Saturday, March 26, 2016

these are the places I come from

Last night, we went out to eat. There is a new burger joint nearby called The Diner, and we like to go there every once in a while to get a milkshake and a burger or sandwich. Last night, at The Diner, we ran into a colleague and three students (who were all there separately with their families). Our colleague, who comes from a city in New York, looked at us and said: "small town".

Sean and I both laughed. 

Hsinchu is a city. It's kinda obvious. It's actual name is Hsinchu City. It has a population of 1/2 million people. There is an actual rush hour and multiple trains and so many traffic lights. There is a downtown and a bunch of shopping malls and two universities and taxis everywhere. 

Small town?

I'll show you small town.
I come from small town America.

I grew up in Kingston, Washington.
Population: 2,000 (I just Googled it).
There is one road in, and a total of 3 stop lights (which, given the length of the town, is actually a wee bit excessive). 
However, they're mostly to regulate ferry traffic.
That one road? 
It literally drops off into the Puget Sound.
The only way out of town to the east is on a ferry, or for those of you not accustomed to that word, a large boat (think Gray's Anatomy). 

During my childhood, I couldn't really appreciate my small town.
I wanted more.
I wanted to see the world and be worldly and live in a city and have an exciting life.

And here I am, being all worldly living in Taiwan, often finding myself nostalgic for small town America. 
Life is funny like that sometimes. 

Last summer, we went to Kingston's 4th of July parade with my family.
Every single fourth of July when I was growing up, this is what we did. 
Over summer, a classmate from middle school recognized me.
We all grew up together.
She was there with her kids.
Other elementary school classmates of mine were there too.
Also with their kids.
I hadn't seen a lot of them in more than a decade. 
I told them that I lived in Taiwan and that I did not have any children, which just elicited confused but polite nods, but I guess that is a story for another day. 
The funny thing was that it didn't seem weird to see those familiar (albeit older) faces lining that familiar road watching that familiar parade. 
The Kingston parade includes horses, motorcycles, high school marching bands and construction equipment. 
Everyone knows everyone, and it's definitely the most exciting thing that happens in Kingston all year.

Now that's a small town.

Last summer, we also drove 20 minutes to another small town: Hansville, Washington. 
Even fewer people live there.
We went to the post office for my mom and collected a package.
When the mailman saw my mom's post office box # on the slip, he was so excited.
My mom had told him all about her daughter who lives in Taiwan, and of course he just knew that I had to be that daughter.
We spent a good 30 minutes talking to this stranger who practically knew my life story because my mom chatted with him every time she brought in a care package to send off to Taiwan.

Now that's a small town.

Walking down the street in Port Townsend, our favorite Washington State small town, I heard: MRS B! It was a student from my very first year teaching, Anna. My teaching career began in Port Townsend nearly a decade ago. I hadn't seen Anna in practically a decade, and there we were hugging and chatting on the street. I ran into two more former students from my first year teaching at the shoe store. 

Talk about a small town. 

While I don't think I could ever live in my childhood small town again, there is something so special about small town America. And sometimes, even a city as tame as Hsinchu feels so big and so impersonal.

No mailman to chat to.
No fun parade filled with non-strangers.
No phantoms of the past appearing here and there.

And because I am a proud Washingtonian, here are a lot of pictures that prove my home is way better than your home. 

Small town America and all. 

Friday, March 18, 2016

my expat gig: a snippet of my life as an international teacher

I am first and foremost a language arts teacher. While I also teach social studies, I will be the first to admit that it is not my specialty. I have taught everything from U.S. history to world religions to Washington State history to world history. Who is an expert on all of those topics?! Luckily, I spend most of my time and energy doing what I know how to do well, which is teach teens language arts.

The backbone of my school's curriculum is the controversial Common Core, but we still have a lot of flexibility in picking our own teaching materials. The purpose of my curriculum is to improve my students' reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills.

The literature that we study in 8th is Of Mice and Men, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Outsiders, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Fahrenheit 451. The literature that we study in 9th grade is Lord of the Flies, Persepolis, Night, I am Malala, Hiroshima, The Odyssey, and Romeo and Juliet. Obviously, both lists exclude the short stories and poetry unit in our textbooks-- we read all kinds of goodies!

