Thursday, September 30, 2010

near-weekend update

Mentally, still not feeling very good. My Chilean friend at school is still pissing me off. After another conversation today which made me angry but she seemed to enjoy, combined with someone telling me weeks ago that she was jealous, I think she's playing a Chilean cultural game between men and women. I don't have any other way to explain the information I have, her incredible level of non-listening, or the looks on her face at various points in the conversation. Obviously I don't know what role I'm supposed to play, so I'm going to start ignoring her pushing. If her feelings are actually hurt about something, to hell with her, she can figure out how to talk about it like a North American.

But, hey! I get to teach aikido! Jorge is going out of town for the long weekend of the 9th-11th, so I'm teaching on Tuesday the 12th, and if I'm not busy, Saturday the 9th. I love teaching aikido, and I don't get to do it very often, because Aikido West has approximately 762634672 people with higher rank and more experience, in line to teach ahead of me. Seriously, it's absurd. In most parts of the world a 4th-degree black belt will be giving a seminar and it'll be a big weekend thing; at Aikido West, we'll have 3 of them discussing which of them takes over the Sunday morning class if the instructor doesn't show up.

Some people don't like teaching aikido, which seems as strange to me as people who like teaching Chilean high school students. (There aren't a lot of those. It should be clear that I love my kids, but even the Chilean teachers are regularly pretty frustrated with their work, and you know how it is for me.) Some folks hate being the focus of attention, or feel they don't have anything worth saying, or don't feel they can teach in a way that works, or who knows what else.

Tomorrow makes 7 weeks until I'm done teaching, and today is 4 weeks until Anna visits. The time is ticking down.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

it's nice to have an impact

A trio of the friendliest girls from 1-C (which is saying a lot) caught up to me in the hallway today. Javiera started peppering me with questions.
"Teacher, you're leaving in seven weeks?"
"Well, in seven weeks I finish teaching. Then I leave Chile three weeks after that."
"And you're not coming back?"
"Nope, it's time for me to go home."
Javiera switched to English. "I miss you. I am sad."
"Aw, thanks. And hey, good English!"

grrrr rip snarl

You all know very well that I'm not one to accuse people of being too observant. But really, after I've been communicating in good Spanish with you for 5 months, and conspicuously improving, is it really that surprising when I understand the gist of the conversation? Apparently so.

So in addition to not listening to me when I talk, people also seem to assume I don't understand what they're saying. Being dismissed from both ends is pretty rough, and I think this inner tension I feel--and the occasional snapping at people and raising my voice--is the long-forgotten feeling of being past the end of my considerable patience, off the reservation into Irritation, with forays into Anger. Not being heard is a particular raw nerve for me: there are a handful of people at home that I keep at arm's length because they're so wrapped up in the stories in their heads that I can't get enough of a genuine response (to my actions or speech) to feel like we're dealing with the same reality. It's really draining when people don't respond to who you are.

One of my teacher friends was further pushing me by insisting that I play and sing a song on the guitar at some gathering in 10 days. That's something that is hard for me even with a lot of practice, and (at least the way I received it) she not only refused to respect my unwillingness to do it, but she was making it out to be something that a "real friend" would do. She may just have been doing a standard Chilean thing that a Chilean would receive differently, but as I keep having to explain to people, and it should be pretty obvious at this point, I'm not Chilean. Sensing that I was about to raise my voice and get snarly to get my point across--and knowing that while she was pushing pretty hard, she surely wasn't doing anything mean-spirited--I took a breath, smiled, and said I'd see her later.

I'm home right now, writing about this, and listening to some sweet songs by the Wailin' Jennies, and suddenly I can see and feel how hard and spiky and tense I am right now, compared to how I am at home. It turns out that being open, patient, and gentle is completely unsustainable without a safe space to rest, open up, and be heard by other people.

We need each other. Who knew?

I still have patience for my kids: they need that from me, and I feel like they respond more clearly to the person I am, through the language barrier. But I've been shutting out the adults for the past several weeks, because I don't have any energy to meet them where they are, when I'm the only one trying to cover the distance.

This will pass. Everything does.

Monday, September 27, 2010

good packing choices: electronics

I'm home today with some sinus pressure and a beautiful and unseasonably cold rainy day, and before going back to sleep, I was sorting through the computer stuff I brought. It's all worked so well that I thought I might make a list.
  • Asus Eee PC 1005PE - This is a fantastic little netbook. Under Windows it actually gets the 11-hour battery life, and the keyboard is great. I usually use Linux on it, which works quite well. The new ones are even shinier, with dual-core processors.
  • Flash memory thumb drives - 2x8GB and 1x4GB. These are great for sharing and printing documents--Chileans all have them (they're called pendrive in Spanish, which few people seem to notice is a loanword). I use one for shuttling documents around, and one will boot Linux if something goes wrong. (I would like to have such a thing for Windows, but I think it doesn't exist.) And then one more, just in case, and it was $12.
  • USB SD card reader - Haven't actually needed it since the Asus has a card reader built-in, but I'm glad I have it.
  • Secure Digital flash memory cards - I have 2x2GB, 1x1GB, and 1x256MB. I used a 2GB for my camera, but having spares is handy: the 256MB is now in my old camera, and combined with the SD card reader, these can serve the same functions as thumb drives. Also, incredibly cheap. (The 2GB cards are actually tiny MicroSD cards in full-size SD adapters.)
  • iPod Nano - Actually, the battery on this is about dead and I haven't used it at all.
  • Kodak EasyShare C813 - Oh, man. This was a step up from my years-old Canon digital--and only $60 off what a crappy camera. I finally replaced it with my incredibly drool-tastic Panasonic Lumix DMC-ZS7, which has a gigantic Leica lens and sees better in the dark than I do. Don't buy the Kodak if you can buy anything nicer.
Except for the Kodak, everything has been rock-solid reliable and really useful. I should have brought more dress shirts, but hey, at least I can plan for technology.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Cartagena the janitor

One of the janitors at school is named Cartagena. There's something weird going on with me and the janitors, because a couple of times, one has said to another, "Heheh, that's Cartagena's friend," with a meaningful, knowing glance, and then they both laugh. Cartagena himself does seem to act a little odd around me.

