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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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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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.

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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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The Milford Track: Thriving on Dehydrated Food and Water from Waterfalls

I start this blog post as I cruise down the Doubtful Sound on a beautiful sunny day. It is one day after I have finished the Milford Track, something I booked way back in July, and it’s hard to believe that I have completed it after many months of thinking/dreading/dreaming about it.

I was really nervous about my ability to complete it. Since I’ve been in New Zealand, my skin hugging skinny jeans now require a belt, yet I’m not in any better shape than pre-New Zealand. In fact, I’ve just lost most of my muscle weight from stopping the strength training I’d been doing in Chicago. The only workout I’ve really had is stuffing my cheeks with beautiful New Zealand pies. Just two weeks prior, I was unable to keep any food down after coming down with a horrible stomach flu. And this would also be my first real hike. Well, ever. And it was 33.5 miles that included an avalanche trail and an alpine trail. Things just weren’t looking too good for me.

It certainly was a physical feat–today I’ve been groaning each and every step I have to climb or descend, and my right ankle is purple and bulbous–but I have just seen and experienced something profoundly remarkable. Please note that the pictures and notes will in no way be able to do it justice.

Prior to the Milford Track:
I booked in July. The popular Great Walks of New Zealand sell out within a couple of hours of going on sale when they open on the New Zealand Department of Conservation website. Luckily, Amy, another Fulbrighter, was on to this fact and let the whole Fulbright New Zealand teaching crew that we had to book now!

I’ve never ever properly hiked, or tramped, as they say here. So, I had to rent all of the gear. Luckily, Bev’s Tramping Hire was there to the rescue. Bev got me outfitted with the right pack, sleeping bag, cooking ware, and clothing. I even got to try walking with a walking stick, which I’d later use as a cane to hobble around like an old woman when my legs got sore.

I packed a lot of food. Amy took one look at it and told me to put some of it away. “Too heavy,” she explained. She also looked at my freeze dried meals and said I wouldn’t like them. Luckily, if there is one thing I know about myself is that this girl can eat. And I mean, eat. As in, I ran out of all of this food on day three.

Picture of all the camping food.

This is all the food I brought/ate.

Day 1
Objective: take a bus from our hotel in Te Anau to Te Anau Downs. Then, take a boat to Glade Wharf, start of the track. From the track, walk an easy 3 miles to the first hut, Clinton hut.

Highlights:

Jess in front of beginning sign.

Heading to the start of the track with my borrowed back!

1) I successfully carried my first pack! It was a little heavy with all of the food that I brought (although Amy told me not to).

2) I walked over the second swing bridge of my life. It was quite scary, and I bobbled all over from side to side like a staggering zombie. I would eventually get better, which is good because I would cross about 17 more during the next three days.

3) The weather! I mean, this is a temperate rainforest and Fiordland is known for its rain. It rains 200 days out of the year and parts of the Milford Track floods. Just two and a half weeks ago it snowed here. Just under two weeks ago, it flooded so badly that the trampers had to be helicoptered out. And yet, for the next four days, it was to be sunny and beautiful, a rarity here. In fact, as I type this in on my cruise, it is day 6 of no rain. (Nine days here is considered a drought to put things in perspective).

Some people would say that this is bad because the “real” Milford happens when it rains, as there are hundreds and hundreds of waterfalls down the mountains (the mountains are granite, so there is nothing to soak up the water). But I’ll swap slippery slopes and being soaked to the bone for sunshine and seeing everything clearly anyday.

4) Next to our huts were several little glow worm caves. It was fun to wait until the sky started to raven to see the blue-green lights glowing along the trail path.

5) In an effort to stay hydrated, I drank a lot of water before bed. That meant that in the wee hours of the night, I had to sneak out of my hut in search of the toilet. When I got outside, I threw my hands up in stark fright. This gesture was so rigid I almost flung up my flashlight like confetti at a surprise party. It wasn’t because I had come face to face with an animal–the best thing about camping in New Zealand is that there isn’t anything deadly lurking in the woods–but because I was so shocked to see how blazing and bright the stars were.

I. have. never. seen. anything. like. it.

I could see everything: the galaxies, the Southern Cross, the twinkling planets: the stars seemed as close as the glow worms I had seen a few hours before. Spilled down the middle was the Milky Way. Never have I ever felt so happy to have nature call as on this night.

Picture of people playing cards and knitting

The first night as everyone starts to get to know each other.

6) It was really lovely to see the immediate community build up. From the first night, people shared food and stories. I became friends with a couple from Boston, Kendra and Neal, a couple from Poland, Gregory and Dorota, and a family of three: Robin, Michael, and their ten year old son Ethan. I met the Polish couple as we were searching for eels in the nearby stream. Look as we tried, we had no luck. Amy and I gave up, headed back to camp, and tried out the huge hula hoops (we had a lot of time to kill).

Soon, Gregory came running up the path, exclaiming that he had found eels. However, by the time we ran back down the trail, they were already gone. But the sweetness of the couple’s gesture stayed with me for the rest of the journey. Later that night, we would all play cards until we couldn’t see anymore.

