Ironing out the rug rats

by Maria on May 12, 2008

When I was 5, we moved from liberal Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin to rural Cashel, Co. Tipperary, and from a free and easy Montessori School to the local convent/Christian Brothers. I’d been reading on my own for a couple of years already (mostly because I was jealous that Henry already could) and I’m not sure I’d really ever heard of the alphabet. The first week in Senior Infants at my new school, we started memorising and chanting our ABCs. I was horrified. I vividly remember counting up the remaining years till I would be finished with school, and it was 14, almost three times longer than my life to date. I’m not sure if I cried then, but now when I think of my little 5 year old self and the bleak and largely tortuous future set out before me, I almost could.

Primary school improved vastly once I got into First Class with the saintly and imaginative Sister Eilis, but it always felt like a prison sentence. We did vastly more rote-learning than I think my American or British counterparts did, and were the last generation to undergo regular corporal punishment before it was outlawed in the early 1980s. (Though in a girls’ school at least, being hit was more to do with shame than pain.) There wasn’t a lot of thought given to pedagogy, as far as I can tell, and the curriculum relied on the inventiveness of individual teachers to spark children’s interest.

Here’s an example; it’s Monday today, so my thoughts turn inevitably to the Teileagoir. (Irish for slide projector, a term I only learnt as an an adult, and pronounced “tel-a-gor”). Every Monday, the Teleagoir would be loaded with a new set of slides in Irish, something along the lines of ‘Mammy and Daddy and Sean and Maire go to the cinema’. Each slide would have a picture of the scene and maybe some vocabulary to prompt us. For each one, we memorised a sentence of the story. We would do a couple of new slides every day, and at the end of the week we would recite the whole thing as a group without the pictures. How this might ever have translated into being able to *speak* Irish, I’m not sure. But I do remember the gut-clenching boredom that set in around Wednesday as we went through the slides for the 20th time. There wasn’t much a teacher could do with the Teileagoir.

But rote-learning wasn’t all bad. I can still see the walls of my First Class room decorated with enormous posters Sister Eilis made for each of the Irish declensions. “Agam, agat, aige, aici, acu agaibh”. “Liom, leat, leis, lei, linn, libh”. “Orm, ort, air, uirthi, orainn, orthu.” “Chugam, chugat, chuige, chuichi, chuinn, chuchu”. We would sing them out as loud as we could , standing at our desks and facing away from the poster. Sister Eilis would stop us in the middle of Maths or English, and out would pop the declension she wanted. She was a master of how to keep a class of 40 little girls concentrating and playing and then concentrating again. It was a game, and we got really good at it. I’ve never struggled with those important little connecting words all my life, and I have Sister Eilis to thank for it, and for much else besides.

Which brings me, finally, to the point. How *do* you keep the little buggers in a primary classroom engaged? My sister Annaick is training to be a teacher and wonders what are the best things you ever did in primary school. She’s collecting a book of projects that she’s road-tested in her substitute teaching (you’d be surprised what you can teach using the NSFW Gustav Moreau). She thinks, and I agree, that other countries are still a couple of decades ahead of Ireland when it comes to grade school pedagogy.

Now let me say that I am intensely jealous of anyone whose post-graduate degree includes a module on finger puppets. But at least it hints that Irish children nowadays may be spared the soul-crushing boredom of the Teileagoir.

What’s the most memorable trick or project your primary/grade school teachers ever used to teach you something or keep the class’s attention? And how do you bring all the kids with you when some of them are already onto Phillip Pullman while others haven’t even had a proper breakfast?

So, assuming few or no computers in the classroom, and the lack of tax breaks for Irish teachers on self-purchased teaching materials, how do we civilise the little rug rats without them hating every minute of it?



Mike 05.12.08 at 9:36 pm

One activity I remember well from primary school was a times table game we played. It was a knock-out competition intended to help us to memorize our tables and the winner got a bar of chocolate… it was always quite fun.

