Thursday, July 12, 2007

How do you act out a preposition?

For whatever reason, I give free English lessons each weekday. Perhaps it’s some form of karmic cleansing. Perhaps it provides a little bit of that structure I’m always talking about. Whatever the reason, there is something about teaching that gives me a great thrill. The thrill comes from many different directions at once. In one way, it allows me an opportunity to reflect on my own struggles learning to speak the Laos language. It’s an opportunity to pay it forward. And there is the thrill of going to the office supply store to buy materials for visual aids. There is the thrill of maybe getting some return on that time spent pursuing performing arts. In other ways, it gives me a chance to do what I love the most: help other people.

In all my classes, whether they are English or computer science or meditation, I make a concerted effort to make sure it is fun. In fact, I try to make class silly. The class has to be fun for me and it has to be fun for my students. If we are not having fun, we are not learning. Of course, there are always obstacles to bring the fun to class. Sometimes I’m tired or unprepared. Sometimes someone is late. One of the most frustrating obstacles for me is when I will say one word, “some” for example, which will cause a long discussion in the Laos language. I’m learning to let it slide.

The other day, my students showed up early and made lunch for all of us. It’s a nice gesture and I was grateful for it – it is true that feeding someone is one of the nicest things a person can do. However, the gesture created a certain challenge to my agenda. With full bellies, the students were likely to fall asleep. After lunch is the most difficult time to teach.

To counteract the drowsiness of my students, I knew I would have to really knock the lesson out of the park. I would have to draw on all my presentation skills – skills beyond simply switching from one side of the whiteboard to another – in order to keep their attention and make an indelible impression. To add insult to injury, today’s subject was prepositions (you remember them right? In, on, above, through, with, to…).

It’s relatively easy to act out the verbs – walk, shout, am. It’s also not so hard to point to nouns and dress them up with adjectives. Even adverbs are not so hard to impersonate… if I am silly enough to demonstrate carefully, quickly, slowly and so on, there is a chance they might just remember. However, acting out through and at and with is a bit more of a challenge; Toward was nearly impossible.

We made it through prepositions I had planned. Salt played a big role in the lesson. The salt is on the table, above the table, under the table, with the glass, behind the glass. There was a combination of horror and laughter when the salt went in the glass. For me, my mind was somewhere else. The salt water.

I miss the salt water. I miss the ocean. Today, I will head toward the west and make my way to the Gulf of Siam to do some diving. After three months in a landlocked country I need to look upon the ocean. I need to look out over the sea. I need to wade into the ocean. I need to swim in the water. I need to get under the surface and breath from a Nitrox tank. If my entries are a little less frequent over the next two weeks it is not from lack of interest, instead it is simply because I am having a bit more fun.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A Sound

A single sound can make all the difference. It’s hot today, hot like yesterday, hot like tomorrow. It’s humid, I don’t move much. Reaching for a cup of coffee while I wait for the oscillating fan to blow another steamy kiss my way, two young boys pass by the café. Their voices are high and squeaky. The café rents bicycles. All bicycles have bells. They can not resist. They ring the bells three times each and work their way down the row of red and blue bicycles with baskets parked in a row.

“Hey, look everybody,” Martini yells above the din, “I’m giving out wings!” Clarence rises above the taunt with a subtle smile. He’s got George Bailey to deal with; the people of Beaver Falls will have to wait another Christmas for their salvation.

The sound of the squeaky voices, the ringing of the bells, the thought that maybe there is an avalanche of wings being handed out to angels in waiting, the memory of Juju’s petals – these things make me smile. One of the little boys returns, alone, a few minutes later. He’s not squeaking and makes a more solemn stop at two of the bikes, this time ringing only once. Perhaps there were a few disappointed angels that he knew had waited long enough. He rings and moves on. I smile again.

The bell on my motorbike is not a bell. It’s not a horn. It’s a dull and tired electric clang like when I took apart the telephone as a child and pressed my little palm against the bell and waited for a call. I didn’t know about the bell on my motorbike until a few days ago. A dog wandered out into the street in front of me. Asian dogs are more savvy than North American dogs in terms of roadside safety. Some wander out into the road, but they all manage to get home safely each night to sleep on the high cool safety of the concrete table. He wandered out into the street, the light would change soon and I wanted to accelerate – not because I really wanted to get through the light, but because stopping for the light would mean 60 seconds of stationary baking in the sun inside my dark red helmet.

Clang. Clang. Clang. The pathetic sound was barely audible. The dog looked at me and smiled. I smiled back and laughed with my passenger about the sorry excuse for a horn. We made the light, the dog got to the other side, but I don’t think anyone got any wings from the affair.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Looking for...

In one of Tony Hillerman’s novels, Jim Chee says “I’m not looking for anything in particular because then I might not see something I’m not looking for. There are days when I forget this perspective; today is one of those days. I woke up and sat down with the intention of writing something. That was three hours ago.

