This morning at school the electricity went out.
There was a time when that wouldn’t have been a big deal. Back when I was a fifth grader, it might have meant simply the inconvenience of having a slightly dimmer classroom (which perhaps wouldn’t have been a very noticeable difference – I can’t recall how big our windows were or how much natural light they let in). If it happened on the day when we were scheduled for our weekly trip to the computer lab, the teacher would have had to plan something else for forty minutes or so, but otherwise, our day would have continued exactly the way it always did. And considering that power outages are fairly common in Kenya, where I grew up, I’m assuming that probably did happen at school fairly often. The fact that I don’t specifically remember any such instances just goes to show that they were no big deal.
But here and now, in Morrison Academy in Taiwan in September of 2013, it is a big deal.
I was sitting at my desk in my classroom getting ready for the day, and at about 7:20 a.m., the power suddenly went out. This is a rare enough occurrence here that I had no way even to guess how long it would be out, though of course I hoped it would only be for a few minutes.
I remember years ago, when I was working as a substitute teacher in California, there was a time when we had a lot of rolling blackouts because the whole area was short on power. One of the schools I subbed at had a list of instructions for teachers to follow in the event of a blackout. Things like, “Whenever possible, continue teaching normally,” and “If any parents show up in the middle of the day to pick up their children, remind them to sign them out in the office first.” I remember laughing about it at the time, thinking how silly American schools were to treat a simple blackout like a natural disaster.
But it wasn’t so funny today, and I must confess that the question of whether there was a chance school might even be cancelled did cross my mind. I immediately started thinking about my lesson plans and all the little daily tasks that involve electricity, and how I would have to change things if it didn’t come back on.
First of all, my parent helpers were scheduled to come in right before school started to make my photocopies for the week. Some of those were papers I’d been planning to use that morning. What would I do if the copy machine wasn’t working in time? In addition, I had promised to print something that my husband Floyd needed for a high school activity he would be helping with in less than an hour, but obviously my own classroom printer wasn’t functioning either. As soon as I thought of that, I picked up the phone to call Floyd and let him know, but I had forgotten that without electricity, the classroom phones wouldn’t work.
When my fifth graders first arrive in the morning, they’re supposed to do several things to get ready for the day. One of those is sharpen their pencils, which most of them do on our electric pencil sharpener (those who don’t have mechanical pencils, that is). They’re also supposed to pull their homework out and get it ready to hand in. Today that would have meant printing a document they had typed at home on their Alphasmarts, which is accomplished by taking the Alphasmart over to our classroom printer and holding it up to a sensor on the front, then pressing “print”. When they’re done with that, they’re supposed to read the week’s Bible memory verse from the screen in the front of the room where I project it from my computer and then copy it down onto their Bible verse sheet. None of those activities would be possible without electricity.
While the students are doing those things and generally getting ready for the day, I have a few things I normally do too. I always check the school website to check what the two choices for hot lunch entree are, ask the students how many of them want each kind, and then submit the totals to the cafeteria on a Google form. Then I record any absences or tardies on the online attendance form.
Every Monday morning, the student of the week gets to pick a people group that doesn’t have the Bible in its language, from Wycliffe’s book From Akebu to Zapotec, for the class to pray for. After I read the blurb in the book about that group and its culture, I normally use Google Maps on the SmartBoard to show the students that part of the world. They always enjoy zooming in, often close enough to see individual roads and buildings as well as larger features like mountains and rivers. In addition, as part of the day’s Bible lesson, I had been planning to use the projector to show the students a slideshow about the life of Joseph that I had put together with pictures I’d found online.
At least the reading lesson would be easy enough to do without electricity, but after recess our class was scheduled to visit the computer lab for our spelling pretest. That’s right, we take all our spelling tests at www.spellingcity.com, where I type in the words ahead of time and the students can take tests, play games, and practice in various ways with the words from our weekly list. Through their headphones, they hear the words read aloud and used in sentences, and after they’ve typed them all in, the computer grades it instantly. When they print their tests, it displays their total score both as a percentage and with the exact numbers they got right and wrong, as well as showing each word the way they typed it (marked with an X or a check mark). (Quick plug: it’s a great teacher time saver, and the basic subscription is free!)
After spelling, our writing lesson would have been fine without electricity for the most part. But I knew the students would miss the instrumental music I usually play from my computer in the background to inspire them while they write. In the afternoon, things would get a little more challenging. When I teach math, I always go to the textbook website and project the particular page we’re working on onto the SmartBoard. It’s easier to read through the instructions together and work on the practice problems when the students can come up front and show their work right by the problem itself.
