Teacher’s Corner: Introverts, extroverts, shmextroverts

This Teacher’s Corner is going to be a bit different from the usual ones as it will breach out to a broader topic, but it all starts with teaching.

Actually it starts with Twitter and an annoyed paediatrician  tweeting that since it was half term he would get lots of primary school kids’ parents who’d been told to get their kid tested for ADHD and such*. I replied something along the lines that if teachers could diagnose ADHD they’d be psychiatrists and not teachers, which is why we’d like parents to get a professional opinion on the matter. After all, the only thing we see is that a child has obvious problems paying attention and following the classroom rules.

While this is an interesting topic in and on itself, it was only the starter for a conversation with another user about introverted kids. Her complaint was that the German school system punishes introverted kids via the “participation” grade. In Germany almost all term reports have two separate grades that are “participation” and “behaviour”. All teachers teaching in a class submit their grade, the mean gets calculated and then there may be adjustments. To be honest, till the end of the conversation I couldn’t quite get what she actually wanted, because she kept contradicting herself, but I got that she was fundamentally unhappy, either from her own experiences or because of somebody else, and wanted CHANGE, even though she was not quite clear as to what should actually change. I’ll try to talk about why “just leave the quiet kids alone” isn’t a good idea from a teaching point of view and then move to what bugged me about the whole discussion. [Read more…]

Behind the Iron Curtain part 26 – Five Year Plans

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


This seems like a fitting theme for the beginning of a new year.

A few years ago somewhere around FtB I have said that “socialism doesn’t work” and I got immediately criticized for that statement. That day I learned that some people understand the word “socialism” to mean something different from what it means to me. Because when I say the word “socialism” without qualifiers, I mean the economic system that was practiced in the eastern bloc.

Central to the economy were so-called Five Year Plans, which right until the very end of the regime were touted as the bestest and greatest of things ever, a universal solution to every single economical problem there is. And as it is with universal solutions, it was everything but.

So how did it work? The head honchos of the Communist Party got together, looked at what the economy is doing – how much is produced of this, how much is produced of that, how many people work here and there – and then they have drawn a plan for next year delineating what shall be done in next five years – i.e. how much shall be produced of this, how much of that, and how many people will work doing it. This plan was really very detailed and specific, so not only how much steel ore shall be mined, but also how many cars will be produced, even how much of which agricultural products will be grown etc. The planing also included wages and all costs.

And, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

There is nothing inherently wrong in setting a specific long-term goal for yourself, for a company, for a country, or even a conglomerate of countries. The problem is too many and too specific goals. Any change of direction or rescheduling was only possible after the party’s say so, and that has proven too slow and sluggish in today’s world.

The results were twofold.

Firstly the economy could not react to demand for new goods. If during the five-year period a new product appeared for which there was demand, or a demand for an existing product increased unexpectedly, there was no room for meeting that demand. This was one of the reasons for the existence of “under the counter” goods that I mentioned previously. For some goods, like cars, there were waiting lists long many years, even decades. Some goods were sometimes scarce, and not only luxury goods, but even toilet paper and menstrual pads – when those appeared on the counters, they disappeared fairly quickly because everybody stocked up since you never knew when you will be able to buy them again. And people’s grumbling was of no consequence to the manufacturers, because as long as they met or slightly exceeded the plan, everything was officially hunky-dory.

Secondly sometimes goods were produced even if there was no longer demand for them, because meeting the planned target was paramount. A huge waste of resources and manpower. And of course another cause for backwardness. Imagine in today’s world the quick transition from old cellphones to smartphones, which happened in a year. Under the five-year plan a goal would be set to produce X cellphones, so cellphones would be produced for five years, even if a year into the plan the invention of smartphone made them nearly obsolete.

This sluggishness was one of the reasons why the eastern bloc was unable to keep up with the west economically. But the regime had all the best answers and critics were not allowed to speak up, so the system was bone headedly used right until the very end, when the regime started to fall apart.


