Tag Archives: kaohsiung

Year to Year

I was very disappointed my Chinese food was delicious.  The dumplings were tasty, the chicken with broccoli authentic, the rice only a bit different.  After months of cynic anticipation, I was excited to lambast, eviscerate and expose the cheap imitation Chinese food served mostly by Koreans in New York City.  My Fulbright friends talked it over countless times over bowls of straight-from-old-Taiwanese-woman noodles.  Demonstrated worldliness in one easy critical step.

Unfortunately, my first Chinese meal at home was very good and pretty authentic.  What happened?  Who warned them?  Who’s the rat?  How else am I to make friends if not by being the guy who scoffs, “Oh, Chinese food!” when someone proposes ordering Chinese?  I felt satisfied.  And betrayed.

Not all was lost, thankfully.  Somewhere in the middle of my fourth American-Chinese food dumpling, I remembered I haven’t blogged in a few days.  I saw that Nikka, an Yilan ETA, started to update her Taiwan blog about her goings-on in Detroit.  That was enough for me.  Welcome back, readers.

::Deafening silence::

Did I mention how much writing helps me clarify my thoughts!  Who needs readers, anyway?

I wrote one piece about my trip to China.  I haven’t posted it yet because my mother convinced me to take a shot and send it to the New York Times Magazine “Lives” section.  It’s a long shot.  But hey—I took a long shot in November and it worked out.  I appreciate the long shot.  Anyway, if my long shot is dumped in e-mail purgatory by unimpressed editors (i.e. if I don’t hear back in a week) I’ll post it here where it is loved and cared for (by my mother).

In the meantime, I hope to wring out of my creative muse a few posts about China.  I’ll probably pick the highlights and write little in-the-moment pieces.  Things fit for the “Lives” section.  You get the idea.  If any of you know of another place I could pimp my writerly wares, please include a comment to this post or e-mail me at floatyourboat23@gmail.com

My mother’s a persuasive lady, but my motivations for pursuing “Lives” fame extend beyond her inviolable logic.  I have a lot of time on my hands and no job, for starters.  Why not use time productively?

Raw productivity isn’t the best term for describing the preceding fortnight.  At the moment my life consists of a lot of reading, eating, sleeping, and hanging around with friends.  Productivity aside, I’ve really enjoyed the reading time.  I’m reading an average of one book every two days alongside countless newspapers, magazines and blogs.  My favorite book I’ve read since I returned is The Big Short by Michael Lewis, an account of three men who bet against the subprime mortgage industry before it turned sour.  Highly recommended: it’s an easy, informative read.

Another book that’s kept with me is The Life and Death of the Great American School System by Diane Ravitch.  I bring this up with future Fulbrighters in mind, many of whom (ETAs especially) probably have more than a passing interest in education.  In the book Ravitch pushes against the prevailing consensus that math and reading tests should determine government treatment of schools and teachers (a policy goal not only of the US federal government, but the Taiwanese federal government).  It’s hard for me to say whether this book will make the same impression on someone not preparing for graduate study in education policy (or someone who works/has worked in education more generally), but I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone with an interest in how the government regulates education in the U.S.  My opinions changed in response to Ravitch’s clear, compelling arguments.  Accountability systems should be test data-informed, not test data-driven.

One of the most interesting findings Ravitch highlights in her book concerns test data sorting of high performing teachers from low performing teachers. From year [x] to year [x+1] to [x+2] (say, for example, 2007 to 2008 to 2009), only a minority of teachers designated high performing in 2007 maintain their standing the following year.  Likewise, the majority of teachers who earn high marks didn’t earn those marks the preceding year.  Overall, there’s a lot of fluctuation for most teachers from year to year.

At least in the one city from which Ravitch pulled the data (I’m sorry I can’t find the precise numbers; my Kindle charger somehow disintegrated in my bag—caveat emptor), the clear upshot is that there are, if judged by test data, very few consistently good teachers.  Rather, teachers are like the majority of professional athletes: they have good years and bad years.  If Ravitch’s data apply broadly, it’s hard to argue that hiring, firing and promotion decisions in schools should be based solely on test scores, especially when there are performance tiers based on specific scores. 

Should we trust the data?  Assuming most teachers teach the same grade and curriculum each year, how to explain wide variations in individual teacher performance from year to year?  The most obvious explanation would be the effects of different students.  Teachers get along well with some groups, not so well with others.  Could a longstanding teacher be so influenced by the young faces in front of him?  I wonder.  I don’t have the experience to know.

My money is on there being something wrong with Ravitch’s data.  Maybe the trend she highlights is confined to the one city she discusses.  Maybe that city reformed the curriculum midway through the sample period, maybe there was an unusual amount of hiring and firing, maybe the city likes to give teachers different teaching assignments year to year.  To me at least, the notion that one teacher’s performance, as measured by testing, can vary so much year to year is so counterintuitive I want to see very solid data before I change my mind.  Nevertheless, the chance she’s right (along with other arguments to the same point) is enough to convince me that testing data isn’t reliable enough to by itself determine major personnel decisions at schools.

