I have no idea whose classroom this is.

It’s been quite some time since I ran riot in elementary school, but this summer has brought some of those glory days back to the fore via a summer school teaching job in Hong Kong. I love teaching, what with the opportunity to entirely brainwash childrens’ minds and all, but it has been nearly five years since I was a school teacher. I wasn’t sure I still had it (the brainwashing power) in me, in other words.

Summer school in Hong Kong is essentially, in my humble opinion, a glorified form of babysitting. There’s no homework, some of the students don’t even bring writing utensils, and the school day runs from 9.05am to 12.45pm. I have five 35 minute classes a day, with students from grade two through grade five, and was tasked with the gargantuan responsibility of teaching “Upper Elementary Music.” I love elementary kids. I love music. How the twain meet is anyone’s guess.

One of my goals was to inculcate (I use that word often in my grade two class) the students with an emotional appreciation of music. In Asia, creativity and artistry are often eclipsed by rote memorisation and a rigorously scientific and mechanical approach to learning. Even when I first began to learn piano as a kid, this was never my approach to music. Instead of practicing classical pieces to death at home (like some of my parents’ neighbours), I was busy playing Bryan Adams songs by ear and writing tremendously Yanni-like songs for my first girlfriend. I don’t think she ever recognised the genius that was pouring through the telephone as I played the ten-minute-plus songs, but that’s another story (as are the lengths to which I had to go to sneak the phone out of my parents’ bedroom to talk to her).

On the first day of summer school, I played the students a song and asked them to describe how the music made them feel, giving them permission to draw or write their responses. Though some of their responses were marvellous, some were absolutely mind-boggling. I’ve learned a few tricks in the few short weeks I’ve been teaching, and I wanted to share them with you because I feel a little guilty having a monopoly on all the brainwashing.

1. “Awkward”

I neither know how grade two students learned this word, nor why they think it applies to everything. To some students, any piece of music is “awkward.” I’d suggest teaching elementary students the real meaning of the word by showing them clips of The Office (the UK version, naturally) and by reading extended passages of the Old Testament where people got to “know” family members after pumping them full of alcohol.

2. Toilet Humour

Always works. In fact, even mentioning the word “pee” or (if you’re feeling adventurous) “poo” is guaranteed to get the kids pooing their pants with laughter (usually metaphorically but prepare for exceptions depending on your age-group). The only problem with the use of toilet humour is that it often derails the class as students think the mention of such words gives them the right to repeat them, endlessly, till class is over.

3. Boyfriends and Girlfriends

Elementary school is the glorious time of life when boys don’t have girls on the mind and girls don’t have boys on the mind. Nothing quietens a child more when he’s talking to his neighbour (a girl) more than “Simon (not his real name), you can talk to your girlfriend after class.” Vigorous denials ensue (by Simon) as well a little bit of collective shaming (by the class). The plus side is that Simon won’t be talking any more in class, or to another girl for the rest of his life for that matter. On another note, if one girl complains to another boy in class saying “Would you please stop staring at my face all the time!” it’s helpful to remind her that she could stop the staring at any time by simply turning her head.

4. The Evolution of Tag

When I was a child, the rules and terminology of tag were fairly simple. One person was “it” and everyone else ran for their life. These days, “it” – that nebulous, genderless thing – has given way to “squid” and the game has now been officially christened as “squid tag” with a subplot replete with all manner of aquatic intrigue. I felt totally out of my depth (!) when one of my students came to me complaining that another student had called him a “squid.” I was tempted to suggest some other names that he could’ve been called that would’ve been far worse, but decided against it and sent him on his way, chuckling to myself. It was moments later that I realised that what he was complaining about was that he had unjustly been made “it” in a game of tag, and not that he was deeply scarred by being equated with a marine cephalopod. That was a relief, because the latter would’ve been dumb.

5. Self-Reflection

If you’re dealing with a particularly rambunctious class, nothing works quite as well as a self-reflection where the class ponders their own behaviour with regard to class expectations. And what I mean by “nothing works quite as well” is that you – the teacher – will never experience such peace and quiet again. I’d suggest making the self-reflection an absolutely merciless document which has at least ten pages of essay questions. Nevermind that they’re in grade two and can barely read. The point is your comfort and relaxation, not theirs. They lost the right to enjoy class when they used the word “awkward” and changed tag into something stupid.

That’s it! YOU can be a great elementary teacher too! I’d like to give special recognition to one grade two/three teacher whose insights into elementary education proved entirely invaluable in both the learning and testing of the aforementioned practices. And if by some chance I happened to teach your child upper elementary music this summer, what can I say but “sorry?”

One thought on “Lessons from Elementary School

  1. That was great reading, i mean of the two year olds ! By the way how much of of the music did you teach them , seemingly they gave you plenty notable notes


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