Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Grammar, Stories and Parenting

My daughter K objects to the name "Goldilocks" and the Three Bears because, as she says, "It's only one Goldilock. Not three." She finds my explanation of the "locks" having to do with hair to be somewhat lacking. Possibly because "hair" in English is uncountable, though I'm relatively sure she isn't up to countable and uncountable nouns yet.

Along the same lines, she doesn't like the "Don't talk to wolves" rule in Little Red Riding Hood, because, again, there is only one Big Bad Wolf in the story. I told her there are other wolves in the world, but she considers that irrelevant.

I think she may have inherited her mother's attention to detail, known by certain adults in my childhood as "playing word games" (not in a good sense) and "twisting words". I never saw it that way, though; for me, it was just a question of what the words ACTUALLY SAY without regard to what you may have intended to say. I was genuinely bewildered that it might annoy someone.

I'll have to keep this in mind in parenting her as she grows up.


K also really wants the title of the story (i.e., what I read out on the title page) to be "Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf". Ditto for "The Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf". She's started re-telling stories to her babies, usually taking elements from several different stories or even genres and combining them.

I start most stories with, "Once upon a time, there (were three little pigs, was a little girl named Red Riding Hood, etc.) whose mama loved him/her/them very much." We have one book that starts out that way and I noticed that K likes that beginning, so I adapt almost all our stories to start the same way.

Yesterday, K told a story that started, "Once upon a time, there was a Big Bad Wolf whose mama loved him very much."

I think I like that perspective, in fact.

Friday, December 17, 2010

New Preschool

Today was K's last day at her current preschool. She'll start at the new one January 2, I think.

One point I forgot to mention in my first post on this topic is that despite the rigid attitude and possibly exaggerated expectations as described, they actually seemed really pleased with K whenever I talked to the teacher or principal. Even at the parent-teacher conference where we discussed the evaluation of K as a "beginner" in skills I know she masters well, we finished that topic and then the teacher talked about how great K is and how lovely she is during ellipse time and how well she's acclimating into preschool. So maybe they did think she's on track for her age, after all. No telling.

I don't think it was a total mistake to put K there, and I think the experience was probably helpful for her. Even if the teachers rarely spoke Czech to her, she had the opportunity to spend time with Czech-speaking children, so I think she's fully on board with the idea that some people speak one language and some speak the other - an improvement on her previous belief that actually, everybody understands both languages if they would just stop being STUBBORN. I think this school has served its purpose, which was as an interim measure, a halfway house between fully English school (and society) and fully Czech school.

But! All of that is behind us now. On to new things: Czech preschool.

It's still private, because our neighborhood preschool still doesn't have any spots available, but it's less expensive than the current one and much closer - three bus stops from home. Actually, it's 30% cheaper for five half-days a week than the other one is for three half-days a week. Taking into consideration the more reasonable cost, my steadily increasing workload (yay! and...whoa) and the fact that I don't have any supplementary activities for non-school days* like I did in England (no playgroups or other places to go to be around other kids), we decided to go ahead and increase her school days from three to five mornings per week.

It will be good for me to have more time alone to dedicate to work while K is out, and it'll be good for K to have more time with teachers and children who speak Czech. The mommy in me feels like K is still such a baby to be in school so much, but I also recognize that it's not good for us to spend all day home alone. The good things is the teachers at the new school seem really flexible and open to adjusting the number of days, so if we go for a few weeks and I feel like it's too much then I can just ask to cut back.

We've visited the new school twice now. First for a short visit so I could look around and ask some questions. My main impression was that it was nice but seemed disorganized, which I thought might be due to the time of day (half-day pickup, some kids downstairs waiting for parents, other kids upstairs napping). Then we visited again last week for about 2 1/2 hours so that K could experience part of a regular school day. I stayed in the room at first, but as she got more comfortable she told me that I could go and wait in the other room, oh and could I please not sing along with the songs the class was singing? Thanks Mom for not humiliating me in front of my new friends. I figured that was a good sign.

