Blindly

Pleasant Hill morning with the sliding door open just a bit because that is the culture here, or at least on my courtyard: open, visible, ready to for a student to stop by or a colleague to pop in. No matter how early I get here, 8:15 today, Kelvin is here first. There he is, across the ferns, door open more than mine, light on a little brighter, sipping his coffee and working. I”ll get there some day, but for now I hunker down and live unit to unit, week to week, class to class.

Now a young student appears, talking incessantly, leading another young student in a blindfold. He leads him between the ferns and Kelvin towards a garbage can. His smile flashes for a moment but then he adjusts the guy 45 degrees left, two steps, 15 degrees right, and they are gone.

This happens again, ten minutes later. Two new students. The blindfold. The instructions, weaving past the prehistoric ferns, dodging the arriving English instructors pulling their black bags on wheels, and vanishing.

And then it happens again.

Fraternity? Outward Bounds?

A really, really good English class? Ooh, no, an ESL class, working the language of directions. You’ll learn it or you’ll maim your partner.

Is the universe trying to tell me something? The universe is always trying to interject. Perhaps a suggestion that I am the blind leading the blind? No, there was only one blindfold in each pairing. The music in my earphones is swelling and the man sings, “Taken for a fool…”

Is it simply that I’m in charge, as a teacher, of guiding my students through the jungle? I don’t know about that, but I do know I just read a wonderful homework letter from my student, A-. She was writing a letter to a future English student, breaking down what she’s learned about reading and taking notes and metacognition.

She writes:

“I think that before I began to really interact with the text and analyze what I was reading, I was missing out on the full context of the writing. And I didn’t start to actually analyze what I was reading until about the third grade. It was just extremely difficult for me to think that there was a literal meaning and a metaphorical meaning to many things that I read. And even in third grade, I still struggled with it.”

Maybe I’m the blindfolded one, being led by my students, by my career change, by my nose. Maybe the universe’s point is more to the tune of this.

If you’re not in danger of ending up head down in the garbage, feet kicking in the ferny breeze, perhaps you’re not really trying.

 

The Lake and the Mountain

I’m back in the, back in the, back in the USA, well into year two as an English Instructor at the community college. Two days a week I ride my bike through the mansions of Piedmont, winding down past the collective Oakland bakery, alongside our glorious morning lake to an urban college, gritty fabulous. Two days a week I listen to a podcast of music I’ve never heard and drive up through the tunnel, cut left over some hills, glancing over the valley at Mount Diablo, stretched out like a beautiful, comfortable dog, and arrive at a college with trees, a sliding door, a desk.

This morning it’s Pleasant Hill and back-to-back classes on “Developmental Reading.” My first classroom is narrow and tall, always cold, with long tables stretching out from the walls and moving around difficult. To make a circle would be to bring a power saw. After class ends, I have ten minutes to make it across campus to the library, upstairs, for a wide, comfortable room, also with long tables. To get to this classroom, my students,  mostly in their first semester here, stroll through the quiet library, weaving through quietly studying students. If I teach nothing, there is still the benefit of that: students modeling being students, the beauty of a quiet library, those things on the shelves in the stacks.

In my backpack today, four bags of Bananagrams. Last week it was Apples to Apples. This is my first time teaching a class that is just about reading, not so much the writing. If I’m going to teach students to be college readers, I’m not just going to teach them reading strategies. I’m also going to press them to geek out on words and word games. I’m going to get them hooked on Ted Talks or This American Life. I’m going to bring in The New Yorker and The Sun, but maybe also Tintin.

Speaking of what I’m going to do, look at the time! I’m going to do it soon. Time to go over  my plans, double check my homework (Read “Reading as a Reader” by Donald M. Murray) and head out that sliding door. Green ferns wait beyond.

The Year of the Monkey Bite

Finally the moment arrives. They have glanced at the black guitar case in the corner throughout the morning but only one student braved the question, “Teacher, will we sing?”

“Later,” I say. “Maybe.” I haven’t decided yet if I will chicken out. I flew 7,000 miles towards that guitar, but I am hesitant; I generally limit my musical audience to third graders and below. Even fourth graders start to see through me. From there on up there’s always a chance (at least in my mind) that  a student will leap to his or her feet and denounce me as a musical fraud. The charges would include, “You can only sing three notes!” and “You can only play three chords!” As well as, “Every song you sing is basically the same song!” Afterwards, as per standard mob attack, I am ripped limb from limb.