Taiwanese education officials, like their American counterparts, worry about the lack of accountability in their schools.  However, Taiwan has the luxury of a very successful school system already in place.  Reform is more urgent in America.  Diane Ravitch’s central recommendation, i.e. producing a tough, clear set of nationwide curriculum standards for core subjects like reading, math, history and science, gain credence from acknowledging that such policies already exist in Taiwan and contribute to Taiwan’s superb track record of K-12 success.  It is also no coincidence that states with high standards for core curricula (e.g. Massachusetts, Virginia) outperform states with lower standards. 

The vague intention behind the specific analysis above is to emphasize the value of international experience.  Getting a hold of another country’s culture, government or set of institutions is a good way to make sense of your own.  I learned this lesson very well while in Taiwan.  I’m reminded of it every time I sit down and think carefully about education.

Like teacher performance, ETA classes change year to year.  A few days ago the 2010-2011 crop of Fulbrighters arrived in Taiwan, sleepy-eyed and leg cramped.  Right now they’re probably sitting in an air conditioned conference room, watching the video my coworkers and I created about co-teaching.  Thinking about their arrival, and remembering my arrival (vividly, to this day), made me feel nostalgic.  I wish them all the best.  I warn them not to eat hamburgers in Cambodia.  I insist they drink Presotea strawberry milk tea.

Shockingly Shockless

Seven planes, thousands of dollars, countless bowls of beef noodles, two anti-diarrhea tablets and one Great Wall later, I made it back to the US Sunday night after my three week journey through China (and three days of saying my goodbyes in Taiwan).  My mom picked me up from the airport and returned me home.  Waiting for me, courtesy of my sister, was a grilled chicken sandwich with fries. 

The last week has been a nonstop binge of all the foods I missed so much while abroad: pizza, bagels, waffles, Arizona iced green tea (not kidding), cold cut sandwiches, unsweetened bread.  Some meals, like a Greek omelet with home fries and an orange juice, I hadn’t realized I missed.  Only when I looked around at my companion’s plates did I recognize how greedily I had finished my diner brunch.

Between delirious bouts of ingestion, I’ve spent time catching up with friends and family members.  Most notably, my sister convinced me to go to two very strange events: the U.S. Air Guitar championships and “Walking with Dinosaurs.”  Not a bad way to readjust to the absurdity, grandiosity and enormousness of American-style entertainment.

There’s no way to adjust to the spectacle of an air guitar tournament, but adjusting to life stateside hasn’t proved difficult.  The biggest shock to me upon returning has been how infrequently I’ve felt shocked.  For example, unlike most of my peers, I haven’t been struck by how big everyone is (although how much food we eat in one sitting did catch my eye).  Perhaps this is because I returned home for two weeks in November.  Perhaps it’s because I’m pretty big myself (it was shocking a little over an hour ago when I walked into a restaurant and a little American boy assessed my height and gasped much like little Taiwanese kids would).

What has stood out? First, how much we Americans waste.  Taiwan, as my loyal readership knows, enforces strict recycling laws.  Not only do most American cities and states not penalize households for poor waste management, most American fast food restaurants don’t even provide a recycling bin. 

A correlate to this is how much food restaurants and consumers waste.  As consumers, we certainly eat more than Taiwanese.  But restaurants now provide us with impossibly large portions.  I see a lot more food going to waste than I did in Taiwan.

Second, the size of the coins.  American money is in general smaller than Taiwanese money.  Coins are no exception.  On top of the confusion of dealing with smaller coins, a year in Taiwan eliminated my ability to feel in my pockets for the right coin.  New Yorkers aren’t known for their patience, and they haven’t enjoyed waiting behind me on line as I take all the coins out of my pocket to select correct change.

Third, how safe the roads are.  Without consulting statistics, it’s surely fair to say that scooters make roads more dangerous for pedestrians.  For the first time in my life, I returned to New York City and felt relatively safe crossing the street. 

Fourth, the wealth.  Taiwan is a developed place.  If you count it as separate from China, it’s one of the thirty most affluent ‘countries’ on Earth.  Yet the yearly income is less than half of America’s.  This is reflected in the clothing and food quality the citizenry experiences every day.  There’s not a massive, stupendous difference, but the disparity is noticeable.  This is not to say that life in Taiwan is a struggle or there’s no good reason to prefer life in Taiwan over life in the US.

Some of the differences listed above caught me offguard, or at least I hadn’t fully wrapped my head around them even if I expected them.  Others, like walking around Barnes & Noble, were pleasant without being at all surprising.  Now that I can get along stress free, the temptation to forgo studying Chinese will be strong.  I must resist!

In the coming days I will chronicle my three week China trip.  There are many fun stories to share.  If nothing else, writing them down will let me relive the experience years hence.  Any enjoyment you, my dear reader, take from them is gravy. 

