Tuesday, December 31, 2013

End of 2013 Reflections on Reading

I've described myself as a voracious reader. I'm not the most prolific reader, but I still read a lot and continually yearn to read more. I rarely get to read as much as I would like, especially since returning to the US. I loved commuting by bus while in China because it allowed me to devote up to an hour a day for reading. The US car culture and the busyness involved with trying to find a job have forced me to significantly curtail my reading volume. I think there will be a future post relating to that.

Nevertheless, I was able to finish 43 books this year. I was hoping to finish Sons and Lovers before New Years Day, but given that it's the morning of New Year's Eve now, my chances don't look promising.  In this post I'm going to comment on a few of the highlights that made an impression on me during 2013. Maybe you'll find something to add to your reading list.

The Shallows - Nicholas Carr
The Dumbest Generation - Mark Bauerlein
As the previous post already dealt with some of this content, I won't say too much this time. These were two of the first three books I read in 2013. Both books put into words and added research evidence to ideas I'd already been considering but only with anecdotal evidence:

  • I'd noticed that my eyes were scanning pages differently on a computer screen than when in physical form.
  • I'd noticed that my thought processes seemed more splintered than in the past.
  • I'd noticed that my students from 2003 to 2013 showed a marked decrease in desire or willingness to read.
  • I'd noticed the facebook-ization or twitter-ization of idea in conversations had with recend college grads coming from the US.
  • I'd noted that my own students seemed absolutely addicted to their devices to the point where it negatively affected their school work, their ability to socialize, and even their sense of contentment with life.

These of things I noticed by way of anecdotal evidence: observation. These two books added researched teeth to those observations. They'll make you think twice about how you spend your time online or with your devices. They'll make you rethink how much or how little you allow your children access to these devices.

The Last Chinese Chef - Nicole Mones
I don't usually read contemporary novels unless overwhelmed with life and in need of something easy. This was a contemporary novel I didn't want to put down. Mones, perhaps better known for her novel Lost in Translation, did a thorough job of researching Chinese food culture, or so say the Chinese friends and family I asked to confirm, and her descriptions are wonderfully vivid. It makes sense, as she did business in China for close to two decades.

Generally, I'm a beverage fan: teas, coffees, spirits, wines, beers, etc. Good food (gourmet or otherwise) doesn't often excite me like a good beverage will. Mones's descriptions of Chinese food -- real, traditional, painstakingly prepared Chinese food -- caused me to yearn for new culinary experiences, at whatever cost. Thankfully I have children that typically prevent me from going to such places and enough economic sense to stay away. But like Pavlov's dogs, my mouth began salivating every time I thought about reading the next chapter.

Mones's story was relatively well-crafted but predictable. Still, her descriptions of Chinese culture through the eyes of a new arrival were engaging, although some of the more subtle aspects would be lost on those who don't a have significant experience with China or Chinese culture. All said, it was a fun read and it made me excited about part of Chinese culture that had ceased intriguing me.

In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto - Michael Pollan
Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us - Michael Moss
I first heard of Michael Pollan through a series of Yale MOOC-style lectures that my wife was watching. Later when a friend recommended the book, I took the bait. It's not often I read books and find myself saying, "Yes!" on every page. With these two books, I essentially did just that. Had I had a package of highlighters, they would have been worn out. The authors of these book relentlessly presented research that led to conclusions I'd intuitively reached. It gave me evidence to support the ideas I'd already been having.

I'd been heading toward more and more whole foods and raw foods over the past few years. It just seemed like the best thing to do. I mean, objectively speaking, how many of us really think it is smart to eat foods with ingredients like acesulfame potassium or sucralose? Those ingredients are found in Quaker Oats cinnamon flavored instant oatmeal, a far cry from my morning bowl of whole rolled oats with a half teaspoon of cinnamon and some dried goji berries.

As I said, these two books seemed to hit at so many points that I already intuitively knew: the necessity of eating real food, not chemistry experiments; the nutritional terror that is the huge social experiment called processed foods; added sugars, fats, and salts (not to mention chemicals) can't be what bodies, which have for millennia (up until the 1900s) eaten natural foods, really want.

