Sunday, April 29, 2012

I write on your hand what I write on my hand

Stop sign outside the school, early on a Tuesday morning.  It is rain season and you can smell when the sky is about to pour.  The light changes too.  An ominous foreboding feeling, like you should duck and run for cover.  Lucky for us, we're already inside.
My cluttered desk in the English office. I keep photos of past students stuck under the plastic to remind me never to give up.  Oh, and yes, that's Boggle!
 Some sweet rock lady bugs Rebekah and I made.  Found the stones in the park and painted them with brushes.  Reminded me of something my Grandfather Forest would have done.
This is the Lorax inspired entry to Kinu's school library and where I stand to drop the girls off and pick them up every day.  There's an owl hiding too.  Can you see it?
On the way to the gym at lunch, there was this advertisement on a bus showing these horrible designer jeans.  Yes, that is what many people consider style here.  It's frightening.
In the courtyard of the school I stumbled upon these children playing the traditional Taiwan yoyo.  They looked happy.
Would you believe it, the one teacher who didn't allow my 9th graders to give a five minute Kony 2012 presentation was Princess, my old nemesis.  Who does that?  Actually tells studnets no... what you are passionate about is a waste of time?  Why does someone like that even become a teacher?  Well, when I found out she refused my students, I was reading this story about a giant octopus eating this ship... it seemed fitting.
This guy was sitting in front of me at my daughter Rebekah's second round Speech Contest.  He was Born to Rock!
These are school children scrubbing the floor at lunch.  It is their punishment for not completing homework or acting rudely in class.  I've asked the school to at least allow them to wear gloves, as the corroding chemicals they use are dangerous on their hands and fingers... but to no avail.
Evenings after school are best, just me and the girls riding bikes or having some juice and watching the sun go down.  Sometimes in the morning I write little notes on their tiny hands before they go to school.  Inspirational words or pictures... a music note for hope... a happy face for a smile... a litte inkblack heart for love... by the end of the day... only the barest trace remains.
Then we walk the little path in front of the new apartment down toward the art museum.  These are the trees I climb for my girls... the ones they stand beneath jumping and screaming for me to lift them up... as I climb higher.
Then we stop at the post office to spy a letter from home...oops!  Today it is empty. Maybe tomorrow.
This is a street poster I've been eyeballing for a couple of weeks... soon as I get my chance... I'm stealing it!
After dinner and dishes and dips in the tub we lay on my bed and do puzzles.  Here little Kinu practices her U.S. States.
Her two big sisters have the right idea...passing Nintendo games back and forth.  Sorry girls, let's brush our teeth and wash our hands good... it's time for stories and bed.  We'll wake up tomorrow and do it all over again. 

Monkey's Paw Manga

“Without, the night was cold and wet; but in the small parlor of Laburnam villa… the fire burned bright.”
-The Monkey’s Paw

Kids today are smart, smarter than I was at their age. They've seen thousands of movies, T.V. shows, and news clips. They download graphic material and steal freely off the Internet. In fact, they basically have world at their fingertips. I mean, how does the modern teacher instruct a room full of kids with iPhones in their laps?
“Hark at the wind,” said Mr. White –The Monkey’s Paw

It's tough. Earlier this year my students created this chat room to post live comments during a lecture that I projected on the board. It was our most lively discussion, full of insight and constant attention. The only problem was, it had nothing to do with the lecture, because the comments followed these linear joke threads that started and basically derailed the class. Still, it was a great exercise for continuing a discussion on student concentration and in-class focus.
“A the third glass his eyes got brighter, and he began to talk… of wild scenes and doughty deeds; or wars and plagues and strange people’s.” -The Monkey’s Paw

I've done things similar to this, flirted with class blogs and posting comments... we even did a few Facebook homework assignment K-W-L's... it's cool and students enjoy it. But in Taiwan, parents are so deathly afraid of computers most don't allow their children to use them. Rather, they lock them into classrooms memorizing math answers until 10 p.m. so when kids finally get home, they are too exhausted for any kind of meaningful post-class exchange.
“I should like to see those old temples and fakirs…” -The Monkey’s Paw

