The Olive Branch of Healing

'...to reawaken the pristine human power of regarding the phenomena of the external world... in such a way that they begin to grow translucent and to reveal something of the mystery that sustains them.' ALAN McGLASHAN : The Savage and Beautiful Country (The Secret Life of the Mind) 1988

‘Near the end of March, 1845, I borrowed an axe and went down to the woods by Walden Pond, nearest to where I intended to build my house, and began to cut down some tall, arrowy white pines, still in their youth, for timber. It is difficult to begin without borrowing, but perhaps it is the most generous course thus to permit your fellow-men to have an interest in your enterprise. The owner of the axe, as he released his hold on it, said that it was the apple of his eye; but I returned it sharper than I received it …’ THOREAU

Reconstruction of Thoreau’s hut at Walden Pond, New England. Thoreau’s adventure remains an inspiration for all who set out o n new ventures in unconventional ways and in difficult circumstances. His Walden is also a text which advanced foreign students of English delight in. He remains the creator’s and teacher’s guru so long as the latter is a sojourner abroad.

‘The right way was lost’

Forest installation on Hansel and Gretel theme by English artist Ellie Davies

One of the most moving documents I read before leaving for Georgia was by Georgia expert, Peter Nasmyth. In an article from 2008 about the paintings of children in Tshinvali, North Ossetia, he noted that while some paintings showed military subjects, the majority reflected a reinforced desire to hold onto the ties of family and friendship in the aftermath of war. And paintings by the children in Bolnisi also seem to dig deeply into the Georgian past, into the Georgian psyche.

Georgia is understandably discreet about its recent wounds; yet early on I felt that there might be a link between the extreme unsettledness of some students in the school where I am placed, and national history. Not that proving any such link would make my job any easier; but it would at least throw light on the nature and magnitude of the task I faced. Georgian history seems to follow a rhythm whereby the country is overwhelmed by impossible adversity, and then picks up the threads of what it was trying to achieve after a long delay. The result is a progressive sliding into an increasingly out-of-date mindset. If one is perceptive, one can see the occasional merits of such a strangeness; but it does not make for an easy ride in day-to-day living. Dante’s The Divine Comedy, opens with the statement, The right way was lost’. Georgians will appreciate the allusion, especially as they enjoy looking back to their own medieval poet of genius, Rustaveli. He preceded Dante by about a century. Each poet – within a theistic world-view  charts a human condition thah must be accepted. Such a stance can be overdone, but it can be comforting in a society which at its deepest level inclines to being ‘traditional’. The earliest colour photographs of the Russian Empire, made between 1905 and 1915 by Sergei Mikhalovitch Prokudin-Gorskii, show a cleaner, more fertile, more scrubbed Georgia than the Georgia of today. And almost a hundred years ago, in 1918, Georgia established a multi-party system under the Menshevik ideology, a fairly enlightened strain of socialism. Some of its adherents opposed militarism during the First World War. Looking back at the evils of the twentieth century caused by one-party systems and war, one concludes that Georgians have a destiny for greatness, but that this destiny has generally been sadly out of step with actuality.

A photograph of Georgia from The Prokudin-Gorskii Collection (Library of Congress)