I would recommend these books to anyone, whether having previously studied nutrition or not. Kate Moss once said, "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." I don't agree with that view of life, but I like the alternate spin many have put on it: Nothing tastes as good as healthy feels. If not already convinced that your eating habits may need an overhaul, these books will give you something to chew on (pun absolutely intended).

Dad is Fat - Jim Gaffigan
When a popular comedian who has a lot of kids (and loves having a lot of kids) writes a book about parenting, a good time is bound to be had. This book was hilarious, though I may not have found it so funny if I were not a parent myself.

This may be my favorite excerpt from the book:
Occasionally, a dog will be presented as a some training method for having a baby. "My girlfriend and I got a dog. We are going to see if we can handle that before we have kids." This is a little like testing the waters of being a vegetarian by having lettuce on your burger. Okay, maybe that metaphor doesn't make sense, but neither does using a dog as a training method for having a baby.

Or maybe this one:
I used to wonder why I had hair on my legs, but now I know it's for my toddler sons and daughters to pull themselves up off the ground with as I scream in pain.

Those are lines that fit my sense of humor. If you're a parent, I'm sure you;ll find many lines that cause you to laugh out loud. I did.

The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner
This was not an uplifting novel by any stretch of the imagination. It was dark. It was tragic. It is not for those who require happy endings.

That said, The Sound and the Fury is an amazing novel, written beautifully. Seemingly unconnected sections slowly fill in a broader picture of the Compson family. The prose is difficult but accessible. It may have seemed more accessible to me than it really is, as I had just aborted an attempt to read Ulysses. In comparison, the prose seemed much more comprehensible. This is a novel for fans of the craft, for fans of literary portraits, and for those who may want a challenge.

What's in store for 2014?
Who knows where 2014 will lead? At the beginning of 2013, I never would have guessed I'd read Darkness and Noon (Aurthur Koestler), In the Plex (Steven Levy), or Thank you for Arguing (Jay Heinrichs), but one book leads to another, and one recommendation leads to paths never before taken. Potentially on the immediate horizon for me are these, in no particular order:

  1. Sons and Lovers - D.H. Lawrence
  2. Under the Volcano - Malcolm Lowry
  3. The Way of all Flesh - Samuel Butler
  4. Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength - Roy F. Baumeister & John Tierney
  5. Cooked - Michael Pollan
  6. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle With India - Joseph Lelyveld

What were your literature highlights for 2013?

What's on your reading list for 2014?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Messages in the Surface advertisement

Since I've been back in the US, there has been one television/hulu advertisement in particular that has caused me to feel progressively more uncomfortable. I've struggled to put into words exactly how or why it makes me uncomfortable, but this post is my attempt to do so. See the advertisement below:

From the outset, let me clarify that I am in no way an enemy of using technology, especially to educate. Obviously I blog. I have used youtube, but my education-focused vlog is on tudou (土豆网), a Chinese service that is inexplicable slow in the US. I have my own website, wherein I describe a myriad of other computer-based technologies I use or have used in my teaching career. I'm currently playing with Language Cloud, trying to determine its overall usefulness for language teaching in general and in different contexts.

I also use technology to learn. I took a online course from Iowa State University back in 2002, in the early years of online learning. It was self-paced, which meant I finished the January-May course during the second week of March. (That's just how I tend to work.) Later as a grad student in a field-based TESOL program, much peer collaboration was done online. An iPod was a crucial piece of technology while studying Chinese, both for purchased and self-produced mp3s, and I still use my computer and cell phone to tune in to Chinese radio. Even now I'm and trying to decide whether to enroll in one or more Coursura courses (Coaching Teachers, Student Thinking at the Core, Blended Learning) or edX courses (Intro to Computer Science, Effective Thinking Through Math, The Science of Everyday Thinking, China).

Despite my clear belief in the potential usefulness of computer technology to educate, I would describe myself as technologically cautious. Perhaps to use a phrasing with more positive connotation, I could describe my approach to technology integration as research-based. Simply put, technology is not a educational savior, and even if used well, it could harm more than help student learning and achievement, especially in the primary and secondary school years, as it is during these years that students acquire so many fundamental skills.

