Poem: Love is the Subject

2010-12-20 Writing Class






An excuse.

Love is the subject

About the poem:

I know now that teaching is just an excuse to hang out with cool people. It’s a precious opportunity to love them and be loved. Realizing that love is a teacher’s top priority makes things richer, clearer. It’s similar to how shooting hoops with friends is not really about winning the game of H-O-R-S-E; it’s about spending fun, important, bonding time with friends.

When a student enrolls in class, the end goal is to have a good life …one filled with love and purpose. But, if our focus is love, appreciation and encouragement, we can deliver that moment, now!

About the author:

Joan just really, really hopes you figure out how to enjoy your life before it’s over. She writes books and blogs about this very important, fun topic!

Poem: Supposes …invented yoga poses! Fanciful ideas from my Korean students

The seal, the seagull

The chick, the turtle

The monkey, the hamster

The keyhole, the vampire

The apple, the  screwdriver

The car, the middle finger

The bear, the ruler

The battleship cruiser

The umbrella, the scissors

The fox and praying mantis

The quarter note of music

The hydra and the mushroom

The hula hoop, the jellyfish

The zombie and the dolphin

The banana, the spider

The white tiger

The boomerang, the heart

The elephant, the hippo

Kung-fu and the butterfly

The dragon and the dragonfly

Levitation and the box

Finally, the question mark

With a hop to make the dot!

About the poem:

I taught yoga for the first time to my English classes in Samcheonpo, South Korea. At the end of class, I asked them to invent a new yoga pose. They instantly came up with dozens of new poses I’d never imagined! I appreciate ancient wisdom, but what the heck, wouldn’t this be a fun way to keep a yoga class from getting dull? So creative!

About the author:

Joan Gregerson believes life should be fun, but we just forgot how to do it. Kids are often wiser than we are, when it comes to simply enjoying the moment. Joan writes books and blogs about inner peace and enjoying life.




Hanging out …can you be content doing nothing?

The most powerful thing we can do is be 100% present in our interactions with each other. Unhurried. Open to the moment and each other. Be, rather than, Do.

Hanging Around

Rare chance to play outside with my students. Here we are on our field trip ‘observing’ cherry blossoms.

“I like being prepared” …a chaos buster!

Last year, I was in a meeting where one member recounted how another was such a good person to work with. He said it was because she was always so prepared, and she chimed in, “I like being prepared.”

The speaker said he began using that motto, not only in his work, but in his way of living. Before he met someone, he tried to be prepared. If he saw someone walking toward him, he quickly tried to be mentally prepared to be able to greet the person kindly, to focus on the person, and not be distracted by other concerns.

Wow, I totally agree with this approach. Especially, when it comes to greeting people or beginning a class or a meeting. I want to look forward to that interaction.

But, what I hadn’t acknowledged before, was that in my work, yes, I too like to be prepared! 

I realized that I tend to take on too much, so have gotten better at limiting my “To Do List”. Or laughing at it!

But, I realized that for me to feel comfortable, I do enjoy being prepared and thus enjoy preparing!  It is a kick-ass chaos buster!

For example, whereas the previous teacher in this position took 1-2 hours per week for planning, I take 4-5 hours. I tried with fewer hours, but all week I was fumbling for enough activities to meet the ever-changing class composition and last-minute shifts. Instead of cursing those, I figured out that those are ‘normal’, so by preparing more options, I’m able to teach something fun, comfortably …no matter what!

So, making the extra effort to be prepared is an important part of being able to be peaceful, joyful and comfortable when class after class of kids wander into my room. When I’m prepared, I can meet them excitedly knowing we will have fun in the coming hour.

In the past few weeks, I had another example of this. I decided to participate in an Open Mic event to perform some of my poetry. I had only done this one previous time, on the spur of the moment that time, so I know I’m really a beginner.

