Ready or not…here it comes

Matt | Olympics 08-08-08 | Thursday, July 31st, 2008

We are Ready.

This is the theme song of the Beijing 2008 Olympics, or at least this is what they’ve been playing for the past 3 years. It’s got to the point where I almost want to projectile vomit when I hear this song.

But, is it true?

When I walk my normal 20 minute walk to work along the East Third Ring road in Beijing things have definitely changed:

  • Instead of old people sitting every 100 metres talking, now there are old people with Olympic volunteer shirts sitting every 30 metres and talking.
  • Before we had kids walking around slowly, playing their PSPs or staring at their mobile phones in a zombie-like trance, but now these same kids have on nice blue Olympic volunteer shirts, have put away their phones and have put on big smiles.
  • There is now a subway line (line 10) that can take me the one stop needed to work if I’m too lazy to walk it, I’ve now got cheap options.
  • Speaking of the subway, now every time you want to ride the subway you have to scan your bags – picture going through security at the airport, except no metal detector for you, and no line-ups…yet.
  • All the beggars have disappeared: I haven’t seen one for months.
  • There are more traffic rules now – people with cars can only drive every other day depending on their license plate (e.g. even number plates = even days). While I still see lots of traffic, most taxi drivers tell me the roads have improved dramatically.
  • The air still looks horrible. I’m looking out my window (9:30am) and the sky is covered in a white-sm(f)og haze. I don’t know the air quality today, but I do know it looks bad.

Is Beijing ready? Does it matter? The games will come anyways.

I believe there have been a lot of improvements to Beijing. The biggest improvement in my opinion are the new subway lines. This will be a lasting legacy to help improve the cities clogged motorways.

As for the air quality, these past three years I’ve heard people talking about it, complaining about it, discussing how it will improve for the games and yet, it still looks the same. Honestly, I haven’t seen much action on this front until they shut down nearby factories last month and started the driving policy this month. I think this one, improving the environment, isn’t something that can be changed at the last minute, unfortunately.

Concerning, the Olympic venues, they look great on TV. I’m sure the spectators will enjoy them. I’m not sure, how well people will be able to enjoy the venues after the games come and go.

The most impressive thing for me, are the attitudes of the Chinese people towards the Games. The Chinese appear extremely proud of being hosts for the Games. I may have been a bit sarcastic above about the volunteers, both old and young, but honestly it’s been quite a nice sight. To see so many volunteers smiling and ready to help. I’ve even tested them on occasion to check their English levels,

“Where’s the nearest Starbucks?” and “How do I change to subway line 10?”

In both cases, they were able to communicate the necessary information to me so I understood and could get want I wanted. Their English was functional, so in my mind, that was perfect. I got my morning coffee.

All in all, I think the volunteers are ready, the venues are ready, the subway lines are ready, now all we need is for mother nature to come around and cooperate and we’ll be fine.

8 days to go.

Analects of Confucius – Chapter 12 Benevolence

Matt | Analects of Confucius | Friday, July 25th, 2008

2/ Sima Niu (a disciple of Confucius) asked what benvolence was. Confusius said, “A benevolent man is always careful in speech.” Sima Niu asked, “Can a man be considered benovolent only because he is careful in speech?” Confucius said, “How can a man not be careful in speech as long as he knows it is difficult to act?’

This piece I quite enjoyed as I’m reminded how often I blurt out crap responses, or verbal diarrhea, only a few moments later realize how much better it would have been if I had been more careful in my speech.

7/ Zi Gong asked what was needed for government, Confucius said, “Sufficient food, sufficient armaments, and common people’s trust in the government.” Zi Gong asked, “Suppose you were forced to get rid of one of the three, which one would you get rid of first?” Confucius said, “Armaments.” Zi Gong went on asking, “Which one would you get rid of if you were to get rid of one of the remaining two?” Confucius answered, “The food. Although man will die of hunger without food, man has been destined to die since time immemorial. But if people lost their trust in the government then the country has lost its basis.”

Interesting thoughts, especially looking back at history.

16/ Confucius said, “A gentleman helps others fulfill good deeds and never helps them in bad deeds. A petty man just does the opposite.”

When was the last time I did a good deed???

21/ Fan Chi accompanied Confucius on an outing to the Rain Altar, Fan Chi asked, “May I know how to cultivate virtue, to clear up resentment, and to distinguish between right and wrong?” “What a good question! Is a man not cultivating virtue when he works first but gets rewards afterwards? Can a man not clear up resentment by criticizing himself and not criticizing others? Is not a man muddle headed if he lets sudden anger make him forget his own safetey and even the safety of his parents?”