All day we have written about our names and answered the question, “Who are you?” every way imaginable (and written about those answers). I have tried to show them how to get past thinking. I tell them to be loose like an athlete. If you’re stiff, you’ll whiff on the fastball, shoot the brick, shank the penalty kick, and sky the backhand. I don’t use any of these words. I show them my rubber chicken dance and say you’ve got to be loose like this, ready to listen to your own ideas. I tell them if you are loose you can write about anything and find a good story in it.

“I can write about that bookshelf,” I tell them, “and find a story.” I write something like…

The bookshelf is made of wood. It holds books. I love to read books. My mom read to me great books when I was little. She was studying children’s literature. She read to me many nights before bed and those books filled my head with stories and good writing.

My mom was a teacher of children. She worked very hard and she came home tired every day. She sat in her car outside the house and stared through the window. She was exhausted and a little grouchy.

One day I went to see her teach in her classroom. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Could this be my mom? She was smiling so brightly. She sang to the children and read to them and helped them with everything they needed. She seemed to have a light shining from inside…”

I stop and tell them, “Look at that. I found my story! My Two Moms. Do you remember what I started with? A bookshelf.” I don’t tell them that I cheated and wrote about the bookshelf the night before. I wrote the same story, but this was not a reproduction of the improvisation. Hey, it’s called preparation, people. In both cases, I was loose.

When I opened up the door early before class began, it was the first time I saw the classroom. I quickly began dragging tables and chairs around to create groups as well as an open area for creating a circle with our chairs. Then I spied the black guitar case. I went over to it, set it on a table, unzipped it and peeked inside. It was a nylon guitar. I had hoped for steel string, but no matter. I ran my fingers across it. It was in tune! I zipped it close and put it in a corner.

Now it was time. Their energy was dropping. While they finished up a writing assignment, I slipped over and got the black guitar case. I set it on the table (I hear murmurings) and unzipped it. As I began to lift it out, I saw a huge cockroach underneath it in the case. I pulled out the guitar and quickly zipped the case closed. I looked around. No one had noticed.

A cockroach unleashed on my classroom in Oakland, at least with third graders, would mean 15 minutes of screaming, running around: chaos. Even though these students were likely much more familiar with said bug, what with this climate, my reflex was still to get rid of the thing without them seeing it, and then get on with the playing. I slipped out to the hallway with the black guitar case. I opened it and shook the cockroach onto the floor. It scurried down the hallway. I leapt through air and made it one with the pancakes of old. I grabbed it with a kleenex I had in my pocket and brought it back with me, slipping it slyly into the trashcan.

I was back in business. I had the students come to the circle with their chairs and I sat with the guitar. I said, “I am not a singer.” I said, “I am not a guitar player.” I told them, “But I am a writer and I like to write songs. And I am a teacher and I know music is good for helping us learn.” They smiled and nodded.

I told them, “I wrote this song when I was living in Costa Rica, learning Spanish. I went to a restaurant with the other students and there was a pet monkey there tied by a leash to a post. A woman named Miriam said, “Look! A monkey! How cute!” She tried to pet it and it bit her finger. She shrieked (I shrieked) and fainted (I fainted).”

“The next day, she came to Spanish class eating a banana. Suddenly I got the idea that Miriam was turning into a monkey. That’s when I wrote this song.”

I begin to strum the song and in a kind of a rap, I sing, “Well I went down to a beach town / and I saw my friend fall down / I asked are you feeling all right / She said I got a monkey bite.” I teach them to clap, snap, cluck and stomp on the chorus. We sing it a couple times. When I finish, they cheer and clap and stomp on their own.

Later, after class, a student asks me, “Teacher, do you have this Monkey Bite on the web? I want to down it. It amazing!”

My work here is done.

As hoped: very big in China.

The Story of Your Name

At face value, this China adventures looks like two weeks on a private school compound, but really I have the perfect gig: I am here to teach personal writing to absolute strangers. That is to say, it is my job to constantly ask probing, personal questions (disguised as writing prompts) in an extremely foreign, fascinating, communist land.

