Thursday, February 21, 2008

The ontological argument for the existence of schools

Students, it may surprise you to learn, are an opinionated lot. This is probably exacerbated by the fact that their beleagured English teachers, faced with the prospect of having to grade yet another round of one hundred and twenty papers spanning six topics, encourage their students to think creatively. I speak of what I know when I tell you that it's much better to read ten dreadful papers on ten different subjects than to be forced to read ten papers on the subject "My Lovely Dog." The same goes for speeches.

So when I asked my students last semester to give a speech about what, in their opinion, constituted the ideal school, I expected that I would receive some bizzare or amusing replies. I also, naively, hoped that some of the more academically-minded students would describe something along the lines of a well-staffed graduate program (more or less my ideal). Here, instead, is what my dear students consider to be the definitive educational experience.

The students gave a lot of attention to the landscaping of the school, declaring "it must have a big and clean lake." Others wanted "a large garden," "many trees everywhere," "a lot of flowers," or "a huge mountain." One girl declared "the ideal school has a forest with some strange animals in it that we can play with, like Harry Potter."

Harry Potter, in fact, proved to be a popular template. "The school has a magic railroad like Harry Potter. It is between the dormitory and canteen, so I do not have to run to class every morning." Others insisted that a school cannot truly be complete without "a lot of shops to buy the things which we like," "many entertainment things like restaurants and KTV [a kind of karaoke place very popular in China]," or "swings so if I am tired, I can sit on the swing and feel relaxed."

Some girls felt very strongly about what kind of rooms should be available to the students. In the ideal school "the showers are not far away, because now we have to walk very far to have a shower and it is so suffering in the winter. We want to have a shower to get warm, but when we go back we are colder than before."

Above all, the ideal school apparently has a very different educational philosophy than the boring old real school that they're all attending. "We don’t study nursing classes," declared one student. "We study everything we want to know, such as cooking, dancing, swimming, fighting each other, and magic classes like Harry Potter, except not nursing. After school, we go everywhere all over the world to get a job such as FBI and protect the world," apparently as part of the notorious FBI Cooking and Dance Unit. Although some students claimed that the ideal school "has no classes," one young lady wisely observed that "we should have a few classes, otherwise we will feel bored."

Others decried the barbarous practice of formal testing, explaining that in the ideal school "there are no tests." Or, in a more moderate approach, "there is only one test, and the points on the test don't matter." Others posited a less traditional approach to classroom education by suggesting that "we can always sleep in class," or alternately, that the ideal school has a somewhat solipsistic bent to it: "In the ideal school, I pass everything easily and don't study. I am number one."

One flirtatious girl rather unsurprisingly explained that the ideal school "will have a lot of handsome boys and beautiful girls. My ideal school has a lot of love." Another girl (one of my best students) depressingly told us that the ideal school "has no classes. We search for everything which we like on the internet. So it is called Internet School."

And me? I just sat in the back, taking notes and wavering between wanting to laugh and wanting to cry. When it was all over, I was just glad that nobody had said that the ideal school didn't have any crazy teachers. Even in the realm of fantasy, some things are just unthinkable.


Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Popsicles in Shanghai

That's what we felt like when we got in last night. If you've been following the news, you may have noticed that there's been some major cold-weather activity across China, including heavy snowfall here in Shanghai. One of our students told me that the news people said that it was the heaviest in 50 years.

I believed it when we walked into our rooms yesterday for the first time in three weeks. The power had been off, of course, and they were like refrigerators. That wouldn't really be a problem if the heater/air conditioner were a little more . . . robust. I switched it on and turned the heat all the way up to the "surface of the sun" setting, since we were feeling chilly, and waited. And waited.

After about 30 minutes, the little device apparently warmed itself up to the point where it decided it was capable of actually emitting heat, so it started dribbling out warm air. After two hours or so, it had raised the temperature in the room to about 10C (50F). We huddled together in bed, clad in socks, exercise pants, long-sleeved T-shirts, coats, and anything else we could find to keep us warm, and offered up thanks that we didn't usually have to do things like this.

This morning was much better; after chipping the ice off of my blankets to get out of bed, and snowshoing across the room to the shower, I felt positively warm. And they call this subtropical.