build a tower

I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while; as usual, however, life got in the way and it was delayed. I’ve now done this team-building activity with two different classes, and it proved to be a lot of fun.



TED2010 Talk



The Marshmallow Challenge was created by Tom Wujec, and he describes the activity in a TED2010 Talk [click photo above to view video]. The object of the activity is to enhance group and cooperative learning skills through creativity, planning, trial & error, and problem-solving as a part of a team. It involves building a tower using dry spaghetti, tape, string, and marshmallows. As a bonus, the extra marshmallows provided snacks for instant energy.




Here are some of the photos from my English for Academic Purposes class as they constructed their towers. As it turned out, the students fell in love with the red clothesline string I provided, and used way too much of it. Oh well, I’m not one for strictly following instructions anyway. A few of the students also chose to snack on the spaghetti (uncooked) afterwards, which I didn’t recommend.




After the towers were completed, a committee of judges used a tape measure to determine which one was tallest. Prizes were awarded for height and creativity – one tower was shaped like the Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai. During the activity I played a mixture of pop, disco, and 70s R&B music for inspiration. If you try this activity with your class, I also recommend allowing about 10 minutes at the end for clean-up ( a lot of tape gets stuck to desks and spaghetti pieces litter the floor).



 great group work, but a little too much string.



 the crowning touch – marshmallow with a heart.


 Marshmallow Challenge title Slide

 Click here to open/download the PowerPoint 2010 instructions for the activity



learning curve


Students in my class concentrate on their study book activity, identifying and sharing their personal skills.


We’re now in the sixth week of the new semester, and what a ride it’s been.

I’m performing a juggling act between my regular job of teaching 16 class periods a week, and being an IELTS examiner three weekends a month. I work pretty much all the time; in February I had a total of two days off. I barely had time for a healing massage, a trip to the grocery story, and a couple of trips to the gym.

Another challenge is teaching two new programs: reading class for the Singapore study abroad program, and English for Academic Purposes for the Victoria University program in Australia. The Singapore class is reading Madame Doubtfire; this provides some opportunities for levity, as when we role-played a talk show and I was Madame Doubtfire, the cross-dressing housekeeper (no, I didn’t dress the part). I had to respond to a question about which toilet I would use, men’s or women’s, and I said “Well, dear, I’m not exactly sure.” I’m slowly trying to build my students’ confidence to give dramatic readings, a challenge in a foreign language. Reading shouldn’t be just another boring class.

The EAP class is full of creative students, even if a few of them seem only to find creative ways to sleep in class. I’m teaching study skills, which consists mostly of student-directed group activities, such as exploring your personal skills and study habits. The class’s extracurricular project is a dramatic presentation of Murder on the Orient Express. They haven’t decided yet whether it will be a musical. It’s also becoming increasingly obvious to them that adapting one medium to another is full of unique challenges – you can’t just open a book and make it a drama.

I became a minor celebrity (in my own mind) when  a couple of students came into my class the other day to film a video segment of me talking about the EAP program. As always, I improvised beautifully, and looked both casual and professional at the same time. My class then joked about asking for my autograph. A rather paranoid teacher in the next classroom, however, had a minor panic attack when he saw the cameras approaching, and imagining that he was next, swiftly moved his class to the 5th floor and locked the doors.

In addition to learning how to teach two new subjects (reading and study skills), I’m teaching my usual Going Abroad classes, for university teachers preparing to be Visiting Scholars in English-speaking countries. I round out my schedule with a Four Skills class (speaking module) composed of students from mixed backgrounds and abilities. We have fun together, and a group of them took me to lunch the other day.

I still find time, barely, for my guitar study and for photography. Speaking of fashion, something extraordinary is happening on campus: just in the past year or so, Chinese students with money to spend on fashion have created their own unique look, loosely based on Western fashion, but with color combinations and personal flair that is unique to China.  It makes American college campuses look like an ocean of dull conformity; in China, even the jeans-and-T-shirt combo is impeccably cleaned and pressed, always new, never old and ratty, and combined with athletic shoes in day-glo colors or bold patterns.  I’m planning to do a local equivalent of what NY fashion photographer Bill Cunningham does in the documentary Bill Cunningham’s New York – follow the local fashion icons with my camera and make a photo essay/documentary on the phenomenon.

Finally, I’ve taken on a minor supervisory role in the Going Abroad program, coordinating the foreign teachers who teach speaking classes.  All in all, it’s a roller-coaster ride. Sometimes, in the evening when it’s all over and I’ve heard enough different versions to English to make me catatonic, I ask “What’s next?” The next day, inevitably, will bring another surprise.

tweeted, and a bad cough

My favorite GIF animation this week:


Thanks to one of my favorite blogs, Black and White Cat, for publishing this image. Thanks also to its author for a great line for an insult:

Glenn Beck is very, very low-hanging fruit. We should all just ignore him and hope he goes away.

