Happy 2008!

Today, I made a schedule for my weekdays. Since so much of what I am trying to have time for doesn't have a specific time associated with it, I very often get much less done than I want or could. Setting up schedules has helped me in the past, so I decided to do it again (schedules also have the potential of pissing me off and making me rebel, or of shaming me and making me give up, so it's a fine line I gotta walk here).

My new schedule allocates time for my 3 paid jobs, plus taking a class at Cal next semester, and five other activities that I want time for. It also leaves me with most of my weekends unscheduled, which I am hoping will prevent any insurrection perpetrated by (and upon) myself.

Of course, it doesn't really start until next week, when school reopens, but I'll start implementing parts of it tomorrow to give it the oomph of new year's day!

Unrelated side comment: Our downstairs neighbors returned from their holidays this morning with a real piano, a piano which is perfectly audible through the floor. Luckily, I do like piano music. Here's to hoping they learn a variety of pieces!

Although many of my friends are jaded about the marking of the new year, I like it. I like the idea of recognizing and welcoming change. I like the idea of fresh starts and new beginnings, and also the reflection on the past year. Making resolutions is a way of embracing hope and intentionality. It's a stand against fatalism, which has its place and usefulness the rest of the year, but which should be made to sit quietly in the corner sometimes while optimism and can-doism take the floor for an ecstatic dance.

May your new year be full of happy surprises, opportunities to learn and grow, and many moments of pure joy.

group hug

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Game + Vocab + Helping People

If you pride yourself on your large vocabulary, have a little free time, and like a challenge, go check out Free Rice. It's a multiple choice vocab test with words at every level of English knowledge. You find out immediately what the correct answer is and then get a new question. If you get three questions in a row correct, then you move up to the next level. You can also move down by getting too many wrong (I'm not sure if just one wrong moves you down; I was too busy answering questions to figure it out).

If you're not already sold, how's this? For every word you get correct, a donation of rice is made to feed the hungry through the UN. How can this be, you ask? Well, there are ads on the site. The ad revenue goes to the UN food program. The site is actually operated without profit. It is a sister site to poverty.com, for eradication of world poverty. I think it is a clever idea well instantiated. Go there.

(Thanks, Langguj Gel, for the referral!)

Why ask if you know the answer?

"Perhaps real wisdom lies in not seeking answers at all. Any answer we find will not be true for long. An answer is a place where we can fall asleep as life moves past us to its next question. After all these years I have begun to wonder if the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company." --Rachel Remen [my bolding]

Does she really mean that we shouldn't pursue answers at all, or simply that we should pursue answers without any expectation of finding them? That we should not be afraid of the unanswerable questions?

I can't give up looking for answers entirely, but I think trying to find The Answer to any question is misguided. Without some answers, even lowercase, we wallow in inaction and indecision, places that are all too familiar, but rarely satisfying. I believe in intentional change, both of ourselves and our environment (which we change unintentionally merely by existing). Intentional change must be directed by something like answers, however temporary they may be.

I agree wholeheartedly with Remen that life's journey should be taken in good company!

Olden Goldies

Make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.” I remember questioning this song when I was a child, not liking the generalization that old friends would be more valuable than new ones (the whole thing further confused by the fact that I liked silver, as a metal, better than gold, but knew their symbolic place in relation to each other). I’ve been re-exploring this issue lately, though, with a new appreciation of the old song.

Last summer we visited the northwest and had the opportunity to hang out with various old friends. Some we have never been out of touch with, so they are not just old friends but current friends. Others we hadn’t seen in years. We spent a weekend with a couple and their lovely children of 7 and 5 who were not yet born when we’d last seen the parents. It was completely relaxed and comfortable, which really amazed us all. Another friend was one from elementary school, whom I’d seen once or twice in high school but not since. Although I was under the cloud of a head cold at the time, it was remarkable how well we felt we knew each other, despite having lived more than half our lives since we’d last really hung out. Does this mean that who we are is already completely established by our teens? In some ways it seems it is; however, I would hate to think that the intervening years of experience haven’t affected me (and I know they have).

What is it about an old friend that is so exciting and yet comfortable? Less than a week ago I had a lovely visit from a friend from high school and our early twenties. We were joined by my best high school girlfriend, whom I have been seeing more and more of since I’ve been back in California. Hanging out with these old friends left me feeling light-hearted and joyful, almost giddy. And I’m not just talking about the wine or the fact that are both really smart clever funny people who make me laugh. There was something that lingered.

