What We Learn in High School–A Student Perspective

 

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In my senior capstone, I have students bring in precious objects that symbolize their childhood, and we spend the afternoon sharing stories.

Every year, I assign a final senior essay that is an inquiry about what the graduating students learned in high school.  It’s an important reflection on their last four years of their lives, those years that are far too often a precarious bridge from childhood to adulthood.  As I page through the reflections filled with their lessons, joys, and sometimes regrets, it is always evident that the real learning isn’t from the academic content of reading, writing, and arithmetic.  Instead, it’s from lunch table conversations, a whisper from a teacher, an F in math.  It’s from being late to first period, sending silly snapchats in science, finding your best friend two seats in front of you in English, and from making (or missing) the honor roll or basketball team.

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A hilarious page from a student’s graphic short story about how he went from getting in trouble in my class to totally kicking butt in it.

All the essays leave some sort of impression.  I often get funny looks at the coffee shop as I sit in the corner and laugh aloud at funny lines, or sigh at the all too familiar feelings of social isolation and academic pressure.  And every so often, I stumble upon an essay that scuffs its wet shoes on my welcome mat, makes itself a cup of tea, and lingers a while on my couch.  This essay did just that.  In fact, I even had to get a little more metaphorical honey for the tea.  It represented the lessons and emotions of high school in such a genuine and raw way.  I immediately talked to Jada–the beautiful author of this peice–to see if I could publish it on this blog.  So here is what is learned in high school, the ugly and the beautiful, from her perspective (published with her permission).

I hope it makes itself at home for you that way it did for me.

Exposure
by Jada

Telling your mother you want to kill yourself because of her is as earth shattering as the moment you took your first breath from the womb. I will soon find later that I allowed lies to slip through my teeth from anger. Pristine lungs that once filled with fresh air are nothing more than charred up lumps of coal from all the cigarettes I’ve smoked on the way home at 10:30 because I am trying to drown my sorrows in drugs that I don’t even understand.

“That’s just high school,” she says when I tell her I might commit tonight.

“Drama happens.”

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Tour Our Classroom! Room 313 in Pictures

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Welcome to room 313!  

One of the best compliments I’ve ever received is a student telling me that my classroom felt like home.   A colleague was running a workshop with my students, and they had to fill out these little color coded cards: light orange for important people in their lives, dark orange for important goals for themselves, green for important memories, and a peachy shade for important places.   As I walk happily gallery-walking around the space to check out their lists, I halted when I saw this particular line of squares:

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“My room?” I questioned, blinking uncomfortably fast to keep from showing that I was tearing up.  “Yeah,” the student replied.  Another student called, “It’s on my list too!”

The fact that a classroom can make a list of important places is important to me.  Over the last ten years, I’ve become increasingly interested in classroom space and how a classroom’s look and feel contributes to students’ socio-emotional health and academic success.   I grew up with the inspiration of my mum’s amazingly decorated third grade classroom.  I know how I felt special and excited to learn in her room, and I wanted my own students to feel the same way.  But yet, when I Googled or Pinterested (is that a verb yet?) “classroom decor,”  97.8% of the examples came from elementary and middle school spaces.

High schoolers deserve non-sterile and creative spaces to learn just as much as they still deserve scratch and sniff stickers (although the other week I accidentally gave them stickers that smelled like dirt, and I had to beg them to believe that I didn’t think their work was dirt).

And so I improvised and modified.  At first, I decorated with mostly things that I loved.  I put up pictures of my favorite books.  I decorated entire walls with zombie memorabilia (did you know I have an obsession with zombies?).  I hung postcards of my favorite places that I’ve traveled.

It begins in August.  This is what my trunk looked like going into this school year.  I think it took six different shops to get all of the supplies I need.  Don’t worry–I’m a bargain hunting machine!

But you know what I realized?  The classroom isn’t about me.  In fact,  I should switch the pronoun from “my classroom” to “our classroom.”  If I want to support the multiple identities of my students,  I need to make sure that the objects in my classroom reflect that value.  And so, I started putting up things my students liked, as well as their work.  I hung up gifts that they gave me.  I handmade mailboxes so that each student could have a space to hold their journals and important papers.  I now change my classroom each year with each new group of students, and it also changes throughout the year as we evolve throughout the year.

