Archives For Education

Happy Thanksgiving

November 22, 2012 — 2 Comments

Thanksgiving has come and gone in Sri Lanka, largely it was unnoticed. In an attempt to share some American culture with my students, I decided that the entirety of my classes today would be based on the American festival of Thanksgiving.

I began class by writing the following on the board: Today is Thursday, November 22. In America it Thanksgiving, a holiday that is like Pongal.

The comparison to Pongal, the Tamil harvest festival, helped. But I was surprised that the word holiday caused some problems. My students were confused about the difference between a holy day and a holiday. For my later classes I opted to exclude the word holiday, in favor of festival. Things went better.

I then spoke for a few minutes about the festival, telling my students about turkey, parades, pie, and football. Most of this was lost on them, so I pulled out my secret weapon – Charlie Brown.

We watched a great YouTube highlight reel of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving. Having these visuals helped to convey the holiday. I then brought up some footage from the Macy’s Parade, and they got the concept; they preferred saying big balloons though.

Turkey was a hard sell. They thought I meant chicken, and it took a lot of selling on my part to convince them that a turkey was distinct from a chicken.

When we got to the word pie, I was heartbroken. They had no idea what a pie was, the pictures were of no help. Imagine leading a life and having no conception of pie. After I told them that pie is a sweet, like cake, they were accepting of the strange dish.

Football was an easier sell. Like Europe, Sri Lanka refers to soccer as football. But I had a miniature football that I broke out. My class of boys thought I meant rugby, while the girls just accepted it.

Class went pretty well today.

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As for me, my dinner consisted of rice and curry. This was the first, and hopefully only, Thanksgiving that I ate dinner alone. It was an unremarkable occasion, and it really made me appreciate all of the great Thanksgivings with the family.

A Thanksgiving delayed is better than a Thanksgiving denied. Growing up in a restaurant family you get used to celebrating holidays on off days. The date of celebration doesn’t matter as much as the act of celebrating. I am anxiously awaiting the arrival of next Friday, when the Fulbrighters of Sri Lanka will join together to celebrate Thanksgiving.

Living and working in Sri Lanka has made me much more thankful for all the amenities we enjoy in America. But this year, the thing I’m most thankful for is my fellow Fulbrighters. It’s great to have someone in your own times zone (and country code) to call or text during those rough moments that invariably arise when living abroad.

I can’t wait to write the blog post Thanksgiving Part Two.

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Trinco Town

November 19, 2012 — Leave a comment

Last Monday I arrived at Sarvodaya’s headquarters in Moratuwa. I had been staying with a few other Fulbrighters who rented a house in Colombo, and I had enjoyed a great weekend strolling about town. I was all packed, and my car arrived at eight in the morning. When I was going to put on my chacos (quite comfortable sandals), I noticed a huntsman spider blending in on the bed of my shoe. I recoiled as it ran off, in a state of shock. After chasing it towards the door, my driver whacked it with a broom and killed it.

What a start to the week.

It was about a 45-minute drive outside of Colombo, and when I arrived I was shown to a hostel before going for the obligatory cup of milk tea. The first day I spent most of the morning reading in my room, waiting for a few people to get out of meetings.

After lunch, I was shown around the campus, and introduced to many of the organization’s key people – from the acting director to the founder. Sarvodaya is a large scale NGO; their operations include all of those things you’d expect an NGO to do: education, orphanages, peace training, microfinance, disaster preparedness, and many others. They are also involved in some surprising enterprises: furniture manufacturing, printing presses, and a meditation center. As the largest NGO in Sri Lanka, they are involved in many projects.

On Wednesday I was able to hitch a ride to Trinco with Shanti Sena, the peace-training arm of Sarvodaya. They were conducting a three-day session, training youths in inter-religious cooperation.

A ride out to Trinco takes covers about 270km (170 miles) and takes about seven hours (the mathematically inclined will note that’s a speed of about 25 miles per hour). The condition of the roads is poor, and they wind across the mountains. During the drive out one of the workers asked me why I choose Trinco; he proceeded to tell me that he hates the town, as there isn’t much to do outside of work. My expectations were dampened, to say the least.

The Sarvodaya District Center in Trincomalee is among the newest of their facilities. It was reconstructed with donations from countries and NGO’s across the world, following the 2004 Tsunami. For three days I sat through workshops – conducted primarily in Sinhala and Tamil – with participants from all religious groups in Sri Lanka. While I missed a great deal of the specifics, in general the sessions were meant to showcase the similarities between the religious groups. It was fun, but a bit perplexing at times when I had no idea what was occurring.

