Ada Lovelace Week (Honoring Women in Science)

I’ve seen a lot of these “Forgotten Women in Science” memes floating around this week in honor of Ada Lovelace Day. On the one hand, hooray! Women in science, especially those who were not given due credit for their work, need to be celebrated. On the other hand, many of the memes do one of two things that make me cringe:

1) They focus solely on white or European women. This is a huge oversight, as women all over the world from many different countries and backgrounds are making amazing contributions in science and have been for a long time.

2) They list women who are notable because they were “the first woman to…” instead of listing their actual major contributions to science. There are many women scientists out there who made major contributions and still get overlooked because they were not the “first woman to…” and that is an oversight as well.

So here is my list of some of the many amazing women who are of mostly non-European descent and who were not just “the first woman to…” but pioneers by any measure who made revolutionary discoveries or inventions in their fields.

Jewell Plummer Cobb: Biologist whose work led to the discovery of methotrexate, an anti-folic drug that is used in chemotherapy treatments and is more effective and less toxic than those used previously.

Wu Chien-Shiung: Physicist who proved the invalidity of the “Conservation Law of Parity” and made several other important contributions to nuclear and quantum physics during and after her work with the Manhattan Project.

Darshan Ranganathan: Organic chemist whose work in protein-folding led to a protocol for the autonomous folding of an enzyme widely used in antihistamines, as well as the production of nanostructures using self-assembling peptides.

Alice Ball: Chemist who developed an injection for treating leprosy patients that was the most effective treatment until sulfone was developed in the 1940s.

Tikvah Alper: Radiobiologist who discovered that the infectious agent in scrapie did not contain a nucleic acid, which led to the modern understanding of prions.

Flossie Wong-Staal: Virologist who first cloned HIV to determine the function of its genes, instrumental in proving the link between HIV and AIDS.

Ellen Ochoa: Engineer who pioneered a technique in optics to detect flaws in repeating patterns (helpful in image noise removal), and astronaut who logged 1000 hours in space.

Asima Chatterjee: Chemist noted for work on developing anti-epileptic and anti-malarial drugs, as well as medicinal plants of the Indian subcontinent.

Patricia Bath: Ophthalmologist who invented an incredibly effective and internationally-used treatment for removing cataracts with a laser.

Adriana Ocampo: Planetary geologist whose work led to the discovery of the Chicxulub impact crater, thought to be the site of the impact that led to the K-T non-avian dinosaur extinction event.


Outdoor School, Malaysia-Style : Day One

For those of you who didn’t grow up in Portland: Outdoor School is a week-long trip to camp that sixth graders in Portland Public Schools, and some of the private schools, do in conjunction with our local science museum. Outdoor School features all kinds of natural science – botany walks, squid dissections, star-gazing nights, outdoor geology labs, and local ecology lessons – as well as your typical camp adventures such as canoeing, hiking, Capture the Flag, scavenger hunts, campfire sing-a-longs and cabin competitions.

Sixth grade was a really, really long time ago. Eons. Heck, it was in a different millennium. Despite the plethora of years that have passed since that time, however, I can still recall with vivid clarity my Outdoor School experience – everything from my cabin’s name (Alder) to the terribly handsome boys’ counselor on whom several of us 11-year-old girls developed instant crushes ( his camp name was “Spirit,” and yes, I remember his real name, too). I remember the feel of the beads on my wood slice nametag; the thrill of being chosen for the tree-planting ceremony; a dinner-table conversation about weather balloons (and the overly-processed, overly-sweet peach cobbler that was served as desert that night), as well as all of the lyrics to Cat Stevens’ “Moonshadow,” my favourite of our sing-a-longs.

So when my boss asked me a couple of months ago to help plan a science trip for my students, I was pretty excited about it. It was a chance for me to recreate some of the things I loved best about camp, which is basically an utterly foreign concept here, for my students. It was also a delightful opportunity to do a completely off-book lesson arc for my P6 class in preparation for the trip.

The destination my boss chose for the trip is a place called Ipoh in Perak, Malaysia – by bus, about 2 hours south of Penang which is a very short, 40-minute plane ride across the Malacca Straight from Medan. Ipoh is nestled in the middle of a gorgeous karst landscape, surrounded by limestone hills and peppered with caves, rivers, and mining pools (I’ll talk about those at some point). It’s also, obviously, in Malaysia, so the wildlife can be pretty exotic to this American – I can safely say that Ipoh was the first place I ever saw “Monitor Lizard X-ing” signs.

The rough plan we laid out in December was to stay at a resort that offered cabin-style accommodation as well as some outdoor activities, and to visit some of the limestone caves and cave temples. The plan evolved over the course of the following two months into a behemoth of a trip that included visits to the Perak Turf Club horse-racing track and equestrian centre, Ipoh International School, Yayasan Sultan Idris Shah Foundation for the Physically Disabled, Gua Tempurung Cave, and the Lost World of Tambun Theme Park.

This was, suffice it to say, a little outside the scope of my idea of Outdoor School.

Since I knew absolutely nothing about the geography of Ipoh, coordinating the actual events mostly fell outside my purview. Instead, I found myself more or less in charge of things like cabin arrangements, group assignments, and activity direction; most importantly, I took the opportunity to do a 4-week, from-scratch geology unit with P6 to prepare them for the cave and landscape. Those of you who know me well (and anyone who’s ever gone camping or hiking with me) know that geology is an intellectual pet of mine, so it was with much glee that I took P6 on rock walks and taught them about tectonic plates using wafer cookies. Y7 did a unit on solutions and mixtures, and we spent some class hours devoted to playing with calcium carbonate and vinegar to illustrate methods of limestone dissolution and formation.

