Saturday, January 31, 2009


The weekend is great, isn't it? We get to live a normal life once Friday afternoon rolls around, and we can enjoy it until wiping the sleep from our eyes at some unnatural hour to get ready for work on Monday. What a luxury to awake and find that daylight has actually arrived! The bizarre routine of stumbling around in the dark so we can go do something that we are generally reasonably good at in order to receive some sort of electronic notice that we can purchase things for another month can't be the plan of the worker bees, can it?

How nice to hear sounds of an awakening world: An increasing chorus of warbles and coos from exotic birds, the shuffle of feet carrying folks to the corner in order to give alms to the monks, the swish of broom on pavement to clear last night's leaf fall, the hum of bicycle tires on the street, the voice of neighbor to neighbor across the wall. In our hurry to get to our place of employment, we so often miss life's simple pleasures, finding ourselves closed up away from nature and the sounds of human interactions. How unfortunate that we don't slow enough until Saturday to truly enjoy what it means to relax and live in the moment.

Of course, our busy work week means that we very often have to scurry around on weekends to get done what we have no time for during the week, or are simply too tired to complete once we get home and flop onto the couch. For thirty or forty years we miss the beauty of life because we just don't take the time. I can think of no good reason why one cannot have one day of rest for every day of work. Maybe sanity and good health are not what our leaders want in a work force. Come to think of it, being tired and glued to TV commercials is probably what a corporate economy needs, so we save up our desires for the weekend shopping spree. Hanging out at a park or going for a walk in the woods won't help make millionaires of our financial elite.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Spa Thai Style

Kat and a friend arranged to have a facial at a nearby spa. When asked if they could make appointments for 10:00 on Saturday morning, the jovial, personable masseuse threw back her head and laughed out loud. "Come with me," she said and beckoned Kat to follow. In the back of the establishment, she parted the curtains and there was one reclining chair. "Only one person at a time," the owner said. "But maybe I can do something for you." She went on to suggest that while one had a facial, the other could receive a full body massage, then they could trade places. The entire two hour treatment for $30. Who has to think about that?

When they arrived for the appointment, the masseuse took them into the back, drew the curtains, and in a low voice said, "I have something special." She filled three shot glasses with vanilla vodka and handed Hershey kisses to them as a chaser. The three of them knocked them back, and our friend said to Kat, "I don't have to keep looking for a spa anymore. Any place that offers me chocolate and vodka gets my business." Ah, Thailand.

Saturday, January 17, 2009


We recently took a three day trip to Cambodia, and fell in love with the country. This small country that for so long has been a side trip from a Thailand vacation, is seeing an upswing in tourists whose main destination is the magnificent complex of ancient temples, the most famous known as Angkor Wat. On my "bucket list" for decades, I experienced an increased sense of excited anticipation as the plane flew into the airport, just a 35 minute ride from Bangkok.

Although selfishly a bit disappointed that we didn't have the ruins to oursel
ves as Angelina Jolie did in "Tomb Raider," we were nonetheless enthralled by their grandeur and haunting beauty, taking the time to pause and reflect on the silent sweep of time throughout the centuries that was evident in the carvings hacked free of the jungle that had covered them for hundreds of years.

But the unexpected pleasure was meeting the Cambodian people--or Khmer as they prefer to be called. Despite enduring unspeakable horrors of wars and brutal "killing fields" purging through several decades, we found them to be charming, friendly, and refreshingly optimistic. The city of Siem Riap near the ruins is experiencing an economic upturn, which in one of the world's poorest countries where most people make less than $1 a day (public school teachers earn $25 per month), fuels enthusiasm and pride in their history and culture. Visitors from around the world give the small city a cosmopolitan flair, yet the atmosphere is definitely traditional Khmer. One wonders how Cambodia will react to this new-found prosperity: throw caution and environmental health to the wind as did Bangkok, or learn from the mistakes of other cities. So far it appears it is the latter. We plan to return as often as is feasible to enjoy the beauty and reduced stress of this as yet hidden southeast Asian treasure.

An interesting side note: Although Cambodia has its own official currency, the preferred currency is the U.S. dollar. All menus and price tags are in dollars, and even the ATMs cough up greenbacks, a strange experience in a place so far away from the U.S.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


A headline in the Bangkok Post reports that the current "Cold Snap" in Thailand claimed three more lives. Now, I don't know of anyone outside of this country who would term the record dip in temperature (59 degrees F; 15 C) a cold snap, but then the article continued on to note that the "harsh" weather, compliments of a cold front moving in from China, is to blame for the most recent deaths. Accompanying the article was a group of Thais huddled around a fire.

Just about everyone here had prepared for increasingly hot weather after the December reprieve, and it has been for those of us from northern U.S. and Canada, a welcome and refreshing change.

Students mirror the tropical attitude, arriving at school in parkas, walking ahead of western teachers in short sleeves. It's difficult to remember just how cold it is in temperate regions when surrounded by such a mindset, mild to hot weather is a constant, and the one jacket brought to Thailand finally comes from the closet. Interestingly, expats, even Canadians, use terms such as "cold" and "freezing" to describe their reaction to the unseasonably cool temperatures.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Final Exams: Educational Child Abuse

Two weeks ago, I witnessed one of the horrors of traditional institutionalized education: The dreaded final exam. I have always questioned the practice of diluting education by blanket testing, but my present school has perfected the art of traumatizing students via mass pencil and paper testing. It’s supposed to “prepare” them for the rigors of advanced courses and ultimately, so the argument goes, for university courses. What it does succeed in doing is demoralizing, marginalizing, and sorting students. What it does NOT do is assess what students understand. Unfortunately, it is a very common practice in international schools.

The school has a policy that teachers of all courses devise a common final examination. In the case of two of my courses, biology and physical science, that includes every student in grades nine and ten. All 200 students take the same test in each of the two grades. This archaic practice assumes four things:
• Teachers know what is best for students to learn;
• All students learn at the same rate and in the same way;
• All teachers teach the same way;
• Testing students all at once in a cavernous hall is the most efficient method.
At least the last of these assumptions is true.

Although my protests—delivered in as diplomatic a way as possible for a new faculty member—were taken into consideration, and in fact, caused some changes toward realistic assessment, the final test took the form of the decades-old model of a great deal of “multiple guess” items followed by another hour of short answer trivial pursuit. Personally, I did not see the point in asking students to memorize what they could easily look up on the internet in a matter of seconds. I was able to insert some short answer questions that asked for students to explain their understanding, but I admit that even those were not particularly important or of interest to the students.

I felt ill watching the effects such testing has on the students: the stress evident in their hunched shoulders, and later the fatigue and pain in their eyes as they slowly trudged from the room. A small army of teachers maintained watch, striding up and down the long rows as though wardens. When I gathered the exams from my students, I had to find a spot to just hide and reflect on this academic form of torture. Later, I handed a course proposal to my department head that changes the way biology is taught and learned in traditional schools, and which does not require mindless memorization in order to “prepare” for advanced courses. The course would be an option for students, and centers on rigorous biological field investigations and literary research, designed and conducted by the students. The project-based course allows students to learn concepts by following a course of study that they choose. There will be no semester exam. Will it fly with administrators? Stay tuned.