Friday, July 30, 2010

Like, totally Rad(ford)

rad006 In Australia a college is not somewhere students go after high school as it is in the United States – the term refers to any school. Thus, Radford College in the Canberra suburb of Bruce (insert Monty Python Australia sketch here) is a K - 12 campus.

rad007 This school is the first really foreign school that Sara and I have worked in. When we work overseas we have always been in international schools – places where ex-pats, and locals looking to send their kids to US universities, send their kids in countries where the native language is not English. This time we were in an honest to goodness foreign school – part of the local system. Thanks to our friend Dan Ferri – these Aussies took a chance on a couple of poets from Cleveland Ohio.


You can see they gave us a manageable but busy schedule. As happens quite often our dance card filled up as teachers began talking about our visits into their classrooms and those who were sitting on the fence with a “wait and see” attitude decided they wanted to get in on some of this poetry action. So our schedule became loaded with crisscrossed lines and penciled in times as it evolved during our stay.

rad005 Like I said this is fairly common and understandable. Teachers are busy people and have a hard enough time getting to all their lessons and curriculum objectives and sometimes don’t feel there is time for poetry in their schedule. What Sara and I offer is a way that teachers can integrate poetry as a tool in their classroom – so while the finished product may be some sort of verse it still pushes their classroom goals forward and might I add, at a quicker pace than a five paragraph essay, a report, diorama, book report or any other of the myriad text types used for assessment. Ask the teachers at Radford about the narratives we wrote about the water cycle or the definition poems on democracy and you’ll find some recent converts to poetry as a practical classroom addition.

rad003 The students and teachers at Radford were engaged and enthusiastic, we visited classrooms of kids from third through 12th grade and only went to the wrong building one time during our week long residency. Thankfully a breathless fifth grader found us and led us back to the right classroom. It is a whiplash inducing experience to go from a group of eight year olds writing about the toys in their bathtub to a class of 18 year old young men and women studying Plath and Hughes one right after the other but it’s also what makes our job so much fun.

rad008 We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and met some really dedicated professionals; including a 7th grade science teacher who was carting around a pair of orphaned possums in her bag. So thanks to Peggy, Claire, Dylan, Therese, Dan and all the other folks we met during our stay. In the words of the school chaplain, “God bless you mob!”


That’s all I Canberra

ycockatu01 What the Aussies lack in pronouncing of syllables in their words – they make up with over the top down under hospitality. After our charmed respite in Sydney I figured things couldn’t get much better and I was wrong. People went out of their way to be hospitable to us at every turn during our stay in the capital city Canberra.


Sara and I got in on a Sunday and weren’t slated to start working for real at Radford College until Thursday (we did visit a few classes on Monday to introduce ourselves to the staff and visited a couple classes to get the lay of the land) so we had a few days to explore the sprawling park like city. Where Sydney piled up tall against its harbor – Canberra spreads out in a radius from the parliamentary building, embassies intermixed with residences and forested parkland. The place is a biker or runners paradise and I took full advantage of the fact borrowing our friend and host, teacher and former NPR commentary star – Daniel Ferri’s mountain bike. Dan’s a re-planted Yankee (Chicagoan really) who now teaches at Radford (this all fits together eventually – trust me.)


Anyway – Canberra is nothing like Sydney – in fact it is for the birds. Birds like I’ve never seen in the wild before – parrots – cockatoos – magpies – ravens – swans – crazy looking pigeons with hats on, not to mention the bushy tailed possum that stared us down from a tree during an evening walk or the giant fruit bats with three foot wingspans who darted out from the shrubbery during that same constitutional. Add the kangaroos and rabbits I saw while biking and you’d have thought we were in a wildlife refuge – not the capital city of a whole country the size of the United States.


As for hospitality – on day one we went to the National Museum – the equivalent of our Smithsonian where we wandered about for an enjoyable couple of hours. The walk there was about an hour and a half and we were a bit tuckered out so we asked the lady at the info booth if she could help us obtain a taxi. She said she’s be more than happy to call but as she picked up the phone an older woman behind us poked her head out and said – never mind – I’ll drop them by. So our new friend Marjorie drove us home from the museum – giving us an impromptu tour of the embassies and a view of the gate to the prime minister’s house. In fact everywhere we went – museums – memorials – just walking on the streets – folks couldn’t have gone out of their way enough for us. This was certainly southern hospitality to the nth degree! Oh yeah – did mention that the bus drivers were just as likely to tell you to skip the fare as not?