My second impression was that the school does seem nice and a little disorganized. But for me, "nice" outweighs "disorganized", provided they don't actually lose my daughter while I'm gone. And if it comes down to it, I prefer disorganized (but warm and relaxed) to strict and rigid (but organized). It's their first year in business, so things are still fluctuating somewhat, as the reality slowly comes into line with the vision. Some things mentioned on their website, for example, aren't fully implemented yet. Most of the children are K's age, both older and younger (i.e., 2.5 to 3.5) with just a couple of older children (4-5).

K REALLY enjoyed the visit and kept herself busy in the home corner and playing with the kids. She announced before we left that she will go to THIS school now, thank you, and doesn't intend to go to the other one again. She didn't comment on or seem phased by the fact that it was all in Czech. She definitely understands Czech better now than she used to.

I did ask if the teachers all understand English, and they do, which is reassuring in the sense that if K tells her teacher something important in English, she'll get more than a blank stare. They said they'll just speak to her in Czech, though, especially since they know she understands Czech. That's what I'd prefer, anyway. We'll see how it ends up working in practice, I guess. There are two other foreign children in the school (Russian and Ukrainian, I think), who started in September not understanding a word of Czech. Apparently it was rough at first but now they are much more comfortable and understand what is said to them, even though they don't speak much.

All in all I'm cautiously optimistic. I'm not expecting it to be perfect, but I think this school will be a better fit than the last. Anyone who's met us knows us we are definitely on the "warm, relaxed and disorganized" side of the fence!

* Especially now in the Arctic Winter of 2010-2011. When it was warm we could go to the zoo or park or castle, etc., but these days, if we don't absolutely have to go outside, we don't. It is COLD out there! And hard to walk on non-cleaned sidewalks.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Montessori: Our final verdict

I haven't written about K's school in quite a while. The short answer being that we aren't too thrilled with it...

We had reservations from the beginning (see "education" tab for a few, though I didn't mention them all) but didn't have many options and thought a bilingual school might be a good halfway house before Czech schools.

The "bilingual" aspect was disappointing, since the classroom teachers are non-native speakers of both Czech and English and seem to spend all their time speaking to the children in English, anyway. I noticed that at pick-up the "Czech" teacher always spoke English to K, which made me suspect that she might ALWAYS speak English to K, and when I went for parent observation in November that was confirmed in the classroom. Then I went for K's birthday celebration and saw that again, everything was in English (birthday celebration during morning circle time) except what was addressed specifically to K's grandmother, who came with me and doesn't speak English.

So "bilingual" = "actually we pretty much speak English", which is great for Czech parents wanting their kids to learn English and probably ok for foreign parents who don't much care whether their kids learn Czech or not, but for a Czech-speaking family wanting to help their child learn Czech after a few years abroad (it's us! it's us!), not so helpful.

More problematic than that, though, was the atmosphere at the school. I'm not sure if all Montessori schools are like this or if it's just this one, but the classroom sessions we observed were incredibly sterile, controlled and not very engaging. A classroom full of preschoolers working was almost completely silent: the teachers whispered to the students, who were also expected to whisper.

I also watched my daughter working with one of the activities and trying to play with it in a different way: building a tower out of the blocks instead of lining them up in the determined way. The teacher, who was sitting right there, didn't exactly chastise her, but redirected her and when K persisted in building, the teacher suggested she go and get the tower-building blocks. I was surprised that the expectations were so rigid and that there wasn't more support for thinking outside the box, which to me says good things like Creativity and Resourcefulness and I Am Not Even Three Years Old, What Do You Expect? Haha.

The birthday observation was also instructive, since I got to see how "ellipse time" looks at least loosely. There was a lot more sterility and long stretches of silence. K was thrilled to be sitting in the special birthday chair, but was otherwise obviously uncomfortable with the extra attention and didn't understand what was expected of her. The teacher did not, in my opinion, do a good job of explaining what was expected, either. That is, she explained, but not fully enough for a newly turned 3 year old to understand. The expectations weren't complicated, but were expressed in sentences too complex for a child this age under stressful conditions to fully grasp. When I touched K's arm and told her the same thing in a different way, also in English, she responded instantly. Or, for example, when the teacher brought out the birthday cards the children had made, she showed each one to the class and set it on the floor in front of her. K, predictably, wanted to get the cards herself - they were HER cards! Since the teacher didn't let her have them and didn't explain (first we all look and then I give them to you), K spent that time pouting and wanting to leave the circle. They didn't actually do the full Montessori birthday ceremony, either because there wasn't time with all the long, long pauses or because they thought K wasn't being cooperative enough (since she was uncomfortable and confused).

