Monday, November 11, 2013

Thoughts on Veteran's Day and Refugees

It's veterans day. I've spent the last couple days in part dealing with the latest problem of a war survivor, not a veteran but a refugee. He was only 16 when he got word at his African boarding school that this entire family had been killed in ethnic strife and, therefore, it was his job to leave school, come home, and bury them. Which he did, save for one female family member who was not killed and never accounted for and whose disappearance at the hands of an angry, hate-filled mob has never been documented or explained. Then came four years of wandering while the guy tried to figure out where to go next and where he could find a job and be safe. Someone suggested the USA, our state department approved, and he's here now, with only a small part of the services he should have. (Yup, you know you're in deep shit when you've got a life changing problem and you're first thought is "let's call Pete Huston, semi-employed jack-of-all-trades whever he is.") Quite frankly some of these problems of his are self inflicted, but there's a lot of brains, talents, and experiences there athat are worth salvaging and that can be shaped into something that will make the world and society a better place, if the scattered damaged pieces can be brought together. They guy needs better services than he's getting. War does that to teenagers and other living things. Anyway, hello boys and girls, it's veterans day. Please remember violence and exposure to violence changes people. Violence changes societies. My own exposure to violence, more than most Americans, yet less than a hell of a lot of people, has changed me. If we, as a society or nation, are going to ask our people, young and middle aged both, to go out and kill and fight and wander, work, and explore war zones. we've got a duty and a moral obligation to put the things they need in place in order to integrate them back into our society after they go through these things. Please use this veteran's day to give some thought as to what it is that we ask our veterans to do or be prepared to do for our nation and what it really is that they will need when these things we ask them to do are done and we wish them to come home and live among us in peace again.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Novel is out!!

For those who are interested my new novel is now available for purchase. See: More details to follow. Over the next few weeks, it should be available in more outlets.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

New Book Available --Excess Emotional Baggage

Greetings! Big news here. My new novel, "Excess Emotional Baggage," is now available for purchase. See:

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

The joys of teaching English as a Second Language.

The joys of trying to teach American literature to ESL students. Asking if anyone can guess the meaning of the title in Washington Irving's "The Headless Horseman," ("headless" and "horseman" both being words they don't know although they know the roots and components of these words) and getting two answered that when combined mean "The Stupid Centaur." Hmmmmm . . . someone else has to write that one, I'm afraid. (FYI, we're reading the Classics Illustrated version.)

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Thoughts on human nature, safety, and the world around us

I've got this thought turning around in my head. It's one of those thoughts that either makes people go "Duh, didn' t you know that?" or "My Garsh! That explains everything!" ideas. Some people view the world is naturally safe and some people view the world as naturally unsafe. In other words, some people see dangerous situations, human caused or otherwise, as a natural piece of our existence. Such people see these situations as something to prepare for in order to minimize the consequences if and when they crop up. Other people see the world as inherently safe. Although such people do acknowledge that some danger exists, their usual response is framed by a conception that such dangers should be easily fixed as they are inherently anomalous. This dichotomy in views affects things in many social realms and makes communication difficult, This is made worse by the way in which people tend to gravitate towards others who share their worldview. When the two groups try to discuss various issues often they disagree on this fundamental viewpoint. Therefore they are often unable to sustain any sort of meaningful dialogue on several issues. Instead they often find themselves engaging in arguments over whether or not the world is inherently safe or inherently dangerous. One side argues that the other engages in "Macho fantasies." The other side argues that their counterparts are "dangerously naive." Now, being as I am an EMT, and, in this role, first watched people die at age 17 or 18, grew up in a dysfunctional home where safety was not only not present but people who acknowledged that it was not present were emotionally abused, and have worked for years in security in various capacities dealing with human problems, as well as having traveled extensively and studied world history and cultures, I think it's fair to say which side of the dichotomy I stand on. On the other hand, it has baffled me for years as to why some of my attempts to interact with some people have gone the way they do. (i.e. People who decide out of the blue that it's important that they tell me that I should travel unarmed instead of armed when I go places. I've always assumed that my friends and are safer if one of us is armed, and never understood why they consider this an issue. In fact, I've been perfectly content to let such people drift away, seeing them as irresponsible by taking this position.) I recently had an on-line discussion with someone, a private-college educated self-proclaimed feminist who threw around the term "rape culture" repeatedly, and they found it confusing that because I generally arm myself I thought it would be a good idea for women to do the same thing, particularly since they tend to be smaller and suffer from different patterns of violent attack. Notice I said "different" --these folks felt any patterns of violent attack were anomalous and could and should be done away with simple education of potential attackers. Some time ago, in an on-line forum, some people were accusing me of being rude for voicing opinions in an outspoken manner. I asked a couple of my friends if they thought the statements were rude or inappropriate. They did not. I realized later that the first two people I had approached both had lived through outbreaks of mass human violence. (One had been present at the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989 and the other had been involved in a humanitarian way with the Mohawk Civil War at Akwesasne in 1990, an incident on the New York -Canadian border that lasted several days and involved much use of firearms and other weaponry.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Random Thoughts on Writing

FYI, I've finished my novel. It's done. Finished. Completed.

This is no mean feat. FYI, imagine simply typing over 300 pages of words, and trying to keep them clear and grammatically correct. And to describe coherently multiple sequences of events, in order, in a way that is intended to encourage a reader to find them interesting. Then rereading that same document at least four times (not an easy, short, or simple process in itself) while resisting the urge to let one's eyes glaze over and keep oneself able to catch problems in the document. Hours and hours of work over a period of almost two years done in between the stresses and strains of living a strange life. (I think the work gravitated to three different computers as two died in the process.)

But there's a realization that in many ways it's not very good. There are deep flaws in it. And the next novel I write could be much better. I learned a lot from doing this. I'm reminded of the difference between Andrew Vacchs's books first published book "Flood" which is awesome (if you like that sort of thing) and his first written, widely rejected book "Bomb built in hell" which is deeply flawed and it's easy to see why it was continuously rejected. (It was finally published, basically as a collector's piece for fans, and to fans is interesting and shows deep flaws and much promise for the writer.)