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the school system. Things were clearly conceived on a grand scale under Communism, when – as is well-known – education was revered. There is no shortage of classrooms in our school, and there is plenty of marble. I cannot but contrast this with the school buildings I experienced in England in the 1960s. They were frequently prefabricated units of a temporary nature, but within them were always delivered lessons of the highest quality. Substance over style – perhaps. Bolnisi Third School, with the heating system in midwinter running at less than full capacity, its battered upright piano unplayable, its desks and chairs trashed, and the outside toilets a wasteland of neglect, is but a shadow of the building and school it must once have been. Dante’s masterpiece, of course, opens in Hell. Georgia is still recovering from ‘a season in hell’, as Rimbaud put it. There is maybe peace, if not prosperity, now; but the spec tres of the past are never far away. This is reflected in the clothes people wear – invariably black, or of sombre hues – and in a frequently depressed mentality. Georgian women will wring their hands in conversation and say: ‘Vai me’ – ‘Woe is me!’ Or utter the same phrase at frequent intervals when talking endlessly to their girlfriends on mobile phones. George Hewitt finds this expression to have overtones of ‘weakness, torment, cursing, anger and pleading’ Everyday Life in Georgia Invited by the recruitment agency which sent me to Georgia, Footprints Recruiting, to write something about the country, I decided on the theme of ‘Everyday Life in Georgia’. The short pen-picture I produced sets the scene and provides a few clues as to the relaxed nature of Bolnisi, where I work in School No 3: ‘The main impression in Georgia is of the coexistence of traditional ag ricultural patterns with the demands of modern life. Cattle will graze freely across the highway, people will make vodka or raise animals in a traditional way (and sell the results along the side of the road) while at the same time they may possess the latest jeep and have satellite television. The main challenge for a volunteer is to find a compromise between the lifestyle Georgia imposes and one he is comfortable with. The small shops and bazaars in the country towns sell a sufficient variety of products and foodstuffs to cope with most needs; and in Tbilisi there is very little which cannot be easily obtained, although it sometimes needs a little searching out. Other items must be brought from home or sent for. There is a certain serenity to the way things go ahead which is probably the psychological effect of living in an ancient landscape, and seeing life carried on in a humble and collective spirit by friendly and dedicated people, who nonetheless have considerable difficulties to contend with. To live here is to share both the hard work and the contentment of a pastoral routine and to witness strenuous attempts to modernize and Europeanize Georgian society from top to bottom.

Freedom Square decked out for President Sarkozy’s visit, Summer 2012

The secret of success is probably to keep a very open mind, to negotiate sufficient solitude and space to grow with the experience, and to aim for a few outside interests, as well as a passion for the ongoing task. That may be defined as trying to improve and enliven the school experience for some of the country's ebullient and charming children. There are occasional set-backs and blows to one's morale, but usually there is great support from everyone around. It is gratifying to be greeted by many people, including all one's students, when one ventures into the immediate locality. A glorious landscape is never far away, and this has a settling effect on the spirit. The weather can be capricious; but the overall mix of an understated exoticism and a Mediterranean climate makes for a memorable year or two in service of a great and hospitable emerging small country. It is a lovely, although shattered, nation at the minute. What it may be in the future may well surprise and delight many.’

‘What remains – however improbable – must be the truth.’

Sherlock Holmes Towards the end of my first year I set up a voluntary Summer School which enabled around twenty children, during a period of ten weeks during the summer holidays, to experience a more relaxed regime than normal school could offer, one morning a week. They did some English, art, gentle sports and a little of food preparation. There was a supportive and friendly atmosphere. I aimed to encourage participation and sharing.

My initiative attracted the interest of the Rustavi 2 television channel, and a short reportage was broadcast in August 2011. For the film-makers I wrote the following briefing: Bolnisi is surrounded by attractive hills and - in the near and far distance – by mountains. It is on the main road from Tbilisi to Yerevan, Armenia. Kazreti – famous for its gold – th and Dmanisi – significant in the history of human archaeology  are near neighbours. About twenty-five kilometers away is Bolnisi Sioni, a basilican church dating to the late 5 century, site of the earliest inscription in Georgian, and one of the oldest liturgically active Christian structures in the world. The character of Bolnisi is that of a rural crossroads. As a result of settlement by Germans from Swabia in the early 19 century and significant forced population shifts both during and after the Soviet period, it has both a rich past and a fractured identity. It is greener and quieter than its Soviet-style neighbour to the east, Rustavi; and as it is within easy reach of Tbilisi, it has something of a dual identity. An elite work in the capital, while the majority remain in Bolnisi. Here, for those not entrenched in local commerce and farming, there seems to be little scope for meaningful  and especially for gainful  activity. Smallholding – cattle, chickens, vines  vehicle maintenance, and communitarian upkeep and repair absorb most people’s energies. The energies of the women center exclusively around the family. Bolnisi has at least three schools: one half-way into town , one in the centre, with the third school – our present subject - located just past a heraldic concrete slab and a map noone has ever consulted, announcing with some aplomb one’s arrival at the exciting location of Bolnisi . I sometimes joke that Bolnisi is the last place on earth; unless you can think of somewhere even more anonymous, as its name is derived from the Georgian bolos (‘last’) and arguably from the Latin nisi (‘unless’) as well…!
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Our school occurs early on in the visitor’s triumphal progress through the conurbation: close to the first small group of shops and the new, toothpaste-green clinic, on the east of the main road in an area known as the Geologebia  presumably on account of the sharp, rugged peaks all around, on whose milder slopes much of Bolnisi is built. The school is located on a stretch of land eventually running down to the Matsavera river, which at this point – and especially in the summer – is a small and gurgling stream. There is one wonderful  if scruffy  spot where for a few months a year it is possible to have a brief, splashy swim. The school is at the most rural end of what remains a very tranquil small settlement, with large numbers of traditional Georgian houses on the nearby hillsides (many in the older ones in the town itself being of old German construction) and Soviet-era condominiums. The pupils walk to school, or take the eccentric yellow bus, which comes infrequently and unpredictably, and in term-time is frequently very crowded, as it has never been known to refuse a passenger. As a result of President Saakashvili’s English teaching initiative  the project known as ‘Teach and Learn with Georgia’ − launched in mid-2010  the schools in Bolnisi have recently had native English language assistants, although there were some Peace Corps volunteers here before that.

