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Archive for the ‘Yunnan’ Category

Shawn Martin (’12 Fellow, University of California-San Diego) is currently a 1st year Fellow in Dali, Yunnan.  She reflects on what impact she hopes to have on her students outside of academics in this upcoming semester.

After traveling throughout Southeast Asia for 4.5 weeks and being away from my village and China for more than a few days span, I feel refreshed and somewhat ready to begin the next semester.

Prior to finals last semester I had a rather pessimistic view of my impact on my students’ lives and my role as a teacher in my village. My students actually ended up performing higher than I expected on their finals which gave me hope that I am actually being an effective English teacher. In addition, it renewed my faith in their abilities and dedication as students.

Thanks to some comments I received on my blog post about my impact, as well as some extended reflecting I have done while traveling, I had altered my perception. My success should not be measured just academically. Just having a presence at my school I am exposing my students to the outside world. I am probably the first person outside of their village or county they have ever met. They are the first village children I have met. This new relationship is mutually beneficial and exposing both parties to ideas, customs, habits, etc. that neither party has ever had close contact with. Looking back on my semester, I realize how I have peaked my students curiosity for learning about the outside world through stories about America and pictures of my time traveling in China. Indeed, my students have gasped in excitement when I show them pictures of the Great Wall and pandas. Conversely  my students have made me more curious about village life and their individual families and customs.

I have also realized that my goals should not be the same for every student. Not every student is destined to go to high school and college. That was the path that fit me, but that doesn’t mean it is necessarily the best suited path for all of my students. Some will find success in their own ways whether it be in agriculture, continuing their parents’ business or opening up a successful restaurant in the village. The goal I should have for all students is the instill in them a sense of hard-work, responsibility and desire to set goals and achieve. No matter if this hard-work and responsibility applies more to their studies or taking care of their siblings, these are essential traits in life.

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“Through ordinary hard work, day in and day out, we produced extraordinary results.”

Zhang Qiang (Fellow ’10, Tsinghua University) recently completed his two-year term as a Fellow. As a math teacher at Dazhai Middle School in Yunnan, he led his class to improve from the bottom ranking at his school to the second-best in their grade. This fall, he will join Teach For China’s Chinese Recruiting team to work as full-time staff. Read his story to find out more about what he learned from his time as a Fellow and how he decided to stay involved with Teach For China. 

I remember the first day I walked into my classroom at Dazhai. The

Zhang Qiang (Fellow 10, Tsinghua University) with some of his students

desks and tables were falling apart, and my 53 students were crammed into too few seats. Dahzai is a poor community in a mountain valley, over 160 kilometers away from the prefectural capital.  My students rarely met anyone from outside the small town, and I remember their expressions as they stared up at me with meek curiosity.

We faced a lot of obstacles, which became only more apparent with each day. I struggled to understand the local dialect, and half of my students could barely speak Mandarin. I walked into class preparing to teach a standard math curriculum, while many of my students struggled with basic concepts they should have learned years before. A girl named Susan, who was very nice but always silent, did not even know what a triangle was in our first class.  I was naïve enough to think that these students would understand the role that hard work plays in learning, as I had at their age. My students were naïve enough to think that I, as a teacher from a big city, could magically make their grades improve without assigning any homework.

We all had a lot to learn. Most importantly, though, I believed from the

Zhang Qiang and his American teammate Gareth Collins (Fellow ’10, University of Michigan) with some of their students at Dazhai Middle School

beginning that my students could overcome the challenges they faced; and my students believed in me and my vision for our class. We trusted one another, and we worked hard, every day. I painstakingly planned out each lesson, and they tried their hardest on each homework assignment. I told them about my life and about how I got into Tsinghua University, and they told me about their lives and their aspirations. I spent hours outside of class tutoring the struggling students, and they gathered outside my dorm during their free time to raise questions and ask for extra help. Through ordinary hard work, day in and day out, we produced extraordinary results. Having started as the sixth-ranked math class in our grade, we rose one ranking in each successive semester. Two years later, as we approach the end of the semester, my class is now the second-highest ranked in our grade.

Susan , the silent girl, is now in the top 10 in our class. More importantly, in the letter she wrote to me when I left, she said she is now very convinced and confident of going to high school and college. She wrote that this change all came from our sincere conversations about growing up and from our relentless efforts in the past two years. When I read many letters like this from my students on my last trip out of Dazhai , I just could not help crying, for my kids, myself, and all we had accomplished together in two years.