So . . . if I wished I could take the *%$#!!@ things and have it up and available on Create Space probably within a week. And there are advantages and disadvantages to that. (One disadvantage being that if it really sucks then I'd be hurting my own reputation as a writer.) And I should probably start on another one, but there are several other pressures on me and other areas in my life where I'd prefer to focus my energies for a few weeks. Areas where I can focus on making a positive change in my existence. Anyway, . . . I've got thoughts on how to resolve this matter and I don't need to make a decision on it tonight.

Anyway, a friend suggested I contact a mutual acquaintance I hadn't contacted for thirty years saying she had some contacts in the publishing industry. I did as why shouldn't I? Turns out much of her company's income comes from online workshops aimed at people who wish to either be or feel like writers, courses that cost over $400 for ten weeks of online classes and interaction. ( I know of at least two companies like this and discovered both by accident. I'm sure there are others.) My interest in this is zero, I'm afraid. Many reasons, including the belief that at this point the key to writing for me is to write, the knowledge base is sufficient for that, and continuous writing can be best done by focusing on the non-writing related finances of my life, achieving stability, and then fixing these and setting aside steady, scheduled time for writing. (The amazing novel was written on two sides of the world and in three different living quarters and while going through a few different awkward and sometimes very scary career and job transitions along the way.) Also, I'm reaching a point in life where after two master's degrees, much lessons of many kinds (including martial arts and cooking lessons) and still living hand-to-mouth I'd like to see money spent on personal education produce money coming in as opposed to simply being money going out.

So anyway, here's part of what I told her (I tried to keep it polite, what she's doing is not a crime, some people like it and it makes them happy, and I contacted her, not the other way around.) [FYI, she suggested I read the website of someone named Jane Friedman, who claims to be very knowledgable about publishing.)

Publishing has many strange niches. And other niches. As for Jane Friedman, I'll check her out, never heard of her, but doubt very much if there is anyone, anywhere who in the year 2013 is "clued into the future of the publishing and media industry." --so I'm suspicious right off the bat. A lot of people I know are trying to understand what's going on, intelligent people with their hands on and feet in things and their future and livelihoods dependent on understanding these very things and they tell me they haven't figured it out yet. Again, there are those people who write for a living, those people who teach writing for a living while labelling themselves as 'writers" and all those people on the fringes trying to figure out how to get in. Like a lot of things i've been involved in it's the "let me in" people on the outside and the "get me out of here" people on the inside, and the people with dental insurance running the workshops that pretend to allow one to naviagate the boundaries between them. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Thought for the day

Interesting thought for the day. Many pro-choice types tend to be anti-death penalty, and many pro-life types tend to be pro-death penalty. Many of the Liberals I know claim these attitudes of the Conservatives are paradoxical and illogical. (Perhaps the Conservatives say the same thing about the Liberals. As I am more familiar with the faults of the Liberals, I am in a better position to criticize them.) Now many pro-choice types tend to be anti-self defense. Which means that they consider it ethical for a mother to terminate her unborn child's existence before the child has had the opportunity to do any wrong (and I'm actually not saying it's not, believe it or not), but they also think that if this same child grows up, rampages through my house raping, attacking and burning people and things, I don't have the right at that time to terminate their existence? Does that make any sense?

Saturday, May 25, 2013

The day of the Boston Bombing

People have been asking me what it was like to be in Boston during the bombings
            The bombing occurred on April 15. It is now May 25 almost a full month and a half later, but due to requests I’ll describe my experiences.
            Let me say, just for the record, I hope this does not sound like some vain attempt at self-grandization. It’s not. It’s just an attempt to put things on record and answer some questions. Boston’s a big city. The city went through this and I had no real role in the events. In fact, when I look back on the events, and people probe asking me for details of how I felt, I’m afraid one thing that I feel is that I should have a bigger role of some kind in what took place, but, alas, that’s not where fate put me.
             In Boston there are about two dozen, small, for-profit “Come to Boston and learn English” schools aimed primarily at foreign students. On the afternoon of April 15, 2013, I was working as a substitute teacher at one of those schools monitoring two women while they took a practice IELT test. (The IELT test is the British equivalent of the American TOEFL test. It is used to assess a foreign students’ level of English prior to their admission into a college.)
             The classroom had a beautiful view overlooking Boston commons, the large park in downtown Boston.
              In front of the classroom was the main area of the school, and this included a large lounge with couches and a wide screen TV.
              While giving the test, I noticed that a group of students were watching the TV intently. (There were windows between the classroom and the lounge and hall of the school.)
               At one point, I stepped outside for some reason (I don’t remember what) and discovered that several students were intently watching the TV. The TV news said that an explosion had taken place at the finish area of the Boston Marathon and showed the same clips repeatedly.   Emotional announcers said repeatedly that they had very few details and showed the same clips again and again while promising to release more details as they learned them.
               I was not impressed with the reportage, I saw. It shared little information and seemed intent on exciting the viewer at a time when cool heads were needed.
If I recall correctly, I tried to  point out to the students that the news was repeating the same clips of carnage, an explosion and an ambulance being loaded again and again. But they were quite concerned, which is only natural.
               I went back into the classroom and one of the women taking the test, sensing tension outside, asked me what had happened. I told her that I’d tell her in fifteen minutes and that she should focus on finishing her test and I’d explain everything then.
When they finished their tests, I told them to look out the window and ask me what they saw and what was different and to notice how the people were acting.
               They did and reported that they could see nothing different and that people in Boston Commons were acting the same.
               “Very good,” I said. “Here’s what happened. A half hour ago, there was an explosion in Boston. Two people were killed and seventeen are injured. (These were the numbers of the time.) The green subway line  is closed, but everything else is the same.  No one knows what caused the explosion.”
               One woman did not know the word “explosion” so I explained it to her with some simple hand gestures and sound effects. I was careful not to use the word “bomb.”
               One of the women was Thai and the other was Khazakh. I quietly told the Khazakh that she should probably be  a little extra careful for a little bit because since September 11 people blamed Muslims for these sorts of things, but, I told her, in a week or so we’d probably learn that it was an American who had done this and they’d probably done it for a reason that was just plain crazy. (i.e. the “Jody Foster” motive or the motive of the D.C. Sniper or the motive of the Unabomber or the time Squeaky Fromme tried to shoot Gerald Ford to “test” his security. Good old American nuttiness in Action.)
               The Khazakh woman, a very attractive woman dressed in stylish clothes, asked how I knew she was a Muslim and I told her that she had an Islamic name and came from an Islamic country.
Some point around then, perhaps earlier, I received a cell phone text from a friend asking if I was okay. He’s an Iraq war vet so he apparently responds quickly to bombings.
                Outside the students were milling around and agitated management staff were  trying to inform and calm the students. (I hate to say it, but in many cases the students were calmer than the staff trying to calm them.)  
                I did what I could to help with that and continued suggesting that students go to the window to compare the hysteria on the TV with the calm outside in the Boston Commons.     
               At one point I took a break and sent this e-mail:
FYI, as some of you may have heard, there was an explosion in Boston today near the Boston marathon course. 

