reflection on mistakes and regrets

For a lazy person, I did a lot of work this semester. (The word “lazy” is a little imprecise; let’s say I’m an enthusiastic about chilling.) Teaching two classes I had never taught before, plus starting my Master’s degree, took an unsurprisingly large amount of time. I spent my time working on a topic I am passionate about, which helped the medicine go down with a spoonful of sugar.

Yesterday I reflected on how discouraged I was when I wasn’t accepted into the University of Minnesota Master’s program. It’s a great program, but the program I am in now is excellent as well. And relating my coursework to what I am actually doing in my job reinforces learning and makes it easier to do the work. I don’t know how I would have completed the U of M program with no teaching experience. I would have done it, but it would have been difficult.

He's FINE, guys.
He’s FINE, guys.

Some people live their lives saying they have no regrets. Others even say that there are no mistakes, just choices. Not me. I regret things. I make plenty of mistakes. Big ones, too. More than most, I bet. It’s OK. It’s OK to say that I wish I’d done certain things differently. It’s OK to say that I should have made other choices. Even though I’m simultaneously saying that my life is pretty good now and seems to be on track to be pretty good for the next 40 years or so. Another path would have probably been good, too.

My senior students are having a hard time with this, as many of us did in our early 20s. They want the best job possible. Of course they do. But I tell them, “If you don’t like your job, get another one.” Yes, it’s easier said than done, and quitting jobs all over town is not good, but the freedom to fail is liberating.

Free to fall, free to fly.

I feel really proud of what I did this semester. I am stating all of this very explicitly because there will come a day, perhaps soon, when I forget it all. Some sort of misstep will occur and it will insurmountable. I’ll worry that I messed it all up permanently. Trust, I am not saying this because I have it all figured out. I have it like 10% figured out. But living in a country where I don’t speak the language has taught me that you don’t have to know a lot of shit to do a lot of shit.

Tl;dr: I’m good, how are you?


news sandwich

It’s spring in Chongqing. I’ve been meaning to write something here, but this has been a difficult semester for a few reasons. My class structure changed—I teach fewer classes, but they’re spread out over more days, and they’re 90-minute sessions instead of 45 minutes. It’s not all bad, but it’s hard for me to get used to.

And you know, I’ve been a little depressed. Living in China is difficult. Making friends is difficult. I haven’t learned the language as quickly as I hoped I would. To be fair, I’m not studying as hard as I could. But I’m working more and sometimes I need to rest. My health and happiness comes first, my students second. I have found that teaching is a lot like massage therapy in that I have to make an effort to keep outside stresses outside so they don’t affect my work. And I’m growing a bit as a person, and that’s difficult and shitty. All difficult processes are. Will I tell you about it sometime? It doesn’t seem likely now, but we’ll see.

So, enough with the apologies. Let’s serve up the news sandwich.

Good news
I was accepted to a Master’s program for English Language Learning. I can study online, with the exception of student teaching. That will have to wait until I return to the US. And that’s fine. I don’t know where I will do it, but I am so far from having to figure that out.

I am looking forward to learning more about teaching and how to do it better. I think it will be useful to show employers that I am serious about my career change. I also think it will be a butt-ton of work. But it’s work I know how to do. It’s not impossible, unless my internet connection fails to cooperate.

Not so good news
My contract at Chongqing University will not be renewed for next year. A lot of things will be changing next year and very few teachers are returning. University curriculum is determined in Beijing, so if anyone knows why these changes are happening, that person is not someone I have access to.

Bad news: you’re dead. Good news: you’re fabulous.


I was really upset when I first found out. And I’m not still not delighted with the situation, although I’ve made my peace with it. I am looking for other work and trying to determine the best next step. I have not made a lot of close friends here, but the ones I have made are very dear to me and I will miss them terribly.

BTW, The Simpsons taught us that the Chinese use the same word for crisis as they do for opportunity (crisitunity, if you will). Not true. How could The Simpsons lie?

Good news
How much do you know about the improvisation workshop I’m teaching? Not a lot? That’s OK. Long story short, I have to teach an activity as part of my contract. I thought I was signing up for a two-hour, one-time thing, so I proposed an improv workshop. Whoops, my bad, it’s every week. Better learn how to teach it.

