January 29, 2016

Getting out of the way

Sometimes, the best thing we can do as teachers (and maybe as human beings) is get out of the way.

This afternoon, one of my colleagues mentioned "getting out of the way" as the final step of his strategy for teaching. Something like teach, test, and get out of the way.

I had just spent the morning groping for the reigns of one of my classes as I tried to plan out everything for the next two weeks. Control everything. Make sure everything was exactly right. Make sure that I was teaching everything that students need to know. Make sure. Make sure. Make sure.

I was feeling pretty desperate. My plans weren't lining up and I couldn't keep anything straight in my mind.

Get out of the way.

Get out of the way.

Part of my course load this semester is a group of very motivated and advanced English majors. The course is about the foundations of rhetoric, critical thinking, and academic writing. This type of class has come to be my specialty in a way. I've taught it on three different continents. Teaching a fun subject to motivated students is exhilarating. A well-planned lesson will bring out the best in these students and they will surprise you will insight, depth, and curiosity.

The first week's lesson for this class was all about me getting out of the way, actually. I didn't think about it that way when I was planning it, but I basically nixed lecture in favor of guiding questions for small group discussion interspersed with me articulating main points that were naturally coming out of their discussions. At the end of the lesson, I asked them to write something that they found interesting during the class, and many of them commented specifically that they liked how I had used small group discussions, and in essence, gotten out of the way. They said they had enjoyed hearing what their group-mates had to say, and that they were able to pay attention to the content more easily.

For my other classes (the other 66% of my teaching), the curriculum is more basic and more rigid. The students are different too. They aren't English majors, and many of them still face a lot of challenges understanding and using spoken (and written, in some cases) English. Moreover, the class size is bigger. The classrooms are too small. Students arrive late. Students have so much work for their other classes. Students aren't invested in learning English. There seem to be a million things to cover in 15 weeks. There are a lot of obstacles to recreating the magical atmosphere of the other class.

What my frustration boils down to is that I want to control (and eliminate) all of these obstacles.

I can't.

In fact, maybe I shouldn't.

I'm working on integrating the "get out of the way" mantra into my planning for the course that is so challenging to teach. Don't try to control everything. Get out of the way. Step back. Listen. Don't answer for them. Let them have time to think. Let them ask the questions. I don't know how well it will work, but that's another thing I can't control.

So, here's to a new semester and getting out of the way.

January 23, 2016

Happy Fatty's

Last night Alan and I went shopping for a guitar in downtown Chiang Rai. Among the rows of ukeles and guitars, I sat and listened while Alan tried out a few guitars. I got a little bored of listening and tired of monitoring where the cockroaches on the floor were running, so I stepped outside for a breather.

Across the street from the music shop, I saw the brightly lit purple sign for "Happy Fatty's: Big Size for Women."

HAPPY FATTY'S? Are you kidding??

Kind of offensive, but possibly just what I need! How could I resist? Big sizes in Chiang Rai are normal sizes for Americans. Farang size, as I happily told the shop keeper.

The clothing was mostly from one brand, "Be Proud" and a little matronly in style. However, it was the first time in months that I've seen clothes that would actually fit me. I almost bought the dip-dyed watermelon-themed shorts, but the hems didn't look like they'd stand up to my lifestyle, so I passed.

There was a roach on the floor there too (I really can't handle roaches), so I didn't hang out too long. I did, however, note that if I need a new shirt or pants, this might well be the best place. Maybe not a place to build self-esteem--Fatty--but I'd rather be reminded of my size by a silly sign than by a pinching waistband.

We did end up with a guitar, and we also bought the Thai equivalent of Navajo fry-bread from a street vendor, followed later by burgers and beer. Speaking of happy fatty...

January 1, 2016

Memories from 2015 and looking ahead

I love how January 1 gives so many people pause for reflection on the year that was, and for what they want in the next year. It's easy to catch the wave of self-assessment and goal-setting--two things I really enjoy.

2015 will be a hard year to top. I only spent 10 days in the US; essentially, I spent the entire year abroad, which has always been a goal for me.

I swam in the Mediterranean and in the Black Sea.

I completed my contract in Turkey.

I watched my best friend get married.

I spent time with my German Grandparents in Germany.

I cooked a Turkish meal for my American grandparents.

I moved to Thailand and survived a semester (so far) at a new university.

I got a kitten.

2015 was a successful year for me. I made a lot of progress in terms of making decisions with my happiness in mind. That's important to me.

There were plenty of hard times in 2015 too. Very few things about living abroad (especially within the first year) are easy. Basic errands can feel like heavy burdens because of language barriers and unfamiliar systems. I cried a lot in 2015. I often questioned my life choices and sometimes cursed myself for choosing a lifestyle that puts me so far away from family and the comforts of home. 2015 was also part of the first year of my marriage to Alan. Adjusting to life together in a strange country wasn't always a picnic. It was downright hard sometimes.

But here I am. Still standing. Still abroad. Still married. Happily on all accounts.

2016 is off to an adventurous start already, as we partied Chiang Rai style last night downtown with the rest of the city. We counted down the last seconds of the year near the famous Clocktower with thousands of Chiang Rai people and tourists from around the world.

My New Year's resolution is to learn as much Thai as I knew in Turkish. I didn't invest in learning Thai at all last semester. It was so easy to get by with a few phrases and do the rest in English. However, I believe that I will not only enjoy learning Thai, but I will also be able to be more independent if I can handle the basics. I started taking this goal seriously last week, so I've already got some momentum.

I'm a good exerciser already, so I want to continue that, and make sure I don't forget to stretch after my workouts. Also, choose veggies when possible.

Finally, I want to continue reading for pleasure. Much of my job as a writing teacher is reading student work, which sometimes leaves me super drained. I found in 2015 though, that reading for pleasure counteracts some of the burnout from reading hundreds of essays written by language learners. I just finished "The Kite Runner" by Khaled Hosseini and I really liked it, especially his use of Afghani words that were similar to Turkish words I knew. A while back, I read "Burmese Days" by George Orwell.  I also read "Cat Sense" by John Bradshaw recently, to understand Egg better. I think the book helped me see Egg as a cat with cat-needs (as opposed to a cute little creature whose primary interest must be being my pseudo-child). Interestingly, the more I do to treat Egg as a cat, the more he seems to appreciate human interaction. All that to say, let's keep reading in 2016.

2015 was a great year, and basically, I want to continue what I've been doing and have another interesting, adventurous, and educational year in 2016.