So, even though the time slot was just 7 to 12 minutes, I spent weeks preparing. I memorized about eight poems, though I knew I’d have time for only about four. I translated one into Korean so it wouldn’t be all English … here in Korea! I practiced some of the poems with different friends and got great insights about the importance of giving some background and connecting to the listener.

As a result of all that preparation, I wasn’t stressed out that day. When my name came up as the last of 15 poets, I felt calm and happy. I had fun, and think the audience did too.

I used to really rebel against that extra effort, but now I can welcome it:

  • as part of my way to enjoy life,
  • as an effective chaos crusher,
  • as part of my spiritual path, and
  • as a way to inner peace!

Yep, I like being prepared! 


By spending a few extra hours of prep time, I’m ready for anything all week long! And last minute schedule changes don’t bother me!

Teaching the Macarena and brainstorming Samcheonpo Style

We have a short week, just Thursday and Friday, so I wanted to do something fun. Everyone here knows Gangnam Style ….hmmm what to do?

I decided to teach the Macarena to my elementary and middle school classes. I figured it would be a hit with the girls, but wasn’t sure how the boys would handle it. Luckily, after their initial groans, they got into it! Loved how the guys made a line dance of it and were better at it than me!

I showed a couple youtube videos including one of some elementary girls performing for a talent show. It was interesting to learn that a couple of them had performed in talent shows: playing musical instruments and doing a skit. When I asked if they ever wanted to perform, one said yes as a musician and another said no, but later admitted he would be okay being on TV as a professional soccer player.

Then we brainstormed, if we made a music video about our small town of Samcheonpo, what scenes would it have. They each had to sketch four ideas just using stick figures. Haha, so funny! Some unique ideas:

– A new line to replace “Hey Sexy Lady” … “Hey Fishy Lady” as the fisherman pulls in his net

– a guy diving off the bridge to his death, so the dance move is a dive

– crossing the crosswalk and getting hit by a car (…blood and knives are favorite highlights of the middle school boys drawings!)

– kangaroo dance. why? no idea!

– playground scene, elevator scene, fishing boat scene

This class reminded me that I don’t need to do hours of prep, but I do need to be a little brave to try things that may fail. But may pay off in getting all of us to take risks: moving, being creative and laughing a lot!

I used other videos to teach the dance, but here’s the original Macarena. It’s great in the variety of dancers and energy!

Teaching = Loving

I’m a teacher, but I’m not a perfect teacher.

But, oh how I love my students! This week I had the privilege of teaching students from Korea, Columbia, Japan, Taiwan, Saudi Arabia and Brazil.

It’s pretty hard to juggle cultures, personalities, grammar rules, school policies, and my perceptions and skills. So, I drop the ball. I make mistakes. Lots of them.

Yet, I do best when I focus on being loving first and foremost. Sure, we work diligently to teach the subject matter at hand, but we do this best when we decide wholeheartedly to: Love Our Students

Love Your Students

Change your lesson plan. Renumber your objectives for the day and make number one: Love your students.

I’ve taught English to students in the US, Korea and Saudi Arabia. One thing’s for sure. You can’t always teach your students what you want to teach them. Or what you think you’re supposed to teach them.

You can try. You can do your best, but things go awry in our own plans. We lose papers or experience technical difficulties. Or a student is simply not able to or motivated to learn at that moment.

But, in those moments, you can still love your students. You can unconditionally love your students.

Even if they just failed the quiz, or just disrupted class. Even if you’re writing up the “Step 3” discipline form or you have no idea to connect to a student. Even if she thinks you don’t like her or he won’t return your smile, you can unconditionally love those students. Even if you lost your cool with him previously (actually, especially if you did), you can unconditionally love him.

As teachers, we must try. Always.

Of course, we’re human. We can’t always pull this off. Some days, or some moments, we’ll fail miserably. (I have documented my failings in earlier posts!)

But we must try.

A fellow teacher was telling me how bad her class was.

“What should I do?”, she asked.

“Love them”, I replied.