To get back to the original purpose of this post, I think there are three main reasons why this Surface tablet advertisement makes me uncomfortable.

#1 Fatalism
"Change is coming" remarks the teacher (an actor, I assume). He continues, saying, "All my students have the brand new Surface." He makes this seem so inevitable, as if there really is no choice. Because all the students have the tablet (What kind of school is this?), he feels he must utilize them. Wisdom is not something that young people are known for; wisdom requires age and experience. Just because student have them and like them, does that mean they make for good education? It seems unwise to make pedagogical decisions based on what students due primarily for fun, status, etc.

Daphne Koller has remarked, "Now, this is something that to the people of my generation is still a bit foreign, but if you talk to the kids of today, they actually prefer to text each other than to talk to each other on the phone or even get together for coffee"(1). It may be preferred, but is it a healthy preference? Is it an educationally, academically sound preference? These are huge assumptions that should not be made.

Change is coming, without a doubt, and both schools and teachers must adapt. But to adapt, must they inevitably adopt what may not be in the students' educational best interests? For better or worse, some parents working in high tech companies such as Apple and Google disagree with this inevitability, sending their children to school without computers (2). Again, I'm not saying the technology should not be used, but fatalism is the enemy of best practice.

#2 Overemphasis on entertainment
Granted, the teacher says nothing about students playing games or using Skype in school, but by juxtaposing the social networking and gaming aspects alongside the school aspects, the advertisement tries to tap into the prevailing societal idea that people should be continuously entertained, even at school. It feeds the currently popular notion that people shouldn't have to do things that aren't fun, so if school is not entertaining, school is bad. That whole idea is absolutely absurd.

I'm not anti-fun, though I admit that  my achiever orientation does sometimes lead to anti-entertainment ideas. I try to make my lessons interesting, engaging and, yes, fun. Nevertheless education and learning take work, and work is not usually fun in and of itself, though the final sense of satisfaction may be. Almost anything truly valuable takes effort or persistence or both, neither of which are inherently fun. This advertisement makes me uncomfortable because it continues to blur the lines of reality by giving the impression that good education and deep learning can and should come easily and that students should be entertained.

#3 Bandwagon thinking
The teacher in the advertisement prefaces his comments with "Honestly, I'm a little old fashioned," immediately putting to rest the idea teachers with less technological aptitude could have equal or greater wisdom than those well versed in the latest tech fads. The worldview of the advertisement is revealed immediately: Youth and excitement rule; age and wisdom mean nothing.

Perhaps the most significant reason I am uncomfortable with this advertisement is that it continues to perpetuate the notion that computer and internet technology will and does improve education, a notion that has yet to be realized. There is a rampant belief that any tech is good tech. Since the dawn of television, technology advocates have assigned messiah-like promises to the potential of technology to transform education and facilitate learning. Education is continuing to be transformed; this is true. But is learning being facilitated? For all the spending that schools have done and are doing to upgrade computers and integrate technology, the sad fact is that achievement has not risen, and in some cases has fallen (3). Yet schools, parents, and obviously the tech companies continue to jump on the bandwagon, without evidence to support what everyone assumes (4): technology makes for better learning and better preparation.

That is not to say that the promises are empty. Online learning, mobile devices, and the like do have great potential to transform learning for the better, but at the moment it is merely that: potential. While there has been success with blended learning (also called hybrid learning)(5), these are mostly in areas such as math that have definite answers that lend themselves to adaptive learning. Perhaps as teachers become more skilled at using this technology, as Koller suggests, the true benefits of computer-assisted learning will truly be revealed. In areas such as reading skills development, however, the evidence is overwhelming on the anti-technology side (6). For now it behooves teachers, parents, students and all other stakeholders to reject the bandwagon and adopt a research-based, thoughtful, open-minded but cautious attitude toward the use of technology in the classroom.

  1. See William B. Bowen's book Higher Education in the Digital Age.
  2. There are many articles about this. Here is one from The New York Times and another from Daily Mail.
  3. For discussions and references to research about technology usage and student achievement see the Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerlein.
  4. Stephen Krashen agrees.
  5. Here's an interesting article from Smithsonian.
  6. Again see the discussion and references from Nicolas Carr.

