Sunday, January 03, 2016

Taking a walk in Yangon on October 18, 2015

I meant to write this in my blog a long time ago. First, it took hours for me to figure out how to trace my path on google maps. After that, I weas so burned out that I did not think about this for a couple of months!

Anyway, on a Sunday in mid-October I took a 6 hour walk in Yangon and thought people could learn from my experience. When I am in Yangon on non-working days, I am usually by myself and can only go so long without other human contact. Invariably I am approached by people in Yangon and end up striking up a conversation with them. When I am visiting a famous attraction, a polite and usually articulate person will approach me with the intention of extracting money from me in some manner. In countries like Thailand, I successfully avoid these people; I have read about the scams in Lonely Planet, 地球の歩き方, or the internet, and I am confident in identifying scammers.

Myanmar, though, is different. It is harder for me to understand the extent of people's sincerety. I really have no references in the guide books about what to do when people approach you at famous attractions so I basically go with my instinct.

So, let me talk about my walk. I started near Boyoge Market at the Point A at the bottom of the map and walked to Shwedagon Pagoda. It took a little over 30 minutes. Basically, I spent 90 minutes walking around extensive grounds surrounding the pagoda and absorbing the atmosphere. The central stupa has altars (fountains and a stand for burning incense) representing days of the week placed arounds its perimeter. People will go to the altar for the day of the week they were born and pray. I used the available wifi to look up the day of the week which I was born, Friday. I was too shy to pray though because I did not know how. As I was about to leave, an elderly man with an official tour guide badge caught me at the exit. After some small talk, he offered to show me how to make a prayer at the "Friday corner" (See below). My tour guide walked very slowly and I wondered how he could take someone on a tour of the whole premises.

   Since nearly three months have passed, I have forgotten the exact order of procedures but I will recount what I remember. First, we prayed for my health and poured a cup of water over the head of the Buddha. After that we prayed for my success, love life, family, and something else followed by pouring water over the statue. The man was very erudite, and elderly.  He guided me in a very gentle manner and he seemed to be very sincere and genuinely interested in teaching me something as well as looking out for my welfare. He said that he was a former history professor but that the government had denied his pension. He was making a living by acting as a tourguide. He told me he needed about 10,000 kyat (about 10 US dollars) to pay off work-permission fee to the pagoda. I gave it to him and said good bye. The man stayed behind at the Friday corner to pray some more.

Next, I walked from Shwedagon Pagoda towards Boyoge Park. Below is a picture of the street near the rotary on the map. The way to cross the street is to run to the median strip when you can and wait there for an opportunity to cross the other side of the street. I usually run when crossing the street in these situations because it is difficult for me to judge how fast the cars are going and they don't really slow down or brake for pedestrians.

My goal was to walk to the reclining Buddha by taking some back roads. I had my iPad with me which seemed to show a way to take the backroads. However, I ended up getting lost on Ngar Ptit Gyi Pagoda Street. Below is a picture of the street.
To my interest, I ended up walking by a monastic school for disadvantaged youths. Little did I know that I would actually be visiting the school later in the day.

After walking for another 5 minutes, I realized that I was INCREDIBLY thirsty to the extent that I felt too weak to walk. Fortunately, I found a eating establishment on the side of the road and was able to get a glass bottle of pepsi. There is nothing like drinking cold soda out of a glass bottle in a tropical climate to wet a parched throat. After leaving the restaurant, some gentlemen on the side of the road told me I was going the wrong way. He said something and then pointed to a pathway. I wanted to go to Chauk Htat Gyi or the reclining Buddha. However, I realized that I had absolutely know idea how to pronounce Chauk That Gyi so I hadn't the faintest clue what the man was directing me to. I decided that it must be the reclining Buddha so I took the small path. The picture below is the small path and is represented by the small black line on the map (To the right of the hospital).

The path seemed to zigzag quite a bit and I really had no idea where I was. Eventually, I ended up on what seemed to be Shwegadon Pagoda Road. The Reclining Buddha was supposed to be off this road so I was close. However, my iPad was no longer able to show me my location and I could not get my bearings. Also, by this time, I was really starting to feel hot and tired. I am not a tropical person. My brain stopped working and I ended up walking in the opposite direction of the reclining Buddha. Eventually, I realized the error of my ways, turned around, and located the hospital so I knew I was close. However, the entrance to the reclining Buddha was not very clear to me, and I walked passed it. I decided to give up on the reclining Buddha and instead went to the Five Story Buddha or Nga That Gyi Pagoda (the namesake of the street I have been traversing earlier). My path there is represented by the shorter black line on the map.

