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Preview: From The T.F.A. Trenches

From The T.F.A. Trenches

Dispatches to the world from the life of a (formerly) Teach For America teacher.

Updated: 2014-10-06T20:20:59.636-07:00


The Better Example


Three cheers for Larry Ferlazzo for precisely the sort of more careful and nuanced analysis of this very same report that even offers an informative counter-example.(image)

Research Proven!


Mr. Stross’ article in the NYT encapsulates all that goes wrong with educational reform, research, and reporting.

Step 1 : Reform – Well-meaning reformers throw a desperately needed resource, such as class-size reduction, a new technology, or pre-school, at low SES students, families or schools. None of teachers, parents or students is trained on how to make use of said resource. Little oversight is involved to ensure the resource is distributed properly. No on-going support is offered to maximize the benefits of said resource. Often it goes totally un- or under-utilized, except by a tiny number of teachers, parents or students for whom the resource changes their practice and lives.

Step 2 : Research – Well-meaning researchers wait two, five or seven years and then do a study showing that, despite access to this tremendous resource, those poor kids still underperformed, dropped out, or went to college in numbers more or less than the control group, their peers, or the state average, generally by the barest of statistically significant margins. Generally, the studies are very poorly controlled, with tiny sample sizes and obvious selection biases.

Step 3 : Reporting – Dubiously intentioned reporters (or business professors?) seize upon these research reports and, rather than critically appraising them or the reform efforts themselves, regurgitate the findings into the gaping mouths of conservative politicians, who use them as fodder to build arguments that the provision of said resource is just wasting precious state funds. The resource is then withdrawn and the reformers move on.

Step 4 : Complete Hypocrisy – Despite being publicly convinced by the research, all parties, as members of the well-educated classes, will, personally, pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket for their own children to have continuing access to the same smaller classes, technology and pre-school that they are saying clearly make no difference to the education of the poor.

Mr. Stross, and all others who wish to research or write about education, please consider the following: Those of us in the trenches already know that any poorly executed initiative will not close the achievement gap. We’ve seen studies prove that even reading does not always improve reading. If closing the achievement gap was simply a matter of throwing books, hours, teachers, money, food, technology, art, music or pre-school at the children, please believe that we would have figured that out ourselves. Spend your time researching and reporting on what actually does work. Find and highlight reform initiatives done well, resources delivered properly. Failing that, at least take the time to develop the failure into a complete story. It may require you to visit a school, or talk to a child or parent, and perhaps look a little more deeply at the varied ways these resources can be used. Admittedly, it’s much harder for you and much less satisfying for the conservatives, but it's infinitely more helpful to us and the kids.(image)

Three Questions to Test The Test


CA Standard – Grade 1 – Writing 1.1.7 Capitalize the first word of a sentence, names of people, and the pronoun I.A proper English sentence begins with what form of letter?A – lowercaseB – consonantC – capitalD – vowel---Which sentence is correct?A – my father works very Hard.B – My Father Works Very Hard.C – My father works very hard.D – my father works very hard.---Read to students: Please write one sentence about the friends you play with at recess and what you do.It’s test time here and the perennial debate ensues. Can we link teacher evaluation to student data? These three questions, and their analysis, are my answer. I’m not at all afraid of being evaluated (in part) through my students’ test results, or even compensated (in part) on the basis of scores, provided we have clearly understood objectives and tests that reliably assess them. Too often, we have neither. Case in point…The first question represents a failure of validity, it does not assess what it is supposed to assess. First, the item is confusing the use of a skill with its explicit understanding. An adult analogy might be the difference between eating properly and understanding our metabolic and digestive processes. While perhaps this knowledge is valuable, it is not required. Conversely, knowing that sentences begin with a capital letter is not the same as actually doing it. Plenty of people know how the body works, but still don’t eat well.Further, the first item is predicated on a confidence that the teacher will have taught the term “capital,” rather than “uppercase” or “big” or “majuscule.” Again, perhaps reasonable, but it does not make for a valid test of the given standard. This question would be ideal for a standard, “Students will identify that a proper sentence begins with a capital letter.” But that’s not the standard.The second question is an improvement. It is focused on the skill of capitalization. It is not reliant on explicit understanding or a single piece of terminology. However, it still does not accurately assess the standard. Recognizing proper writing and generating it are two entirely different skills. We can hear when a violinist misses a note even if we can’t play the violin. Certainly, one skill is preliminary to the other, but the concern remains, are we testing what we say we are going to test? Further, it only tests one piece of the standard. We would need another question for testing the pronoun “I” and another for names. How long of an exam can we have for a first grader, before it becomes a test of stamina rather than language? This leads to questions of reliability, that students will get the same questions right and wrong if they took the test again, in a different order or on another day.The third question finally assesses the given standard. Students will almost necessarily use all of names, the pronoun I, and an initial capital letter to answer the question. However, this fidelity to the objective unlocks a Pandora’s Box of other possibilities. What if the student has no friends? What if recess has been eliminated for test prep, or has been renamed “PE” or “Outdoor Time?” What if the student writes: Play BKTball I M and R. Are we to assume that “M” and “R” are names? What if they are nicknames? What if they are celebrity children, who only have letters for names? Does the capitalization of “BKTball” indicate that the student doesn’t understand the objective or that there is a really popular new game right now made up by Belen, Karl and Tomo? The examiners should disregard word order, as this is a question of capitalization, but will they? Further, will any teacher or test company really be willing to stand up to the press and public and say that the student really should have gotten that question right?So, dear public, press and reformers: On which of these questions, answered by a child taking a big test for the first time and graded anonymously b[...]

Simple Signs of Employer Excellence


The charter school/network we’re joining is demonstrating all the right moves. Among these are many things the public schools can’t emulate, like a “longer” day and year (time good teachers work anyway) for more pay (that good teachers don’t get and grouse about.) But there are also several actions they’re taking that are much more attainable.

1 – Recruitment – In October 2008, two months into our work in China, we received an email from one of our future principals checking in and asking us about our return. We advised that we were on a two-year contract. A year later, we received another email. Teachers have one of the most status-deprived, socially isolated, and thus praise-hungry professions in the world; my wife and I are no exceptions. Someone cares enough to email us twice? That’s just about all it took.

2 – Hiring – Somebody saw us teach before they hired us. It was via YouTube, admittedly, but the important thing was that they sat down and watched us practice our art before they brought us into their school. There are lots of ways to teach, lots of ways to teach well. It's important to make sure there's philosophical harmony. By contrast, our current school brought us all the way to China before ever seeing us teach. At my first school, my principal never even had the chance to see my resume before I showed up for a key. Not his fault, for sure, but not an inspiring sign for the system.

3 – Response Time – When I send my future principal an email, I usually have a reply within a half-day, often within a few hours. If it takes longer, generally there’s a prefatory apology. Admittedly, we have the benefit of time zones. But I’m not even working at her school yet.

4 – Answers – Both my wife and I have been peppering our principals with questions for months. Almost every single query has been answered with a solid, specific, and “owned” response. There's no doubt: These people are in charge of their schools and they know what’s happening inside them. It's deeply confidence inspiring. The only time we’ve been passed on has been for questions about health insurance, and we wanted word from the top anyway.

