Apr 13, 2015

This is my summer

So far this summer I've had one week-long class on Research in Teaching & Learning. It's nice being in the student's seat again; the change in perspective always lets me see new things about my teaching.

Note carefully (by Micah Sittig)

If you're interested in being a part of another possible University of Oklahoma Masters in Education cohort at SMIC School in Shanghai (open to anybody, not just school faculty) please get in contact with me: msittig@gmail.com

Idea: Visa Wait Times Eliminated!

One way the US government could drop visa wait times to *zero* is to employ the Chinese consulate's method: no appointments, first-come-first-served every day.

That just ocurred to me as I was sitting down to figure out what the girls will need for their visas to go to China this New Year (I will be staying in the US for work). But seriously, can you imagine what would happen if the Shanghai consulate switched to that system? 24-hour around the block lines, place buying and selling... It'd be insane. Luckily here in LA as long as you get to the consulate, say, an hour and a half before opening you can be near the front of the line and wait just a few minutes to complete your application.

I haven't written on this blog in a long time, but I'm glad it's still around for free-form writing whenever I need it. I post more on Facebook and Twitter, but this kind of long writing will always be saved for blogs.

"The greatest teacher of them all"

Jiang Xueqin in The Diplomat:

Now that I’m in Beijing I often wonder if it’s possible to build a strong educational programme in the imperial capital of guanxi. To counter guanxi, which is essentially about leveraging one’s personal network, I thought it best at Peking University High School to emphasize process over people. So we instituted a policy that to enter the International Division, students must enroll in a week-long admissions camp.

This is a really over-the-top (in a great way) method for dealing with high school admissions. Somebody on Google Reader tried to defend guanxi in contexts other than this article, but the way I see it guanxi is a transaction that benefits some parties and has negative externatlities for many more others. For me, then, it's a no go.

Two sites for teachers

There are two websites that I found today that caught my attention. First was a website recommended by Frank Noschese, a physics teacher from New York that I read on Twitter. It is a set of Scientific Abilities defined by Rutgers University that he picks a couple from to practice during each lab.

RubricScientific Abilities (Revised 02/18/2008)
AAbility to represent information in multiple ways
BAbility to design and conduct an observational experiment
CAbility to design and conduct a testing experiment
DAbility to design and conduct an application experiment
FAbility to communicate scientific ideas
GAbility to collect and analyze experimental data
HAbility to engage in divergent thinking
IAbility to evaluate models, equations, solutions, and claims

I had been planning to do something similar this year: make a list of all the skills I want my kids to learn during their labs this year, and check them off as we go through the year. This list is a little more abstract than I had been thinking because it deals with higher order thinking skills. It will take creativity figure out how to apply these.

Another website is the Hong Kong Association for Educational Communications and Technology (HKAECT), which has announced a "Multiliteracies for the 21st Century: Education, Communication and Technology" conference to take place in November. Maybe that can be my birthday present? I e-mailed about registration but got an automated vacation message in response, so I'll wait until August 25 for more information.

A curious thing happened on the way to the Bund

I don't have a particularly strong attachment to protests. In tumultuous, post-socialist Spain where I spent most of my childhood, protests and strikes were common, but in our house they were viewed through the lens of in/convenience: teachers went on strike, we stayed home from school for a week; marches closed off roads, we went around them; etc. Politics didn't play a big role in our identity, and political action was looked upon as a curiosity more than as a serious agent for change. Perhaps my parents' missionary vocation and distance from home also prevented them from being overtly political.

In college I began to be more aware of the role of government and politics in shaping my life. Friends of friends were involved in social work, WTO protests, and art as activism. After college, I worked at a Borders bookstore during a period when the company was in decline and when some branches were attempting to unionize; the taboo nature of the subject at my workplace made it a forbidden fruit that I couldn't resist researching and experiencing vicariously. Ironically, even becoming more entwined with authoritarian China made me more open to consider socialism as a viable tool of government by the people, as twisted as the socialist system has become here.

All this to say that when I hear about protests like those in Egypt, or the proposed Jasmine Revolution here in China, I now am willing to take them seriously and evaluate them for whether they align with my personal political beliefs and methods.

I didn't make it to the first Jasmine Revolution meetup at the Peace Cinema on February 20 due to logistical reasons. Besides, the organization behind it wasn't clear and from the reception it was getting on Twitter my estimation was that it would turn out to be a journalist and curious-bystander fest, which didn't particularly interest me. In retrospect it was exactly that, though moreso in Beijing than in Shanghai.