Monday, December 02, 2013

Clifton StrengthsFinder

As part of my transition into the U.S. job market, some grad school classmates (and fellow ESL colleagues) suggested I complete the Clifton StrengthsFinder assessment. Frankly, whenever I hear of assessments like this (e.g. Myers-Briggs), I’m always somewhat incredulous. I cannot help but think such assessments could not possibly be able to summarize the complexity that is a human personality. However, despite my ever-present skepticism, I’m consistently shocked by how accurate the results of these types of assessments seem to be. This time was no exception.

For those of you who are as unfamiliar with the assessment as I was, here is a brief description: “The Clifton StrengthsFinder measures the presence of 34 talent themes. Talents are people's naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied. The more dominant a theme is in a person, the greater the theme's impact on that person's behavior and performance” (strengthtest).

After obtaining an access code, I went ahead with the assessment. When finished, I was presented with a personalized summary of my five most dominant strengths along with discussion of what the results mean. According to the the assessment, my top five talents are these:

  1. Leaner
  2. Achiever
  3. Connectedness
  4. Intellection
  5. Input

I had not read through the 34 themes prior to taking the assessment, so these labels were a bit bewildering. In fact, when I first looked at the results, I thought numbers 1, 4 and 5 were essentially different sides of the same coin. The provided summaries were quite thorough, however, and as I’ve read through the materials and dialogued with those who understand the assessment well, I’ve started getting a better handle on what these mean and how they show up in my life. Just yesterday I replied to a post on Facebook and only afterwards noted that it was an excellent demonstration of connectedness.

I’ve tried to remember that these are “naturally recurring patterns of thought, feeling, or behavior.” These are essentially the ways that a person’s brain is unique and how that uniqueness allows different people to see the world differently, interact with the world differently and weave different colors into the tapestries of people’s lives. These are strengths to be tapped into, developed and expressed. I’m not yet sure how to use this awareness in my future teaching or other professional pursuits, but I’m on the journey.

I am also wondering what could happen if everyone could take this assessment. As a teacher, I want to help students discover their strengths, but I know I am limited in my own ability to personally uncover each student’s strengths, not to mention helping each student individually develop those strengths. I wonder what could happen if all students could take this assessment and receive greater insight into the strengths they already possess and could subsequently apply to their educational and career pursuits.

Imagine students not simply guessing about what they’re good at, but knowing. Imagine students thriving not because they try to do what everyone else does but because they tap into their own natural potentialities. Imagine students gaining confidence not due to the blind blind, ignorant praise of self-esteem language but rather due to seeing their strengths emerge and bloom. It could be beautiful.

Of course this all assumes the assessment’s accuracy.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Compatible computing

I personally do computing across several platforms and software packages. At home I have been using OSX 10.7.5 Lion, though I recently upgraded to OSX 10.9 Mavericks. Before resigning my position to return to the U.S., I was using Windows 7 on my office computer, on which I had previously installed and used Ubuntu (Linux). Some of the computers in the school were running Windows XP, as does my wife's netbook. Then there's my cellphone running Android (Jellybean) and the Debian (Linux) I run on a virtual computer. Those are the systems I use most often. Others might add one of various tablets, such as my father's Kindle Fire or my wife's soon-to-be-purchased iPad Mini or Surface tablet. (Any suggestions which we should go with?)

This is the reality of computing in 2013: cross-platform. It is next to impossible to find anyone who can completely subsist in just one ecosystem. Not only are people using different types of devices, each having different operating systems, but people are using different versions of those operating systems: for example, Windows XP (archaic), Windows 7 and Windows 8. Within each of these, people are using different software packages: iWork, Office, LibreOffice, etc. This can cause headaches when people running different softwares (e.g. Pages and Word) or different versions of the same software (e.g. Word 2007 and Word 2010) try to share documents. And then what if people have different font packages? The opportunities for less-than-ideal compatibility go on and on.

