Monday, September 20, 2010


My dad asked me over the phone this weekend how I was doing at keeping my essential agreements. I told him I've been doing a great job of balancing work and play; the problem is that I've done it by working just as much as before and playing twice as hard. Not a sustainable way for me to live, it turns out. Lack of sleep and far too little down time turn me into the kind of person I don't want to be. I think I'm improving, though. Last Monday was about as bad as it got: I put in a full day of teaching and planning, went to a meeting on how to train other teachers to use their Promethean boards, biked home for just long enough to change out of biking shorts and grab a banana and a swimsuit, rushed off to a kickball doubleheader, ate the banana for supper between innings, headed straight to our string quartet business meeting (in a hot tub, naturally), made it home by 10:30, ate some real food, put the mute on my violin and practiced with miniscule bowstrokes for Tuesday's gig so as not to wake up my sleeping housemate. Today, I did not go a single other place after work. I came home, picked raspberries, read a book in German for fun, ate a leisurely supper, played piano, talked to an old friend on the phone for an hour and a half, and wrote in my journal. And posted a blog entry. And am going to get nearly a full eight hours of sleep. Let's see if I can make this trend continue.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Essential Agreements

At my school, we don't have rules. We have essential agreements--the understandings we've established between students and teachers, paras and supervisors, staff and administration, to create the healthiest environment for us all. This year, after a summer spent putting a lot of things in perspective, I decided that in addition to my essential agreements with my students, I needed some for myself. For a perfectionist in a profession where you can never be perfect. For a teacher who needs to remember that she is many things other than that.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Photos and back to school

I'm totally losing at this I-have-a-bedtime game. Tomorrow marks the first Monday of the school year (for teachers, at least; students don't come until Thursday.) To celebrate the fond memories of summer, though, I uploaded a new album of photos to my Picasa site. Enjoy! And now, to bed, with an alarm clock set. Qué pena, ¿no?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

B Goes to Sunday School

Everyone who's asked me for reading suggestions in the past six months has gotten the same advice: Daniel Quinn's The Story of B. It's a thesis-based novel, part of the Ishmael trilogy, that draws on anthropology and theology and ecology to challenge the unsustainable way we're living. Best book I've ever read. Not the best-written, or the most beautiful, or the one that makes me feel the best, but certainly the most urgent, powerful, inspiring, challenging. One of those where I had to lie flat on the floor with my eyes wide open for awhile after I finished, thoughts coursing through my brain.

Before you go flipping to your public library's website to reserve a copy expecting the same sort of experience, read this disclaimer: B would not have had the same sort of impact on me had I read it five years ago. It wouldn't have had the same impact had I read it five years from now. Had my previous experiences and ideas been different, this book might have inspired only outrage or confusion or defensiveness. Know that that's what it might do for you.

That's also why I was shocked when a man from the Mennonite church I attend asked if I would be willing to facilitate an adult education discussion series on the book. For those of you unfamiliar with Daniel Quinn's work, his ideas and characters are not exactly ones you would typically find in a religious setting of any sort. B is the last person I expected to be invited to church. I hesitated. He encouraged. I accepted. B went to Sunday School. People read the book. We discussed, questioned, challenged. I began my attempts to build up something new and different from the rubble of cultural and religious foundations that now lies at my feet.

The conversations have continued in many different contexts, with friends and family and anyone I can get to engage in discussion on visions of our role in the future of this planet. The energy I've found out there for finding better ways to live--related to the Quinn philosophy or otherwise--is nothing less than awe-inspiring.

Last weekend, nine of us got together for what turned out to be a wonderfully intense and intensely personal discussion. One of the discussion members asked me as I was leaving if I was B. I said yes, yes I am. But after coming home and attempting to go to sleep, mind still working as full-speed as if the coffee we drank had been caffeinated, I realized that I don't want to be B so much as E. E as in Erin. The story of me.

