30 September 2012

Our Mid-Autumn Festival Meal!

We had some old friends over last night as an excuse to have a Mid-Autumn Festival (Moon Festival) meal!
Clockwise from left: Deep-fried sesame balls with red-bean filling (usually a breakfast snack, but good for noshing at anytime); Ramen-noodle salad with broccoli, and green onion & cilantro on the side; carrots and edamame; grilled pork tenderloin that had been marinated in Cha Siu sauce; beef skewers using a Korean pear sauce recipe; a lazy-susan with various lucky fruits; dipping sauces; and jasmine rice

Chocolate and pumpkin-spice cupcakes with white frosting (because it's the Moon) ... instead of mooncakes.  If I'd had more time I'd have tried making a shortcake cupcake with strawberry jam filling, for something that looked more traditional

And right on cue, the moon came up and filled our backyard with brilliant light all night long!

29 September 2012

Additions to my Japan-inspired garden

I've recently added two new elements to my "Zen garden" ... the senses of sight, smell, and touch have been taken care of, but now we can add soothing sound:

And today I strung up LED lights under the pine tree canopy, allowing us to enjoy the garden's beauty day or night, summer or winter. It complements the brilliant moonlight we're experiencing with today's Mid-Autumn Festival...

25 September 2012

Review: Chinese for Kids and It's Your World: China by Carole Marsh

There aren’t many workbook-type social-studies resources available in the education marketplace to help teachers, homeschoolers, and family travelers introduce foreign cultures, especially those from Asia. I work in this industry and have been keeping my eyes open at tradeshows and when new catalogs arrive for such materials to use with my daughter, as well as to review for the weninchina community.

These 32-page workbooks are each from series published by Gallopade International, covering many countries (14 in that series) and languages (7 in that series). Each book is priced at a reasonable $5.95 and printed in black on good-quality paper. Both books are written for an older-elementary / middle-school reading level using a conversational (and perhaps overly excited) tone. (Source disclosure: I received both of these books at no charge from Gallopade at an education trade show.)

Chinese for Kids (copyright 2004) presents translated words in their context (greetings, food, and such) and uses matching exercises and fill-in-the-blank puzzles that progressively build vocabulary. The format of It’s Your World: China (copyright 2009) is to present new information at the top of each page and review / reinforce it with activities at the bottom such as crosswords, timelines, matching games, creative writing, or drawing.

With books about China like these, there are always several concerns: (1) the book can try to do too much (a comprehensive view of Chinese culture in 32 pages?); (2) the information can become out-of-date very quickly; (3) the pacing and difficulty level of the activities can be uneven … or too little / too much for a child to do.  All three of these issues are at play with these books.

With supplemental educational materials, the writing and editing staff need a clear understanding of the product’s intended use: will a child be using this book independently as a self-contained learning tool, or will a teacher / homeschool parent be using the book as an element in the context of a broader lesson plan that uses multiple materials? It’s unclear with these two books just what the intended instructional context is supposed to be.

As standalone books, there just isn’t enough content in either to be a complete social-studies of foreign-language teaching unit. For instance, the language book introduces Mandarin words but never explains how the language works, what the Pinyin sounds actually are, or how to make the all-important tones.  While the social-studies book has many interesting individual page activities, they jump from topic to topic so that the student never dives deeply into any particular issue. The writing style is breathless – using many exclamation points! – even in topics that perhaps need a more somber tone. While several pages talk about Communism and even the Cultural Revolution, there is no discussion of post-1980s reforms, how the country is actually governed today, the status of Hong Kong, or the “3 T’s which must not be discussed” (Tibet, Taiwan, Tiananmen Square). For young children these topics aren’t critical, but for the middle-school age range these books are written for, these more-challenging critical-thinking topics are not just worthwhile but also the kind of content that they crave. China’s history is amazing, but what’s going on there today is also compelling, and more concrete for kids and teens to discuss.

I’m not able to recommend either title for homeschoolers or traveling families to use on its own – you would need substantially more supplemental materials so that you could introduce one page from these books at a time, in the context of other media, and that’s a tall order for families to coordinate. For educators, you also would need to carefully choose specific activities from these books to coordinate with other materials in your China lesson plans; these are not standalone resources.

For pointers to other Chinese cultural and language-learning resources, head to our Learning Resources page.

20 September 2012

My Japan-inspired garden

This year we bought a house in the heart of the Twin Cities and moved in from an outer-ring suburb, primarily to be closer to our daughter's Chinese immersion school - and to cut the exhaustive commute my wife and I were burdened with.

With various projects needing to be done with the property, we had neither the time nor spare cash to take a trip to Asia this summer. However, we know travel works two ways - going out to explore the world, and reflecting in to apply what you've learned...

Our design tastes lean both Scandinavian and Asian ("Scandinasian" I call it), and we try to subtly incorporate pieces of Asian culture into our everyday lives to help our daughter grow up to be someone who can easily work in Eastern and Western societies. So we'd kicked around ideas of what someday we'd like to do with our nice fenced backyard (once we'd gotten the invasive buckthorn and half-dead yet overgrown shrubs ripped out) and we both thought a "Zen Garden" would make sense somewhere.