As a side note, I see similar thinking in today’s USA owned corporations. I have personal experience with two of them. The first one was trying to plan everything centrally, allotting manpower from top down according to the numbers in their theoretical tables and allowing little to no space for local decisions. This has led to a lot of problems and actual waste of money, because instead of workers contractors had to be hired for prolonged times – and in Europe, contractors are more expensive than employees, even when taking into account mandatory severance packages. HR manager tried to tell me otherwise, but when he found out that I can count he shut up and said that he knows that I am right, but the commands from USA say it has to be done like this, so he is doing it.

The second company pretends to give local managers some leeway without actually doing so, and in addition to that forces everybody to use one decision tool, a tool they think is the holy grail of all business tools, the bestest there is, the one solution to all problems. Unfortunately I am not allowed to criticize it or point out its many fold problems in the open, but I have done so to my supervisors, who agreed with me, but were powerless to do anything about it – because despite the pretense, there is still heavy top-down management style. I am very skeptical of everyone who says they have a universal solution. Universal solutions do not exist.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 24 – LGBTQ rights

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


I do not actually remember how much I was informed about these issues as a child before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but what I do remember is that my first encounter was not with an actual (known) homosexual person, but with a homophobic slur. The sad reality is, that Czechs were and to great extent still are very homophobic, or at least “I am not a homophobe, but…”, which is a distinction without difference.

However from legal standpoint Czechoslovak Socialist Republic was actually relatively progressive, or at least not less progressive than many western countries. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1962, 5 years before the United Kingdom. And gender reassignment therapy and surgery, although with more than a few bureaucratic hurdles to jump through, were (and are) available and paid for from state health insurance.

Nevertheless, despite gay rights being on the left side of the political spectrum in current USA and most of western world, it was not so behind the Iron Curtain. As avid reader and a very curious child, I have read behind my parents’ back magazines for adults (as opposed to magazines for children), which even in the puritanical culture did contain some information about sex and sexuality. And on one such occasion I came across an article that mentioned a peculiar fact – whilst homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized in ČSSR, this was not the case everywhere in the Eastern Bloc. In USSR, male homosexuality was still illegal and punishable by imprisonment. The rationale mentioned in the article was homophobic, patriarchal and misogynistic all at once, and I remember recognizing it as such even at the time, although of course I did not know those fancy words back then: “A woman’s weakness can be forgiven, but a soldier must control his urges.”

After the fall of the iron curtain this discrepancy between the two countries sadly progressed. Whilst Czech Republic slowly but steadily progresses towards more and more legal rights for LGBTQ people along with public opinion progressing as well, in Russian Federation the trend actually reversed after a brief period of attempted progress.

So to me this, together with before mentioned environmentalism, is another one of the issues that actually is not left or right and it is just a coincidence that it is considered so in current political climate in the west. But lets not forget that political left can be just as adept at finding rationalizations for the homophobia of their power base as political right currently is. Hate of the other can, unfortunately, be quite the unifying issue in all kinds of political context.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 23 – Military

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


The cold war was not called war for nothing – military has played a significant role in it. There was mandatory draft – one year for university students and two years for everyone else – and it could only be avoided for medical reasons. Sometimes not even for that (more on that later). No conscientious objections either.

Behind the iron curtain the role of military composed of several things. First was propaganda. In the school we were regularly shown propaganda videos showing how technically superior is the Soviet bloc military to USA. And how depraved USA military is, how comparable to Nazis – Vietnam war has provided very nice and even true examples for such propaganda. And we were constantly reminded how important is army for our country, and how honorably is serving in it. There was even a moderately popular propagandist TV series “Chlapci a chlapi” (Boys and Men) that was entirely about how wonderful life in the army is. I do not remember much from the TV series and I do not ever want to watch it again.

As a child living right in the shade of the barbed wire curtains, my experience with military was sometimes more up close and personal – with its second function, border patrol. In our little town were military barracks, my mothers first husband was an officer of the border patrol, and later on father of one of my schoolmates was a captain of the border patrol. Seeing a couple of soldiers in uniform was nothing uncommon for me, because my mother was boss at local grocery shop and the barracks were buying some of their supplies there.

