What Makes A Good Children’s Book?

In my classroom, we have a huge library full of many different types of books. Over the course of the semester, I began to notice that even though we do have tons of books, there are some books that are extremely popular with the kids and others that kids don’t even want to touch. This struck me as very interesting because I was able to see that even young readers have opinions about what a good book is. So, for my research question., I decided to explore what makes a good children’s book.  To learn more about this question, I relied heavily on my students. During book bag exchanges, I informally interviewed many of them about why they like and dislike certain books. I also had students answer a short survey about what makes a good book. During whole group reading time, I monitored the way my students reacted to different books and searched for trends. In addition to questioning my students, I read articles by children’s literacy specialists and famous children’s authors to understand what their opinions were. Throughout this research journey, I was continuously surprised by what I found.

When I first started exploring this question in my classroom, I was expecting to focus mostly on speaking with kids about books that I don’t enjoy and attempting to understand why they enjoy those books. However, I was quickly surprised after interviewing many of my kids that the books they enjoyed were books I could actually enjoy as an adult as well. After a few interviews and reading through many books, I came to the realization that kids often enjoy the same types of books we do: well written, clever, exciting and with strong characters. More often than not, we disliked the same books because they had boring plots, unrelatable characters or uninteresting pictures.I realized that many of the books I used to love as a kid are still beloved by kids today.This made me reflect on my favorite books from when I was a child, so I decided to direct some of my research back on my own experiences reading.

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A few of my favorite books from when I was a kid

I was surprised to see that many of those books were still extremely enjoyable for me to read because I could still relate with the characters and themes. What was interesting to me was that I relate to these characters and themes in a different way now. Reading these books now reveals another layer that I did not notice as a child and I began to understand why my parents loved reading these books to me so much! C.S. Lewis summed this up very well in his essay “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”: “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.” (Lewis, 1940) He is not saying that adults decide which books are good for children, he is saying that truly good books for children fall in the middle of the adult- child book Venn diagram (New Yorker).

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A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest” -C.S. Lewis

Of course, not all people, especially children, share the same idea about what a good quality book is. However, in my research, a few constant themes kept on popping up. The most important was far and away strong characters who invoke strong feelings within the readers. The way in which we connect to these characters may be different but every connection is deep. It can be a best friend type of connection, where, through reading the book, you feel as if you are friends with the character. This often happens in series books such as with Laura Ingalls Wilder in the Little House series. Many people I talked to about this book said they cried when the series was over because they felt like they lost a friend. Other characters become role models, who we admire and wish to be like, such as Nancy Drew. We can also have intense feelings of anger with characters who upset us, such as Voldemort from the Harry Potter series. The characters are the driving force behind any good story, so it is critical that children’s books have strong characters that readers can connect with on a deep level.

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Who wouldn’t admire Nancy Drew’s detective skills?

The next most important aspect of a good children’s book is a story that teaches a lesson. However, the way in which that lesson is taught is very important. For my recent social studies unit, which is about being a good citizens, on the first day I read my students a generic book about how to be a good citizen. The book had boring pictures and language and pretty much just explained how to be a good citizen. My kids and I were bored out of our minds! So, the next day I read them Alex and the Amazing Lemonade Stand and I was shocked by how much they responded to this true story. They were inspired to be good citizens after connecting with the main character, Alex, who raised millions of dollars to fight childhood cancer.

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One of the most inspirational children’s books I’ve read!

The lessons they learn from books can also be simple, such as Bill Martin Jr.’s book Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? in which readers learn about colors. It can also be moral themes such as love, diversity, tolerance, respect or manners. The best children’s books teach these lessons in entertaining ways that kids can relate to, such as Interrupting Chicken by David Ezra Stein. I read this book to my class to teach them about interrupting, and my kids all loved it because they could relate to the funny characters but they also took away a very strong message from it. Now, whenever my kids are interrupting each other or me, I call them interrupting chickens and they know I need them to stop interrupting!

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This book was a lifesaver in my second grade classroom!

