Friday, February 22, 2013

The Nerd in Me, Looking out for Mr. John Venn

So my friend posts this picture via Instagram. There's a place in Portland, OR, called Blue Star Donuts, that sells glazed donuts and fried chicken.
  Photo: #truth

True to my math teacher spirit, my immediate, instinctive reaction was: "I dig it, but this is a misuse of the Venn Diagram. YUMMY should really be the superset of glazed donut and fried chicken. Their intersection should be... well, RIDONCULOUS!"

...I've already come a long way from my nerd roots, I promise. I just didn't want Mr. Venn to be rolling over in his grave. Who has two thumbs and is always looking out for the dead mathematicians?

Thursday, February 21, 2013

How I Do IB Test Prep

I don't really like teaching the IB, because I feel as though there are a lot of topics to get through and it's hard to build all the concepts from the ground up (given the time constraints), so you really have to rely on the kids having a pretty strong foundation in the fundamentals prior to arriving in your class.

HOWEVER, I am definitely getting better at it. Kids are pretty happy in my class because they understand the topics and even the convoluted IB problems are becoming more accessible to them over time.

I was thinking about what made the big difference between last year and this year, and one thing is that I am giving consistent practice quizzes at the start of class on a non-trivial skill, through the course of 4 or 5 consecutive class meetings. Following that as a sort of long Do Now, we pick up with "regular" instruction for the rest of the period, on a usually unrelated topic that is concurrent. The quizzes and the instruction run parallel, but they're not usually on the same topic. After 4 or so such practice quizzes, I give a graded quiz on those skills. (Which may or may not be around the time when I give a coherent unit test on the concurrent topic. The kids don't seem to mind that there are always two topics going on at once, because they understand that the quizzes are only to build up specific test-prep skills, and the unit-based learning we do is more coherent and also much more time-consuming.) The key here is that the practice quizzes have to be sufficiently complex, yet similar each time in format and content. The first time they see a practice quiz, they usually cannot do it and they require me to explain the problem to them thoroughly after they try it. But if they're attentive and they keep good notes and they actually try all the practice quizzes earnestly, they can get close to 100% by the real quiz even as I add slightly more complicated parts on the final quiz. This is very important, because 1. it builds their confidence with complex problems, 2. it gives me an opportunity to reinforce the integration of multiple concepts.

For example, recently we did a set of practice quizzes in Grade 11 that looked like this (while we are learning logarithms and log / exponential functions in our "regular" instruction):

"For the function f(x) = 3x^2 - 2kx + k + 1, find all value(s) of k that would...
a.) Cause f to have two x-intercepts.
b.) Cause f to have one x-intercept.
c.) Cause f to have no x-intercept."

As part of this problem, the kids would define the discriminant function in terms of k:
D=(-2k)^2 - 4(3)(k+1), graph it in the calculator, and then use the graph to analyze when the discriminant value is zero (k = -0.791, k = 3.79 when rounded to 3 sig figs). They will then conclude that when k is those two approximated values, f has one x-intercept. They would then test it, by substituting k back into the equation for f... f(x) = 3x^2 - 2(-0.791)x - 0.791 + 1 and f(x) = 3x^2 - 2(3.79)x + 3.79 + 1 both look like they have only 1 x-intercept.

They will then look back at the same discriminant function they had set up, D, and then visually conclude that the discriminant function has a positive value when k < -0.791 or k > 3.79 (the discriminant graph is above the horizontal axis, which means that it has a positive value). And in order to test their hypothesis that k < -0.791 or k > 3.79 would cause f to have two x-intercepts, they will then replace nice integer values k = -1 and k = 4 into the equation for f, to verify that f(x) = 3x^2 - 2(-1)x - 1 + 1 and f(x) = 3x^2 - 2(4)x + 4 + 1 both have two x-intercepts. (And they do.)

Eventually, they repeat this process for the hypothesis that -0.791 < k < 3.79 will cause the discriminant function to be negative (below the horizontal axis), which will cause f to have no x-intercept. They can test it with a nice k value such as 0, 1, 2, or 3.

Well, what is the point of all of this?

1. Notice that I base the problem-solving around graphical analysis, even though we know that we can solve quadratic equations and inequalities without a graph. Research shows that the more you emphasize graphical analysis on the calculator, the better the kids get at visualizing equations and inequalities as graphs. In the long run, when you take the calculator away, they will still be willing to manually simplify their discriminant function, to sketch the graph, and use it to aid their analysis of variable k and its relationship, ultimately, to function f. And that ability to visualize is a powerful tool to have.