I managed to avoid the rote-learning, and other prehistoric pedagogical methods used in Irish classes that you illustrate so well in this post…. but only by the skin of my teeth. My primary school was an educational pilot project (the first non-religious primary school in Ireland in the early/mid 1980s).


noen 05.12.08 at 10:00 pm

Why should we “civilize” them? Much of being an adult is unlearning the crap you learned in school. But I don’t remember much of it. Maybe… I recall one teacher reading Bambi to us. That held my attention pretty well. Do they still do that? If not they ought to.


Annaick 05.12.08 at 10:06 pm

I’ll take this oppurtunity to swear a solemn oath to never make kids learn snippet-stories by rote. The fabulous thing about my college is that it sticks the the teaching philosophies developed by Froebel which has a huge focus on making resources yourself, avoiding mindless lessons for automaton-children that in reality do not exist and focusing on the child and how best each individual learns. Despite all the emphasis on arts and crafts, and learning through play and activity (which I do love) however, I think I will avoid Papier Maché until I have a bit more extensive experience…! Any and all commentary or ideas on people’s educational experiences would be appreciated though-thanks!


Annaick 05.12.08 at 10:12 pm

Noen, they do read some stories but often in Ireland at least, the books selected by schools themselves can be sanitized, imagination-free exersizes in the bland. I will add Bambi to the list so!There are some amazing picture books (and disguard any ideas we may have had of at these constituted before) around at the moment- the most remarkable I have seen recently is “The Arrival” by Shaun Tan, which deals with emigration (a phenomenon that played a huge part ireland’s history as well as it being a topical issue at the moment too). Quite an achievement to produce a book that could keep anyone from 8 years old to 30 year olds occupied and engaged. The art work is rich and detailed as well as being both alien and familiar in it’s iconography and visual language too.


Richard J 05.12.08 at 10:16 pm

Most memorable time from primary school was when the whole year spent a morning physically reenacting the Industrial Revolution by means of what, in retrospect, was a simple model with some quite natty feedback loops built in.

Most of the year was set up as farm labourers, colouring in pieces of paper to represent food production on behalf of the table leader, representing the landlord. Every few minutes, merchants came round to buy the pieces of paper from the landlord. The really cunning thing was that the merchants could sell tractors (produced by a separate table representing a factory) to speed up agricultural production. This gave rise to a natty feedback loop in which labourers were displaced from the farm tables to get jobs on the factory table to produce more tractors, which in turn displaced more labourers etc. The only people who got seriously rich were the merchants.

Except me, who went broke in about ten minutes. It was then, I think, that I realised that the life of a salesman was not for me…


delagar 05.12.08 at 10:30 pm

My kid’s in a Montessori school, so this might not count, but they’re given their own work schedules to organize, and made responsible for getting it done or not getting it done each week — they’re allowed to fail, too. It’s expected, in fact, that they will fail, a great deal of the time. (Because, d’oh, they’re seven, they’re eight, and because that’s part of the Montessori method, that failing teaches you as much as getting it right does.)

That said, they do seem to do a lot of the chanting bits too — she can recite all her times tables up to 12, and every be verb there is.

Also, when they get their “works” done for the week, they get computer time or research time — more work as a reward for work, that’s the Montessori way!


Maria 05.12.08 at 10:32 pm

Yes, I think there’s a lot to be said for the chanting. What I wrote comes across as overly negative, but I really do remember enjoying the chanting in unison, whether it was poetry, or verbs, or times tables or whatever. And my goodness that stuff sticks with you.


minneapolitan 05.12.08 at 10:33 pm

My first 3 years of primary school (and 3 years of pre-school before that) were Montessori where the only thing I didn’t like was using a push-pin to prick out shapes of continents from cheap construction paper (seriously: Asia?!) All of the other tactile stuff was really fun and when my educational idyll was shattered in 3rd grade (due to bureaucratic screw-ups I was transferred into a mainstream public school 3 weeks into the trimester) I was well ahead of everyone there, but I was freaked out by both the regimentation and the irrational hierarchies. So: Montessori, always and forever, is my prescription.


noen 05.12.08 at 11:35 pm

Bambi can be a pretty tough book for some children I suppose (for that matter so is the movie). Mom dies, she’s murdered right in front of Bambi, whom all the children will identify with. It’s pretty horrible and I recall that I cried hard. It tore me up but I got over it. I don’t know if you could read the original Bambi today.

