Sunday, August 30, 2015

Teaching Mongolia- A year in Review

Teaching Mongolia- a year in review


            So here I am sitting on the plane making the long haul back to Mongolia for another year, and I figured it was about time I wrote my final thoughts about teaching for a year in Mongolia.  Let me start by saying, for as much as things change, many still stay the same.  Cliched to be sure, but none the less true.  (FYI- it took me a week to post this.  Sorry the first week combined with jet lag was a little rough)

            Now for some basics, the school I work for is a small private school nestled in the outskirts of the city near the Zaisan monument.  (Yes I could have just given you the name of the school, but I wasn’t going to make it that easy).

            The school building itself is nice, it’s not going to hold a candle to all of the bells and whistles crammed into the latest and greatest magnet schools in the states.  However it gets the job done, and let’s be realistic, this is Mongolia.  To be honest I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of materials I have available to use when crafting lesson plans.  Sure there are things you might wish you have, however after a little adaptation, I am more than able to get the job done.  Sure it might make some things a bit tricky, but that is what makes it all the more fun and interesting.

            Over the course of the last year I taught 6 grade science, 9th grade science, 11th grade biology, and 12th grade biology.  To those of you who went through the American school system this might seem a little different and that is because the school is running the Ontario curriculum.

            Now this curriculum is a bit different than common core, or any other curriculum at schools I have taught at in the past.  For starters science is not broken down by subject until grades 11 and 12.  This means that from 6th grade to 10th grade the students take a little bit of each of the major scientific disciplines (Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Earth and Space).  While a student might be perceived as being behind a student from another school in any particular year, by grade 10 the amount of science covered is the same.  In fact under the Ontario Curriculum a student may cover a wider range of science topics than a student using a more traditional American once.  This is due to requiring science through grade 10 and by covering a little bit of each scientific discipline each year a student cannot dodge chemistry and or physics.  While I am not the world’s greatest expert on Physics or Earth and Space science, I do know enough to teach my students.  Plus learning some new stuff every once and a while never killed anyone.

            The second major difference is the grading scale.
50+ passing
70-80 honors
80+ high honors

            At first glance this might seem like the classes are easier, and they would be if the difficulty level isn’t ramped up a bit.  In the end what happens is that it is slight easier to pass when compared to an American curriculum, however it is much harder to get that top notch grade.  I strive to have the class average hit around a 66.

            Next is where we see a little bit of more of the same when compared to teaching back home in the states.  While it was my first time teaching a block period, I was trained for and after a short adjustment, I enjoy it.  The schedule is 4 85 minute periods, a 40 minute lunch with 5 minutes between periods.  The 85 minute period allows me to really dive into the subject matter, and expand on any student questions.  The extra time allows me to let labs run their full course without having to worry about running out of time.  I can also pair shorter labs with the lesson needed to understand them, which I think is a boon for the students.  The main difference here in Mongolia is that we are running a semester block instead of an A/B block.  In the semester block I see my classes every day for one semester instead of every other day for the whole year.  Each system has its pluses and minuses which I will not debate here.

            The schedule for the year while still 180 days is a bit different.  All of those random days, and or 3 day weekends you might get during the year are gone.  The difference is when you get a break, you get an actual break.  1 week off during the fall and spring, 3 weeks during the winter, and another 1 week break for a major Mongolian holiday (Tsagaan Sar).  Oh and no snow days, Mongolia despite being extremely cold just doesn’t get much snow.  This can make parts of the year a bit of a grind at times, but it makes up for it in making it easier to travel around when you do get time off.

            Sports, a staple of the American High school experience, here in Mongolia, not so much.  That isn’t to say that my school does not have sports, or that they mishandled in anyway.  We have fewer sports (Soccer, Volleyball, Basketball, and Cross Country), but they do not dominate the scene like they can in America.  There is a daily sports update on the announcements, a few pep rallies (which a teacher can pass on if he needs the classtime), and send offs in the mornings before the big games.  What I don’t have is the constant missing of class due to having to leave early for games.  All of the games are local, except for a once a season tournament in China for some of the players.  Overall it is a very balance approach that I think needs to be tried back home.

            The school also has a number of clubs, and each teacher is required to run or help to run at least one club.  Oh and coaching a sport fills this requirement.  I coached cross country, and helped out with the ski club last year, and getting students to come was the biggest problem.  More so for the ski club than the cross country team.  Now it probably didn’t help that Mongolia only has one small ski resort, but my fellow teachers also talked about low club attendance at times.

            Uniforms, love them or hate them, we have them in Mongolia with all of the associated issues both for and against them.  It’s a fairly standard uniform fairly similar to what most private schools use.  One nice thing for both teachers and students, is that Friday is a casual day where the students do not have to wear the uniform, and I don’t have to wear the shirt and tie.  This is also when a variety of different activities are run during lunch or after school for the students enjoyment.  Some of these activities will earn them house points.  The entire student body is broken up into houses which compete in a variety of activities throughout the year.  The winner at the end of the year gets a pizza party at the beginning of the next year.