2. Specific to this topic, the notion that k and x are related but not the same can be often confusing to students who are not used to doing such sophisticated algebra analysis. A lot of times last year, my (former) 11th-graders used to ask me, "But why can k have two values when they're asking for there to be only one x-intercept for the function f?" Breaking down the process as we did above addresses that specifically, because when the kids substitute the values of k back into the original equation, they can see that the graph they're shooting for works BECAUSE the parameter k has taken on appropriate values. It helps to separate the meaning of k from the meaning of x.

3. For your weaker students, repetition breeds familiarity, which then breeds confidence. They also get to hear me explain the same concept 4 or 5 times, over the course of 4 or 5 classes, which is very helpful for them. They also get to use their notes on all the practice quizzes following the first one, which gradually forces/allows them to be independent while building up to the real quiz. You cannot achieve this type of comfort level by practicing/drilling completely different-looking problems everyday, even if the problems are essentially on the same core topic. Less is more, I think. Once they build an in-depth understanding of a single problem type of sufficient "juice" and complexity, I believe that they can then more easily transfer that understanding to other problems.

I know this method works, because not only did my 11th-graders do quite well on the mid-year mock exam this year, but generally speaking, when I think back on the topics that we have learned this year, I feel that they don't have collective holes/gaps as a class. We've gone through and filled them all in, using this consistent quiz policy that runs alongside our regular instruction of new topics.

I also use the same practice-practice-practice-practice-then-quiz policy to help my 12th-graders do spiral review from last year. The difference is that I try to integrate even more topics for them. On one set of practice quizzes, for example, they needed to: write a sine function from a graph; describe the step-by-step transformations from y=sin(x) to that graph; graph another quadratic formula within the same grid, labeling all important info; shade the enclosed area between the two curves; write an integral that represents the area between the two curves; evaluate the integral by calculator; then show how they can get the same integrated result by hand. I gave them 5 or so practice quizzes leading up to the quiz on this one, because there were so many different skills involved that they needed to practice. This is how I pull it altogether for them, using a combination of mixed concepts and (still, much needed) repetition.

I feel that we (meaning, my Grade 12s) are in much better shape this year, going into the review period, as a result of this quiz policy that I adopted. We had started the spiraling quizzes on last year's topics, all the way back in August. By now, I have gone through and drilled most of the particular weaknesses that I felt that they needed to see again. This method is systematic, more focused, and much better than just giving them random mixed practice! I feel that, even though we're not yet done learning all the topics (we still have one more to go, which is Vectors), my kids are already pretty OK now with doing mixed IB practice on their own and needing only moderate support from me. If only they can keep up the stamina for doing extra practice on their own during the remaining weeks, then I know that they'll be in great shape by the end of April!

I thought I would share this, you know, because I really think it has made all the difference in my IB classes. In fact, I have been trying to do the same in my MS classes, by spreading out test practice over the course of a week or two, leading up to the test, instead of just giving a single practice test. It feels kind of like a huge waste of time, because the practice quizzes take about 20 minutes each class. But, in the end, you're actually saving time because you're increasing mastery by providing more regular feedback and multiple opportunities to self-assess. This year, I didn't have to spend any extra time reviewing equations in Grade 7 after I taught that unit, because the kids all had the algebra skills down pat. So, yea, do try it if you're not already doing this in your class, and I hope that it helps to address a variety of learning and mastery issues!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Visualizing Concepts

Here is an MS update. I feel pretty productive lately, as I always do during the second semester. I also feel quite productive with my Grade 11s, and as a result I'm taking on three new kids potentially, at least for a while. Grade 12's are doing OK, but the pressure is sure ramping up for their IB exams, so there's not a whole lot of "cool" instructional things that I can be doing with them...

Grade 8:

Referring to the system {5u + v = 21, 10u + 3v = 48}, one middle-of-the-road kid explained excitedly to her friend, "Oh! I got it! If 5u + v = 21, then 10u + 2v must equal 42. If you put that here into the second equation, then you will still have 1v on the left side. Which means that 42 + v = 48, and v must equal 6!"

Not bad for being day 1 of systems algebra. (Of course, they've been doing the same reasoning using shapes and visual substitution for several days now, so the transition to symbols was seamless. I didn't bother with even any examples on the board this year, and it worked out just fine without one.)

I went up to a boy who was one worksheet ahead, and pointed at the equation {y + 6x = 10,
y + 2x = 2} to ask him what immediate conclusion he could draw based on inspection. He immediately said, "X is 10 minus 2, divided by 4." I had to backtrack to ask him, "How do you know? Because 8 is equal to....?"

