Soaring with the Eagles

Camel shaped ridge which gives the site its name

We had been planning a spring trip up north before the summer heat arrives and all the flowers wilt. Having waited a few weeks for the rains to stop, so the paths would not be muddy, we finally made it out again up north to see the rushing water in the waterfalls, the high level of the Kinneret ( Sea of Galilee) and the abundance of wildflowers. I deliberated a little about which waterfall to visit- should we go back to the Dan, the Tanur or the Snir? But then the highest waterfall in the country beckoned- the majestic Gamla National Park, which we had never been to before.

It’s over 2 hours’ drive to get up to the park from the centre of the country, and we had meant to get an early start. However since we only left home at 8, we arrived there a little after 10.30, having decided to avoid the toll road no. 6. On arrival we were a little dismayed to see a large number of tour buses parked, due to a whole school trip of 10th graders visiting the site. But once inside we found it was easy enough to spread out and avoid the noisy throngs. The site itself boasts several interesting features. Firstly there is the Eagle lookout point, from which one can observe the various kinds of raptors – the griffon vulture, Egyptian vulture and snake eagle. These birds all nest within the park and are looked after by the park ornithologists, who protect the nesting birds and have a breeding program which protects the eggs and releases the newly hatched chicks into the wild. The observation point gives a fantastic view over the valley where the birds nest in the cliff face, and all the way down to the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret). It is an awesome location, hard to capture in my humble mobile phone.

Misty Kinneret

The next site is the ancient Second Temple period town of Gamla, and the ruins of the Christian village of Dir Keruh. There is not a lot to see here, but there is a multilingual audio guide telling the story of the ancient site in a very accessible way, aimed at kids, but quite cute.

From here you can walk to the Daliyot Stream and along the path to the actual waterfall. On the way you pass some interesting dolmens.

Dir Keruh village

The walk to the actually waterfall is gorgeous. There were loads of scattered wildflowers and the air was warm and balmy. It was pretty straightforward at the beginning and mostly flat, although some parts were muddy and involved finding ways around the mud puddles. Then there was a sharp descent to a bridge over the river itself and a bit of a scramble up the other side to the top of the cliff to see the height of the waterfall drop in all its 51 metre glory.

The whole walk was probably only about 4 kilometres, but we took it very slowly and enjoyed it immensely. As we came back down, there was a guy sitting near the bridge who did not want to continue up to the top of the Falls; we told him he was missing out. The sheer drop and the craggy quality of the surrounding cliffs are hard for non photographers to capture. Added bonus was glimpse of the snow capped Hermon mountains in the far distance (too hazy to photograph)

Picture does not do justice to the view

We had thought we would continue on to another waterfall, but we still had a long drive back home and were satisfied with what we had seen. We went down to the Sea of Galilee and walked a little along the shoreline, but the visibility was poor. So after eating our sandwiches and finishing off with a nice ice cream we set off for home. It was a long but very satisfying day. Stay tuned for the next trip.

Monks on a bus and monkeys on the roof

Now I’ve got your attention. This had to be the title for this blog entry, especially after I saw the number of “likes” my monks on a bus photo got on Facebook. Here it is:

monks on a bus
Travelling to school

Anyway, how to sum up this crazy experience of a month teaching Buddhist monks in Bhiksu University, Sri Lanka? Was it what we had expected? Of course not! Things never are. On the plane over to Sri Lanka we again looked at each other wondering whether we were totally insane. How bad could it be, we thought? We had spoken via Skype to the Reverend Mediyawe Piyarathana, the English lecturer in charge of the program, and we had been interviewed by Paul Ellmes of, who also lived there in the city, and seemed to be a nice, friendly chap.  Just for a month….. what could go wrong, we thought. Well one or two small inconveniences did occur. I hobbled home on crutches  with a sprained foot and a touch of gastroenteritis. Both of us were exhausted.. but to say that the month wasn’t the most fantastic experience would not  be doing it justice. Things are never straightforward when you fly halfway around the world. We certainly learnt as much from the monks as they did from us. But mostly not about meditation, Buddhist philosophy and so on, but more about how people are just people everywhere. The monks were all MA and PhD lecturers in Buddhist culture and philosophy, Sanskrit, comparative religions and other subjects. But they were above all lovely kind open-hearted people with whom we talked about anything and  everything in class.