As far as writing goes, my students compose literary analysis essays, argumentative essays, informative, research-based essays, personal narratives, and various kinds of poetry such as odes, elegies, ballads, sonnets, etc. I explicitly teach grammar; right now we are studying verbals-- who doesn't love gerunds, infinitives, and participles? They learn MLA format and make works cited or bibliography pages. They turn in all of their major assignments on, a website that scans for plagiarism. That is not a school policy, but it is my policy.

As far as speaking and listening, my students participate in structured, student-led classrooms activities such as Socratic seminars, debates, and literary speed dating. They work on their articulation and try their hardest not to say "like" and "um" a gazillion times. Further, they practice these same skills when giving individual speeches or group presentations. They create blogs to share their work, they create portfolios of poetry, and they film and edited commercials and TED Talks. We do all kinds of things, and usually, we have a blast while doing them!

Most days, I really enjoy being a language arts teacher (even though by the end of the school year I have read and graded a minimum of 268 3-5 page papers).

My school day begins at 8:10 and ends at 4:10. There are 7 class periods in a day, each 50 minutes long. There are 10 minute breaks (that teachers do not have to supervise) in between each period.

My teaching schedule is as follows:

Monday: 9th (8:10-9), 8th (10:10-12)*, 8th (2:10-4:10)**
Tuesday: 9th (8:10-9), 8th (10:10-12)*, 8th (3:20-4:10)
Wednesday: 9th (8:10-9), 8th (2:10-4:10)**
Thursday: 8th (8:10-9), 9th (10:10-11), 8th (1:10-3)*
Friday: 8th (8:10-10)*, 9th (10:10-11), 8th (11:10-12), 8th (3:20-4:10)
* We get a 10 minute break in the middle
** We get a 20 minute break in the middle

In total, I have 15 periods (none of which include my lunch hour) built into my weekly schedule for planning. During this time, I plan lessons, make assignments, grade work, have meetings, or sit in on a colleagues class to observe.

We usually start school September 1st. The first day of summer is July 1st. Our school year is 20 days longer than the U.S.'s 180 day school year. In total, we get three full months off every year. We work 100 days, get a one month winter break, and then work 100 more days. We do have 3-4 long weekends in each 100 day semester, which is why we can look forward to trips to Japan, Hong Kong and southern Taiwan before the end of this semester.

There is no denying it, though, the school year is long!

The maximum number of students who can be in a class is 30. That said, there is a lot of discrepancy in class sizes. For example, my husband has 15 kids in his 4th grade class. Some high school classes in the past few years have had five or fewer students. That's just crazy to me! Unfortunately, middle school always seems to have the largest class sizes. In the past years, I've had full classes of 30 and a class of 31 once. Now, both of my 8th grade classes have 26 students. That's still a large class, but as I had 40 kids in my class in Seattle, it still feels quite doable, especially because, in general, my students are so well behaved. Luckily, my 9th grade class only has 15 kids in it.

In order to be enrolled in my school, students have to have a foreign passport. Further, their parents have to work at the science park. Unsurprisingly, our students come from families that greatly value education, and it definitely shows in the classroom. The majority of our students are Taiwanese, American, Korean, or Indian; however, we do have quite a few students from Japan, eastern Europe, and Canada as well. All of our students speak English, and most are above grade level and test far above their contemporaries living and learning in the United States. 


So what do I like about my job teaching abroad?

I love my students. They work hard and make the work I do totally worth it.

I like that my schedule allows for me to improve my practice at work, not on my own time at home. I do my best not to work after hours. I have three times as many planning periods each week here compared to in the states. If a teacher doesn't want to be a robot, he or she has to work a lot outside of the school day in America. Here, that is not true. I have had the opportunity to sit in on colleagues who are good at using a technique I want to try. I have had the opportunity to create really fabulous units. I also have the time to grade well rather than in a hurried manner.

I love our winter break. Having one month off in winter is way better than two weeks off here and one week off here and there.

I love that no one breathes down my neck or comes by my classroom with a clipboard to see if I wrote the essential question for the day on the whiteboard. Teachers are mostly left alone to teach. The admin does do occasional observations, but here-- unlike what I experienced in America-- the assumption is not that we are lazy or incompetent or not doing our jobs properly. I guess it also helps that here there is not just one right way to teach. At our school, there is definitely a blend of cultures. Western teachers run more student centered classrooms, and the local teachers run more teacher centered classrooms. That simply reflects the two cultures woven into the fabric of our school.