So lately I've been returning to old teaching tricks, tried and true methods that work... and that's drawing pictures of stories. Yes, it's reading with a pencil time again, kids!
“He saw alone in the darkness, gazing at the dying fire and seeing faces in it.” -The Monkey’s Paw

The assignment is simple... we read, we laugh, we stop to think about what we just read and visualize it in our minds... then we draw it in cartoon boxes... using the most important quote from the passage as a caption. It works. It slows students down. Relaxes them. Forces thoughtful expression (yes, forces!) but also begins the conversation about ruminating and meditating about what one has just read that is still swimming around in their brains.
“In the huge new cemetery, some two miles distant, the old people buried their dead.” -The Monkey’s Paw

Wait, Hartenstein... are you trying to get these kids to meditate? Are you asking them to read something and then close their eyes and show it to you? But that's so boring... so traditional... so slow... can't we just download an app and draw it on our phones? No... get some colored pencils. Draw me something for real!
“The knocking ceased suddenly, although the echoes of it were still in the house…” -The Monkey’s Paw

Well, as you can see... for W.W. Jacob's The Monkey's Paw, a story whose ending most kids see coming two pages in...this kind of picture drawing works... works for me too!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Snow White and Mr. Laid Back

Anderson and I had just finished racing scooters and he lit a cigarette while we both waited for our daughters to come out. That's when I see the kid. He's new, from "Cali." Got this surfer twang to his speak. Sun bleached whites to his eyes, I can almost smell the surf on his skin. I like and dislike him almost immediately. "Yeah, I googled you," he says on the first day of class. "I know your game, teacher dude!"
Most days teaching in Taiwan are exactly the same. Kids come in, they are disinterested, they don't know anything outside their tiny island shore, eyes roll in collective waves, lunch is delivered in gray metal tins on the floor, even their sighs are passive aggressive. Then comes this kid. The new kid, like some shiny fizzy bottle of Coke dropped from heaven and, slapping everyone in the face.
Hunter thinks he's giving it to me straight, thinks we're talking man to man. "I read your blog," he flashes those picket fence whites. "You complain way too much." He leaps toward a low tree branch and does a pull up. "People step to me, I send them packing.  You should give it a try!" He does a deft flip and lands on his feet. "Save the drama for yo mama."
What Hunter doesn't know is that I read his file. His dad is an ex-marine with Taiwanese mom, sent him to our school when he stole a car and got probation. Now he's an island kid, a private school burnout, not a waster skaterboy, but an expat with nothing around him but dull puddy mush.
"That's right, huh... you're tough? You're hard?" I bait him a little. I've been looking through kids like this for years. Kids that are given everything and never told to work.  Trust fund morally bankrupt zombies, thrill seekers at other's expense... say and do anything without consequence... I know his type inside and out.
But then a glimpse of light... the very reason I continue to do this soul crushing mind numbing job day in and day out... Hunter pulls the rug out from under me. "You know, a lot of people back home are suffering. People losing everything, foreclosures, bankruptcy, suicides, living hand to mouth...You still have a job. That's something, right?"
Now who's looking through who?
That afternoon in class we were discussing human will. When does a person become ugly? Bent? Broken? When does even the most laid back and understanding among us become corrupt? Is it the first time your child comes home with a black eye from the playground and you realize you can't fight back for them? The first time a trusted friend betrays you? The first time you strive for something that is given to another for free? When exactly does someone become jaded? When is innocence completely and irreversibly lost... replaced by a blinding and building rage. I don't know where the thoughts came from... this girl was talking about Snow White, how when she ate the apple she was never the same.  That was Hunter's first day in class, sitting so confident in the back row grinning at me, not a care in the world.
As Hunter trotted off up the library steps he was replaced by Xian who came bounding down toward me. Such a sweet smile and little squeaking voice as we walked through the courtyard, telling me how she just liked holding my hand. "Is that a Fuji, daddy?" She asked. "Yep," was my reply, and then we walked home, passing the red fruit back and forth, laughing about the day, until it was gone.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

hartensteinabroad episode 55: "Daytrips from Mandalay Burma: Mingun Paya and UBien Bridge"

Hi Readers,
Check out the latest hartensteinabroad episode as I take two day trips outside the city of Mandalay Burma, made famous by Rudyard Kipling. The first is across the river to Mingun Paya, the second through dusty streets to UBien bridge, the longest teakwood bridge in the world. Enjoy!

