Monday, August 31, 2009

Math Projects

In the work department:

I came up with a new algebra project for comparing the per-capita stats of different countries. It is loosely connected to the domain / range stuff we have been learning about in the introduction to functions unit. The kids will take a look at a website that tracks stats across different countries and compare El Salvador to other countries in everyday issues such as health, economy, technology, lifestyle, crime, etc. The math part of the project will be to create bar graphs comparing numbers from different countries, and A.) to explain why the bar graph represents a function and B.) to identify the domain and range for the function. Following that, the kids will write a short reflection about the contrast in numbers, incorporating some researched facts about the story behind those numbers.

This may turn out to be a flop, but I'm pretty excited anyway. It's my first socioeconomic project that I've ever designed! With my honors 10th graders, I feel that they have both the maturity and the motivation necessary to do a project like this, and I'm excited to see how it will turn out. (It's OK if it flops in the end; I'll know what to fix for next year.)

As for my first project of the year for my regular 9th-grade Geometry classes, I have designed an architectural project incorporating various irregular areas and perimeters to be calculated. There will be a significant writing component, since I think the kids can really use some practice articulating their ideas. I am pretty excited about this project as well, even though I am also worried about the complexity of the math, as well as the kids' lack of regularity in completing work outside the class...

Anyway, that's how work is going. Pretty well, I think. There are things that could be better, like kids could be more motivated on their own to do work. But, I think that's always the case... It's somehow sad to me that these privileged children are not taking advantage of all the opportunities that they have. Reminds me of something my high-school English teacher once said to our class: "You owe it to other people to do your best in life. There are people whose parents would kill for their kids to have half of the gift and opportunity that you have." If you never think that the things you say to a 16-year-old are going to stay with them, think again.


Addendum July 2, 2010: Here are the screenshots for the country stats project. The kids complained tremendously about researching for their math class, but they turned in beautiful projects! I also have the files for the perimeter/circumference project, but the aerial blueprints for the buildings were hand-drawn, so those are not included here.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Day trip!

As part of the welcoming process for the new international hires, the school organized a day trip led by a Salvadorean Spanish teacher who holds a Master's in Salvadorean history and who had worked for years at the national museum. As it turns out, Vicky is brilliant in both historical and current knowledge and was very kind to tell us all kinds of wonderful stories about her people. It is apparent that she takes a lot of pride in the culture of El Salvador, even though she has lived through some hard times here.

After a couple of quick stops, we stopped for lunch at a local food festival. Geoff and I gorged ourselves on grilled meat, chicken, shrimp, and sausage links. They had really amazing spices on them, and were one of the best meals we've had yet. On our way out, we had a bite of Jon's order of armadillo! It was very interesting. The meat is smooth but dense, and it has a strong salty aftertaste. Next time, I will keep my eyes peeled for "cusuco," which is the Spanish word for armadillo. :)

After lunch, the gang headed to Ataco, which is a very charming little coffee plantation town up in the mountains. There were some really cute artesan shops and cafes here, that the group decided we would stay here for the rest of the day. Geoff, Colleen, Eric, and I hiked up to the cross that we saw up the hill, and en route saw some interesting creatures -- big spiders and what looked like a flying ant hive.* Here in Ataco, we also bought some delicious goat cheese, a beautiful stool, and a couple of pieces of hand-painted art.

All in all, it was a really fun trip. :) Since we didn't have time to go try out the indigo-dying at the museum, Vicky promised to take us on a separate day trip just for that. --I can't wait!

*You can check out pictures on Flickr. Just click on the Flickr app on the right of your screen.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Phrase of the day... duro blandito. Literally, it means "hard soft", and is a Salvadorean oxymoron used to describe the complexities of life. It is also a type of cheese, which seems appropriate somehow. Salvadoreans are practical, so they like to pack as much use into everything as humanly possible. Even speech, I suppose. :)


I feel a bit like I have been grading non-stop since Sunday. Now that it is mid-unit quiz season and I teach 100 kids, I could easily spend hours grading just quizzes every week. I gave a round of practice quizzes in each class, followed by quiz makeup points, which all added to the load of stuff to grade and return even before administering the actual quizzes!

I've noticed that my new students appear to have only been taught rote math their whole lives. This is frustrating, even with the topics they are good at, because they can't explain any of the concepts to me. (The worst is when they've learned something solely by rote, didn't understand the concept, and now do the rote procedure incorrectly.) I have to keep reminding myself that I only have control over now, over what happens in my classroom. I don't know how much I can fix in a year, but I will try, obviously.

