This One’s For Teachers

Okay, teachers: when’s the last time you sat in a staff meeting and had a truly student-centered, collaborative conversation without wanting to find out how far from the walls your own head would bounce?

No?  Anyone?  You in the back, playing HQ trivia on your knee under the table when 3 pm falls during pd time?

I know.

Isn’t it great when it actually happens, though?

Snideness aside, I do work with some fantastic, dedicated teachers and have high hopes that collaboration will improve, since we finally have some sort of administrative stability in my district.  For the first 11 years, though, there was a different admin team (building through Central Office) literally yearly- I mean, people were whizzing through these jobs with the longevity of your typical Trump hire, and that doesn’t really bode well for, you know, trust or fidelity to the idea of committing to any long-term initiative.  Doesn’t matter how great the leadership is if the ducks stay lame for over a decade.  People generally just hid in their own bubbles, focused on their own students, and did the best work they could by themselves.  

But I know what the larger-scale ideal can look like, and yo: we have to keep shooting for that.

Quite a few years ago, I started representing my staff at district union meetings since- well, to be honest, since nobody else would do it and I thought it was a big deal.  

Because of my inability to sit down and shut up (more the latter than the former; I’m actually world class at sitting and I practice variations of it daily) I injected myself during the first meeting into a contentious debate about teacher evaluation and said something that must have reflected one of my less idiotic musings (ex: why is there only one rapper named Common?) because the president hijacked me after the meeting for further conversation.  And as a result, she singlehandedly changed my entire professional life.  

She introduced me to effective teaming.  She brought me into groups of thoughtful educators within and outside of my district representing varied, nuanced perspectives, and she welcomed me at conferences (TURN, specifically, which you should absolutely check out if you’re in the US and your d is into research-based effective practice and social justice through labor/management collaborations) that challenged my thinking about how I do my job.

And those teams actually had focused conversations about how to do good work together.  People didn’t always agree, but I was leaving meetings- meetings!- with a sense of having worked hard with a group of like-minded people who sometimes even got to make funny jokes.  And I was inspired to improve my practice.  

It was so satisfying.

I’m sitting in the same kind of meeting now, in Singapore, with a bunch of teachers collaborating on student conduct grades.  Form teachers (like a homeroom or advisory teacher) gave initial impressions, but all educators who work with each student- they go through them individually- can give evidence that informs where a kid would fall on the rubric.  

I’ve been here an hour already, and this team has been on task the whole time, can respectfully disagree with each other while talking through the evidence they’ve gathered, and sometimes laugh, even, without going into a tangential wormhole.  There are 33 adults in this room and they’re going through each of their children thoughtfully and with love.  

I’m totally inspired.  It reminds me how many teachers are willing to do this work with a positive attitude- they’ve been here since 7 am, will be here until at least 5, and I don’t know where they all live but my commute is over an hour so they can’t all be close- when there’s so much else to be done, too.  

I look at teachers I work with, and teachers here, and teachers all over my social media feeds who are doing way more than the average troll knows.  So much of it is thankless and emotionally exhausting work, but it’s so, so important to do together and to do well.  

Cheers, y’all.  Thanks for doing the best work.  I’m excited to connect with you again.

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(Pic from the UAE and not Singapore, but it’s a bunch of teachers collaborating so we’re just going to run with it… also I’m wearing a suit, photographic evidence of which does not exist anywhere outside November of 2016. Does it make you take me more seriously?)

Pulau Ubin

You’ll need a fortifying breakfast to hike around in “feels like” 100º sun all day looking for wild boars, and I recommend the tentacle noodles at the place by the dock at Pulau Ubin.  If you get there by ten, you’ll have your pick of seaside tables while the rest of the day tourists pick out whichever bicycle they’ll be harassing you off the roads with later.  

Very soon into your well-marked and leisurely stroll, you will have sweat right through your dark t-shirt, which you have not chosen for its ability to hide such things or, for that matter, for wicking quality, which was a gigantic mistake.  So ladies, wear your most flatteringly-shaped brassiere.  It will briefly (underwear pun!) be the only thing visible of your upper parts.  

Don’t worry, that’ll soon be soaked, too.