The five story Buddha was actually stunning. Not only the Buddha but the ornately carved wooden screen behind it had me captivated. I say on a bench for about three minutes in a kind of trance until another elderly gentleman sat next to me and tried to make small talk. I was exhausted and really wanted to be left alone to admire the Buddha. The man said he lived on the premises and invited me to visit the monastery where he lived. I thought eventually I would be required to make some kind of donation and I was not up to it. I politely refused but the man sat next to me looking kind of sad. I took out my iPad and pretended to read my guidebook. He sat next to me for a few minutes and then said it looked like I was busy so he would leave. With a sad look on his face he said to me, "Have a nice life," which made me feel kind of like a modernist jerk. 

After a few more minutes of admiring the Buddha I stood up only to hear a voice behind me ask, "Where are you from?" The voice came from a fairly well-dressed man with almost impeccable English. He told me that he was an English teacher from a school and showed me the picture. It was actually the school I had walked by. He asked me if I would like to see the school and I said yes. I was wary that I would likely be asked for money, but because I am designing teaching materials for Myanmar elementary schools, I could not refuse the offer. As I walked out of the temple with the "teacher," the modest monk who I had been talking to before gave me a look like I had made the wrong choice. I had a brief tour of the school and was able to talk to some of the students, see a classroom, and learn about the kind of textbooks that they used. To be honest, I was not entirely convinced my guide was a teacher but he did have full access to the school, answered my questions, and introduced me to students. After my little tour, he asked for a donation. I gave him what I thought was a respectable sum for a mini-tour and to my surprise he asked me for more (This led me to doubt his credentials).

By this time, I had lost just about all my energy. I walked to the Clover Hotel near Boyoge Park and took a taxi to my hotel in downtown Yangon. It was around 2PM and I had left my hotel at 8AM. When I got back to the hotel, I went right to a restaurant which had western food and thus catered to a mostly foreign clientele. When I left the restaurant it was pouring rain and a girl who was about 10 was sitting on the sidewalk with nothing to cover her and begging for money. I went back to the hotel feeling depressed. Might my "generosity" (For example with the "school teacher" or see my March post) be misguided and doing more harm than good?  Hopefully in the end I can say that I did some good in Myanmar.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Foreign Language Education and Technology Conference at Harvard University

From August 11 to 15 I attended the Foreign Language Education and Technology Conference (FLEAT) at Harvard University. To the left is a picture of me speaking. However, the highlight of the conference for me was not my sparsely attended presentation about using ePortfolios in teacher education but rather the abundance of presentations about the latest and greatest technological tools for enhancing student learning.

A lot of these tools are pretty exciting so I have decided to make a record of the ones I can remember on my blog. I am doing this so I do not completely forget every thing I learned last week. I also hope this might be useful to anyone who might be interested.

Online multimedia creation tools
These all come from Keah Cunningham's presentation. If you click on her link, you can get directions on how to use the below programs:

Keep vid: You can download youtube videos on this website.
VLC Media Player: This application can be downloaded and used to extract media from a film on DVD. It's free.
Pic Monkey: You can edit images for free online
TwistedWave: Online audio editing.
JumpShare: An easy way to share files if you do not want to deal with Dropbox
Zamzar: Enables you to convert video, audio, document files to a variety of formats. Very good.

Online courses
Duolingo: According to the dean of eLearning at Harvard this site is the future of online language learning. You can study foreign languages for free.
Shaping the way we teach English:  A free online course for teaching English as a foreign language. It is run by professors at the University of Oregon but funded by the US government. Anyone can join.
American English: Tons of online resources for learning US English as well as culture.

Really cool online tools which probably require a little time to learn and might cost a little money
Thinglink: It allows you to make interactive images. For example, you can show a map of your neighborhood and mark your favourite restaurants. When the users click on one of the restaurants, they can see a description, a picture you took of the food, a video of you eating there etc. I definitely want to use this someday. It would be good for project work.

