Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Changing Perspective

It’s a good thing there is a staff-only gym in the room next door. This whole sitting by the pantry thing is starting to get out of control. It is 10 a.m. and so far I’ve been offered, and of course accepted, a melt-in-your-mouth Ferrero Rocher chocolate and a giant sweet piece of cranberry-nut bread, and I’m just swallowing the last bite of vadia, a savory lentil cake traditional of Indian Muslim cuisine. All this after a banana smothered in peanut butter for breakfast. At this rate, I won’t even need to think about the healthy sack lunch I dutifully packed this morning and brought to school today…I mean I have peanut butter, chocolate, bread and cake instead.

In addition to all the great food, school itself has been great this week. Monday’s observations went smoothly. Tuesday I observed a lesson on narrative writing and was pleasantly surprised by the kids’ creativity. I also taught another summary lesson to 1/3 and was pleased that their understanding of summary seems to have improved from last week. On Tuesday afternoon, I was able to attend a tea with my principal at the Ministry of Education as well. It was a nice opportunity to network and get to know my principal a little better. Right now, I’m preparing to give class 1/4 the assignment of writing an ending to a fictional story published in 1902 called “The Monkey’s Paw” (yes, they read a story published in 1902 about a monkey’s paw; quite intriguing actually). Their teacher is gone for the day...wish me luck.

Luck…wasn’t exactly what I needed to control these kids. Maybe I should have asked you to wish me courage, bravery and a sword/shield set as I entered this war-zone of a classroom. If you’ve ever tried to get a group of 13 and 14 year old kids to work quietly writing the ending of a story for 55 minutes straight, you know what I mean. If you haven’t…don’t. I started out by simply telling them to work quietly writing the ending of a story for 55 minutes straight. In about 27 seconds, I realized this plan was failing miserably. Alright, plan number two: “Step 1: Ask the students to share components of good narratives (i.e. descriptive words, similes, metaphors, character feelings, quotations and conversations etc etc) and provide examples from your own writing or reading experiences. Step 2: Tell the students that if they give you 10 minutes of quite, individual work time, you will let them move into groups and share their ideas with one another. Step 3: When the students show no signs of actually giving you 10 minutes of quiet, individual work time, extend the quiet working minutes to 11, 12, 13, 13 and a half, 14 ect until they decide you aren’t joking about the quite work time. Step 4: Allow the students to work together and share ideas as they finish their stories. Step 5 (which should actually be the last step, but may need to be followed by the dreaded Step 6): Ask for five more minutes of quite time so they can put the finishing touches on their stories at the end of class. This time they will know you aren’t joking. Step 6: If some of them still think you’re joking, let them sit at their desks after the bell rings and sweat it out until you feel they’ve been quite for a full five minutes. If you want to make them really nervous, tell them this is your last class for the day, so you literally have the rest of the day to spare. You really wouldn’t mind hanging out with them all afternoon, they seem pretty cool. I doubt they will reciprocate the feeling.”

In all seriousness, though, the students in 1/4 actually did work on their “The Monkey’s Paw” story endings, all of them turned in at least something at the end of class, and many of them came up with some really creative and intelligent ideas.

So, so far, so good as the saying goes. Maybe, I’m still channeling all this positive energy from the yoga class and smoothie dinner Stephanie and I had last night. Yoga and smoothies tend to have that effect on me.

I do have one worry about teaching that has been consistently in the back of my mind, though. How do I get these students to turn in their homework? See here’s the problem: In Singapore, the homework doesn’t count toward their grades like it does in the U.S., and the students have seemed to have figured out this little fact. Only the mid-semester and final exams and maybe a few smaller exams here and there really affect them at all. The teachers have taken to sending students who haven’t done their homework out into the hall or keeping them after school. These techniques don’t seem to solve the problem. Yesterday, literally half the 2/1 class was sitting in the hall doing the assigned reading while only half the class actually discussed the assignment and did the activity with the teacher. And, if I would have sent the students who initially weren’t writing the ending to “The Monkey’s Paw” into the hallway…well, I think I would have had five students in the classroom.