If you follow a similar path to mine, you’ll saunter toward the signs that say “Chek Jawa”, which has a pleasing Jedi name and which you have noted from your Internet research is the “don’t miss” wetlands part, even though you did not read so far as the “go at low tide” part.  It matters not; Pulau Ubin is chock full of sweet nature if you know how to shut the hell up with your squeaky bicycle!  

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When you pass the pond with all the lily pads, definitely go for a closer look.  Dragonflies patiently await your fancy camera, and if you’re lucky, you’ll hear an ominously close splash.  Look at it- the head will be about the size of your foot, except black and with the requisite reptilian eyeballs, and since that is the only part poking out of the water in which the demon will take its leave, you will briefly grapple with the horror that you have somehow come across a hungry anaconda and your fight or flight response will completely forget to tell you that you haven’t hopped a wormhole to Brazil.

It’s good, it gets the blood going.  Plus, monitor lizards are really cool, too.  

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Continue down the the lush roads and trails.  You may find it prudent to take out your headphones in order to hear the warning slither, and it’s advisable to pause often to ascertain the source of the jungle sounds.  The treetop ruckus is common and means macaques; hissing means you should stay this far away:

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The groundswell of rustling might mean boar, but they’re easy to miss unless it’s dawn when they move to new food (apparently, and dammit).  I only caught a quick glimpse of one and it was through the underbrush, and only because I was practicing my Katniss Everdeen hunting walk with my ears open.  By the time I got my camera focused, he was merely a flash in the palms.  

Still, it pays to be still.  Pick any pretty area and stand for a bit, waiting for humanity’s jabber to fade in the three-speed distance.  If you let yourself settle and wait for movement, you’re almost guaranteed a treat.  This crab wasn’t even my favorite, but as it’s photogenic, here you go:

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The wetlands are worth a good gander, even when tidally off-peak.  You’ll still get these trails, and these photo ops:

And I do love me a good mangrove grove.  

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So yes, Pulau Ubin: recommended.  Bring six bucks for the round-trip bumboat ferry, and enjoy yourself as much as I did.

And tomorrow: I look for the equally elusive wild one.  Yes, folks, Benedict Cumberbatch is in Singapore.

Oh, shoot- I hope he didn’t see me in my sweaty shirt.

The Awkward Stuff

“I hope you don’t miss us because we will never miss you.  We love you,” said one of my students, baffling me on this slide show they put together before I left. She does speak a couple of languages so, you know, semantics… and anyway it didn’t confuse me as much as, for example, this:

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If you look closely, to the far left of that pink thing tooting on the surprised man, it says, “Hey, remember me?  We were best friends, when you were single.”  

Absolute befuddlement here.  Whether or not I am single at any given time affects my relationship with students exactly none.  Wait, no.  One of my fourth graders in Charleston really liked Pete.  One day in class, he raised his hand politely during something completely unrelated like verb tenses, and when I called on him, he said, “um”.  

I remember this vividly, like 2004 was yesterday.

“Last night I learned what a virgin was and I know you have Pete and everything and I just wanted to know if you were one.”

Totally charmed. I never want to lead a classroom where kids don’t feel comfortable enough to ask me stuff like that, even if it’s #1 awkward (sorry, #2 awkward.  #1 awkward always and forever goes to the student who, when I asked another kid what he was going to do to fix something, waited through five seconds of tense silence before yelling, “hit ‘er in the boob!”  Priceless, and catchphrase 2012.) 

Anyway, the virgin thing led to a really good conversation with 26 9-year-olds about how there are some topics people tend to keep quiet about in professional places like school and work, unless of course you are President.   Isn’t it better that they learn that stuff from someone who can understand it as curiosity and then answer it with compassion?  I thought it was a good learning moment, but in retrospect perhaps why the principal took to observing (and no joke, transcribing every word of) my class on a daily basis, driving me right out of teaching until the Pete thing fell apart and I found myself dazed in a classroom in Maine. 

Where I taught more students who continually make me grin.  I mean, they sent me these.  What do these things mean?  

There were a lot of really beautiful notes, too, and I’m thankful the kids took the time to make something this special even though the nice ones are not nearly as hilarious as the ones that say things like “we shall miss you, most of us at least”.

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I was looking at it yesterday because- like in Charleston- I’ve temporarily left teaching and I miss that interaction with kids, and with close relationships in general.  I love this whole experience but I came here alone, as a complete stranger. I definitely did not anticipate feeling that so deeply.  