What interested me more was the idea that this kind of protest could be and in fact was intended to be a regular, recurring event. Recurring events aren't news. They require a sustained effort and attract the truly committed. They must be designed to be sustainable and find acceptance, an equilibrium with their environment. So I was more curious about this week than the first date.

I really don't have much to say specifically about the protest itself. A combination of my passive-aggressive personality, my preference to let Chinese do their own revolution-ing, and having to frame/explain what was happening to the daughter I brought along meant that I kept the camera in my pocket most of the time and limited my involvement to a snail's-pace stroll along the front of Raffles City, dodging policemen and smiling exaggeratedly at everybody that would look at me. The policemen seemed mostly to be keeping people moving along; an interesting tactic was the use of "referee"-style whistles, which they would blow at anybody who seemed to be loitering. That meant that if anybody tried to stop and chat or say anything, they would be surrounded by a cacophony of police whistles that made it impossible to hear anything else.

A few photos:

IMG_7752Trying to come up in the middle of things, I discovered that exit 14 (I volunteer at People's Square for the subway so I know the place like the back of my hand) was a construction zone or something.

IMG_7753Into Raffles City through exit 15, found Peace Cinema blocked off. Poor Hershey's store, first victim of the revolution.

IMG_7754The door is broken according to Raffles City management, probably a lie.

IMG_7755An apologetic Starbucks worker standing outside informs me that the door from Starbucks to the outside of Raffles City is not open right now. Out of respect for the worker I didn't snap her picture, just this unrelated sign. At this point we were in the thick of things, our ears hounded by police whistles and milling around in the crowd.

IMG_7758Later that day we rolled through the newly re-opened Peace Hotel.

Private school kids and face-to-face time

I have a theory about kids who go to private school in the big city. These kids don't go to a school for which they are zoned, so they travel a long way to school. They don't live near their classmates; in fact, they probably live in an apartment building, far removed from the unfriendly streets below. At night they spend hours doing homework and other things alone. This means that school is the only time they interact face-to-face with their peers.

It's not like when I was young, finishing school and heading out to the soccer field, playground or unattended construction site. I think kids need that unstructured social time and hate interrupting it to return to another structured academic task.

That's why I'm a fan of productive student-student interaction in class, even sometimes letting unproductive interaction go on for a few minutes if I feel like it's meaningful.

E-bike shopping troubles

We ran around to a couple places looking at e-bikes today, but came home with only some groceries and a tummy full of Sbarros and Hunanese food. The main problem is that we really want a solid bike with a quality child-seat on the back. The problem is that the seats we scoped out online all seem to fit bicycles and bicycle-style e-bikes only, and larger e-bikes don't have solid structures on the back that could support a toddler in a child-seat. Tomorrow we're going to make one more trip to Carrefour and then decide. If it comes down to it, we may just buy the bike we like and have the local e-/motobike shop jimmy-rig the seat onto the bike using some solid bars and bolts.

After a day of thinking and searching on Taobao, we decided to just buy a bike that works for us and then use a "safety belt" for Maryann. We chose a 都市风-brand bike from the Zhangjiang Carrefour, and have ordered a double-lock seat belt from Taobao. Jodi will be riding the bike solo to-and-from work this week and then will take Maryann once she starts school on September 1. She already rode the bike home from Carrefour this evening.


The reasons we chose this particular bike are:

  1. It is large enough to feel safe, but small enough to be maneuverable.
  2. It has a long seat so it can easily fit two adults.
  3. The frame on the back is solidly connected to the bike, so we have the option of switching to a child-seat if we decide it's safer than the seatbelt.
  4. It has two half-size batteries instead of one large battery. This makes them more of a pain to get out and requires two chargers, but it makes them easier to carry upstairs at night.
  5. The batteries are 48V 20HA, which give it an average range for an ebike.
  6. And that's about it. I will keep this blog updated with news about the bike.

A walk at Raffles

IMG_2068

Today I spent about an hour outside Raffles City, observing the goings on. By this week there is no noticeable gathering besides the usual fringe of retired people looking for a place to take in some sun, along the railing that separates the sidewalk from Tibet Rd. There were still lots of police patrolling the area; I came in from behind Raffles City, along Hankou Rd past the Le Royal Méridien hotel and walked past 3 or 4 large police vans. The Peoples' Square subway Exit 14 was still closed "for construction". The Peace Cinema was also still closed to the public but the KFC next to it was open through the side door; the Hershey's store was open but the only entrance was from the outside sidewalk; and the outer door to Starbucks was still closed and manned by an apologetic green apron.