5 – Details – For elementary school teachers, quality of work and of life is determined by the management of details. My wife had a bell schedule by the end of April. Her school isn’t built yet, but she’s been sent the blueprints to help in her planning. She’s been invited to make suggestions on ordering supplies, books and furniture. She got the warning already that her kinder class will be at thirty-to-one. It’s bad news, but she has time to adjust her plans and materials. I have a combo class among my rotation. Also bad news. But I know how many kids, I know where they’re at, and my principal and I are already formulating a plan to help better meet their academic and social needs. I have a calendar for my professional development schedule in hand, until Thanksgiving. All this is happening in May, so when August rolls around, the only surprises are truly surprises.

Does all this imply our principals are overworked? Yes. Does any of this guarantee children are learning? No. But it imparts, to me, a sense of day one urgency, dedication and professionalism that cannot help but benefit student achievement.(image)

EduTech Rapture


(or: The iPad Cometh)

I was an unbeliever, a “gimmick”-sayer and laptop-steadfast, but then I met the iPad in person. Now, I am a total convert and I only saw it for half an hour. The interface was shockingly efficient. The on-screen typing was vastly easier than anything else I’ve worked with. The display of e-books was mesmerizing, clear and bright. As I played with it, ---exploring a digital, illustrated version of Alice in Wonderland, a two-player version of air hockey, and a program that controlled my laptop from afar--- I saw the future of educational technology flashing before my eyes. I saw paperless classrooms, digital textbooks, math e-manipulatives, science simulations, and authentic assessment, all wrapped up in one device.

Here's why the iPad is The Way for elementary edutech:

1 - It's simple. 90% of the time, elementary classrooms don't need 80 different applications. We need 5. We don’t need start menus, home folders, or logins. We need to turn the computer on in five seconds and be ready to run with it. Let’s have a computer lab for complicated specialty apps, like video editing or desktop publishing, but iPads for day-to-day use.

2 – It’s limited. Teachers are afraid to use tech because so much goes wrong. Pages don’t load, files are missing, shortcuts disappear, Flash is out of date. Further, everyone seems to go wrong in a different way. Kids get distracted or disoriented, can find minesweeper but can’t find the Quit key. The iPad’s menu interface is specific, focused and easy. One button to rule them all.

3 – It’s all in one. Mouse, screen, keyboard, computer. Everything inside a single, pound-and-a-half rectangle. No cables, bar the recharging cabinet. Combine with Google Docs and imagine all the tech support we won’t need.

4 – It’s e-books, really. Many have tried, no one has succeeded. The iPad has the brightness, the color, and the software look-and-feel to replicate book reading. Imagine the beautiful efficiency of a combined e-book library and Accelerated Reader iPad app. Imagine pressing a button and every student is back to the same page. Imagine never having to wait while a class brought this or that out of their desk. Be still my heart.

5 – It’s beyond paperless. The greatest draw, for me, of being paperless is actually that I could also be penciless, markerless, crayonless, highlighterless, and eraserless too. If I want my kids to take four-color notes, do arithmetic on whiteboards, to draw the water cycle, and to highlight different types of sentence, I need a dozen different “markers” per child. Or one iPad.

6 – It’s mobile. The first adopters of this tech should be teachers and principals. I’d wait until it’s totally ruggedized, inside and out, to put it in the hands of kids. But for us… I’ll buy one as soon as my wife will let me. Monitoring logs, record sheets and lesson plans, classroom observation tools and task lists, all accessible from one, easily held, simply used, mobile device. To have a similar degree of efficiency, I had to wheel my laptop around on a cart or be chained to my desk. Instead, with an iPad, I can carry my computer in my hand.(image)

Video Games - No More!


This is cross-posted from an article I wrote for our parent newsletter. Now with links!

Summer is almost here. For too many kids, this time of year includes long hours spent with their Xbox, Nintendo, or laptop, playing video games. I suggest: “No More!” But not to computers, just to the games. Here’re some options for what else your child can do on the computer that will still make them happy:

Design a building, Explore the World – Google SketchUp, Earth – This is a free program for easily drawing in 3D. Kids can create new buildings and towns, or even render their own home. Other creators around the world are uploading their work into Google Earth, another free program. Here, kids can “fly” from place to place, and see sites all over the world in 3D. Different sorts of information can be turned on and off in the world’s greatest atlas. Kids can dive into the oceans and soar into space as well!

Learn an instrument, Compose a symphony – Garage Band, Jam Packs, Lessons – GarageBand can now run a lengthy series of piano and guitar lessons, providing kids with a patient tutor available 24/7. Jam Packs supplement GarageBand’s included loops, providing them with hours and hours of material to remix into their own musical masterpieces.

Produce digital art – ArtRage – This is a wonderfully complex but intuitive painting program. Kids can experiment with all sorts of media ---watercolors, oils, charcoal--- without the waste and frustration of real materials. When they find out that they really do love acrylics, and have learned a lot of how to use them, then buy them the real thing!

Write a program – Alice, Scratch – These free, well-designed programs, from Carnegie-Mellon and M.I.T., make programming fun and easy. Tell your kids they can play any video game they want – as long as they write it themselves! The world of programming is chock-full of great math enrichment and logical thinking practice.

Film a movie – Imovie, WindowsMovieMaker, IStopMotion – Making movies has never been easier. With inexpensive equipment and free software, kids can run around the city (or world!) filming wonderful shorts. With IStopMotion, they can make claymation, animation or time-lapse movies with ease.

Parents! Say “No More!” to wasted hours killing zombies, aliens, Nazis, terrorists, etc. Channel those electronic energies into something enriching and ---shhhhh--- educational.(image)

Kickball as Metaphor


As we speak, two classes of 5th grade students are engaged in a
"vigorous" game of kickball. There's thirty-six kids, total, playing.
I watched the game a bit, as I'm sure we all have. One kid pitches,
one kid kicks. Two to four kids throw or run. Thirty-two kids stand
and watch. I was horrified and thought abut all the ways I don't do
that with my instruction. Then, much to my dismay, I thought about
all the ways that I do.

But aren't we all guilty of a little kickball across the curriculum,
---or a lot?

Yesterday afternoon, brain numb from an ugly day, I found myself only
a head of hair away from being Ben Stein in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off"
calling "Anyone… Anyone…" to a silent and disinterested class. I
pitched and a kid kicked, another caught, but most students were just
sitting there.

I always require quiet and focus from my students, but I often delude
myself into thinking that kids who are attentive are engaged. Real
kickball just makes who is active and who is counting flowers a bit
more obvious. In the classroom, we have to remember to ask and
analyze: Even if everyone is watching the game, how many kids are
really playing?

It's not just a direct instruction issue either. Group work is
equally subject to becoming kickball if tasks and roles are not
effectively distributed and evaluated. One or two kids do the work
for their own sake, while the rest coast. The ratio might improve as
the groups get smaller, but the problem remains. Even at half or
two-thirds, is that the best we can do?