The thing is, as a grown one and realistically, I know I’m not alone.  I miss the ease with which I can be with friends and family, but in the scheme of things, a couple of months in a adult time is nothing.  

It does go back to the kids, though.  The more I’m learning here about humanity and child development and the effect of childhood trauma, the more I realize that forming a solid student-teacher relationship of trust is absolutely the most important thing I do.  Some kids don’t have that knowledge that things will get better in a couple of months.  Some kids need a smile every day- the consistency of knowing that at least one person is there for them.  All kids need to know that I genuinely care about and will listen to them- not just during the attention-getting boob comments, but every single time time they need it.  And contrary to what I used to believe- I used to think my actions, having high expectations, and pushing them to do well would show them I care- I know now that I have to explicitly tell them consistently and often.  People, especially kids who mostly deal with unreliable (at best) adults, should not be forced to guess at the reasons for my behavior.

I think I’ve done a decent job of it since my virgin days of teaching.  I still have a few students who contact me here every week, from the ones whose class I left to alumni I had years ago, and I love that.  I love knowing that if I do good work, it means something.

I just hope that they know that, too.

Sex, Guns, and Chicken

I swear I’m not going to do another sex ed entry so soon, but in the name of reinforcing the importance of a subject I’ve previously covered:

“I think sexuality education is very valuable,” said the girl today, during the focus group (five kids ages 13-16) I got to hold about Character and Citizenship Education.  I didn’t prompt that part, lest you think I corral teenagers into some sort of Frank Talk With a Foreigner zone of embarrassment.  My question was about CCE in general, and what they find useful in the lessons.

Anyway, the kid immediately looked at her hands.  Then she giggled, and looked at her friend, who giggled more.

The other three young ones started snickering, too, and I couldn’t help but join.

“Soooooooooo, yeah,” she concluded as our laughter trickled to a halt.  It was in just exactly the manner of many of my students back home.

“I mean… yeah.”

The friend then added that she found it really useful to have protected time to talk about what’s going on in the news.  I was heartened by this, as I am when I see kids all over Twitter being worldly and empathetic in their response to violence and injustice.  Aloud, I wondered if they focused on Singaporean or Southeast Asian news, but she said no, that it’s global affairs, that we all share a world.

It’s possible I looked a little sheepish.  “So, you talk about the US and stuff, too? About our…”

“Guns,” another boy filled in.  And he gave me a look and a shrug like, we know it’s not you, but… guns.

That’s the reputation we’re shouldering, and it’s distressing.  I popped over to the Straits Times today- that’s Singapore’s biggest daily newspaper- and it’s unbelievable what a difference exists in our national headlines.  The two biggest local stories (outside of the Malaysian election, which is a bit of a media vampire) are

  1. the crispiness of a chicken that was cooked on a television show (they call it Rendanggate, by the way, “Rendang” being the chicken recipe and “gate” being evidence that there is no earthly limit to historic American corruption and the way we spread its name) and
  2. this dude who was putting masking tape on his fingers so he wouldn’t leave prints on the shirts of the girls whose boobs he was grabbing on bridges.  Seriously.  He was caught, caned, and imprisoned for three years, and that is truly the most dangerous or violent thing I’ve heard of since I arrived here in January.  I love feeling so safe here; it’s comforting.  Compare that with, for example, US gymnastics and try not to throw up.

Wow, I just got really demoralized, but then heard a ding from my phone.  No joke, this guy I know texted me this:

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See how far it’s spread?  At least I’m grinning again, and I should probably end on that note.

Sex, violence, and chickens: it’s never a typical day.  Oh, and the moral?  It’s the same here as it is when I look at the US news right now.

The moral here is that the kids are alright.  We have got to keep talking to and with them.

On Singlish

Turns out, I could not pay my hospital bill at 7/11.  Well, I could have, but who carries $2,200 cash into a place whose inventory is mostly dedicated to rice triangles, condoms*, and coffee in a can?  We teachers have to put bills like that on credit and pay them off until we’re 105 and finally, according to LePage’s “teachers will never deserve to retire; let’s drive them out” pension plan, be able drag our decrepit selves out of the classroom.

You’re damn right I stand with you, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia.