On Saturday I spent several hours walking through Trinco, taking in the sites of the town. It was about a half an hour walk from Sarvodaya’s center to Trinco town, and along the walk was a military checkpoint. Trinco is home to both the Air Force and Naval Academies. The military presence in this city is extensive, as the final months of the war were fought in this region. The town itself is quiet, and almost pastoral. Cows leisurely stroll along the main avenues in town, and an axis deer has made its home in the bus depot. There is one supermarket at the heart of town, but many small-scale shops. Trinco has many beautiful Hindu temples, they’re scattered across town.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On Sunday, after an early breakfast, the District Coordinator of Sarvodaya invited me to a USAID event. I asked him if it would be in English, and if other Americans would be present. He assured me that representatives from USAID would be there, and it would be in all of the languages of Sri Lanka (Sinhala, Tamil, and English). I eagerly ran upstairs to throw on a button down shirt, and head to the truck. We arrived, and I quickly realized that I would act as the USAID representative. In fact there would be no English, but instead Tamil speakers would display their Sinhalese skills and vice-versa. It was quite funny, to say the least.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After the event, a German friend and I strolled down the street. I was inquiring at guesthouses about long-term rentals – to no avail. We stumbled across Chaaya Blu, an upscale western hotel. Stepping into the lobby of the hotel was like entering another country. The beaches on this stretch of land were immaculate, and everyone suddenly spoke English. We were ushered to the pool and seaside restaurant, and sat down for a cocktail and some sautéed cashew nuts. It was lovely, but this is not the Sri Lanka I have come to know over the past month and a half. While I was sipping on my gin fizz, I was suddenly stuck by thoughts the remains of buildings from the tsunami just up the beach. Westerners coming to this part of Sri Lanka can visit and remain woefully ignorant to the complexities of a country that was torn by war for nearly three decades. One of my fellow Fulbrighters wrote a great article on the ethics of tourism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today I started teaching classes, and I was in for a number of surprises.

For five days a week I will be teaching three classes for an hour each, in addition to this I am working with the staff on their English skills (most of the staff speak on Tamil, and limited Sinhalese and English). I had woefully overestimated the English competency of my students, and had to immediately tone down the lessons. My first class was teaching a group of 28 seamstress students, and they were giggling the entire time. While they are all about my age, the maturity gap is huge, we come form different backgrounds – and I’m fortunate to benefit from the best university system in the world.

In my second class I was becoming frustrated during the first fifteen minutes as two in a class of six remained silent and would not join in with the class. When their teacher returned and started signing to them I quickly realized that they were hearing and speaking impaired… I started writing out instructions, and then they got with the program. The boys were much less shy around me than my earlier class.

My last class was with a group of girls studying to become preschool teachers. I had a lot of fun with them, but they got through my lessons much quicker than others. So I had to break out Cat In The Hat, which I don’t believe they really understood all that well.

All in all, my students loved to see pictures of my family and friends. They were amused by the pictures of my cousins and I at Christmas, and perplexed by pictures of snowboarding. Teaching this year will surely be a challenge, but I look forward to it.

 

Oh, and I’ve started to get a serious sandal tan here, along with a lot of bug bites.

 

My First Change.org Petition

September 5, 2012 — 1 Comment

Several weeks ago I started a Change.org petition to try and convince Citi Bank to defer my student loans.

As it turns out, if you annoy a bank enough they’ll just sell your loan to get rid of you. After about three weeks of running the petition I received a phone call from the Office of the President at Citi Student Loans to explain how my loan was sold. As it turns out Discover bought Citi Student Loans, and Discover offers deferrals. Citi bank, at this time, does not offer deferrals for the Fulbright or Peace Corps; though they are reviewing this policy.

You can be sure I’ll be following up with Citi to see if they revise this policy.

 

What’s a Fulbright?

August 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

When I tell people I’ve received a Fulbright there has been two common responses:

  • Congratulations! That’s awesome, where are you going?
  • What’s a Fulbright?

The latter is more common than the former, which is quite surprising to me. So here is my attempt to answer what the Fulbright is, and I’ll try to answer this question again once I’ve completed my grant.

What is it?

The Fulbright is America’s premier international exchange program. Every year hundreds of Americans go abroad to research, learn, and teach English, and citizens of other countries come to America to do the same. It’s soft diplomacy at its finest, and the primary aim of the program is to increase mutual understanding between Americans and other nations’ citizens.

What do Fulbrighters do? 

Essentially, the Fulbright program offers two types of grants, teaching and learning. The fellowship allows both recent graduates and scholars to travel abroad to conduct research, it also sends recent graduates to teach English and scholars to teach in their field of expertise. There are grants available for Graduate School, and to learn critical languages. There’s even a grant in conjunction with MTV to research music.

Where do Fulbrighters go?

