Video: A Spring Day in Wellington

I’ve been lucky enough that one of my favorite forever family friends–try that for alliteration–came to visit me in New Zealand during my two week school holiday.  I’ve known Regina since she was born, and she has inspired me to be the woman I am today. And one of her many talents is that she is a filmmaker.

The saying goes here that “you can’t beat Wellington on a good day,” and we had an absolutely glorious spring day in Wellington when Regina first arrived.  I was honored that she captured the day on her iphone and made this video for me–an incredibly meaningful souvenir of my amazing adventure. I will treasure this memento always.  I hope you enjoy the beautiful Wellington sights and sunshine with me!

Picture of Regina and Jess

Regina and I just after Regina’s plane touched down in Wellington.

7 Things I Learned the Hard Way in Wellington

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.

I’ve been given the most amazing experience I could ever have dreamed.  And it has been wonderful.  But as with any transition to a new culture, it isn’t always easy.  There are hiccups, embarrassing moments, and cultural misunderstandings. I’ve definitely cried into a jar of Nutella. But that’s all a part of the journey.  I won’t grow if I don’t encounter obstacles.

The following are the seven things that I’ve learned the hard way in the first month of living in Wellington, New Zealand. Some are small, some are big.  Some might be funny, others more serious.  But all will contribute to my growth.  I can’t wait to walk away from this experience a more confident, mature, and culturally competent woman when I step on that plane back to my homeland.

  1. Snapper cards

Bus rides took me a bit to figure out. You use a bus card (called a Snapper card) to tap against a machine when you get on and then you tap off it when you exit (they call it tag on/tag off).  You then get charged by how long you ride, similar to the zoning on the London Tube station.

The first time I rode the bus, I  happened to sit behind a college-aged student who was explaining to her parents that you had to tag off or you would get a fine.  Oh. I thought.  I would never have thought to do that.

Picture of Snapper card and Garbage bags

Here are pictures of my two frenemies: my red Snapper card and yellow garbage bags.

But even with her helpful advice, I just can’t seem to get into the habit of tagging off. Once, when my flatmate Tricia and I were riding to the Karori campus, I slipped my Snapper card into my wallet and stuffed it in my coat pocket. When we got to our stop, I hopped off without even thinking about my Snapper card.  I looked back to see what was taking Tricia so long, and my eyes bugged out of my head when I saw her taking the time to tag off.  In panic, I fumbled my hand into my pocket in an attempt to retrieve my Snapper card, but by the time my fingertips felt the red plastic, the bus was happily pulling away.

A few days later when I rode the bus again for the first time since my mistake, the tag on/tag off machine shouted for all to hear, “Penalty applied.”  So not only did I get the full cash fare fine for not tagging off, but I also had everyone in the whole bus hear my transgression.  If kiwis had judging eyes, I’m sure I would have felt them on me as I walked down the bus aisle to an open seat. Now, whenever Tricia or I forget to tag off, we will call the next bus ride experience the “walk of shame.”  As in, “oh man, I really hope there aren’t many people on this bus because I have to do a walk of shame today.”

I’ve now taken to holding my Snapper card in my hand within my line of vision so that I do not forget to tag off.  However, last week, there was a spout of warm sunshine that sparkled out of nowhere. I felt like an audience member on an “Oprah’s Favorite Things” show. Soon, I found myself stripping off my winter coat, feeling pleasantly and unusually warm. As I daydreamed out the window at the beautiful hills rolling outside, I suddenly snapped to reality in the tranquil bus and realized we had reached my stop.

Jumping up, I went to tap my Snapper card against the machine and realized that I had somehow wrapped my scarf around the hand that held it.  In panic, I tried to use my semi-free hand to untwist the scarf free, but my effort was made difficult by the fact I was juggling my lunch box and laptop case.  It seemed that the harder I tried, the more I couldn’t get my hand free.  A couple of people in the back of the bus started giggling at my obvious frustration that I couldn’t find my hand.  Finally, I waved at the bus driver to go to the next stop so I could calm myself enough to figure out how to free my hand.  He shook his head at me, letting me know he would wait.  I took a deep breath, figured out that I had somehow created a knot around my hand in my panic, unknotted and wrestled it lose, tagged my card, and walked out into the now, suddenly misting Wellington air.  Man.

