Saturday’s Book: “Oracle Bones” by Peter Hessler

Different perspectives! Photo by Iddo Epstein
Different perspectives!
Photo by Iddo Epstein

I’ve been enjoying Peter Hessler’s articles in the New Yorker magazine for years, so was understandably delighted to find his book “Oracle Bones” at the free readers-for-readers corner at our library*.

It’s not a travel book about China. It is a great many things. Peter Hessler lived in China for many years and his conversations / interactions with people were direct, without the filters of interpreters.  Yet he doesn’t seem to be trying to claim “I KNOW China and am an absolute authority of this diverse country”. Hessler gives us a long-term  personal view of what it was like to be a foreigner living in China in general, and during global events such as 9/11. He also follows the lives of certain people over the span of quite a few years, such as former students of his and people he met. These are not just descriptions, but quotes from conversations and correspondence.

But that’s just one part of the book. The framework of explaining the significance of the ancient oracle bones (earliest forms of local writing!), how archaeology in China is a whole different ball game from what I’m familiar with in this archaeological rich area, adds a whole new dimension to all that I have ever read about the country. Sadly, it seems that everywhere study of the past and politics cannot be separated…

In short, the style is very readable and easy to get into it, though quite long. I took my time reading it but am very glad I did.

*Note: A while I found a treasure trove of three books the library took out of its collection and added to the “free for readers to take” corner. I guess the library decided these books aren’t being borrowed enough, hence not worth keeping. But I’m having a great time with them! This is the second of the three (The Hare with the Amber Eyes was the first). I have now begun the third: “Farewell Anatolia” by Dido Sotiriou.


Saving Board Games from “Classroom 101” – a Comment

Is this what Room 101 looks like? Naomi's Photos
Is this what Room 101 looks like?
Naomi’s Photos

Listening to podcasts is what keeps me sane (and happy!) when doing housework, particularly folding laundry or ironing. The fact that there is no visual input to distract me helps me be reasonably efficient as well.

I am delighted to be subscribed to several different podcasts (all free!), so I can choose to listen to whichever one suits my mood. But I only have one podcast exclusively for teachers who teach English as a foreign language – the TEFL COMMUTE! All those behind the scenes are experienced teachers, teacher-trainers and ELT writers, with a sense of humor!

In their latest episode they played a game of consigning annoying teaching practices , aggravating ELT terms and more, to “classroom 101″ (a spin-off of the television show Room 101”), then locking the door and throwing away the key. No gripes about things like salary or administrators allowed. Things such as teaching “inversions”, “reported speech”, playing certain ice-breakers or using too many acronyms when training teachers to use technology (BYOD is one I recall).

Thought provoking and good fun.

But I’m here to break into the locked “Classroom 101” and rescue BOARD GAMES!

illegal entry... (naomi's photos)
illegal entry…
(Naomi’s photos)

In the podcast they were unhappy with photocopying the board games and the pages of cards from the course book, cutting and pasting all that is needed, hoping for access to a laminating machine that probably wouldn’t work… In addition, they spoke about time wasted setting up the games and getting the students to understand the rules. In short, board games were described as more trouble than they were worth.

I disagree!

All you have to do is follow these simple guidelines:

  • Use just about any commercial board game you can get your hands on.  Talk to all your friends and relatives – unwanted games go to YOU! Games that require moving a marker from one point to another along some sort of track are the easiest to use. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a “road race” or a “space race” or “snakes or ladders”. They all have the player moving forward and backwards along the route (or missing a turn). Students are familiar with the rules to such games. Commercial games are attractive and are designed for multiple use and it’s great that different groups get a different board each time. Games like “Contact 4 (Tic Tac Toe with 4 discs in a row) will work too. Worth owning a few of these games. Adults like them as much as the kids.
  • All games are played with the exact same rule. Always. Very little time spent on explaining.  Whatever it is you want to practice by playing  the game is “the target”. Each player must answer the target question before throwing the dice and playing his/her turn according to the general rules of the game. Perhaps they must use a word in a sentence or complete a collocation. If they got it right, they get two turns. If not, they must correct it and play once.
  • Assuming you are teaching students who hear well (which I don’t..) you don’t have to make cards. In each group have one student be “the teacher” . The “teacher” presents the “target” and determines if the answer was correct by holding a question and answer sheet. Really smart to give your weakest students this role! They feel so good!