Our first colonial abode

The first few days after our arrival were the full moon festival or Poson. This meant that thousands of devotees, dressed in white, had flocked to the town to celebrate and visit the many holy places. Anuradhapura, a UNESCO heritage site,  is the old capital and a famous centre of Buddhist worship that houses the famous Boddhi Tree and many other important sites. Our Reverend took us to visit many of them, including  MahintaleRuwanwelisaya and Abhayagiri where we met the Chief Incumbent monk himself, and actually had tea at his house. He was a lovely laughing chap who had been to study in China so we exchanged a few Chinese words, which was all rather amusing. Anyone who entered the house bowed and kissed his feet, and we were directed to low stools while he sat on a higher chair. Apparently we were told by Paul that this monk is pretty much the second most important guy in the country after the President.

Full moon celebrations at Mahintale

The Reverend took us to the holy sites to experience the tradition of dansale at the celebration. People had travelled from afar to cook meals and distribute them free to others. We saw huge lines of people waiting to receive meals, sweets and even free ice cream. The Rev took us in to eat something and (embarrassingly for us) passed in front of the whole line since he is a monk. It was useless to object. The monks are revered by all. This happened again in supermarket queues and elsewhere. Sometimes people would come up to him and hand him gifts in exchange for prayers and blessings.

Family in dansale tent

One evening the Rev took us to visit a nunnery. The kids seemed quite well cared for and happy. The Reverend himself became a monk as his mother had to travel to work in Saudi Arabia and so she entrusted him to the monastery. He speaks to her frequently on the phone and doesn’t seem to have any problem with her decision. He loves his work helping people and is extremely devoted to the worshipers, and all the monks are very keen to help their devotees by giving them advice and hearing their problems. They help with all kinds of problems, and are always available to help in any way they can. The monks seem to have a far better life than many of the poor rural people and have a great education and live comfortably in their temples.


All in all, we were royally looked after during our whole stay. Everything was paid for by the University, including our board and lodging, and trips to Wilpattu Safari Park  and Sigiriya  Lion Rock (where I slipped and sprained my foot after managing to ascend and descend all the steps successfully) . The accommodation provided by the University was a little spartan: the initial place we were given looked amazing from the outside (a gorgeous old colonial building) but was somewhat run down inside, and had no hot water or functioning wifi. We therefore asked to move to a hotel but the inimitable Reverend Piyarathana who was responsible for us flatly refused and said he would find alternative accommodation. This proved to be the Vice Chancellor’s Lodge which was equally impressive from the outside, and actually did have hot water, good wifi and a/c. This is not to say that it was palatial, but it was okay. The original place came complete with a cook.So now we had no cook. “No problem “,said the Reverend. Every day he would send his chauffeur-driven car round to fetch us and transport us to Mango Mango, the local Indian restaurant where we could get good food just like in London!

The Reverend’s driver Sisera enjoying his bettel

At night we heard jackals and dogs fighting outside, and monkeys jumping on the roof. There were loads of monkeys and wild dogs wandering around the campus. In fact I have never seen so many dogs in my life.Apparently because they are Buddhists, the inhabitants cannot get the dogs neutered, or do anything to deplete their numbers- many looked mangy and neglected- so sad. We also saw innumerable cows wandering around, mongoose and a snake .And one evening a tiny frog jumped out of the toilet!

Every day we went off to class either by tuk- tuk (called a three-wheeler in Sri Lanka) or on the school bus together with all the monks. Class was from 8 till 11.30am with a 30 minute tea break , and again in the afternoon from 13.00 till 16.30 with a similar break. In the break we got tea, bananas, and a host of other (mainly spicy) unidentifiable foods. We did find it amusing to see a load of saffron robed monks all sitting around munching on their bananas. In class we did much the same as in any oral class I have ever taught- debates, discussions, pair work etc, on any topic we wished. The monks were lively , highly knowledgeable and fun to work with. We had internet and projector in the classroom and as much photocopied material as we needed.

Monks in class

After our 20 days teaching were up we were presented with a gold- plated award for our work, and the students got certificates for completing the course. Many students had come over to visit me while I was laid up  with the  sprained foot, and had presented me with gifts such as home made curd, sliced bread, marmite (!) , fruits and other goodies.  Our next door neighbour monk, also called Piyarathana (and hence christened by me Piyarathana number 2) came over and brought us many fruits, and on our last evening invited us into his place for a cooked meal, which he cooked personally.They were all incredibly kind and hospitable and I will miss them all.

