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U3A Writing: The Eisteddfod

...the biggest and most tiring hurdle was trying to form a classroom of giggling, talking, constantly moving mass of children into a quiet, controlled and co-operative effective choir...

Shirley Long tells of the hard work needed to produce an effective children's speaking choir.

Charlotte Vandenberg, Lottie to her friends, is a lady who has left a strong impression on my mind and emotions. I first knew her at the River Road Pentecostal Church, where we became good friends. I admired her strong spirit, her love of life and her gorgeous sense of humour. Lottie now lives in Murray House, Wentworth, but in the years when I knew her best, she and her husband Rupert lived in a small flat in a group of flats for ex-Service personnel, in the vicinity of Princes Court.

Lottie always loved working with children and also adults, teaching them poetry and passages from the Bible - how to speak these clearly and correctly so that they could be easily understood and appreciated. She was asked by a member of the Eisteddfod organising committee if she could work with groups of children from the various state schools in the area, to help them prepare to take part in the Verse Speaking of the yearly Eisteddfod. Lottie willingly agreed. She asked me if I would like to join with her in doing this and I was glad to do so.

Lottie then contacted several of the local schools, but some were reluctant, seeing the preparation work as an interruption to the class work. Others did not know Lottie and didn't think it wise to allow an unknown lady to teach some unknown programme to their students. However, Buronga State School knew Lottie and appreciated her from the work she had already done there as a religious instruction teacher, so they welcomed her although not really understanding what this was all about. I would pick her up in my car each time we went to Buronga. We knew that we had a difficult road ahead of us to hoe, but we felt it would be an interesting experience. We laughed and joked together as we drove.

It was not easy! The teacher was male, easy going and not a lot of help to us on the discipline front. The children were lovely, but, oh so noisy and self willed. Some of their parents were adamantly against any activity which took the children away from the classroom and their lessons. They could not see any point to, or advantage for their child in taking part in the Eisteddfod. To them, it was all a waste of time. Their children were never going to appear as adults on any stage, or recite poetry or whatever in public, and they thought it was all quite ridiculous. Fortunately, we also had parents who were co-operative and helpful and who offered to assist us in the classroom, in hearing the children recite their piece of poetry or whatever, checking that they had the words correct and any bodily gestures which were necessary to convey meaning. Their help was invaluable, as Lottie and I could not possibly "hear" all the children individually in the time available.

However, the biggest and most tiring hurdle was trying to form a classroom of giggling, talking, constantly moving mass of children into a quiet, controlled and co-operative effective choir of children, who could stand still, open their mouths and speak the words we painstakingly drilled into their minds.

Many were the times Lottie and I would go home completely exhausted from our efforts with the children. We loved them - they were beautiful kids, but they just had no idea about not fidgeting or scratching or whispering to a classmate when I wanted them to stand still. We asked their teacher to give them extra standing still practice when we were not there and he tried, but he was not a natural disciplinarian and it was hard going.

Of course, they had not been to the Arts Centre, so had no idea of what it was like or what was required of them. I tried to describe how the stage was brightly lit and the auditorium was dark, with the adjudicator and her assistant sitting there at a brightly lit table where the competitors would be on view all the time they were on stage. They were not to let go of their self control when they completed their item, but were to stay well behaved until right off the stage. I told them no matter what happened when they were on stage, they were not to move, not even to swivel their eyes.

Thankfully, after much harassing of them by Lottie, myself and the helping Mums, they got the hang of standing as a cohesive unit, to the point where the adjudicator gave them an excellent report, commenting favourably on their ability to remain still and quiet for three minutes before the signal to commence was given. The children were really pleased with their performance and they looked good, all in their uniforms with shiny shoes. It was good for them to see the verse speaking choirs from other schools, some in complete uniform and some in everyday-go-to-school clothes.

Lottie and I were pleased that the helping Mums would continue with this type of activity after she and I had left the scene. A little later, Lottie was asked by the headmaster if we could help four grade six boys who were very behind in their reading ability and as a result of feeling inferior, they were making a discipline problem. We each took two boys, changing over at the lesson's half time. The boys were really great lads, but restless at first until they realised we were there to help them. As I told them, we were there because we loved them and were doing what we did without pay. It was wonderful to see how quickly they responded to the one-on-one teaching and how their self confidence grew as their reading ability improved. Lottie and I just wished that we had been able to start working with the boys earlier and we could have accomplished more, but we did what we could, and had to leave the rest up to God and to hope that at Coomealla High School they would be able to cope.

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