Category Archives: teaching

Modal Verbs & Cross-Cultural Moments

Over that past couple of months, I’ve been occasionally teaching ESOL classes for an amazing organization in east London called The Arbour. The project I’m teaching on offers free ESOL and Life Skills classes for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) women who have been in the UK for less than two years and are on the path to settlement. I’ve been teaching the same class of E2 (upper beginner/low intermediate) women every week and have loved getting to know them, learning about their cultures, and seeing their English improve. This particular class has about eight women from Bangladesh, two from Morocco, one from India, and one from Thailand. All of the women from Bangladesh and Morocco are Muslim.

So last week I was teaching part of a lesson on modal verbs (can, could, should, may, must, might, etc.) and had the women practice asking each other polite questions using modals (e.g., Can you please tell me where the next bus station is?”). When I called on one pair to demonstrate a short dialogue, one women indicated the other’s headscarf (hijab) and asked, “Why must you wear this?” This sparked a clamor for responses from most of the Muslim women, each wanting to explain why they wear the headscarves. I made them take turns as they explained about the rules of Islam requiring head covering unless a woman is with her close family members (only one of the Muslim women’s doesn’t wear one — nowadays, the women acknowledged, it’s more a matter of personal choice).

Though the conversation was interesting — I’m a sucker for cross-cultural moments — I thought it was getting off-track until one woman started to say “It is necessary to wear the hijab because…” A lightbulb went on in my head and I immediately stopped her and asked, “How can you rephrase that sentence using a modal verb?” She quickly figured out that “it is necessary” can be turned into “must” and made a beautiful modal verb sentence. The conversation continued, with me making sure that the women used modal verbs to explain the rules requiring them to wear the hijab.

I felt elated afterwards, thrilled that we could learn about each other’s cultures and religions while also practicing essential English grammar points. The women I’ve been teaching are incredibly smart and motivated to learn English so they can live, work, and navigate London more easily.

In sum: I love cross-cultural moments, especially when they happen to work perfectly with teaching English grammar.

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Sunshine Award

Sunshine Award

By now it’s late spring and this post has been waiting in the wings for too long. A while back, I was nominated for the Sunshine Award by tea and sesame — thank you, Sam! I don’t usually post award nominations, but this one had some fun questions attached which I thought might interest some of you.

When receiving this award, here are the rules on what happens next:

1. Include the Sunshine Award icon in your post and/or on your blog
2. Link to the blogger who nominated you
3. Answer 10 questions about yourself
4. Nominate 10 other bloggers to receive the award
5. Link to your nominees and let them know you nominated them
6. Create 10 questions for your nominees to answer

  1. What do you look forward to most when you first wake up? Seeing the wonderful person in bed next to me, and my first sip of coffee.
  2. Are you a ‘night’ or a ‘day’ person? Definitely a ‘day’ person — my brain turns off after 11pm.
  3. What is your dream job, and why? Teaching English literature or English as a Foreign Language to undergraduates or adults.
  4. What would you like to see on my blog in future? More great recipes.
  5. What was the last dream remember having? I had a weird dream last week about my teeth crumbling and falling out — it was quite distressing.
  6. Flowers or chocolates? Flowers, because they’re more personal. Chocolate is too dangerous…
  7. What other hobbies do you have aside from blogging? A non-exhaustive list, in no particular order: reading, running, cycling, yoga, cooking, singing and other musical things…
  8. When was the last time you did a handwritten letter, who was it to? I wrote a letter to a friend last week.
  9. What cheers you up on a dreary day? Listening to some nice tunes and/or eating comfort food like mac & cheese or chicken & dumplings. And cuddles, of course.
  10. “A picture paints a thousand words”- post a picture that you like and explain why. I took this photo of the dirt road along the Prut River, where I ran multiple times a week for two years while living in Sniatyn, Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer. This picture sums up the beauty and positivity of my experience there.

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Now here are 10 blogs that I enjoy reading and get inspiration from (in no particular order):

My good friend Hannah is blogging about her Peace Corps/Georgia adventures at Letters to Root Beer

Sasha at WonderLust always writes insightful posts about life as an expat

Sarah at Read.Teach.Travel documents many adventures from a year in London

Sara at happy lists change lives writes intelligent posts on things she cares about

Kristen at borscht and babushkas writes smart and hilarious posts about her Peace Corps/Ukraine experiences and beyond

Frugal Feeding has consistently good — and frugal! — recipes

Rachel Phipps has a sunny take on life

London Cyclist offers great tips and tricks for cycling in the city and in general

Abby at Straight Up Yoga continually inspires me

Chocolate Covered Katie has healthily indulgent recipes and a positive take on life

And 10 9 questions for my nominees to answer:

  1. What inspires you to blog?
  2. When you were a kid, what did you want to be “when you grew up”?
  3. Regular potatoes or sweet potatoes?
  4. What would you like to see on my blog in the future?
  5. What do you usually eat for breakfast?
  6. Sweet or savory?
  7. What is your favorite time of day, and why?
  8. Do you prefer hot or cold weather?
  9. Where would you like to be / what would you like to be doing in 10 years?

“So many things were different, yet the experiences had much in common”: Peace Corps from father to daughter

The following post is inspired by this, from the Peace Corps Passport blog, about a woman whose father, like mine, was a Peace Corps Volunteer before her. Below, with the guidance of some questions asked in the model post, I reflect on how my dad’s stories and experiences as a PCV inspired me to apply and serve. This has been a work in progress for a while, but I thought now was a good time to publish it because in addition to my dad, I now have one more close Peace Corps connection: my good friend Hannah leaves this weekend for her own Peace Corps adventures in Georgia.

my dad and I, overlooking the Prut River valley in my PC post of Sniatyn, Ukraine (May 2012)

father & daughter, overlooking the Prut River valley in my PC post of Sniatyn, Ukraine (May 2012)

How did your dad’s Peace Corps service inspire you to serve?