The next day, I sought, as I had done several times unsuccessfully in the past, to find some of the other people who were in our writing group “back in the day” (as kids now refer to anything more than a minute ago). Whether through my superior search skills or just better net saturation, I found two fellow students and our creative writing teacher. What a bonanza! A small flurry of emails ensued and promises of a reunion in the new year.

The pleasure of reconnecting with these old friends is perhaps enhanced by the fact that they are all writers or creators of some type, all with a deep love of reading and appreciation for language. While teaching students all of last year who, in the majority, did not like to read, and then spending my writing energy on the very unsatisfying task of graduate school essays, I have become more distant from fellow language-lovers. With these new-old connections, I feel revitalized and renewed, like I will be able to walk again after a long convalescence.

All of that writery hooey aside, I think there is something generally comforting about old friends. I don’t know who I really was eighteen years ago; I know that I feel in some ways like a completely different person—wiser, more patient, more flexible, less bossy, more certain about some things, less certain about others—but I’m also the same person. I've come to realize since my childhood dislike of gold, that it's not considered more valuable than silver or bronze just because it's shiny but because of its other important qualities. Maybe what we seek in an old friend is the flexibility to accommodate our changes and the strength to maintain the bond: like gold, old friendships are pliable yet strong. [Okay, metaphor, please retire now, I've used you beyond respectability.]

Back in the saddle

That last post wasn't intended as a farewell to the blog, but somehow it became one. Perhaps with this new post at the top, I'll get back in the habit. Since I wrote last...

I spent the month of September studying for the GRE, which I took toward the end of the month. Fortunately I scored well enough that I didn't feel I needed to take it again.

I was asked to teach one class (two days/wk) at the school I was at last year and I accepted, even though the class had already begun by the time I took it over and it turned out to be much more of a regular school thing than the optional after-school thing I initially thought it was.

I got another part-time job working at a nonprofit that sets up a summer internship and study program for disadvantaged youth. It's a great organization, and I do my work for them from home. A new kind of thing for me, but using skills I've developed from other jobs.

I met with Justin's colleagues and have begun (in principle) a collaboration wherein I help them develop teaching materials for the endangered language they are documenting.

The term ended at school and I agreed to teach another Tues/Thur class. This one I designed and I'm excited about seeing how it goes. We've had two meetings so far.

I've also agreed to start another class, once/week, for English learners. That hasn't begun yet.

I've turned down a chance to work on the school's charter renewal and re-accreditation submission, although I will probably end up being involved in some way.

I've almost finished reading Don Quijote (both parts), which is a great and funny book and should be much more widely read, but maybe published as a serial so its 1000+ pages are not so intimidating.

What else? Who knows! There are always changes afoot here.

Farewell pizza

Send-off for S & E, with other linguists.

Home Sweet Oakland

We're back from our trip up north, where we visited friends in Seattle and Portland. When I got back from Mexico, was fortunate enough to visit with S & E and watch the excitement of packing for an international flight that would take them home to a new life together in Australia.

The following day, Justin & I flew up north. It feels that I have been on the move, both physically and mentally, for longer than the month that it has been. Of course I'm still in the middle of the whirlwind; many changes are still afoot as Justin starts his first semester of full-time graduate study at Cal and I figure out what I'm going to do for income next.

If the four photos included here are not enough for you, check here to see all my photos of Mexico. I've labelled them, but didn't sort through to select only the best so there's kind of a lot to slog through. Sorry!

Catalin in Mexico, part 1

Well, I'm here after a bit of airplane trouble and an unexpected night in Mexico City. My bag finally arrived Saturday evening and I'm now settled in my homestay. It's a beautiful city and there is no shortage of tourists, mostly American, but also plenty of Mexican tourists as well. I'm having trouble logging into my blog, so Justin is posting this. Don't know how many posts I'll make after all. Am keeping a journal though, and have taken a few pictures. Can check email at school.

Back in action

Coming soon... Guanajuato, Mexico.

I leave tomorrow, and will try to post a few observations and photos during the two and a half weeks I'll be there. Get out your Spanish dictionaries, as I plan to put my language skills to use!

Mountain Highs

Seven people. The seventh day. The seventh month. The year 2007. A lovely hike in the high Sierra. Alpine meadows full of wildflowers. Trees Mountain lakes. Snow patches. Clear water. Green- and orange-lichen encrusted rocks. Spectacular views.

