Wednesday, 25 February 2009

A Book

I just got an Amazon package about 10 minutes ago, from the post holder outside the house (US postal services operate late, and we tend to get mail here between 4 and 7 in the evening).

In it, was a book - on Ancient Rome and Modern America. It looks really interesting so, whomsoever had a hand in sending me that - dad, I know you did - thank you (I didn't look at the price, but I did want to know who to thank, so I checked the bill for that).

Monday, 23 February 2009

School, Plans, and the Neighbourhood

It's been a while since my last post, and that's because I've not been doing much beyond school - it's a lot harder work here than it was back in the UK, in part because the work is more physical (smaller children, and more manhandling is allowed, but also needed - these kids are wilful!) and in part because there's a whole different set of rules and responsibilities; I'm doing more actual teaching here, because of a different classroom set up (whether that's personal to Francesca or cultural I've yet to find out). In a surfeit of irony, I've been teaching the children about colour (I know...) using mainly the primary colours, to make my and their lives easier; so talking about the fact that objects are coloured (it's not just a hat, it's a red hat) and that one type of thing can be multiple colours (this is a red hat, this is a blue hat; they're both hats). Some of the kids get it, some don't, one doesn't even pay attention but, given that they're functioning at approximately the level of an 18-month-old that's unsurprising.

Last Wednesday was our community trip, and that was very enjoyable. We went to a museum with an exhibition of pictures from the history of a community back to the turn of the last century, and the kids all behaved pretty well; better, I'll admit, than I expected, although the worst two weren't in that day (the 18-month-old being one of those two, of course). That meant I got to look at the exhibition as well as just look after the kids, which was nice since this was the sort of small exhibition I'd never even have heard of otherwise, let alone visited.

The week before that, though, I had to take the Wednesday off. Combining being in a new country with being around a whole bunch of kids exposed me to a lot of interesting pathogens, and a whole bunch of runny nosed kids probably tells you what that meant for me... if it doesn't, a seriously painful face, which got worse every time it's angle changed even slightly to the point where I couldn't function just about sums it up. One lunchtim trip to the chemist later, I was half-knocked out by the drugs I bought, and managed to get through to the end of Tuesday; Wednesday, however, was a bust, although with a nasal spray and two sets of anti-allergens (I checked, there was no problem with taking both) I was back in Thursday.

My one leisure-time outing the last few weeks was a walk. There's a very wild (if thin) forest behind the row of houses that I'm currently staying in, with a creek down the middle; despite being a matter of metres from the houses on each side, because they're raised (or the creek has fallen... I'm not quite sure) you can't see them from the path and the silence on a Sunday, broken only by the running of the brook, was really peaceful. I'd gone out for the purpose of going shopping, which required me to cross the creek, and just wandered down it, kinda distracted; it was one of those occasions on which I was glad I'd forgotten my iPod, as listening to the burbling brook and the complete silence otherwise was really peaceful. I think that, as spring and summer roll around, it's a walk I'll be doing often...


As far as future plans go, I've got a few. First, from March 16th through to the 22nd I'll be out of town - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania then Providence, Rhode Island, returning to Pittsburgh before returning to DC and back to work (possibly) on the 23rd (depends on the bus schedule and the ease of travelling from airport to Greyhound station). I'm meeting some friends at various points during that trip, as well as going to a concert in Boston on the 21st.
I've also got plans to go to Illinois and Minnesota - the former, April 1st through the 3rd, in Chicago, travelling then up to Minneapolis/St Paul (or the Twin Cities) through to the 13th, before returning to DC for work on the 14th.
How much contact I'll be in during either of those trips is an interesting question, but we'll see; as it were, forewarned is forearmed, and you can't claim not to have forewarning now.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Work & Leisure


We (that is, Francesca and I) arrive at school at around 7:00 each day, half an hour or so before we're required to be there and an hour before the kids arrive, and our day starts with a mug of coffee (a coffee machine in the classroom makes it, some mornings, a social hub; there is no real staffroom). The classroom is small - maybe 4 meters a side - and much of it is occupied with furniture; the children all have chairs, there're two tables, and 4 children have individual desks, plus Francesca's desk, permanently covered in a rather thick layer of... well... stuff. Everyone's really friendly and helpful, when I've made mistakes, and they're very accomodating.

I'm working in Francesca's class - the children are approximately 5 through 7, kindergarten to first graders, and a mixture of unclassified SEN. Kids here aren't classified (officially) until 8, and none of these children are as severely affected as the ones I was working with in Manchester - they have more self-awareness, and more knowledge of what's appropriate and right (though one of them has the developement of an 18-month-old or less, excluding being potty-trained). There're 9 of them, split 6/3 female/male, and the plurality are Down's Syndrome children (observational diagnosis) and 2 are autistic (and exhibit some of the more obvious characteristics thereof).

All in all it's a lot of fun, and somewhat different from the UK (I keep saying "Put that in the bin" and getting blank looks, because of course the term here is trash); the most noticable difference is the commonality of actually physically moving the children - it's worth bearing in mind that in some states (Georgia, for instance) corporal punishment is still legal - and similar matters. I'm looking forward to working here for a while to come.


Wednesday was a half-day, meaning school let out at about 11:30; I took advantage of the foreshortened day to go and visit the National Cathedral, which is on Mt Vernon (to avoid zoning restrictions). 91 years in construction from 1909, it's a massive gothic edifice in a very light stone providing pretty nearly the only external contrast with an English gothic cathedral, and the interior did little to alter the parallel; massive columns with fan-vaulting, Norman arches, and stained glass windows, all of which were in a more modern style than some cathedrals but in a style similar to that used, for instance, in those whose windows were Blitzed out. There's a memorial window to Apollo 11, as well as various luminaries, and I was told that there's a gargoyle with the head of Darth Vader - an example of the old and the new meeting, I guess. A very enjoyable afternoon.

On the Saturday, I went into central DC to meet Courtney again, and to visit the National Aquarium. Unfortunately, my camera died early in the day and as such the picture here is hers; mine has a penchant for pink, thinking that everything looks better in that colour (I, personally, disagree strongly). Anyway, the DC site is apparently far smaller than that in Baltimore, and is under the Department of Commerce; an interesting range of marine life was on display, including some beautiful tropical frogs, some wonderful sharks, and most enchanting of all, a turtle which seemed to love giving Courtney good shots of it; swimming past the glass, the amphibian kept nigh-literaly posing for the camera. It was a fun hour or so of diversion in there, and then we simply walked and talked for a while; another good day out. Hurray!

Monday, 2 February 2009

School: The Return

Not much to say, really. The fellow staff are nice and helpful, and Francesca is the soul of wonderful kind friendliness, as well as being brilliant with the kids, who're all mischievous little angels. I'm working with kindergarteners and first-graders at the moment, ie her class; the system works a little differently, since the class is part of a mainstream school and the kids do some things with non-SEN members of their peer group, and is also different because until age 8 the kids aren't officially diagnosed, though some diagnoses can be worked up pretty easily based on pure observation (Down's and autism for instance). The children are all learning basic things like counting, proper behaviours, and appropriate communications methods, though one or two are also being toilet trained. I loved my day today and can't wait to go back to the 9 kids (we've got 4 staff including me) tomorrow.

Sunday, 1 February 2009



All I can say is wow.

That was a really, really nailbiting, awesome, wonderful and fun game to watch; it kinda demonstrates the addicting and powerful nature of American football and where it beats UK football in intensity and the straight-up scary nature of the game. Unbelievably cool.

Plus, Springsteen as the half-time entertainment was pretty cool; he's a good live performer, so I think I'll head down in March to see him live...

Wow. Possibly a more cogent post on this tomorrow, along with one on school.

Week 2

An active week, I'm going to go through activity by activity, and they won't all get equal time.


The first thing to mention was a visit to the Supreme Court. It's a majestic and magnificent building, though they wouldn't let me in to most of it - I picked a non-arguing day, apparently (which since I got up early in an attempt to hear an oral argument was annoying, but life, I guess), so they wouldn't let me into the court chambers themselves until quite late in the day. However, the ground floor housed an interesting exhibit on some of the early Justices of the Supreme Court, which both allowed me to learn more political and legal history of the US as well as remind me of some of the major decisions of the Court. For those who don't know, the Court is the final Constitutional arbiter, and some things (segregation for instance [Brown v Board of Education]) have been made illegal not by law but by court decision (the aforementioned case ruled separate but equal wasn't equal and therefore violated the Constitution; in the 19th century on the other hand the Dred Scott ruling upheld slavery). I finished with a coffee in the cafe, and just after leaving I overheard a conversation which annoyed me... not for any political reason, but because it turns out that had I waited a half-hour, I'd have been able to meet Associate Justice Samuel Alito... ah well.

Instead, I headed for Congress. It's got a very impressive underground visitors' centre which is mostly empty and serves as little more than an atrium for tours of the main building itself and for security checks for those who want to go to the House or Senate chambers. I took a tour of the building, which took us into neither current chamber, but into the old House chamber - and demonstrated really rather well why an echo-chamber was a bad structure for a debate-chamber; whisperings and mutterings carry far too well across the floor, and white noice ends up obscuring what's being said. Two guided tours in that room was enough to produce the effect, and the original composition was about ten times greater (plus it must have been packed). However, there is a lot of good artwork scattered around Congress, stained glass, murals, paintings, and statuary amongst it. We weren't allowed to wander alone in any of the areas the tour covered, so we were escorted back to the atrium, and I headed into the unfortunately uninformative museum (or rather, to me uninformative) which did have some nice exhibits, in the forms of some of the Federalist Papers and letters from the Founding Fathers (that is, the original copies).

After wandering for a while looking at these exhibits, I exercised my right as a foreign citizen to not go through a member of Congress (DC has a non-voting Representative, for those who wonder, though apparently Obama wants to amend the Constitution and turn the District into the 51st state) in order to access the chamber of the House of Representatives (the Senate was shut). The room's quite nice, very modern, and has none of the echo-chamber properties. The Representatives weren't sitting, and we weren't allowed cameras, so all there is to say is that it was somewhat sparsely decorated and the desks are all very nice wooden constructions and the de facto motto of the United States (e pluribus unum) is written in stained glass under the eagle on the ceiling, whilst the wall above the Speaker has the de jure motto "In God We Trust" written on it. All very nice, and a thoroughly odd setting for the political mudslinging that seems to go on there.


Ok, not all that much to say here. I went to the National Portrait Gallery-cum-Gallery of American Art (different halves of the same building) but quickly found myself underwhelmed; the only really decently interesting things were the photographic exhibition of various photoportraits with text by the photographers on their styles and manners, and the other was the gallery of portraits of American ex-Presidents, since the texts by each portrait were rather interesting (all put the Presidents in the best light possible, yes, even going so far as to call GWB "bipartisan").

I've also headed to the National Building Museum. I didn't find it terribly good; whilst you could touch things, it wasn't very informative as a museum, and the displays were very badly organised and curated. The majority of the museum was closed, and it seemed to avoid actually having any of the interesting bits of the US architectural landscape on display. On the other hand there was some decent stuff done on the developement of DC as a city and the Mall as the Federal/cultural area it is today; again, badly illustrated again sadly.


First, the Air and Space Museum. A decent museum with some interesting exhibits on US (and Russian) space prgrammes, the race for flight, the early days of air-flight with models of the early aircraft internationally as well as within the US. A very informative mueum without having issues of too few exhibits or poor visual display, probably thanks to the wealth of potential exhibits any museum like this has. It even kept a few moonrocks, one which could be touched. Possibly my personal highlights, however, were the display on Mars, with the obvious soundtrack played loud enough to be heard without taking away from anything else and without making conversation impossible; the other was the use of Monty Python in a display on the universe and how it's looked at (I was wearing my Dark Side of the Moon t-shirt and they had a prism. I was amused), in which they had the Galaxy Song by Eric Idle playing. All very nice, and well done; it amused and worked for young people without dumbing down so much as to annoy older individuals (I count myself as older here without hesitation).

This is all in stark contrast to the American History Museum further down the Mall, which is packed with tourists and children, and does descend to the lowest common denominator whilst alienating those above that level. Whilst some of the galleries are much-lauded, half-hour lines to said galleries put one off strongly and impressively; whilst I did go, I didn't stay long and spent more time shocked than anything else. However, to give it it's due there was a decent exhibition on American science (albeit slightly out of date) which had a nice section on the DARPA Grand Challenge, a robo-road-vehicle race, and on the potential future of automated road vehicles requiring no human control.

The Natural History Museum goes back to form, with a general level of exc
ellence (despite all the Greek vases having been put away for some nonspecific reason) and a variety of well-displayed, well-labelled and interesting exhibits. There were a variety of galleries given over to fossils from all ages of the world, as well as devoted oceanic galleries. The developement of man's charted through the BC-era with some interesting exhibits as well as some videos (relics of the '80s but still decently informative), and the mammal galeries were interesting and well-displayed. The most famous exhibit, the Hope Diamond, is not terribly good, but I did enjot seeing some of the other bits and bobs. However, the most interesting exhibits were the Darwin-year piece, a display of Orchids incorporating quotes from Darwin and other botanists with a lot of interesting information on the evolution of the orchid and it's various forms, which was both beautiful and smelled delightful, of course, with a horde of flowers around the room; the other was the butterfly enclosure, which had so many butterflies in, they were landing all over, right next to me, almost on my coat. Really wierd, being in that environment; just totally out of this world, I think - although walking out into the snow and seeing the Smithsonian Institute on the other side of the mall, across the snow-covered expanse (the photo's in the centre at the bottom).

Finally, just a few lines, because it's a museum I can't really write about. The US Holocaust Memorial Museum is powerful, honest, and manages to include all, whilst also noting that the Jews were hardest hit, which is a good achievement. Incredibly moving, and I had to keep stopping as I went round it in order to not cry openly.