Mrs Keremidchieva shows small tricks to make learning easier at School 58 in Sofia
Article, published in Bulgarian by Sega.bg, written by Silvia Georgieva on 5.03.2023
Photos: Iliana Dimitrova
Noise, commotion, chaos, and kids are running back and forth. Such is the usual sight in Bulgarian schools, especially during break times. However, at the 58th Sergei Rumyantsev Primary School in the capital Sofia, the feeling is more atypical – one of calm and light, emanating perhaps from the many children’s drawings hanging on the walls. We are approaching the classroom of class 3b. We have been invited to observe a lesson by the young teacher Tsvetomira Keremidchieva, a participant in the New Way to Teaching Program of Teach For Bulgaria Foundation, and her coordinator from the program Gergana Cholakova. Again silence. Are there children here at all? The doubt is quickly dispelled by smiles and deft hands that quickly put us with martenitsi (Bulgarian tradition on the 1st of March for health and prosperity). “Chetita Baba Marta! (Happy Grandma Martha!) and all the kids are gathering around us, the guests. “Which TV are you from?” they ask eagerly, expecting to become “famous”.
Strictly at 2:00 p.m., the class begins, i.e. the time for self-preparation, relaxation, and interest activities, which Mrs. Keremidchieva leads. The first hour is on ‘Man and Society’ – ‘the hardest’ as the third graders say because they are learning about history. Today’s lesson is ‘Bulgarians in the Ottoman Empire’. “Who will remind us who were the last Bulgarian rulers in the Middle Ages?” the teacher asks, and before she has even finished her question, a forest of hands springs up. “Asparuh, Tervel, Omurtagh, Khan Krum, Tsar Boris I, Tsar Simeon,” says a student. “And also – who were the kings in the Second Bulgarian Kingdom?” the lady continues. “Peter, Asen, Kaloyan, Ivan Asen II, Ivan Alexander, Ivan Shishman and Ivan Sracimir,” the children list enthusiastically. After ensuring everyone remembers the previous lesson, they start learning the new one, taken in the morning with their primary teacher: ‘Bulgarians in the Ottoman Empire’.
“How do you learn and tell a lesson?”
This is a question Cvetomira asks at the beginning of each of her lessons. The idea is to impart to her students something very important for the first years in school – how to learn independently. “We read each chapter of the lesson three times and then recite it,” the children share. But not because they’ve heard that’s how they should do it, but because that’s how they learn every day. “Come on, then, plug your ears and start reading,” the teacher says. And all the children instantly cover their ears with their hands, not at all jokingly. “Ivan, why are we plugging our ears?” she asks, ensuring everyone is fully aware of what they are doing and why. “So we don’t get distracted by the side noises,” the child replies.
The reading begins. It’s so quiet you can hear the classroom clock tapping. There is no tutting or giggling – the children’s lips show they are actively reading. Once they have completed the task, the teacher reads the lesson aloud to them once more. “To use all our senses,” she explains, “because some of us learn faster by reading, others by listening”. Those who have forgotten their textbooks can follow what is written on the whiteboard, on which the lesson page is projected.
After the reading, it is time for narration. One by one the children begin to tell in their own words what they have managed to remember, ably supported by the teacher with guiding questions. “Ah, mrs, do you know that some mothers and fathers were unwilling to give up their children and then the Turks killed them,” interjects an inquisitive student. “Oh, I wonder where you got that information, it’s not in the textbook,” she praises them to encourage them to keep being curious.
Homework comes next,
which, contrary to popular belief, does not discourage children at all. All the students are divided into groups of 4, two by two looking at each other, i.e. their tabes are glued together. First the students in each group write down the names of the “accomplices” in the group, the name of the group itself, then they have 2 minutes to assign special roles – who will read, who will keep track of time, who will be the discoverer, i.e. find the information in the textbook, who will present it. The struggle, of course, is who will be the presenter. In the group named “The Free Bulgarians”, at least two boys quarrel over who should read the homework to the class. The teacher, however, does not quarrel but finds out what is happening. She asks them who thinks what and why there is discontent. After a short deliberation, it is decided to come out the one who was the fewer times presenter – in this case, Mariah. Mariah had been 6 years in England before coming to the 58th school. At first, she was “terrible” with Bulgarian, then – “better”, since she already had sixes in this subject. “English is easier than Bulgarian. In English class, I tell my classmates, ‘You don’t know how much you’ll need English in the future, but they don’t understand me,'” she shrugs.