The last trend I noticed in good children’s books was engaging language or eye-catching illustrations. These aspects keep the reader engaged throughout the entire book because they make the reading experience more fun. Reading any of Dr. Seuss’s books is an adventure in language because of the fun alliterations, rhymes and words he uses throughout the book. In addition to creative language, interesting illustrations can really pull a reader into the story. I still remember reading Eric Carle’s picture book The Very Hungry Caterpillar  when I was in first grade because the artwork was so captivating and unique. However, the illustrations don’t always have to be bright and eye catching; darker books such as Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are can have equally interesting pictures that expand our minds with funny creatures and interesting textures.

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I would consider getting this framed!

“Children are actually the best (and worst) audience for literature because they have no patience with pretence.” –Orson Scott Card. After talking with many of the kids I babysit and all of my students at school about books, I could not agree with Ender’s Game author Orson Scott Card more. As a teacher, I know that many kids just say what is on their mind without really thinking it through, which can make them brutally honest sometimes. They don’t have patience with bad literature, and we should encourage them to be critical about what they are reading. From this experience I have realized that it is my responsibility to direct students towards high quality books and I will continue to search for the best that I can find. Children shouldn’t have to settle for subpar books, especially when they are learning to read. They need to see from a young age how beautiful good writing can be and how it can transform and transport you because that is what will motivate them to be lifelong readers.

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References:

Richmond, Marianne. 2015. Retrieved from: http://thewritepractice.com/childrens-book/

Gidwitz, Adam. 2016. Retrieved from: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/the-goosebumps-conundrum-what-makes-a-childrens-book-good

Lewis, C.S. 1950 Retrieved from: http://mail.scu.edu.tw/~jmklassen/scu99b/chlitgrad/3ways.pdf

Card, Orson. Retrieved from: http://www.orsonscottcard.com/

 

 

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Beach Ventures and Thai Style Field Trips

 

I love my town of Phang Nga, but after a few weeks here, I was feeling a little claustrophobic and in need of a mini adventure to shake things up a bit! Luckily, I am in an amazing location in southern Thailand, so it is really easy to get to a bunch of cute little beach towns for an escape. After a long week of teaching, I was really excited to meet up with some fellow teacher friends, hop on our mopeds and go! We decided to go to Ao Nang for the weekend, which is a little beach town located in Krabi Province. I packed up my backpack on Friday night and we left early Saturday morning. We decided to ride our mopeds because the buses are always very unpredictable here and we didn’t want to get stranded anywhere. I used to be really nervous about riding my moped, but I’ve gotten used to it and found that if I just stay to the far side of the road, other cars/motorcycles etc. will just drive around me if I’m going too slow. I’ve found it is actually a really fun way to get around, way more exciting than a car.

Two hours later, we arrived at the sparkling Ao Nang beach. It is unlike any beach I have ever been to because it has giant limestone karsts jutting out of the water all over the place. It is incredibly beautiful, one of those places where you have to pinch yourself so you know you’re not dreaming! We immediately dropped our stuff off at our hostel and headed for the beach. It was so nice to just hang out, swim, read books and walk on the beach after a long week of teaching. One of my friends and I decided to walk all the way to the end of the beach to one of the limestone karsts. We went swimming and collected shells then started walking back and realized that all of a sudden we were actually on an island because the tide had been coming in so quickly! We had to wade through knee deep water to get back to the mainland, luckily we didn’t leave any later…

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The lovely Ao Nang Beach

That night we drank fancy cocktails on the beach and watched the sunset, which was stunningly beautiful amongst the karst scenery. On Sunday we enjoyed a few more hours at the beach before heading back home. It was a wonderful little beach escape weekend, and I am looking forward to many more like it!

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Enjoying the sunset! not pictured: mojitos 

At school this past week, I only had three days of regular classes because on Thursday and Friday my class and I were going on an overnight field trip to an English camp at a resort in Ao Nang! We all drove down to the beach together really early on Thursday morning in two vans that we all squeezed into. The resort we stayed at in Ao Nang was really close to the hostel I had stayed in over the weekend, but about a bazillion times nicer! I had my own bungalow with three of the girls. The students all had a blast practicing their English by singing songs, making crafts and going on scavenger hunts around the resort with all of the English camp counselors. It was a pretty relaxing two days for me. I hung out with the other Thai teachers from my school and we even went on our own little adventure to a nearby beach that is famous for its fossils.

