Thursday, October 28, 2010

testing and tears

1-J had their test scheduled for today, and yesterday they started campaigning for me to delay it. They claimed they had my test, another test, and a Biology project due all today, and the rules said they don't have to have more than two tests in a day. We had a similar rule in college about exams, but of course I don't have the language skills and contextual knowledge to know when the kids are trying to con me--although they usually are. They were genuinely distraught; yesterday I told them I'd think about it, but they should be ready for the test. I said they should talk to the U.T.P., the Unidad Técnica Pedagógica, which is literally something like "Educational Technique Unit," and I translate as "Curriculum Director," because they're the school's academic overlords. A couple girls said they'd do that.

Today they campaigned harder, and of course no one had actually talked to the Curriculum Overlords (perhaps thinking they had a better chance with me alone), so when they came to my classroom, I said, "Okay, let's go talk to the U.T.P., the rest of you hang out here." I don't know the rules of the school very well, it'd be a pain for me to delay the test, and I didn't like the power dynamics of me making the decision--of either giving in to a silly student demand (they knew the test was coming and we prepped for it last week), or of their perceiving an injustice if I remained hard-nosed.

Funny enough, the three students went in to talk to Uberlinda, the Power-That-Is, and when I showed up a few steps later, her assistant Claudia basically blocked the door and asked how she could help, so I had to say "I'm with them" to get in to watch the conversation.

Uberlinda told them they were SOL: that yes, they can only have two tests in a day, and that's all they have, the Biology project is something they're supposed to do at home, well before the day it's due. So we went back to the room and crushed everyone's hopes and started the testing.

The test was two parts, equally weighted: give me the English words for 10 pictures, and then ask me 3 of the 4 questions we learned (things like "What do you do for work?" and "What's your favorite food?". I'm pretty generous by American standards, and I try really hard to help the kids get at least partial credit, by prompting them with initial consonants and stuff. Even so, we had a few bad results and one set of tears, and several requests for a way to raise their grade.

In a school where their learning experience were reasonable (especially if I were creating it), I'd say "tough," but...a lot of these kids already have lousy grades in English, and if they don't keep their grades up, they'll get booted out to another school. I know for a fact that these are smart kids, and most of them aren't any lazier than normal 15-year olds; and I know that between the huge, untracked classes and bad curriculum, their overall English-learning experience is crap.

Maybe they'll succeed under the Chilean system, maybe they won't; but I think I want to help them as much as I can while being fair to everyone and still insisting that they be assessed on what they know.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

what are we doing here?

Greg, a volunteer down in Punta Arenas, has a wonderfully-titled and well-written post called "The Novelty Has Simply Worn Off."
In this situation, I never expected to be an afterthought. At that point, it feels like we're all kind of missing the point of me being here. I came to make kids excited about English, to expose teachers to new ideas of how to teach and to exchange cultural experiences and traditions with my family and community. As we press on through these last weeks, I feel that much of that has been tossed out the window. I'm not the new, exciting person that just showed up one day. I'm just part of the scenery now which certainly represents my cue to find an exit.
I see what he's talking about: I've been part of the routine at INSUCO for a while now. Two things strike me about that:
  1. It's inevitable. Novelty is unsustainable by definition.
  2. It's a good thing.
The lack of novelty means that everyone has changed and adjusted. My kids are used to me! I'm pretty offbeat even for a North American, so it took some time. We have really good relationships, where they like me (with one conspicuous exception) and know I care about them. I've adapted to them, sure, but I didn't have as far to go, because I have no experience with large groups of 15-year olds, so if they happened to be Chilean, well, whatever.

They, on the other hand, had to adjust to me, who:
  • Required them to participate: to talk and stand up and move around.
  • Forbade cell phones and eating in class.
  • Checked to make sure they understood stuff.
  • Took time to make them say things when they had trouble.
  • Didn't make them--didn't let them--write anything down.
  • Had no compunction about doing silly dances or making chicken noises in class.
That's all completely different from their experience, where they have to shut up and copy stuff down all the time and they get to check out and eat and wander around the room. And Chilean teachers do not, as a rule, make chicken noises.

And I got to be the Non-Parental Adult Who Cares. I tried to see them and accept them for who they are, while I push them to do things they were embarrassed about, and encourage them to act as adult as they can manage.

The WorldTeach orientation set my expectations pretty well. English education here is broken five ways from Sunday, and I had no illusions that I could fix it, fight it, or even teach a whole ton of English. This, for example, is what we've done this semester: 41 words and 4 questions/responses.

this semester's work

What they learned with me won't help them on their standardized test, the SIMCE, which is unfortunately the government's metric for success. Even if they gave the authority to rewrite the school's curriculum--which would include revolutionizing their structure so that students could be grouped by level instead of a random set of 45 kids all having the same classes--I don't know anywhere near enough about ESL/EFL education to know what to do.

I don't know that any of my kids are more motivated about English now; honestly, I doubt it. But they know they can learn at least a little bit of it, and that some random person from far away showed up and cared enough to help them do it, and to me that's the important thing.

Monday, October 25, 2010

a transplant experiment

I stayed at a certain hostel here where the manager is a middle-aged American woman. She runs an outstanding place, and has lots of interesting stories, but she's one of the majority of non-corporate expats who have...issues. Vaguely defined. It takes certain personality traits to go move yourself permanently somewhere else; for lack of a better word, expats who aren't set up by a big organization (e.g. company job or diplomatic corps) are usually somehow flakey.

She had brought her teenage daughter here some years ago and put her in a Chilean public school. I could barely conceal my shock: my eyebrows rose, as though possessed. I'm not of the opinion that you have to sacrifice everything to give your children the best of everything, but I am definitely of the opinion that you should sacrifice as much as you can to give your children the barely-adequate of everything. Choosing to put your kid in a Chilean public school, when you have better options, doesn't qualify.