Good company. Fresh air. Campfire. Guitar. Conversation.

The Bulb

We've been on quite a few field outings since I last checked in. This is a picture of student M checking out the bay on our trip to the Bulb in Albany. San Francisco can be seen shrouded in fog across the bay. With the students we took our bikes on BART to Berkeley, rode down to the Berkeley Marina, then north on the trail to the horsetrack. The Bulb is basically behind the track. The kids found the ride a challenge--they remarked on it and seemed pretty pleased with themselves for having done it. I think they would have been satisfied just to have arrived and sat on logs in the sand looking out at the water, but when we started walking around the Bulb, they were really into it. For those who've never been there, it's a former dump that is now a wild park, with lots of the junk turned into art. There's basically an ever-changing gallery of sculture, painting and plain weird stuff, plus a variety of wild plants, birds, and people live there. I think the only thing the kids regretted about the day was that they hadn't brought spray paint to add their own touch to the piles of concrete rubble. On the way back, we rode into El Cerrito and caught BART there. It was a long and happy day.

Justin and I rode out there the following weekend (eschewing the BART riding) and took more pictures, like this:

Spring Break has broken (like the first spring)

Justin discovered a bike path in Berkeley and brought me out to explore it together. We rode up to the beginning of the trail and followed it up to the N. Berkeley BART station. From there, it followed along the BART line all the way through Albany and El Cerrito to Richmond. I think the length of the trail is about ten miles, and it is all pretty pleasant--a dedicated bike/skate trail with a separate paved walking path, so that pedestrians and bikers don't have to be scared or resentful of each other. At the end of the line in Richmond, past the Richmond BART station, the trail was planted with a bunch of flowers.

It was really lovely and what an unexpected glory to find in Richmond (though I suspect that Richmond, like Oakland, has its own charm despite the violence and suffering there).

I have always really liked the iconic symbols on signs, and this was a particularly great sign:
We did some other fun things too, during my break (Justin's was earlier) which I don't have pictures of, including some kite-flying at Berkeley marina with our friend Sanj this last Saturday.

I filled the time with no problem (including with some school activities), and didn't get to half the things I had planned on doing, but it was a relaxing and restful holiday.

We started back to school with a bang--fieldtrips on Monday and Tuesday. Both went really well in my opinion. For the canoe trip, I was just happy to see everyone who came actually get into the canoes, get out on the water and get back to land safely with no major freak-outs, no tipped canoes and no worrisome horse-play. If they picked up any appreciation of the estuary or the importance of the ecology of the bay, then that's a bonus. Maybe I am succeeding in making my expectations more realistic.

There is a great group dynamic developing that I had hoped would emerge sooner, but now that it's happening I don't have to worry that it won't happen at all.

Today's trip, which involved visiting a shopping center built on a site that was previously a (toxic) paint factory, a turn-of-the-century amusement park, an Ohlone village, a middens and a burial ground. The students investigated different points in history and then we watched a documentary about the building of the shopping center and the discovery of the bones, etc. The students were quite moved by the story and really appalled by what they saw as an excess of greed by people who chose to build here even after the skeletons were discovered.

I also received a few excellent student projects today, which made me very happy. I'm looking forward to some students coming in on Thursday to work on projects that are not yet complete. I'm feeling optimistic about this program right now!

The wisteria on the back verandah is blooming

...with apologies to Paul Kelly.

This is the view from inside the house. There's not really a verandah, just stairs. The stairs are pretty creaky, which adds an element of excitement/fear to descending them, especially when they are wet and it's dark outside, as there is no light to turn on from in the house.

The other picture was taken from the landing where the stairs make a turn about halfway down.

Great day

Tuesday's field day was great. We had it all planned out and everything went really smoothly and on schedule! We went to a beautiful building, the YWCA designed by Julia Morgan, where we gathered around an unlit fireplace and discussed the novel we're reading (Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower). I moved between the groups and they were all really actively connecting the issues in the book to their own lives. I was so happy! Next, my colleague organized a series of activities to get the students to think about what they themselves believe and also what they think about the role of religion and faith in other people's lives. It all worked really well and the students stayed engaged, asking lots of questions and opining, as they are wont to do. Finally, after lunch, another colleague prepared them for the next place we would visit.