When I feel this way, I look for a jolt. I look for something to change my point of perspective. When my mind is already going too fast in too particular of a direction, I need to de-focus and listen to what is there. This isn’t always the easiest of tasks. The largest obstacle is that there seems to be no consistent recipe or method for shaking my self out of it. As a result, I have to try different things to see if they shake things free.

Today, I tried first drinking lots of coffee. That just made me shake. Then, I decided to read some news headlines (typically a good approach for me), but there was no muse in the paper today. Thinking I might be too dormant, I got out the glass cleaner and newspaper (lacking in inspiration otherwise) and washed a few windows. Window washing, like floor scrubbing, ironing, and other domestic chores has a way of getting me out of my head and then back in again. I had a few cleaner windows, but no inspirational thoughts. Hot and humid already at 10 a.m., I sat back down to stare at the screen. I flipped through some NPR podcasts; Lizz Wright singing Reaching for the Moon on KCRW’s Today’s Top Tune was beautiful and melancholic but I have no time today for romance and love songs; NPR Books talked about first time novelists which left me intimidated and ready to head back to IniTech. Antsy, I decided to clip my long-overdue fingernails while finishing up On Words with John Chiardi. It wasn’t Mr. Chiardi’s explanation of the rhombus that got me moving, it was the comfort of once again being able to type with the pads of my fingers and not my nails.

Frequently, I need this type of therapeutic activity. I think we all do. It may not be the same types of things for all people; some people go to the gym, others walk their dog or get drunk or watch the sunset, while still others listen to music or read a book or watch a movie or look at photographs. Regardless of the method(s), the act of changing one’s perspective can greatly enhance our clarity of thought.

Emotion Education

I read a headline the other day where a new government initiative requires students learn how do deal with their emotions. It made me think of my own primary education experience.

In my early years of primary school, there were several initiatives to revamp and update the education system. This somewhat grass-roots movement didn’t target the education system directly, instead it focused on making improved educational materials ubiquitously available. The most prominent of these was the Children’s Television Network who provided Sesame Street and The Electric Company. In addition, there was the Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) program. RIF was literacy improvement campaign across the nation. It was throughout the school system and advertised on television. One of the most noticeable aspects of the RIF program was the Book Mobile.

I loved the Book Mobile. To me, it was a portable euphoria – a mobile oasis of words and thoughts. The day I saw my mom volunteering inside the book mobile, I thought I was having an out-of-body experience. The Book Mobile inspired my love of books the same way Easy Reader (played by Morgan Freeman) on Electric Company inspired my love of reading. The people working to create a better world through education dramatically shaped who I am today.

At the same time as the early days of Children’s Television Network and RIF, there was a television program which aired during school hours called Ripple. Ripple focused on questions of morality and ethics. It was designed to stimulate discussion. Teachers were provided with printed discussion prompters and it was made clear to the students that there was no right answer, only opinions. During the broadcast, there would be an intermission where teachers would ask the suggested questions and students would respond.

“How do you think Billy should handle this situation? How do you think Betty will feel if he doesn’t stop his bullying?” “Why?”

Then the show would continue. At the conclusion of the show, teachers again would follow the itinerary and ask additional questions. “Did Billy do the right thing? Should Betty continue to be Billy’s friend?” “Why?”

For me, and for many of my classmates, Ripple was a effective way of learning to consider our actions; learning to think in terms of ‘how would I feel?’ and ‘what would I do in that situation?’ and “Why?”.

The recent headline made me wonder about many questions. How does the U.K. plan to teach lessons in how to deal with our emotions? How have we learned from earlier experiments and influences in education? What progress has been made in regards to early education on the topics of emotions, ethics and morals? One would hope that the modern pioneers of the late sixties and early seventies had set solid foundations. One would think that a national endeavor to expose students to considering the consequences of their actions would have evolved naturally from those times. In many ways I think these positive progressions have been made. However, I have often wondered if the sticks attached to Kermit the Frog’s arms have been handled by the advertisers, media corporations and the politicians and not by Sir Saint Henson. (What???? Jim Henson isn’t a knight or a saint, yet?!!!”).

I really don’t know the full story on the state of education in America. I know some things – the vocabulary of the average Yank is a fraction of the average Brit’s vocabulary; without a digital cash register, giving correct change is impossible; many high school graduates are illiterate; nearly no one knows the location of Sumatra (not the bag of coffee at Starbucks, the island… or is it a country?); and quite a few people have their britches in a bunch over a moment of silence. In short, I think the education system is both doing great and sadly misaligned. I can’t help but fear much of the work done when I was a child was abandoned.

I know it’s not a simple subject. There are thousands of working pieces in finding a solution and scores of interested parties have to have their say. However, I think the “Just do it” approach is warranted. A delay based on the “better not because you might offend” approach is a waste of time. I can foresee the U.S.A. delaying indefinitely with endless derailed conversations on standardized training for ethical behaviour. I am hopeful for next wave of students. In the absence of something substantial, how will their sanitized education leave them equipped to handle an emotional experience.