Maybe in another few years I'll have figured out what that means.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cambodia in photos

Well, here I am, home in Denver again, and finally getting my trip photos uploaded and captioned. Click on the Photo Albums link on the right of this page, and you'll see a new album called Cambodia 2010. You may have to put the slideshow on pause and flip through them manually because some of my captions are a bit apologies. Enjoy!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010


Time for the lasts of everything. Leaving Cambodia in exactly 12 hours. (OK, maybe that's a little optimistic.) Got a head start on flipping my body clock by staying up till 4am watching the World Cup semis last night. I'll post photos sometime after I'm back in the States, but for now, I'll sign off and enjoy these dwindling hours to the fullest and try not to cry too much during goodbyes before beginning the 40-hour journey home. Leg cramps, I can feel you already. Wish me luck.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Magic marker magic

Sopheak and Malachi are married--congratulations, sister and brother-in-law! The wedding was beautiful, and I felt so honored to be a part of it. My own personal highlight, though, was the chance to play violin and sing as part of the band alongside Jenny on keyboard.

If any of you read my blog while I lived here in Phnom Penh, you know who Jenny is. She was 9 years old at the time, now 12. She was my host sister, Khmer teacher, game buddy, cultural interpreter, friend. And piano student. When I first came in 2007, she wanted so badly to learn to play the piano, and I said I'd gladly teach her--except that there was no piano. That fact didn't seem to faze her in the slightest, and when she insisted she wanted to learn even without an instrument, I decided that that kind of motivation deserved to be given a chance. I asked her for a black magic marker and drew two octaves of a keyboard on a white piece of paper, and with that, our piano lessons began. We practiced note names, fingerings, and little songs while I sang the notes that she played on the paper keys. After a couple weeks of this, I came home from work one day to find an electronic keyboard in the living room and Jenny grinning from ear to ear. Her parents, apparently, were as impressed as I was with her dedication and enthusiasm, so they invested in a real instrument.

The lessons continued somewhat regularly, with Jenny learning incredibly quickly and becoming really quite good, until I went back to the States in 2008. Every time I called or emailed my host family, we discussed the piano progress. In the spring of this year, I got an email from Seiha, a dear mutual friend, who told me that Jenny had started playing keyboard with the worship team at church on Sunday mornings. I thought of our magic marker piano and almost cried.

When Jenny sent me a facebook message asking if I'd play violin with her while she played piano at Sopheak's wedding, I knew I had to find a way to do it. Thanks to a kind violinist friend here in Phnom Penh who lent me his instrument, I got to join the band and became Jenny's student as she taught me the melodies of the Khmer songs we would play while I scrambled to commit them to memory, as there was no written music except for chords and lyrics in Khmer script, which I can't read fast enough to keep up with a song.

After hours of practicing, and some purely fun jam sessions in the living room with a few other sisters singing and a brother-in-law joining us on guitar, we made it to the wedding day. Jenny and I played a duet as Sopheak walked down the aisle, and the rest of the band joined us for a whole variety of pieces during the ceremony and reception, from traditional Khmer wedding songs to I Could Sing of Your Love Forever to Celine Dion's Because You Loved Me. Pisey sang, I harmonized on violin, and Jenny improvised complicated piano accompaniments to it all. All that from a little sheet of paper and one very magic marker.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Lessons learned

Two lovely women in Prey Veng transplanting rice seedlings.

After a short but lovely two-day trip out to Prey Veng province, I'm back to my host family's place for one more week, helping to prepare for tomorrow's wedding and trying to fit in everything else I want to do while I'm here. Yesterday I spent all day at the Royal University of Agriculture, my old workplace, amazed, as usual, at how absolutely normal it felt to be back there again. Same sunny office, same barefoot classrooms, same mouthwatering spicy pork at the Organic Restaurant. New bathroom, though, miraculously enough, although the running water was not running yesterday, and the old bucket and cistern of water for manual flushing are now nowhere to be found...ah, the joys of "progress."

In any case, I got the inside scoop on recent university happenings involving accounting crises, strikes, administrative changes, and much other drama, which, I think, for political reasons, I'd better not expound on here. Let's just say it made me truly appreciate the flawed but functional educational system that is Denver Public Schools.