I am so proud of my students’ hard work and of all they have accomplished. Nevertheless, there are so many reminders of how far we have left to go. Today, my classroom is slightly less crowded with only 45 students. Over the course of two years, eight students dropped out, closing the door on a whole range of opportunities. Many of my students like to joke with me, “Teacher, when I’m a student at Tsinghua, I bet I’ll be more handsome than you!” They like to joke about the future, but I can tell from their expressions that they want the joke to come true. They truly want to go to Tsinghua someday, or at least to attend university and to have the choices that a college degree would afford them. However, with so much uncertainty and so many obstacles still in front of them, they only dare to voice this dream as a joke. All I could do was take every opportunity to remind them of how much we had accomplished, and of how much more they can accomplish in the next two years, and the two years after that, as long as they remain brave and don’t lose sight of their goals.

I also know that my work is far from finished, and that there is so much more that I can do to close the gap for my students and for thousands like them in other schools. Now that my two years as a teacher are over, I will join Teach For China’s staff working to recruit new Chinese college graduates to join in our efforts. With each new Fellow, we come one step closer to realizing our common vision and helping every child in China enjoy the education they deserve.

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This spring, Teach For China teamed up with the National Football League to introduce American Football to several of our placement schools in Yunnan. Three Fellows–Will Keleher (Fellow ’11, Georgetown University), Ben Cutrell (Fellow ’11, Gettysburg College), and Wang Yaoming 王耀明 (Fellow ‘11, Zhongshan University)– have been hosting weekly practices for their students. Read Will’s report below on how students have been flocking to the game–and how it’s given girls at his school a rare chance to build life skills through sports. 

The NFL flag football progtwram we’re implementing at our school has already

Fellows Will Keleher and Tim Worm talk their students through the basics

impacted many students and brought a lot of happy memories. The amount of interest among students, and within the community in general, for football caught us by surprise. We’ve played with elementary students, our own middle school students, and have even played catch with local teachers who were curious about the strange ball. The level of excitement and enthusiasm is incredibly gratifying. Even though we’ve limited participation in our regular football practices to members of Classes 73 and 76, the two 7th grade classes at Heqing Number Two Middle School taught by Teach For China Fellows, the number of participants still far exceeds our supply of equipment. It’s a good problem to have!

We hold practices on Tuesdays and Thursdays between students’ two periods of

Ben Cutrell shows videos of American football to his students to introduce them to the game

evening study hall, as well as a longer practice on Sunday after they get back from visiting their homes and before their Sunday evening class. The program is still very much in its early phase, so we continue to receive new interested students and catch them up on the basics as quickly as possible. At each practice we generally spend a few minutes tossing around the football and working on basic technique, after which we run a drill that’s more similar to a real game. So far, we’ve have the students run routes with quarterbacks and receivers, played games of “tag the flags,” and done possession drills with two teams, a football, and the flags.

My favorite part about the program is the opportunity that it’s giving girls to participate in a sport. At our school, as in other parts of rural China, girls have few opportunities to participate in sports. The male students at Heqing Number Two

Flag football has given girls at Heqing Number Two Middle School a rare opportunity to participate in sports, building self-confidence and teamwork skills

Middle School dominate the basketball courts and the ping pong tables. Though many of the girls at our school are interested in playing basketball, would love to learn to play soccer, and would excel at volleyball, they are prevented from joining their male peers because of persisting gender inequality at the school. On a few occasions I have helped kick male students off the basketball courts to give the girls a chance to play, and they greatly enjoyed the opportunity. Apart from missing out on this chance to enjoy themselves, female students also miss opportunities to build important life skills like teamwork and perseverance that would boost their chances to succeed both in and out of the classroom. Seeing the girls running around, vying with each other to catch a ball, and doing their best to throw it as far as they can has been incredibly exciting for me. I’m really looking forward to working with the girls more and giving them the chance to compete in five vs. five games.