Lesson I learned: get the mini Snapper card that you can attach to your key chain.  And laugh at yourself when your hand gets eaten by a piece of cloth.

  1. Mold

Mold is now my greatest enemy.  My mouth fills with venom whenever I think of it.

When I first arrived, I lived with or Axford fellow Ben before he moved on to travel the world.  Those first couple of days before he left, I noticed that he always had the curtains open and would even go so far as open the windows.  Who is this guy? I would think to myself as I shuddered in the winter wind. He must be Wolverine.

After he left, I shut the windows and closed the curtains to try to keep the fleeting summer rays trapped inside each room.  But one day when I set my laptop back down and opened my bedroom door, I was slammed in the face with a putrid smell.  Mold!

Sailboats in the rain

Even though the weather is sometimes cold and windy, Wellingtonians will still brave the weather to sail. Amazing!

I opened the curtains to see that there were tiny black spots dancing along the edges of two of the curtains. I clutched my chest thinking that I was surely dying of a black lung.  I did what many people do of my generation: I jumped online and googled the harmful side effects of mold on the human body. After reading about the various neurological and respiratory diseases that can come from mold, I had to leave my apartment to gulp the fresh Cook Strait air.

Later that day, I met up with my new friend Max, and I very dramatically told him about my mold infestation.  Now, I know I was being melodramatic–I mean, I understand that having a few spots of mold on a curtain does not equal a spore takeover–but I had assumed that I’d get more than a “meh” from Max. But that is really all I got–a noncommittal, so-what-“meh.”  Apparently, mold is just a “thing” in New Zealand.  Because it is so cold and damp here and most don’t heat or insulate their houses (and many houses in the valley are in the shade), mold is just kinda an everyday problem here.

Max taught me that I have to open my curtains each day to let the sunlight in and that I should crack the windows during the day and shut them at night.  So that “strange behavior” I noted when I first arrived is actually quite normal behavior in New Zealand.  In fact, there are whole documents that give you tips on how to prevent mold.  And when you talk about mold with New Zealanders, they’ll just look at you blankly like, “so what?”  It’s just part of life here.

The good news is that I won’t die of a black lung while in New Zealand.  After talking with our landlord, we discovered that the mold on the curtains already existed.  We are lucky in that we are located in a place that gets sun all day long (when it’s sunny), so we rarely even think about the mold anymore.  The place where we actually do have a heater–although it took me a week to discover it–is in the bathroom, so we don’t have to worry about the moisture there.

Even so, Tricia and I have been super paranoid about mold. If there is anything slightly dark on anything, we will shriek “mold” and shake our fists to the sky.  Most of the time, it’s just a crumb or a sequin.  But just today, Tricia washed her water bottle and left it out to dry in the morning. By the time we arrived  home to cook dinner, our most hated enemy had found its way inside because grey clouds had blanketed the sky.  Curses!

Lesson I learned: Read about a country’s climate before arriving in said country.

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Five Little Things I Love About Wellington

Now that I’ve gotten my sea legs and can see without a jet lag haze, I’ve come to really appreciate Wellington.  In a week, I’ll take my first real venture outside of this beaut of a city, but it’s been important for me to spend some quality, uninterrupted time in the city I’ll call home until the season of Santa hats and jingle bells.  The following list includes the little things that have touched me about Wellington.  And even though they are little, I think they speak volumes about what I’ve noticed about the culture as a whole.

Note: I recognize that these could apply to other cities in New Zealand or even the country as a whole, but because I haven’t seen other cities, I don’t want to make any assumptions!

