Monday, December 9: What started as a smattering of snow on Sunday morning turned to freezing rain by late afternoon. This hodge-podge of liquids crystallized surreptitiously overnight. This morning brought a wonderland of glassy trees, creaking and groaning under the weight of all that ice.
While I was taking a long hot bath in my house, I heard a crash outside the window. When I went outside, I saw two large branches had broken off one of our two large pine trees.
In my front garden, I found ice-encrusted trees, bushes and berries, offered up like an exhibit of Dale Chihuly glass sculptures.
After warming up my car and scraping off the crusty layer of snow on the windshield, I drove to the college for my 11:00 class. I found the traffic on Little River Turnpike was stopped, but I didn’t know why. The traffic was moving at a crawl, so I figured whatever happened, at least people were moving through. When I got closer, I saw a tree had fallen across both lanes of the road. The only reason cars were moving was because they were doing U-turns or pulling off on side streets. By this time it was 10:55. I followed everyone else doing U-turns and went an alternate, and very roundabout, way to work. Almost to the college, on Hummer Road, I came upon a police blockade. The officer told me a car had driven into a sinkhole! He gave me another alternate route, and I finally arrived at class 15 minutes late. Only a smattering of students were in attendance, but they all came dribbling in over the next 15 minutes.
Snow is forecast again for tomorrow morning. Although I have a ton of things I need to get done with my students on this last week of class, I still hope they close the school if we’re going to have to contend with the same challenging, and treacherous, driving conditions!
Oh, how I love the change of seasons in Virginia! 🙂
Wednesday, October 23: I’ve undertaken a project in my Advanced Writing Workshop this fall. I have a small class of 10 ESL students who are very strong writers, especially for being non-native English speakers. I introduced them to WordPress blogs and gave them instructions in the computer lab about how to begin a blog of their own. I’m very proud of their creations.
Here is the list of assignments I gave them. I gave them 21 topics to choose from; they have to make 8 posts during the semester. Six of them have to be from my list and the other two topics can be their own.
Here is a list of possible topics. PLEASE WRITE ABOUT AT LEAST 6 OF THESE TOPICS. YOU CAN CHOOSE ANY TOPIC FOR THE OTHER TWO ENTRIES.
1. ON YOUR “ABOUT ME” PAGE: Write an introduction about yourself. Tell about where you came from, why you came to America, the feelings that you have about being here, your hopes and dreams, and where you see yourself in 5 years. YOU CAN TELL ANYTHING YOU WANT ABOUT YOURSELF HERE. Example: http://catbirdinturkey.wordpress.com/about-me
4. Go to a restaurant in the area that is from another culture than your own. Write about the experience of the food, the difficulties of understanding the food choices on the menu, the colors, textures and tastes of the food, the decor in the restaurant, the service and any companions you have as well as any interesting conversations you have.
6. List the top 10 experiences of your life. Then PICK ONE. Don’t think about it for long. Just write the first things that come to your mind. Write it in a narrative form: first this happened, then this happened, etc. Put yourself back in the place and time. Relax and allow the memories to trickle into your mind. Finish by writing WHY AND HOW this was a significant moment in your life. Example (Here I wrote briefly about my top 10 experiences in Oman: https://catbirdinoman.wordpress.com/2013/05/24/friday-meditation-my-top-ten-happy-memories-in-the-sultanate )
8. Tell about one relationship you have that has weathered more storms than others in your adult life. Describe the other person and how the relationship is. Were there any troubles that you had that made the relationship grow stronger?
9. Write an unusual TITLE. Let the TITLE be funny, silly, poetic, strange. Then pick one and write a story about the title.
10. Go to a museum, an art gallery, or a historical place here in America and tell about the experience, using as many of your senses as you can. Describe how the place feels, how it looks, the sounds and the smells. You can go anywhere that you think is artistic: a flower shop, a fruit market, a library or bookstore, a nature trail or garden, a concert or live music performance or a night club. Example: http://catbirdineurope.wordpress.com/2013/07/10/andalucia-cordobas-stunning-mezquita
12. Describe the closest friend you have made since you arrived in the USA. Tell about your relationship with that person: the kinds of things you enjoy with that person, the conversations you have, how you are similar and dissimilar in your ideas.
13. Go visit a familiar place at an unfamiliar time. For example, you could go to a supermarket after midnight, a city at night, a cemetery at sunset. Describe it and how you feel while you’re there.
14. Pretend you are an object – a cup, a shoe, a book or a pen. Write about this object in the first person. Give it a voice. Using the words “I am… describe your size, shape, color, texture, and how you feel in your surroundings.
