What a trip! Part 1

(Note- I started this post awhile ago and the photos were taking forever to load on our slow internet and life got busy. I decided not to change what I’d written but just add to it.)

I’ve now been back from China for a week and I’m just beginning to get a decent night’s sleep! The jet lag is worse on the return as it only took a couple days to get on China time (exactly 12 hours ahead of home).

The trip was fantastic – the smoothest international trip I’ve been on to my recollection – no delays, lost luggage, illness, missed connections. It probably helped that it was a fairly routine business trip, not an adoption trip! The flight is long – approximately 12.5 hours from Chicago to Beijing, several hours in the Beijing airport then another 2.5 hours to Hangzhou. Our smaller group of 5 met up with the travelers who had opted for the extended tour of Beijing at the airport and we all traveled to Hangzhou together. We were all sleep walking when we got to the hotel at approximately 2 AM!

We spent the first day sightseeing and the sights were wonderful. Hangzhou is the most beautiful city I’ve visited in China. It is full of greenery – plants everywhere! It’s like a park with buildings and streets inside of it. Despite the 8.5 million residents and crazy Chinese traffic, I found it quite peaceful.

We spent the first afternoon at West Lake, where we took a boat cruise on the lake (it’s huge, and actually more than one lake).  While the sky was somewhat hazy the weather was veryimg_2155 balmy and pleasant.

The lake is a tourist destination so there were a lot of other boats on the water and we shared our boat with a group of Chinese tourists. Their guide had a microphone, ours didn’t, so it was hard to hear much. Still it was a pleasant ride. At dusk the pagoda on the hill was lit up, making it a beautiful sight.

Froimg_2210m there we went to Qinghefang Street, one of the most famous historic streets in the city and now a tourist shopping area.  Most preserved buildings are from the Ming and Qing dynasties.



According to the guidebook, “Strolling on this street, you will be attracted by the img_2304antique buildings and local crafts, such as silk parasols, brocades, noted Zhang Xiaoquan scissors and Hangzhou fans.” I found the people watching to be more interesting than shopping – and while I didn’t buy any, was especially curious about the snacks for sale like this sugar? syrup? dragon!


On the 2nd day we visited one of the top schools in China – the Hangzhou Foreign Language School. It is very large and prestigious and students come from other countries (we met students from the UK and Germany while there) to study while the Chinese students study English, German, Spanish, and Japanese.

Unlike in the U.S.img_2221 students in China don’t just move from their neighborhood middle school to their neighborhood high school. Instead at the end of middle school (or Junior High) the students take an exam and the results of that exam will dictate which high school they can apply to and even whether they go on to high school.


Hangzhou Foreign Language School has about 2000 students. The blurb on their website says “Every year, 80% of our graduates are admitted to top universities in China and abroad, such as Tsinghua University, Peking University, Harvard, Yale, Cambridge, Oxford, etc.”

After a tour of the school we headed out for more sightseeing – this time to XiXi  National Wetlands Park. It was not at all what I would have thought of as a Wetlands Park – while there was plenty of wetlands I don’t think I saw more than a handful of birds and none were waterbirds.img_2279

We strolled around the trails and took another boat ride, ending up at a shopping street full of stores selling souvenirs (these are ubiquitous).  Hangzhou is known for its silk and everywhere we went there were beautiful, colorful scarves!


Once again there were a lot of other tourists there – and even a model photo shoot!


20161017_145355Then it was off to dinner out as a group. The next day we would all split up and head to the schools we’d been assigned and would see much less of each other.


I will leave it there for now as each photo takes a very long time to load! More on the STEM side of things in the next post.



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Countdown to China!

Less than a week before I leave for China for my trip with the International STEM Fellows. We will be visiting (and teaching in) Chinese schools in the Hangzhou area. This is a wonderful opportunity and I’m excited to be going to an area of China that I have not visited. In addition to the 90-minute lab that I will teach 2 or 3 times to Chinese middle school students I’m one of the four teachers (out of the 12 going) who has been asked to prepare a 30-minute presentation on STEM education for a regional education conference.

Preparing for this experience has been a bit difficult. We are not sure what supplies and materials will be available to us so we need to pack nearly all of what we need for the labs. That made me change my topic as I wasn’t going to pack glass test tubes and beakers! My lab is an engineering design challenge – the students will build their own water filters. So most of my materials are small and don’t weigh much – water test meters, coffee filters, cotton balls, cheesecloth and the like, and I’m anticipating being able to find plastic bottles, clean sand and gravel and dirty water in China!

We won’t have translators although the students and Chinese teachers know some English (more than the amount of Chinese I know, I’m sure) so I had my oldest daughter make me a video with the help of one of her Chinese friends and fellow students at the University explaining the lab. I also have dual language hand-outs and lab worksheets. It was funny to see the response of all the teachers when we were told that there would not be a translator in the classroom with us – the middle and high school teachers looked somewhat dumbfounded and anxious and the elementary teachers just smiled, shrugged and said in a cheerful voice ‘That’s okay – we’ll just diagram it and act it out!’ Well, of course – they’re used to talking to people who don’t speak that much English!

