Sunday, February 27, 2011

Day 6

There were two surprises this morning: one was that it snowed during the night, and the other was that the Chinese government caused the snow--they seeded the clouds last night. I didn’t believe it at first, but those at the conference who live in Beijing said it’s not unusual, and that they had heard the snow cannons during the night.

The Flat Classroom Conference is in full swing, and the teams are working on their projects. This conference is unusual in a lot of ways, but one of the most significant is that it engages both students and teachers in active learning. As Vicki Davis describes it, at most conferences teachers talk about students and about active learning; here they are actually doing it. Another way it is unusual is that the project teams are very diverse and English is not the native language of many of the participants. That adds an extra challenge, but it’s beautiful to see teams overcoming obstacles and working together in spite of their differences.

My Survey Monkey experience came in handy this morning when setting up surveys for conference participants to select three student projects to move to the finals. The last upgrade to Survey Monkey included the ability to embed a form into a webpage, so I added an html widget to a conference wiki page and pasted the code from Survey Monkey into the widget. It worked well and we didn’t need to use Plan B which would have meant resorting to sticky notes.

It was a pleasant surprise to meet Central College alum Cheryl Moen at the conference (see photo). She’s a teacher at BISS now, but grew up in Pella and her dad is retired Central professor Al Moen. It’s a small world!

Farah Kashef and I walked to a nearby Pizza Hut for supper tonight and ordered a pizza. The one we got wasn’t the same one that we had ordered, but we were hungry enough that we ate it anyway. Farah told our waiter that she didn’t want ice in her drink, and instead he brought her a plate with ketchup on it. We’ve learned just to go with the flow, though---if our English sounds as strange to them as their Chinese sounds to us, it’s no wonder things get confused!

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Day 5

The Flat Classroom Conference officially kicked off this morning, and the day was a blur. The variety of people and places represented is remarkable, and everyone is excited to be here and is eager to learn from each other. The eight of us UNI students, nicknamed “Panthers” after the college’s mascot, are assigned as facilitators for various sessions throughout the day and to help in any way as needs arise. This morning I assisted Madeleine Brookes as she taught a session about Wikispaces and another one on Shamblespad and Preview.

After lunch we gave our presentation on Instructional Design Using the ADDIE Model. It’s not an especially riveting subject, so we tried to jazz it up by telling an original fairy tale and then relating the ADDIE steps to particular parts of the story. Dr. Z concluded the presentation and the grand finale was giving everyone in the audience a little rubber duck (made in China, of course) to help them remember the model.

Tonight buses took all the adult attendees to the Grand Mansion Restaurant for the conference dinner and social event. It was a beautiful restaurant and an incredible 15-course meal. Cynthia Sarver from SUNY Cortland and I sat at the same table as Adrian from Taylor’s School of Hotel Management in Malaysia. He speaks Chinese, so he could explain what we were eating, along with other interesting tidbits such as the fact that K-Pop is all the rage in Asia these days—Korean pop/rap singers. The meal started with sliced beef tongue with dipping sauce and black fungus (mushrooms) that looked just like the "roast beef" my mom put on the sandwich in my school lunchbox many years ago. The meal ended with some dessert-like dishes, including a white fungus soup that looked like a clear gel with a few peach bits in it.

Following the meal was an amazing array of entertainers: Chinese opera, bian lian (face-changing masks), Kung Fu, acrobatics, spinning plates/balancing act, pop singer, erhu music, and a few others I can’t remember. I wish I had brought my camera with me because it’s unlikely I’ll ever see all those things at one time in such unique surroundings ever again!

Friday, February 25, 2011

Day 4: The Great Wall

The wind picked up during the night and chased the smog away, so we woke up this morning to sunshine and a clear sky—what a refreshing sight! Now that we can see out of our hotel window on the 21st floor, we get a hint of how large this city really is---there are skyscrapers as far as the eye can see in every direction.

The good weather was a special blessing because this was the day we visited the Great Wall of China. It was a pre-conference outing so motor coaches took us to Mutianu, a small town at the base of the mountain range. We took the ski lift up to the Great Wall, had a wonderful time exploring the ancient walkways and guard towers which overlook Mongolia to the north, and took the toboggan back down.

The sense of history was almost palpable as we looked out over the craggy mountains and climbed rock stairs worn smooth from centuries of use. Just the thought of touching something built in the 5th century BC (yes, that’s Before Christ!) is amazing. It’s easy to understand why it is one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

We had a delicious family-style lunch at the Schoolhouse Restaurant in Mutianu. It used to be a school that has been converted into a restaurant and glass-blowing studio. A short distance away was a Subway, which looked so out of place in the rural village.

This evening we met at BISS for a conference debriefing with the organizers and also practiced tomorrow’s instructional design presentation. It had way too many rough edges, so we put in a late night back at the hotel getting our ducks in a row. Vicki Davis also wants us to help with Web 2.0 Kung Fu tomorrow—each person taking 3 minutes to demonstrate a useful Web 2.0 tool in one of the conference sessions.