Every day the children are in a different group and in a different role, meaning they can neither get off task nor get used to a role. So, as well as learning teamwork, they also learn other important life skills – such as adaptability, as they regularly step out of their comfort zone. Students with disabilities are first given the task of simply keeping track of the time – 15 minutes – which teaches them order, discipline, and organization. But then they also become discoverers and presenters, striving not just to memorize what they have learned, but to understand it, to be able to make sense of it and comment on it, which is one of the aims of the classroom.
Alas, the reality in many Bulgarian schools is different. Parents regularly report that their children return home with unlearned lessons even after after-school classes. In many places, students say that teachers write down the correct answers on the blackboard, which they then fill in their notebooks. However, this by no means teaches them anything. On the contrary – it makes them passive.
“If I write all day, it doesn’t mean I’m learning.”
says Tsvetomira’s coordinator and mentor – Gergana Cholakova, who regularly monitors her work and gives guidance on improving. In addition to receiving up-to-date training, A New Way to Teaching, teachers are supported by a personal coordinator throughout their 2-year journey in the schools where they start teaching. In their daily work, the coordinators monitor a number of benchmarks that ensure effective teaching and successful learning – how to teach students to organize information, find appropriate sources for it, and assess their reliability; how to spend time on learning and demonstrate persistence purposefully; how to learn autonomously and with discipline, to reflect critically, to assess their strengths and weaknesses, etc. These are the so-called soft skills of 21st-century learning, which are part of teaching only if they are consciously used. These skills influence the way students learn and with them, they will be able to succeed in the future. “They are set out in regulations quite shadily and it is not clear how teachers develop them. If they don’t have training in these areas, they don’t develop them accordingly because the academic takes over because of the large amount of knowledge that needs to be covered in school,” says Gergana.
She says what is written in the regulations regarding full-day learning needs to be in sync with the actual possibilities in the classroom. The regulations on the organization of school activities prescribe a bunch of self-preparation activities for students – these should include situations for making sense of the content studied during the lesson, for learning ways and methods of rational learning and, above all, for forming skills for independent planning and organization of preparation. To be able to teach these skills to their students, teachers need specialized qualifications because not all of them have them. “It’s not that the teachers don’t have the desire to learn it, it’s just that sometimes they don’t have the tools. The formation of learning skills does not enter into teacher training at all. But there are ways even if they don’t have a skill, they can pass it on to their students,” says Gergana. What is the point of group work, how did you feel while working in a team, was there a benefit, and didn’t work for you – these are all questions for students that teach them to make sense of what they do. It’s easy as long as you know it.
A common mistake, according to Gergana, is to spend hours in the classroom merged into blocks of 70 minutes,
which isn’t suitable for the children – they need a little rest before each class. Sports activities are also essential for them – there are particular relay games and tasks that help to use up children’s enormous energy, but also develop their skills for cooperation, conflict resolution, coping with different situations, etc. Art and creative activities should also be included in the classroom hours, where, in addition to time for self-study and recreation, there is also time for activities of interest. The Inclusive Education Ordinance sets out the requirements for these activities – to be organized as a priority in the thematic areas of digital creativity, science, mathematics, technology, arts and culture, citizenship education, environmental education and healthy living and sport. How much of all these teachers manage to teach in the few minutes they have left after homework is still being determined.
In Cvetomira’s class, for example, the children recently made a portrait of their mothers for 8 March as part of their interest activities. When they don’t have holidays coming up, they devote themselves to their big assignment for the term – making a Healthy Eating Guide. The children have already learned lots of useful recipes. What is their favorite healthy food? Banana smoothie, of course. And poached eggs.