We walked to BART in the rain, and nobody melted. I didn't even hear anyone complaining about getting wet. We caught our train, got off at the right stop and walked together the several blocks to the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery. A monk talked to the the students about a monk's life, the 5 precepts of Buddhism, his own story, and demonstrated various bells, bowing and a brief 5-breath meditation. The students were sometimes completely rapt. When they were not, they were generally talking about things he'd said. The monk showed great patience, as I don't think he ever got a chance to finish answering a single question before there were more questions. After about 90 minutes, he left us alone and we had a final closing circle, put our shoes back on and headed back to BART. Again, everything went smoothly.

Overall, it was a really good day. I felt energized at the end of the day, the way I have rarely felt all year with the independent studies program. I remembered that that was how I'd feel back when I had a good teaching day with a whole class. To see a bunch of kids engaged with ideas--that's what it's all about. The good energy carried me home, through several games of backgammon and into a good night's sleep! Well, actually I woke several times with work-related dreams, but I still felt refreshed and energized this morning.

Today was also good, although there are still some knotty problems we're dealing with. Still, I am now quite hopeful about the possibility of success for this type of program. Tomorrow we go up to the hills and do some fun math and logic problems, and work with maps and instruments! I'm looking forward to all of it.

New program has launched!

On Tuesday, we took BART to a park where we played games, made and ate lunch, developed group expectations and students got their novels and binders. Our goals were for students to know each other's names by the end of the day, to find something they had in common with someone else, and to have an idea and (perhaps foggy) picture of what the trimester has in store (oh, and to have fun). I think those missions were basically accomplished, though some students were somewhat resistent to some of them. Basically, though, the students were patient and good humored considering that things did not go as smoothly as I had hoped.

Today, we walked the students to a nearby park and then sent them out walking around observing the neighborhood. We regathered, discussed what they saw, and generated questions from their observations. Then we walked to the Oakland Museum of California where we tried to have another conversation in the gardens but were wildly outshouted by a million little kids also on fieldtrips today. After a break for lunch (in the museum gardens), students regathered for the intro to the science lesson. A scavenger hunt in the natural sciences gallery was finished quickly and students were given a chance to explore the other galleries. The day was over at 3:00.

What I'm learning from this program: team-teaching (co-teaching) is much more challenging for me than collaborating on ideas and curriculum. I am comfortable being in charge and not being in charge, but being in co-charge is weird, especially when all the teachers have different styles, somewhat different teaching philosophies, etc. Lots for me to process.

I generally think of myself as a positive person, but I am realizing that I am less easily satisfied than many others. I think my co teachers all felt pleased with the outcomes and I was a little disappointed. I reckon my expectations & hopes were higher, and therefore less likely to be fulfilled. Are people with lower expectations generally happier? I think maybe they are, but it seems slightly unethical--like cosmetic surgery or something--to purposely alter something so fundamental about oneself as one's instinct for high hopes.

Constants & variables

I blogged at the beginning of the year about what changes the year might have in store for us, and what might stay the same. Already the year begins to reveal its secrets! On the side of constancy, it looks like we will be staying in the East Bay for awhile: Justin was just accepted into the PhD program at Berkeley. Some of you might be saying, "But of course he would be accepted," but it's a pretty competitive process and he wasn't feeling all that sure of his chances. So, he's happy to have been selected and I'm excited for him. The constant of location will be balanced with the variables of learning and doing new things.

I've pretty well decided I won't be part of the independent studies program next year; actually all four of us teachers feel that it shouldn't exist as it is, so it probably won't next year. I don't know what I'll do. I'm thinking of doing something part time. I'm thinking of doing something besides formal teaching. I'm thinking of how I could teach in a completely new way, outside of the strictures of the public school system, while still serving the kids who need my help the most.


What I Like About Teaching
--getting to know people
--engaging with people in discussions of ideas, experience and feelings
--seeing people get excited about new ideas or having acquired a new skill or finally mastered something they'd been struggling with
--helping someone learn something new or understand something better or see something in a new way (that is, I like being a witness to learn just as much as I like being a facilitator of it)

What I Don't Like About Teaching
--assigning grades (to assignments or to people for the grading period)
--assessing people's work, especially work that has been done with little mind toward quality
--wrangling with, badgering, cajoling, or otherwise trying to coerce people into really putting their best effort into something
--being expected to get people to do things they don't want to do
--helping people keep track of what they've done and what they haven't done (and having to keep track of that myself--it's not that it's difficult, it's just that I don't like doing it)
--designing classes/curriculum that meet the impossibly broad and inconsistent range of standards that are now dictating be the State of California (actually, being told to design classes/curriculum based on anything other than student interest)

My Fantasy School: The School For People Who Want to Learn

You see that I don't have particular topics that I love to teach. I could get interested in teaching anything if I had students who wanted to know about that subject. So...what I really want is students who are interested in learning for the sake of knowing.

