Friday, January 18, 2019

Expressive Elocution

I spent almost two years in Beijing working in a public school teaching English to third, fourth, and fifth graders. I have lots of stories from this experience, but my biggest challenge was trying to promote creative thinking.

I'm not going to get into a lot of detail here, but the Chinese educational philosophy is radically different than American philosophy. One of the areas this is most apparent is in creativity. Chinese schools typically teach their students to learn facts, memorize, and then state them. They will spend hours hammering words over and over again.

Many times upon entering class some excited student would want to perform for me a monologue he had delivered at some competition over the weekend. He would then launch into a speech or recite a poem in perfectly executed English. Afterward, I would ask him about the content of the words he just said and he typically had no opinion and didn't even know what he had said. He had memorized a bunch of sounds and regurgitated them for the judges.

I had no intention of producing English-sounding robots. I wanted to help my students effectively communicate in English.

The problem with communication in this type of environment is that it requires independent thought. This was a foreign concept to the students and it took months to break them free. In the beginning, if I asked the class a question, no one would answer unless there was already a pre-programmed response.

If I showed a picture of a boy walking a dog and asked them what they saw, a few might volunteer that they saw a dog or a boy. The more adventurous ones might even point out that it was a sunny day. However, if I asked where the boy and dog were going, silence fell over the room. I would try to elaborate. Tell me a story. A boy and his dog are out for a walk. Are they going to the park? Are they going to the beach? Is that actually his dog or is it someone else's? I would get nothing because there was not a 'correct' answer that had already been taught to them. They honestly had no idea what was expected of them.

To answer those questions would require some imagination. It would require using the words they already had in their heads and creating a unique sentence formulated on their own. That was not the way they had been taught to learn. They had only been taught to read the script and keep saying it until you pronounced it correctly.

I soon changed my strategy by presenting them with the words I wanted them to use. I used words they already knew but asked them to produce a few sentences using the words I provided.

I had this screen up in the classroom and asked for sentences. It was brutal. No one seemed to understand what I wanted. The few who timidly agreed to give it a shot would say things like, "I have many homework." or "My teacher is tall." or "We had cheese for dinner."

OK. We are getting closer. Can anyone use more than just one word? I have six words here? I called on one of my more outgoing students and prayed he might push this a little further. He stood and stared at the board for a long time. After what seemed like an eternity, he whispered: "I have math homework."

This may be a very simple sentence, but I had been at this for weeks. I exploded with excitement. I jumped and cheered so loud, I scared a couple of students in the front row. I ran over, picked the kid up and introduced him to the class as a genius. HE USED TWO OF THE WORDS IN ONE SENTENCE!

I put him down, told him how great he did and I saw the light bulb go off. He looked at me at said "Teacher, can I do THREE?"

Yes! Give it a try.

"I want to play, but I have math homework."

This time the class joined me in cheering for him. They understood what had just happened and a couple of hands shot up. "TEACHER TEACHER! I can do four."

Let me hear it.

"My Math teacher told me not to sleep. Do homework."

YES! You got it! Good job!

More and more hands flew up as kids decided they wanted to give it a shot. "I can do ALL words" was yelled from the back. I quieted the class and he marched to the front to stare at the screen. He didn't have his story yet, but he had decided he could do it.

He thought for a bit and started slowly. "My math teacher gave me homework so I could not play. After dinner, I went to sleep."


I put him on my shoulders and we ran around to high five everyone in class. After the celebration, I flipped to a new slide with six new words and the students actually fought over who would get to make a new sentence first. It became their new favorite game to see who could come up with the silliest story. We were soon even able to switch back to the default pictures. Look at the picture and tell me a story. And once these kids creative sides were released, they went nuts with it. We were soon able to recycle the word slides and start making new sentences.

A month later I had turned my classes into improv groups. I would bring kids up and give them scenarios on slips of paper they had to improvise. They did a mock radio show, gave out awards for silly talents in class, pretended to work in restaurants and convenience stores, and made up silly songs. The purpose was not to be funny (although that happened a lot). It was to create their own independent thoughts rather than just read a script out of a book. Although, the class auditors (officials who observed my classes) never understood what I was doing.

This is where we got to eventually, but first, it was months of just staring at students who were waiting for me to tell them what to say. I was so happy to get past that stage.

The words in blue print were the ten words created by a random word generator. I had to incorporate them all into this post. Just a little challenge I added for myself.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Colors of Purpose

A long, long time ago I was eighteen years old. Wow! That was 30 years ago. But my aging body is not the point of this post. I had graduated high school the year before and just started dating a girl who was still trapped in there.