The border patrol guys had relatively miserable life, which I only learned later on. Suicides or suicide attempts were not uncommon. Due to the common practice of sending soldiers as far away from their home as possible, many of them were from as far as Slovakia near the Hungarian border. Not only was it quite depressing being torn away from your family and loved ones and sent across the whole country away with dismal chance at a leave maybe once or twice for a few days (which has led to many breakups), the border patrol had another problem – the prospect of having to really shoot at people. Only it was not a prospect of shooting enemies, but civilians. Because as I learned fairly early on, although the implications took quite a few years to sink in, the real purpose of the iron curtain was not to keep enemies out, it was to prevent people from escaping.

I have avoided draft – I was not of age before the Iron Curtain fell, and although we kept compulsory draft untill 2004, well after  I have finished university, the regulations were slightly relaxed at the time so I have managed to convince the draft physician that my atopic dermatitis is severe enough for me to be deemed ineligible.

I am glad I did. My older brother was not that lucky. He got drafted despite much worse atopic dermatitis than I ever had, and he served in military in its third prominent function – cheap labor. He was ordered to sweep dusty factory hall, to which he of course objected for health reasons. However his objections were ignored and as a result, his dermatitis worsened significantly and he has spent few months sick with hands bandaged up to the armpits – but that did not matter to the green brains too much, orders must be obeyed! Afterward he was given to sign a declaration that he is completely healed, which he declined to sign on advice of a family friend. I do not actually know a lot about his experience in the army, because we never talked about it much. From my perspective it is a two-year hole in my childhood where he was absent. What I know for sure that it instilled in him neither love for the military, nor for the country – quite the opposite. When he heard the leading song of the Boys and Men TV series, which contains a line ♪ it is a two years vacation, nothing more ♪ he actually screamed at the TV in rage.

It was not all bad, allegedly. The miliary offered free education in some skills that were difficult to obtain otherwise – like truck/bus driving licenses. Some relationships started that way because sending people across the country has led to of course meeting new people. Some of the working units got actually paid, but the money was not given to them until after the service, so they had a decent starting money after that. But there are people, even some of my friends, who decry the abandonment of compulsory draft because “it teaches young men discipline” and I do not buy that. Maybe it did sometimes break their spirit. But the way I see it, mostly the result for any given individual was two years of life lost without adequate recompense.

And there is no need to guard a fence around half of the country anymore. For now.

Slavic Saturday

Slavic people are today mostly seen as “white” to the point that a Polish game developer was in USA criticised for making the computer game Witcher 3 without any people of color that could be recognized as such in modern world. Similarly a few years later a Czech developer was criticised for the same thing in a game Kingdom Come: Deliverance, deliberately set in medieval Bohemia and made as historically accurate as possible.

Whilst I understand all the arguments for the importance of diversity in representation, I think all these critiques were misguided, because they were targeted at the wrong target – they criticised products of one culture from the perspective of another culture with entirely different roots.

Slavs are indeed white when you look at the color of their skin, and by Gob do we have an awful lot of white supremacists and neo-nazis today. However a white nationalist or even a neo-nazi Slav makes about as much sense as white nationalist or neo-nazi (or Trump loving) Jew.  After all, Jews have white skin too. And after all, how many Jew-hating Arabs and Arab-hating Jews know that both Jews and Arabs are in fact semitic tribes? I would venture a guess that many do not, or they do but don’t care. People are perfectly capable of being misguided, misinformed, bigoted and downright willfully ignorant and hold contradictory ideas in one head, so there is that.

Historically Slavs migrated in the Europe from east and north, displacing come celtic and germanic populations. As a result they lived mostly in the woodlands and mountains of north, central and East Europe and they were comparatively poor. They had no written language that we know of, so very little is in fact known about their culture or religion. Some knowledge can be derived from linguistics, some from written reports by neighbouring nations, some from archeology, but Slavs established themselves in Europe during the dark ages and knowledge is therefore scarce.

However it is sometimes alleged that their own name for themselves – Slovan (originating from the word sloviť=to speak) might have been the origin of the word sclavus (Lat), and later on Sklave (Ger) and  slave (En) . Because these poor people were popular sources of cheap slave labor for neighbouring Germanic and Italic tribes through the early history of Europe way over to the Ottoman Empire in Middle East later on.