15. Look at the objects you have in your drawers and tell why you have those objects and why they are meaningful or necessary to you.
16. Pick up any book you have on your shelf. Turn to page 79. Pick the 4th sentence on the page and write that sentence. Then brainstorm any ideas that come to your mind related to that sentence. Write an essay using that sentence as your topic sentence. 17. Tell about a particularly difficult day you had either traveling or in one of your days here in America. Describe the situation, telling why it was difficult, and how you felt, and how you managed to overcome the difficulty. Example: http://catbirdinindia.wordpress.com/2011/03/08/chandigarh-to-delhi-to-rishikesh-14-grueling-hours
18. Take a walk through your neighborhood and describe the details. Tell about the people you see, the buildings and trees. Tell about the smell of the air, the feel of the sidewalk, the cars in the parking lot or on your street, the sounds you hear.
Tuesday, October 8: Today I had to sit and listen as one of my Saudi students did a TED Talk presentation about “Manal al-Sharif, a Saudi woman who dared to drive.” My student, a female, criticized this woman, who dared to challenge a society’s rules about women driving. I believe Manal al-Sharif is to be applauded, but I felt sick when I heard this student criticize Manal on the grounds that “the traffic in Saudi is really crazy and a woman shouldn’t drive because it’s not safe, or, that a Saudi woman shouldn’t drive because she should be treated like a queen or a princess, or because our religion says a woman shouldn’t drive.” Hmmm. I didn’t know that cars were around when the Quran was written! My student even went on to say this woman is a betrayal to the Saudi people and to her country. The male Saudi students in the class also agreed strongly with my student that a woman shouldn’t drive for other equally ridiculous reasons that I can’t even remember now.
Manal al-Sharif says in this TED talk: There was this official study that was presented to the Shura Council — it’s the consultative council appointed by the king in Saudi Arabia — and it was done by a local professor, a university professor. He claims it’s done based on a UNESCO study. And the study states, the percentage of rape, adultery, illegitimate children, even drug abuse, prostitution in countries where women drive is higher than in countries were women don’t drive.
As far as I know, Saudi Arabia is the last country in the world where women don’t drive. Thus this “university professor’s study” has to be talking about ALL the other societies in the world when he cites his statistics.
My Asian students were up in arms with this students’ claims and opinions and had some good questions for the Saudi student: Why did Manal get arrested and thrown in jail if there is no law prohibiting women from driving? Because of tradition, they answered. It’s just not done.
I argued that in Cairo, where the traffic is the most chaotic and horrible of any country I’ve visited, Muslim women drive all the time.
It’s sad and incredibly frustrating to me that even students who have come to America to study still continue to think in such a backward way and have not been even one bit enlightened during their education and stay in America.
All of these arguments, and more equally ridiculous ones, that I’ve heard recently, are all lame reasons given by a male-dominated society to hold on to their power and keep women as second-class citizens. What continues to frustrate me, after living two years in Oman, and now teaching Saudi students in America, is that the Arab women I’ve met from these countries continue to make excuses as to why they allow this subjugation to continue.
At least, after spending two years in Oman, I can appreciate the more progressive thinking of the Sultan in allowing women in his country to have more freedom than in neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Finally, I applaud strong, forward-thinking women like Manal al-Sharif, for trying to break taboos and change a ferociously male-dominated society.
Thursday, October 3: Today at work, instead of actually teaching, I spent most of my time doing classroom management. My voice was hoarse from trying to talk over boisterous and unruly students and from calling students down for disrespect to me and to their fellow students. When I left work at 5:30, I nearly drove right past Sun & Moon Yoga Studio, where I have a Thursday night beginner class, because I was so distraught and annoyed that I thought I’d rather go straight home and have a glass of wine than to go to yoga. Luckily, I didn’t succumb to that desire, but instead made myself pull in to the studio, change my clothes and force myself to go to the yoga class. It was the perfect remedy to a disheartening day.
When I taught at Northern Virginia Community College two summers ago, I had a very grown up class of mostly Korean and Chinese students: my first and most amazing college-level ESL class. The Korean young men had already served their mandatory military duty and were very keen to learn. They were studious, personable and bright. Now, returning to the college after two years away, I find the mix of students has done an about-face. Where the ESL student makeup used to be about 80% Asians, it is now about 85% Saudis and Emiratis (this is a guess from the makeup of my classes). I don’t know what happened to bring about this change, but I’m not happy about it one bit. As I know from teaching abroad in Oman for two years, the students from the Gulf are not serious about study, are very immature and disrespectful, don’t consistently attend class, and are prone to cheating. I’m not alone in my frustration at teaching these students, as other teachers at the college complain about similar issues.
