Readjusting the school merry-go-round

Why jump on the Latvian school merry-go-round? In a some parts of the United States, Canada and Australia, as well as a few cities in the United Kingdom and Sweden, kids of Latvian descent—several hundred, maybe, in total—still attend Latvian Saturday or Sunday schools to learn the language and culture of their parents and grandparents.

Why? Their parents—who were, for the most part, born outside Latvia in the 1950s to the 1970s—still consider this a priority and are prepared to make the commitment of devoting their childrens’ (and their own) days off to this cause.

But why? Each parent has an individual answer to this question. The collective reason, however, is no longer a united one. Latvia is now a free country. Anyone of Latvian descent is now free to move to Latvia and raise their children there. No one will stop you. But many of us still remain in the countries where we were born, yet we want to raise our kids with the language and culture of our forefathers.

Gone are the days when stepping on the "Latvian carousel" was carried out as a duty to the homeland that was oppressed by the Soviets, when learning the language and culture was a "natural" thing: most of your friends and relatives were Latvian, and teaching the kids about their parents’ homeland seemed logical and important.

This present generation of parents now sending their children to Latvian school was born in the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdoom, Germany or Sweden. For many, their Latvian identity was a small part of their whole persona. They were raised with the values of their country of birth. They, on the whole, spent most of their time with friends from their local school and, later on, their work community. They have married either local non-Latvians or have spouses of Latvian descent but who also were not born in Latvia.

Yet, some of these devoted 30- and 40-something Latvians around the world still wish to continue to devote part of their weekends to Latvian activities. The strange sense of "duty" is still there, but in varying degrees, of course. What is this duty to? Sometimes to their parents. They feel they would have let their kids’ grandparents down if they don’t make some sort of attempt at sending them to school. Some hope the school will teach them something because it’s difficult at home. Often, if their spouse does not speak the language, their children feel more comfortable and find it much easier speaking the language of the country of their birth. Others want to pass on the language and culture of their forefathers to their children. And still others can’t imagine not sending them to Latvian school because that’s what they had to do, so that’s what their kids are going to have to do, too!

After all, Latvian is not a language that parents would naturally choose as one that could be beneficial to their child and come in handy when travelling or for doing business in their future career. Nor is it considered as one of the classical languages, like Latin or ancient Greek.

What, then, should these children be learning at Latvian school, bearing in mind that we’re talking about a few (at the most four) hours per week?

The old school of teaching says we should teach Latvian grammar, literature, geography, history, and a smattering of folklore (songs, dancing, traditions).

Is this sort of a curriculum still relevant to second- and third-generation Latvian children born and living outside Latvia? Is the same style of teaching that we were brought up with on Saturday or Sunday mornings still an effective way of teaching the language and culture?

I would argue that the curriculum should reflect the changed perception of Latvia held by the parents, pupils and those teaching the language.

What is these kids’ perception of Latvia? They don’t have parents (or even grandparents) who can share with them their experiences of life in "Ulmaņa Latvija" (Latvia when it was led by Kārlis Ulmanis in the 1930s) and in their minds be able to conjure up the romantic or sentimental longing for a "fatherland." The parents and grandparents of this generation of children have a more objective view of Latvia based on either personal trips to Latvia in the past 10 years or news about life in Latvia today gleaned from printed and online media, as well as other travellers. And if there is a small group of grandparents who were children in Latvia before they emigrated during the Second World War and who still remember the Latvia of the 1930s, then more often than not, they have visited Latvia in the past decade and have a realistic view of Latvia today.

This current generation going through Latvian schools outside Latvia is:

  • vastly different to previous generations in terms of upbringing, expectations, knowledge about their Latvian heritage and the Latvian language, and blood nationality (many of these children are born into families where one parent is not Latvian). This means that merely using the textbooks used by Latvian children 20 or 30 years ago would not be the most effective way of teaching this subject.
  • vastly different to the generation of schoolchildren currently going through the education system in Latvia. This means that the educational methods employed in Latvia today cannot be simply transferred to the schools that are teaching the language and culture outside Latvia. And merely buying textbooks used in Latvia and presuming that these by themselves will solve all teaching problems would not suffice.

What to do?

First, teach the language (ideally, where resources permit, at two separate levels: to those who already speak Latvian in a home environment and to those who do not), incorporating the wide variety of resources available from Latvia today: books, magazines, newspapers, audio tapes, CDs, videos and anything else that teachers can utilise to make their lessons more interesting. A wealth of resources is available. It only takes a bit of organising to get them sent to your city. The literary classics should be taught to the children, bearing in mind their understanding of the language. If their understanding is limited it would be much more beneficial to create an interest in the written word by introducing other, more easily digestible literature, rather than forcing them to read works that will only create resentment within the children.

Second, teach the culture. This is an integral part of the process of learning to identify oneself as a Latvian. Give the children an understanding about the rich cultural traditions that they have inherited from their ancestors—folksongs, folkdances, festivals, traditions—and teach them to admire the uniqueness of this culture. This part of their education should be a particularly "fun" part. Most of the folklore can be taught in a hands-on way to really bring home the concepts and understand that the folklore was all tied in with the lifestyle and world view of their ancestors.

Third, teach the history. An important part of being Latvian is understanding what Latvians have gone through in the past, knowledge that can help one understand Latvia’s current trials and tribulations. The history should be taught, if possible, not through textbooks, but through literature, art, videos, personal documents and oral history.

Fourth, create opportunities for children to participate in activities where the whole school takes part. By feeling that they are part of a whole community, not just a single class or just their family, they hopefully will grow to enjoy the experiences they have had with "the Latvians," not just base their judgment on the classroom experience. Latvian summer camps play a major role in this process.

And, fifth, create opportunities for children to visit Latvia, if only for short periods of time. This will consolidate all they have learnt, and meeting with Latvians from Latvia (particularly children) would make the "Latvian experience" much more tangible and give a greater sense of purpose to the learning process.

Emphasis should be placed on learning everything in a fun way. Don’t forget that at their weekday schools children are taught subjects with a wide variety of audiovisual materials. Why not make use of every possible Latvian resource you can lay your hands on to make the learning process memorable and fun? Unfortunately, it’s not possible to use Latvian computer games as resources as they are hard to come by. However, teachers could alert their pupils to the fact that the Internet opens the door to hundreds of Latvian Web sites, some of which would be quite interesting to the children. Why not make use of the Internet as the basis for a research project? The kids would be surprised and delighted with what they can find!

I must stress that this is my personal opinion, based on my experiences within the Latvian community in Australia. I have attended Latvian Saturday school from age four to matriculation level. And I now have a five-year-old daughter who has just started attending Latvian school on a weekly basis on Saturday afternoons.

What is your view? Do you agree with this? Or do you have any other suggestions? What was your experience in the Latvian language schools of the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and even 1990s? Are you currently teaching in a Latvian school outside Latvia? Do you have any teaching tips or successful methods you would like to share with others? By pooling our ideas together and learning from each other we can find better solutions to age-old problems and make our trip on the merry-go-round a bit smoother.

Daina Gross is editor of Latvians Online. An Australian-Latvian she is also a migration researcher at the University of Latvia, PhD from the University of Sussex, formerly a member of the board of the World Federation of Free Latvians, author and translator/ editor/ proofreader from Latvian into English of an eclectic mix of publications of different genres.

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