We then had 3 days at the beach resort of Trincomalee on the north east coast,where we relaxed and took a sailing boat to see dolphins, and visited the historic site of Fort Frederick. This was a nice way to wind down our trip, and then finally we spent two nights in Colombo, where unfortunately we couldn’t see much due to my sprained foot, but we did see the Galle Fort promenade, which was enjoyable.

Fishermen on beach at Trincomalee

So if this has piqued your appetite and you are interested in teaching in Sri Lanka please contact Paul Ellmes at or the Revered Mediyawe Piyarathana at  or on Skype at piyarathana78. You too can have an unforgettable experience and do something worthwhile!

NOTE: Paul Ellmes says that in future all accommodation arrangements will be taken care of by his organization so I am sure all will run smoothly! So go ahead and message him on his webpage. You will have a fantastic time!

View from the top of the Sigiriya Lion Rock Palace




Some reflections on Chinese students and EFL (for teachers,probably)

We are nearing the end of the first semester here in Xiamen and our 3rd semester in China so time for a bit of reflection.I have spent the last 2 weeks testing my students orally for their Final Exam,and I have a few observations. It seems that there is a great deal of difference between teaching English majors and Non English majors,but there are some things which seem to jump out at me as “weird” or “different” when I compare the Chinese universities to the Western ones. Firstly,the students here seem to have a lot less choice in their lives than our children do,and than we did as students. Most students here,when asked why they chose this university or why they chose their major reply that “My parents picked it” or “My Gao Kao (high school university entrance exam) score was too low to go to another place. They don’t seem to express any opinion about what to study or where to spend four years. Another thing that sticks out is that they mostly plan to return home to their “hometown” when they graduate to help their parents,or because getting a job there is easier than in another city.They often plan to follow a career choice chosen by their parents,again in many cases not something they are crazy about. I find this rather sad,looking back on my University l ife and how much I loved it.

Students,by and large, try to answer our questions with what they think we want to hear,and not their “real opinion” as far as we can fathom,and it is impossible to get them to be honest and really tell us what they think.And by the way there are some other rather confusing things. Frequently a student will refer to his “hometown” which is his ancestral family home,but not necessarily where his family now live,which can be thousands of miles away. And they will also refer to “my sister” or “my brother” when referring to a cousin,but it can also mean a true sibling. Many of them ,despite what we know about China,do have a sister or a brother,sometimes two!

IMG_20121030_155223  D5814DEC@C1D1D230.972DBC50

Students here seem to be perpetually busy doing pointless tasks for the university,and when they are free they just watch movies online,or sleep,or play computer games.They rarely go into the city which is only 30 minutes away as they seem to think it is too far or too crowded.They are lacking in ambition and independence,and on weekends go home to their families if they live near to Xiamen.There is very little of the typical University life we know in the UK- certainly no pubs,no parties,very little mingling of the sexes at all.In class the boys and girls sit separately as we did when we were very young in elementary school.They are pretty immature,look much younger than British or American students and have very little social life.Classes have a class monitor much as we did in high school,who has to do various things for the teachers. I asked some students about hobbies,or what they do in their free time and the predictable answers were “play computer games”,”sleep” “go to the library” and for some girls “go shopping”.

Of course the students are delightful people on the whole,very polite and respectful,curious about us and where we come from,why we are in China and what we think about it.They find it hard to imagine why we would have left a place which they consider to be alluring,magical,and highly desirable to come to China and they mostly have very little idea of travelling even as far as Shanghai,let alone abroad.IT all seems very unreal to them. I can’t help wondering,however what the future holds for them,and what China will look like when they reach adulthood…

More anon…


Back in the Holyland- and the Laura Linkup

Well we are back in Israel for the summer after a rather weird journey back but first I want to pay my dues by writing up the wonderful linkup we did at the end of June between Danny’s Middle school kids and my friend Laura Shashua’s class of Middle school kids in Holon,Israel.It was Laura’s idea to do a joint lesson between the Chinese and Israeli students using Skype.So having discussed the content of such a class and preparing the kids for the meeting,the day arrived.It was logistically tricky due to the time difference and the original date was postponed because Laura’s class suddenly had their lesson cancelled,it finally took place in Danny’s last lesson ,before our trip to Chengdu.

Henry answers a question from Israel

We checked all the connections on the computer,had a dry run with no students and checked whether we could hear each other on the skype. The screens were not so clear,and the sound not so great but it was passable. WE had two Chinese English teachers with us, and there were twice as many Chinese students as Israelis. Never mind. When the bell rang we had two classes facing each other from across the globe. Laura had worked hard to prepare her kids,and they had a huge Israeli flag at the back of the room ,and the kids all had their names written on cards, in Hebrew and English.We quickly scrambled in Lin’an to find a Chinese flag and only found a small one,and made the kids name signs too.The plan was to have the kids ask each other questions about their lives,for the kids do demonstrate how to eat with chopsticks/knives and forks, and at the end to sing “My Bonnie Lies over the Ocean” together.