On Valentine's Day, I dropped my brothers off at school and noticed that one of the school clubs was selling roses to be delivered to people in classes that day. I hopped out of my car and looked over their choices. They had several kinds of flowers, but it was mostly roses. After all, it was Valentine's Day.

I figured my new girl would be thrilled to get some unexpected flowers in the middle of her school day.  After a quick scan, I immediately knew which one I wanted. There was a beautiful blue rose that was almost exactly her favorite color. Plus, I didn't think I had ever seen a blue rose before. It was unique and it was perfect.

I paid my money and was told it would be delivered to her at some point before lunch period.

I left the school pretty proud of myself and looked forward to seeing her later.

I dropped by her house after work that night and she greeted me at the door with the rose in her hand. She thanked me for the unexpected gift and placed it back in the house as we left to take a walk.

As we walked hand in hand enjoying the crisp February air, she suddenly stopped and turned to me, "What does blue mean?"

I was confused by this abrupt question. "Being blue? You mean 'being sad'?"

She lowered her eyes to the ground. "What are you sad about?"

"I'm not sad. It's actually been a really good week for me."

She brought her eyes up back to mine and asked, "So, that wasn't a sad rose?"

"Oh," the context of her question finally hit me as my face broke into a smile. "No. That wasn't a sad rose. Do roses get sad?"

I turned so we could start walking again, but she held me in place. "Then what does blue mean?"

I had no idea what was being asked and she could see the confusion on my face, so she continued, "A yellow rose is what you send to a friend. Peach roses show gratitude and are typically used as a thank you for something. Orange is usually for celebration and a red rose is obviously for love."

I was beginning to realize this was going somewhere but still didn't know where. "Wow. I didn't know all that. What does blue mean?"

She paused and looked hard into my eyes. "I don't know. Blue roses don't occur in nature. They have to be dyed that color. You sent it to me. So, what does blue mean?"

"I didn't know the color has all this extra meaning."

She was visibly disgusted by this answer and quickly released my hand. "You have never told me you loved me and there were red roses right there. Why did you choose a blue one?" I could see the tears beginning to build in her eyes.

I wasn't going to address the 'I love you' part. We had been dating less than a month, but I thought I could tackle the rose debacle. "I picked that flower because you love blue. It is your favorite color and it is almost exactly the same shade as that dress you love."

Her shoulders started to shake, "But what does it mean?"

I could feel the blood rising to my face. "Seriously? It meant I listen to what you say. Here is a flower in her favorite color. She will love this. It is Valentine's Day, so I sent you a flower."

She took my hand and started back toward the house. We walked all the way in silence. The gentle chill to the air had grown cold. When we got to the front door, she turned to me, planted a gentle kiss on my cheek and whispered, "Next time, send me the red ones."

I got back in my car and tried to figure out what just happened. How was sending a girl flowers a bad thing?

The next day, I drove to a florist and ordered six red roses to be delivered to her house after school. I wanted to be entirely sure that this time she understood my intentions so I included a note that read "I hope this color is more to your liking. And now that we've seen each other's true colors, let's not see each other any more."

Wednesday, January 16, 2019


Today's writing prompt is brought to us by the good people at Writers Write.

Years ago, when my daughter was teenager, she and I shared a loved activity. I have always dabbled with taking pictures and trying to be a bit artistic about it. I've never owned a decent camera and I'm nowhere near professional level, but I have always gotten great compliments about the photos I took.

My daughter did the same but also loved having her picture taken. These two activities go very easily together.

When we had a free weekend, we would often grab a couple of her friends and take a road trip somewhere. I would get to snap hundreds of pictures. They got to be models for the day and we all got to see someplace new.

Kirsten being a window mannequin.

Kirsten and Taylor under a railroad bridge.

Sometimes Photoshop was used afterward.

Always been a fan of graffiti.

During her emo phase.

So sad.

Kirsten and Kayli in a sculpture park.

A little overdressed for the lake.

I love this photo.

We had a habit of breaking into abandoned houses.

My son didn't usually take this activity as seriously.

As much as I loved taking these pictures and trying to come up with creative places to go and angles to use, the best part was hanging out with my daughter and her friends. It was a lot of fun. Plus, it happened during those teenage years when it is typically difficult to get time with your kids. We got lucky and found an activity that we both enjoyed and were able to share it together.

Unfortunately, sometimes we took pictures in less than safe or legal locations. We trespessed into abandoned houses, factories, and hospitals. We loved old decrepit buildings. Now as an adult, she is still breaking and entering onto private property. My bad!

Today, I live twelve time zones away from my children. They are grown now and and have their own lives. And I am quite content with where I am now and what I am doing, but I miss these times with my kids. We get the occasional phone call together, but that's all we can do. I'm not someone who gets homesick, but I would love to see them more often.

