From Ballagás to Bankett

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Here in Hungary, after students finish the last of their school-leaving exams, they might have a special dinner at a restaurant, a “bankett,” (like a banquet but not exactly the same), to which they invite their teachers. It’s a chance to spend time together and talk informally. I went to two such celebrations this year and had a great time at both. Serious and light conversations, warm atmosphere, enthusiastic hosts (the students, who made sure we all had plenty to eat and drink). This is all so different from the customs in the U.S. that I want to say a little more about it. I wrote about the serenades and ballagas already. Now for the exams and bankett.

After the ballagás (a ceremony that takes place twice–at school and in the city–after the seniors have finished their classes), the seniors begin taking their exams in several rounds, in a range of subjects. First come the written exams, which (like most of the oral exams) they may take at the standard or advanced level. The standard-level exams are administered by the school; the advanced exams, by the district (and at a location other than the school). Then come advanced oral exams, also administered by the district. After finishing all of this, the students take their standard-level oral exams, which are usually administered by their own teachers in the various subjects. There are oral exams in physics, biology, chemistry, languages, Hungarian language and literature, history, music, informatics, civilization, and more. Not everyone takes every exam; typically, at this stage, students take two or three, depending on what they have taken already and what they need for the university.

I administered the American and British Civilization oral exam to eighteen students in two classes. In addition, I administered two standard-level English exams (since all my other twelfth-grade students from those two classes took the advanced exam). I also sat in the room and listened while other exams were being given; that was part of my responsibility, but it was also an honor.

I did this last year as well and enjoyed it, but this time I understood much more. At its best, the oral exam is a dialogue between student and teacher. The student comes in the room, walks up to the teacher administering his or her first exam, chooses an envelope at random (which contains the specific topic), and sits down to prepare for at least half an hour. When called up–only one student takes the exam at a time–he or she goes to the examination seat across from the teacher, and begins to speak about the topic. Once the initial presentation is over, the teacher poses questions and the student responds.

I saw several physics exams, each of which involved a different experiment–one with a pendulum, one with an electric current, and one that I don’t remember. I listened to a music exam, which started with some theory and sight singing and ended with the student rising and singing a Bartók song magnificently. I heard Hungarian literature (including world literature) exams on topics ranging from Homer to Kafka to Radnóti, and Hungarian grammar exams on vowel harmony, etymology, and logic. History was one of the most dazzling experiences; students spoke in detail about topics from ancient Greek democracy to the rule of Szent István király to the Reformation to the Holocaust to the Kádár regime. Across the subjects, students weren’t always able to answer the teacher’s questions, but those questions served a purpose beyond the test itself. Some questions served to clarify or correct a detail; others challenged the students to explain the meanings and reasons behind the facts. All of this reminded me a little of my oral exams in graduate school; there, too, I found that I was learning something through the exam itself, through the exchange with the professors. But that was graduate school; I have never seen anything like this in high school in the U.S. (or even in college).

I forgot to mention that we dress up for their exams. The students wear white and black (shirts and suits), or white and blue, or their own class’s color combination. The teachers wear white and black, though not as strictly (and we all made some adjustments for the weather, since it was intensely hot). The oral exams as a whole begin and end with a ceremony: all the students in a row, facing all the students who will be examining them. They present flowers to the exam supervisor, who comes from the district. At the end, they receive their diplomas, certificates, and report cards and present flowers or chocolates to the teachers.

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Through these exams, through showing what they have learned and discussing all these topics with their teachers, the students cross over into another stage of life, which is why the bankett is so fitting. It’s a kind of recognition of each other and many things. We get to ask each other questions about life, studies, politics, future plans, cultures, languages, things that you have wanted to know about each other. We get to express appreciation that maybe didn’t find its way into words before. We get to laugh together.

I fear that my description was clumsy, but so is everything right now; I leave for the U.S. the day after tomorrow and will be there until early August. There is much to look forward to this summer and in the coming school year. As for this year, thanks to all the graduating seniors, their families, and their teachers for building this beautiful ending, which holds, transforms, and releases the years that came before.