“Ohhhhh no, not these students”, she said. “You don’t understand. Especially the worst ones. No. But really, what should I do?”

“Really, love them.”

“I can’t,” she said. Ohhhhhhhh no, I thought.

“You must,” I said.

“I wish I could!” she said, as she walked away. But unconditionally loving our students is a choice. So, we can.

Teachers are taught to be very objective-focused. If our objective is to ensure that each students knows we unconditionally love them, we can make that happen. Certainly everything you say or do is important, but sometimes this connection can be established or kept alive with only a few seconds per student per class.

Why is it important to love them?

Well, when we think about it, what is the point of being a student? Students are there to learn. Why? Because they want to make life somehow better.

When we unconditionally love our students, even for a second, we transport them and ourselves to that endpoint instantly.

We make life somehow better, complete and wonderful for our students and ourselves, in that moment.

And if there are still problems with the class, we at least know that we can make whatever changes are necessary (in the classroom or in our lives), from a state of groundedness …and love.

Fast forward to “better life now” by committing to love your students.

Home of the Free

Walking around on the streets of Denver, I’m in awe of our freedoms.

I just got back from two months in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

Wow, look at that lady walking alone, head uncovered, no abaya, walking a dog!!! A big dog!

And over there, people sitting outside. Women sitting outside with men.

And on the bus. Well, first, there is a bus!!!! Then, high school kids get on the bus. Young women, without abayas or headscarves, talking to boys. They’re talking about Coke vs Diet Coke, Democrats and Republicans, and which stop they get off at.

And on the bus are women who are coming home from work. Jobs of all kinds, I imagine.

There are churches and synagogues and mosques. Cinemas. Plays. Outdoor musical performances and music playing in Chipotle. And women eating dinner with their kids, right next to a man or two.

And there are homeless people. And single moms talking about being on welfare. And guys talking about getting out of jail again.

This is the land of the free. Free to succeed or fail, but definitely in comparison to Saudi Arabia, free.

Going for a Swim

Here in Riyadh, many compounds (expat residence communities) have swimming pools. But if you don’t have a friend on a compound, can you go swimming?

Yes, you can!, my teacher friends told me.

Here’s the scoop:

  • You have to have a driver take you to the Diplomatic Quarter. You must also arrange for them to come pick you up. Arrange with a driver, not a taxi, as empty taxis are not allowed into the DQ. (Cost roundtrip about 60-100 SAR ~$15-$20)
  • Bring your passport.
  • Wear a one-piece swimsuit, plus bike shorts underneath and a swimming cap.
  • Pay 50 SAR ($13)
  • Choose hours when women are allowed

Easy, right!!Well, it’s an option. Hmm…

Ah, I’m thinking fondly of the women’s sauna with swimming lane, 10 minute walk away, no clothing required and $4 entrance fee on Jeju Island.

Extra Money: Saudi Budget Surplus

While the US posted its third consecutive highest annual deficit ($1.3 trillion), the Saudi government is faced with the problem of what to do with its latest surplus.

That’s right. The Saudi government has an extra $81.6 billion at year end. 

BBC News – Saudi Arabia posts huge budget surplus (December 2011)

Big Family Vehicles

This is a place where big cars are popular:

– the average family size is six (down from higher numbers in recent years, and still lower in Riyadh than in smaller towns where the average size is 7-8)

– no public transportation

– gasoline sells for less than $1/gallon

– male drivers

The other day I saw a dad helping his kids get in the car, taking them to school perhaps. I thought, wow, the dads here really do take care of their kids a lot. Of course, the other side of that, is that women can’t drive, so there are no Soccer Mom’s here.

Class-y Dressers

Class-y Dressers

Sure, it’s the case that in any place, that the clothes one wears hints at your station in society.

And it’s definitely the case here.