Given the reality of computing today, I am often dismayed by the relative lack of technological consideration often demonstrated when people share documents. Is it really a good idea to assume that all the other users will be using the same software you are when they open that doc, docx, odt or pages file? Are you sure the formatting will stay the same in each of the software versions other users will be using? Below are some strategies I use to try to navigate these waters of incompatibility.

The Cloud

This is by far the easiest and safest (from a compatibility perspective) way to collaborate and share documents. Whether it be Google Docs, Microsoft Skydrive or another similar web-based office suite, the cloud will always provide maximum compatibility. A presentation run through Google Drive will look the same on any computer. A document written and formatted using Skydrive will look the same to any user who logs into the online document.

There are, however, a few weaknesses to the cloud. This approach assumes the web browsers being used are able to handle the web apps, but this should not be a problem for most. (I personally prefer Google Chrome and Mozilla Firefox.) Also, the formatting capabilities of these web-based office suites are generally neither as powerful nor as comprehensive as those found in desktop publishing software packages. The biggest turn-off for many may be that it simply takes time to become familiar with using the cloud well, which in today’s go-go, time-is-money society is a completely understandable reason. Nevertheless, from a max compatibility standpoint, the cloud is really the way to go.

Desktop Publishing

First, let’s be clear: Word, Pages, Writer, etc. are publishing softwares. They should be used to format documents and prepare them for distribution. Finished documents, however, should never be sent as software-specific documents (e.g. doc, docx, odt, pages, etc.)

After spending your valuable time to make sure your content (e.g. text, diagrams, photos) fits perfectly on each page of a document using Word 2010, for example, it should never be assumed that the pages will look the same when your colleague down the hall (or across the ocean) opens the dock in Word 2007 using Windows XP. This is an even bigger headache when Mac users receive the same doc or docx and try opening it in Pages. Yes, Mac users can and do also buy and use Microsoft Word, but why run redundant apps? Rather than lamenting that the other people get with it and use whatever suite you happen to use, it would be much more productive use cross-platform documents.

Read-only docs: pdf

If your document is already a finished product, not something you want others to edit or proofread, try this: save or export the document as a pdf. It doesn't matter what publishing software you use; these days they can all create pdf files. Some softwares make it possible by selecting “save as”, whereas others may use “export”. You may have to dig around, but believe me: it’s there. And what’s the benefit? One, you save the beauty of your work from the incompatibility gremlins. Two, none of your recipients will swear under their breath about incompatibility issues.

Info collection: txt

Sometimes it may be unavoidable; you may have to send specific formats such as docx, pages and the like. But, when collaboration and text is the primary focus and formatting can be left to a later date, save (or export) your work as txt. Better yet: use simple text editors like TextEdit (Mac) or Notepad (Windows), or even TextWrangler or Vim. I happen to be using TextEdit to compose this post, and I'll format it once I get into Blogger. The text isn’t attractive, but unfinished products don’t need to be. If compatibility is the goal and text is the content, go with txt.


Prezi is wonderful. Unless done very well, I quickly become bored with traditional slideshows, whether they be done on Powerpoint, Keynote or others. A presentation is still a presentation, but if you want to spice things up a bit, go with the Prezi web app. Plus, teachers get extra storage space!

When considering compatibility, Prezi is also ideal. If you happen to be presenting in a context with internet access, the presentation can be delivered straight from the web browser, just like Google Drive or Skydrive presentations. As an added bonus, however, should you have limited or no internet access in your presentation venue, Prezi presentations are downloadable. If you download a Prezi presentation, you’ll get a zip file with both .exe and .app files, both of which are self-contained applications that run only that individual presentation. This means the presentation will run exactly as designed whether using Windows or OSX. Thus far I’ve run these using Windows XP, Windows 7 and OSX Lion with nary a glitch.


Above are just a few suggestions for better compatibility. Yes, it takes an extra step or two, and you may have to spend a little time getting used to new ways of doing things, but unless all your colleagues, students and friends are using the same ecosystems you use, these extra steps make a world of difference for everyone.

Friday, November 08, 2013

In transition: Reflections on the art of teaching, part 3

This is the last in a series of three reflections. In this post I’ll continue to reflect on some of the major things I’ve learned over the past 12 years of teaching. There are obviously more than three lessons I’ve learned during this time, but have been three that strike me as I am leaving China.