And even apart from slavery, a lot of the time right from Ancient Rome and the Middle Ages until very recently most Slavic nations were second-class citizens in countries led by people of other nationalities. Only Russians have managed to be oppressors and not oppressed in this period, and ironically they mostly oppressed and sometimes even tried to exterminate other Slavs. Both Czechs and Poles did not have any independency right until the end of WW1, after which they had few short decades to get the taste of self-determination before being swept into the bloody cauldron of WW2.

Under the Third Reich the Slavs were seen as barely people. They were not targeted for outright extermination like Jews and Roma, but the intent was to put them back into their proper place – slavery (that is why I think that a neo-nazi Slav is an ignoramus and a completely daft person – if nazis got their way, he would think scrubbing floors with his own toothbrush is a posh job).

After the WW2 all slavic nations ended up being wrapped behind the Iron Curtain under the not-so subtle hegemony of USSR. This time at least it was not overtly attempted to obliterate local cultures and languages (not here anyway). But whilst the Russian rule did try and manage to instill some sense of Pan-Slavic belonging, they also managed to instill some anti russian sentiments along the way (in Poland on top of the hundreds of years long grudge Poles held against Russians from the time of the Russian Empire). And the sense of always being second class, not being allowed anything truly ours, pervaded.

In this sense, sprouting of some nationalism after the fall of the Iron Curtain was perhaps inevitable, what with the nations trying to finally re-assert themselves for good. I do think white nationalists are going about the business the wrong way, proclaiming your superiority over others is not the right thing to do and it is also demonstrably false. But I also think that Polish game developers who make a PC game packed with people who bear the typical facial features of contemporary Poles, with architecture and ornaments of medieval Slavic kingdoms and based on Slavic mythology, or Czech game developers making a game set in a very distinct and specific area of medieval Kingdom of Bohemia with focus on historical accuracy are doing nothing wrong and are indeed going about it the right way. And even though these works of art have managed to succeed on an international stage, their creators were in no way obliged to fall in step with USA culture and reflect USA racial make-up.

Those who criticised these two games for a lack of representation of POC have failed to realize that they were essentially trying to bully others into giving their own culture away and let the USA to appropriate said culture the way USA likes it. In fact, they should take these games as an opportunity to learn that “white people” are not a monolith and that outside of USA there is a lot more that defines your ancestry and your culture than the color of your skin. This way said critics were – probably unwittingly – perpetuating the USA collonialism ad absurdum, by requiring everyone everywhere to reflect contemporary social ills of USA.

We do not need nor want to do that, thank you very much. We have our own social ills to deal with.

Ruheforst Mushrooms – part 5

Today we have the last of Avalus’ photos from the natural burial forest, ending fittingly with a view of the forest itself. These burial forests are not only natural, but also safe and life sustaining. They’re one of nature’s best ways of recycling and there’s a growing demand for this type of burial option. One of the other big benefits of natural burial is that it is much more cost effective than the traditional care offered by the funeral industry of today.

My thanks to Avalus for his wonderful tour. I’ve enjoyed walking through the forest with him and seeing the myriad of fungi that grow here.

A “Hexen-Röhrling” (lit: witches-boletes), probably a Rubroboletus rubrosanguineus. ©Avalus, all rights reserved

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Funeral Care is Changing and Becoming Green

 

There’s a growing movement to wrestle death care away from the needlessly expensive hands of the Funeral Industry and to return to simpler methods of care and burial of the dead. The Order of the Good Death is an international organization committed to helping people find safe, green, affordable and natural options for burial. The Order is young, but growing quickly in part as a response to the startling statistics about our modern burial practices.

“American funerals are responsible each year for the felling of 30 million board feet of casket wood (some of which comes from tropical hardwoods), 90,000 tons of steel, 1.6 million tons of concrete for burial vaults, and 800,000 gallons of embalming fluid. Even cremation is an environmental horror story, with the incineration process emitting many a noxious substance, including dioxin, hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide.” via Just How Bad is Traditional Burial?

One of the primary chemicals used in embalming fluid is formaldehyde, making all those gallons of embalming fluid highly toxic. Practitioners are required to wear full body and face protection and the chemicals aren’t always safely contained in our modern sealed caskets and concrete vaults. Flooding, earthquakes and even simply shifting ground can allow embalming fluids to leach into the soil and ground waters.