So what’s up with the dropping of syllables in their words though? Canberra is pronounced Can-bra, Melbourne is Melb’n etc etc. Nobody could give me any explanations other than – that’s the way we do it mate. Of course this ruins the pun in my title but, keep on treating your visitors like you treated us and that’s good enough for me.




Monday, July 19, 2010

I’d rather be lucky than good

sydney02 Organized chaos – as hackneyed a saying as it is - the phrase is an apt description of Sydney. One of the many interesting things we have seen while down under is the way walk/don’t walk signals operate. Rather than the little flashing green man inviting pedestrians to walk in the direction of traffic all four corners flash green at once stopping all vehicular movement and the walkers take over the whole intersection free to cross diagonally as well as directly across the roadway. Sort of a free for all not unlike the seeming anarchy that ensues on a rugby field – just when it looks like everything is all muddled in a tangle of limbs out pops the ball and down the field goes the team.

This pretty much sums up our two day trip to this dynamic and cosmopolitan city. We dove into the throbbing masses of humanity on the street, ferries, busses and trains, popping out in one interesting place after another – one of those rare occasions where we never really got lost. soh001

Our first morning we grabbed a cup of coffee on George Street across from Central Station then marched down the street for about an hour to the Sydney Opera House. We took a morning tour of this iconic building that juts into the skyline of the harbor like a piled up collection of orange wedges. These orange wedges though, are covered in more than a million triple glazed off white tiles which capture the sun’s rays producing subtle touches of color depending on the conditions in the sky. Inside, the lack of support columns lends a sense of soaring to the ceilings while the use of native wood throughout the structure intensifies the acoustics. The Opera House is not one massive performance space but rather a series of theaters, studios and concert halls. Sara and I snagged some tickets for a cabaret show in the 200 seat studio theater for the next evening. As luck would have it we ended up at a front row table.


Walking along the harbor way we followed the sound of didgeridoo music and found some performers playing right in front of the ferry for the zoo. The ride across the harbor gave us an excellent view of the city and opera house. The best view of Sydney though, belongs to the giraffes and not just because of their long necks. The zoo winds up a cliff across from downtown with twists and turns opening up to vistas of the city incongruously augmented by varieties of exotic fauna like elephants, bearcats, snow leopards and the aforementioned giraffes. We arrived right around lunchtime and all the animals were actively about – even the Komodo dragon was pacing around his enclosure lifting his heavily clawed feet like a sumo wrestler as he anticipated his midday repast.


The koalas though were a little less energetic. It seems their strict eucalyptus leaf diet provides only enough energy to facilitate them being awake for around four hours a day – much like American teenagers these guys prefer to doze through the remaining twenty or so hours .


Hopping off the ferry back in the city at Quay Circle we discover the train lines and inquire as to which train we should take back to our hotel which just happens to be across from the large and sprawling Paddy’s market, (a great landmark for us when asking directions.) Our answer is “All of them – you’re right near Central Station just get out there mate.” Lucky again!

chinatown01 Our hotel, Aaron’s budget and family lodgings, is located on the cusp of Chinatown which presents us with a myriad of Asian restaurants, so we opt for one of the half dozen Vietnamese places near our room. With our bellies full and walking back to our room I see a brightly lit up street around a corner a little over block away. Turns out this is the gateway to Chinatown proper and there is a Friday evening market festival going on complete with dragon dancers and wool socks, three pair for ten bucks!


