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Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Honeycomb Matrix

Like it or not, part of being a teacher inevitably involves some kind of behaviour management. There are many ways to approach this, and every experienced teacher will have strong views on the best ways to administer this part of the job. It shouldn't be a surprise that, like most other teachers, I have my own strong views on this subject. I tend to use this blog to primarily focus on content-specific resources but I would like to take a moment here to share a resource that is applicable to all KLAs and all year groups.

But firstly, a few things I consider when it comes to behaviour management:

They're Kids
As adults, it's an inconvenient truth that we have to deal with issues that arise from dealing with people who are yet to reach adulthood themselves. That is to say, we're adults and our students are not. A lot of friction can arise from expecting students to behave in ways that we might expect adults to behave. Or we might even just expect our students to behave as an 'ideal' type of child that we have in our head.

The students who present the biggest challenges do not fit into this paradigm. They often come to us unequipped for the mental marathons we want them to run. And, honestly, so they should - the entire basis for our profession is to assist the next generation in reaching some kind of adult actualisation in terms of emotional, mental and physical development. If they came to us fully-formed then we wouldn't be needed, would we?

Difficult Students are Difficult for a Reason
If a student is unable to behave in the way that we expect, for whatever reason, then that's something we should be compassionate about. The stories behind some of these students are absolutely devastating and, if we knew the full details behind why they behave the way they do, we would wonder how it is that they might be able to focus in class at all.

Some of these students are going to be defiant, and oppositional, and this can be because they are afraid and angry about things that really have nothing to do with us. So we should do our best not to take it personally, to disengage from the instinct to respond in opposition, and to remind ourselves that we're the adults in these situations. No matter how hard it might get in a particular lesson for us, at the end of the day we can walk away from the problems these students have - and they can't.

Behaviour isn't Straightforward
Behaviour is always a reflection of context, and a student's personal context is inevitably going to be complex. The problems exhibited by a challenging student are not simple in origin - they can be the result of multiple things. A student may have a learning difficulty, compounded by instability in their home environment, and further reinforced by issues that have arisen in social interaction over a sustained amount of time due to the other aforementioned problems. This in turn has probably led to friction with some teachers in the past, gaps in learning, and ongoing attendance issues due to said student aiming to avoid further conflict as much as possible.

It's not something that can be solved with a detention.

If I give this hypothetical student a detention is it going to change their behaviour the next time I have them in my class? The answer is no, so the only real consequence is that it would drive a wedge between myself and the student in question - a wedge that will make it difficult to continue working with said young individual. I've seen this happen; punishment for punishment's sake can lead to ongoing grudges between teachers and students that can last for years and are impossible to mediate. For the teacher it sometimes becomes about asserting authority and teaching the value of following rules. I cannot think of a single time that this approach actually resulted in a student adopting those values and responding to this authority in a supplicant and respectful way. For some teachers it slots into a metanarrative about "what's wrong with the world today"... I'm not saying that it's incorrect to criticially analyse the malaise one may perceive as having descended upon modern society, but what I am saying is that tying behaviour management practice to a theoretical idealised worldview won't actually get the kind of results that will make you and your students have a less stressful time in the classroom.

Would you rather be right, or would you rather just have the student learning something? Sometimes we can't have both, and being right (and authoritative) shouldn't be the cornerstone of education. Education should be the cornerstone of education.

But hey, don't just take my word for it, here is some supporting evidence:
Blank Honeycomb Matrix
The Honeycomb Matrix
Anyway! I honestly did not intend to write that much, but I am very passionate about Positive Behaviour for Learning.