One of many reasons I left Oman was because of the immaturity of the students and because of classroom management issues. In Oman, teachers didn’t have the support of the administration: the students were always right, and held great power, because their parents pulled the purse strings. The main reason I wanted to teach at the college level in general, and not at an elementary or high school, was because I expected NOT to have to deal with these issues since college students are technically ADULTS. Since Saudis and Emiratis are way behind the curve in their maturity levels, I often feel like I’m dealing with a bunch of middle-schoolers. It makes my job misery, to be honest.
I know with absolute certainty that I would never return to the Gulf to teach again, no matter how well they pay, because of these issues. I certainly did not expect to return to teaching these students in such large numbers here in the U.S. At least in Saudi Arabia, the high pay MIGHT make up for it somehow (though in my eyes, no amount of pay can compensate for having to deal with these spoiled students with their sense of entitlement). But here in Virginia, the pay is lousy and we’re not even given full-time status. It’s simply not worth it.
Right now, Asia is looking pretty darn good.
So. My yoga practice, Asian in origin, was the perfect end to a horrible day. After leaving the studio, I went to Panera Bread where I treated myself to a taste of October: butternut squash ravioli. At least a momentary escape from the misery of my day.
Monday, August 20: Tonight I meet some of my former ESL students from Northern Virginia Community College for dinner at the Korean restaurant Choong Hwa Woon in Annandale, not far from the college campus. It was cute how one of the students, a boy from Hong Kong named Sze, remembered that I was going to be at home during August. He contacted me on Facebook on July 31: “hi are u back on August?” We talked about dates and then Sze turned the planning over to my top Korean student Song, who would be in contact with the Korean contingent.
I leave my house 45 minutes early because last year, when we met at this same restaurant for dinner, storms and flooding caused me to be 45 minutes late. About halfway through my drive, I realize that I have forgotten my camera!! I’m so upset but I know that if I return home to get it, I will be really late again!! So I continue on, hoping that one of the students will have a camera with them. It turns out Grace takes a couple of pictures with her iPhone, so the top two pictures are taken with her phone. 🙂
It turns out that 7 of my 13 students show up for dinner. We have a great time catching up with each other. Most of them have now finished with the ACLI (American Culture and Language Institute) at NOVA, and are taking their general education classes. They are all ambitious students and plan to major in various subjects such as business, interior design, computer engineering, mechanical engineering, and even hospitality. Grace, my top female student in the class, wants to go to the University of Virginia eventually. Song is thinking about Cornell or Virginia Tech.
They ask me about teaching in Oman and I tell them my students are mostly female. I say there is a big difference in culture: Koreans have a strong work ethic but are not generally confident about speaking. Omanis are very comfortable speaking, but need to develop a stronger work ethic and improve their grammar and writing. Teaching each culture has its challenges and rewards; they are very different.
As far as speaking, most of the students at our gathering are confident speakers in my presence; a couple are a little more reticent. I ask them about their current classes, where the class composition leans more toward Americans. Jeahoon says the classes are difficult and “we never say anything.” They’re hesitant to speak in a class full of native English speakers. Possibly they feel they will make mistakes and embarrass themselves. They may not feel confident in their abilities.
I often wonder what made our particular class so cohesive and comfortable. We developed an easy camaraderie very quickly. One factor was certainly the class size. With a small class of 13 students, it made it easy to allow everyone a chance to speak. And it was a Speaking & Listening class, where speaking was a huge part of the class grade. Also, they were in a class full mostly of other Asians, especially other Koreans. The fact that I had just come from a year teaching in Korea, and had traveled during the year to Vietnam and China, helped us to develop a connection. The only person whose country I hadn’t visited was that of an African girl, Astra. I understood their culture and I also understood what it is like to live as an ex-pat in a foreign country. I could identify with them and they with me.
Of course I like to think I am a good teacher. I know I do have positive qualities as a teacher. I am kind and encouraging, but also demanding. I have high expectations of my students and can be tough when necessary. I’m also not afraid to share myself with them, to be open and vulnerable, and to make fun of myself. I think this encourages my students to do the same. As we talked about every controversial topic known to man, they felt safe. I like to think I gave them a voice here in America.
