Paul and Gayle are taking a year from their roles in Picton and Belleville and will be teaching at the Maple Leaf International School in Trinidad. We will use this blog to record some of our edventures!

Saturday, 30 May 2015

The Area of A Basketball Court

One of my classes this semester is Exercise Science. It's a grade 12 University level course that has 14 of our top students. Many have their acceptances in-hand and some will be pursuing health related post-secondary studies in Canada or the US.

I've really enjoyed this class because it has taken me back, in a new-fashioned way, to my teaching-roots. Yes, it's true, some time ago I wanted to be a Physical Education teacher and I graduated with a degree in that very same field. (Many of you just said, "WHAT?")...Pause...Teaching computer science was my (very successful) back up plan.

It's been a long semester and this is a very heavy course with so much content that is new for my students. We've worked hard to learn about anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics. As you can imagine at this time of year, the students are tired and keeping them engaged in new material is tough! 

Our current topic is "Human Growth and Development". Wednesday we were looking at Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development.  I'd like to say they were absorbing this riveting material but by the fourth stage you might be yawning too: "Formal Operational Stage ... children demonstrate intelligence through their ability to solve increasingly complicated abstract problems using logic, and by understanding how to use symbols related to abstract concepts."

I had lost at least one to slumber and two more were looking ready to nod off.  It was time to make this a little more real.

I didn't have to look to hard to find a real story that had "abstract problems", "logic" and "symbols" -- I teach math, after all.

I started to talk about the difference between real-life problems and math textbook problems. They gave the usual puzzled, "who is this guy?" look.  Then I gave a problem from our grade 10 text -- "If the area of a tennis court is represented by the equation A = x2 + 9x + 8, what are the lengths of the two sides?"

Instantly, one my grade 12's blurted, "That's real basic, sir". Everyone in the room knew how to solve this problem -- but they missed the point (ah, the curse of knowledge...). Becoming slightly animated and narrowly focusing on "real-life problems" vs "abstract problems" I said, "Ok, three things: First, in real-life, you are never going to need to find the area of a tennis court. Second, in real-life, a quadratic equation will never be used to represent area and third, in real-life, you will never measure a rectangle's length with a binomial."  This is why grade 10 students fit nicely into Piaget's stage 4 and why grade 12 students do not.

Sunday, 24 May 2015

It All Happened So Quickly

It's Sunday and we embarked early for our routine of biking and skating on the closed Diego Martin highway. There was a kids triathlon event planned for 7am so we'd have to get our workout done by then.

We completed our usual 10 laps of the 2km stretch of road, said good morning to some friends whose kid was competing, got bananas at the fruit stand and headed for home on our bikes. A pretty normal routine for us.

On the 3km trip back there is a major intersection that is well controlled with traffic lights. It was just opened in August and can be dangerous because of visibility issues and speeds.  We are always very cautious when we approach as we have to make a right hand turn (that's like a left for most of you). 

We are well aware of the pattern of the change of lights as we pass through here on our route to work daily. The right turn arrow had just changed to red when we arrived, so we knew that we'd be waiting a full cycle of about 4 minutes until we could go.  After the traffic from the west goes, the north and south traffic have greens for about 2 and a half minutes.  During their green, one of the lanes heading north, towards us did not move as expected.  A car was stopped at the front with a line up behind it.

This was very unusual. What is equally unusual is that there were only one or two honks. Trinis will usually honk within one second of a light turning green if you are not moving.  I am not exaggerating at all. We've become used to it, it is so common.

To complicate things even further, there were two police men on motor cycles with their blue lights flashing at the intersection approaching from the west. Police will often drive with their lights flashing for no reason.  Yep, not kidding.  If there are sirens you have to move over, but you can ignore the lights.  I think they just want to be more visible.