In addition to hearing about university current events, I got to teach two first-year English classes, courtesy of the current English teacher in my old position. Crazy, you may say, to choose to work during my summer vacation, but I was really curious to experiment with TPR Storytelling methodology in a Cambodian university context, and who knows how long it'll be before I get the chance again?

I taught both two-hour classes, walking the students through the processes of Total Physical Response, personalized question and answer, asking and acting out a story, drawing events on a storyboard, and retelling them to partners. I was thrilled with the creative and entertaining stories they came up with, and with the near-100% engagement and participation. I don't often get that in my Spanish classes at home. Afterwards, though, when I asked the students for their opinions on the advantages and disadvantages of this kind of language teaching and learning, I was reminded just how big a disparity there is between my perceptions of effective learning and theirs.

Jocelyn and one of her students act out the story the class is creating.

TPRS is designed to make language acquisition as fun and effortless as possible. For my Cambodian students, however, if they don't have to work hard and seriously, if their brains don't have to break a sweat, they feel like they're wasting their time. A number of them voiced concerns that although this sort of lesson may have been fun, it was keeping them from progressing in their textbook. While it is my humble but professional opinion that they gained far more from storytelling than they ever could have with a textbook, they couldn't see any tangible progress, no pages turned, and although they enjoyed the time, they were anxious to get back to what they considered "real" learning: explicit grammar instruction, drills, and worksheets. There has to be a third way, something that incorporates comprehension-based methods appropriately into a Cambodian university context. Into any context. I mean, I could spend the rest of my life answering that question.

Hmmm. Maybe I will.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Muscle memory

Whoever said you never forget how to ride a bicycle obviously never tried it in Phnom Penh after cycling Denver bike trails for two years. I can balance just fine, and pedal, and steer, but after my mildly harrowing but ultimately successful ride to the Olympic Stadium this morning, I can confidently say that I had completely forgotten how to play the driving game here. Rules: Do not stop at intersections. Merge carefully into the flow and just keep going. Stop lights are merely suggestions. Bicycles have the right-of-way only over pedestrians. Do not expect anybody, cars especially, to stop at intersections, whether or not there are stop signs. Don't stay on your own side of the road if there are puddles or potholes there. Etc.

That example aside, I've been amazed at how many things here come back to me immediately, unconsciously. Things I didn't even know I knew. How to angle my extra-large feet going down the narrow stairs at my host family's house. How to reach back and find the toilet hose in the dark. How to balance sidesaddle, hands-free, on the back of a swerving moto. (Yes, Mom, I got a helmet.) When we turn, my hand automatically sticks out and takes its position as makeshift turn signal. I didn't even remember I was supposed to do that. It just happens. And these hundreds of words in Khmer that I thought I'd forgotten...I talk, and they come tumbling out of my mouth, leaving me wondering where in the world they'd been hiding all this time.

It's unexpectedly beautiful, all these things that were once so foreign, so strange, eliciting nostalgia instead of surprise this time around. Waking up to wedding music just outside the house at 5:30 am. Recognizing the familiar ring tones of my host family's cell phones. Hearing a bullhorn on the street and knowing it's saying, "Grilled chicken eggs...they have flavor good-smelling, good-tasting." The hot, wet smell of the bathroom at night. Men peeing on street corners. Getting quoted exorbitant foreigner prices at the market. Being handed your iced coffee with milk (=2 solid inches of sweetened condensed beverage creamer) in a plastic bag. Parking a bike for the same old 500 riel (12.5 US cents) at the stadium. All these things that were once novel, disconcerting, exotic have become little reminders, dozens of little signs, all saying, "Welcome back."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Longest day of my life

