Thursday, January 28, 2010

Things (beyond the obvious ones like hugging my children) That I Am Happy to Do Since I Came HOME

--in no particular order--

Speak English without pausing to check for comprehension.

Buy stuff without multiplying the price by 2/3.

Wear jeans.

Speak Russian.

Sit on a sofa.

Drink tea in Starbucks, at Fiddler's Hearth, at home, everywhere!

Wear socks.


Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Fear of Beginners

I used to be afraid of teaching English learners at the beginning level. For many semesters, I studiously avoided teaching their classes, and during the summer intensives I would only teach grammar, since it's usually the shortest class and gets the most chewed up by announcements and procedural activities. And at least that subject is nuts and bolts and rules at the beginner level. Even as I was finding comfort in the orderedness of beginning language instruction, I have often felt guilty that all too soon they would start discovering the multitudes of exceptions to the so-called rules I was teaching them. You have to start somewhere, with some framework, though. So we English teachers have this set of rules for beginners that some other English teacher will get to disabuse them of.

I would think, "How could I possibly teach a conversation class for beginners?" What on earth would we talk about? They have no vocabulary around which to build conversations. I was less than thrilled when we created the schedule for this month's intensive immersion and my name was next to Beginning for an hour of grammar and 2 hours of conversation each day.

Once the program began, I was frustrated with their incessant use of the native language (they all have the same one) in the first few days, and then I realized that they did not know the language they needed to interact with one another in the classroom. They weren't using English to ask each other, "How do you say ____ in English?" because they didn't know how. So, we spent an afternoon learning this phrase and others like it. How do you pronounce this word? What does _____ mean? Repeat, please. I don't understand.

Then, I looked around at the program and realized that their participation in our social activities was severely handicapped by similar lacks of vocabulary and sentence structures. So I started building them scaffolds. From that point on, our two daily hours of conversation were largely given over to preparation for participation in other aspects of the program. We reviewed the scriptures and ideas mentioned in the morning devotional. We examined the vocabulary and images of the praise songs and hymns we sang everyday. We brainstormed questions they could ask other students or teachers during mealtimes. I would write on the board any announcements that had been made orally by the director or the support staff. It was incredibly draining to constantly be analyzing each item on the agenda for what these students may not know and then seeking out the staff members who could tell me what would be on the menu at the restaurant on Wednesday or which hymns we would sing on Sabbath.

However, it was also incredibly rewarding. This month I have learned how wrong I was and how my fear and avoidance of beginning level students caused me to miss out on the opportunity to create wonderful relationships and connections. The new language learner must be willing to make mistakes, must humble themselves to take correction and redirection over and over and over again. This vulnerability creates a unique intimacy among unrelated adults. Beginning students fall in love with the teacher. By trusting me with their vulnerability, they give me an incredible gift, and the only way I could repay it was to teach them more.

One night when I volunteered to sit with the beginners during Sabbath School for the second week in a row, a colleague said to me, "You really do love those Level 1's." You know what, I think she's right. I do. Next year I'll request beginning conversation.

Sunday, January 24, 2010


Brazilian cuisine excels at barbecue and pastry. My students delight in presenting new foods to me, watching me experience them for the first time, and then teaching me to say the Portuguese name. Nothing, apparently, is cuter than hearing their English teacher struggle to wrap her tongue around Brazilian food and Portuguese pronunciation.

The food of the day on Thursday was the beijinho (j=zh; nh=ñ). This delectable confection is like a soft white truffle rolled in coconut. If I understood correctly, the main ingredients are coconut milk and condensed milk, and at least a platter of these is de rigueur at Brazilian birthday parties, which we had since several of us gain a year this month.

After a grueling explanation about how the name 'kiss' is already occupied in English by a small chocolate candy and so couldn't be used to describe this coconut ball which is, sadly, completely lacking in chocolate, we settled on a new word: -- OED, are you paying attention? – kissinho.

Thursday, January 21, 2010


I've always wanted to see an owl, to look up in a tree and make eye contact with one of these centered beings who land and settle and are secure in their space. I got my wish this month, though not in the way I had envisioned. Here in Brazil they have burrowing owls who live like rabbits in the ground. (Apparently they also exist in the US in warm places like South Carolina, but I'd never heard of them. Yo, South Carolina, why didn't you tell me you had such a cool bird?)

