Sunday, June 26, 2005
I started out mentoring a robotics team from school associated with a local competition at Legoland, the First Lego League. In general, the challenges and rules of Lego League are less difficult than those of Botball. For example, you are allowed to grab, position, and modify your robot in Lego League once the competition has begun. The two competitions do have many similarities though (both are timed competitions requiring pre-programmed robots built from Legos to complete various tasks on a ping-pong sized table in an effort to accumulate more points than the opposing team), and by the time the Lego League tournament rolled around, I was feeling ready to take the next step in my Robotics career.
I began teaching a robotics class at High Tech as an elective for the second semester. Borrowing supplies from the high school and several lesson ideas from it's director and robotics teacher, I was able to attract a class of about 20 students. Unfortunately, I was still vastly unfamiliar with the programming language and intracacies of Botball robotic engines and was unable to instruct the class as effectively as I would have liked. Fortunately, about two weeks into the semester the Botball organizers held their annual tournament information meeting. The meeting lasted for sixteen hours over one weekend, and while the highlight for most teams is finally getting to see what the year's tournament challenge will be, for me the highlight was getting some instruction on programming the robots.
Armed with my newly acquired skills I returned to school and my elective course with renewed confidence. I also began serious meetings after school with those students who were interested in participating on the team and in the tournament and discovered coaching to be much more difficult than teaching. The main reason for this is because students participate in after school clubs for pleasure, and striking the balance between productivity and fun without the availability of such threats as phone calls home or failing grades is simply challenging (and frustrating). Ultimately we placed 11th out of about 40 teams. Not bad, but definitely leaving room for improvement. All of this is to say that robotics has become an unexpected part of my life recently, and the opportunities it regularly presents to me are surprising.
Such an opportunity presented itself yesterday afternoon when Mr. Xu told me about a friend of his who wanted to take me out to dinner.
"He's interested in doing robotics at his school." I was told.
I'm always game for a good robot talk, and that this one presented the added benefit of a non-KFC dinner was just icing on the cake.
Around 7 o'clock I was watching the Top Ten Dunks of the basketball season on NBA Action (I think the best was Robert Horry in game 5 of the finals after he faked the three, but the show was taped before that had happened), when Mr. Xu called me on the cell phone I've been given. I met him at the gate of the elementary school and we were both picked up by Mr. Jong and Marcie, an English teacher at the school Mr. Jong oversees.
The car ride was half of the fun, as I was finally able to explore a little more of Shenzhen, but the restaurant we went to was the real highlight. Perched atop a small hill that peers over various buildings the restaurant is a three-story structure with a tea house on the first floor. All wood floors and tables lined the perimeter of the room with bamboo stalks threaded through lattice in the ceiling. Tall windows at the front of the building look out on an immaculate Chinese garden with a gazebo and bridges spanning small waterways before a clear view of the far off dusk horizon. We sat down at a small table with two wood loveseats next to the window and I talked to Marcie about her school schedule while Mr. Jong and Xu ordered.
I haven't been to enough restaurants to know for sure, but I think Chinese people take an inordinate amount of time to order their meals. It must have taken fifteen minutes to decide what we would have, a process made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that the servers wait tableside for the entire process. At one point last night we even had a second waitress visit the table to help the the process. It really didn't hinder my enjoyment too much, as it offered me the opportunity to get some background information on Marcie's teaching, which you will recall from my last post is the potential center of my project work here.
Marcie teaches first grade English to four different classes of students from about 8 am until 11:30 am. Unlike at American schools, Chinese students rotate teachers and subjects from the start of their academic career. (Perhaps this is an area of study I could exploit if the whole ESL thing doesn't go over well with Mr. Wong). From 11:30 until 2:30 the whole school takes a break. Teachers take a nap and maybe grade some papers or plan lessons. Students take a nap at the school or may even return home for lunch and a rest. After 2:30 the students return to school for more classes centered around electives and physical fitness that last until 5:30. During this time Marcie is responsible for aiding the other teachers. It is quite a different job from what I do, and was fascinating to learn about.