I grew up hearing my dad, Terry, tell stories about teaching math and physics at an all-boys high school in rural Mpwapwa, Tanzania, where he was a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) from 1964-1966, in the first five years of Peace Corps’ existence. (Terry writes that Mpwapwa “was a small town, with a small hospital and local population of little more than 1000, which swelled to nearly 5000 when all the 6-7 schools were in session, including the expatriate population of 200 or so, mostly teachers and their families, plus some employees at the Teacher Training College and the Agricultural Station, both a few miles out of town.”)

I might not have joined the Peace Corps if it weren’t for growing up hearing Terry’s stories. He told us about all the cool trips he went on during vacations — I especially liked hearing about his time as an Outward Bound counselor and climbing Kilimanjaro (I can’t remember if those happened together or separately). There was also a story about a Jeep getting stuck in the mud and about his star pupil who would read novels at the back of the classroom and whom Terry always tried to challenge intellectually.

I wanted to have adventures like my dad.

Did your dad encourage you to apply, or was he surprised?

Terry didn’t specifically encourage me to apply. During my senior year of college, I was tossing around gap-year options and he might’ve suggested Peace Corps. Or I came up with it on my own; I can’t remember. I struggled at first with the length of commitment — 27 months — PC service would require. Terry didn’t push me either way. Eventually, I realized that 27 months is hardly anything in the grand scheme of things, so decided to go for it. I don’t think Terry was surprised, though of course he couldn’t have anticipated it when he was a PCV:

Little did I know when I boarded a giant jetliner in the blowing late December snow at Kennedy Airport in 1964, bound for a posting in East Africa with the newly formed Peace Corps’ first group of secondary school teachers, that my daughter would be heading for a posting in Ukraine 46 years later, just shy of the Peace Corps’ 50th anniversary.

Do you think you went into service with a different perspective because of stories you had heard about your dad’s service? If so, how did those stories shape your expectations and decisions?

Definitely. Because I knew that I’d be serving almost 50 years after my dad, I tried not to let his stories shape my expectations or decisions. I’d be going to a different country at a different time, so I had very few concrete expectations going in. That said, Terry’s stories helped prepare me for big cultural differences and taught me to be open-minded and flexible toward opportunities that might come along. Of course I ended up in semi-rural Ukraine rather than rural Africa, but throughout my service I often reflected on what it must have been like for my dad when he was a PCV.

Did your dad visit you while you were in Ukraine? Did he provide any insight as to how things had changed since he was a volunteer?

My mom and dad visited me during my second spring in Ukraine. They spent valuable time with me at my site, experiencing how I lived and meeting my pupils, colleagues, and friends. Terry has provided a lot of insight as to how things have changed since he was a PCV in Tanzania.

1) The Internet didn’t exist when he was a PCV; no email, no Skype. No cell phones, either — my dad had to go to the larger town/city in order to make the very occasional phone call home. Snail mail was the best option for keeping in touch and sharing experiences with those back home. Terry writes:

We received all our mail, the thin blue folded aerograms from family and friends (that took 10-14 days transit time in both directions), at our school, P.O. Box 3, Mpwapwa, Tanzania.  I believe I had only two telephone conversations with my parents during my two years there, on the only phone available – also at our school in the Headmaster’s office, telephone number: 4, Mpwapwa, Tanzania.

In contrast, many contemporary PCVs — myself included — keep blogs during their service. I Skyped with my family almost every week for the 26 months I was abroad; Skype also allowed me to keep in touch with close friends. I still wrote snail mail, but email certainly played a larger role in regular communication.

2) But despite being fortunate enough to have technology access, I had to learn an entirely new language (with a different alphabet) for my Peace Corps service. Terry didn’t have as much of a language barrier to overcome in Tanzania; Swahili and English are both official languages, and he taught in English. Many fewer people speak English in Ukraine than in Tanzania. Also, my Pre-Service Training consisted of 11.5 weeks living with a Ukrainian host family in a small village. Forty-six years earlier, Terry was trained in the US — here’s what he says about that:

Our 3-month pre-service training had been in the U.S. (common then, as overseas facilities for most of the nascent programs had not yet been established) – ironically, ours was at Columbia Teachers’ College on the upper West Side of Manhattan, a strange setting, it seemed, to prepare us for two years in Tanzania, yet we were taught well.  Except for two things.  First, that my two weeks of practice teaching at Charles Evans Hughes HS on the lower West Side, with daily fights in the hallways drawing occasional blood and mostly indifferent students were a far cry from the disciplined, if rote, eagerness of the African boys at our school, for whom it was a privilege and honor and pass to a future life of their dreams.   Indeed, the greatest class punishment I could administer (as caning was the Headmaster’s prerogative) was to ask a student to leave class for the day – because they feared that some minor topic I would cover in their absence might appear on the comprehensive O-Level Exams (the British system still held) they would take in their senior (Fourth Form = 12th grade) year far in the future.  Second, our linguistic training comprised some 3-5 hrs of Swahili per week (a paltry amount compared to any program now), justified by telling us that we really wouldn’t need Swahili because we would be too busy teaching, and our servants would be able to take care of all our local needs.   Sadly (for me, as I enjoy learning foreign languages), Columbia was right – I taught between 27 and 35 hours per week in class during most of my two years there, and our students never wanted to speak Swahili with us, as they (correctly) claimed “It is much more important for us to learn English, Sir, than for you to learn Swahili!” 