It’s made all of the difference.  It used to be that after the bell rang at 3:04, my room would whoosh into silence after being filled with so much student chatter.  But now, the voices and laughter can be found until I put on my coat, sometimes at 5:30 at night, while I exclaim, “I love you, but I really do have to go now!”

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Above my door on the inside. Basketball hoop is key!  Whenever my students are featured in news articles, I paste them underneath the ‘313 in the News” sign I made out of poster materials from Walgreens.  The basketball hoop is one of my favorite additions to my classroom.  Students shoot before school, in between classes, and after school.  Some intense debates have been settled through shoot offs!  I have some really squirrely freshmen in study hall, and they run from their previous class to get four and a half minutes of a basketball game in before the bell rings.  And let me tell you, they get quite intense and once drew blood while a sub was there, but it makes study hall go much more quietly and smoothly in the long run.  Trust me!

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I love this idea for exit slips; thanks Pinterest!  It’s awesome to have students (or teachers, as this picture shows reflections from a professional development workshop I gave) stick their musings to the door on the way out!

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The bottom of my door on the inside. I got these felt stick-on letters in the bargain bin at Target!

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I love doing warm fuzzies with my seniors.  Students write warm fuzzies (little notes of appreciation and love that make you feel all “warm and fuzzy” inside after you read them) to each other all semester long, and then the students get to take their stuffed envelope with them as a parting graduation gift.  Sometimes I buy fancy ones like this from the Chicago Teacher Store.

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But if I’m low on cash, I’ll sneak these plain envelopes from the Division office and have students decorate them with pictures and words that best represent them.

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One of my favorite additions this year is a life sized Frederick Douglass.  Not only is he one of my all time heroes, but he is also a quiet and important watchful force in the room.  I mean, seeing as this man sacrificed everything to read and write to gain his freedom, what student would dare not read in from of Freddie D.  Right?  (And he really is huge.  I’m 5’11 to put him to scale).

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On Reverse Culture Shock

 

Disclaimer: this is a personal website. All views and information presented herein are my own and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.

 

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Fulbright teacher alumni jumping for joy at last year’s orientation.  Photo cred: Stacey Tatera

In two days, I’ll kiss a plane.

As much as I love the opportunity to see stars from a different vantage point in the world, I’m terrified of flying to get there.  So, as superstitious and silly as it may be, I must kiss every plane I walk onto.  I’ve been caught once or twice by flight attendants who gaze at me with a mix between amusement and pity, and I’ve gotten ninja-quick with how fast I can kiss my hand and press it against the plane.  Sure, it’s a small, futile gesture, but it’s something that calms the panic building up in my ears.  And makes me feel oddly sunny to know that there are planes in the air right now that have my smooch-blessings on them.

I’m going to Washington D.C. to greet the newest batch of incredible Fulbright Teachers at their orientation.  It’s strange  to think that was me two summers ago, feeling mostly like I didn’t belong there, that they had chosen the wrong girl for the Fulbright.  I was unconfident in myself, and I spent more time studying my shoes than facing forward toward the transformative experience that was to come.  And now, two years later, I refuse to look down, and I find much gratitude in being able to embrace things head on.  

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Presenting at the Fulbright orientation last year 

One of the most impactful sessions for me during the three and a half day orientation was on reverse culture shock.  I had never considered that when I returned from my trip that I’d feel anything other than happy and grateful.  But as the speaker Craig Storti, the author of The Art of Coming Home expressed, home has changed. And I have changed.  When I returned, I did struggle with adapting with feeling like I constantly wanted to talk about this life-changing-sound-the-trumpets-I-uncovered-the-best-me-and-I-want-to-conquer-the-world-now year, but never actually talking about it as I felt that no one would really understand it.  Luckily, the orientation helped me moved pretty seamlessly into my new kiwi culture, and it got me emotionally prepared for the occasionally turbulent transition back into US culture.  But what it didn’t prepare me for was how occasionally funny that transition could be.

When my family picked me up on Christmas Eve eve from the airport, we decided to stop into Buffalo Wild Wings because I was dying for some Asian Zing chicken.  Within a few moments, I turned to my brother Danny and exclaimed, “Why is everybody screaming?!”.  For the first week or so, I felt like everyone was talking at me in all CAPS, and I put earplugs in my Amazon wishlist (which coincidentally I realized I still had in there as of a few days ago, so I swapped it for back-to-school scratch n’ sniff stickers).  