Odd or not, I'm pretty sure he's lazy, based on what his boss has said and how often he cleans my classroom, which is never. If I find the boss and ask, he'll send someone by. Usually it's only a problem after school events, when my room gets used as a dressing room (which is totally okay, it's just full of trash afterward). Last week when I summoned someone to sweep up, Cartagena stopped by at the end of the day. (This is the best translation I can give. The janitors have a working-class dialect that I have a really hard time understanding.)
"Hey, the room's nice and clean, yeah?"
"Yes! Thank you, it looks great."
"You know, this room is supposed to stay locked, but you have to leave it unlocked so I can clean it." [My room is usually locked.]
"Yeah, but even when I leave it unlocked, you don't clean it."
"Well, you got me there!"
At least we've all got a sense of humor about it, and we both had a good chuckle.

(Curiously, at bemused moments like that, I feel like my father: often he will find a matter-of-fact humor in the most obtuse bureaucratic delays or maddening organizational inefficiencies. We talked a lot about government and politics when I was growing up, and at least once, when I expressed incredulity at some lunatic expression of American democracy, he just chuckled and said, "Well, no one does it quite like we do.")

Saturday, September 25, 2010

I am clueless

Lunch today was a chard soup, but something went wrong, and it was...wrong, somehow. Not inedible, but unpleasantly sour. It was fine enough with a bunch of salt and pepper, and the fried potatoes.

I was eating alone, and Ximena stopped in the hallway and asked how the chard was.
"Well, it's fine."
"Oh. Huh. Yeah."
"No, I mean, it's--"
"Ya, ya."
"It's fine with the potatoes."
"No, don't worry about it."
Dinnertime rolled around. Normally dinner on weekends is the same food as lunch, but there was a sudden new soup (which tasted as good as normal). Ximena put it on the table with her finger to her lips.

I looked at her quizzically. She kept her finger to her lips and made some waving sounds, as though I shouldn't mention it to Oscar. Though Oscar came in a few minutes later with a salad.

What just happened? Did I insult somebody or get overly picky? It seems clear they also knew something went wrong with the chard.

Who knows?

Thursday, September 23, 2010

having an off week

Not feeling very good this week: I went to school bright and early in the morning, only to come home before my first class started, unable to face how much energy I was going to need for teaching. I'd woken up at 4am for no discernible reason and didn't really get back to sleep.

The sleep during the day helped a lot, and today I went in and taught my two classes, but aikido class informed me that my lack of energy isn't a mental thing--I think my mental funk is coming from whatever's going on with the rest of my body. That's nice as far as it validates my inability to figure out what I was cranky about.

I am feeling a little unhappy with my teaching, because in some ways I feel like I've taught my kids up to what I know how to do as a teacher, and now they're ready to move past that, and I can't quite figure out how to do it. I found a way to teach vocabulary and dialogue questions that works for them, but now they're about ready for some grammar stuff, and I have no idea how to make it interactive, so they'll be able to practice and internalize it.

It's hard to do difficult things without the skills and training for it.

In the meantime, I'm going to sleep a lot.


My host family is pretty modern, by which I mean both parents work and nobody does anything together. That may be in part because it's a blended family that isn't very blended: Ximena's son Alvaro and Oscar's son Ignacio do hang out and play together, but however they work, the family relationships are decidedly not North American.

So we could theorize that people are just too busy to buy things like clothespins.

Or light bulbs.

Or laundry detergent.

It's not like anyone's saving money at the gringos' expense. We use, or would if they were stocked, the same household supplies the family does. Their clothes also fall off the line. They spent two weeks of evenings in the extremely dark living room lit by one dim bulb. They can't do laundry either (though of course they have more clothes here than we do).

Finally on Tuesday I decided to buy a pack of clothespins on the street. (The guy gringo'd me: I asked how much and he said "Two--three hundred pesos." I snorted and walked away, but I bought them at two-fifty, even though they were probably CLP$200, because really, it's a dime.) I told Ximena I bought clothespins, because I wanted to ask her about the lack of household supplies.
"How much were they? They're really cheap."
"250 pesos."
"Yeah! Really cheap."
"How come you guys don't buy them?"
"They get lost and broken, so I got sick of it."
"It's really confusing, the house things that you guys don't buy, like clothespins and lightbulbs."
[laughs] "I know! And I'm the mistress of the household!"
There's something extremely Chilean about that entire conversation. I think she just lets stuff not get done, the same way I do; with me, it's a couple years of tax returns (relax, I filed extensions and paid the tax, the government owes me money), and with her, it's clothespins.

Who am I to judge?