For example, you often see men dressed in traditional Saudi garb: white robe (thawb), red and white checked headscarf (shumawg), and round rope-like coil (iqal). (More info on Saudi traditional costumes here.) These men, one assumes, are Saudi citizens. Their wives are wearing full nikabs, they are driving their wives and kids about, or walking with them in the mall. They drive fancy cars like Lexus, or big American cars, like Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukon. (Big families and cheap oil here, thus, big cars.)

On the other hand, when you see someone wearing more casual Western wear, they tend to be working in the service industry or expats working in positions such as IT or insurance. They’re usually not Saudi.

So, it’s wrong to assume too much by the clothing, but moreso than in other countries, the clothes do say much about the man.

Mulan: If I Were a Boy …Saudi style

Mulan …If I Were a Boy…Joan of Arc

Just before I left Korea, I was teaching the story book of Mulan to my grade 5-6 students. 

The story of Mulan, I learned, is based on an old Chinese legend about a girl who must take her father’s place. She masquerades as a man, and becomes a famous warrior.

Other cultures have similar stories, like Joan of Arc.

So, I have this dream of masquerading as a guy, just once. (Okay, just once a week.)

Could I pull it off? Tuck my hair into something? I could wear the traditional Saudi man’s headscarf and long white tunic. A slight bulge at chest height could keep going with a bit of padding, to give that chubby Saudi belly style that many men sport.

But then, if I was wearing that, how could I fulfill my dream? I don’t want to drive. I don’t want to eat in the men’s section of a restaurant. I don’t want to play pool or ping-pong and drink coffee at the nearby hangout. And I definitely don’t want to go into the spa at the Hotel Mercure.

If I could figure out a way to do it, I’d masquerade as a man, 

so I could ride a bike!

You’re Welcome: Marhaban

You’re Welcome …Marhaban!

Living as a woman in Saudi Arabia means you’re constantly guessing as to whether you’re allowed or not.

A few weeks ago, for example, I walked first to the tailor shop across the street. If you can see in, and you can see men, oftentimes women aren’t allowed. But in some stores you are.

So, I walked hesitantly to the storefront. I motioned and said, is it okay? Can I come in?

The two men working there nodded yes. They were sitting at separate tables. One was working on a blue sequined ball gown. The other was working on an elegant black dress.

So, I walked up to the door, opened it and I stepped inside. Suddenly, they both were shaking their heads and waving their hands, No!

But, but…I thought they’d just said it was okay.

“Window,” one of the men pointed. Then I realized that I’d just walked into their private workshop and they serve customers (at least women and maybe all) outside at the window. Oopsiedaisy!

Okay, so I’m being too cautious. Lighten up, I thought to myself.

Next stop is the Hotel Mercure, pictured above, that for some reason is designed to look like The Love Boat, or at least a cruiseship. 

We’d been walking by the hotel daily for a few weeks now, and noticed that the sign said “Spa and Health Club”.

I’d tried going in once, but when I walked up to the door and as I was about to go in, I noticed dozens of guys. Only. Guys in traditional Saudi dress and no women. Ah, heck, I thought. I didn’t have the energy that time to test it out.

But today, I wanted to try again.

So, I walked up to the door and saw again the same thing. Lots and lots, maybe 30, Saudi men in traditional dress (red and white checked headpiece scarf and white long robe). There was no one at the door so I went in. The staff at the lobby were wearing hotel-y types of suits and I looked at them and did the, “Am I ok here?” symbol. “Yes, Yes,” they motioned. “Marhaban.” (Welcome!) When they saw me, they got the best English speaker to come help me.

Right about then, I felt really silly for thinking that women weren’t welcome in the hotel. As I was getting ready to ask my question, a women (with nikab) appeared so I was relieved that at least some women were in the hotel.

“Do you have a health club? …or a spa? here?” I asked the staffperson.

“Yes. Yes, we do,” he said. I smiled, beamed!

“But it’s only for the guys you know.”

My friend had nearly the same conversation with him that day at a different time, when he mentioned, “Of course, you’re welcome in the coffee shop and restaurant!”