Class preparation was all very well and good, but I have to admit: the travel plans gave me ulcers. We flew on AirAsia (China buddies – all together now, groooooaaaaaaan) from Medan to Penang and rented a (really nice) coach to drive us to all of our activities. Travelling 135 km with 16 students on a bus is one thing; travelling internationally with them by air is a whole other bunch of bananas. I have an entirely new appreciation for the teachers and parents who took my classes on our various and sundry educational excursions, such as accompanying 56 eleven-year-olds to Japan for two weeks. Holy cow. I was constantly counting and re-counting heads the entire four days. For all my paranoia, though, we never lost anyone – or any luggage, though there was a fun moment when one of the boys left his backpack at security and nearly walked onto the plane without it – and having the students wear uniforms to the airport was a stroke of real genius.

So, we arrived in one piece at Clearwater Sanctuary Resort. Okay. My Outdoor School cabin had, as I recall, no electricity, and padding on the bunks that could only generously be called “mattresses” if you used a lot of imagination. The Clearwater chalets, on the other hand, had hotel-style accommodation with hot showers (blessed hot showers!) and, you know, television sets. Not exactly roughing it. There were two single beds and a day bed, and two extra mattresses. My cabin of 4 girls quickly came up with a rotating bed schedule, which I thought was pretty cute since they included me (I was fully prepared to sleep on the floor all 3 nights but it turned out all of the girls wanted a chance to do so) as well as establishing a shower schedule based on seniority. We arrived at around 3:30 pm and were instructed to report to the activities area at 4 to commence with the bicycling, kayaking, bird-watching, and other fun things.

Alas, it is the tropics, and it is the rainy season. Thunder started rolling in before we’d even made it to the bicycle shop; my boss met us on the way to tell us that the Clearwater staff had called off all outdoor activities. They did, however, have covered tennis courts and a badminton hall, as well as a whole lot of board games, so we managed to amuse ourselves quite well until dinner. Leading by example, I dusted off my unused-for-a-decade tennis skills and got the boys going on that, then proceeded over to the badminton hall and played a couple of sets, first with my boss and then with some of my students. After a couple of really, horrendously loud thunderclaps that caused some of the girls to squeal, I taught them how to count between the lightning and the thunder and figure out how far away the storm was – teachable moments!

So the first night was, in some ways, a let-down; the kids were really looking forward to kayaking and bicycling, and inclement weather is never very fun. We made the most of it, though, and settled in, and in my cabin a deck of cards saved the evening as I taught them how to play B.S., which became a total monster over the course of the week. In a good way.

Tomorrow I’ll post about Day 2: the Turf Club, vet hospital and horse surgery, IIS, and Yayasan. Stay tuned!

Jungle Portrait

It is autumn in the jungle. A mantle of fresh-fallen leaves blankets the twisting, jutting, miry forest floor, disguising—but not ameliorating—the slip-slide of gently decaying layers underneath. Autumn here is not the graceful, sighing transition into winter starkness of the northern latitudes; it is instead an energetic moulting season, rust- and sun-coloured plumage fluttering to the ground, replaced instantaneously by fresh and vibrant green.

The jungle looms. Giants abide here, canopied crowns filtering the honey-thick tropical sunlight. Fragrant heartsap and vivid banyan, caught in the slow, choking embrace of parasitic vines, teem with frantically murmuring cicadas and methodical columns of marching termites. Wild mahogany betrays an encounter with a sun-bear, claw marks gouged deeply into the striated bark. Trails meander through the jungle, not hidden but tangled in the undergrowth. This deep, human traces disappear easily, engulfed by foliage so quickly you could almost watch it happen.

The jungle is not a silent place. It is not even a quiet place. The jungle rustles, chimes, calls and drones with the abundant life hidden by its dense and verdant visage. In the middle distance the curious hooting of a gibbon floats through the sticky air; her call is answered by a nearby neighbour, staking territory, warning her to keep away. A toucan laughs, bright sound smashing through the soft green treetops. At the base of a “compass tree,” its roots spreading east and west, sting-less bees clamber out of a tree-sap tube leading deep under the roots; their nest vibrates with a deep, resonant thrum.

Suddenly, a branch rustles and cracks overhead as a russet contour emerges from a crook in the tree top. It is afternoon nap-time, but a young orangutan gives in to curiosity and pokes his head around his mother’s recumbent form to peer down at the forest floor. Pale faces peer back up at him. He is intrigued. Further investigation is required. Mom makes a half-hearted grab at him, but he’s already climbed onto a spindly branch, tilting forward until his weight swings the whole green mess far enough to grab onto the next patch of foliage. He stops, suspended, suddenly shy, and turns his face away from the onlookers.

On second thought, though, he’s not that shy, and he swings out again, this time arresting his barely-controlled descent with a sturdier tree. He shimmies down the thin trunk to get a better look. Toddling around his new perch, he leans this way and that, captivated by his new, temporary forest-mates. Swinging around again, he spots a perch with a better view, just over the top of their heads, and makes for it.

A glance back upwards reveals stealthy Mom suddenly two trees and a couple layers of branches closer. Our little circus performer gets the hint, shuffling back into the safety of the forest. His curiosity (and desire to exhibit) satisfied, he knows that lunch is next on the day’s agenda and is willing to let Mom shoo him away. She lumbers after him, but stops, her own wary interest piqued. Blinking at the gawking, whispering, floor-walking bipeds, she hangs languidly by one arm and scratches herself, unconcerned about the 10-meter drop through empty space below her. She casts back one last unsure glance before propelling herself with deceptive grace out into the murky green and gold recesses of the jungle autumn.

The forest swallows up their russet forms, their progress betrayed only by the swaying, rustling tree tops.