This blog (in its Taiwan-focused form) will come to an end after I finish writing about China.  I gave myself a week’s rest after arriving home, promising to write again today.  During my self-granted vacation, I realized that I don’t feel compelled to add much to what I’ve already written about my year in Taiwan.  Chalk it up to a combination of feeling as though I’ve said much of what I have to say and simple tiredness.  If any young, intrepid future Fulbrighters or Kaohsiung expats read this, please feel free to send me any questions at floatyourboat23@gmail.com.

Before we get all teary-eyed, don’t forget more blog posts are forthcoming soon.  Please stop by again to read about my time in China.  There were some interesting parallels between China and Taiwan, as well as some even more interesting disconnects.  T.S. Eliot was right when he wrote that schpiel about returning to a place and knowing it for the first time. 

China is a fascinating subject all by itself, comparisons be damned.  I’ll do my best to relay to you what it’s like to walk the streets throughout different parts of the world’s fastest growing country.

Lessons Learned

In preparation for my trip to China, I’ve been reading many books and articles about the Middle Kingdom.  China Wakes by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn and Chinese Lessons by John Pomfret have been excellent.  Reading about a place beforehand is a good way to make the most of a brief visit.

Preparatory reading is also valuable before long visits to new places.  I read a lot about Taiwan before I arrived, both to prepare for my Fulbright interview and to make sure I didn’t make a fool of myself when I landed.  Professor Vincent Wang, the chair of the political science department at the University of Richmond and a Kaohsiung native, gave me a lot of excellent reading material.

As I was cleaning my shelves yesterday, I found an essay by John Hawkins, a professor of comparative education policy at UCLA.  Writing in the Harvard International Review, Prof. Hawkins points out the key cultural and institutional factors that he believes explain Asian nation’s K-12 education success.  The essay made a favorable impression on me when I read it in June 2009, and it only seems more impressive to me now. 

Prof. Hawkins highlights these particulars about education in East Asia (and, by extension, Taiwan):

  • Culture
    • Confucian values of self-denial, fortitude, patience, rote learning and delayed gratification make for better students.
    • Confucian values of family hierarchy make students more obedient to the demands of their parents, who in turn influenced by Confucian values demand high educational achievement from their children.
    • The nationwide civil service exam, which began hundreds of years ago in ancient China and which continues today, bred a meritocratic ethos in the education system.  Unlike poor communities in the West, children and parents in poor communities in East Asia believe that hard work at school pays off.
    • East Asians believe that “making errors is a natural part of learning and not to be mocked or considered failing” and that “effort trumps. . . innate ability.”
    • Structural differences
      • The national government exerts more control over standards, curriculum and finance than national governments in the West.
        • Easily understood standards for teachers to follow, and the government can make sure textbooks and teaching materials are designed specifically to meet the standards.
        • Nationally guided decisions about financing reduce the ability of wealthy individuals to sway school funding decisions.
  • Longer school day, more school days in the school year
    • Students are given exercise breaks in the middle of the day, which especially helps young boys concentrate in the classroom.
  • Less tracking by ability
    • Low and middle ability students are in the same classes as high ability students, which may help those students make valuable friendships with higher-income families as well as ensure that middle ability students receive challenging inputs
  • Cram schools
    • 60-80% of students attend cram schools.  These schools provide additional instruction in core subjects.
  • Teachers are much more respected and better paid than they are in the West
    • The average income in Taiwan is about USD$20,000 per year.  A senior teacher (teaching for 8+ years) makes almost twice that amount.
  • Teachers are surrounded by a support staff of counselors and others who allow the teacher to focus solely on planning and delivering academic lessons. 

One can quibble with individual points, but Prof. Hawkins’ overall analysis is solid.  Contrary to popular belief, Taiwan’s K-12 successes aren’t entirely attributable to culture.  Structural differences play a major role, although they’re probably less important than the cultural differences .  Please don’t take the previous to mean that structural differences aren’t crucial: your car needs an engine more than the wheels if it’s to move, but you wouldn’t then say that the wheels don’t matter!

With the Obama administration pumping billions of dollars into adjusting the structural features of US K-12 education, it’s interesting to note how many similarities there are between Taiwanese and USA educational institutions.  Like US teachers, it’s very difficult for a Taiwanese public school teacher to get axed.  Like most US teachers, Taiwanese public school teachers have successfully resisted efforts to have their performance measured by student achievement on yearly standardized tests.  Perhaps even more interestingly, Taiwanese education administrators are also trying to pass measures loosening employment strictures and legalizing test score-based performance review.  There’s an emerging international consensus that accountability is a good thing.

Some of the Obama administration’s desired policies, like uniform national reading and math standards, are already part of the Taiwanese education structure.  Taiwan’s success is positive advertisement.  Consistent standards mean that schools in rich, urban Taipei teach the same lessons and use equally helpful textbooks as schools in rural, backwater Rueli.  Substitute “Upper West Wide Manhattan” and “Jackson, Mississippi” and you’ll realize how much consistent standards can mean.   