Who can attend my school? Anyone able to articulate what it is they want to learn (that means a 5-year-old could say, "I want to learn about how come the sun goes down and comes up again" or a 60-year-old could say, "I want a refresher on fractions; I never really understood them.")

Here's how it would work: a person or group of people request a subject. If I can teach it, I set a day and time. I need to get let's say $20 per hour of classroom time (I know I'll need to spend some amount of time outside of class preparing, but I am willing to work for cheap because I would really enjoy my job and because I don't want to just teach rich people; I believe people should be able to afford to learn.) If there’s one student, that person pays $20/hour; if there are 20 students each pays only $1. So someone who wants to learn a certain thing might like to round up other people to bring the cost down, or they might want more of a tutorial and be willing to pay more. Many yoga, dance, and music classes work like this, I think.

Class consists of discussion, lecture or problem sets, whatever is appropriate for the topic. Class materials, if necessary, would need to be paid for by students, but I'd be willing to try most topics without handouts or outside readings. Students could decide if they want it to be a class based on outside readings or not. If students want to do homework, that’s their choice. If they want me to look over and comment on their written work, that’s an extra fee. Students would have to make a special request to have their work evaluated, and I might or might not choose to accept it. The work needs to be easy to look at and the person needs to be interested in my feedback. Classes continue as long as there is sufficient interest in the topic.

I would be willing to spend up to 20 hours/week in the classroom. (The “classroom” could be any space—a private home, a public library, a park in good weather. I might want to have a portable easel with white board and/or flipchart pad.) That could be 20 different classes or one intensive class. If others were interested in offering classes, they could post them (somewhere) and see if there is interest. Anyone can teach at my school, and anyone can be a student. There would be practically no infrastructure, as we wouldn’t be accountable to anyone but each other. If you can’t pay, you will have to find a way or not do the class. If someone really wants others to be able to take a class, they can write a grant or find some outside funding, but I would have nothing to do with it. I don’t want to keep track of who’s there, how often they come, etc. I’d rather not have to keep track of who has paid either, but I think I’d have to. I’d come up with a very simple system. My job would only be to facilitate learning.

What's Your Fantasy Learning Environment?

Fantasy School

The final project for one of my classes was to design a school. The school could be any place where any people learn anything. I told them they don't have to worry about where the money would come from either. I gave them a number of questions to answer about their school. They presented their ideas today and the results were pretty interesting.

Five of the six students who had it finished (in time for class) still chose to invent an academic school, or at least schools that had academic subjects available. (The sixth school was a gaming school--as in computer games--which also offered PE as an option). One school featured a helicopter landing pad on top and a waterslide down the outside of the building. All of the schools had multiple playing fields (something lacking from our school and many other urban schools.) Several schools required uniforms and most had some kind of interview and/or essay as an entrance requirement. (This surprised me a little.) One school offered to pay students who attend, but they would have to attend at least 3 days per week to get paid. (To that, another student said, "I'm comin 5 days a week if I'm gettin paid!")

Two schools offered dormitories. One of those was an all-boys football school (there'd be a girls' school next door). The other would have no teachers and would be entirely based on peer-teaching. Two of the schools require students to have some goal or dream of their future, upon which their education would be based (that is, they'd take the classes that were appropriate to their chosen career).

Another part of the project involved students choosing authors we'd read during the class and saying why those authors would or wouldn't like to attend their school. Most of the imaginary schools had libraries full of books that their inventors said would please the authors who had written about their love of reading. (Our school doesn't have a library, although the public library isn't too far away.)

Overall, it was a successful assignment in that it engaged students in reflecting on the learning process and writing a bit more than they had for other assignments. They were all quite interested in hearing about each other's ideas (something they don't get to do a lot of in independent study, unfortunately).

Tomorrow, we're all going to see the movie Freedom Writers. It was a student's request and I asked our executive director for the money, which she agreed to. I have 13 or 14 students signed up, plus another teacher is bring about 20 students from the YAYI (Youth Against Youth-Incarceration) group. We're going to meet at the school, walk to the busstop, ride up to Berkeley and see it up there. I am looking forward to seeing it with them and hearing what they think afterwards.

Anyone want to share their fantasy school?