After dinner, Song suggests we go to Honey Pig Izakaya for karaoke (what is called noraebang in Korea). You can rent rooms here for $40 (!) an hour (In Korea it was about $7). There is a table with a U-shape arrangement of bench chairs around it facing a big flat screen TV. We sit down and peruse a song title book as thick as a block of concrete. I pick out a song I want to sing and enter in a number: “California Dreamin'” by the Mamas and Papas. I tell these students that I taught all my Korean elementary students this song when we learned about weather words. The song comes up on the screen with the words highlighted as they occur in the song. In a Korean karaoke room such as this, the music videos that accompany the songs all have Korean characters and are usually dreamy productions.
I’m never shy in these situations and even though I can’t sing at all, I belt out “California Dreamin’,” just like I did in Korea in front of my elementary school students. We take turns singing. Song is a great singer, as is Grace. Chang-won even sings a song. Fun times all around! 🙂
At one point Grace puts up the song “Hero” by Mariah Carey. She says, “This song is for you, Cathy.” That makes me want to cry! She sings it and I sing along, trying not analyze too much how the words might relate to me. I’m so happy that they think of me as a positive influence in their lives, for whatever reason.
There’s a hero
If you look inside your heart
You don’t have to be afraid
Of what you are
There’s an answer
If you reach into your soul
And the sorrow that you know
Will melt away
And then a hero comes along
With the strength to carry on
And you cast your fears aside
And you know you can survive
So when you feel like hope is gone
Look inside you and be strong
And you’ll finally see the truth
That a hero lies in you
Sadly, at $40 an hour, we only stay for an hour. We part ways and I feel sad because I’m not sure if we will meet again. If I return to NOVA in the fall of 2013, possibly some of them will still be at NOVA. But some will have moved on to university. Of course, I wish them all success in achieving their dreams. And I will always carry them with me in my heart.
Friday, August 5, 2011: Today, I finished teaching my first ever college-level ESL (English as a Second Language) class at Northern Virginia Community College. I ended it with a little party, the movie SuperBad, and individual student conferences. A crazy ending to a fantastic semester.
This class was astoundingly fun. It was an intense high-level Speaking and Listening class. We met every morning, from 9 a.m. to 11:30, for 10 weeks. I’ve taught high school English before, and I have taught and tutored Korean elementary students, but teaching at this level was the best of all worlds. Not only were these students extremely bright, but they were advanced enough that I could do multitudes of amazingly cool activities with them. They were up to the task!!
I had a blast! It was the best job I have ever had, one in which I loved getting up in the morning and going to work, one in which I felt depressed on the weekends not to spend time with my students. Even though early in the semester I spent nearly 3 hours every afternoon preparing for a 2 1/2 hour class, I found this set the groundwork for the entire semester. Toward the end it got a lot easier. The class basically ended up teaching itself after we reached the halfway point.
Most of the students in what ended up being my 13-student class were Asians. Only one was from outside of Asia; she was from Chad in Africa. We had 9 Koreans, 2 Chinese guys (1 from the mainland and 1 from Hong Kong) and 1 Vietnamese guy. Many of the Korean boys had already served their mandatory military service, so were a little older, around 23 or so. My youngest student was 18.
Since I had been to visit all of their countries (except my African student’s), and had actually lived a full year in Korea, I could totally relate to their lives both in their homelands, as well as in their situation as students living in a foreign country. We compared stories about culture shock and how hard it is to adjust to life in a foreign country. I challenged them with interesting topics and activities that pushed them to hugely improve their speaking and listening skills. I felt so privileged to be able to work with them and in the process of teaching them, I think we became friends. 🙂
As the focus was speaking and listening, we listened often to news clips from NPR and CNN Student News. I assigned them a project called “News in a Nutshell,” in which they had to pick their own news clip, present it to the class with new vocabulary words, and then ask probing questions of their classmates. Besides News in a Nutshell, we also did a project called “This I Believe,” using longer clips from the now discontinued “This I Believe,” a show that used to run on NPR from 2004-2009 about beliefs that people hold dear to them. They had to pick a clip that expressed their own beliefs and then encourage their classmates to share their own personal beliefs. Class participation was a large part of their grade.
Besides news clips, we did a project called Good Vibrations, where they presented their favorite songs, with vocabulary, told about the musician and the meaning of the lyrics, and again asked thought-provoking questions. I was impressed by the songs they chose, full of deep meaning and controversial topics.
We read three flash fiction stories, “Can-Can” by Arturo Vivante, “Snow” by Julia Alvarez, and “Stockings”by Tim O’Brien, in which they each had to analyze and talk about different aspects of the story in a round-table discussion. These stories contained issues such as infidelity, superstition, loyalty, love, and the immigrant experience. We watched the movie Pay It Forward and discussed in great detail issues such as alcoholism, poverty and dysfunctional families as well as the idea of helping people without payback, which was at the core of the movie.
