To Teach a Programmer

This might fall under the category of “things that should have been obvious”, but teaching programming is vastly different from teaching English.

I’m in my second semester – the long semester – which I started off by introducing the kids to JavaScript. I’ve already taught them enough HTML and CSS to have a place to house their programs, and every day they write demo programs, from scratch, using nothing but Notepad and their browsers.

They are moving towards a goal – to write an interactive quiz, game, or storybook to use for the young learners in our school. I try to explicitly relate each new concept or tool to one of these goals, but I don’t really know a way to explain why you need to know how variables work in order to code a game without boiling it down to “you just do, and you’ll have to trust me for now”. You know – the answer we all hated to get from teachers.

I bring up variables because one piece of research (.pdf) I turned up in my investigation into the (relatively young) field of computer programming pedagogy indicated that the workings of variables were the first of three major intuitive hurdles that potential programmers would need to surmount in order to have any degree of success in the field. Armed with this knowledge, I left plenty of time for my students to get accustomed to assignment and sequencing concepts and designed some problems meant to illustrate how assignment works and doesn’t work.

An interesting thing I noticed was that my students almost universally agreed that after the statement “x=y;” was entered, any subsequent modifications of x would be applied to y, and vice versa. In other words, they viewed the assignment as establishing a relationship between x and y, rather than just making a copy of y and putting it into x. I don’t have enough background in the conceptual roots of programming intuition to draw any kind of conclusion, and anyway it’s a small sample size (about 50 students in five sections), but this jumped out and I wanted to share.

In any case, I asked them to implement a small program to test their theory (just assign values to x and y, perform the assignment, then reassign one of the variables and output the result) and they all went “hunh, that’s not what I thought would happen,” and I explained it and we moved on. I would consider the lesson a success, except that one student asked “why do we have to learn this?” and I didn’t have an answer (see above) even though I wanted to shout, “are you kidding me? this could be the single most important concept in determining your success as a computer scientist!” and so instead I just had mixed feelings – I had successfully guided my students over this first hurdle, but also somehow bored them in the process.

And that’s the tricky part, because there’s a balance to find between the kinds of abstract, conceptual problems that are going to help the students form accurate mental models of what a computer is and what it does, and the kinds of concrete problems that are going to give the students that feeling of “I did this!” and the ability to show off to their community. I could just teach them how to patch code samples together and substitute their own questions to make a quiz or a game, effectively teaching them nothing about programming and essentially mimicking the work they’ve grown accustomed to doing with PowerPoint and Flash, but I have aspirations.

Also, I’ve always been an algorithms guy – interested in the problem for its own sake, rather than for the sake of creating a product – and so I can’t really relate to the students who just want to be able to write their own version of Flappy Bird and have no patience for all this “variables” nonsense.

The real challenge of this class is that I have to design a series of small tasks that, collectively, maintain in students a consistent sense of achievement (they have to feel like they’ve solved some small but meaningful problem on a regular basis – ideally at least once per lesson), a consistent sense of interest (they have to feel that what they are learning is building towards what they want to do, and not either a tangent or some arcane academic trifle oriented towards some vague future reward), and a consistent progression towards the actual ability to program (the tasks have to actually get the students over the conceptual and practical hurdles of programming).

This is even trickier than it sounds.

In any case, I’ve made some observations based on my experience in the classroom, and connected to some of the theory that’s out there, and I’m working towards an understanding of what some good practices or strategies might be. Viz:

- I had a theory that teaching based on Notepad and a browser would confer several benefits, and so far I am pleased with the results. It means that students can work on any computer anywhere (for a Mac they have to learn how to configure TextEdit, but still) without even needing an internet connection. It means that students can immediately produce results that they can easily share with anyone with a computer or publish on a personal webpage. It forces students to learn to manage their own files. It forces students to be careful with syntax because there is no error highlighting, which in turn trains students’ attention to detail. It allows me to move seamlessly from the HTML/CSS unit to the JS unit.

