out okay because Ryan is the one who could use an ego boost!) Grades 4 and down will be switching to Chinese. Aidan and Matthew will begin learning Chinese this year as well.

When I got home I had Andrew write down the Chinese so that I could learn it too. He'd managed to remember 9 out of 10 words from his first session, but his mama ain't that bright.

Aidan and Matthew each had a book from the school library. (They didn't even HAVE a school library in Germany.) We'll talk about the computers and internet action another time. (120 in a school of under 200 as opposed to about 20 in a school twice the size in Germany. REALLY Leute, this is how you are investing in your future? Or do only the smart kids get computers later on?)

Then I read the weekly school information letter. And the letters from EACH of the teachers, detailing homework expectations, asking for parent volunteers in the classrooms, and listing the phone and emails of each teacher so that we could reach them at any time. The school letter listed school expectations, school goals (increased literacy, numeracy etc.), and had FOUR WAYS to contact the school principal. and volunteering in your child's classroom.

That, mates, is communication.

There was also a sign-up list for about six school activities, from working at the Tuck Shop, assisting with the weekly newsletter to participating in the P and C and assisting in your child's classroom.

That is what I meant by parental involvement.
Ms Dance is SOOOOOO cool.  First day of Prep.  (You can spot Matthew on the right, necy to the toy box and Aidan just to the left in front of him.)
On day two Ryan and Andrew ran off to meet their friends while I went into the Prep classroom with Aidan and Matthew. Aidan went straight to his cubby, pulled out his folder and sat down at a table to finish work on his rainbow and the pot of gold. AIDAN! As some other kids came to join him, they showed me their work and Ms. Dance explained that as the pot of gold filled with the golden coin stickers, given out for positive habits (I ALMOST said good behavior, but that IS a judgement, isn't it?!), the class would have a party. The famous 'birthday' party I had already heard so much about!

I am also realising that I have NO IDEA what positive reinforcement really IS. Ms. Dance is giving out balloons and stickers for positive habits, reinforcing them BEFORE negative habits have a chance to show up. Not reprimanding someone for doing something wrong - DON'T talk in class, STOP pestering your neighbor- but REWARDING them for NOT talking in class and NOT pestering their neighbor. I should know this. It is also an animal training trick. Reinforce the behavior you want BEFORE that other habit has a chance to develop.

The kids around the table all RAISED THEIR HANDS to be allowed to tell me WHAT those positive habits were. 5 year olds on their SECOND day of school!

No pushing. No hitting. Keep your hands to yourself. I love it when Aidan says that last one because it so obviously comes from school! (And while, technically, pushing isn't encouraged in German schools either, I never saw it being actively DISCOURAGED either!)

Aidan GLOWING after his first day at Prep.  Ryan also walking taller.

The boys told me about the reflection chair, called the thinking chair in Prep, where Fiona (the teacher's aide) sat to demonstrate where one goes when they've been behaving in a manner that they should think about. The boys found Fiona sitting in the thinking chair the height of comedy.

The problem in Ryan's class in Germany was that the boys were repeatedly told to behave, but never rewarded when they DID – because that was just EXPECTED behavior – and never really effectively made to think about their actions when they DIDN'T behave. They just kept getting yelled at, but nothing ever changed.

Here, every classroom has a reflection chair. To pause and reflect, not to judge and punish. (I know it LOOKS the same, but I firmly believe our ATTITUDES affect the outcome. I use time-outs at home in the same way. Not to PUNISH or SHAME, but because the behaviour that has led to the time-out is just not acceptable in polite company. You can BE mad. You just can't hit the rest of us when you are. You can BE frustrated. You just can't throw your pencil across the room because of it.)

If the reflection chair doesn't work, there is a reflection ROOM off of the main office. It's my favourite room in the school, cool, quiet, with posters on the world saying things like 'a goal is a dream with a deadline' and ' you have brains in your head, you have feet in your shoes, you can steer yourself any direction you choose.'

I think I'll go there to write!

Aidan and Matthew in front, Ryan and Andrew behind.
Do I expect Queensland schools, or even Lawnton State School, to be perfect? No, I am well aware of what we are dealing with. Australia has similar social issues to the U.S.. We have children from low-income families, from broken homes, a high number of children with mild learning impairment or attention and anger issues. We have a large number of children speaking English as a second language, children from all over Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Middle East, eastern Europe.

Isn't that fantastic? Not that we have children – and families – struggling, but that we have an opportunity to work together.

The Queensland education system is evolving to meet the needs of Queenslanders. Indigenous and Torres Straight Islanders. Lachlans and Connors and Ryans. (And no, I do NOT mean MY kids!) Japanese. Samoan. Canadian. German.

Oh darn it, I knew I shouldn't be writing this on Australia Day.

But as I watch my four Aussies proudly marching off to school, I can't help but be grateful for the opportunities this great country holds for ALL of us.

We are not 'your tired and poor.'

'For we are young and free.'

And yes, we DID have a small version of the German Schultuete.

In Germany, I imagine the vast majority of these kids would be bundled off to Hauptschule. (That's where the foreigners and the low-income kids go, which is why the UN has labelled the German school system a violation of human rights.)

Here, OUR children can be anything they want to be. ALL of them.

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