I got my eyebrows under control and continued the conversation.
"Well, I wanted her to experience being around kids who didn't have as much stuff."
"That's a good idea. How did that go?"
"She came home one day and boasted that she was getting sevens." (Chilean grades go from 0 or 1 up to 7.) "I said, 'How are you pulling sevens? You don't even speak Spanish.'"
Ooookay, so you put your child into a barely-functional school system where she doesn't speak the language and there's no facilities for teaching it to her.
"So what happened?"
"I took her out of the school when she came home one day and said she had to go meet her friends to graffiti some stuff."
I say "parenting fail," despite the broadened cultural horizons. (As of our meeting, the daughter hadn't been heard from for several months, which Mom thought meant she was dropping out of college, possibly not for the first time.) What do you think?


My school maintains its academic and behavioral standards in part by kicking kids out. Usually the other kids tell me when I'm taking attendance using my popsicle sticks with the names on them--leading to the dramatic moment where I take a student's popsicle stick, break it half and toss it in the trash--but sometimes Oscar remembers to tell me.
"Hey, you teach 1-G, right?"
"Well, two students are gone. Valero--"
"Ah, Marcelo..."
"And Pizarro."
"Karina?" (I have no idea if Karina is in 1-G.)
"No, Samuel." Oscar draws his finger across his throat. "Gone! Bad."
"Aw, but they were getting better with me."
But Oscar is already leaving the room. "Well, good."
They were problematic. I wonder if Samuel saw this coming: instead of his usual dark countenance, he's been open-faced and smiling the past couple weeks.

It's five weeks before the end of the school year. I wonder what happens to them.

impromptu whirlwind

Yesterday I went to a bingo fundraiser in Quilpue, for Heather's host sister. I won! Actually I won the first two times, but the second time I didn't realize you had to muscle your way in front of anyone else who won, so I missed out on a shiny brand-new 220V blender with a non-U.S. plug, which was disappointing. But look what I did win!

Now, now. Don't be jealous. Envy is a sin. I know you wanted hot pink fuzzy slippers and a combination pumice stone/brush for your feet.

I'd skipped the asado at Bennett's on Friday, but Corrie sent me a text message saying there was an asado at her place in La Calera, with a guaranteed soft thing to sleep on and I could go to bed when I needed, so I decided to do that. Of course, La Calera is nearly 2 hours from Quilpue, and I left at 8pm, but that's okay. It's been a long time since I took the last bus of the night out to some random deserted suburb, hoping I got the directions right. Especially with my cell phone not working. (I fixed it by rebooting, which eased things.)

The asado was lovely, with people being pretty accepting of my not dancing. In fact, everyone eventually migrated to the living room, and hung around talking. I got to tell my story about taking advice, and to refer to Chilean women as "dangerous," which always gets a solid laugh, for the kernel of truth in it; although, following the Advice Story, someone suggested complicado, which is funnier.

I'd met a young couple who live across the street, part of the extended family, Edgardo and Kathy. I think Kathy is Corrie's host cousin--hard to keep straight. Anyway, I stayed in their spare bed, which was nice, although it wasn't until I got there that Kathy mentioned that (a) the bathroom is in a building next to the house, and (b) they have dog who will bite non-residents, so if you're a guest, you need a resident to escort you to the bathroom. That wasn't exactly convenient after a night of carousing, but it worked out fine and I had a lovely time lounging around with them the next day.

Edgardo invited me to lunch at his parents' place down the street. I like spending time with them anyway, but having rabbit for lunch sealed the deal. The rabbit turned out to be "don't swallow the ammunition" fresh, with oregano and cumin, and there was also the best cazuela I've had in Chile, plus artichokes and salad. The family has bees and avocado trees, and Edgardo picked a few pounds of avocados for me.

They brought me to the bus stop and we watched the bus pull away, so Edgardo started racing to catch up to it, despite Kathy (8 months pregnant) and I suggesting I could just wait for the next bus. Then someone tossed a full beer bottle out the bus window, and they said, "Oh, that bus is full of angry drunks. Better wait for the next one."

Two hours later, I was home. Today: still a little tired.

Saturday, October 23, 2010


The Internet has been busy!
Finally, an awesome Atlantic piece about a meta-researcher who's busy proving the failures of modern medical research. It's of a piece with Michael Pollan's more specific discussion of nutritionism, since scientific food recommendations are driven by all this shockingly flawed research:
"Studies have gone back and forth on the cancer-preventing powers of vitamins A, D, and E; on the heart-health benefits of eating fat and carbs; and even on the question of whether being overweight is more likely to extend or shorten your life. How should we choose among these dueling, high-profile nutritional findings? Ioannidis suggests a simple approach: ignore them all."
Or, put another way: "one large randomized controlled trial even proved that secret prayer by unknown parties can save the lives of heart-surgery patients, while another proved that secret prayer can harm them."

And people think the way I choose what to eat is weird. (It is--the only thing weirder than the system itself is that it works.)

Friday, October 22, 2010

email from a Chilean friend

Too awesome not to translate and share.
Subject: Please, an act of mercy/compassion

Please, invite me to lunch this Friday before I go to the University, for two reasons.

First, I'm bankrupt, broke, and I want to try those incredible empanadas, which according to you are the best in Chile. Second, I like hanging out with you, and if it's with empanadas, even better, ñam , ñam, ñam. [This is Chilean for "NOM NOM NOM".]

If you don't have any money, I recommend you put on a ski mask, get your knife, and go over to Errazuriz Avenue to assault North American tourists who say they have dollars.

I would go assault tourists myself, but first of all, running with high heels, I could fall and break an ankle; and second, I don't know Aikido like you, in case there's a fight.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

marriage in Chile

I don't read or watch the news here: lack of interest leads to being too lazy to work through the language. So I haven't followed the miners' story at all, except for headlines, occasional bits in English, or Chileans asking me if I've seen the latest thing about the miners. As you may or may not know, the entire country has been watching and sharing every detail of the experience, and it's been a big focal point of national unity. When the first miner was scheduled to be pulled out, at midnight on a weekday, people set alarms and got up to watch. And continued watching for hours. And then went to work in the morning.