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My brothers and I reunited after my Fulbright experience. 

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Shuffle Along, or How a Musical Can Teach Us to Remember and Treasure Black Art

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Enjoying my summer in NYC for an NEH grant.


I have always been a closet fanatic of musicals.  I say “closet” as my bank account does not possess the sort of balance required to see the array of musicals I’d have to see in order to be considered a true connoisseur (I have never seen things like Cats or Phantom, for example).  But I do enter lotteries and try to score rush tickets, so I’ve gotten to see things from The Lion King to Rent to The Book of Mormon.  When alone in my apartment, if I’m not fervently listening to my latest audiobook (the current one being Jesmyn Ward’s The Men We Reaped), I’m singing along to Broadway showtunes.  Believe me, I’ve put on some pretty elaborate productions complete with Rockette kick lines while washing dishes and making my bed.  Idina Menzel would be proud.

I’m spending two weeks in the great New York City for a pretty amazing National Endowment of the Humanities seminar called “Freedom for One, Freedom for All? Abolition and Woman Suffrage 1830-1920.”  As history is cyclical, it is so fascinating to see how relevant the issues of voting rights, the right to love, and the disenfranchisement of people of color are still so stubbornly present in today’s culture.  It’s been an amazing seminar so far, but quite emotionally intense with a pretty hefty workload.  I’m still able to see some of New York, but on each train ride, you can find me frantically reading and annotating our readings to and from my daily adventure.

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Our two core texts for the institute.

Even though I’m trying desperately to save pennies, thanks to my new friend Laurie, I heard that the musical Shuffle Along, or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All that Followed was closing for good. The post-reconstruction era and the Harlem Renaissance are two of my favorite times in history to teach. Not to mention that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see the Audra McDonald live.  And Tony winner Billy Porter.  And Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell.  And nominee Joshua Henry…  And well, you get the point.  The show is pretty much packed with some of the best talent on earth.

But tickets were sold out.  I refreshed the seatgeek app several times an hour hoping that someone would give up his ticket, and I put up on ad on Craigslist.  And then, on Saturday evening—the day before the show closing–some tickets suddenly popped up on the screen for the final show, and I typed in the numbers on my credit card faster than I could consider the price (I paid face value.  But still).  I would find out later that Audra McDonald called off and stated that she would not perform as the care of her baby comes first (did I mention that she tap dances, does incredible high kicks, and belts her esophagus out, all while in her second trimester?!), which is why so many people gave up their tickets.  I’m glad that I a) did not know this fact and b) was happy to see that Audra did in fact perform the show closing.   She is one phenomenal woman.  

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As seen outside the theater.  #truth

I’ve never even so much as gone to a movie by myself, so I was a little intrigued to go a large broadway show stag.  But I was fourth row center, so I figured that the performers will feel very much like my companions for the evening.  It was an amazing experience to be almost close enough that if a character was downstage, he or she could spit on me when they over-enunciated words.  It turns out that half of my row was solo, and so we found ourselves talking eagerly together in anticipation of the curtain opening.  

It was thrilling to be in the caffeine of the packed house.  And it really was packed, as people even stood and shifted their weight from foot to foot in their jagged line against the back wall of the theater.  The only seemingly empty seat in the house was the one to my left.  About two minutes before the opening note, an attractive man snuck into the seat next to me.  “You made it!” I exclaimed with such exuberance, I’m pretty sure that the people in our close vicinity thought that we were friends.

“I better have,” he said, wiping sweat off of his forehead.  “I called off in order to be here for this.”

“Oh?” I said.  “What show are you in?”

Motown the Musical,” he replied, looking a little embarrassed.

“What?! Cool! What role do you play?”  I was suddenly proud my solo seat family thought we were friends.

“Marvin Gaye.”

“That’s so awesome! That musical is on my list of musicals to see!”

The light went out a little bit in his eyes.  “You better go soon.  We close next week.”  

I had obviously struck a chord, and I stuttered a bit in my response.  “Oh man, that’s terrible.”

“Yeah,” he said, not making eye contact, “The social climate is changing.  It’s not one that’s as open for shows like us…”

He got cut off as the lights started to dim and people began cheering in anticipation at the start of the show.  I clapped and hollered too, but what he said stung and the irony was not lost on me.  Shows like us.  Shows featuring predominately Black casts?

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The Powerful Pōwhiri : Now on Video!