I am fine and had no interaction with the event, at least not as yet. (I'll skip the jokes about the likelihood of my actually running in the Boston marathon or not.) 

When the event took place I was teaching in a small ESL school on the Bostom commons. Students took to watching the TV news (who I think did a terrible job, showing the same five minutes of clips repeatedly while saying "We do not know the details yet"). Meanwhile, outside my window everything appeared cool, calm and collected. 

The most dramatic thing I did was encourage students (who range from age 16 to 36 or so) to take a break from watching the TV and look out the window where they could see that the city was functioning normally. I then advised Muslims to be careful but said that in a few days we will probably learn that this was the work of a nutty American. 

( --why?-- I did not publically speculate. Some incomprehensible nut reason. Perhaps to protect rabbits from the cosmetic industry or to show they STILL after all these years love Jody Foster. We'll see. ) “

Later I received a text message from a friend with an interest in terrorism who said they were still finding bombs.

I then sent this one:

Someone e-mailed me and said "they're still finding bombs." 

My two cents. As an EMT and general paranoid nut-job I know more about these things than average (although far less than most experts.) 

Often the most effective "secondary devices" or follow up bombs are saved for when the fire department and ambulances start to arrive to tend to the wounded. This leaves the wounded unattended and throws EMS and fire response into confusion. 

 This did not happen. 

My guess is that when the explosion happened many people dropped their back packs and ran away from the danger area. 

Then the bomb squad came and, instead of dangerously opening the back packs, decided to blow them up "just in case." I could be wrong but I am not worried about unexploded bombs (unless whoever did this built a bomb or two that did not work.)  

OTOH, I have no plans to go anywhere near the danger area.”

        Soon after the cell phones stopped working. I’m uncertain as to if they were overloaded or shut down by the authorities, I’ve heard both, but they did not work for a time after the Boston bombing.

          Eventually it was time to leave the school and go home. All the subways were running save for one line (the Green line) so it was a simple enough thing to get home. The subway had extra staff out monitoring the platforms and such.
People, as they always are at a time like this, were tense and nervous but friendly and caring, trying to reach out. 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

TESOL and People

Thoughts and Philosophies about TESOL and People

by Peter Huston

I like teaching because it helps me shape the world and work with people. It makes me feel like I'm making a difference. Although I have taught in several fields, I teach primarily English as a Second Language or Other Language. There are several aspects of teaching in this field that are unique and need to be addressed in a teaching philosophy. Other aspects, however, are universal to teaching in general.

Classroom Assessment and Management

Teaching does not happen in a vacuum, and a teacher cannot teach without students. And students, unless forced, would not seek out a teacher, unless they thought there was something that they could gain from that teacher that they could not gain from actions that they could take without using that teacher.
Teaching is not something you can just talk about or plan or study and then have it take place. It must be done and it must be done through interactions with other people.
First, you must assess needs and desires of the students, expectations of both the students and those managing or administrating the course, and then assess time alloted for the course and available classroom and external resources. A good teacher then assesses the possible way these things fit together and makes decisions concerning how he or she can best use the resources available, within the time and administrative framework that exists, to best produce a situation where the students can achieve as many of their desired goals and make as many of their needs met as possible.
At this step in the process, the teacher is like a manager or a director or even, if I can allow myself a military metaphor, a commanding officer. He or she must take the responsibility of assessing resources and setting realistic goals to produce the most benefit for those connected with the course, both administrators and students. Of course, he or she should consider consulting with others, as necessary, during this process, but ultimately the teacher must take and show responsibility during this part of the process. Students can be consulted during this part of the process, under special conditions, but usually will not be. There are several reasons why not, prominent being that course design normally takes place prior to recruitment of students.
Second, goals and expectations of the course are stated and set forth before the students as soon as possible. This should be done on the first day of the class, perhaps even earlier if realistically feasible, and in the syllabus and through lecture and as often as is possible. Students should be encouraged to seek out the teacher if they do not understand or agree with the goals of the course or feel that they do not fit them personally. When that happens the teacher should listen as dispassionately as possible and address the issue, perhaps by assigning the student extra or alternate assignments to help them meet their own needs, perhaps by referring them to an alternate class, or perhaps, in rare cases, even by modifying the course itself should it become obvious that the course will not meet the needs of the majority of students.
In some situations, quite honestly, students will have personal goals for the course that do not fit those of the teacher or administrators. For instance, many students wish to get an A or as high a grade as possible with as little work as possible and have no real concern about learning the course content. I have taught EFL as a required elective and this was the case with a sizable minority of my students. Some students do not value classes but for reasons that are generally outside the teacher's control, take them anyway. In such cases, I feel, it is especially important to make it very clear as to not only what the expectations are, but that they will be enforced. And then, if the sad event should take place that the student not meet these expectations, one must say “But you were told. Did you not understand?” and the pre-stated policies put into place. It is important in such cases that the teacher's expectations and stated goals be kept sensible, logical and non-controversial. (i.e. It is perfectly reasonable to expect class participation and attendance in a class where students are expected to develop their English through classroom practice and conversation practice in the classroom.)
If the goals and expectations are clearly stated, and the results of students' efforts to meet those goals uniformly evaluated, then it reduces not only the possibility of charges of favoritism (which has not been a problem for me at Fudan) but requests for favoritism. (By contrast, this is a constant problem at Fudan.)
Although I take no joy in causing students pain or suffering, I have failed several students for not meeting clearly stated expectations (2 out of 117 in my last semester, for instance) and punished others for cheating and acts plagiarism by lowering their grades after clearly stating I would do so. I wish to say that it is my belief that learning and personal growth often takes place through the enforcement of rules and even through failure. I say this as someone who once failed out of a high level emergency medical technician class I desperately wished to pass. It was the most effective lesson I have ever received in time management in my life and I have never forgotten it and doubt if I ever will. This failure had a very positive effect in preparing me for graduate school later.
Therefore I believe that setting and make clear the goals and expectations of a course, and then enforcing those goals and expectations is a very important part of fair and effective teaching.