It has been incredible. First semester started out with most of my improv students coming from the English drama club. A few of them stuck around, but many didn’t. This is partly because they are busy and partly because they signed up for English drama club to learn lines, not improvise them. The president of the club told me, “I can require them to come to improvisation.” OMG, no, I’m not going to coerce anyone.

This term, I started promoting it to my former students. They started as Level 1, so their English is not at a high level (although there is A LOT of variation). But they trust me, and that is much more important. Now, my consistent attendees are non-drama students, only one of whom has any performance experience. Let’s do a show!

We are doing a show in five weeks. I am going to put something together that they can do well at. It is not the hip long-form show I hoped for at the beginning of the year. It will likely be mostly short-form games. Think my first ComedySportz beginner showcase. In other words, a few mistakes, but lots of fun. It is OK. It is better than OK. The students who show up have made a lot of progress, and I think that in five weeks, we will be ready.

In conclusion
The pickle on the side of the sandwich, if you will, learning is difficult and horrible and sometimes I think I’d rather not. But that’s not the hand I was dealt, apparently. I whine a lot, but I still want to do better, so I keep going. What else can I do?

Failure is good for the soul

I feel ya, cat.
I feel ya, cat.

I was not accepted to University of Minnesota. I don’t know why. Maybe because my application was late. Maybe because Wonder Woman and her 50 cousins applied this year. It hardly matters at this point. What matters is deciding what’s next.

On January 1, Groupon had a great deal on the 150-hour TOEFL course. I bought it as a back-up plan. I’m planning to sign up soon so I can get started. I know a few people who have taught English abroad, so I’m going to pick their brains.

I will probably beat cheeks out of the USA in August or thereabouts. My lease at the Healing Garage ends July 31. And since many schools outside the US start in January, I think I’d have trouble finding work if I started looking in late October-December. It seems like, based on my limited research, many places have a high turnover rate for ESL teachers, so mid-year would not be a terrible time to job-hunt.

Good things about not getting in:

  1. I don’t have to retake the Spanish test I failed back in October (glad I put off retaking it!).
  2. I don’t have to do the work for my Master’s (at least, not this year).
  3. I can live abroad and maybe (ideally, necessarily) learn another language.
  4. Maybe I can get some interesting stories out of it and write a Fringe show or a memoir or a novel, or at least tell some cute cocktail party stories.
  5. Technology means I’ll be able to keep in touch with people, download Kindle books, etc. It’s not like I’m planning to go off the grid.

Bad things about not getting in:

  1. If I go abroad, I will miss my cat. I’ve known her her whole life, and she’s a bit clingy.
  2. I don’t know how to get prescription meds in other countries. Or prescription glasses. Or health care.
  3. Who will cut my hair? Will I be able to find henna? Shut up, it’s a serious concern. If you could see some of the awful haircuts I’ve had in my life….
  4. I’m open to working in Asia, but people there tend to be of a very different physical type than me. What if I can’t find underpants to cover my fat American ass?
  5. I don’t know what to do with all my shit. I am mentally making lists of what I can sell, what I can give away, what I can keep, what I can bring. And if I keep stuff, I don’t know where I’ll store it.

This weekend is set aside for processing this news. Stew now, be proactive starting Monday.

Oh, yeah, I have a blog

Please enjoy this kitten.
Please enjoy this kitten.

I seriously forgot for a while there. Let’s see:

  1. Did not pass my Spanish test. Continuing to study. I am planning to retake in January 2014. If I don’t pass then, I probably will just do ESL teaching and skip the Spanish bit. But I think I will pass.
  2. I’ve been practicing a lot of Spanish. I had about two or three weeks when I felt like I was plateaued, but recently I think the work is paying off a bit.
  3. I want to finish up my personal statements this week. Strike that: I will finish them this weekend. After I get some feedback, I’ll polish them up and apply by December 2.
  4. Homework Hub is now called Homework Help. It’s been fun again this year. I’ve been working more with the high school kids and have seen a few of my Wellstone students.
  5. Plus, shopping for affordable health insurance (as opposed to the kind I have now). I think it’s figured out.

Technology in the classroom

Please enjoy this kitten.
Please enjoy this kitten.