Monday, September 20, 2010


Chilean espresso is terrible. As described previously, they let the machine run too long, which over-extracts the grounds. It finally dawned on me that I could be an obnoxious customer and ask them to make the espresso by shutting the machine off after 30 seconds. To be diplomatic, I say "It gives it a different flavor" rather than "It tastes really bad the way you usually do it." Cafe employees accept this with anything from polite confusion up to an unquestioning "the customer is always right" feeling, although I think that guy might have actually understood why I was asking.

Nonetheless, I come to Starbucks in Vina a fair bit, more often now that I do aikido nearby. This is technically known as "gringo-ing," which is pretty much what there is to do in Vina, but more practically, Starbucks is still the best coffee in Chile (certainly around Valpo/Vina), with the comfiest chairs (couches, Montresor!) and best Internet. I'm not sure what I'd do otherwise, though, since native Chilean culture has no acceptable substitute.

Also, if you want brewed coffee, this is the only option.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Fiestas Patrias

Chilean recreation is a lot about "partying," which has always seemed a strange hobby to me, since I like my peace and quiet. (Yes, when I get home I'll be living with a half-time 6-year old, and it'll be a learning experience for both of us.) I don't like dancing, and I don't drink much, and I can't take large groups of people for long. Going out to nightclubs and bars is not a good fit for my temperament or interests.

Chileans, on the other hand, are highly social as a matter of course. In general, they love parties, and bigger parties are better. And so we get Fiestas Patrias.

Down on the south end of Valparaiso is the neighborhood of Playa Ancha, where the dirt parking lot of the soccer stadium becomes, essentially, the Chilean version of a county fair. One end has a midway with carnival games and rides, including a Ferris wheel. The other end is taken over by 3 rows of continuous temporary structure, about 100 yards long--the fondas and ramadas. A fonda is a little restaurant, and a ramada is a dance/performance hall, with a stage, dance floor, and drinks. Everything is covered in branches and slabs of tree bark: rama means "branch," so following Spanish's love of the past participle, something "tree-branched" is a ramada.

There were also several full-service liquor booths, where you could buy full-size bottles of liquor to bring into the pavilions, which have cover charges.

Steve and I went up there about 7:30 last night. It was nice, I guess; mind-bogglingly festive, and just starting to warm up and get really crowded when we left around 9:30. A few people had recommended the transvestites' pavilion, so we went there, and they weren't passable, but they were pretty funny.

(It's a pretty funny thing to hear the 76-year old house grandmother muttering, "Oh, yeah. The transvestites. They're so nice!".)

Reasonably interesting, reminded me of the Big E back east, and very Chilean...but not really my kind of thing.

Regardless: Happy Birthday, Chile!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

media consumption

I don't read as much here, because I don't have my home library's delicious selection of books that really grab me. Instead there's a WorldTeach collection in Santiago, the expected set of loaners that volunteers pass around, and anything I feel like picking up off the street (which is rare, because the small selection is always very expensive). I've been plowing through Lost, which is occasionally interesting if I hold it lightly.

I have read a few books, though: Reading Lolita In Tehran, Siddhartha, and The Alchemist. I'm also about 1/3 of the way through Steinbeck's East of Eden, which is one of many books I feel I should have read, except I don't usually read fiction. I read some science fiction and fantasy, of course, good nerd that I am, but not usually Literature, as such. I don't usually find it engaging, and moreover I'm always aware that there's a craft and a structure to it that I just don't appreciate. I'm not very good at teasing out symbolism and allegory and parallelism and whatever else a novelist can put into a novel, and even worse, it doesn't move me emotionally. I learned to do literary analysis for school, but only for school, and it's always an intellectual exercise: I don't feel like understanding a novel's structure or symbols ever changed my direction or helped me see the world differently (except to understand that novels have structure and symbols and these affect other people). I just like a good story.

East of Eden fits the bill, and in addition to the masterful writing I'm too much of a philistine to fully appreciate, it's wonderful, perceptive prose, and eminently quotable. This, for example, is true:
It became more apparent than ever why old Sanchez had built his house in the little draw, for the wind and the dust did not penetrate, and teh spring, while it diminished, still gushed a head of cold clear water. But Adam, looking out over his dry dust-obscured land, felt the panic the Eastern man always does at first in California. In a Connecticut summer two weeks without rain is a dry spell and four a drought. If the countryside is not green it is dying. But in California it does not ordinarily rain at all between the end of May and the first of November. The Eastern man, though he has been told, feels the earth is sick in the rainless months.
I still feel that way sometimes. I come from a green land of year-round moisture, and I hate California weather.


Spring arrived in the first week of August. The tree outside my window flowered (and has now faded), the birds returned, the cold receded enough that I could stop wearing long underwear to bed. The cat siblings, Eats-Little and her runt sister Eats-Never, come inside to scout around for food, but if they don't find it, they pace around like bored children looking for something to do, and they really want to be outside and you don't have to force them. (Sacha, the queen of the household, remains a happy mostly-indoor cat.)

A few people here said, "No, spring isn't until September 21st." I've never understood people fetishizing the solar calendar (September 21st is the equinox) as the beginning of the season, when the season will have so obviously already started. Is it really meaningful to say "Summer starts on June 22nd" when it's been over 90 degrees every day since the beginning of May?

We're careening steadily toward the end of the school year, especially toward the end of my teaching, which I'm aiming to be November 19th. For 8 weeks of classes, that probably translates to 5-7 more classes with each student.

