Innovation on Earth

Global Citizenship Resources for Innovation Academy and Beyond

Archive for the tag “Cities”

Contrasts in Xi’an

KapeckasInnovation Academy Middle School Principal Melissa Kapeckas is in China! She is traveling as part of a delegation of Massachusetts school leaders participating in the US-China Administrator shadowing project. She will spend one week traveling and meeting with education officials before spending another week shadowing Principal Pei Yaolin at the Handan No. 31 Middle School. Check back throughout the month of April to read her posts.




I have read that China is a country of contrasts and that was clearly illustrated today. Xi’an is a bustling city of 8 million people. Only 20 years ago, there were no private cars on the road. It is difficult to believe how quickly this transformation happened given the current steady stream of honks and the need to play “Frogger” and say a prayer when crossing the street. Amidst cultural treasures of the Ming Dynasty, the streets are a steady stream of construction and commerce, including familiar brands such as the Apple Store, McDonald’s, and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It is more expensive per square meter to buy an apartment here than in New York City.

Transporting bricks from the "factory" to dry in the sun in Pangliu Village

Transporting bricks from the “factory” to dry in the sun in Pangliu Village

Just a 50 minute drive from the heart of the city lies Pangliu Village. Life here has changed drastically, too, but on a different scale. Our first stop was at the largest employer in town- the local brick “factory”. This “factory” was outdoors next to the clay soil hillside. Clay was mixed with water on a conveyer belt powered by a coal fire to create wet bricks. These handmade bricks were laid out row by row to harden in the sun. The employees work every day it is not raining and are paid by how many bricks they make, an average of $250/month.

The brick "factory" conveyor belt in Pangliu village

The brick “factory” conveyor belt in Pangliu village

Children at Pangliu Village School

Children at Pangliu Village School

Our next step was the Pangliu Village School, a 1-6 school where 110 of the village children go to school. By Chinese standards, this is a very small school. At the end of elementary school and middle school in China, children take an exam to determine their placement in secondary school. The highest scoring students are placed in the best schools, known as the key schools. Additionally, there is an entrance exam for college. If students do not pass the entrance exam, there is not a second opportunity to take the exam. They are denied entrance to college and must enter the workforce.

Flat Hawk drops by the Pangliu Village School

Flat Hawk drops by the Pangliu Village School

Funding for schools is determined by the government and more funding flows to key schools. Additionally, a culture of corruption has arisen with key middle schools unofficially charging high-fee scales for entrance. This might result in payment of up to 50,000 yuan (US $6040). Beyond this corruption, the result is an achievement gap, with rural schools having significantly less access to resources.

Despite this, times are changing for this village as well. Single family homes offer much more space for families than in the city and most homes in this village have been rebuilt in recent years with more amenities. Only twenty years ago, there were really only 2 ways to achieve a work permit to leave the village: entering the military or being a top student. Those restrictions have been lifted and now there is a large migration of young people leaving the countryside for the economic opportunities the city can provide.

~Melissa Kapeckas

Stormy Democracy in Action

As we brace for Hurricane Sandy, remember that every person can make a difference. If Frankenstorm lives up to its nickname during this Halloween week, we’ll need lots of informed, caring citizens to look out for each other.

Sandy’s current path

In a few mere hours, the storm is set to strike Massachusetts. Most of us are prepared, but we know that some damage and power outages will be unavoidable because of the strong winds and rain. However, we’re in better shape than we would be if we didn’t have any warning of what was ahead. The hurricane hasn’t hit yet, but you won’t believe what I woke up to in the middle of the night last week:

What I woke up to on October 20th

As you can see in the video, a short burst of rain caused my street to flood.  The water got into the cars, and set off the horn in one and the lights in another.  I called the police and waited on the porch, watching. My neighborhood woke up. The guys across the street put on their bathing suits and went swimming (which was funny but disgusting, since the water did not look very clean).  Lots of people peeked out, took a few photos, and went inside to find their earplugs. The police arrived and a work crew set out to try to unplug the drains.