Getting out of kickball is simple but exhausting. It is a dozen or
more different routines that must be learned, remembered, taught, and
appropriately brought to bear in different contexts. It is also not
natural to us. Many of us went through school playing kickball,
literally and metaphorically. We have to break the habits that seem
most familiar: popcorn reading to choral reading; QnA to
Think-Pair-Share, call and response, whole class physical response;
teacher demonstrations to student experiments, investigations and
discussions; problems on the front board to each kid with a board;
demanding quiet to demanding tracking, nodding and questions; asking
for hands to randomly calling; test on Friday to a check at the end of
each day. The list can go on.

The problem is also that kickball is easy to play. It's familiar and
even fun. Everyone knows the rules, so the kids aren't complaining or
misbehaving. But, out in the field and on the sideline, they're not
learning either.(image)

Build a Better Mathatude


The longer I live in the adult world of stuff and money, the more I appreciate math and the more opportunities I have to happily wrestle with it. I usually win, but only when I cheat and tag-team with Excel.Here’s my math homework for the week:Start with a simple arithmetic problem: You and your partner are deciding what to ship home to the US from China. Nice furniture is inexpensive here and very expensive in the States. Shipping is not cheap though. How much furniture do you have to own to make it worth it? Add some economics: Decide what is the best way to evaluate the value of the goods. Is it the cost at a Chinese store, its worth in your hearts, the replacement cost in the US, or the substitution cost with the cheapest IKEA/Craigslist goods you can find? Add some geometry: Shanghai shippers only want to know how many cubic meters you have. You, an American, still think in feet and inches. You have to estimate your furniture and goods interlocked, in boxes and crates, and convert.Challenge Problem: The cost of shipping space goes up, but not linearly. Determine how to fit the highest value into the best volume for money. Pop quiz: The Chinese yuan is going to rise soon. You live in China, so you’re paid in yuan, but your salary is fixed in dollars. You can pay for goods in yuan cash or on a dollar-based credit card. You have savings in both currencies. What do you do to avoid losing money?Enrichment Problem: Interest rates are rising. Do you buy a house sooner, before they get any higher, or later, when they’re high enough to drive down prices? Does it make a difference if you have a 15 or 30-year mortgage, or plan to sell the house within 10 years?I’m not advocating that we give every child a classroom and focus on the financial problems in Grade 3. Rather, let’s recognize the dual demands of good math education. Kids need to learn enough, well enough, to grapple with complex problems, but they also need to enjoy math enough to try and solve these problems when they actually encounter them. I like solving these problems. It pays me back very well for my time, and stretches the brain better than a Sudoku. But I think I would be lonely in that opinion. Far too many adults, including teachers, will happily admit to me that they have “poor math skills.” I don’t believe them. Rather, I think they have a poor math attitude. They’re not unable to determine the best answers for their math dilemmas, they’re unwilling to even try.My suggestions? Structurally, we desperately need to find a way to include more finance, statistics and quantitative home economics in the high school curriculum. Then we could teach these topics explicitly. Maybe we need to save calculus for college. Maybe the universities should require these more relevant topics, instead of the futile extra year or two of high-school quality French. But we all know this and the people who make such policy don’t read this blog.For the individual teacher, here’s my advice:Don’t reduce the curriculum covered in pursuit of authentic problems. Then people have a great attitude and no skills. Don’t ignore calculators, but don’t let the kids leave thinking that six times eight makes forty-eight because they say so. Don’t pretend you’ll do the pithy word problems at the end of each lesson or the silly “Math in Life” lesson at the end of the unit. They must be skipped in favor of review, remediation, or to accommodate interruptions. But also, don’t do nothing and hope they’ll pick it up elsewhere.Do use the time after The Tests to go back and apply new skills more deeply. Do reduce the battery of homework to include time for extension problems, and incentivize your kids to actually solve them. Do use “lost days” (sub days, half days, days preceding vacations, etc.) to recapture kids attention with lear[...]

Goods and Games


A brief history lesson…

In the 19th century, the British were desperate to even their trade imbalance with China. China had silk, spices, porcelain and tea, while the Europeans had only rough wool and silver. Silver was flowing out of Europe and damaging the British pound. This seemed destined to give China a massive economic advantage, until the British began exporting opium into China. As opium addiction ravaged the populace, the silver flow reversed and soon China was desperately trying to ban the drug. Britain wouldn’t allow its lucrative trade to disappear and the Opium Wars ensued. This led to massive indemnities against China, the opening of its ports, the surrender of its lands, and the start of modern Chinese history.

But the real question: How do you make this history meaningful to a ten year-old? Trade imbalance? Currency valuations? Drug addiction? How do you make these concepts resonate with the Pokemon, Harry Potter crew?

My answer: A game. A card game, to be precise, customized to our learning objectives.

I’ve always made games for facts practice and a few for reading. I don’t know why it didn’t dawn on me, having grown up with Oregon Trail and Carmen Sandiego, to make one for social studies. Until now. InDesign plus Google Images plus Wikipedia, multiplied by a two-sided color copier, all over a paper cutter equals “Trade!” the new game by Mr. AB.

Students trade and draw cards, in a Yahtzee-like pursuit of a full complement of goods. I make the learning explicit; they are trading for the very same resources we’re studying. Porcelain is worth 30 while wool is worth 10. Pictures and descriptions on each card. Round 1, learn the game in an even-handed round, then switch to uneven hands that replicate the experience of the game. Round 2, China has all the luxury goods, Britain and America have only silver, wool, and guns. Draw enough to forestall total stalemate, but not so much to prevent the salutary suffering. How much is China willing to trade? Not much. How does that make you feel? Frustrated, like we’re always going to lose. Check. Round 3, introduce the opium to the Western hands. The rules recapitulate the history. Opium must be exchanged for silver, the "trade" cannot be denied. China sees their advantage disappear instantly. They’re angry as Britain and America laughingly force them to trade away their precious goods. What would you do to get rid of the opium? Anything. War? Sure. Check.

Debriefing afterwards is a walk in the park. The learning is already there, we’re just putting labels on it. The labels stick because the experience, the game, makes the ideas so vivid. It’s not abstract and distant. It didn’t just happen to the Qing Dynasty, it happened to them. They were there. They were China, they were Britain.

It’s uncannily effective. It feels a little wrong. Like teaching by trickery. Teaching should not be this easy, learning should not be this fun.(image)

What We Have Here...


What we have here is a failure to appreciate. Are there some things we cannot teach?

Two of my lessons struggled a bit lately, and while they were very dissimilar in terms of relative gravity, they failed for the same reason: a failure to appreciate.

The first lesson was on slavery in the United States. Our project is to create dual-perspective slideshows, where each historical picture is narrated from the perspective of slave and slaveowner. I hunted around for an array of images, some gripping and some mundane, to give them a chance to reflect on many different aspects of slavery. The classroom teacher has done several lessons about the details and stories of slavery. We thought that we had conveyed the degree of sensitivity and sincerity required in this area, but yet found our kids goofing off and producing slideshows that seemed to be striving for comedic.

The latter lesson was on a brilliantly simple computer program, BallDropping. In this class, the kids are learning to use Scratch and create their own games. I was very excited to find this program as a demonstration to the kids of how simple and yet entertaining a game can be, even verging on the point of being performance art. The program uses only circles and lines, two colors, and yet incorporates a tremendous array of ideas in music, art and physics. Yet many of the kids were obnoxiously vocal in finding it boring and too simple.