Forms and Meanings of Praise

Last week, while some of my tenth-grade students were taking a make-up test, the others illustrated scenes from Hamlet, in preparation for our event. I had compiled a list of possible quotes; many students chose quotes of their own. There were drawings of Ophelia, the ghost, King Claudius, the play within a play, the slaying of Polonius, the “Words, words, words” scene, and many more.

As I walked around the room and pointed out what I saw in certain pieces, I often met with the response, “No, it’s terrible! I can’t draw!” Some students explained what was wrong with their pieces; some burst into giggles; some stared at the emerging arm on the page, erased it, and stared at the blank page. Here I saw a cultural difference between the U.S. and Hungary; while everywhere you will find students who take pride in their work and students who do not, the proportions differ, with American students being, in my experience, a bit prouder of their work than Hungarians. This difference has something to do with the messages they receive from teachers and others.

First of all, in American schools, just about anything may go up on the wall. Teachers are required to display student work on bulletin boards around the classroom and in hallways–so anything from a Venn diagram to an algebra proof to an essay can end up in public view. Second, there’s an underlying belief that all student work–at least in its final form–should be celebrated. Every student has talent and a voice, according to popular wisdom; all voices should be seen. (I am channeling Pyramus here: “I see a voice.”) Here in Hungary, from what I have seen, not everything gets displayed and celebrated; overall, student work receives more criticism than praise. There’s a basic assumption that all students need to improve (and that they have a long, long way to go). There are exceptions to this–but that’s the overall tendency, at least in comparison with what I have seen in the U.S.

I see promise and problems in both ways. The American attitude (or collection of attitudes) can become too blithe and exuberant, too fixated on the “wonderful.” (When everything is “wonderful,” there’s not much more you can say.) The Hungarian attitude (or collection of attitudes), in contrast, can leave some students thinking that they can’t draw, write, etc., at all. Yet both approaches hold a possible middle way: looking at what is actually going on in the students’ work and considering how to challenge it. Here, in this class assignment, I found an abundance of interesting things. (All the pieces that appear here are posted with the students’ permission.)

Consider the clowns: I am struck by the symmetry between cross and spade, the contrast between the standing and sitting clowns (one big, one little; one with spade, the other with flower); the solemnity of their faces, the colors, and the quote itself. Or the two praying scenes–how did those stick figures become so evocative (in the first) and the crown and cross so luminous (in the second)? Or Hamlet and Horatio: Hamlet with his eyes closed, as though he were seeing a world no one else could see, and Horatio, troubled, looking askance. Or the ghost scenes, ordered and unnerving. Or Ophelia, her thoughts full of water.

If I were an art teacher, I would have more to say, possibly, about the proportions, shading, and so forth–but I am bad at drawing and have little sense of how to improve it. Rather, as a language and literature teacher, I would take cues from the pictures and devote lessons to Shakepeare’s clowns and ghosts. Here, given our time constraints and upcoming event, I have worked to incorporate “pictures” into our rehearsals–that is, to help students imagine and work out the details of the scenes, with attention to every word in the text.

What kind of praise is appropriate in the classroom? Those of the “growth mindset” persuasion often say that teachers should praise students for effort, not for ability or accomplishment. That strikes me as too rigid; different situations call for different kinds of praise. Sometimes students do need to hear that they have a particular ability or that their work stands out. What matters is that the teacher praise and criticize thoughtfully, not automatically, and that she avoid using praise (or criticism) as a way of exerting control. When students depend too much on teachers’ praise or take it too much to heart, they lose their own critical sense. A teacher’s praise should help students find their way.

Praise, like criticism, can do good or harm; what matters is that both teacher and student keep it in perspective and turn it toward the good. It is not an ultimate decree. A teacher can point out what she sees without claiming the last word.

Image credit: The eight drawings are by students in class 10C at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok; they are posted with the students’ permission.