This particular reflection is of more practical nature that the previous two, but I hope it will still be thought-provoking. I will also point out that I am writing this at 3:00 a.m. in a jet-lag induced state of alertness.

Reflection 3: Memorization is overly maligned

Memorization has gotten a bad rap. Memorization (a.k.a. rote memorization) was the whipping post of my academic generation. It most likely still is. I'm not sure I ever heard a single professor speak well of rote memorization, let alone advocate its use. What was stressed was rather communication, critical thinking, creativity, self-expression and the like, all of which are good, essential, and perhaps even the goal of all instruction. I likewise attempt to foster these skills in my students. Nevertheless, after years of teaching English to English learners (as opposed to already literate high school students or university literature majors), I have concluded that to completely exclude memorization is neither desirable nor educationally sound.

Part of me wants to focus on mathematics and discuss multiplication tables because they are often cited when memorization is mentioned. However, in this entry I will try to stick to language, Chinese specifically.

Have you ever tried to write Chinese? Though it is a popular language choice at present and is gaining in popularity by the day, most of you have not. Here is one thing to know about writing Chinese: It cannot be studied without memorization, generally active memorization. To write Chinese (to “spell”), one must memorize. A learner can't simply “sound it out” like learners can somewhat do with English and more easily do with languages that have more standardized spelling systems (e.g. Spanish or German). Over time one simply may be able to acquire the skill relatively passively or subconsciously (Stephen Krashen's Input Hypothesis), but it is highly improbable, and not even native speakers wait for such acquisition, as young Chinese boys and girls labor to write characters over and over in their practice books. If Chinese children have to do so, would such memorization be a lesser need for second language learners of Chinese?

Of course a Chinese learner may be able to predict a possible meaning radical when writing a character (assuming those radicals been memorized), and yes, a Chinese learner can guess a possible sound radical (assuming those have been memorized as well), but when push comes to shove, a Chinese learner either knows how to write a character or doesn't. Yes, computer technology now makes is possible to “read” one’s way to writing ability. The pinyin system used to enter Chinese characters into a computer allows the composer to select the proper character from a list of many characters having the same sound, essentially letting someone read rather than write their way to a composition. Though this technology is incredibly helpful, this phenomena demonstrates a fundamental deficiency of language ability. Even well-educated Chinese forget how to write characters. I don't mean that they forget whether it's “relevant” or “relavant”. (It's the first, by the way). I mean that they sometimes cannot even begin writing the character. It's simply lost in the fog, as if they'd never learned it at all. This is a much discussed topic in China, one that has even led to the creation of a spelling bee type game show that foreign media have also picked up. (See articles in USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.)

Creativity, critical thinking and other higher order thinking skills are wonderful and are essential to academic success, but there really are some things that people must memorize: laboriously, monotonously, rigorously memorize. I am well aware of the pitfalls of overemphasizing memorization. Having worked almost exclusively with Chinese students for the past decade, I have known far too many students whose curiosity in all things not entertainment has been stamped out by the high pressure, high stakes, memorization-focused Chinese education system. I am all too familiar with the cognitive and creative underdevelopment that occurs when memorization becomes the goal rather than a component of the learning process. But therein lies the real point of contention: Is memorization the ends or the means?

There is nothing inherently wrong with memorization. Memorization itself is useful and valuable. Used well, with all strategies and mnemonic devices that have been employed over the past several millennia, it is still one of the important means to academic and professional success. Educators should not fear memorization, nor should they deride educators who ask or expect students to memorize this content or that content. However, memorization should never be a goal but should always be a means to fostering those higher order skills of thought and expression that we hold so dear.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

In transition: Reflections on the art of teaching, part 2

This is part two in a series of three or four reflections. In this post I’ll continue to reflect on some of the major things I’ve learned over the past 12 years of teaching.

Reflection 2: Everyone can learn, but not everyone will.

In the education world, what I’ve just written may be as close to heresy as I can get. Let me be clear that I am in no way advocating or excusing laziness or otherwise low-quality education. Nevertheless, it is simply true that some students will not learn, not because they cannot, but because they will not. This could have any number of causes, and some of them may actually be related to irrelevant, unimaginative or otherwise poor teaching. Yet this fact remains a heartbreaking truth, even if in only a few select cases.