Watership Down is another good one, but also has some violence in it. I have mixed feelings about sanitizing vs realism for children. I can see both sides of that argument and can’t really say which is better than which.

BTW, I ran across a good comment the other day:

“Educational theory is where philosophy goes to die.”

Thought you might enjoy that.


vivian 05.13.08 at 12:54 am

Maria, your occasional tales of school really horrify me, even though you say it wasn’t too scarring. But routine, comformity occasionally punctuated by shame and pain – and done to small kids. Don’t take our silence to be approval or shared nostalgia.

The most innovative grade school teacher was for 5th grade (kids about ten years old), Ms. Larizza. Among her tricks: Each week we wrote at least one book review on 3×5 index cards (five items only). They went into a folder. Once a week or more we’d have a class meeting and choose three people on the spot to choose one of the cards in their folders, and give a book sales pitch. Emphasis on being entertaining and persuasive.

We also had a word box, where we would put slips of paper with funny-sounding words, and their dictionary definitions. We’d choose some at random and vote on the silliest. Had us reading adult dictionaries to keep up (I was sad when my tintinabulation lost to Zuider Zee.)

She introduced French, but with songs instead of chants. And every year her class play was a Broadway musical, with one or two younger classes drafted in to play extras (while their teachers played the piano and choreographed us). And, true to the seventies, we would take field trips to the local nature-park and have contests to see which team could collect the most trash – winner got a carob bar, which she assured us was healthier than chocolate, and more authentic somehow. Wonderful teacher, in a bankrupt school system (and city), where each kid brought in a ream of paper to keep the class going for a year.


P O'Neill 05.13.08 at 1:00 am

Part of the trick may be to recognize that the brutal Irish system had its virtues. I think most of my low/high infants class is still in fear of Mrs K (and the notorious pinch of the ear) but the enforced “lamha treasna” (folded hands/quiet time) was actually a useful time out on the day and seemed to calm everyone down a bit. If it can be done on a non-fear based model, it might have its virtues. And it’s not just individual quiet time — it’s everyone being quiet together. There might be a game in there somewhere.


AlisonS 05.13.08 at 1:42 am

My grade two teacher (1952) found herself with an unexpected overflow of students due to the change in status of our local school. We were jammed in like sardines and the schoolboard couldn’t find another teacher at such short notice. She was strict but fair and her method for dealing with youthful excess energy was to have us all marching up and down the aisles at random times during the day. She also had us do lots of artwork illustrating various lessons and stories.

My grade one teacher had a very different method for dealing with me (a very energetic and talkative nuisance who was bored to tears most of the time). She would put me in the closet, much to my delight, as it contained shelves of books and had a chair and a window. What more could an incipient voracious reader want?

Later on, I was lucky enough to attend a very good private girl’s school and had the most wonderful math teacher. She had a very simple method which worked really well for students of various levels of competence. She would give an explanation of the mathematical principle and illustrate it on the blackboard. She then gave us a series of problems to solve. Anyone who didn’t understand, would go to her desk for tutoring. Those who got it, solved the problems on their own and, if they finished them all, would go to her desk for more difficult ones. Even the most mathematically challenged eventually mastered the basics, and those of us who needed more stimulation, were taken care of too. She also encouraged us to think for ourselves and rote learning of geometry theorems was not followed.


Roy Belmont 05.13.08 at 2:58 am

I myself was among the ones who were sent out to receive instruction from the Christian Brothers, in middle adolescence, who were allowed to throw chalk and erasers at us and hit us in the face. Though rarely enough. Still I was hit in the face not with chalk but with the meaty open hand of a muscular brother but I saw it coming knew it would come because the boy who was called up before me got it just like that a long sweeping right with the palm headed flat for the side of your head.
Brace and release, go with it. But he caught me with the second one as there had been only one before and I had turned around enough to face my classmates with whatever expression was left on my face after that mighty blow that when I turned back to face him I turned back into it coming again. Then also the brother who was a master sneerer and an adept at the ridiculing phrase who had few scruples and also threw things though not the worst of them at that.
More sharp because I was younger was the humiliating nun which I had in the guise of her different familiars for the full nine months three separate years.
The best teacher in a classroom I ever had liked me and was a Jesuit. He had a mathematician’s love for Latin which he gave me and through that somehow the rest but also taught algebra toward which he had simply a mathematician’s love direct and gave me as well, after almost a month of evidence that my mind was incapable of anything beyond stunning feats of long division not written out, opened that world like a science fiction story.
I think it’s time to reassert the centrality of emotional engagement in the learning young mind. Bringing a genuine love into the classroom for them and for the subjects of learning and for learning itself calls up the emotional allegiance of the students, especially the very young. Keeping them civilized.