Today is Chile's bicentennial independence day! The Spanish term is Fiestas Patrias, and I translate it as "Independence Week" to try and get the flavor across, since it's a multi-day shindig. There are 2 consecutive holidays, Army Day and Independence Day, and Chile tries to take as much of the time off as it can. The past two years, what one young Chilean acquaintance referred to as "years of frickin' gold," the holidays occurred midweek, so Chile took the entire week off, plus the weekends, for a 9-day Independence Day festival.

This year, both days are on the weekend, so Congress gave everyone Friday and Monday, to make sure there was enough time for drinking. However, plenty of people have been going strong since Sunday.

The main focus is these pavilions, called either fondas or ramadas (I don't know the difference), where you go and dance and eat and drink. My students said, "If you go to the fondas, don't bring anything with you, because you're leaving with nothing regardless," which is to say that there's more robbery than usual.

Oscar laughed and said, "Yeah, the students will be the ones to rob you," which I guess you could see as one aspect of living in an interconnected community.

Rodrigo, the film teacher who inexplicably speaks English, said, "Yeah, don't bring your wallet, rings, watch, camera, anything. And don't speak English, and don't be looking around all the time, try to blend in. In fact, in Playa Ancha [an often-colorful area on the other end of town] there's a fonda for university people. Just go to that one. Or go to the one in Vina! There, you can take pictures. In Playa Ancha, no no no."

The odds of my blending in with a crowd of Chileans are roughly zero, but it's good advice. Yesterday I had too much to drink at lunch and didn't make it out of the house, but today I'm planning to pace myself, so I'll visit the traditional celebrations and report back.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

I shouldn't be surprised

...but I am. Apparently Spanish is finally worming its way into the center of my brain.

Last week I had a dream where I was speaking Spanish. Just the Spanish I know, that I use every day.

Yesterday I went to the dining hall and saw that lunch was charquican stew. I started talking to myself and said, "Hmm, do I quiero charquican for lunch?". (Quiero is "I want.")

Today the school had Independence Week activities instead of classes, so I chatted with a bunch of students, and with one group, I actually used the Chilean word po to emphasize something, without consciously thinking I needed to--I was very surprised when it came out.

(Spanish is not stressed like English, so if you say something like "Of course it's not happening that way!", that stress on "course" doesn't mean a whole lot to Spanish speakers. Chileans add po to a phrase for emphasis, and for a lot of other things I don't understand, but I haven't been able to use it naturally and I've only just started using it consciously, because otherwise I can't communicate the emphasis I want.)

Finally, during the student dance competition, I was chatting with Jorge the English teacher, and several times I thought something in English, intended to say it in English, and was very surprised to hear myself say it in Spanish.

Job interviews will be interesting when I get back.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

it works both ways

I had a nice couple of classes today, where I tried teaching articles ("a" and "an") in a couple different ways: 1-B had already learned the jobs vocabulary ("lawyer," "carpenter," etc.) and I added the articles onto that, and then 1-C hadn't learned jobs yet, so I taught them articles on top of the new words. I learned two things:
  1. Learning articles, as such, doesn't take very long. I break the "no explaining things" rule because with 3 sentences of Spanish, they get it, and then it just takes practice.
  2. It's really challenging for them to learn both the articles and the new words. 1-C is really focused and good at school, and they had to work pretty hard to learn both at once in 45 minutes. 1-B is kind of disorderly and learns more slowly, but they had articles down in 30 minutes.
Hopefully I can design an effective one-hour lesson with that.

The other interesting thing was that I almost cracked my most obnoxious Javiera in the head.

(UPDATE: I just remembered 2 of the 3 Javieras in 1-G. 1-B's Javiera doesn't come close.)

Now, I'm a little twitchy sometimes about my personal safety. I had really violent childhood relationships with my brothers, and then I went to a violent junior high school, where my quality of life suffered from the delusion--common in my family's demographic--that fighting is never the solution to conflict. It's true that there's almost always a way not to fight, but that's a complex and mature set of skills, and if you take fighting off the table entirely for all time, what you get is being punched in the nose. Aikido has brought on a lot of changes, but I still have pretty deep-seated reactions.

I was passing out candy to 1-B for having an awesome class and for the two teams tying the game we played at the end, and Javiera made a full-body lunge for the bag. Even though I knew she was going for the candy, this set off my safety alarms, and I:
  1. Dropped my arms, pulled the bag away, and guarded my body.
  2. Threw an elbow towards her oncoming head, in a combination block and strike.
  3. Realized what was happening and stopped my elbow a couple inches from her head.
Obviously a good thing for everyone that I didn't clock her. What's really striking for me is that the same training that gave me the "elbow to the head" response also gave me the awareness to notice it wasn't appropriate and stop it.

Monday, September 13, 2010

finding a suitable carrot

Not intentionally. But I'd been considering what to do with 1-G, now that they've acquired The Fear[tm] and become more manageable. They're the last class on Monday, when they don't want to be there, and frankly I'm not thrilled about it either, if I'm just going to spend an hour trying to keep them acting like human beings.

At the beginning of class, I told them, "Okay, if you guys concentrate and work for a bit, we can all go home early."

There was much rejoicing, and Nicolas asked, "If we behave, how soon can we leave?".

"Hmm...forty-five minutes, maybe forty."

There was a little bit of grumbling until Nicolas did the math and helped his classmates understand that forty-five minutes is significantly less than an hour, which produced nods of upbeat agreement.

They accomplished more in 35 minutes than they usually do in 60. We all got to go home early and they got to see an immediate positive consequence for cooperation. I think they had an assumption that we were going to spend the whole hour regardless of what happened, and changing that opened up new possibilities for them. They were still Chilean schoolkids, but they stepped up to being only as much of a pain as my other classes.