One thing I did catch was this juicy tidbit: apparently one of the miners was greeted at the surface by his mistress, rather than his wife. And then I heard a rumor there was a third woman looking to visit him at the hospital.

There are inevitable North Americanisms in the reportage about this--things that just wouldn't occur to you unless you spent some time digging into Chilean culture.

The first thing is that male infidelity here seems to be near-universal, and pretty much expected as part of the machismo complex. Every time I go to hang out with my friend Karen, Oscar and Ximena wink and promise not to tell Anna. And they're only sort of joking.

The women, for their part, tend to pretend cheating isn't ubiquitous among Chilean men, until their partner's cheating is in their face, at which point they feel really, really hurt; often the relationship ends, and if they form new relationships with other men, they continue to pretend cheating isn't ubiquitous.

The second thing is that no one gets divorced here. Divorce was only legalized in 2004, so for all these decades, people have been separating and remaining married, while moving on to find new partners and often start new families. I'd say about half the Chileans I've met who have ever been married are currently separated, whether or not they've got new partners. I finally asked one of the English teachers about this:
"Well, first of all, it's very expensive. There's paperwork, and you have to have witnesses, who say that this person did this thing--"
"Oh! You don't have no-fault divorce."
I explained no-fault divorce for him; he laughed when I got to the phrase "legal fiction," talking about how before no-fault divorce, someone in the marriage had to be abusive or adulterous in order to get a divorce, rather than the system just accepting the reality that relationships fall apart. You still have to do this to get an annulment from the Catholic Church: everyone gets together and lies and finds a reason the marriage was never valid to begin with. (Sheila Rauch Kennedy wrote a book about refusing to do this; her case is also discussed by Garry Wills in Papal Sin: Structures of Deceit.)

The expensive paperwork and lack of no-fault divorce is probably enough to deter most people, but the English teacher had a further explanation, chuckling:
"You know, the real thing is, not getting divorced keeps us from having to be married again."

what Chileans eat

During a discussion about trying to find a high-end pisco, Steve pointed me to this blog, Eating Chilean. There's a particularly fine post called "What Chileans Eat." He also did the research on the pepino I ate, a funky-looking striped fruit with the exact taste, color, and texture of cantaloupe (though he and his texts say honeydew, which is completely different, but whatever).

I'm not sure of the author's complete story: it sounds like he got divorced and retired from being a professor, moved to Chile, married a Chilean and started another family. Either way, he's enthusiastic enough to read historical primary sources about Chilean food, which is doubly interesting if you read Spanish. Anyway, check it out.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

best description of me this year

From Anna. (J is an extremely smart boy and swiftly approaching 6 years old.)
J and I have been talking about two-dimensional versus three-dimensional shapes, and today he wondered what one-dimensional things were, or if they were. I thought maybe a point, but I wasn't sure, so I said, "Oooh, we should google that. Or ask Chris--he might know." J started laughing with joy and said, "Yeah, Chris is like a google, but one we can skype!! And he knows a lot of stuff, but not all of it!"

Monday, October 18, 2010


I'm on the cusp of getting sick, but at least it's familiar: an out-of-balance post-nasal drip from all the sugar and bread and, lately, more alcohol. The interesting new thing is a bit of vertigo from some clogged in the ears. There's a chance I won't get full-on sick; if I could choose what to eat, I could definitely ward it off. But if I could do that, I probably wouldn't have gotten to this state.

The clock is ticking down: 10 days until Anna visits, 3 weeks more of teaching after that, and then I'm back in the U.S. 3 weeks after that.

I've been watching myself--I'm a Buddhist, it's what we do--and it suddenly struck me yesterday or today that I don't actually like the person I am here. It's hard to stay open-hearted when it doesn't seem to matter; it's hard to listen when people don't seem to listen in return, or notice that you're listening to them. And it's even harder for me to do all that when I'm basically out of energy and stumbling through the end of teaching. And while I will continue to proclaim to disbelieving audiences how miserable Anna makes me, the truth is that with her I can completely relax and really easily be, and time spent with her helps me be open and patient with everyone else.

So here, after all these months, I'm sort of a dried-up, more self-protective version of my usual self. My concentration and attention are diminished, though still recognizably mine; my physical responses, for example in aikido, are a little delayed, a little ragged. My body's energy doesn't last: I can't do much exercise except for aikido. Everything about me is working less smoothly than when I came.

Then again, I'm not sure what I expected. I wanted to stress myself with a completely different kind of challenge and experience, far outside my comfort zone, so in retrospect, it's pretty unreasonable to imagine I could live through that with the same level of grace and openness that I have when I arrange my life just the way I like it.

I will, as Anna puts it, "re-inflate" when I get back to the U.S., and open up into someone different than I was before.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

communication failure: it's not just me

There's another aikido group that uses our practice space. They're Iwama, the same style as the dojo in Vina and the place in Valparaiso (now defunct again), only they're a lot nicer, and a couple of them, Blas and Frederik, even train with us pretty regularly. (This post has a rundown on aikido styles.)

I've chatted a few times with one of the guys, Rodrigo, and it's illuminating inasfar as he's very much of the "I want to do O-Sensei's REAL AIKIDO that WORKS ON THE STREET RAR" testosterone school. He also doesn't seem to listen to what I say, and carries no memory of our conversations from one weekend to the next. He always smiles slightly (it looks to me like a smirk) and says, "So how is Aiki-Zen?", which I guess is the name for what Jorge does, and I guess means something to Rodrigo, though not to me. Then he'll ask me if I've heard of "Real Aikido," which I think means these Serbian guys, and I say yes, I have, it seems like a reasonable, if violent, form of aikido, but I don't recognize it as anything wildly different from what I do. (Although apparently the guy styles himself the founder of his own art, which I view as pretty egotistical, but whatever.)