July was brutally hot in Minneapolis this year so not much happened with garden projects, but then fate intervened, as my mother wanted to divide her hostas.  I ended up with about 50 plants to transplant into my yard, and no plan...

Here's the corner (under the big pine tree on the left) where I'd end up placing most of those hostas. The area was already heavily mulched and pretty acidic due to all the pine needles that had fallen over the years.
The grass kind of stopped growing under the pine tree, so that's where I started putting hostas in, and it ended up forming a nice straight line.

Inspiration from travel

Once I'd committed to making something out of that corner in the yard after planting all those perennials, I figured I'd need more of a plan ... inspiration at least to improvise.  And as I scanned through our travel photo files, I found that inspiration in our trip to Tokyo in June 2009:
The Meiji Jingu shrine, next to Harajuku, is an immense stretch of forest and temples - all completely rebuilt after WWII.  This was a royal getaway, but today used for all sorts of public activities. A vast oasis of calm, shade, and restfulness surrounded by skyscrapers, trains, and highways - but when inside you don't notice the outside world at all. No flashy colors or heaps of colorful flowers here - just wood, stone, shadows and light, and all sorts of green.
The roadways are a thick layer of gravel that is sturdy yet giving; it makes you walk a little more slowly and concentrate on what you are doing and feeling. The paths are maintained by monks who you'll see carefully sweeping leaves and pine needles.

In the center of the complex is the main shrine area, with lovely trees and  cut-stone pavers.  We visited early on a weekday and had the whole complex largely to ourselves - a nice effect of jetlag in a city that likes to get started a little later in the morning.

We also visited the gardens next to the Imperial Palace,  which are also very large and right next to downtown Tokyo. They limit the number of people who can be inside at any given time, but again we arrived early and had no trouble. There's more of a "classical" feel to this place than Meiji Jingu, with dedicated flower beds and a carefully managed calendar of blooms. (Which we completely missed.)
The canopy over this part of the path not only gives some shelter from rain and hot sun, but it also frames up a "borrowed view" to the pond as well as the shrubbery and flowers beyond.

Even without seeing these beds in full bloom, it was still amazing to look at all the different textures and shapes of the plants.  Again, stone and green colors in all their shades were the dominant colors

A big swathe of river rock creates visual interest to this pond scene - in a usual garden there'd be vegetation right up to the edge, but here they're trying to evoke the way that mountain streams can change course in a valley and leave berms of pebbles.

The paths in the Imperial Garden are hard-surfaced, but with pea gravel as part of the mixture, which gives a similar look to the paths in Meiji Jingu.

So lessons learned from Tokyo that I could apply to this project:

  • There don't HAVE to be masses of flowers blooming every day. It makes you look more at the leaves and other structures of the plants and notice the conversation they have with the scene around them.
  • Large groupings of one kind of plant are preferable to a little bit of this, a little bit of that.
  • The borders and pathways are just as important as what's inside them.
  • Think about all the senses a visitor will use in the garden - the texture of the ground beneath them, the sounds around them, not just sights and smells.
  • Colors - green, brown, and stone can be very pleasing ... and with pines and yews on our lot, give year-round interest.
  • "Borrowed space" - making a small garden much bigger

 Getting to work

I spent most of August pulling weeds and leveling out the ground where the walking path would go. Multiple trips to the home-improvement stores were made (a stop at Lowe's for bullet edgers became our "Saturday date night"...)
Fieldstones already on our property serve as visual markers for the main approach.

The path works behind the hostas and through the mulch area.  I planted yews along the back fence for color and texture - and so I don't have to look at the fence in a few years.  The pathway is leveled dirt, with a layer of sand over it, then landscape fabric. Bullet edgers along each side hold in about 3" of pea gravel.
The existing pine needles and chips blend in nicely with the mulch I've applied around the hostas.

Last week I finally completed the gravel pathway - and planted about 100 Japanese Iris bulbs, plus a couple dozen Asiatic lilies and tulips, and transplanted a trunkload of sedum from my mom's place.  This area used to be farmland, and the soil looks pretty rich!

Our dog approves of my work. So do the honeybees from the University of Minnesota nearby.

Detail on the pea gravel and pavers

Like at Meiji Jingu, there's texture and visual interest even in shadow. Plus, using the view into the yard to expand the perceived size of the garden.

 Enjoying the view, and continuing to work

The space under the pine tree is sheltered from the sun - and I hope the snow in winter as well. It is also perfectly situated to watch fireworks from the Minnesota State Fair, just a few blocks south of us:
Flowers of a different kind!

How's this for "borrowed space"?

We ordered up a pallet of bullet edgers, and they were delivered Tuesday. I've laid out how they'll divide the garden area from the lawn ... still need to put them in...

Hosta flowers in bloom give a nice purple accent and complement the pink-purple of the sedum at this time of year.

I'm looking forward to installing a stone bench under the tree here and stringing up lights for the long dark nights to come. What a peaceful space here in the heart of the Twin Cities.