Friday, October 24, 2014

There aren't always elephants.

I've done a bad thing.  Surely now, the picture that you have of me in your mind (if any) includes riding elephants, communing with monks, and climbing mountains.  I'd like to supplant this with a more realistic image of my daily (sometimes gritty) daily life.

First, to set the stage, I give you Vientiane:

One of the smallest capitals in the world, Vientiane is a flat town that hugs the Mekong.  A place where begging is illegal, poverty is not readily visible here.  At its best; a mixture of French colonial architecture and Buddhist temples and pagodas.  At its worst; congested, dusty, and rife with street dogs.  Near the river, the scene becomes different.  Scores of falang (foreigners) flock to this area to eat a huge variety of foreign food, walk along the river, and experience the night market.  Arguably the greatest attraction of Vientiane, the Mekong at sunset is a magical place.  I myself, being fairly far from the excitement and bustle of the center, go there on weekends to sit in nice cafes and stare at falang.  Ah, the falang.  One of the defining aspects of this small town; foreigners are everywhere.  Hunched over with towering backpacks, they walk in packs along the dark streets, conspicuous for exactly this odd form of transport (walking) that no one else does here.  Two distinct groups become apparent; backpackers and expats, their differences so many lines drawn into the sand.  As part of the highly revered group of expats, I live away from the center in the part of town that expats and real Lao people live.  As an expat, I don't walk around with huge backpacks.  Really, I don't walk at all anymore.  In Vientiane, one must zip around on a motorbike, scooter, or bicycle if one wants to attain any semblance of normality.  I do it for this reason, and also to avoid the street dogs.

Away from the crowds, Italian restaurants, and shopping of the center, I reside in a little village alongside a canal.  My neighbors are Lao families, Indian engineers, French NGO workers, and dogs the size of bears.  My village seems safe but our gate padlock is always locked.  Our village is near "Little Vietnam" and "That Luang" which is the most famous golden temple in Lao.  There are several western coffee shops within 5 minutes of me, which I frequent heavily.  Bubble-tea stands, Lao restaurants, and fruit vendors populate the streets.  There is a big, busy road nearby full of shops and chaos and advertisements that I hate but must go on to do many of my errands.   My school is a semi-peaceful 10-minute bicycle ride away on back streets.  In the morning, I bike to school at 6:45am, and every day I am thankful as I roll slowly over a small canal bridge, past a Lao construction site where pigs and puppies live, and past a group of monks out for their daily alms-giving.  My neighbors crouch down on bamboo mats with sticky rice and fruit to give.  Sometimes the monks are singing as I bike past.  As a small, developing capital, traffic is a new concern to Vientiane.  The streets are small, the traffic lights few, and the concern for rules sparse.  The amount of motorized vehicles in the roads has skyrocketed and now the town slows to a stop during rush hour.  I am doubly thankful to go to work so early in the morning because it is one of the only peaceful times of day to be commuting. 

It is exciting to be part of the flow of traffic.  At one of the many intersections that lacks a streetlight, when I am approaching my school, I situate myself next to a Lao person on a motorbike and follow their lead as they skim and flirt through the intersection to reach the other side safe.  Everyone wears face masks and jackets when they motorcycle; partly to avoid the pollution and partly to avoid tanning their skin.  Women zip past me, fully covered, and wearing their usual sins (traditional Lao skirt).

I am the first to arrive to school.  It is my quietest time of day.  My mornings have become sacrosanct.  I go almost immediately to my classroom to assess the damage and rearrange the tables and chairs.  Every day after I teach, there is a Lao program for 3 hours in my classroom, so nothing is ever the way I left it.  I turn on some music.  I start doing the small routines that I love.  I set up my reward system.  I write the daily bellwork on the board, the agenda, and review my lesson plans.  I think of last-minute activities that allow for differentiation and write four different tasks on my home-made white-boards.  The primary building is quiet, with only a few early students sitting and playing with their phones or doing homework.  By the time that the students become to arrive in earnest, I am (mostly) prepared mentally and physically.  I shut off my brain for the 15 minutes or so before the students come into my classroom.  I know that I'll be using all of my mental capacities over the next 7 hours and these stolen moments of meditation are just as essential as a lesson-plan is.  When the bell rings, I feel a flash of panic, which is quickly replaced by acceptance of what lies ahead.

