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nayathe quirky way she laughs is a combination of borrowing observed behaviors and the pure joy she gets in repeating an exaggerated gesture: throwing back her head, a wide smile, eyes brilliant, an occasional hand at the mouth, and hearing the sound of her own voice tickle.

with an absurd rainbow-unicorn towel, she envelops herself in music and movement, uninhibited. here she loses the stifling self-consciousness that often comes with viewing eyes, the recording iphone. a hop here, a twirl there. this is raw experimentation and it’s beautiful.

moments in the backseat of the car, she weaves reality and fantasy in breathless story lines that prompt questioning for clarification. her listeners will never truly understand her three year old truth, one that shape shifts and forms organically without effort.

when asked occasionally if she wants to be four, she shakes her head no.
” I don’t want to be old. I want to be three.”

I wonder, then, where does it go? the rawness of life experience, the one I witness in being with my dear niece.

And then, I’m reminded, listening to poet Paul Muldoon explain simply the loss of our natural poets, children, as they grow:
“I’m afraid that, too often, it gets educated out of us.”

when did we learn so wrongly?

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RIOT-paramore-6412664-1280-800In 2009 I was a 4th grade teacher in Seoul, Korea. My class was primarily made up of Korean students with the exception of one…Owen. A young American, Owen was many things: brilliant, awkward, and opinionated. The kid had a comment for everything, and many of those comments could not go unrecorded. With personality and innocent humor, Owen made my teaching year very colorful.

I fondly kept a list of “Owenisms” as I called them in a journal. Recently, I came across them. Here are a few.

  • Ms. Martin, do I look Goth to you? (he was simply wearing all black that day)
  • I think it’s outrageous that this school doesn’t have escalators! (the school had four floors)
  • You’re just like my mom! You always make me do something else after I finish a task.
  • Ms. Martin, I may be going through puberty because my voice can’t reach certain pitches. I’m not growing any arm hair, but I do have peach fuzz. (He didn’t; he was ten)
  • Jinsoo (a classmate): “Women are weaker than men.” Owen: “Well, that’s insulting!”
  • In the future I’m gonna start a riot.

And my personal favorite… in answer to the question: “Does anyone know what a conscience is?”

  • Yeah, a conscience is the small voice inside you that you always ignore.

Just like that. Matter-of-factly. How did a fourth grader know that?

At a moment when cloudy things are finding clarity, I stop at times to listen. What is my conscience saying? Can I make out that teeny voice that was background noise all along? Trusting intuition has never been my strongest skill. Guess I’ve been afraid to “be wrong”. But, what’s that anyway?

Being wrong is one of fear’s favorite outfits, strutting around, seemingly untouchable. It’s old, outdated, and boring. The truth is that we’re only as wrong as we decide to be. What are we afraid of really?

I don’t know the answer to that yet. These weeks have revolved around that question a lot.

If only Owen were around to share with me a profoundly honest answer.

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A few years back my husband and I worked in Tunis, Tunisia. I remember looking out the plane window as we descended into the dusty August haze. Flat and arid, our new city contrasted sharply to that of lush Medellin, Colombia where we had just been for years.

I will be frank. The transition was challenging: work, home, language, enviornment, culture. It felt quite foreign. But, I’d had felt this before..the feeling of the world being so much larger than I had experienced.

Countries such as Spain and Colombia held comforting elements due to familiarity. Language is a prime source of connectedness and Spanish had linked me to those realms in profound ways. Tunisia, however, is an Arabic and French speaking country; I had learned neither language before. For that reason and my slow pace at adapting, the comforts revealed themselves later through experiences, travel of the country, and daily interactions with others.

Living internationally presents countless lessons. Among other things, here are 3 things I learned from Tunisia:
1. Revere history. Historically, Tunisia was the hotspot of many settlements: from the Phoenicians to the Romans, from the Arab and Berber dynasties to the Turks and the French. Obtaining independence in 1957, Tunisia’s identity includes influences from its past as well as a maintenance of strong values in family, faith, and patriotism.
2. Uphold beauty. Aside from the preservation of historical sites like El Jem and ruins found throughout Carthage, Tunisia inspires both geographical and artistic beauty. No one can deny the magic of trekking across the Sahara or floating along the Meditteranean. Tunisian pottery reflects striking colors from its environment; artists manifest beauty in the form of paintings, hand-blown glass, and textiles.
3. Inspire change. Taking the lead of challenging despotism through the Jasmine Revolution, Tunisia became an example to the Arab world of the power of change. The country’s first free elections since independence in 1956 were held on October 23, 2011 with voter turnout estimated at 90%. This thirst for justice and progress has been the source of inspiration for all who seek the same.

