Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Backward Planning

(Hartenstein hits the road on Rocinante the green scooter.)

I awoke to screaming.
Early Saturday morning, Lauren Kinu, my 2 ½ year old, dead-bolted herself into the bedroom and couldn’t get out. We live in this posh Taiwanese apartment with these elaborate $500 German locks on each door, but were not given a set of keys to open them.
I asked why when we moved in, but the owner said they were too expensive to hand out to just anyone. I asked why such ridiculously expensive locks were put into an apartment in the first place and how someone could rent a home to an untrustworthy person, but the owner just smiled smugly, “You are very lucky to have such prestigious door handles. Your neighbors will be very jealous of your wealth.”
I had no response. I’ve lived in Asian long enough to know I can’t fight illogic with logic.
Now, as I stood on the other side of the door trying to calm down a shrieking and hysterical toddler during a meltdown of cataclysmic proportions, I realized it was going to be a long Fourth of July weekend. I have no tools here. I have a screw driver and a pair of pliers, and believe me I tried to pick that lock with everything from knives to paperclips, but after an hour, I eventually had to call a locksmith who drilled through the German lock and saved the day. Now I’m out the door, the lock, and his time.
Great.
All because Mr. Idiot Foreigner couldn’t possibly be entrusted, or worse, Mr. Tight Fisted Asian couldn’t possibly loan out a set of sacred keys. Now as I’m counting out the money and laying it in the locksmith’s hands I think, how did either of us let this happen?
(Xi'an stares up at a stuffed polar bear in the Taichung Science Museum.)

The night before I’m sitting in the pub watching the Netherlands dismantle Brazil surrounded by drunk foreigners. They laugh with their gawking mouths open. They howl at one another from this booth to the next. Big arm movements. Towering voices. For whatever reason, there is this colossal army of bonehead Westerners that has infiltrated all of Asia and ruined our otherwise good reputation.
At the table behind us, three Americans were simultaneously hitting on this one incredibly bored and humiliated Taiwanese woman throwing their dignity away like pints of stale beer down a drain. I scribbled their collective witticisms on napkins:
“Yeah, I’ve always considered Taiwan the Mexico of Asia…”
“You can learn a lot of history by watching movies, like… I didn’t know Hitler was shot and killed by American Jews…”
And my personal favorite:
“You mean, you never heard of Leon Tootsie? He was a revolutionary. Yeah, me neither, sounds African”
Its nights like these when I think, why should an Asian person give their $500 set of keys to a foreigner? Maybe, to them, we're just a bunch of buffoons that look the same. Why should they let us inside at all? Why should they trust anything we say?
(Kinu, Xi'an, and Rebekah enjoy some roasted squid at the Taichung Port.)

But there’s more to the story, because I don’t think most Asians have figured it out either. Let me tell you about the rest of my Saturday which was spent searching for fish.
For the longest time I’ve been promising to take my girls down to the Taichung Harbor to watch the boats come in and out, tour the local seafood market, and take in some raw culture. It’s a mere ten kilometers from the city center, and I’ve been told it’s a must see. But as I began driving, following Chinese / Google maps, I quickly realized the directions programmed into the GPS were kooky. Down this street, back up this road, u-turn here, follow the detour there. It took me over two hours to find it, and only after I turned off the GPS and just started following my American nose of “good sense.”
Why?
Why is one of the top ten tourist attractions in the city mislabeled on dozens of signs all in Chinese?
Why could not one local person I asked have the ability to give precise directions, even in their native language?
It makes no sense.
Yes, the market was cool, and we were able to buy fresh salmon and blowfish and octopus and eel, but by then my girls were so cranky that not even a little soothing guitar music could calm them down, and this happens to me every time I try to travel here. It just goes to show this huge Asian and Western disconnect between what is and what should be. And it is my right to complain. I come from a country where everything is so well marked, every street is so clearly labeled. I know how things should be done. I can help. I know a lot of foreigners who feel this way, who come to Asia and find themselves entrenched in lives here but feel helpless as to any way to enact reform.
We’re left on the outside looking in, we speak, but no one is listening.
(Taichung Port Fish Market.)

