Meeting Sister Margaret, Mentoring Maths, and a Macbeth Story

Little hands grasp grapes from the fingers of a teacher who taps the blonde, brunette, black, and red heads as she scolds them for making noise. “Are we talking lads, or are we doing homework?” She remarks sharply.

I nervously help an overconfident and quick tongued little boy with his “maths” homework as he subtracts in three columns. Despite my experience at Greenvale Elementary school in Northfield, Minnesota, the landscape at this catholic school in Galway is an entirely different ball game. I don’t yet know the rules. How do I motivate these children, (many of whom assume they will never go to college,) when they are already laughing at my lack of understanding when it comes to the Gaelic language. In their world, speaking Irish is a requirement. When I fail to recognize the names of any of their favorite TV shows as they list them off in breathless run-on sentences, they ask me if there is TV in America.

Following this conversation and several more maths problems and tiny blue boxes filled with interesting looking 9s and 7s, Tommy (the cocky boy I’ve been working with) screams at John ( a wide eyed fellow third grader) when he finds a rotten piece of banana strewn across his workbook. John chuckles with the mischief of a ten year old. “Teacher” promptly pulls them into the hall. I sit there dazed until a little girl tugs my sleeve and asks if I’m from America, and (more importantly,) if my nails are real.

When John returns, Tommy is moved across the room to avoid further conflict. We continue to work through poetry, several short books read in hyperspeed, and an exercise in comprehensive reading. Tom couldn’t be more impatient. He is frustrated beyond belief when I tell him he’s spelled the words “keep,” “Mrs” and “police” incorrectly. He sighs when I mention that full sentences might be a good idea. He scoffs at the notion of looking back at the text to find the answers. I am reminded of so many other elementary schoolers in the States who are preparing for the endless stream of standardized tests.

The 30 or so students crammed into this colorful classroom in Galway, Ireland at 2:30 on a Wednesday afternoon are at homework club. They are handed bananas and each asks “how much longer?” at least once. They are kept in line and work through lists of carefully written assignments until all are crossed off. They are working their left brains and learning to play the “game” of education that permeates the industrialized nations of the world. They may add an “s” to “math,” speak almost fluently in Gaelic, and flirt with their newfound American tutors in a way that should be reserved for those over the age of 18, but they share many of the same pressures and processes of learning that I’ve noticed in the school systems of the United States.

As I finally settle into my semester abroad in Galway,  I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to work with Irish primary school students in a local catholic school. Every Wednesday from 2:30 until 3:45 (as 60 eyes watch the clock behind my head) I will help these students with their homework in any way I can. This is a requirement (and a privilege) for one of my classes this semester–a Service Learning class for visiting American students interested in Education. Each week we will participate in a two hour lecture, one hour service experience, and one hour reflective session. I can already tell that it will be a class that will shape my experience. It’s one of those courses full of success stories and anecdotes that make its students yearn to be teachers who will take on classrooms of underprivileged youth and change their lives. Already I feel as if I’ve been bitten by this bug, but I am aware of the realities of the situation as well.

In our first class, our professor (a lively man called Dermot with a photographic memory and the classroom presence of a comedian) told us his own success story– one that rivals movies like “Freedom Writers.” After an exercise about the brain that involved 4 steps of listening, visualization, discussion, and recreation to demonstrate that we could all easily convert information from short term to long term, our professor told us the story of his first class of Catholic boys. All banished to the bottom “track” of their school’s intensive separation process by the fifth grade, they were convinced they would not be doing anything remotely academic with their lives. Consequently, class time was nap time and goof off time. They were the bunch pushed off to the new teachers. Dermot was one of these lucky and naive eager teachers. Wielding a brand new briefcase and plenty of enthusiasm, he was promptly told by one of his students to do what they told him or there’d be hell to pay. In his first day, Dermot’s hopes of changing the lives of a classroom of underappreciated boys seemed ridiculous. He was intimidated by them. But also determined.

As the weeks progressed, he convinced these boys that they could “beat the system.” Written off as the lazy students who would never amount to anything by the rest of their teachers, these boys had not been entered for any of their year end exams–a common decision meant to prevent them from messing up the recorded grades of the school. Dermot told his class he was entering them for the English exam. He convinced them they could prove the system that had backed them into this corner wrong. He worked with them for months designing and memorizing a complex mind map of Macbeth–an activity that exercised both the left and right sides of the brain simultaneously. There was a dagger drawn in the center, 6 drops of blood to represent the six reasons for Macbeth’s murder spree, and jutting branches from each of these droplets with quotes and supporting reasoning. The boys loved the concept of the dagger. As soon as they had drawn it upon the paper, the rest of the map followed easily. It was a trigger.

When the day for the exam finally arrived, each of Dermot’s boys raised a “meaty” hand and asked politely for an extra sheet of paper. They each drew their daggers. Hours of writing later, they had all written essays of A or B quality.

When the results were released, the headmaster called Dermot into her office. She was a “gruff” woman. She immediately accused his class of cheating–none of the teachers could imagine any other way they had succeeded.

Two boys were called in. These boys from the lowest rung of the academic ladder proceeded to teach their headmaster about the great Shakespearean work of Macbeth in detail. She had to believe them. They had succeeded.

Dermot still keeps the letters of the parents of that class of boys. Letters about the pride in their sons as they carried those As home from school. Their understanding that they were good at English. That their brains had incredible capacity.

By the end of the lecture, (especially after a youtube video about the brokenness and unimagination of the current education system that worked as a call to action,) our class of American students wanted to stand up and cheer. We had been convinced. Dermot told us that we were role models for the Irish children we were about to meet.

I can only hope that someday I will have the impact Dermot did on even one child. I went to Scoil Brihde on my first day hoping for this sort of impression. But, not surprisingly, I was slightly uncomfortable and out of place. These things take time. Listening to fellow tutors who were placed in the fifth grade classroom and told tales of swearing preteens who stabbed one another with pencils and refused to do any work, I felt fortunate. How would I deal with that situation? With an Irish student who proclaims himself a “traveler” and defies with slitted eyes all attempts to encourage him that he can go to college? (The experience of a girl from Massachusetts as she tried to help a student with his maths today.)

I know that I will have many stories to tell and learn from by the end of these four months in Galway. They will be filled with connections and observations and the truth that only children can reveal.

I do not pretend to think it will be easy, but I know it will be packed with meaning. I’m looking forward to asking Tommy about his week when I return next Wednesday.

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