So, back to the main story. We are approaching from the north in the right turn lane. Police are to our right, the lane of traffic is not moving coming from the south on the other side.  After some time, I noted to Gayle that it had been at least 45 seconds and the car was not moving.  Cars from behind started to move into the other lane to go around, but no one seemed to pay any attention to the stopped vehicle.

Becoming increasingly concerned, Gayle said, "I wonder if they are all right?" We hadn't seen any movement from the driver so we said we'd better check on her (it looked like the driver might have been female).  As soon as the light changed, we darted across to find a man slumped over behind the wheel.  While still on my bike I approached the passenger window and tried to get a response from the driver with a loud yell, hoping he had just nodded off.  Nothing...

I quickly parked my bike against the railing and ran around to the driver's side. On the way, I flagged the waiting police to come over. I reached the right side of the car and my first aid training kicked in -- "hey are you ok!." I yelled loudly and tapped the driver on the shoulder.

He looked up, rather dozily, and reached his hand up for a fist-bump. PHEW!  He was ok. I was not going to have to use any CPR skills today! By the look of his eyes, he had either been awake for several days or had been imbibing rather heavily. It wasn't until then that I noticed he had a friend with him who was sleeping in the fully reclined passenger seat!

Within seconds the police arrived, parked their motorcycles and were at the car. The driver, instinctively reached for his seat belt as he saw the officers. "...PUT DE CAR IN PARK..." I suddenly realized that this fellow was probably going to get into some serious trouble and didn't waste any time moving back to the other side of the car to collect my bike and Gayle. "Let's get out of here....hopefully he won't recognize us..." As we rode away, I confirmed that we both had kept our sunglasses on during the transaction.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Three Corners of the Country

It's official. We have now visited three corners of Trinidad. Our latest triumph occurred yesterday as we joined yet another "Emile hike" and ventured to the south western most tip of the country. This journey entailed a 2.5 hour maxi ride, a 4.5 hour hike, and of course...wet shoes. It wouldn't be a hike in Trinidad without wet shoes.

We were fortunate to stop off at a mud volcano, something we had both been hoping to see during our time here. Rather than being a hot, sulfur spewing, mud laden site, the mud volcano we saw was a "cold" one. We believe that the fine silty mud bubbles from the Earth due to underground water springs. They say the mud from these sites rejuvenates skin so let me know how much you want and I'll ship it to you.

During our 4.5 hour hike, we walked through the most beautiful coconut plantation. Stretching some 20 kilometers along the coast, thousands of trees are still producing the ever so versatile coconut. Did you know that a coconut, when green, is harvested for coconut water. When brown, the coconut is harvested for the white coconut we use in baking. And once a coconut begins to grow a new plant, the inside can be harvested and coconut "bread" can be eaten. (It was quite yummy!) Also, coconut husk is used as a fuel and in plant baskets.

Check out the photos and the interactive map from our Saturday adventure.

Friday, 15 May 2015

I Can't See Clearly Now That The Rain Is Gone

Soon, I mean within hours, after our arrival we learned about the rainy season.  Rain came every day, and lots of it. Our first hike was in Chaguaramas, and we got dumped on.  For the first three months we were here it rained every single time we went out there. It is just a 15 minute drive away, two valleys over.

We didn't let the rain slow us down. The air is always warm, so we didn't need to get out of the rain (as is our normal Canadian response). Gayle wore a rain coat once. She sweated so much, she took it off. Being wet from the rain was a better plan.

Rain brought its challenges on the Frisbee pitch because the King George park doesn't drain well and grass cutting on the Savannah is a rare occurrence.  I routinely dove for discs and made some spectacular catches and some impressive water and mud slides! Playing in foot tall grass on the Savannah was fun, too.

Trinidad has only two seasons, although, they are loosely defined depending on your information source.  Generally everyone agrees that January - June are dry and July - December are wet.  Or so...  Depending on the year...

Our experience is not quite that simple. We had rain through March and even a little in April. Not nearly as much as October, and November produced much less rain that we'd anticipated. Now it's May and we are in the middle of the dry season. Any rain that does come is an event and even causes people to talk about the weather.