Here's to more short classes in the future.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

the Chilean evening schedule

I met up with Corrie for dinner in Vina del Mar: she hitched a ride with her friends from Calera, Edgardo and his 6-months-pregnant wife Kati. Then it turned out that volunteers Lauren and Allison, with respective boyfriends Jorge and Marcelo, also showed up. We had a lovely actually-Italian meal at a cute reasonably-priced restaurant off in an alley.

Then around 10:30, we headed over to a pub owned by one of Kati's friends. I left my backpack in their car, saying "I can only stay for one drink."

"Oh yeah, us too," says Marcelo.

I ordered a gin & tonic, which came with the typical 3 shots of hard liquor in the glass. Marcelo and Kati had to leave relatively early, around 12:15--after all, they were dropping me off in Valparaiso and then had a 90-minute drive back to Calera.

I had a lovely time, but oy, their party schedule.

Friday, September 10, 2010

in the kitchen Wednesday night

Oscar reminded me that there were no classes Thursday due to the teacher stoppage/march.
Chris: Where's the protest happening?
Oscar: Downtown. Call Ximena, she'll be there.
Ximena: Yeah, I'll be marching.
Oscar: You'll be marching, all right. You should be marching around this kitchen, with a broom.
Chris: I'll, uh, leave you alone, clearly you two need to talk.
Ximena: [laughing] Hey, no, we're modern women now.
Oscar: You're right. Times have changed, you should march with the vacuum cleaner.
It's nice that our senses of humor line up so well.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

the teachers' protest

My school's teachers suspended classes today so they could do a protest march to get the government to pay some bonuses it habitually promises and then refuses to pay. The Spanish vocabulary for this is a little baffling: this was a paro, literally "stoppage," in service of a marcha or protesta, but it's different from a huelga "strike". In conversation, the Chileans mix them pretty freely, but almost inevitably correct how I'm using them. Go figure. At any rate, this was just some of the schools in Valparaiso. There were probably 200-300 teachers there, marching from Plaza Victoria over to what appeared to be some kind of government labor/payroll office.

Classes stopped at 10 A.M., which meant I didn't have any, and I went downtown to watch and take some photos. Apparently last year's extended nationwide strikes were unusually aggressive (complete with water cannons), because this was extremely tame.

I walked alongside the marchers until they went into some narrow streets that I wouldn't have been able to escape from if trouble started; that's when I started staying in front of the cops who were walking in front of the march.

Lots of students came, and watched or marched. During the pre-march speeches, the girls were running up and hugging me and chatting, and asking me for money (I have a blanket policy of saying no, though I did offer them some candy popcorn). One kid, who I actually don't know, made a point of being very adult and saying "Hi, teacher, how are you?", and when I said was fine, proceeded to "Can you loan me a hundred pesos?". I smiled and said "Nope!", and his girlfriend gave an amused snort.

This is Camila, Franchesca, Mackarena, and Aranxa:

The march accumulated a pack of dogs by the end. This guy walked the whole route with a Pepsi bottle in his mouth, I assume so he could extract the little bit of Pepsi later.

Uploading to Flickr is kind of horked right now, so the full set of photos isn't up yet, and it might be a while.

I had fun, though, and the teachers appreciated that I showed up. And no water cannons!

I guess that makes sense

Steve, the other volunteer in my house, is a much more diligent student of Spanish than I am--or is trying to be--and has started watching TV, such as The Simpsons (dubbed) or subtitled things like movies, with a notebook to write down things he doesn't understand or has just learned from the subtitles. I haven't been watching anything with Spanish audio unless I'm on a bus or whatever, because it's been too much work to be any fun.

I was pretty startled to discover how much more of the Simpsons dialogue I could understand than five months ago. I'd noticed the same was true of the English Department meeting (which I last attended in April).

Anna says it's cute that I'm surprised.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

talking to the English Department

I stuck around for the English Department meeting this afternoon--recall that Jorge asked me to tell them what I told the Valparaiso English Network teachers. Here's what was different this time:
  1. Mara, the head of the department (who is often very pushy, but very nice), said, "Remember how we talked about grouping students by their English level?". A fine idea, one I agree with, but no, I'm pretty sure we never talked about that.
  2. "We want you to talk to the school's head of curriculum about that. We've told her, but she doesn't believe us."
Allrighty, then.

The curriculum director was very nice and very patient with my Spanish. I described how I learned Spanish, starting with basic usage and only much later learning about the grammar behind what I'd learned. For example, the teacher started by saying "Levántense!" and making a motion to stand up. So we knew that meant "Stand up!". Likewise, "Abran los libros" was obviously "Open your books." I think 3 years later I learned that those were the command form of those verbs. In the meantime, it wasn't important.

My favorite trick for these conversations is to show someone the first page of the Ministry of Education's English book, then the first page of English In Action. In her case, she doesn't speak English, so she understood how the Ministry book looks like an impenetrable tangle of text. I also said that even if you read English, the material makes no sense, and that especially impressed her when the English teachers nodded in agreement. She also wanted to photocopy English In Action, so hopefully in designing the system for next year, they'll track kids by level, and then start actually teaching to their level.

I wonder about my role in all any situation, there's a lot of value in moving from a theoretical discussion (that maybe you've been having for years) to having someone from the outside come in and say, "Well, here's what my experience has been..." and hearing my stories both about learning Spanish, and about the changes I've seen in my students, how they've been able to master and actually acquire some English in our time together.