After a while the food arrived and we got around to talking about robots. My hosts are all under the impression that the U.S. is much further ahead of China with respect to Science education. This seems to contradict what I read in Newsweek about the number of participants from both countries in a global science competition, but I figured they had a better pulse of what's happening in Chinese schools than I did. Mr. Jong is hopeful that the implementation of a robotics club could help some of his students advance their scientific knowledge. I told him he's probably right. Robotics as a study is highly scientific, especially if one incorporates programming into it. It facilitates logic and lateral thinking, all aspects of the scientific method, creative thinking, problem solving, math, and probably a few areas of development I've forgotten. The only problem is the high initial cost of setting up a team.
We talked about what the school could afford, how they might be able to get started in Botball, and strategies for setting up an effective after school program. I even wrote out a short code to give them an idea of what the students would have to learn to participate effectively. I became really impressed by the dedication all three of my hosts showed towards the idea. After all, here they all were at 9pm on a Sunday night, discussing with someone who didn't even speak their language a subject that probably none of them would tackle directly. And yet their commitment and resolve was clear.
For me, the most exciting part of the evening arose when I began to tell them about my own plans for Botball next year at High Tech Middle. Botball team registration fees are about $2500, a sum that weighed heavily on my mind last year as I watched several team members waste valuable practice time. This year I decided a preliminary tournament could help solve this problem. Teams from the school could organize themselves and participate in a tournament of our own design. Perhaps just recycling one of the previous year's tasks from Botball. In any case, the two top teams from the preliminary tournament would then be invited to participate in the botball tournament. Hopefully, by rewarding the highest achievers at the onset, this strategy would ensure that only dedicated students made it onto the Botball team.
While explaining this to my hosts, it occurred to me that they might be able to save some money on Botball registration by simply taking part in our own High Tech Tournament. It wouldn't have the same level of intensity as Botball, but since the school was just starting its program from scratch, participating in Botball during their first year might not be much more than a waste of money anyway. I mentioned the idea at the table and seemed to get a positive response, so I'm not sure what will happen at this point. I've already e-mailed the powers that be at Botball, and I haven't discussed any of this with anyone at High Tech. Still, I think these are exciting developments for the students here as well as those stateside. I'll be sure to keep you all up to date. Robots Baby! -joe
I expect to also pursue the issue of how teachers here address those students who move from a different area of the country and speak a different language, thus paralleling the situation of those students I worked with at Hoover and Rosa Parks. My first step will be to run this idea by Xu and Mr. Wong (another teacher I have met here at the Institute). Hopefully they'll be able to give me some guidance within the topic and I'll ultimately be able to provide some insight into how both of our systems may be able to improve their techniques, or at least how they can learn from one another. Look for posts next week about my time spent observing Chinese classrooms and students, my conversations with ESL teachers, and at some point The Long Answer. -joe
Friday, June 24, 2005
I remember fondly stories told by my uncle about how Japanese products in the 50’s and 60’s were renowned for their cheap construction and flimsy design.
“Everything made in
But it wasn’t
Even before I left (or even knew I would leave) for
After writing on my blog yesterday that I would be addressing this question in today’s entry, I went out to a Chinese fast food restaurant for a dinner of what can best be described as spaghetti soup with tomato and egg. Delicious, in case you were wondering. Naturally, I took along my trusty Economist from a couple of weeks ago and, upon opening it, discovered that the first article was a special report on the skyrocketing automobile market in
There was another article I read, or it may have been the same one, that compared
Most importantly the workers don’t seem to have a collective feeling of how good it can get. The average citizen hasn’t reached the ceiling yet, but they can see it. This means that there is an overabundance of workers willing to toil away at monotonous and laborious jobs in the city for the opportunity of what will most likely settle out to be just a position in close proximity to wealth and not actual wealth itself. Taking advantage of this willingness on the part of the public, the government and private enterprise are modernizing the country like crazy.
Think about how quickly
Actually, that’s still pretty hard to believe.