Interesting, no? I’m fortunate to have been trained in-country, teaching “real” Ukrainian pupils and intensively learning the local language. The other striking difference between Terry’s and my service is the fact that Terry and his PCV roommate, Roger, had two servants:

Though we protested about having [servants] initially, we succumbed to social pressure that it would have been snobbery to deny the employment (the Tanzanians also enjoyed working for Americans more than for other “wazungu” = foreigners), but that we had to limit their wages to $1/day so as to not out-price the market.   We also succumbed to dire necessity, due to teaching load and the competing viscissitudes (sp.?) of our life on the school compound – cooking and hot water depended on stoking up the cast iron “kuni” (wood) stove before 6 am (classes began at 8) with the chopped wood (when would we have done this?), and we were expected to wear freshly cleaned and ironed white cotton shirts and shorts for teaching each day (oh, yes, the washing and pressing?).  Our food, whether tinned or fresh from market (shopping too, and the expected bargaining in Swahili?) was cooked for breakfast, lunch and dinner, with tea ready for our short morning and afternoon teaching breaks, and served promptly and graciously by Amoni; his “shamba boy” helper Edward did the wood chopping, market shopping, other errands and such gardening as our tiny plot would yield in the arid Central District (ann. rainfall ca. 12″).

Did you catch the fact that Terry taught 27-35 hours of class per week? As far as I know, no PCV teaches that much nowadays: in Ukraine, we were told to teach 16-20 hours/week and use the rest of the time to develop extracurricular projects like English clubs, interest groups, and grants in our communities.

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So there you go: a brief “then and now” snapshot of my dad’s PC experience in Tanzania (1964-1966) and my experience in Ukraine (2010-2012). It’s amazing how some things are vastly different, yet others have not changed much.

Are you a PCV/RPCV? Do you know anyone who served in the Peace Corps during its early days? How did his/her experience differ from yours?

Book Review: Andrew Ladd, “What Ends”

Just a short post today, in which I encourage you to head over to Full Stop and read my most recent book review there, of Andrew Ladd’s nice little novel What Ends. Andrew Ladd himself even called my review “very thoughtful”:

from the author himself

from the author

And as always, you can keep track of the other stuff I’ve had published online on this page.

More bloggy things coming soon: a flapjack fail, a review of my MA courses, teaching migrant women, and an updated banana bread recipe. In the meantime, how about some golden oldies to keep you going?

Recently in “Issues”

I can hardly believe it’s already reading week and halfway through the term. Where did January (and half of February) go? I promised I’d write updates on “Issues in Modern Culture” — that obviously hasn’t happened since before the term started, so here’s a short recap of the past five weeks.

The Authors course plugs along with a different author and lecturer every week. We’ve had a seminar on Wallace Stevens, in which it was agreed that Stevens’ poetry is beautiful but often indecipherable (glad I’m not the only one who thinks so). Take “The Snow Man” as an example:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Then NS, one of my favorite lecturers so far — he runs a great seminar — led a discussion of Jean Rhys and two of her novels that “are not Wide Sargasso Sea“: Voyage in the Dark and Good Morning, Midnight. Both somewhat depressing, but class discussion was interesting, as we started with word association and moved on to gendered spaces, notions of prostitution, and conflicts between emotion and transaction in Rhys. We had a somewhat odd seminar on Elizabeth Bowen — I’ll let you read Sarah’s post about that. Click to her post as well for a summary of our seminar on Nabokov‘s Lolita, which was with another of my favorite lecturers who is an incredible discussion facilitator. I agree with Sarah in that the seminar actually made me want to re-read Lolita, because Nabokov packs so much into the novel that isn’t evident on a first reading.

(No) thanks to horrible wind and rain and poor transport planning on my part, I missed the Chinua Achebe seminar…

Over in Modern Sex,” it has been a fascinating module as we’ve moved from Freud and Schopenhauer to Wagner, D.H. Lawrence (Sarah summarizes the Women in Love seminar), Thomas Mann and André Gide (part of “hebephilia week” as we’d done Lolita in the Wednesday seminar), and modern gay fiction. Our lecturer, HS, is clearly so passionate about the subject matter and he thus runs very engaging seminars.

The course began with considering the question, “What is modern sex/sexuality?” The modern conception of sexuality is that humans began to be categorized according to their sexual desires. We discussed how Schopenhauer and Freud address sexuality and sexual attraction in their writings: instincts, “debasement,” “neurosis” stemming from unappeased desire, and all that good (psychoanalytic) stuff.

The stage thus set by Freud and Schopenhauer, the second seminar involved watching the entire 4+ hours of Richard Wagner‘s music drama Tristan und Isolde — while I am not really a Wagner fan, the seminar did shed some light on Tristan and its subject matter (plus, it was fun to play with some German). We talked about formal and thematic musical and linguistic parallels (Freud’s “compulsion to repeat” reflected in Wagner’s use of Leitmotif; also use of alliteration and rhyme) and lots of dialectical themes: darkness vs. light, love vs. death, conscious self vs. instincts/will, delusion vs. reality in ideas of separateness and togetherness…it was a richly packed seminar with lots to think about (and music to enjoy!).

Our fourth seminar was on two short novels by Gide (The Immoralist) and Mann (Death in Venice) about men who are attracted to young, beautiful boys: ensuing discussions included amorality/immorality, Mann’s visual imagination, noble vs. debased love, and so on. For the last seminar we read excerpts from four modern “gay” novels: Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance, Moore’s A Matter of Life and Sex, and White’s The Farewell Symphony. They were fascinating to read and discuss in terms of how homosexual fiction writing has changed from 1948 (Vidal) to the 1990s, and how narrative structure and point-of-view (3rd person vs. 1st person) influences how we absorb and think about the texts and stories.

I loved the Modern Sex course and am sad it’s over — now I have to think of a topic for the 4,000-word essay we’ll have to write; it can be about anything related to modern sex/sexuality. Talk about choice. Next module I’ll have five weeks of Post-War American Poetry, which should be interesting (and totally outside my comfort zone), and the Authors course will wrap up with…more authors!

For a full list of what we’ve read so far this term and in the entire program(me), head over to my Reading List page.

English Grammar Workshop: Prepositions

As part of my job as Peer Tutor for the UCL Union’s Writing and Language Support Programme, I’m expected to give some workshops on grammar and/or “British culture and conversation.” At the end of Term 1, we compiled a list of the most common mistakes made by the non-native English-speaking students who come to us for writing help — common mistakes include articles, prepositions, various verb form problems, punctuation, and sentence structure/phrasing and idiomatic expressions. This list gave us a good idea of what workshops we should put on in Term 2.

