Monthly Archives: July 2012

What is Learning?

After reading this post by Tony Gurr, I was challenged to take on the question of “What is learning?” myself. After all, Tony says it is a question we do not ask enough. Indeed, the question had never really crossed my mind. I think I was taking it for granted that learning is something that, “I’ll know it when I see it / when I experience it.” In my own context, I don’t see the same students for more than a week at a time. I often ask myself what they’ll take away from the class. Some of my coworkers even make goals for the one thing they want the students to take away if they remember nothing else. I don’t do this – I learned a long time ago that other people’s learning isn’t always dictated by me.

It took me two days to read the whole blog post. Yeah, it was long, but that’s not really why. I got stuck on finding my own definition of learning. How hard can it be to come up with a definition of learning? It was supposed to take five minutes, be tweeted to ten people, and improve with collaboration. But the more I thought about it, the more impossible the challenge sounded. First off, I didn’t have a definition of learning. BIG problem. There was also the problem of who to collaborate with and how. And that’s where I made a decision I don’t usually make.

I used Facebook. I used Facebook and I hid the post from my “Professional” list. What I realized was, those were not the answers I wanted. They give thoughtful and considered answers based on their many many years of experience. They are professional learners, all of them. I wish I could tell you I did something awesome and profound like sending the question to my students. I didn’t do that. I sent it out to all my friends and family no matter what their walk of life – the people who, like me, never really think about what learning is. We just “let it happen”. Below are some of the responses, as well as my own definition (pre-Facebook question, but post @TonyGurr blog).

Maybe learning is questioning, listening, thinking and examining so that I improve understanding and reshape knowledge.

* learning is getting a job and if ur lucky a career (previous comment only applies to book learning) *

* acquiring and retaining knowledge or skills? *

* Learning is the acquisition of knowledge, skills or wisdom not previously present in the learner. *

* oh man! a student just asked me the difference between studying and learning. it’s such a difficult word to explain. *

* Studying is reviewing material in the attempt to learn it. Learning it means you will be able to remember and apply it. One might study, but still not learn. 😉 *

* I like to think learning means you acquire knowledge and you and your life change. Otherwise it’s just memorization which leads to /censored/ who talk alot but have nothing to say. *

* figuring out what NOT to do! *

* Endless quest to expand self knowledge. *

* To obtain knowledge of a skill by study or experience. Webster’s New World Dictionary *

What I learned from this is that learning is quite personal. Everyone has their own unique definition. Mine probably took so long to formulate because I was trying to “learn” it. The other thing I took away is that maybe knowing what learning is isn’t enough. Maybe we have to go on to ask the question: How can we help our students learn? We can’t tell them what to learn, but maybe we can guide them in how to learn.

Maybe I’m doing it wrong.  I don’t know. But one big change for me is that, thanks to Tony Gurr, now I’m thinking about it. One day I might get it right.

Laughing Diary, part 2

***Update: See more laughing diary posts:

Throwing Back Tokens: The Laughing Diary Intervention

The Daily Ptefldactyl: What goes ha ha bonk?

The Other Things Matter: Laughing Journal Challenge ***

***One more laughing diary to add to the fun: check out datenglish: laughing diary***

When I posted my notice about it being time for a new laughing diary, I felt a bit like the crooked fork below: lonely, sad, and caving in while everyone around me stood straight and strong. It was hard to push the “publish” button. But publishing it holds me accountable for actually doing it. So I clicked. But I didn’t tweet it. How could I admit to these strong pillars of my PLN that I was crumbling? It might go unnoticed until there was a lovely post full of laughs to share. Of course, it did not. The empathetic and ever-vigilant @vickyloras noticed it and took up the challenge – see her post here – and from there the idea seemed to catch. Instead of judgment, support poured in – not condescending “oh you poor thing” support, but strong, positive “we are with you and you are not alone” support, meeting my needs for empathy and community. I am grateful.

I wouldn’t have had much to publish here without my friends, so here is my list of the things that have given me joy this week (with all the kudos at the end).

1. This photo made me giggle: . It came from this link on Psychology Today and is the latest in a line of comforting reminders that I’m not alone in the world.

2. “You can’t just be a Greek chorus all the time. Sometimes if there are things no one else will say you have to step up and say them.”