1. The grocery store

Now, keep in mind that my only routine experience with grocery shopping is at New World because it’s right on my way home (although I love Moore Wilsons, which is their equivalent of Whole Foods). Almost every day I’ll pop in to get something, partly because of how much of a kick I get out of shopping here.

The first thing I love about the store is that when you first walk in by the flowers, there will be an 80s or 90s music video playing. As you travel through the fruits and vegetables, you’ll see another screen with the same display.  And then there will be another one above the meats, etc. And whatever video is playing, that song will play throughout the whole store.  Yesterday, I was serenaded by Whitney Houston’s “How Will I know?,” Backstreet Boys’, “I Want It That Way,” and Technotronic’s “Pump Up the Jam,” for example.  It makes figuring out what the heck a kumura is an experience when you can hum along to some “Mmm Bop.” (kumura is sweet potato, by the way).

The second thing I love is that at all times of day you will see several people working in the aisles making sure that each and every label is perfectly straight. I don’t know why I find this so amazing/humorous/endearing, but sometimes I’ll catch myself staring at the employees fixing each and every soup can, box of cereal, and soda bottle. A weird side effect of this love of this aspect of the grocery store is that when I put something back, I will now stand there until the label is fixed just right. I want to make sure that, like the rest of Wellington, I show that I care about how things are presented.

Picture of jars perfectly aligned

Here is an example of how the jars will look. Amazing, eh?

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2. Bus rides

I’ll tap my Snapper card and make my way to the first empty seat.  Most of the time, the bus will be completely silent.  Even if you see a couple who have just picked up groceries or a few old friends who have formed an impromptu reunion on the bus, most people will remain quiet.  In Chicago, on the other hand, it’s common to hear groups laughing over a recent event, someone blaring a favorite track over his cellphone, and sprinklings of people talking on phones or watching YouTube videos.The only times I’ve experienced quiet buses is when the second city is either waking up for a new day or turning down for the night.

So I noticed right away how quiet these Wellington buses are.  But it’s not the quiet that I love so much, it’s the juxtaposition of this quiet and what happens each time the bus stops. As each person leaves, he or she will punctuate the silence with a “thank you driver!”

Now, for some reason when I try to imitate this gesture, I sound like Oliver! the musical by Lionel Bart.  But it’s only because imitation is a form of flattery.  I love that the Wellingtonians, as quiet as they can be (seriously, I often can’t hear them when they speak to me), will suddenly yell out from the back of the bus to thank the bus driver as they exit.

It feels like this should be a natural thing–you thank a server when she fills up your water glass, and you thank the clerk when he gives you the movie tickets you just purchased.  Why wouldn’t you thank your bus driver for getting you to your destination safely?  Wellington does this right.

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Paperback, Here I Come!

I’m surprised at how heartsick I’ve felt while reading my colleagues’ back-to-school statuses on Facebook. My identity as an educator has a significant impact on my way of thinking and being. So it’s strange that it is September and I’m not lesson planning and high fiving students as they enter my classroom.

You can imagine then how excited I am to get into New Zealand classrooms, especially since I will get to see how things are taught in a new cultural context.

Poster of Jessica for her classroom

One of the posters I had made for my classroom. Maybe there will be a day with less late work!

In the spirit of my love of teaching and learning, I’d like to tell you about a book project I’m happy to be a part of. A friend and colleague, Aaron Poldner, the youngest-ever Golden Apple teaching award winner in the state of Illinois, published a book called How Would You Handle It?: Questions For Teachers To Ask ThemselvesThe book asks introspective teachers to examine their pedagogies and teaching philosophies to see how their beliefs impact their practice.  

As a follow-up to this book, Aaron polled teachers on how they would answer the questions, and I got to be one of the teachers. Look out for How We Handle It: Hundreds of Answers from Classroom Teachers on Amazon.com within the month!

I’d thought I’d give you some insight of who I am as a teacher.  Below are some of my contributions to the project. Hope you enjoy!

