Public Shame in Education: Some Cultures Use It

This article about a teacher being terminated for supposedly “bullying” a bully made me think about an amusing incident when I was living in Vietnam.

I know nothing about the situation in the article, so I cannot comment whether the school administrators were right or not. However, the contrast in the educational philosophies between the United States and Vietnam are quick stark when you hear what happened to me.

When we were living in Thai Nguyen, Vietnam back in the late 1990s, we enrolled our eldest daughter in a Vietnamese grammar school. (I will have to post photos another day) My blonde-haired daughter was the only foreigner in the whole school. She learned all her subjects in Vietnamese, making lots of friends and becoming proficient in the language.

After several months of daily school activities, we received a note from the teacher that she would be holding a parent-teacher conference and that all parents, with their students were expected to attend.

I showed up to the classroom on a Saturday morning to find everyone there at the same time. We each filed into the room and were asked to sit down in the small desks as the teacher came to the teaching platform and greeted everyone.

Then to my amazement, the conference began. In Vietnam, everyone has a parent-teacher conference at the same time in front of everyone else.

The teacher began going down her list, talking about various students and their strengths and weaknesses. Let me reiterate: IN FRONT OF EVERYONE!

It was fascinating.

And then she came upon the name of one particularly naughty boy. She began to scold his parents because of his lazy attitude and how he wasn’t working hard enough.

This was getting good!

And then she added this: “And Mr. —, your son is doing poorly with his math. Look at Brittany. She is a foreigner. And she is only learning the Vietnamese language, but she is doing better work than your son!”

I gulped. I looked at the father’s face and he beaming with a grin from ear to ear. The other parents were laughing and looking at him, and I just had this awkward feeling in the back of my throat.

Talk about peer pressure! The father kept smiling, and left the scene without making a fuss. But I am sure that that little boy had the whipping of his life when he got home. I’m also sure that his grades and effort dramatically increased from there on out.

Public shame and humiliation is a powerful weapon that a Vietnamese teacher will use. Why? Because a Vietnamese teacher has the power. The teacher has status. The teacher is revered and respected. When the teacher calls someone out, behavior changes will be made.

I’m not sure public shame in America would do any good, but the underlying values and philosophy of the two systems at least should give us reason to think.


The Best Way to Learn a Language: Follow YOUR Goals

The methodologies of language learning are as various and self-inflated as political opinions on Capitol Hill. Every language guru thinks her method is the best, the truest, the most sure-fire way to conquer a new language in 30 days, or six months, or one year.

I’d like to make this declaration: all language methodologies are true and all language methodologies are false.

There’s no right or wrong. There’s only you. You, the learner, is all that matters when it comes to language learning. The best methodology is the one that fits your goals and follows your path and drive. If a language methodology does that, then it will work.

I’ve been a language teacher and a language learner at many different junctures of my life, and what I learned from being a student of language is that most teachers simply teach with their accustomed methodology – their language way is the one that will work for everyone regardless of whether it will or not and regardless of whether it feeds into the language learner’s goals.

Before I expound on this point, I want to highlight two distinct periods of language learning which I had in my own life. The first one is my formalized learning of French in high school and college, and the second one being my learning of Vietnamese while I lived in Vietnam.

I spent four and half years learning French in 8th to 12th grades. I picked French because my older sister had studied French. I had no goals with the language other than trying to get decent grades. I was taught French is a very teacher-centered way. Repeat after me. Write this down. Copy this. Conjugate that. I got decent grades in high school French. For my language requirement in college, it was foolish, in my mind, to try a different language since I was rocking my high school French grades. So I continued with the same type of methodology and I got excellent grades in college.

Six years of studying French: What did I get? A few phrases, some conjugated verbs, and a lot of good grades. What I didn’t have was a new language I could speak. Those courses did nothing for me. Granted, I had no goals for French other than to pass the course and receive the required credit.

Honestly, it was all a waste of time.

My second  language learning experience was completely different. I moved to Vietnam in 1994 and it became immediately, painfully obvious that no one around me spoke English. I would have to adapt and learn if I wanted to live. My immediate goals for language learning was to go to the market and successfully buy food. Talk about motivation!

I gathered vocab from books and friends. I asked people how to say them. I recorded and practiced basic sentences and words. In no time, I was saying basic market sentences and bringing home the right food. A good start.

Over the first three years of my language learning in Vietnam, I collected a lot of vocabulary, went to a language teacher once a week to practice, and tried to do the best I could. But it wasn’t enough. I needed more to conquer this difficult, six-tone language. So I enrolled in a local language school to learn Vietnamese full-time for one year.

I had one instruction for my teacher on the first day of my one-on-one class: never speak to me in English. Week after week led to month after month and before I knew it, I had come to the realization that I had become a speaker of Vietnamese. Six years learning French and I couldn’t find my way around a Julia Child’s cookbook. Six months of learning Vietnamese in Vietnam, I was fluent.