3. This made me laugh earlier in the week and deserves a place here because re-watching made me laugh again:

4. This has been making me laugh for quite a while now (in doses): Gin and Juice . This one cracks me up, too: Enter Sandman .

5. I guess tonight gets one more unexpected entry (the best kind): half-drunken 2am twittersations that send me to sleep smiling.*

6. This facebook status: “Just did a show at a library where we had to go outside for the big trash can explosion. Everyone went outside, including the librarians. Nobody brought a key to the library… we had to call the police.”

7. What friends are for: “This is a stress-free environment. Leave your head in Gyeongju.”

8. This blog post: Hatless (I don’t know if context is required for it to be funny. Or it might just be my mood at the moment.)

9. “Super-teacher … tired people waking up and doing amazing things”  – there was a pretty amazing picture, too.

10. Glasses wider than my cheeks when I smile.

Apparently I have a small face. At least I’m not as blind as the owner of these glasses!

11. The most intensive fire drill I’ve ever seen in my life. The alarm went off and we all went out of the building. There was a fire in a trash can. The fire fighters used the school’s equipment to put it out. An ambulance came and took the “victim” to the hospital. It ended in a much too short lesson on CPR and demos which left all the girls giggling.

There was even a “patient” for the ambulance.

12. Apparently, there exists a chance of dying by laughter (15 billion to 1). I wonder if the type of laughter matters? #maniacal #bestwaytogo

13. The idea that toothbrushes might conceal hidden mass that could leak out when bisected. #notmyidea

14. This facebook status: “Been in Europe for 20 mins, after 3 years away the biggest thing I’ve noticed so far is definitely how high the urinals are!”

And reply: “Or maybe you’re shrinking? #smurf”

15. Oh, dear god. Books have trailers? My procrastination buddies found this:

16. I also woke up to this random PM on Facebook: “get to work woman!! there are games to be played and stressed to be relieved….if you can make it….which I think for your health, mentally at least, you should….but i’m biased …..good didn’t write biassed.”

17. A list of euphemisms. Some of my favorites are:

#35 – Richard Cranium

#50 – Badonkadonk

#57 – The Euphemism

If you don’t feel like visiting the page, I’ll leave their meanings to your imagination.

18. Park Forest, IL has a community page on Facebook. This funny picture and quote was posted there today by Susan S.:

Comment from Jon B. below the photo: “This particular model of Weinermobile looks like a hot dog crushing a banana.”

“Myyyyy Balogna has a first name,
It’s O-S-C-A-R!
My Balogna has a second name,
It’s M-E-Y-E-R!
IIIIIIII love to eat it every day
When people ask me why I saaaaaaaaaay!!!…..
‘Cause Oscar Meyer has a way with

19. The 50 Cutest Things That Ever Happened – a somewhat tongue-in-cheek photoblog that I didn’t realize was going to make me laugh out loud. #7, #9, #19, #43 and #44 were my favorites: what are yours?

20. This conversation:

Female: “Hookers are fine, upstanding citizens.”

Male1: “That’s not true. They’re more lie-downing.”

Female: “I’m pretty sure most paying customers would prefer it standing up.”

Male2(with obvious discomfort): “Ohhhh… OK… We went there…”

21. Someone in my MAAL course posted this. I had to read them all at least twice:

22. A post in the “teaching speaking” forum on teaching strategies for opening and closing conversations:

Opening example included: “Hi. Can I buy you a drink.”

Closing example included: “I don’t think we’re compatible but it was nice meeting you.”

23. Textbook frustrations: Seriously, H.D. Brown? The best example you could find of a sentence in which every syllable is stressed is “Dead men wear plaid”? Seriously?

24. This webpost: How to Stay Sane in Korea – is one of my favorites that I’ve seen in a long long time. I would love to meet the writer. Her mode of self-expression is absolutely delightful.

25. This:

26. Mullet. Also #mullets (I get so many laughs from twitter)

27. Cupcakes. I’m serious. Read this: “But in a culture frightened by change, blurred borders, and boundary crossings, the cupcake makes all those scary things palatable.”

Utensils that might make cupcake eating difficult.