I open my door and my students stream in, some more quietly than others.  I am prepared with the daily spelling activities, but my students are still waking up, and are slow to begin their daily routine.  After about 5 minutes, almost all of the students are working on their spelling, and I dance around the class in a dizzying tango to make sure they are all working and doing the correct activity.  I make sure to insert some form of praise into this first part of the morning to set the tone for the day, calling out certain students or groups who are especially working hard.  Then, it's time for English, and the transition takes longer than I expect (like usual).  Because of the difficulty I have experienced with transitions, I have started using "Brain Breaks," an idea that Erica gave me.  Instead of expecting my class to execute a quick and thoughtful transition into the next class, I embrace the inevitable chaos, and give the students 3 minutes to talk to their friends, get out of their seats, and get their things, before I call everyone to attention and expect quiet.  English should be my favorite subject to teach but as it is clearly my students' least favorite subject, it has dropped in my ranks.  Most of my students dislike English because they don't speak English very well and it is a subject in which they often feel confused and thus disinterested.  I have 3 students who speak fluent English and who are grade level and my challenge is how to teach both my beginning ELL Lao students and my international students.  I have started differentiating lessons, and if I'm able, I sit with my lowest English students during lessons to help them through tasks.  This hasn't worked as well as I would like it to, since all of my other students want my attention and help during lessons too, so I have to flit back and forth between students and tables instead of devoting my time to the learners who need the most help.  I really wish that my international students would be more independent and able to direct their own learning, but they are only 9 years old, after all.  During my classes, I feel a keen need for an ELL pull-out program or a classroom assistant to work with the students who have low English or behavior problems.  As it is, I am constantly stopping my lessons to attend to behavior.  I have two boys who should have full-time assistants, and as they don't, they disrupt most classes with fighting, running around, or refusing to do their work.

I love my students, but I don't know how to manage them as a class.  I have moments and classes that work wonderfully; when all the students are engaged or working together to complete a project.  Any class where I have to take more than 5 minutes of lecturing--such as science to explain a complex concept---or topic studies---I lose them.  I'm problem-solving ways to minimize the amount of time that I stand in front of the class and talk at them.  It's not their fault that they can't focus for long, and I need to come up with better ways to give important information.  I prefer the classes where the majority of the time is spent with group or experiential work.  But there are some times when I simply need to disseminate information and need the class to more or less listen to me.  I've been trying to teach about Inventions for the last 2 months for Topic Studies, and now that we have an Invention Convention coming up and the students have to create inventions in groups, I have found that most of my Lao students still don't understand what an invention is.  This is a source of frustration for me because I want the students to participate in the convention but during group work, they are unfocused and excited. This is a sign that I have not taught effectively and that I need to go slower and break my tasks up into clear steps.  The groups I have put together for this convention are mixed ability, partly because I want to teach the students to work with people who are different from them (*the international students with the Lao students), but also because I want everyone's inventions to be at about the same level.  On Friday when the students found out their groups, they complained and refused to separate from their friends.  One student who is very unpopular, sat in a corner crying, because his group didn't want to work with him.  This weekend, my goal is to think of a way to put this right.  I think it will include a lot of Monday being devoted to discussing kindness (again) and teamwork.

Math is a bit easier to teach, despite my constant need to relearn concepts I haven't thought about for 10 years.  During most of my math classes, my Lao co-teacher comes in to help.  It makes a huge difference.  While I do the teaching, she roves around the class to help individuals with their math and address behavior issues.  Having her there to translate for the Lao students is also quite helpful.  This frees me up to also attend to individual issues with the work, which I normally don't have a chance to in other classes.  Some of my lowest English students are brilliant at math, which is wonderful.  This is the one class where my international students aren't leaps and bounds ahead.  It's a level playing-field.