The next morning we head one stop down the train line and surface near town hall. We stroll through Hyde Park where ibises meander about examining the ground and a twenty-five foot statue of Captain Cook waves in the direction of the harbor. We decide to visit the city of Sydney Museum to get some historical background. hyde01This is the closest we come to being lost our whole time in the city – we wander a bit and just as soon as Sara says that maybe we are headed in the wrong direction we turn a corner and are right at the front door like that rugby ball squirting out the back of a scrum. We fill our skulls with Sydney facts. One thing I did not know was that Sydney was R and R destination for Vietnam era American soldiers, this detail documented in a photo exhibition of the Kings Cross neighborhood – Sydney’s answer to the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco during the 60s and 70s.

hyde002  Afterwards we walk back uptown to our hotel and Sara stops in a few shops on our way. We explore the booths of Paddy’s Market across from our hotel and have a late lunch in the food court of this buzzing facility. We choose from Indian, Chinese, Thai, Greek – the selection like the population of this  city seems endless. Back to the room for a quick nap and freshening up and then it’s  on the train again, which we are now almost experts at riding, for our show at the Opera House.

soh003 The show was a smoky affair (thankfully created by special effects and not cigarettes) even though the title of the piece was “He had too many cigarettes to drink”. The performance was a retrospective of the French songwriter Serge Gainsbourg – someone neither I nor Sara had ever heard of. All the songs were in French but this didn’t make the evening any less enjoyable – the band was amazing and the vocalist Fiona Thorn was just the right combination of torch singer and comedienne. Plus – we were in the front row, at a show in the Sydney opera house – I mean gimme a break, how cool is that?

We noticed that on the way down the turnstiles did not eat our tickets for the train as they had on earlier trips – turns out they were still good for the ride back – another pleasant surprise from a city that we definitely would love to come back to. And now? Right now we are on a bus, motoring our way three hours to Canberra where we are going to be working in a school for a week before heading back up to the northern hemisphere and home.

Let’s hope our luck holds out!

keep calm

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Haka this way…

Sky Tower Auckland One of the best things about my job is getting to travel all over the world and meet all sorts of wonderful people and places – one of the worst things about my job is leaving these people and places before I feel like I have really got to know them. This is the feeling I have leaving New Zealand. I know there is so much more that I would like to see in this country but time and obligation made that impossible. What we did see was astounding.

First off, it seems New Zealander’s will leap off anything, bridges and towers being a couple favorites – in fact they were having an off season two for one special for folks wanting to jump off the Sky Tower (the tallest structure in the southern hemisphere) unfortunately I couldn’t talk anyone into the adventure so this remains on my to do list. The country is the bungee jumping capital  of the universe as far as I can tell – and if there isn’t anything sufficiently tall enough to fling themselves off of nearby they will reverse bungee from the ground up.

Indeed New Zealanders exhibit more than a few traits that might be considered quirky by those of us who have not had the privilege of growing up on a collection of islands at the bottom of the world. Like Darwin’s Galapagos fauna – this bit of isolation has allowed for some interesting evolution. Considering the seed colonizing population was that of convicts I think things have turned out quite nicely. Today’s New Zealander not only respects the culture and traditions of their indigenous peoples (the Maori language being one of three official along with English and signing) they also have environment and human rights high on their list of priorities. The country is also renowned for their education system, especially their research and approach to reading and literacy, which brought us to Auckland in the first place.


Before the conference Sara and I took the opportunity to do a little sightseeing. We hopped a 9:15am ferry ride to Rangitoto Island, a half hour off the coast of city. Rangitoto is a new island – relatively speaking, having erupted from the ocean floor only 700 years ago. This event occurred much to the horror of the residents of the surrounding islands and may have played a part in the naming of the new smoldering land mass, Rangitoto means blood red sky, although the official story is that the island is named for a Maori chief who was injured on the island during a battle. Things have pretty much settled down on the island nowadays with the major conflict now being the eradication of non native species like wallabies and possums.

rang001 rang002
rang003  rang004
Speaking of Maori warriors though – I was able to catch the NZ Rugby team’s match against South Africa and the traditional war dance performed by the boys in black – a lively little spectacle called the Haka is a rather intimidating bit of choreography. Later at the opening ceremonies for the literacy conference Sara and I got to witness the Haka being performed by a bunch of twig thin bare-chested elementary school boys. I’ve got to admit – even they were a little bit scary.


