Monday, April 27, 2009

More New Schools

Every year ISB has a Spring Fair. It is a HUGE event put on by the PTA to raise funds for various projects at school and to provide assistance for different charity organizations.

After last year's terrible earthquake in the Sichuan region, ISB decided to partner with the Zhejiang Xinhua Compassion Education Foundation to raise funds to rebuild Zhong Xin Elementary, a school for 1300 children. Who'd've thought? Mark moved from building a school in Africa to building a school in China! Although this time his role will not be supervising the construction site; he and his communications team have been planning and coordinating the fundraising, marketing, and promotion for the project.

Thanks to the hard work of hundreds of volunteers and the generosity of the school community, the Spring Fair was a success! The elementary school alone raised almost $5,000 from children donating their pocket money. Some $11,000 was raised on raffle tickets--where approximately $130,000 in prizes was up for grabs (we won an iPod shuffle, the very first thing I've ever won in my life, thank you very much!) and the silent auction (with online bidding) was another huge money maker--$18,000!

The Spring Fair featured a 5K run, bands, food, vendors selling crafts, jewelry, and art. Each elementary class ran a games booth and children could be tickets to play. There were high school rock bands and jazz bands. Thousands of people attended and had a great time on a sunny day with blue skies.

One of the biggest contributions came through Mark's meetings with Caterpillar and their generosity. In these kinds of economic times, it's often giving that is the first to go. Thanks to Caterpillar's $100,000 gift, ISB will meet its goal and 1,300 children will have a new elementary school!

Intel China has also worked with Mark's team so that the school will have fully functioning e-classrooms and teacher training to support the students and the technology!

Living in the 'burbs of Beijing, it's easy to forget what life is like in small villages, rural areas, and pockets of large cities. This is a country of astonishing wealth, and abject poverty. The Sichuan earthquake is like so many other natural disasters--all-consuming when it happens, but then it fades from the world's memory as other tragedies take their place on the world stage. I am looking forward to visiting this new school someday and seeing the work that is being done. It was great to be a part of a project like this again!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Easter Abroad

There's nothing like living abroad to make you examine your own traditions and beliefs, is there? Here in Beijing, for example, Noah had a birthday party and Cameron had an ultimate frisbee tournament, both scheduled for Sunday afternoon. Since we could all be at church together and were spending the rest of the afternoon stuffing ourselves silly, we let them go. But the idea that anything like that was scheduled on Easter Sunday was strange.

We couldn't find egg dying kits and without all the hoopla around Easter, actually kind of forgot about egg dying anyway until the 11th hour. There were plenty of little chocolate eggs and bunnies, thanks to the large number of expats here; the Easter bunny was very resourceful in finding some colorful cereal bowls in the cupboard to use as baskets.

That was strange for me. One of the things I've always enjoyed doing was those kinds of traditions. Trust me, I am NOT the mom that does anything fancy or over the top--but I think whatever we put together is always a lot of fun. In Tanzania, everything was very haphazard--if people remembered or had something we did it; otherwise, not. People were much less tied to their own country or cultural traditions. And that was OK, because the things that are important about holidays, especially Christmas and Easter, are more prominent. But here I definitely feel a more "we're Americans/Kiwis/Aussies/Danes who happen to be living in China for awhile" and people are more focused on those cultural traditions. So now I feel like I've shortchanged the kidlets in some way--they don't get a good old American Easter tradition, AND they don't have a meaningful context around them for the "real" Easter season.

Which brings me to Easter. As Lutherans (all our lives) we have had liturgical services. I have found a great comfort in reciting the liturgy on Sundays--I suppose it's like a mantra in some ways--the familiarity of the words and the rhythm slows me down and refocuses my thoughts on their meaning. Easter was trumpets and Martin Luther hymns (at least 1). Most of all, I always remember the sense of J.O.Y flowing out. Gone was the darkness and somber mood of Lent. There was always a strong sense of things being made new again, of hope, and life. I loved Easter Sunday for that feeling.

Our non-denominational church (the one we attend for a variety of reasons) doesn't have Lent. I don't know why--someone told me it's because Lent isn't a Biblical concept and so they don't include man-made seasons, but I don't know. What I do know is that I spent the 40 days before Easter with no recognition of Easter coming, no mention of the pain and sacrifice that Christ endured, no period of sober reflection. The music was the same as every other Sunday--praise music that is orchestrated to elicit an emotional response, which seems to be the driving force of these kinds of churches. The prayers, the music, the message--all focus on praising God, on how God is good, how God endures forever. I firmly believe all of that, but sometimes I get tired of music that is strategically repeated to elicit emotions, of prayers that repeatedly iterate, "God, we love you, we praise you."

Easter Sunday was no different--many of the same songs, similar prayers, and a sermon that mentioned the Resurrection in passing. I felt none of the joy and lightness after reflecting on sin and sacrifice during Lent. A praise service that felt ordinary, rather than extraordinary. I was left limp, really.

There are some things that I do like about non-denominational churches, but there are several reasons why we would attend this type of church overseas, but probably wouldn't at home. But I so miss my church in Arusha and in Minneapolis. Dare I say it? I'm bored on Sundays often...singing praise songs for 45 minutes just makes me wonder when the "real" church is going to start. I missed the time of being reminded of the conditions that brought Christ to the cross, of my own needs and shortcomings, followed by the wonderful knowledge of salvation. I am not finding this church meets my spiritual needs in many ways.