Of course the differences are stark, but what I have come to learn is that it’s all about your goals for language learning. This is the make or break issue in whether you will be a successful second language learning or not. Your goals will drive your passion and your methodology, so here are my suggestions as to  how to get the most of truly learning a language well.

1) Identify why you want to learn a language.

2) Make a personal learning plan, listing what you want to accomplish in this language.

3) Find a language tutor – not teacher – who will be moldable to your desires and goals. This is a the key. Don’t trust a regular language teacher who has their ideas about what you should learn and when. Now this isn’t to say that you can’t learn a language with a teacher. Of course, you can. However, I contend (with absolutely no research to back it up) that a self-motivated, self-produced, and self-sustaining plan with a tutor who will back you up and do what you ask will be extremely effective.

4) Keep, whatever plan you chose, focused on practical aspects of the language. Focus on listening. Be active in your approach, use what you are learning. Embrace mistakes, laugh at yourself and learn, learn, learn.

This is, in my humble opinion, a great way to go about learning a language. I’ll have some future posts which will get more specific on the how such as some possible learning acquisition plans which can help you get the most out of your language adventures.


Let Kids be Kids. Let College be College.

I’m an educator. I want kids to succeed in this world. I want them to work hard, learn difficult concepts and idealistically walk into the world like they can make a difference. I want them to be productive for themselves and in return for society as a whole. I want them to be cutting edge and do amazing things that my generation never was able to do. I want to push them to do their best.

But give me a break: let kids be kids and let college be college.

I’ve seen it too often, and living in an Asian context it can be over the top. What is the ‘it’ I am referring to? Schooling. Education. We are creating a whole generation of kids who have been gypped of half their childhood because they are being pushed too hard.


How about AP courses? The Advanced Placement courses where kids can earn college credit for taking rigorous courses in high school. Let’s be honest here, isn’t this just a get rich quick scheme by the College Board? I mean, I wonder how colleges and universities like it to have this omnipresent educational organization scarfing a lot of their tuition money by giving kids college credit in high school?  Maybe I’m being a little too harsh, but I’ve seen too many kids pushed to the brink to over-achieve in high school.

When I was in high school, I barely had 30 minutes of homework a day. And look how I turned out! Okay, maybe that’s a bad example. But I remember when a kid’s life was more about playing with tadpoles in the creek rather than cramming six hours of homework down their brain each night after being in school for eight hours.

You think I exaggerate. I barely exaggerate.

If teachers can’t teach what they need to teach in 8 hours, then shame on them. Don’t condemn the students to hours or purgatory every night just because the College Board says so.

And then we have the little issue of “tuition” – not the American word meaning the school fees – the other “tuition” meaning additional classes outside the regular school day. This is rampant in Asia – 8 hour of school isn’t enough. Many student will go for many more hours to bone up on other academic issues which their parents deem to be lacking during the regular school day.  I’ve heard dozens of horror stories about a high school student’s life in Korea – extreme pressure – families barely seeing each other during the week because it’s not uncommon for students to go to school and then tuition until midnight or later on a daily basis.

When I was in high school, I came home around 3pm. I usually watched a some soap opera with my Mom after I came home, and possibly an after school special. Then I went out on the front porch with my glove and tennis ball and played catch by throwing the ball against the wall. Then I had dinner, played some basketball with some friends, watched Entertainment Tonight or a MASH rerun before settling in to prime time TV or catch a ballgame on the radio. I had a whole seven hours to explore and enjoy everyday. I was able to be a kid when I was a kid.

And then when I went to college, guessed what I did? I became a college student.

Preparing kids for college is not wrong. There are good ways that parents can do this and it might include taking an AP class here or there. But I’m afraid we have tipped the scale too far in the other direction and in the process we are stealing half of our kids’ lives.

And that’s too bad.

It’s okay for a kid to be a kid.

That’s why we have college. We can be a college student once we arrive there. We have twelve years to prepare them. It’s okay to breathe and let our kids breathe too.

That’s my take. What’s yours?

Is this an opinionated question? (An example from Truman & the A-bomb)

As a teacher, sometimes I’m asked this question about the questions I ask my students: “Is this an opinionated question?”

“Yes it is,” I reply.

“So you can’t mark it off, right? It’s just an opinion.”

“Oh no, you can most definitely get it wrong.”

“But how can an opinion be wrong?”

“Perhaps an opinion can’t be wrong. But an opinion can be poorly researched and bereft of logical reasoning. Therefore, it can be wrong.”

They usually don’t respond after I use the word ‘bereft’, and they go about their business in answering the question.

People, of course, are entitled to whatever opinion they want, but all opinions are not created equally. For example, take this exam question:

Was Truman justified in dropping the A-bomb on Japan?

