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Man do I make a ton of photocopies in my work! Electronic communication is good, but nothing replaces putting a paper into a student’s hand. Not so in Manila. Above you can see a quiz a teacher gave while I was there. This small piece of paper offered problems that students answered in their undersized notebooks, which the teacher collected to check. Most restaurants gave out one tiny napkin so I learned to eat carefully; I got used to letting my hands air dry after washing them in the absence of paper towels; my cooperating teacher even warned me to bring my own toilet paper if I thought I might need it.

As I flew out of Manila, the flight attendant handed me a napkin with my cup of water. I drank the water and handed her back the empty cup and the unused napkin. She threw both of them into the trash. It broke my heart.


How big is too big?

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American teachers are very unhappy when they have classes with 30 or more students in them. Most of us would prefer to keep class size at 25 or less. So imagine my surprise to see every classroom in the Philippines holding 45-55 kids. Sometimes the room air conditioner was making tons of noise and there were distractions coming from outside the room too. I admit that from the back of the room, it sometimes required great effort to hear and keep my attention on what the teacher was saying. But amazingly, nearly every kid seemed to be staying engaged despite the distractions. Here are some questions that ran through my head:

– Do they have ADD in the Philippines? Why are American kids SOOOOO much more easily distracted? Are there dietary, environmental, or other biological factors at play?

– How much of their attentiveness is related to the fact that they value education more than American kids? So many American high school teachers spend significant effort trying to convince their students to care about their own education. Is the fact that Filipino kids know how important education is to their future enough to motivate them to pay attention?

– Is the high level of respect for elders a significant factor? Maybe the kids pay attention because they don’t want to disappoint their teacher or their parents?

I know that American teachers value a more active pedagogy, making large classes particularly difficult. However, I saw many Filipino teachers use group work, science labs, and discussions with good success. I can’t imagine me and my American colleagues having the same success if we had such huge class sizes.

Sir Rufo de Leon

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My host teacher in Manila was Sir Rufo de Leon. Rufo was born in a very poor family in a northern province of the Philippines. He lived in a small, thatched-roof house with his parents and siblings and attended a school with no electricity. He was a modest boy with great talents. Rufo received a unique opportunity when a wealthy woman from his region offered to pay for his college education in Manila if he served as the “house boy” in her Manila home. Rufo took the chance. He became an English teacher and has worked at Jose Rizal University High School for the past fifteen years. A few years ago his principal, recognizing Rufo’s great leadership potential, urged him to apply to International Leaders in Education Program (ILEP). Modest by nature and uncertain about the five-month U.S. residency aspect of the program, he hesitated but finally agreed to apply. He was selected in a competitive  process and spent five months studying at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, VA. He was also selected to host an American teacher in my program. I was the lucky teacher who was assigned as Rufo’s partner.

Most Americans never have the opportunity to become close friends with someone who was born into developing world poverty. At best we have a conversation with someone during a Bahamas vacation or on a mission trip. There is nothing more perspective-expanding than becoming close with someone whose life experiences are so radically different from one’s own. In addition to KP Kafle, my (nearly) life-long friend who grew up in a remote Himalayan village, Rufo is the second person of such circumstance I have had the enormous honor of calling a dear friend. Rufo’s humility and gentle kindness were amazing to behold. He laughs often, with his whole being. He has a natural curiosity about the world and a deep respect for everyone he meets. You simply cannot like Rufo. His goodness is too evident to overlook.

There are many great things that came out of my journey to Manila. None is more important to me than the chance to build a meaningful, life-long friendship with Sir Rufo de Leon. I pray that one day I will have the chance to host him in Columbus.

Fresh Fish and Cultural Confusion

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My American friends, where would you prefer buy your fish? Would you choose the outdoor market where it’s 90+ degrees and fish are piled on a table, no ice or refrigeration, flies landing on them from time to time? Or would you prefer the neighborhood grocery where the fish have been cleaned, fileted, and kept on ice in a refrigerated display case? Easy, right?

As I walked through the outdoor market, I remarked to my Filipino friends that most Americans would be so uncomfortable with the idea of buying an unrefrigerated whole fish from a hot, wet outdoor market where the fish lay out in the hot sun. They were surprised. “We wouldn’t like to buy a fish in an American grocery store. When the fish is cut apart and on ice, you have no way of knowing how fresh it is. Here we can see the fish and know that it was caught today.”

