Monday, September 30, 2013

15-minute Project

REMEMBER when misbehavior in class meant writing 100 times on the blackboard or on a sheet of paper a promise never to repeat the offense?

I wonder if it was the shame of being disgraced or the disgust arising from repeatedly confronting the mistake that made this punishment effective.

I know that I never missed doing my homework again AND never forgot to write all my assignments in a notebook to help me remember. The latter accounted for the former omission.

This grade school lesson was the rare time when writing created such self-loathing. It took some time for me to finish the task. I did not dare allow my penmanship to lapse into illegibility. I believed my teacher was capable of making me repeat the sentences, as well as adding one more phrase or sentence citing crappy handwriting to add to the sins I had sworn to expunge.

At the time, I just wanted to write the 100th period so I could dash off to the carport and escape having to explain to my father why I was delayed. In retrospect, the act of writing and rewriting felt like condensing the maddening drip of water that creates the millennia of damage left behind by erosion.

This childhood brush with crime and punishment resurrects my intention to require my students to keep a journal when I return to teaching.

All of us must have experienced keeping a journal: jotting down in a notebook that is read later by the student and the teacher. In the humanities, the exercise is effective for drawing out the reflections of students, specially those who are cowed by more articulate classmates or large classes.

Keeping a notebook has other uses. Taking down notes is a valuable skill for those aspiring to be journalists. Listening, summarizing and isolating key points are professional “tricks” that can be honed with the humble notebook.

And then there’s doodling or sketching, which has saved the sanity of those awaiting the enlightenment of intellectual breakthroughs or class dismissal.

But it is the act of composing in a notebook that I would like to bring back to undergraduate classrooms. Initially, my students found the exercise “cute,” meaning they were only humoring me because the exercise could obviously be done more efficiently with a computer.

Yet, when applied to different classes and schools (University of the Philippines Cebu and St. Theresa’s College), just 15 minutes of freewriting produced not just paragraphs but pages, even from perennial protesters who said they “did not know what to write”.

While much of the material produced from freewriting is raw and needs rewriting, the exercise is useful. Teachers glimpse each student’s voice, style and quirks—their writing signature. Students realize that writing for 15 minutes is more productive than “waiting for inspiration” or “getting in the mood” to write.

Best of all, 15 minutes alone with an ordinary notebook unplugs us from the Internet. It’s a break to make us recognize in ourselves all the classic symptoms of digital dependence: “copy and paste” derivativeness or criminal lack of creativity and originality, obsession with image and spectacle over text and substance, and truncated attention.

In my experience, the best notebooks are the ones recycled from previous classes. Denuded of used pages and softened from handling or neglect, these notebooks are unassuming and don’t angle for attention. They focus on the elements needed for writing: blank pages and the writer.

Computers and the Internet have been a boon for writers. The Web gives us access to data we never had before. Information comes in many forms, not just words but images, graphics, and video. Going online makes it possible to interact and get instant feedback from strangers.

Yet, this digital cornucopia tends to drown out a crucial conversation: the one we hold inside our heads. Fifteen minutes alone with an old, recycled notebook should make us pay attention to one chat we cannot afford to miss.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu's Sept. 29, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial-page column, "Matamata"

Saturday, September 21, 2013


“Wa jud ko magtuo…”

I don’t know whose disbelief was greater, mine or hers. Last weekend, I received a text message from a former student, Eunice Borlasa.

One of the perks of teaching is remaining friends with one’s students long after they’ve left the campus. But I was unprepared for Eunice’s update: she was now teaching at a public high school in Camotes Island.

In the nearly 30 years I’ve been lecturing and then teaching at the University of the Philippines Cebu, I’ve seen the shift in choices that swept away our graduates to trendy and well-paying careers in communication.

Quite a number enter the program, passionate to become a journalist. Television still remains undimmed in beckoning the young.

Yet, the stress, risks, and perceived lack of security of deadline-beaters is not as alluring when undergraduates reach their senior year and corporations and call centers pay court. Freelancing in new media and creative work is on the upswing.

Teaching? It isn’t unpopular but it’s also not hot. Being an English tutor to foreigners plumps up many undergraduates’ ascetic allowances. However, in the panorama of choices opened by a college degree, teaching is perhaps a speck, a micro-dot.

Even Eunice, with parents and an older sister who are public school teachers, segued after college to GMA Cebu and then Sugbo TV. She considered taking Education units at the Cebu Normal University as “lingaw-lingaw (pastime),” and passing the Licensure Exam for Teachers as “suway-suway (trial)”.