Voicethread: This allows you to make voiced over slide shows using multiple narrators.  It looks cool but it also seems like it would take a while to learn.

Padlet: This allows you to create an online bulletin board, interactive image, or wall. When I saw the demonstration at FLEAT it seemed really cool but I cannot quite remember it now.

I got some good ideas for other programs I can use for ePortfolios such as Wordpress or Weebly. I currently use Mahara but the new version runs incredibly slowly on my university server and I am considering switching to a more reliable and simpler program. Anyway, I will save that for another post.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Reading 日本人に相応しい英語教育 (Suitable English Education for Japanese)

I bought this book nearly two years ago and it had been sitting on my book shelf since. I decided that it was time for me to read it and I assigned it as reading for a graduate school seminar (for non-English majors) after we had read the book "英語教師のための第二言語習得論入門" (An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition for English Instructors) which advocated a communicative approach to teaching English in Japan. 
日本人に相応しい英語教育 (Suitable English Education for Japanese) by Hajime Narita strongly advocates translation and explicit grammar instruction as an appropriate teaching methodology to use with Japanese students.

Admittedly, I am more in the CLT (Communicative language teaching) camp, but I thought some of the arguments in this book were compelling. Professor Narita emphasises that a communicative approach might be appropriate for students whose L1 is closer to English because their grammar systems (verb tense, article usage, word order) are similar. The "linguistic distance" between English and Japanese is significantly greater and thus learners will need more explicit instruction because they will be unable to pick up rules through just input or communication. This made me reflect on how challenging it has been for me to learn to speak acceptable  Japanese. Language learning is not just fun, it is hard and sometimes tedious work.  In my teacher education classes I advocate a "communicative approach" but I worry that I could be misleading student-teachers into thinking that learning English comes from carefree communication. I have written about this before but it seems that so many teachers teach classes with either too much incredibly boring instruction and monotonous drilling or too many poorly conducted "communicative activities" rather than a pragmatic balance of both. Classes need to have a balance with concise and clear instruction, active and challenging drills, and engaging communicative activities.

Next up on my reading list will be "Effective English Instruction Appropriate for Japanese Learners" written by three of my buddies. Maybe they can point me in a better direction.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Love being a "foreigner" in Myanmar, hate being one in Japan

Friends I made at Mahabandoola Garden in Yangon
I am 12 days into a long business trip to Yangon, Myanmar. I have been living in a hotel. On the weekdays I am in the company of my work colleagues but on the weekend I can find myself alone for over 24 hours. As a father of three young kids living in an overcrowded apartment in Japan,  I am not used to having so much time alone. Although it can be nice to wake up at my leisure, as the day goes on I usually start to feel the need to talk to one. Near my hotel in Yangon is the Mahabandoola Garden, a very well maintained park in a city whose mouldy European colonial style buildings cry for maintenance. The reason why I do there is that I know that if I sit down on the grass, someone will likely come and talk to me. Today, I young man who I will call Stanley approached me and asked if he could practice his English. He wanted to attend a US university and said he was always looking for foreigners to talk to. With me, he got to practice his English and I got to ask him questions about Myanmar and his English learning experience. Stanley is from the Shan state, his father is Shan and his mother is Lahu. He spoke Lahu wit his mother and siblings but preferred to speak Burmese with his father rather than Shan. He now regrets this. Three of his friends joined us and I heard more interesting stories about the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual nature of Burmese identity. They also told me about their English education, which, given the nature of my mission here, is necessary information.

After talking to these wonderful young people, I started to think about similar experiences I have had in Japan: Japanese people I do not know or barely know approaching me to practice their English. I know that their intentions are the same as the Myanmar people I met in Mahabandoola Garden. I am always polite and cordial but not very friendly to people who do this. To be completely honest, I absolutely detest when people I do not know in Japan or acquaintances I do not know very well approach me to practice their English. Why? I know why now. In Myanmar, I am a foreigner, I do not understand any Burmese and will probably never know more than a few words or phrases. I don't mind that people approach me and tell me directly state that they want to practice English with a foreigner because I do not live here and even the most routine tasks such as ordering a bowl of noodles is a challenge for me. On the other hand, I have lived in Japan for 16 years and have made a fairly substantial effort to learn the language. I live apart from my family and friends in the US and it is not for the sake of being a "foreigner" in a "foreign land." I dislike being called a foreigner because Japan is my second home. I want to be accepted as a functioning member of society and not as a conversation partner. I know I am not "Japanese" but I do not feel like a foreigner either. What should I be called? I don't know, but in Japan, I am not the person who I was in Mahabandoola Park. 

