Spars and Ropes

Uncooked spaghetti and marshmallows, these modest foods color one of my fondest memories: playing traditional Belgian youth movement games with a class of Chinese teenagers in Shanghai. Three years ago, during a semester studying abroad in Shanghai, I found a job as an English tutor. Every Friday, I would take the train from my college campus across the city to help Chinese students at the Jiao Tong University prepare for their studies abroad in Europe or the United States.


Chinese students abroad have a hard time integrating and often face loneliness and depression, so Craig, an entrepreneurial English teacher, had set up after-school sessions to help students improve their English conversation skills and acclimate them to American and European social customs and practices. Craig was one of the most inspiring people I have ever met. Over the course of a few years, he worked as a successful translator, teacher and software developer. Not content with being a great programmer, he was involved in one of Shanghai’s CoderDojos, small clubs of volunteers teaching kids the basics of computer programming. Three years later, when I felt I had enough experience, I followed his example and joined my local CoderDojo in Belgium. He won one of Jiao Tong University’s teaching award, but still organized extra tutoring sessions because he felt his students needed to develop conversational skills outside of the formal classroom setting.

While the tutoring sessions were held in a classroom, the activities we organized were informal and playful, ranging from pub quizzes over speed-dating sessions to Halloween or Christmas parties. One Friday, I organized a session around youth movements. I was a boy scouts leader and I thought it would be fun to give an introduction to a movement that is very popular in America and Europe, but not very well-known in China —in fact, scouting was forbidden by the Communist Party up until 2006. While Belgian scouts don’t focus as much on discipline, structure and survival skills as their counterparts in the US or other European countries and prefer a more casual, playful and levelled approach, developing outdoors and survival skills are still an important part of our activities.

To give the students some insight into scouting, I prepared an interactive demonstration of one of the most impressive scouting activities: pioneering, described by Wikipedia as the art of using ropes and wooden spars joined by lashings and knots to create a structure. Of course, large-scale pioneering is tricky to perform inside a classroom —for similar reasons, we had to abandon the idea of building a campfire— but the practical skills, problem solving and teamwork (in English, of course) involved in pioneering can be practiced just as well through tabletop pioneering, using uncooked spaghetti as spars and marshmallows as joints.

Proudly I watched my students work together to build impressively high and stable structures. There was definitely some engineering talent in the room, and it was great to see how some of the students who had been the most shy and insecure during English conversation were now leading their team in maximizing the architectural potential of their culinary resources.