Yet, why not Education? As Mass Com undergraduates, Eunice and partner Donna Loayon introduced blogging to the campus-based Niños Foundation in 2009. The tandem could have just treated the project to help a group come up with a blog as another class requirement.

Eunice and Donna believed in the group’s advocacy to help street children and saw the potentials of new media in converting others to this cause. Midway in the semester, the Niños were blogging on their own. Their blog is still updated up to now.

Stubbornness sheathed by a mild, non-confrontational demeanor. That was Eunice then.

That’s still Eunice. Her Facebook journal portrays the idyllic life in Poro, part of the Camotes Islands, once known as the “Lost Horizon of the South”.

Among her photos and posts of rusting anchors, drowsing kittens and bonding moments are glimpses of the life of a young person whose meandering has led her to share classrooms with more than 100 grade 7 and third year students of her alma mater, Luciano B. Rama Sr. Memorial National High School.

On Jan. 28, 2013, Eunice posted a close-up photo of three sets of ruled paper covered with her round-shaped handwriting: lesson plans approved by a supervisor. Eunice observed that all the rewriting that went into the “3 LPs” could produce a book.

The pace inside classrooms may differ from that of newsrooms. Yet, the discipline of learning and imparting information energizes both. Immediately after she was hired in July, Eunice relied on her college notes to train students competing in the Department of Education-organized press conference.

Her college degree prepared her to handle English 7 but not her other specialization, Chemistry. In June, she posted that she was seriously studying again Chem (“magtoun nako'g tinud-anay).

It is not enough for her to understand a subject. She wants to simplify a subject so that everyone in class understands before she moves on to the next topic.

“Never give up on anybody. Miracles happen every day,” she quoted H. Jackson Brown, Jr. in a June 27 post.

Love for natural science is not high on the virtues of Mass Com majors. But studying AND preparing LPs on Chem reminds Eunice that, “Who dares to teach must never cease to learn.”

Another perk of teaching is having teacher and student swap places. It’s a privilege to take life lessons from Eunice, who, for her Facebook cover photo, posted the image of an anchor (“angkla”) buried in the sands of Camotes Island.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 22, 2013 issue of the “Matamata” Sunday editorial page column

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Dream of readers

I CAN’T wait for classes to be over this week so I can check out the 34th Manila International Book Fair.

Antsy since Sept. 11, the opening day, to go to the fair, I Googled and got an overhead view of one of the exhibit halls.

People reduced to brightly hued sequins are poring beside drunkenly leaning topiaries of books: a vision of Filipinos as a nation of readers.

It’s a discordant image if replayed against a typical moment in a school library.

Less than a month away is “hell week,” undergraduates’ term for five days of final exams. The closer we come to ending the semester, the more religious or superstitious some get about learning: tables are actually occupied by the readers, not the sleepers or the social networkers.

On “low demand” days, the library is a near empty cathedral, surrounded by phalanxes of the articles of its faith, minus the believers. The hush of our libraries stems from the absence of bodies, not the depths of inquiry and reflection.

What can induce more Filipinos to read?

Perhaps the answer may not be found in campus libraries, where the fear of failure is a major prop for the overarching reason of its existence: learning.

When one is directed to read, the material, no matter how peerless and edifying, curdles desire from the first glimpse of the title. The regimen of reading prescribed in classrooms usually ends in transforming what is intuitive and natural into complicated and rigorous, like learning how to breathe step by step.

Can new media promote a variant of reading? Outside of the college library, I see young people in corridors, gazebos, canteens, jeepneys, the MRT. They seem to be reading. What they read, though, is not conventional books but a mix of text, images, and even sounds.

Perhaps the form and content of what passes as online reading is less important than the user interface (UI) that makes the machine both a synthetic and a natural extension of the human.

UI, which is Internet jargon for “user-friendly,” captures the malleability of new media and the Internet to suit not just the human but every human with all the tics and quirks staking out individuality. Online, I am who I am. I can even become others.

Isn’t this at the bottom of a lifetime of reading, learning, and actualization: self-control? I read what I want; thus, I can be.

Deflating this pipe dream of an online-engineered nation of readers was a recent interlude during a mammoth sale of a national chain of bookstores. To become a reader in this country is to fit a certain mold.

First prerequisite: fluency in English. Outside of the academic press, bookstores cater nearly exclusively to fiction and non-fiction in English. It is our national language, if we shed all claims to a prehispanic authenticity or pretensions of supra-regional solidarity.

Facility with the global lingua is our lifeline to survival. Will there ever be a generation that will not export Filipino workers to all corners of the globe?