How are you going to take care of your physical and mental health while you teach, especially during the first few years? How often do you go to the doctor? Do you exercise regularly? Do you have a healthy diet? Would you ever consider therapy or psychiatric care? How do you plan on finding a balance between all of your needs and activities?

Picture of a card and cookies given by students

Gifts given by students after I had suffered illness and loss.

Towards the end of second day in my first year of teaching, I passed out in the women’s restroom. It was the last period of the day, and it was my prep period (thank goodness). I woke up on the bathroom floor, and army-crawled down the empty hallway and into an administrator’s office (the hall monitor never once noticed a grown woman in a dress slithering down the hall on her belly). Flipping over onto my back, I moaned to the secretary that I needed help. Two hours later, I was standing in a hospital emergency room clad in a see-through hospital gown with SpongeBob Squarepants underwear holding a cup of my own urine. The school’s superintendent arrived while I was in this precarious position to see if I was okay. To say I was embarrassed is an understatement.

My first three years went on like this. I made two more trips to the ER for walking pneumonia and extreme vertigo. I suffered from migraines and exhaustion. But, I never rested or slowed down. Finally, I took a good long look at my plate: I was teaching full time, coaching an additional twenty hours a week, taking an improv class at Second City, and starting a master’s degree at Northwestern. To make matters worse, I lived across the street from the school, so I would often get home from coaching track at 6:30 p.m., I’d take a nap and eat dinner (which often consisted of hot pockets or a jar of peanut butter), and then I would go back to school to lesson plan and grade until two or three in the morning.

My first few years of teaching were already incredibly, incredibly hard, and my extra commitments added to its difficulty. After looking at my plate, I made some crucial changes. First, I moved a twenty-minute drive away from school so that I wouldn’t be tempted to walk back to school in the wee hours of the morning. Second, I quit coaching track. I LOVED coaching, but I needed more balance in my life. Third, I joined a gym and started exercising four times a week. Fourth, I strategized ways to become more efficient in my grading and planning, so I could have more time to hang out with friends and enjoy some downtime.

Now, in my seventh year of teaching, I still sometimes struggle with balance, but I am a very, very happy teacher. I finished my master’s degree in literature, and now have time to read books for pleasure. I never take any work related to school home, and I make sure to be really efficient while I’m in my classroom. I always make it to my favorite dance class on Thursday nights, I rarely have to pull out a frozen meal, and I drink coffee for pleasure and not out of necessity. I might not get essays back within twenty-four hours, but I also haven’t seen the inside of an emergency room in four years (knock on wood).

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That Time I Didn’t Turn Right

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.

I’ve been in New Zealand exactly a week.  In the spirit of a “throw back Thursday,” I thought I’d go back and share with you the gritty details of my trip over. At first I wasn’t sure if I wanted to publish this diary, but I want to document and share with you all the ways in which this trip initially felt impossible before it turned amazing. In fact, if it wasn’t for some of the events in the story, I wouldn’t be as happy in New Zealand as I am today.

Jessica smiles at party

My going away party the night before I left. Theme: All American BBQ
Mood: calm before the storm.

8:00 a.m. Monday, August 18th

My mom wakes me up in my favorite way, with a steaming cup of dark roast coffee diluted with Crème Brulee coffee creamer. I know she is making this morning extra special for me, as I can smell homemade popovers baking in the oven—a favorite breakfast pastry that takes getting up early to give it the nurturing time it needs. My dad is busy trying to help me fix my old Mac computer. I look with admiration at parents that are trying so hard to make this transition and final hours in the US special and stress-free for me.

12:37 p.m.

My mom and I high five each other as we’ve both finished my packing. I had packed before I left Chicago, but later realized I’d have to repack because my bags were so overweight.