For example, what is the story of your name?

One of the many wonderful things about working with other teachers from the Bay Area Writing Project is that we are all constantly, enthusiastically stealing each other’s ideas. A few years ago, I got this one from BAWP Teacher Consultant, Page Hersey. You simply ask a group of students, colleagues, whatever, “What is the story of your name?” and then encourage them to interpret that question any way they want and to use it as a writing prompt. Afterwards, everyone shares! I use this now to start every semester.

And so this was the first net I cast into the pond. Here are a few of the fish I pulled out.

Rui Pu writes:

“It took my grandpa about a month to finally decide my name before I was born. He had a book to guide him, and he did a lot of research to help me get a good name based on my birth date (especially in lunar calendar) and lots of other things, because he thought a good name could bring me a good luck.”

Zio Bo writes:

“My mother give choose this name when she got me. The last latter of my name is “Bo” and it is means knowledge. He what me have a lot of knowledge . And “Zi” means son. And she what a son. Than here I come!”

Jia Ying writes:

“I think my name is very easy to write and it is simple. In Primary school, my friends all call me Jia Jia Cartoon, it’s a name of a TV program, they all call me that just because one letter of my name is the same as the name of the TV program and because I like watching cartoon. In middle school my friends call me Xiao Lizi, I asked them why call me that, they said it’s funny and easy to remember. But I like it. Because that make me be more geniality with them. And it just make me like that I am different people when they call me different name.”

I am not even selecting these! Just going alphabetically by their English name: Alan, Alex, Amy, Anny.

One more, if you please.

Yi Xuan writes:

“When I went to school, my friends asked for my English name. And I told them my English name was Anny.

“The next day, I went to my classroom. When my friends saw me, they called me: “Anna!” I Said: “Hey, but Anna isn’t my name.” Then Delia said: “Isn’t it Amy or Emily?” I answered: “My name is Anny, A-N-N-Y.”

When I went home, I saw my mom was reading a book. She smiled at me. She told me that my English name let her felt warm and sweet.

Maybe my English name is simple. But I like it, because my mom gave this name to me. I can feel her love in this name.”

DID I not tell you have a good gig?!

Later, my TA, Xiao Mei (I have two TA’s and they are wonderful), will write me a letter. In it, she quotes my last paragraph from my sample essay: The Story of My Name.

“When I was in middle school I remember thinking, tomorrow when I wake up, I’m going to be someone different. It wasn’t that I didn’t like myself. I did. I was a happy kid, for the most part. I mean, I wished I talked a little more. I wished I was better at showing who I was inside. I think I just always had this driving urge to be a little greater than I was. It wasn’t until I was older that I realized, I can be someone different, someone more powerful, more creative, more amazing. You know how? Not by changing my name…By writing!”

And then Xiao Mei writes,

“Congratulations! You finally found out the way to be different! That really rouch me! Because I have been keeping telling myself to be brave enough to show who am I inside. I’m trying to make a little different everyday. Hope I can find the way to be somebody one day!”

In her postscript, she adds, “And my dream is to be a writer.”

Sigh. When this job is good, it’s really good.

 

The Tail End

Returning to my dorm room from the snake sighting, I stopped at the edge of the soccer field under construction. They had been tearing up that field with big machines since we got there. It suddenly occurred to me that maybe that field was the snake’s home. Imagine his terror when the ground exploded and all hell broke loose. The poor guy was a refuge. Terrified, he shot through the air 50 feet and then slithered down the pathway, into the push. Where do I go?! Where do I go?! His little snake heart was beating against his scaly chest. He spied a doorway and slipped through the gap, tucking into the dark corner.

Think! he told himself. Get a hold of yourself! He wrapped all around himself. Not like that! he hissed. I’m trying to think, he whimpered, but I have an automatic vacuum brain.

That sort of thing.

I pictured the snake’s head again. You know, come to think of it, he looked a little like a poor, lost, black lab, panting and terrified. His homeland was gone and he was in search of a new home.

I looked up at the green hillside where he’d gone. It was a kind of nature preserve rising into high green hills. On the top, a beautiful red and black pagoda staked its claim to the breeze. He would find mice there. He would find happiness.