One of the highlights of my year of many highlights was the pōwhiri, or Māori welcoming ceremony.  And I am now pleased to note that it’s now available for video streaming!  I’ve completed a video guide (ah, the teacher in me) so you can see the elements of what is occurring, and I  bolded the portions that were the most touching to me.

0-1:00 visitor Karanga whakautu (response to our off camera opening call)

1:36- 3:34 Tangata whenua whaikōrero  (host speech),  Ray DeThorne, Chief Marketing Officer of The Field Museum

3:45-4:57 Waiata (song), OPRF Gospel Choir singing “Makanaka”

5:11-11:10 Host speech, Joe Podlasek, LCO-Ojibwe/Polish

11:11-12:48 Jingle Dress dancers with drum song

12:49-18:24   Host speech, Stephen Isoye, OPRF Superintendent and Jahmari, OPRF student

18:36-19:09 Waita, lead by Daejia, OPRF student (Note: this was my favorite song I learned it New Zealand.  It means “Love, Faith, And Peace Be Among Us All”)

19:32- 20:55 Manuhiri (visitor )speech, Niko, Te Kāpehu Whetū student

20:56- 21:50 Manuhiri  waita (visitor song) 

21:51-27:39  Manuhiri speech in te reo Māori, Ralph Ruka, Te Kāpehu Whetū educator

27:40-30:40 Manuhiri speech in English, Ralph Ruka,  Te Kāpehu Whetū educator

30:41- 32:10 Manuhiri  waita (visitor song)

33:30-39:10 Marianne Craven, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Academic Programs, US State Department, perhaps some of the most kind words ever uttered about me

39:11-42:12 Joe Podlasek speech

42:54-51:53  Speech and presentation of koha (gifts), Raewyn Tipene, CEO of Te Kāpehu Whetū

51:54-52:44  Haka

52:50-55:10  Whakaratarata (Reception Line) Most powerful part of the ceremony: the kisses and hongi (pressing of noses).   Every person in the room participated–it went on for quite a bit longer.  My students said this was their favorite part!

After the ceremony, was the Hākari, or food, that lifts the weight of the sacred ceremony. All of the students from New Zealand and OPRF took off their shoes and entered the marae, and prayed and sang together.  To say it was special and sacred, is to state an understatement.

E hoa ma, ina te ora o te tangata

My friends, this is the essence of life

 

 

 

A Powerful Pōwhiri in Pictures

I need pictures to say the thousand words I wish I could use  to describe the incredible week I’ve just experienced.  

During my time in New Zealand, (click here for a recent article on my Fulbright research and the subsequent exchange) working with indigenous Māori people allowed me the opportunity to witness first hand the profoundly positive impact that placing culture and heritage first in education has on eliminating the racial predictability of student academic achievement. I came back from my Fulbright experience a changed human.  The trip  inspired me to find my roots and ancestry through embracing the land, sea, and where I come from.  Although my students couldn’t go to New Zealand this year, this exchange to Oak Park allowed my students to witness a new culture and ignite curiosities that will inspire them explore to US and the world in the future.

Through a serendipitous encounter in Rotorua, New Zealand (blog post to come),  I had the great privilege to collaborate with Raewyn Tipene, the amazing CEO of the Te Kāpehu Whetū school in Whangarei, New Zealand, and together we worked on a cultural exchange between our two schools.   It was meant to be, as the world renowned Field Museum has one of three marae, or Māori meeting houses, outside of New Zealand.  The marae comes from the iwi (tribe) in Tokomaru Bay, and some of the students from the New Zealand school have ancestors from there.

In order to welcome them appropriately, we completed a pōwhiri , or a traditional welcome ceremony.   And I can’t explain how much it touched me to bring 80 students and have them feel how I felt a year ago this week when I went through my own first pōwhiri .   Because I can’t even attempt to adequately explain it,  I’m using these pictures (best ones are towards the end!), taken by the amazing Fredy Peralta through APJ Photography.  I hope they can speak the words I cannot write.  Enjoy!

Picture of the marae

Photo credit:  APJ Photography
The marae (or the meeting house) is ready for the ceremony.

Picture of the marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The beautiful marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography The Marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The Marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography The marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The marae

Photo credit: APJ Photography The Field Museum's Mary Ann Bloom does the welcome call for our guests to enter.