The Honeycomb Matrix is a quantitative assessment tool that aims to assist students in engaging with their class work. Nothing more, nothing less. Firstly, here is what it is not:
  • It is not used to generate marks or data for assessment of ability.
  • It is not used to assess thinking skills or the ability of a student to understand certain domains of knowledge.
What it does do is this:
  • It allows students to see how well they work while they are present in class.
  • It allows the teacher to build a culture of student engagement with classwork.
  • It makes it clear to students that the most important thing is, and always will be, how hard they try in regards to the work set during class time - thus promoting a growth mind-set. 
I have been using and developing this matrix for three years now and I can give you some feedback on its impact in the classroom. Back in 2014 I introduced a version of this matrix to a mixed ability Year 7 class where 40% of the students were only completing 10-40% of the set classwork. After a term of transparently judging student engagement against the matrix, student work levels got to the point where all students in this class were completing 40% of set activities (or higher). The top end of the class improved too, with a third of these students achieving 85% of completed classwork or higher.

How it Works
The matrix is good for 10 lessons at a time. Each column has two boxes per student - one to note down if they are present in class or not (this way you can use it as your roll and avoid double-handling if your school is not on electronic rolls), and one to note down a score that equates to the amount of work completed. The scores run as thus:

0 = no work.
1 = some work.
2 = most work.
3 = all work.
4 = exemplar work (more work than the teacher expected in their wildest dreams*)

*It should be noted here that 4s are only given out in exceptional circumstances.

Make it clear to the students that 3 is the normal maximum, and that it works out as 3 out of 3. If they should get a 4 then this is actually a 4 out of 3. It's at this point that I like to remind students that I can do this because I'm not a Maths teacher.

At the end of the topic, add up all the scores and divide it by the amount of lessons that the student was present for, with each lesson worth 3 points in total.

Sample Honeycomb Matrix (with fake students)
Here's an example of how it would work:

Jane Rice has been present for ten lessons. This means that her possible total is 30. Her actual work score is about 21 out of 30, which means she has completed 70% of the work for the term.

Let's say a student gets an exemplar score at some point, or completes work that they missed out on due to absence (thus earning points for lessons in which they weren't present - which is encouraged). They can theoretically get 100+%. Well, it's not really theoretical, because this does happen - usually with one or two students per class.

At the end of each topic the percentages are equated to grades, and I keep a sign up in the classroom that explains the system:
  • 100+% = A+ (getting the student two Bronze Awards)
  • 85-100% = A (getting the student one Bronze Award)
  • 70-84% = B 
  • 45-69% = C
  • 25-44% = D
  • 0-24% = E (and a call home to express concern to their parents)
Since introducing this system to all of my classes, I haven't had to call home about unacceptable levels of class work once.

Another positive byproduct of this system is that it doubles as an efficient way to mark books. By filling in the Honeycomb Matrix once at the end of every lesson after observing the students working, and then calculating totals at the end of each topic, I have a handy percentage that can be typed up and handed to each student. I don't even need to collect books (which can often be problematic anyway as students who haven't done any work often actively avoid handing their book over to you).

[I'll note here that every now and again I do collect books to do some close-up marking on the quality of a written paragraph or something like that, but that's not what this blog post is about].

After a while the students get used to the system. A good example of this has been my senior English Studies classes. By transferring my expectations for behaviour primarily onto classwork, it assists in building a positive working relationship with the students, and they will often be quite honest in telling me if they've only done a 1 out of 3 for the lesson. For reluctant workers, knowing that I'm explicitly keeping track of what they do every lesson ensures that they do put some effort in occasionally and are able to meet the expected minimum. 

Also included at the front of the sheet are an optional two columns for diagnosis. Students can be informally pre-assessed at the start of the topic (or 10 lesson cycle) and then broken into three streams of ability to allow for occasional differentiation of tasks.

In short, the sheet becomes an all-in-one organisation tool for each of my classes.

Resource - Honeycomb Matrix

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Tricolon: Rhetorical Technique in 1984

One area that I've had some success in with Advanced English students is in extending their analysis by introducing 'new' techniques. In Standard English, and Years 7-10 English, it can be easy to get bogged down in re-teaching the base techniques - things like metaphor and personification. How many of us have started with a new class and had students complete a 'pre-test' diagnostic activity where we assess their memory on literary techniques? And then how many of us have been surprised (year after year) that the point and definition of a metaphor still hasn't become second nature for Year 10 students?

