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Bolnisi Third School: The First Seventeen Months When I arrived teachers used old and muddled text books where the main emphasis was on reading a rather boring piece of English and then often translating it into Georgian to get the sense. Few of the class would be engaged; there was a tacit agreement that 70% could goof off while a minority tried to study. There would be constant noise and disturbance, chewing, eating nuts, abuse of the desks and an unsatisfactory learning atmosphere. After about a year I realized that the challenge was to pacify the classroom. Why exactly were the boys so disruptive, as they were frequently quite charming when you met them on the street? Since the Summer School last year showed me great potential of the children when they were met with kindness and a more amusing and friendly school set-up, I tried to apply the same values in ‘real school’.

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But there were many skirmishes along the way. In October 2011 a crisis was reached with Year VII: they were really unwilling to study and their parents were called. Even this did no good; but a few days later, just as I was planning an ‘Apple and Georgian Poetry Week’ I entered their classroom and found an appalling emotional atmosphere. A previous teacher had upset them; and there were tears, recriminations and upsets going on. I syphoned off 6 boys who had actually exhausted themselves with all this emotion: so strong had it been, that there had been a process of catharsis. To my surprise, these six, although with limited English, engaged with a concentration never seen before on a poem by Tariel Chanturia. I realized two things: the healing power of art; and the primacy of emotion as a driving force in the Georgian classroom. Another series of things I was learning around this time was the privileged quality of the lesson time. It

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was essentially a moment of performance art, a moment of primal engagement, a moment of a heightened sense of being, a moment of revelation and mutual openness. Clearly the rewards of such wondrous energies would be great in time, as soon as the basic building blocks of politeness, attention, engagement and so on, were in place. At the same time I realized that mis-en-scene and timing were also very relevant. The classroom environment of heavy desks and chairs in a set arrangement, with demarked ‘territories’ within which the students perforce resided struck me as a handicap from the start. Second, it was interesting to see that as well as being an emotional ‘field’, the lesson had a specific emotional trajectory which – if one was clever – one could gently direct and control.

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To displace the primacy of the old class - teacher warfare based on the ‘limes’ of the desk arrangement, I began ostensibly responding to the students’moans that they were cold by asking them to move their desks into a new formation, at 90 degrees to the usual disposition; with their chairs now backing onto the radiators which run down the length of the classroom. We therefore began every lesson with just this deskmoving exercise. I had already noticed that for a lesson to be successful, something strong and rhythmically apposite has to occur in the first 5 minutes or so; or else the time flows on in a meandering and poorly-structured way. Thus the desk-shifting at once signaled that the lesson had begun, and that the teachers were in control. It only remained to find suitable material, which would be easy enough for the most unschooled of the students. The Enchanted Learning website provided

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numerous valuable pages which included an element of vocabulary and a graphic element, requiring colouringin; and the students of Year VII took to this with great enthusiasm. In time we used it with Year VIII as well; although here the situation was more nuanced, as we had two distinct levels in the classroom; and four girls were on occasion given different, and more advanced, material to work on: the opening pages of Miss Read’s ‘Village School’ – a real piece of English prose. The gifted IXth year was also investigated and in time understood. A ‘Learning Agreement’ – similar to those of the Summer School – was drafted and the students had to sign up to this. I then used a film, ‘The Browning Version’ to encourage the students simultaneously to interest themselves in a drama and to have the opportunity to do a little acting and presentation. The project is still ongoing but the results are encouraging.

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My upcoming absence has again stretched our ingenuity, the challenge being to leave in place or enhance our gains, with no reversion to outdated lesson styles, while at the same time creating a do-able lesson plan for my co-teacher, Nana Pruidze. By moving all years we teach (except Year III) to our dedicated English Room, and prioritizing self-study at many levels simultaneously using the MacMillan

English World workbooks, we are succeeding in holding up
learning acquisition at the level it has been reaching, engaging the students in self-management and self-study, and gradually ironing out counter-productive behaviour. Meanwhile Nato has done sterling work with the earlier years (I, II, IV and VI) although we regard years X and XI as a lost cause.

Martin Smith Bolnisi 4 April 2012

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