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The Field Museum’s Mary Ann Bloom does the karanga, or call for our manuhiri tūārangi, guests from afar to enter.

Photo credit: APJ Photography Te Kāpehu Whetū enters the space while we all stand.

Photo credit: APJ Photography
Te Kāpehu Whetū enters the space while we all stand.

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Photo credit: APJ Photography

 

Photo credit: APJ Photography A whaikōrero, or speech from Ray DeThorne, Chief Marketing Officer of The Field Museum

Photo credit: APJ Photography
A whaikōrero, or speech from Ray DeThorne, Chief Marketing Officer of The Field Museum

Photo credit: APJ Photography The OPRF choir responds with a waiata, or song

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The OPRF choir responds with a waiata, or song

Photo credit: APJ Photography Joe Podlasek, LCO-Ojibwe/Polish, speaks his welcome words on behalf of the First People of the United States, and explains the importance of the Eagle staff he presented

Photo credit: APJ Photography
Joe Podlasek, LCO-Ojibwe/Polish, speaks his welcome words on behalf of the First People of the United States, and explains the importance of the Eagle staff he presents.

Photo credit: APJ Photography The First People respond with drums and a beautiful jingle dancer.

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The First People respond with drums and a beautiful jingle dancer.

Photo credit: APJ Photography The drums and song

Photo credit: APJ Photography
The drums and song

Photo credit: APJ Photography Jingle dancing

Photo credit: APJ Photography
Jingle dancing

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What it’s Like to be a Teacher at the End of Summer Break

Picture of palm trees along the beach at sunset.

Summer!

My first day of school is just a week away, so I’m experiencing my last fleeting hours of the Sunday that is August.  That is to say, that in teacher world, we consider June to feel like a Friday, July like a Saturday, and August very much like a Sunday where you can’t quite relax and enjoy yourself because that “case of the Mondays” feeling is scratching at your front door.  I get a lot of comments from non-teachers about how blissful it must be to have the summers off–and believe me it is blissful–but the week before school starts is filled with bizarre feelings and behaviors.  So, for those of you always wanting to know what it’s like to be a teacher at the end of summer break, you now have to wonder no more.

  1. The “back-to-school”nightmares is a real thing.

The time in which the first nightmare will shoot you straight up in bed varies.  For me, it’s usually early August, but I have gotten a random one at the end of June (separation anxiety maybe?).  The usual dream is some variation of showing up to school to do some routine “get the classroom back in order action”–in my case usually unshowered and especially unkempt–and I realize as I walk up to my classroom that there is a classroom of eager (and confused) freshmen waiting for their teacher to show up to class.  The first sensation when I realize that I mixed up the first day of school date is “PUKE!”   And then that feeling settles into that panicked feeling of, “do I run and pretend that I’m sick?” or “do I walk in late with absolutely nothing prepared looking like I’ve come from a week camping in the Outback?”

The strangest back-to-school nightmare I’ve had involved the way I greeted students on the first day.  There I was, wrapped from neck to toe in several layers of bubble wrap, chest bumping each student as he or she entered the classroom–all to the tune of the Space Jam theme song.

This is the copy room two weeks before school started.  Everyone is already getting their copies made! (PS: that Jessica is not me.  I'm not quite that on top of my game).

This is the copy room two weeks before school started. Everyone is already getting their copies made! (PS: that Jessica is not me. I’m not quite that on top of my game).

Thus, most back-to-school nightmares highlight a) our anxiety of not being prepared enough for a new school year b) our worry that in the two months that we got to unkink the tension knots in our backs and be real people that we forgot how to teach, and c) that we will not make the critical good first impression on our students that we need to in order to have a successful school year.  Because the research states that most students make judgments on whether or not they will like a teacher and whether or not they feel they will be academically successful and socio-emotionally healthy in the class within the first few minutes of class.  And they are usually right in that first impression.  No pressure, huh?

So we care a lot about being prepared for that first day and that first impression.  I know I’m not alone in spending hours getting my classroom in working order, making copies well in advance, and starting to practice speaking grammatically correct and clean English again.

           2.  We go a bit nutty over school supplies.

This is a bit of an understatement.  There is a knowing look that teachers exchange between each other when we see other teachers at Office Max holding the same coupon clippings in their hands.