Imparting Language skills

I teach primarily English as a second or other language. This is an unusual field in many ways. For instance, in ESL or TESOL what we are literally trying to do is to help a student to reprogram their own brain so they can think and respond automatically using a new language that they did not know as well as they did before the class began. The ultimate goal is that a student will some day be able to say anything they wish in English in a socially appropriate way without having to give the matter any conscious thought. Therefore, unlike in most fields where the goal is to increase retrievable, conscious knowledge, we are trying to produce results that will be achieved through ultimately using unconscious mental processes.

Although I am a stong believer in the value of science and the scientific method, I believe that in our field at the current time, the value of science is limited. In my opinion, we simply do not know enough about how the brain acquires additional languages to create a completely scientific method of teaching them. And I do, for the record, believe that a time will come when science will understand these things fully or close to fully, although I have no idea if I will live to see it. Which is not to say that science and scientific research should be ignored. If scientific research helps us understand one part of the big puzzle called human language acquisition, then this understanding should be applied when appropriate. For instance, I studied the role of language learning anxiety on classroom performance and feel such research does lend itself to classroom and curriculum design. However, that is only one small part of the puzzle of how people best learn additional languages.
In the meantime, with so much not being understood by science, we as teachers must utilize the techniques that seem to work the best to achieve the goals and results we strive for.
Fortunately we have a wealth of such resources if we know where to look for them. There is an incredible variety of techniques, drills, and other classroom activities published in books, magazines and on the internet. Of course, these are of varying quality and utility, but the material is available for a teacher to evaluate.
When evaluating these materials, or designing one's own materials, a teacher should evaluate them for their utility and “fit” for the classroom.

To evaluate the utility of materials or teaching or learning techniques, a teacher has several sorts of resources to draw upon. These include his or her training in language teaching and language acquisition. This should not be underestimated. Nor should one's personal experience in utilizing classroom drills and techniques be underestimated. Some techniques, such as the proven method of singing songs in class, for instance, just work better with some individual teachers than others.

Other sources include interviewing people who have proven themselves to be skilled at acquiring languages in real life settings. I have found, for instance, that some of the best language learners I have met have been refugees from Africa and Asia. These people often are able to communicate in multiple languages with the languages coming from multiple language families. They are often quite willing to share their tips once one has made it clear to them that you really do wish to know and want to hear what they have to say. (I once had a Karen refugee from Burma respond to this request with “Why are you asking me? You're the teacher.” I explained that I was asking him because he spoke six different languages at a conversational level. Which made him laugh and then he began sharing answers.)
I have also carefully read materials on learning languages written by military personell who needed to learn exotic languages for their assignments, but who were not trained language teachers.

Cultural and Interpersonal Factors in the Classroom

I mentioned previously that teaching English as a second or other language is a unique field in several ways. Another aspect of this uniqueness is that the instructor is supposed to instill the ability to perform an action, that action being socially appropriate English speech, in a socially appropriate manner. This requires confidence on the part of the speaker. Therefore it is the role of the teacher to help instill this confidence.
To the best of my knowledge, instilling confidence is not an issue normally addressed by teachers in fields such as history or mathematics, for instance. At times, a person who encourages students to perform actions confidently that they were previously unable to perform, an instructor of ESL or TESOL is more of a “coach” than a teacher. And we can learn from coaches and instructors of physical techniques like martial arts or dance.
For instance, although I have not done so in depth, I have encouraged students to practice visualization to improve their confidence in both public and conversational spoken English use. (This actually is a topic I hope to explore through further research in the future.) This study of visualization techniques originated in research into how emergency responders, such as firefighters and police officers, are trained to perform complex techniques under great stress.
I try to push my students to do a little more by the end of my class than they thought they were capable of at the beginning. For instance, all my speaking and writing classes at Fudan include a segment on public speaking, an area where foreign professors in other fields have told me their Chinese students lag behind their European or North American peers. At first the students are quite nervous about speaking English in front of their classmates, but, by the end of the course, after they've done it a few times, they are much more confident. Many students have told me that the public speaking was one of the best parts of my class. (Which actually touches on an unrelated side issue, a good class, especially a required class where the students don't all wish to be there, should include some beneficial activities that the students could not do outside of the classroom setting. In other words, a good class should utilize the classroom setting and the presence of a teacher and peer-students in ways so that the student can not complain that they could do the activities easier and faster on their own at home. Doubly so if attendance is required. Fortunately, this is relatively easy to do in language teaching.)
On the other hand, a good teacher recognizes that students are individuals and some have different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, although I expect all students to speak in front of the class, and have never had any really complain, I have been known to very quietly slide some students, those students who show signs of what may be a serious anxiety order or stuttering, ahead in the queue so that they do not have as much time to worry before their turn to speak arrives.
Similarly, we have the paradoxical need to increase a student's confidence in their English while simultaneously correcting errors and providing feedback when mistakes are done. I make no secret of the fact that I do not consider myself the smartest person in the classroom. Nor do I pretend to know every single English word. I make it quite clear that the English language is a living, growing, changing thing and that I will never have complete mastery over all of it and neither will they. Nor do I deny that there are accents and dialects of English, including English spoken as a foreign language, that I find difficult to understand. I make it clear that when Americans, native English speakers, start a course in a new subject, be that subject first aid, gardening or cooking, learning new terminology and new vocabulary is a normal part of the process. Similiarly, at Fudan we have an activity where all students must bring in an English language article from an academic journal in their field. They then use the article to practice making proper quotations and citations. I make it very clear to the students that although I have two master's degrees and read voraciously, I still cannot make heads or tails out of some of the articles they bring in. Examples of some pieces that I cannot understand might be highly technical pieces from peer reviewed research journals in the fields of management, finance, molecular biology and chemical engineering among others.