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Interviewing tourists at the resort about Thailand. I had to explain to the kids that it is not ok to ask people how old they are… 
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Relaxing by the pool while the students were in English Camp 
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My Thai teacher friends 

On Friday morning we had to wake up at 6AM to bring the kids to the beach where they had to run laps and do all sorts of exercises. I think the counselors were just trying to tire them out… Afterwards we went to the fancy breakfast buffet the hotel had set up by the beach and I was in heaven. They had real coffee instead of instant, which I was way too excited about. There was also tons of fresh fruit, a make your own omelet station and French toast. Definitely the best breakfast I’ve had since leaving the US!

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Getting ready to run laps on the beach at 6 AM 
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Because everybody loves Hello Kitty 

It has been another great week in Thailand but I am missing everybody back home, especially with Thanksgiving being next week! It is going to be one weird Thanksgiving for myself and the other American teachers here, so eat some turkey for us 🙂

 

 

 

 

Not Just an English Teacher Anymore…

On Tuesday afternoon I was in my 4th grade class, teaching all about the weather and having students make weather reports for different countries. It was all going very well until the head English teacher at my school came rushing into the room. She asked me to come out into the hallway so I could speak with her. I thought I had done something wrong so I quickly followed. She then explained to me that a spot had opened up in the school for a third grade teacher in the advanced English Program and was wondering if I would want the position. I was relieved that I wasn’t in trouble and said yes immediately! In my new position, I have my own class of 27 third graders, my own air conditioned classroom with a smartboard (!!) and I teach math, science, english, health and art. I loved teaching English but in my new position it is so nice to have my own class that I see for multiple hours everyday instead of visiting over 700 students every week in 15 different classes. It is also really fun teaching all of the different subjects, even though it means quite a bit more lesson planning!

Excited to learn about weather!
Excited to learn about weather!

In typical Thai fashion, I was handed a pile of textbooks the night before I was expected to start and not given any information on what the kids have learned so far. So on the first day of school I pulled aside a few of the top students in the class and they were able to show me exactly where their last teacher left off. So far, having my own class has been incredible. I don’t have nearly as many students anymore so I can learn all of their names and help them better because I know their capabilities. Most are very proficient in English, and students know that they are not allowed to speak any Thai in my class so the language barrier is not nearly as big as it had been before. That being said, I still have to make sure my lessons are very visual because I know that most of them don’t understand directions if I just say them. We spend quite a lot of time acting things out everyday… Also, I swear having air conditioning in the classroom makes everyone well behaved, it is life changing!

So many presents from students. Tamarind flavored candy is popular here
So many presents from students! Tamarind flavored candy is popular here. yummmm

Outside of the classroom I have been pretty busy as well. Last weekend I went on a long tail boat tour of Phang Nga bay with a few friends. I can honestly say it was one of the most breathtaking places I have ever been. The bay is full of limsetone karsts that jut steeply out of the water. The geology of this area is crazy! But it is also super complicated so I’m not going to explain it….

Limestone Karsts everywhere!
Limestone Karsts everywhere!
More karsts! These are near my apartment, along my running route
More karsts! These are near my apartment, along my running route

On our tour we visited the famous James Bond island where “The Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed, went through a few caves and got caught in a bit of a rainstorm. We also visited a Muslim fishing village that is built entirely on a pier attached to one of the karsts. They even have a football field that is built on a pier! There are no cars because it is so small, and it was very crowded. It was cool to visit, but I definitely don’t think I could live there. 

James Bond Island
James Bond Island
Muslim fishing village
Muslim fishing village

The next day we went to the Laying Buddha Temple and got to hang out with some monkeys. These monkeys were very sassy and loved teasing humans. One of them hopped on my friends shoulder, went through her bag and stole her chapstick ball because he thought it was food1 I definitely don’t think something like this would have been allowed back home, these monkeys are fully adapted to humans feeding them now and I doubt that they would be able to survive on their own in the wild. It was fun seeing them up close but I couldn’t help feeling a little bad for them.