In both literal and figurative senses, yesterday was. Or was it two days ago? OK, so maybe I lie. It was two calendar days, having jumped across the International Date Line and skipping a day altogether, but I have never seen the sun for so many hours at a time. The sun came up just after I woke up in Denver, and it didn't go down again until 26 hours later somewhere in the air over eastern China. All three flights were problem-free, just far too long, and I managed precious few hours of sleep between layovers and meals and reading and World Cup and sappy movies and enough in-flight Tetris to make my eyeballs burn. Plenty of time to just let me mind run free, too, and plenty to think about. Such an eyeful of cultures. During my LA-Seoul flight, I sat next to a Chinese girl, whom the flight attendants with their matching turquoise eyeshadow and hair in identical black buns kept trying unsuccessfully to talk to in Korean, and a South Korean girl, who showed me and the Chinese one how to eat the rice bowl and hot pepper paste and seaweed soup and bean curd with dressing. In front of me, there was a saffron-clad Cambodian monk listening to his iPod and taking videos of the SkyMap with a little digital camcorder. And now I'm here in Phnom Penh, back at my old internet cafe where I sat to write similar blog entries three years ago, and realizing, just like then, that my time is about to run out and that I'm late for lunch. Sorry, Ma!

Monday, June 21, 2010


I'm headed back to Cambodia in the morning--or rather, later this morning--and, in keeping with tradition, I am up quite late getting my act together before I set out on the journey. This time, I can at least justify it by saying that I'm getting a head start on adjusting my body clock to a time zone 13 hours off from the one it's used to. And this time, I don't have to say long-term goodbyes to everyone I know and love, don't have to put all my earthly possessions in storage, don't have to mentally prepare myself for the transition to life as a foreigner. I'll be there for a visit, a two-and-a-half-week stay, a dear host sister's wedding, reunions with host family and friends and coworkers and students. I've never done this before, this going back to a faraway place that used to be mine, reclaiming parts of my identity that have lain dormant for the past two years: daughter, sister, teacher, friend. Foreigner, outsider, curiosity, sore thumb. Explorer, adventurer. So many memories rising to the surface. We'll see if the wanderlust returns.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010


I cleaned my room this week. Seriously cleaned it--this was no one-day task. Dusted, vacuumed, took everything out of the closet and dresser, everything off of the walls and the bookshelf, rearranged the furniture. I couldn't figure out why I felt the need to do all that until I realized that I've been living in the same house, sleeping in the same bedroom, for nearly two years. Since I left my parents' house for college, I've been used to packing my life into boxes and moving every five months, three months, nine months, eleven months--no wonder I'm needing a change of scenery after 22. I've grown rather attached to this place, though, and to the idea of starting to feel like I belong here. I know this house and all of its idiosyncrasies. I know this neighborhood and its bike trails and its bus schedules. I paid my taxes this year not only in just one state, but for just one employer. I finished the school year knowing, for the first time ever, that I'd be back teaching in the same place in the fall. I have a garden bursting with vegetables. I've been here long enough to see the veggies-to-kitchen scraps-to-compost-to-dirt-to-veggies cycle through. And I, with my tentative roots in this community, finally feel like I'm starting to get as many nutrients out of this soil as I'm putting in. I had gotten so used to being transitory, always coming or going, making excuses for not really connecting, not really investing emotional energy in where I was, telling myself that I wasn't supposed to feel like I belonged because there was always somewhere else that was home. I think I'm finally ready to own this one.

Sunday, June 13, 2010


Enough of llamas and snow. This shot's from last week's backpacking trip on the Kenosha-Tarryall Circuit.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


It rained tonight. A good, hard rain that drummed on the roof. I went outside and sat in the garden where it smelled like dirt and worms and raindrops on hot pavement, watched the lightning explode soundlessly behind the night sky clouds, let the cool drops run rivers down my sweaty legs. The garlic and potatoes and bok choy looked so happy there, getting their feet muddy. Guess we all just needed a good watering.