So there you have it- a classic example of cultural perspective. I love it when my basic assumptions get turned upside down, and it happens all the time when I travel. Here are a few more:

• We passed a place that does cremations. I asked if cremation was common here. My host said, “Only the very rich can afford to be cremated.” Totally surprised. In this incredibly crowded city, I assumed that only the very rich could afford to be buried and that the masses would forced to have their ashes burned. And it’s such a highly Catholic country that I assumed cremation wouldn’t be popular. Shows what I know!
• We were out in a beautiful province, small mountains overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There were some huge, beautiful houses built on the hillside with amazing ocean views. My host said, “Yes, they’re probably owned by politicians or foreigners.” Hmmmm…. In the U.S. politicians are typically not rich and foreigners are often very poor, sometimes doing the lowest wage jobs that most American citizens would avoid. Guess I was assuming doctors or lawyers.
• It’s hot and sunny here and almost no Filipinos wear sunglasses and very few wear hats. Surprising. How do they deal with the heat, you ask? Many of them carry umbrellas to block the sun. Never thought of that!

One of the great joys of foreign travel: assumptions up in flames.

Jose Rizal University stole my heart

I had no idea what I was in for. I figured I’d spend a week and a half visiting in my assigned school, watch some lessons, maybe help teach a couple. I’d have some educational discussions with staff. It would be a learning experience.

It never occurred to me that I would fall in love. From the moment I arrived at Jose Rizal University High School, from the first joyful “Good morning Visitor” I could feel the special energy of JRU. The kids swarmed to me as if I was an important person. They giggled and smiled. They asked for photos and interviews and autographs. They greeted me everyplace I went. They stalked my Facebook account and started following this blog. (On July 1st I had 403 different people visit this site, most of them JRU students.) Quickly the “visitor” or “sir” disappeared and interactions began with a joyful “Good morning Steve.” And we started making music. And the conversations started getting deep. And those smiles….

Tomorrow is my final day at JRU. I’m already suffering a stinging sense of loss. I can’t wrap my head around the fact that the school that has become so much a home to me will soon be more than 8,000 miles away. The teachers who treated me like a member of their staff, the administrators who honored me like a dignitary, and the kids who showered me with love will be out of reach. I will look at my photos and video with longing in my heart.

I don’t know if and when I will see my new friends again but I know this for sure: we have made permanent marks on each other’s lives. Like the broken glass at a Jewish wedding, we are forever changed.

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The Future is in Good Hands

This morning I spent more than an hour talking with the newly elected representatives of the JRU student government. They asked me many questions about leadership and life choices. We talked about personal mission and what drives us. They asked for words of wisdom and inspiration. I gave it my best and they listened with their full being. It was really profound having a conversation of this depth with a group of young people who I only met last week. I’m pretty certain we were each a little bit better when we left the room than we had been when we walked in.

These are some amazing kids; they make me feel hopeful about the future.



IMG_0347Manila is the most densely populated city in the world. Traffic is a nightmare and every public transportation option is on the table, from above-ground subway to bus to taxi. One special Manila favorite is the Jeepney. It carries about 20 people in cramped quarters and costs about twenty cents to ride. My favorite part, aside from the community they create, is the creative exteriors of some Jeepneys. Each one has its own unique look. It’s hard to capture them in motion, but here are a few examples.

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Though Jeepneys are a bit crowded, they’re so much more spacious than the ubiquitous Manila “tricycles”!

Market = Culture


Blessed are the makers of sausage.


The smile says it all!


I LOVE visiting markets. You can learn so much about culture. It’s much more than what is being grown and sold in a community. You can observe how people interact with each other. Are sellers aggressive or passive? Do customers talk and laugh with each other or are they businesslike in getting what they need and moving on? Do people smile or are they stone-faced? You can learn about cultural values. For example, a stroll down a U.S. grocery store aisle will tell you so much about how important competition and choice are in our culture. Do we really need twenty different kinds of soap to choose from? I could go on forever about markets, but I’ll just let the pictures do the talking.


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Angono School for the Arts

We visited Angono School for the Arts and I was so inspired. It took me back to my days at the Cincinnati School for Creative and Performing Arts and reminded me why I love working with creative young people in Mosaic. Despite their lack of resources and the school’s meager facilities, the teachers and kids at Angono fully dedicated themselves to creative expression and the disciple of artistic creation. The school was full of joy. It made all of us feel alive and hopeful.

On a side note, Justin Timberlake played a concert in Manila. Afterwards he made a donation that allowed the school to build a music studio and purchase a bunch of instruments. Everyone at the school thinks he is awesome. So do I.