Our school’s flag football program is only a few weeks old, but we’ve made remarkable progress so far. At the beginning, most students and teachers had no idea what a football was, and we still attracted groups of perplexed onlookers whenever we hold a practice. We’re still working on basic skills, and have transitioned into short scrimmages between teams of five. I’m genuinely excited to progress onto full games and start to build a real sense of competition. One of the other Teach For China fellows implementing the flag football program, Yaoming, is also located in Heqing, and we’re already planning on having inter-school games. In the coming weeks we plan to screen game footage for students so that they can see what they’re working towards, and I can’t wait to start hosting full games between the students!

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Fellows have a lot to learn about their students by visiting their homes and understanding their lives outside the classroom. Kristen Faiferlick (Fellow ’10, Middlebury College) and Laura Zulliger (Fellow ’10, Davidson College) recently spent a weekend visiting the homes of their students in a village near their school in Luodang 洛党. They learned, among other things, that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “The Tortise and the Hare” are popular children’s stories in China, too!

With the semester almost halfway over, Laura and I decided it was time for us to go visit some of our students’

Kristen Faiferlick with some of her students in front of their old elementary school in the town of Tianxin

homes. We had enjoyed teaching them about American customs and habits, such as celebrating Halloween, and we were eager to learn more about their lives. So, last weekend, we walked with six of our students to their homes in Tianxin 田心 (“Field heart”), a village across the valley from Luodang. Tianxin is deceptively far from our school. From our dorm window, we can see the village spread across the mountain, but walking to the furthest home in Tianxin can take over an hour.

After Saturday morning class, Laura, our students, and I walked down the road and across the river that stretches around Luodang (which I learned is named Yinchun He 迎春河, “Welcome Spring River”). We stopped along the way at each student’s home, meeting their parents or grandparents. In many homes, one or both parents are working in other cities or provinces, so only a grandmother or grandfather is present to care for the children. Most of the students we visited were lucky to have at least one parent in their home. Troy, Sandy, and Meena also had adorable younger sisters!

I learned a lot about my students from seeing them interact with one another and with their families. I knew that Troy was quiet and gentle from talking with him in class and seeing him patiently work with some of our class’s most challenging students, but seeing him joke with his sister helped me understand how tender-hearted he really is. I was also struck by how sensitive he is in dealing with his family’s pets. In many cases in China, pets are hit or kicked, but Troy told me that they neither hit nor kick their dog or cat.

Once we reached June’s home in the heart of Tianxin, we sat in the morning sunlight and told fables that we learned

The village of Luodang, as viewed from Tianxin

when we were young. Apparently, “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a Chinese story! Additionally, all of my students already knew “The Tortoise and the Hare,” even though I had been sure that it was an Aesop’s fable. It seems good stories travel fast! We had fun discussing what each of these tales can teach us about life.

At Sandy’s house, we ate a quick lunch of rice, fried eggs and soup, and then headed up the mountain to see Meena and Savannah’s house. We made a detour on the way up to see Savannah’s favorite spot: a tiny stream that pooled over smooth rocks. We spent some time splashing in the pools, then continued up the tiny trail to the upper level of Tianxin. Finally, we reached Savannah’s house. It wasn’t a typical home: for the next few months, Savannah will be living with all her furniture under a tarp, waiting until her new house is built. All of her extended family members still living in Fengqing had joined to help tear down the old house and build the new one. We had to step gingerly around piles of rubble and avoid falling pieces of roof as we approached her makeshift home. Although the family will be cold under their tarp, in a few months, they’ll have a brand new home to live in!

After seeing each of their homes and meeting their family, Laura and I headed back down the mountain. It’s always

Some of Kristen and Laura's students at home

satisfying to interact with students outside of class, and we could feel their pride as they showed us their village’s elementary school, their favorite swimming hole, and introduced us to their parents. I feel blessed to be teaching such wonderful children. Getting to know them better makes me more dedicated to our mission and want to work even harder to give them the brightest future I can!

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Teaching in rural schools gives Fellows the rare opportunity to participate in local customs as members in the community. In rural Fengqing County 凤庆县, Yunnan, a teacher at Luodang Middle School 洛党中学 who is of the Muslim Hui ethnic minority recently got married. When the wedding took place, Kristen Faiferlick (Fellow ’10, Middlebury College), Laura Zulliger (Fellow ’10, Davidson College), and Xu Qiuwen 徐秋雯 (Fellow ’10, Peking University) were all on hand to support their friend and colleague.  For Kristen, the occasion was “one of the most moving things I’ve experienced since coming to China”

This past week, Laura, Qiuwen and I had the pleasure and honor of attending our coworker and friend’s wedding in Yingpan, several hours from Luodang. The bride, Ma Ruxia, has been a close friend, mentor, and guide ever since the three of us arrived at Luodang over a year ago. Watching her take this momentous step in her life was perhaps one of the most moving things I’ve experienced since coming to China.