He finished my sentence, "4x." Great, now we're talking about the process.

I showed him the traditional notation for showing that work / reasoning via elimination, even though I know that in his head he's doing substitution from one (smaller) equation into the other.

  y + 6x = 10
-(y + 2x = 2)
        4x = 8

He was not impressed, nor surprised. When you introduce systems via pictures, the symbols become just part of the bigger concept. I explained to him that on the previous worksheet, I had let them just do much of it in their heads, but now we're going to work on the written communication piece, to carefully show our work on paper. I also gave him the hint that sometimes, instead of subtracting the smaller equation, he'll notice that he wants to add the equations instead. I said that he'll know when addition is necessary, because those equations will just "feel different." I left him on just that hint, and sure enough, 20 or so minutes later, when I came back, he had already identified the equations that needed to be added, and he was ruminating over the explicit mathematical reasons why that works. At that point, I felt that he was ready to discuss that if you have additive inverses, then you can just add them to cancel them, so we had a 1-minute discussion about that and I left him again.

I am very pleased with how this unit is going. I think I've gotten it down pretty pat; if I remember correctly, last year I didn't have to change any worksheets at all, and so far I haven't had to alter any worksheet either. This is one unit where I can just sit back and watch the kids' thinking unfold, more or less, and I can be very hands-off in their own building of the concepts of algebraic substitution and elimination. At some point, I looked around the room when I noticed the noise level rise, and saw that it was because literally every pair of kids is engaged in some sort of intense mathematical discussion with their neighbor. Awesome-o!

Grade 9:

In Grade 9, we've been working on learning / understanding / memorizing geometry area formulas via cutting and pasting. We each re-arranged, glued down a parallelogram to form a rectangle, to help them understand why A=bh for a parallelogram. Then, we each re-arranged a trapezoid into a thin parallelogram, to help them understand why A=(b1+b2)(h/2) for a trapezoid.  This year, I went a step further and highlighted the base 1 and base 2 sides using a green marker, so that the kids can see that they line up within the parallelogram when we do a "move and flip" of the top half of the trapezoid. This simple highlighting technique is superbly visual for my visual learners to see why the new parallelogram base MUST be (b1+b2).

Then, I proceeded to give them two practice trapezoid problems. In both cases, I had them draw out the parallelogram that it becomes, labeling the side lengths to emphasize the numerical connection between the trapezoid and its resulting parallelogram. It worked great! My concrete thinkers really latched on after the first example. One of the weakest kids in my class went up to the board and bravely (and correctly) drew out the trapezoid, its new parallelogram dimensions, and the calculated area, without any previous verification that he was on track. I was proud!!

I just love geometry lessons like this, because they involve both tactile and visual learners and help the concept "stick" in their heads. Slowly, I'm getting their geometry concepts up and running in order to do the 3-D project this year.

Addendum March 4, 2013: Here is a visual that Lara has made on Pinterest. Thanks, Lara!

Grade 7:

In Grade 7, we've also been doing Geometry... I'll have to report on that at another time, but I wanted to say that recently (prior to the Geometry unit), I discovered the best technique for teaching setting up of proportions. For ages it used to bother me that kids would not check that two ratios have matching units across the numerators (and across the denominators), and so half the time they would set up incorrect proportions. I figured out a trick this year. The first day we learned to set up proportions, I had them highlight the matching units across the equal sign. For that whole first day, they had to always highlight the units inside the proportions, and check that the matching colors lined up horizontally. After that first day, the highlighters went away and I never referred to them again. In the end, I didn't have a single kid mix up the positions of the numbers inside the proportions on the test. I think that mentally, the colors stuck with them and they're always visualizing that check, even when the highlighters aren't around anymore. 

Again, slowing the kids down in the beginning definitely pays off, I think. The highlighters are a trick that I'm trying to use more and more, to incorporate hidden visualization techniques that some of us "math people" tend to internalize in our minds but that teenagers who are used to rushing through things, could need more explicit instruction on. So far, so good.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013


I am such a perfectionist; I just hate being absent. 

I have to say that I am almost never absent. In the 7 years that I have been teaching, I can count the number of days that I have been absent. If I am absent, it's not because I was so sick and weak that I needed to crawl home. For those cases I would stay at school. If I am absent, it's because:

1. I'm going to a conference or job fair: I missed 1 day this year for a conference, and 1 day 4 years ago because I needed to attend a job fair.
2. I need to catch a flight for a wedding that is out of town: I miss 1 day every 2 or 3 years for this.
3. I'm getting married myself: I am taking 2 days off for my own wedding this year. Hopefully this is a once-in-a-lifetime type of thing.
4. My doctor absolutely isn't available in the entire month except during work hours, and the situation is urgent. I've missed about three or four half-days for this in all the years that I've been teaching.

