Thursday, March 26, 2009

Multiple Intelligences

I attended our school's annual talent show this week. Not knowing what to expect, I nonetheless sat with eager anticipation, and just a wee bit of apprehension. By the end of the first act, I was hooked. Not only were the student MC's outstanding comedic actors, but act after act provided exceptionally high standards of quality entertainment. From opera arias and piano concertos to Edith Piaf, hip hop and tangos, the performances were breathtakingly stunning. Most important was the opportunity to see students exhibit a wide range of talent outside the "academic" classroom. Of 180 or so school days, I don't see the "real" students except in a narrowly defined scientific role. The girl I see as an excellent science student nonetheless has a piano talent that far exceeds what she can do in the laboratory. And the student who comes into the room late, disheveled, shoes untied, bumping into furniture and trailing disorganized materials in her wake closed the show with a beautiful east Indian dance of power and grace--blindfolded. This two hour show gave a glimpse into many of the "Multiple Intelligences" that are less valued by schools. Why is it that of the ten or so intelligences so far identified, schools place the greatest emphasis on two: Logico-mathematical and Linguistic? This is one of the great failings of education.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, one of the world's best known astrophysicists, regular contributor to Natural History Magazine, and director of the Hayden Planetarium, had this to say about schools and the way they reward students: "Straight A's are not evidence of good teachers; they're evidence of a student who will do what's necessary to do well in exams, no matter who the teacher is." Dr. Tyson's point was that schools are set up in order to reward these types of students, and are not necessarily interested in recognizing any other talent.

He goes on: "If you collect a bunch of people who have risen to the top--screen writers, poets, novelists, politicians, athletes--and ask how many of them got straight A's, the answer will be near zero."

Well said.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Elephant Abuse in Thailand

We often fail to think about what conditions contribute to the status of animals when we are being entertained by them. One hundred years ago, there were 100,000 elephants in Thailand. Today there are just over 2.000, most of them "domesticated." Only about 500 remain in the wild. Once known for their ability to work as beasts of burden in the logged forests of Asia, they are now used mainly as mounts for "treks" and as performers in circus acts. What has come to light are the more recent practices of "training" elephants to perform unnatural "tricks" and take riders through the forests and mountains of Thailand. Routinely, nursing baby elephants are taken from their mothers, tied by the neck and legs, then beaten continuously to "train" them to be docile and follow commands of their handlers. The most commonly used instrument used both in training, and while being ridden, is a plank with a large spike through it (known as a "bullhook"), which is driven into the forehead of the unfortunate elephant when it "misbehaves." According to well-known elephant researcher Lek Chailert--featured on National Geographic, Discovery, Animal Planet and BBC--up to 80% of the baby elephants fail to live through the torture of training. The Thai government turns a blind eye to this abuse of animals once held sacred by Thai people. Of course, it is because tourists, both Thai and foreign, pay to ride elephants and see them perform. An elephant owner can generally take in US$60 per day by selling bananas to tourists eager to snap a photo of themselves feeding these imposing giants. The fine for having an elephant in the city? $17.

When friends ask what to see when they come to Thailand, I include a list of what NOT to see. At the top of that list is "Do not patronize elephant shows," followed closely by "Do not ride elephants," and thirdly, "Do not feed elephants, especially those in the city" (which is supposedly illegal). Many elephants have been saved and now live in dignity at elephant parks (, but the abusive practice continues. If you plan a trip to Thailand, or know of someone who is, I urge you to read this again, and forward it to others. For more information, go to or For a first-hand account by a tourist, visit By forwarding this message, we can help stop this inhumane practice.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The REAL Darwin Award

Today one of my students was musing about the great evolution scientist Charles Darwin. "Did you know that he married his first cousin?" She asked. I replied that I did. She smiled an amused sort of grin. "Kind of ironic, don't you think?" This is one of the reasons I just love being a teacher. 

(For a look at the Darwin Awards, go to

Saturday, March 7, 2009

New Pet

A new member of the family was added today. Our Thai Bangkaew dog, Chekov, is fifteen, and back in his home country after traveling around the world, returning twice since his birth. Despite his relative good health, we wanted to get him a companion, and also a transition dog for us. A pet rescue organization in Bangkok, Soi Cats and Dogs ("Soi" means "street" in Thai), or SCAD was the place we turned to ( This organization, started and still run by an expat, places rescued animals in homes around the world. Our choice was a female pup of questionable pedigree (apparently a good dose of Thai Ridgeback) who immediately made herself at home, much to the chagrin of Chekov, and the outright disgust of our Maine-born cat Guido, who immediately disappeared over the wall and stayed away most of the day. Our new pup's name--for the moment--is Santipop, or "Santi" which means "peace." Ironically, we have not had a moment of it since her arrival.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Return of the Rains

Exactly four months to the day after the monsoon season ended, the rain returned. Reading in bed on Sunday morning, we heard a faintly familiar sound outside the window, a noise competing with the whir of fans. Putting down the books, we listened for a moment, then with smiles breaking across our faces, shouted in unison, "Rain!"

Such a seemingly common phenomenon receives excited, childlike attention here, much as the first snowfall does in temperate regions. Almost giddy, we rushed outside to feel it drop onto and cool our skin. What a welcome relief from the dry, hot days over the past few months. Called "the mango rain" by Thais, it comes each spring when the sweet fruits are ripening on the trees. Yesterday while shopping, we paused with other shoppers to listen to a downpour drum on the metal roof. Just a simple word, "Rain," was all that was needed for a conversation.