In teaching refugees, especially, one must be quite aware that just because a person has a deficit in one area does not indicate diminished intelligence elsewhere. The example that often comes to mind when I say this is a refugee woman I knew who was able to use her intelligence to manipulate much of the refugee center staff to do what she wished, but who I later discovered had no idea how to change a lightbulb in a lamp. (Due to poverty and lack of electricity in many refugee camps, many refugees do not know how to change light bulbs in lamps. Often this can easily be detected by looking at their lamps and discovering broken light bulbs stuck in the sockets. The broken glass comes from people trying to yank out the bulbs, instead of twisting and unscrewing them. When I asked this person if she could change light bulbs, she just looked at me and said, “Do I look like an electrical expert?”)

Ideally homework should be of the sort where students who do it can see that by doing the homework they are improving their ability to meet the goals and expectations of the class. I have noted a clear correlation in many cases between poor performance on the final and not doing homework. In fact, one purpose of homework is to catch students who have problems so they can be corrected before the final exam comes. For this reason, I do not allow homework that is more than two weeks late. (At Fudan, some students request to do all of their homework at the end of the course.)

Fostering Personal Growth
Although it has to be done carefully, I do think it is acceptable for a teacher to work to improve his students in ways other than direct improvement of language ability.
For instance, I think critical thinking is important, especially to students who have been through an educational or political system that discourages it. (This includes many refugees.) This can be done by giving assignments, such as debates, where more than one point of view is to be expected. Or through assignments where more than one answer to the assigned question is possible or there is no obvious answer. Again, sometimes one needs to push and clarify beforehand what is expected. For instance, I give an assignment where students are supposed to use the internet to find a newspaper article that deals with plagiarism, summarize the article in their own words, being careful not to accidentally copy sentences or phrases without quotation marks, and then give their opinion on the story discussed. I always get a few where the opinion is, more or less, “This is a good article,” and nothing more. These are the times when it's a real good idea to ask the student to see you after class, during lunch or during office hours and work one on one with them to clarify what you mean.

A goal of a good TESOL or ESL class is to increase independence of the student by enabling them to communicate better. This is definitely the goal of a course for immigrant, refugees or foreign students studying in the USA. In such cases, naturally, one should address issues where American cultural expectations and laws might cause problems for your students. However, if this involves controversial or sensitive issues, then the issue needs to be addressed quietly and in as low-key a manner as possible. Not only can students become offended over some issues, but public relations problems with the outside world can arise. (I have seen cases where Americans have accused immigrants of stereotyping their own ethnic group by stating that domestic violence is acceptable in their own culture and that people from their country need to be taught that it is not acceptable in the USA. This accusation and the backlash against it, was not only ugly but distracted from addressing the underlying problem of encouraging safe adjustment of immigrant families to American life.) Domestic violence, child abuse, age of consent, dating and courtship and driving laws are all areas where some foreign cultures have radically different norms. If you wish to aid your students with their adjustment to America, these issues need to be addressed, but they need to be addressed in a quiet, effective and tactful manner.
A good TESOL or ESL program for immigrants, refugees and foreign students should include practical advice that they might need to live in the USA .This would include their rights when dealing with landlords, police and others as well as the expectations society has for them that might be different from in their home country.
Role playing different situations can be an important part of both teaching English and providing guidance in problem-free behavior and social norms for immigrants.

For non-immigrant, ESL or TESOL classes, I think, a good class should include information on the role of English and English as a “Lingua Franca” in the world today. Although most Chinese, for instance, do vaguely know that not all foreign people speak English, they still often tend to try and speak English to foreign people when they meet them without checking. Accurate information, for instance, on how widely spoken English is in South America and Europe is often new to Chinese students of English.

With this should come information on how to do business or other tasks in foreign countries.

Whenever time allows and it is socially appropriate, a teacher should try to spend some time outside of the classroom with his students. This serves several purposes. It gives them a time to ask informal unrelated questions about anything and everything. It also gives the teacher time to better get to know his students.

When teaching, one will have problem students. At times these students can be draining and dominate one's thoughts. (At Fudan, after one has punished a student for breaking previously stated guidelines concerning plagiarism or other issues, it is not uncommon to receive several e-mails from that student begging for an exception to be made in their case. As my students at Fudan are all graduate students and 22 years of age or more, I only recall giving such an exception once. On rare cases, when I have thought that a serious cultural difference might be involved, I've asked the office secretary for her opinion. Only once did she advise me to make an exception and then I followed her advice.)

By taking the time to spend time with students who are not in trouble of any kind, you gain a much better and positive view of the students. Through knowing one's students one learns to respect them. I am often amazed at the work that students at Fudan do during their internships and such. Perhaps equally important, friendly social interaction with students helps a teacher maintain proper perspective on who the students are. And the refugees and immigrants also can teach one many things. I have found my time with students from Burma (Myanmar) particularly interesting and it has inspired me to do outside study of their culture and history.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

China Cornell College Preparatory Program VS Tufts

Recently, I've become interested in college preparation programs for young Chinese who are interested in studying in the United States or other western nations. For several reasons, there is a growing interest in such programs in both the United States and in China.  