Then Rodrigo tells me about Iwama being the real aikido, not like Aikikai's soft flowing nonsense. Today I finally pushed back at him, because he was being an idiot.
"Right, but it's not what O-Sensei was doing for the last twenty years of his life."
"Yeah, but it's his real aikido."
"We have movies of O-Sensei doing aikido more like modern Aikikai."
"The movies weren't really what he did."
Seriously? Do you watch Fox News or something?
"Uh, my teacher visited O-Sensei's dojo and saw him. Another teacher in my association trained with O-Sensei for a few years. That's what he was doing."
"Huh. Well, maybe."
Then he continued on with talking about Real Aikido Techniques That Work On The Street, including demonstrating a technique on Frederik, an Iwama guy who trains with us sometimes. Finally, I stopped him.
"Look, I think you have this idea about what kind of aikido I practice. We've never trained together and we don't know each other well. But I don't think I practice in whatever way you think I train, so I really don't know what you're speaking to. Look."
And then I did the same technique on Frederik, handling his significant strength and force my way (which is not radically different from Rodrigo's way). Rodrigo said, "Yes! Exactly!", which made no sense to me, and I was happy enough for the conversation to be over.

Afterwards I had lunch with Blas, the Chilean Iwama guy who trains with us.

He said, "I have no idea what Rodrigo was talking about."

Friday, October 15, 2010

Thursday, October 14, 2010

aspects of comprehension

Today's English sentences I'm glad my students can't understand:
"Jesus Christ, stand up, you lazy bastards." (1-G)
"Holy crap, you guys are assholes." (1-A)
Don't get me wrong, both classes have been far worse. The rough-housing from 1-A is easier to deal with than more disruptive stuff.

I do get surprised. Students have varying levels of ability and comprehension, but I have to teach to the beginner level, because even the ones with better comprehension can't say much. In a more functional system, there would be assessment tests and students would be sorted out by level, but Chile's not there yet.

Gisselle rattled off something in Spanish for me, and I said, "Mas lento [slower]. If I say something long and fast in English, you're never going to understand it, are you?" And of course she got the wide-eyed complete-confused look that I had after her Spanish.

Suddenly the girl next to her, Jennifer, leans over and translates.
"Wait, you speak English?!"
"Mas o menos." More or less.
"No wonder you're always bored."
"Que?" What?
We chatted after class, and apparently her mother has always spoken to her in English and Italian. "No wonder" was beyond her and she wasn't inclined to demonstrate her speaking, but her understanding is obviously pretty solid, especially for Chile.

Who knows what else my kids know? And I'll never find out.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

the news from chrisland

I thought the week would return me to normalcy after my week off, which it has inasfar as most of the week is canceled: Monday was a holiday, today was a half-day due to a teacher meeting (I haven't seen that half of 1-H in 5 weeks), and Friday is off for Teachers' Day. Plus tomorrow night is the Teachers' Day dinner, and then Friday night is another asado at Bennett's in the country, starting at 9pm. I'm hoping to rent a tent, actually, so with my sleeping bag I'll have a place to crawl into away from the party, and go to bed before 5am.

It has been more or less nice to be back in the classroom. I'm essentially teaching the same lesson I figured out last semester, with different material plugged in. The kids were getting bored with it, but having some time apart cleanses the palate, and reminds them how much more fun I can be than their regular classes. It helps me to have a lesson plan that I know works; the kids' response combined with my lack of training has generally discouraged much innovation.

Rodolfo in 1-G is one of my favorite and most talkative students, and started chatting when I went to get them from their room.
"Hey, how come we didn't have class last week? Were you stressed out or something?"
"Kinda, yeah, I was tired, so I took a break."
"You can do that? Just...take a break? For being tired?"
"Well, it was only because Marcela was out. Technically I don't have to work when she's not here." [Not exactly true. I don't have to take the entire 45-student class. I'm supposed to work if there's a substitute or if I can take half the class with Marcela gone.]
He told this to Marcela, who just chuckled.
"But Rodolfo, I have different rules than the regular teachers. They don't actually pay me: I'm a volunteer."
Bafflement. "Wait...what? How do you support yourself?"
Which led to a conversation about my savings, small stipend, host family, and then he asked:
"What do you do in the United States?"
Someone else said, "Duh, he's a teacher."
"Actually, I'm a software engineer."
More bafflement. Rodolfo: " did you end up here?"
A conversation for another time. I'm good enough at teaching that they have a hard time imagining I'm not a teacher by profession, which is kinda cool, though it barely survives my self-criticism.

All of Chile is united and obsessed with the miners: people actually got up at midnight to watch the first of them get out, and stayed up watching for hours. I don't follow Chilean news much, so I only know what I get from the newspaper headlines on the street, and from Chileans asking me if I've seen the news. For the past couple of days, the house grandmother has had "Los mineros" as her muttering-of-choice as she goes about the house talking to herself. (She's always muttering something.)

My second aikido class yesterday went pretty well. It's really hard without even one really experienced person. Also, I was teaching in Spanish. Also, a new guy showed up mid-way and wanted to know about the art and then wanted to join the class. That worked out well because whatever his story is, he's ready for aikido in a way that not everyone is. So he fit right in and I think he'll stick. Maybe I should give myself some credit.

Updates are sparse this week because the "wireless" part of the house's wireless router has died again. It turns out I've been pretty dependent on it for feeling connected and busy; hopefully it fixes itself like it did when we got here. Otherwise, I'll see if Anna can bring my spare router when she visits in a couple weeks. Meanwhile, there's...uh...whiskey. And pisco! And cookies.

Oh, fine, I'll go read a book.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

aikido class

I taught the aikido class yesterday, as planned. I had my usual nervousness around teaching, plus I was doing it in Spanish, which is...harder. I got good feedback from people though: everyone at their different levels felt it was useful, and appreciated the step-by-step clarity, which Jorge doesn't usually do.

One thing that's nice when teaching is to have some experienced students who you know well enough to predict how they'll respond when you throw them. I had one guy who I knew would respond smoothly, Blas, and then a visiting black belt from the other aikido group that uses that space. In order to do a convincing demonstration, though, I brought up Rafael, who's only been training for a month or two, but he teaches Shotokan Karate and he's built like a truck. He's easily got 70 pounds on me, and he's really, really, really strong (he showed me a photo of him destroying a 5-high stack of bricks at a demonstration last week).