Low points:

1) Because the hike was so short, there really wasn’t anything to do when we got back. I couldn’t sit outside and enjoy the late afternoon sun because I was too delicious of a snack for sandflies. Sandflies are very similar to mosquitoes in that they suck your blood; however, unlike mosquitoes, if you kill one, it will send out a toxin that will send more its way (unless that is a total myth told to me by my Doubtful Sound tour guide just now). So we were pretty limited on what we could do.

2) In this first hut, there are two bunkrooms. We got into a room with the door slammers. Meaning, it seemed as if every person leaving the hut, no matter what time of night, had gotten into a serious argument with their mom and dad. I jolted awake too many times from these door slamming nincompoops, and I made a mental note to avoid them at all costs at the next hut.

Pictures from Day 1:

Picture of opening Milford sign

Amy and I at the start of the track!

Picture of boat.

The boat that would take us to the beginning of the trek.

Picture of mountains

The view from the boat

Picture of trail

The first section of the walk was all New Zealand beech trees.

Picture of the landscape

The walk is just magical. I knew I was in for a treat.

Picture of the fern

I had to take a picture of the fern, the New Zealand symbol for new beginnings and personal growth. Perfect for me.

Picture of Amy on a swing bridge

My second ever swing bridge (I would go over many, many more!)

Picture of the stream

These are the streams we drank our water out of!

Picture of Jessie by the river

Taking a break to enjoy the scenery.

Picture of the hut

A picture of the hut!

Video clip from day one:

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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.

Students with donuts

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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Kiwifruits and Capstone Projects: My tips for the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching application

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.

‘Tis the season to apply for the 2015-2016 Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching!  Applications are due November 5th.  It’s funny to think that at this time last year this experience was just an idea, but now it has become a full reality.  What a difference a year makes, eh?

Jess climbs rock

Hiking in the Golden hour in Wellington. I had no idea a year ago I’d have this amazing experience.

It’s been wonderful that I’ve gotten e-mails recently from applicants who have stumbled upon my blog.  I’ve gotten some good questions, and I am eager to help others have this amazing opportunity that I’ve been afforded.  So my first bit of advice is, APPLY! (If you want know why I did, check this out.)  You have no idea what magical things can happen for you if you do.

Fellow Fulbright DA grantee Kate has some good general application tips on her blog called “I got it!” if you are interested in those.  Below, I’ve included a few of the questions I’ve received, along with my response to those questions.  These answers are my personal opinions, and my experiences have to do specifically with what I know–the New Zealand program–so please keep that in mind.  Please let me know if there are any other Q and A I should add.  Happy applying!

How did you make (or how are you making) your contacts in New Zealand, both university and in schools? Have you had trouble meeting people or making connections?

New Zealand is a small country.  As an American, it’s like living in small town U.S.A. It’s not too dissimilar from where I grew up in Wisconsin, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it kind of town, where there are four stoplights that are all found on “Main  Street.”  People here in New Zealand say that there is two degrees of separation (although some argue for three) between its citizens. This means that when you are networking with someone, either she will personally know the person you’d like to get  in touch with or she will know someone who knows that person. This also means that within one week of moving into my apartment, I’d walk into a dairy (convenience store) within a two-block radius and would hear, “Oh, you must be Jessie!” Word travels fast here.

Picture of silver fern

New Zealand’s national symbol

As a result of the tight knit nature of the Kiwi Community, meeting people really depends on who you know.  They are a bit like a Kiwifruit ironically, a bit hard to eat because you must cut through a tough outer layer, but once you do, they are incredibly mushy and wonderful on the inside. (I am in no way endorsing cannibalism) . It was quite hard when I first arrived, as I wasn’t culturally ready for how careful and standoffish Kiwis would be (although I haven’t had this experience when meeting Māori men and women–who have opened their doors and felt like Whānau (family) right away–but I’ll write more on that in another blog post).

The good news is that once you are in, you are in.  And the Fulbright family really is a family that will help you get “in.” The support I’ve gotten from Fulbright Scholars and Fellows  (thanks especially to Brenda, Ben, and Sarah) is amazing.  They were able to formally introduce me to key people, who have in turn introduced me to key people, and my small world here has just been expanding to something delicious (I think I’m still thinking about that kiwifruit).

So yes, it was hard at first.  Kiwis are perplexing because they are so kind and giving,  yet they can be difficult to get to know on a personal level. But if you can get to know one in the field you are interested in, you are set.  I  spent the first three weeks feeling like I was the new girl in the cafeteria, sitting awkwardly alone with my bruised banana, looking at every passerby with eyes that read, “Will you please be my friend?”  But now that I have made some important contacts, the invitations to homes, to meetings, to conferences, and to hopefully lifelong partnerships, is overwhelming.

It will take patience, a dazzling smile, a little bit of luck, and the help of some of your fellow Fulbright family members, and you will break through the figuratively hard shell of the Kiwifruit to find much sweetness inside.

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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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