Is the failure to appreciate mine or theirs? Did I forget my students' development, and expect too much? Or did they not bring their best attitudes and efforts, and produce too little?

On one hand, I am almost always willing to accept the blame. I am the leader in the classroom; I'm steering the ship, it's my fault if we don't wind up where I want to be. On the other hand, these lessons were well planned, carefully prepared and presented with enthusiasm. I very rarely find that I miss on the lessons I'm very ready and excited to share.

If the kids simply didn't give it their best, then that's that, but I'm stuck with another question: How, exactly, do we teach "appreciation?" If we make it explicit, if we say, "This is sad, be serious. This is beautiful, enjoy it." are we really teaching anything, or are we just asking them to regurgitate the reactions we've made it clear we expect? Or, is that just part of our job, showing the youngsters all things terrible and terrific, and teaching them how to respond appropriately?

Further, we cannot control what will resonate with a child and when. Are we, as adults, always in the mood to watch a stirring Holocaust documentary, or go to an art exhibit? Hardly. Why expect that the kids will be ready to feel sad or enjoy art because that's what's on our calendar? Yet, I am not asking for emotional reaction, I am asking for appropriate response. We do not laugh at slavery, and we do not discount art because it is simple. Surely, those are reasonable lines to draw in the sand. Aren't they?(image)

Professional Development through Struggle


In an effort to find some way to bring exercise back into my life, I’ve been swimming a few mornings a week at our school pool. Going into the experience, I had fond memories of swimming as a kid on hot Southern California summer days. About five minutes into the water, however, I remembered something about swimming that nostalgia had glossed over in my mind ---I’m just not very good at it.

Each morning I swim, I struggle to find a steady rhythm and stroke, so I splash and gasp my across the pool. Having never learned to flip-turn, after each length, I have to stop and turn myself around. Meanwhile, in the lanes next to me, are co-workers and eleven year-old kids transformed into dolphins, sliding through the water effortlessly, flipping themselves around and passing me twice. They never have to stop, they never seem to gasp, they just cruise along, their hands and feet creating gentle ripples of excellence.

I was complaining to my wife about this, about my embarrassingly public inability and dishearteningly slow improvement. She immediately replied, “It’s good for you. Think about what you make kids do everyday.”

It’s true. Every day, I ask kids who can’t read, can’t do math or struggle with computers to just dive in and get to work. Without thinking twice, I ask them to follow, use, and produce, in pace with their neighbors, regardless of their ability. It’s a part of teaching, especially teaching as a specialist. I usually have 45 minutes with a class and several big ideas to get across, hardly time for elaborate differentiation and remediation.

As adults, especially adults with the time and means to read this blog, we are privileged to focus ourselves on activities where we are competent. Few employers would keep us inefficiently struggling on their dime, and few adults select a hobby they don’t enjoy and can’t do well. Kids have no such luck. They are still building foundational skills and knowledge, which is necessarily diverse and challenging. Rare is the child who won’t encounter at least one area of deficit a day and many will deal with several. The least we can do is remember what it feels like.

Teacher, ask yourself, “When was the last time you struggled?”(image)

Empathy with Apathy


Upon hearing that he was going to be working under an extremely unpleasant leader after several years with a strong one, a wise friend of mine once said, “I am going to grow so much as a professional.” In that spirit, I am currently making leaps and bounds, professionally. However, what I’m learning now is not the sort of work I’d ever list on my resume and I occasionally refer to it as the doldrums, purgatory, or working on the dark side of the moon. I’m learning, first hand, how good employees go bad, how dedication becomes discouragement and urgency disintegrates into apathy.For the last ten years, I’ve worked hard, with focus, discipline, and little understanding for those who didn’t share my ethic. I was a purposeful student before that for as long as I can remember, the sort of kid whose notion of misbehavior was surreptitiously reading a novel. In college, the only time I missed a class was when I was on the operating table having an appendectomy. As a classroom teacher, I settled on working 7 to 6 as a “reasonable” day. I would routinely teach an extra hour before and after school and, after my first year, I never had a teacher desk in my room. Now, I’m sitting here on company time, writing this blog.Yet, I think this was precisely the lesson I needed. Some of my greatest learnings about how to be a good teacher came from an awful two semesters of reading methods classes. Not by the negative example of the instructor, but by experiencing life as a “bad” student and understanding how they see the classroom. What, specifically, would push me to disengage? What did I hope for or wait for to reinvest? How did attitude influence the quality of my reading and writing for this class? How did I behave to signal my discontent? What did I do to cope? Certainly, I will never truly appreciate the deep sense of failure and hopelessness that befalls some of my students after years of struggle, but knowing how it feels to be on the margin, to lean and teeter off the edge of focus and effort, was a valuable experience. Now, I’ve found myself similarly pushed to the margin and past, into the realm of being an apathetic and nonproductive worker. First, my time and place in the school was devalued. Without any explanation, my yard duty times were quadrupled, in a land where labor costs are almost insignificant. Then I was moved from a desk in the library, a hub of our school, to the basement. The rationale was solely and admittedly one of aesthetics, despite its damage to my routines and effectiveness. Requests for administrative help in encouraging teachers to try the new, potent tools I had developed were rejected. I was instructed to help the teachers do worthless projects, if that’s what they wanted. Soon after, my workload was doubled and my time halved, as my partner teacher was moved back to the classroom and I received new and contradictory mandates. Coaching relationships with struggling teachers, built carefully across the first quarter of the year were instantly destroyed. My time to team-teach and innovate, the most enjoyable and effective part of my job, disappeared. Soon, most of the curriculum I had produced last year was shelved, as teachers' confidence in and enthusiasm for technology inevitably waned to the bone. I tired of asking for support and saw that, among the many issues of our school, mine were just never going to be addressed. Like a child not turning in his homework for the first time, I slowly stopped working so hard. There was no encouragement nor reprimand, no comments from teachers nor administrators, no one has even seemed to notice. In short: it became clear that my work and place had been marginalized in everyone else’s eyes, and then it inevitably[...]

A New Wow from Google


I’m generally not a “new literacies” sort of teacher, even when my job title prominently features the word “technology.” For the most part, I think the written word has served us pretty well, and kids should learn it. But every now again, a presentation or film will make me think, isn't this expressing something that would just be lost on paper? Then I think, what might kids hear or say better, or worse yet, hear or say only through another medium? This new tool from Google, and more importantly the idea of student-easy, audience-powerful data analysis and visualization behind it, is one of those moments.

If nothing else, just look at the embedded graph, comparing fertility rate, life-expectancy, and population, in motion across the last 50 years. It is Willy Wonka rich. My first viewing flooded me with information, a review of large chunks of my undergraduate career in history, in about 15 seconds. Ensuing reviews brought on the torrent of teaching questions, for the part of me that still longs to teach high school social studies. What does it mean to see a nation ping-pong horizontally across the screen? What trends are evident across all 50 years? What can you tell me about Chinese history based exclusively on what is evident on this page? What do the colors tell us? And that’s just reading the graphs.