Hopefully, they can come see me here sometimes. I live right on the coast in central Vietnam. I am surrounded by natural beauty. I would love to take my daughter out for another photoshoot in this part of the world.

My son and I could just hit the bar. A beer here is less than a quarter.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Call Me...Maybe?

I received the following writing prompt in my inbox this morning and knew exactly what I would be writing about.

A phone ringing in the middle of the night is symbolic of something terrible has happened. Everyone knows this. A phone call this late is reserved for emergencies. Unless you had idiot friends when you were a teenager who had no concept of manners time. I always hated having to go to my school to yell at some idiot who was inconsiderate enough to call my house in the middle of the night. In the '80s, we didn't all have cell phones. You called the house phone which woke everyone up and my dad would answer. I would then get in trouble for having stupid friends.

So, if you don't have idiot friends, then a late-night call meant something terrible has happened. The pulse jumps before the first ring has even finished as you imagine all the terrible news that is awaiting you on the other side of that receiver.

However, a middle-of-the-night call doesn't have the same meaning for me any longer. I have lived in Southeast Asia for the last two years. This means 98% of the people I know are on the exact opposite side of the world than I am. My hometown is 12 hours behind me in Vietnam. This means that midnight for me is noon where my parents and kids live.

A phone call in the middle of the night means someone forgot about the time difference. Plus, I don't have to worry about this because my kids never call me anyway.

Additionally, neither my wife nor I keep our cell phones in the bedroom. So, it becomes even less of an issue. If someone does call us in the middle of the night, we won't even know about it until morning. Plus, what good does it do to call us in an emergency anyway?  We are freakin' 12 time zones away! What can we do about it? A couple of extra hours before we get the "bad news" wouldn't make any difference.

Monday, January 14, 2019


In my last post, I stated that I would be blogging every day (except Sundays) for the rest of this month. I also showed a picture that may guide many of my posts to make sure I have a topic.

Today is the 14th in my part of the world. So, my word for the day is ACCOUNTABLE.

This is perfectly appropriate for being my first day jumping into this new challenge. The entire reason I posted saying that I would be writing every day for the rest of the month was for a little accountability from other people.

Not that anyone actually says anything to me. I just know that it's out there. I have said it publicly, so now I take making sure that it happens a little more seriously.

I don't know why this works for me, but it does. I can easily come up with excuses not to do something. It's one of the few things I actually work hard it, but I'm a natural so it's easy for me.

I've always had a love/hate relationship with accountability. Every job I've ever had, I  have always felt like I was about to get in trouble at any moment. Even when I was doing jobs where I was confident and really knew what I was doing. I would be crushing it, but still always looking over my shoulder waiting for the shoe to drop. I always wanted to please my bosses but also felt like I just wasn't doing it well enough.

I don't perceive all aspects of life this way. Just work. However, making a public declaration of my intentions does give me more drive to make sure it happens.

So there it is. I'll be back every day. Just like hunger.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Maybe This Time

I have an issue with motivation.

It's something I have been aware of my entire life. My parents used to tell me I was lazy. And they were right. I have an extreme aversion to having to put out effort to do anything I don't want to do. I just don't want to do it. In fact, I often have an aversion to doing things I actually do want to do.

Right now, the thing I want to do more than anything else is to write a book. Several books actually. And I have done this already. Sort of. I joined this National Novel Writing Month competition last year and competed again this year. The goal of the competition is to complete a novel (50,000 words) within the month of November.

I accomplished this both years. It was so much fun to toil over the creation of my worlds and come up with the rules of how things operate in my reality. To come up with the little twists and turns the plot was to make. Thinking up the little idiosyncrasies of my characters and how they interact with each other. That was the creative part. I loved it.

So I have two novels sitting on my computer that no one has ever seen. And they have not been seen yet for a reason. They just aren't ready for that because now I need to go through and re-write them. Edit them. Re-edit them. Scrutinize the plot trajectory and the character arc. Check for plotholes and logical inconsistencies.

All of this stuff sucks.

However, it is part of what must be done if these writings are ever going to see the light of day.

 So, once again, I am working to develop the habit needed to get back to work and get this done. I am going to blog daily for the next few weeks (maybe even months) to kickstart the writing habit again. And to give me no excuse about not having something to write about, I will be using this graphic as a suggested daily topic.

On any given day, if I do not feel that I have a topic to write about, I will use the topic for that day from this list.

Now, I intend to write every day, but I may excuse myself from Sundays. Sunday is the one day that I work all day. Basically, 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. I get a couple of short breaks in there, but may not use them for writing.

Let's do this.