Monday, May 24, 2010


In case you were wondering, I did not, in fact, die in the canyon of dehydration or rodent attacks or any such thing (although the effects of radiation, I suppose, remain to be seen); I've just been fighting to keep my head above water since then with the end of the school year and all the work that goes along with it, and my writing time has suffered. I know I should be sleeping right now, but I need to do something to reclaim my general sense of well-being from everyday hecticness, and the revival of writing seems a good place to start. Besides, this is the last week before summer break. No more Mondays. Good thing, too; the way this one started, I may not have survived many more. For starters, my temperamental alarm clock decided not to go off again after I hit snooze at 5:43. When I woke up again on my own, I realized that I could barely open my eyes because I had finished reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes last night and sobbed my way through the last 40 pages or so. Once I worked my swollen eyelids open, I saw that it was 6:09 and almost time to leave for school. There wasn't enough time for a shower, or enough leftovers in the fridge for me to take for lunch. I scrambled to get all my stuff together, jumped on my bike, and made it all of five feet out of the garage before realizing that I had a flat tire and no time to patch it. Luckily enough, Colin has lent me his car for a few months while he's gone. Back inside, changed out of biking shorts and into teaching clothes, out the front door. Climbed into the driver's seat and noticed the lights were switched on. Sure enough, dead battery. Inside again, searching for bus tickets, realizing that by that time, I'd managed to miss the bus, too. All three of my modes of transportation, useless. Then Kate saved the day--thank goodness for roommates with jumper cables. Jumped the Festiva, survived the school day, cooked the supper, washed the dishes, watered the garden, bought the groceries, fixed the bike, resurrected the blog...four days and counting, baby, and tomorrow can only be better.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

After long anticipation

Today begins the grand adventure of Kate, Greta, Matthew, Colin, and Erin from Denver to Hotchkiss to Moab to Grand Canyon. We're as ready as we can be for canyon backpacking, although, as we have been more than adequately warned, many obstacles are far beyond our control. Some examples from the permit application correspondence:

"Experience has shown that trips such as the one you requested all too often result in off-itinerary camping, injury, and occasionally even death. Please do not accept this itinerary merely because it is available."

"Legions of small animals...will devote much attention to separating you from your food during your stay at the designated campsites."

"...the water in Horn Creek may exceed EPA MUNICIPAL water standards for alpha radiation during high flows. Remember, the dehydration threats from not drinking can be much more immediate and life threatening."

"There is water in the bed of Horn Creek about half the time, but unfortunately it is radioactive so don't drink it unless death by thirst is the only other option."

After talking to a ranger in December, who assured me that our itinerary wasn't what they call "crazy," we made some slight adjustments and started preparing for the hazards ahead. So here we go--radiation, dehydration, traumatized toenails, legions of rodents, you're on.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Snow day

After being 65 and sunny two days ago, Denver had its first snow day in the two years that I've been working for the school district. I love my job and I love my kids, but let me tell you, this was a much-appreciated break. To celebrate, I'll give you some happy snow photos from the past few weeks.

This afternoon, for example, Greta and I decided you don't have to be a little kid to build a snow fort in the backyard.

We had rescued the daffodils from our flowerbed just before the blizzard.

Snow forts in T-shirts. I love you, Colorado.

And this was after surviving the bike ride home yesterday. It had just started snowing when I left school. By the quarter-way mark, the bridges were covered. By half, I couldn't see the trail. My tally of fellow bikers fell to a record low of one (who yelled, "Oh, YEAH!" as we passed in the blinding snow.)

My snowshoes got their initiation after last Friday's snowstorm on a trip to Mt. Evans with Andi and Emily.

And last but not least, an exhausting but well worth it cross-country skiing adventure to Lost Lake.

And that, sadly, must be all for now. The sun has melted almost the entire foot of snow, so it's back to school tomorrow. Two days till spring break, baby.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Critical diacriticals

Yes indeed, look at this--I'm writing on a school night. I came to the conclusion last night, after reflecting on my overstuffed day and realizing that the most relaxing thing I had done was to take a five-minute break to clip my fingernails, that I need to start doing more of what I love and less of what I have to do. So here I am.