Festivities and Preparations

Perhaps because China gets very much on the Commercial Everything (and therefore by extension, Commercial Christmas) Bandwagon, and also perhaps because I was missing a family Christmas for the first time ever and was therefore a little too despondent to pay much attention to the goings-on around me, I didn’t particularly notice much in the way of holiday spirit in Shenzhen. Christmas in Southern China seemed sort of rote, like it was a thing we did but because it was expected, not because anyone was really that excited about it. I suspect this had as much to do with a lack of school holiday as anything else; kids in the States get excited about the Holidays because, well, a) there are presents and b) they get 2 weeks off from school. Basically, the two most important things in life. Also in the Pacific Northwest there is the often-vain-but-never-quenched hope of a snow day or two, the chance to toboggan down the Alameda hill and also, hey, have a holiday from school.

Well, I don’t know how much the families in Indonesia actually celebrate Christmas and/or bestow gift-wrapped goodies on their progeny, but man, is our school ever excited about Christmas. Whether it has to do with the impending month-long holiday, I don’t know; but I do know that even the bitterest Scrooge or hardest-hearted Grinch would have a hard time not getting swept up in the fervour, as elf-like students and teachers all run around Who-ishly festooning and bedecking and adorning and tinselling the halls.

I was put in charge of the school’s Christmas Tree, a 2.5-metre monster that is presently holding court in the foyer. Putting the thing together was a fun but exhausting chore that required me to spend a rather remarkable amount of time impersonating Birnam Wood come to Dunsinane. That is to say, the unwrapping/de-plasticking/branch-placing all took place in the school’s Rubbish Room, to keep it away from pitter-pattering feet, and I was then required to walk the pieces of what looked like giant prickly shrubbery quite a ways down the main hall to get them to the appropriate Christmas Tree Placement.

The students were amazed.

I then had all kinds of help offered, and happily relinquished the job of bough-fluffing to eager elves until about the second tier, after which the thing was simply too tall for small persons to be of much help. That didn’t deter them, however; never have I seen such meticulously fluffed boughs as those at the bottom of our Noble Faux-Fir.

Luckily, once I’d dispensed with my tree duties, I found that the rest of the staff had taken charge of decorating all the rest. Practically overnight the school went Christmas Crazy, with bows and bells, silver and gold, and all manner of signage proclaiming the season. For a couple of days you couldn’t turn around without spotting some teacher up on a step-ladder with hands full of holiday artefacts and rolls of scotch tape.

The Christmas Craze has overtaken the classrooms as well, resulting in a charmingly bizarre melange of ornaments and decorations, particularly on the tree. We have the requisite strings of lights, which, again, were my purview as the Christmas Tree Czarina (so dubbed by my boss), cheerily a-glow and a-blinking throughout the school day; but the real treasures are the darling little felt and paper ornaments that the students have excitedly crafted. P6 contributed a huge origami paper chain that slinks up the entire tree; the sewing club (one of our extra-curricular activities) made little felt stockings after their teacher cornered me in a staff meeting and demanded to know what items best symbolised Christmas – there was a bit of an hilarious miscommunication when she asked if they should make “socks” and another teacher adamantly insisted they were called “mistletoes” – and various other classrooms have contributed Styrofoam “presents” covered with giftwrap, small paper cubes and other odd, assorted adornments. Though probably utterly lost on most who see it, for me the whole effect sort of evokes Linus quietly stepping centre stage and telling Charlie Brown the true meaning of Christmas, as shiny baubles could not be more precious than these cheerfully hand-crafted ones.

Our Christmas festivities will culminate in a school-wide celebration this Friday. At the moment there are grand plans for all sorts of performances, exhibitions, and holiday treats. P5 is busily preparing a rendition of “The Little Drummer Boy” complete with choice pieces of the school’s drumset. Primaries 1 and 2 were this afternoon spotted prancing about at a full fever pitch to Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas.” Year 7 will contribute a choreographed “12 Days of Christmas” which has more than once had me nearly snorting with laughter as they flap, chicken-like, to the lyric, “three french hens.” Whatever the reason, be it Holiday Spirit or Vacation Fever, this is fast becoming one of the most memorable Christmas seasons in which I have ever had the privilege to participate. Now, if you’ll kindly imagine the immortal voice of Jimmy Stewart issuing the following proclamation: Merry Christmas, Kingston School!


These pictures and stories are being disseminated slowly over emails and on Facebook, so if you’ve heard them already (in these exact words, even!) I apologise. However, I thought it’d be nice to have them collected in on place, and I also thought I’d write a bit more in depth over here. These are some of the adventures we’ve had in science classes over the past couple of weeks. Because… (wait for it!) …

The laboratory is finally functional! Mostly. We don’t have gas yet (if I’m being perfectly frank, I’m a little nervous of them turning it on) and that could be slightly problematic for the Bunsen burner lessons we are supposed to begin next week; but we have a great space to work in and the students are really getting a kick out of trekking up to the 4th floor for science. It’s like a mini-field trip twice a week — I walk into the P5 classroom and am greeted with, “Miss, today we can go to the lab?” in earnest tones.

Speaking of mini-field trips: there is a golf course behind the school (I may have mentioned this) that has a largish pond, and we have an standing invitation from said golf course to go and tromp about in it. So, for Monday I made plans to take the Year 7’s out to collect aquatic plants as part of our exploration of plant adaptations. This announcement was greeted with cheers and great big smiles, so we happily and excitedly trotted out of the school to go wandering amidst the rough. We found all sorts of interesting things out there, not least of which were the peculiarly beautiful clusters of  what we think were dragonfly eggs, pink and perfectly spherical and adorning the water-weeds by the dozens in huddled little conglomerations. The boys went at collecting with a will, while the girls mostly stood well away from the mud and pointed at interesting things; but after a bit, the draw of good old-fashioned dirt had even the most fastidious of the girls down amongst the buttercups and pondweeds.  The first time I suggested we go back inside, I was rapidly shot down in favor of exploring the opposite bank, which took a bit of pathfinding to get to but was completely worth our time for several other (obviously cultivated) varieties of plants, as well as some snails, earthworms, and other creepy-crawlies. Well-satisfied with our bounty, and a little bit hot and sticky, we returned to the lab to make observations and (thoroughly scientific) drawings — and rounded out the day with a game of Pond Bingo.