Will the K to 12 program that is now resurrecting mother tongues at the primary level raise a generation of readers that will write AND read the Filipino Novel in Cebuano, Tagalog, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Waray-Waray, and other Filipino languages? Filipiniana, a mere section in this national chain of bookstores, is still dominated by Filipinos writing in English.

Second prerequisite: technologically equipped public education. In our college are four units of wifi-connected public computers. Any student can use this for free, provided one can find a unit not shared by a gaggle of classmates or monopolized by a student lost in Internet space.

The sea of privately owned netbooks, smartphones and tablets in this college turns these few public computers into an island of access. Until reading becomes democratized, the playgrounds of learning and becoming will be limited to the classes of privilege.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s Sept. 15, 2013 issue of the Sunday editorial page column, “Matamata”

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Tibak, noon at ngayon

FOR a martial law baby, it was a bit overwhelming.

One minute, I got a text from a stranger, asking me to check my inbox. The texter was also the sender of the email, whose subject read: “Mayette, let's tell PNoy to require all public officials to take public transit at least once a month!”

I don’t know Dinna Louise C. Dayao but I got her drift: “The only way our government officials will understand the plight of commuters is if they themselves take public transit regularly.”

I clicked on her link,, and signed the petition, along with 5,670 others, as of this writing.

Ms. Dayao of Manila, the “petition organizer,” emailed that it would take only “30 seconds” to sign the petition. I took longer than that. I read and reread the petition. Checked the articles related to it. Viewed a video. Googled the subject, including Ms. Dayao and

I commute from Parañaque in the south to Quezon City in the north, approximately three hours on not so rush rush-hours, one way, for the past 17 months. But I still had to check.

Maybe I had time on my hands. Maybe it was a bit disorienting for a martial law baby. Being a “tibak (aktibista or activist)” during the dictatorship years was not just messy, tiresome, inconvenient, frustrating. It meant lives derailed, lost.

Compared to that, online activism is a picnic, a description that’s striking because that’s also how the news media described the Million People March to Luneta last Aug. 26: a “massive ‘pocket picnic’ get together” to protest against the pork barrel scam.

For this college activist who had to override paternal opprobrium, boycott classes, shake the unshakeable apathy of “burgis (bourgeois)” classmates, and plan contingency measures in case of violent dispersals of street rallies, gave instant, painless access so that I (and 5,670 others) called no less than the president’s attention to give reality lessons to blind and callous bureaucrats.

Right after I signed the petition, sent a thank-you message with an invitation to share the petition on Facebook with friends. It even considerately showed me a formatted email, complete with my name as petitioner, which I could forward with a click to my social network. combines two compelling features of participatory democracy: anyone can start a petition and numbers have strength. This is according to another follow-up email from founder Ben Rattray.

My classmate, Dems, sent me links to other campaigns launched on Drawing 826 supporters as of this writing, petitioner Dominique Francesca Marie Banaag of Manila wants a local fast food giant to “add more spaghetti sauce and hotdogs”.

“Because having more pasta and less sauce is just plain disappointing” is the tersely worded petition.

Petitioning the president of the United States is Brendan Glenwright of Utica, MI, who is calling for a ban on monosodium glutamate. So far, there are 202 who signed up, none from PH that I can see.

Online activism is here to stay, not only because it eases one’s social conscience with a click of the mouse or a wave of the hand activating an intuitive touchscreen. The Internet can gather the numbers.

Can it teach endurance, which Marcos and his minions (hardly resembling the cute critters of today) drilled into tibaks of the past?

When Dems, girlfriend Maggie, classmate Candeze and best friend Mark turned up in Luneta last National Heroes’ Day, they saw a crowd where the Doc Martens stood out even despite the mud, recalled Candeze. It’s a British brand of boots sold only in upscale malls.

Street veteran Diosa was more scathing. Sidelined in Luneta with her group that advocates for the passage of the Freedom of Information Bill, she said many of those in the crowd last Aug. 26 still have to realize that advocacy demands more than Facebook likes.

Three days after her first text and email, Ms. Dayao emailed to report that our 5,631-signed petition had Metropolitan Manila Development Authority Chairman Francis Tolentino now commuting. To challenge PNoy and other officials to do the same, she invited me to take a photo or video capturing my commuting pains and email, Facebook or Tweet these with the hashtag #camyourcommute.

It’s a brave new world. Now, let’s see if I can raise the digital rebel while surviving in the streets of Manila.

( 09173226131)

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s September 8, 2013 issue of the editorial page column, “Matamata”