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Monkey with his bounty

All in all, it was a pretty fun week with a few twists thrown in, but I’m starting to understand that this wouldn’t be Thailand if my week wasn’t full of surprises!

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First Week Teaching Craziness

Whoa Thailand schools are different! I was warned beforehand that you never can know what to expect on the first day, and that was probably the best advice I could have gotten. My agent said that he would email me the weekend before I was supposed to be starting about what to have prepared for the first day. I didn’t know what age group I was supposed to be teaching, what my schedule was or even where the school was! Well, I never ended up getting an email and had no access to a printer or any sort of school supplies so on the first day, Natalie (the other new English teacher) and I showed up at school very confused. We also managed to get very lost on our mopeds for half an hour beforehand but made it to school right on time. The first thing we did was meet with our boss, Kitty, the head English teacher. She handed us a schedule but said it would probably change next week (which it did). I was scheduled to teach 4th, 5th and 6th grade English, which is what I wanted! Then, she took us outside and told us we were going to give a speech to the school, which has around 1500 students. I just talked about how excited I am to be there, my home, hobbies etc. It wasn’t too bad, but I would’ve liked to have at least known more than two minutes in advance that I would be doing that! (side note- we later found out that the speech was taped and was circulating around the town, our landlady showed it to us and she doesn’t even do anything with the school!) We were both then handed whiteboard markers and they sent us both into a room with about 50 crazy second graders. We had zero plan and pretty much no idea what they wanted us to do, it was absolute craziness! We ended up singing a lot of songs and playing silly games, which they really seemed to have fun with. After that hour was over, they brought us along to another class, this time we were a little more prepared but it was still chaotic. After that, we got separated and I went off to teach 5th graders. At this point, I was feeling much better because I kind of knew what to expect and I managed to keep everyone calm and listening, which felt SO good.

View of "Elephant Mountain" from my classroom
View of “Elephant Mountain” from my classroom

At the end of the day I was more exhausted than I thought possible, but I felt very at peace as well. It was definitely a challenge, but one that I am excited to keep working on and mastering. Managing classrooms crowded with 50+ students, no projectors, very limited supplies, and no air conditioning in 90 degree heat is a pretty tall order, but I am learning quickly how to make it work. It helps that my students actually seem to want to learn. I’ve found that the best way to get their attention is to actually stand there saying nothing at all. Just waiting for them to realize they need to be quiet works so well because they actually do want to hear what I have to say. All of the students seem genuinely so excited to meet me and learn from me, which is an incredible feeling.  I kind of felt like a celebrity walking around campus by the end of the day, all of the kids kept on stopping to wai me (which is similar to bowing) and to say hello. My boss and the other teachers were saying that they were so happy to have me there and kept on asking if I liked my apartment and the town.

Thai teachers LOVE taking pictures together
Thai teachers LOVE taking pictures together

By the end of my first week, I can say confidently that this school already feels like a tight knit community. I constantly have students stopping in my office to say hi, or calling my name as they walk by. It is really hard not to smile while walking around with all those happy faces looking up to you. The teaching part has improved exponentially with each day too. It’s amazing what a little preparation can do…

A little note and gift from one of my 5th graders :)
A little note and gift from one of my 5th graders

A Weekend in Pai

Just got back from the best weekend I’ve had in Thailand so far! We had Friday off from school this week so a big group of teachers and I decided to make the trip up to the little mountain town of Pai. I’d heard from a number of people that Pai is a magical place and that once you get there, you never want to leave. I can now say that this is 100% true! If I did not have to be back for school on Monday I would have stuck around for much longer.

On Thursday afternoon we all boarded a van that took us up one of the scariest roads I have ever been on. The hilly drive to Pai takes about 2.5 hours and is chock full of hairpin turns on super skinny and steep roads. After a nerve-wracking drive we finally got to our hostel and were surprised to find that it was actually a bamboo hut with bunk beds built over a rice field. (I guess that’s what you get when you’re paying just over $5 a night hahaha). It felt like a tree house but was surprisingly very comfortable! Going to sleep hearing the water in the rice field trickle under our hut made it a very peaceful place to sleep as well.