So what about when
Less than a month after earning my Multiple Subject Teaching Credential in December of 2003, I was hired by the San Diego State University Foundation as a Reading Intervention Tutor. My first assignment was at
When Xu showed me a video of second grade Chinese students speaking English nearly as well as native speakers (and far better than many of my former students), I immediately began to wonder about getting copies of the software I saw being used. “If little Chinese children can learn English this well using these lessons, surely they’ll work for American kids,” I reasoned. I had already begun thinking of how I would break down the content and synthesize it for my former students at Hoover before I realized that high school kids from City Heights don’t want to listen to some dude read them a story in English about two kangaroos on a fishing trip.
After watching more I started to wonder, “Why wouldn’t this work to teach American students Chinese?” While it probably would to some degree, I doubt it would be as successful as it is in
It is also because a class in Shenzhen, while it is composed of nearly 50 students, is more homogenous in terms of ethnicity and especially in terms of economics than even the most segregated schools in
Simply put, if
So with all these willing workers utilizing the latest technology to do pretty much whatever the government wants of them, it starts to look like keeping Top Dog Status in America is going to require an event along the lines of the banking debacle that brought Japan back down to earth. Except it probably won’t be a banking crisis like
You can check out the
Wednesday, June 22, 2005
When I first approached the building my driver had so enthusiastically pointed out to me as my destination, I was sure they were closed. On two of the three large, clear glass double doors I could clearly see bicycle locks. The third set of doors I noticed were not locked shut, but this appeared to be for the purpose of allowing the night cleaning staff access to the building. I tentatively wheeled my two bags of luggage and laptop shoulder bag through the door and leaned them up against a wall.
Wandering around the lobby of the building I noticed a directory near the elevators. While it did provide me with information by which to make a guess about what floor Mr. Xu's office might be on, it did not tell me explicitly and I was beginning to consider leaving in the hopes of finding another person with a mobile phone to call him again. Then I heard voices from down a hall.
What looked like a member of the cleaning crew appeared in the lobby and to my surprise, did not immediately attempt to address me, instead seeming unusually disinterested in me. As he walked past on his way out of the building, I was able to get his attention with the paper Minjie had written for me. His enthusiastic response encouraged the assertion that I was at least in the right building and, after yelling to an unseen coworker, he even guided me (luggage in tow) to the elevators and told me "seven".
As I waited for the elevator to open and take me to the seventh floor, a young man with short hair appeared from around the corner, nodded his head politely, and continued to the exit. I thought about asking him about Mr. Xu, but he was past me so quickly I wasn't able. "White people wandering around here must not be that rare of an occurrence," I thought to myself. When I arrived on the seventh floor of the building I noticed that all the lights were off in every office. I didn't know whether to go left or right, but chose right and hoped to come across some sort of name tag on an office wall.
My visit here has so far been punctuated by enlightening moments in awkward situations when I am able to finally remove myself from the scenario enough to see it for its true absurdity. Most of these moments have been the result of various communication barriers, but the moment of my wandering down a dark hallway on the seventh floor in an abandoned business building at 8 o'clock in the evening with my rolling suitcase behind me and nobody around was surely one of the most absurd of such moments to realize.
I had no sooner come to get this third-person picture of myself and feel a little smile come to my face when a voice beckoned me from back by the elevator. It was the young man with short hair from before, Mr. Xu. We both laughed at having passed each other downstairs and left for the housing building that holds both of our rooms (conveniently next door to each other). Xu then took me to eat at a Hunan restaurant (the different areas of China have very different cuisines, with Hunan being defined by its spicy flavors) before telling me about his family and wife on the walk back.
The next day, as Xu prepared to leave for Guangdong for an interview about teaching technology, I was given some CDs with some videos of Chinese students in English class. I assume that the footage was taken at the experimental elementary school next to our housing and just a block from the METRI, but I don't actually know. I took time yesterday while Xu was gone to watch the videos and take some notes, the content of which I thought I might share.