Fellows Kristen Faiferlick and Laura Zulliger with the bride

Ma Ruxia’s wedding took place over the course of a week. To celebrate a wedding, most Chinese couples usually host a giant dinner for their friends and family at a local restaurant, wherein everyone comes to eat, drink, and toast the bride and groom. To be frank, most foreigners are rather unimpressed with this sort of wedding ceremony, considering the fact that we’re accustomed to both eating and actually seeing the ceremony performed. Additionally, we tend to associate weddings with music and dancing, both of which are unfortunately absent in Chinese weddings.

However, Ma Ruxia and her husband are both Muslim, which meant that the dinner was slightly different from a typical Chinese wedding. First, nearly all the dinner guests were

The wedding feast

also Muslim, so the food served at the dinner was all halal. Second, the the dinner was served in the courtyard of Yingpan’s beautiful mosque, situated just next door to Ma Ruxia’s home. As the “dinner” stretched from afternoon until sunset, we all ate far too much! As the dinner slowly wrapped, up, the evening sun setting over the hill cast a warm glow over the children playing in the courtyard and sparkled against the star and crescent above the mosque. The children running and singing, the laughter of guests, and the cool breeze blowing through the trees reminded me how thankful I am to be in such a beautiful place sharing such a special day.
After the guests slowly meandered out of the mosque courtyard, Ma Ruxia invited us into

Yingpan's mosque

her home, where we spent the rest of the night chatting, cooing over her wedding photos, and playing ma jiang with our local teachers. It was a wonderful night, and I think I’ll look back on it for years as one of the best times I’ve had with the friends and teachers from Luodang Middle School.

The next morning, we all rose early for what was, to me, the most interesting and touching part of the wedding. Around 7:30, a group of elderly men entered the home to perform the religious ceremony that would bind Ma Ruxia and her soon-to-be husband, Zhang Lei, in eternal partnership. Usually, the room this ritual is performed in is closed to everyone but the religious leaders and the couple, but Ma Ruxia invited Laura and me in to film and take pictures. I felt incredibly blessed and lucky to be close enough to see and hear the entire ceremony.

The ceremony began with the leader explaining the significance of being Hui Zu (Muslim)

Flower petals, seeds, and money play an important part in a Hui minority wedding ceremony

in China. He explained the importance of being proud of their culture and heritage, and the importance of observing halal and raising their children to observe the same Muslim codes of behavior. He spoke about social and spiritual significance of marriage, and how the couple would be expected live their lives from that point onwards. As the end of the ceremony drew near, he sang a song in Arabic, which filled the tiny room with a deep, resonating energy. Finally, a second leader lifted a basket from the table, which was filled with flower petals, coins, and seeds. He tossed them lightly onto the head of the newly marriage couple, then sprinkled the items all over them to ensure they were covered in luck and prosperity. It is said that anyone who receives these coins will also find luck, so several other guests reached into the room to grab the fallen coins from the floor. After the couple was showered with luck and prosperity, they left the room for the most bittersweet part of the entire wedding.

In Chinese culture, a woman belongs to her family and serves her parents only as long as she lives under their roof. Although marriage ceremonies and attitudes have evolved into many different forms in recent years, Ma Ruxia was very much affected by the idea that she would be leaving her mother for a new one. As she prepared her things, the cars waited outside to bring Ma Ruxia to her new home and new mother. Suddenly, without warning, she burst into tears. They were brief, but told of the great internal battle she must have been experiencing internally. Marriage is a time for happiness, but it also represents the final step from adolescence into adulthood. Watching her as she left made me wonder about all the emotions she was feeling as she left home, and how she would feel in the weeks and months to come. She quickly recovered, smiled, and led the parade of guests down the road to the waiting cars, which would take the couple and their close friends to Genma, where another dinner party would be held, this time for Zhang Lei’s friends and family.