- Starting with HTML/CSS was also good. The HTML/CSS unit builds basic programming skills – and confidence – without forcing students to confront the intuitive hurdles early on. For instance, it sneaks in a kind of assignment: typing ‘src=“screen1.jpg”’ subtly and non-invasively reinforces the idea that the “=” is for assigning a value, not asserting equality. It also lets the students handle user input/output in a way they are familiar with, without the weirdness of byte streams, console input/output, etc. that are a sort of logistical overhead that often confounds a student who is grappling with the conceptual aspects of coding. This is all especially true with HTML5 (I can’t wait to start using the canvas element to painlessly teach graphical output). Basically, you don’t lose any of the rigor of programming by teaching web-only programming, but you do toss aside the stuff that will only become relevant if the student becomes a professional.

- Some of the students have started to pick up on my troubleshooting methodology. I have gained a strong sense of what the common errors are in the class and a rough order of likelihood (syntax is common, as you might expect – but it’s also very common for my students to save multiple copies of a file on the same computer and have one copy open in their editor and a different copy open in their browser, which I didn’t really expect but which helps the students learn to organize their files better than if I just let them use an IDE and eliminates the sense of dislocation I often feel when working with files in an IDE). I now see a small but growing number of students helping their neighbors using the same tactics I use (for instance, going into the Save As dialog to check where the file they are currently editing resides, and correcting obvious syntax errors). I am considering the merits of explicitly teaching a debugging flowchart rather than simply modeling this technique – the modeling seems to be working, but maybe an explicit lesson would work better? (See also: Why Don’t Schools Teach Debugging?)

- The students actually respond surprisingly well to “try it and see what happens” prompts. Most of the time, if a students asks me a question “what would happen if…” – or if I ask the question and students give me a guess – I say “okay, try it and see what happens.” Even though I usually know the answer (although sometimes I don’t – I didn’t know, for instance, whether JavaScript would evaluate (NaN==NaN) to true or false), I want to foster in students a sense that they can answer their own questions in programming in a much more immediate sense than in almost any other field they are currently studying. If you have a “what would happen if” question in aerodynamics, for instance, it’s unlikely that your physics teacher can build you a functioning model to demonstrate the answer to the question. But in programming usually the question arises in a context where you are already working on a similar issue, and so with a few minor modifications you can just try it and see. I would have thought that “try it and see” would annoy the students (in other contexts, when I don’t answer their direct questions directly, their expectations of what a teacher is are violated and they get angry or uncomfortable). However, it seems like the fact that “try it and see” works, and also means they don’t have to take my word for it, actually appeals to them, and a lot of times it seems that when they ask me “what would happen if” questions they are not actually asking me for information, but for permission to experiment. So, I always give this permission as generously as I can.

- My students in particular respond better to problems of the type “take this model and modify it” than to problems of the type “take this information and act on it.” For example, almost all of my students were able to take their “Hello World” programs – a button that, when clicked, pops up an alert window that says “Hello World” – and, with very little help or prompting, modify them into a one-question quiz in which each answer had its own button which popped up its own alert window with either “correct” or “incorrect”. Practically, this is not a particularly difficult problem, but it is complex in the sense that it requires coordination between HTML elements and JS functions and knowledge of things like where attributes, arguments, and statements go. On the other hand, when we did our variables lesson, none of the students were able to arrive at the solution to the question “how can we switch the contents of two variables?” without significant help and prompting, even though the solution requires nothing outside of the problem’s immediate context, and can be solved in three lines using the exact two techniques (variable declaration and assignment) that we had spent that lesson focusing on and practicing. I’m not sure if this had to do with interest level, or level of abstraction, or something else, but it does give me pause about some of the other conceptual exercises I would have otherwise planned in order to introduce later topics.

It might be better to show students simple, working code examples that demonstrate a particular concept and also do something interesting, and have the students work through how and why the example works. I don’t like the idea of depriving students of the thrill you get the first time you figure out “var z = x; x = y; y = z;” on your own (I remember it from when I was their age), but since most students don’t really seem to get that thrill (I was in an elective CS class, whereas this is a mandatory school-wide program) it might just be a better service to the class as a whole to learn from dissecting and modifying examples rather than from trying to stimulate intuitive leaps that some students will never make.

I want to stress I don’t mean just telling students the answers. I mean something more like this – letting the students gain insight through a guided tour of some code, rather than through just happening to be the lucky student whose mind has been trained to produce code-like insights. This is another brick in the foundation of the growing idea I have that learning to code, and coding, can be made more systematic, and less intuitive, and that therefore – like long division – everyone can, and should, be able to learn to do it.