Teachers, as you probably already know, spend a lot of their own money on classroom decor, organizational supports, classroom sets of art supplies, and school supplies for low income students.  And we only get to write $250 of it off on our taxes.  So, we look for deals and free stuff wherever we can, because teachers never feel more broke at the start of the school year after they’ve bought all things needed get the classroom to its effective academic learning environment glory.

My strategy, because I’m especially broke right now, is to obsessively check freecycle.org, the free section of Craiglist, and my community swap and sell page on Facebook.  And there are occasional jackpots.  Just the other day, I answered a freecycle.org ad for 1,000 FREE PENS.  Yes, they have advertising on them, but hey, they work! Every teacher I’ve told about this find has gasped and cheered with me about my good fortune.

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I’ve got pens for days!!

Writing utensils, when you teach high school at least, are a hot commodity.  I get asked probably 11.7 times a day for a pen.  And because I don’t want 2% of my paycheck to go to buying pens due to the low return rate of said pens, I get creative. In the past I’ve:

  • Had students give me a shoe in exchange for a pen.  But one time I had a student with feet so smelly I had to quickly give him his shoe back and change the policy to “some sort of valuable item” (i.e. their cell phone).
  • Spent hours attaching obnoxious fake flowers to the ends of pens and pencils, and “planted” them nicely in a pot, thinking it would cause students to garden each day when they returned the utensils to me on the way out.  But what I thought was obnoxious was “cool” to the high schoolers, and those puppies were stolen before I could even get through Of Mice and Men.
  • Attached stickers of Barbie and 90s boy bands to my pens and pencils thinking that again, the students would be dismayed at their utensil and want to swiftly return them.  But as in above, they started trading them like baseball cards.

I know that it’s good for executive functioning to help students remember to bring a utensil.  But I also don’t want to spend any of my precious class time arguing with the one student who forgets a utensil every single day. Because yes, there is always that one student.  Instead, I will provide that student with one of 1,000 pens I have in my classroom right now.  And yes, teacher friends, I am sharing if you need a hook up.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was climbing into tombs.  Now I'm excavating all of my classroom materials out of boxes.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I was climbing into tombs. Now I’m excavating all of my classroom materials out of dusty boxes.

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Oaxaca, Mexico in 40 seconds

View from the plane window

The view from the airplane landing in Chicago. Photo cred: Ami Relf (seeing as I am too scared to look out of plane windows).

I have safely returned to the Windy City, but I can’t stop daydreaming about my time in Mexico.  It was beautiful and filled with cup-runneth-over joy.  I wrote several blogs while there, but because of spotty internet and the fact that I always wanted to be out tasting moles and dancing at festivals, I will post them over the next several days.

But until then, check out this little film that I think best represents my month in Oaxaca.  To create it, I used the app “1 Second Everyday“–an easy-to-use app that creates souvenirs more meaningful than t-shirts.

Enjoy!

Going With The Flow at Hierve El Agua

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Hierve El Auga, on the top of the world!

Before I moved to New Zealand for a semester, I received two guidebooks for the country as gifts. I studied them both, inside and out, carefully marking the adventures I wanted to turn over in my brain during dull moments, like waiting for buses and late friends.  Both books were heavy to carry with me across the planet, but I wanted to have my post it notes and bookmarks.  On my first full day in New Zealand, I found my way to the tourism office, and I took so many brightly colored pamphlets that one of the women working at the tourism bureau asked if I wanted a shopping bag to take them all home with me.

But I’ve done quite the opposite while in Oaxaca.  Instead of meticulously planning out each and every second of my days, I’ve tried the “go with the flow” method.  I decided I wouldn’t research, wouldn’t highlight and star, I would just accept as many invitations to see and do and feel as possible.  One reason—the pragmatic one at least–for my change in mindset is that I know that there is such a plethora of things to do and see  that I realistically cannot see all of that I would want to see in Oaxaca in just thirty days.  This is further exacerbated by the fact that my primary reason to be here is to study and collaborate and not to play.

Picture of all of us at the top.

Our band photo

So, I knew before coming here that if I just “let things happen,” that I can better stay in the moment, saving me some of the uncomfortable and scratchy “shoulda/coulda/woulda” feelings that can follow me home in the night.  The second is that I’ve just simply been tired—tired of working, tired of planning, and most importantly, tired of worrying.   So, in Mexico, I am just going to jump into things, arms outstretched, and see what returns my hug of the universe.