First I should say that the lessons are very impressive, employing the use of technology to a level I have yet to witness in any U.S. classroom. Each student is outfitted with a computer, either all laptops or all desktops depending upon the room, and the teacher has a large projection screen with a computer feed.
Every lesson I have watched so far proceeds through a fairly regimented, but highly effective from an educational principles point of view, structure. The entire lesson is conducted exclusively in English beginning with the teacher greeting the second grade students, to which they respond appropriately and collectively. The class then moves into reciting a song they have apparently learned previously, complete with hand motions and accompanying music. Then the teacher introduces the topic to the class, pointing to several laminated words on the blackboard that correspond to the lesson. A couple of verbal examples are given and the teacher may use the large screen for reinforcement using custom created software accessed through the Internet.
Each child is then allowed to individually browse stories on the Internet with headphones, encouraged by the teacher to speak aloud when prompted. The software is perhaps the most impressive component of the entire affair, with kid-friendly animations, text on the screen with accompanying narration in English, and many opportunities for the students themselves to speak. Each student proceeds at their own pace through the lesson until the teacher calls the class back to order. At this point, the lesson is collectively reviewed on the board, complete with laminated words and illustrations that match those seen on the computer. Then a review game of some kind is played in front of the class using volunteers. After a few students, and perhaps even the teacher have participated in the game, the students are instructed to group themselves together in preparation for role playing.
Five minutes are given for each group to select one of the stories they just read and practice. When time is up, the class erupts with students loudly reenacting the characters and situations from their selected tale. They may do so for several minutes, referring back to the computer to remember their lines and get their pronunciation right. After an ample amount of time the teacher invites the groups to perform their story until class time ends. While there are many impressive aspects to this method of teaching, perhaps the most impressive is that all of this is accomplished with 40-50 students in the class.
I told myself that I would try to keep my posts short, and until today it seemed to have been going fairly well. Tomorrow though, I am going to try and post on a topic that has been on my mind since I got here: "Should America fear China?". I would be surprised if I were able to wrap it up in any less space than today's entry. Maybe you'll get lucky though, and I'll just post another picture or something. -joe
Dr. Wang took me to a small university in Shanghai that has one of China's best E-Learning labs. This photo was taken while we were on our way. At the lab I met a couple of graduate students my age and talked about the rise of E-Learning in China and elsewhere. The technology they utilize is like nothing I've seen yet in the U.S. Instructors can broadcast lessons around the country, with software showing users the instructor's computer screen as well as their face via webcam. In addition, users can access past lessons from a database using a computer or, as one of the students proudly showed me, a properly equipped mobile phone. Currently the lab is working on software that will enable users to send feeback and questions to the instructor during live feeds, perhaps also over mobile phone. On the distant horizon are plans to design a machine, also potentially accessible by mobile phone, that will place a tack on your instructor's seat while they are in the restroom, although the exact timetable for that project is still a bit unclear.
Tuesday, June 21, 2005
Minjie took this photo of me along the Huangpo river in Shanghai. Notice the beautiful skyscraper to the left of the lamp, the top floors of which are made to resemble a lotus blossom. This is the west (Pu Xi) side of the river that, until about ten years ago, represented the whole of Shanghai. Now the East (Pu Dong) side of the river is being developed at a rapid pace and represents the future of Shanghai. The Pu Xi side does however trump it's close neighbor in one important respect: the incredible wide walking boulevard seen behind me in this photograph that parallels the curvature of the river for what seems like miles.