Work crews at 5 AM

I’m not sure what they did, but by 9 AM the next morning, the water was 100% gone.  Sadly, most of the cars that were parked on the street were totaled. Apparently when water gets into a car computer, it costs thousands of dollars to fix.  My car was parked in my driveway, but the inside of the car was still filled with water. It’s been in the repair shop for a week already and I’m waiting to find out whether or not the insurance company will agree to replace the carpet. If I’m lucky, I’ll get a new interior and only need to pay the $500 deductible.

My car interior filled with water

The line shows where the water level got to the night before

It’s pretty clear that this happened because of an issue with the city sewers and drainage, and so I decided to take action. The next day, I sent an email to my city officials telling them about what happened. I wrote, “I believe that there is a serious problem with drainage on my street which needs to be addressed immediately.” That afternoon, my local alderman (the local legislative branch representative) actually came to my house to talk to me about the problem.  On Monday, he sent the city engineer out to my street. On Wednesday, there were crews pumping out the sewers.

Wednesday’s work crew

Notice of Sewer Work

On Friday, I got an email from another city official, who copied me on an email to the city engineer, asking if this situation was being addressed. When I got home from work, the street was lined with cones letting people know that sewer work would be happening on Saturday.  I don’t know if the city succeeded in solving the problem, but their test will come tomorrow.  If they did fix the problem, Hurricane Sandy won’t turn our street into a river again. I’m probably not the only person who spoke up, but it feels good knowing that I played a role in fixing this problem. Now that’s Democracy in action!

Hoping to avoid this during Sandy!

There’s always more problems to solve. In my classroom, students have been studying the U.S. government, and they recently learned about how citizens can influence their local government. For their Democracy in  Action Rubric, students wrote about issues they wanted to see addressed by the government, and they brainstormed how a citizen might influence change. Here are some of their ideas:

Voters of the Future

“As citizens of the United States it is our job to make our nation a better place and to be more peaceful. I would write a letter to the senator telling him that people in prison need to be treated fairly.”

“A normal citizen could record a video about how the Executive branch of the Federal level could control the F.D.A. to set higher standards for the number of side effects a drug can have or how dangerous those side effects can be.”

“I would send a letter to my representative asking for a law to lower the allowable rate of plastic production. I would also text the President to tell him to approve the law. Friends and countrymen join me. Write to your representatives. The United States Congress has the power to create bills. We can stop companies from producing plastic in excess. Companies may not like this because they make money on useless plastic. I say, give up the happy meal toys. We should all recycle and use less plastic to save our planet!”

More happy students who one day might change the world

“Organize a doctor’s strike until all people are provided with health insurance. By then, people would be dying and the government would have no choice but to provide health insurance. If they’re stubborn enough to not provide the health insurance, they will be sued by lots of people and then have to buy in.”

“If the roads are safer people will not be as likely to crash and be killed or severely injured in those car crashes. You should all send letters to our mayor saying which roads are dangerous.”

As you can see, at 10 and 11 years old, these students already understand how a single citizen can make a difference. As we prepare for this upcoming storm, I encourage you to be on the look out.  What is the government doing to protect us, and what can you do to show good citizenship? Even though our system isn’t perfect, every little bit counts.

The calm before the storm. I took this photo in Cambridge Common this morning. The statue shows John Bridge, who settled here in 1632 and was one of our country’s first town selectmen and ran one of the country’s first public schools.


It’s easy to think that there’s only one right way.  I often think that things that I’m used to back home are just “normal” everywhere.  Yesterday, I saw a guy on the side of the road with a pet turtle on a leash, and today I saw a cat on a leash. I had to laugh at both because it was so unusual for me.  I’m used to seeing dogs on leashes, but it’s a strange sight to see other animals like this. It made me stop and think — is my perspective correct?

Over the past few days, I’ve been touring around Shanghai with our second group of students.  My view of the city is vastly different the second time around.  Seeing something for the first time makes all of my senses come alive. I notice things differently, and I am so busy looking around that I can barely focus on anything else.  Returning here, I am starting to notice different things about the city, and I’ve also had more time to focus on other things, like conversations with others and shopping.