Yet consistent standards are idle, even pernicious, goals if there are vast funding disparities.  This was the major failing of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind act: it set tough standards for high-income and low-income schools and proceeded to do nothing to help the low-income school achieve those standards.  It’s like telling two racers they have thirty seconds to complete a lap while one racer sits in a Ferrari and the other has rollerblades.  To make matters worse, the Bush administration would then penalize the slow racer by taking away his rollerblades.

The much more equitable Taiwanese funding pattern is, in my opinion, the single most important structural difference between Taiwanese and USA schools.  A public school here receives funding based on the number of students it has, period.  The Obama administration, in a nod to futility, has not pressed for any serious changes to the US status quo

Funding matters a lot.  One lesson I’ve learned from my time here is that the old refrain “Gosh, we pour dollar after dollar into the school system and it’s done nothing!” is a poor argument against greater investment in schools.  Sure, government has misallocated funding in the past.  It will probably do so again in the future.  But finances are extremely important to establishing broadly accessible, high quality education. 

Kaohsiung neighborhoods aren’t quite as socioeconomically segregated as many neighborhoods in the US, but they’re not far off the mark.  Nevertheless, my working class school is filled with working class kids who can kick it with the upper middle class kids in my residential neighborhood.  No small part of this situation is the similar levels of funding afforded to each school. 

Cram school and private tutoring for the rich kids will put them at an advantage, but their advantage is much, much smaller than the advantage a Scarsdale kid has over a South Bronx kid (excuse the New York reference, non-New Yorkers).  To top it all off, the end result isn’t less achievement for the Scarsdale kid—it’s greater overall achievement for the country’s youth!

There’s so much to discuss in Professor Hawkins’ essay, but this is not be the forum.  As it is, I’ve only given you the Cliffnotes version of a far more complex argument about two of the topics he raises.  I hope my upcoming studies at York afford me the opportunity to study all of these issues more deeply and reach better informed conclusions. 

Whatever the case may be, I know for sure that the USA has a lot to learn from East Asian education systems.  The final test will be whether we choose to implement the solutions we can identify.  Future prosperity rests on our grade.

The Farewell Dinners of a Salesman

You know it’s almost time to leave when your social calendar is dominated by farewell dinners.

Last week, I attended three farewell dinners.  First, a farewell dinner with all the ETAs.  Second, a farewell dinner with my school, my host family and the Kaohsiung Education Bureau.  Third, a farewell dinner in Taipei with A.I.T. and the Fulbright Foundation for Scholarly Exchange (F.S.E.).  I was quite the socialista.

Caroline left last Thursday, so last Sunday we gathered together to take group pictures and have a final, ETA family dinner.  We all dressed up and posed for pictures in our apartment complex’s courtyard.  Everyone was very relaxed and had fun. 

Charles Lu, Carl Williams, John Calhoun and Kevin Slaten. The men of Kaohsiung ETA 2009-2010.

Carol Reyes, Kelley Bledsoe, Kaitlyn McGruther, Kristin Pe, Katherine Cumberland, Rebekah Farrar, Caroline White, Grace Johnson. The women.

Apartment C! Plus Fonda. Fonda spent so much time in our apartment fixing problems, she's an honorary resident.

Our destination for dinner was “The Bayou.” The Bayou is a local restaurant owned and operated by Americans.  It specializes in Cajun/Creole food.  Most ETAs agree it’s the best American restaurant in Kaohsiung.  What better place to celebrate our year in Taiwan than at an American restaurant?  When you put it that way, I’m not sure I follow our logic.  But it’s a damn good restaurant.

Coltrane rocking the sound system, Carol, Kelley and Charles laughed all night per usual. Great conversations to overhear.

All twelve of us joined Fonda and an ETA from next year, Ariel, at The Bayou.  Ariel is in town early studying Chinese.  Apparently, ETAs can apply for additional funding to study Chinese intensively for two months before their teaching tenure.  Kudos to Ariel for seizing the opportunity.  Had I only been so smart!

Kristin is my "EV buddy." We worked all of our English Village shifts together. Grounds for a photo? You bet.

Over plates of Louisiana Burgers, muffuletta sandwiches, salads (it’s hard to find a salad here), artichoke dip and Cajun-topping pizza, we shared our wisdom with Ariel, celebrated Caroline’s belated birthday with her favorite cake (chocolate cake with caramel, pistachios and something else which I can’t remember) and gave Fonda our group going-away present.  We made her a custom calendar with different pictures of us for each Month, and different important days of our experience together marked by their one year anniversary.  We also signed the calendar.  In my note, left in November 2010, I reminded Fonda about the time I “owned” her at ultimate Frisbee one year ago, and then asked her to send me a nice e-mail. 

Fonda was profusely grateful when he we gave her the calendar. Then she forgot it when she left the restaurant fifteen minutes later! 🙂

The private, ETA farewell dinner was much less organized than the Kaohsiung Education Bureau farewell.  The Bureau rented out a big ballroom in a conference center near Kaohsiung Harbor.  Each ETA was assigned a table around which he sat with his host family, LETs and school administrators.  Fonda and Chris emceed the event, which involved a lot of microphones, photo ops and thank yous.  I was happy to see my host family for the first time in a while, and it was nice to see all the LETs, principals and program participants in one place. 