Also, the skill of examining a program for meaning is highly valuable in itself, and also probably under-taught in computer science programs. My CS degree program (which I dropped, in favor of Political Science, after two years) focused on algorithms, data structures, discrete math, etc. – the usual stuff – but I have the impression that in the professional programming world you will end up working on someone else’s code a lot (for instance, if you collaborate on open source projects) and I don’t recall ever taking a class that started with code samples and worked backwards to discover the technique or solution being used, rather than the standard format of starting with a problem and working towards implementing an algorithm/data structure/whatever to solve it.

If this technique can indeed help make learning to program less intimidating/more accessible, and can provide more concrete goals for students to work towards, while also teaching a valuable skill that is often missing from formal education, then I’m all for using it – as long as it’s also counterbalanced with a healthy amount of from-scratch program development. After all, I don’t want to turn out students who can’t write FizzBuzz.

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So this is probably my longest post ever, but I’ve been teaching CS for six months now and haven’t said a thing about it, so I’m actually cutting myself off short here. That said, six months isn’t all that long, so if any of you have any experience at this sort of thing and want to throw in your ideas/advice/cautions, I’d love to hear them.

Also, big, giant hat tip to Danielle Sucher for being my conduit to many of the programming articles that I linked to in this post.

Posted in Computer Science, Education | 2 Comments

Private Schooling and Making a Difference

In the past I’ve made fun of the idea that TLG volunteers are “volunteers”, given that we were being paid more than the local teachers who were carrying the weight of our students’ education. Still, there was something of the volunteer spirit to be found in TLG – whatever our reasons for being here, it certainly wasn’t for love of money. And one thing I noticed for sure is that our students often responded to us as if we were giving them a gift by being here. Especially in the village schools, there was a palpable sense of appreciation that students, parents, and teachers showed us. We were setting out to help their children have contact with outside cultures and learn about the world, and that was considered to have value.

Teaching in a private school has its perks – and making a lot more money is right up there – but this winter break, as I’ve had time to relax and reflect on my crazy and hectic and incredibly challenging first semester at a private school, I’ve realized that I really, really miss that sense of appreciation.

I went from teaching students who had never met a foreigner to teaching classes with significant minorities of students from foreign countries. I somehow got used to feeling special in a classroom of Georgian students who wanted to learn my songs and rhymes and how to talk in my funny accent, and it’s a stark contrast when you’re teaching a group of 8-year-olds with a world-weary “seen it” attitude towards the new and foreign and different. It’s been, like I said, an incredible challenge to try to break through that and give these kids something that induces the same sense of wonder that just showing up brought to kids in Kutaisi or Kvitiri.

I also started to take for granted how fulfilling working for TLG was. I touched on this in some of my earlier posts – that teaching these students, in many ways, helped me to understand and contextualize my own childhood experiences. Even when I questioned the benefits we brought, or how much of a difference we could really make in the face of the institutional inertia that was our biggest obstacle, there was still a sense that we were fighting the good fight in TLG – that at the end of the day, our success and our students’ success were intertwined. It’s been tough to fill that void in a situation where you get the distinct feeling that your students are destined to do well in life pretty much no matter how they do in school.

Tough, but not impossible. As I read in a blog post somewhere, rich kids need good teachers too. One of the explicit missions of the IBO (I’m teaching at an IB school) is to promote international-minded students who are lifelong learners. It’s possible that the students we teach could become the politicians, the philanthropists, the NGO founders and UN delegates and peacemakers of the next generation. Our world needs international-minded problem solvers, and given the realities of our world as they are today, being an international-minded problem solver is mostly a luxury that poor kids – be they from Queens or Kvitiri – can’t afford.

Our challenge as private school teachers is to engage and motivate these kids so that they get in the habit of using their resources to serve their community and their world. It’s a very different challenge from preparing kids in Georgia’s poor regions for the kinds of jobs that could bring them up into the middle class. I think there’s a need for good people doing both of these jobs, but it’s not without a bit of guilt that I observe that teaching the upper classes also happens to come with a lot more money.

Please don’t interpret this as a complaint. I am happy to have a job where I can make a better future for my family, and I am happy to have another learning experience where I can become a better teacher and a better global citizen. This is just an observation that adjusting my outlook on what I do has been a much bigger part of teaching at private school than I could have anticipated.

