Sunday, September 20, 2009

The School of Joy

Sukhomlinsky's most famous book is "My Heart I Give to Children", which was first published in 1969. In it Sukhomlinsky describes his work with a group of children he led through their primary schooling. The book gives us insight into Sukhomlinsky the school teacher, and the way in which he interacted with children. Sukhomlinsky became principal of the school in Pavlysh in 1947, but he missed the closeness of the relationship that class teachers had with their pupils. Then, several years after he became principal, he decided to take on a class himself, and combine the roles of principal and class teacher.

In the Autumn of 1951 Sukhomlinsky began working with a class of 6-year-old children, at a time when the age for enrolling in school was seven. He had managed to persuade the parents of these children to send them to school a year early. He did not plan to commence formal lessons with them during this year, but wanted to get to know them as well as possible through an informal program of outdoor activities. The parents of his 31 students called this introductory year the "school of joy". Sukhomlinsky told the children stories, many of which he improvised in response to their natural surroundings. The children responded and made up stories of their own. Once the children's awareness of language and interest in it had been raised to a sufficient level, Sukhomlinsky taught the children to read, again through means of outdoor excursions. The following is a description of a lesson, taken from the book "My Heart I Give to Children".

"We went on 'journeys' to the sources of words with albums and pencils. Here is one of our first 'journeys'. My aim was to show the children the beauty and the subtle nuances of the word meadow. [In Ukrainian this is a three-letter word which may be transliterated as 'LUH' or 'LUG'.] We seated ourselves under a weeping willow which leant over a pond. In the distance a meadow, lit up by the sun, showed green. I said to the children: "Look at the beauty in front of us. Above the grass butterflies are flying, bees are buzzing. In the distance is a herd of cattle that look like toys. It seems as if the meadow is a light green river and the trees are its dark green banks. The herd is bathing in the river. Look how many beautiful flowers early autumn has sprinkled around. And as we listen to the music of the meadow can you hear the soft buzzing of the flies and the song of a grasshopper?" I draw the meadow in my album. I draw the cows, and the geese, scattered about like white fluff, and a barely perceptible puff of smoke, and a white cloud on the horizon. The children are spellbound by the beauty of the quiet morning and they are also drawing. I write underneath the drawing 'LUH'.

For the majority of children, letters are drawings. And each drawing reminds them of something. Of what? Of a blade of grass. Bend the blade over and you have an 'L'. Put two blades together and you have a new drawing, an 'U'. The children write the word 'LUH' below their drawings. Then we read the word. Sensitivity to the music of nature helps the children to sense the meaning of the word. The outline of each letter is memorised. The children impart to each letter a living sound, and each letter is easily memorised. The drawing of the word is perceived as a whole. The word is read, and this reading is not the result of lengthy exercises in phonic analysis and synthesis, but a conscious reproduction of a phonic, musical image, which corresponds to the visual image of the word which has just been drawn by the children. When there is such a unity of visual and auditory perception, infused with a wealth of emotional nuances, which have been imparted to the word, the letter and the small word are memorised simultaneously. Dear reader, this is not a discovery of some new method for teaching literacy. It is the practical realisation of that which has been proven by science: that it is easier to memorise that which one is not obliged to memorise and that the emotional colouring of perceived images plays a crucial role in memorisation."

As his work with this class progressed, he taught them much more than was contained in the official syllabus. He taught them lessons in empathy - how to read the feelings of others in their eyes. He took measures to make sure the children's health provided the strongest possile foundation for their all round development. He helped them to develop interests and hobbies, and gave them practical opportunities to apply their developing knowledge in dozens of clubs and interest groups. The school environment was transformed through the planting of fruit trees, grape vines, flowers and vegetables. The children's feelings of compassion were refined through the establishment of an animal hospital, where injured wildlife was cared for. And always Sukhomlinsky's creativity and intuition is supplemented by deep reflection on the process of education, as he tries to generalize from his experience and stimulate similar reflection by his readers. Here is one such reflection:

"I firmly believe that there are qualities without which a person cannot become a genuine educator, and foremost among them is the ability to penetrate into the spiritual world of the child. Only the person who never forgets that he or she was once a child can become a real teacher. The misfortune of many teachers (children, especially adolescents, call them old fogeys) is that they forget that the student is first of all a living human being in the act of entering the world of knowledge, creativity, and human relations."

An English translation of "My Heart I Give to Children" was carried out by Holly Smith, and published by Progress Publishers, Moscow, in 1981. It can be found in many university libraries. Rough digitised versions of this translation (they have numerous typographical errors) can be downloaded in pdf format from the following websites:

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