'Top' classes tend not to have this issue as much and this makes them ripe for extension with a proliferation of language devices and rhetorical techniques. With Advanced English, I tend to throw everything I have at them in the hope that a few new techniques will stick. At the end of the day I just don't know how each individual's brain will assign significance, so part of catering for this is to differentiate by offering a wide volume and variety of ideas. One student, Y. D. U. Cair, might remember what a motif is and excels at identifying these in texts, but struggles to vary his writing with diverse sentence structures. Meanwhile, his classmate Isle Try always seems to forget what motifs are but when she is reminded of the differences between simple, compound and complex sentences, it's something that sticks with her and begins to inform her writing style. 

Taking my cue from Nancie Atwell's pioneering mini-lesson approach, I've been using 1984 to drop a few new rhetorical techniques on the students. Today's is the tricolon.

The tricolon is a device in which three parallel phrases, clauses or words are used in a sentence together. George Orwell uses lots of these in 1984 to build layers of detail in his depressingly relevant view of the future:

"Sometimes he was flung like a sack of potatoes on the stone floor of a cell, left to recuperate for a few hours, and then taken out and beaten again."

The sentence starts with the adverbial part of the clause "Sometimes he was" and continues into "flung like a sack of potatoes on the stone floor of a cell". This in itself would constitute a simple sentence on its own but just before the verb 'flung' the sentence branches off into three separate clauses, essentially making the sentence - "Sometimes he was flung like a sack of potatoes on the stone floor of a cell", "Sometimes he was left to recuperate for a few hours", and "Sometimes he was taken out and beaten again". For a start, this makes sense of the use of an oxford comma at the end of the second clause, as it ensures that each clause can be taken for face value on its own. In using the tricolonic structure the overall sentence itself builds the sense that the protagonist, Winston, is undergoing quite a trial - endless, random, and brutal (see what I did there? That last part was tricolon too).

Another example of tricolon in 1984 can be seen here:

"Little dumpy men with short legs, swift scuttling movements, and fat inscrutable faces with very small eyes."

In the above worksheet, students are introduced to the technique and asked to observe the two examples and come up with their own definition. Discuss with them after they've had a go at analysing it for themselves.

After this the students then examine why an author (such as Orwell) might want to use the technique.

And, finally, they have to write their own example using something in the classroom for inspiration. It shouldn't really take more than 20-30 minutes. 

Also related: the tetracolon, bicolon and isocolon.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Cancun - Houston - LAX - Sydney (Day 26 - 23/1/14)

One of my only photos of Houston
It's morning, and the Duck remarks to me, "Enjoy this relaxing moment. It will be your last piece of calm today".

Cancun has become grey, cloudy, and quiet. All the kids and their cocktail-county parents have disappeared. Our checkout is smooth, pleasant, and without incident. The taxi driver jokes with us about Outback Steakhouse as he takes us to the airport. All the warning signs were there to be seen. Things were going too well, too smoothly. The Duck was right - our time in the airport would be a hairy mess.

Even on paper it looked stressful. Cancun to Houston, Houston to L.A., L.A. to Sydney. How was it all going to fit together? The travel agent had only given us 1 hr between arrival and departure in Houston... which was completely unreasonable in hindsight.

Tower at Cancun airport, complete with massive Corona advertisement

In Cancun airport we hit a snag straight away. The system doesn't like us; our names and information don't come up on their computers. First one, then two, then six check-in staff are scratching heads and talking in rapid Spanish. Our wait at the desk stretches out; it gets to 11 am, then 11:15 am, then 11:30 am. Our flight leaves at midday. I'm very conscious of the clock, as always, but increasingly more so as we begin to race it.

When something like this takes so long you begin to notice every little detail about the person serving you... the fact that their tie is patterned with the names of various international destinations, the blemishes on their skin, their name on the tag, the stoop of their shoulders. Our two main helpers are Rafael and Guadalupe, both anxiously doing their best, ears glued to the phone and nervously joking that we might have to stay another night in Cancun.