I’m visiting family in Kutaisi this winter break. Maybe that’s why I’m struck with this bit of nostalgia – seeing some of my former students in the yard or running into English-speaking children in the store. Or maybe I just didn’t realize how important the sense of doing good in the world actually was to me until I found myself in a job where I don’t get near-constant reinforcement of the idea that what I am doing is important and appreciated.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Liberty Without Guns

Georgia has pretty strict gun control laws – not that you would notice.

I have often described the country as a libertarian paradise in many ways – laws are few and far between, and enforcement of existing laws is often lax to nonexistent. Government regulation rarely or never gets in the way of everyday activities, and it is amazing how much more present and real the government feels in the US than it does in Georgia. You can drink a beer out on the street, build a stairway without a handrail, change the wiring in the walls in your own house without a license, and generally dig your own grave in a variety of ways that Americans would find either liberating or terrifying, depending on their inclinations.

But carrying a gun around is not one of them. Most Georgians don’t seem to have guns, or they have them but only for hunting (and I mean like a simple, no-frills rifle – not like, an AK-47 that they use to hunt wolves from a helicopter or whatever bullshit people in America need unlimited firepower for), and my former police students explained that you need a license to own or carry a gun.

No, in Tbilisi, you worry a lot about getting hit by a car when crossing the street, and not at all about getting shot by a psychopath (or by a trigger-happy cop).

*****

I saw this image macro on someone’s fb wall that had a picture of a woman holding a rifle and the text said something like “you don’t support women’s rights if you want to strip them of their right to self-defense.” This is bullshit in like eight different ways, starting with the fact that a rifle is highly impractical for self-defense in the vast majority of situations in which a woman might find herself in need of a firearm.

But also, there’s something to be said for a woman’s right to not have to worry about self-defense. I mean, isn’t it more meaningful for a woman to be able to walk around with confidence because no one is going to bother her than for a woman to be able to walk around with confidence because she knows that if it comes down to a life-or-death situation, she might be able to kill one or more assailants?

You are not safe in any situation where you have to carry a gun to feel safe.

And what about a woman’s right to be protected from the trauma of shooting someone? What about the psychological effects of having weapons training – of practicing and mentally and physically preparing for and rehearsing the act of killing another human being? What about the social impact of living in a society where people are assessed as threats rather than as neighbors and friends? What kind of quality of life can a woman expect to have, knowing that she is one step away from becoming a war zone?

In other words, this pro-gun poster supposes that the burden rests on women to modify their behavior – by acquiring and learning to use a deadly weapon – in order to remain safe.

But wait – doesn’t that sound like something else? The burden on the victim, in this case women? Sounds to me like rape culture.

*****

So if you evaluate gun rights rhetoric in light of the ideas of feminism, and specifically of anti-rape activism, it places the entire issue in an interesting light. We would never say that a woman who wears a burka and never leaves her house, all to avoid being raped, has more liberty than a woman who wears whatever she wants and goes wherever she wants and understands that she lives with some rape risk.

And yet we hear that a man who fortifies his house with enough weapons to re-fight the War of 1812 and carries a gun just to go get Starbucks has more liberty than a man who spends his leisure time reading or jogging and never worries about whether he might have to kill the next person he meets.

It seems like a peculiar kind of liberty that makes us afraid to walk around unarmed.

The fight against rape culture is a fight to move the burden of preventing crimes from the individual to the society. It is a struggle to educate men and women about what constitutes rape, about warning signs that it’s time to intervene, about how to report a rape and how to act in response to a reported rape. It is a struggle to convince people in society to collectively reduce the number of rapes by engaging in positive individual and collective action. It is not a struggle to arm all women so that they can just shoot their rapists.

I would argue that we could make a similar argument against gun culture. If we live in a society, it should not ultimately fall to the individual to protect himself or herself from violent crime or to defend his or her property from incursion. That’s the whole point of society – in a sense, the reduction of the need for individual self-defense is the whole reason we put up with each other.

