moments of clarity

zhen jiao蒸饺  zhēng​jiǎo steamed dumplings, Chongqing


The title “moments of clarity” occurred to me a couple of months ago during my winter break, when I did indeed have some clarity, since there wasn’t much else to do except sit and think. Since it’s been a long time between my blog posts, I wish I had some of that clarity now. As I recall, said moments of clarity involved a sense of peace, and in general a clear idea of what I’m doing now in my life.

In January I rented an apartment in the International Gardens complex, about 5 km from where I lived before at Sichuan University. It’s a compact one-bedroom, perfect for me and the dog, on the 15th floor or an elevator building. No more stairs up and down five flights several times a day. I’m actually much happier here; living in the middle of a university campus, I rarely ventured into the outside world, and our little enclave of foreign teachers lived behind a high fence with an alarmed gate and security bars on all the windows. Now, I’m in the middle of the busy city, in a much more residential area, with a completely different feeling from the internationalized area around Sichuan U.

I’m enrolled as a student at the Southwest University for Nationalities, a 20-minute walk from my apartment, and I have 12 classes of Chinese each week. Since I was unable to renew my work visa, I got a student visa instead, hence the shift in focus from teaching to studying. I’m only teaching four class period a week at ILTC at Sichuan U., but I still have my income from being an IELTS Examiner for the British Council.

Funny, when I became a student I considered myself to be on sabbatical from teaching, but my life now is just as busy as before, and will soon become busier – more on that in a moment. If it hadn’t been for the book Super Freakonomics, however, I wouldn’t have known what “sabbatical” originally meant.

A Jewish statute recorded in the Bible required creditors to forgive all debts every sabbatical, or seventh year. For borrowers, the appeal of unilateral debt relief cannot be overstated, as the penalties for defaulting on a loan were severe: a creditor could even take debtor’s children into bondage.

Hmmm, come to think of it, sabbatical must also relate to Sabbath, or the 7th day on which we rest. Indeed, in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary, “sabbath” comes right before “sabbatical:” 

“A period of time when sb, especially a teacher at a university, is allowed to stop their normal work in order to study or travel. “(from Latin sabbaticus, from Greek sabbatikos, from Hebrew shabbat, i.e., Sabbath, literally a “ceasing”)

In the coming months, I will begin a masters program in Teaching English for Academic Purposes. Since the program is by distance learning (online), I will most likely remain in Chengdu – on a student visa – for another year. It’s highly likely that I will also study toward a DELTA certificate (the Diploma in English Language Teaching to Adults) concurrently.

I’m actually looking forward to being a full-time student for a year. As I mentioned, the sabbatical only refers to taking a break from teaching. I’ve now been a teacher for close to 8 years, and while there are many things I enjoy about it, there are many aspects that I find frustrating. When you reach a certain point in your life or work experience, you realize that you’ve reached a plateau; in order to go on to higher-level teaching jobs for better money, higher qualifications are required. In many ways, this is an ideal time in my life. I wonder if I will still feel that way after beginning my studies.


rethinking oral English

alley-carsummer in Chengdu – alley

I made a mistake recently:  I tried to “teach” question forms and vocabulary in my Oral English class.  I knew shortly after I began the lesson, presenting one carefully-prepared PowerPoint slide after another, that I was on the wrong track.  For one thing, my explanations weren’t well thought-out or very clear; it was a mish-mash of the “W” question words everyone knows (who, what, when, where, why, which) and general guidelines for how to request information in English in both basic and polite forms.  It was a yawn.  My students’ eyes began to glaze over, and I realized that I was boring myself with my own lesson.

What went wrong?  First of all, it was a Monday morning. I remarked to my students, “You look tired today.”  They did; they are mostly engineers for a Chinese company, required to attend a month of English classes for 42 class periods a week.  They only have one free day, Sunday.  Second, I teach two groups of 38 students, a huge class size for an oral or conversation class.

Shortly after I left class, after returning the laptop computer and remote control for the projector to the A.V. department, I decided to rethink my entire approach to teaching Oral English.

In 5 years of teaching in China, I’ve begun to wonder if you can “teach” speaking.  Many of my classes have been geared toward test preparation, which means drilling students in vocabulary and sample responses for oral exams.  This may help students to pass exams, but it does little to prepare them for real-life speaking.

When I ask my students how much actual speaking practice they’ve had in previous English classes, most say “none.”  I figured that the best thing I could do for them was to give them as much English speaking time in each class as possible.  For my 10-periods-a-week classes, if I could have the students speaking for, say, 75% of each class, that would mean about 5 1/2 hours each week of speaking practice.  That sounded much better to me than loading them down with more vocabulary and teacher instruction; they were getting enough of that from their other classes.