Apparently my next use may be to help convince some of the department holdouts that the essence of English is using it to communicate, rather than just abstractly learning its grammar.

talking to Chilean English teachers

On August 25th, I went to speak to the local group of Chilean English teachers. Stephanie, from the 4-month WorldTeach group, spoke first, but she's only been teaching a week and she's kind of quiet, while I've been teaching for a few months and I am...not quiet. This is, more or less, what I said, speaking unprepared, after Marcela introduced herself and me. It's long and rambley, because I made it up as I went along. I'm pretty sure I sounded more eloquent than this at the time.

Hi! My name is Chris Doherty, and I teach at the Instituto Superior de Comercio. I teach six cursos of primero medio, and we split the cursos in half, so I have twelve classes. I'm from the same program as Stephanie, WorldTeach: they have two programs that coordinate with the Ministry of Education's English Opens Doors, a 4-month program and an 8-month program. I'm on the 8-month program, so I arrived in Chile on March 17th, and in Valparaiso April 7th, so I've been teaching here for...four months.

I teach six cursos [classes] of primero medio [first-years]. We split each curso, so I have twelve classes. They're all at a very, very basic level: some kids know more stuff than they get to use with me, but often they're not able to make sentences, or if they can, they're not willing to. A lot of them believe they can't, because the English they've had is impossible. For example, Page 1 of the Ministry's English textbook is completely covered in long paragraphs of text with big words and complicated sentences; I have a couple of books from the United States, where Page 1 says "Hi, my name is ______. What's your name?" and nothing else. My students may or may not want to learn English, but many of them think they can't, because they see these pages filled with complicated text. It's like if you showed me a page filled with Russian--I'd give up, too. That may be the biggest problem: the students have little to no English, but the classes don't teach to their level.

So a lot of what I do is just to have a relationship with them. In reality, the amount of English I can teach them is very small. I see each student for an hour a week or less--classes are canceled for one thing or another. I can't bring them up to a conversational level in the time I have. But I can show them that English is possible for them, that if we start with basic things, like introducing themselves, they can learn. I treat them as individuals, and even with the students who cause problems, I take the time to help them pronounce and understand things. So even with the problem students, I have a good relationship. To see them for who they are, and to show that we think they can learn, might be the most important thing we can do as teachers--the most important thing any adult can do for a child.

I have only basic training as a teacher: in the United States, I'm a software engineer, so this is a little different. The way I teach is by having them use English. I don't explain anything, I just teach them the words and the meaning and then they practice using them. Explaining things doesn't work: with the educational culture here, if a teacher is talking, they don't associate that with something that might be important to them. In the United States, there's a real sense of hierarchy, with the teachers and then the students. Here, the students are much more on a level with the teachers, in a way that I think interferes with learning. I don't mean to say "No, Chile is bad," because it's a complicated question, and it deserves a complicated answer. The educational culture here doesn't come out of nowhere, it's very tied in with Chilean culture and history, how Chilean families are structured, and the effects of the dictatorship. You all face that every day, and you know more about it than I do. But I think it doesn't work very well for helping kids learn.
How do you deal with discipline in the classroom?
I have three boxes in the corner of the whiteboard, with one, two, and three frowning faces on it. The third box says "Inspector." This mostly works because it provides a predictable ladder of consequences: their name is up on the board, so they can't forget. It helps them to remember what I expect of their behavior. It mostly works...some kids only behave when they're a step away from the Inspector's office, so I've learned to put them there earlier in class. Also, I'm very lucky in that my school, the students want to be there. They may not want to work, but they want to be there, so if they behave really poorly, they might get kicked out.

fleeing uphill

My freshman year in college, I went to the male a cappella group's concert. In addition to the standard-issue egomania, they had a number of stunningly talented performers, and at one point, after some crude jokes from the rest of the group, one of the guys, in his most beautiful, liquid African-American baritone, said
"You boys are like school on a Sunday: no class."
Marcela is sick, and technically I didn't have to come in, but I figured I'd step up and do my job, but turns out the kids expect class to be canceled if she's not there. There's also a classroom-decorating competition today, as part of next week's Independence Day bonanza (more on that later), so 1-C wanted to stay in their room and decorate. If they don't want to have class, there's no way 1-H and 1-G will be interested. They all love me, but not so much that they'll have class when they don't have to.

(UPDATE: To take some responsibility, Marco asked if we were having class, and I could have just said "Yes" instead of asking if they wanted to. Apparently, I love them, but I also don't want to have class if we don't have to. Also, I didn't even try with 1-H, after Paul from 1-G saw me in the hall and said "The Miss is sick, so we're all going home early instead of having class with you.")

Rather than try and push the river, I went to the bank and picked up my stipend, and then I walked up Cerro Alegre to El Desayunador (which is literally something like "The Breakfast Place"), where I am happily parked with espresso and unfiltered Internet. I'll probably show up to school around classtime, just in case. Maybe.

Including the teacher stoppage tomorrow, that will be 6 classes canceled this week, out of 12.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

random teaching notes

It wouldn't be Chile without the arbitrary cancellation of several classes per week, and we're on track so far: I lost 1 yesterday (out of 4), and 1 today (out of 2).

