Oaxaca, Mexico in 40 seconds

View from the plane window

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

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

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


Ms. Stovall 313’s Next Big Adventure!

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

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

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

So guess where am I going to spend this summer?

Picture of Jess holding up a sign of Mexico


I’m heading to Oaxaca, Mexico!

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

Picture of Jess's ancestors.

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


Picture outside of waitomo caves

Regina and I getting ready to enter the caves!

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


Picture of the glowworm cave.

The glow worm cave.

Picture of inside of the cave.

Some more wonders of the cave.

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

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

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Teachers as Changemakers: The Sunshine of my Fulbright Research Project

Picture of flyer

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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Thanksgiving on Cuba Street

A Gratitude Journal

My carpool picks me up at 7:10 a.m. each morning at the top of Cuba Street.  If I can convince myself to crawl out of my warm bed and into the frigid air of my apartment before six a.m., I can make the 6:30 a.m. bus that will take me to the bottom of Cuba Street, and then it’s just a quick 10-minute jaunt to the top.  If I wake up after 6 a.m., I will miss the bus, and then I must run/jog/shuffle/skip the two miles to my meeting point. (School starts at 9 a.m. here, but I have a hike to get to my placement).

Even though I get exercise if I don’t catch the bus, I love making it because I get to stop for coffee.  Now 98% of coffee shops open after 7 a.m., which means I’m mostly out of luck because there is a coffee shop desert around my carpool pick up point.  However, Roberto at Palomino coffee on Cuba Street opens up just a little bit early so that I can get my coffee and still make it to my pick up point on time.  He’s pretty much the greatest man alive, and I look forward to stopping there on the mornings that I can.

Jessie with free cookie

My day is so much better because I got a free cookie. Thanks Roberto!

Today, I missed the bus by 47 seconds.  I had a loooong day yesterday that didn’t get me home until 10:45 p.m., and I knew I would be just as late tonight.  Even though it was 7:08 and I was huffing and sweating, I still decided to stop in to get a cup of coffee from Roberto. He inquired after my tardiness, and I gave him a brief synopsis of my past and future 24 hours, stressing that I really needed a cup of his coffee.  As he handed me my dreamboat-in-a-cup Flat White, he added a decadent chocolate cookie to the top of my coffee cup before handing it to me.  “For you,” he said in his Cuban accent, “to help with your day.”

It’s a few hours later, and I feel like I wish I could unplug after my iPad got completely wiped, and I lost– thankfully not all–of my research over the last month (I know, cue lecture about backing up files).  As I was about to sob into the D, O, and H keys on my keyboard, I noticed the cookie sticking out of my backpack.  It made me stop and remember that even though this is a tough loss, I am able to reflect, rethink, and rewrite.  Roberto’s gesture was a reminder to me that there is heartbreakingly beautiful kindness in the world. And for that I am grateful.

Note of gratitude

Someone at school put my name in the gratitude/commandments drawing, and I won! Thank you random stranger, now I get to draw an awesome prize on Monday!


It is super cool being “from the future,” as I am 18 hours ahead of Chicago, but it makes communication difficult.  There is a small window of time right before I go to bed or right when I wake up that I can catch people in the States to talk to them.  I can’t talk during my day because I have to have wifi to Skype or Facetime, and I don’t get home from school in time to talk to people before they tuck in for the night.  So during the weekdays, I feel pretty isolated from my friends and family in the U.S., and I suck every last bit of comfort from the imessages and Whatsapp texts I get during the day.  It’s weird to think that most of my communication with home is through short conversations sprinkled throughout my cupcakes of days.

You can imagine, therefore, how meaningful mail has been to me.  I haven’t given out my mailing address to anyone but my parents, and they sent me a wonderful welcome care package the first week I arrived.  I realized quickly that one has to sell one’s car just to be able to pay to ship a package in New Zealand, so I didn’t send on my mailing address to anyone else.

Package from Joy

The AMAZING package from Joy.

But somehow, mail has found a way.  Our close (and oldest) family friends Kate and Michael sent me a lovely card.  And the biggest hug to a soul is that my lovely friend and fellow book club member Joy sent THE most incredible care package ever.   I had written a blog post about how miserably cold I’d been in Wellington, and she secretly Facebook messaged my mom asking for my address.  She sent me a giant package that has kept me literally and figuratively warm for two weeks now: a blanket, gloves, hand warmers, Nutella, fancy chocolate, and stuff for Halloween and Thanksgiving–the two holidays I will miss while I’m here.  I would win a Pulitzer if I was able to able to adequately express how grateful I feel.  I guess it makes sense that Joy would bring me so much joy.  (PS: Joy, check your mailbox in 6-8 days!)

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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.

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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