The

The “frozen” waterfalls

And the first real experience was my day trip to Hierve El Agua, beautiful mineral springs in the valley of Oaxaca.   My other NEH colleagues started murmuring about this natural wonder from the first day I arrived, stating that they wanted to see the beautiful waterfalls.  At one point, I got confused because someone asked me if I wanted to see the “frozen waterfalls,” and as I was sweltering in 88 degree heat, it felt incredulous that water could be frozen anywhere in the state of Oaxaca outside of a freezer.  In addition, the name “Hierve El Agua” translates as “boiling water,” so I thought that for sure the name must be incorrect.

Picture of waterfalls.

One angle of the “frozen” waterfalls.
Photo cred: Aisling Roche

But as someone finally explained to me:  Hierve El Agua isn’t waterfalls at all, but streams that have created hard, rock-like mineral deposits that give the appearance of enormous frozen waterfalls.  They are amazing to see, and the community has also damned some of dripping water to create beautiful, natural mineral water for people to swim in.  It’s a wonder (and gift) from nature.

I said yes without thinking twice.  We had a meeting point of 12 p.m. outside my friend Benita’s hotel.  In all, eight of us showed up: Benita, Steve, Vanessa, Shidah, Geoff, Aisling, Katherine, and Jesse (a male Jesse, whom everyone calls “el Jesse” and me “la Jessie”).  After everyone congregated (Ashling and I were late as we had spent the morning running all over the city to photograph street art), we had to figure out how to get there.

And boy am I glad I said yes before I knew exactly what I was getting into. Let’s just say that unless you go with a tour, the ride there is half the adventure.

Pictures of colectivos.

Pictures of colectivos.
Source

First, we walked north a mile to a colectivo stand.  There are three main forms of transportation in Oaxaca—bus, taxi, and colectivo.  The bus is pretty self-explanatory, but it is entertaining to see men hanging outside of the passenger entrance yelling the bus’s particular destination.  Second, there are taxis, which you can hail off of the street, call, or jump into at taxi stands.  There are no meters inside the taxis—you negotiate your price before you get in the vehicle.  It seems the going rate, no matter how many people are with you or where you are going in central Oaxaca—is 40 pesos (roughly less than $3).  The other day, my friends and I took a taxi to a restaurant that was almost twenty minutes away, and there were four of us the car—and the price was still 40 pesos.  Amazing!

So last, we have the colectivo, or collective cabs.  This is definitely the cheapest option if you want to travel out of central Oaxaca and see the neighboring cities.  A colectivo has a specific designation (made clear with a sign in the car’s front window) and makes its rounds at each of the designated stops.  Anyone desiring to go to that destination can get hop in, and the driver will notify how many spots are open by sticking the corresponding number of fingers out of his window while he slowly drives by.  Colectivos are a far cheaper way to get out of town, and be a quarter of the cost of a regular taxi.

We split into two groups of four to try to make hailing a colectivo easier.  We finally negotiated the ride for 25 pesos each (less than $2), which I realized quickly was a large victory as the drive to the city of Mitla was about 35 minutes away.  Once we arrived and got out of the comfort of the taxi, I stretched and smiled, thinking we were almost there.  But soon, I saw one of my Spanish-speaking friends negotiating fares in front of what essentially was a pickup truck with a top over it.  I gulped and imagined someone holding my frizzy hair back as I puked up the three amazing al pastor tacos I had enjoyed from lunch.  Remembering to bring medicine for car sickness is not something I had put on my daytrip packing list.  Swimsuit, yes!  Motion sickness pills, a big ole nope.

Here’s a video clip of our journey before we start climbing the mountain thanks to Aisling Roche!


But I made it.  We piled into the camioneta and settled in for 40 minutes of going up a mountain over potholes and dirt terrain.  We had to hold on to whatever we could—the metal poles on the edges, the seats, each other.  I was my total chameleon self—because the group was happy, positive, and bubbly, I stayed comfortably in the same mood.  As we reached almost the top, I thought we had finally made it.  Nope.  We had to change hands and pickup trucks, and the “new” truck made the old truck look like a hot rod.  It was smaller with torn up seats and a roof that leaked.   In addition, the new pickup truck already had passengers inside, so we squished even more next to a kind and very curious Oaxacan man.