28. Yearbook Yourself. Just do it.


This week’s laughs (in no particular order) were brought to you by: @josettelb, @michaelegriffin, @kenfink, @pterolaur, @alexswalsh, @kevchanwow, @HebrewH, @kylemartelle, @wnderlustprojct, @chucksandy, non-tweeters: John H., Helen L., Paul R., Nikki H., Nic B., Robin C.

the power of memory (a story)

It is mid-afternoon, but getting dark. The snow swirls around the empty streets. The skies are gray. The only light comes from a fire in a sheltered alley. The fire is in a metal trash can, fueled by broken dreams, kindled with tears. The old man blows the fire and an image appears in the smoke.

It is a dancing woman. She wears a long red skirt, a black blouse, and high heels. She has long, black hair and a pearl necklace. Her eyes are flames. She reaches out to the watchers, but a gust of wind comes. And blows her away.

The four sit around the fire, shivering. The youngest, a boy of 11 or 12 with sandy hair and red cheeks, is wearing a khaki coat and brown shoes much too big for him. He listens to the wind swirl the snow on the street. The wind dies down and he blows the fire. An image rises.

It is the same woman, with long white hair and warm brown eyes. She is not dancing. She sits in the rocking chair singing to herself. She is singing a lullaby. The boy begins to sing, too, when the wind blows through the alley again. She is gone.

The four take up the boy’s song for a while, and the wind sings with them. As the wind dies, the song falters. A tall man in a warm fur cap blows the fire, raises the woman.

She has black hair and brown eyes. A white apron covers her long red skirt. Her hair is streaked with silver. The smell of cinnamon wafts through the air. She turns toward them, inviting them in. The wind blows. Only the smell of cinnamon remains.

The fourth, a woman with the same hair and eyes, turns away from the fire and breaks the silence.. “I’m cold. Let’s go.” The four turn away without a backward glance and leave the fire behind. The dance, the lullaby, the cinnamon, the wind mingle and die away. The snow blows into the empty alley. Afternoon wears on to night. The fire dies.

the best medicine

It’s time for another laughing diary.

Burnout has been creeping up on me for a while now. There’s a voice in me that says, “You should be able to do this. You deserve this. You are weak for feeling like this. You’re self-centered and selfish. No one wants to hear it. Deal with it.” But every time I think about the size of my workload, I can’t even write it down in a list. I procrastinate. Nothing gets done. I’m way behind in my classes and haven’t paid the trimester fees yet. I’m behind in my lesson planning and won’t have time for it at all soon. My contract is coming to an end and the future is uncertain. I’m staring down the barrel of twelve-hour workdays for four weeks including weekends, while studying, doing a practicum, and supervising the other teachers. I’m at the point where I want to give away all my stuff, quit my MA, quit my job. 

In an attempt to stave off (or at least postpone) the breakdown I sense in my future, I’ve decided to spend the next seven days noticing the world around me rather than wrapped up in my own stress-ball.

I’m going to keep a diary of all the things that make me laugh for the next seven days and publish them here. Keep an eye out for Laughing Diary, part 2 around this time next week. If the mood takes you, why not take up the challenge and share your laughs as well?

July 11th, 2002


I still find it pretty amazing how life can change in just an instant. And usually that instant doesn’t provide much opportunity for reflection. For me, one phone call changed my life so quickly that before I could blink, it was July 11th, 2002 and I was standing stunned in an airport in South Korea.

It was graduation day. While I was getting dressed for my graduation ceremony, it suddenly occurred to me that I’d be graduating into a competitive world without a job or any money. I asked myself: “What do you want to do most in life?”

I want to travel. I want adventure. I want to get out of this culture of fear that has permeated New York all year. I never again want to see a person dressed in an American flag while her Muslim neighbors are being beaten up and shunned.

So I went to the computer and typed in “work and travel”. The result was page after page after page of recruiting companies looking for people to teach in South Korea. I clicked one at random. I had a diploma (or would, in a couple hours). I fit the minimal qualifications. They offered to pay the airfare and provide a room for me. I filled out the application form, sent it, and promptly forgot about it as I slipped into my light-blue robe and went off to my graduation. Later that afternoon, I had a phone interview and was immediately offered a job. “Can you leave next month?” “You bet I can.”

I was young and not so savvy. I looked up Korea on a map before I left. I won’t even tell you what I imagined, but just to give you a laugh I will tell you that I packed a box of matches and several packages of  ramen noodles. And a pot. Standing stunned in Daegu International Airport, waiting for my new life to start.