For this reason, I recently learned a little bit about The China Cornell College Preparatory Program.

Details of this program can be seen at

Elsewhere I've mentioned that I have several criticisms of the Tufts University Preparation Program. Fortunately the Cornell program appears to have avoided many of these.

First, the Tufts program is separate from the academic portions of Tufts and run by a non-academic area of the Tufts administration. Students are recruited by for profit agents whose relationship with Tufts is both ambivalent and troublesome. They are recruited primarily, but not exclusively, from Wuhan Foreign Languages High School, a school, I've been told, which admits students mostly based on social connections (there is a test for admission although it is not an open test. You must be selected to take this test, and the selections are made by teachers based on connections, bribery, and, yes, academic ability) , thus tainting the program from the beginning. The manager of the Tufts program has no real credentials or background in either education or Chinese culture, and thus finds it difficult to understand the background of the students in his program, Nor is this program his only area of responsibility. Courses are separate from the other  Tufts courses and the bulk of the instructors in the program are not regular Tufts instructors nor do they have access to all the facilities at Tufts. No one in the Tufts program has a good command of the Chinese language or culture. (When I was involved one instructor had lived in China for a semester but did not like it. Some staff had visited, sometimes when administering the program. Two instructors had lived in Taiwan for a year.)

By contrast, the Cornell program is part of the regular university programs and not separate at all. The Chinese students are recruited from throughout China and selected by the Cornell staff themselves. The program management is the standard Cornell management. For the record, although this management is not necessarily versed in Chinese culture, they are experienced in educating students from around the world and have access to countless resources when referrals are necessary. (Cornell has been dealing with Chinese students since long before the May 5 movement of 1919. The Chinese vernacular language reform movement largely originated at Cornell.) The program description is available in Chinese in a manner that is controlled by the university itself.

It appears that the Cornell program has corrected many of the mistakes of the Tufts program.        

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Dead Stuff: 18 Frozen Human Heads seized at Ohare Airport by Customs

Every once in a while, you develop a body of knowledge without ever really planning to do so. Suddenly people ask you questions and you find you know the answers. This has happened to me at least twice. Once back in my starving writer odd jobs days when I found work in the fitness industry staffing a gym, secondly when I got a call from an obscure television show called "Manswers" asking me what I knew about the sale of dead human bodies. The gym knowledge came about through reading gym magazines, something I did more to keep my interest in exercise up and myself going to the gym than to actually try and learn knowledge. The information on the sale of human bodies came from several obscure places, including writing a master's thesis that dealt with the history paleontology in China, spending time in the paleontology and art rooms in high school and graduate school and asking the question "Where did that skeleton come from anyway?" and occasionally from just reading on current events and pursuing interests relating to emergency medical services and so on.

Not only did I appear on Manswers with this interest but I also wrote on it for Paladin Press in their book, "Even More Dangerously Fun Stuff for Boys who Never Really Grew Up."

This story comes from EMS News, a free and very informative on-line newsletter aimed at emergency medical service personnel.

Seized Heads Headed for Cremation

The 18 frozen heads -- used in medical research -- were seized by customs officials at O'Hare International Airport.

CHICAGO (AP) - It sounded ghoulish enough: a shipment of 18 frozen human heads discovered and seized by customs officials during routine X-ray screening of cargo arriving at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago.

Turns out the heads were used for medical research in Italy and were being returned for cremation in Illinois. The holdup was due to a paperwork problem.

It just so happens such shipments are commonplace, and heads - quite a few of them - crisscross the globe via airplane and delivery truck.

"Just last week, we transported eight heads, unembalmed, to Rush University Medical Center for an ophthalmology program," said Paul Dudek, director of the Anatomical Gift Association of Illinois, which supplies cadavers and body parts to medical schools in the state for training students.

His association sends about 450 whole cadavers to medical schools each year and also ships individual body parts, including about a dozen shipments of heads annually.

The heads are used for training in fields such as dentistry, ophthalmology and neurology, where they are used for Alzheimer's research. They are also used to train plastic surgeons and by students learning to perform facial reconstructions on accident and trauma victims, Dudek said.

Most cadavers are obtained through voluntary donation by people who designate a willingness to have their bodies benefit science upon their death, Dudek said.

The shipment to O'Hare was properly preserved, wrapped and labeled "human specimens," said Mary Paleologos, a spokeswoman for the Cook County Medical Examiner's Office, which took hold of the shipment on Monday for storage in its morgue cooler while authorities continued to investigate the paperwork.

Copyright 2013 Courier, The (Findlay, OH)Distributed by Newsbank, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Designing College Preparation Programs for Chinese students

Chinese students are coming to study in the USA in increasing numbers.  They are also coming at younger ages with families and for-profit placement agents in China showing an increasing interest in prep schools and college preparatory programs. Therefore an increasing number of institutions, both college and secondary, are exploring the possibility of creating programs aimed at taking students from China and preparing them for higher education in the USA.

What follows is a rough proposal on how to create such a program and make it effective.
It is based on the author’s life experiences, readings,  educational experiences in the USA, Taiwan and China, including time spent working in the Tufts University University Preparatory Program. It freely borrows from the strengths of that program while correcting its flaws.

Many essentials, such as housing and exact academic curriculum of the students, have been left undiscussed. Although clearly important, this document is intended to  just provide some rough guidelines and a framework for designing an effective program to take young Chinese students and prepare them for further study in the USA.

Although the program is intended for Chinese students, whenever possible, the Chinese students should be integrated with non-Chinese peers. This is to naturally reduce use of their first language in the classroom and while working on projects. Although these peers could also be Asian, especially as there is a great interest in this sort of program among students from not just China, but also South Korea and Vietnam as well as elsewhere, there is no need for them to be Asian. In some cases, they can even be American students from the same institution although the strengths and weaknesses of this would have to be carefully considered.  