However, sometimes we need to be absent and we need to have substitutes. And I HATE THAT. I cannot seem to substitute-proof my lessons. I try to give them all the details: all lesson material, with extra copies and neatly labeled answer keys and instructions on what to write on the board and how many answers to check. I try to make the lessons SO easy to run that a non-mathy person can still do it, and I even talk to the kids in advance and prep them for the activity. If there are support teachers in my class, I brief them in advance, send them all the lesson material, and make sure they know what should be happening in case the substitute teacher is unclear. In the end, I come back and the kids are like, "The sub didn't write anything on the board. They didn't do anything." Last time, I made spiffy pencasts and tested them on the computer under another teacher's login, and everything, and the substitute teacher didn't have access on their own login account, and the whole thing was a fail even though in my mind, all they had to do was to hit Play. That was not their fault... however, moral of the story: I cannot substitute-proof my lessons!!

ARGH. So, tomorrow I'm out for a half-day. I planned it so that I'd miss only one single-period PM class, thereby minimizing the damage. I've made all my answer keys and even color-coded them and everything. Keeping my fingers crossed that whoever takes my class will defeat all odds and make me proud.

What do you do to substitute-proof your lessons?

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Visits #2, #3, #4

I've been insanely busy! OMG. This February break will go down in history as the most stressful break ever. At night, we were going out to meet up with old friends in Seattle, but because I was bussing to all these schools, I had to wake up at 6am every morning to get ready (and Geoff also woke up at 6am for moral support). But, I think it was well worth the effort, because I got to see a cross section of different schools and to talk to a bunch of math teachers in the area.

Besides the great school that I saw during visit #1 (which, by the way, now has an official MS opening posted on their website), I saw another great school during visit #2, in a location that is not within walking distance of downtown but is fairly central, within easy bussing or carpool distance. I took the bus there and it took me about 30 minutes. It's a small and pretty new school, maybe just about 300 kids from K to 12. They seem to have really wonderful administrators, and they even asked me to go back to do a demo lesson the next day. (This felt funny to me, of course, because I typically think that most of the hard work is in preparing for the lesson, not in delivering it. And it had been many years since I had been asked to do a demo lesson, so I was actually a bit nervous!) In the end, the demo went fine, I think, but it's too early in their interview process for me to know if they're really interested. (They actually hadn't posted the job yet, so I was the first candidate they were speaking to about the job, and that was only because I had emailed them out of the blue, requesting a visit.)

Visit #3 was to a large public school, and this one was pretty far, well north of the U District, if you are familiar with Seattle. The principal was very down to earth and kind, and she showed me around their math hallway (there was a lot of integrated technology -- smartboards, doc projectors, etc.) and told me that they have a few National Board Certified math teachers. I was pretty excited about the possibility of teaching at a good public school, but unfortunately they're not hiring at the moment. She said that if I am willing to, I could apply to the district and get an offer from the district (city) level, if I am willing to be dispatched anywhere in the district. She also alluded to the fact that they don't do cool, integrated teaching of mathematics like they do in all the other subjects, because math is high stakes and kids have to pass end-of-course state exams in order to graduate. That's a shame to hear, and it reminded me that I have to be very careful about public schools, in order to not end up somewhere that forces me to teach to the test.

Visit #4 was much more relaxed, because I visited a friend from PCMI on her home turf. She teaches at a coed Catholic school, in the boonies. It took me close to 2 hours to bus out there, and then on the way back, because I had missed the 1:10 bus, I had to wait 2 extra hours for the next bus to come. At least I got to check out the ponies at the street corner while I waited. (No joke.) But, her school was lovely! The campus was huge and beautiful, the technology was wired through the roof, and the kids seemed well-balanced with interesting personalities and "strong academics", as she said. It was a nice school to check out, because it helped me realize that no matter where I work, it's always going to be a tradeoff -- schools in the boonies will be equipped with great facilities, but the tradeoff is that I'll have to commute that far out from the city. Schools closer to the center will be less space-equipped, so when I evaluate them, I need to use a different set of criteria...