I am really *&(^% frustrated, can you tell?  (Side note: Wow, in the olden days, those symbols were exclusively for indicating the angry swearword.  Nowadays, you never know what accidental emoji you might be forming.)

Language, dang.

It’s 3:30 pm.  I’ve been on hold with the payment desk at the hospital for 34 minutes and I’ve been working on getting my insurance and money organized since approximately last week, and nothing at all is straightforward.  I am extremely grumpy about it and so I am going to talk about Singlish, which gives me the pleasant glow.

Singlish is one of my favorite things about Singapore.  It first charmed me when I noticed the “la” at the ends of sentences, which of course took me straight back home to all my Franglais friends from the County.  Here’s my favorite incidence, which I found hanging from a table in a store:

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While English the main official language here, Singlish is the more charming colloquial one.  It’s a sort of creole mix of English, Malay, Tamil and some of the more common Chinese dialects like Hokkien and Cantonese. To me, it’s the most “Singapore” thing in town, a uniquely non-ethnic, non-racial, purely national reflection of identity.  I love listening to it, and even though I can only understand approximately half of what’s happening and potentially none of the intent, it pleases me to my bones that a country that boasts of dozens of different mother tongues (if all Chinese dialects are included, which they definitely should be) has figured out a way to merge them all into one magnificent tool of intercultural communication.

I also love that the Singlish satirical website was called talkingcock.com, after the Singlish phrase that indicates verbal nonsense.  I love that when the government came up with a “Speak Good English” campaign that urged people to stick with the Queen’s E, there was a snarky “Speak Good Singlish” crusade in response.

I love that there’s such evidence of linguistic evolution, that people can come together from different backgrounds to create something dynamic and lyrical and their own.

It all gives me a great, lifting hope in humanity, which I desperately need when I’m concurrently dealing with insurance companies.

Gotta go, y’all.  Interminable paperwork calls.

*I am continually flabbergasted by the prominence of prophylactics in Singapore groceries and convenience stores.  Even though I try not to be a jerk about having preconceived notions (oooh, there’s a conception joke in there somewhere) I definitely did not expect to see things like condoms on perpetual display.  Especially since the government is so concerned about the low birth rate that they have actually subsidized baby making!  Honestly if they transferred the heavy levies on booze to condoms, I guarantee the problem would solve itself.  Sorry, Mom.

Haw Par Villa

I’ve been wanting to go to hell for a long time, and Easter Sunday seemed like a good occasion to finally bite the bullet.  For the record and despite what people have been telling me my whole life (especially Sean, that horrible holier-than-thou-er from college) it is not possible for me to go straight to hell.  From Yio Chu Kang, you have to switch from the red line to the yellow at Bishan.

After that it’s a pretty straight shot, though.

So I ventured, and it took me here:

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Hell is Haw Par Villa, this truly bizarro selfie world that bills itself as an Asian cultural park.  It was built in the 1930s by someone who almost certainly was reincarnated to whomever it was who invented Instagram, because that’s pretty much all people do here.

Hard not to, when there are over a thousand statues and life sized dioramas that look like this:

Haw Par Villa also boasts the weirdest turtle pond ever.

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It’s all free, but you do have to get there on time, as elucidated by easily my favorite sign there:

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If you head that way, however, you’ll be treated to some extremely graphic artistic displays of all the different ways of being punished for your earthly sins.  They are not shy about showing severed body parts and blood and gore and stuff; it can really put you off your breast milk.

The whole thing’s very Game of Thronesy, yes?  And a decent way to kill a couple of hours.

Don’t get caught, though- I hear the punishment for murder is pretty severe.

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Let’s Talk About Sex (Education), Baby

Last night I dreamed I didn’t kill the demogorgon when it was small and innocent, meaning I was responsible for all the lives it took as an adult.  A demogorgon is a monster on Netflix’s Stranger Things.  As far as I can tell from the dialogue, it is a son of a bitch, and as far as I can tell from its appearance, it is both slimy and terrifyingly aggressive.  I mean those descriptors in the literal way, not the presidential way.  Anyway, when it launched itself at me in the dream, I woke right the hell up from my fitful REM.

Went to breakfast.  Narrowly missed being squashed by a motorized sidewalk scooter.  Was narcoleptically assaulted by the smelly man on the train.