Shanghai is a massive city, and I have been seeing it from a number of different perspectives.  No matter which view, visiting Shanghai feels like going into the future.  Here’s the view from just below the World Financial Center (the building on the left).  The building on the right is shorter, even though it looks taller.

Here’s the view from the top of the World Financial Center, pictured above on the left.  Last time we went, it was very cloudy (see that post here). We got a clear day this time around.  Wow!  Notice below the lighted up building in the front — that’s the building on the right in the picture above.

Finally, here’s a view from across the river, taken a few hours ago:

Which view is the best? In my opinion, the world is a more beautiful place with multiple perspectives.

City of Lights

I don’t know if Shanghai has a nickname, but I would call it the City of Lights.  It’s modern, clean, and colorful. From old temples to the Apple Store, Shanghai has style.

Our first stop was at the Jingan Temple shown above, and there’s more exploring to come this weekend.

Guess what’s in store?

Over a Billion Going Places

There are over a billion people who live in China, and it seems like they are all here in Beijing.  This is a very crowded city!  This photo on the left taken at the Olympic “Bird’s Nest” is a rare sight.  It’s hard to get a picture without any people in it!  This morning, I worried about getting crushed at the subway station, when I was trying to change lines.  The video below shows how crowded it was, and actually the real pushing happened after I put my camera away.  It’s a pretty typical scene for the daily commute.  Some days are better than others, but the subway is pretty much always packed.

Since I am leading a group of high school students, we travel in a big mob and definitely stand out.  People often photograph us, sometimes asking to pose with us or sometimes sneaking it from across the room.  The African American and blond students in our group get the most attention.  As you can see, we don’t blend in too well.

Sometimes we stop in public places and our interns, Stanley and Gabriella, give talks about the places we are visiting.  Local Chinese people are often interested and stop to listen and watch our group.  It’s sometimes a little creepy to have them hovering over our shoulders.  In this photograph, Gabriella is giving a talk about the Olympic Stadium and the random man in the background just stopped to stare at us.

The crowds aren’t always intense, but every day when we ride the subway, I learn something new about sharing a tight space with a lot of people.  Most people push here to get in and out of the subway, and it takes some getting used to.  People aren’t always disrespectful when they push, but occasionally, you’ll see someone use their elbow.  More often, Chinese people are just trying to get where they need to go.  They aren’t as bothered as Westerners by the lack of personal space.  Instead, they prioritize getting in, getting out, and getting ahead.  They are moving with purpose, and they don’t seem to mind that the others around them are doing the same.  Perhaps this is why the GDP in China is going up about 10% every year.

People in China are going places. In the United States, people wait for exiting passengers to get out of the train before getting in, and they often give up their seats to people in need.  Here, there’s no waiting.  You need to squeeze in when you see a hole in the crowd, and sit when you see a free seat. If you don’t, someone else will take the opportunity.  Anyway, getting a seat on the subway is so rare that this issue doesn’t come up much.  In the rare moment when we get a seat, we are so happy and shocked that we need to photograph the joyous occasion.

I don’t mean to imply that Chinese people are selfish and individualistic.  In fact, every meal is a communal experience, where dishes are shared family-style. I’m learning a lot about how tradition and duty to others is the fundamental value here.  When I ride the Beijing subway, I need to remind myself of this.

Quiet Beijing

Today was a quiet, rainy day.  Since the schedule is going to get very busy soon, I tried to take it easy, planning and exploring the area with Ling, my roommate and fellow educator.   We saw some of the quiet side of Beijing — exploring a local park, ducking into alleyways, checking out random shops, and figuring out how to safely cross multi-lane highways. While this city is full of many, many people, it’s clear that there’s plenty of space for everyone.

Just outside of the bustling cityscape near our hotel, we happened across this awesome park.


This man was hanging out in the park doing impressive tricks with a kind of popular yo yo here.

On the other side of the park, there was a little river, which appeared to have lower water levels than usual.