The early part of the dry season brings some loss of leaves and some beautiful flowers to the trees. Now we are seeing what were lush green mountainsides turn varying shades of brown. The forest trials look and sound like autumn because of the fallen leaves an branches.

Rivers are running well below capacity. Low water levels in the reservoirs has led officials to rotating water outages. We are down to 22 hours a day of water flowing in the mains. Most of us have water tanks (the school has 4, 1000 gallon beasts) so we don't notice any difference.

We do, however, notice the abundance of fires and the smoke that they cause. Fires are burning every day now. Some are full on forest fires, others are just grass or fallen leaves. Most are in the mountains, but we've seen a few burning ditches along the sides of the road. We even hashed our way through two recent burns last weekend. The smoke is so thick some days that it comes inside our apartment.  Oh yes, and there is the obvious continuous haze over the city and my burning eyes.

Since moving here, we have observed that we, Canadians, are very in-tune with the weather and our environment. Trinis, however, rarely if ever talk about changes in weather. The rain, fires and smoke, while inconvenient are part of life and don't seem to upset anyone too much. Once in a while I hear or see a fire truck. That makes me feel a little better.  I hope the water at the station was running before they left.

Thursday, 7 May 2015

Alright, Okay, Stag is a Man's Beer...and other local lessons

Hello!  I'm another guest blogger; a friend of Gayle & Paul's named Kristin.  I'm originally from Belleville, but have been living and working in Alberta since 2008.  After a few years of pushing myself to be better, stronger, and smarter (at work and at play), I realized that I have joined the throngs of Canadians on the proverbial 'treadmill' I had sworn I would never get caught up on.  To quote the book "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", a book that I brought to help me reach the mind state that I was looking for:

“Is it hard?'
Not if you have the right attitudes. Its having the right attitudes that's hard.” 
― Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values

So, when I was deciding to fly south, I realized that I could probably learn quite a bit from immersing myself in the Trinidad Culture. And it was my goal to have the right attitude and learn as much as I could from the people here.

“(What makes his world so hard to see clearly is not its strangeness but its usualness). Familiarity can blind you too.” 
― Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

As a student on a quest, my eyes were open to learning about three main aspects of Trinidadian life: the food, the language, and the Trini attitude.

First the food - it's fresh (especially the street foods!), it's delicious, it's often fried, and it is a great way to get to know all the cultures in Trinidad and Tobago.  There are Indian, creole, Chinese, , American, British, South American and other cultural influences.  I was told I had to try the curried goat when I came, so I had Goat Roti - delicious.  The Doubles are an experience not to be missed, as well as the Shark & Bake, Sunday Lunch, callaloo ice cream.  I didn't get a chance to try corn soup, or oxtail soup, or the crab & dumplings (there's only so much food you can pack in during a visit!).  But the food was spectacular.  Interestingly, the citrus fruit was out-of-season, and the oranges were kind of green and unappetizing looking, as well as full of big seeds, but if you take the time to peel and sort out the seeds, the flesh was light and refreshing tasting.  And it was lovely to see mango trees, laden with fruit, bananas and coconuts everywhere we went.  The one exception is the coffee - I was shocked to learn that most coffee here is instant, and the real coffee is not very good...except at the Asa Wright Centre where they grow and roast their own coffee beans - I savoured every drop.