But, anyhow, this trip has been very productive! It has helped Geoff and I make the decision that we'll definitely go through with this cross-pond move, even if I may have to be flexible and to take whatever may come (including doing part-time gigs till I find a full-time job). So now, it's off to wedding planning and job searching all at once. Yikes.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Visit #1

I went to visit my first Seattle school today. It went well, I think. I loved the school. The kids were very nice; the teachers went out of their way to make me feel welcome; and I saw a lot of great math going on, from Grade 6 math to Multivariable Calculus. The location of the school is also fantastic -- within walking distance of my old hipster neighborhood. If this school is interested in hiring me, I would be thrilled!

But, so that I am not keeping all my eggs in one basket, I am visiting at least two more schools this week in hopes of just networking, seeing what is out there.

Job search is always tricky. I know that if they decide to hire me, I will adapt to whatever situation it is, but the question is always how to get that foot in the door, when you don't know what other candidates have to offer?

Anyway, I can only be myself and then hope for the best! Good thing there is that whole wedding planning thing to distract me.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

They Like Logs!

I don't know if it's a coincidence, or if there are other forces at play. But today, during class, I noticed that all of my 11th-graders are solving all kinds of log and exponential equations fluidly without accepting any help from me. They were even completely comfortable finding inverse equations given a function like f(x) = a*b^(cx - d) all by themselves.

Amazeballs. This is the first time that I think my students as a whole really understand logs!

I still believe that the credit goes to this. Sometimes, it just pays to slooow theeem dooowwwn.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Good Things and Bad Things

Good things:
  • I've been thinking about little changes that have big impacts. For example, recently my colleague asked me for some articles on teaching with technology. When I was reading up on various research done about teaching via graphing calculators, I learned that how the teacher teaches with the calculator actually has a great impact on student learning and flexible problem-solving. If a teacher always emphasizes the connection between algebra and graphical analysis using the calculator, then even when you take away the graphing calculator, more of the students are able to think flexibly of multiple modes of solving problems. So, I have been pushing my Grade 8 students to be more and more reliant on the calculator as a daily tool, rather than just irregularly incorporating it.
  • This change has allowed me to take on an even more passive role in my Grade 8 class (which is good, because that means they have to be even more independent). Now when I go over answers to worksheets, we only go over a subset of the answers, during which I call on a student, they provide their answer, and then I turn to the class and say, "Does everyone agree?" If they agree, we go on, and I never have to say true or false. If they disagree, then I pick a person to say step-by-step how they did the problem, and after each step I ask the class, "Do you agree with everything on the board?" Eventually, the class helps them to find their mistake, or we all agree on their answer and other kids try to figure out their own mistakes. After reviewing about half of the worksheet answers, I give the class another 10 or so minutes to verify the rest using a graphing calculator. My 8th-graders have become really good at graphing a function on the TI, adjusting window range, and then using the numerical-entry feature of Trace to quickly verify (x, y) pairs on the graph. They also know that they need to graphically check 2 points on a line in order to verify its equation, and they know how to verify their predictions along the line such as checking the value of k in (1000, k), or checking the value of n in (n, 849). On the test, I built in extra time for them to just check everything on the graphing calculator, and in the end, the kids said that the test really wasn't so bad. (Even though it had at least one quite tricky PSAT problem and other parallel, perpendicular, collinear testing problems that are fairly complex for Grade 8.)
  • My 7th-graders are getting very communicative about math. Today, we played a modified Bingo Game to review for our test on Thursday. I had them write in integer values of -5 to 9 in a 4-by-4 grid, with 1 "freebie" space anywhere. Then I started writing questions on the board, one at a time. Nothing special, except we weren't going over the answers like we normally would. Once they determined the solution to a problem, they can cross that solution off of their grid, but they had to put the problem's letter (A, B, C, .... etc) next to the crossed out number, so that if they got Bingo, we could verify that they actually had all the correct answers associated with the correct problems. Sometimes I noticed while walking around that the kids were getting stuck on a problem, so I would ask, "Who can give a hint for how to start this problem?" and kids would eagerly raise their hands to offer hints. Along the way, they offered many hints like, "Cross multiply!" "Reduce before you divide!" "Find the common denominator!" "Check by putting the values into the equation!" and they also helped each other set up the percent increase/decrease problems as proportions, multiplying decimals, and finding "weird percents" like 0.1% of 3000 or 400% of 0.5. These 7th-graders are not just getting really good at algebra, but they're getting all the descriptive terminology down, too! Sometimes, they noticed that they had marked the same number as being called twice during the same game, and they had to go back to figure out which problem was solved incorrectly, and that was another way of having them self-monitor instead of me monitoring them. Eventually, when someone called out, "Bingo!" they would give me the problems and the solutions associated with those problems, and instead of me saying whether each answer was correct, I would ask the class. If the class agreed, we'd let the kid go on to the next number. Else, we stopped to go over the problem on the board. Again, I keep thinking about how I can hand over more and more of the "correctness" control to the kids, and today was a good day in Grade 7 for that.
  • I recently started my weekly lunch review session with my 12th-graders. I told them right off the bat that these sessions are totally voluntary, but the kids who come tend to do a lot better on the IB exam. It's not the one-hour studying during lunch that makes the difference. In fact, when they come, they just sit and do independent mixed practice using old exams without my help really. I am helping to model what it should look like to study at home, and my physical presence builds their courage to try unfamiliar problems, I think, knowing that I can be there to help if they do get terribly stuck. The first session went very well last week. I plan to alternate between non-calculator paper and calculator paper each week, in order to build up their ability to switch gears and to think in a different mode during a different setting. So, this week we'll be doing a calculator paper. Whatever they don't finish, they'll just take home as additional homework, since I expect that they're now putting in at least a couple of hours each week to do mixed practice on their own. I have seen them grow a lot during the last year and a half, and I know that they will do well if they put their minds to it.
  • In the end, I received some very positive feedback from those of my 9th-graders who had put in a lot of work into their videos project. They said that even though in the beginning, they weren't totally comfortable with the topics that they had chosen and the problems that they needed to explain, by the time that I had made them re-do and re-do it, they thought the concept was very easy in the end. The question that remains is only how I can manage this in the future for all kids, even those who put in minimal effort, and how to extend this level of articulation to all topics, and not just the one that they chose at the semester mark.