Good questions and great answers. Great questions and good answers.

Learning Chinese – Put in the hours

Matt | Learning Chinese | Wednesday, July 23rd, 2008

I’ve been living in China now almost 3 years and I think my Chinese level is quite average. Around my second year, my language skills were getting pretty good, but then they dropped off. Learning a language is difficult. Learning Chinese is even more difficult as it is known as one of the most difficult languages in the world to learn.

Looking back at my progress and regress in learning a language and I think I’ve made some (one?) good moves and a lot of mistakes.

Matt’s mistakes in learning Chinese:

  • Waited too long to start
  • Started with a tutor, instead of at school (for me I need the basics and structure of school)
  • When used the book (although a good one), I focused on the grammar and vocabulary, but not listening and the CD
  • Tried to ignore Chinese tones (different tone = different word: “ma” = mom; “mah” = trouble)
  • Didn’t start in a school soon enough
  • Didn’t use a tutor when my grammar, vocab and fluency were at a decent level
  • Didn’t use the language often outside the classroom
  • Was afraid of making mistakes

Good things I did in learning Chinese:

  • Started, signed up, got my butt in front of a teacher, book and in a classroom:
  • Listened to friends for advice eventually from people who have done what I wanted to do: learn Chinese (My friend Michelle, told me to start in a classroom, I ignored her advice only to follow it one year later!)
  • Used good resources a) got a tutor that I liked and who was qualified: a Chinese teacher finishing her masters degree.
  • Used good resources b): Conversational Chinese 301
  • Put in the hours

Recently, I read a great book called, The Art of Learning, by Josh Waitzkin, and it introduced me to the two approaches to learning: the entity theory (you learned it because you are a smart kid, or you didn’t because you are slow!) and the incremental theory (you learned it because you set goals, studied hard, put in the time or you didn’t learn it, or you forgot it because you haven’t studied Chinese in over a year!).

From these approaches I realized that when I was learning Chinese, and most things in my life, I’ve chosen the entity theory. So when I was in the classroom learning Chinese, I’d be kicking myself for not knowing some words because I really should have learned by now. Or I wouldn’t try because I didn’t want to make a mistake with the grammar that I really should know. Fortunately, most of my good teachers would force me to try and answer.

Now, I’m realizing that the reason that I made progress with Chinese was mainly because…

I put in the hours. (About 945 so far)

The reason my Chinese is dropping off is because…

I’ve stopped putting in the hours!

That is it. It’s not that I’m smart, dumb, green or blue. It’s that I put in the hours.

Surprise, surprise my greatest progress came when I was studying the most (4 hours per day at a University for 4 months) and my greatest regress, lately, has come when I’ve decided to study on my own (or not study) about 1-3 hours per week.

So here are my takeaways and next steps to follow up using the incremental theory approach.

  1. I’ll set positive goals for learning Chinese
  2. I’m going to put in the hours – at least 5 hours per week. (I’m expecting this to be a low goal and to beat it).
  3. I will structure my studies like life – intense study, then rest, then intense study, then rest.

I’ll check back in one month later to see if this habit has stuck.

Zai Jian.

Don’t understand? Then Concept Check!

Matt | Teach English in China | Monday, July 21st, 2008

As an English teacher in China, I’ll often be surprised when my students have no idea what I want them to do. So, I’ll ask the usual (useless) question, “Do you understand?” and they’ll say, “uh, huh” or “mmm, mmm” (which is the equivalent to “yes” in Chinese). The whole time I can tell from the look on my students’ faces that they don’t have a clue as to what I want them to do.

The problem was mine.

The problem was my instructions weren’t clear.

The problem was I didn’t concept check or check the idea I was teaching with concept questions.

So to understand concept questions, I pulled out my teach yourself: teaching English as a foreign language by David Riddell. This was a nice review guide that my sister gave me before my trip to China. I recommend this book for all ESL teachers.

Why concept check? This helps ensure the students know and are doing what you want them to do.

Concept Questions

  • Do concept questions focus on essential meaning of the language in the context provided? Yes.
  • Do concept questions avoid ambiguity? Yes.
  • Are concept check questions short and simple in nature? Yes.

Concept questions are usually short, yes or no questions, that clearly focus on the essential meaning of what you want to teach.

For example, – He’s been to France – the important information of this present perfect statement is:

  • it happened sometime before now
  • the listener doesn’t know when it happened
  • the listener doesn’t know how many times this person went to France
  • He is not in France now (if we compare with He’s gone to France)

We can use concept check questions, such as,

  • Are we talking about the past, present, or future? Past.
  • Do we know exactly when he went? No.
  • Do we know how many times he went? No.
  • Is he in France now? No.