The President meets TLG Volunteers, Kachreti, October2011

Voluntary Education The local television company Bolneli TV also made a piece about the Summer School. It was more relaxed and less tightly edited than the Rustavi item. I had more freedom of movement, and was delighted to get their crew to film me in the school vestibule, a solemn, marble affair which is eloquent of the sacrosanct values of Communist learning. My short explanation, faithfully translated into Georgian by my co-teacher, Nana Pruidze, allows an even sharper focus on the character of Bolnisi’s Third School:

The principle of the Summer School? If you look behind me, you’ll see pictures of traditional Georgian writers who represent an ideal of education which doesn’t really mean anything to the children nowadays. The children live in a very quiet, rural and beautiful town  Bolnisi  with mountains, with traditional values…They’re very happy children, very settled children; and what I’m trying to do is to create something meaningful for them in the summer holidays. This is my own personal idea – you could say it’s a new idea: the idea of voluntary education. What does that mean? It means that if you have some skills, you have some gift – something to give someone – you give it, you know? And you give it without charging. We don’t charge any money… On my return after the summer holidays – laden with useful things – I knew that I could count on the ‘feel-good’ effect of the Summer School to boost student confidence at the start of the school year; and I also knew that I had a small honeymoon period  a small window of opportunity  in which to make a secure new start. But I feared that once routine had set in, standards and discipline might slip back to the disastrous levels of the previous year, which had led me to start the Summer School in the first place. These disasters, of course, were not mentioned to the media. In an email to Rustavi 2, I put a slightly more positive gloss on it: At the end of the Summer Term I floated the idea of a recreational Summer School for the students, as I felt that the existing structures – revolving almost exclusively around traditional textbooks of dubious efficacy  did little to cater for the children’s obvious imagination, energy, enthusiasm and creativity. True, occasional set-piece presentations at the end of term  either at school, or at the local music school  provided an outlet for their undoubted talents in dance, declamation and classical and Georgian music; but sadly, the children’s English - as well as our organizational skills − are not yet at a level which would allow us to factor an English language element into such semi-formal signature occasions in community life. There were – surprisingly − a number of pluses right at the start of the 2011-12 school year. TLG – ‘Teach and Learn with Georgia’ – had obviously taken stock of progress in its first year, when it had indeed recruited hundreds of teachers – mainly of English – to assist in almost all the nation’s schools. A new cohort were to arrive in the upcoming academic year. Administrative structures had been strengthened by local representatives in a new network which looked to outpace the bureaucratic and largely redundant Learning Resource Centers. These representatives were now active, and could convene meetings and troubleshoot problems. New textbooks were on the way, of an English imprint and format. Morale-raising visits to see the President in action – at an agricultural college in mid-eastern Georgia, and at the opening of a new ‘Teachers’ House’ in Tbilisi – ensured a real ‘buzz’ and enthusiasm among new and continuing foreign teachers. The management and style of TLG’s ‘founding fathers’ remained crisp, informal, energetic, incisive, respectful, vigilant and laid back.

