Tag Archives: Students

How Not to Teach About Homelessness

I recently learned about The World’s Big Sleep Out, which tags itself as “A Global Sleep Out to Call for an End to Global Homelessness”. I’ve linked it here not because I support this but so that you can read about it yourself. The post that follows is my reaction when I learned that my school on the equator would be promoting the outdoor sleepover as a service opportunity for students. (That this event will take place directly upon the conclusion of our equatorial school’s winter fair could be a blog post all on its own.)


Let’s imagine: Here on the equator it’s about 27° Celsius at all times. When the sun goes down and there’s a light wind, which is common at night, it’s quite pleasant. Our students will be sleeping on the tennis courts on the roof of our school. Snacks, games, and breakfast have been advertised as part of the event and I know that there are plans for a film to be shown in the theatre before bedtime.

For a student bonding experience, it sounds lovely.

As an event that is supposed to raise awareness about homelessness, it is shockingly irresponsible.

For context: We live in a country where homelessness is actively hidden. When I’ve taken informal polls in class, and I have done this as recently as last week, no one has seen a homeless person where we live. Considering the typical income level of expatriate students at an international school, this is not surprising. They are literally in parts of the city where, in all honesty, there probably are not any homeless people. Or at least, not at times when these students would be out and about. Homelessness, to these students, is invisible.

Pretending to care about an invisible problem does not make it visible.

When I asked the organiser of the event how she planned to address homelessness, because I didn’t see how a tropical sleepover on the tennis courts would do it, she seemed to think that sleeping outside was enough. I can almost understand this response if you’re somewhere uncomfortable, like on a narrow park bench or outside in the rain or snow. But that would still break down when you consider that anyone playing at being homeless, as our students would be, probably has appropriate outdoor gear, a belly full of food, and the knowledge that they’ll be heading to back to their comfortable home in a mere few hours.

Another area to consider is that many people who are homeless do not sleep on the street. Many stay in shelters for days at a time or stay itinerantly with friends or relatives. An additional area our students will not see is that people who are homeless own only what they can carry; our students will not understand this when they bring a change of clothes to the roof and leave everything else sitting at home. Likewise, people who are homeless often do not have access to clean toilets or showers; our students will not have this concern.

Furthermore, malnutrition contributes to poor health, which certainly will not come across during this sleep over. All of our students, unlike people who are homeless, have an address. However, lack of address often restricts or eliminates access to government programs and services, as well as the ability to apply for a job since it is required on applications. This obviously contributes to a lack of stability, which leads to unstable education, and stigmatisation continues the cycle.

Our students will not understand this from a tropical night on the school’s roof.

Yes, it is important to raise awareness about homelessness. One of my students recently wrote an article about Willing Hearts, a local organisation that provides meals for those who need them. As I suggested to the organiser of the sleepover, why not ask students to volunteer for the 5am breakfast shift so they can interact with people who they would never otherwise even see? (This suggestion was met with an excuse about wanting to enjoy her weekend. I dropped the subject.)

Teach about homelessness? Assuming you’re doing so in a responsible and truly caring way, yes.

But not like this. Please not like this.

Travel Guide: Yunnan Province x2

I’ve been very privileged to be able to travel abroad to wonderful places with students. Just like last year in Yunnan and the previous year in Battambang, Cambodia, my school worked with the JUMP! Foundation who develop, design, and manage our programs. As trip lead for the past three years, I have a close relationship with JUMP! – and in all honesty, they make me question my career choices every time. It is an honour to work with them.

Yunnan is in Southwestern China. It borders Myanmar, Laos, and Vietnam.

For many students, this was their first time playing backpacker. We took an overnight train, three bus rides, and a short train throughout our trip. There’s a lot to see and do in Yunnan and we were all over the place in our six days of travel.

Our first stop was the town of Baisha. We arrived there after flying from Singapore to Kunming and taking a nine-hour night train from Kunming to Lijiang. This was my third experience on a night train and I slept surprisingly soundly. The earplugs probably helped, as perhaps did having the lower bunk. From Lijiang, Baisha is only about thirty minutes away by bus.

Like most of where we go on these trips, Baisha is a small rural community and it’s beautiful.

I was particularly fascinated with how buildings are constructed and how space is used.

Our primary reason for being in Yunnan was to engage with the environment around us and the minority groups that live there. Our first real activity was a hike up to Fuguo Monastery, a Tibetan Buddhist monastery that has been around since 1601. The hike was beautiful and we really enjoyed the cool air. We don’t get air like that in Singapore.

I’ve been to many temples and monasteries and I really enjoy them. I enjoy their beauty, their quiet, and their overwhelming sense of peace. I do sometimes wonder if that comes from shutting out the outside world and its problems, but that did not seem to be the case here, such as when the monks utterly defeated our students in our annual basketball game.

Our exploration of the landscape continued the following day. We hiked up to a reservoir located just outside of town towards the monastery and then down to a village located alongside Wenhai Lake. The terrain was steep and damp from the previous night’s rain and it changed as we walked. Once again, the air tasted different from the air that we have in Singapore and the wind came from a different direction. There were times during our walk when I lost myself in the forest and in the sensations of being somewhere foreign yet completely familiar.