Maybe you can’t trust your government to uphold its end of the bargain – maybe you live in a high-crime area and law enforcement just doesn’t do its job right – but taking matters into your own hands seems more like a desperate, last-ditch attempt to stay alive than a coherent social philosophy which we should enshrine along with our most cherished ideals. Maybe you sometimes *have to* take matters into your own hands, but your *ideal* should be a society in which crime is discouraged collectively, through education, community-building, and other positive action.

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Judging by the example of Georgia, the right to own a gun doesn’t seem to correlate strongly to other rights that we value in a democracy – especially in a modern, egalitarian democracy. To beat this drum one more time, lack of intrusive regulation in Georgia means we pay a flat, low income tax and flat, low VAT tax, we pay anywhere from 10% – 20% of the price for medications as Americans pay, we pay much less for utilities, phone service, and internet, and we invest almost no resources in complying with a set of labyrinthine laws designed to confuse and confound the public and turn the entire populace into criminals.

Meanwhile, public services are more efficient, public transportation is more comprehensive (and cheaper), and essentially the government governs much less, and much better, than the American governmental apparatus. Georgians are strong advocates for their own rights, and angrily reject the types of corruption in their politics that Americans accept without question in our politics. Again, imagine an American politician losing an election over an issue like prison rape – prison rape! It’s as American as apple pie.

The country has problems – including widespread poverty, underdeveloped regions, and a lack of credible opposition to a growing theocracy – but it would not be at all credible to say that the people of Georgia are lacking when it comes to political and civil rights, liberties, and freedoms.

And somehow they manage it without a well-regulated militia.

Posted in America, Civics, Politics | Tagged , , , , | 10 Comments

Respect Your Own Traditions

So, first, there’s this (.pdf). It’s a report about human rights in Georgia, which factually outlines a number of accomplishments and a number of shortcomings.

Then, there’s this, an open letter from some Georgian folks in response to the report.

In this open letter, the signatories, described ironically as “intelligentsia”, criticize the report’s author, and all of Europe, and hippies, apparently in an effort to spread the blame for this report across as much space and time as humanly possible rather than accepting any kind of responsibility for the state of their own society. The letter is entitled “Respect our Traditions!”

Frankly, it’s sad how stupid and misguided this letter is. The letter essentially argues that the freedoms of speech and assembly are not fundamental human rights, but are conditional rights granted only to those who adhere to society’s moral code. The letter further argues that the Western failure to comprehend and enforce this doctrine is responsible for the moral collapse of Western Europe, and that in order for Western Europe and Georgia to get along, it would be best if Europeans reoriented their moral and social compass toward the Georgian model. I don’t really think this argument merits refutation – it’s clearly nothing more than self-serving, nationalist poppycock – but there is an interesting blind spot in this open letter, and that’s what I’d like to address.

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The letter points out that Georgians have a long tradition of tolerance, particularly religious tolerance, as indicated by the coexistence of Christians of different sects, Muslims, and Jews. As far as I know, this is more or less true.

What the letter does not mention is that the Georgian Orthodox Church has deliberately and openly abandoned that tradition. In its place, the Church has decided to attempt to achieve a monopoly on the Georgian soul by forcefully and at times violently stamping out the competition.

The Church seems to have absorbed a number of thuggish individuals by extending its protection to some members of the Georgian Mafia in the 1990s, perhaps in return for donations the Mafia used to make towards certain church-building projects. These individuals and their disciples have led violent attacks against Jehovah’s witnesses, have prevented Muslim Georgians from meeting for prayer in eastern Georgia, have protested a law giving non-Orthodox churches official legal status as churches, have removed a minaret from a mosque in the south of Georgia, and, of course, have led and participated in violent attacks against peaceful demonstrators on May 17th, 2012 and May 17th, 2013. Lately they have introduced a provision into a parliamentary law that, if passed, will make it illegal to “offend the feelings of the faithful”. All the while, they have promulgated the idea that to be Georgian is to be Orthodox Christian.

This is a serious departure from Georgian tradition. The idea that Georgia will not extend an equal welcome to members of different nations, religions, or denominations is a radical innovation and many Georgians have been slow to accept it.

Attempting, sometimes successfully, to bring the power of the Georgian state to bear against religious minorities – by lobbying against their legal status, tearing down a minaret with a building code as an excuse, and by seriously considering an anti-blasphemy law that violates Georgia’s constitution – is a violation of Georgian norms of hospitality and centuries of traditions of religious tolerance.