I want my students to know how to use this tool, and the better one that inevitably follows it, to analyze the data and make their case. Which is more convincing, this graph or the three pages of statistic-laden paragraphs it would take to replace it? I wouldn’t drop essay writing in favor of graph making, but I might require that some pieces utilize visual evidence to enhance their point. With this graph as only the start of the conversation, how much further the students’ essays can go!

Now, how do I apply this to a crowd where the datasets that currently resonate most tend to be about “favorite color…”(image)

Lemov's Taxonomy, Teacher Specialization


A New York Times magazine article, with a small tantalizing set of specifics, about the “form” of great teaching and how to instill it in novices. Don’t worry, we can all buy the book, “Teach like a Champion,” from here. I will, once Amazon shipping costs less than seven times the price of the book.

The work represents an interesting bit of moderation, a point in between the notions that great teaching is innate and that it can be performed entirely from a script. Instead, Lemov (the guru featured in the article) advises that we teach a limited series of practical principles, 49 “bite-sized moves,” that can be applied across curricula and context. This resonates with me in a way that the blue “Teacher Talk” paragraphs in the margin of my Open Court reader never did. It is also a hopeful notion, as my courses and professional development on classroom management have always been simply desperate for a common vocabulary of excellence. The few specifics that are listed in the article and on the website, “strong voice,” “cold call,” “positive framing,” “injecting joy” and “precise praise” are hardly novel ideas, but there are 43 more to read about.

However, my current placement has pushed me to question whether “championship teaching” can ever be truly context-free. Here in an environment of small classes, few tests and extremely easy-going kids, I’ve been pushed to change my “form” significantly. Here, I’ve found a whole new set of challenges in running a classroom and lesson. They center on the facilitating, though I don't like that word, and questioning that is done when the basics are thoroughly achieved and there is time to delve deeper. How, when and to what extent do you offer help to a group of kids struggling with a project? What are the best ways to help kids explore new tools? How do you maximize the massive learning that can come out of really good games? Admittedly, these challenges are a bit more fun than wrestling with how to keep four extremely angry boys in a class of 36 from derailing my instruction completely, but they are challenges nonetheless.

I feel much more at home in the serious, urgent, objective-focused world of Lemov's "championship teaching," but the bar remains that all kids deserve teachers who thrive in the context of their classroom. Pick your analogy - lawyers, doctors, athletes, artists, engineers - all specialize to a degree, often very early on in their training (rather than their practice.) Perhaps we should consider this for educators? I think new teachers enter the profession with very different visions of where they'll work. Few are likely to switch, from the extremes of impoverished, crowded, test-driven public schools to low-accountability, high-resource private schools. And those that do will probably immediately or never want to switch back. I've even found that many lower and upper elementary teachers specialize, though certainly some of the best I know have experience in both of these domains. Further specialization might also enable better compensation schemes and remove some of the infamous irrelevancy of education school.

Our current reality is that I have a K-8 Multiple Subjects credential, meaning that the same set of ten-odd courses prepared me to teach phonics and middle school algebra. As I teach the kids...I don't know for sure what the answer is, but I can eliminate the one that's obviously wrong.(image)

Their chance, our need.


“Our kids get only one chance at an education and we need to get it right.” - President Obama

This needs to be said louder and more. Particularly to administrators who think five to eight years is an acceptable time-frame in which to improve a failing school and teachers who think next year is a great time to improve their practice.(image)

Mathews - Teachers as Olympians


There's great merit in this notion, from Michael Goldstein and MATCH through Jay Mathews. Don't train teachers like doctors, theory first and then practice, train them like craftsmen and athletes, practice first and then theory, if they make the cut. Ice skaters don't read about physics and kinesiology before ever putting on their blades, maybe teachers should get to know kids before trying to incorporate Piaget and Vygotsky into their practice.

I was originally drawn to teaching from the experiences I had working at academic summer camps and tutoring in the Chicago schools during college. Not only did it help me build a sense of how kids learn and why they fail to "get it," as they discuss in the article, but it let me taste the nectar of having made a difference. Kid comes in confused and leaves with the concept down. I made that happen. TFA's "Institute" boot camp is great for developing a sense of lesson design, but there just isn't time in six weeks to get to know kids.

I also love the idea of specific, direct feedback on "teacher talk," our language and style of presentation and instruction, our "form." The norm seems to be to let teachers develop that on their own, but that only works when it works, there seem to be few alternatives or systems for remediation. In my master's program I've been forced to videotape myself and then analyze it ad nauseam. It's an absolutely merciless form of professional development but more powerful than anything else I've read, observed or done. It forced me to get down and consider the absolute minutia of language, pacing, tone, eye contact, body language, and physical movement around the classroom, ---vital issues of my practice that I'd never really even thought about.

Interestingly, the comments on this article, even from teachers, seem to focus incessantly on the MATCH teacher's hours. Shouldn't our first year, in a new profession chock-full of challenging and urgent work, be grueling and exhausting? What would it say about the job if your first year trying you only needed fifteen minutes before and after school to get ready? The problem with teaching isn't that the first year is so hard, the problem is that the third, fourth and fifth are often just as bad.(image)

Coming Home, Going Charter


I’m back. Really.Our two years in China almost up, my wife and I are returning to California. It’s hard to leave --- we’ve made a lot of friends here and we’ve been able to simply gorge on travel. But we are also far from our families and from the work we really want to do. I think that we may one day return to the International School world, they’re a great form of quasi-retirement for many of our colleagues, but we want our careers to be at home, serving our nation’s kids. Being out of the soul-crushing world of highly challenging public schools for two years has been recharging, but now we’re ready to go back.Unfortunately, the California public schools did not want to make this easy. We were required to sign or return our 2010-11 contracts in December, here. The public schools can’t hire us back until late in the spring, at best. Given the weak economic climate in California, the Governator’s willingness to play chicken with the state budget, and our absolute need for health insurance, we’ve decided that hanging on until April, June or September for a public school job, is just not a prudent choice.So we’ve signed with a charter operator serving the very same community we used to work in. This is a bit of a “flip-flop” for me, as I have been very critical of charters in the past. However, two years of distance and even more exposure to the world (educational and social) have made me question one core assumption and solidify two others.First, I’ve come to appreciate that school choice, far from being yet another mechanism for promoting division in our society, might actually be the best agent against it. As best as I can tell, residential segregation is here to stay. People like to reside near people who look and live like them. A great neighborhood school is accessible only to those able to rent or buy property within its bounds, while a great charter school must be accessible to any able to enter its lottery. Want to bring Beverly Hills and Compton kids together? Why not create a school that both their parents want them to attend. While certainly, simply applying for a space in the lottery can become (or be made) into a significant barrier to entry, it is undoubtedly a much smaller barrier (and more easily remedied) than residence. I can more easily imagine a day when children of all colors and all incomes share a great school than an apartment complex or suburb.Next, my current position as a tech coach has let me work with over fifty different teachers, in turn hardening my belief that an excellent teacher in the classroom is the sine qua non of offering a high-quality education. Teachers are not the only element required, but they are the most basic. Structures and supplies complement the excellence of quality educators, but do not compensate for the failings of incompetent ones. Our new schools have made it clear that they take pains to recruit and retain good people. (Get this – someone actually watched us teach before they hired us.) They require the “extra” hours and weeks that good teachers put in anyway, assuring a community of hard workers. They also pay teachers significantly more for working these hours and have clear paths for their recognition and advancement. Further, we will be working for the same people who recruited and interviewed us, our placements not at the mercy of a byzantine system of transfer and seniority system. Simply put: I am excited by the feeling that these schools actually treat teachers like professionals, whose work is both challenging and valuable. While we’ve given up our union protections[...]