I’ve had two such cases in my teaching career thus far. One student never wanted to be at the school, didn’t want to go abroad and didn’t want a degree. He simply wanted his parents, who wanted him to go abroad and get a degree, to get him a job. (This is not at all strange in China for those with connections.) Eventually he began intentionally failing exams so that they would have no choice but to withdraw him from the school. A second student spent several years at the school and never seemed to improve, falling asleep in almost every class. It was so bad that the teachers eventually suggested that he may have a medical disorder needing treatment. In the end it was revealed that he was simply up playing video games all night, almost every night, for almost three years.

I bring up these examples neither to shame the students nor to justify myself or the teachers. I still think about these students and wonder if there’s anything I could have done differently to spark their interest, to provide that moment wherein everything falls into place and they themselves realize the joy (not to mention the importance) of learning and of having goals. I hope the other teachers that knew them also still think of them and wonder what could have been. Nevertheless, I also recognize that given the situations in which both the teacher and the students were placed, perhaps the outcomes were simply inevitable.

As teachers we strive to motivate students, to impart a love of learning to students, and to provide the unique sets of circumstances needed to enhance students' acquisition of knowledge, be that mathematics or language or art. Try as we might, however, there may be some students whom we are simply never able to reach. Might we have? Of course it’s possible, but a teacher has limited time, materials, and ideas. Of a hypothetical 1000 different motivational techniques, perhaps #347 would have clicked with that one student, but we merely never got around to that one. Do we have remorse for the students to whom we never got through? Yes, we do, and we must, but we must have remorse with the knowledge that sometimes, with some students, for whatever known or unknown reason, we just will not be able to break through to be the change we want to be in those students’ lives. And it breaks our hearts.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

In transition: Reflections on the art of teaching, part 1

In my first post I mentioned my life in transition: transition from one country and culture to another, transition from a relatively well-paying job to what I hope will be only temporary joblessness, transition from ethnic singularity to diversity. Transitions seem to bring with them a certain opportunity to look back, to reassess, to reflect. Recently I have been reflecting about many things: about life, about hopes and desires, and about teaching.

Through trial and error, I have learned a lot about teaching Chinese students over the past ten years. I have learned much about teaching English over the past ten years. I have also learned a lot about the art of teaching itself, in all its nebulousness. Different methods, different styles, different activities―many have been attempted, many have failed, and a precious few have succeeded. Nevertheless, what I began to reflect on today is not so much about the practice of teaching itself, but rather about some truths that simply are. In this post I address what will likely be the first of three or four reflections.

Reflection 1: Living in a mystery

Teaching, like life, is something that reveals more of its mystery the longer one persists in it. Experience is wonderful, and it is said (as my more cliche-loving students like to remind me) that experience is the best teacher. After 11 or 12 years in the classroom (depending on how one calculates it), I know vastly more about managing a classroom, motivating students and effectively delivering lessons than I did as a 22 year old college graduate. Just a few years "in the trenches" can lead to more insights than an entire undergraduate education program, and a few more can sometimes even surpass a masters program. But something accompanies experience that eclipses improved technique and broader knowledge: the understanding that one does not really know as much as he or she thought.

As a young man I was armed with my Drake University education background, a resume that included stints in rural and urban summer camps, a year assisting in special education, and the certainty that I was about to change the world. I was young and impetuous, confident and arrogant. Now, 12 years later, having tasted both success and failure, having clicked with some students and having been woefully unable to connect with others, having helped some students to reach their goals and all but shedding tears over seeing some students have to give up their dreams, I emerge a still confident but much more humble educator than I once was.  Do I change the world? I hope so, one life at a time. Do I have the best ideas? I have some good ideas, but even the best ideas fall flat on the wrong days. Am I going to solve the educational needs of my students? I will certainly try to address them, but I won't always (and perhaps rarely) help as much as I or they would like. Will my students acquire a passion for learning? Some have, and I can remember each one by name. Others never saw the light.