A veggie market we visited off the main street. We didn’t end up buying dragon fruit, lychees, or peaches, but I plan to taste test them soon!

A rare sight in Beijing — a stretch of empty road.

Getting into the Beijing Spirit

   I arrived in Beijing last night, and today was a whirlwind and my first full day in China! I learned today that Beijing has a motto, as seen in this flower display and on a sign in the subway: “Patriotism, Innovation, Inclusiveness, and Virtue.”  I love that the second word in there is our school’s name.  There are over a billion people in China, and they are certainly trying to do things in a new and creative way. That same spirit is why I love working at Innovation Academy.

Traveling here is different than any other place I have ever been.  Yes, it’s crowded, polluted, and people shove to get where they are going… but there’s something magic here. I love it already.

Our Staff Team

I will be helping English speaking high school students from around the world learn about leadership and change-making as they explore China through language study, service, and cultural activities.  I am so honored to be here. This is my first time in China, but I hope to share my love of global education, service, travel, and learning about other cultures with the students, who arrive on Sunday. I am working with a group of wonderful people who all speak fluent Mandarin, so I am confident that we are a solid team.

Today, our staff explored Beijing, visiting three of our community service sites where we will take students in the upcoming weeks.  I tried to soak up the newness of this place, from the packed subway cars to the eco-farm where we’ll be helping to harvest peaches, if we are lucky.  There were so many surprising sights, so I need to share just a few of my favorites:

The local director, Silvia, explains the schedule to our Chinese interns, Gabriella and Stanley. Awesome backdrop courtesy of the subway advertisements.

Is it a mini-piano? No! It’s a chopstick sanitizer at Mr. Lee’s fast food lunch.

Should I try the street food?

A ha! They do sell chicken feet here (at the supermarket).

Balloon salesman passes through evening street food area

Back in the United States, a taste of China is everywhere.  We eat Chinese food, walk through Chinatown, go to school with Chinese friends, buy clothes made in China, and more. Being here makes me realize how much we are missing when we assume that we know China based on these things.  Would someone who has watched MTV know the United States?  What about someone who eats a hamburger and watches fireworks on the fourth of July? These countries are too big, too special, and too innovative to be stereotyped.  China is ancient and modern, open and restrictive, clean and dirty, peaceful and busy, and many other ends of all sorts of spectrums. I can’t wait to explore it more.

A Muslim Country?

Is Turkey a Muslim country?  According to the CIA World Factbook, 99.8% of people in Turkey are Muslim (people who practice the religion Islam).  Women who are Muslim normally wear head coverings and men who are Muslim generally wear beards.  Of course, people who are less religious might not follow these practices, but many do.  However, while I was in Turkey I learned that in public schools and government buildings, women are not allowed to wear head scarves and men are not allowed to wear beards.  The government wants to keep religion out of public spaces, but they are doing this by restricting people’s religious practice.  This seems sad to me. Shouldn’t people get to choose how they want to dress and practice their religion?

When I walked down the streets in Turkey, I saw people of all shapes and sizes, light skin and dark skin, covered heads and modern dress.  Like America, Turkey is a diverse country!  Take a peek:

Turkey is a crossroads country between Europe and Asia, so it has a long history for both Christians and Muslims.  I saw many mosques throughout my travels, but I also saw churches, from very ancient to more modern:


I also got to go inside a few mosques, some of them very famous:

Overall, I don’t think that Turkey should be defined as a Muslim country, even though many people are Muslim.  People are people. If we only see their religion, we miss out on lots of other aspects of who they are.  Even so, I loved learning about the things they find sacred, and how Muslims practice their religion. Here’s one of my favorite photos that I took on my last day in Istanbul, which I think shows the contrast between the old and the new, as well as the religious and the secular. As you can see, mosques are only one part of the landscape of Turkey.

Different Sides of Istanbul

A lovely dinner with Ceyda, my sister’s Turkish penpal from middle school!