Friday, June 17, 2005
This entry is from a letter sent on my first day here to my family:
"Hey, I'm here at the Eastern China Normal University library. I arrived last night and was met at the airport by my professor's sister and a friend. We took a taxi back to the university where I have a nice room of my own on campus and where both of my greeters attend graduate school and live. Shangahai is incredible. It is like LasVegas, Los Angeles and New York combined. It's the largest city in China with 17 million residents, spans both banks of a dividing river and is expanding at a rapid pace, especially on the east (Pu Dong) side of the river which now houses the tallest hotel in the world. Enormous apartment buildings jut up everywhere and remind me of termite hills. I'm not used to seeing such tall buildings unless they are for business. And they are all grouped together in long rows of identical looking ones. Minjie says the average rent is 1000 per month. The freeway here is elevated and winds around the skyscrapers like a concrete river, and the lights on the commercial buildings are like Times Square. It was a surreal experience to skirt around the city at freeway speeds 50 feet above ground, taking turns and corners between 60 story buildings at night. I'll be touring the city for the next couple of days until I meet up with my professor tomorrow night for dinner. Then we're going to the airport on Monday and I'll leave for ShenZhen."
This is an excerpt from a letter sent on my second day here to Benita:
"Last night Minjie and I caught a cab to Nanjing road, a famous boulevard akin to the strip in Vegas. It was absolutely fantastic tosee and travel along. There are many tourists, mostly from other areasof China, and the sites are incredible. I took several photos and will try to send them to you soon. Anyway, back to Nanjing road. It runs perpendicular to the river here that divides the city, Huangpu River I think it is called. Traditionally the city has been built up along the West, or Pu Xi side of the river, and at the end of Nanjing Road and lining the river bank are several old buildings from the 50's or maybe earlier (a rarity around the city now), such as the famous Peace Hotel. These beautiful buildings provide an excellent juxtaposition against the other towering skyscrapers and make for excellent photograph opportunities. Crossing the road that runs along the river bank leads to a fantastic walking boulevard that runs for what seems like several miles along the Pu Xiside of the river. It is very wide and packed with sightseers all with their digital cameras. The best part of the river walk, aside from its inherent appeal of allowing one to walk alongside a beautiful river, is the view it provides of the Pu Dong, or East side, of the Huangpu. Minjie tells me that until about ten years ago, the Pu Dong side was virtually non existent, offering only a small fishing area and port. Now it is the most up and coming part of the city though, and features many of the best buildings, including an astoundingly colorful television tower, the Pearl Tower (the tallest hotel in the world) and other fantastic and modern buildings. This, along with theconstantly travelling river traffic make the river walk an engrossing experience, one of many I wish you could have shared with me. We then walked back along Nanjing road, bought Green Tea ice cream for 40 cents each and caught the subway to the Pu Dong side of the river. Because the area is so new, all the roads are well designed and very wide. The television tower is like the Eiffel Tower in that it offers tourists the opportunity to travel high up to the top for a price, but we elected instead to walk to the river bank again, unfortunately lacking in any sort of walk along it's bank akin to the Pu Xi side. Wecaught the subway and then a cab back to campus and now I'm preaparing to venture out again, only this time on my own."
Hope to write about more exciting adventures soon (and hopefully post some pictures as well) -joe
Thursday, June 09, 2005
All right! I think this actually might work! Now I'm attempting to use the "Blog This!" button for the first time. After searching extensively through the Blogger site and help menu I'm proud to say I have utterly no idea what the "Blog This!" button does. I suppose that's what I get for playing with robots instead of attending Bernie's class. Well, if history is any guide, I will succeed in posting this particular entry to a blog other than the one I intended. Let's see shall we? (this is so much fun).
Okay...so I unfortunately published this the first time under the other blog I contribute to. The one set up by Bernie Dodge for the class mentioned in the intro paragraph for this blog. I'm sure my classmates will all appreciate this pic of Lopaz when they revisit the page. In any case, I think I've solved the problem now, and have only slightly more faith in just two (TWO!) programs being able to accomplish this most demanding of tasks. Following is my original message: "This is a good photo to set off my blogging resurgence. Lady Lopaz in a lovely black fedora (at least I think that's what it's called, and if so, I think that's how it's spelled). Taken earlier today, this represents my first attempt at photoblogging with not one, but two new programs. Why two you ask? Why not three? Or better yet four! Yes, four new programs to post pictures to my blog. Fan-tas-tic! I'm sorry, I just really doubt if only two programs will really be able to accomplish what I want. I suppose I'll know soon..."