How I laughed last week during an online session with one of my VHS groups.

The VHS is the Volkshochschule, the German institution which is in charge of organising adult education all over the country. People who have something to teach – whether it’s English, or pottery, or babysitting, or IT, or yoga – offer a course and hopefully lots of participants join up. You can also attend classes to achieve high school or professional credits. Or you can learn to read. The charges are modest and to be honest the pay is too, but I have taught for the VHS since the 1980s and cannot put a finanical value on the wonderful people I have met and the personal stories I have been privileged to hear.

(Honesty compels me to mention that our VHS does not offer welding courses, much to the chagrin of my husband.)

It looks as if we will be meeting in person again in September, and so I asked this group what they had liked most about our lessons, pre-Corona. Several participants said they liked that the lesson is unstructured and has no concept.

Ha! If only they knew.

When I trained to be a teacher, a million years ago, we had very strict and clear rules about lesson planning, which I have stuck to ever since. I was always proud that I neither overran nor ran out of material during the 90-minute session. I knew that structure, rituals and patterns were vital; I always finished by saying,

“Well, that’s all we have time for today. Thank you for coming and look forward to seeing you next week.”

Years ago, I read that a teacher should imagine every student entering the room is carrying a rucksack. In that rucksack are all the things which have happened to them that day, good and bad. They have to be helped to remove the rucksack before they can open themselves to the subject you are teaching: in my case, English. (Although I remember my father, who was also a teacher, being asked what he taught. His answer was ‘Children!’)

Some years ago I began to start every lesson with a short “….of the week”. First we had King or Queen of the week. Henry VIII, Queen Victoria etc. It was a roaring success and when we had finished, the students begged for more. So we had Prince and Princess of the week. Then Prime Minister of the week. UK county of the week. Famous scientist of the week. US state of the week. I was beginning to scrape the barrel when I came to the idea of “Insect of the week”.

This was far more interesting than one might think. Who knew that ladybirds fight off enemies using excretions from their knees? Or that there are 1,700 species of earwig worldwide? That aphids may be born already pregnant!!!!!

Anyway, insect of the week at home this week is the caterpillar, more specifically this one,

dozens of which are eating my nasturtiums, as the header shows. It’s hard to be angry with them, as they will become cabbage white butterflies.

When I lie on my recamière in Haus Ferdinand in the afternoon, cabbage whites (and other butterflies) flutter in and out. Sometimes they come and alight on my book. It is as if we are in a space which belongs to both of us, and we look at each other for a while and then the butterfly flies back out again, to the nettles and buddleia and, well, nasturtiums.

They’re welcome!

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