Cremation isn’t much better, releasing many dangerous pollutants into the air. There is, however, a new technology available called Aquamation which chemically breaks down a body using Alkaline Hydrolosis. The process is simple and transformative according to green funeral director Jeff Jorgenson

The AH process is that of heating a solution of water and sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH), which breaks down the complex molecules that make up the soft tissue of a body. In most human AH machines, this solution is pressurized and heated well above the boiling point of standard atmosphere. This high pressure/high temperature accelerates the breakdown of these complex molecules to a liquid. What remains are just the bones of the deceased, which is the same result you see with cremation. The process in human machines takes around three hours. Most animal AH machines however, this one included, do not use pressure for the process and thus, the temperatures used in the process are far lower, and that equals a longer processing time. This longer process means that you must perform multiple aquamations in one cycle to make it viable…

The water at the end of the cycle then gets discharged into the sanitary system like all other waste water. I would like to take a moment to explain that the liquid that is discharged is nutrient rich and safe enough to use in the garden for all of your vegetables. In cremation, all the tissues and liquid are vented up the chimney in the form of particulates and steam. In the both cremation and AH, what is returned to the family is simply bone and trace materials.

Aquamation is new technology and it may take some time before it becomes widely available and accepted. For those who want a more natural disposition of their dead there are green cemeteries popping up where bodies are simply buried in the soil with only a natural shroud or a biodegradable coffin. There are also now burial suits that turn bodies into clean compost. Decomposition is natural and safe. There is also a growing number of funeral directors who will assist you to be involved in the care of the body at your own level of comfort. That may be as simple as helping to wash and dress the dead or as complex as keeping the body at home and arranging for transport and burial. It is not a legal requirement that bodies be embalmed and it is perfectly safe to keep a body at home for several days with simply ice packs to slow down decomposition. 

A home funeral is what used to be called”a funeral,” since all funerals took place in the family home. Nowadays it means choosing to keep a body at home after death, as opposed to having the body immediately picked up by a funeral home. It is a safe and legal choice for a family to make!

Now, an important caveat is that each US state (for instance) has different laws – some states require you to hire a funeral director to file a death certificate or to transport a body.  This won’t effect the keeping the body at home part, but the funeral director will need to be involved in the process.

To find out what the home funeral requirements are where you live, you can find more detailed information here.

And if you’re interested in the requirements around embalming, burial, and cremation, read your consumer rights listed by state.

I encourage you to visit the Order of The Good Death. The site is full of resources and interesting articles about this growing trend in after death care. They also have information to help you begin conversations about planning for death and advanced directives. Death is a natural and inevitable part of life. There’s no need to fear talking about it.

I’d also like to thank Avalus for prompting me to write about this. His photographs of mushrooms in a natural burial cemetery peaked my curiosity. We’ll be sharing Avalus’ mushroom photos daily over the course of this week and I encourage you to check them out, too.

 

 

 

Ruheforst Mushrooms

From Avalus, information about a growing trend and a warning about climate change.

Maybe a bit macabre, so a foreword.

 Graveyards, Mushrooms and climate change, perhaps.

 In Germany there is a growing trend to be buried in a “Ruheforst”, (resting or still forest) instead of a usual graveyard. There your cremated remains get buried in a bio-degradable urn next to a tree of your choosing. There are no graves, no large markerstones, just an open, tended-to forest with many small paths and plaques on some trees. Some persons I know rest in such a place in the palatinate forest near the town Bad Dürkheim, so our family visits them every so often. Now to the bit macabre bit: It’s also a prime mushroom hunting place with usually plenty of different bolete species and other edibles. One of my grandmothers is sure, the ‘shrooms are nourished by the dead and refuses to eat any. I think they are so plentiful because by opening the forest, the trees left standing are getting more light and nutrients and so can give more of these nutrients to their mushroom-symbionts.

This year however, there were hardly any mushrooms of any kind there. The ground was very dry and most of the threes had small leaves. Instead, signs warning of forest fires were a common sight.

I did not pick up any of the edible ‘shrooms I found, but only took photos.