I am still a relatively inexperienced father, my oldest son being only a month and a half past two years old. Despite this inexperience, I had a revelation one day in my living room, a revelation that I would wager most fathers before me have long since discovered. I was moving a coffee table (unrelated to the revelation) and thought, "I have read a lot of books and have talked to a lot of fathers, but I don't really know what I'm doing as a father. I'm just trying my best everyday. I'll bet that's what my father did, too. He didn't know everything or even THINK he knew everything, despite what my teenage brain may have thought. He knew he didn't know all that much, but he was doing his best with what he knew." I think it's the same with teaching. I've read a lot of books and journals, I've talked with other teachers, and I have a lot of tools I've developed, but when all is said and done, when the smoke clears and the dust settles, I'm really just trying my best to educate whomever will listen with whatever I have to offer. I can't but think that any honest teacher would say the same.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

A new day dawning

Opening this blog, I am on the cusp of a major life change: relocation to the United States. Having spent the past 10+ years in China, this is no small endeavor. I started out as a young, single teacher yearning to change the world. I return a married man, a father of two, and a not-so-young teacher still yearning to change the world.

I'm not returning to the United States in the most joyful of circumstances; my three-month-old son has been diagnosed with a genetic disorder called tuberous sclerosis complex, often simply referred to as TSC or TS. The treatment options in China being severely limited, my wife and I have made the difficult decision to pull up our tent pegs and start a new journey in the United States.

There are definitely things that excite me about returning to teach in the United States, and there are naturally things that I will miss. This opening post is dedicated to three of each:

Exciting #1

Linguistically and culturally, I am excited to explore the variety of backgrounds that inevitably await me in a U.S. ESL classroom. Based on statistics alone, I can imagine a classroom of students from language backgrounds including Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Persian, among others, each with their own unique difficulties in acquiring English. Such an environment would prove to be an exciting challenge, no doubt, but it will also be incredibly interesting, not to mention fun.

Less than exciting #1

On the other hand, I will miss working within a Chinese context. I would never call wasted the years spent studying Chinese or the years devoted to discovering the unique ways that the Chinese language background both enables and hinders acquisition of English. Nevertheless, those specific knowledge banks will be of much less value in a multilingual, multicultural environment. Of course, I also simply enjoy Chinese.

Exciting aspect #2

Rejoining a professional, cutting-edge workforce thrills me. Working in North American academia with professional development opportunities, access to the latest technological capabilities and freedom to explore new topics is truly a galvanizing prospect. I've long lived where professional development is rarely obtainable, in a context within which internet access was never a sure bet. Being able to mingle with other English teaching professionals, tour the latest in blended learning trends and engage students in a new range of topics feels liberating.

Less than exciting #2

Despite the complaints I've often uttered (e.g. I understand that China doesn't like Google search, but do they really need to slow down my Gmail!?), it has been enjoyable dealing with and learning to adapt to the limitations I've faced in China. "There's no multimedia access today? Think fast!" Learning to discuss sensitive topics in ways that promote discussion rather than anger has been challenging but rewarding for both me and my students. Fresh teaching challenges unquestionably await me in the United States, but likely few compare with those I've acclimated to in Changsha. I will miss near-daily tests of adaptability.

Exciting #3

I have no idea what to expect. My next steps seem completely unpredictable. It is roughly comparable to the emotions I felt before first going to China as a student in 2001 and later returning as a teacher in 2003. After more than ten years in the China, living and working in the United States presents a virtually identical sense of disorientation. In some ways it is a homecoming. In other ways it is very much like entering a new culture, getting to experience the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of an entirely new, foreign milieu.

Less than exciting #3

Simply put, I will miss China. It has become home not just for me, but for my family as well (though it always was my wife's culture). Yes, I experienced culture shock and culture stress just like anyone else. It was not easy living in a city about which a local Chinese friend once remarked, "I you can make it in this city, you can make it anywhere in China." Yet over the years digging in roots, engaging a culture, and learning daily, I began to love a myriad of aspects of China that simply are not present in typical U.S. culture. I began to appreciate habits and traditions in ways that I never would have expected. Do I like everything about China? Of course not! But home is home. Now it is time for a new home, again.