This term the Primary 6 class has been studying the reproduction of plants. In that spirit, our first few labs have been about the differences between plants that germinate from seeds, and plants that reproduce asexually. Our first attempt at growing bean seeds ended with a bit of a disaster — the experiment setup called for using damp cotton wool to grow the beans; as it turns out, that might be all well and good in a temperate climate,  but in our bean jars we had an impressively prodigious mold growth. (This inspired a spontaneous 15-minute lesson on Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, and, by not-so-obvious but deftly-led extension, the invention of velcro.) So we scrapped the original design, and made cups-o-soil for our beans as well as for small onion bulbs and potato eyes.Getting all that soil everywhere was more than worth it when the kids came into class today to find that many of their onion bulbs had completely taken over the cups in just two days.

The P6’s had one of those “Gross! Cool!” moments this afternoon in class – yeah, you know the one. Like finding a smashed frog on the side of the road, or (thanks, Lisa and Diana) watching wasp larvae crawl out of a caterpillar. In the middle of our lesson this afternoon, we heard a strange thunking sound coming from the air-conditioner. As is my usual practice, I turned around to make a face at it (I make faces at inanimate objects a lot because it never fails to crack my students up) just in time to watch something pretty large come flying through the air, making a “thud” as it hit the ground.

Now, lately we’ve been having a problem with insects getting into the air ducts and flying out of the air conditioners on that end of the building, so I was fully expecting a moth or possibly a beetle or something similar to have come careening out. Instead, I tromped over to the unit and there, beneath the air-conditioner, was a severed gecko tail twitching madly, its poor undignified (and obviously dead) body lying nearby with its tongue sticking out.

Naturally, this incurred the requisite “Ewww!!”s and “Whoa!!”s from the P6s. It also, serendipitously, served extremely well to illustrate a point I had actually been making not 10 minutes earlier in the lesson about animal defenses, and how some adaptations are passive rather than active (having poisonous skin rather than spitting poison, etc). There is nothing so passive as a thoroughly dead gecko. I think the kids got the point.

Y7 starts acids and bases next week; P6 is moving into changes of matter and P5 is going to be doing some electroplating, so I hope to have more fun adventures to share with you then. Cross your fingers that our lab survives the advent of the gas canisters, and the maiden voyages of the Bunsen burners…

Term Holiday: Lake Toba

Between report cards, end-of-term activities, and the start of a new term, it’s been pretty busy around here. I’ve got quite a bit of catching up to do, since not only am I due for a blog post, but I’ve been out of touch with the world most of last weekend and a good portion of this week.

I’ll get to school stuff shortly, but I want to begin with the term holiday because it’s still fresh and it’s also a change of pace from what I have been writing about lately. That’s nice for me, and I’d hope it’s nice for you as well. Fear not, though – there is plenty of funny, crazy and ridiculous stuff to tell you about school coming up.

Because the school year began in July, October 5th marked the end of our first quarter, which I think equates pretty closely to mid-term in US schools. We had tests and report cards, but they were sort of interim versions of the actual exams that will take place in late November (more on that later). Needless to say, it was a busy run-up and a vacation was much-appreciated. After trying and failing to sort out a trip to Bali with some coworkers, I decided to spend my 5 days at a place called Lake Toba, which is the world’s largest volcanic lake and the site of a supervolcano eruption about 70,000 years ago (I find this kind of stuff fascinating). It’s vast, about 100 km (62 miles) across and about 505 metres (that’d be over 1500 ft) at its deepest.

Lake Toba is in an area of Sumatera that is traditionally Batak, and I’m sorry I don’t know more about this particular ethnicity than the few tidbits I gathered whilst at Toba. From what I understand, Batak people are known for hospitality and hedonism (magic mushrooms are in abundant supply around the area) and the distinctive architecture of the their buildings, which have roofs that curve up at the ends like the keel of a boat.

I stayed in a Batak-style house, so I can speak to that somewhat. It was like living in a treehouse built for the Seven Dwarves for 4 days. The entrance to my room was up a wooden ladder and just over 6 feet off the ground; the door itself was at best 4 feet tall, and required crawling through Alice-in-Wonderland style to get inside. The structure was dominated by the gables, which started just above the door’s height and soared upward at steep angles to a peak probably 12 feet above my floor. There were two lofts, above the door and across from it, where the roof did its peculiar boat-keel thing, and two sets of wooden ladders to the lofts took up most of the middle of the room. The bathroom was at the back of the house, and though quite large area-wise, nonetheless had a ceiling that can’t have been more than 6 feet high. (I kept picturing my Dad and brother staying in this house, and it gave me the giggles. They’d have been ducking a lot.) Despite the idiosyncratic architecture, the guesthouse was in most other ways much like any hostel I’ve stayed at in SE Asia – clean, comfortable, a decent selection of both local and Western menu options, and often rowdy with music and conversation around and after dinnertime, despite it being very much the off-season.

Speaking of music, the first night I was there was Batak Show Night at the Bagus Bay Guesthouse. As I sat around with my pizza (blessed, blessed pizza) and nursed a bottle of Bintang beer, the patio dining area slowly filled with other tourists. I wound up sitting by a Finnish anthropologist with whom I spoke at length about what it was like to live in China, as well as the incongruity between Batak hedonistic traditions and the extreme modesty of their traditional dress; we were joined by a recent university graduate from the U.K. who had been travelling Asia for a few months and had some interesting stories to tell.