Chinese students are often placed in programs by for-profit agents. Whenever possible the use and role of these agents should be reduced or eliminated. When present, their role should be clearly defined and an eye kept on how they represent the program and interact with the students. At Tufts many problems, including ethical, logistical and problems relating to health and maintenance of the students, can be directly linked to the strong yet often undefined role of Chinese agents in the program.

The students should have a mixture of classes where they are integrated and not integrated into their host academic community. These classes should have very different feels and styles to them. Some classes will be segregated and specifically designed to teach the students how to adjust to social and academic life in the USA. In these classes, the students should receive an underlying message from the teachers of “You are special. We will take care of you. If you have a problem we will spend a lot of time to fix it and make sure you are okay.”

By contrast they should have other classes where they are integrated with other students from the host academic community. These classes could be selected based on the student’s academic interests. In these classes the students should receive an underlying message of “You are not special. Do your work and meet minimum academic expectations or you will be failed in this class.” This is a harsh message but one Chinese students need to receive as the academic demands of American colleges and universities are generally much more harsh and strict than of those in China. (In China, admission to university study is difficult, but once in the academic demands are actually often much, more lax than in the USA.)

It is not necessary that the instructors of these non-segregated classes be aware that the students are in a a special program. The purpose of having dual styles of classes is so that the students in the program both feel safe and always know where they can go for help, while simultaneously learning that college life in the USA is not easy, not all instructors are comforting and that their actions or lack of actions in school will have real academic consequences.

Instructors and teachers in the segregated classes do not have to be experts in Chinese culture, although they should have some orientation and training in Chinese culture and the general sorts of strengths, weaknesses and special needs that Chinese students tend to have prior to being placed in the classroom. Such orientation sessions should be “closed door” sessions designed for maximum effectiveness rather than political correctness.  There should be periodic “review” and “discussion” sessions where students can ask questions about Chinese culture and student behavior with people more experienced than themselves as well as to discuss them among themselves. Again, these should be closed door sessions and teachers should be encouraged to ask questions of the sort, “Is this student strange or am I seeing something cultural that I do not understand?”  

Since the program is for high school age students, it should include realistic, well-thought out, legally sound yet mild punishments for normal teenage misbehavior. (i.e. throwing paper in class, forgetting homework or necessary materials, minor cheating, rude language, and so on.) If the word "punishments" makes you uncomfortable please feel free to replace it with "consequences." The important thing is that the students learn that what is said is meant and realize that if they don't meet certain expectations, for instance coming to class on time,  then there will be consequences or punishments. I will leave the exact design of such punishments to the administrators of the program but they need be nothing fancy or different than what is normally given to American high school students who misbehave. (Detentions and time in quiet study hall were the norm when I was in high school.)  These punishments should be able to be easily and quickly administered as necessary. (The Tufts program lacks these and instead punishment and discipline are complex, delayed and often overly harsh and not suited for normal teenage offenses.)

Students should have forced exposure to American food and culture and be expected to eat a variety of healthy, American foods that are new to them (i.e. not just pizza and hamburgers) at least once or twice a week and to do so in an environment where they learn the names of the foods they are eating and exposed to as well as the socially acceptable ways to consume them.

Students should also be required to participate in at least one out of class, integrated activity each semester and required to write a paper on what they gained or learned from this experience as well as any difficulties they had. Administrators should expect some resistance to this from Chinese parents who often feel that the time spent on outside activities could better be spent on studying and rote memorization of items such as SAT vocabulary. However, by building up this sort of activity not only are students developing important social and English language skills, they are also building up a better college application. Activities could include sports, clubs and volunteer activities. (Students should not just be pushed towards the Asian-American club, a problem at Tufts that showed both a misunderstanding of students’ needs but also of Asian-American identity.)

There should be someone in the program who speaks Chinese and understands Chinese culture. They should have input into designing activities and events for the students. They should also have input into judging how much “hand-holding” and guidance the students need before or during their attendance or participation in events at the host academic institution. One of their roles will be to provide students with orientations on how to act at events, such as a major school sports event, for example, before they attend. This person should also be able to serve as an emergency translator for visiting  parents. If this person is Chinese, they should be kept away from the grading processes to avoid any appearance of favoritism or corruption.

Eating Chinese food as a group is an important part of Chinese bonding and culture. All students and employees of the program should be encouraged to attend a Chinese style dinner twice a month, once at lunch and once in the evening. This food may be either purchased,  cooked b students and teachers or come from any source people wish. If as, the year goes on, students wish to experiment with non-Chinese food they may do so, but this should not be seen as a time to force students to eat new foods. (That times is elsewhere.) This is intended as a time to make students feel happy and health and to encourage bonding among program participants at all levels.      

This document should not be considered complete. It is a work in progress and intended instead as a flexible set of guidelines that should be used when creating programs intended to orient young Chinese students for study in the USA. All points are open to discussion. If there are questions please do not hesitate to contact the author using the above contact information.