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On Friday morning we woke up and really got to see our surroundings for the first time. The views of the mountains were awe inspring. It felt wonderful to be out of the craziness of the Chiang Mai and unwind a bit. Although the climate is pretty much the exact opposite, the rolling green mountains reminded me a lot of Vermont. The whole town of Pai actually had a very hippie feel to it as well, full of yoga studios, vegetarian restaurants and cute coffee shops. It is pretty westernized but after three weeks in Thailand it was nice to have a little taste of home again!

We got a bit of a late start because the previous night ran pretty late but we decided to rent motorbikes to explore the town. It was terrifying at first because last time I rode a motorbike I got a pretty nasty burn from the exhaust pipe. However, my friend Kirsten was an awesome driver so I didn’t need to worry at all. Although they are not the safest, motorbikes really are the best way to get around most of Thailand. Thai people start riding motorbikes at very young ages, I’ve seen moms with newborn babies driving bikes with one hand. I also saw a boy driving one the other day and he didn’t look a day over twelve. Although scary, it really is a ton of fun and so exhilarating driving along the curvy roads and being so close to the landscape!

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On our itinerary that day were two waterfalls and the Pai canyon. The first waterfall we went to was not very steep and its gradual slope was perfect for sliding down. There were also some really cool pools that we could swim in. The second waterfall was really high up and had a huge, deep pool that was perfect for hanging out in on such a hot day. The Pai canyon was equally stunning. I have no idea how it formed but it consists on a sandy rock wall that towers high above the trees. It looked like a really cool hike but after seeing how crumbly and steep it was we made the decision to just observe it from afar…

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The next day we woke up and it was scorching hot so we went to an infinity pool at a circus themed hotel that overlooks the mountains. It was so nice to hang out in the pool, nap in the hammocks and jump on the trampoline. That night most of the other people we came up with decided to leave but my roommate Natalie and I were in love with Pai and wanted just one more night in this magical town! We went to a barbecue hosted by our hostel and had so much fun meeting other travelers from all over the world. There were even a few other teachers there and it was really fun hearing about their experiences so far. We all went out in town together and had a very funny night!

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On Sunday, we reluctantly packed up our bags to head back home. The hilly drive was even more scary on the way back because the seat in front of me was missing a bolt so the guy in that seat was swaying all over the place with each turn. This van even came equipped with barf bags if that tells you anything about the ride…. It was SO worth it though. I have one more week of TESOL classes left in Chiang Mai and then on Friday I move down south to the beach town of Phang Nga where I will be teaching English to primary school students until March. Life is pretty good here in Thailand 🙂

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Day with the Elephants

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to visit the Elephant Nature Park, which is located right outside of Chiang Mai. Before I came to Thailand, I had envisioned myself riding on elephants and seeing them do tricks at the infamous elephant shows. However, after my visit to the nature park, I realized how this corrupt vision of elephants is causing many of them very serious harm. The Elephant Nature Park was founded 25 years ago in response to elephant abuse that was and still is rampant all around Thailand.

In the late 1980s logging was banned in Thailand due to environmental concerns, which was a huge step in the right direction for this country. However, one major side effect of this ban was that the thousands of elephants that were used in the logging industry were all of a sudden out of work, and their owners had to do something else with them. Although these elephants were never treated very well in the logging industry, the tourist industry is not a step up for them at all. Elephants are forced to walk down busy city streets everyday where tourists can pay to feed them. They are also outfitted with uncomfortable harnesses so that people can ride on them or are forced to perform tricks for crowds. Many of the elephant owners use violent tactics to train the elephants and also do not feed them nearly enough. All of this abuse causes physical as well as mental problems for the elephants, which are very smart and sensitive animals. This is where the elephant nature park steps in.

The nature park searches all around Thailand for elephants that are being abused so that they can buy them and bring them to this beautiful sanctuary in the mountains. Visiting this place, I could feel such a sense of happiness and hope coming from both the elephants and people who work there. It was amazing to walk around with our guide, Bee, who was able to tell us the individual stories of how the elephants got there. Some elephants arrived with broken hips, others were blinded by their owners, one had even stepped on a land mine and now limped everywhere. Something that really struck me about walking around next to all of the elephants was that they all had such distinct personalities, some were old and calm, happy to eat their sugarcane in happiness. Others were wild, loved running around and messing with us. One of the males even threw dirt up in the air at us because he got sick of us calling his name.