Danny and the students

The main thing that was clear was how shy the Chinese were compared to the Israelis.The Chinese kids were very reticent but we finally got a kid who was happy to ask and answer questions. We had the Israeli kids greet their friends with “Ni Hao!” and the Chinese respond with “Shalom!” there was plenty of waving and smiling, the food eating demonstration was partially marred by technical problems but the final rendition of “My Bonnie ” was a roaring success,and all in all we think it went pretty well.

Hopefully we can try this again in future.

Lin’an students show how to eat with chopsticks

End of the Semester-Exams and Parties

As I wrote in the last post, we are busy with final exams,grading and preparing for the Spring Festival break( which is in the Winter,go figure!)

.My 6 Literature classes have a written exam that I have to mark , and my 2 Freshmen oral classes have been tested in a small interview,much like the Bagrut oral exam.Some of them told me it was the first time they have ever been tested orally in English and were very nervous. The English majors have been busily preparing for the exam,and seem (for the most part) to take it all pretty seriously.So tomorrow I will give an exam to around 120 students in a huge auditorium (freezing cold-no heating) and students take the exam with their gloves,coats and hats on! But of course, NO extra time, no LD dispensations (ignoring spelling mistakes,oral test or any of THAT stuff ,fellow EFL teachers!) And,also by the way,many students thanked me and gave me a big smile as they handed in their tests.

Then my loyal assistant Livia will help me put all the grades into the University computer system (in Chinese). After all the exams and parties are over,everyone will leave for the long Spring break,the students going home and the foreign teachers off traveling. We will be going to Xiamen,Hong Kong and then a brief visit back home to Israel,before we return for the second semester on February 13th.

Last night we were invited to Autumn’s house (the head of the English department) for a Christmas Party and farewell as she is off to study in Manchester,and she introduced us to Teresa, her replacement.

There were 7 foreign teachers and our respective student assistants there,and everyone brought potluck dishes to eat. We then exchanged gifts in something Ryan described as a :Yankee Swap” in which each person opens his present but if he doesn’t like it he can exchange it (once only ) with another guest. I was most satisfied with my electric foot warmer!

Then Autumn presented us with a little gift each and handed over “baton” to Teresa who promised to help us with all our problems in the coming semester

The Lovely Autumn
The Lovely Autumn

.It was a lovely evening and made me realize again what a great welcome we have received from everyone here,both staff and students.

Fran,one of my lovely students
Fran one of my lovely students

my footwarmer
My electric Footwarmer

It’s that time of year again

Ok so this is going to be another of those frustrating non-blogs where I have very little to report.The thing is,having put in my early retirement application and had no answer back yet I am still in limbo. Are we moving to the central area? Who knows.Are we going to China as planned? I bloody well hope so. I have signed the contract (although apparently that doesn’t mean a whole lot) and started all the paperwork.I have been in constant touch with the wonderful folks on Raoul’s (and that means you Becky,and you Barry and Renee!) and I wish I could say we were sitting on our suitcases right now.

Meanwhile… I have found a lot of websites for teaching EFL online,some of which look pretty promising. I have started working on the following: edufire,languagespirit,englishcafe and myenglishclub. However, Myngle want to interview me again and that will be this week.The other weird Irish one,ebamma put me off a bit as they wanted me to commit to a minimum number of hours a week,which I don’t really want to do right now.I think there are a whole bunch more of those things out there but have not investigated them yet.

Next week is ETAI conference which is always fun,as I will catch up with old friends, and MAYBE it will be my last conference…who knows.

On a personal note, it has been fun going to various things such as the new Jane Eyre movie (excellent) and the Festival of Lights  downtown (okay) and next month we are going to Paul Simon,which hopefully will be wonderful.Might go to some stuff at the Jerusalem Film Festival also. Have got more into the swing of twitter,although I am still something of a sporadic user. Linkedin looks to me to be on the whole far more useful for professional contacts and such.

I will leave you with some pictures from the Festival which are fairly crappy as they are only from my lousy Nokia.