Ciao! The rest of this week is going to be busy with work!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Good People

We had a really fun and relaxing weekend. On Friday, two other teachers Dave and Beth hosted a rockin' house party, and somehow at 1am, I found myself surrounded by musicians after everyone else had left the party. Geoff, Beth, and Eric took turns jamming on the two guitars they had and harmonizing softly, and Dave played percussion along to their melodic voices. I was given a set of bells -- very appropriate, considering that I can barely hold a beat on the drums -- but after a while, worked my way to "playing" a less obnoxious small drum. They played all kinds of classic rock songs, and time literally flew by until everyone looked bleary-eyed and we had to call it a night. By the time Geoff and I finally got home, it was already 3:30am! (On a Friday, for teachers, that's really late.) It really was a beautiful time. :)

Geoff and I had planned on visiting El Tunco over the weekend. Ali has been somewhat overwhelmed by work, so we figured it'd be good to go down and party with her and Bamba at least one night this week. And, as it turned out, the other teachers were already planning on a trip down there as well! We ended up spending Saturday night hanging out with a group of really good people from school. Geoff and I stayed out for a while down at the beach, checking out a local dance spot. (It had mostly reggaeton music -- not our favorite. But, the company was good, and I knew Geoff had been yearning for a late night out on the town, so I did my best to hang...) By the time we finally got back to the beach hostel, we were soaked with rain but satisfied from all the fun. --In the end, the only shame from this weekend was that the waves were huge down there this weekend, so we couldn't take any surf lessons! Maybe next time.

Life couldn't be more perfect right now. I'm loving the teaching gig, and thus far, I've been reaping a lot of rewards from the lessons I have planned. It being my fourth year of teaching, everything feels different. The kids are nice; I'm feeling completely in control; and that leaves me with so much energy to make the lessons the most fun that they could be. Having great textbooks to use as a guide is also no small advantage. I am still tired from school each day just from the sheer enery it takes to teach 100 kids, but I love it.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Nature? Yes, I've read about it...

Last night, I saw a big pink iguana dart across our bathroom after it had entered through the window. I was freaked out! Geoff had to grab our pot in order to catch it and to put it outside. It was scaling the wall at a crazy speed, and even jumped during the Geoff vs. Iguana hand-to-hand combat.

Then, an owl was stuck in my classroom today! It was small, and apparently couldn't find its way out. I wish I had a camera with me, because it was the cutest thing I had seen in days. It kept eyeing me suspiciously by turning its head to a weird angle to follow me with its eyes. Eventually, it let me get close enough to open all of the windows to let it out. SUPER CUTE!

--This place is crazy. There are iguanas, armies of ants, killer mosquitoes, (dead birds on our porch,) and now an owl!

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Re-focusing on School

It has been a very productive weekend for me, now that school is in session. I was worried that I would have trouble re-focusing once school started, since the summer had been so short, but I found myself really enjoying being back at school and looking forward to being a better teacher this year than in the past. It being the first week, the kids were obviously very nice. And, most of them did their homework from Day 1! I was glad that the year is off to a good start. As far as classes go, the most challenging part thus far is taking roll and learning names, even though the kids are eager to help. (How reliable they are at taking roll is still a question, since I can't yet visually check who is there and who is not at a quick glance, and on Friday, I noticed after class that there was a mistake on at least one of the attendance sheets.) It turns out that one out of every two or three Salvadorean girls is either named Camila or Alejandra, which means that I also have to learn their last names, in addition to learning their first names. And, teaching 5 classes -- many of them back-to-back -- means that my mind is more scattered than usual. So, even with the kids now being assigned to permanent seats, I think I am still going to struggle with distinguishing them for a while. They will have to be patient with me. :)


It's funny how, at the new school, I am one of the youngest-looking teachers around. I suppose I've always looked young, but at AMS it wasn't so noticeable, since other teachers actually are younger than me. Here, it's much more traditional, and there is a greater mix of teachers of all ages. It's definitely interesting, because I can sense that some of the other teachers didn't quite know what to think when I showed up, looking a bit like one of the kids. Even though I dress very conservatively at school, I think it only helps matters a bit, and I am pretty sure that some of the other staffers are still worried about my classroom discipline...

