Monthly Archives: October 2011


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.