Two weeks before departure I’d ascertained that books are considered a good gift to give New Zealanders because they are so expensive to buy (someone told me a Lonely Planet to NZ was $50!). I also found out through discussing with several people that certain cosmetic and toiletries are very expensive, and it may also be difficult to find the specific brands that I need because I’m a curly girlie. Therefore, I also had a liter of my favorite conditioner, two bottles of moose, and other products to make these follicles of frizz magically turn into ringlets.

So yes, my bags were drastically overweight. My mom and I would transfer some stuff to the other bag and then back again. Feeling defeated, I called United, and they said that it is $100 for an extra bag anyway and an additional $100 for luggage over 50 pounds. After going to the post office, I discovered it would already be $70 to ship the excess books, so weighing my options (ha!), I decided just to make one bag heavy and pay the fine.

3:30 p.m.

We leave for the airport. I feel surprisingly calm, and I relax in the sunshine streaming through the car windows.

4:45 p.m.

We arrive at the airport and all calmness melts away.  I had thought the extra bag would be $200 total. The actual price comes out to $500. And although the United clerk is helpful, I still burst into tears. I was already emotional, and for some reason, the fact that I couldn’t take some simple gifts because of the cost breaks my heart. 

4:58 p.m.

I refocus. We discover that if I carry 27 pounds of books on my person the 8,000 miles, the total cost will drop to $300. Even though my parents graciously offer to ship them to me, I get a giant plastic recycling bag and plop them in along with my heavy messenger bag to make it “one” carry-on bag (thanks for the tip, United man!). I put on the heaviest jacket, dawn knee-high compression socks, and lace up my heavy hiking boots to help get rid of some of the weight.

I give my lovely parents a tearful goodbye and walk through security with a backpack on my shoulders, and the giant plastic bag with its visible contents in my arms.

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A Lesson in Warmth

It’s cold in Wellington.

Now, I know this shouldn’t come as a surprise to me; I mean, it is winter in New Zealand after all.  I thought I had packed well– I had your basic warm fleece, rainproof shell, plenty of long sleeve shirts.  I mean, I’m from northwest Wis-con-sin.  I know cold.

Nope.  I spent the first three days whimpering like a little wet pup.  You see, I had looked at the temperature on my iPhone when I was sitting in 87 degree heat in Chicago thinking, “Ah, 45 degrees isn’t bad.  Pssht.  That’s nothing!”   But there are two keys details I didn’t take into account:

  • New Zealanders care about the wind. I mean, to this Wisconsinite transplant to the “windy city” of Chicago, wind is wind is wind. Wellington, nicknamed “Windy Welly,” is exposed to all directions of winds because its location on the Cook Straight.  But as my new friend Ben described to me, here, the direction of the wind really matters.   For example, you don’t want the dreaded “Southerly” wind, as that wind is coming straight-at-cha from Antarctica (which really isn’t too far away if you look at a map).  *shudder.*  And it is this artic wind that first chilled my bones when I stepped foot in New Zealand.  In fact, after I dropped my luggage down in my new beautiful apartment, and I stepped out onto my balcony overlooking the sea to have a “behold! I have arrived!” moment, I was suddenly bombarded by a weird snow/hail/sleet mixture. I scrambled back inside as quickly as possible. Nice to meet you too Wellington!
  • New Zealanders don’t heat their houses. Now, I knew this technically before I moved here, but I didn’t know what it meant until I actually arrived. No heat basically means that after coming inside after being cold and chilled to the core by the wind, and you just want to go inside to your nice apartment and put your feet up and read–you can’t.  Because it’s just as cold in your apartment–if not colder–than it is outside.  So if you’re cold, you stay cold, and if you’re damp, you stay damp (and so mold is a big problem here, but a different issue altogether).  So even though it’s not nearly as cold as it is in Wisconsin, the main difference is being able to walk into a warm home or staying chilly while indoors.

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Midnight Walks and Golden Pins: Fulbright Orientation in D.C.

Jessica Stands by Fulbright sign

I had just arrived in D.C.!

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.

The Fulbright orientation was pretty dang career affirming. Forty-three teachers flew, drove, and trained in from all over the U.S., and 11 international teachers arrived from India, Singapore, Morocco, Finland, and New Zealand.