For a tourist-geared show, it was surprisingly good. I’m no judge of folk dancing but theirs was enjoyable, even if it seemed a bit simplified (touristifed, if you will). Once the first set (and obligatory audience participation) was over, though, it really picked up when the band took center stage: 5 guys with guitars singing a bunch of traditional Batak songs. The music reminded me of what I’d consider Mexican folk songs crossed with island music. Two of our particular favorites were the Rowing Song and the Drinking Song, which came complete with “drunken” staggering, and complimentary palm wine for the audience.

During the day there were plenty of outdoor activities, including swimming in the lake, biking up into Samosir Island, and kayaking. I spent a bit of time in a kayak on the incredibly still waters of the lake, and hiked around Tuk-Tuk which is the little round spit of land attached to the bigger island of Samosir by an isthmus.

At night, I hung out with other travellers at a nearby hostel and traded stories, both comic and horrifying. We played a round of Trivial Pursuit on my handphone, shared a few beers, got roped into a singalong several times with the locals, and just generally had a great time. In my travels I’ve found that backpackers always have something in common, even if it’s just the wanderlust that got them far away from home in the first place, and I so far have yet to find someone on such a journey with whom I couldn’t carry on an hours-long conversation. One woman I met was from Holland, and had an absolutely fascinating story – she’d suffered a moderate stroke about decade ago which had caused her to lose the ability to concentrate on more than one thing at a time, as well as all feeling below the knee in her right leg. She’s recovered the cognitive function almost completely, but still can’t feel that leg, and what she told me of her experience learning to walk by looking while having little ability to multitask was as amazing and inspiring as anything I’ve ever heard. It’s encounters like that which make me so glad to go out into the world and even more willing to just sit down and talk to people. True shyness must be a bit of a handicap to an international traveller, and I’m just glad I’ve gotten over most of mine through the years.

I left Lake Toba with a sunburn, a few more mosquito bites, and a sense of satisfaction – and was waved goodbye by a troop of monkeys on the roadside. All in all, a successful vacation.

Idul Fitri and Mooncake Festival Celebrations

This is how we put on a festival at Kingston, y’all.

I mentioned before that Idul Fitri is the Indonesian translation of “Eid al-Fitr,” the holiday at the end of the month of Ramadhan. The Mooncake Festival (aka Mid-Autumn Festival, Moon Festival, or in Chinese, Zhongqiu Jie) is a festival holiday in China that is celebrated by getting together with relatives, Moon-gazing, and eating dense round cakes filled with egg yolk or lotus bean paste. There is a whole story that goes along with it that I’ll talk about when I get to the performances.

Indonesia’s main ethnic populations are local Indonesian/Islander, Hokkien Chinese, Indian, and Muslim descended from the Arab traders who inhabited the coasts of the country from the 1400s on. Our school is largely ethnic Chinese, because those are the families that typically have money for private tuition; as a result, we try to give as much attention to Chinese holidays and traditions as to the Indonesian ones (which usually are the Muslim holidays). It just so happened that this year, Idul Fitri and the Mooncake Festival occurred around the same time, so we decided to put on a celebration honoring both holidays.

In the staff meeting where we discussed the celebrations, I realized I was sitting around a table full of Indonesian and Filipina teachers, most of whom are Christian, and the rest Muslim. The school has a few Chinese teachers but they are all either in Nursery and Kindergarten, or special subjects (IT and Mandarin), and also weren’t present for the staff meeting. So, since I speak Mandarin enough to teach a song or story, and since I’ve also lived through an actual Chinese Moon Festival, I figured I’d probably better offer myself as a resource for putting together the Moon Festival side of things.

(It was the next day that I found out I was being shipped off to Malaysia for two whole days.)

We decided to split the classes down the middle, to have half working on Idul Fitri, and half working on Moon Festival. So the class teachers for P1, P4 and P5 (same as 1st, 4th, and 5th grades) volunteered to have their classes do the Chinese celebration. Of those classes I only teach the P5’s, so I was looking forward to working with the P4’s (a handful of whom are in my choir) and the little P1’s. We decided it would be a good idea to have each class take on some aspect of the holiday.

Well, I was looking forward to it until I found out that I’d be in Malaysia for two of the practice days, and also didn’t have internet for the entire weekend previous. I got that email on Sunday saying, “Hey, we need something for these classes to do on Monday and Tuesday.” I suggested that P1 do a presentation on mooncakes, P4 could do a traditional Mandarin children’s song, and P5 could do a pantomime drama to tell the story. So basically had I set myself up for researching all of these things, putting together crib sheets, plus teaching P4 and P5 their song and drama, and I wasn’t going to be there for two of the days; but I didn’t want to short shrift the holiday celebrations.

Thank God for my colleagues, who are seriously awesome.  Our Mandarin teacher, who has been insanely busy teaching the Mandarin for the entire school this term since the other Mandarin teacher quit at the beginning of the year, dedicated a whole extra class period to teaching the P4 class the words to their song; the P1 teachers took my notes on Mooncakes and told me not to worry about it at all, they would handle making a presentation of some sort out of it. The P5 class teacher was instrumental in arranging schedules and rooms so that I could have the P4 and P5 classes for as much time as possible on Wednesday and Thursday. Without those women, we would not have had a show.

I forgot to mention – while all of this was going on, the students and class teachers were also preparing to have a bazaar after the festival performances. We’ve been working on a series of charity fundraisers and projects to send money to Somalia via ChildFund. They’ve all been working incredibly hard to get this off the ground, and the culminating event was this bazaar where the students sold arts, crafts, and food for the parents who came to watch the performances.

Oh, and the Y7 class teacher contracted Dengue fever this past week, and was out until Thursday afternoon.

Needless to say, this whole week has been absolutely insane. Wednesdays are usually really busy for me anyway, since I teach 6 class periods plus lunch duty and a study hall; but this week every spare minute (and a few where I was supposed to be somewhere else) went to the P4 and P5 classes for performances, as well as trying to cover the sick teacher’s periods with Y7 and P4 (math).