I kicked Jorge out of 1-B today, since I'm still in a mood from 1-G the past couple weeks, and he went over my limits by showing up 10 minutes late for class and then messing with me by pretending not to understand things, essentially wasting everyone's time by abusing my commitment to helping him learn. He thought this was clever, until I booted him. His girlfriend Araceli seemed mad at me for the next half hour or so, but she finally lightened up, and I think she's just worried that her boyfriend can't get his act together and will get himself kicked out of their school (which does seem likely).

A couple weeks ago I spoke to the local group of Chilean English teachers and gave them an abridged rundown of what's wrong with English education here. (I started transcribing what I said for you, but that turned out to be boring and hard and I haven't finished.) One of our teachers, Jorge, was there, and he asked me to come say the same things to the English Department at our school. I found talking about the differences in textbooks to be a useful jumping-off point, so I'll do that again. (Chilean English texts are awful, even though the official Ministry of Education books are written by Americans. And the teachers report that these are much improved from past years.)

Marcela is sick, which means I could technically take tomorrow off, but that'd be lame, since I don't need her there in order for me to teach. The classes might end up being unavailable for whatever reason, but of course I won't know that until I've gotten up at the crack of dawn and gone into school at 7:30am. I'm glad she told me, though.

I'm noticing that with the possible (and unsurprising) exceptions of Monday's 1-G and Friday's 1-B, my kids are learning new vocabulary (and often a new question they can answer with the vocabulary) much faster than last term, and also getting a little twitchy with doing the same old exercises. I'm thinking we have enough rapport now, and they have enough of a comfortable English base, to venture into some kind of grammar-based sentence-constructing exercise, if I design it carefully and don't explain anything.

Explaining is the enemy of learning here. Doing, exploring, trying, discovering. These are good learning verbs.

Monday, September 6, 2010

the riot act

It was hard to smile today, knowing I had 1-G coming--you'll recall that last week didn't go well--but 1-J and 1-H deserve to have me treating them for who they are, and not what I have to deal with from their colleagues. 1-G's homeroom teacher told me he gave them an earful and they should behave better in the future, but I decided to continue on with my own plans. We only had 5 of the 6 targets today, but I made them stand up and said "We're going to do an exercise in communication."
So, you guys. Since the beginning, since I got here in April, I've been warning you about your behavior. It seems to me like I've treated you with respect [heads nod], and in return, you've taken my stuff, and last week you shut down the class, denying your classmates the chance to learn. So, no more warnings. Now, for you, this [motion to warning system on whiteboard] no longer exists. If you're causing problems, you're going to the Inspector. I've given you chances on chances. No more.
I almost tossed Bruno and Exequiel a minute later, but they (a) looked genuinely frightened, and (b) managed to convince me they were whispering briefly about what I'd said.

And the class got their first star of the semester! They were as good as they can be, which is still way less focused than my other classes. We'll see if it sticks. If they can keep it up--an open question, since Bruno in particular looked physically pained from the stress of controlling his behavior--I will happily throw them a party for being the most improved group.

Sunday, September 5, 2010


Okay, finally somebody described discipline the way I wanted to:
Discipline is doing what we decided to do and not what we feel like doing.
Thanks, coderoom!

Spanish and directionality

Alvaro just tapped my shoe and said, "Cuanto calzas?", a mysterious utterance since I know cuanto as "how much?" and I don't know the verb calzar at all. After some negotiating, I realized he was asking my shoe size--calzado is "shoe" in Chile, and the verb calzar apparently means something like "to shoe." He is surprised that it sounds strange to me, and all I could say was that in English, we don't have a verb just to say what size shoe you wear.

I've been thinking about Spanish's different sense of direction. I've written before about the ubiquitous reflexive form ("is used," "is eaten"), which we would translate as the passive voice, but which in Spanish doesn't have the passive voice's, um, passivity. Another good example is the verb faltar, which means (among many things) "to lack," but it's often more like "to be that which is lacked." At the beginning of class, if there I people missing my inclination is to say "Faltamos alguien?": "Are we missing anybody?". However, if we're missing three people, the students say "Faltan tres": "Three are missing." If you can imagine a quality of "missingness," in Spanish it's laid on the thing that's missing.

Similarly, there's a convenience/liquor store in Vina called El Pollo Nuevo [The New Chicken] Premiado. Premiar is "to award," so premiado, the past participle, is "awarded-to." We do happen to have the English "prizewinning" to cover this, but the past participle is more natural in Spanish, and that's how we get my favorite Spanish coinage. Terremoteado: "earthquaked".

teaching videos

As promised, here are the videos Anna took of me teaching. The batteries died midway through class, so you don't get to see the spectacular body-check during the vocabulary game. Also, they were exceptionally well-behaved because Anna was there (and note how they're always getting up and moving around anyway), and I'm particularly bouncy because it's Friday and Anna's visiting.

Or play them directly at YouTube.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

when I look up, I just trip over things

New Zealand had an earthquake. Here's some pics.

I've been getting my geek on by learning about discrete-event simulation. That's a fancy technical term for "making a computer model things like banks and fast-food restaurants," with independent events (customer arrivals) that take time and require limited resources (like cashiers). There's actually a large and important branch of mathematics for this, called queueing theory, but beyond me having a hard time and no interest in learning math on my own, the kinds of systems I'm interested in actually get too complicated for formal analysis. We saw all kinds of nutty stuff in Danger's backend system, for example, which (so far as I know) has too many moving parts to divulge its secrets in formal analysis. So you simulate it and see what happens, and it's faster and cheaper because you don't need 3 weeks and $8 million worth of computers.