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Freshest Boy by F. Scott Fitzgerald

“Dear Mother: There is not much to say today, but I thought I would write you about my allowance. All the boys have a bigger allowance than me, because there are a lot of little things I have to get, such as shoe laces, ect.” -Fitzgerald, The Freshest Boy

Took a break from the Fitzgerald and stood in class today looking out the window over the small buildings and the banyan trees, the sky overcast and pouring thunderous rain in windy sheets as the students read aloud. Their voices dim and muted, echoing behind like some memory long gone while I wonder about the rain.
“Doctor Bacon was at his desk. He was a handsome, redheaded Episcopal clergyman of fifty whose original real interest in boys was now tempered by the flustered cynicism which is the fate of all headmasters and settles on them like green mold.” -Fitzgerald, The Freshest Boy

My friend from when I was a little boy told me a story this week about walking the long roller coaster road up Gray's Hill into the gravel beyond Dooghie past the one room school house with the clown on the door, getting caught out in the rain under an old evergreen. One and only time her Dad had to come get them on a walk in the warm truck with the heat cranked up. She still remembers.
“This was a gaudy paradise of cheap sugar. Its odor, heavy and sickly and calculated to bring out a sticky sweat upon an adult’s palms.” -Fitzgerald, The Freshest Boy

Everyone has stories about rain.
“But that all changed- he was going to Europe.” -Fitzgerald, The Freshest Boy

Here in Taiwan tonight we ordered a pizza and sat on the floor putting Lego houses together. The little fingers and hands of my girls so perfect for these button sized pink plastic flowers and swing sets and fence posts and window sills. Lego's have come a long way since I was a boy.
“But Basil took it to bed with him that night, and thinking of it, holding it to him happily to the last, fell easily to sleep.” -Fitzgerald, The Freshest Boy

Memory washes us clean. In the end, it's all we have.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Happy 6th Birthday Rebekah

Oh yes, it's that time of year again... believe me, middle daughter Rebekah has had this circled on the calendar since Jan 1.
You only turn 6 once, and you never look back. This year Rebekah got a big kid bike... with a basket and sweet bell. She spent the next few days riding around in circles while it poured rain outside chomping at the bit.
On the actual birthday, Grammy H sent a huge care package and a nice night was had by all. Thanks to all family and friends who sent cards and gifts... we miss you all.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Day: 1,201

Rude. Rude beyond belief. Rude beyond the point of exasperation. Rude past the point of actual human contact. Rude like you were raised by wolves. Rude like intolerance. Rude like you’re a racist pig. Rude that borders on hate… To the kid who knocked me down in the hall today and thought it was funny, you’re rude. To the student who looked right at me in class today and cursed my face... to the boy who kicked my chair because he wanted me to get out of his way... to the boy who smirked and walked three times around his desk when I asked him to sit down... to the girls who are supposed to clean my classroom that is covered in dust and garbage and trash and just laugh in my face when I ask you to do your jobs... to the other boy who tried to stare me down today and then kept talking when I asked him to be quiet... to his buddy who kicked over his chair when I asked him to leave the room, who stormed through the hallway punching lockers when I followed him, who barged into his homeroom teacher’s office and complained about me because I was asking him for his homework… hey kid… excuse me, sorry to bother you, and please, pardon me, but if you wouldn’t mind, if it’s not too much trouble, pretty please, with sugar on top… and a cherry… would you just stand over this trap door for a second…yes, right there…yes...hahahaha… snap! Don't worry, I've done the world a favor.

Monday, April 16, 2012


I was telling someone today about Colton, about the snow in the winter... waking up shivering to this blanket of white, about riding horses and shooting guns, making bows and arrows from old hay bale strings and fishing in creeks, driving trucks and exploring forests. At Christmas my brother and I would drag the sled out into the matted down grass, out into the woods to cut down a tree and in the summer bucking hay, letting the truck roll along in first gear in the stifling heat, brushing all that sticky sweat off your arms cut up from the straw. About stone fire places and cutting wood with axes until your palms bled, about coyotes at night and herds of deer timidly sticking their noses out in the morning sunlight, about following trails through the trees, fox tracks... my dad welding in the garage and mom in the kitchen rolling dough. About old drawers full of pictures and letters you can't throw away... finding them in a shoebox and getting lost in memory and faded dreams... Man, I miss home.