 I’m battling a bad allergy attack and a horrendous cough.  There’s no relief in sight, but fortunately I’m giving speaking exams this week, so all I do is sit there and listen to students talk (while I cough).  It’s been rather eventful, nonetheless.

My presentation Tibet-Nepal-India part 1 made the front page of, getting the most tweets [on Twitter] of any presentation. is a site for sharing PowerPoint presentations, documents, videos, and e-books, and it’s a great source of information as well as teaching material. As of today the presentation has had over 800 views!

I’m “featured” on the front page of!



New pages on my blog:

Teaching – lesson plans, downloadable documents, and links to PowerPoint presentations.  It includes a link to my Culture Shock presentation I gave last week.


Also visit me at: 

Visit my page at [chinateacher1].

I learned something

A peaceful oasis in the midst of the traffic, noise, and rapidly-rising skyscrapers of the center city: a small park that I found by accident, and a much-needed place for some contemplation.


Eating and talking at the same time

The great thing about teaching is that you are continually learning new things. For example, as a Chinese learner I’m continually reminded of the difficulties that my own students face in their process of learning English. I was eating lunch today – stir-fried rice with shredded pork and green pepper – after a much-needed massage to relieve some of the pain in my upper back and neck. A lady joined me at my table, as the place was full, and proceeded to chat with me. I realized later that I probably knew about 20 – 30% of the Chinese words she used – enough to catch the general meaning – but that I was used to seeing them in a textbook, or hearing them come out of my teacher’s mouth, and not a stranger’s. I “knew” the words, but hadn’t transferred them into the frontal whatchamacallit of my brain, the place where easily-accessible and ready-to-use words and expressions are stored. Yes, there’s “deep” storage and “right now” storage for language. Plus, my affect was in the way: that’s your resistance or discomfort or just plain panic at being talked to by a stranger. My initial reaction is “I’m not ready for this; it’s too real!” I survived.

Get over yourself! Just do it! I couldn’t take my own advice that I dish out to my students.

Moments of clarity

Like many of the best-laid plans, it seemed like a good idea at the time. Like I said, though, I’m always learning in this job.

I love partner conversation activities, especially information-gap exercises like Partner Dictation. Briefly, each partner gets a sheet of paper with part of a conversation, which is exactly what the other partner needs to fill his “gaps.” Plus, the activity forces the student to use all four skills: reading, speaking, listening, and writing. I’ll try to post a couple of examples here soon. You can use such exercises to practice asking for and giving directions, doing shopping role plays, or practically anything.

Then it was time to plan activities for Telephone English. I thought, what better way to practice phone English than on the phone? Like, duh! I mean, who doesn’t have a cell phone in China? I put together some really bitchin’ info-gap activities for phone role plays, then passed out the papers in class. I pointed out the line where each student was to write his/her own cell phone number, so that their mystery partner could actually call them. On the phone. In class. It had worked in one previous class, then I decided to use it in my class full of university teachers who plan to study abroad. I passed out the papers, with phone numbers, and said, “OK, everyone, now call for information!” I got puzzled looks. “On the phone?” someone said. “What about the cost?” Then it hit me: these students were mostly from other Chinese cities, which meant that any call incurred long-distance charges. Their classroom activity would be expensive. “You didn’t think of that, did you?” the other (smarter) part of my brain asked. All was not lost: The partners simply sat together and had pantomime “phone” conversations. When all else fails, wing it.  Click here to view/download the activities I used.

The path often takes many turns, but they usually lead you someplace interesting:  a metaphor for teaching

Get to the [power] point, already!

I’ve used PowerPoint since I started teaching in China in 2006. Back when I was teaching the same lesson to 7 classes of 50 students a week, it was worth my while to spend an entire Sunday afternoon putting together that week’s PPT, which could conveniently be plugged into the classroom computers. The technology only let me down once, when I installed the new Powerpoint 2007 on my home computer, not realizing that the classroom computers all had antiquated versions of the software. The result: the PPT wouldn’t even open, leaving me to write – from memory – a long and complicated lesson by hand on the chalkboard. Boy, was my hand tired.

Those limitations are history now, and I’m using the new PowerPoint 2010, Chinese version. It’s fairly user-friendly; virtually every command is a picture or a symbol, so I can continue to put off learning to read Chinese.

My new burst of creativity started when I had to put together materials for a couple of young students (10 and 13), and visuals were an obvious choice, since I have to keep them awake on a Friday evening after they’ve finished a whole school week. I found out that I could use PPTs for reading practice, not just for pretty pictures [more on this later].

