Friday, 20 October 2017

Cultural revelations in coloring

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
15 January 2010

To help my English class of Czech 6-year-olds learn their colors, I presented them each with a winter wonderland coloring picture to color in together. To make sure none of my students got ahead of me, I decided to make the instructions nonsensical, such as, "Color the trees orange," or "Color the snowman purple." I thought my idea was ingenious and a good, lighthearted way to end our class.

After I'd given the first instruction, my students raced to grab the correct color from the pencil box. Then simultaneously, their hands froze above the coloring page. I saw several students exchange quizzical glances, and begin chattering to each other in Czech. I could tell from their concerned faces and agitated voices that they thought their American teacher had temporarily lost her mind.

Soon one worried student said directly to me, "Orange trees, really? Our mothers and our teacher will be angry when they see we've done our picture wrong." After I gave them several reassurances that we were trying to make a "crazy" picture on purpose, I succeeded in convincing most of the students to cooperate; however, throughout the activity they continued to worry, interrupting to ask me in Czech, "really?" One student ignored me and proceeded to color his trees green, his snowman white, and the rest of his sheet as sensibly as he could.

When Anna Lee arrived at the end of class, I handed her a coloring sheet also. She didn't seem to have any trouble following my silly directions (perhaps because I was her mother), but she became distraught when she realized that she had colored two birds green instead of only one as I had instructed. She was also concerned that the other students had colored in more than she had.

Although it's impossible to generalize after one coloring activity, watching the students react to my directions and speaking with their teacher later, it made me think that even a simple activity like coloring might have cultural roots. When I retold the story to Anna's teacher, she laughed and said, "Yes, they're typical kindergarteners. They are learning how things are supposed to be in time to go to school next year."

From my own experience with the Czech educational system, there is more room for black and white than gray. Respect for authority, traditional rituals and daily routines are firmly instilled in preschool years. I've often marveled at the site of one preschool teacher walking down a street in Prague with twenty-four students, all neatly paired off following dutifully behind her.

The complicated routine of dressing and undressing when going from outdoors to indoors and from waking to sleeping, plus the multi-step process of eating a hot lunch with a soup starter each day at lunch are cultural rituals that add to the need for conformity. There are no options for opting out of eating the same meal as the other students, just as each student is expected to change into the appropriate clothes at the appropriate times. It seems only reasonable that with this background, Czech students would be reluctant to embark on a coloring activity that seems impractical. I could almost see their little brains thinking, "What's the point of a silly picture anyway?"

The culture of conformity instilled in a Czech child's preschool years continues in grammar school where lessons are often based on repetition and regurgitation. Czech schools are not particularly concerned with free expression and individuality with regard to critical thinking, although Czech students have traditionally scored highly on international math and science exams, areas where memorization and hard skills are essential.

Watching the Christmas performance at Anna Lee's school, I was impressed by the length of the show, as well as the quantity of complex rhymes, stories and carols the children recited and sang from memory. Hearing twenty little voices chanting in unison made for an endearing performance. There were a few instances when one or two children recited a line alone, but for the most part, the children performed as one voice. When I thought about all the time the children had spent practicing the same rhymes day after day before they knew them perfectly, I wondered if the repetition approach would still be as appealing when the rhymes and riddles were replaced with historical, scientific and mathematic facts.

Interestingly, the main requirement for a child going into grammar school from preschool (apart from turning 6 by Sept of that school year) is a psychologist's recommendation, plus the ability to sit still. From listening to parents with older children in Czech schools, it appears that some schools are slowly changing their approach to encourage more individual critical thinking, but I think that many teachers have learned the old way and won't likely change their attitude very quickly.

As far as coloring is concerned, I know from perusing the Czech coloring books that Anna's babička buys her, there can indeed be a "right" way to color. In these coloring books, labeled for "the smallest," the left and right pages of each two-page spread are identical. However, one page is perfectly colored in, while the other page is blank, presumably for a child to color in using the same color scheme as on the completed page. Our attempts to use these coloring books at home usually end with Anna Lee in tears because she's made a mistake. No amount of consoling her that the picture will still look okay, even if she's gone out of the lines or colored something different from the colors that are shown, works.

I know that as she grows her desire for perfection and her easy annoyance will ease up. In the meantime, we're trying to steer clear of Czech coloring books and give out blank pieces of paper. I learned my lesson in my English class. I'd rather skip the issues of coloring conformity and let the children show me on which activities they hope to apply their imagination and on which, their practical sensibilities.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.