Poor P4 had to put up with me for 4 whole class periods. We had a lot of fun working on their song, “Grandpa Makes Mooncakes for Me” – they were so impressed when I started working with them and they found out I could sing in Mandarin! And we put together a cute little choreographed dance to go along with it.

P5’s contribution was, as I said, to do a pantomime drama of the story of Hou Yi and Chang’E, otherwise known as the Archer and the Moon Princess. The basic story is that Hou Yi was this great hero who shot down nine of the ten suns that used to be in the sky and saved the kingdom from drought and famine, and as a reward was given the Pill of Immortality. One of his apprentices tried to steal the pill, and to protect it, Chang’E swallowed it herself, and it caused her to float away off to the Moon. Hou Yi saw that the Moon was very bright that night, and that her shape flitted over its face, so he put out her favorite snacks on a table in the garden and stared up at the Moon the whole night. Now the Moon Festival is celebrated according to the lunar calendar on the 15th day of the 8th month (which is the Full Moon in September or October, depending on the year). P5 chose some students to narrate the story and some to portray the characters in pantomime, and the resulting drama was unbelievably cute.

Thursday was much the same, every spare moment dedicated to practices and songs and dancing and making paper masks and all sorts of craziness. Meanwhile the students were spending all of their spare moments finishing lanyards, bracelets, bookmarks, and other goodies to sell at the bazaar. Kingston was this week an absolute hive of activity.

I think we were all a little relieved at the arrival of Friday. Our schedule was seriously wonky for the entire day, because we had to have the performances in the morning before Kindergarten and Nursery (who also had little, ADORABLE presentations) went home. So classes were about 20 minutes long all day, and there was an hour to set up the bazaar stalls, and everyone was running around getting their food and drinks prepared, and doing last minute prep for the performances. I was just glad when the performance started. I had to get up onstage to conduct the P4’s, and was backstage cuing entrances for P5, but after that was over, I was all done and got to sit back and relax for the rest of the performances. That was actually really nice, because I got to see the P6 and Y7 (my students) perform without having to worry about anything else. For the amount of time we had to put it together, it was a tremendously well-run and enjoyable performance. So proud of my kids.

Oh, but not so proud of their parents. Apparently no one knows how to applaud here, unless their child is performing. Also, the parents trickled in at various times through the performance, some missing their child’s performance completely, and left as soon as their child was finished. These are stay-at-home moms, y’all. They spend a lot of days hanging around the school uninvited anyway, and yet couldn’t spend 40 minutes watching a performance that the whole school worked so hard on? Community-building is something that needs a lot of work here. But the kids were fabulous.

And the bazaar went really well, also! I don’t have exact figures, but it sounds like we will be sending almost $700 USD to Somalia to help the relief efforts. Really impressive, considering their wares mostly cost $1-$2 each. Some classes did some sponsorship activities as well over the last few weeks, but still, I think we pulled in most of that just from the 1-hour sale. Go Kingston! And that’s thanks to the parents, to give credit where it is due. They are great at spending money for a cause, even if they can’t sit still and watch some adorable kids perform for less than an hour.

So, a totally crazy week, but lots of fun. I am very much looking forward to things getting back to normal next week.

Mother Nature, and a Bit of Malaysia

Things have been a bit exciting around here lately, both on the clock and off. Between earthquakes and earthquake drills, festival holidays, upcoming projects at school, an unexpected trip to Malaysia to finally get my paperwork all sorted out and an aggressively stormy beginning to the rainy season, this week has been sort of hectic.

Let’s start with Mother Nature, shall we? Anybody who gets here through facebook probably saw my post earlier this week and knows that Northern Sumatra experienced a “massive” earthquake this previous Monday night. The earthquake was evidently pretty large, registering 6.6 and only about 110 km (68 miles) away from us, but it was over 9 km (5.2 miles) deep. Closer to the epicenter the quake did cause some houses to collapse, and unfortunately at least one child was killed as a result; here in Medan, though, it was just a moderately mild shaking. I was almost asleep and thought, that’s odd, I wonder why my housemates upstairs are stomping on the floor? and then., as the cobwebs receded from my brain, I realized that my bed was shaking and my closets and windows were creaking pretty loudly. At that point I figured, since the shaking was still going on, I should probably go stand in a doorway, so I got out of bed, unplugged my computer and headed for the door, and stood there for a good 15-20 seconds before the shaking stopped. All told it lasted a full minute or more, and certainly got my adrenaline pumping.

Well, that got us to thinking we’d better get serious about emergency drills at the school. So the students have now been roundly instructed in what to do if there is an earthquake. Unfortunately, when the Primary 4 class did a presentation on How To Behave in an Earthquake, they were somewhat… interpretive with emergency procedures (there may have been a song and dance, it was pretty cute) but the upshot is that now all the students run around putting their hands on top of their heads since that was the dance move when P4 instructed everyone to “cover their heads.” Also unfortunately, a lot of the teachers didn’t learn it the way we did, so we have a lot of teachers with hands on top of their heads instead of actually, you know, protecting anything. That’s a battle we’ll be fighting for a little bit.

Mother Nature’s also been gifting us with quite the storm season. We’ve now moved into the “Rainy Season,” which as far as I can tell is different from the dry season by roughly an extra hour of rain per day, and a bit of increase in the number of thunderstorms. The second weekend in September saw 6 thunderstorms in 2 days, and more than one morning this week we’ve awakened to torrential rain pelting our windows. Last weekend we had a windstorm that knocked a huge branch into the building’s transformer and killed our power for the better part of 2 days. It’s been interesting, to say the least.

I’m going to talk about the Festival in a separate post, because it just went on today and it was actually quite the production, with lots of funny little incidents and goings-on. So next post I’ll tell you all about that.