Eventually, Duck and I are shuffled along to another desk and told that this is a common problem with Australians checking out of Cancun. Their system isn't compatible with us. We'll have to wait for a later flight.

Duck is on the verge of exploding when suddenly, joyously, our passports are accepted and we're rushed along onto our plane.

But the next stop is worse.

Forrest Gump's actual suit?

As we're coming into America from another country, even if it's just to transfer to another airport, we're subjected to customs and all its post-9/11 hoo-ha. The lines are astronomical, hundreds and hundreds of people nose-to-back, the line snaking back and forth without end.

The clock ticks by. We have less than 20 minutes until boarding. I think of all the stops we must go through - border control, bag pick up, carry-on check, finding the right departure gate. And all the while as time slips away so quickly our line moves so very slowly.

Boarding time comes and goes. I start to feel very anxious. Duck suggests that I talk to someone after I time the person's border interview at the head of our line, then multiply that by the people between us and them, and conclude that we won't make it. The airport lady monitoring the queue is amazed when I tell her our flight has already started boarding.

"Oh, you need to go!"

Yes. Very much so.

Miraculously, she pushes us through to the head of the queue. I ignore the stares burning into my back from the hundreds of commuters, and I fume as inwardly as possible as the Duck's little bag is redflagged, checked, and re-checked again. From here we follow the signs, handover our declaration form, and make it to the security point to re-check-in.

But where are our main bags? We haven't passed a luggage terminal and we're told we won't. Duck asks a staff member nearby and they rush off to find them. Long story short, they reappear with the luggage and we're off running, running, running to the departure gate.

Two other Australians are running alongside us, themselves in a similar time-poor predicament. We reach the gate just behind them. Ten minutes to departure.

The guy on the desk looks mildly offended at our arrival. A French woman is already there, making demands of him as he tries to do something on his computer. He looks up and tells her, in a short manner, that she is no longer getting on the plane because of her behaviour.

The other Australian couple are waved through after a moment, the guy on the door confirming with a colleague that they'll be the last to go through.

Two seconds before us.

The last to go through.

Duck isn't having it. She interrupts, explains in a quavering voice that we have battled our way here, we ran, we had other staff help us to get to this point. Her foot is broken.

He looks at us briefly, sighs gruffly, and begrudgingly says that he'll see what he can do.

And then we're on. Seated next to a manic orthopedic surgeon who talks a streak with the Duck as we fly to L.A. and, then, home. What a trip.

I loved America and Mexico, but it was good to home and welcomed by this lovely sign.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Why Germany Lost WWI

Although credited with the strategy that kicked off Germany's invasion of France, Alfred von Schlieffen died at the age of 79 one year before the outbreak of WWI.
About a year and a half ago I was fortunate enough to see Richard Evans speak at the University of Sydney. The focus of his talk was on the rise of Germany's Weimar Republic in the 1930s and how it was able to last so long. Flipping the usual historical approach in which Modern Teachers ask the driving question, "Why did it fail?", Evans posited the approach of "Why did the Weimar Republic last as long as it did?" It was a fascinating talk and it reminds me of another talk I saw, a bit later, given by Dr Bruce Dennett about Germany and WWI, this time asking the question "Why did Germany lose the war?" 

It's a different way of looking at the turning points of WWI, shifting the narrative focus from the entry of America and withdrawal of Russia to a collection of cumulative factors that contributed to Germany's eventual collapse in 1918. This approach encourages students to think of the bigger picture when it comes to WWI; about which events were most significant, why people might contest the significance of certain events as contributing factors to German failure, and how the chain of cause and effect can be interpreted.

Here's a resource that summarises this approach.