I glanced over at the guard booth. He slid closed the plexiglass window and reached for the deadbolt on the little wooden door. I gave him a snake wiggle goodbye with my right arm, turned and marched back into my building, stopping of course to peer into the dark corner behind the door.

Clear Thinking, Courage and Manliness

There are two men in our group and four women. Laury and I are in B dorm and both teach at community college. Clare, Marna, Joan and Carol are in C dorm. Clare teaches high school in Castro Valley. Marna teaches middle in San Francisco. Joan and Carol are retired from teaching high school and middle as well. I am the novice of the group. These are some educational gurus.

One day, heading to a meeting in C dorm, I left my building and headed down the path towards the soccer field, which is under heavy construction. I turned left and wound between the buildings on the path, and looped around to the back of C dorm, which is the entrance. I spied something in the bush near the building. Must have been a mouse. I got a better angle and peered in.

Suddenly a gray colored snake emerged from the bush, a few feet away, slid onto the path and headed towards the C dorm steps. I froze and watched. It was about two feet long and didn’t have any markings I could see. It went up the steps I was hoping to go up. It got to the front door of the building. It slipped under the front door and disappeared into the lobby.

I listened for screams, but it was silence. Nobody was in sight in any direction. I worried that the teachers had the door open and were chatting and then suddenly all would be chaos…

Nothing. That’s good.

I stood there on the path wondering if I really wanted to go to this meeting. It was optional, just for folks who wanted to learn from Marna how to set up a google site for their class. I was interested, but not THAT interested. I stared at the gap under the door. Now, if I were a snake in a lobby, I’d bounce around a bit (not being clear on how a snake’s brain works, I tend to substitute the model of one of those automatic vacuums that rebounds around a room) and then eventually I’d head back out the way I came. If I had shoulders, I’d shrug and hiss, “Well, that place sssssssucked.”

The snake wasn’t coming out. What were my other options? I couldn’t really tell them about the snake because digitally liberated traveler that I am, I had no phone. A rock through a window? Which window.

I decided to see if I could see what the snake was up to. I should say that I was never one of those kids with the pet snake running around his shoulders and neck. I was the horrified kid in the corner. “Want to hold him?!”

For the love of god, no! Snakes almost make me want to be a baptist, preaching about evil serpents. Yeah, I know, predators are good, they eat vermin, yada yada. But they are absolutely creepy to me: the way they move (Can they suddenly spring 50 feet like the Monty Python rabbit? Absolutely), the way they occasionally swallow a whole goat, they can swim, they can hang from trees, burrow under any fortress…they’re like special forces with the brain of an automatic vacuum.

I stomped up to the front door of the building. As I stomped I said aloud, “Feel those vibrations? That’s a big human coming.” I was at the door of the building now, minding the gap, big time. I reached slowly up to the handle and tried to pull the door open a crack. I forgot, you have to push with these doors. I began to push the door open and stopped. It’s a metal screen door and you can see through it a bit. There, to the right of the door, in the corner next to the door, I could just make out the gray snake in a loose tangle on the floor.

Why kind of psychotic snake sets up shop right next to the door of an apartment building? Is he planning to just pick us off one by one? I opted not to enter the lobby.

I walked back down the path and thought, time to find a cleaning lady or a guard or something. The cleaning lady would shrug, march up to the door, grab it by the tip of the tail, thump it on the pavement like she was doing laundry, and then hurl it into the bushes (although I have since learned you find these on the menu at local restaurants, so she might have saved it for all I know, which is little).

No cleaning lady.

There is a guard booth nearby as this is a private campus with a gated entry. I walked up to the guard booth. He smiled at me but quickly went to that look of language panic. We had already established he knew no English. I pointed back to the building and began doing the snake wiggle with my right arm. He stared at me. I pointed to the ground and then continued my belly dance move. He stared at me some more. No matter how slowly or how loudly you say snake, a Chinese guard who doesn’t know English is not going to really get it. I tried to show the snake suddenly shooting 50 feet across the ground in a perfect horizontal line, then I wrapped the snake around my neck and fell to the ground, writhing, battle it. OK, not really (besides, that’s another story, as some of you know).

He picked up the phone and called someone. In Chinese he said what I guessed might be, “I’m going to need a strait jacket, tranquilizer and a truck with a cage.”