Besides the uniformed police on patrol, there were about double the number of plainclothes police standing and strolling around the area. I spent most of the time standing by a group of plainclothes policemen who at first I suspected of being "participants"; eventually I came to realize who they really were. At first I tried to identify them by their shoes but these didn't follow any pattern. The profile I eventually developed was: middle-aged man, conservative or short haircut, sour expression (only one exception), substantial build, average to above-average height, earbuds with wired microphones for communication, Nokia cellphones that looked like they hadn't been upgraded in years, and either smoking or carrying a bottled drink: water, tea, or fruit juice. I didn't see them engage anybody the whole time I was there but they did a very professional job otherwise; no chatting or joking around, kept an eye on me as I people-watched and read a copy of Southern Weekend. It was a nice, quiet time of being introspective about the role I play as a liberal foreign national living in this society. Maybe I'll write a blog post about that later.

The only thing out of the ordinary happened about 10 minutes before I left. A young man and woman, about mid-twenties and Chinese, who had been sitting a few feet away from me, sprang up and started passing out A4-sized fliers to certain people in the crowd and along the side of the sidewalk. It seemed to me that they were targeting the plainclothes police, though I can't be sure because they walked down the sidewalk a few dozen meters away from me as they did so. In all they must have passed out about 20 fliers and I eventually lost track of them in the crowd. I didn't get a look at the papers up close. From far away it looked as likely to be an ad for a real-estate development as any sort of political message so it's hard for me to draw any conclusions about who they were or why the police left them alone.

That concludes my report.

Train Tix Redux, 2014 Version

So, once again it's time to return home to the in-law's house for Chinese New Year. And time once again for the drama that surrounds this crazy migration.

In years past we've done different things to get the family to "home" in Hunan: take the overnight train, ride an overnight bus, send Jodi and the girls back early, fly to Changsha and complete the trip on land, drive our own car... Anything that worked to get all two, then three, then... five of us to our destination. Last year we drove, which was OK but meant spending a night on the road each way and about ten hours of driving each way. This was acceptable, but given that the total money cost was about the same as flying, and the time cost was far greater, we decided to look at other options this year.

One new option that presented itself this year was the high speed rail connection that has opened between Shanghai and Jodi's hometown, which is a station near the final stop in Changsha. The trip would start in the morning, arrive in the afternoon, take us directly to our final destination, and the cost could be as little as a half to a third of the cost of flying.

I say could be because we still ran the risks associated with taking the train during the Chinese New Year season, which is: trying to get tickets. Again, I say trying because this is never a certainty; a major factor in our having taken so many different form sof transportation is that it's often been difficult or impossible to get train tickets due to the high demand, scalpers, or other unknowable reasons.

And this year was no different. On the morning when train tickets would be available through the Railway Authority's website, Jodi fired up the browser (I taught class at that hour). The first disappointment came when she saw that second class tickets were sold out, probably to students who can buy pre-sale tickets and people who logged on just before. The second disappointment was that in filling in our passenger information, enough time passed that the first class tickets sold out as well. The last disappointment was that we were able to get two adult and two children tickets in business class, which cost twice as much as first class (still affordable to us, but almost USD 200 for the adults). So this year we will be taking the train, it will be fast, but once again the process leaves a bitter taste in our mouth.

As I write this, another colleague is holed away in a classroom with her iPad and cellphone vying for tickets. She holds little hope: word is that even with the new real-name registration system, scalpers use software to start the buying process and find buyers in real-time who can pay within the payment window time for the scalpers to finish the purchase.

VPN in my mailbox

Today I found a couple of these in my mailbox downstairs:

Business card scan: "UNblock mynet: Best VPN experience in China! Fast, secure and cheap! Unlimited bandwith" (in Comic Sans)

It's an ad for a VPN to get around the Chinese government's "Great Firewall" (GFW) that blocks many foreign websites used by dissidents, like Youtube, Face and Twitter. This is the first time I've seen offline advertising for a service like this, and I'm guessing that our building was targeted because our neighborhood has a high concentration of foreign nationals. This type of ad goes right along with the majority of ads my mailbox sees, which is illegal satellite dish ads, illegal moving companies, and legal(!) housecleaning referral services.