            Speaking of food, the school lunch isn’t bad, but I would recommend bringing your own and saving your stomach.  However any day they serve Khuushur I am there.  The various school clubs run fundraisers throughout the year for a multitude of activities. Invariably they all sell food, usually baked goods, so I was never without my cookies for too long.  Type 2 diabetes here we come.

            The administration, well it’s pretty similar to what you might see teaching in the States, with individual experiences varying from person to person.  I will say I loved the people I worked with and I am looking forward to another year.  Faculty meetings are still faculty meetings however, nothing new there and each teacher is required to serve on at least one faculty committee.  I ended up serving on two, the social committee, and principal’s advisory board.  The social club is pretty self-explanatory.  We organized various activities for the teachers since we are all living and working far from home for the most part.  Most of our time was spent on a Thanksgiving dinner, and Christmas party.  If I am on the committee again I want try and expand beyond this.  The principals advisory committee was unlike anything I had been on before and I would describe it as a bit of a round table with the head of each department if you will (we don’t really have enough staff for a department head) meeting and discussing school issues with the principal.  I would not mind being on this committee again.

            Now for what I am sure everyone is waiting for, the students.  This where things really start to get interesting.  You will still have that typical range of student ability, and motivation, but there is a respect for teaching that you would be hard pressed to find in the States.  Sure I have goofy kids, but never progresses to anything close to what I saw back home.  The hardest challenge bar none is the language barrier.  Most of my students have excellent to workable English, but there are some that can make teaching a bit tricky at times.  Add to that, the fact that the languages of these students are most likely Mongolian or Korean, and it can be difficult.  (FYI- I know only a few scant words of each).  Like all teachers though, I adapt and find a way to make it work.  Also grades 6 through 12 are all located in the same building.  Now this is not the hot mess many would expect it to be as the kids tend to stick to their age group.  Meaning those sticky situations one might imagine happening simply do not occur.  Also the older kids do help out the younger ones when needed.

            In the end the hardest part about teaching in Mongolia, is actually adapting to living in Mongolia.  No easy feat, but it is an adventure.


            PS- Cellphones are still the bane of all teachers here, and I have just as much trouble with them as my fellow teachers back home do.  I use the, if I see it when it is not supposed to be out its mine approach.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Reading Pagoda

Time for something from home


            Yes, I am way behind on things again.  I was enjoying my lazy summer a bit too much, and you know how you have all of those things you say you are going to do.  Yeah, that didn’t happen.  I mean I did complete two half marathons, a triathlon, and an exciting 4 day weekend at Otakan.  Don’t worry you’ll get the full gory details later.

            So part of my grand summer plans was to visit some of the local attractions in and around Berks county near my parents place.  I did get a bit of a late start on this, but I managed to visit several of local tourist attractions, many of which I haven’t actually been to before, or at least I do not remember being to before.  So as it turns out the City of Reading, Pennsylvania actually has a Pagoda, which I have seen from a distance many times, but never up close.  This little problem has finally been rectified.

Warning Cultural, Religious, and Architectural information


            Pagoda is an English translation, for several different types of religious structures found throughout the better part of Eastern and South Eastern Asia.

The Pagoda at the Senoji Temple, Asakusa Tokyo, Japan



            The Pagoda as it is known is a multi-tiered tower with sloping roofs, and is normally used in some sort of religious capacity.  The first pagodas were built between the 5th and 6th century BCE, as part of the Buddhist tradition.  However their origin goes back a bit further to the Stupa.


            Stupas are earthen mounds from the first millennium BCE, and were originally used to enshrine mystics from the Sramana religion which predates Buddhism.  As Buddhism grew in popularity existing Stupas were used as meditation sites, and new stupas were built to enshrine Buddha’s.  This enshrining of mystics and or religious relics was continued as the Stupa turned into the Pagoda.  This shift from Stupa to pagoda occurred when Nepalese architects traveled to China to construct Stupas.  It was here that the Stupa was combined with the traditional style of Chinese pavilions and towers.  This new style of Buddhist religious structure then spread throughout the rest of Asia.


Pagoda at the Chinese Temple in Phueket City Thailand



Cultural, Religious, and Architectural information over


            And now what you’ve all been waiting for….. Drum roll please……….

The Reading Pagoda



            Or at least that is what the people of Reading call it.  On closer inspection you will find that the Reading Pagoda is not actually a Pagoda.

1- Multi tiered structure- Check
2- Sloping roofs- Check
3- Enshrined Buddha and or relics- Fail
4- Heart Pillar (A big wooden log hanging in the middle- Fail
5- A lack of rooms or other internal divisions- Fail

            Sorry but 2 out of 5 doesn’t cut it in my classroom, so the Reading Pagoda is not a Pagoda.  It is however still inspired by Asian architecture, specifically Japanese castle architecture.   The Reading Pagoda is actually based on the design used for the Nagoya Castle, which I’ve actually seen in person.


            Now just because the Reading Pagoda isn’t a real Pagoda doesn’t mean it isn’t a cool place to visit.  If you want to see a nice Panoramic view of the city of Reading then I don’t know a better place.


Final verdict



            I wouldn’t go out of my way to visit the Reading Pagoda, but if you are already in town and want a nice place to eat a picnic lunch, (food options are limited at the Pagoda) then I can’t think of a better place.