Since I also “collect” graphics related to theater and opera, I thought: why not put together a presentation using animations, using all those cool graphics of set designs and theater curtains? I scoped out some online tutorials, but in my technologically-challenged state, each solution posed yet more problems. I began at Tom Kuhlman’s site The Rapid E-Learning Blog for help with animations in Powerpoint. From there I cruised over to Presentation Magazine to download some free animated slides.

My “A Night at the Opera” PPT completed, I now had to figure out a way to share it via my blog. From iSpring Free I was able to download a PowerPoint to Flash converter. I could now convert a PPT into a Shockwave Flash video, playable in my WordPress-powered blog. Of course, this wasn’t the end. After much frustration (and swearing), I realized that I couldn’t just stick my newly-created masterpiece into a blog post. Thanks to Walker News, I learned How to Embed SWF in HTML Code or WordPress Post. Whew!

You can see my results here. This has opened up new worlds of possibilities for me: PPTs on A Visit to the Zoo, or A Shopping Spree. Don’t be surprised if you see a new SWF video from me in the next couple of weeks on my travels last summer through Tibet, Nepal, and India.

 Coming soon! (Maybe)

I hope to add a new page to my blog [see trial version here] that features teaching materials: PowerPoints, class handouts, and illustrations. I’ve been thinking of developing my own teaching materials for a long time, but my busy schedule at the moment won’t permit it. Stay tuned for more news.

a series of images

Old tree, 水井坊 Shuijingfang area, Chengdu


“Life isn’t some vertical or horizontal line.  You have your own interior world, and it’s not neat.  Therefore the importance and the beauty of music, sound, noise.  When you go outside and you’re hearing…hundreds of different sounds…all of these things are potentially beautiful.”

Patti Smith, in A Dream of Life

It’s been  while since I posted anything.  It isn’t just being busy – I am, with my schedule so spread-out that I have classes six days a week – but I’ve felt that I had nothing to say.  Other people seem to have quite a lot to say; I’ve spent some time reading a few excellent teaching blogs, and some well-written and perceptive film blogs.

The past couple of weeks have produced some indelible images.  First, there was the horrifying footage of the tsunami that devastated Japan’s coastal areas and swept away entire communities.  The online videos of buildings, cars, and people’s lives being carried away by surging waters left me dumbstruck.  Then, there were the continuing images of damaged nuclear power plants, unleashing a manmade, not natural, devastation upon the world.

I was tremendously encouraged by the images of the pro-worker uprising in Madison, Wisconsin, USA.  Increasingly marginalized by totalitarian corporate rulers, people are finally responding with a mass, democratic movement.  In spite of our government’s double-speak of “spreading democracy” via warfare and state-sponsored terror, the people taking to the streets are showing what democracy is really about.

In a quieter, more contemplative vein, I’ve watched several films lately that have stayed with me as a series of mental images.

Patti Smith – A Dream of Life [2008]

Patti Smith – A Dream of Life is a 2008 documentary, a collaborative effort by Smith and director Steven Sebring that was supposedly 12 years in the making.  There are a lot of moving images – grainy shots from moving trains, views through car windows – as well as the thoughts of a truly remarkable and very intelligent artist.  I’d seen the film before, but watched it again a couple of nights ago on a whim.  The above image of signposts made me think of signals, progress, turning points in my life.  In terms of language, signposting means giving verbal and physical cues to help your audience follow your train of thought, and to point to where you’re going next.  Sometimes we want to see signals, but they’re simply not there.   Maybe that’s why I look at so many movies: to see something of myself reflected in them, to give my interior life some shape or recognizable form.

Jean-Luc Godard, Film socialisme [2010]

Jean-Luc Godard’s Film socialisme [2010] is a confounding film, filled with exquisite images, symbolism, and (to me) mixed messages.  The image that stays with me is an exquisitely-framed shot of a reporter standing against a textured, sky-blue wall, the constantly-rotating shadow of a windmill animating the scene and creating a kind of dark aura around her.  It’s an amazing sequence.

Other films that made an impression on me were Des hommes et des dieux [Of Gods and Men, 2010] directed by Xavier Beauvois, and Mike Leigh’s Another Year [2010].    One last very Zen-like sentiment occurs in the Patti Smith documentary where she visits the grave of Beat poet Gregory Corso in Rome.  Tapping into the “river of existence” or cyclic imagery that occurs often in Buddhism, Corso’s epitaph for himself reads

is Life
It flows thru
the death of me
like a river
of becoming
the sea


Patti Smith – A Dream of Life [2008]