The main reasons given include:
  • The failure of the Schlieffen Plan. This was a strategy that was dependent on France and England being beaten within 40 days. That didn't happen, partially due to General von Moltke making changes to the plan, and the fact that the plan required already demoralised soldiers to march an unreasonable distance.
  • The Germans were fighting a war on two fronts - France and Russia. The fighting on the eastern front prevented the Germans from sending enough troops to win in the west.
  • The nature of trench warfare meant that the defending side always had the advantage. Neither side had the weapons or numbers to punch their way through to victory. 
  • The British naval blockade of the Germans meant that shortages on the German homefront were exacerbated further.
  • German generals could not break free of the 'war of attrition' mindset that had them believe the only way of winning was to overwhelm the enemy with superior numbers of foot soldiers. Germany's strategy relied on the Allied armies running out of men before them, something that became increasingly unlikely as the war dragged on.
  • Germany unwittingly encouraged U.S. entry into the war through their ordering of unrestricted U-boat attacks on neutral ships.
  • The German homefront faced so much hardship that war weariness had set in by 1917-1918, something that would almost lead to German socialist revolution.
  • Germany's allies (Turkey, Bulgaria, and Austria-Hungary) were weakening, and required German resources and troops to 'prop them up' on the southern front.
Students can read through the resource and then answer the following questions, which involve them engaging with the material in a variety of ways, such as describing, evaluating, and analysing - hitting the History Continuum in terms of Significance, Contestability, and Cause and Effect:
  1. Outline the reasons historians most commonly give for Germany losing the war.
  2. Rate these reasons in order of your agreement with them in terms of their significance.
  3. Why is your top reason the correct one?
  4. List the ways in which the Germany army's moral was breaking down.
  5. Why did General Ludendorff decide to ask for an armistice?
  6. Make explicit reference to Source C to describe the events leading up to the armistice of 11 November.

1984 and Context: Mix and Match

Once Stalin 'removed' a political enemy from Soviet society he then had all photographs of that person either destroyed or altered. The above image demonstrates the removal of a Soviet naval officer who disappeared during the 'Purges'. Orwell writes of similar phenomena in 1984.
A little while ago I posted a Preliminary HSC Advanced English resource for matching up the events of Animal Farm with examples from Soviet history; illustrating certain comparisons that show just how closely George Orwell modelled his animal characters and their farm on Russia circa 1917-1940. 

The HSC Advanced English Intertextual Perspectives module develops the analytical skills of Year 12 students further through a comparative study of Orwell's 1984 and Fritz Lang's Metropolis. In the case of 1984, totalitarian histories and culture (predominantly the Soviets and the Nazis) are reflected in the text almost as much, if not more, than they are in Animal Farm

The resource below collects together a series of events and elements from both 1984 and Nazi/Soviet history that could be said to correspond with one another. Students read through both columns and match up the aspects of history that fit with Orwell's dystopian classic, building up their contextual knowledge to support a more holistic understanding of the concepts that Orwell was writing about.

1984 and 20th Century Totalitarian states - Mix and Match Activity 

Here are the answers for teacher-reference:

A.  The Nazis used the euphemisms 'special treatment' or 'special lodging' to refer to those they had identified in camps for executions matches with The 'Ministry of Love' is where political enemies go to be tortured and executed. It's name, along with other government departments, is euphemistic and ironic.

B. Leon Trotsky was a Jewish-Ukrainian intellectual with a pointed goatee. He fled the Soviet Union after becoming Stalin's enemy. Stalin 'purged' millions of Russians for allegedly being Trotskyists (followers of Trotsky) matches with The number 1 enemy of the state is Emmanuel Goldstein, a 'goat-like' intellectual with a Jewish name who had fled overseas. His followers are said to be secretly working to bring the State down from within.

C. The working class is known as the 'proletariat' in Marxist theory. Due to Russia's vast area, many peasants in more remote areas are able to live with a larger degree of freedom matches with The working class are referred to as the 'proles', and are given a larger degree of freedom than Party members due to their perceived lack of civilisation.