I sometimes feel like the class watches Jorge, who's my height but obviously much more muscular, and they have trouble imagining how they can do what he does; and they know me, and I'm pretty strong even though I'm lightly built, and I see a lot of frustration. I wanted to remind them that there are people far stronger than me, and I can still do aikido techniques on them.

I did chuckle when Rafael grabbed my arm, and I said, "Well, let's see if I can do it." It was actually better than planned, because he was really trying, so by the time he fell down a few times, he was pretty tired.

I'm glad I get another class on Tuesday, to work on some different stuff.

Friday, October 8, 2010


I've been enjoying my break. I went into school today because in theory a couple of girls show up at 1:30 on Fridays for "English Workshop," which is me stumbling around trying to find something English-related for them to do. They haven't been showing up recently, but over time they have, and it seemed respectful of their (slight) extra effort for me to be there.

My classroom, though, had been re-arranged into a standard Chilean classroom. Normally I have 25-35 writing-chairs in there, and twice a week there's a Spanish-language writing class in there and I have to rearrange all the chairs. Those chairs are now gone, and there's the standard rows of 2-person tables. There had already been 3 stacks of those tables stored in the room, but where did all the chairs come from? From the trash and notebooks left behind, there had obviously been a full curso in there, not just the writing workshop. Okay, that's a little weird, but while I was waiting, I stacked up the tables and moved everything around, thinking that if I didn't do it today, I'd have to do it Tuesday morning.

On my way out to go have lunch with Sara, I ran into Paloma, one of the girls from 1-A. When I went back into the room to lock up, she said "Don't go into my classroom!". I said, "Your classroom?" and we bantered a bit, and when I came back out we talked some more and I discovered that 1-A has actually been moved from their classroom into mine, and theirs is currently being used to store "papers." Since the national standardized SIMCE test is coming up and the teachers have been collating piles of photocopies, I'm guessing their classroom is being used as secure storage for the tests. (My classroom has cheap hollow-core doors and a bad doorknob lock, while the main classrooms have metal doors and deadbolts.)

So who knows if I have a place to teach next week. Plus Friday is Teacher's Day, so no classes then. Ah, Chile!

Thursday, October 7, 2010


Llorca agreed to take the remaining 5 classes for the week, since it didn't matter much to her, so I had yesterday and today off, and I don't teach again until Tuesday because of the long weekend. Much like unemployment, I have to be sure to leave the house, but in general it's clear to me that I did need a break, and arranging to take one was the right thing to do. I didn't need lesson-planning time; I just needed to not be teaching. Somehow 6 weeks sounds a lot more manageable than 7 weeks, plus I should give the kids another test, which is at least a 3-week project, so I think I can go back on Tuesday more relaxed.

I'm still really jazzed to teach aikido on Saturday and Tuesday. I really enjoy it, and from the feedback and results I've gotten over time, I think I'm pretty good at it. There are definitely some things I want to help the beginners be more clear about, that Jorge doesn't touch on explicitly.

Finally, I found a way to spew the past 6 weeks of photos to Flickr. Sorry, they're not labeled yet, and who knows when I'll decide to spend the time on that. Not this weekend, certainly.

English Opens Doors in the news: full text

Normally I would never reprint the entire text of an article, but the original Guardian link is gone for some reason and the piece is highly relevant to me. I found the text here. My original post, with some comments, is here.

Chile's Drive for English Faces First Test

2010 marks the first formal assessment of Chile's six-year campaign to raise English language skills: English Opens Doors. At the end of October 240,000 students in their third year of high school (aged 16-17) will take the TOEIC(r) Bridge test to demonstrate that their comprehension of English is equivalent to B1 on the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) scale.

An informal test in 2004 revealed that only 5% of Chilean students reached this level, but the ambitious target set by Opens Doors is that all students going into their final year of high school in 2013 will have achieved the equivalent of B1.

The programme, created in 2004, promotes English learning through teacher training programmes and scholarships abroad, inviting native English speakers into Chilean classrooms and giving students the opportunity to participate in public speaking, debates, and English camps.

"I had a great year while perfecting my English. I think study-abroad grants have helped improve teaching levels a lot," said Victoria Cuadra, who returned last year from the UK after spending 12 months as a teaching assistant in Hull, on a grant from the Chilean government. "There are still problems like teachers' salaries being too low and some schools not having enough resources to teach English."

The Chilean government awards scholarships to university students on track to become teachers. These students spend either a term studying English abroad, or a year working as assistants in English-speaking countries. In return the students must work for two years in state-funded school after they qualify as teachers. Many though, like Cuadra, are not planning to stay in the state system. "I think two years is enough. The money is much better in private schools, not to mention the better teaching environment," she said.

Currently 8,200 English teachers work in establishments that receive state funding and 5,400 of these teachers have participated in courses designed to develop and update their language skills. The courses are offered on Saturday mornings, sometimes with an additional weeknight, and teachers contribute about $ 160 towards course fees with the government covering the remaining 85% of costs.

The government is hoping that the first formal assessment of teachers' English skills, which is scheduled to take place in 2011, will show that the training has delivered results. Next year all teachers in government funded schools will be expected to have reached B2 on the CEFR framework. The fate of teachers who do not achieve the level has still to be revealed.

Isabel González, director of the Opens Doors programme, says its rationale is simple. "English is imperative to Chile in terms of business investment. Raising the level of English in schools will ultimately lead to a higher-quality workforce which will in turn attract foreign investment and increase economic development."

But she acknowledges that Chile's relative isolation has been a major challenge in the drive to improve skills. "Chile's geographical, economic and cultural characteristics have limited communication between the majority of our population and English-speaking communities. This isolation makes the quality of English learning and student motivation quite difficult."

In an attempt to connect students and teachers, English speaking volunteers have been invited into Chilean classrooms, in an exchange project supported by the UN Development Programme. Since 2004 almost 1,400 volunteers have been placed in schools.