I like that my school is a public school. Ethically, that matters to me because my students are not buying their grades via Mommy and Daddy's expensive tuition payments. Some of my good friends work at for profit international schools where the class average has to be a B+.

What do I dislike about my job teaching abroad?

The facilities. Every day, at least once a day, I stop and ask myself who on earth came up with the open floor plan. Noise travels from other classrooms and the hallways, and it interrupts my classes regularly. That just irks me so much! It is hard to try to get 26 middle schoolers to focus on the same thing at the same time, and I so do not need anything competing for their attention. Today, my kids were reading To Kill a Mockingbird, and we could hear the activity going on in the class next door so well that we may as well have joined them.

The fact that we don't have any paid leave at all. There are also no substitute teachers. If anyone needs to take a day off, first they have to find colleagues to cover their classes, and then they have to pay them out of their own pocket. Working with a bunch of kids means you are going to get sick, most likely more than once a school year.

The horribly competitive nature of international teaching, and the whole grass-is-greener-on-the-other-side syndrome. I have seen colleagues/friends turn into competitors because there are only so many positions each year at the "good" schools. I think this sucks. I have also seen a lot of people, myself included from time to time, find themselves incapable of being content where they are simply because there could be a "better" school waiting for them at the next job fair. These things really take their tolls on individuals and relationships. 

So, no. My experience teaching abroad has not been all butterflies and rainbows and unicorns. There is no such thing as a perfect school. However, I find great joy where it matters most: in my classroom with my kids. 

Monday, March 14, 2016

taipei markets

I have a slight confession: while I do love Taiwanese markets, they are not my favorite Asian markets. Thailand's night markets will always hold a special place in my heart, probably because of the Thai iced coffees. That said, Taiwanese markets are fun and colorful (and a little stinky due to the popularity of stinky tofu). 

Over winter break, we spent some time in the capital. We revisited the Shilin Night Market and explored a new market on Dihua Street, which was super busy due to Chinese New Year. 

In my opinion, the Shilin Night Market is a little tacky. But I kinda think it's supposed to be. It's a huge tourist draw, and I have never been there on a "slow" night. It's always packed with people! A lot of the market is food stalls, and be prepared for the pungent scent of stinky tofu. There are also fun shops that sell souvenirs. I bought my niece some baby clothes, and you can buy your lapdog all kinds of bizarre outfits here. Notable as well is the donut that is shaped like a male's... well, you know. Every time I visit Shilin, there are a bunch of tourists posing for photos while holding, well, you know. 

Shilin is definitely a fun experience, but the only reason we went back was because my husband found a great rock climbing gym literally right next door to it. We actually wandered in just to get something to drink, but the market's long, meandering alleys and temples kept drawing us further and further into the maze that is the Shilin Night Market. We emerged an hour later with food and baby clothes and the stench of stinky tofu on our clothes. 

If you want to visit the Shilin Night Market, wait until nightfall and then get off at the Jiantan MRT station. You will be able to see the entrance from the metro platform! 

There is a popular holiday market here that begins two weeks before Chinese New Year. We went on a rainy day, and by the time we made it to Dihua Street, we were soaked. The walk from the MRT was longer than we expected, and in hindsight we should have just taken a cab.

This market was very crowded even though it was raining. It was selling a lot of holiday food and decorations. Personally, my favorite part about the street was the facades of the buildings. They definitely were unique and did not look like the average Taiwanese building front. 

If you want to visit Dihua Street, get off at Shuanglian Station. There are signs that mark the route well, but if it's wet outside, I would just catch a ride in a cab. 

Thursday, March 10, 2016

longdong cape trail

Truthfully, I only spent about 20 minutes on the Longdong Cape Trail. We found the trail after hours of rock climbing, and by that time we were sunburned, hungry and wondering how on earth we were going to get back to Taipei since we didn't ask our cab driver to hang around. 

But the views were too good so we had to walk up the small mountain so we could fully appreciate them. For such a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the trail was mostly deserted. 

I definitely want to go back and walk the full length of the trail, which connects the Longdong Cape to the Bitou Cape lighthouse. 

I will definitely bring sunscreen for that!