There’s no right or wrong answer, and there are people who hold extremely polarized views of this issue. But there are poorly reasoned and supported answers, even by those who demonstrate passion on this issue.

How about this: “Truman was an inhumane person who ultimately killed upwards of a half-million people with two A-bombs. He should have been tried for war crimes.”

That may indeed be someone’s opinion, but they’d get low marks in my class for such shoddy reasoning because they have failed to demonstrate the ability to understand both sides of the issue in a non-inflammatory way. A response as is written above shows little understanding of WWII and the Pacific Theatre in specific. It is an emotional appeal resting only on the fact that lots of people died, so therefore it’s bad. Yes, it’s true that when lots of people die, it’s bad, but that is drastically over-simplistic.It would be the same type of opinion which might equate Naziism with Trumanism because, after all, didn’t both of them kill a lot of people. Of course, level-headed people would see that there is in fact a huge difference.

What about an opinion on the other side of the same issue?

“Truman was justified for dropping the bomb because the Japanese were savages and didn’t deserve anything but death.”

This opinion is also inflammatory in an unnecessary way. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been people who have had this opinion. The problem with this opinion is that it too is simplistic and emotional, only taking into the account the barbarity of the Pacific battles. It shows no understanding of Japanese militarism, Japanese culture, or the human cost of such an undertaking as dropping the A-bomb.

But it is entirely possible to craft good and solid opinions which would support both sides of this equation.

It’s not so difficult for an American who spends time talking to a member of the Greatest Generation to see that the A-bomb was the right move. The casualty estimates of a US led invasion of the Japanese homeland were staggering. Based on what the US forces faced in places like Guadalcanal, Saipan, Iwo Jima, Okinawa; Americans learned that the Americans that the Japanese would not surrender. The Japanese home front was bracing for invasion with every man, woman, and child ready to defend to the death. It may have cost one half-million American soldier casualties to completely defeat them. It also would most certainly have cost millions of Japanese lives. So when Truman was confronted with an alternative, it was quite simple. Two bombs in three days and the war was over. No contest.

But what about the other side. Truman was not justified because … I have heard arguments that once Okinawa was taken, there was no need to invade right away. Truman could have put Japan under threat of nuclear bomb – could have given a demonstration of its power in an underpopulated area – could have used blockades and threats against the emperor – could have waited longer for the Soviets to surround the north … etc … Some may question the validity and effectiveness of such ideas, but on humanitarian grounds, these are solid opinions that could at least be discussed.

So I hope through this example that we can see how tangible and helpful dialogue about opinionated questions can be achieved without allowing the type of inflammatory remarks which are so prevalent in this day and age. Opinions matter when they are reasoned out in logical ways and supported with fact and concrete examples.

“If we could only do the arts everyday and forget about things like science.”

I had a delightfully long drama rehearsal with two young actors this afternoon. We put in a good hour and a half on a nine minute sketch we are working on. As we finished, one of the actors commented how she has to go home and wade through a 13 page biology study guide for a test in the morning.

We all kind of shuddered at the thought, and then I asked, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we could just focus on the arts all the time and forget the other stuff?”

You should have seen their faces light up! Though the one actor clarified that the arts needed to be expanded to include creative writing, and I, of course, wholeheartedly agreed.

Some people just aren’t wired for the hard sciences. I know I’m not. I’m glad other people are or we would still be living as cavemen.

I’ve often thought that perhaps there is a better way to do school for some people – a way where they can thrive, explore, create, and learn to act, perform, do.

I was reading a post a while back from one of my former students and she said how school is crushing creativity. School is pouring useless facts into their heads, and giving them waste-of-time assignments while not allowing them to create and explore areas of interest where they thrive and where they show the most potential.

To a certain degree, I agree. I understand the need to expose everyone to some level of understanding in the various disciplines. But if I can dream for a minute, wouldn’t it be cool to have a performing arts semester for those who are inclined towards such endeavors. Wouldn’t it be amazing to spend day after day, writing, acting, honing skills, creating shows and productions, and then take the group on the road to expose them to the thrills and hardships of the performing arts? Wouldn’t it be amazing for them to learn about expenditures and income by looking at the box office receipts of their particular show? Wouldn’t it be a challenge to see their script and performances critiqued by bloggers and theatre reviewers? Wouldn’t it be invigorating to sit down with a group of professional actors for a week or two and do extended workshops? Wouldn’t it be gratifying to have everyone learn about lighting, sound, and other technical aspects?

Wouldn’t one concentrated semester on the arts change the way they would look at their world?

I do hope that someday this group of talented, creative kids I work with, and the many others around the world, will have a better opportunity to thrive in the arts for a long period of time as part of their schooling. It would be an amazing way to reach a large group of kids through a powerful teaching method.

After all, shouldn’t all learning be practical?