The entire ceremony was both emotionally stirring and mentally challenging for me. Unlike the marriage I may someday enter into, Ma Ruxia and Zhang Lei’s marriage was arranged by a matchmaker. As a member of one of China’s ethnic and religious minorities, Ma Ruxia had struggled to find a suitable boyfriend for years. She could only date other local Muslims, of which there are few in this area. A matchmaker arranged a meeting between her and Zhang Lei, and although it wasn’t love at first sight, they learned to appreciate and care for each other. Zhang Lei knows that he has found a precious gift in Ma Ruxia, and I trust that they will value and love each other.

For many Americans, December has always been a time for Christmas carols and tinsel on trees. This December, however, I feel blessed to have witnessed something even more important than Christmas: a lifelong union which will bring a close friend a lifetime of happiness.

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Gareth Collins (Fellow ’10, University of Michigan) and another Fellow at Dazhai Middle School 大寨中学 in Yunxian, Yunnan recently visited the home two female students from their class. Because their parents work away from home, the two girls live alone at the top of the mountain, and must provide for themselves in addition to attend school. Read their incredible story here.

Tonight, Dazhai is lit only by the lunar eclipse and the countless stars (and the dull glow of my battery-powered Macbook), as we are once again without power. Usually I would be preoccupied with how much of an inconvenience this is for me, but I learned today that I have very little to complain about.

Gareth's student Zhang Xinghui lives alone with her cousins at the top of a mountain

A few hours ago, Richard and I returned from a very meaningful home visit. It’s one thing for students to tell you how far away they live, and another to quite literally walk in their shoes. For Cindy (张兴茴) and Isabel (张兴芳), two of our class’ brightest students, walking home means a three-hour trek up into the mountains. Today we experienced their weekly reality first hand, snaking our way up an uneven dirt road and taking shortcuts through steep, rocky paths. It was exhausting, but the beautiful terraced hills, plunging valleys, and gushing rivers more than made up for it.

We were lucky to have several students as guides and company. Riley, another of my top students, enjoyed racing to the front of the group with me, so we found ourselves chatting together much of the way up. After a year and a half as her first English teacher, I’m amazed at how far her English has come along. She can understand much of what I say, as long as I speak slowly enough and confine the words I use to vocabulary we’ve studied. Though my shoulder still hurt from briefly dislocating it earlier in the week, her youthful energy almost made me forget all about it. I taught her the phrase, “time flies when you’re having fun”, and before we knew it, we’d arrived at Cindy and Isabel’s modest home.

Gareth's student Zhang Xingfang lives alone with her brother and cousin at the top of a mountain

Cindy and Isabel are cousins, I learned today, though their similar Chinese names should have been a dead giveaway. They are only thirteen, but because their parents work outside the home, they’ve been left home alone to fend entirely for themselves and for Isabel’s younger brother. They live in a broken-down shack at the peak of the mountain we had just climbed. They do everything without the help of adults: cleaning, cooking, washing clothes, and feeding their younger relatives, which wouldn’t be so hard if they didn’t have to grow most of the food they eat, gather wood to burn as fuel to cook with, and hand wash everything, including themselves, using one ice-cold water spigot. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? Westerners hear all the time about unspeakable hardship and tragedy the world over, usually from the comfort of our sofas or the distance of our computers and e-readers, but here I was, experiencing first-hand the difficult reality of two of my kindest and most successful students.

They were overjoyed to have us visit. I tried to reciprocate their happiness the best I could, but on the inside I was deeply saddened, not only by the unfairness of their situation, but by my own ignorance of the conditions under which they lived. I kept thinking of how my life had been at their age, and how carefree it had been by comparison. I had been self-centered and blissfully oblivious, as every kid deserves to be. I certainly hadn’t done anything special to deserve such a comfortable childhood. But what did these girls do to deserve any of what they got? They were born in the middle of nowhere, that’s it. And despite it all, they are thriving.

We said goodbye after a hearty meal–food always tastes better when you help to make it yourself; we brought a lot of stuff we had bought at market day up with us–and my head was swimming with thoughts as we meandered back down. A truck took a corner too tight and smashed its wheel on a rock as it passed us by. I put down my backpack to see if I could help but quickly realized the problem was much too serious for me to do anything about. Sometimes I feel that way about students like Cindy and Isabel and the adversity they are forced to face. The extent of the poverty here is truly daunting, and the world often seems too short on empathy to do much about it.