When we landed, it was pouring rain.  I was kinda excited because I would get to try out my fancy new Patagonia raincoat I had bought on Ebay for a quarter of the retail price. I lasted about seven and a half minutes before my entire bottom half was soaked and stuck to the insides of my thighs. Yuck. But, I will say, my top half was pretty dry when I later peeled off the shell in the auditorium of the national capitol building. So I will count this as a success!

Jessica stands with Lincoln bust

Drying off at the State Capitol building. Hello there Lincoln!

The highlights of the orientation:

The people: By golly, these are just amazing people. If you interact with me daily, you know I can be goofy and outgoing. My dad describes me as “expressive” (I’m not sure if this is a compliment or not). But I found myself at orientation fairly quiet because I was a bit overwhelmed by the energy and talent of these amazing leaders in education. I also kept questioning myself: “Is this really happening? Do I really deserve this award? Did they make a mistake in choosing me?” as I shook hands and talked over coffee and sticky notes. These are people I hope I can use as allies, contacts, and friends for the rest of my life. In general, Holly and Becky, who worked for IEE (and were also responsible for choosing us on behalf of the Department of State) were wonderful. If it would have been appropriate, I would have been constantly hugging ’em.

New Zealand teachers stand together

Here are the amazing teachers that will go to New Zealand this year!

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“So What’s a Fulbright and Why’d You Want It?”

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.

In the past few months, I’ve found myself exclaiming, “I’m going to New Zealand on a Fulbright!” to the grocery clerk, Jiffy Lube employee, random student in the hallway — pretty much anyone who has to interact with me for more than three seconds. But in these interactions, I’ve realized that not everyone knows what a Fulbright award is.

There are different types of Fulbright awards, but they are all U.S. government-sponsored international exchange programs that are designed to increase the mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries. The award that I applied for is the Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, and they chose 43 teachers to go to 11 countries to do research projects on topics they are passionate about.

The history of the award holds a lot of meaning for me. Essentially, after World War II, the U.S. had a surplus of supplies, vehicles, and food. If you think about it, what does one do with all the leftover arms after war? A comparatively easy fix was to sell it to our allies. And the Fulbright award was born from the sale of these leftover arms.

What an amazing thing, that we sell our symbols of destruction for an exchange that fosters cross-cultural understanding, making the world a smaller, more peaceful place?

In a nutshell: The government will cover expenses for me go to New Zealand, build relationships with teachers and administrators, learn about Maori and Pacifica culture, research about the systemic racial and cultural inequities in New Zealand, find ways in which New Zealand has been successful in eliminating those disparities, and then bring back a figurative airplane load of ideas, contacts, and strategies to solving the racial achievement gap at Oak Park and River Forest High School.

WOW.

Not only is it my ultimate passion, but it’s also something I could never financially accomplish on my own. Pretty much a dream come true.

Jessica wears her Fulbright Pin proudly

Getting my Fulbright pin. I am so happy!

So why’d you want it?

I’ve always admired the Fulbright program. I mean, it’s good company! Forty-three have received a Nobel Prize and 78 have received Pulitzers. And I love the idea that the U.S. government still believes in building relationships in order to create peace and understanding.

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Students, I Am Not Crying Because of You

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.

April 16, 2014. I’m sitting, laptop open, listening to my freshmen students give historical and cultural presentations about Iran as pre-reading for the graphic novel Persepolis.

Because my cursive handwriting is far too enthusiastic — it often looks like an acrobat flipping through the air instead of A, B, Cs — I often reach for my computer to type my feedback to the students. And there I was, typing and listening to the social implications of the veil, when a new e-mail popped up on my screen: “Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program Selection Notification.”

My first sensation was that I was going to throw up. I glanced over at a student sitting near me, and he looked back at me with a quizzical look. Oh gosh, I even look like I’m going to throw up, I thought.

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