Katherine, Caroline, Charles and I are all Dr. Stone's (second from left) advisees. Dr. Stone is the woman who keeps telling me I'm destined for the presidency. The man in the center is the Kaohsiung Education Bureau Chief, Dr. Tsai. Here we're posing with our commendation certificates and weird glass circular things with no apparent use.

By far the most august and upscale farewell was the AIT/FSE farewell in Taipei.  For starters, FSE paid for us to travel to Taipei and stay at the sleek “Just Sleep” hotel.  Every other time we came to Taipei, the Kaohsiung ETAs were holed up in the Wing Motel, which sells rooms by the night or by the hour.  The Yilaners always got the Just Sleep treatment. Finally, FSE was treating us like equals!

When Charles, Kevin Connors (an Yilan ETA) and I walked into our room, we were pretty startled to find a not-so-sleek baby crib.  After making all sorts of awesome projections about how we’d wake up the next morning to see one of our friend’s sleeping in the crib, a hotel employee sheepishly informed us that he’d have to take it away and apologized for the mistake.  So much for that idea.

Everyone changed into suits and ties and we sped off to the dinner (I had forgotten to bring both socks and a belt… a new personal best!).  We discovered that AIT/FSE had rented out an entire two story, swank restaurant on a small alley in one of Taipei’s trendier neighborhoods.  The AIT Director (the equivalent of an Ambassador) Dr. William Stanton and FSE Director Dr. Chen gave short speeches before everyone dug into the delicious buffet.  You could tell by the looks on their faces that the talented chefs were not used to watching hoards of buffeters casually drop a little bit of this and a little bit of that on their plates.  They took pride in their work.

The "Zee Live" restaurant. Much swankier than the name suggests. There's a second floor you can't see here.


The plunderous mob raiding the four star buffet.

The night was made more fun by the Taiwanese practice of ganbeiGanbei is a toasting custom.  If a friend or coworker approaches you, taps your glass with hers and shouts “Ganbei!” both you and your coworker must gulp down your entire drink in one shot.  The potential for a ganbei snowball effect is obvious.  I was ganbei’ed many times, as was everyone else.  Spirits were high.

Excellent food and plenty of lean meats cushionsed ganbei's blow.

Everyone was disappointed when our time at the restaurant ran out.  I didn’t speak to everyone I wanted to, although I’m very happy I attended the event.  AIT Director Stanton mentioned in his speech that “dollar for dollar, the Fulbright program is the best use of diplomatic budget we have.”  I’m not sure that’s totally true, but I agree with him that the Fulbright program is very valuable.  Taiwan’s treatment of its Fulbrighters shows they feel the same way. 

The entire Fulbright Taiwan community is tight. Left to right, Grace (a Kaohsiung ETA), Deborah Chu (Yilan ETA), Annie Li (Public health researcher) and Jessica Yen (Yilan ETA).

I thought it was great when Kaitlyn, left, went native and wore a semi-traditional Chinese dress. Cultural ambassador!

Rebekah and I post ganbei'ing.

Alex, our Fulbright coordinator, showing all of our appreciation for Fonda, right.

A few of the ETAs and I watched a little World Cup soccer after the farewell party before heading out to a club.  We danced the night away before cabbing back to our hotel in the rain.  The next morning everyone was on their own to get home.  People had either left before I woke up, were still asleep, or had visited somewhere in Taipei.  Therefore, I didn’t have a chance to say a proper goodbye to anyone besides Kevin.  A little sad, but that’s why there’s Facebook.

I’m really glad to have met all the smart, genuine folks I shared a Fulbright year with here.  Both the ETAs and the researchers are good people.  They care deeply about their interests and they have the motivation to pursue them.  More importantly, they’re pretty humble and very sincere.  Director Stanton described us as “some of the best salesmen we’ve got for America.”  In this case, I completely agree.

English Village’s Final Grade

Two hours ago, I finished the last English Village (EV) session of my life!  Hurrah!  Kristin and I high fived each other on our way out. 

I’ve started to collect my thoughts about a year at EV, specifically about whether EV should continue or not.  Last year’s ETAs argue that it should be shut down because EV is not an efficient allocation of government resources.  Now that I also have a year of EV under my belt, I feel qualified to weigh in.   I agree with my predecessors.

English Village is a nice concept, but it isn’t a productive use of our time, or of the city’s education budget.  Readers can refer to earlier posts for a description of what EV entails.  Basically, I read an English dialogue with local fifth graders.  Each student practices once or twice.  Each student visits EV only once each year, and most students visit only once their entire lives.

The Kaohsiung City Council supports EV for a few reasons.  First, they think it’ll help students learn.  Second, it accustoms students to speaking English with foreigners.  Third, it excites students to study English more. 