Tunisia is a place of promise. So, it is with heavy sadness that I ruminate over the recent violent events ignited throughout the Arab world including Tunis. What makes it hit more close to home is the fact that the school we worked at ACST, the American Cooperative School of Tunis took a big hit in those attacks. Set across the street from the American Embassy, this K-12 school which includes teaching character development (patience, problem solving, acceptance) in the curriculum became a target for anger, chaos,and destruction. Within hours school vehicles and classrooms were torched, supplies looted. A school which caters to and represents an international community (in my 2nd grade class, 1 out of my 20 students was American; the rest from all over) suffered the cost. The outcome is heartbreaking.

Regarding the school’s aftermath, Ben Jafaar, Speaker of the National Constituent Assembly of Tunisia, stated:

“Today I felt so much anger. The beautiful image of our revolution was distorted. Tunisians are tolerant, having witnessed so many civilizations. We respect other people and their differences. This is a crime. Tunisia’s image today is distorted. In order to improve and rebuild it, huge efforts need to be taken from all of us, especially from you, the media.”

After a week of tireless efforts, teachers, administrators, staff and parents have united in a spirit of healing and restoration to create a fitting environment for children to return to their learning. The courage of this community is inspiring, the perseverance admirable.

For those of us who feel helpless in making a difference toward events that happen across the world, there is something we can do. The ACST site asks:

Please Donate to the ACST Recovery Fund
Help ACST rebuild following the devastating attack of September 14, which burned our Elementary Library, destroyed many classrooms and left us virtually without computers. Please help us continue to open doors, hearts and minds for our students by donating below. Your generous support is deeply appreciated.
The school mission statement as mentioned above is this: Opening doors, hearts and minds. Let us join ACST and Tunisia in this noble pledge.
{photo credit: Crystal Lang}

When I first started following writer/photographer, Christine Gilbert, I did so from my school teacher desk with pens in a cup, stapler and tape dispenser within reach, paper clips in a ceramic dish from Tunisia.

I sighed.

This is what I wanted.

Christine’s site, Almost Fearless, tells the story of a young couple who left their U.S. lives complete with jobs and a house to travel the world and document it. What began in 2008 as a travel blog evolved into living proof that working an unconventional job on your own terms is possible.

Then, came Cole, their baby boy; and their roller-coaster ride added in twists and loops. The how-to’s on recreating delicious Thai dishes and posts on learning Mandarin became intertwined with reflections on traveling with a baby and whimsical features like “Where’s Cole?”, engaging readers in guessing the family’s new whereabouts. This added bundle made what the Gilberts were doing stand apart from even other travel bloggers. Their choices said: Yeah, we have a baby and are traveling to India…so?

Having lived overseas as an international teacher, this site had me hooked. Why? Because of the travel photos? They are stunning, but I had my own albums from trips and living overseas.

It was the fact that this family redefined “work”. And that’s the kind of inspiration I desperately needed.

Christine and her husband, Drew, established their work as writers, photographers, and film-makers while living in such fascinating places as Thailand, Lebanon, China. They currently offer an online course called Blog Brilliantly which offers countless tips on writing and creating a unique blog. And, their latest project is getting all sorts of attention.

“The Wireless Generation”, their documentary is on the verge of release. The Kickstarter campaign page explains:

We followed the stories of 18 individuals who take work from home to the next level.  They’re living abroad, traveling, experiencing things that they would have never have seen if they worked in a traditional office.  This is the first generation of people who realistically can hold a 9-5 job and travel around the world at the same time.


The internet has revolutionized tons…including the way we work. It is estimated that by 2016, 63 million Americans will work from home at least part time. That could be you; maybe it already is.

Regardless, this fact offers many questions. What would it be like to work wirelessly? How much freedom does that provide? If you could be geographically independent, where would you go?

This project resonates with me right now.

In June I packed up my desk and walked out of a building I knew to be work for four years.

At this moment, I have settled into a chair at my favorite cafe in Pasadena, CA to write and work on some of my e design projects. Six weeks from now, I will be doing this at my favorite cafe in Luang Prabang, Laos.

Am I scared? Mmm hmm..

But seeing so many others doing the exact same thing in a number of capacities gives me comfort. Moreover, knowing that I’m living out a dream makes me “almost fearless”.

{image credit: Drew & Christine Gilbert}

Teachers can come in different forms.