Our sightseeing days are waning and the conference, which is the real reason we came here, is beginning.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Day 3

We toured the Western Academy of Beijing on Wednesday--a 1,500-student international school attended by students who hold foreign passports. It’s a progressive school with a 1:1 computer program, and we were able to visit with the technology director as well as the elementary and secondary technology integrators.

We visited a 10th-grade web design class, stepped into the food technology lab (home economics kitchen for those of us who recognize that term) where students were making healthy breakfast foods, and toured the Tri-Caster control room which controls the electronic scoreboard and cameras/microphones located in various venues. They find streaming athletic events, fine arts performances, etc. to be very much appreciated by the students’ families.

This was the third day in a row when students were not able to go outside to play because of the smog. We’ve noticed that even though there is a visible yellow ball in the sky so we know the sun is shining, it seems to be perpetually foggy and gray outside. Some people wear masks to avoid breathing in the smog. Ray, one of the teachers at WAB, said that later this year the grey air will turn to red because of sandstorms from the Gobi Desert, or it will turn white when the wind blows the fluff off the numerous poplar trees. In the meantime, there’s continuous smog from all the factories in this industrial city---“the physical manifestation of $1.99 Wal-Mart.”
We had lunch at a French restaurant in the Lido area, and enjoyed lingering over our delectable dessert. I’ve noticed that we’re usually the noisiest group in the restaurant and hope we’re not irritating the quiet Chinese with our boisterous banter.

Late this afternoon we met Dr. Zeitz, Julie Lindsay, Vicki Davis and other conference presenters such as Bernajean Porter at Beijing International School for a briefing on the conference plans and our role in it. They are all incredibly gifted and gracious individuals who are passionate about what they are doing. Interestingly, Bernajean is originally from Avoca, Iowa.

All the organizers and presenters went out to supper together afterwards and tried things like sweet and sour fish (see photo) and tofu noodles with sweet pea greens coated with a sauce that made my tongue numb (Szechuan peppercorns, which just might be a suitable substitute for novocaine)—another remarkable experience because it’s not often that we Iowans sit around a table with people from Iran, Shanghai, New Zealand, Japan, and China!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Day 2: Marathon Sightseeing

Tuesday we probably came close to setting a world record for sightseeing.

Our first stop was Tiananmen Square, the world’s largest city center according to our guide. We entered through the South Gate and walked to the north side where Chairman Mao watches over the plaza. He has lots of help---serious-looking uniformed guards were in abundance. We were obviously a novelty; people from all over China come to see their seat of government, and from their curious stares it was obvious that they don’t see Americans very often—or maybe they were just awestruck by Brandi’s dreadlocks and Carrie’s ear and nose rings.

From there we walked north into the Forbidden City, where emperors lived from 1420 to 1923, and people like us would never have even dreamed to visit. It's huge and full of symbolism and history. A short video clip showing one of the courtyards inside the Forbidden City is embedded below.

We had lunch in as authentic a Chinese restaurant as you can get, and then wandered through Houhai, a traditional hutong area full of little shops. The first shop we saw had a Starbucks logo on the front, which looked a little out of place on a building that looked like it was a couple of hundred years old.

From there we went to the Lama Temple, built in 1694, where there were several Buddhas, the largest of which holds the world’s record for the largest Buddha made from a single sandlewood tree. People were bowing in front of the idols and burning incense, with tourists like us wandering through and watching them and the Tibetan monks curiously.

From there we went to the Pearl Market where vendors in several floors of booths sell everything imaginable and you have to bargain for a decent price. For those of us who don’t like to haggle over prices, it was uncomfortable to be stalked by aggressive vendors, but I soon got good at saying buyae xie xie or “boo shay-shay” (no, thank you) forcefully.

We had Peking Duck with all the trimmings for our evening meal, in a small restaurant in an old part of the city. Our guide showed us the proper way to eat Peking duck---wrapping small slices in a thin tortilla-like pancake along with some dark sauce and thin strips of onion and cucumber.

Our evening’s entertainment was the Chinese Opera, an interesting mix of mime, acting, acrobatics, and strange falsetto singing. It’s one of those events where I’m glad I experienced it---but once was enough.

Monday, February 21, 2011

We're here! Day 1

When people warned me that it was a long flight to Beijing, they weren’t kidding. Our group of ten left the Cedar Rapids airport at 7 a.m. Friday, spent the morning in Chicago and climbed aboard a 777 around 1 p.m. Friday. Fourteen hours, three meals and several short naps later we arrived in Beijing. Unfortunately, the economy seats were the same size as those on a regular airplane, which meant there was no room to get comfortable for a good sound sleep.

The best part of the trip was being able to track our progress from the video monitor mounted in the back of the seat ahead of me. The map showed the location of the plane, the altitude, temperature, speed, flight time, etc. My boss had told me that we would be flying over the North Pole and I didn’t believe him, but he was right—we went straight north from Chicago, over Thunder Bay and Siberia. We flew just west of the North Pole, where the air temperature was -92F!