But wait… Westerners are liars and aren’t to be trusted.
That Saturday night I was duped.
My co-worker, Teacher Jeffrey invited me and a select group of others to a luxurious hotel suite to wait in the dark and yell “surprise!” while he dropped to one knee and proposed to unsuspecting Alexandra with her rose bush of tattoos covering her shoulders and back. The build-up to this had gone on weeks. We were all excited and nervous. None of us had any idea what she would say.
But instead they surprised us all.
Jeffrey and Alex had eloped a month earlier, and we were now privy to their secret wedding ceremony as they produced rings and proceeded to give one another vows right in front of us.
Surprise!
The odd thing was that Jeffrey had been fired this week for butting heads with school administration for attempting to push through reforms. His student’s test scores were low and so by Taiwanese standards this meant his classroom management was brought into question.
Jeffrey was raised French-Canadian with a Serbian father, studying Greek and Latin at university and doing a three year stint in Japan where he became fluent, not to mention his Chinese is excellent. Throw in English and well, that makes seven languages.
Jeffery is an expert linguist. So what gives? Shouldn’t his ideas and experience be listened to? Wouldn’t it be prudent of school administrators to adhere to his suggestions?
No, of course not.
Shockingly, the reason the school gave for letting him go was that he held students to the absurd standard that they need to bring pencil, paper, and completed homework to class, that they do not sleep on the desk or be disruptive, and that they have their English to Chinese dictionaries.
“How can students properly study without a dictionary?”
I’ve heard him argue this dozens of times. Yet in Asian culture, a Westerner has about five minutes to change a superior’s mind, after that, he’s wrong, and that’s why they sacked him. He just wouldn’t stop trying to enact change.
No Chinese staff member in our school wanted to buck the status quo and try things a new way.
So as I listened to Jeffery’s vows that night, promising to love forever in sickness and in health, to be a light to Alexandra, to support her in all things, to lay down his life for her if necessary, I was reminded again how often in Asia no one listens to reason despite so many of us pledging ourselves to her. Yet why should they? There are no rules or promises on both sides that cannot be broken. There are no established laws that cannot be bent, no standards that are not rooted in millennia of rigorous tradition and prejudice, and despite how much something may make sense, it is only with absolute consensus and caution would a reformers ideas be heard.
Yet, as a Western reformer, well, it saddens me when ideas like Jeffery’s are flushed down the spinning toilet.
(Tai Chi Display, Taichung City Hall.)

Lately, as Independence Day approaches, I’ve been thinking a lot about Colton. When I was a kid, the neighboring farm had these granddaughters that would visit during the summer, the eldest of which was a mentally retarded girl named Beatrice. Gangly and gargantuan, she had an eerie resemblance to Big Bird with her long legs and round fluffy hair. When their mother Jo divorced, they moved into the trailer by their father’s Christmas tree farm and enrolled in Colton high.
Beatrice, being the tallest girl in the school, was placed by our over-zealous coach Thompson on the JV basketball squad to see if she would develop. People were encouraged by this. It was a sign of goodness. It’s what good people in education do. It’s the reason we teach, to love, to give something a chance, to have a plan and try to achieve potential.
Isn’t it?
At the end of the year banquet, where every kid gets an award, Beatrice was given “Most Improved Court Sense.” I still remember it eliciting a chuckle in the crowd as mouth-breathing Beatrice could barely follow the ball as it sailed over her head.
I think about that phrase a great deal the more time I spend in Asia.
Saturday afternoon, while driving back from the fish market, a white Mercedes in front of our mini-van slammed on its brakes in the middle of traffic blocking two lanes and almost causing a CHIPS style Poncherelo ten-car pile-up, all because the driver needed to check messages on his phone. Later that afternoon in Costco, preparing for the big Independence Day barbeque, I must have had twenty different carts slam into me because someone just left it rolling as they ran to stand in line for free samples of jalapeño poppers and broiled squid tarts. Later on the drive back, I almost crushed a woman who stepped absent-mindedly into the street eyes fixated on a Gucci window display.
No court awareness.
This week alone a man pushed my daughter aside to hurry into the elevator before us, at least five motorists sped through crosswalks almost splattering students on the road outside our school, and I watched a government employee smoke a cigarette at his desk for ten minutes while I waited patiently in line for him to finish.
It’s baffling.
How did Asia get like this?
Why don’t they reform?
Do they care?
(Rebekah checks out the tusks of this old mammoth at the Science Museum.)