Another spot we visited was Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Encounter and Underwater Adventure. What had all the trappings of a tourist trap turned into one of my favorite excursions of my visit to Auckland. The aquarium and penguin exhibit wasn’t the grandest thing I had ever seen – but it was done very well and the whole complex was really geared for young folks and I think done in a very good way. What impressed me most about the joint was the man behind it. Kelly Tarlton – an explorer – treasure hunter- obvious proponent of education as well as a Jacque Cousteau aficionado had taken what were giant city sewage tanks snaked a Plexiglas tunnel through them – filled ‘em up with sea water and stocked the thing with sharks, rays, giant crayfish and dozens of varieties of fish with a slew of interactive and educational exhibits documenting ocean life, penguins and Robert Scott's doomed quest to the South Pole aimed at school aged kids. Like most dreamers Tarlton died before seeing his vision completely realized at the age of 47 and only weeks after the aquarium / museum opened.

The literacy conference that we came to New Zealand to speak at was one of the nicer conferences we have been to. We were well received and I think it is not going to be our last trip down under. One of the major highlights was the opportunity to hear David Pearson deliver a keynote address. His talk was on assessing – or grading – students work. The comment that he made that will stick with me as long as I work with kids is this, he said that The questions a kid asks after reading a text are more important than the ones that student can answer about the text.”
I think that’s where I am at with New Zealand – I have more questions than answers, the least not being, how does one keep from running away when they see this…


Sunday, July 11, 2010

Always blow on the pie

pie Pies are not only for desert here in New Zealand – they also come filled with steak, mushrooms, chicken etc. etc. – tings we would call back in the states a pot pie – but here, a pie is a pie is a pie no matter the filling. And having had a very nice chicken and mushroom pie for lunch in a little pub off Queen Street I can tell you they are indeed very filling (and delicious to boot.)

Our arrival down under was fairly uneventful – no madness on the airplane – no missed connections – no lost baggage – no immigration or customs snafus worth mentioning. Oh yeah, except that they stole a day from us. Even though our flight itinerary assured us that we landed on Wednesday the 7th of July 11, 2010 once we crossed the dateline we were magically and instantaneously catapulted into Thursday July 12. His would have been a good thing to know when making hotel reservations. C’mon Continental Airlines – don’t you think we would be more interested in the date we arrive it actually is at our destination than the date it would be back home?

PIPES So we check into the Auckland City hotel at about 6am and since we had reservations for the day before (which we could not get out of paying for) our bird blinking early arrival was no trouble. The Auckland City Hotel seems to be the axis of the city’s Asian ex-pat community and is a bustling beehive of young Korean happy to practice their malapropos laced English on their lobby mates. The lobby is where one can get thirty minutes of free internet service a day (up to 10 meg) so it holds a steady clientele tapping away on the faux leather couches.

We settle in a bit and manage to make contact with a compatriot of ours who is presenting his work at the same conference as us and we meet for a cup of coffee and some crepes in what has turned into our favorite snack cafĂ©. We then hop a bus to the Auckland Museum and tour that facility ending our visit with a performance by a group of the island’s indigenous people – the Maori. That night we stop in a Chinese restaurant for some rather bland cuisine – surprising considering the large percentage of Asian folks walking the streets.

maori01 One of the many interesting things we learned in the museum was the story of one Japanese zero pilot whose plane was captured by the New Zealand military. It turns out that near the end of the war when the fighter planes were being turned into flying bombs packed with explosives and being sent on kamikaze missions aimed at US pacific fleet targets – this particular plane’s mechanical crew were so fond of their pilot that they kept feigning mechanical issues to keep the aircraft grounded until the war was over. Thus this aviator returned to friends and family instead of perishing in an explosion of TNT and jet fuel. Moral of the story: Always make friends with the tech crew ultimately your life is in their hands.


Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Look up in the SKY!

It's a BIRD

It's a PLANE

Yep - It's a Plane.

Greetings from Houston where Sara and I currently sit waiting a flight to LA La Land to be followed by a little jog across the pacific – landing in Auckland, New Zealand. There we will be speaking at the International Reading Association’s world congress. After that we head to Australia where we visit a school for a week.
More to follow…