Holy !@#% : Drivers in Shanghai


It's taken me several months to reach the point where I can adequately reflect on the maelstrom that is Shanghai traffic.  As it, much more than children or colleagues, is likely to make my blood boil on any given day, I've spent a considerable amount of time thinking about it.  I've also found that most expats have pondered it extensively, perhaps as they recognize it as the most likely source of their early demise.  I have come to see that there are, in fact, four distinct and progressive schools of thought about why Shanghai drivers are so willing to risk life and limb, ---theirs, their family, and mine--- for the sake of a moment or two in traffic. GTL TheoryGet The Laowei theory stems from your initial reaction to almost being run down by a car: "Holy !@#% that guy was going to kill me!" This generally happens within an hour or two of arriving in Shanghai.  Naturally, as you're many thousands of miles away from most people with any real cause to be so angry, you assume that it must be because you're foreign.  That guy was out to get to you because you're here, messing up the aesthetics of his country and making vastly more money than he is, and he hates you for it.  Or maybe he thinks he can run you over and you won't complain, because you don't speak Chinese.  Or perhaps he just couldn't see your white skin in the light. This theory only lasts a day or two.  Quickly, you realize that the drivers will just as easily run their own grandmother down as your self-centered foreignness.  And you feel bad for thinking it was all about race. PRM TheoryUsually, you're pushed into Poor Role Model theory when you ask about why the police drive around with their lights on.  The inevitable answer is, "So they don't get hit in the traffic."  Then it dawns on you, ---no one here actually does know how to drive!  If they can't avoid hitting the police without extra-special precautions, what possible safety have you? Somebody quickly reminds you that, a generation ago, there were very few drivers in China.  The vast majority of the population was, and is, on bicycle, scooter or motorbike.  This means that a lot of the newly rich did not grow up watching their parents obey the traffic laws, respect pedestrians, or even make a proper left turn.  They simply have no idea how it's done.   The closest thing most people have to driving role models are taxi cab drivers, ---people with a tremendous economic incentive to drive as close to the edge as possible.  RLGL TheoryRed Light – Green Light theory takes over after several months of observation.  Perhaps you're walking to Carrefour, as I was, and in the process of crossing the street with a crowd of about three dozen, as cars begin making a left turn in front of you.  You keep walking, they keep turning, ever sharper as you walk forward.  Rather than turn around or behind the group of pedestrians, they continue turning left into the wrong side of the street!  A glance behind shows that, yes, they are turning left into on-coming traffic and then making an abrupt u-turn around the median.  All this, to avoid driving ten feet to make their left behind you, or waiting ten seconds until you finish crossing the street. No one, you realize, could possibly think that this sort of driving is an earnest mistake.  It's an intentional, desperate effort to get ahead.  Ahead of you.  Ahead of anyone.  China's recent history is littered with power changes.  In just the last hundred years, it's gone from Mandate of Heaven to Good Republic to Corrupt Republic to Occupation to Workers Unite! to Workers Unite, Really! t[...]

Seeing the Sights in Suzhou and Xi'an


Travel, at its best, is the chance to experience something new. My wife and I thoroughly realized this when, after our recent weekend trips to Suzhou and Xi’an, we found ourselves not thinking back to the magnificent gardens or Terracotta Army these cities are known for, but our more simple experiences. In Suzhou, we had a boat ride and long walk along ancient canals and we spent hours circumnavigating the city walls of Xi’an on bike. A month later, we still find ourselves thinking and talking about these views of the cities ---the ones we’d never expected to see--- and not the grand sights that originally led us there.Suzhou’s gardens are indisputably among the best in China, ranging from intricate and intimate to majestic and grand, each resplendent with rockeries and greens, bonsai and bamboo, and pavilions full of dark wood and rich with reds, greens and grays. On top of this we visited amid Spring’s blooming flowers and rare clear days. Xi’an’s necropolis for China’s first emperor is as tremendous as you might imagine anything that can be called a “city of the dead” to be. Legions of carefully crafted soldiers, buried in their labyrinths a quarter millennia before the birth of Christ. So how could these fail to impress?Suzhou’s canals, by contrast to the gardens, were almost simple and unadorned. Green willow trees bowed over and dropped thin vines into the water, while the occasional plum or Asian maples added color. There were a few pavilions and benches along the walls, in quiet, natural browns. Xi’an’s city walls were hardly a sight to themselves, but more so provided the chance to circle the city, looking down on parks big and small, enormous intersections and winding lanes, rows of neo-historic buildings. Can any of this compare to the splendor of the premier sights of the cities?No, ---but that’s the point.These secondary sights were, my wife and I finally understood, the parts of the trip that we had not really anticipated and so were enchantingly unimagined. They were parts of the cities that we had not seen featured in scores of pictures, posters and paintings. Sure, they had their place on the map and in the guidebook, but they still retained a sense of surprise and novelty for us. By contrast, we had seen so many images, replicas and even videos of the Terracotta warriors that, once we had pushed our way through the crowds and laid in wait for a premium middle spot on the balcony overlooking them, we still found our view inferior to what the professionals had already achieved. Certainly, there is a spectacular quality to the army that can only be appreciated in person, but in terms of a rich and vivid appreciation of detail, one is far better off with National Geographic.I suspect this will be a challenge for travelers of this generation, those growing up with mega-screens showing HD video of “Planet Earth.” They will be saturated with stunning images of everywhere, each taken in its best seasons, on its best days, and only showing its best angles. Always, of course, without the crowds, hawkers or mosquitoes. How can their own travels compare? Comparison is not the point.Culturally, we always understood this. We go to foreign countries because they are fascinatingly different than our own. We go to see, eat, hear and smell something we cannot find at home. An experience T.V. or Imax cannot provide. Now we realize that the same must be for the sights we seek, recognizing that we can and will get our best views of the major and magnificent at home. In the future, I thin[...]

Gross Simplifications of Terrifically Complex Issues


Gross simplifications of terrifically complex issues are best left to cable news commentators, but sometimes they're a lot of fun to join in...

I read Kitchen Table Math, the Sequel because it's informative to see how many intelligent, focused and well-read parents can totally miss the point. But sometimes they drive me crazy:

Their Post:

Independent George boils it down

Is it me, or can the entire philosophy of K-6 education be summarized as:

1. It's not our fault.
2. It's not our problem.
3. We're underfunded.

I'm thinking we should make this our default kitchen table math post on days when everyone's too busy to write something new.

Then there's this:

If kids don't learn math, it's because they're not capable of learning it. And if they enter high school five years behind grade level, then it's up to the parents and the high schools to catch them up. Either way, they need more money so that they can facilitate kids learning on their own.