During my breaks at school, I maximize even the smallest amount of minutes available to me.  As a teacher, i think there is always something that you could be doing (hello marking!) but I also consider a break spent quietly as equally important.  Sometimes my breaks are spent marking books, sometimes preparing for the next lesson, sometimes talking to a friend, and sometimes staring into space and collecting my remaining energy.  Two days a week, I turn into a PE teacher, and take groups of students out to the soccer field to teach them ultimate frisbee.  Once they catch on to the rules, they are pretty incredible.  I sometimes really enjoy these two periods a week, and other days I just want to get out of the sun and stop the endless cycle of shouting in my day.

Once the final bell rings for the international period, I scoop up my basket of papers, books, and go to the teacher's room to grade, plan, or unwind.  I feel good at the end of the day, usually, even if I have just cried in frustration or ended my day poorly.  At 3:30pm, the afternoon and evening seem full of potential and time.  At my desk, I check in with Erica to see how her day went.  She sits right across from me, and is usually on her computer facebooking friends and family or reading a book.  Erica is a good teacher.  She is an incredible user of time.  By the end of the day, she has used all of her free time and spare minutes so effectively that she is done and ready for school the next day.  By the time the bell rings, her mind of off school and on her other life.  I've become better at this but still have a long way to go.  I want my mind and body to be free to wander and explore after work is over without over-rumination or worry.  We exchange stories about our day.  During science for her, her students were 'rogue' so she made them sit in silence for 3 minutes.  I told her that Alex farted and the entire class dissolved into chaos.  We make each other feel better and cared for and that we did the best we could with our day.  We talk about what we are doing after school and about school gossip (of which there is many!)

The Lao teachers at our school run in groups just like us international teachers.  It's a gap that is decreasing in size; however the cultural dynamics are very apparent in the staff room.  There are some divides at my school.  There are the Filipino teachers, the Lao teachers, and then the rest of the international teachers.  I'm interested, in course, of jumping over these lines drawn in the sand, but it's a lot harder with the Lao teachers.  We don't share a common language and despite my best attempts to learn Lao once a week, I'm not at the point where I can have a conversation with my Lao co-teacher yet.  Then, there's the reality that we don't actually teach together.  We just share the same students.  In the afternoon of Friday, my Lao teacher leaned over to me and motioned that she was having a baby in 8 months.  My Lao teacher is unbelievably beautiful.  She has what has to be the kindest and loveliest face I've seen.  She is all soft features and smiles and small acts of kindness.  I felt so happy for her.  At lunch, we all keep to our respective language groups, more or less.  Perhaps because we are tired by lunch and want to have easy conversations.  This doesn't apply as much between the Filipino teachers and the other international teachers.  We all sit together and have made friends across cultural lines.  One of my best friends at school is Nukie, who is fierce and beautiful.  I think it's perhaps because there ARE so many international teachers that there is such a division.  In my schools in Uganda, there was no chance of this happening as there were only two of us in our village.  We luckily had no choice but to sit with the Ugandan teachers everyday and talk.

We trickle out of school starting around 3:20 if we are feeling daring.  Officially, we have to stay until 3:30pm.  On most days, I will go straight to the gym to do yoga or weightlifting.  The gym is a bizarre melting pot of muscular falang and muscular Lao people.  I lift my 10 pound dumbbells calmly and methodically next to men who scream in pain with every rep and then dramatically hurl their 200pound weights on the ground triumphantly.  To suddenly belong to a gym in Lao is by any accounts a strange turn of events for me.  During yoga, people answer their cell phones.  I understand nary a word of what is being said, so I constantly crane my neck up to see what the next pose is.  Women laugh as they lose balance or fall over.  It's great.