Bad things:
  • I am sick and still allergic, and I feel like I am walking around in a fog. I really hope that I get well by Saturday, since I'll be seeing Geoff for the first time in over a month! (He has been working away from Germany, and finally I'll be visiting him during my February break.)
  • I also lost weight recently, probably due to stress and all that jazz. It's definitely not intentional, but now my wedding dress is too big and I will probably have to take it back to the store again. I am feeling quite anxious about this, because now the clock is ticking and I don't want to risk another alteration. blah.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Berlin Dining Scene

Geoff and I love food. Geoff loves experimenting with new restaurants, and I always have my favorites no matter where we live, that I frequent on a regular basis. Between the two of us, we have tried a good amount of places here.

In Berlin, my favorite/highly recommended restaurants are:
  • Goodtime, which is a fairly expensive Thai restaurant with great food and great ambiance. My favorite location is the one in Zehlendorf. But, it runs quite pricey there. For an entree with a pot of tea, that can cost you over 20 Euros per person. I've also been to the Goodtime located in Mitte, and that was nice as well.
  • Since Goodtime is quite expensive, I have found a cheaper option that is equally tasty and located right in my neighborhood. Papaya is also a mini-chain, but the location on Kleistpark is by far my favorite of the two locations I've been to. The food there is so flavorful, exquisite, and spicy that, this summer when I was traveling in actual Thailand, I was craving the Thai food from Papaya. Papaya is not cheap compared to a lot of Berlin places, but definitely a cheaper option than Goodtime. An entree with tea will run you around 15 Euros. My favorite dishes from here are Ped Pad Ki Mau (fried duck with Ki Mau soy sauce, basil, chili, fresh peppers, etc) and Penang curry.
  • Addendum April 21, 2013: There is another nice Thai restaurant called Sida that is great for a group (if you make reservation early) and has good food across the menu. Their foods are flavorful and very affordable!
  • Yogi Haus is by far the best Indian restaurant in Berlin. We've been to several others, including some famous ones from Tripadvisor. Yogi Haus is huge, but it gets very crowded on Friday and Saturday nights, completely packed sometimes including all indoor and outdoor sitting areas. The mango curry there is to die for, and the price is great at this place.
  • Addendum May 26, 2013: There is an okra + lamb curry dish at Yogi Haus that is even better than their mango curry. This particular curry is a bit sour and super flavorful, reminding me of vindaloos from other parts of India. Try it!!!
  • There is an Ethiopian restaurant that is located half a block away from my house. It's called Abyssinia, and it's right around where this restaurant used to be.They have excellent service, and their food is delicious. I regularly order their Doro Wot, which is a type of red curry with chicken and a hard-boiled egg. If you're a fan of Ethiopian food, I highly recommend this place. They're so relaxed and so great about letting you hang out there, too.
  • Addendum April 21, 2013: There is another famous Ethiopian restaurant in our neighborhood called Bejte Ethiopia that has great reviews, but honestly it's not nearly as good as Abyssiniea. 
  • Besides that, a couple of blocks away from me has the most delicious Chinese restaurant I've yet been able to find in Berlin: Chi Chi Kan. They have some dimsum type of things, but those are just OK. The best things that they have, in my opinion, are their lamb chops with bok choi, and also their Exotic Chicken appetizer. It's a bit on the pricey side; if I order a starter, a pot of tea, and a main course, it's a lot of food but it can run close to 20 Euros.
  • Mustafa's on Mehringdamm is definitely not overrated. There are kebap places everywhere in Berlin, but their unique combination of crispy toasted bread, juicy meat, stirfried vegetables and potatoes, spiced fresh "salad" (lettuce and tomatoes and onions and such toppings), and flavorful sauces makes this place a magical kebap place even though the lines are so, so, SO slow-moving. Even if there are only 15 people in line, expect to wait for about 40 minutes. But the food is so tasty that it's definitely worth the wait.
  • Addendm May 26, 2013: Near Rathaus Steglitz, on Schlossstr across the street from the M48-Alexanderplatz bus stop, there is a little standalone kebap stand called Cebos. This came highly recommended from several colleagues, so I finally checked it out. It's great! Not as good as Mustafa's, but it's also without the ridiculous wait. If you eat spice, their spicy sauce is quite good -- not sweet like the normal kebap places, but actually with a serious kick. They also have similar ingredients to Mustafa's, with the extra potatoes and feta cheese... 