It's kind of funny. Geoff says it's also because I am pretty friendly, so people who meet me think that I don't have a strong personality. If only they knew.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

First Surfing Lesson!!

Geoff and I had a fabulous week! On Tuesday, the new international hires played a hilarious game of Charades at Eric's and Colleen's apartment over drinks and popcorn. Then, on Thursday night, some of the same people went salsa-dancing with us at an awesome salsa spot in the neighborhood. The cover charge was $5, but there was a live band and some serious salsa-dancers there! I had a ton of fun asking the locals to dance, and Geoff and I are definitely planning on returning to that place regularly once we start taking salsa lessons. :) Finally, over the weekend, Geoff and I caught a movie (G.I. Joe, which was surprisingly decent), went to scope out the famous volcanoes and the beautiful Lago Coatepeque, and even took our first surfing lesson down at El Tunco!!!

...Surfing was really fun, but also a lot harder than I had imagined. Admittedly, I'm not the strongest swimmer, and my upper-body strength is definitely non-existent. Paddling my way on the long surfboard all the way out to where the waves break was so discouraging, that I actually almost asked my surfing coach to let me go back to the shore. Literally, he had to drag my board all the way out there each time, in addition to paddling for himself. --So embarrassing! It was only later that Ali and Jose told us that it is pretty common that the surfing instructors have to drag the newbies out there, because you just don't build the same upper-body strength doing anything else than surfing. Anyway, the actual surfing part was a BLAST. It's not easy to stand up on the board, obviously, but the long boards we had actually felt really stable; even I caught a wave that pushed me all the way out to the beach! It was awesome! And a definite do-over at some point (after we do some pushups, perhaps).

There were some other things I had wanted to say, but I'm so exhausted from the week that I'm going to just crash now. Tomorrow's the first official day back at work for all teachers, so I'm going to start being very busy! Our school day here starts early -- I will have to leave home at 6:30am everyday from now on, to arrive at school with a little bit of time to spare. Yikes...

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The Price of "Bling"

On July 15, the day that Geoff and I arrived in El Salvador, an anti-mining environmental activist was found murdered at the bottom of a well in San Isidro, El Salvador. He had been missing for nearly a month, and his body showed visible signs of torture. Since then, 4 reporters who have been covering the news of his disappearance and death have received death threats themselves, and another priest who is also aligned with the left-wing activists has nearly also been kidnapped and killed, escaping his armed aggressors ever-narrowly only by jumping into a ravine.

Concerned about the issues surrounding the obviously heated environmental activism, I looked up some relevant information about mining in El Salvador. It shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that El Salvador is a rich source for natural elements such as gold and silver, seeing that 90% of the country originated from volcanic activities. Mining companies based in U.S. and Canada are eager to come in and reap the benefits of the abundant resources this country has to offer. The local proponents of the mining law point to the jobs it would create and the income that the local government would receive as a percentage of the proceeds, but the environmental and social activists point to the amount of acidic toxins -- specifically, of mercury, cyanide, arsenic, zinc and aluminium -- that would be released into the water. Leaching, the process of extracting gold and silver from the rocks, requires an enormous amount of water and exposes chemicals to open air, allowing them to evaporate and to be absorbed into the surroundings. Mercury evaporates readily at 26 degrees Celsius, and then redistributes in the form of rainfall. The mixing of the chemicals with water also would exacerbate the existing water shortage. Already, 1.5 million Salvadoreans (out of a total population estimated to be somewhere between 6 to 7 million) do not have access to drinking water. The "acidic drainage", as it is called, is going to make things worse. Already, there have been hillsides and wells that have dried up in San Isidro as a result of "an error" committed by one of the mining company's employees. Instead of receiving water deliveries in exchange for keeping quiet, the residents of San Isidro have opted to speak up against further mining activities by these foreign companies -- hence, the recent wave of environmental activism.

In any case, the laws right now are in limbo. The mining companies are hoping for the drafted mining law to be passed, so that the suspended mining activities may resume. I don't think you need me to say where I stand on the issue.

...What an absolute outrage!