I have no idea, but I admired its roundness. ©Avalus, all rights reserved

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How Typically American

So White House has published a pamphlet about the evils of socialism. I have not read it in full and I probably won’t since I have better things to do with my life than to read drivel from Trump administration, but on casual glance it seems to insinuate that the disastrous attempt at socialism in former Soviet bloc invalidates everything with the word root “social” in it. Therefore since badly implemented socialism in Ukraine has led to famine in 1921, “socialism” in EU in 2018 is just as bad.

That is of course complete non-sequitur.

The whole document also seems to be rather American-centric and comparing apples with pineapples, or perhaps even bananas. Like this infographic:

Whitehouse infographic about Costs of Owning a truck

Now I admit I have zero personal experience with any of the countries on that infographic except with USA.

But my experience with USA is that people there own pickup trucks in about 80% of the cases just to own them, not because they actually, really need them. I mean, I have seen them used for grocery shopping in big cities, with the deck empty and the groceries being put in a bag on the passenger seat. People commuted daily to work in them. Most owners of pickup trucks in USA could do just as well with only ordinary cars and for those rare occasions where they really, really might need something bigger (like buying building materials for house repairs etc.) the options available in for example Germany (i.e. renting a truck or goods trailer at the shop for a few days) would suffice ample. Further populations in EU are much more tightly knit than they are in USA, there are not many far-off farms and isolated homesteads that really need pickup trucks. I am not sure how this is in Nordic countries, but I still suspect that a real need for big pickup truck there is smaller than in US just due to the USA’s sheer size and wast empty places.

Thus this infographic is used either ignorantly or dishonestly to scaremonger. Or both.

As far as the economic side of the pamphlet goes, I will leave the critique to an expert who says everything better than I ever can:
Are the Danes Melancholy? Are the Swedes Sad?

On the whole I get the feeling that this pamphlet starts with the assumption that everything USA=good and everything socialism=bad and tries to spin evidence to appear to validate those assumptions.

How typically American of them, to ignore all context an only seek ways to put USA at the center of the universe. Again.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 19 – Pionýr

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


In my opinion, totalitarian regimes are very good at recognizing one crucial fact of life – it is important to reach children as soon as possible and indoctrinate them into your ideology, because later on it might not work. Throughout history of totalitarian regimes therefore are many examples of youth’s organizations whose main purpose was political.

The communist regime in former Soviet bloc was no different and the youth organization in our country was named “Pionýr” a derivative of the word pioneer, attempting to imply boldness and strength to freely explore hitherto unexplored. Where “freely” means “in the direction the party allows and if the conclusions confirm with party line”.

It started at an early age, about seven years, with a membership in “Jiskra” (spark), an organisation that was essentially preparing children for future membership in pionýr. After that, at the eight-nine years of age, the child could enter the Pionýr organization and become a full member.

Membership was confirmed by a public pledge first as Jiskra, then as Pionýr. I do not remember my Pionýr pledge, but I do remember some feelings about being overwhelmed by the Jiskra one, to the point that I still remember the first sentence of the pledge – but I had to look up the rest. I had my heart in my throat as I was standing in an auditorium in front of most of the town and piping up the pledge loud enough to be heard. I also remember that I actually believed and meant what I was saying.

Here are the translations (not trying to convey the cadence and rhyming of the originals):
Jiskra – “Slibuji dnes přede všemi, jako jiskra jasná, chci žít pro svou krásnou zemi, aby byla šťastná” – Like a bright spark I promise in front of all, that I want to live for my beautiful country so it can be happy.

Pionýr: “Slibuji před svými druhy, že budu pracovat, učit se a žít podle pionýrských zákonů, abych byl dobrým občanem své milované vlasti, Československé socialistické republiky, a svým jednáním chránit čest pionýrské organizace Socialistického svazu mládeže.” – I promise in front of my comrades, that I will work, learn and live by pionýr law, in order to become good citizen of my beloved country, Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, and with my behaviour I promise to guard the honor of the Pionýr organization of Socialist Youth Association.

Membership in Pionýr was not compulsory. But it was not compulsory in the sense “it is voluntary, but you must”. In my class, there were a few children who were not members, and our teacher – a fanatical communist to this day – did give them some grief for that. Remember what I said about education? Not being a member of Pionýr was a huge hindrance to getting meaningful highschool education, and made it nigh impossible to get into university later on. So most children entered the organization even when privately they and their parents disagreed with the regime.