Any time the children moved off the designated ellipse or raised their voices above a quiet indoor voice, the teacher got their attention by chanting a quiet two-tone "thank you" or the child's name. I found the chant-singing oddly creepy, if effective. Also when the teacher randomly asked a child to pick a song (I think because the child was being too active or wanted to sing?), that child was the only one who sang it while everyone else listened. Is that a Montessori thing?

I also went for a parent-teacher conference a few weeks ago. They gave us an evaluation of the child in advance that assessed skills in various areas, graded on a scale of beginner - making progress - advanced (or similar). The only area where K had top marks was in "speaking English". Guess I'm doing my job on that front! The other areas, though, were all marked as beginner or at most making progress - even areas where I know K's abilities to be at or above age level. It made me wonder what standards they were using, if children are judged against the whole age range of the class (3-6 year olds) or if each age is judged separately (separate standards just for 3 year olds). Because, sure, my daughter's knowledge of, say, colors is probably not as advanced as a 5 or 6 year old, but she knows them all and mixes them up rarely, which to me is where a 3 year old should be. Either the standards are impossibly high or quite possibly K, like many other children, doesn't demonstrate the same abilities in the classroom as she does at home. That's fair enough, so I didn't give it much more thought. In the conference itself the teacher made a few observations that I thought were accurate and a few I thought weren't, which is probably pretty typical.

I do admire the level of discipline the teachers are able to keep in the classroom, but it's not my style. There were things I did like in the few glimpses I had into the classroom, like looking at the map and talking about different countries or making a poster with the birthday girl's name, picture and age for the classroom door. We still have it hanging up at home.

But overall, too controlled, too sterile, too rigid. Not Our Style. K seemed to like it at first, but over time has been more and more reluctant to go. She's also been going through a major mommy-phase recently, which I only this week realized could be connected to being unhappy at school. She is unusually clingy and wants me to dress her, read to her, etc. - not anyone else. Most tellingly, when I tell her she's going to school tomorrow, she says, "I don't want to go, Mama, I want to stay home with you." That, people, is NOT my Baby K. If she said that at 7 am when she doesn't want to get out of bed that would be one thing, but in the afternoon the day before it seems more like she really means it.

I could get over the seaweed they feed them at lunchtime (oh, how I WISH that was an exaggeration), I could get over the not great English, I could get over the very, very difficult daily commute (takes 45-60 minutes one way), I could get over the very high school fees, I could get over pretty much any one of these negative points, but taken all together it just becomes too much to accept. K isn't happy there, I'm not happy sending her there. This particular Montessori school gets a thumbs down from the entire Where Going Havo family.

But! Coming up next time (because this one got long), the happy ending. We found a new school...

Friday, December 3, 2010

A Book Lover's Tragedy

I wrote the other day about how my daughter seems to prefer being read to in English. Part of it is of course that she understands English best. Part of it is probably that she prefers ME to read to her and I usually (but not always) read to her in English. But there's another aspect that I suspect may play a role, and it annoys me:

I think half the problem with preferring English books is that the English books are more INTERESTING! I have the hardest time finding CZ/SK children's books that are worthwhile. You can have a big children's section in the bookstore but it is made up of:

1) dictionaries (usually board books like "My First 100 Words", often "My First 100 English Words")

2) nursery rhymes and fairy tales. Usually the same ones in different combinations.

3) some Czech originals for much older children - pages full of words and few pictures. I'll read these to K when she's older, because there are some nice ones, but they're too complicated for any 3 year old.

4) translations. Often from English, such as Winnie the Pooh, Disney Princesses, Cars, etc. Not often ones I'm that keen on even in the original.

We have a small collection of CZ/SK books that we're hoping to build further now that we're back in the country, but it is composed of 1-2 dictionaries, 5-6 books of nursery rhymes, 2-3 books of fairy tales, and 1-2 Czech originals for older children (Ferda Mravenec and maybe one other). It's looking like I'm going to have to lift my 'no translations' rule.