Today's teaching highlight came during 5th grade Spanish class, where we've been working on describing family members. I took a brief detour into English to impress into my students' brains just how important it is to write and pronounce the diacritical marks--those lovely accents on vowels and tildes on ñ's--in Spanish. My high school teachers informed me of the papá/papa distinction, but they neglected to teach me the more important ones; I was well into my time living in South America before I figured out the crucial difference between mamá and mama, año and ano. I realize, I told my kids, that by teaching you these words, I'm running the risk of you using them inappropriately, but I'll take that risk to spare you the embarrassment of going around telling people, "My potato plays tennis," "My breast speaks French," or, horror of horrors, "I have 11 anuses" instead of "I'm 11 years old." Jaws dropped; ears turned red. For a fleeting moment, I had the undivided attention of every single student, until one of my typically less-than-attentive pupils leaped out of his seat to grab a pencil and started scribbling notes, and I burst out laughing. This was the only time all year that an elementary student had taken notes in my class. Go figure. A noteworthy occasion indeed.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


I knew it had been a little while since I'd written anything here, but today when I opened a new Safari tab I noticed that my blog had been removed from the display of my 12 most frequently visited websites. Not only that, but it had been replaced by things like H&R Block and the Denver Public Schools job board--how terribly depressing. Fortunately, now that my taxes are done and my teaching job rather miraculously secured for next year, I can work on getting my priorities straight.

So. What has happened since January? We're well into March, somehow, and the first two weeks were absolutely gorgeous, no lions in sight. I left my fleece jacket and wind/rain/snowproof biking pants at home and wore sunglasses for the 6:30 am ride to work for the first time since fall. The commute home took me past several fishermen on the riverbank, two little girls on scooters, and a grown man on a skateboard being pulled along the bike trail by a big frisky dog. I counted an impressive 25 other bikers on my way home on Friday, more than doubling the previous record. My arms got minorly sunburned after a 60-degree Saturday morning spent building new compartments for the compost bin and digging up soil in the garden beds. (Also, spell check tells me that "minorly" is not a word. And there are some surprisingly heated forum discussions on the matter. Fascinating.) I spent yesterday afternoon hiking around a snowy mountain in a T-shirt. Then I woke up this morning to gray clouds spitting snowflakes outside my window. Boo. Now it's turned to chilly rain, and I'm sitting here staring at the garden through the glass and drinking hot chocolate out of a snowman mug in somewhat begrudging deference to the fickleness of spring. So be it. If I have to be inside this afternoon, I'll spend it digging my tennis rackets and sandals out of the closet and putting them optimistically with my skis and snow boots. Come on back, little lamb.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Potty humor

8:15am, hallway duty, first-grade hallway
J: (Urgently running down the hall.) Miss Gotwals! Miss Gotwals! I can't get my seatbelt off!
E: (Confused. Obviously, he is not in a car.) Your...?? Oh, your belt...
(I pause, wondering if it's legal or prudent for a female teacher to be witnessed disrobing a six-year-old boy in the middle of a hall full of parents.) Mmm, can you try it yourself one more time?
J: But I already started peeing my pants!
(I look down. Sure enough, a wet patch is spreading quickly down the jeans.)
E: Oh! Ehhh...
(I frantically undo the belt. He looks up at me, dismayed. Clearly too little, too late.)

12:37pm, walking back from from lunch
(Two second graders are having a worried conversation in the hall. I see the boy point at me and say, "There's Maestra Gotwals!" and take off. The girl walks up to me.)
S: Umm, Maestra, do you have a Spanish class right now?
E: Not for three more minutes.
S: Well, the bathroom pass got in the bathroom trash can, and I can't get it out. Could you maybe, um, come and get it?
(Exactly how the bathroom pass "got in" the trash in the first place I never found out, but I was just able to fish it out from the bottom of the four-foot garbage bin with my adult-sized arms. One for two.)

1:30pm, just before 2nd grade Spanish class
(One student hurries to my door before the rest of the class, pulling her shirt down as far as she can.)
C: (Whispering.) Maestra, I peed in my pants just a little bit, I couldn't hold it.
E: (Thinking, unbelievable--how do I attract all this bathroom drama when it's not even my fault?) OK, come on in, we'll get you a pass to the office and nobody else will know, it'll be fine...

Seriously now, why wasn't this part of the training I received in Curriculum and Instruction: Foreign Language Methods?