Month: March 2011

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]