Ten years to the day have now passed and I’ve had plenty of time to reflect. Ten years ago I made a choice to leave behind the things I was expected to do and pursue the things that made me happy. I promised myself that when I stopped being happy, I would go home. I would find something else to do. As each July 11th came around, my boss asked me to sign a new contract and I didn’t have a reason not to. I was happy with the travel and the adventure, but even happier with the job. I like teaching.

Never in my life had it occurred to me that I might want to be a teacher. Growing up, I was too shy to talk. Coming out of my shell in high school and university (usually because I had no choice) left me drained. But there is something about the open hearts and honest love of children that is energizing and enriching. Those kids taught me more than I taught them. I learned about teaching because I loved the students. I owed it to them to do my very best. In the process, I became a teacher.

Now, I am checking in with myself once again. “Am I still happy?” My life has changed a lot again this past year. I’ve become focused on learning. I started a Master’s in Applied Linguistics. I became interested in reflective teaching. I began learning about non-violent communication. I edited textbooks. I started writing, which turned into blogging, which I had never intended.

Some days are dark. Sometimes I think I’m asking the wrong question (“Am I still me?” might be more appropriate on some doubtful days!). Other times I remember that “go home” doesn’t have the same meaning anymore, if it means anything at all. Sometimes the sacrifice feels heavier than the rewards.

For the most part, though, my days are full of light, laughter, love and friendship. While I’ve learned that I don’t know anything at all, I’ve also learned that a painful but necessary part of the quest is to unlearn – not to forget, but to let go of beliefs and be open to other ways of doing things. To admit that experience is not equal to expertise. That’s where I am now and that’s okay.

I will end by asking the final question: what’s next? One of the reasons I’m still here is that I’ve never had an answer to this question. I don’t know if I’m ready to answer it today either.


A lesson in reflection

I made a reflective goal last month to reflect on the reflective meetings I’ve had with my new team of teachers. This is the result.

Last month my school presented me with five teachers and asked me to train them on the job for a three-week camp. I got a couple hours to go over the schedule with them and show them the facilities. The working hours were 9am to 8:30pm. They were asked to arrive the night before work started. To make matters worse, I had to teach those hours as well, so observations and on the spot suggestions and help were not options. I had no experience with training teachers. I wrote the syllabus and prepared the materials myself, but never had classes to test it on and we wouldn’t know the levels of the students until they arrived each week. It could turn out completely irrelevant. Luckily we had a lenient director, flexible teachers, and helpful staff. Another benefit: the camp was actually one week, repeated three times – plenty of opportunities to improve!


There was no way to solve the problem of training, so I decided that “on the job training” was really a euphemism for “throw them to the wolves”.

Of course, this isn’t me at all. I couldn’t drop anyone in a classroom unsupported. So I got them to agree to daily meetings for planning and reflection. I started each meeting asking the teachers to share one thing that went well that day. Instead of a roundtable bitch session (sorry), this set the tone for a productive meeting. Instead of feeling attacked by discussing problems, teachers could highlight successes. I wrote all the great ideas down in my notebook and added them to an email at the end of the meeting in case anyone wanted to use them for their own classes in the future. After that, we talked about teaching challenges. I shared a challenge from my own class and we brainstormed ideas for why it happened and what can be changed next time. After that the other teachers were more comfortable sharing experiences from their classes and we found students who were in the wrong level, materials that were not level-appropriate and teaching challenges we all face. We came up with suggestions together and found ways to implement them either immediately or in the next week. We also spent time talking about the next day’s schedule and what we envisioned the activities to look like. That way everyone went to class at 9am armed with a detailed schedule, action plans for dealing with challenges, and the knowledge of support from all the other teachers.

And it worked. Week one was rocky, but we were flexible and set a precedent for solving problems together without blame. Week two was better. Meetings were shorter and relationships closer. The administration provided most of our new challenges. Week three was the best. Meetings were mostly celebratory and eventually migrated to restaurants and bars. Best of all, everyone left on good terms, feedback was constructive, and the teachers commented on how much they’d learned working for the camp. I learned a lot too and not just about teaching – about how to work as part of a team while still being the “head teacher”; about solving problems without making people feel bad; about the value of reflection and a positive attitude.

Lots of love for my reflective ‘something betters’. 🙂

%d bloggers like this: