Daytrippers #7: All up Alishan

It’s been a long time since our last post! The summer holidays mean that lots of places are quite busy, and we teachers have a bit of extra work to do running summer activities at the school. That said, it’s important to blow off steam and so, in August, a troop of teachers made our way to the train station at an unholy hour of the morning (seven AM – madness!).

Our destination: Chiayi station, from whence we were going to ride the bus up to Alishan. Now it must be noted that this plan sparked confusion in lots of people I spoke to. The more conventional way up Alishan is taking the slow little train through the forest tracks up to the top. Wrangling a group of more than six, our head teacher and tour guide for the day elected for the faster and easier route.

Off at Chiayi station we encounted the first moment of mayhem. The bus stop was a construction site. However, we had no time to be confused as an elderly Taiwanese woman quite firmly ushered us in a direction, and we quickly found ourselves talking to Mr Xi, who offered us a very reasonably priced lift up the mountain in his shuttle. It turned out to be a good call, as the winding mountain road caused one of our company to take a green turn and Mr Xi kindly pulled over to allow her to recover. He also let us stop at the foot of the mountain to look at a charming temple and suspension bridge, stretch our legs, and buy some tea. The temple was fronted by a number of quite fashionable looking statues doing martial arts in what appeared to be sunglasses.

After our two stops, we made it to the top of the gorgeous Alishan mountain road. The road itself warrants a bit of description. It winds its way between the trees, and seems to go on forever. On our way back, the clouds had descended and in such a moment the road is both beautiful and terrifying! On our way up, though, we could enjoy the views down the mountain slopes, and we even spied a waterfall coming down practically onto the shoulder of the road.

At the peak, we stopped for a bruch at our leader’s favourite spot. We also picked up the tourist map that was full of promising places to see. Without losing anyone, we managed to escape the tourist shopping area and with the aid of an umbrella squeeze our way through a rather large tour group blocking the entrance to the wooden walkway. We were finally in nature.

The forest of Alishan is really beautiful. Enormous trees cover the mountainside and the cool mountain air was a lovely escape from the sweaty Taiwanese summer. The paths lead us up between the trees, passing some truly enormous stumps that looked like something off the set of Lord of the Rings. One was aptly named the pig log, as that is exactly what it looked like. We also learned a little of the folklore about the mountain, including the two sisters who turned into the matched pools and the brothers who became the sentinel trees watching over the water.

Alishan used to be a centre for Taiwan’s timber industry, which is why the narrow train tracks were laid up there. Now the train brings tourists, squeakily, up a long winding route to the summit. In the right season the tracks are overhung by sakura blossoms, according to all the tourism pics. We were far lot too late for any blossoms, but the deep green of summer was gorgeous nonetheless.  And then emerging from the forest to find a temple nestled in the low-hanging clouds felt quite magical. It also provided a nice break to get some of Alishan’s delicious tea and to gather the group who had spread out taking photos, searching for birds, and generally ambling along.

The final descent to the train station took us across a suspension bridge, around some long wooden walkways. We passed some ancient trees, Ents over a millenium old. They absolutely towered over us. We finally crossed a bridge over a river and went down to the station. Time was marching on and we had to hustle to get everyone a ticket and aboard the old diesel train. It was quite a fun experience, despite the quite squeaky train carriage noises, and a welcome opportunity to rest our feet. After watching the forest pass by, we went down to the tourist shops for coffee and postcard shopping.

Mr Xi picked us up, and the time he set for us was on the money – a little way into our drive down the mountain the clouds descended and the rain started. Suddenly Alishan’s forest looked like something from a werewolf flick. But we managed to avoid any lurking monsters on the way back to Chiayi station.

 

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Teaching at Neurolink

We’ve been teaching for just over 6 weeks now, so it’s about time we posted something about what our actual reason for coming to Taiwan.

Almost everyone has asked us what the children are like. The short answer is that children are the same everywhere. Some of them are wonderful, some of them are an absolute nightmare. There are students who are excellent at English, some who work very hard, and some who would probably rather put out their own eyes than be in the classroom. Naturally, every teacher has their favourites, and often this is very much due to the teacher’s personality. One teacher in the Changhua school tends to really like the more cocky students, while another finds it rude and disrespectful. Over time, you learn to just accept that everyone has different preferences, and not to get offended when someone says they hate a student you like, or vice versa.

The schools themselves, despite both being Neurolink schools, are quite different. Each school manager expects different things from their teachers, and this creates quite different environments and work ethics. In general, Neurolink has a very good work ethic, and good communication, and the teachers are treated well by the rest of the staff. However, that said, new teachers are expected to fit in with the schools’ systems, and this is often not negotiable. For example, if a lesson is due to finish at 15:50, but you have finished all the work in the course guide by 15:40, the children are not allowed to leave early, and the teacher must fill those remaining 10 minutes with  material. What this material is, is not really important, and teachers have been known to show Youtube videos or play Uno – as long as the students are speaking English, just about anything goes.

Naturally, every school has its problems, and there are definitely days where we have wanted to just throw a course guide at someone and go home early. Some days the admin work is horribly disorganised, and you are only given your classes folder 20 minutes before you are supposed to teach them, and other days you just have something thrust upon you with no explanation or advice, and you are expected to make it happen. The easiest way to deal with the former, is to hover annoyingly in the main office until you get what you need. The latter is something you just accept, and while it has caused more than enough stress and frustration. generally the school staff are equally anxious that everything should go smoothly, so even if you screw it up, someone will pick up the slack. Obviously, not screwing up is ideal, but there is usually a fall-back smoke and mirror show in case of emergencies.

The school system was a little overwhelming at first. There are a lot of aspects to keep track of when planning a lesson: do the students have a spelling test? Which words are being tested? What is the priority for this lesson? Are there flashcards or props you can use to teach the concepts? Worksheets? Reviews? Progress checks? The list goes on. It can be very easy to forget something, or to run out of time and have to rush the book work. This is why lesson plans are strongly encouraged, because they double as a checklist to make sure you get everything done. Once you get into the routine of lesson planning, and wrap your head around the system, it gets easier by the day.

Finally, one of the highlights of teaching at Neurolink is the STEM programme. There has been a pretty speedy move away from the traditional drill school mentality, and the Neurolink schools are introducing an “English in context” approach, using science, technology, engineering and maths (hence, STEM). Unfortunately, this also means more work for the teachers, who have to plan science lessons, experiments, activities, crafts and extra material for the class, but while many teachers seem to dread science lessons, we both really enjoy the variety and the break from the daily routine. Plus, the teachers can learn useful skills while teaching the students – like how to make ice-cream with salt and ice, or how to make jumping origami frogs. Ok, perhaps not the most useful skills, but certainly a lot more fun than verb conjugations!