Teaching Grade 1
I’ve lectured in all kinds of classes, conferences, symposia and workshops but the most exciting one I’ve had so far was an encounter with a first grade class early this month.
The following week one of my graduate students, a physician, told me with a sigh that she was preparing to give a lecture in her son’s high school. Remembering my own experience the previous week, I told her I was impressed that she had said yes and that she was seriously preparing for the lecture.
It’s important for professionals—whatever field they’re in—to get to our young students in schools, not with career talks but with a sharing of their experiences in their work, and knowledge or skills the kids can use. Career talks are often abstract and unrealistic. On the other hand, a doctor can talk about healthy eating, and have much more impact on the children’s lives, besides possibly inspiring them to think of the health professions.
Younger children have vague ideas on what they want to be, often based on hero worship of people close to them, such as their teachers. That career option, unfortunately, disappears as they grow older and their own parents discourage them from pursuing it. When a professional lectures to a class, the kids see that it’s possible to pursue a particular career, while giving time to teach.
Our kids also need to be exposed to a wide range of professions. Younger kids almost always want to become doctors or lawyers because they have relatives doing well in those professions. They also see idealized representations of these professions in TV shows, knights in shining armor healing the sick, defending the poor.
When doctors and lawyers lecture to young kids, they can talk about the less glamorous, but still challenging, aspects of their work.
I should mention, too, that with lower-income Filipino kids, options for a career are very different. Parents tell their children early on that they can’t afford the costs of medical or law school, so the kids pursue other dreams. If college is still on the horizon, the choices are becoming a seaman or a policeman for the boys and nursing or hotel and restaurant management for the girls—again because they may have relatives or neighbors in these professions and they see these as offering glamour, a chance to see the world, and relatively higher pay.
It’s important to have people from these professions giving a realistic picture of what they do, and that includes honest cops (they do exist) talking about how they’ve remained clean.
There’s just too little exposure to many professions—say, a molecular biologist, a tropical landscape architect, or a speech pathologist. Except for psychologists, social scientists are even more invisible, and when we are “seen,” the differences among the professions get blurred.
I’ve been introduced on TV and in conferences as a sociologist, a psychologist, a historian. Yeah, we social scientists all look alike.
There’s one more important reason for one to say yes when asked to give a guest lecture in grade schools or high schools, and this is to rediscover the joys of childhood learning. Grade school kids are going through mid-childhood, a period of intense curiosity and exploration, and of setting a moral compass.
Let me share what happened when I had to lecture to 45 students from three sections of Grade 1, which included my eldest daughter.
Asked by their Teacher JB to talk about jeepney art, I found myself worrying about how to explain what an anthropologist does. Yet when I opened the session by asking the kids if they knew what an anthropologist was, three tiny hands shot up. In the discussion that followed, they mentioned anthropologists studying people, the past, and of course bones.
I quickly explained that we go beyond bones and like the living too, and that mostly anthropologists try to understand why people do the things they do. I flashed a photograph of one of the vintage jeeps left by the US military to Filipinos.
“Why did they paint the jeep green?” I asked, and again they were quick to answer that jeeps, being used in war, had to be camouflaged. Wow, can you spell “camouflage”? I said.
“Now,” I asked, “can you imagine one of our bright red jeeps running around in a battlefield?” The kids laughed, and could understand why the decommissioned jeeps, in a new environment, opened new possibilities for colors. People like to accessorize, I explained, and one of the teachers raised her laptop, which was personalized with a new “skin.” The kids oohed and aahed when I showed photos of Pakistani trucks, which are even more elaborate than our jeepneys, with intricate carved panels and a kaleidoscope of colors covering every square inch.
We got to talking about jeeps not just being personalized but also reflecting what society thinks is important. I talked about how jeep dashboards look like altars with religious images (I didn’t talk about the sexy pictures next to the images). Jeepney drivers love speed, so the art incorporates chrome horses and Batman and Spider Man. And jeepney drivers love their families, which is why they paint in pictures of their children.
One wise kid pointed out with some concern: “But isn’t that dangerous? The kidnappers might know what their kids look like.”
I was beginning to feel like a basketball player, on the receiving end of one ball after another in quick succession as they asked more questions. How long have jeepneys been around? (Which I used to do a bit of math: 2012 minus 1946.) Why don’t people take taxis instead? And often the kids would answer before I could: “Taxis are expensive.”
I didn’t want to romanticize the jeepney, knowing that these were kids who saw a jeepney ride as a treat, like a theme park ride. My daughter’s school emphasizes social awareness so I talked about how hard jeepney drivers’ lives are. Jeepney rides aren’t always fun either, with too many packed into a jeep, sometimes even ending up on the roof in rural areas. Finally, I warned them not to sit too close to the back because of the diesel fumes.
I showed pictures of electric jeeps and as I explained that they had to be plugged in, one kid shouted: “Like a cellphone!” Maybe someday, I thought aloud, some of them would go into business and manufacture these new kinds of jeeps, still colorful, green (ecologically) and exciting.
To cap the session and to give them a dose of Filipino for the day, I played Yoyoy Villame’s “Trapik,” a crazy song naming Manila’s jeepney routes and how masungit (cranky) drivers can be because they’re tired and how sticky passengers get to be with sweat, and how we all end up smelling like bisugo. Yes, I had to explain what bisugo is.
They loved Yoyoy and as they clapped and danced, I wondered if I should do this kind of teaching more often. I also left feeling even more appreciative of our grade school teachers, who must have boundless reserves of energy keeping the kids so alive and inquisitive.
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