Secondly, the language.  There's so much to say about the Trini language.  When I first arrived, Paul drew me a map so that I could walk to the nearest mall and do some low-key exploring while he and Gayle were at work.  And standing in line for some food, I could not understand what the people in front of me were saying - but it turned out that they were actually speaking English!  English, overflowing with local slang, local grammar, and with a heavy island accent.  So everywhere I went, I made a concerted effort to try and keep up with and understand the words flowing from the mouths of Trinidadians.  I was not wholly successful, but in this attempt, I did learn some of the local sayings used regularly here.  I'll try to list a few off for you (insert your own lilting tones, and remember that most T's and TH's are pronounced "D"):

Okay, Alright! (heavy emphasis on the 2nd syllable) - Used to reassure others in tight/sticky situations like traffic

Really plenty (the Really is pronounced "rail-ly") - alot

You godda beat de iron while it's hot - I heard someone in the grocery store say this today because you can never count on an item being there, so you have to buy it when you see it

I dey - I'm fine

We bussin’ a lime dis Friday – We’re going to chill this Friday

Wha yuh for? - What do you want to do?

She’s a bess ting – She’s hot

She vex - She's angry, annoyed

When you reach? - When will you get there? 

Although it seems the language has evolved almost entirely around slang here, I found that if you took the time to talk to someone, and asked them questions, they were very quick to smile, kind, helpful, and willing to share their stories.  While trying my best to hail a Maxi (a taxi van/bus) so that I could take the ferry over to Tobago, I was having no success.  So I asked a lady (who was standing on the median in the middle of the highway) if she could give me some pointers on how to get a Maxi to stop.  She took me under her wing, showed me some of the hand signals I needed to know, and when she asked where I was from and learned that I am Canadian, shared with me that she'd had an exciting romance with a Canadian man in her youth (I'm leaving out quite a few details here...let's just say that Canadians have good 'moves').  

And this leads me to the Trini attitude.  I would like to find a way to go back in Canada while still preserving some of the lifestyle that I learned to adapt to while in Trinidad and Tobago but I'm not sure this would be possible.  It's slow here (almost everything is hand-written, including hospital records and licensing offices which have not gone digital yet).  There's absolutely no expectation to move fast - restaurant servers sit and play on their phones or finish chewing their nails before standing and walking as slow as possible over to your table.  The Trini people are incredibly social - and yet their customer service is very apathetic.  Because of the high crime rate, which is concentrated mostly in Port of Spain, every single service desk, kiosk or sales counter in Trinidad has bars, or a plexi-glass window with a speakerbox or hole to talk through, making it difficult to see or communicate with the person on the other side (nevermind their accent!).  Interestingly, there seem to be almost no racial tensions whatsoever; people here are very blunt and practical about skin colour and ethnicity. The differences between the sexes is also quite embedded in mainstream media and marketing messages...for example, "Stag is a Man's Beer" is the actual slogan of this popular beer.  Trini's are very proud of their island (boasting regularly of it's beauty), and yet they are impatient with their government and government agencies (there's quite a bit of corruption).  When I took the ferry over to Tobago, there was a man ranting because "they" had decided to cancel the 10am and 5pm sailings, so the one and only ferry we could take that day (since I had missed the 6am ferry due to my poor Maxi hailing abilities) was at 1:30pm.  "Put your buts in dem seats, and just be waitin' until we ready" he raved. "Only in Trinidad!"  This is a common phrase to hear here.

Some of my unique experiences included joining Gayle's Grade 12 Health Sciences class on a trip to the Port of Spain Hospital where we saw some very old facilities and practices, as well as some pretty new equipment.  The handling of bio-hazardous waste seemed to be lacking in protocol and procedure, and looking up at the hospital rooms was reminiscent of looking at low-income housing apartment buildings, with an array of curtains and fabrics hanging out the windows.  And while waiting in the main lobby, a man in shackles was walked past us into a waiting room...

