The Elephant in the Class

By Ioana Nanu // As published in ‘Dilema Veche’ nr 695, 15-21 June 2017

Romanian teachers in public schools practice cursive reading particularly within reading circles, on the rare occasion when they do exist. Therefore, cursive reading is practiced outside of course hours, while I, through a biological analogy, bring the elephant into the classroom, which constitutes an enormous advantage. At the American International School of Bucharest, teachers are the ones who create the curriculum. I therefore conceived a Romanian language program into which I consistently introduced works by contemporary authors. I did this to benefit from cursive reading as much as possible as a practice of today’s literature, and to benefit from the presence of the authors as living teaching materials.

The objective of the meetings with authors is, in addition to exposing students to Romanian fiction and non-fiction literature, to eliminate the misconception that authors are dead, the interaction with authors who are alive serving to introduce students to real literature alongside the author who created it. Another great aspect of teaching texts in this way is represented by the development of the ability of students to identify and analyze the intertextuality of the text which is present in many contemporary works. Students practice their analysis competencies through dialogue with the creator of the work. Furthermore, authors can be role models. There are so many live teaching materials around us that we don’t use. I propose, therefore, to fellow teachers, that we ‘bring the elephant’ into the classroom (i.e. to use the cultural patrimony – authors, scientists, journalists, illustrators, artists, the elderly, manufacturers, architects, etc.).

I will go through the ‘elephants’ for the three middle school classes in the American system. The 6th grade starts with the unit titled: “Book, cultural object”. Răzvan Supuran, paper maker, proposes the idea to produce the paper that will become the book that each student will create. The second unit it titled “The truth – between history and literature”. The guests of this unit are Radu Oltean, the illustrator of Neagu Djuvara’s history books for children, Horia Corches, the autor of ‘Razvan’s Story’, and Adriana Scripcariu, the author of the marvelous album titled ‘The Brâncovenesc Patrimony for everyone’s understanding’. These authors talk to my students about the different periods in Romanian history. Living in Bucharest, we are lucky to be also able to visit Mogosoaia Palace when we read the story of Brâncoveanu reflected in the historical texts and popular ballads. The third unit, “Family Education,” was conceived to highlight short prose by Caragiale and Cehov, with themes of family and education as well as the rights of children. That’s why, I invite an expert in children’s rights (usually someone from the “Save the Children” foundation) to explain why contemporary perspective on childhood is relevant and how different child treatment was not more than a century ago. The fourth unit is called “What good is it to write?” and in this unit, we focus on epistolary texts. Students write a family letter to their parents in secret and so I invite someone who works at the post office to explain the weight that post has had over time. The final unit is titled “What is hiding behind the mask?” and it addresses texts with morals, fables, and parables. To illustrate the way in which literature alters the objective truth, we invite an entomologist who explains to students, not only that crickets do not eat grains and that, in fact, the ant is the one who takes advantage of the cicada, but also what man took on as technology by observing nature. Furthermore, for the parabolic text, the one that can be described as the biggest ‘elephant,’ is a priest who can explain parables and the force of their morals without the confessional flavor. The year ends with Gellu Naum’s verse novel and Ada Milea’s concert after ‘The book with Apolodor’.

The Grade 7 class debuts with a poem about nature. The poetry writing atelier is hosted over Skype by the anonymous poet Ivcelnaiv. In the second unit, “Destiny’s Game,” we study short prose, the theme being the game of destiny. The central question of this unit is: in life, does intelligence, effort, or luck, matter most? There are three guests – someone who won the lottery, a politician / prosperous business man, and an international Olympian. These three represent the three ways of being successful in this particular example. They debate, together with the students, the three options. The third unit, “Classical and Modern Forms,” consists of reading, in parallel, on the one hand, fairytales and stories that belong to established literature, and on the other hand, the same stories but with contemporary authors. The ‘elephants’ are now Mircea Cărtărescu, who teaches the ‘Encyclopedia of Dragons’, and Florin Bican, who does the same thing with his volume ‘And I told you this story’. In the unit that closes the year, “Facts and Opinions,” the texts that we focus on are journalistic ones. Because the final project consists of creating a news article and putting together an interview about school during communism, the live pedagogical materials are two journalists, typically one from written press and another from radio or television. Likewise, for communism, the ideal guest was Paul Cornea, the author of an excellent teaching resource on the topic of communism – the book ‘What it was, how it was’.

Grade 8 begins, just like Grade 7, with the study of poetry, this time centered around family. That’s why our guest is Ioana Nicolaie, author of two poetry volumes, ‘North’, and ‘Faith’, about family. Because October 1st, the day of celebrating the third age, happens to fall during this unit, by reading ‘The Book of Grandparents’ we take advantage of the moment to call on one of the many authors together with the grandparents of the students, to talk about this age. The second unit deals with education in schools during the interwar, communist, and post-communist eras. We visit the “Spiru Haret” high school after reading ‘The Novel of the Myopic Adolescent’ and for the communist and post-communist period we invite Adina Popescu, author of ‘Stories from Calea Mosilor’. In addition, the play of the Replika Educational Center, ‘Memories of the School Age’, written by Mihaela Michailov and directed by Radu Apostol, is acted out for my students by actors Katia Pascariu and Alexandru Popocean. At the end of the play, they all speak to the students about school in the post-communist era. In the third trimester, we study dramatic text. Apart from the fact that we read a play (chosen based on what happens to be on at the theaters in Bucharest – ‘A lost letter’, ‘Tache, Ianke and Cadir’, ‘Titanic Waltz’, ‘The Star with no Name’) and then go see it, their actors or directors will come into our classroom to talk about how to create humor, what represents the suspension of mistrust, and what are the differences between a text and its dramatization, all in order to answer the central question of the unit, namely “Why continue going to the theater?” The fourth and final unit for Grade 8 looks at advertising texts, the guest for this unit being someone who works in advertising.

The experiences that I have shared with you are not only remarkable for the students. Think about the original situation in which you find authors who, unlike at the launches where authors are typically invited, they are invited to a class where they have the opportunity to meet 25 children who have just read their book. Furthermore, the students completed reading books (for those books published by the Arthur Publishing House) or they compiled reading files (to include an abstract, character map, setting map, and time map). Each student has specific and detailed questions based on the text. Authors are rarely confronted with something like this. In addition, for them, consulting the product of the students – the journals or reading files – represents a truly sincere and efficient form of evaluation of their books. And, I highlight, original. That’s why, I propose a suggestion to teachers: don’t hesitate to ‘bring the elephant into the classroom’. It will be an experience that the authors will wish to reiterate, because the activity makes sense to them more than any other.

Ioana Nanu is a teacher of Romanian Language and Literature at the American International School of Bucharest.

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