"The students benefitted from having the presence of a native speaker in the classroom," said Emily Edwards from the UK, who worked as a British Council language assistant in the southern Chilean city of Concepción in 2008. "Many of them just needed the push of believing they were dealing with a non-Spanish speaker to spur them into talking in English in the class."

However not everyone is happy with the way in which native-speaker assistants are used. Katty Kaufmann, a leading English interpreter and former director of a major US study and volunteer-abroad programme in Chile, is critical of the lack of training. "Neither the volunteers nor the teachers receive sufficient instruction on how the assistants should be used in the classroom. Most teachers simply don't know the capacity in which they should use the volunteers. The assistants could be helpful, but an effective policy needs to be implemented."

Kauffman, who works with high-level government personnel across the southern hemisphere says Chile is far behind its stated goals. "English in Chile at international standards? We're not even in the neighbourhood of international standards," she said.

That view is shared by Jorge Cuevas, who supervises English language teaching at Bolivariana University in Los Angeles, near Santiago. "The government feels pressure to conform to international standards because of Chile's new political standing in the world, for example as a recent OECD member, but the reality is we are very far from achieving these standards," he said.

"Although it is possible all teachers may reach level B2 in the national testing, I think it is highly unlikely students will reach the goals that have been set. Even if they did, the TOEIC(r) Bridge test the government is planning to use only tests passive skills, so speaking levels will still be substandard."

Government expenditure on Opens Doors is approximately $ 10m annually, but while the investment is welcomed questions remain about how the programme is being implemented. Kauffman cites bureaucracy as the "greatest shortcoming of the programme".

"You have tremendously valuable ideas buried in paperwork. The programme could succeed if they get rid of the red tape, start to analyse and come up with quantifiable means to ascertain the programme goals."

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

the priest at the Pyramid of the Sun

In October 2001,my girlfriend Mona and I crewed on a sailboat down to Mexico. This was The Bad Relationship, and the boat's owner was a selfish, passive-aggressive loon who eventually tried to kick everyone off the boat in the middle of nowhere, so the trip was a mixed bag. I did enjoy Mexico, though, and I came back with a raft of stories, including the time the four of us--me, Mona, the skipper, and his girlfriend--rented an old-school VW Beetle and did a road trip from Puerto Vallarta out to Teotihuacán and back.

Teotihuacán is hard to describe. It's an ancient Mesoamerican worship site, obviously, but it's...enormous. Huge. The Pyramid of the Sun, the largest structure, is 246 feet (75 meters) tall, which is at least 16 stories high. It has a lot of steps and takes a while to climb, and it's made of these tiny stones, 8-20 inches. And there are other buildings comparably sized, and then you realize that it's 2000 years old and we don't actually know who built it, and the mind reels.

Then you have to fend off the obnoxious guys pushing little stone statues to the tourists. Luckily they're either too lazy or not allowed to sell on the pyramids themselves, so if you gain some altitude you escape them.

We arrived there on December 11th, the day before the Feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's protector. Being godless heathens living on a sailboat, we hadn't noticed, and it took us a bit to figure out why there were all these Catholic pilgrimage tourist groups. This was their last stop before the gigantic festival in Mexico City the next day.

The first thing I noticed was a group of American Catholics standing in a circle, chanting some ritual I'd never heard before. There was the obligatory endless response of "Lord, hear our prayer," but the (non-priest) leader's lines were unfamiliar, and...unusually esoteric, somehow. It felt like it came out of the same dusty book as exorcism, and lived there, largely unused, for similar reasons.

The next thing we encountered was a Mexican guy who was pretty angry that a bunch of Americans had the temerity to come to a foreign culture's ancient religious sites and do some random ritual there. Mexican Catholicism has a strong streak of the original pagan in it, more than in many Latin American countries: this guy was there to do a solemn greeting to the four directions, and the next day he was going to dress up and perform in a giant traditional Indian dance in a plaza in Mexico City. So he was pretty miffed about pilgrims feeling they had the right to do some random thing on top of the pyramid.

There were a couple of priests with the group, and on the way down I caught up with one of them, a doughy heartland American in his mid-30s, from Wisconsin. We had a nice chat: it turns out there was a particularly zealous guy in the tour group, who asked the priests if they could do an obscure Catholic rite for purifying a space. Basically, they were asking God to forgive humanity for all the evil things (which I guess meant human sacrifices) that had happened on that spot. The priest thought it was a little odd, but wouldn't harm anything to humor the guy. Inasfar as you think Religion A coming and purifying Religion B's "defiled" ritual spaces might be a little arrogant, the Mexican guy's anger was right on target.

I saved several gems into my journal from the conversation with the priest, and someday I'll type them up, but it included one of my favorite lines ever, said without a hint of irony:
"Are you Catholic?"
"I was raised Episcopalian."
"Well, that's almost as good."

funeral Mass

My fellow teacher Glady's sister died early Monday morning of leukemia. There had been a couple other school-related funerals, and it had seemed strange several months ago for so many of the teachers to go to Pepe's mother's funeral--surely they hadn't known her? This time it finally dawned on me that it's the custom here for survivors' friends and colleagues to come to the funeral, and even to the cemetery, so I went. I guess that's what wakes are for in the States, though I've never been to one--there haven't been a lot of deaths in my life, and whenever friends' family members do die, the deceased always lived wherever my friend was from, not in the Bay Area.

It was pretty interesting. The cathedral was echo-y, but having grown up Episcopalian--"almost as good" as being Catholic, according to a Wisconsin priest I met on the Pyramid of the Sun--I had enough context for my Spanish to fill in the blanks and follow the service. The casket was open and laid along the axis of the nave, with a sign made of carnations (I think) saying in Spanish, "Goodbye, Friend." Apparently another custom is to bring a special kind of flower arrangement and lay them all in a line down the center aisle from the casket, which is pretty striking when you walk in. (I really wanted a picture, but my mother raised me right, so, no.) After the service, the mountains of flowers go to the cemetery to be put on the grave.