I started things off in January with a workshop called “‘In Between the Action’: At, In, On & Other Prepositions.” Using the classic School House Rock video, “Busy Prepositions,” we then identified prepositions and prepositional phrases before doing some activities to spot the students’ weaknesses and open a dialogue about tricky prepositional usage.

The lesson went well, though I spent too much time with “engage” activities and not enough on the “study” and “activate” segments of the lesson. (That’s what happens when you don’t teach in a classroom for almost a year! This was my first classroom-type lesson since I finished my CELTA course last April. It felt really good to teach a group of people again.)

Some great preposition-related questions the students had at the end included:

  • Why do we say “on the train” and “on the Tube” but “in the car”? Aren’t we also within/inside the train and Tube? Yes, this is one of the (many) exceptions to general rules in English.
  • Using for vs. since. The students had to correct sentences, and the sentence sparking this discussion was “She has lived there since 15 years.” Obviously, this should be corrected to “She has lived there for 15 years.” We talked about how for is used for a period of time, and since is used for specific dates or ages (“She has lived there since 1997″ or “since she was 15 years old”).
  • Using by vs. until. In the same fix-the-error activity, the students correctly changed “I can do it until tomorrow” to “I can do it by tomorrow.” We worked out that by is used for positive statements and to indicate that the task will be finished before “tomorrow.” Until, on the other hand, is usually used in negative statements to indicate that the task cannot be started before the time stated: “I cannot do it until tomorrow” means you will not do the task before tomorrow.
  • After vs. in“I’m going there after 10 minutes” should read “I’m going there in 10 minutes.” This is a tricky distinction that often trips up non-native English speakers. In in this situation refers to a period of time. You’d use after if the sentence referred to a specific time of day; for example, “I’m going there after 5pm.”
  • In a gap fill exercise, I received some questions about “the far end of the house.” I explained that here — and often in academic writing — of represents possession, as in “the house’s far end.”

It was a good workshop, and I think my five attendees got something out of it that will hopefully help them in their English writing and speaking. It was fun for me to be in front of a class again and connect with the students. I ended up having to cut a couple of activities because I spent too much time on the beginning of the lesson, but now I know what to work on for the next workshop.

Year in Review: 2013

Happy New Year! Frohes neues Jahr / Guten Rutsch! З Новим Роком!

2013 was a year full of changes and new experiences for me, like moving to a new country/city, getting an English teaching certificate, and starting an MA program (back to university after three years out). My German improved — and my Ukrainian waned. I also joined an amazing running club in my area of London and was able to spend much of the summer at home in the States with my family and F. Overall, 2013 was a really good year. Here are some more fun statistics summing up the year:

2013 by the numbers:

  • blog posts published: 155
  • books read: 19 for fun, plus >30 for my MA (including some short stories/poetry/essays)
  • visitors hosted in London: ~19
  • miles run: 931.89 (76.71 miles less than in 2012, but I cycled and swam more in 2013 so overall probably racked up more mileage)
  • qualifications received: 1 Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults
  • countries been in: England, Belgium, Germany, USA
  • memories made: too many to count

Are you satisfied with your 2013?

Looking back, I am satisfied to have achieved most of my intentions for 2013: learning my way around London, living frugally, cycle-commuting, “me” time, exercise time, healthy eating, starting an MA program, and staying in touch with people . I didn’t take advantage of as many free/inexpensive opportunities as I could have, but we did visit quite a few of London’s free museums and markets with visitors.

Here is my non-exhaustive list of intentions for 2014, in no particular order:

  • Successfully complete my MA degree
  • Expand my skill set in teaching/tutoring, writing, and editing work
  • Keep improving my German
  • Stay healthy and fit:
    • Run a half marathon or two and take part in as many running club events as I can
    • Get more comfortable with road cycling by riding or spinning consistently
  • Keep exploring London via free/inexpensive activities
  • Get a job and work visa after my MA so I can stay in London
  • Stay in better touch with friends/family in all parts of the world (make better use of Skype, WhatsApp, etc.)

What are your intentions for 2014?

At the theatre: “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”

When Sarah put forth the opportunity to get £16 tickets to see Olivier Award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-TimeI jumped at it without second thought. This was the first theatah (say that with a fake British accent) experience in London for both of us, and it was totally worth it. Sarah wrote a blog post about our evening, too, which you can read here.

photo courtesy of a nice woman using Sarah's phone

photo courtesy of a nice woman using Sarah’s phone

On Thursday evening we joined the tourists, wanderers, and other theatre-goers around Leicester Square, Chinatown, and the aptly-named “Theatreland” (yes, it says that on the street sign). The Curious Incident is on at the Apollo Theatre, a tall space in which we sat in the next-to-last row. That didn’t really matter; we could see almost all of the stage with a nearly bird’s-eye view. I did miss a little of the dialogue here and there because of the distance, but overall it felt quite intimate.

The play was excellent. It’s based on the eponymous book by Mark Haddon, which Sarah has read and taught to high schoolers in the States (I haven’t read it but now I want to). Sarah said the book is narrated in the first person, as the thoughts of 15-year-old autistic math(s) genius Christopher Boone. But how does one make a play out of first person narration without turning the entire piece into a monologue? This production solves that problem by having Christopher’s tutor, Siobhan, read/narrate a good chunk of the material as he wrote it in a journal for her. While Siobhan narrates his thoughts, Christopher acts out what she reads.

One of the best-executed scenes, exemplary of the narrative technique, was when Christopher is imagining what it would be like to be an astronaut. Siobhan narrates while the stage darkens, “stars” come out, and Christopher is picked up, twisted, and turned by four people in a zero gravity-like state. The entire play used movement in innovative ways like this and I found this choreography very effective.