I beckoned for him to follow and headed back to C dorm. He followed a little ways, wary, but then scurried back into his booth. He was either terrified of snakes, me or of his boss seeming him out of guard booth.

I decided to go check on the snake. As I rounded the corner, the snake emerged from the building. It went down the steps again, straight down the path and into the bushes, up and through a fence out to the greater jungle area beyond.

I decided I was interested in the tech lesson after all and joined the meeting a bit late but with a good excuse.

Who Your Neighborhood?

I ask my students to draw a map of their neighborhood and they draw apartment buildings, roads, supermarkets and schools. This is not your rural China. For 15 years the economy has boomed and the cities have doubled and tripled all over themselves. How many cities in China do you think have more than one million people? Come on, guess.

One hundred and sixty. (Thanks to Laury for that amazing stat!)

How many cities over one million does the US have?

Nine.

We are talking about a different scale here.

I ask my students to draw a map of their neighborhood and they list other things too:

Friends’ houses.

The Sea.

Harry scrawls, “I have no idea.” Later, he adds Cinema and SCHOOL.

Jonathan, in exquisite printing, labels his map with: 1) My home in Yuexiu Area, 2) Shuiyin Road 3) fruit store 4) fast Chinese food restaurant.

It’s good to know I can still order Chinese if needed.

Tony draws a pond with three fish and a basketball hoop. Basketball, you may already know, is huge here. Last night I watched and India vs. China game on TV. India won. But basketball is still huge. Tony is working on a writing piece about his love for Lebron James (based mainly on “his way of life.”).

Yelena’s map ranges from the Kinder Garten near the park (in the corner of the park she has labeled the Gate) to a big building called Nightclub.

Rebecca, my best writer, has labeled, in addition to her friends’ homes, the Newsstand and Stationer, as well as Hospital (“my father work place”).

Trees, pools, lakes and flowers also feature.

Oscar has scribbled, “This place is where we live in. I live on the first floor and my neighborhood lives on the first floor in next building.”

Yesterday I had to talk several students out of describing their next door neighborhoods.

As I review Oscar’s map, I am suddenly reminded of a flyer that went out from an Asian realtor in Oakland. I quoted it for years and my friend Ken was damn near obsessed with it. The poetry of other English. In big letters it read, “WHO YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD?”

Whistling Blue Bicycles

When I push out my apartment building front door, there is something about this campus that reminds me a bit of a video game. It is big and you wind this way and that across it, keeping to whatever shade you can find. Little men in blue shirts, security guards, ride bicycles up and down the paths and disappear into guard booths and buildings. In the game you would avoid them like frogger avoids cars or mario avoids rolling barrels (as you can see, I’m up on the latest games). Every now and then a smiling woman with a straw hat pops up from the bushes brandishing shears and says, “Good morning!” or “Hallow!” or just smiles.

But the real story is the heat. To be outside is to be hot. To be inside is to destroy the planet with blasting AC. When the sun is completely free of vapor obstruction it burns down upon the humans with abandon. I often bow my head as I trudge across the long basketball court area. In a way, it’s so hot and the air so heavy it is like moving through snow up to my thighs.

The sky talks about raining. It flashes. It rumbles. But it is all talk. When rain finally does fall, it is wonderful but the air is still hot, the sun usually still burns a moment later and the rain does not linger.

I cross the big campus in the morning and head past the Commons where the students are eating breakfast to the building with a nice library downstairs and an IT office. I head upstairs to room 203. (My apartment is 202. My classroom is 203. I never noticed that until now.) The door is already open to my classroom. My TA Gary or Vicky has been here already to unlock it and turn on the AC. I have at least three AC units I mess with in my apartment and two more in my classroom and they each have remotes and buttons to press, all in Chinese, and they are all slightly different. Invariably, I hold up a remote and try top right, then top left, then bottom right, bottom left. If I am really loose and just going for it, I sometimes get it the first try. If I am tired or in a rush, sometimes no button will work. I cycle through all of them twice and wonder about a frosty demise. If I walk away from it and come back, it will turn off first try.