I finished reading One L, a personal account of one guy's experience as a first-year law student at Harvard Law School. The author describes the fearful manipulation that the professors used to run their first-year classes, and the resulting degradation in decency he observed in his peers and in himself as the academic year progressed. Even though he attended HLS back in the 70s and his account is clearly outdated, the story was still pretty interesting for me to read. It made me think about what my friend Ron once said about being a witness to injustice: "Either together we stand [against what we perceive of as injustice], or individually we will fall. Today it could be them, but tomorrow it might be you... or me." I think that concept applies broadly to a lot of things, and it is an idea that I keep coming back to. Why is it that we should stand up for someone whom we think is treated unfairly? What is the broader implication of justice, for us individually and, then, collectively?

Anyway, I picked up a Spanish novel yesterday from the bookstore. --Ambitious, I know! I figured that I would try to build my vocabulary the best way I know how -- by tediously working my way through a book I'd like to read. That's how I learned English, anyway, so doing this again actually feels familiar and warm, a bit like coming home again after many years. It's going slowly, obviously; took me about 30 minutes to cover 3 pages, because the structure of written Spanish is more difficult than spoken Spanish, and words often mean different things once you string them together into a phrase. But, I love the feeling of piecing together meaning, one word at a time. I'm excited. :)

Monday, August 3, 2009

Weekend at a Beach House

Since a couple of people have asked: Yes! We finally have cell-phone service and internet at home!! :) :) It took 5 trips down to the Claro store, but we eventually prevailed. The funny thing is that their computer system is so archaic, that 1. Even after we had submitted all of the necessary documents, we had to wait another few hours in the store for the guys to finish inputting everything into the computer, and 2. We had to go back the next day (Trip #6) to purchase a related monthly service, since the computer system does not update in real-time and it would take 24 hours for the system to begin recognizing us as existing customers. Goodness. We were in that store for so long each time just sitting and waiting, that the (extremely nice) sales clerk even taught me the word aburrido, meaning "boring."

The good news is that Geoff purchased a mobile internet service that would allow him to do work at any time on his laptop, even if our home network is down. If we decide to start traveling, we can also tag on $10 a month to extend the mobile coverage to other Central American countries, like Guatemala and Costa Rica, so that he can log on at any time and do emergency fixes. Pretty sweet.


Geoff and I spent a chunk of the weekend at an amazing beach house, along with the rest of the new international hires and their families. The beach house is owned by our principal, and -- I don't know what I had expected before getting there, but -- I was completely blown away by how luxurious it was. We had driven a long time to get there, since it was near the border of Guatemala, and by the time we were finally there, it was dark. We had passed various corn and sugar cane fields (El Salvador is lush with agriculture), and eventually turned down a bumpy little alley way. His maid's family came to open the front gate, and it looked almost like we had arrived on a FARM!! He has so much land in front of the house, that he actually keeps two goats, a big dog, and a number of roosters as pets. The house itself is gorgeous, with brick arches everywhere and a feeling of openness typical to this warm-weathered country. The back yard has a serious pool, some hammocks, an outdoors sitting area, and it opens right onto a beautiful sandy beach that is essentially private. There are palm trees everywhere in front of and behind his house, and his maid's family has done a fabulous job with the upkeep of it all.

Needless to say, the next day or so was extremely relaxing. Even though the electricity was out for a good amount of time during our stay, the people were great and we had a good time anyway. We swam in the ocean, chatted late into the night, read and napped in the hammocks, and drank many a coconut's juice. Geoff also went running in the morning with Brian along the beach, and even played a song or two on Eric's guitar for everyone! It was really a beautiful time. :)

After we got back from the beach house, Geoff and I finally set up a sort of bare-bones "entertainment system" for ourselves at home. We can download movies off of BitTorrent fairly easily, and then if we hook the computer up to our mini stereo-radio-thing, then we can watch movies in our bedroom. Hurray! We spent a lazy Sunday cooking, drinking, swimming, listening to Spanish lessons, and watching movies... I highly recommend He's Just Not That Into You, a decidedly gender-neutral flick. ;) (No, seriously -- Geoff liked it a lot, too.)


It's looking like I'll have to go out and purchase some practical things this week, including short-sleeved work shirts and a battery-powered alarm clock. This morning, our power was out, and if that had happened on a school day, my plugged-in radio alarm wouldn't have worked, and I would have surely been late to school. That's a Must Fix! :(

We're learning to cope with the unreliable infrastructure here, slowly but surely. This is the third time in less than 3 weeks that we have experienced power outage -- each time in a different setting -- so there is a good chance that this is a common occurrence around here. Along with the electricity goes the water, since the water we use is pumped from underground somewhere. Just have to learn to roll with the punches, that's all.