Along with its effective use of movement, this production used a minimal set really well. You can see what the stage looked like in my photo below — those white boxes were moved around to represent whatever they needed to (chairs, a TV, a fish tank, train seats), and white light was projected onto the stage to create outlines of houses and other spaces. There were also lots of little cubbies in the walls and floor that the characters would open to retrieve props.

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In addition to the set itself, the use lighting and sound effects worked well. When Christopher goes to the train station by himself for the first time, signs start scrolling and flashing across the stage as announcers’ voices read them out and layer on top of one another — it becomes a loud, chaotic confusion of lights and sounds. This, we understand, is what it feels like to be in autistic Christopher’s head: completely overwhelming and lost in a large, public space and surrounded by strangers. It was really effectively done.

Needless to say, The Curious Incident was extremely well-acted, particularly by Mike Noble as Christopher and Rakie Ayola as Siobhan. Noble, in particular, is entirely believable as Christopher, who wants to solve the mystery of “who killed Wellington [the dog]?” and who ends up unearthing a whole bunch of other mysteries in the process while ultimately just wanting to take his maths A-levels.

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Have you read “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” or seen the play? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Issues in Modern Culture

“Hi, I’m _____________ and I do ‘Issues’.”

That’s how about fifteen of us introduced ourselves in this week’s inaugural Contemporary Short Fiction Reading Group.

“Issues” is, of course, short for “Issues in Modern Culture,” which is the official name of my MA program at University College London (from here on out known as UCL). It’s a “taught” program on Modernist literature with a smattering of culture/society/historical context.

This post will give an overview of the program’s structure — quite different from the US university system — and what we’ve done thus far. I can’t promise to post weekly updates but will try to periodically share particularly interesting tidbits. I will also update my Reading List with the texts we’re meant to tackle each week.

There are 47 of us “doing ‘Issues'”: Brits, Americans, Canadians, Singaporeans, a Romanian, an Australian or two, an Israeli, and probably people from other countries whom I haven’t met yet. Many have just finished their BAs, but some of us (myself included) have been out of school and doing other things for a number of years. A pretty diverse group, overall.

We’re split into two groups for our weekly two-hour seminars, of which we have two. Yes — only 4 “contact hours” per week! That’s already a departure from the American system, which likes to get you into class as often as possible. Over the course of the next 12 months, we’ll take four courses:

  • “Authors” spans both terms and, as you may expect, covers the main (canonical) authors leading up to and through literary Modernism. For Authors, we have to read at least a novel or so per week — that’ll keep us busy when we’re not in class. Our first two weeks covered Flaubert (Madame Bovary) and Henry James (The Turn of the Screw and In the Cage); next week is Conrad (Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim).
  • “Contexts” happens this term and looks at the social/historical/cultural contexts behind the development of Modernism. It’s broken into two chunks: “Modernity and the City” and “Modern Forms.” We’re in the first part now and have already covered Baudelaire’s poems and prose poems on mid-19th-century Paris. Tomorrow’s seminar is called “Epiphany and the Everyday” and is theory-based (think Barthes, Blanchot, Lefebvre — dense stuff). Next week is “Detective Fiction”: Poe, Conan Doyle, Raymond Chandler. I’m pumped for that and will think fondly of my first-year seminar in “African-American Detective Fiction” at Oberlin.
  • Next term, we’ll pick two of six more specific “Options” — each will last half a term. Our choices include “Modernism and Sex,” “Film,” and “Cultures of the Night.” Exciting! More on these later.

Unlike the American (undergraduate) system, where we had at least two or three papers to write throughout each semester, the grades for our MA depend on one paper per course at the end of each term, plus the dissertation. And no class participation grades to pad the final mark. Not much room for error! But, as a classmate pointed out, getting the MA is the real goal in the end, regardless of final grade.

We have a group of professors/lecturers/teacher-people helping with the course — each lecturer teaches his/her specialty, so we have a different seminar leader almost every week (with some repeats). This is nice because we’re getting “expert” perspectives, but it also may prove difficult to form any kind of personal/professional relationships with our lecturers. We will be assigned a Tutor, though, who will guide us on the Contexts paper, so that will be a good connection to make.

That’s about it so far. I’m still getting to know my classmates, but the ones with whom I’ve interacted are nice, smart, and interesting. Everyone seems really excited and willing to collaborate. Stay tuned for future updates, and don’t forget to check out my Reading List to see what we’re studying.

News Roundup: Sushi, Food Stamps, Shakespeare & Three Sisters

As we move into October (October already?!), here’s a roundup of what I’ve been reading and thinking about over the past month. Click the links to access the full articles. Thanks for reading, and please post your comments/questions/requests below!

Upcoming posts: more recipes (squash, anyone?), an overview of my MA program, and two reflective/retrospective Peace Corps-related musings.

Just for Fun

  • I’m making my way through George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones books, after having seen the first three seasons of the HBO series. It’s kind of fun to read the books after having seen the series; it’s filled in a lot of gaps that I remember being confused about. Anyway, if you have read and/or seen Game of Thrones, you’ll get a kick out of this hip hop remix.
  • Runner’s World periodically posts (humorous) “motivational posters.” This one is a recent favorite.
  • Oh, programmatic music! “The 1812 Overture: an attempted narration” from the Oxford University Press blog, took me right back to Music of the Romantic Era. Give it a read/listen — it’s good fun.

Education

  • “Three Sisters (Not Chekhov’s)”  is an astute NY Times op-ed by Joe Nocera on the US’s system for educating teachers, which seems to have a lot to be desired. Granted, I have not been an education student in the US, but from what I’ve read, and what Nocera says, there is too little classroom practice and too much theory. How about schools actually teach how to teach? Nocera notes,

Melinda recalls thinking that even the most basic elements of her job — classroom management, organization, lesson planning — were things she had to figure out on her own, after she had begun teaching. When I asked them what they had learned in college, they shouted in unison: theory! (Denise went on to get a master’s degree in education, which she laughingly described as “not exactly hands-on.”)