Gathering angry villagers to prevent Muslims from praying, beat Jehovah’s Witnesses, and attack peaceful civil rights demonstrators is a direct affront to the Christian teachings of peace, love, brotherhood, and non-violence. The Patriarch is fond of “distancing” himself from the violence committed in his name. How cowardly. Christians are not supposed to distance themselves from violence – they are supposed to oppose violence, to meet violence head-on, and to overcome violence with the power of their ideas and their love.

It is apparent that the violent oppression of non-Orthodox groups in Georgia is an invention of the post-Soviet environment. Misha suppressed the violence during his regime, but Shevardnadze decidedly failed to do so, and Ivanishvili/Georgian Dream look to be heading in the same direction. To Georgians of about my age, this way of life might look normal. They’ve never not heard the Patriarch’s propaganda, never lived in a society with true religious pluralism, and so they could conceivably mistake this religious nationalism and the accompanying violence for tradition. They know that Muslims and Christians and Jews coexisted peacefully in Georgia for centuries – they have just forgotten how they coexisted peacefully.

I’ll tell you one thing: Ilya’s way – throwing out tradition and jealously attacking ideological competitors through a combination of legal, illegal, and quasi-legal means – is not going to work. (Food for thought: ask a Russian how their attempts to repress Caucasian Muslims have worked out.) Georgian Christians may think they’re doing themselves a favor by ridding the country of any un-Orthodox people or ideas – and they might even be right, if you dig homogeny – but if that’s the path they’re going to go down, then they should at least consider a rhetorical strategy that doesn’t make them look like a bunch of stupid hypocrites. “Respect our Traditions?” Indeed.

Here’s some free advice: if you don’t respect your own traditions, nobody else is going to either.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Comments Policy Addendum

I am all for reasonable discussion of disagreements, but it has become apparent to me that some people are commenting on some of my posts – especially the last one – in order to air some personal grievances, rather than to offer legitimate alternative opinions to what I have written. These comments interfere with the mission of this blog.

A friend of mine asked why I bother, and suggested that I just delete such comments, or disable commenting entirely. There is wisdom in this. I do want people to be able to respond to what I write, so I am not disabling comments. However, starting from my last post, comments that seem to be based on some kind of personal grudge will be summarily deleted without further notice.

Also, because I don’t like repeating myself, comments that would require me to restate a basic assertion or argument contained in my post will also be deleted. As per the existing comments policy, comments should not ignore the text that they are responding to.

If you feel I’ve deleted a comment unjustly, feel free to use the contact form to let me know.

Posted in Administrative | 2 Comments

Goodbye to TLG

For those who have been wondering, I am still in Georgia.

However, I have left TLG, and not without some bitterness. I haven’t been telling my story because I haven’t wanted to slam my former employer – it’s just bad form – but now that I have some emotional distance from the events of last year, and have settled into my new job (teaching at a private school in Tbilisi) quite happily, I feel like it’s time to talk about what went down.

Last November and December, TLG began firing most of their volunteers. Due to budget cuts made by the new government, TLG had to be reduced from maybe 500-600 volunteers down to about 160. Many volunteers who had signed up for a full year were told they’d have to leave in December and would not be coming back. This caused a great deal of annoyance among those who were dismissed, and a great deal of speculation as to what the criteria were for volunteers who were offered extensions.

I was offered an extension, and accepted gladly, given that I had a newborn at home and didn’t want to have to change jobs abruptly in the middle of the school year, and that I had planned from the previous June to stay for the entirety of last year. Things seemed okay.

Then I got an email, just before school let out, from my regional representative. The email said that TLG volunteers would no longer be placed in “cities” (I guess Kutaisi, Batumi, and Tbilisi?) and that I would have to leave my school and go teach in a village outside the city. I bid a sad goodbye to my students and coteachers at my Kutaisi school and resigned myself to my situation – a new school, a new transition, and a new commute. I didn’t object at the time because they told me it was their policy and I didn’t want to ask for special treatment. Plus, I felt I was lucky just to have been given an extension.