My Reply:

Catherine - How do you deal with blogs that you recognize in your blogroll, like Dy/Dan and Teaching in the 408 (may it RIP), that specifically and powerfully argue against this idea? Do you think it aids those educators engaged in tackling the excuse-making attitudes of some of our colleagues when you apply this label so generally? Do you think it inspires our nation's talented youth to look to or stay in the classroom for their career when this is the public perception they meet?

The more you blame educators, whether positioned in the classroom or district office, for the failing education system, the more you must recognize that we are the solution. Only a corps of great teachers, inspired to offer their best, can provide the U.S. with the sort of public education system you all dream of on this blog. Instead of a default to untempered criticism, add an ounce of contribution. What are you doing to make that happen?

Here's my "entire philosophy for K-6 education."

1. Fault is for the politicians and academics. I worry and wonder about 5th graders who can't read.

2. It's our problem, whether or not we're equipped, prepared or intended to solve it. The best of us accept that and get to work.

3. We're undermanned, but thus underfunded because it takes money to get people. If you know how to get us experts and professionals on the cheap, make *that* your default post.


So go ahead, give in to temptation to boil it all down to tasteless nothingness. What would your three be?(image)

The People Live with Their Pigs (And PCs)


Tired of the city, tired of the culturally ambiguous modern Shanghai, we were excited to get out to the country on this trip. We wanted to see some of “real China.” We wanted to meet some Chinese people. So in between the splendors of karst hills and rice terraces, we decided to leave the typical tourist path a little. We hired a guide who planned our trip to small minority villages and little towns, arranged transportation, met us at the airport, and whisked us off.We didn’t have to do any of the work, and yet, we were so unready.In our hasty desire to see The People, we’d forgotten that, frankly, The People live in poverty and squalor. The People don’t have hot water, screens on their windows, and proper sanitation. The People live with their pigs.Our first hint of just where we were going came when our guide suggested we stop and buy bottled water. Now, we drink bottled water in Shanghai, so this hardly seemed unusual. Then she explained, we were buying water for the whole week. They didn’t sell it where we were headed.Oh.We drove for eight-hours, over and around mountains, and through gorgeous red hills bedecked with terraces of tea. It is the spring harvest and workers in blue with their traditional conical caps were picking away at the young leaves while toddlers waddled nearby. From the road, we peered up and down at small villages, nestled in tiny valleys or against sharp hillsides, made exclusively of patched together wood houses. Power lines jarred the landscape and satellite dishes the architecture, but these were the only conspicuous elements of development.As we walked down to the first village where we were to stay the night, our guide explained that the satellite dishes were an effort by the government to teach the people of these villages “the rules.” We snickered a little, thinking this meant some manner of propagandizing, but then she explained more, and it became clear that she meant “health and safety” sorts of rules, not political or legal ones. Then we walked through the village and it became obvious why this effort was gravely needed. Animals roamed freely through the streets, littering the whole town with their waste, before taking nightly residence on the bottom floor of the houses. Little children toddled and played right through the waste. Household trash was dumped in whatever corner or on whatever hillside was mildly out of sight. Sometimes it was burned, filling the air with a vicious stench, and sometimes it was just clearly left to rot. The plastic remains of individually packaged snacks and goods were incessantly underfoot. All of this could be seen as a gross nuisance, but on a walk through one village, our guide pointed to a clinic filled with mothers or grandparents and their small children with IVs. “This is a hospital,” she told us, “they have a lot of sick children in these villages.”The dignity of the simple life, however, was equally apparent. In the tiny village we were visiting, an elder had just passed away and our guide explained that the music we could hear wafting through the down was a funereal song, making this announcement. Now, she explained, everyone in the village would know that this family was grieving and would come to pay respects and help them through the difficult times. She noted, and we agreed, how such decency and community might never happen in a city. Unlike Shanghai, we never ended our days feeling battered by the jostling crowds or on edge from having to fight our way [...]

Karst Hills and Terraced Farms


Imagine great icebergs of stone, lightly shrouded in clouds, floating across a sea of rice paddies.

The karst of southeastern China are iconic enough to bedeck the back of the twenty yuan bill, but such frequent and mundane viewing does little to temper the experience of actually seeing them in person. These limestone hills are formed as the stone around them unevenly eroded away and then washed round by rain. They range in height from a few hundred feet to over a thousand and they populate the southeastern landscape in uncountable numbers.

From any perspective, they are simply magnificent. From a river raft or bike ride at their feet, they tower upwards with great suddenness, their sides awash in green vegetation and grey stone. From higher or farther, they fill your field of view, forming congregations like some geologic Manhattan, an expanse of massive stone skyscrapers, irregular and dense, with slivers of valleys running between them. Leaving or arriving, you see them in the distance, amassed on the horizon and forming a pattern surreal in size and shape, like the edge of some fantasy world.

If you can possibly swallow a scene even more spectacular, you can drive only two hours northwest to see the terraced rice fields of Longsheng County. Hillsides thousands of feet in their descent have been hand carved into the service of cultivation. Paddies range from ten yards to barely a foot across. From the side or below, they look like steps fit for a giant. From above, the most splendid vista is appropriately titled the “Dragon’s Backbone.”

We saw them two weeks ago, as they were being prepared for the spring planting. Most were not yet flooded, but were being plowed, as they have for many thousands of years, by a man and an ox. But despite their fame and history, they are a fickle tourist site. We arrived just before sunset and watched them in colorful splendor for about an hour. Then a fog bank rolled in and, after artfully veiling the hills for a few minutes, enveloped them completely and didn’t leave until well after we did.

But I can’t complain. Both sights, even if taken in for only a few minutes, offer the sort of mesmerizing magnificence that makes it hard to walk, talk, or even take a picture. You just want to look back and forth, taking it all in. It makes smile even now, two weeks later, just to think about them.

But we had a full week to explore and saw a whole lot more than we ever expected.

(Part II – The People Live With Their Pigs (And PCs), Tomorrow)(image)