They can be that English prof who taught you the power of words. They can be that new colleague who surprised you when she became a friend after you pegged her for being “difficult to work with”. They can be handling an uncomfortable situation, receiving advice from a stranger, learning to communicate “stop here please” in another language, a parent, a book, a song, a child.

A long while back when I sought guidance from a wise friend, she told me: “Open up to the idea that you can learn from anyone and anything. Your life is full of teachers.”

June 7th marks the end a hiatus for me from being a teacher…a traditional classroom one, that is. In my 15 years of experience, I KNOW I’ve learned valuable lessons from the children I’ve worked with. In no particular order, here are ten important ones:

1. “Rock-scissors-paper” is as good a decision-maker as most tactics.
2. Wearing giraffe ears everyday doesn’t make you weird, it makes you consistent.
3. Tattle-telling is obnoxious, but it’s a child’s way of not tolerating injustice.
4. Farts are funny.
5. Honesty is the best policy, even if it means telling your teacher she looks like she needs to go home to rest.
6.Competition can be fiercely overwhelming, but also motivating.
7. Words hurt.
8. It IS nice to be included, invited, engaged.
9. Parents and friends are influential; always have been, always will be.
10. Be yourself;no one likes a copycat.

Currently, my days in the classroom are screaming some meaningful things at me. It’s amazing how mindful and present we become when we know something is about to end.

If only I could be in this space all the time…how much more would I learn?

There are things in life that are universally reasonable to be committed to. These include:

*a marriage
*raising children
*paying the bills for the house you live in
*saving money for that rainy day

But, what about things that are “unreasonable”? Those things in life that come from the core of your being and drive you to do things neither you nor others would normally do. This might manifest as putting off school to experience traveling in Asia, or dropping calculated plans you made because you fell in love with someone. Perhaps it’s getting up at 4AM daily to engage in a yoga practice that offers a sense of being well grounded while the rest of the house sleeps.

Certainly for me, leaving our current lives for our plans to move to Laos can seem unreasonable. What about the visa? Where will we live? Will we get something off the ground before dipping too far into savings? Where will we get adequate medical attention should we need it?

But, we’re in.

We’re committed to giving this a go and for some reason, it’s unreasonably wonderful.

Recently, a dear friend of mine, Amy Benson, was featured in a magazine called Courageous Creativity. In her article, “Unreasonable Commitment”, she shares her concerns around devoting herself to finishing her documentary,Opportunity Costs: The Brief Life of Shanta D., while nurturing her new role as a mother. She questions, with raw honesty, her choices.

“What am I doing? Will it ever get done? This is stupid—unreasonable even. I gave up a well- paying, extremely rewarding job as a teacher to be in the unpredictable, no paycheck world of documentary. Everything we do feels piecemeal and a little desperate.”

Amy and her husband, Scott Squire, are the life force behind Nonfiction Media where, among other things, they create promotional videos for nonprofit organizations and their own documentary shorts.

Now, this is no small documentary.

It began in 2008 following the lives of three teenaged girls in the impoverished reality of Nepal. Currently, it’s a country where suicide is the top cause of death for women ages 14-49. The focus of the film is education as a source of hope for these girls and their determined spirits to change their lives.

Tragically, in 2010, one of the girls interviewed, Shanta, committed suicide. In the midst of grief and guilt, Amy’s fierce perserverance has risen to give voice to Shanta’s story and so many others like her.

But, this has not come without costs. It’s been far from easy. In the same year she met Shanta, Amy had her first baby. It is during the times when the journey to completing the documentary is long and wearisome that she wonders about her commitment.

“Why am I spending the time that I could be with my son to make a film about a girl who is thousands of miles away, who speaks a language I don’t understand-and who is no longer alive?”

While they wrestled with their reasons and motivations, Amy and Scott feel they need to follow through with the project. And for Amy, the clarity of this decision emerged from the thing that connected her most to it-motherhood. Thinking about Shanta’s mother and her enormous loss motivates her further.

“For as unreasonable as it is to think that I, this white western woman, can tell Shanta’s story for the good of the world, it is even more unreasonable to think I mustn’t or shouldn’t. I am taking this on—the telling of Shanta’s story— to the best of my ability, not as a westerner, not even as a filmmaker, but as a girl, a woman and most of all as a mom.”

To help Amy and Scott complete this documentary to be released October 2012 and tell Shanta’s story your support is greatly appreciated.

*For Amy’s complete story “Unreasonable Commitment”, download Courageous Creativity January2012.

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