  • The best German Sunday brunch places I have been to are Cafe Morgenland and Deponie Nummer 3. The former is always impossible to get a reservation, and the latter is always quite free to go at the last minute. 
  • Addendum April 21, 2013: We have tried a few other great American-style brunch places. The California Breakfast Slam and its sister brunch place, the Chicago Breakfast Slam have absolutely banging! breakfast! The Mexican-styled breakfast with beans and eggs and tacos, guac, sour cream are to die for, and their French toasts are complex and mouth-watering as well.
  • The best Berlin cappuccinos I have tried are from Double Eye on Akazienstrasse and Maxway Cafe near Winterfeldtplatz. The latter, unfortunately, is in the middle of training new baristas, so sometimes your coffee can be very disappointing. If you care more about the ambiance than the quality of the coffee, then Cafe Bilderbuch is your best bet. The back part of the cafe just feels amazing, like you are sitting in someone's livingroom.
  • I am not a big fan of German cuisine, but Marjellchen is very delicious. They somehow turn the traditional German fare into juicy, flavorful affairs, and the atmosphere is very relaxed. Of course, you should anticipate to pay some extra money, because this is a restaurant that is popular on TripAdvisor. But, it is well worth a visit.
  • It's funny to come to Berlin to eat burgers, but if you live here, The Bird is a staple. This place is crazy; you have to make reservations even on a Tuesday night at 10pm, if you want a seat!! Once I went with my friend at 10pm on a Tuesday night with no reservations, and we had to stand at the bar to wait until someone kindly gave us their seat. Not only do they use real steak as meat, but their fries are also intoxicatingly good. The burgers are huge, so go with an appetite! Maybe afterwards you can walk through Mauerpark (the Bird is next door to the park) to burn off some calories.
  • My Japanese friend Mamiko recommended to me two Japanese restaurants, both of which I really like. Sasaya serves traditional Japanese food, and is quite expensive. The one time that I have been there, I ordered an eel rice, and it was the best eel rice I've ever had. Full stop. You need to reserve a spot though, like a week in advance, because the restaurant is quite small. Cocolo is a delicious ramen noodle bar, also small, near Hackeschermarkt. They have a small menu, but everything on their menu is mouth-wateringly good. In the winter time, expect to wait outside to be seated, because the restaurant really is that small and that popular. Next door to Cocolo is another hip sushi restaurant called Kuchi. Mamiko and I intend on checking it out tonight, so I'll keep you posted on our assessment.
  • Addendum April 21, 2013: Mamiko and I actually didn't go to Kuchi, but went instead to a place called Hashi, which means chopsticks in Japanese. It's a Japanese snacks place -- and Mamiko absolutely loved it! She said the foods are super authentic and make her feel like she's back in Japan. 
  • Of course, if you're already shopping on Ku'Damm anyway, the 6th floor of KaDeWe has lots of bustling gourmet food stalls. You should check this out, because it's a great touristy experience.
  • Nocti Vagus is an eating-in-the-dark gourmet cabaret restaurant. When we went, we had a lovely time, and both the food and the service there were excellent. It was a set menu (you get to choose from vegetarian, meat, or "surprise menu") of about 50 Euros per person before drinks, so definitely prepare to spend a fair bit of money if you plan to go. There is always a performance during dinner, and for us that was a lovely little surprise to hear the musicians perform in the dark.
  • Of the high-end restaurants that we have tried here, Don Camillo is probably my favorite in terms of its combination of food and service. They don't have printed menus. Instead, they bring you the ingredients and just describe to you how it's going to be made. We sat out in the garden on an autumn evening, and it was very comfortable pace for a very expensive meal (a couple of hundred Euros per person). Definitely something for a very special occasion. Geoff also likes Remake, which is on Big Hamburger Street (Grosse Hamburgerstr), funnily enough. We went to Remake for celebrating our engagement, and there their specialty is in finding new twists in old ingredients. Semi-recently we also went to Tim Raue, where the food was great but the service was horrible. (The chef basically came out to shout at us for the waitress's mistake in ordering me food that I had already said in the beginning that I was allergic to.)
 I hope that if you visit Berlin sometime, you'll find this list to be helpful! :) Mmmm food...