On Tuesdays, I leave straight from school to go to the college where I teach once a week.  I teach two classes of low-intermediate adults, mostly university students.  I arrive 45 minutes before my first class, and slap together a lesson using the books they provide.  It makes me proud that i have gone from taking days to prepare 1 45-minute lesson for my TEFL program to preparing 30 minutes before I teach for 3 hours.  I like teaching the adults.  It's a complete change from my 4th graders and I find it a great relief to be able to go through an entire lesson where all the students are engaged and eager to learn.  I make the students get out of their chairs and move around the classroom for some of my activities and they are very shy to do so at first but then later are sometimes laughing.  I don't believe I could do this extra teaching for more than 1 day a week as by the time I get home at 9:00pm, I am no longer a human being.

Night, like morning, is holy.  I retreat to my room to do several Ilse-things like write, play ukelele, study Lao, and read for pleasure before bed.  My mornings and nights embrace the sweaty chaos of my day; I always start and end my days quietly.

This weekend, so far, I have spent eating giant bowls of fruit and writing blog-novels.  Today I am feeling happy, well-rested, but I also miss my family.  I hope this blog gives them a good idea of my daily life here.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

Luang Prabang

We visited Luang Prabang last week, which is the original royal capital of Lao.  Luang Prabang is a 12 hour bus journey from Vientiane, through winding roads and beautiful mountains.  Our first night bus journey was thankfully eventless.  We emerged from our strange bus cocoon beds into the cool mountain air of the north, reveling in a sensation we have gone without for two months (cool air!!), and took in a lovely, clean, and green mountain town.  Entirely different from the dust, exhaust, and stifling heat of Vientiane, Luang Prabang is all misty green and colorful temples.  

I never stopped moving in Luang Prabang.  On the first day we went straight to a waterfall (on a beautiful hour-long tuk tuk ride) that was something out of a fairy tale. A series of lovely shelf-pools that led up a hill to a huge falls.  The water there was a color I'd never seen before and that can't be captured by a camera---a milky menthol color---...and the band of artistic gypsies that I was traveling with even struggled to capture the effect on paper. 

The next day, we met 6 really nice elephants at an elephant oasis by the Mekong.  We rode in pairs through a village with mountains climbing high over us. 

Over riding, I much preferred standing next to the elephants, stroking their trunks, and staring deep into their kind eyes.  It was an incredible experience spending time with such peaceful, giant creatures.

I may or may not have taken a selfie with an elephant.

After our ride, several of us took a boat ride across the Mekong to go see Buddha Cave.  Buddha Cave is an ancient cave that has drawn Lao people for years due to its mystical nature and spot right on the Mekong.  Years ago, the kings and queens made an annual pilgrimage to worship their gods, and later, Buddha. 

After the cave, we returned to bathe the elephants.

The elephants turned into little kids in the water.  They played together, swam around, and enjoyed the sensation as we threw water on their dry skin.  Each of us got the opportunity to ride the elephants bareback in the water and then our mischievous mahouts (elephant trainers) would give the command for the elephants to try to throw us off their backs...using any means possible and we each experienced the sheer thrill of being thrown off the backs of a full-grown elephant into the waters of the Mekong.  After bathing the elephants, I rode an elephant bareback back up to their home, and to let me off, my elephant-friend gently crouched down on her knees until I had slid off her back.

To make this day more incredible, we had the stupid-luck of being in Luang Prabang during the Festival of Lights- arguably the most beautiful festival in Lao.  For this festival, each temple makes a dragon boat out of wood and crepe paper and candles, and then during the evening of the festival all of the boats are paraded throughout the town accompanied by hundreds of excited townpeople and foreigners who follow the parade down to the river.  The boats are judged and then set one-by-one into the Mekong, and the boats float down the Mekong with all of the lights shining in the night.   Throughout this evening, hundreds of chinese lanterns are set off into the sky and little prayer floats with candles are set lovingly into the water after a prayer is made, so the entire town is swimming with lights.  We each set our own prayer float into the water, with a little boy helping us by scrambling out to a boat to make sure they found passage.  All of the little boys had the distinguished job of shepherding the tiny prayer floats while their uncles and fathers and grandfathers participated in shepherding the majestic, glowing dragon boats into the water.   It was the most beautiful night.

