Tuesday, May 12, 2009

"Doing your thing" behind an umbrella

Mongolia, the land of Genghis Khan, is a place like no other. It is a land where almost everybody can sing beautifully, where the best steaks could be had (Mongolian motto seen on a T-shirt for sale in an Ulaan Baatar steakhouse: Grass is for animals, meat is for Mongolians), where vodka forever flows, where the landscape remains flat for miles around.

On my first trip to Mongolia, we had to travel 7 hours by land from Ulaan Baatar (the capital) to Övörkhangai Province, whose livestock was decimated during the previous year's very harsh winter. As we traveled farther from the capital, we noticed that habitation was so sparse and that the land consisted of endless grassland (steppes). Every time you look around, it was the same scenery that you see. Halfway through the travel, we ladies (myself and two from Hong Kong) felt the urge and asked our driver where we could "do our thing". Perhaps the nearest "gher" or gasoline station? What gasoline station? The driver stopped the car at the side of the road and said, "Okay, here you go!" We turned our heads left and right but all we saw was flat, open grassland. There was no "gher" (the typical Mongolian tent), no outhouse, no trees or even a single shrub with which to hide behind. In other words, it was plain open field around us! We said, "Where?" The driver pointed some distance away and said, "There!" What did he mean "There!"? It was still open field! Then he handed us an umbrella.

As we were walking away from the vehicle, we were wondering how to do "it" with all the men smoking or conversing around the vehicle which was parked just a few meters away. We tried walking a bit farther away but, hey, no matter where we went, we were still gonna be exposed! We saw a lamb standing motionless ahead of us and one of us suggested hiding behind the lamb. Yeah, right! As if the lamb will stay motionless until the three of us had "done our thing"! It'll most probably move away while one of us was still squatting.

What to do? Well, we had no recourse but to use the single umbrella as a cover of our behind as we alternated "doing our thing". I was fortunate to have worn a 'salwar kameez' (the South Asian attire) at that time. With its long tunic, it immediately covered my lower half as I stood up.

Not surprisingly, none of us asked for a repeat of the process on the second half of the trip and neither on the way back.

Monday, May 11, 2009

What I like about handkerchiefs

A friend asked me to contribute something to her blog site (http://whatilikeabout-anything.blogspot.com/) and I wrote a piece on the subject of handkerchiefs. I invite you to check it out.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Unorthodox exam

Have you ever taken an exam on a scientific subject in the form of riddles or a song? I haven't, but I designed an exam just like that while still teaching in the university.

I was teaching Plant Taxonomy then and it's not one of your exciting, dynamic subjects, unlike Plant Physiology or Ecology. We were finishing up the course and the students had already studied the different Families of flowering plants. How to make the exam more challenging than the usual Multiple Choice or Fill in the Blanks questions? How to stimulate the students in visualizing processes and structures, in making comparisons so as to deduce relationships, in interpreting definitions?

First part of the exam: Still a Fill in the Blanks (relating to classification of fruits), but with a difference. It went like this:

1. The peanut is not a nut. It is a ______________.
2. The pineapple is neither a pine nor an apple. It is a _____________.
3. The coconut is not a nut. It is a __________.

And so on. You get the idea.

Second part of the exam: There is a Filipino folk song entitled "Bahay Kubo" (translation: "Nipa Hut"). Everybody knows this song because it's been taught to us since childhood. The students were asked to identify the Family to which each of the vegetables mentioned in "Bahay Kubo" belong (not necessarily in the order by which they are mentioned in the song). The exam room became filled with the soft (no cheating!) humming of singing students!

Third part of the exam: Instead of "Identify the blah, blah, blah" or a Matching Type test, I "let the different plant parts and processes speak" (personification) and the students identify who was speaking. A plant part became a queen sitting on a throne of green (ovary/fruit), another a traveler who finally settles in one place and finds true love there (the pollen), and so on.

There were other parts; some were standard (so as not to subject everybody to a complete traumatic experience), but those three sets of questions became the "talk of the town".

When the bell rang and the students submitted their test papers and filed out, most were chuckling and obviously enjoyed themselves, some asked where I got the questions, some commented that it's the weirdest exam they have ever had but they liked it. A few had knitted brows and were obviously unhappy (they were not prepared for "that kind" of exam).

In my entire teaching life, that exam stands out in my memory. It took me 2 weeks to perfect the test items, especially in the Identification test where I used personification. And when the test scores were computed, the results were gratifying, not only because the students got the right answers, but because they underwent an entire process of learning as they visualized/simulated, compared and contrasted, deduced, analyzed and made decisions. They might have forgotten the subject of Plant Taxonomy, but those learning skills would forever be with them.

Learning should be fun and an adventure. Subsequently, in my entire career as educator/trainer, I tried to always bear in mind that "We teach people, not subjects."