Ana-Maria (“Ami”) Baciu was 12 years old when she held oranges—and was assured, for the first time, that she could eat them all if that was her wish. The real treats for kids, however, said Ami, after teaching a class on living with the everyday deprivations of a Communist-ruled Romania, were Pepsi and chewing gum! For English teacher David Smith ’65, the treat of the day in his CSC classes was the lesson plan Ami executed with great success for students who are in the midst of reading and discussing George Orwell’s novel 1984.
After being introduced as a teacher at Romania’s very best high school, a leader of cross-cultural workshops held in Poland, and a translator of literature written in English, Ms. Baciu led the class in an exercise that yielded a list of values cherished by the students. She asked them to discuss how they would feel if survival depended on jettisoning one or both of the values which defined them. Then handouts were distributed, and students read firsthand accounts from At Home We Whisper (2000), a memoir by Stelian Tanase—one of at least a dozen accounts published since the fall of the Ceausescu regime in December 1989. (Throughout the memoir, Tenase juxtaposes passages from his own diary with accounts of the same days’ events as they were recorded in the approximately 500 pages of the file kept on him by the Securitate, Romania’s secret police.)
Responding to the passages, students then slowly generated a list of what Ami called “tools of oppression.” Soon enough, the discussion focused on describing the goals sought by a totalitarian regime; ultimately, each tool pointed to the same objective: to maintain power. “Does this look like fiction to you?” Ami asked. “It does to me. Either it confirms the legitimacy of Orwell’s literature, or it confirms the absurdity of a book like Orwell’s coming true.”
When it came time to discuss the effects of totalitarian rule on individuals, students had no trouble recognizing how deprivations of information, food, privacy, electricity, or medical help would make people wary of each other, dependent upon the government, and also desperate to find alternative ways of surviving. When Ami returned to the list of values from the opening exercise, students watched as one after another of their cherished values became casualties of a powerful government’s abuses.
In commenting on growing up around adults who needed to stand in line as early as 3:00 a.m. for butter or milk—and would fight over oranges—Ami says that children were endlessly inventive. “We had lots of fun finding alternative ways of living. In a way, we were made creative.” When someone she knew brought home a prize commodity, friends would flock to the house. “We would have a feast!” Among other topics discussed were the different stages of a child’s “patriotic education,” the status assigned to “Heroine Mothers” who supported the government’s goals by bearing more children, and Ami’s watching evening cartoons broadcast from Bulgaria—which explains why all children grew up knowing how to say “Good night, children!” in Bulgarian.
David Smith ’65 admired Ami for what he saw unfold slowly in his class. “I thought Ami’s exercise was brilliant in bringing to life the warning of 1984. Since we began to read, my students have been commenting that even as fiction it is difficult to believe that the people could be so manipulated. As the students watched their own most cherished values crossed off the board one by one, it became clear to us all that, while the novel is fiction, the underlying cautionary theme is all too real.”
As for the broader context of having welcomed four teachers from Mihai Viteazul National College, David reports that Ami’s vice principal is thrilled. “Adriana reports that returning teachers have led by example in ways that are helping to reshape the organizational culture of the school. The visiting teachers, she says, are really making a difference at her school—which is already a great school! For our part, Lawrence Academy’s students and faculty have benefited from enthusiastic visitors who have been gracious enough to discuss life and learning in Romania both before and during the transition from Communist rule to democracy.”
LA Welcomes Fourth Romanian Teacher
On Tuesday morning, April 4, Lawrence Academy welcomed the fourth teacher who has visited from Mihai Viteazul National College, a public school known to have among the best and brightest students in Bucharest, Romania. Ana-Maria Baciu, an English teacher, will be on campus until April 14 to observe Lawrence Academy’s emphasis on active learning in student-centered classrooms.
Like her colleagues visiting before her, “Ami” hopes to see as many different teachers in action as possible. She says she expects to witness “something completely different from what we do or can do” and to borrow the best of what she observes. In her second year of teaching, students demonstrated during one class on Jonathan Swift and Daniel Defoe just how capable they were of “making conversation possible” by asking questions and expressing their own opinions. Since then, Ami has been hooked on teaching and eager to move beyond the teaching methods she refers to as “deeply traditional.”
In addition to visiting classes and teaching at least one class with David Smith ’65 on Orwell’s 1984, Ami will also do some sightseeing. According to David, who has coordinated the teacher exchange that has sent John Curran to Bucharest, Ami’s school regularly wins national math and science honors as one of the top five schools in Romania. The daughter of two teachers, Ami, who has already become involved in training some aspiring teachers, believes that the incremental but important changes in teaching methods at Mihai Viteazul National College are irreversible. Today’s high-school students “will not be silenced” in their enthusiasm for interactive learning, she says. “It’s too late for that.”
The exchange of teachers with Mihai Viteazul National College is made possible through the generosity of past LA parents Dan and Katherine Dimancescu (Katie ’99 and Nick ’03). Previous visitors have been vice principal and veteran English teacher Adriana Tepelea, who laid the groundwork for the exchange; Mihai Manea, a teacher of European history; Claudia Negut, a science teacher; and Mihai Surdu, a physics teacher who visited earlier this year.