I like using technology because it makes things easier, but only when it makes things easier. And in my limited experience, technology in the classroom doesn’t always make things easier.

I do like the projector thing that is similar to an overhead projector, but it’s just for regular paper. That makes sense. And smart boards might work OK. Some of the students were playing a timed matching game where they identified parts of the body in English. They had a BLAST. Our summer school smart board only works intermittently, but I’m not sure if that’s the teacher’s lack of experience with it or a problem with the board itself. I’ve never used one before, so I’m no help.

But a lot of times, it just seems like a lot of horsing around trotting down to the computer lab and trying to get everybody logged into the computer, then the school site, then the classroom site, and I don’t have a login because I’m new, and I don’t remember my login, and my computer doesn’t work, and those two over there are too busy taking selfies, and the teacher didn’t name the file correctly and no one can find it. And it just seems like sometimes it would be quicker to give everyone a worksheet.

And then there was the day when one of the classrooms had a missing iPad. I don’t know the outcome of that. I do know that security was called in to search backpacks. We used MacBook Airs in summer school, and I collected them as the students left. I ended up with the same number I started with, but with all the chaos of 30+ leaving, it would not have been hard for someone to sneak by me.

When the iPad incident happened, one of the other teachers said, “Just give me the books.” And I’m inclined to agree, to my surprise. Because I want these students to get technology experience. But I’m not sure that they’re learning anything useful, except how to use Google Translate to cheat. Once they get to more advanced levels, they do PowerPoints and so forth. I guess that’s helpful, although I’m not sure the world needs more PowerPoints.

I just feel like technology in schools gets an automatic thumbs-up, and there’s just so much room for improvement. It’s just a lot of money out of a limited budget, and I want to know that the kids are getting the most out of it. I want to use it in my own classroom someday, but I just hope it’s the best choice for the students.

Two classes

Please enjoy this kitten
Please enjoy this kitten.

When I got to Wellstone on Tuesday, I encountered one of the teachers I work with. She told me that they were having standardized tests all morning. Um, surprise? What will I do all day? So I went to the volunteer coordinator, who told me to go to one of the classrooms where students who didn’t have to test would be “doing homework or something.” Fine, at least I don’t have to sit in the hallway all day.

The teacher in that room decided to try to teach something instead of just letting the kids watch movies or dink around. The kids were mainly Spanish speakers, and the teacher found a story written in English and Spanish. The students took turns, one reading English and one Spanish. They didn’t all have strong reading skills in either language, but they got through it.

I had never worked with this teacher before, and it was fascinating to see someone who could get and hold the students’ attention and selected a lesson they would attempt even if it wasn’t graded. (There was some whining and stalling, but not too much. Honestly, I would have probably stalled, too–I can’t stand busy work and don’t like to make students do it.) This guy is a good teacher.

After lunch, they had their morning classes in the afternoon. (As someone who loves routine, this made me CRAZY.) One of the classes had a substitute teacher. It was…an interesting contrast with the teacher from the morning, if you get my meaning. The lesson was above their heads, the students didn’t want to sit still after being tested all morning, the directions were unclear…I literally  ran out of that room when the bell rang without stopping to put on my coat.

So, how do I become more like the first teacher and less like the second? She was at a disadvantage, since she didn’t know the students and couldn’t access the lesson plans. But still. There was no control of the room. When the lesson didn’t work, there was no flexibility to change. That is exactly what I don’t want to be, and I think the fear of being that type of teacher kept me from seriously considering this as a career possibility until recently. Experience is going to help, but until then…off the top of my head:

  1. Comfort in public speaking
  2. Having a lesson plan and a backup (especially a game or something)
  3. A loud voice
  4. Not backing down when disciplining (for example, if I ask for someone’s headphones, I damn sure better get them)
  5. Engaging the students in the lesson, especially the social leaders
  6. Reading the room and knowing when to change courses

This American Life: Harper High School, Part One


This is a story about a Chicago high school that had 29 current and former students shot in one school year. It’s incredible, in the way that The Wire is incredible, except that you know The Wire is fiction on some level. And this is a real school, real kids.

The most eye-opening thing for me was the idea that these kids don’t “join” gangs. They’re in them automatically based on where they live. Staying neutral is essentially impossible.