D. The Cold War saw the nations of the world divided into three major blocks - the West Bloc (USA and its allies), the East Bloc (the Communists), and the Third World (undeveloped countries). The 'war' between the two bigger sides was never straightforward and involved complicated alliances that led to smaller wars (EG. The Korean War) matches with The nations of the world are arranged into three major groups and locked in a perpetual state of stalemate against one another, with their alliances constantly changing.

E. Nazi children in WWII were encouraged to join the 'Hitler Youth'. In the Soviet Union, children were encouraged to be loyal to the State rather than their families matches with Children are encouraged to join the Spies (a youth group) and the Anti-Sex League, where they are brainwashed and indoctrinated into obeying the State.

F. The Soviet Union and other communist East European countries frequently experienced shortages and electricity failures matches with The nation is in a constant state of disarray and inconvenience - Winston notes at the novel's beginning that the electricity rarely works.

G. Propaganda for the Soviet Five Year Plans featured the slogan "2+2=5" to represent Stalin's wish to complete the five year plan in just four years matches with As a symbol of his brainwashing, Winston is made to believe than 2 + 2 = 5.

H. The Bolshevik Party, who came to rule the Soviet Union and outlawed all political parties, were usually referred to only as the Party matches with Winston's country is ruled by a government known only as the Party.

I. Many Russian political prisoners were sent to the Gulags; harsh labour camps in remote areas matches with Reference is made to 'forced labour' camps where political prisoners are sent to work as slaves for many years.

J. The Soviet Union regularly invented statistics to demonstrate the rate of progress to Russians matches with Announcements are made regularly to remind citizens of the progress the Party has made, EG. Standard of living has improved by 20% in the last year.

K. Stalin tried to speed up industrialisation of Russia with several 'Five Year Plans' matches with The Party drives the economy with a 'Three Year Plan'.

M. The Soviet union started with the success of the 1917 Revolution and its anniversary was celebrated every ten years after matches with The 'Revolution' is alluded to as the most important event in the Party's history.

N. Britain had a history of ruling/subjugating India as a colony matches with Reference is made to a war front in Malabar, India.

O. Stalin's 'Purges' involved the arrest of many everyday people, most of whom were never seen again, and had their names wiped from all records matches with Winston describes the night-time abduction of people who would 'simply disappear' and never be referred to again.

P. Soviet workers were encouraged through propaganda to follow the example of Stakhanov, the 'perfect' Soviet worker matches with The Party invents a fake Party member, Comrade Ogilvy, to be used as a hero in propaganda.

Q. Those abducted in the Purges were made to publicly confess to their alleged crimes, even if they did not commit said crimes matches with After his capture and interrogation, Winston is broken and made to believe in the Party once again. He is allowed to re-enter society but will be executed at some point in the future.

R. The Communist Party in Russia was ruled by a Central Committee who enjoyed many luxuries. The other Party members numbered in the millions and helped to runt he Soviet Union matches with There is an Inner Party (where the ruling members enjoy many luxuries) and an Outer Party (the bureaucracy).

S. Stalin's likeness could be found everywhere in the Soviet Union during his reign - in every house and in every city - as pictures, posters, and statues matches with Posters of Big Brother are everywhere, accompanied with the phrase 'Big Brother is Watching You'.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Cancun and Isla Mujeres (Day 25 - 22/1/14)

Sunrise over Cancun

Let me introduce you to Juan Carlos. This guy works for the resort. Yesterday he came and introduced himself to us after we got to our room in Cancun, and told us he would take us out to a nice breakfast at one of the resort's other Cancun venues as a complimentary extra to our stay here. Good service, huh?

Well, today is our complimentary breakfast day courtesy of Juan Carlos. The Duck thinks it's a meeting where the hotel will try to get us to invest in something. I vaguely remember Juan Carlos mentioning something about investment yesterday, but I naively assumed that he was just making conversation. He is very loud and chummy, trying to force a personal connection at every opportunity by latching onto everything we say and trying to link it to himself, illustrating how similar we are. It's weird but Duck and I do enjoy a free breakfast. 