There is also construction happening all over campus. There is construction happening all over China and all over campus. They are building a soccer field here. You have never seen more progress in so little time. They work day and night, scooping dirt, adding rocks for drainage, creating the next layer and the next. I joked they would be playing on it by the end of camp, and it’s really not that far fetched. It was just mounds of rock and dirt when we arrived.

Downstairs from where the kids eat, they are renovating a huge room. In the Main Hall at the school entrance, walls are being moved. Meanwhile, in the visible horizon, there are high rises being built, cranes between them. As you drive into downtown Nansha, you pass construction site after site, and half the roads are closed off, being worked on. It’s a boom. I’m reading “Postcards from Tomorrow Square” by James Fallows and in it he, perhaps by quoting someone else, makes the point that China has been in an economic boom for 15 years and that anyone under 30 has spent their adult life knowing only the boom (You like da boom, I like da boom…). The Cultural Revolution ended over thirty years ago.

At the end of the day, I push my way into the apartment building and head past my colleague Laury’s door. It is dripping wet. Why? Because he has the AC going in there and the hot air is meeting the cold air at his door. This large, dripping wet door looks like something out of the Shining. I turn and head up the stairs to my apartment, turn the key click click to the left, swing open the door, and head in to liberate my feet from warm shoes.

I have traversed the campus once again.

I have survived the heat and taught a good class.

I have made it to the next level of the game.

Ten Bucks in a Chinese Supermarket

This is what ten bucks will get you in a Nansha supermarket:

  1. Four Seas Seaweed Crackers – “Use High Quality Seaweed”
  2. 2 packs of Potato Crisp – “Non-fried”
  3. 6 plums – not ripe, it turns out
  4. 1 cup of Yummy Yummy Instant Vermicelli
  5. 4 little yelloworange possibly mini mangos
  6. 1 small bunch o bananas
  7. 1 bag of Xiang Li Xiang – look like waffle chips but ingredients are also in English: rice, edible plant oil, soybean, corn, egg, millet, black rice, black bean, sesame, walnut, salt, spices - Good but very peppery.
  8. 1 box Green Tea Cookie
  9. A six pack of what I hope is yogurt – shows a picture of a robot frolicking with a bunny/fox guy, only English word is “Kids”
  10. 5 mini bottles of what my colleague Marna tells me is probiotic yogurt drink
  11. 1 cup Soup Noodle

Hello My Name is Frank

In camps such as these, students choose an English name if they don’t have one already and their English and Chinese names ride together on a name tag. As a result, many students barely have any relationship with the name yet. I’ll call over, “Alex!” and they won’t even look up. I’ll go over, tap them on the shoulder and say, “Alex, you’re Alex, remember?”

“Oh yeah!” they smile.

Last time I taught writing camp, which was in Seoul, I barely even learned their real names before camp was over. This time I am determined to master the names by Monday afternoon. Every activity I give them, I take the time to walk around and say hello to each member of each group, entering their name in memory. “Hello, Frank. How are you, Crystal. Hello, Roger. Hi Amy.”

We start the week writing about our names, any name they choose. A large boy with gentle eyes wrote about how he picked the name Doris for himself out of a textbook. He used that in English class for about three years until he discovered it was considered a female name. Then he went with Peter, also from a textbook. The problem is all the other Chinese schools seemed to have the same textbook. He showed up at his middle school and there were about 15 Peters.

A girl with a long intelligent face shared the story of her English name. A big cousin returned from Europe and asked his aunt what his baby cousin’s English name was. She said she didn’t have one. He could pick an English name for his little cousin. He thought about it for a bit and then went with Sophie. She has been Sophie ever since, though she says her English teachers keep calling her Sophia, no matter how many times she corrects them. She says she thinks it’s because many of them are American and Sophia is more popular in America, whereas Sophie is big in Europe. She says, in the past, some students have teased her because they think her name sounds like “So-Fat.” She likes her name, though, and says it means “wisdom.”

One boy, a thin little joker of a boy, starts out the day as Jackie, for Jackie Chan, but by lunch has become Ray. A boy named Mark has changed his name to Hulk by the afternoon, but I refuse to recognize it’s validity. “Nice try,” Mark,” I say. He’s unable to articulate whether it is a tribue to the big green super hero or the Brazilian soccer player.

Enough is enough, I tell the class. For the rest of this week, you are who you are.