We did a fun Dear Abby type of activity, where they wrote an anonymous problem on a piece of paper and throughout the semester, we discussed solutions to the problem as a class. We did other note-taking and listening activities and had vocabulary quizzes every week. We learned American idioms and did role plays and group discussions where they had to use the idioms.
In addition, we went on a field trip to the Newseum in Washington and then some of us had a late lunch at Vapiano in Chinatown. At the Newseum, many of the Korean students were surprised that Korea was rated as only “partly free” for freedom of the press. The Chinese boys were not surprised that China was rated “not free.”I gave them a scavenger hunt assignment where they had to find specific things on every floor, but as with some of my assignments gone awry, it was too ambitious and overwhelming. I changed it midway through, telling them only to find one interesting thing on every floor. On the 4th floor, we saw a piece of the twin tower from 9/11 and found out about problems journalists faced in covering the 9/11 terrorist attacks. We saw a part of the Berlin Wall and the story behind its fall in 1989. We saw the bombed car of a journalist who was investigating mafia activity. We got to act as reporters in the interactive news room, which was a real hoot.
Their final project was to do a Power Point presentation about themselves in a format much like those found in online dating profiles, such as OKCupid. I showed them an example of my own as “Passionate Nomad.” They had to address questions in their power points such as This is Me…, What I’m doing with my life…, I’m really good at…, The first things people usually notice about me are…, The 6 things I could never do without…, I spend a lot of time thinking about…, My guru told me my future is…, My hairdos over the years…
This was most revealing and enjoyable for me because I got to find out so much about my amazing students. One used to do professional modeling and has a hobby of photography. She had professional photographs and created a stunningly artistic presentation. All the students made my Power Point look amateurish by comparison. One of my boy students did an adorable presentation that took me quite by surprise. When he put up his slide that said “I spend a lot of time thinking about…”, the other students in the class started laughing. I looked up and noticed that there was my name at the bottom of the slide with a heart next to it. He went through the things he thought about and then he said, “And I spend a lot of time thinking about my English teacher…” The other students laughed and said, “Ahhh, he just wants a good grade!” His face turned bright red and he said, “No, I really think about her and think she is so pretty and nice.” It was so surprising and so cute… and it really made my day!
Between the activities we did, the topics we discussed, and the knowledge and respect I gained for them, we established a wonderful rapport. Each day held immeasurable pleasure for me. I loved being in their midst and felt more energetic and enthusiastic about life than I have felt in a long time. I knew after teaching them that teaching college-level foreigners is my destiny, my dream in life. I thank these wonderful students for this adventure of a lifetime!
The growing certainty within myself that this is my destiny was only enhanced by the thing I did driving to work each morning. I get an email every morning at 7 a.m. called The Daily Love, founded by a guy named Mastin Kipp. As I drove to work, stopping at too many stop lights to count, I read snippets of this email on my BlackBerry for inspiration, love and guidance. Day after day, I grew to realize that I am on the way to achieving my dream of teaching foreign university-aged students in a subject which I love, the English language. Admiring these students for making a great leap and leaving the comfort of their own countries to venture into a new land brought me a new appreciation for my own personal experience in the previous year, doing just what they’re doing but in reverse, as I lived and worked in Korea. I know now in my heart of hearts that I’m meant to work abroad, teaching English to university students, following my dual passions of travel and writing.
Thursday, September 8: One of my best and favorite students wrote me on Facebook that he’d like us to have dinner together before I leave the country. He took it upon himself to contact all his classmates and make reservations at a Korean restaurant, Choong Hwa Woon, near the campus. He managed to get 9 students to come so there were 10 of us altogether. Apparently my African student moved to Maryland and the other two had class tonight. On this night, we had torrential downpours and flooding everywhere. Traffic was a nightmare. Since they all live close to campus or came directly from class, they all arrived on time. However, since I came from further afield, had to backtrack at one point due Foxmill Road being totally flooded, and then encountered a horrible backup turning from Pickett Road onto Little River Turnpike, which also had areas of flooding, I was nearly 45 minutes late!! I told them once I got there that I thought they would mark me tardy, since I marked them tardy to my class if they were even 5 minutes late! They all laughed at that.
I was so happy to see them again and spend time in their company. And I felt honored that they took time out of their busy schedules to meet me again. They told me they loved my class. One of my students said it was her first semester in America and her first class, and my class made her feel like she belonged. She told me she loves my energy.
I’m thankful for the new friends I have in these students and I hope they’ll keep in touch with me as they mature and realize their dreams. They’re an inspiration to me, as are all immigrants, especially after my own “immigrant” experience abroad!