It was shaping up to be a really foul day until my colleague wanted to talk about pornography.

“I want to pick your brain,” she said.  We were hanging out in the bleachers watching kids run relays for Sports Day, so there was plenty of time for the chat.

“What do you think about, you know… 13 and 14-year-olds in relationships and stuff like that?”

I know that sounds much more tame than the way I just represented, but bear in mind we had to ease into it.  For starters, who leads with the x-rated in the first set of interactions with a near stranger?  In my experience, nobody outside of Foreplay*, Forest Avenue, or a frat party.  Plus, in the back and forth I have with a lot of the teachers here, we’re always semi-consciously aware that whatever we say might be taken to represent our entire respective countries.  We’re careful until we build the kind of trust that leads to the eye-rolling conversations about how dumb the same stuff is everywhere.  And how hilarious the same stuff is everywhere.

And how problems we’re aware of as teachers are also the same. Those problems include the consequences of our students’ access to porn.

So here’s the thing, we said to each other: what kid isn’t curious? One generation’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover is the next generation’s National Geographic magazine is the next generation’s VHS of Basic Instinct, and so on.  Except now if a kid has a question, the easiest, least embarrassing way to get it answered is to type a couple of words in a search bar.  It is very, very simple to access graphic adult entertainment, and the vast majority of people choose the free route rather than the $130,000 one.

And this presents some problems.

For an in depth look at those problems, check out The Butterfly Effect.  I’m recommending the whole thing, but Jon Ronson specifically talks about its effect on children here. I’d like to say I’ve read studies, too, on kids who have fewer physically interactive relationships because of the Internet, and who have unrealistic expectations for relationships because their information comes primarily from videos of sexual caricature.  I know I’ve heard or read about how the youngest generation is having less sex but more sexual problems than any generation on record, but I don’t want to google it here because I already looked for one study by searching “effects on kids of free porn” before realizing that if somehow my Internet is being monitored, and if somehow they’re only looking at key words, then I’m about to be in some demogorgon-level trial and tribulation.  But I would certainly encourage you to look for the research, because I know I’ve heard oh!  Wait!  I definitely heard stuff on NPR, which is totally safely searchable.

Okay, here: Researchers Explore Pornography’s Effect on Long Term Relationships

It’s fascinating, right?  So this teacher and I were trying to figure out the best way to tackle these issues in the classroom: she in Singapore, I in Maine.  We’ve both seen way too many kids affected by sexual confusion and cyberbullying, and we’ve both spoken with parents who are shocked, sometimes defensive, and more often lacking in the tools/knowledge/understanding of their relationships to be able to be both honest and effective with their kids.  We’re both worried about the repercussions on an entire generation’s social well-being if we neglect to address the reality of something that’s on their minds for approximately 14 hours per day (this estimate is not remotely scientific, mind you.  How on earth would you even quantify that?)

Here, sex education is part of Character and Citizenship Education.  This is mandated by the Ministry, so there’s no question of kids getting it or not like there might be in the United States.  So they’re a step ahead of us there, but it’s not always easy getting the right adults in that position.  Plus, some topics are taboo, so a lot of the questions that kids have might be repressed.  Or answered in this book I came across:

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Not ashamed to admit I spent an hour inhaling those chapters.  It’s not one I would recommend for science-based or socially inclusive answers.  On the other hand, there’s a seaweed reference in there that I immediately sent to four of my more immature and like-minded friends.

Anyway, in the United States, as far as I can tell, sex education is a complete kerfuffle.  It might be abstinence, biology, or condoms on a banana.  I know it’s honest and open in some places, but certainly not universally.  What I worry about is that it’s yet another thing that’s often placed on the budgetary chopping block, when realistically it should be a robust part of kids’ health programs (which I believe should be a much bigger part of their education, incidentally.  I mean, what’s more important than health?  Shoot, we live in a country where individuals can’t afford to get sick; might as well teach people how not to.)

So yes, if we want our kids to grow up happy and healthy, somebody has to acknowledge how prevalent this is in their lives and be able to discuss it with them and teach them in a way that’s actually meaningful.

I mean, I’d rather them be watching Stranger Things than stranger things.

*A bar in Portland on Fore Street.  It’s both more clever and more fun than it sounds, but you kind of have to be 26.