Some of you will probably look at this picture and say, wow, her shutter speed was way off, why is she sharing this with me? So, let me tell you that I rather like the motion in this frame. I like the way the grass and the feathers slide in opposite directions. And, you know what, it captures what I saw. This owl was a blur to me. I got too close and – whoosh -- there he went.

Not Creepy, Just Brazilian

So there I was in the computer lab with my students yesterday. The lab tech was helping them with some persnickety TOEFL software, and I was getting myself set up to be productive while they moved through Kaplan's TOEFL tutorials on their own. The next thing I know, the tech has his arm on the back of my chair, his other hand on the top of my monitor and is leaning with his head next to mine. Just as I'm beginning to panic, "Teacher," he says, "What do I have to do if I want to study in the U.S.?"
"Whew," I thought as I clamped down on the panic reflex. "He's not creepy, he's just Brazilian."
Intellectually, I know that the minimal amount of personal space necessary for comfort is a variable defined by culture, and when my students and colleagues join me in my personal space, it's okay. In fact, the novelty is refreshing. When I was teaching high school, I had to train myself not to touch students as I worked with them, and the Koreans I sometiems teach at the university level work together to erect a fortified barricade between the students and the teacher.
Not until now have I realized how aloof Americans can be. We might smile or shake hands, but not much more than that. Touch can be a simple yet powerful tool to request attention, to show compassion, to share joy, yet in American workplaces and schools, we deny ourselves this form of communication for fear that it will be misunderstood or, worse, misused.
Ultimately, the tech and I had a nice conversation about the elaborate hoops and reams of paperwork required for an international student to study English or music in the United States. He's a blues guitarist, acoustic as well as electric, an informal music teacher with some area children, a skilled computer lab technician, and a proficient speaker of English. Eventually, he got tired of leaning and squatted next to me, still surrounding my personal space with his arms on my chair and computer. It was an act of will not to let my discomfort rise above slight tremor. The words not creepy, just brazilian were flowing through my head like a mantra.
At dinner, I told this story to a Brazilian colleague who has just returned from 16 years in the United States. When he stopped laughing, he commended my self control.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Living in Brazil: Accomodations, Part 3

Hey, Ladies! Here is the last set of pictures for my room.

I have 4 beds in my room. The one closest to the window is the one I sleep on. The next one is my couch.

The other two beds are my wrinkle-free closet extenders. (They didn't give me any skirt hangers, so I've laid mine out flat over here.)

Here's the rest of my wardrobe. This piece of furniture was designed for a very tall person!

This is my kitchen.

And the bathroom.

So, what else do you want to know about?

Living in Brazil: Accomodations, Part 2

Hi, gals, here's the next installment.
This covered walkway connects the Men's Dorm to the Guest Housing. It doesn't look like much, but it keeps the evening rain and the noontime sun off.

This is the entrance to the wing where I am living. There is no sill on the door, and most of the time it just stands open like this. When they wash the floor they pour soapy water all over the place and then squeegee it out the door. It looks like fun. I don't think it would work at home, though. My room is down the hall: second door on the right.

This is the first thing I see when I walk into my room. Those windows look out on the big tree from the previous post.

Can you imagine me with all those empty shelves? Where are all my books?

Isn't this a funky painting? I like it a lot. I think the orange bit looks like a tiger-skin rug, and the green lady is dancing on top of it. Then, there's the stripety snake. What do you see? (Click on the picture to make it bigger.)

Living in Brazil: Accomodations, Part 1

This post is to my children who are wondering about where I am staying.

It's summer here in beautiful Brazil, and I'm on the campus of UNASP, the Seventh-day Adventist University in the state of Sao Paulo. We are about 2 hours inland from the city of Sao Paulo. Above is a a view of the part of campus where I am staying this month. You can see the Men's Dorm on the left and the Guest Wing on the right.

This drain gutter outside the Men's Dorm is the home of a family of cats, a mom and 4 kittens. They are scrawny, but scrappy.
This is the main part of the Men's Dorm.
I'm amazed at the possibilities for architecture when your most extreme weather is evening thunderstorms on a hot day. This is the main entrance to the Men's Dorm. The sliding glass doors open wide enough to allow a car to drive through. Mostly, they remain open to allow students to walk into and through the building. The deep porch is a place to meet and get out of the afternoon sun.
This tree stands in front of the main entrance in the last picture. Beyond the tree, you can see the wing where my room is.

Well, I've reached the size limit for pictures on this post, so more in the next one.