Apparently others were not so scrupulous. I later found out that a bunch of volunteers actually stayed in Tbilisi, both living in and teaching in the capital city. I never received a coherent explanation of why exceptions were made for those volunteers to live and teach in Tbilisi but an exception was not made for me to teach in Kutaisi. Instead, I had to endure a semester with nearly an hour commute to the village on two marshutkas where people didn’t hesitate to light up a cigarette, which as you may know from reading this blog is a major point of stress for me. It was a major quality of life problem for me to spend nearly two more hours a day away from my family, especially with my son being just a few months old.

Compounding that was when I discovered that 400 lari was missing from my paycheck in January. That was the money I had previously received for both contributing to the TLG blog and managing our team of bloggers. I went to the TLG office and they explained that they had made a mistake with my contract and that in any case, they would have to reduce my blogging salary from 400 to 200 lari, assuming I agreed to stay on as blog manager under that condition. What could I do at that point? Again, middle of the school year, infant at home. I put aside my bad feelings and agreed to the new arrangement.

Then the blog began to suffer because the posts I sent in for approval were approved late or not at all. I found this very discouraging, as my posts and the posts of my team sat in limbo, and as you saw I ended up just posting some of the educational posts I had written for the TLG blog on this blog over the summer. I started to wonder if this didn’t presage the entire blog project being shut down. (I have since learned that this was actually just an issue of administrative incompetence/malfeasance and that the blog will be rejuvenated this year with a new team of administrators with increased authority and autonomy… a great development, but far too late to do me any good).

It was sad to see something I had worked so hard on be put on the back burner. It was stressful to be asked to take a nearly two-hour round trip every day to satisfy a new policy that other volunteers were exempt from for no apparent reason. It was difficult to live on my new, reduced salary, and I had to supplement my income with freelancing and tutoring rather than spending time with my wife and son. I reluctantly decided to start looking for other options.

It was not, however, until TLG failed to fly me home for the summer that I made the final decision to just cut ties with them altogether. As I’ve said before, the problem was that TLG has certain bureaucratic procedures that it follows when booking flights, and the administration was unwilling to deviate from those procedures to accommodate my family. Even though I had not taken my previous two vacation flights, even though I was going to pay for the cost of my wife’s ticket and my son’s ticket, they just wouldn’t book the flights we needed. It felt like the final insult.

So yeah, I’m still a little angry, but maybe the fact that TLG ended up falling so short of my expectations is ultimately a good thing, in that it pushed me to find a job that suits me better both financially and professionally. TLG is a good program for someone looking for an experience, but it’s not a career and it was never meant to be. Three years is already a year longer than I had initially imagined I’d ever stay with TLG. I’ll always be grateful for the opportunity TLG provided me with, even as I am very disappointed in how it ended.

And that’s the last thing I’ll say about it. It’s time to look forward, not backward. This year is going to be exciting, and while my new job keeps me very busy, I’ll try to find more time to talk about some of my projects and some of what’s going on in Georgia. After all, we have an election soon…

Posted in TLG | Tagged | 7 Comments

Georgians in New York / Oda House

Today I went to a rally held by Georgians to protest the occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. The rally was held in the rally area outside the UN (for non-American readers, we have special “free speech zones” near important buildings and events here in the US so we can “protest” without inconveniencing anyone or having any impact whatsoever) and consisted mostly of Georgians making speeches in Georgian, but there were a few guests from various friendly organizations who also have beef with Russia (Polish and Cherkez, for instance) who came to show their support. I am also pleased to say that not a single stool was raised in anger.

On our way to the rally we saw a woman and my wife commented that she walked like someone from Tbilisi. We saw her again at the rally and confirmed that she was indeed Georgian. Do Tbilisians/Georgians actually have a particular walk? Something to investigate.

It was fun speaking Georgian in America. It was less weird than I thought it would be. I thought it would be like a cool secret that only a few people knew, but instead it wasn’t. Everyone just switched to English when they heard my accent or saw my hesitation in answering questions. Sort of like Tbilisi.

From the UN the rally moved uptown to the Russian Embassy, which I never realized was half a block away from Hunter, where I went to college. We took a bus (apparently loaned from a Church of Saint Nino) which was crowded full of Georgian rally-goers. It was like being on a giant marshutka where nobody smoked. Everyone was friendly and a woman offered to put my bag on her lap when I was standing so I wouldn’t have to hold it.