The Difficulty of Eating Chinese in China


A month ago, our favorite Chinese restaurant in our neighborhood closed down and left a gaping hole in our culinary life. Chinese restaurants are, as you might expect, rather common here. But this one was special: it was owned and managed by an older gentleman named Perkins, who spoke completely fluent English. He, it turned out, had spent many vacations visiting family in the U.S. and even driven through my hometown. His restaurant served dishes from all across China, another happy eccentricity. Across our first five months here, with Perkins as our guide, we were gradually being introduced to more and more “real” Chinese dishes. The man was something akin to an expert sushi chef, who would, in the course of small talk, decipher what we really needed and order it for us. Under his expert tutelage, we began to experience all manner of soups, vegetables and fish dishes we had never before encountered. It was marvelous.But now he’s gone. And without him, we were having trouble summoning the adventurousness to find a new Chinese favorite.I’ll freely admit that we are often intimidated by the truly local joints, either because they’re packed with smoking taxi cab drivers, completely empty except for some desperate looking wait staff, or feature a menu entirely without pictures or the few simple characters I can recognize. Of course, we know some simple favorites in Mandarin, but how many times can anyone eat pork/beef/chicken, eggplant, green vegetable, and rice in any six months? Further, after a few bouts with stomach ailments, I have found myself reluctant to be too adventurous when it comes to spice or sanitation. This had knocked off our second favorite Chinese restaurant, a Uyguhr place down the street that was a little bit of a stretch on both counts.Two weeks ago, my wife realized that we’d gone too long avoiding the issue. We could not live in China and eat Chinese any less than twice a week. We had to stop grieving for Perkins and move on. We cheated for a bit and went to the basement food court of Carrefour, with an abundance of little Chinese food stalls available on a point and shoot basis. Then we were taken to an exquisite Chinese gourmet restaurant that made us reluctant to taste anything inferior. We ate our fill of baozi and fried dough from the street food vendors, but we knew were just stalling. Soon we were staring at a series of trips to Japanese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, Japanese-Italian, and even a Mexican place, and feeling more than a little ridiculous. We had to admit that we’d grown accustomed to getting our Chinese food too easily and were now scared to fight for it like real travelers.We had to start small. We choked up some courage and pushed ourselves to visit Dumpling Master. D.M. is a clean and trendy looking chain shop with a cuisine that might be easily inferred from its name. We had tried to go here before, shortly after it opened, but were deterred by the wordy menu and confused expressions from the wait staff. But dumplings sounded particularly good and the cleanliness was a big draw. This time, we were speedily seated, but again brought totally illegible menus. We began to try and piece together how and what to order, based off of price and a total of three pictures, when our waiter came up. Good service in China seems to be indicated by standing over a table from the moment the customers sit down until they finishing ordering. The pressure mounted and we cou[...]

Us and Them


The last month has beaten me down with a variety of winter illnesses, always striking over the weekend or right at the beginning of the week when I’ve time to write. But now I’m healthier and ready to blog!---It seems like a truism that living abroad would make you more respectful of the differences between peoples, more understanding of the common humanity of nations around the world or, at least, more culturally sensitive and savvy.Not always, I’m finding. All too easily, a bit of stress or shock is all it takes to scrape off our thin veneer of respect and sensitivity and reveal a mentality of “Us and Them” that we share with expatriates of the earlier eras. I’m as guilty as the next expat, but I plead remorse and reflection in hopes it spares my traveling soul.Many times, living here, I find myself slipping into the feeling that I am fighting against a tide. I’m battling waves of men spitting on the sidewalk, grandmothers letting their baby defecate in the street, hoards jostling to get on the subway before anyone has gotten off, or boys driving their motor scooters up a crowded sidewalk. I become convinced that I am being targeted because I’m foreign, ---that they try to snatch my cab because they know I can’t swear at them and won’t resist that much.And always, always, it’s about “them.” We know better than to speak too often of “The Chinese,” as it rings of unmitigated colonial racism, so it becomes a vague pronoun that somehow serves only to make it worse. “They” are a nameless, faceless mass of black-haired spitters, hawkers, smokers, and thieves who are bent upon popping the bubble of happier, cleaner, quieter, more decent and ---though we so don't want to say it--- more Western ways, we try endlessly to puff up around us. At school, some items of value have gone missing and we are painfully quick to accuse “Them.” (I can’t help but say “We,” though I find myself in complete disagreement with my colleagues.) Some suggest, with an attempt at earnest sympathy, that times are hard and wages are low, the problem would be solved if we paid them more. With money comes morals, after all, as evidenced so well in the US right now. Others, almost choking on their own racism, ask, “Who else could it be, you know, they have the keys?” The thought never occurs to “us,” of course, that it could be one of “us.” Worse yet, though, is the unspoken reality that we do not even know most of “their” names. When we talk about who may have stolen what, we have to describe faces and haircuts. “Us” and “them” is just all we know.There is no chance for them to become our friends, or at least gain the sort of names, lives and identities that forestall the merger into "Them" ness. Here, just as long ago, expats can and are expected to satisfy every aspect of their social life, from going to church to joining a sports team, in their own little bubble. Even where the opportunity exists for Us and Them to meet and know each the other, at work, the language and precedent does not. Saddest of all, perhaps, is how this descent into dichotomies seems almost inevitable when we stop traveling and start living abroad. Living abroad gives us the opportunity to see a country in a depth beyond shallowness of the spectacular. But once we have settled in, once the awe and excitement fades, we find that below the surface is the murky, dark and cold. The [...]

Hong Kong


Despite spending the last six months in an epic city of tens of millions, my wife and I still felt like a pair of bumpkins when we arrived in Hong Kong. From the architecture to the transport, the shopping to the food, Hong Kong is a city whose density, diversity and accessibility rival any other destination around. In our three days there, we barely scratched the surface of this tremendous archipelago.Hong Kong is a vertical city. It is now the world’s second tallest, according to Forbes, with 30 buildings over 700 feet. While New York has a handful more, Hong Kong’s greater density and hilly backdrop makes the skyline massively more impressive. Manhattan seems positively spacious compared to the pockets of buildable land on Hong Kong island, which has sagely restricted new building through the creation of parks and reserves, as well as a cap on “reclaiming” land from the harbor. Such demands have left little incentive to leave buildings under 20 stories intact.That’s not to say that Hong Kong is a towering beast made entirely of glass and steel. Despite its size and density, the finance capital was still engaging and approachable. Our walks around the heart of the city took us past neoclassical and colonial government buildings, down café-lined streets fit for Europe, through a gorgeous and quiet botanical garden, across the campus of a simple Episcopalian church and left us peeking over a wall at a bright green mosque. Further, when one neighborhood, city or even island grew monotonous, we could just hop on the nearest bus, subway, ferry or escalator and see something new.New York, London and Tokyo all get the fame for mass transportation, but if you really want to see a city move people, go to Hong Kong. A mass network of ferries, trams, double-decker buses, subway and high-speed rail is simply the first round. Hong Kong ups the game with jet-foils, a cable car, helicopters, and even the world’s longest series of escalators. Almost all of them accessible with a single, aptly named “octopus” debit card, ---that can also be used to pay for your morning Starbucks. By 2050, I suspect Hong Kong will have developed a series of connections between skyscrapers that allow residents to skip the time-wasting rides in elevators and travel about the city entirely on the 23rd floor, in tubes. Our second day in Hong Kong, a twenty minute trip on a double-decker bus took us to the opposite side of the island, and the little beach town of Stanley. This little village, sadly thronged with people, offered us little in the way of tourism, but everything in the way of shopping. Sure, Hong Kong has its Nathan Road, its fabulous malls, its Italian brands you’re just not rich enough to even know of, but so does Shanghai. It’s the simple stuff we can’t get. We were simply stunned to find, in a medium-sized market in a little town, American goods beyond our wildest dreams, --- cheap Mach 3 razor blades, Vaseline body lotion, and even shoes for our big American feet. It was Christmas in January, folks. Forget the Gucci purse, this was a shop-till-you-drop experience expatriate style. By our third day, my wife and I were ready for a change of pace, and Hong Kong’s archipelago of smaller islands seemed a perfect respite. Because it was Chinese New Year, we skipped the more popular Lantau and Lanma for Cheung Chau. This car-less island of 30,000 seemed to ha[...]