Photo cred: Aisling Roche

Photo cred: Aisling Roche

So by the time we made it to the top of the mountain, it was 2 hours and 45 minutes after we had initially left.  Our eyes welcomed the snack and taco stands at the top of the hill, but we weren’t swayed by the owners’ beckoning calls.  We could impale our stomachs with food later.  For now, we just wanted to see it.

A picture of Hierve El Agua

The beautiful natural swimming pool.

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Ms. Stovall 313’s Next Big Adventure!

I’m smiling so big that that I might crack open my face because of my recent good news.  I have received an NEH grant!

As you may know, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH)  is a government agency that funds amazing humanities programs nationwide.  One of their many grants is for school teachers and university professors to take summer institute courses on a wide variety of humanities topics.  The summer institutes range from one to five weeks, and NEH fully funds the programs so teachers can study and collaborate with teachers for all over the US.

There are 46 different institutes this summer ranging from “Cultures of Independence: Perspectives on Independence Hall and the Meaning of Freedom” in Philadelphia to “Political and Constitutional Theory for Citizens” in LA.  Whether you are at teacher that wants to study history, politics, literature, culture, music, Religion, art, or language, there is a summer institute that will titillate your brain.

So guess where am I going to spend this summer?

Picture of Jess holding up a sign of Mexico

YAY!

I’m heading to Oaxaca, Mexico!

 A bit of backstory here: The Fulbright to New Zealand was a very spiritual experience for me.  The indigenous Māori have a deep connection to their whakapaka, their ancestry, the heart and soul of who they are and where they come from.  When I would hear their stories of their land and of their people, I think about the black and white starkness of my own genealogy, where we can amazingly trace my white mother’s side back to Captain Jonathan Sparrow (maybe a cousin of the famous pirate made famous by Walt Disney?), born 1630 in England and came to the United States on a ship soon after the Mayflower.  But on my Black father’s side, all that remains when looking just 150 years in the past is this single black and white photograph of a man and woman.  Little is known about these two individuals; however, it is understood that this couple is the last of the traceable family members on my dad’s side, for the rest of the family tree is of course lost to slavery. There are many reflections and implications that arise from looking at the first two people in your family to possess freedom, and yet have no idea of their identities. They are the legacy of my blackness, but I do not even know their names or what brought them great joy.

Picture of Jess's ancestors.

The picture of the first free ancestors on my dad’s side.

 

Picture outside of waitomo caves

Regina and I getting ready to enter the caves!

One example of my spiritual journey to connect to my heritage in New Zealand came  when I went to the glowworm caves in Waitomo with my dear friend Regina when she visited me for two weeks. After walking through 250 meters of cave and seeing amazing displays of stalactites and stalagmites, our guide told us to be utterly silent as the group approached a river flowing  40 meters under the earth.  We climbed without speaking into a little rowboat we found there, and our guide pulled us using ropes attached to the top of the cave into utter darkness.  And then, as we entered a cathedral of the cave, I looked up and saw millions of glowworms stuck like stars in the night sky.  This sight rivals some of the most beautiful displays of nature I’ve gazed upon in my life so far, such as the sun rising over the ocean in Jamaica, or setting over the Charles Bridge in Prague.

 

Picture of the glowworm cave.

The glow worm cave.
Source

Picture of inside of the cave.

Some more wonders of the cave.

And I just… lost it.  There I was in a boat with 15 other people in a river under the earth gazing at something that can only be described as miraculous, and I just started weeping like an old woman reunited with a long lost love.  There was something so undefined and special about looking up at those glowworms.  I started thinking about all of the heartache, all of the freedoms stolen, all of the  moments of struggle and perseverance that lead to that very moment of getting me into this boat to experience this miracle. Everything from slavery, to disease, to even my own amazing parents having to withstand racial bigotry to create their loving family, I know that I have not gotten here alone.  And there I was standing on very tall shoulders having an encounter that my ancestors probably could not even imagine one of their descendants experiencing. I felt my ancestors sparkle their joy and pride for me through the lights of the glowing insects.

Now, mind you, it is incredibly difficult to prevent one’s neighbors from knowing you’re sobbing your eyes out when every slight creation of sound ricochets off of the water and sides of the caves, amplifying it a million times.  But I’m only slightly ashamed that I got emotional, even if it made my boatmates fidget uncomfortably in their benches.  I’m happy that I got to have that spiritual experience of feeling so incredibly connected to my past and to my heritage.

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