America & The World

  • As you probably know, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine from 2010-2012. We were technically employed (but not, since we were volunteers) by — or “serving” — the US Government. Yet it felt strange to say that. “What it Means to Serve your Country” addresses just this: that we think of “serving your country” as something military-related. I’ll let this excerpt speak for itself:

…for thousands of diplomats, intelligence professionals, Peace Corps Volunteers, AmeriCorps VISTA members, firefighters, policemen, and others working to improve communities around the nation, it would be awkward to say “I served my country.” It shouldn’t be. Service to country isn’t linked to combat.

[…]

Serving my country means that I gave up the normal progression of my life–high school, college, work–to do something whose end was civic. The same could be said for the veterans of many other types of national service.

  • “Dear Leader Dreams of Sushi” is an excellent piece of journalism on the former sushi chef for North Korea’s Kim Jong-Il. Even if you care nothing for the politics, read it for the fascinating story and quality of writing/reporting.
  • “Panera CEO learns about hunger on his food stamp diet”– the article title is pretty self-explanatory. Food stamps are part of a really important program in the States for people who live below the poverty line. This article made me like Panera even more than I already do. A sampling:

We, in corporate America, must be part of the solution. At Panera, we have tried to stretch ourselves to think of how to address hunger in new ways and challenge others to do the same. We have developed five nonprofit “Panera Cares” community cafes with no set prices and have donated hundreds of millions of dollars in products to food banks. Our view is that unless we at Panera take care of the world that we live in, there won’t be any society left to support us. If the past week has taught me anything, it’s that hunger is not a problem of “them,” it’s a problem of “us.” Hunger exists in every community, in every county, in every state.

Literature & Life

  • Charles Isherwood over at the NY Times has a thought-provoking article called “To Renovate or Not To Renovate?” Isherwood discusses theatre productions of Shakespeare plays and muses about the benefits and detriments to setting Shakespeare plays in modern times. An interesting read.
  • “Embracing Revision” is a piece from The Equals Record with wise words for writing and life that I connected with:

If I have learned one thing about the practice of writing, it is that the magic happens in revision. It is in returning to words that have already been laid out—turning them over, taking them apart, and rearranging them—that I discover what I really meant all along. And if I have learned one thing from this book thus far, it is that revision is a thing to embrace in life too.

We cannot tell where we are destined to end up and who we are destined to be. Yet, we can count on returning, again and again, to some of the people and places and ways of being we have already encountered. Each day is not simply a new bead on a tenuous string of life. Rather, each day is a revision of the last, and today is a first draft for tomorrow.

Russia

  • “Russia Leans on its Neighbors” talks about how much Russia is bullying the former Soviet republics not to sign trade alliances with the EU. Having lived in western (EU-leaning) Ukraine, this bullying infuriates me. Not to mention, the US is hardly taking any stand against Russia’s behavior. Here’s a taste:

The Kremlin openly dismisses its neighbors’ independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty. Glazyev…called the idea of Ukraine’s desire to take a European course an act of “sick self-delusion.” Only the European Union reprimanded Russia for the move against Ukraine. The United States remained silent. The failure of Washington and the European Union to articulate a coherent policy for Eastern Europe, Ukraine, the Caucasus and Central Asia has been interpreted by Moscow as a tacit recognition of Russia’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union — and license for Moscow to seek renewed hegemony there.

The stakes are high. Even if Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia, Tajikistan and the rest are not paragons of liberal democracy, their independence and security should be in the interest of the United States and its allies in Europe.

the sex education I wish I’d had

the sex education I wish I’d had.

I wish there was an incredibly detailed class on entire reproductive system and it was mandatory learning for every single person on the planet, because then maybe there wouldn’t be so many middle-aged middle-class men making bizarre statements about the things my womb can and can’t do.

Everyone should read this. I had decent sex ed in school but know that so many schools lack any kind of health/sex ed. And that is sad. This is a great piece outlining what every single school (and parent, for that matter) should address.

News Roundup: August Edition

I’m headed back to the UK this week and thought I’d post a news roundup so you can see what I’ve been reading and thinking about over the past month while in the States. In this month’s edition, we have some humor, some good advice, international news, thoughts on teaching, and more. Enjoy, and please leave a comment below if anything particularly grabs your attention!

Just for Fun

  • My hometown, Rochester, NY, is well-known as the home of Kodak and Xerox. Cameras and copiers are great, but the hidden gem that originated in Rochester is really Wegmans. Rather than waxing poetic about it myself, let me point you to this BuzzFeed list which pretty much sums up the awesomeness of this more-than-just supermarket.
  • Any runners out there will appreciate this “article” from Runners World, titled “The 25 worst questions to ask a runner.” I’ve certainly been asked a few of them over the years I’ve been running…

Athletics

  • A handful of studies have popped up recently on strength training for runners, and what kind will best help running economy. “How Strength Training Ups Masters Marathoners’ Economy” is a nice overview of a study finding that high weight/low repetition strength training, even for long distance runners, can improve running economy. Though the study was done with masters, I think it’s safe to say the same would be found in younger runners; this refutes previous beliefs in the running community that distance athletes should do low weight/high rep strength work so as not to get “bulky.”

English Majors & Being a Teacher

  • “The Ideal English Major” is a great piece from The Chronicle of Higher Education on why it still matters to be a humanities major, especially an English major, and what we English majors are really like. Here’s a sampling, though I recommend you read the whole article:

English majors want the joy of seeing the world through the eyes of people who—let us admit it—are more sensitive, more articulate, shrewder, sharper, more alive than they themselves are.

[…] Love for language, hunger for life, openness and a quest for truth: Those are the qualities of my English major in the ideal form. But of course now we’re talking about more than a mere academic major. We’re talking about a way of life. We’re talking about a way of living that places inquiry into how to live in the world—what to be, how to act, how to move through time—at its center.