Mr Teachbad

Just read this blog on teachers called  Mr.Teachbad and I did not know whether to laugh or cry. The fact is there are the same problems in education the world over, and nobody cares. This is my main reason for feeling that I have had it with this job and can’t do it much longer. The policy makers have no clue how to enter the classroom, and frankly don’t seem to care a whole lot .This results in a situation where those of us “on the chalkface” are struggling to hold our own and to keep the kids “entertained’ ,whilst most of the powers that be are only interested in having quiet in the corridors. It doesn’t much matter to them if the kids learn or not as long as they are not wandering around outside.I find that pretty sad.

On a different note, I just read today on Raoul’s China Saloon, a place I find myself hanging out more and more, that there are expats teaching in China who seem to enjoy whining about the country, the people,the job etc etc. Well that certainly rings a bell, and to be honest I don’t have time for such people,even though I am well acquainted with a few of those over here. It seems to me that if a person doesn’t like their situation they should DO something about it and quit whining on to everyone else. Life is too short for that. I think that if I were as miserable as some of these people claim to be I would get out.

Or maybe they just enjoy whining…..

Long time no see

Well it’s been six months since I last posted, and that was inevitable once we got into the swing of the academic year with its whirl of quizzes ,tests, grades to give in etc etc. Of course that’s not to say I haven’t been surfing the  Net, Facebooking ,Skyping, and otherwise wasting my time on Cyberspace.However, I sort of lost sight of all those high minded ideals that I had last year on Sabbatical like:

using the Net in the classroom, innovating all kinds of web projects, international collaborative things etc.I knew it would happen ,but now it has ,I am nevertheless a little downcast. All my lofty intentions gone to waste in the miasma of everyday nothingness.

Just read a really interesting discussion on linkedin group,Edubloggers,where the question was posed “who do we blog for?” and even “What is an Edublogger?” so I ask also “Am I an Edublogger because I talk about education? and who am I actually writing for ?

No idea, and don’t care right now…

Anyway I am sure that if logistically it were simpler to take the kids into the computer room I would do it,but they just make innovation so hard that nobody has the strength to do it,especially after teaching 7 hours straight of rowdy 11th graders.It’s as much as I can do to get home in one piece!

signing off to waste more time on Facebook …

Back at the chalkface

Well here I am back in the school year again… and the sabbatical year is rapidly whizzing off back into the dim and distant past.

I knew that after 2 days back at school it would seem like a whole lifetime away.All those wonderful ,lazy mornings getting up at 9am, having endless coffees out with my friends, idling away evenings at the movies .And now here I am back shouting my lungs out to a bunch of gormless adolescents who are totally oblivious of my presence, and certainly with no interest at all in paying me any attention whatsoever.

Well I have decided to keep my cool ,think of the paycheck and a prospective early retirement and,as my dad used to say “do my little best”.

Anyway, at least the Twelfth grade girls seem really sweet and very happy to do Romeo and Juliet,as long as they can watch the Di Caprio movie,and they really responded very well to the Sonnet we did yesterday, so thank goodness for that! And even the weak 10th are quite manageable,especially since there are only 20 or so of them.So I will make it through till the New year and then hopefully the two nasty classes will stop coming and it will be downhill from there on..

Thoughts on education: summer course

Okay so here’s the thing. You walk into the classroom.It’s sweltering 35 degrees and the fan is pushing the hot air from one side of the room to the other.You look at the new kids, grades 9 and 10 who have shown up for the summer course, to make it into a better class next year, or because the school demands it of them.

Now you know they won’t learn enough in 10 days to make a difference, and you know that it’s a money- spinner for the school .But you can’t do anything about it….

Some of the kids are really trying hard. I mean they don’t know that New York is a city and not a country but they really are prepared to make an effort. However, once they finish the course and are put in the weak group ,their frustrations will begin to come through. And then,when faced with the Bagrut (matric) paper which is really more of an intelligence test than an English test, they will look to cut corners.I have seen it now so many times,but it still frustrates me. I can’t help them .I can’t change the system.

There are a lot of teachers out there trying to change it , but apparently there are too many “powers-that-be” who stand to make revenue from it and so the chances that we will ever be able to get the Bagrut cancelled are minimal.

On the other hand, it was nice to go back to the classroom after my sabbatical and see that I don’t hate it.I was scared I would not be able to make it through the day, especially as the mercury climbed even higher by 3.45 ,the last period.

Now I am back to earth,having delved into wikis, flat classrooms, cooperative classrooms and suchlike in my virtual life this year, I bumped down to the reality of no air condtioning, no laptops and no freedom to do what I would really like with these kids.