Istanbul is a HUGE city, and just when I start thinking that I know something about it, I am surprised by something new.  I think this is because Istanbul is often on both ends of the extremes:

  • Rich and Poor
  • Safe and Dangerous
  • Touristy and “Local”
  • Easy and hard to get around
  • Europe and Asia
  • Quiet and Loud

Here is some evidence that Istanbul can’t be pegged as one single “type.”

Shopping: Yesterday, I visited a famous old market called the Grand Bazaar, located in the Old City.  It was touristy, but it’s been around for years, and is very authentic in many ways. Today, I had a very different shopping experience.  In order to visit a school, I took a ferry across the Bosphorus River to the Asian side of Istanbul.  I came across a mall, and thought it would be interesting to check out.  It wasn’t exactly what I expected for a Turkish mall:

The public school that I visited today

Schools: The public school that I visited today was nice, but some aspects were hard to see.  Most classes have 30-40 students, and many students wore dirty or ripped uniforms.  They were eager to learn about the United States and tell me about their school, but most of them said that they don’t like school. They were also very rowdy, and the teacher had to raise her voice to speak over them. She also told me that most of these students will not attend college.  I’m guessing this is due to financial obstacles.  Despite the challenges, I was impressed by the kindness of the teachers and they were enthusiastic about using project-based learning approaches. The students gave me their email addresses as they are interested in American penpals.  Tomorrow, I am visiting a private school, so it’ll be exciting to see how it is different. You can meet some of the students and teachers in this little video:

The restaurant we ate at has a private boat which took us across the sea (from Asia to Europe) back home from dinner

Public Transportation: I have been spending tons of time on public buses, trams, and ferries.  All of them feel very safe, and I am blown away by how helpful people have been to me.  Since I don’t speak Turkish and don’t have a bus card, I often have to ask for help from locals to get where I am trying to go. I’ve had multiple people pay for my fare, get on the wrong bus in order to help me out, and go out of their way to stay with me and get me help. It’s really amazing. I feel like I’ve got little Turkish guardian angels everywhere, looking after me.  Today was one of the only times that I felt unsafe, when at the end of the day, my bus encountered a riot of sorts. People were celebrating a big football match win (two Turkish teams), but it got out of control a few cars away from where we were, and the police had to come break it up.  I was debating what to do.  Getting off the bus and running seemed like a bad idea, because then I’d be IN the mob. So, I stayed put with my new Turkish bus friends, and got out my camera:

As you can see, Istanbul is full of surprises. What will tomorrow bring?

Istanbul Smiles

Istanbul is growing on me.  I’m getting to know my way around one area, Sultanahmet (the old city). While Ukrainians aren’t quick to smile at strangers, Turkish people are big smilers!  In fact, they seem insulted if I don’t chat with them as I pass on the street.  They all want to know where I am from and how I like their city.  I had been warned by fellow travelers that Istanbul is crowded and salesmen are pushy.  It’s true that they try to sell their products, and get you to by a carpet or whatever else.  However, today I wandered through the grand bazaar market without any problems. It was really fun haggling for lower prices and chatting with all the shopkeepers, and much more calm than I expected.  It can be hard to negotiate prices, since we don’t do that in America, but it is an interesting part of the Turkish culture. My favorite purchase of the day (which I’m sure I paid too much for) was fresh squeezed pomegranate juice.  Delicious!

I did a lot more than shopping today.  In the morning, I visited the Blue Mosque, which dates back to the early 17th century, and the Basilica Cistern, which is an early water system from the 6th century. In the evening, I went to a Turkish cooking class!  I learned a bunch of new recipes, and look forward to trying them out when I get home.   I hope to do a blog entry on Turkish food soon too.

Turkey is a country with a lot of ancient history, but it’s also very modern.  This makes it really fun to explore — sometimes I turn the corner and see something totally unfamiliar, and sometimes I run into an American chain store.  People are very open to diversity here, as the locals come with a variety of religious backgrounds, skin colors, and styles. I look forward to my first Turkish school visit tomorrow!

Note: I’m having some technical difficulties with the blog and it’s taking me a very long time to upload movies and photos. I have a lot more of them to share, but I’m not able to get them posted.  I will try to resolve the problem so that I can add more soon.

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