We desperately wanted a simulation at the time, and one guy started writing one, but writing your own discrete-event simulator isn't a small project. Like so many things in software, it's not that it's hard, exactly...not simple, but mostly tedious, and a pain to get it right. Fortunately, other people have already done this, many times, and I'm playing with a thing called SimPy. It's pretty cool, and I'm not sure if it wasn't up to snuff in 2005-2006, or what. I want to use it to model something like the Danger system and see if I can produce the screwy behavior we saw, so I can think about what caused it and how to do things differently in my future projects.

Programming is unfortunately more fun than teaching, and way more fun than lesson planning. I'm trying to work on the planning anyway, though, since then I can enjoy my Sunday.

We had a lovely aikido class this afternoon. Jorge says he may add 2 more classes, in the evenings at a different location, which would be pretty awesome. It's a fun group for me to train with, because they're all really nice and Jorge studies aspects of aikido that interest me. It's also fascinating, though, because I'm far and away the most experienced student there, and it turns out that my training has been really good. Although we don't talk about it much, the standards at Aikido West are really high compared to many other places: partly because of the impossibly high level of accumulated experience in the students there, but also on purpose, so that when we go out into the world, we can acquit ourselves well and represent our teacher and our association. We've all had the experience of training with someone and thinking, "Wow, you're a second-degree black belt? Really? Because you're not very good." Aikido West intends that one of our students should never be that person.

From what people say and how they respond, it seems like they're pretty happy to have another experienced person around, someone who's maybe a bit more willing to show details of techniques than Jorge is. It seems like they're interested in how a more experienced person trains with Jorge.--he's bigger than me (about 6'1", 200lbs), and while he doesn't use any strength in throwing you, it's quite another thing for you or me, at our level, to throw him. Many of the students are smaller women, so it may be helpful to see that scrawny little me can throw him, without breaking a blood vessel with the effort. And I think Jorge likes having someone he can fling around a bit more fearlessly.

Odd side effect: despite the lack of training, I think my aikido has improved, and will continue to. Manuel (the teacher in Santiago) and Jorge both teach styles where relaxation is important, and I just don't have the physical strength and endurance I'm used to having, so I'm finding out to do things the relaxed way.

Short version of everything: I'm excited to be home, which makes it hard to focus on being present here and focusing on what's needed in each moment. Just like normal, only more so.

(The title is from Ani diFranco's excellent song "As Is": "When I look down, I miss all the good stuff / When I look up, I just trip over things.")

Thursday, September 2, 2010

notes from today

I did have class with 1-A today, but only 4 kids came to school from 1-J: somehow, along with 1-G, they thought the teacher protest was today instead of next Thursday (which is also what I thought, until two days ago), so only a handful of kids came in from those classes. The poor kids who did show up had to stay the entire day, with no classes. I stayed in the room with them as a favor to Marcela, because, hey, why not, she has at least 40 classroom hours per week, and I had no plans for the afternoon, and I just started reading Siddhartha for the first time.

We did have a nice moment in 1-A. Adding to our dialogue questions, we practiced
1. What do you do for fun?
2. I like _____.
and they fill in the blank with a short list of hobbies we learned: things like tennis, soccer, video games. After some practice, I had them get up in pairs and do it from memory.
Kevin: What do you do for fun?
Ignacio: I like you.
Which was pretty awesome, not just because of their insinuations that someone else is gay--I don't know if Ignacio was being sincere, or allowing himself to be part of mocking someone else, as I often do--but because it highlighted a growing flexibility in the students' use of language. For example, I also had them do the entire 4-question dialogue:
1. What's your name?
2. My name is ______.
1. Where are you from?
2. I am from ______.
1. How old are you?
2. I am _____ years old.
1. What do you do for fun?
2. I like _____.
That's how I intended them to do it. Here's what they did:
1. Where are you from?
2. I am from _____. And you?
Somewhere in their past, they learned to respond to "How are you?" with "I am fine. And you?". And now they have suddenly generalized "And you?" to other sentences! It feels like they're actually speaking English, putting things together in a way beyond what I've taught them.

time spent with people.

Last night I finally met up again with my Chilean pal Karen (she's been sick). I met her at her workplace, but then she had to recover her house keys from a friend and we ended up back at her apartment, where there were her housemates and boyfriends/girlfriends, all university students, including Jaclyn, an exchange student from Michigan.

It was awesome. Chilean university students tend to be 4-8 years older than American college students, so they were mostly closer to my age; and they were far easier to understand than the teachers at school (I think they were speaking more clearly for Jaclyn's benefit). There was a lot of good talk about Chile and cultural differences and the manifold problems here--one girl, Cristina, is studying to be a math teacher, and the entire group has a pretty keen sense and interest in social justice.

(Interesting side note: Claudio was saying that the 90s were all about students' rights, and his generation came out of that, but the current generation has grown up immersed in its rights, but without a clear sense of its responsibilities. That certainly fits the WorldTeachers' experience of our students, but we don't have the history and cultural context to make that generalization.)

Karen and I did get some solo time to chat while retrieving french fries from the snack shop up the street, which were fantastic and exactly what the doctor ordered. I left the group at 11:30pm when they headed out to the nightclub.

Today I wound up having lunch with Joan, the math teacher who's also in charge of 1-G, whose Monday section is far and away my worst class. He's pretty cool, and also listens much better than the group of women teachers who adopted me. (They've gotten better, but still don't change their speech much to make communication easier.)

All of this makes me think I should drink cheap rum and Coke with my own age group a bit more often.