Better Learning Through Collaboration, Pedagogical Rollercoastery

Wolf and Pig

Yours truly, with highly venerable Scottish ladywolf colleague

The full-body pig suit was incredibly hot.

Pink and gelatinous and topped with a great cardboard-and-felt monstrous head measuring a half-metre in diameter, the costumes were pretty magnificent. I had planned ahead and thought to wear only gym shorts and a t-shirt, and thus my wretched porcine swaddling was not quite so torturous as it might have been. Even still, as we waddled down the hall, unable to walk astride because of the width of our encasements, the bulk and claustrophobia started to feel like a sauna buried deep below the earth.

We wandered into the library, where our children had been deposited minutes before. The librarian had read them the 3 Little Pigs, and we were those pigs, having recently fallen out of our storybook, concussed and bewildered and unsure of our connection to one another. Shrieks of joy assaulted us as we approached. Some tried desperately to figure out who was trapped within each piggy of lupine disguise, while others were just willing to go with it and accept the magic.

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Resurgent Useless Knowledge & The Joy of a Burning Brain

Vishnu and Pals

Hey, I remember you guys!

For many years, my grandfather would constantly tell me, “That’s one thing they can never take away from you. Your education.” I never asked who they were, although the way he said it implied that they were very intent on taking anything and everything else, and that also maybe they were waiting just outside. And if they were the kind of people who wanted to mug me, that maybe they would also take a bat to my head and there goes my education.

But I got his point.

My grandfather was an exceedingly generous man, and as his only grandson he was endlessly proud of everything I did and every dumb thing I ever said. I think, sometimes, that this statement was meant to be reassuring to me through my university years and the ones just beyond. The years where I realized that I had studied a lot of things that weren’t going to be terribly useful to life or gaining a career.  The years where I started to get a little academic’s remorse, as I considered my future and how the words “Starbucks barrista” fit into it.This statement was meant to encourage me to find my education fulfilling, as I would surely be sustaining myself on a pulpy milkshake I could make from old manuscripts and printer ink.

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Brief Glimpses of Your Hero, and also Friends of Your Hero

While I am on the road, I thought I would share with you a few snippets from life as of late, both in China in general and in particular in the wild world of teaching Grade One.

My contribution was paper-and-popsicle-stick medal of courage.

My contribution was paper-and-popsicle-stick medal of courage.

Did we talk about Halloween at all? Timed just before Halloween, my school held Book Week, which we all took Very Seriously. As was apparently tradition, our team needed to dress up in a theme, which meant a story with six decent characters that would allow for costuming. Our Wizard of Oz crew looked pretty stunning, mostly through the careful, thoughtful work of other people. A speedy seamstress stitched together my custom lion onesie for the equivalent of 45 Canadian dollars. One of our ESL teachers followed me around outside smearing untold amounts of paint across my face. Another teacher invited me into the studio he set up in his classroom to shoot my get-up in full glory. Continue reading

Smoglife: The Various Horrors of Indoor Play

I'm sure setting up a classroom will be no hassle at all.

The prison.

Smoglife is a series of vignettes relating to various things that happen when the air in China gets mad murky.

The smog in Suzhou had settled like an unruly houseguest, and was eating all of the good chips and cookies and never making the bed. The air began to taste sulphurous and metallic, always with the tinge of carcinogen and burning computer parts. People would squint to make out objects in the middle distance and try to not think about the weeks and years slowly being peeled off the end of their lives with a China-shaped paring knife.

One of the side-effects of this acidic haze was the necessity for indoor play. Much as throwing children directly into a volcano or a sewage pipe would be seen as inadvisable to their health, it was deemed inappropriate to allow our various charges to careen about in the toxic slurry that we were all conspiring to call air. Their tiny, fragile lungs being susceptible as they are to incredibly hazardous levels of choking coal smoke and industrial chemicals, it was thought that for their safety, the children should stay inside on a smoggy day.

At first all was well. A day of indoor play is an excuse to unearth old toys, different parts of the classroom and the school left unexplored.  It is reason to connect with new friends, with old chums, with new games and with creativity. Necessity is the mother of invention; boundary is the foundation of innovation.

But in time, the confines proved too constricting. In time, indoor play drove the children to extremes.

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Fifth Graders in Amber

Kindergarten: tiny adults in training.

It was a local news story about Halloween safety. Stock footage of adorable tykes marching up and down halls played: Spidermen and fairy princesses and home-made crafty monstrosities constructed by invested parents. Soon we rushed to a classroom where concerned grade ones looked into the camera and handed down safety advice to their peers so that they could enjoy their Halloweens in comfort and without fear. You never know which piece of candy is filled with razorblades and spider eggs, their shining eyes seemed to say.

Suddenly the camera cut to Charlie. Charlie was a kindergartener I had taught two years before – a Chinese immigrant who spoke only Mandarin at home. A respectful tot in the midst of a silent phase, he showed his appreciation for our snack choices, enjoyed Wednesday afternoon baking projects, and loved the water table. He looked into the camera, wizened almost, as though passing down knowledge from generations past, unearthed from ancient tomes in tongues only he could read. “Always make sure your parents check your candy.” He gave a serene, concerned nod. Don’t fear. Charlie knows what you need to do. Charlie has lived some life. He’s been in the shit.

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Pre-Summer: The Longest Wait in the World

Things are very nearly settled into their summer gear here at SUF HQ, which, as you may recall, is the dining chair in front of my laptop where I eat ice cream in my underpants. The sun is shining, the air is thicker than oil, and the tropical storms and monsoons have begun to cleanse the roads of puke like some vengeful god drowning away our sins. The day of release from our constraints is nigh, and everyone I interact with is essentially checked out. Children, adults, teachers and students, Korean or foreign: it’s time for summer vacation.

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Urination is for the Weak: Incidental Teaching Skills

As a teacher, you develop a lot of useful abilities and habits. You know how to run a room full of children, you know how to scaffold learning, you know how to lead a herd of horses to water and how to cajole them, carefully and fitfully, to drink the damn water.  You gain responsibility, a sense of reciprocity and generativity with the next generation, and a deep investment in the future of society through your work with the tiny people who will make that future. You learn how to seem bigger and more powerful and more mature and more sensible than you really are, and you learn how to be something that is somewhere nebulously between parent, textbook, coach, and judge.

You also pick up a few weird other things along the way.

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