From the book, here are some TIPS to create concept check questions,

  1. First analyze the language and its meaning within the given context.
  2. Define the essential meaning in simple statements.
  3. Turn these statements into questions.
  4. Keep the questions simple in both language and length.
  5. Avoid questions that are not relevant to the meaning of the language (Will he stay in France?).
  6. Avoid using the same grammatical forms in the questions that you are testing (Have you been to France? If they haven’t understood it before, they won’t know it now.)
  7. Ask questions that don’t require a lot of language in the answer.
  8. Make sure the answers are clear and unambiguous.
  9. Plan them in advance.

This last point is key, especially for me. The reason I haven’t used concept questions a lot in my classes is that 1) it takes time to think through the grammar and design the questions and 2) it requires planning in advance. Both of these things are important for you and your students to clearly understand what you want them to do.

So I will go back to the basics and start re-planning my lessons using concept check questions.  Do you think this is a good idea?

Weekly Round up: Oh (Big) Brother…

Matt | Blogroll,Chinese Culture | Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Since coming to China 3 years ago I’ve been a bit paranoid about being watched. I’ve lived in hotels, university dorm rooms and now in my own apartment and I’ve gone through different waves of paranoia. Now that the Olympics are coming closer, a lot of weird little things are happening around me here in Beijing.

A few weeks back I picked up one of my favourite expat magazines, That’s Beijing, and was surprised at how it changed. It used to be a must read and now it was a cleaner, glossier, more anti-septic magazine. I didn’t know why until I read some other blogs today and found out the management has been changed just in time for the Olympics. From ImageThief’s article The New That’s Beijing and the Art of Stench Management. This is a shame as That’s Beijing was a great magazine. But it looks like now we’ll have to look for The Beijinger instead.

China Law Blog put out another great piece: You Saw Me Do What? Privacy in China. The talks overtly on how you’ll be watched if you come to Beijing for the Games.

Absurdity, Allegory and China had many good articles that I enjoyed, but here are two. The first, Don’t Go There, informs us how Beijing University is now off-limits because it is an Olympic venue. The second: Public spaces vs Private Needs, sadly, talks about how the beautiful new Olympic structures – the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium and the CCTV building – will likely become off-limits to the general public and what some of the likely options will be. From what I’ve seen of parks, exercise spots and generally nice places in Beijing, I’m guessing it will become surrounded by a wall, a gate, a guard, a ticket booth, and beside a shopping mall, above a shopping mall, or near a shopping mall.

Analects of Confucius – Chapter 11

Matt | Analects of Confucius,Chinese Culture,Learning Chinese | Monday, July 14th, 2008

Here is the 11th Chapter in Confucius’s famous book, written by his disciples, called The Analects of Confucius. It is written in little posts, lessons, stories, with each chapter holding about 30. A lot I didn’t understand or didn’t care for, so I’ve included only the ones that I enjoyed, understood, or thought interesting to share. Like Confucius said, “It’s better to read one book a hundred times, than a hundred books one time.” So, I keep finding myself reviewing this book. Oh well, I guess that means I still have a lot to learn.

4/ Confucius said, “Yan Hui always entirely accepts whatever I say. He has never disagreed with me, and this is of no help at all.”

Like someone else said (Emerson?) If two people always agree, one of them is unnecessary.

20/ Zi Zhang asked how to become a good man. Confucius said, “A good man neither has to follow in other people’s tracks, nor has to be accomplished in learning or virtue.”

I decided long ago never to walk in anyone’s shadow. If I fail, if I succeed… sorry, thought I’d jump into song there. Don’t follow others. This reminds me off a famous quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, another great philosopher/teacher, “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide.

22/ Zi Lu aksed, “Should one person respond immediately to a call?” Confucius said, “How can you respond immediately to a call with your father and elder brothers alive?”

Ran You asked the same question, “Should one respond immediately to a call?” Confucius said, “Yes, one should.”
Gongxi Hua was deeply perplexed, saying, I am puzzled. May I know why you gave two different answers to the same question?”

Confucius said, “Ran You usually hangs back, so I urge him on; Zhong You advances bravely and sometimes audaciously , so I hold him back.

As a teacher you often have to adjust your style based on each student’s individual needs. Some need to be urged on and others need to be held back. Often in teaching, I find encouraging a student’s self-confidence is vital.

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