It gets to 8am. We've been up a while already, having watched the sun rise over the Atlantic. Juan Carlos calls our room, and tells us to come down to his office so we can meet and go to breakfast. Sure.

Jetty near our hotel
We get down to his office and there are about 4 or 5 other Juan Carloses (Juan Carlies? Juan Carli?) meeting with other patrons. Most are older couples. We feel out of place. 

Juan Carlos brings out a contract for us to sign.

"What's this?" I ask.
"It's just some details, we just need your credit card and some I.D."
"We don't have those. They're in our room." I reply.
"Oh... well, you'll just need to go get it."
"Why?" (I'm confused by this whole conversation).
Juan Carlos slides his piece of paper towards me ever so slightly, "It's just for this slip of paper".
"What is this paper for?"
More evasiveness. This absolutely reeks of dodginess. Still confused and not really thinking straight, I hand over our travel money card. Juan Carlos looks at it and frowns, handing it back, "No... we need a real credit card". 
The Duck and I both lie, "We didn't bring out credit cards to Mexico. They're back in Australia". 

Juan Carlos laughs nervously and shuffles off to confer with his supervisor - a stern, no-nonsense woman who tells him just to get our I.D.

Still thinking this is standard procedure to get a free breakfast, I duly go upstairs to get our identification. While I'm gone, the Duck talks to Juan Carlos. He keeps trying to work on that 'connection' with us. He tells the Duck that he likes the outdoors just like her, likes people just like her, travels with a backpack just like her. He also feels it important to tell her that he was in the military.

I return with the I.D.s but before I hand them over the Duck shows me the all-important slip of paper and its fine print about a 90 minute seminar.

"So what's this 90 minute thing?" I ask.
"Oh, it's just after the breakfast, we tell you all about the hotel and opportunities for you". 
I nod slowly, then say, "We're not really interested in that".

He seems shocked. 

I continue, "Like... I think you think we're someone else. I thought this was something else, just a free breakfast, but I'm getting confused about what this is really about. We're not interested in investing in anything". 

"Oh, it's not an investment - we just want you to see the hotels and all that we have to offer, we want you to keep coming back here - to become members". 

I look Juan Carlos right in the eye, and give it to him straight. Nothing else is working here, "Look... we're not interested at all. We're never coming back here. Not because it's not a nice place - because it is - but we're not those sort of holiday people."

Juan Carlos looks broken. All his energy and invigorating conversation melts out of him. The look of disappointment in his eyes speaks louder than any of his phony friendliness. The silence that now sits awkwardly between us forces even more words out of me by way of explanation.

"I just feel like we're wasting each others' time. We're never going to buy anything off you. We travel to see new things, we don't normally come to resorts like this. We're never coming back to Cancun because we've seen it now, and next time we'll go somewhere else, somewhere new - a whole other country". 

Juan Carlos goes to his supervisor. He comes back, a new determination in his eyes, "It's just a 90 minute presentation. You will enjoy it". 

I'm in Cancun for two days. There is absolutely no bloody way that I am spending 90 minutes watching a business seminar. Duck interjects before I can say this, "We're only here for one more day, we don't have that much time to waste". 

Juan Carlos continues, "Here is what we do for you, we have a $500 prize pack..."
"No, we're just not interested".
"But you can win a cruise around Cancun". 
Through gritted teeth, I say, "We are never coming back here". 

Silence. More awkwardness. Juan Carlos goes back to his supervisor again. This time he comes back defeated. They hand back our I.D.s and we leave to have our breakfast at the hotel by the pool. It's a nice breakfast.

Streets of Cancun
Tacky, themed restaurant
These little terrapins were dotted around the hotel premises
22 minutes east of Cancun is Isla Mujeres. The ferry takes us out along the glowing azure Caribbean sea towards this 5-mile long island. It's a little wonder, with its own roads and taxis and hotels. Another hundred identical shops full of Mexican skull sculptures and crude T-shirts. Overpriced restaurants, yachts and a thousand loutish white tourists clamour around the small harbour.