My oldest daughter will come home from college to look after things while I’m gone and our relatives are just up the street and across the street so she will have help if she needs it. The kids are pretty self-sufficient and used to taking care of the animals so I’m not expecting problems. I am expecting to miss them like crazy as I have not been away for more than a day or two before. I’m also worried about expenses. I was able to get the trip cost paid for through Donors Choose but that did not include buying lab supplies, gifts for Chinese teachers and officials, rental car to get to Chicago to catch the plane (and get home from Chicago) and leaving money at home for gas and food. With my daughter’s appendectomy bills coming in we are stretched even tighter than usual (and usual is to the breaking point).

Thankfully I don’t need much for the trip – I’m borrowing my daughter’s suitcase and packing light. I’m not buying anything extra for the trip aside from a travel umbrella (weather forecast is rainy) and one of those neck pillows for the long plane flight. I do plan to buy travel insurance – too many planes have gone down in the past decade and the Chinese drive like crazy so I figure my chances of being in an accident are slightly higher while traveling! And if anything does happen it would be good to leave the kids a little better off than they are now.

Hmm, rereading what I’ve written I see I’m slightly more anxious about this trip than I was letting on to myself! So to end on an up note – I really am looking forward to the experience. I plan to bring back all sorts of video, resources, connections and ideas to my schools to help our teachers. I’m excited about the networking possibilities – I’ve already been asked to get involved in some other education committees and events because of the trip (yes, even before going!) and I foresee that this will be helpful in my late life career. I enjoy traveling and am grateful for the opportunity to make more meaningful connections than those usually afforded on a tourist trip. So wish me (and the kids) good luck!

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Somewhat undefined, but a good fit so far

That’s how I would describe my new job. It doesn’t have a job description, the fellow spearheading the whole STEM effort quit to take a new job right before school started, and there’s no all important (in education) evaluation rubric. The principals I report to don’t really know what I should be doing. Luckily I’m a self-starter and am committed to making our STEM program work so I’ve hit the ground running (hoping that I’m running in the right direction).

As Secondary STEM Coach I am a resource for the Junior High and High School teachers who want to bring hands on project based learning that connects to real world problems into their classroom. Although I was warned that the High School teachers were resistant to change (okay – that’s what the Junior High teachers said) they have jumped right in. In the first 5 weeks of school I’ve been asked to provide information on building model brains (psychology teacher), for hands on activities to help students demonstrate their understanding of ratios and proportions (math teacher), to help make the cardboard boat regatta more academic (PE teacher, whom I paired with the physics teacher), to help with a project where students build electric guitars to study sound waves (physics teacher) and to add STEM to the student’s English unit that culminates in an intensive research paper on Van Gogh.

I have an office at the Junior High and an entire classroom at the High School (which is sort of backwards as the only class I teach – Computer Science in Science – is at the Junior High). I’m also helping both schools by researching potential science ‘textbooks’ as it’s new standards and textbook adoption year. I have a lot of autonomy – something lacking in most teachers’ work lives – which I enjoy.

I would like a little more structure – since it’s the first year of a new program we are feeling our way and I suspect sometimes going down blind alleys. It would be nice to have a professional development program for teachers – preferably something already developed and tested and established like Project Lead the Way but that decision hasn’t been made. So in the meantime I try to hunt up resources and connect potential collaborators and encourage teachers to think outside the box and give some control of learning over to students.  I’m starting with teachers who want to give it a try – more will come on board as they see us having some successes – and that number is keeping me hopping!

I’m also preparing for my trip to China as an International STEM Fellow. We leave a month from today! We had our first meeting as a group this past Saturday and found out that we would be teaching several classes of 45-50 students without a translator. The elementary teachers among the group were unfazed, “We’ll act it out, and use diagrams!” they proclaimed while the secondary teachers exchanged nervous glances. I’m rethinking my planned lesson and hoping Google translate is relatively accurate!

We will be in Hangzhou, China – the lovely city that just hosted the G-20 summit. One of the things I’ll be doing while there is taking a lot of photos and videotape both for myself but also for our social studies teachers to use in their Asia unit. To that end, because my only camera is on my cell phone, I’ve written a Donors Choose project to fund a decent digital single lens reflex camera: https://www.donorschoose.org/STEMCoach. If it’s funded soon I’ll take it with me.

I gave a presentation on STEM to the Junior High teachers this morning and one of them sent me an email afterwards. It said, in part, “you did awesome this morning… this is a fantastic position for you!” It is. I feel much less stressed and more engaged. I’m learning something new every day – sometimes every hour of every day and am working closely with a lot of adults who appreciate what I’m doing for them. It’s a good fit.

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