Friday, February 1, 2013

Trying Acupuncture

This week, I went to my first acupuncture appointment. It was fabulous. Actually, I was so surprised by the experience that I came home and did some extensive googling on both acupuncture and my specific acupuncturist. I was very satisfied by both results.

I have had asthma since I was young. As I grew older, the number of things I am allergic to seem to increase every year. Dogs, cats, dust mites, some types of trees, cockroaches, shellfish, alcohol... The list goes on and on, and those are only the things that I've tested positive to, officially. I haven't had an updated allergy test now for a while. My asthma got really bad when I was living in New York (with all the cockroaches, I guess); once, I landed in the ER after being sick with a bad cough for a month, when my asthma simply stopped me in my tracks and I lost the ability to breathe in any air. At some point, my skin started to itch really bad all the time, in some variation of eczema (skin allergy). Recently, a whole area of my face swelled up and just cracked open, which is another form of eczema allergies. It's mostly healed now (with very diligent care on my part), but I told myself after this embarrassing ordeal that I'm tired of living like this, and that I would try and fix my allergies at the root.

That's where my opinions differ from that of most Westerners. I believe that allergies can be fixed. You don't have to live with allergies, if you find the right traditional doctor who can suppress your body's unnatural reactions to environmental stimuli. Steroids and antihistamine are just there to cover up the symptoms of your poor health.

I find that Western medicine can be very limiting in issues that deal with internal, non-surgical medicine. In the past, when I had recurrent infections, I went to Western docs and they just kept feeding me antibiotics. I would go on an antibiotic regimen for 2 weeks, feel better, and then my meds would run out and that infection would come back. I'd go back, and this time they'd give me a stronger antibiotic, which would drive the infection away for maybe an additional week before it comes back. The cycle kept repeating itself, which was driving me mad. It was out of sheer desperation that I turned to traditional medicine. The only thing that eventually cured me was when I went to a doctor in China (during a well-timed visit to my parents), and the doc decided to feed me herbs that would make my body an unwelcoming environment for bacteria. After I started taking those herbs, which was about 3 years ago, I've never had any problems since. (I had to take them for about 2 months, let's say. But, it was TOTALLY WORTH IT.)

So, this time, I did some research and I found out that there was a great acupuncturist in Berlin, who came highly recommended by everyone for treating a variety of illnesses, from sports pains to allergies to digestion problems to menstruation issues. I went to her today, and it was a great experience. She was super professional and attentive, and asked me many questions -- unlike the recent dermatologist I went to who had only wanted to hand out some steroid cream and push me out the door. We did the needle thing, which was actually totally weird, cool, and relaxing. She also gave me some herbs, that I'll have to pick up from a traditional pharmacy soon. (I am quite amazed that I could even do that here! I cannot be happier!!!) I know it'll take several months for me to see whether this thing really works, but for curing what has been more or less a lifelong allergy/asthma ailment, I am very willing to be patient and experimental.

It probably sounds a bit funny to you, but I hope that you are reading this and finding that there is hope to cure whatever ailment you are having. Don't let the limitations of Western medicine stop you from exploring other possibilities. Very rational, scientifically-minded people that I know are big fans of traditional treatment. The difference is in how open you are to unfamiliar experiences, that's all.

I cannot wait for my next acupuncture appointment. :)