I’ve just completed my first year teaching in Taiwan. It is not my first time teaching in Asia, but certainly my first time teaching in Asia in a long time. Over the course of the last few months I’ve kept a pretty low profile. (Well, if you can call producing a mock-Shakespeare play out of thin air and producing it for the whole school, establishing the very first school club, and basically rising in popularity so much that my return from India caused a riot with my old students and the eventual firing of my replacement because he was not up to snuff, low profile.) Then, sure.
But suffice to say, I have some momentum. I’ve been trying to discuss with school officials moving away from standardized testing toward a portfolio system of work that assesses students on their proficiency and mastery of skills.
I know. I know. Teacher speak.
But what is the point of taking a test on the last day of school just hours before you throw out a year’s worth of work, crank up the Alice Cooper, and run wild through the streets?
What is the point of teaching students for months so that they can memorize answers on a test?
What about building skills?
What about demonstrating ability to be either proficient or master a specific skill that is grade level and appropriate and shown in a collection of work?
You know?
And here’s another thing. Most of the lessons I have seen Westerners and my colleague Chinese teachers instruct, has no backward planning. There are just work sheets and random assignments and nothing inter-connected. What do I mean by Backward Planning? Well, it is the structure of an academic unit of prepared lessons that moves students through activities and assignments toward answering a big question and ultimately achieving a specific standard.
(Buddhist tapestry of judgment, torture, and hell.)

You begin each unit with a guiding question, something you want the students to be able to answer, like a bull’s eye on the target. Then you mark off a list of grade-level skills you will observe them demonstrate and hopefully master as they complete assignments that are focused on this question. You carefully plan out textual reading and specific reflective responses. You collect the students work. You have a conference with the student who explains to you a summary of their learning where they answer for you this Big Question.
And thus… you demonstrate learning. Real learning. Not multiple choice on a test. Not circle the correct answer. But a kid-led conversation where they tell you what is important. This is how you educate. This is how you lead. This is how you instill creative and critical thinking.
But you need to work backwards.
You need to start with the end result. What kind of future do you want to have? What kind of kid do you want to produce in the next twenty to fifty years? How do you get there?
(Sunset over Taichung.)

I don’t know. It’s just a thought.
When I was a kid growing up in my parent’s farm in Colton, the Fourth of July was always this mystical gateway into the unknown possibilities of summer. Mom and Dad were great. Sparklers down by the river, wicker picnic baskets full of potato salad, deviled eggs, and hot dog buns. Amusement park rides, the smell of sun tan oil and freshly cut grass, me and my big sister and kid brother huddled together under army blankets in the back of the truck watching fireworks explode in the sky. It’s great being an American. I always felt like fireworks were dropped from above rather than shot up from the ground. As if the sky knew it had everyone’s attention and decided to show off a little. It was a sign that anything was possible.
But now?
Maybe I should just focus on helping the Westerners here do their job and live their life a little better? Maybe I should be suspicious and cautious around the local native people who feel the same about me and leave them alone and collect my pay check and just shut up.
Maybe so.
But just like those beginning summer days where I thought anything was possible, I see such potential here. Such wonder. Can I really help? Can I really make a difference? I have to try. If I shoot out into the sky as a dud or drop from heaven with a chute that won’t open, then it’s on me. Isn’t it? Either way, I have to try and be heard.

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