Another thing I noticed is how fast the funeral happened: Gladys's sister died around dawn on Monday morning, and the funeral was at 1pm Tuesday. In the States it takes 3 days just to tell everyone, and whatever other complications with undertakers and churches and cemeteries. (Luckily I haven't had to deal with it yet, but I understand it's a royal pain.) My grandmother's funeral was a week or so after she died, I assume to give everyone a chance to get to Long Island from our various far-away homes. Here, families tend to stay close geographically as well as emotionally, so I suppose it's easier to get everyone together quickly.

It seemed to mean a lot that I went, so I'm glad I did.

I'm occasionally funny in Spanish, too

In the bakery near school yesterday (Panadería Inglés, I highly recommend it), the TV was playing Chile's Got Talent, where some unappealing guy was trying very hard to sing a song, and failing. He could have been more out of tune, but he couldn't have been more earnest or self-assured about a really bad performance. The women behind the counter were, like the rest of us, mesmerized by the train wreck.

I finally got bored watching, and in Spanish I said to one of them, "Maybe a little more practice?"

She snarfed her tea, told her co-worker while she dried herself off, and they both cracked up laughing.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

the internet keeps us sane

Our experience of living abroad is unbelievably different from even a decade ago, and almost unrecognizable from my parents' stories of living in Germany for a couple years around 1970. Chile is more developed than ever, of course, but more important is the growth of Internet technologies that let us communicate even more easily. In 1970 you waited weeks and months for a quick, expensive satellite phone call, or for letters. Now, in ascending order of appearance and shininess...
  • Email: Duh. Part of why the U.S. Postal Service is dying. (The other part is stupid legislation that forced them to fund their pension obligations 7 years into the future, which isn't required of any other organization, because it's INSANE.)
  • Facebook: Social media blah blah blah wank wank wank.
  • Skype: Computer-to-computer voice/video connection, plus it will call normal phone numbers if you pay money. (Payment is only via Paypal; I tried, Paypal shut down my account for trying to use it from South America, and it's a multi-step process to re-activate it.)
  • Google Voice: Having shut down my cell phone number of the past decade, Google Voice gives me a phone number I can give to people that will transfer calls to whatever cell phone I get back home, as well as use the Internet to make free long-distance calls. In the meantime, people can leave messages for me and I can get them off the website, and I can trade text messages with Anna.
  • Gmail Voice Chat: Okay, voice chat between Gmail users, which isn't so exciting, until...
  • Gmail Voice Chat + Google Voice: Now, Gmail Voice Chat essentially becomes a telephone: I can call any U.S. phone number for free, and any calls to my Google Voice number will ring in my web browser. Yes, that's right, if I'm online, you can pick up your telephone and call me, while I'm in South America, for the cost of calling California.
Yes, we live in the future.

hitting the wall

I'm feeling less emotionally volatile, but with that comes the clarity that I am out of people-energy. Since I got here 7 months ago, I have been on-on-on go-go-go pretty much nonstop. First I was engaging with my fellow WorldTeach volunteers, then my students and host family and teachers...and that hasn't really let up. Nowhere do I have the kind of space to recharge that I have at home, because at home even my work (software development) provides me with a lot of quiet time.

Now I have that feeling that I used to get after helping to host my first 6-hour cocktail party at my old house in Oakland: I'm done, I need a break, I have nothing left. Pushing too much farther will be on borrowed energy.

Marcela is out for the week with tonsillitis, so there's a sub named Llorca. So far this week I've asked her to take 3 classes, out of mental fatigue and not having a good lesson ready, and leaving early for a school-related funeral today. It's not a big deal for her because taking the entire class is what she was expecting, and in fact I think it screws things up for both of us when I take half the class: Marcela plans lessons for a smaller group, and understands that I can't take the kids for 70 minutes. So I think I will actually ask her about it, with an eye toward my not teaching the rest of the week.

Then, too, it's time to give the kids a test, which is at least a 3-week project--more strategies for stumbling through the end of my teaching time.

expensive ethnic food

What I think of as "ethnic" food is stupidly pricey here. There is precisely one place to get anything Indian here, El Gato Tuerto, and they have precisely one dish, chicken korma. It's good chicken korma, though not perfect, and it's about US$18. Thai curries are about US$20-24. Sushi is 1.5-2x US prices, but tends to be "meh." Ethiopian and Burmese food is unknown here, as in most of the United States. I know, my California is showing.

Why so expensive?
  • These are upscale restaurants aimed at well-off tourists.
  • There is little broad-based demand for these foods among the natives.
  • Many ingredients are probably expensive and/or rare. I have no idea where you'd get fenugreek or keffir lime leaves, for example. Ethiopian food uses so many special Ethiopian ingredients that you probably couldn't open a restaurant even if you wanted to.
Santiago is thankfully different: although the Indian food I had there was middling, it was reasonably priced, and I suspect there's better to be had. I have good recommendations for Thai restaurants there, and we ate at a stellar little Cuban joint.

Monday, October 4, 2010

English Opens Doors in the news

[UPDATE: Bizarrely, the article has been deleted. I've re-posted the full text here.]

This article is about English Opens Doors, the Ministry of Education program I technically work for. It's a well-nuanced article talking about the ups and downs of the volunteer program. The goal is for all high school seniors to be basically conversant by 2013--level B1 is the first level of "Independent User"--which I hope no one is taking too seriously.

The comments about how no one knows how the program should work to be most effective are spot-on. Every school and every teacher have different ideas about this; unfortunately, some teachers just view it as a way to lighten their workload, for example while having the volunteer teach their classes while they read a book. I've been extremely fortunate with Marcela and INSUCO, who are very supportive and very open to my ideas of how and what to teach. I guess "open" doesn't quite cover it, as they've generously assumed I know what I'm doing and let me have complete independence.

I wonder how successful the program is in terms of the Chilean system, though. My kids are definitely learning and retaining stuff, and feeling more comfortable saying things in English, and (with a couple exceptions) enjoying a good relationship with a caring adult from another culture, and I think that's the most important thing. But what does the Ministry of Education think is the most important thing? I'm skeptical that my kids will do better in the nutty Chilean English curriculum, or on the standardized tests that will measure their progress.