It’s easy to get stuck in that way of thinking, anyways. Afterwards, Richard and I spent an hour or so in the dark talking at length about how we could raise some money to help put these girls through high school and maybe even college. Obtaining a high-quality education would totally transform their lives and empower them to do anything that they set their minds to. That sounds like a trite cliché, but after spending hundreds of hours with these amazing young women, I know in my heart that it’s true. I will update this blog as our plans progress. I hope to have a convenient and accountable way for you all to contribute to this cause up and running sometime in the next several months.

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Emily Cole (Fellow ’10, Brown University) spent a memorable Thanksgiving visiting the home of home of her students in a remote mountain village in rural Yunnan. Her account, and accompanying pictures, provide an intimate look into daily life in this remote community. 

Leah (刑承月) is on the left, and Yang Wen Qing is on the right.  Both

Emily Cole's student, Xing Cheng Yue 刑承月, "Leah," on the left

were my 3rd grade students, and both are from the same mountain village.  Leah’s hometown is about a 2 hour hike into the mountains.  During the week, she lives with her grandmother, little brother, and little sister in a simple house in one of the smaller villages on the outskirts of town.  Her younger brother is in the first level of preschool at our elementary school, and her little sister will soon attend the school.  Though China has a one-child policy, citizens from the peasant class and ethnic minorities are allowed to have more than one child.  Most toddlers I’ve met here are very shy, but

Leah's younger sister

Leah’s little sister cuddled up to me the minute she met me and loved looking at the world through the viewfinder of my camera.

Last year, Leah struggled both socially and academically.  She had a an infected lesion on her head, forcing her to wear a hat because her hair had fallen out.  She has a really cute grin and an even cuter giggle, but last year, she was lacking in both.  This year, her injury has healed and she’s become more outgoing and less self-conscious.  While I was at her house this weekend, whenever she sat down to do her homework, she’d get up every ten minutes to feed the goats, take care of the cows, or run next door to play with Yang Wen Qing’s puppies. Corn harvesting and drying season is in full swing, so her parents were out working most of the day.  During the school day, she has teachers and classmates who can nag her to get her work done, but on the weekends and at home it is hard for her to focus.  This year, her English grades has improved, but her math and Chinese grades are still among the lowest in the class.

We didn’t have class on Friday, so I walked up the mountain with her and a gaggle of

Leah's home

girls who live in the same area.  I spent the night at her house in a room filled with pottery basins filled with water where they stored their fresh fruit.  The ceiling was a straw-filled tarp nailed to the ceiling, chock full of mice.  The next morning when I asked about the mice, Leah said “Oh, our house is full of mice!  They love to dance and fight in the ceiling at night!”  I couldn’t agree more, there was definitely a lot of dancing and fighting going on while I was trying to sleep.  The top floor of her house is an open attic where corn was laid out to dry.  All of the houses in the village were covered with piles of bright yellow corn drying in the sun.  The compound has a cement courtyard in the center.

Feeding the goats

One one side is the house, with a smoky, dimly like kitchen in a separate room that always has a small fire blazing.  On the other side are the cow, pig, goat, and chicken pens.  I slept to the sounds of her goats jingling their bells in their pen, the cows moo-ing throughout the night, pigs grunting, and roosters crowing at all hours of the night.

 

 

 

We woke up early the next morning and I went hiking around the mountain with the girls, watched Mickey Mouse cartoons in Chinese, ate persimmons with Leah's sister, found strange flowers and berries on the mountainside, and played with Yang Wen Qing's puppies. It was wonderful.

Time to trim the ol' bangs

Puppies and students, what could be a cuter combination?

The girls snacked on this while I politely refrained. The small fruits are more sour than War Heads, with the texture of an unripe peach. And then, to improve the flavor, they dip it into a mixture of hot pepper flakes, MSG, salt, and chicken bouillon powder. YUM! They said they like it because they are mountain girls, and mountain girls like sour things, obviously.

Leah stoking the fire in the morning. While I didn't have turkey for thanksgiving, Leah's mother was generous enough to kill a chicken which we had in a delicious sour soup for lunch.

 

 

 

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