Matthew Kuzma 05.13.08 at 3:04 am

I had a 2nd-grade teacher who simply demanded more of us. We were learning multiplication tables by rote, and each time you memorized one you had to stand up in front of the class and recite it to get it checked off on a big board. So it was kind-of a race.

Anyway, when the kids in the class were getting discouraged, he had one of the kids run down to the 3rd-grade classes to spy on what they were learning and he was thrilled to report they were doing easier stuff than we were! Suddenly we were all pretty damn cool.


Chris Dornan 05.13.08 at 5:14 am

Well they never found a way of hammering the Irish into me but I do seem to remember that my primary principle, Miss Beamish, if she caught you day dreaming, she would throw the chalk at you. She was quite accurate. “That’l learn yah.”


kate sheehy 05.13.08 at 6:02 am

I grew up in Anchorage, Alaska & in 5th an 6th grades we started each morning with our math tables. We went through a series of basic addition, subtraction, multiplication & division problems. Once you could do the entire set (which changed every day based on the questions you got) in less than a minute, you got your math ‘shield’ which was placed on the wall outside the classroom.

While I suspect that some kids were terrified of these daily tests, I really appreciated them. Especially whenever I go out to a restaurant and can calculate the tip almost instantly. It’s a small thing, but still great to have those basic math skills literally drilled into my brain.


Martin James 05.13.08 at 6:12 am

My fifth grade social studies class in 1975 was based on a new curriculum from Jerome Bruner called MACOS that tried to bring active research in anthropology into the classroom. My favorite unit was when we studied baboon behavior and acted out various actions characteristic of child, adolescent and mature baboons. We would simulate grooming, threat alert, and aggressive behavior.

Too bad they didn’t have a follow-up class on bonobos…

Sixth grade was fun too. We spent the first half of the day working on math and the afternoons we wrote poetry, did transcendental meditation, made macrame pot holders and tie-dyed shirts and also took a ton of black and white pictures that we developed in our own dark room.

This was a public school in what is now the most republican state in the USA.

Those were the days…


stuart 05.13.08 at 8:25 am

The only actual learning I remember clearly from primary school was age 7-9 or so in maths. The topics were structured as a series of short (16 page?) booklets that covered one level of a number of basic mathematic concepts, say basic/medium/advanced fractions, algebra, formula rearrangment, and so on. Because each built on the ones before, it made them all seem really simple, and the modular aspect meant that the people that learnt faster could go ahead with the next step without having to wait for everyone else to catch up (which for me meant the only time I wasn’t bored in school from age 5-15).


Eimear Ní Mhéalóid 05.13.08 at 10:37 am

I remember being bored with the alphabet too but we didn’t spend too much time reciting it. The infant teacher (my mother) had done a Froebel course so she had a Wendy house, marla (plasticene), paints and all that good stuff. She was ahead of her time, the child-centred curriculum didn’t come in until later.

I gather the heyday of creative play for the infant classes in Irish schools has come and gone, now there’s more emphasis on abc’s etc again. Partly because they mostly don’t start until age 5 and because a lot of them have been to playschools, but also because the parents are more anxious that they’re learning to read and write straight away.

Our school only got a projector when I was in about 6th class, it was an exciting technical advance over the previous method – a black fabric covered board, and cardboard cutouts of Mamaí, Dadaí, Seán, Máire, and some props for whatever the background of the current story was. The slides when they came in had far more pictures, the teachers never had time to cut out and attach velcro (actually I think it was sandpaper) to all the cardboard bits and anyway some of them got nibbled by mice. In theory I suppose it was all supposed to be a way of making language teaching more visual and telling the story naturally instead of everyone reading it from their book. In an ideal world there would have been time for the teacher to prompt the children to describe the scene in Irish, feeding them extra phrases and vocabulary. Instead it just reverted back to more of the same rote learning.