What we’re talking about is a path to becoming a human being, or at least a better sort of human being than one was at the start. An English major? To me an English major is someone who has decided, against all kinds of pious, prudent advice and all kinds of fears and resistances, to major, quite simply, in becoming a person. Once you’ve passed that particular course of study—or at least made some significant progress on your way—then maybe you’re ready to take up something else.

  • On a semi-related note to being an English major, here’s a great essay on teaching, summed up by its title, “The Hardest Job Everyone Thinks They Can Do.” In the US, it is sad that many people still choose teaching as sort of a back-up plan, as in “well, I can always teach.” Teachers are not respected enough in the States, and people think it’s easy (newsflash: it’s not) so often choose education as a career path if nothing else comes along. That’s one of many reasons the US’s rankings in education are so poor compared to places like Finland, which has rigorous standards for becoming a teacher. I’m not saying all teachers in the US do it because they think it’s easy or the only thing; on the contrary, I know many amazing, inspiring teachers who are doing it because that’s what they love to do. My ramblings aside, here’s an excerpt from the article; read the rest if you have a chance:

Inspiring kids can be downright damned near close to impossible sometimes. And… it’s downright damned near close to impossible to measure. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s test scores. You can’t measure inspiration by a child’s grades. You measure inspiration 25 years later when that hot-shot doctor, or lawyer, or entrepreneur thanks her fourth-grade teacher for having faith in her and encouraging her to pursue her dreams.

Maybe that’s why teachers get so little respect. It’s hard to respect a skill that is so hard to quantify.

So, maybe you just have to take our word for it. The next time you walk into a classroom, and you see the teacher calmly presiding over a room full of kids, all actively engaged in the lesson, realize that it’s not because the job is easy. It’s because we make it look easy. And because we work our asses off to make it look easy.

Advice

  • Author George Saunders gave the Syracuse University convocation speech earlier this year. The NY Times Magazine‘s blog, The 6th Floor, posted his speech, which everyone, graduate or non, should read. This is my favorite part:

Who, in your life, do you remember most fondly, with the most undeniable feelings of warmth?

Those who were kindest to you, I bet.

It’s a little facile, maybe, and certainly hard to implement, but I’d say, as a goal in life, you could do worse than: Try to be kinder.

Now, the million-dollar question:  What’s our problem?  Why aren’t we kinder?

  • Here’s a great piece from a father to a daughter, called “Dear Daughter: I Hope You Have Awesome Sex.” It’s empowering and honest and wonderful. Here’s a taste: “…I won’t tell you sex is bad, or that you’re bad for wanting it, or that other people are bad from wanting it from you if you’re willing to give it. I refuse to perpetuate, even through the plausible deniability of humor, the idea that the people my daughter is attracted to are my enemy.”

International

  • “Through the Eyes of the Maasai” is a beautiful piece from the NY Times Travel section, giving insight into the lives and society of the Maasai people in Kenya.
  • F is German, so he closely follows German and European politics. I try to keep up, but it’s not my go-to news topic. He sent me a great article recently from The New York Review of Books, “The New German Question”, that gives a good overview of German politics.
  • My good friend Sam is doing some research for his masters’ degree on measuring happiness in terms of “wellbeing” indices. Sam says, “The problem, of course, is that increased production alone does not guarantee a happy, healthy society.” Read the rest of his smart piece here: “How do we move towards a society that prioritizes wellbeing?”

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Peace Corps/Ukraine in status updates

One of my fellow Ukraine (now R)PCVs just posted a great piece on her great blog, borscht and babushkas. The post, “#pcukraine,” is a series of Facebook status updates from PCVs in Ukraine about the ridiculous/funny/amazing/weird experiences they have. Go read Kristen’s post, because the statuses there are extremely clever/witty/absurd.

I liked this idea but, rather than re-blogging others’ experiences, wanted to share some statuses of my own. I’m not a huge Facebook-poster to begin with, so my updates are not as detailed or witty as those in Kristen’s post, but they do show how little things make life good and I hope they give you a slightly different picture of my time in Ukraine than my blog posts. I may have finished my Peace Corps service 9 months ago — time flies — but it is still very much part of me and I think about it a lot. So while this post may seem “late,” it’s really interesting for me to look at after having been an RPCV for a while. Hope you enjoy it, too; this is a sampling of the best and most insightful statuses.