That’s actually a thing that Georgians do – people sitting on a bus hold bags for the people who are standing. I would never agree to such a thing in New York, except on a bus full of Georgians. In many ways, Tbilisi is like a giant village, and being on that crowded bus actually made me miss Georgia and the feeling of being part of a community.

After the Embassy, my wife’s cousin took us to Oda House, which is the new Georgian restaurant that’s been generating some buzz among the New York foodie set. Oda was my first taste of Georgian food outside Georgia itself.

*****

Oda House

My friend described my initial feelings about Oda quite aptly with the phrase “sticker shock”. Looking through their menu online revealed their offering of three khinkali for seven dollars, which is about seven times what khinkali cost in Georgia. Oda’s khinkali do seem slightly bigger than Georgian khinkali and I’m assuming they use higher-quality meat or something.

After eating at Oda, I would have to change my mind and recommend the place, with some caveats. The food was good and was certainly reminiscent of Georgian food in all the right ways, but I couldn’t really say it is authentic Georgian food. The khatchapuri was salty and buttery and eggy and delicious, and it certainly hit the spot that Georgian khatchapuri hits, but the mozzarella/feta duo that is supposed to approximate Georgian cheese did nothing of the sort – it totally lacked that sort of sour flavor that is so characteristic of Georgian cheeses.

The mchadi was nothing like Georgian mchadi. I’m guessing they’re using Mexican corn flour and the result is like eating a taco shell stuffed with really doughy bread. I wouldn’t really recommend it if you’re a mchadi fan, but then I’m the only non-Georgian mchadi fan I know. My wife (reminder: she’s Georgian) loved the mchadi for dipping in her lobio, but said it was more fluffy and had an “American kick” to it. She also loved the lobio, although she says her mom makes it better. It came with pickled cucumber, tomato, garlic, and cabbage, which she says was also great.

They had Natakhtaris limonati, and we had a bunch of their tarragon soda, which was definitely Georgian. We got walnut sauce on our garden salad (via special request), which was an unusual but really delicious combination, and allowed us to get that walnut sauce flavor that is one of my favorite odd and interesting things about Georgian cuisine. The walnut sauce was really well-done and one of the most authentic flavors in the meal.

My entree was the Lula Kabab. I have a tradition of always ordering the kababi at a Georgian restaurant, and I felt I had to maintain this tradition here in New York. The Lula Kabab was fantastic. It was presented like Georgian kababi, wrapped in lavashi and sprinkled with red onions and that red powder. It tasted perfect – very salty, nicely spiced, and with better meat than I’m used to from kababi. This was made by a chef that respects their kababi. It was a little different than the Georgian version, but I would say just as good if not better.

Overall, I’d say that if you go to Oda you can get a good general sense of some of the tastes of Georgia and of what the food is like, and even if you aren’t getting exact replicas it’s clear that care was taken to make each dish good in its own right. It’s the kind of creativity that I’d actually like to see in Georgian restaurants in Georgia, which are surprisingly uniform (although they vary in quality).

The menu on their website is not complete, but their Seamless menu appears to be complete and also has prices. I’ve read mixed reviews about service, and it does seem they have a little to iron out, but the staff was quite nice and we got our stuff in reasonable time. They might benefit from a manager with NY restaurant experience.

The space is very small and the tables are sort of crowded. There was a girl sitting right behind me with a very pronounced Vakeli accent who also spoke perfect English. Her parents must be very very rich.

And I almost forgot – they have a plate of candy in front (where restaurants might put after-dinner mints) that is straight from Georgia (which is to say, Ukraine). I had about five of the Milky Drops, which have been my favorite candy in Georgia since my first year there, and I was happy.

So yeah, I would say that Oda is probably deserving of the attention it’s been getting, and is worth trying if you’re into new things or Georgian things or new Georgian things or… I don’t know, other things. As befitting Georgian culture, there are plenty of vegetarian options which are really good and don’t at all feel like the vegetarian consolation prizes that a lot of restaurants seem to offer as an afterthought to their menu.

And yet, I still miss Georgia.

*****

I only have fifteen days left here. Man, that went by quick. I’m going to try to make it out to Tbilisi restaurant in Brooklyn, and I’ll definitely keep y’all updated if I do.

Posted in Georgian Food, Restaurant Reviews | 7 Comments