Our third class history book had a play in it all about Dermot McMurrough and Strongbow which I longed for us to do but no dice. Looking back I doubt whether it would have appealed to everyone in the class.

In general I think my primary school teachers did a good job and were pretty dedicated. Thinking about what really stood out – all the things which were extra effort for the teachers, I suppose – nature walks, occasional bouts of theme learning (where geography and history and art and the song you learn etc. all cover the one topic). Practical examples for things, and giving them a local twist – measuring shadows at noon, pointing out that noon comes X minutes later than it does in Dublin and Y minutes earlier than it does in Galway.


Katherine 05.13.08 at 11:22 am

“who were allowed to throw chalk and erasers at us and hit us in the face”

Hey, my favourite junior school teacher in NE England had the most incredible aim with a piece of chalk EVAR, so it wasn’t not just the Christian Brothers.


don't quote me on this 05.13.08 at 12:50 pm

I took the SAT at 18 months and scored well enough to skip straight to graduate school.


tps12 05.13.08 at 1:28 pm

One activity I remember well from primary school was a times table game we played. It was a knock-out competition intended to help us to memorize our tables and the winner got a bar of chocolate… it was always quite fun.


I had a 2nd-grade teacher who simply demanded more of us. We were learning multiplication tables by rote, and each time you memorized one you had to stand up in front of the class and recite it to get it checked off on a big board. So it was kind-of a race.

remind me that kids can differ a lot in what they find fun.


Jeff 05.13.08 at 2:06 pm

and also took a ton of black and white…

Martin: given the build-up to this phrase, I was half expecting the next word to be “pills”.


Annaick 05.13.08 at 5:51 pm

Certainly it seems that there was a big move towards Creative Play but now, judging from the almost desperate (and rightly so) emphasis our lecturers are putting on it, I would guess that outside of Froebelian thinkers play centre and active play etc…. has taken a hit.

As far as phonics and such things taking over, it’s interesting to note that in Scandinavian countries, where literacy is of a fabulously high standard, they do not even approach teaching their kids how to write formally until they are six. Instead they focus on pre-writing /emergent writing skills and have a huge push for linguistic development. We could learn a thing or two from them….


kharris 05.13.08 at 6:45 pm

A couple of Singapore math tricks might help. There’s a number line exercises that involves the teacher pointing up or down. One child or many children count in the direction indicated, and the teacher changes direction at random. The change in direction keeps the kids on edge. Once the idea is mastered, the teacher goes from ones to twos to threes and so on, thereby using a familiar, active technique to go from counting to addition and subtraction. The second technique is the same game, but a kid is in charge. The job for the kid in charge is to stop the “student” (who may be the teacher, another kid, or any handy adult) when mistakes are made. That means the kid in charge has to do math upstairs. The other kids can be kept on edge if the whole affair is treated like a game. They see if they can catch mistakes.


The Modesto Kid 05.13.08 at 6:46 pm

One thing I remember enjoying from elementary school was bridge building: every year we had a competition to see who could design and build the strongest bridge out of toothpicks and elmers glue.

The teacher gave each team a piece of cardboard with the spots marked where the bridge should touch the ground, and a hole chopped in between the two spots, and a box of toothpicks and a tube of glue. We then had a day (or so, I don’t remember exactly) to build our bridge. At the end, all the bridges would get loaded with weight on a tray dangling from the center, whichever broke last won. The pedagogical point was the structural stability of triangles.


The Modesto Kid 05.13.08 at 6:50 pm

Ah, memory! Actually I think instead of being given the toothpicks and glue, we may have had a budget and had to buy toothpicks in lots of ten and glue in thimblesful.


notsneaky 05.13.08 at 9:40 pm

I don’t remember learning anything in primary school, just getting in trouble all the time. Oh yeah, I do remember learning about sex from that one time sex ed class we had.