The Fulbright program operates in over 155 countries across the world. To date, more than 307,000 Fulbrights have been awarded.

Why is it called the Fulbright?

The program is named after Senator William J. Fulbright, who introduced legislation in 1946 to create this program.

How is it funded?

In it’s inception, in 1945, the program was funded by the sale of U.S. military assets after the end of the second world war. The U.S. government forgave the debts of foreign nations in exchange for funding this international exchange program (this offers some insight as to why there are so many grants for Germany).

The program cost more than $323.3 million in 2010, and its primary funding source is an appropriation from Congress; though host countries contribute to the funding of this program as well.

How do you get one?

There is an extensive application process for the Fulbright program, and I will only speak to the English Teaching Assistantships – as that is the grant I received. During my junior year at Fordham, I was in China, so my application process was a bit different than others. In the second semester I had a few Skype meetings with Fordham’s Office of Prestigious Fellowships, and I began narrowing down the countries I wanted to apply for. There are many tips for various components of the application, let me know if you have any questions.

I began narrowing down the countries where ETAs are granted. As I’m not fluent in Spanish, South America was out. I have a strong interest in emerging markets and economic development, so I wasn’t too keen on applying to a country in Europe. So that pretty much left Africa and Asia.

At this point I went nation by nation and narrowed down the nations I was most interested in to Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. ETAs are not granted in China, save for Hong Kong and Macau. Why these countries you might ask? It was some combination of cultural intrique, economic prospects, transitory factors, and gut feeling.

I eventually settled on Sri Lanka as the country to which I was going to apply, and I spent that summer writing my applications essays. When applying to an ETA you have to write two essays, and are limited to one page per essay. One essay, your Statement of General Purpose is where you answer the following questions:

  • Why do you wish to undertake an ETA opportunity?
  • Why are you applying to this specific country?
  • What do you bring to the classroom that will enrich the learning experience of English language learners overseas?
  • What specific ideas do you have for engaging with students and helping them to learn English?
  • What specific qualifications, training, or experiences do you have to prepare you to serve as an ETA?
  • How do you expect to benefit from the assignment?
  • What plans do you have for civic engagement outside the classroom?
The Personal Statement is where you explain who you are and what makes you a good fit for this program, and to be a representative of America abroad.
By October of my senior year at Fordham I had submitted these two essays, three letters of recommendation, and my academic transcripts. A few weeks later I was interviewed by a board of advisors at Fordham.
Around January I received an email telling me I had made the second, and final round of consideration for the grant. But it wasn’t until April that I was actually awarded the Grant. At that point I had to make a decision, take a job in banking (for which I had signed a contract in November) or take the Fulbright. It was a tough decision, but I’m glad to be pursuing the Fulbright!

What have Fulbrighters gone on to do?

  • 10 Fulbright alumni have been elected to the United States Congress
  • 43 Fulbright alumni from eleven countries are recipients of the Nobel Prize
  • 60 Fulbright alumni are recipients of the Pulitzer Prize
  • 22 Fulbright alumni are recipients of MacArthur Foundation “genius” awards
  • 14 Fulbright alumni are recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Many have gone on to reach the highest ranks of government and business; this includes:

 

I just read a phenomenal blog post by Renee DiResta about an interesting (albeit qualitative) study powered by Google’s auto-complete feature. She went State by state and saw what the Google search results indicated people thought of a particular state. She then compiled the top terms into an interactive map and compared some results with hard data.

Renee’s post leads me to questions whether people’s expectations are fueling the reality we see. There has been extensive academic research into how beliefs shape a person’s view of reality; so I have to believe that Google suggesting results has an impact on people’s searches – thus influencing their beliefs.

Take a look at this search result

Search results on 8/20/2012

Say I was offered a job in New Jersey, and I lived out of state. The first thing I’d find out about the state is that it is very expensive, and this Google search is true according to the hard data. Before the internet I doubt many people would look at cost of living statistics when considering moving, but now with the internet we have access to nearly unlimited data.

Infographic via Renee DiResta 

The questions that remains to be seen is how this data is leveraged, and whether it will truly help people to get a better sense of their world.
I’ve written previously about the power of data behind search terms, and I keep finding great examples of how people are leveraging Google Search data to improve their view of the world. If you haven’t seen it yet, Google has set up a Flu Tracker, which this year predicted a flu outbreak earlier than the CDC (Source). Brilliant.

The Sword (කඩුව)

August 2, 2012 — 1 Comment

Sri Lanka has free tertiary education, but only two percent of students are accepted to university. As a generalization, those accepted to University have excellent English skills; those lacking proficiency in English can be held back and prevented from going abroad on scholarships and grants.