I guess I’m just going to have to figure out how to make the homework meaningful for the kids and set some serious ground rules about my expectations early on. Also, I can understand why some of these kids just don’t do their homework. I mean, many of them have to leave home at 6 a.m. or before to commute to school (we don’t have districting in Singapore), after class they have extra curricular activities and most of them don’t leave school until 6 p.m. By the time they get home, eat, and spend a little time with their families, they need to go to bed or risk getting 5 hours or less of sleep. Many of them seem exhausted. I’m going to have to give them homework sometimes, and I expect them to do that work, but also, I don’t want to overwhelm them. It’s a catch-22. (Insert advice here).

And speaking of advice…Albert Einstein once said, “When you look at yourself from a universal standpoint, something inside always reminds or informs you that there are bigger and better things to worry about.” This is the thought hovering, floating, drifting in my mind this Thursday morning. Actually, did I say floating? is more like sitting on the inside of my eyelids staring at me every time I blink. It is almost jolting, startling, how much a different perspective, even if you are forced into that different perspective, can change the way in which you look at the world.

Yesterday, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the Sumatra, Indonesia city of Padang. According to the Straits Times (a Singaporean newspaper;, the death toll is hovering between 100 and 200, but thousands more remain buried in the rubble. Communications and power have been cut off, and fires are raging while rescue teams and doctors are still trying to reach the city. The force of the quake was actually felt in some areas of Singapore and Malaysia. This after Typhoon Ketsana caused flooding that killed over 200 people in the Philippines earlier in the week and has since moved on to kill dozens more in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I hope you will all keep the people affected by these disasters in your thoughts or prayers.

My students, yes those same students that only yesterday I was complaining would not turn in their homework, have created a donation fund for the victims of the flooding in the Philippines. I was nearly moved to tears as I watched them pull the spare change from their pockets, many of them giving up their last $2 for lunch money, placing it in the neat manila envelopes as they were passed from hand to hand. And there was that Einstein quote again whispered in my ear by, perhaps, the ghost of Einstein himself, “When you look at yourself from a universal standpoint, something inside always reminds or informs you that there are bigger and better things to worry about.”

It seems to be the theme this week. A change of perspective is all it takes to see the world a little differently. What seem like horrible personal disasters, become petty worries. What seem like naughty teenagers, become ambassadors of world relief. And what seem like huge cities, become toy models, easily navigated.

At least Singapore seems much less intimidating when viewed from 71 stories above the hustle and bustle of the street below. On Wednesday evening Liz, Lisa, Stephanie and I joined some of the new PiA arrivals, Steve, Trevor, Amy, Ana and Dan, at the top of the Swiss Hotel. The New Asia bar provides a swanky New Yorkesque atmosphere, an impressive list of cocktails, including the Nutty Professor Martini and the Tokyo Garden Mixer, and an even more impressive view. As the tallest building in Singapore, it offers patrons a 360 degree view of the city and a very impressive sunset. What a lovely evening, which was only made better by its conclusion with thosa and roti prata at a Clementi Hawker Center.

After two additional lesson observations this afternoon, I’ll head to the staff gym and maybe take a jog around the reservoir near the school. The evening should bring time to relax, cook dinner, clean a bit, and write some thank-you cards to the teachers who have been so supportive and helpful as I continue to become acquainted with the school.

Tomorrow?…possibly another perspective change. I’ll be joining a teacher’s field trip to Pulau Semakau, Singapore’s “dump island”, to learn about waste management and the environment in Singapore. Semakau is Singapore’s only landfill and has been in operation since 1999. The offshore landfill is estimated to last until 2045, but various initiatives are in place to extend its life. Currently, all of Singapore’s waste is incinerated before it is shipped in covered barges to Semakau. Because of several design and operations initiatives, the landfill is clean, smell-free and scenic. After my guided tour, expect to hear of the rare plant and bird species the island is able to support because of Singapore’s unique and “green” waste disposal system.

For now, TIA, Cheers, and very Happy 21st Birthday wishes to my dear friend Bette!

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