The Physics of UFOs --Skeptic Magazine

Dar Skeptic Society people,

Greetings! Back in the 1990s, I was very involved in skepticism as an officer in a local group, an author of a couple books, and a minor contributor to your publication and others. Then, for many reasons, burn-out set in and I left to do other things.
Recently I went down to  a bookstore and, after ten years away, decided to pick up a copy of Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer and Fortean Times to see how I’d respond and what was the state of skepticism these days.  Although overall Skeptic looked quite good and interesting, my attention somehow focused on the article, “The Physics of UFOs,” by Michael K. Gainer, on page 46.
After reading the article I had some concerns as to the accuracy of its conclusions, which I found over-reaching, and to the role and dangers that such over-reaching conclusions have in the field of skepticism.
First, let me summarize the article. The author, a physicist, is seeking to determine if it is possible to construct an interstellar spacecraft that fits the description of reported UFOs.
Although I have several problems with some of the minor assumptions he makes in the article, for the moment let’s focus on his key arguments.
He assumes such a craft should be capable of making a 10 light year round trip to a new destination and back to its home system in approximately 20 (Earth) years time each way. Although he never explicitly states it, he also assumes that the laws of physics as currently understood will not be violated. (i.e. no “hyper-warp-jump-faster-than-light-drives”). Fair enough. He states that the spacecraft should be accelerated at a rate of 10 meters per second squared and that, at this rate of acceleration, it will require 174 (Earth) days to achieve a speed of half the speed of light. This would take a great deal of power, therefore he states  that “the only source that can supply energy of this magnitude is thermonuclear nuclear fusion.”
He then explains that the energy from the thermonuclear fusion would have to be directed rearward as “a constrained unidirectional particle beam.”
He then concludes that “There is no possible material construction that can constrain and direct the thermal and blast energy of the nuclear fusion rate required for interstellar travel. Consequently, I conclude that alien spacecraft cannot exist.”
In otherwards, if I understand correctly, what he is saying is that an interstellar spacecraft must use thermonuclear power as its power source and because there is no possible material that could contain and direct thermonuclear power into a propulsion beam, spaceflight is impossible.  (Actually this key idea could and probably really should have been the focus of the article itself. It begs a fuller explanation. )
To a non-physicist such as myself, the obvious questions are “Why is such a material impossible?” and “Why is thermonuclear power the only feasible power source?”  I cannot imagine that many people will be swayed by the article as written. In fact, arguably, it comes across almost as a “claim to authority” i.e. perhaps much of the premise of the article is “Listen to me. I’m a physicist.”
Obviously, the problem with this style of argument to settle the issue is that not all physicists agree with the premises.
To check this, I consulted with Carl Frederick, a retired physics professor and hard science fiction writer who regularly contributes to “Analog Science Fiction /Science Fact.” (A publication that, until recently, was edited by Stanley Schmidt,  a third PhD physicist. For the record, no one claims that all stories in Analog are scientifically sound in all ways, (i.e. time travel stories), but part of the “game” of being an Analog contributor is to know exactly when, how and why one is breaking scientific laws and to only do it with a good reason. I.e. you have an idea for illustrating a point about human evolution and the best way to do it is to do so in a time travel story.)
For the record, Carl Frederick did not read the article in its entirety but he did ask me to read portions to him and clarify premises and details.
A few of his criticisms and comments were as follows. First, to assume that something is impossible because current technology, as opposed to the known laws of physics,  doesn’t allow it is “silly.” Other points were that there is a great deal of research being done into controlled fusion and that might considerably change the way in which a thermonuclear spacecraft engine might work. Furthermore, as there are now indications that quantum physics might allow a spacecraft to draw energy from the vacuum as it travels, the thermonuclear engines might not be the only source of fuel.  Additionally, Frederick said that the author assumed that nuclear fusion is the best form of energy. He disagreed saying that particle / anti-particle annihilation was a better alternative.  
Finally, he said, there’s no reason one couldn’t go slower and use less fuel, if you, for instance, freeze the crew.
Finally, for the record, although we’ve never discussed it, I am quite certain that Carl Frederick does not believe that anything in UFOlogy indicates alien visitation. If he thought ufologists had such real evidence, I’m quite certain he’d take more of an interest in their activities, and, to the best of my knowledge, these claims have never interested him and most certainly are not something he currently follows.    
As for me, the non-physicist, although I really could not address the main points of the article, I had many quibbles about the minor assumptions in the article. i.e. he assumes that a spacecraft would require energy in equal amounts to accelerate to its destination, decelerate when  arriving, accelerate on its way home, and decelerate as it approaches home. Why? Couldn’t it use solar sails catching photons and the gravitational forces of planets and other astronomical objects to help slow itself? And, why do so many people assume that a spacecraft would need to make a return trip? Seriously, if one were, for instance, to survey Skeptics readers, just to take a sample population, and ask if they’d be willing to take a one way trip to another star system never to return home again, I suspect you’d get more than enough volunteers to man a small six-person spacecraft of the type described. (Of course, that “crew of six” was a very arbitrary assumption that seemed to come out of nowhere.)

There are other points I question, many of which hint that Gainer is assuming we only can use modern technology. (i.e. he states his UFO would be built in orbit by shuttles.) At least one other point ignores the modern UFO mythology entirely. ( i.e. Gainer assumes his ship needs a shuttle to land and return to the ship. Why?  Particularly since UFOs are reported to land and then float away gently into the sky.)                  
Personally, I sort of like the idea of taking the small UFO Gainer describes and putting it inside a giant “mother ship” that contains a crew of thousands or more and is a permanent home to generations of beings all living a more or less urban life style as they float between systems. (Whatever happened to those large “cigar-shaped” UFOs of the 1950s and ‘60s anway?) It’s just one of dozens or more of alternatives to the scenario he, first, envisions, and then, secondly, uses to claim interstellar spacecraft  are impossible. Perhaps such a race could even have “seeded” space using robotic craft to cache fuel here and there. (Note: I’m speculating. I do not believe anything in UFOlogy seriously indicates alien visitation.)    
Returning, however, to the here and now, I’m afraid that Gainer’s article is the sort that often led to my burn out from skepticism. It contains questionable assumptions at several points and then over-reaches from the logical conclusions to make the point the author wishes. i.e. “When UFOs are reported they should be evaluated with the attitude that alien spacecraft cannot exist.” This may be the author’s belief, but, based on what I saw, it is a faith-based belief, not grounded in proven fact. And, as skeptics, isn’t it simply enough to say “When UFOs are reported they should be evaluated with the attitude that none have ever been proven to be alien spacecraft”?  We are supposed to be the people who read, question and think. –not the one’s who blindly repeat assertions that fit our pre-conceived notions.
It most certainly will not convert the uncoverted or even sway most neutral parties. In fact, it’s the sort of article that UFOlogist love to pass around to show how “closed minded” their critics are.
I think we, as skeptics, need to be more careful of such statements and false conclusions. They only hurt us in the end.
In the meantime, I look forward to reading the rest of the magazine. All the best,