I have reservations about all three reasons.  Let’s start with reason one: EV helps students learn.  While certainly true, the question is whether EV helps students learn enough to justify the expense.  EV is a costly project.  The Education Bureau and Kaohsiung City spent a lot of money renovating and decorating the four EV spaces at Ling Jhuo, Taipin, SanMin and Futong elementary schools (overhead cost).  They hire managers and comanagers to run each EV.  Part of our salary goes towards the EV sessions we participate in (both constant costs).

Given that each EV session involves one or two repetitions of a dialogue followed by, at the three other stations, three English games, I don’t think EV teaches a student more than he would learn in two hours in the classroom.  The classroom is much less expensive.  EV was a bad decision with high overhead costs, but even for maintenance and staffing costs it is not a good way to spend money.

Reason number two: EV will produce more confident speakers of English.  Anxiety about speaking English to native speakers is a legitimate problem in Taiwan.  Students who graduated with high marks in English class often fall apart when confronted with an English-fluent foreigner.  More confident English speakers are a major asset for any country in our globalized world.

EV may contribute marginally to a student’s lifetime English confidence, but probably not by much.  When the eleven year old graduates from college a decade later, is her confidence really bolstered by that one time she successfully read the sentence “Where is the elevator?” at EV? 

Furthermore, I only spend eight or nine minutes with each group of seven students.  The students are at EV for two hours, but most of their time is spent playing games moderated by local parents.  If Kaohsiung perpetuates EV despite the problems involved, it should seriously consider adding more foreigners to the staff.  This way, at least EV could maximize its goal of familiarizing Taiwanese students with foreigners.

Reason number three: EV excites students to study harder in their English classes.  If you just watched kids head back to school after EV, you’d be sold on this point.  Most students are very energized by their experience.  However, you’d probably respond differently if you watched the student in English class a few months later. 

EV probably doesn’t have any medium- or long-term impact on a student’s interest in English.  Any assertion otherwise is a pretty fine example of theory ignoring the quotidian.  Recall the last exciting, one shot experience you had.  Odds are, you made all sorts of personal commitments to learn from the experience and work harder on [x].  Odds are, you didn’t follow through.  Now recall that you’re an adult.  EV deals with fifth graders. 

Without a doubt, the City Council and the Education Bureau strive to provide the best possible education for Kaohsiung City children.  Education is of paramount importance in Chinese-Taiwanese society.  I have had the pleasure of working with a few Education Bureau employees.  They are all hard workers who take their mission seriously.

The existence and perpetuation of EV is evidence of the gap between top-down intentions and bottom-up results.  City Councilors visit EV to watch one group read a dialogue, they take a few pictures, marvel at the authenticity of the hotel, and then leave.  Looks great.

What they miss is how EV does or does not affect daily, boring student progress.  If you have no teaching experience or week-to-week familiarity with EV, I can see how you’d come to false conclusions.  How quickly a students’ energy can be drowned by one bad test score or just two months to forget EV—those are all lessons teachers know very well.  Government officials often do not understand. 

The perpetuation of EV also attests to the appeal and importance of glossy photo-ops to government officials.  Kaohsiung trumpets EV in numerous publications and speeches.  EV is a sign of Kaohsiung City’s commitment to multilingualism and its innovative approach to learning.  An Education Bureau official in Taipei or Beijing doesn’t know any more about EV than a City Councilor.  If the pictures look good, assumptions are made about results.  Kaoshiung City’s reputation benefits from those quick assumptions.

Assumptions do not make results.  The only empirical study of the English Village model, conducted in South Korea, found that EV made no appreciable difference to English skills among Korean high schoolers.  It’s possible that EV impacts elementary schoolers in Taiwan differentially.  Yet the Korean conclusion gibes with my impression of Kaohsiung’s EV. 

EV is going nowhere soon.  This is only the program’s second year, for starters.  I hope a few changes are made to at least maximize effectiveness.  Bringing in more foreigners is a good start, as would lengthening the time spent.  Reforming EV would cost money, but at least it’d get it (more) right.

Qu Yuan is Drowning

“Work harder, Carl!” Chris screamed.  He maneuvered tiller at the back of the boat.  Up front, Shuting banged rhythmically on a big base drum.  Kaitlyn sat on the dragon’s head, taking pictures.  I plunged my oar into the turgid water. 

Needless to say, the Dragon Boat Festival is not a well known holiday in the USA.  Celebrated every year during the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the Dragon Boat Festival is one of the four most famous holidays in Chinese culture (alongside Moon Festival, Tomb Sweeping Day and Chinese New Year, all covered in earlier entries).

Dragon Boat Festival is famous for the Dragon Boat races.  Teams of twenty-one people race long, ornately decorated boats down a river.  The boats are beautiful: each boat is carved to resemble a dragon, with dragon heads carved and painted on the front.  No two boats look exactly alike.