Simple! So don’t send board games off to “Classroom 101”!

Using the Word “Promise” in Education, Freaks Me Out – A Comment

After The Mad Hatter's Teaparty Naomi's Photos
After The Mad Hatter’s Teaparty
Naomi’s Photos

Robyn Jackson, as always, makes some excellent points in her Mindsteps Article: 10 Promises We Should Keep to our Students.  I completely agree with the first part of the article, that it is irresponsible for an educator (teacher or principal) to promise that a student will graduate high-school or will finish a course successfully.

I am  a HUGE believer in the attitude expressed so well by Shel Silverstein in the poem “The Bridge”:

“This bridge will only take you halfway there / the last steps you have to take alone”.

I can put my heart in helping students learn, utilize all my professional skills, but I can’t learn for them. Therefore, I cannot promise they will master the material, pass the test and graduate successfully.

Clear enough. Or as the students might say, “duh”.

It's a real wolf! Photo by Omri Epstein
It’s a real wolf!
Photo by Omri Epstein

However, Jackson claims that there are ten promises we should be making to our students and that we had better keep them.

Calling them “promises” scares me completely.

And I won’t make those promises.

Because promises must be kept. I was also brought up that way. I don’t make promises to students because there are always too many variables.

I strive to give you, a safe learning environment, I really do. But I can’t promise that it will never happen that you think another student was making fun of your answer when my back was turned (even if he wasn’t) and you get insulted (or worse, with consequences) because your social skills are highly problematic.

I strive to provide challenging and engaging instruction that will meet your needs and help you grow but it is extraordinarily difficult to do so for all students all the time. Especially with some curriculum demands. Sometimes you may not like the task which I thought would be engaging…

I strive to listen to the verbal & non verbal feedback you are giving me to help you study, but sometimes what you want is not what you need, or is not something I am able to provide as a teacher.

I can’t even make promise number five, which is my favorite on Jackson’s list:

“I promise to keep trying until together, we figure out the best way to help you learn”.

Again, “together” requires a partner. I’m “game”, I’ll do my best to get you to be motivated too, but I can’t do anymore than that…

Finally, I can’t promise that on some days I won’t have a rough day of my own and not be the most attentive and  patient teacher I want to be.

Goals to strive for – YES!

But not promises.

Digital Literacy, Cyber Safety – What about COMPUTER HYGIENE?!

What we don’t see CAN harm us. (Naomi’s Photos)

We teach the students how to copy links, look for information, submit answers,  switch between languages and formats and so much more.

We teach the students to protect themselves online, as in not sharing their telephone numbers / home addresses, being careful with their passwords and staying away from dubious sites.

And we do all this (and more) on the shared computers at school.

In my case, one computer in the English Center.

Students from all grades and the teachers have their ten fingers and their palms on the same keyboard and the same mouse for about forty hours a week.

Where else have these hand been and what have they been touching?

While I believe all teachers around the world support fostering a classroom culture of sharing, I don’t think sharing germs is on the list of goals.

And I haven’t been doing anything about it.

I came back to school the other day after being out sick for a week. That very same day one of our new students reminded me right away that he has “hygiene issues” (not verbally, of course. I’ll spare you the details) and then went over to do something on the computer.

Photo by Ido Epstein
Photo by Ido Epstein

I went out right after school and bought a big package of wipes (luckily another teacher gave me some wipes  that day at school after the aforementioned student worked on the computer).

All the sessions at conferences, discussions groups I’ve attended and posts I’ve read on using shared devices in class don’t mention hygiene. You don’t have to a special student with “issues” – so many kids sneeze, sniffle and cough for months around here.

Should I place the package of wipes at the edge of the computer desk and encourage each and every student to use one before his/her turn at the computer? I don’t want anyone making fun of another student or turning it into an issue. I would like the message to be the same as the one for protecting your password.

Common Sense.

What do you do?