I will end by saying that if I were in the shoes of the Japanese people who try to speak English to me, I would probably do the same thing as an enthusiastic language learner. I also understand there are (American/European) non-Japanese in Japan who have lived there longer than me who chose not to learn the language. I think that people who want to practice their English or other foreign language in Japan have to judge on a case by case basis whether or not it is appropriate.  

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Day trip from Yangon to Dala, Myanmar

I am in Yangon, Myanmar for the next couple of weeks working on a textbook project. On the weekdays I am at work but on the weekends I am completely by myself in my hotel in downtown Yangon. Yesterday, when I was walking near the Pansodan Jetty I met a 13 year old boy named Jeim. From the Jetty, there was a ferry which crossed the other side of the Yangon river to Dalah.
He was selling postcards. He said that he used to live in Dala but his dad died in the tsunami (referring to the super typhoon of 2008 which everyone calls "a tsunami") and he quit school to support his family. He said that he had a brother and sister who lived with their grandmother in a rural area. He and his mother were squatting in Yangoon and living off his income. He asked if he could be my guide because he does not make much money from selling postcards. I was very surprised at how good a communicator this boy was. In fact, to be articulate as he was, I thought that he likely had a talent for learning languages that most people do not have. A couple of hours before meeting Jeim, I had talked with a university graduate for about 30 minutes who could not communicate as well as the thirteen-year-old postcard seller. 

To make a long story short, I agreed to go on a tour of Dala with him leaving at 9:00 AM the next day. Dala is a collection of villages and offers a glimpse of the traditional stilt houses that the Burmese live in outside Yangon. He told me that he would show me how Myanmar people really lived.  

When I showed up at our meeting point a little past 9AM Jeim was not to be seen. As I started to cross the bridge over Strand st. Jeim appeared out of no where. We took the ferry across the river and Jeim told me we would need to hire Trishaws (bicycle taxis) to see the village (he was right). We ended up hiring two trishaws, one for him, one for me, and spend 90 minutes riding around the village. He was right, I could see how the poorer rural people lived and it was fascinating. The trishaw driver and Jeim also did a good job explaining to me every thing we drove by. I saw one pristine looking pond and Jeim said that was where everyone got their drinking water. Free water and food were also supplied to people by the local temples. There were a couple of things about this experience that bothered me.

First, when we stopped in one of the villages, Jeim asked me if I would like to buy biscuits for the children. The children were poor and hungry. I said yes but felt a little strange because it felt kind of like someone asking the dumb tourist if they wanted to by animal feed to give to the wild animals. We arrived at a stall and about 20 adorable children made a line. Jim told me that one back of biscuits (15 packs inside) would cost 4000 kyat (about 4 dollars) and I knew that this was an exorbitant price. He asked me how much I wanted to buy and I said two. The children wanted to eat, I wanted to give them food, but I also felt I was being had and they were using the cute children as a means to make a big profit off me. The day before, I had eaten a bowl of noodles and two pepsis for 1500 kyat (about $1.50). I ended up buying two bags of biscuits for 7000 kyat and giving them to the kids. The trishaw drivers and Jeim made sure that each child only received one pack. Jeim told me that the kids parents were working in Yangon and they would not eat until they came back home. 

Second, the Trishaw drivers tried to charge me an incredibly exorbitant sum which I negotiated down to just an exorbitant one. I should have negotiated beforehand but I had thought Jeim would be looking out for my interest. The trishaw drivers were basically older kids (late teens or early twenties) and obviously had some kind of prearrangement with Jeim. I had a feeling as a little thirteen year old kid he did not have much leverage over them.

After settling with the Trishaw drivers, we went back to Yangon and had a pleasant talk on the ferry. Jeim thanked me repeatedly for hiring him as a guide. We settled to price in a secluded place on the Yangon side of the river. He said that he did not want others to see because they would talk and it would be bad for him. Jeim seemed to know all the ferry officials, the children peddling random merchandise on the ferry, and the young mothers, some begging for money, on the other side of the river. I could understand why he did not want them to see our transaction.