In science, we’ve been learning about the different body systems. In addition to reading a couple of pages from our textbook and filling out a worksheet, I had two short movies from a science website that I had been planning to have the students watch and take notes on: one about the skeletal system and the other about the muscular system.
In short, my lesson plans for every subject except reading would have to change in some way. My head spun as I realized how much I count on technology (electricity-requiring technology!) in almost everything I teach now!
But though it would be inconvenient, there were ways around my planned technology use. However, there was one BIG problem that I could see no way around – one that would make a September day in Taichung very difficult to deal with. That was the one that made me wonder if there was any possibility school might be cancelled or at least dismissed early if the power failure lasted all day.
We would have no air conditioning.
Already, at 7:30 a.m., with the a/c and fans only having been off for ten minutes and no one but me in the room, I was sweating. What would it be like in there with twenty-six pre-adolescents as the day wore on? I opened the windows and door for airflow (at that point it was still a little cooler outside than in) and braced myself to find out.
Before the students even arrived, though, I discovered something else. The water on campus wasn’t working. Fortunately I had a full water bottle in my purse, but the students wouldn’t be able to use the drinking fountains or sinks, and the toilets wouldn’t flush. (I’m guessing this was because, though Morrison has its own water supply, the pumps in our water tower are electric.)
When my kids lined up outside the classroom, already uncomfortably warm and all discussing the electricity problem and how we were to survive the day without any, one of them was already worried about the water issue. “Mrs. Lima, I just used the bathroom, but it wouldn’t flush, and I can’t wash my hands!” I directed him to the container of hand sanitizer we keep in the classroom. First electricity-related problem of the day, solved. If only the rest would be that simple.
When the students were all at their seats, I passed around the little hand-held pencil sharpener I keep at my desk to those whose pencils needed sharpening, and encouraged students who had their own to share with each other as well. I wrote the memory verse on the whiteboard for them to copy. I told them just to put away their Alphasmarts and not to worry about printing their social studies review until tomorrow. And I offered rubber bands to anyone with long hair who wanted to tie it back and keep it off their neck. (Sweat was starting to drip by this time, and about half the girls took me up on that.) Four more problems dealt with. So far, so good.
We started our Bible lesson in prayer today (usually we pray at the end). There were plenty of volunteers eager to ask God to please bring back our air conditioning, and when I reminded them, to thank Him for the blessing of electricity that we get to enjoy most of the time, which many in the world don’t have. Afterward, I had them bring their Bibles, workbooks, and pencils, and we lined up and went to go sit outside. I knew that in a couple of hours it would be way too hot for that to be an option, so we might as well take advantage of the not-yet-scorching temperatures while we could.
The Bible lesson outside went okay, though there was so much background noise out there that I had to half yell the whole time just so the students would hear me. Many of them were almost completely inaudible when I asked them to read a verse aloud or share an answer. I was afraid my voice would wear out completely if I taught out there for very long, so it was a relief when we lined up to go back inside after the lesson was over.
But the classroom was starting to bear an uncanny resemblance to a sauna, so I was all set to let the students head back outside again for their silent reading time. Then, to everyone’s surprise, all of a sudden back came the electricity! The moment the lights went on, the room filled with delighted gasps and exclamations of relief, quickly followed by cheers when I turned on the air conditioning and all the ceiling fans. Twenty-six sweaty, sticky students and one very thankful teacher prayed together and thanked God for restoring our power.
Altogether, the electricity was only off for about an hour and a half, and when I think back about it, I have to chuckle. In retrospect, it really doesn’t seem like a very big deal. Growing up in Kenya, power failures that lasted for hours – sometimes even a day or more – were a common occurrence. The greatest inconveniences then were usually having to remember not to open the fridge more than absolutely necessary and needing to use flashlights or drippy candles at night.
But the technology that adds so many conveniences to our lives and makes certain aspects of teaching both easier and more challenging can be very hard to live without when it’s gone! I felt quite powerless, pun intended, at the thought of possibly going a whole day without electricity here and now. I think it’s good to occasionally be reminded, though, that life – even life in as technologically advanced and blessed a school as Morrison – is still possible without electricity. If nothing else, the inconveniences and the sweat can remind us to count our blessings and pray for those who live in much more challenging circumstances.
And I’m glad school wasn’t cancelled after all!