(The picture above was organized by students Jenny and Vivian after showing them the Kony 2012 video phenomenon in class, and I don't care about that dude's egg cracking or the shameless self promotion... I don't care! You two girls are my silver lining.)

Teaching Shirley Jackson's The Lottery

“The children assembled first, of course. School was recently over for the summer, and the feeling of liberty sat uneasily on most of them…” -Jackson, The Lottery

When the students enter class the desks are stacked against the wall. They are directed to stand in a circle in the center of the room. Rules are written on the chalkboard in white. Everyone is to wait for their name to be called, then one by one step to the middle of the class and draw a slip of paper from the black box, hold it tight in their hand, and do not open until told.
“The lottery was conducted – as were the square dances, the teen-age club, the Halloween program- by Mr. Summers, who had time and energy to devote to civic activities…” -Jackson, The Lottery

Predictions are made. Wagers placed. Nervous energy surges. “What’s the prize? A bar of chocolate?  He’s given us Hersey bars before. Maybe the winner gets McDonalds? Some teachers do that, you know?”
“Thought we were going to have to get on without you, Tessie…” -Jackson, The Lottery

Sometimes I even play music. Vivaldi’s Flute Concerto in G minor ‘La Notte’ is succinct and pulsing. Perfect as one by one they draw their slips from the box.
“The children had stones already, and somebody gave little Davy Hutchinson a few pebbles.” –Jackson, The Lottery

It’s a funny exercise. Students here are not used to creative activities in class, and over the last few years I’ve thrown all kinds of things at them: ‘Mock’ Salem Witch Trials, Obstacle Courses, Scavenger Hunts, Thoreau Walden Solo Camping Trips, Greek Myth Charades, Short Satire Film Projects, Interview an Elder Documentaries, once we even cleared all the desks and chairs out of the room and practiced basketball drills on the fifth floor before a rival game.  That was actually really cool!
“It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.” -Jackson, The Lottery

I don’t tell them we’re going to kill the winner. I just let it unfold. Draw the slips, find the black dot, read the story aloud, let them see if for themselves. Sometimes, you just have to force kids to go through it so they know. Then they see... exactly what we do to each other for nothing.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Lady or The Tiger

“In the very olden time there lived a semi-barbaric king, whose ideas, though somewhat polished… were florid and untrammeled…” -The Lady or the Tiger

I tell the kids it doesn't matter what he choose, which direction his princess lover led him to... whether she thought to grant him happiness or kill him off so that no woman could have him... what really matters, is what the story says about you.
“When a subject was accused of a crime of sufficient importance to interest the king…the fate of the accused person would be decided in the arena…” -The Lady or the Tiger

Oh... they weren't having it! Not by a long shot. This story sent them upside down, these young 7th grade kids demanded to know... what did he choose.
“Directly opposite him, on the other side of the inclosed space, were two doors…” -The Lady or the Tiger

I'm not budging either... imagination is much stronger than reality... and the classroom is the perfect magical place for this discussion.
“As the youth advanced… he turned to bow to the king… his eyes fixed upon the princess…” -The Lady or the Tiger

Instead, I tell them how marvelous it is that someone wrote a short story, just put words down on the page, that were so powerful they actually had a physical effect on someone... that the kids were actually furious over this story, livid... that they felt punched in the face... and even more angry that I said it was good.
“If he opened the one, there came out a hungry tiger… which immediately sprang upon him and tore him to pieces…” -The Lady or the Tiger

That's what art should do to us... it should hurt sometimes... and believe me, do you know how hard it is to convince this to thirteen year old kids who live off junk food and stay up all night playing video games...? Yeah, impossible.
“But, if the accused person opened the other door, there came forth from it a lady… and to this lady he was immediately married…” -The Lady or the Tiger

But that's life, isn't it? There is never a clear answer, never a true path without some kind of pesky thorn patch to cut up our shins... but whatever you believe... hope or depravity... I wish you well in your choice.