  • 2 Oct 2010: has survived Week 2 of PST. Teaching for the first time next week!
  • 10 Dec 2010: is sitting in her NEW apartment in her NEW town drinking a Starbucks Via & eating oatmeal while enjoying her counterparts WiFi. Life is good.
  • 15 Dec 2010: stove-top bread pudding = success!
    • Note: This is significant because I didn’t have a working oven in my apartment.
  • 5 Jan 2011: braved the pre-Christmas crowds at the bazaar and is now braving the 3*F temperature for a run.
  • 11 Jan 2011: survived her first day of teaching. 2nd Form: cutest kids EVER. 3rd Form: cute too, but ask a lot of questions in Ukrainian that I don’t always understand. 5th Form: nice class. 6th Form: smart, fun group. 11th Form: fun b/c they know enough English to have discussions.
  • 18 Jan 2011: felt like a mother hen this morning while leading the 2nd form up two flights of stairs to her classroom… “Come along, little chickies!”
  • 1 Feb 2011: talked about Romanticism in art with her 11th Form; sang “My Favorite Things” to her 3rd Form; got 3 boxes (spices, COFFEE, etc.); met nice women while running at the stadium who invited me in for tea & to return whenever I want.
  • 4 Mar 2011: It’s official…Women’s Day in Ukraine is AWESOME.
    • Need some details on Women’s Day? Read this.
  • 17 Mar 2011: “Mrs. Wilkins ironed her dog yesterday.” -written by one of my counterpart’s 4th-formers (one sentence was supposed to be “walk the dog” and the next “iron her clothes”).
  • 10 Apr 2011: made her first Ukrainian borshch today — success!
  • 4 May 2011: loves apple discounts from her favorite bazaar apple man, milk discounts from her favorite babusya, and free baby greens from one of her adult English club-goers.
  • 9 May 2011: tried to write a letter in cursive, but her brain/hand kept trying to form Ukrainian cursive letters instead of English ones!
  • 12 May 2011: Today was a good day. New running shoes & summer dresses arrived from home, & spent a wonderful time at the music school playing the clarinet & listening to live classical music for the first time in almost a year.
  • 17 May 2011: found a thermos in her apartment so now she can make French press coffee, drink some before she runs and keep the rest hot for after the run.
  • 18 May 2011: had an awesome time spontaneously playing an hour and a half of basketball w/ three 25-y/o guys from her English club.
  • 30 Aug 2011: just got foto-sessiaed up the wazoo in 100-year-old Ukrainian traditional dress…pics coming soon.
  • 22 Sep 2011: a good day: received some Italian coffee (not instant!) from Ukrainian friends, my counterpart is finally home with her beautiful baby, I got three letters, & I might be inheriting my landlady’s old washing machine!
  • 2 Oct 2011: CP’s baby’s baptism –> 8 hours of eating and drinking and dancing (and still going strong when I left)…welcome to Ukraine!
  • 4 Oct 2011: I now have a working washing machine in my apartment! Peace out, hand-washing (unless the machine breaks).
    • Note: the machine lasted until my very last week at site, when it decided to start making loud clunking noises; I hand-washed my last few loads of laundry.
  • 13 Oct 2011: A supermarket just opened in my town!
  • 21 Oct 2011: Three girls showed up to my sport club in 43F & rain. Here’s to triumphing over Ukrainian beliefs/superstitions of getting sick from rain & cold, one girl at a time!
  • 9 Nov 2011: found out today that I’ll be teaching English to my town’s police in preparation for Euro2012…starting tomorrow.
  • 17 Nov 2011: Today I bought sweet Ukrainian boots & навчилася вишивати!
  • 29 Nov 2011: HIV/AIDS-themed English club was a relative success…except one girl started crying. I’m hoping it was just because the activity was powerful and not because of some deeper reason.
  • 6 Dec 2011: winter, John Legend, Woody Allen, Jay-Z & Alicia Keys, Dave Brubeck, snowflakes. Just a normal day in English club.
  • 14 Dec 2011: Iryna gave me some cheese that her daughter sent from Germany. I ate a cube and it was like heaven in my mouth.
  • 30 Dec 2011: fully embraced Ukrainian circle dancing tonight & it made for an enjoyable time.
  • 5 Jan 2012: I love walking/wandering around Kyiv. Found a sweet supermarket and saw a totally new area of the city on the way to getting my teeth salt-blasted at the dentist.
  • 8 Jan 2012: L’viv: pampushky (edible and live), lots of walking, The Nutcracker for 30 UAH, kolyadky, mulled wine, chocolate/marzipan, vysokyy zamok, pretty churches, great company…AND homemade (Ukrainian-made!) PEANUT BUTTER at the Christmas market…hard to beat this life.
  • 21 Jan 2012: Нарешті, доїхала додому. Home sweet Sniatyn.
  • 29 Jan 2012: I may or may not have just sung & danced around my apartment after being told there’s no school tomorrow due to the cold…
  • 5 Mar 2012: Today the boys were pulled out of my 5th-form lesson so the girls proceeded to interview me about my life and family. Best two questions: “Ms. Tammela, do you have a man?” & “Do you have a baby?”
  • 13 Mar 2012: Amazing cultural exchange moment of the day (@ older pupils’ English club): telling/answering questions about the Peace Corps and being told many new things about Taras Shevchenko. PC Goals 2 & 3? CHECK.
  • 18 Apr 2012: Time for a(n anti-) plagiarism workshop with my 10th form…
  • 29 Apr 2012: In Ukraine the tar melts in the sun.
  • 10 May 2012: My 44-year-old school director died early this morning of a heart attack… A big loss to my school and the Sniatyn community.
  • 15 May 2012: had a wonderful spontaneous evening helping Iryna in her field…and scored some fresh eggs, mint, and rhubarb on the way home.
  • 21 May 2012: Spent a lovely day in Kolychivka, introducing my American parents to my Ukrainian ones and eating delicious, super-fresh homemade pork sausage. (Fresh as in the pig was alive two days ago…)
  • 29 Jun 2012: Today I climbed Mt. Hoverla (2061m) in near-perfect conditions and watched my counterpart’s cousin propose to his girlfriend at the top (she said yes, for the record). All in all, not a bad day.
  • 2 Aug 2012: I am so happy and grateful that, even though my school’s Director (who was most of the muscle behind my grant implementation) died in May, the town administration has upheld their end of the deal and provided the (now-multimedia) English classroom with new desks, chairs, and chalkboard.
  • 21 Sep 2012: Two years ago today I arrived in Ukraine. Seven weeks from today I leave.
  • 10 Oct 2012: After two years in Ukraine I finally see leeks being sold. I show them to Iryna at English club and tell her how excited I am to have found them. She says, “I have those in my garden and in my field!” Ukrained? But in the most wonderful way.
  • 31 Oct 2012: My 8A girls asked me today if they could have English club today at 4pm (they haven’t come all semester) — I said okay, and they surprised me with cookies and a lovely hour of round-table chatting about Halloween and the advantages of speaking UkrEnglish. Adults & older pupils followed that with a great last English club and such generous, heartfelt comments and gifts. Then I was informed that my 11A class will be trick-or-treating at my flat tonight…
  • 4 Nov 2012: Last night in my диван-bed…
  • 4 Nov 2012: Last run in Sniatyn…then packing, cleaning, and final goodbyes. I shall miss this little town and its inhabitants. On the train to Kyiv — one-way — tonight with K for our last few days in Ukraine.
  • 7 Nov 2012: Advanced-Mid Ukrainian YES.
  • 8 Nov 2012: Today I rang the COS bell — yes, there’s now a bell — and became an RPCV (though I haven’t “returned” quite yet). Thanks for an amazing two years, Ukraine.

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