I don't know if I need to get over myself, or become more disciplined in commiting to the transition to a new way of doing things. We have made good friends and are settled in, really. It's just missing something...and I missed that on Easter.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Don't Get Behind the Chinese in the Salad Bar Line

Don't worry. This is not about spitting, or peeing, or anything else that would put you off salad, or eating in China.
One thing the Chinese do well and pay attention to is food presentation. Everything is arranged and laid out very neatly. Even our ayi arranges our dinners to look like the ones on the left. We have "eaten" (I use that term rather loosely, because really it was inedible) food arranged to look like a pagoda (it was called barbecue pork, but it was barbecued fat), fried rice molded in the shape of a fish, and artfully stacked broccoli. Even food that I would definitely not eat (frog parts, things made with or out of blood, penises, and yes, that is NOT a typo) is cleverly arranged.
I found out today that it's not limited to things you pay for or people you pay. As I stood in the line for the salad bar (noticing my clothes slowly go out of style) I watched one of the Chinese workers assemble her salad. First of all, the plates are ridiculously small, at least by Western standards. The small plate is something I often refer to as a saucer, while the large plate is...well, less than large. At first I thought that the plate size was making her be careful--building your salad vertically, after all, does take some time. But no, she was arranging her salad. After making sure the lettuce was mounded in the center, she put individual cucumber slices around the edge, slightly overlapping. Next came slices of boiled egg, also in neat circles. Cherry tomatoes? Not a problem. Each one was placed in just the right spot to be cradled by a piece of lettuce, never daring to roll off. A small dollop of dressing. The final coup de grace was a sprinkling of sunflower seeds that magically onlylanded on the dressing, not on the lettuce or the rest of the plate.
This isn't the first time. A couple weeks ago, the sushi guy made a complete new roll because the one he tried to cut the slices from got squashed and so the bites were not perfectly circular. This is the school cafeteria, remember, not some posh Japanese bistro.
OK, I admit it. I was irritated both times. I was hungry, and salad is one of the foods I don't mind slopping all together. My food doesn't have to be symmetrical to be edible. But then I thought about her salad. Was it kind of a Zen thing, a means of slowing down to get ready to eat? A patience about doing things aesthetically? An acknowledgement that she is worthy of a meal that is nutritious and beautiful? An extension of a culture that is very patient and meticulous in so many other areas? Whatever the reason, I think I somehow missed out on something. We always exclaim at Ayi's food--last night's fajitas were very festive--slices of red and green peppers were arranged in a sunburst pattern, sprinkled with cilantro. The other vegetables and fruits were also arranged, not just piled on the plate. I admit it--it is fun to sit down to a meal that looks nice. People do notice.
Rats. Suddenly this is threatening to turn into one of those self-reflective things. It is possible that I could improve in this area, if not in my own personal salad bar forays, then in what goes on the table for my family on the nights it's not arranged by Ayi. It doesn't have to be at a fancy restaurant or a special occasion.
And who knows? Maybe a creative flair will dazzle that night's designated whiner (Are those onions? What's in this sauce? What's the smallest amount I have to take?) into more eating and less fussing!

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Teaching in the World of Tomorrow, Today

Note: The very cool video that goes at the bottom of this post may not be working. It shows up on my work computer, but not on my home computer. Let me know if you can watch it.

One of the things that is hard to hear as a teacher is "When I was in school..." I think often education is something that everyone experienced for themselves and so they have an opinion or impression of how it should go, without a true understanding of the nature of teaching and education, either in practice or pedagogy. I don't think people often berate their CPAs or attorneys or doctors about how to do their jobs better in the same way I often hear people talk about teachers. I think with the other professions there is an acknowledgement of the skill needed to do that particular job well. In teaching, I still often hear how it's not that hard, how teachers get breaks all the time during the day, how we're always on vacation, how it can't be that hard to read books aloud and teach addition. And then, I exercise unusual restraint and only upbraid them verbally, rather than risk assault charges by opening up a can of you-know-what on them.

The point being (and the following video says it well) that what you or I did in school whenever we were there is pretty irrelevant now. We are in the business of preparing students for jobs and a world we cannot begin to fathom. The rate of change today is exponential and mind-numbing in its speed. The skills and knowledge that are needed to survive today, let alone in 2025 (when Ava will graduate from college) are likely not even known to us today. For a long time it was all about technology, which continues to be more and more integral to learning; but more and more, it's about the hows: how to think, how to learn, how to navigate a global community. This graph shows the skills for 21st century education. Notice that there is nothing about No Child Left Behind, mandatory testing, or actual curriculum. Nor is there any information about special services (special education, ESL) or programs for those kids who are falling through the cracks--breakfasts, afterschool care, social services...all those things that are an inherent part of education, more so in some communities than others.

I used to marvel at my grandmother, who was born before the Wright brothers flew their first plane and watched men walk on the moon--what an amazing change! Now, I realize that the change we are living with is difficult to comprehend on a global scale. It's both amazing and frightening!