TLG Volunteers on a visit, Summer 2012

This was at the start of October, 2011. How could I capitalize on the positive; how consolidate and strengthen my position; how advance and inspire the work of our school in Bolnisi? The origins of ‘MartinEnglish’ By the end of year, some answers were beginning to emerge; but at the same time, the titanic scale of the challenge was becoming clearer. The new textbooks were generally effective in keeping Grades 1 to 6 occupied, as they had a ‘Workbook’ compo nent which allowed for the colouring in of images and the copying out of words. I already knew, however, that the education of children up to this age in English is a relatively risk-free area: if they do it well, it is a great basis for later advance; if they engage only minimally with the lessons, they get a second chance when they reach that phase of a dolescence when children’s intelligence and imagination really start taking off. So the group which apparently demanded the biggest share of my attention was our twelve to sixteen-years olds: in Georgian parlance, Grades VII to IX. We started off Grade VII on the first level of the new MacMillan textbooks, where the content was far too easy for students who had already had five years of English. But since it had all been forgotten, little harm was done; and we were able let the students loose on reasonably familiar material, while looking out for approaches which – amidst the hubbub and uproar of the group in its initial, inchoate and disorganized state – might most successfully engage nascent intelligences and imaginations. These students were naturals for ‘group multi-tasking’: there was no desire to sit still and all do the same thing. Certain leaders emerged, who would draw images and write words up on the blackboard, while the remainder had to be cajoled into carrying out similar tasks at their desks. Despite a few confrontations, this class turned out to be one of the most loyal and committed in the Christmas Term, and by the final weeks I was routinely giving out the witty and graphically charming ‘Alphabet Activities’ from the excellent ‘Enchanted

Learning’ website: these photocopies would get completed and returned very quickly, all filled in and generally correct. Since the website aims at American kindergarten children, my Georgian seventh-graders were encountering quite a few words not to be found in the MacMillan textbooks, such as unicorn, igloo and iguana.

Grade VIII was a different story. At first it seemed that the unmotivated boys had to be divided from the more lively girls, and given easier material than they; but it soon became apparent that the girls were reaching a self-absorbed and introspective phase, and were prone to petty squabbles and jealous rivalries. I decided to change the mix, and after an excellent presentation from one of the girls about her experiences in Turkey  within which she charmingly catalogued the English levels of the Turkish children she had met  I involved the class in making ‘Apple and Georgian Poetry Week’ posters and drawings which we pegged to the first Friday in No vember.

Next came the ‘MacMillan Poster Words’ project, which involved creating and pasting labels onto all the images in MacMillan’s first set of twelve storybook posters, before sticking the annotateded posters on the school walls. This occupied us pretty well until the end of term, although this class also served as guinea pigs for my experiment of the colour-coding of past, present and future verbs, since these distinctions were lost on the majority of the class when presented to them simply via a MacMillan workbook exercise.

Grade IX was a disaster. Whether taught in their classroom (where the boys tended to sit at the back and ignore the lesson, while the girls engaged in constant chatter nearer the teachers) or in the presentation room (when proximity to the radiator or their chosen companions was the students’ main concern) the lessons were invariably ignominious failures. Apart from a few set-piece spectaculars – as when I created a ‘lucky-dip’ vocabulary exercise by asking students to draw things out of a large envelope of household items I had received in the post from England; or when (towards the end of term) I choreographed the singing of ‘Jingle Bells’ in the manner of a Scottish country dance  English-learning for this class got nowhere..

Spontaneous dancing during an English Class (Year IX - 2012)

Meanwhile, on the theoretical and administrative side, the term was one when I found a great deal of promising material online; and suggested a large number of initiatives to TLG. I cannot relate them all; but presenting the previously unobtainable Michel Thomas language learning TV program on YouTube, and clips from the British fly-on-the-wall school documentary, ‘Educating Essex’, were among the highlights. The culmination of all these experiences is my present website, in which I try to pull together the many strands of my experiences in Bolnisi and draw some general conclusions. As Thoreau said: ‘I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essenti al facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’

(Revised August 2013)