It is a true pleasure to feel like I’m somewhere new and to look around at a completely different sky. Singapore is dense and full of tall buildings; our time in Yunnan gave me some much-needed solace and an escape from a world that I often feel is moving too quickly.

From our forest walk, we visited the Baisha Naxi Embroidery Institute where we learned traditional Naxi Dongba calligraphy. The symbols are pictographs that can be combined in a variety of ways to create many different messages. It was a lot of fun to use the calligraphy brush! We also learned traditional embroidery, which the kids really enjoyed and which reminded me of the sewing I used to do in elementary school.

We did not stay still in Yunnan, however. After two nights in Baisha we took a three-hour bus ride to Laojunshan. If I’m going to return to any part of Yunnan on my own, Laojunshan is it. I didn’t know it before I arrived, but the area is China’s traditional climbing heaven and as soon as we got there, I understood why.

The buildings are beautiful, too, and fit so completely into the red sandstone that was everywhere.

Many people from the Lisu minority community live in the area around Laojunshan and are known for their music and dance. We visited the home of famous Lisu musicians who have performed as far away as France. We spent an afternoon with them to make bamboo flutes and learn traditional Lisu dances. A week later, my flute still tastes and smells like wood and smoke, which I love.

Later that evening we had the opportunity to put our Lisu dance steps into practice, which was great fun. Laojunshan is basically one long street and the nightly entertainment is dancing! We gathered with the community after dark in a large courtyard with lights, tables, and benches and followed along as best we could. The Lisu women had beautiful costumes and many men were involved in the dance, too.

When we left the dancing, I looked up at the stars. It was so dark and there were so many stars. We don’t see that in Singapore.

Another thing we don’t see in Singapore is mountains. The following day we climbed Thousand Turtle Mountain, which was astonishingly beautiful. The views are glorious and the day was fresh and new from rain the night before. I loved watching the light and the mountains appear from the mist. I took some time to write and to sit and breathe the air; there aren’t many occasions when the world feels right to me but this was certainly one of those, for which I am grateful.

Thousand Turtle Mountain feels like a different world from anywhere but it was starkly different to Lijiang, our final destination that afternoon. Lijiang is about three hours by bus from Laojunshan and the home of the closest airport to where we were. At just over a million people, one of my Chinese colleagues pronounced it tiny. Considering we’d spent the week in towns so small that you could count the number of streets, Lijiang felt huge.

Rather than spend any time in the city, though, we headed straight to Lijiang Old Town, which used to be the market district. It maintains that character and flavour through winding, twisting, narrow streets full of shops but the shops today are for tourists. They sell souvenirs, food, and beverages of every kind. I do enjoy a market in any form and it was fun to wander around and see what there was to see. I really did like the architecture, too. Most buildings in the parts of Yunnan I have visited have exteriors far grander than I would have expected and it always catches me by pleasant surprise.

Throughout our time in Yunnan, I photographed flowers. We have lots of flora in Singapore but I love exploring the beauty of the places that I visit. It’s all so different! And there were so many purple ones!

The following day, we were back at the train station for a high speed train to Kunming to catch the flight that would take us to Singapore. We spent six days in a different world and I am grateful for each one of them, and for the people I spent time with along the way. It is experiences like this that make me feel right in the world and this one came at a good time.

Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt. – John Muir

Hello, I Think I’m Back!

Phew! It has been a long time since I’ve written. It was time to take some time off. It was time to spend time with people I love, breathe in the ocean, move apartments, and return to work.

I know I’m not unique in that my school habits are thrown off when my schedule changes over the summer. Suddenly there’s time! And comparatively limited responsibility! I ran almost every day but it was a struggle to meditate; I spent almost all of my time with family and friends but still need to make a few phone calls because there’s never enough time. I spent the last week sitting on the beach and finishing three books; I’ve been back in Singapore for almost three weeks and I’ve only finished two.

Living takes on different forms in different places and times and I’m completely okay with that. But time is finite and we make choices. I’ve chosen to cook dinner almost every night instead of sitting down with this blog. I’ve gone on bike rides instead of running, spent time out in the world instead of at home reading. I’ve spent less time listening to podcasts and more time being comfortable in the quiet.

All of this will morph. Living is fluid. If I’ve learned one thing it’s how to be wherever I am rather than trying to make where I am into something it’s not.

This is on my mind as we get ready for the new school year. Like many people, I work in a system that I don’t always like. I experience periods of negativity, defeat, and dejection over what is happening around me. But at the end of the day I am very aware that I will spend 100 hours with my students this year and it is my responsibility to make sure their time is well spent. I want them to become better people. I want them to deepen their understanding of the world.

As I write, I’m watching the sky change from grey to pink, a pink tinged with blue clouds, and finally to a deep blue. How do I help my students take the time to notice, to recognise that the world is out there and they are part of it? How do I raise good people?

It’s the beginning of a new school year and like every year, this is what I wonder. And this is what I try to do every single day.

Yup, I think I’m back.