Preparing for the parade! 

Earlier that evening, we climbed up hundreds of steps to watch the sunset from atop the Phosy mountain in town and strangely set free four birds from cages that were being sold at the temple on the top.  This is Luang Prabang from high:

The next day, we decided to bike all the way back to the waterfall we had seen on the first day on rented mountain bikes, a debatable decision at best since this basically required biking up a mountain for 3 hours.  We met some friends along the way who were having a much more relaxing time than we were:

My last day in Luang Prabang was incredible.  I woke up at 5:30am to participate in the daily alms ceremony downtown.  Still half-asleep I stumbled down to the main street where some kind ladies scooped me up, sold me some alms, wrapped a prayer scarf around my neck and sat me down on a mat to wait for the monks. Starting at exactly 6:00am, silent lines of monks of all different ages began to walk by us for the offering. For each monk, I grabbed a ball of sticky rice and put it into their bag as they passed by, careful not to look any in the eye.  Besides tourists taking photos, the scene was silent.  Poor village children with large baskets were given food by the monks during the alms ceremony, a site that brought some to tears.  Something incredible I noticed was that there was one monk with down syndrome. 

 After the alms ceremony, I went back to the hotel to get ready for our Hmong village trek.  The next 7 hours were stunning.  We were driven an hour away in a tuk tuk and then crossed the Mekong on a tiny rickety boat to the other side.  Our guide then led us on a 5 hour trek through the mountains to visit different hill tribes like the Hmong and Khmu.  Partway through, we stopped in a Khmu village and ate delicious bamboo curry using ingredients that we had foraged for on our morning trek.  We met young boys setting out traps for birds and many people farming in the hills. 

The only part of our trip that was life-changing in a negative way was our bus trip home.  Ordinarily a 10-12 hour trip, our bus ride took 24 hours.  In the middle of the night, our bus broke down in the mountains completely in the middle of nowhere.  No reception, no water, no bathrooms, no food, we spent 12 hours there.  I was having some GI problems, so I had an especially rough time.  Near the morning, we all went outside the stifling hot bus to sit outside as our bus driver furiously worked underneath the bus covered in grease.  The morning mountain air was nice and we all started talking and laughing.  Two of our friends built a fire with help from one of the monks on the bus and roasted bananas for everyone.  Erica sat sketching the broken down bus, we talked with some Lao people, and played ukelele on the pavement.  Around 10am, our bus driver fixed the bus after spending 10 hours working on it. A ridiculous triumph that included taking apart the engine and putting it back together.  He then jumped back on the bus and spend the next 10 hours driving us back.

Love and Elephants,


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

My students.

I may complain about the anarchy, but these ones are very special. Last week for teacher's day, they showered me with love (and a billion weird presents ranging from money to toothpaste) and every day I am a recipient of many sweaty hugs.

My booty from teacher's day:

Today my student Ford, who has a lot of trouble focusing basically all the time, taught me how to meditate. And then I read a book about dinosaurs with Oh. It's definitely a day when I can step back and appreciate.

Speaking of my students, I'm running up a bit of a wish list of things that would benefit them.
If you feel inclined to send me something, then this would be awesome.

Good ultimate Frisbees (I coach this twice a week and we have tiny crappy Frisbees from Thailand)
Any ESL type literacy stuff (most of my kids are complete beginners and this would be great for differentiation).

Really though, don't feel bad about not sending me stuff. I'm teaching the future politicians and diplomats of Lao (one of whose parents casually gave me 100 bucks in an envelope for teacher's day.

Here are many of my students upon completing their own boats (in celebration of boat racing festival last friday).