The history of English in Sri Lanka is long and complex. During my orientation I had the chance to meet the gentleman who is the Director of the U.S.-Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission – Tissa. He is a gentle, soft-spoken, retired English literature professor. One day at lunch he told my fellow Fulbrighters and I, “We have destroyed the foundation of English teaching because of stupid political mistakes, because of nationalism and ‘equality’”.

He continued to tell us that the Sinhala word for English is a metaphor for the word ‘sword’ (කඩුව, Kaduwa). It is a weapon of those who speak it to repress those who do not. I recently read an op-ed in the Sri Lankan Sunday Times which stated:

The privileged classes will learn an international variety of English and will be able to maintain their higher position in society permanently. The underprivileged classes who are being taught a local variety of English will be further disadvantaged. Those who will stand to benefit, will be the elite.

As an English Teaching Assistant, I will be sharpening that sword, in a sense. While I’ll be working through an NGO, teaching English at a community center, I need to be cognizant of the political and social implications of English in Sri Lanka.

English is a powerful tool, and it enables developing countries to improve their relations with the global economy. There is a profound need for English teaching in Sri Lanka, but I need to be constantly aware of the way that I teach English – so I don’t inadvertently criticize Sinhala.

I’m not quite sure what I’ve gotten myself into, but I am excited for the challenges which lay ahead.

 

Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity

-Horace Mann

If you’ve gone for an undergraduate or graduate degree in the past decade, or know someone who has, I’m sure you’re well aware of the staggering cost of a degree. American student loan debt now exceeds credit card debt (NPR).

Student debt vs. credit card and car loan debt

The cost of college has been the subject of debate; billionaire Peter Theil has launched a foundation to pay students to forgo a four year degree, while Seth Godin has written a manifesto on how to change school.

I have a number of thoughts on the course of education, but the subject of this post is to explain why I’ve started a petition against Citi Bank.

Citi is the second largest student loan originator in the country, and they do not offer the chance to defer loans for the Fulbright or Peace Corp programs. As a Fulbrighter I’ve had to start the process of applying for loan deferrals with the banks and government agencies who lent me money to go to college. I’ve spent quite some time on the phone with H.E.S.A.A. and MyFedLoad to determine the appropriate forms to file (for Stafford loans click here), when I got on the phone with a Citi Bank representative I was told that they don’t offer deferment for the Peace Corp or Fulbright – and pretty much said I was out of luck. My loan through Citi is at 10%, and I’m not asking that the interest stops accruing while I’m abroad – just to extend the grace period of the loan.

I’m really fortunate, Fordham is one of the most expensive colleges around and I’m graduating with about $50k in debt. I owe a little over $12,000 to Citi (which started as a $10,000 loan my sophomore year), and I’ll pay that off when I sell my car. If i didn’t have this option available my payments would be about $150 a month on this loan, which is about 15% of my Fulbright Stipend. I have to thank my supportive family for helping me to get through college, but if it wasn’t for them I’m not sure I could take this grant. If I had more loans through Citi, and couldn’t pay them off before my grant starts, I’d be in a tough place.

That is why I’m asking you to sign this petition to urge Citi to change their restrictive policy.

UPDATE: in 2010 Discover Financial purchased the Citi Student Loan Corporation. 

I was recently forwarded the 2012 Texas Republican Platform from a former Professor of mine at Fordham, and I was a little taken aback by what they were advocating for education:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.

Think about this for a moment, a political party is opposing ‘critical thinking skills’ because they believe this to undermine parental authority. This position on education is mind boggling. Aside from the grave threat of children questioning their parents, what are the other negative consequences of critical thinking?

America has some of the best universities in the world, namely because they foster critical thinking, and they attract the best students in the world. It is the skills in critical thinking which have enabled our graduates to solve complex problems. Some may take this for granted, as I did until I spent two semesters at the University of  International Business and Economics (对外经贸大学) in Beijing.

One of the starkest differences between my courses at UIBE and Fordham was that many Professors in Chinese Universities read out of textbooks for an entire class – verbatim. In China rote learning is the highest priority, memorizing facts is considered more valuable than a true understanding of the material. My counterparts in China could run circles around me rattling off facts, but when I tired to have a discussion of the material they were at a loss.

There’s a reason that Xi Jinping, likely the next President of China, sent his daughter to Harvard under a pseudonym.

Critical thinking is the backbone of our economy, and most economists will agree that education is the best way to grow and economy’s long run GDP potential. I hope that the Republican Party of Texas will reconsider their stance on this issue, because their economy has greatly benefited from critical thinking. It’s critical thinking skills which enabled Michael Dell to found Dell Computers from his dorm at the University of Texas at Austin.

Why any politician would try to end the teaching of critical thinking skills is beyond me.