For that matter I don’t remember learning anything in high school either, just getting in trouble all the time. And also learning about sex.


franck 05.14.08 at 12:56 am

It’s always shocking to me how horrible Irish language education is in Ireland outside of the Gaeltacht and the gaelscoileanna. It’s almost like the whole point of it was to churn out people who fear and loathe the Irish language. The people I have met who are most against the Irish language in general are Irish citizens educated in the 50s and 60s. It seems like in many ways it is still terrible, unlike say Welsh language education.


vivian 05.14.08 at 1:46 am

My son’s former teacher (for a class of 5-6 year old kids) seemed to have a quick song for everything, complete with hand/arm movements. Annaick, how do the Irish schools handle things like kids with ADD/ADHD or kids on the autism spectrum?


Mary 05.15.08 at 12:40 am

I’m not sure I can remember effective teaching tricks for getting the tykes to concentrate; but I just had a sudden memory of my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Galick, asking us to do a creative science project on anatomy. We were allowed to work on it with our parents (as we were only 11). My father went all crazy-inspired and he single-handedly reconstructed an entire chicken’s bone structure from a misfortunate market hen. Mr. Galick, who we all had a crush on, fell in love with the white-painted, wired-up chicken skeleton and he confiscated it after securing my very intimidated permission to do so. I’m sorry to say I never saw that chicken again.


Tangurena 05.15.08 at 2:31 am

Hmm. I don’t have an answer for your question, but I did go to high school over in Ireland, and I do remember teachers flinging chalk and erasers at students. Although, in retrospect, I did deserve it as well. The school was called “non-denominational” which in the 70s meant “not Catholic.”

If our family had moved there one year prior, then I would have had to learn Irish (my younger sister did and she remembers nothing more than “ta” and “nil”).

I think the Welsh folks had picked up a better scheme: game shows. These showed adults making complete fools of themselves with vocabulary that was beginner level. I couldn’t remember the name of the show, but like all things Welsh, I think it lacked vowels (that we would recognize). Sort of like Russian – another vowel deficient language. The shows were so silly that I’d even watch them (for the American audience, folks on the east coast of Ireland could pick up some channels broadcast from Wales so that RTE wasn’t the only thing viewable). Hmm. After writing that sentence, perhaps I watched them just to avoid RTE. But on the gripping hand, Welsh was pleasing to my ear, being rather sing-songy when spoken by an native speaker, so if that had been readily available, I would have picked that language up (rather than the German and Spanish that I did learn in HS which I couldn’t evade; versus the Latin, Irish and French that I successfully evaded).


Roy Belmont 05.15.08 at 6:43 am

“Although, in retrospect, I did deserve it as well.”
Welcome to Stockholm.


Annaick 05.15.08 at 3:07 pm

Vivian, To be honest I am not an expert as I have only started the course in February and we are still learning the ropes. But from what I have heard, the answer to your question is kids with difficulties such as ADD/ADHD, ABA etc…. are not dealt with very well at all. Each child has to be “caught” by a teacher first, who then is advised to make an IEP (Individual Educational Programme), and i that doesn’t work they can call in the Principal, and later the parents. Then if there are problems still ( which of course there very often are) and the child needs dedicated help they need to be assessed-Two years long waiting list (and alot of kids of course fall further behind in all aspects of their education as a result) and even then they may or may not be assigned “hours” every week with different kinds of support teachers, who seem to be over-worked quite a lot. Basically there is not enough support for kids. The entire educational system is directly aimed at middle classes (as correctly pointed out by some of my lecturers) and kids that fall either side of that spectrum have to struggle all the way.


Annaick 05.15.08 at 3:09 pm

Re above: I also meant to say the System caters best to kids that absorb information without much problem and those with difficulty then get into trouble naturally.


Roy Belmont 05.15.08 at 10:05 pm

To refine that a little, it’s absorbing information as presented including how by whom and where. All of those come from a received presumption of commonality and normalcy as well as appropriateness that perspective can make look insane, or primitive and visionless at best.
My father was a teacher, a good one, in that his students recalled him with fondness and said they learned well from him. That said he spent a great deal of his non-classroom energy organizing with and fighting for the rights of his fellow teachers, against a system that’s done nothing over the years but become so ubiquitous and powerfully present it’s virtually invisible. Children learn from within the context of that system as much as from inside the classroom.

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