I’m tempted to put a nice button on this post and relate it back to my experience, but I can’t do that right now, and possibly never. It’s not honest.

Thoughts on my first day of volunteering

Please enjoy this kitten.
Please enjoy this kitten.

I’m going to organize these better and probably expand a few out into their own posts. But for now:

  • The teachers and many of the students seemed happy to see me. That’s always nice. I wasn’t sure if the teachers would know what to do with me, but they mostly used me as extra help. It felt a lot like Homework Hub, and I think that experience was extremely helpful.
  • I was in 3 different teachers’ classrooms. They all had different styles of teaching that mostly seemed to work (hard to make an exact comparison, especially after one day). One of those teachers has to write my recommendation for grad school–who will it be?
  • I like that the school day is broken up into 50-minute chunks. It helps the day go faster. It works very well for me, although in the classes with extended reading times, it interrupted some of the students before they’d finished their books. I hope they get to finish books and assignments the next day, but I don’t know–I’m only there once a week.
  • Since I’m working with ELL students, they have to read simpler materials. Some of the books I read with them were little kids’ books. I would think that would be kind of boring, but maybe these students weren’t thinking about reading for pleasure.  They certainly seemed to be appropriate for their reading levels. It was a little weird to tell one student to quit macking on the girl next to him and get back to “Turtle and Snake Go Camping.”
  •  Standing all day is hard on my back, and I was wearing my comfortable snow boots. Note to self: no heels. Sorry, fashion.
  • When I was in school, I was fascinated by the teachers’ lounge, the only room I was never allowed into. Well, guess where I ate my lunch on Tuesday? Mm-hm.

Get in my brain, Spanish!

Duo the Duolingo owl says, "Si, se puede!"
Duo the Duolingo owl says, “Si, se puede!”

I had two meetings last Friday to put me closer to my grad school goal. Let’s talk about them, shall we?

First I met with my potential U of M advisor, MM. She reviewed my transcript and found it good. It looks like I won’t have any prerequisites to take. Awesome. And in fact, my undergraduate linguistics class might count for grad school, although I’m not totally counting on that.

MM also told me that doing ELL and Spanish at the same time is not that much extra work. In fact, she said, “you might as well take ELL at the same time.” She also told me that, if my volunteer experience goes well, I should have a competitive application.

But it’s not all smooth sailing from here. I have to learn the hell out of some Spanish. I have to take an oral exam (tape-recorded!) before I apply in December. I’m going to shoot for late September/early October, just in case I have to retake it.

So what do I do to learn Spanish? Duolingo is going well, when I do it consistently. Spanish language music is a good idea, although I can’t find anything I like beside “Elena la Ballena” (which, to be fair, is the jam). A conversational group, if I can find one that meets at a time that works for me (lots of them seem to like Saturday mornings, and I work or go to book club at that time). I may have to set one up myself. Movies and TV, if I can find something on Hulu Latino that doesn’t make me want to vomit out of my eye sockets. I downloaded Harry Potter y la piedra filosofia, and I can find other YA books in Spanish.

My second meeting was an orientation for volunteering in Minneapolis Public Schools. It went great! And this morning, I got an email from Wellstone International High School. I’ll start volunteering there next Tuesday. Success!

So the focus for the next 6 months? Spanish Spanish Spanish.

Espero que…

Sparrow Kay!
Sparrow Kay!

Got to make more time to learn Spanish. One thing that helps me learn is mnemonics. My Facebook friend Jill, who is also learning Spanish, is good at this. I still think of her “Llora con llaves en la lluvia” drawing when I need to remember the word llora.

Another thing is just to let my mind wander and play around with the information to absorb it. I did this very well when I was younger. But now two things have interfered: 1) My need to fulfill normal adult responsibilities (not as many as a lot of adults, since I don’t own a home or have kids, but nevertheless) and 2) My media consumption.

My inclination is to spend more time on Duolingo or reading Spanish or the like to learn Spanish more quickly, since I”m going to need to take a damn test this year if I want to teach Spanish. But I also need to spend more time just thinking. Thinking about the words, remembering what I’ve learned, just kind of being with the information.

And that’s why I made a sparrow with a name tag.