Island life

We hire a taxi for a couple of hours and head south to Centro de Investigaciones Pesqueras, a Sea Turtle sanctuary. There are three kinds of Sea Turtles here (Loggerheads, Green Sea Turtles, and Hawksbill Sea Turtles); some have been rescued and others are bred in indoor concrete pools. One turtle is bent awkwardly into an L-shape. We become sad at first, thinking that it's dead, but then it swims to the surface and takes some air. This guy has been rescued from the wild and given a more comfortable home where he'll actually survive, which is nice. There's also a building nearby full of baby turtles, crayfish, horseshoe crabs, fish, seahorses, etc. Outside, in a walled-off pool of sea, we observe a shark lazily hanging out with a huge green sea turtle. Best buddies!

Note the bent back
That's a Shark

Horseshoe Crab

Albino Sea Turtle
Our other main destination is the southern tip of the island which ends in clifftops covered in rusting metal art sculptures and a small single Maya ruin. Duck and I edge our way around some crumbling pathways set halfway down the cliff face. We stand on the easternmost point of Mexico here, and see a green snake uncoiling onto the path before it decides to slink back inside a hole in the cliff face.

Afterwards we go back downtown on the island, spend some time beachcombing for shells, lay indolently in the still island water along the white sands o Playa Norte. It's a really nice day.

About 12 000 people live on this tiny island

Some of the houses on the island are quite pretty

The only remaining Maya ruin on the island is found at the very edge, the easternmost tip of Mexico.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Cancun (Day 24 - 21/1/14)

View from our room in Cancun
Why take the bus when you can ride in style, in the back of a cab? I'm over lugging our luggage to bus terminals, waiting in lines, struggling to make myself understood when collecting tickets, stressing about the whereabouts of our bags during transit, trying to find the next hotel from the next bus station. So when Bamba (the company we've booked out interchanges through) informs me that we need to get to Playa del Carmen a bit earlier since there might be a chance we'll be relocated to a different bus station, well, I actually decide to take a taxi driver up on his offer to drive us directly to our hotel in Cancun for a "Super good price!" It's a lot more of a relaxing journey than any Mexican bus.

Cancun is strange. I expected something like Playa del Carmen - like a Surfer's Paradise on steroids; huge malls with touristy outlets and lots of activities. But it's not like that, at least not in the parts we end up seeing. The action is centred on an atoll-like landmass on the north-eastern coast of the Yucatan peninsula. This narrow, long strip of land is caked in hotels, the huge white buildings growing along the beach like masses of coral. We grab a taxi to try and check out the city but the driver is not really able to give us any recommendations. Eventually he understands us and takes us to a restaurant in town, which is nice, but afterwards we wander to the markets and they turn out to be the rundown-flea-market kind of markets - not expecially big or amazing or even all that busy. Is this Cancun? The city is a real non-event.

The Duck's favourite Mexican drink
I figure the Cancun that is famous, the idea of the party town, refers to the collection of resorts along the atoll - and perhaps specifically to a certain time of year? We head back to our hotel, which opens out onto a beach, has big rooms, and a big pool with a swim-up bar. I wasn't a fan of the hotel at first as it's full of seniors and families but it grows on me throughout the afternoon as we chat to a guy from North Carolina in the pool-bar. He, like most, seems mildly shocked that we have traveled over land all the way from Mexico City rather than just flown direct to Cancun. Everyone in Cancun speaks English, and all non-staff at the hotel are American or Canadian or British. The guy from North Carolina has been to Cancun before but has mainly just stuck to the resorts. He's thinking of heading out to Chichen Itza, which we recommend. 

Most people on the Maya Riviera don't seem interested in travelling around Mexico. In fact, looking around the resort, most are just here to escape the Northern Hemisphere winter. I guess that's fair enough. It's not why I travel, but there are different reasons to travel. Some people travel to get somewhere, others travel to get away from where they usually are. 

The pizza joint in our hotel was named after me.