I’ll wrap up here with a quick description of my trip to Malaysia. As many of you know, the visa situation has been rather frustrating and drawn-out, what with having to get a new passport and then a week-long trip to the States. It’s finally all sorted. Here’s how that happened:

Friday afternoon I got called into the principal’s office, because she had just received news that my work visa was finally ready to be put into my passport. The thing can only be picked up, by me, from an Indonesian consulate, and because of our location it made the most sense to have it sent to Penang, Malaysia, which is an island city on the western coast of Malaysia. So Friday afternoon I’m told I have a flight to Penang at noon on Sunday, and I’ll need to be gone for two days (the first day to drop off the passport, the second day to pick it up), and can I please have detailed lesson plans ready for substitutes by Monday morning? So I’m scrambling to figure out what materials I can take home, what I need to leave for subs, how I’m going to get all my worksheets printed so that the subs will have them before I leave (that didn’t at all happen, I wound up emailing everything to the school) and generally working in a frenzied state for most of that afternoon.

Plus, then the internet went out. All weekend.

I have a dial-up broadband modem (broadband is a loose term), a little USB attachment that I plug into my computer to get internet at home. Well, the thing is incredibly slow, and only sometimes finds a network to which it can connect, so my internet at home is spotty at the best of times. I mentioned about the weather this weekend – as a result of the wind and rain, the broadband networks were all unavailable for most of the weekend. I wound up going to Starbucks for about 5 hours on Saturday just to try and get any work done, and of course it was packed and there is one outlet in the entire cafe (this is not unusual here, at all) so I sat smiling serenely with my cup of coffee, all the while going slightly mad with stress.

Thus, I wound up spending a goodly portion of Sunday afternoon, after reaching Penang, checking into the hotel, getting switched to a room that had working lights and internet, and scrounging some food, I sat down and finished downloading all my materials and emailing out my lesson plans. For Monday. At 10pm on Sunday night.

Also, whilst checking my email on Sunday night, I found out that I was supposed to be in charge of coordinating the Chinese portion of the Festival this week, which meant being in charge of figuring out activities and performances for 3 class grades. Whew! I told them I would figure out something the next day, and went to the bar for a much-deserved glass of wine.

Monday I got up at 7am to get breakfast and shower (blessed, blessed hot water in the shower! I should stay in hotels more often) and then head over to the consulate as soon as it opened. I got in, waited patiently in the madness, a complete lack of queues, for all of 5 minutes before decided to pull a China-style line cut and just walked up to the visa window. After some finagling, we managed to work out that I’d come back and get my passport that afternoon, so I had some time to go back to the hotel and finish my lesson plans before returning for the passport. I also wanted to wander around the city a little bit, since I had been out walking in search of food the previous evening and stumbled upon two Buddhist temples just a few blocks away – one of them houses the Largest Reclining Buddha in Asia (refer to first Spring Festival post of last year for discussion of ridiculous Buddha superlatives), but I actually did wind up working for most of the day, getting my lessons sorted and then making plans for the Chinese Mid-Autumn festival portion of today’s activities, though I got out to try some Malaysian street food (delicious) and go for a swim in the hotel pool. It was pretty hazy and gray for most of the two days I was there, which precluded a trip to the beach so I wasn’t too sad to miss out; next time I go to a tropical island, though, I want a drink with a tiny umbrella and a beach towel and several hours of uninterrupted reading/iPod listening/sunbathing. Thank you very much.

Okay. Back soon with tales of the combined Idul Fitri/Moon Festival celebrations, because they were epic.

Kingston, Itself

Before I say anything else, first I want to say Thank You to everyone who has been incredibly supportive during these difficult last few weeks. And my apologies for once again falling behind on the blog posts.

This week marks the end of the month of Ramadhan, a month of fasting, abstinence and prayer for Muslims. Ramadhan is based on the moon, beginning on the new moon that marks the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. At the following new moon, the holiday of Eid al-Fitr (in Indonesian, Idul Fitri) is observed to celebrate the return to normal life. Idul Fitri here manifests not unlike what we think of as Christmas Holiday back in the West, so for us it means 10 days off from school while the families go visit relatives all over Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore. What better time to tell you all about the school than when I’m away from it for a week?

Let’s start with the basics. Folks I’ve had the pleasure of talking to in person have already heard a lot of this, but a little background never hurt anybody.

I was was in the right place at the right time on this one, for sure. Kingston has just this year begun the process of accreditation for international standards, and has just recently moved to a new campus to accommodate what the administrators hope in a few years will be a full Pre-Primary, Primary, and Secondary school. At present we are Pre-Nursery through Year 7, with plans to extend all the way to Year 11 in the next 5 years depending on enrollment.  In this expansion phase everything is a little topsy-turvey, while the school regains its footing after a big move and puts down roots with the (brand-spankin’) new secondary program. I think we’re doing a pretty good job despite all the upheaval, though it will take the staff a few years to accrue a properly-outfitted supply cupboard and get that real lived-in feel.

The school is running what’s called a “National-Plus” program, which means that it isn’t a full-fledged international school. Our students are Indonesian children rather than expats (mostly). Basically what we do is to run a curriculum in English that follows the international standards set by Cambridge University, and the core classes are taught primarily in English. However, our students are also expected to take the Indonesian National Benchmark tests, so alongside their English curriculum they do a dual, Bahasa-Indonesia curriculum that follows what they’re learning in English, as well. To give an example of what this looks like, here’s how a weekly class breakdown goes for my Year 7’s:

6 sections English language
5 sections BI (Bahasa Indonesia) – 2 Language, 1 Maths, 1 Science, 1 History
5 sections Mandarin language
6 sections Science in English
6 sections Maths in English
2 sections Geography in English
4 sections History in English
1 section Drama, 1 section Music (combined, in English)
2 sections Computer/IT studies

For Year 7, I teach the English-based science and maths, and am also privileged enough this year to teach the music/drama class as well since we have a slight teacher shortage at the moment. Such is the plight of a fledgling program in a new campus. (That, and a sometimes disconcerting lack of usable whiteboard pens. I swear they go into hiding when we are not looking.) Since this is the first year the school has offered courses at the secondary level,  we’re building a lot of the curriculum as we go along. This is great fun and a great learning experience for me as a 2nd (ish) year teacher. I also get to teach the more developed Primary 5 and Primary 6 science courses, as well.