There is also a big jump between board books for the under-2 crowd and chapter books for competent readers: nothing really between those two extremes.

What I do NOT see in bookstores is exactly the kind of books we have so many of in English. Storybooks, lots of pictures with a few sentences per page (not one word, not whole page of text), original characters and plots that you can read to a non-reader and a beginning reader can read alone. It's a huge gap in the literature in my opinion.

Some of our favorites from UK are The Night Pirates, Knight Time, Usborne Illustrated Fairy Tales, and recently (birthday present) You Can't Eat a Princess.

We have tons of fun books like this in English and just can't find Czech or Slovak equivalents. So when I compare our book collection in the different languages, it does occur to me that I can hardly blame K for wanting to read about ALIENS AND PRINCESSES (seriously, how awesome of a book premise is that?) rather than going through My First 100 Words again.

Anybody familiar with CZ/SK children's literature is VERY MUCH INVITED! to offer me some recommendations for books to engage a preschooler. Anybody?

I say England

Time for a language status report. We've been (back) in the country two months and two days and you can already start to see the influence of school and Czech in my daughter's speech.

This week she's been saying "eště ne" (not yet) a lot, which is funny in itself because strictly speaking it's Czechoslovak: "ne" is Czech, compare to "nie" in Slovak, but Czech is "ještě", "eště" is Slovak pronunciation. Or slangy Czech.

Also heard:
"Mama, I'm not done eště" (not done yet)
"Is it skončit?" (CZ Is it done?) Took me a minute to recognize this one.
"I want to kúpiť..." (SK to buy, also used in many other English sentences)
"I'm walking in veľký sneh (SK big snow) all on my own."

I haven't really been keeping a list but she is definitely using CZ/SK words that she didn't know before. Also, if you ever doubt that she understands Czech, just say "dárek" or "něco pro tebe mám" ("present" and "I have something for you") and see how high she jumps.

She's aware now that she speaks the same language I do and that it is called English. She understands both Czech and Slovak, but not perfectly: for example, she doesn't follow all the details of a story read in Slovak unless it has very clear pictures. Of course, she doesn't follow ALL the details of a story in English without pictures, either, but she gets more of it, it seems to me.

She also prefers to be read to in English, or maybe it is that she currently prefers to be read to by me no matter what language I read in. I do read her a book of Czech fairy tales, for example, and she likes that. I don't go as far as reading in Slovak (it would be a lot less convincing than Czech) but I do sometimes translate on the fly the few Slovak books we have. Yesterday Apo read us a story in Slovak and K asked me to read it again later in English.

She seems to be identifying herself with me and as an English speaker. "I say England. I say English." I always tell her, "Yes, you speak English AND you speak Slovak. And at school they speak Czech. You speak lots of languages." She nods and agrees that she speaks Slovak and English, but she knows perfectly well that she's primarily an English speaker and isn't as proficient in Slovak or Czech. (But have I mentioned our South American friend taught her to count to ten in Spanish? My daughter: polyglot.)

K is also aware that Apo and I both speak more than one language. Our traditional conversation when learning a new word is to establish that Apo says XX and Mama says YY and K says XX and YY. She always says it with an obvious pride in her voice. Recently she's been asking more questions about who says what: Mama says fish and Apo says ryba, but does Mama say ryba, too? I tell her yes, I say ryba when I am speaking Czech. And does Apo say fish? Yes, Apo says fish when he is speaking English.

Yesterday we were discussing a word that's different in Czech and Slovak (the two languages have a lot of shared vocabulary with only some words that are entirely unrelated). I can't remember what it was, so let's call it "cat" (CZ kočka, SK mačka).

We established that Mama says cat and Apo says mačka and K wanted to know if Mama also says mačka. I said, well, usually not. If I speak Czech I say kočka. I say kočka and cat. Apo says mačka and cat. K says cat and mačka and kočka. That seemed to mildly blow her mind. Three years old, three words for cat. And turtle. And the other 10% - 20% of CZ/SK words that aren't related.

No miracles happening here, but we're making progress. The other day K asked why I wasn't wearing slippers because the floors are cold. I think she's going to fit in JUST FINE.


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