One thing that all of the elephants at the Nature Park have in common is that they are all visibly very happy to be there. One elephant we were petting broke into a run when it saw a truck coming nearby, our guide explained that it was because that elephant had arrived in a similar truck and was terrified of being taken away from this place. This moment was eye-opening for me because it made me realize how important the work is that the ENP is doing. For an elephant to dread leaving that much showed just how bad the abuse must have been in its previous life.  No animal should have to suffer that much for any reason, least of all tourism.

I feel so lucky to have been able to spend the day with such magnificent creatures. It was inspiring to see how much hard work is going on to help reverse the fate of many elephants in Thailand and I hope to return again soon.  A place like the Elephant Nature Park is a shining example of how tourism can be sustainable, educational and so much fun.

Mai Pen Rai

“Traveling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.” – Ibn Battuta

Hello from Thailand!  Yes, I have decided to start a blog, not something I usually do when I am traveling but I can already tell that writing about my adventures in Thailand will be the best way to share my experiences with everyone back home considering the 11 hour time difference and sketchy wifi that prevails here! It has been about two weeks since I packed up my life and moved to this amazing country and so far I have to say I definitely feel like I have made the right move. This country has not failed to astonish me at almost every turn.

Everything from the people to the food functions in a way that is entirely different than the USA. In my TESOL class the other day, we had a really great conversation about this, and came to the realization that these differences ultimately boil down to a difference in cultural values. In the US and in many western countries, productivity and efficiency are of the utmost importance in almost all aspects of society. In Thailand, the two most important values tend more towards harmony and loyalty. Thais live their lives in a community oriented mindset, every decision they make incorporates the thoughts and feelings of their family and friends, there is nothing they dislike more than interrupting the harmony of their community. This often means that decisions are made at the last minute, and you never really know what is going on until it is happening. As an American used to efficiency and organization, this has been quite the learning experience! I have realized that sometimes the best thing to do is take a step back and acknowledge that I should just take a deep breath and accept uncertainty and embrace whatever happens. Nothing ever works out exactly as you plan for it too, and I am slowly trying to get used to that. The Thais even have a saying for this feeling: Mai Pen Rai, which roughly translates to “whatever will be, will be”. It is the Thai way of maintaining a sense of calm during stressful situations and something I have been actively trying to adopt into my own life.

So moving on… what have I been doing here for the past few weeks?? SO MUCH! Chiang Mai is an incredible city in Northern Thailand. It is nestled in the mountains and full of friendly people, beautiful temples and delicious food!  During my first weekend here, a group of other teachers and I decided to go on a hike. We had a beautiful trail picked out that was supposed to lead us to a waterfall and we were all super excited for it. Well, Thailand had other plans for us! After a confused songtheuw ride  we ended up being dropped off by our poor driver at a completely different location. So we looked at some maps, figured out where we were and ended up by accidentally walking almost 10 miles to a beautiful lake, where we went swimming, saw some beautiful Buddha statues and ate lunch at a cute restaurant where the tables were in little bungalows that were on stilts above the lake. Not exactly what we planned, but still a pretty amazing day!

In the past few weeks I have also visited many ornately decorated temples, including the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, a golden temple atop a mountain on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. Another day I got to practice the national sport in Thailand: Muay Thai. Muay Thai is similar to American boxing and was surprisingly very fun, even though I am not a huge fan of boxing. Our Muay Thai coaches were very tough on us, making us run sprints and do squats before we even picked up boxing gloves. In the rink, we practiced kicking and punching as hard as we could, which felt so good!

So all in all, Thailand has been pretty amazing so far. There is a lot to get used to, but the more I embrace it, the more I love it. Missing everybody back home so much, please keep in touch! I don’t want this blog to be a one way form of communication, I want to hear from all of you as well 🙂 I promise I will post again soon to update everyone on what I actually came here for in the first place: teaching!

Anna

PS love you and miss you so much Mom, Dad, Abby and Fritz!