Crazy Women Drivers

Crazy Women Drivers

The first thing you’re greeted with when you walk in Le Mall is the sound of electric cars tooling around. Driven by toddlers up to about age five, the vehicles are snappy, but not actually so fast that they’re dangerous. You just gotta watch your step a bit, and keep eyes and ears tuned for these little low-speed-demons.

Not just boys on these motorcycles and cars though. Plenty of girls are driving, with moms and dads herding them about, smiling.

I wonder if these same little girls grow up and fondly reminisce, I remember when I drove a car once. I was three years old and it was a silver beauty…

There’s an ice skating rink in the mall for kids too! But again, how would a woman ice skate with an abaya? Now, that could be dangerous

Really …you can’t celebrate Xmas or New Year’s!

Teacher friends planned a Christmas part in their apartment, which has only foreigner residents. They posted a sign in the lobby saying “Christmas Party” with the time, date and apartment number. 

Somehow the Mutawa (Religious Police) got word of it and objected. They came to the apartment building, removed the sign, and came to the apartment listed. They told the teachers they could not have the party, and that the Mutawa would be back at the date and time mentioned to ensure it.

Sound far-fetched? No, and it’s not only Christmas that is un-Islamic, and thus banned. According to an article on the bikyamasr website, a foreigner was just arrested on the street for celebrating the New Year’s Eve with balloons. 

Saudi Arabia arrests foreigner for celebrating New Year’s with balloons

So, when I was in line in the grocery store the day after Christmas, and a nice guy in full Saudi dress first helped me unload my cart, then wished me, “Merry Christmas!” …I said, “Thank you” but wondered

…is this a trick question?

A Real Picnic

Grass? What? Really? Where?

…was my friend’s incredulous response when we told them we’d gone on a picnic, and sat on the grass eating lunch.

King Abdulaziz Historical Center is an oasis in the city.

It made for a perfect ‘Sunday afternoon’ (okay, it was actually Friday, but the second day of our weekend). We ate hummus, babaganoush, tabouleh, Arabic-style tuna salad (peppers and lemons), and spiced fava beans.  We didn’t have a proper picnic mat or blanket. One friend said, “My abaya is my picnic mat.” aha, multipurpose these things!

The weather has been amazingly perfect, with clear sunny skies and light breezes. Just warm enough to still be comfortable wearing an abaya (yeah, we had to keep them on in the park), but not too cool to need a jacket (which you’re really supposed to wear under your abaya.)

It was a treat to see kids riding bicycles, kicking soccer balls and just playing. A girl in an abaya rollerskating was struggling, but honestly even without an abaya, she would be no roller derby contender.

Twice I tried to use the public restroom in the park. But women here can be pretty aggressive when it comes to queueing, or rather not. If you don’t have your game on, there are times when you get left in the dust. I just didn’t have it in me to fight to keep my place in line for some extremely marginal toilets. I decided to wait until we got into the museum. Good call!


Non-Alcoholic World

Non-Alcoholic World

It’s a bit of a shock to walk into the classroom and see what looks like an opened can or bottle of beer on a student’s desk. Of course, it’s non-alcoholic. No alcohol is allowed to be sold, bought or consumed in the Kingdom.

But actually, it’s a bit of a shock to see that what the US has brought to the Kingdom is Budweiser! I’m not a beer or a non-beer connoisseur, but I’m just saying…

What are your plans for the future? …oh no, not you

We are preparing our girls for the final exams. One part is a speaking test. We, the teachers, act as interviewers and assessors for this test. This week we’ve been practicing with the girls.

In Part 1 of the speaking exam, we ask each girl a set of 5-6 general questions. For example: Where are you from? What is your city famous for? What kind of house do you live in? Does it have a garage? (always yes) Does it have a swimming pool? (usually yes)

We can choose one of five sets to ask. But one set says (For Male Students Only).

On the Male Students Only list, questions include: What are your plans for the future? What do you want to do after university? Where do you want to work?