For the next class, I brought enough group and partner activities to occupy 4 class periods – partner dictation, group brainstorming, role plays, even a listen-and-write dictation contest at the blackboard, in which students tried to “stump” each other with difficult sentences.  The students got a lot of speaking time, seemed more alert, and they enjoyed some of the activities.  Another result, though, was that I was giving up my “teacher” role for that of a ”moderator.”  The students took more charge of their activities, which was good, but I found that I had less to do.  I was also reminded how difficult it is to monitor conversations in a class of 30+ students.  I simply can’t hear what they’re saying with everyone talking at once.

There are always trade-offs and compromises in teaching.  On the last class day of the month-long intensive English instruction, I’d promised my students a movie day.  We had two movies playing simultaneously – a Vin Diesel action film on the movie screen, and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation on the TV with the DVD player.  Somehow or other the students managed to “tune in” to one or the other, but it’s all a jumble of noise to me.  Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what a class full of students all speaking English at the same time sounds like.

St. Joseph, Missouri

I was back in my home town for 6 days.

When my students in China ask me to describe St. Joseph, Missouri, I don’t quite know what to say. I usually end up explaining that it was an important outfitting and supply center for pioneers traveling west in the mid-19th century, and that it was the starting point for the Pony Express mail delivery, which operated for a few years between St. Joseph and Sacramento, California.




My dad, Gene, stepmother Bonnie, and my brother Kenton.



The occasion for my return was my father’s 85th birthday.  It was my longest visit in many years, and my first return to the USA since leaving for China in 2006.



Three Joneses:  Kenton, Dad, and Roger




Family & friends at Starbucks




Dad’s 85th birthday dinner, Texas Roadhouse


After the birthday festivities, it was time to take the train to St. Louis to spend a couple of days with my brother Kenton. The weather has been incredibly hot and humid.



Kansas City Union Station


Next stop:  Chicago.  My train journey continues tomorrow.  Tonight we’re getting some much-needed rest at the Pear Tree Inn in Fenton, outside of St. Louis.  More later, after I get to Chicago.

Bin Laden is dead

Monday, May 2, 2011

The manhunt for Osama bin Laden is over. Nearly 10 years after the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, U.S. forces are said to have assassinated the Saudi-born founder of al-Qaeda inside Pakistan. The U.S. operation was reportedly carried out by 25 Navy Seals under the command of the Joint Special Operations Command. At the time of his death, bin Laden was reportedly living in a heavily fortified mansion just a mile from the Pakistani army’s principal military academy.http://www.democracynow.org/

 President Barack Obama: “Today, at my direction, the United States launched a targeted operation against that compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. A small team of Americans carried out the operation with extraordinary courage and capability. No Americans were harmed. They took care to avoid civilian casualties. After a firefight, they killed Osama bin Laden and took custody of his body.”

“At my direction.” That was the part that scared me.  How many presidents admit that any killing, torture, rendition, or other atrocity was done “at my direction”?

My first reaction to the assassination of Osama bin Laden was one of shock and dismay.  I have been opposed to the U.S. invasion of the Middle East since the Bush regime first announced its ill-conceived plans.  I also suspected that the Al Qaeda / bin Laden connection was just another lie by Bush to “sell” his wars, along with the Iraq / 9-11 connection and Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Bin Laden is known to have denied any connection with 9-11. No one has ever been tried in a court of law and convicted of masterminding the terrorist attacks – now, bin Laden will never be tried, although he has already been convicted and his remains taken into custody. That American people would react with fist-pumping and breast-beating to this news also shocks me; we, the citizens of the “beacon” of democracy, protected by the rule of law, react to the assassination of a single man with a huge:  “YEAH!” Is this about justice, or just “Let’s get’em” style revenge?

“Bin Laden is dead, but the world is still governed by bin Ladens. People cheer because they thought they saw justice, but this was not justice delivered by victims. This was one killer killing another,” says Allan Nairn. “I think we need an American uprising, if we’re to put a stop to this kind of killing of innocent people. And we need an American Romero, someone like Archbishop Romero of Salvador.”  – Journalist and Activist Allan Nairn http://www.democracynow.org/2011/5/2/one_killer_killing_another_journalist_and

 Targeted assassination: our government’s official policy, along with Wall Street bailouts, secret prisons, and a war against unions and the middle and working classes.  Bin Laden was willing to kill; so is Obama. The killing will not stop; wars and invasions are not driven by revenge or a desire to “stop terror;” they are waged for corporate profit.  It is not OK to kill.  It is not OK to say that two wrongs make a right. It is not OK for the powerful (and rich) to trample over anyone they choose.

 Who profits from Osama bin Laden’s death? How many others died in order for U.S. forces to get to him?  How many more will die? The world is not safer without bin Laden; for every one that is killed, dozens will spring up to replace them.  Obama is more powerful and more deadly than bin Laden.  Who will stop him?