The primary classes have slightly fewer core subject classes in favor of what’s called the IPC, or International Primary Curriculum. The IPC is a set of project-based learning modules that integrate several subject areas into a long-term unit with a specific topic focus. (Yes, Mom, I jumped up and down for joy when I heard about this, too!) For example, Primary 5 this year is doing a module called “Moving to Mars” that incorporates their science, technology, PE, and English curriculae into a quarter-long unit on human space exploration,  colonization, and human biology. It is going to be so, so cool. We’re going to “go” to Mars, figure out how to build a human habitat, learn how to exercise properly in an enclosed space, and write about our adventures as planetary explorers. Right up my alley, no? (Big fat Yes. Jim and Lisa, I hope you are reading this.)

Our students also participate in a variety of extracurricular activities, some fun and some… less fun. Two days a week we have what I like to call the “fun” ECA’s: our after-school periods range from Food Science (very popular), to Performing Arts (I teach the upper-level choir), to Athletics, to MUN and journalism. The other afternoon periods are devoted to extra classes in Mandarin, Religion (for the Indonesian Benchmarks), and a variety of Remedial courses for students who require extra help.

So, that’s the basic overview. As we get further into these posts I’ll try to regale you with stories of the Y7’s chasing a jumping spider around the room, trying to catch it so they could view it with a microscope (yeah, that happened); or the P6 students’ excitement at learning my favorite drama games (they play Zip-Zap-Zop outside at recess, how precious is that??); or my darling P5’s who cannot shut up if they try with both hands because they are too excited to tell me how the digestive system works (actually, I think some of them are just excited to be allowed to say the word “poo” in class).  Yep, I pretty much have the best job ever.

Selamat hari raya Idul Fitri, y’all!

Musik Kota Medan

It was difficult to decide what to write about next. Indonesia has so far been full of many oddities and strange experiences, so I think I’d like to give some more specifics about the sounds of the city, and maybe tell you a story or two.

Medan is a constant cacophony of honking horns, traffic whistles, revving motorcycles, and sung prayers.  The streets seem full of urgency, churning and bubbling with an almost constant flow of traffic; it’s not exactly paradise for a pedestrian, but I’ve found that Asian cities rarely are.  Off the main roads, it’s becaks (sort of like a buggy attached to the side of a motorbike — Indonesia’s version of the tuk-tuk or rickshaw) and bicycles galore, not to mention mobile food carts advertising nasi goreng (fried rice) and mie ayam (noodles with chicken), and that wretchedly popular SE Asian snack, durian pancakes. In quieter neighborhoods, one can often hear the calls of a variety of exotic finches and lorikeets, swallows, jays, wood pigeons and, if you’re really lucky, a myna bird.

Last night, I was in the middle of a dream in which I was recording some music and in the middle of that an absolutely massive clap of thunder crashed right overhead and disrupted the recording. In my dream I couldn’t BELIEVE how loud the sound had been, and I immediately called my brother to listen to this recording of this insanely loud thunderclap. I awoke from the dream when a second GIGANTIC crash sounded over the top of my bedroom, because there was in real life a huge, torrential thunderstorm going on at 3 o’clock in the morning. I have never heard thunder this loud, ever. Also, the lightning is so dramatic that I could see the flashes with my eyes closed lying in a room with the shade (okay, a sheet) drawn.

Indonesia is presently in the middle of the “dry” season, which basically means there is marginally less rain than in the “wet” season, and the torrential downpours usually happen between 8 and 10 pm rather than during the afternoon. Last weekend, which was 4 days in celebration of the beginning of Ramadhan, I had the pleasure of staying at my dear friend (and boss)’s house, and spent nearly every evening sitting out on the covered back veranda of their house with a beer to unwind the day.  Inevitably the clouds would roll in around 7 or 8 pm, and usually while I sat there I would at some point be in utter darkness as the electricity tends to go out quite a bit, especially when lightning is hitting the neighborhood transformers (I saw this one of the evenings), and I would sit and watch the lightning flash across the sky and listen as the thunder rumbled first in the distance, then came crashing in overhead, before finally fading out to be replaced by the haunting drone of the muezzins singing prayers from the nearby mosques. The whole thing was terribly beautiful in an eery, ethereal way.

Another sound to which I am slowly becoming accustomed: The call of “Hey miss!” Everyone from schoolchildren to bus drivers to bankers says this. I am greeted this way without fail every time I see one of my students, fellow teachers, or our housemaid. I found it really odd at first, especially since it extends to referring everyone by their title this way (for example, I work with a Miss Maria and a Miss Irma) and I still think it’s weird that when a colleague wants my attention, it’s “Miss?” I’m never clear to whom anyone is speaking.

I briefly mentioned this before, but my housing is provided courtesy of the school and is therefore a room in a ballet studio which is also run by the woman who is the director of our school. It’s an odd sort of living arrangement, not least because there are ballet classes going pretty much constantly from about 1pm to 6 or 7 at night, even on weekends; so my room is, during waking hours, seldom free of the thumping of many small feet to the  muffled clinkings and clankings of the studio’s pianos.

So that’s kind of what Medan sounds like, so far. I think this weekend I’ll try and delve into telling you about the school, which has definitely been the most rewarding part of life here so far. And how.