That's not why I'm here, though.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

on teaching math

The real test of whether a math problem is "relevant" is not "do you use this in 'real life'," whatever that means, but "do you want to solve it?" It's not that you want to solve it because it's relevant; wanting to solve it is what it means to be relevant. The solution to the problem of relevance cannot be aimed at any location in the process of education other than what the students want. We can access various natural processes in causing students to want to solve problems: they are naturally curious, hungry for understanding, they want to resolve cognitive dissonance when it comes up, they want to feel accomplished and mentally powerful, they're drawn in by story, attracted to the perception of a grand scheme, to knowledge surrounding things they're passionate about, etc. Curious is the big one. All these forces are amplified by a sense of comfort and orientedness in the face of a problem, and inhibited by any sense of helplessness or disorientation.
The whole (very long, multi-page) comment is worth reading. I don't quite grasp the full scope of the word pseudocontext, but it represents the pointlessly-contrived nature of textbook math problems, compared to things like this.

thoughts on Lost

Done! Finally. Since I watched Season 1 back in December, the remaining five seasons clocked in a bit shy of 80 hours of television, which is far too much for however many weeks I've been watching it. I'm fine with having watched it, it was a conscious choice on my part, but for anyone else I recommend finding some nice books to read. For my part, I look forward to plowing through the remaining third of East of Eden. If you must watch TV, watch Journeyman first.

No spoilers, in case you want to see it some day. It's a reasonably interesting cultural piece. Here are my season summaries:
  • Season 1: "Hey, let's make a series that consists only of purposeless mysteries and film tricks. The only goal will be to hook viewers on needing to see the next episode." There's a level of genius to this and how well they pulled it off. Pay attention to your mental and emotional responses to the completely empty and meaningless lures of the show. It will keep you from getting hooked, and you'll get to see your mind working, which is always cool.
  • Season 2: "Whoa, we got a second season? I guess having nothing but viewer manipulation gets tedious after a while. Should we come up with a plot?" Well, whatever. It's boring and nothing super-important happens, although of course subsequent seasons build on Season 2 events, so if you're gonna watch, just watch.
  • Season 3: "Let's hire real writers." They turned it into a real TV show, with plot and character development and everything. It's a strange shift once you see it happen, and it's bumpy in spots, but it's good.
  • Season 4: "Hey, I just re-read Slaughterhouse-Five and it was awesome. Let's do that." Mostly they pull it off. They start disagreements and divisions among the characters, and add several entities who are probably enemies, but they all talk a good game, so it's hard to tell.
  • Season 5: "Okay, enough of Slaughterhouse-Five. More time travel! Also, I started reading the Bible last week..." It's well-done time travel, with fine loops and paradoxes. Nothing innovative, but it's enjoyable, especially since the end is in sight. The Biblical parallels are cute.
  • Season 6: "Let's quit while we're ahead." The timeline stuff is okay. The ending is not revolutionary television, but it resolves enough things to be satisfying (assuming you recognized from the beginning that the show was going to fire out mysteries like a shotgun just to keep the viewer hooked).
And then, finished. There's an epilogue, worth watching if you saw the series through to the end, titled "The New Man In Charge." It's easily streamed online, but I'm not linking to it, to help it stay online.

Not a bad use of my time, but my mind feels more settled already.

Saturday, October 2, 2010


I haven't been reading as much stuff, since I've been watching Lost (all done, finally). Also, 99% of everything is crap, so why would I inflict it on you?
Enjoy your weekend!

Friday, October 1, 2010

vice, and clarity

I'm almost done with Lost, which is a relief: only 9 more episodes to go. I've watched the latter 5 seasons in an unhealthily short time, and I recommend against it, but on the other hand I don't think I would have done anything more healthy with my time. I think I'm done watching TV after this.

I'm feeling better, in general. It turns out my Chilean friend at school was not involved in any strange cultural thing that I missed: she was just being incredibly rude and aggressive and selfish. She apologized today, and we hung out for a while and had a nice lunch. That was pretty awesome.

In the liquor store the other day, looking for something to replace the thoroughly terrible Tres Palos "cognac"--I'll grant it's made from grapes, but the resemblance ends there--it occurred to me that I should give pisco another try, being the national liquor. Like all cocktails in Chile, the pisco sours here are so brutally strong that I actually can't drink them, so I've avoided pisco. Plus I think I like the Peruvian style better, but don't tell anyone, I think I can get deported for that.

(When Anna was here in August, I ordered a gin & tonic at a restaurant. They brought me a bottle of tonic and a Collins glass about half-full of gin--easily 4-6oz. [for reference, a large single U.S. shot is maybe 2oz.]. I had them bring me another glass so I could decant some gin and make it drinkable.)

The little 150ml bottle of Capel Especial costs about US$1.80, it borders on being drinkable straight, and it's absolutely delightful when mixed with Coke. I think another two dollars gets me up into the high-end stuff.

Marcela has tonsillitis, so she was out yesterday and today, and will be gone for the coming week. Whenever she's sick I have this angsty thing where I feel like I should hold class, and then I imagine trying to get 21 Chilean kids to come do English while their 21 classmates get to spend 90 minutes in the classroom doing whatever they want, and while it's possible I could badger them into it, I'm not sure it's worth the strain. Eventually I decide it's not, and admit that I am also happy to have the time free, and we don't have class, and I read a book or whatever and feel guilty about how I'm balancing my own emotional needs with some level of commitment to teaching and helping these kids learn and whatever.

Today I decided to just stop having that conversation with myself, because it turns out the same way every time. I also realized that this is one of the times where the school does not treat me like a credentialed teacher--they often do, everyone calls me profesor and very generously acts like I know what I'm doing. When it comes down to it, though, no one holds the illusion that I have all the responsibilities or institutional impact of a contracted teacher, and that's great, because they shouldn't: my value lies in being apart from the system. Neither the school nor the students expect me to hold class when there's no official teacher there, so unless it's going to be an entire week with no substitute, I'm just gonna roll with it.