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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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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Teachers as Changemakers: The Sunshine of my Fulbright Research Project

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The flyer for our presentation today.

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.

Today, I get ready for my first presentation about my Fulbright project.  I’ll present with Amy and Tricia at Victoria University of Wellington at 3:30.  As I prepare my notes and my smiles, I can’t help but have my thoughts tugged by the news of Michael Brown’s non-indictment yesterday.  As my mentor Rob posted on his Facebook wall, “It ain’t right Atticus, it just ain’t right,” from Harper Lee’s famous novel.  It isn’t right that Michael Brown was not even given the dignity of a trial, that we keep hearing language and belief systems that are symptoms of the sick cycle of oppression in the U.S.

But today, I am glad more than ever to be an educator.  I have the great privilege and responsibility to give hope, to make change, and to interrupt racist systems.  I am proud to be an educator, and I am proud to work with the young people who will be the change of the future.  And it just so happens that my project addresses implicit racism in education, as the focus is on eradicating the achievement gap/educational debt between students of color and white students.  This blog, therefore, will break down the components of my project, as well as what my daily life looks like.

The title of my project: Teachers as Changemakers: The Power of Reflection in Diminishing the Racial Predictability of Student Academic Achievement

The purpose of my project: to find ways to eliminate the racial predictability of student academic achievement.

My passion is to teach for justice. Students of color have been disenfranchised at my high school in the US, resulting in an achievement gap in which 61% of white students meet college readiness standards, while only 14% of Black students do. My goal is to find ways to diminish the racial predictability that currently exists in test scores, discipline data, G.P.As, and college graduation rates.

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Some of my amazing students on a surprise donut day.

I can no longer tolerate a culture that perpetuates the status quo, that teaches Black students that being academic is a “white” thing.  I have some amazing colleagues who are doing amazing things in their classrooms.  I have a division head who gets it.  I have been totally blessed to have Chala, the assistant principal, visit, teach, and mentor in my classroom 2-3 times a week for the last three years, giving me feedback, ideas, and inspirations.  Teachers are ready to make change.  And teachers can make change.  I know this because they already do in so many ways that often go unnoticed.

So, I’m no longer interested in deficit thinking.  In the media, we teachers constantly get blamed for the lack of student academic progress.  We are seen as lazy and greedy.  We know there are profound gaps in student academic achievement and socioemotional needs.  But I believe that’s the easy way to think.  It’s easy to blame, it’s easy to hang the ugly picture out on your washing line for all to see.  It’s easy to reaffirm pre-existing beliefs and expectations about our students of color.

But you know what’s not easy to do?  Turn around and face the problem.

It’s not easy to work together to find solutions.  To look at all of the positive things that are happening and share those ideas like we do Thanksgiving recipes.  Sure, there is no recipe that will fit all palates and some ingredients will need to be modified to fit the individual, but there are certain key ingredients–love, hope, high expectations, strong student-teacher relationships–that all recipes need to work.  But how do we knead, nurture, and allow these concepts to grow in such a current harsh climate for teachers?

Well, that’s my project.

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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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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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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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