I had a very fast (white knuckle) driving tour of southern Tobago (due to the fact that the ferry had, again, cancelled their later sailings, so my island tour was cut short).  I learned about the tradition of giving goats or pigs to a newly married couple, and that Tobago had changed ruling power 31 times - more than any other island in the West Indies!  This is Simon, my tour guide/driver:

Then we went to the Asa Wright Centre where we saw many types of hummingbirds, the manakins (birds) that have the most amazing courting dance that they perform in their lek (the 'meat market' for adult birds only).  This was also where I saw my first agouti - a hare-sized rodent that hasn't really got much of a tail, walks on all 4 feet, and likes to eat fruits and veggies.  We went straight from Asa Wright (a place I'd like to go back to someday) and on to Matura to see the turtles coming ashore at night to lay their eggs.  This was...AMAZING.  Our guide was pretty relaxed and allowed flash photos to be taken while she was laying her eggs, and then allowed us to touch her!  This was a truly jaw-dropping experience.

Finally, my trip was finished off with a terrific tour of the Nariva Mangrove and Bush Bush island where we saw puffer fish right at the boat launch, thousands of crabs running around the roots and mudflats of the mangroves, a rare kingfisher, herons, parrots, and last, but certainly not least, a red howler monkey and a tribe of capuchins.  They were absolutely captivating!

And so my brief journey is coming to an end.  Or as the Trini's would say..."I reach." I hope to retain the warm, captivating, slow vibes that the Trini's have shown me during my stay.  I am so thankful to Paul and Gayle for having me stay with them, and for having shown me how to navigate the culture; warning me about the do's and don'ts while in Trinidad.

“Sometimes it's a little better to travel than to arrive” 
― Robert M. PirsigZen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff

One of the things I love most about teaching is that every day is different and that there are often big challenges to work through or problems to solve.

Insert grade 11 university level chemistry here.

I am currently teaching a group of 14 students, 13 boys and 1 girl. Out of the 13 boys in the room, 7 most definitely struggle to pay attention for more than 3 minutes at a time. No problem - my style of hands on learning suits this group quite well. The more exciting of the challenges with this group is my Asperger’s student Demetri.

I have taught a few with Asperger’s before, but seeing as no 2 Aspies are the same, Demetri presents some unique learning opportunities for me. 

You see, Demetri is not only Asperger’s, but a perfectionist as well. He struggles to put pen to paper because it won’t be perfect. To ease this struggle and help access Demetri's learning I often dedicate my prep period to chatting with Demetri and testing him orally. We've built a pretty good rapport over the semester, but he'd still rather tell me about things unrelated to chemistry. Go figure! In theory the oral testing should work well, but Demetri lacks confidence in his academic abilities and therefore whispers his responses.

Most recently we’ve moved into learning and solving chemistry problems with math. I was hopeful that Demetri would take to this like white on rice as it is concrete, logical and defined. Much to my chagrin math isn't his thing. In fact, when I asked him if he likes math, Demetri replied very matter of fact, "Well Miss, it is a means to an end." 

Daily I question the best way to help Demetri learn (chemistry) and build life long skills. From all of this I've really had to modify my rigid expectations of evaluation for students. Demetri knows a lot and accessing it requires some creative solutions. Please - if you have any suggestions, fire me an email. I'd love to try it. 

Chemistry aside, Demetri is into chess (he is trying to teach me at lunch), Harry Potter and acting. Again, go figure. Last week Tuesday was "Twin Tuesday". I didn't think twice about it, as I was coming off of "Mismatch Monday" and looking ahead to Western Wednesday. So I donned my smashingly good looking skirt and shirt as per usual. Upon arrival at school, I was photocopying something in the library and along came Demetri. He asked me, "Miss, do you think it is ok for a student and teacher to be twins?" I thought it would fine and told him as much. Then he said, "What Harry Potter house do you belong to?" A bit off guard, I wracked my brain for any house name (it's been a while since I've read the books) and replied, "I know I'm not Slitherine." This bought me enough time to come up with Hufflepuff. Well, his eyes lit up and Demetri said, "I have a Hufflepuff and Ravenclaw gown in my locker."I saw where this was going. So I asked him if he was asking me to be his twin and before he could reply I told him I'd love to be his twin. Together we rocked the robes, and I taught in it all day!

Needless to say, we were definitely the COOLEST twins at Maple Leaf.