Four to eight boats compete at a time.  Each race is around five hundred meters.  Spectators cheer from the banks of rivers and bet on their favorite team.  Hundreds of people come to watch the Dragon Boats race.  The winning team is the first team to row the full course and grab a flag poking from the top of a buoy in the water.  There are cash prizes.

Perhaps I’m moving too fast.  Rowing a huge, expensive, intricately carved Dragon Boat seems pretty strange.  Where did this idea come from?  The answer brings one back over 2,300 years.  And you thought Christmas had ancient origins.

Qu Yuan lived in ancient China at the turn of the third century B.C.  Qu was a wise man and a famous adviser to the king.  One day, Qu expressed disagreement with one of the king’s ideas.  The king, very displeased, banished Qu. 

Qu was distraught.  Public service was his calling in life.  Working alongside the king allowed him to enact laws that benefited the poor.  His interventions on their behalf made the poor love Qu.  Unfortunately, there was nothing they could do for him.  The king’s word was final.

Rather than live disgraced, Qu tied large stones to his ankles and jumped in a river (are you reading this, Governor Blagojevic?).  A few neighbors nearby raced into the water to rescue Qu.  They swam furiously to the spot where Qu jumped in. They were too late.  He drowned.

The Dragon Boat Races are competitive reenactments of Qu’s neighbors’ sprint to save him.  There’s obviously a lot of myth surrounding the holiday, but some say the flags at the end of the course represent strands of Qu’s hair.  The winning team has the honor of ‘rescuing’ Qu before he drowns.

When offered an opportunity to organize a Fulbright Dragon Boat team, none of us stopped to ask about the origins of the holiday.  I’m not sure how many natives know the above myth, but everyone knows about the races.  They’re loud, raucous, night time events.  Kids and adults scream and yell and jump and shout as their team brutalizes the water, trying to move a few feet ahead of the competition.  We were very excited to receive an offer to compete.

The Kaohsiung races will take place on the Love River, which is the river that cuts through Kaohsiung City.  Every team must have twenty-one members: eighteen rowers, a drummer (to keep rowing rhythm), a flag puller (who sits on the dragon’s head on the front of the boat and grabs the flag at the end of the race), and a steerer (who maneuvers the tiller at the back of the boat).  Nine of the twelve ETAs joined, as well as a few Education Bureau employs, some host family relatives and a few other random additions.  A motley crew.

Our expectations are low.  Many teams competing in the races practice for months beforehand.  They perfect their team rhythm and polish their individual strokes.  The best teams—sorry, ladies—tend to be all male except for the flag puller and drummer (who tend to be female—they weigh less).  Our team would practice twice and be comprised mostly of women (about 65/35 female). 

What we lack in ability, we make up in T-shirts.  Our jerseys are modeled after the really funny “Velocity” T-shirt I posted a few months ago.  Here’s the T-shirt reposted:

 Now here is our T-shirt:


Kaitlyn, the resident ETA artistic director, thought of mocking the Velocity T-shirt.  Genius, right?  We are so enamored with our shirts, we named our team “Velocity.”  Fonda, being Taiwanese, tried to rename the team “Velocity Speeding Cat.”  Being American, we ignored this suggestion.

Velocity practiced for the first time on Saturday morning.  First, we worked on our team rhythm.  A team could include excellent rowers, but the team will struggle unless all the rowers move in sync (or include any members of N Sync).  Second, we worked on individual paddling techniques.  Chris and Justin, native Taiwanese and experienced Dragon Boat racers, taught us the textbook method.

I'm third from front. The guy leaning halfway over the side of the boat. Textbook.

I was surprised at how easy paddling was.  Paddling a Dragon Boat is less taxing than rowing a crew boat.  You’re only using one paddle, for starters.  Also, you’re not expected to use your leg muscles.  Justin and Chris told me they were impressed with how quickly I picked up on the technique.  I think my brief stint rowing crew at Oxford may have helped me. 

Taking a break on the river

Some teammates struggled.  I know we’re not destined for victory, but I was disappointed when a few stragglers didn’t give their best effort.  There’s an important difference between finishing in last place and getting laughed off the river.  Not trying hard will get us laughed off the river.  If we try our best and finish last, we’ll at least earn some respect.  Everyone should also keep in mind that rowing in the festival is a privilege not granted to all comers.  If you linger, you’ll disrespect everyone who wanted to be where you are.

Ready to row

Aside from the minor annoyance posed by stragglers, everyone had a good time at the first practice.  We all felt preposterously proud when we won a scrimmage race against a bunch of elderly people.  I worked on a few war cries I intend to unveil during a real race.  Everyone enjoyed making a few jokes about the dirty river.  We waved at kids watching us from the banks. 

I had one moment when I was especially tickled.  Last year’s ETAs warned me that the Love River is filled with jellyfish around the same time of year as the race.  After we started rowing in earnest, I was struck by all the jellyfish I saw in the water.  One of them popped into view every time we paddled.

Then I realized: there are no jellyfish, or at least visible ones.  Rather, the paddling motion creates a current in the water that looks like the white outline of a jellyfish.  I had to pull up my oar and chuckle to myself for a minute as I realized my predecessors’ mistake.