Jeim had asked me to pay what I thought he deserved. I told him how about 20000 khat ($20) which I thought was VERY generous but he then begged me for 30000 kyat or $30. I thought that Jeim had been ridiculously overcharging me the whole day, but the reason why I paid because in a lot of cases, from the trishaw drivers to the woman in the food stall to his mother, it really seemed like he was trying to spread the wealth around to people who desperately needed it. The day before, when I met Jeim, I tried to give him 5000 kyat and he refused it. As a father of three kids, I did not have the heart to bargain down an enterprising 13 year old who was forced to be the man of his family (I do believe he has told the truth). I do not think he is always able to find guide work and his next big payday might not be for a while.

Anyway, I wondered if I was doing more harm than good by overpaying. Will this encourage people to pray on sucker tourists like me rather than perhaps engaging in more honest endeavors? Or, am I just being cheap? These people are poor, do not have the opportunities that I have, and did provide me a bonafide service. 

Today, the Jeim and the Trishaw drivers seems to take a sincere interest in learning about the USA and Japan from me as well as learning some English and Japanese. They also taught me some Burmese language. The children and adults in Dalah all went out of their way to say either "hello" or "Mingalaba" to me. Thanks to that, I learned my first Burmese word. Every time we passed a school, Jeim or the Trishaw driver Sam would point it out to me. For someone who is helping to develop English textbooks for Myanmar children, it was an incredibly valuable experience to see this side of Myanmar and imagine how an English class might occur in this kind of situation. Overall, I am glad that I did this. Next time, though, I'll make sure that I pay a good price but not a ludicrous one. 

Here is a picture of me and Jeim, I really liked the kid and hope things work out for him.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Who am I to criticize my students' English when my Japanese stinks?

  Yesterday, I had to write a letter to a junior high school principal requesting that he permit a teacher at his school to present at a conference with me. I wrote the letter in what I thought was fluent and persuasive Japanese. I asked my wife to take a look at it just to make sure there were no typos. Immediately she took out a red pen and started to correct. When she got to what I thought was the most compelling part of the letter, she asked if I has used a translating program. I, the teacher who curses the invention of translating programs often when he reads his students' written work, was being accused of using what I despise the most. Although she did not mean to insult me, my wife's appraisal of my Japanese felt, for a moment, absolutely devastating. It was like working your whole life to become a Picasso and being told that you can't even finger paint. 
  The past few years, in my teaching methodology courses, I have been very strict in correcting students' English. In my evaluation of their writing, I have designed rubrics that frankly tell them if their English has shortcomings. I thought that even if the criticism was a little tough, it would be good for them. To be hired as English teachers, to be superior English teachers, they must possess a superior level of English. However, being on the receiving end of the tough love has made me reexamine this notion. The semester has just ended but next semester I would like to talk to my students about this.   

Thursday, December 18, 2014

My Labor of Love

I attended the JALT (Japan Association of Language Teaching) between November 21 - 23 in Tsukuba city and on the way back home on the bullet train tears started to fill my eyes. I reflected on the thousands of hours I have spent correcting and commenting on my students' writing and asked myself why. I have read plenty of good student work but also plenty of awful writing by students who are likely more unmotivated to do their assignment than I am to read it. I also reflected on the thousands of hours I have spent reading and commenting on the response cards students write at the end of my classes. I have my own research, my family, my own hobbies, my PhD, university projects, and the classes themselves to prepare for. Why do I spend so much time on something that I do not really get any reward for? I realized that it is because I care about the people in my classes and I want them ALL to get something out of my classes. Giving assignments, commenting on assignments, and the students writing response cards at the ending of class gives me a chance to help the students one on one and show them that I care about their learning. Often, I am so busy commenting on assignments that I cannot prepare as well as I should for class (I cannot make snazzy powerpoint, eye-catching handouts, conduct an engaging introduction of the material, etc.). However, I feel it is my duty for students to get something out of my classes. The best way to do this is to encourage them to delve into the material themselves and encourage them through commenting on their work, opinions, thoughts, etc. I have to show them that I care and will ALWAYS take whatever they produce seriously. This brought tears to my eyes as I felt like a complete ass crying on a full bullet train back to Morioka.