Respecting the Creative Works of Others

A group of my students was given two tasks. First, how do people use digital media without giving the creator proper credit or compensation. The ways were many: streaming video from non-paying sights, grabbing photos off the web for a project, buying pirated DVDs (a huge market right in the open here in Malaysia), downloading music from YouTube, etc …

The second task was for them to list reasons that people give in order to justify the use of digital media without properly giving credit or compensation to the creator. Again, there were many justifications. Here are a few:

  • It’s free on the Internet
  • I’m a poor student.
  • It’s so easy to do it!
  • Everyone else is doing it.
  • Law enforcement doesn’t seem to care about pirated DVDs, so why should I? (this one applies to our situation in Malaysia and many other countries)
  • Those entertainers make enough money!
  • Songs are too expensive. $1 a song!

For people who care about ethics and laws in so many other parts of their lives, these excuses are just that: excuses. The logic behind them doesn’t exist.

How about “I’m a poor student?”  That may be true, but there is no rule written anywhere that poor students are entitled to listen to music they didn’t pay for.

“It’s so easy to do!”  It also may be easy to slip a candy bar in your pocket the next time you are at the grocery store, but it doesn’t make it right.

“It’s free on the Internet!” It’s only free on the Internet because someone believes they can break copyright law without consequence. I’m pretty sure if the person who posted it illegally every created something of value that others wanted to pay for that they would think twice about giving it away for free.

“Songs are expensive.” No, actually, they aren’t. I’ll prove this in a later post.

“Everyone else is doing it.” Do I even have to attack this justification?

“Law enforcement doesn’t care; Why should I?” This is the classic situation of justifying bad behavior by pointing to other bad behavior. There have been governments in this world that justified murder, does that mean you shouldn’t care about someone’s life anymore?

When you get right down to it, people use and abuse digital media either out of greed or laziness. Someone might steal a passage from an essay to make their own essay sound better. This is pure laziness. When people download illegal music, that is all about greed. They surmise that their money should go farther than anyone else’s. They believe that they are entitled to have more than what they can afford. Living beyond our means – and digital life makes it all so easy.

But there is no justification in the world which gets around the fact that downloading a song without paying for it is stealing. It’s really that simple. It just doesn’t feel like stealing because digital media can be duplicated an infinite amount of times and the original is still there.

But if you like a song, a book, a movie, think about all the hours of creativity that went into producing it. We must, as a society, begin to value the process of creativity if we are to reap the rewards and enjoyment of that creative process.

I hope we all will make the decision to respect the creative works of others.


Getting what we earn. Nothing more.

Getting what we earn. Nothing more.

Each new school year I am confronted with a new crop of students who tend to think they deserve what they have not earned. Now don’t get me wrong, I have incredibly motivated students who do earn a lot. But it’s never enough. And here is, invariably, where the situation arises.

After I return a test we always go over it point by point so the students understand their mistakes and to verify that I have not made any mistakes in correcting it. Unfortunately, I do tend to make mistakes. The students are quick to point them out when it benefits them but are more reluctant to bring it up when I marked correct an item which is clearly wrong.

But once again, let me clarify. I have very honest students and I believe that in 90+ percent of the situations that the students point out an error which is not in their favor. I always thank them for their honesty, and then I adjust the score lower.

Without fail they say something like, “but shouldn’t I get it right for being honest” as if their honesty should be rewarded. Can you imagine a society in which people only were honest if they were rewarded for their behavior? I think you can see how disastrous that would be.

But the additional point beyond the honesty issue is the question of why they think they should deserve a point for a question they answered incorrectly. Where else in life would that logic hold?

Knock down nine pins during a bowling game, write it down as a strike and see if your competition will mind?

In baseball an umpire rules a batted ball a home run. On challenge the video shows that it should be a double, but the opposing manager agrees to let the home run stand because it was an honest mistake by the umpire?

Has the IRS ever said this to you: thank you for informing us that you under-paid your taxes. Since you were honest, you no longer owe that money.

Have you ever heard of the College Board saying this: I have to inform you that the 2100 you scored on your SAT was calculated incorrectly. Your actual score was 1500. However, since it wasn’t your mistake, we will let you keep the 2100.

The world doesn’t work that way and neither should the classroom. Students should be encouraged to be honest because people of integrity are honest. Students shouldn’t expect to get special treatment simply because the teacher made an honest mistake.

Many times the students say, “Well, Mr. So-and-so doesn’t adjust our score down when we are honest about a mistake.” Well, either he believes in unfair grading practices or he practices unwarranted grace. And while as a theological argument, the concept of unwarranted grace has its certain merits, it doesn’t belong in education.

Students need to earn their score.

The broader point here concerning our society at large is that we all need to take responsibility over our own education, our own achievements, our own successes, our own failures. Honesty is the first step – even if it hurts us in the short term. The next step is accepting the fact that we get what we have earned. No more. No less.