I do not remember much about what we were doing in the name of the organization as such, apart from a few summer camps to which I went, and a few marches on memorable occasions (like 1.st of May). Maybe I will remember something more later.

I still have my red scarf in the cupboard, despite not agreeing with communist philosophy. I do not know why.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 18 – Periodicals for Children

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.


From a child’s perspective, this is one of those things again that the regime got at least mostly right, if not outright right. There were at lest five different magazines specifically for children, with target audiences from 6 to 18 years. Unfortunately most of them do not exist anymore, except one and the last issues I have seen of that one do not hold a candle to what it used to be – too many advertisements, too little real content.

The magazine I am talking about is ABC mladých techniků a přírodovědců (ABC of young technicians and natural scientists). I still have a stack of old issues that I have not thrown away and sometimes I still go through them and occasionally learn a new thing or two.

That particular magazine has a unique format – there are articles about science, technology and nature and occasional story of course and I learned a lot about those things from it. But it also featured two regular features that no other magazine in our country at that time had – paper models and comics.

The paper models are what made the magazine extremely popular and famous, and in my opinion also most useful for a young kid. I know people, even in my family, who sneer at that notion, but the truth is that even today I and I am sure my brother as well are using the skills learned while cutting, measuring and gluing paper models together. And by using I mean getting paid, because making models gives one nimble fingers, teaches patience and trains spatial intelligence. It is a pity that since made from paper, those models were not particularly long-lived so none of them survived until today. They required way to much care and collected way too much dust to be kept in a household with three asthmatics.

The comics were, in my non-humble opinion, much better than whatever nonsense Marvel is peddling. There were no superheroes and no mages. Over the years there were multiple series, and they all excelled in the past in one thing – combining education with entertainment. One series was entirely devoted to Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle. One was about a robot uprising. And one particularly long-lived one was about a group of Pionýrs doing the things that kids do – going to school, going outside, camping, fighting etc.

It was full of covert propaganda of course, but even in retrospect it was mostly not propaganda that I particularly mind. Most of it was about the importance of having useful skills and knowledge, about not being an asshole and taking care of other people as well as yourself. Things that I personally think children should learn as a matter of course wherever they live.

Teacher’s Corner: Retarded!

As you may know by now I have recently started a new job as a special ed teacher without having actually trained as a special ed teacher. This is pretty challenging on top of the job being challenging anyway, and I’m trying to desperately read up on the concepts and theories of the discipline. In doing so I stumbled across a word that is one of the nastier ones flung around in English: retarded.

And I discovered that it is a good word. Or at least used to be.

See, special ed went through it’s development just like regular teaching. Concepts and ideas about children, learning and teaching have changed, change which is often (though not always) reflected in our schools. In its earlier stages, special ed saw children who were slow to learn as “defective”. Children who could more or less keep up with the classwork were “normal” and the other ones were broken, damaged goods, lacking. You see where this is going.

Then came science and studied children and how they learn. They put many things educators had long known on a scientific basis and formulated scientific concepts. One of the still most influential people in this area is the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget, who described the processes through which we learn and also formulated stages through which we develop.

Screenshot of Piaget bok covers

Yes, there’s an endless amount of books on and by Piaget

All legitimate criticism aside (it relates mostly to how far you can take his models and where are limits of their application), his models are still important. As teachers we want and we need to challenge our students to help them in that development, which isn’t an automatism. We need to construct our input at the right level. Primary school teachers will endlessly use concrete things and pictures to teach their students. They need to literally take away five marbles to find out what 12-5 is.

What especially Piaget’s students found out was that not all children develop at roughly the same pace. Some children are much slower than the average, they stay behind, they are “retarded”. The concept as such was revolutionary. The children were no longer seen as defective, just slower. They were not inferior to their peers but would reach the same levels of cognitive development as their peers, just later. This had, and has, great importance for teaching children with special needs, as it means that we need to give them different input, teach them using a much more hands on approach than with their peers and most importantly, get them to the same place, just a little more slowly.

It’s sad to see how ableist ideas turned such a revolutionary concept into a nasty slur. It also shows that you need to change society, not just words. The slur does not mean what the word means in a professional context. It still means “broken and defective”.