Team Velocity practices again tomorrow night.  I hope the few stragglers will try harder.  Most of all, I hope we all continue to improve and have fun.  Race day is Sunday.  Qu Yuan is getting ready to jump into the river.  We have to be ready.

The Project d’Or

I never imagined my directorial career would begin in a fourth grade classroom.  In fact, I never imagined I’d ever have a directorial career at all.  Chalk up another unexpected opportunity to J. William Fulbright.

Last year, the Kaohsiung ETAs began a tradition called the ‘Kaohsiung Project.’  The Project can be anything related to English teaching: a video, a website, a one-time vaudeville extravaganza.  The Kaohsiung Project is the ETAs opportunity to leave behind a legacy.   It is part thank you note and partially an attempt to improve English education in Taiwan.  The Fulbright Foundation and the Kaohsiung Bureau of Education pay the bill and the ETAs do the work.

Our predecessor ETAs filmed a video designed to teach kids the English words and phrases they’d need to know at English Village.  The Education Bureau showed us their film at the beginning of our term.  It’s a good instroduction.  Sadly, we’re probably the only people who have ever watched it.  The Bureau hasn’t distributed it widely and teachers have their own ideas about how to teach new material.

Alex Tang, one of our bosses at the Fulbright Foundation, asked me at the midyear conference to spearhead the Kaohsiung Project this year.  My cohorts and I thought long and hard about what we wanted to do.  Reflecting on the example of last year’s group, we wanted to create something we knew would be used. 

Many of us felt that our orientation program could’ve done a better job exploring the various acceptable and unacceptable co-teaching dynamics.  Should every LET and ETA split responsibilities evenly?  If so, how should this be done?  Is it okay if the LET dominates and the ETA assists, or vice versa?  If so, how should those be done?  We didn’t receive satisfactory answers to these questions.

Why not fill the need?  We could be sure the need exists because we experienced it, and we already knew the folks responsible for scheduling next year’s orientation.  A video elucidating the best practices of co-teaching seemed like the best contribution.

Along the way, we came up with another idea.  All of us were frustrated throughout the year by the lack of easily searchable, high quality, high information websites dedicated to Western/American culture/holiday ESL instruction.  Visually pleasant websites tended to have too little content, whereas content-rich websites were a jumbled mess.  Even if the site had a bunch of good activities, you had to wade through ten times as many bad ones to reach the good ones.

Why not fill this need too?  Our website will be visually stimulating, strictly for very good lesson ideas, and well organized to ensure enjoyable searching.  Better yet, it’ll be geared toward the demographic we know and love: Chinese-speaking ESL teachers/students.

My peers are all driven, intelligent people, so organizing everything has been much easier than it sounds.  We met at my apartment to hash out ideas for the website.  Each ETA handled a particular holiday or cultural aspect, producing games, activities and PowerPoints that a teacher could use.  American Katherine and Kevin Slaten edited my original draft of the script.  Fonda has, as always, been a huge help.  She hired a web designer to create the structure for our website.  She hired the film crew.  She’s a one woman Kaohsiung Project.

The one woman Kaohsiung Project, right, talking with the camera crew.

It was thus that I sat on my little director high chair watching Kristin and her LET, Sherry, act out Model A, one of the three acceptable, effective models of co-teaching.  Both actresses played compelling and believable roles.  Kelley worked through illness alongside her hilarious coteacher Winnie.  American Katherine, her co-teacher Julianna, Kevin Slaten and his co-teacher Fancina also star in important roles.  I play the “host” of the video.

One of my roles as host is to interview the actors after their scenes. The actors talk about their demonstration and why their teaching dynamic is either effective or ineffective.

The film crew was very kind and seemed genuinely interested in creating an appealing final product.  Their input was especially valuable because none of us had any prior experience producing a film.  All that I needed to add from time to time was a request to reshoot a scene in which the English enunciation wasn’t stellar.  One can’t blame the film crew for not noticing—none of them spoke English. 

Half of the cast fell ill the day of the shoot. Kristin gamely stepped up, even though she had been adamant weeks ago that she wanted no acting role.

I won’t be able to see the final product for at least another week or so.  There’s still one more scene to shoot, and then some time for the film company to produce a draft.  As for the website, Fonda’s friend won’t be able to finish it until July or August.  I’m happy to spend some of my summer vacation filling the website with content.  I’m excited to leave a valuable legacy.

Director John in his high chair, far right. The future Academy Award winning actresses left.

I’ve enjoyed working on the Kaohsiung Project because it gives me a sense of purpose and a sense that I’m making a sizable contribution.  Teaching is an everyday contribution, but I’ve done it for so long now that the pleasurable edge has worn off a bit.  Also, it’s small scale.  I only teach about 350 students and I only teach them once a week.  By putting together a website and a DVD, I feel more efficacious.  I’m getting something done, and it’ll be able to help many, many students for years to come.