The Beijing Airport is huge—it is the largest airport in Asia, built or remodeled in 2008 for the Olympics. Flat Classroom Conference co-founder Julie Lindsay and her husband John met us at the airport, and we met Steve Madsen at the hotel. It took a little while to get checked in at the Zhejiang Hotel—there’s a severe language barrier to contend with—and then we went directly to the Chinese Acrobat Show. It was amazing, but I must admit to nodding off now and then in spite of the noise and action. Looking around, though, I wasn’t the only drowsy one in the group. Vicki Davis brought a group of seven students and another teacher with her from Camilla, Georgia, and they were looking pretty droopy too. The 14-hour time difference is taking its toll.

Today, Monday, was our first full day in this country. I ate things at the hotel’s continental breakfast that I’d never seen before but most things were surprisingly tasty. We then left with the Georgia group for a tour of the Sacred Road and the Ming Tombs. The long walk down the plaza flanked by larger-than-life sculptures made for great photo ops--unlike historical sites in the US, there were no ropes or warnings barring us from touching or climbing on the sculptures. The area will be even more beautiful when spring arrives and the grass and trees wake up from their winter hibernation.

We had lunch in a private room in a restaurant, practiced our chopstick skills and experienced restroom facilities quite different from those in the US. We then toured THIS School (Tsinghua International School), which is in its second year of operation. Martha Ortiz, the secondary school director, did a wonderful job of explaining things and showing us around the school. It’s an English-speaking school with mainly Chinese students whose parents want to prepare them for higher education in the United States. Classes are quite small and the teachers use a constructivist approach with mainly project-based learning.

THIS is small, progressive K-12 government school; on the same grounds is a 3000-student more traditional high school. We toured a portion of that school and stepped into a classroom briefly. The 40-student class was led by a petite young woman who didn’t look that much older than her students. This school is associated with Tsinghua University and is attended by the children of the faculty and staff who work at the university.

This evening we took in the Kung Fu Show at the Red Theater, which was very enjoyable. Our tour guide, Vincent, is a charming 26-year-old with excellent English, and we’re enjoying learning more about China from him. He is an exception to China’s one-child standard since he has twin older sisters.

Since we had no specific plans for supper, I walked to a nearby McDonalds. The menu was more limited here but it was pretty confusing with only pictures to go by. The clerk took one look at my confused face and pulled out a Chinese/English menu from behind the counter. I have a new appreciation for signs, menus, labels, etc. that are in more than one language—it’s a very considerate thing to do for visitors like us!

Saturday, February 12, 2011


Preparations continue as the day of departure approaches. One week from now our group will be in the air, perhaps somewhere over Russia en route to Beijing.

Today was not that exotic, though, unless you call a trip to Walmart exotic. On my shopping list were items such as an international power adapter, travel-sized toiletries and a small calculator to stick in my purse--my mental math isn't good enough to convert Chinese Yuan (CNY) to dollars on the fly. However, I might not need my calculator too often if I remember that 100 Yuan is about $15.

Today the exchange rate is $1 = 6.67 yuan, which is a little higher than it was a few days ago. China uses both coin and paper currency, and the paper currency is different colors depending on the denomination. For example, the 1 yuan bill is green while the 5 is purple. The 1 yuan coin has a chrysanthemum engraved on it and the jiao has an orchid (10 jiao = 1 yuan). There is also a coin for 5 jiao which pictures a lotus.

Speaking of money, a classmate recommended that we notify our bank and credit card company that we will be traveling to China so that our transactions will not be flagged as potentially fraudulent. That's still on my to-do list.

Last night I attended a Chinese New Year celebration at Central College in which the students who have studied abroad in Hangzhou, China, organized activities and showed highlights of their experience. Although Hangzhou is on the eastern edge of China, the students had traveled inland to Beijing on one of their excursions. They showed photos of many of the same places that our group hopes to visit such as the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the Ming Tombs, and Tiananmen Square. They also visited Xi'an and saw the terracotta army, which is too far away from Beijing for us to visit but would be a fascinating site to see someday.

One of the activities at the event was a Q&A about China. The students asked these questions of the audience to test our knowledge (answers are at the bottom of this post):
  1. Should you expect a fortune cookie at the end of your meal in a restaurant in China?
  2. Which direction is considered good luck for a gate to face in China?
  3. What color is considered lucky in China?
  4. China is the __ (1st, 2nd, 3rd, 4th) largest country in the world by area.
  5. China is the __ (1st, 2nd, 34d, 4th) largest country in the world by population.
  6. Approximately how long is the flight to China (air time)?
  7. What are the main religions in China?
  8. What is the capital of China?
  9. Who is the head of state in China right now?
  10. In December 2009, how many US students did President Obama propose to study abroad in China during the next four years?
Today's Chinese vocabulary word is "zaijian," which means goodbye. It is pronounced sigh-jin.

I ran across these Chinese proverbs that are worth remembering: "After three days without reading, talk becomes flavorless" and "Learning is a treasure that will follow its owner everywhere." This trip to China will be a learning experience that I will carry with me the rest of my life.

Answers: 1) No, that's an American custom; 2) South; 3) Red; 4) 4th; 5) 1st; 6) 14 hours; 7) Confucianism, Daoism, Buddhism; 8) Beijing; 9) Hu Jintao, since 2003; 10) 100,000