STEAMM-powered in Central Falls

Over the past few months I’ve been working part-time as an after school science teacher (or as my employer calls it, a “STEAMM” educator — stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Mathematics and Manufacturing) at a Rhode Island middle school

You could say that the first week of teaching was….bumpy. Or a disaster. Or awful. All would work. Each evening I ended up sobbing in my car. One day it was because despite all my preparation, the students didn’t seem to care in the least about the activity. One day it was because I’d had one student joke/threaten other students with scissors on three separate occasions. Another was because no matter what I did, I could not get the class to settle down, and had spent at least half of it waiting for people to be quiet.

It was not what I’d had in mind. I’d had this idea in my head that the students who signed up for this after school program would be ALL ABOUT the science. “Tell me more!” they’d yell as they swooned over the definitions of density and buoyancy. When the class erupted into yells and screams (about their excitement over the days lesson, of course), I would stand the front with a meditative smile on my face and calmly wait for them to calm down. I would be a motivator and a friend. I would be their favorite part of the day.

I mean, yes, a part of me knew this was a beyond unrealistic attitude (especially given the fact my sister has been a teacher for many years and despite being UNBELIEVABLY AMAZING at her job, the kids are still sometimes little jerks). But that part of me that really, really wanted the kids to love ME and SCIENCE on the first day was louder than the logistical quarters of my brain.

So, anyway, the first week was HARD. I had no idea how to handle threats of violence. Planning for class took a lot (A LOT) longer than I expected. The students were all blank stares at me the first two days, probably trying to see what I was made of. Some of my activities fell flat. And man, getting their attention — it was a struggle. I found myself completely losing my cool when I could get, for ten minutes, the students to listen to me try to explain what the activity was. So much for my meditative, inspirational, motivator status. I was a mess.

But I didn’t want to give up. For one, I had wanted to try working for a non-profit, to see what it was like to work for a company whose mission you whole-heartedly believe in. Second, I wanted to work with kids and try out teaching — something my sister does (really, really well) and which has always been interesting to me. And third, i wanted to work in Central Falls, which is widely known to be the “worst” city if Rhode Island — for crime, for poverty, for education, etc.

Central Falls came into being back in 1895,  when the city for split from Lincoln, Rhode Island an set out on its own. Super soon, it was the most populated city in the United States. These days it’s still in the top 25. The median income for a household in Central Falls is $27,000. About a quarter of the population of under the poverty line. Only 6% of the population in Central Falls for over 25 have a bachelors advance college degree. Almost 50% of the population have less than a high school degree. The middle school I’m working at ranked 48th of the 51 RI middle schools in a recent year. In 2010, it was named a turnaround school in the now-defunct No Child left Behind Program. Basically, Central Falls, and my school in particular, has a lot of problems. And the students, for one reason or another, seem to be suffering for it.

If working for the South End News taught me anything, though, it’s that things from the outside often look different from the inside. Things fail for lots of reasons.  I wanted to get an inside look — to understand the community, the families, the students better. And I thought it was possible that with my own unique set of skills — with science, with communication, with explaining things — that maybe I could make a dent of a difference.

I ended up having to take a month-long break to head home to help out with some family things, but when I came back in early November, I hopped right back into the classroom, right back in with the same kids. For a month, their beloved science teacher had taken over in my stead, and now I was back with tons of science and experiments for them to do.

Now, one of the things my sister warned me about from the beginning was that as an after school teacher, I’d face some unique challenges, number one being I was expected to teach science at the end of the school day. When the kids are already tired and their brains have been battered and all they’d really like to do is relax and zone out in front of the TV or video games or computer for like ONE SECOND. Challenge two was that I may be teaching them science, but it also always needed to be FUN–of the flash-bang-BOOM variety. Kids can drop out of the programs you teach if you’re not interesting enough. At the school I was teaching at, there was also dance, karate, a cape verdean group, an arts program and more. The options were plenty, so if I wanted to keep my class, I had to do things that interested them.

Third, I had to lug around equipment, picking it up at the non-profit’s office, bringing it to school, carrying it to the third floor, cleaning it off, bringing it back to the office, etc…

Fourth, and this is somewhat unique since I work for a non-profit that places teachers in schools around Rhode Island, I had to answer to a lot of people. In addition to answering to the students (and their parents), i had to answer to the teacher whose classroom I borrowed for the period. I had to answer to the counselors and employees at the school i worked at. And, additionally, I had to answer to my educator manager, the materials supplier and the director of the non-profit that hired me.

it was a lot of eyes on me. a lot of people watching to see if I was hitting the mark.

and finally, in the last two weeks, i have been. It’s been a bit of the battle of the wills with the students – who will break first? sometimes, it’s still me. But, increasingly, it’s them. And increasingly, they seem to like it. Lots of the students who I had behavioral issues with have started to like me, so they’re more likely to try to keep their behavior in check. Lots of students who weren’t applying themselves have started to, at least putting in some kind of effort to participate. And the students who have been awesome to begin with — I’ve been able to focus more on them, helping them learn more of the science and delve deeper. More often, now, the students are delightfully funny. They ask great questions and they get excited.

in the process, i’ve found that “bad behavior” often has a good cause, something i should have known from the start. One kid, after interrupting me for literally 10 minutes straight, said the reason he was upset about making a poster was that he just made one in another class and he was bad at drawing, anyway. at least that’s understandable! another student who wasn’t participating well in a lab eventually hinted that the reason they weren’t trying was because the didn’t think they’d be successful anyway — now I could actually address the real issue! another student who just wouldn’t pay attention finally told me that they had a headache — so I let them put their head down. One girl who would never answer my questions, or would answer them without even trying, finally mentioned she knew she’d get it wrong because she was bad at science, so why try anyway? After I helped her get one or two questions right, she started participating more and seemed more willing to be wrong.

These revelations have humbled me, and brought me back to the reason I wanted to work with these students in the first place. We all have things that hold us back — either things we’re actually not good at, or stories we tell ourselves about things we aren’t good at. All day long, we hunker down deeper into those stories. Part of wanting to teach these students was me feeling like science (or writing, or theatre, or hiking or ANYTHING) could be the avenue down which they find self confidence. If you prove to someone that they can do really cool science things that they understand, they may start wondering — what else can i do that i thought I can’t? If someone thinks they’re not creative, find a way for them to be creative and then praise them for it. If someone is afraid of being wrong, PRAISE them for trying when they are, because that’s what matters.

Over the past few weeks, i’ve found that the students and I have started to click more. I find myself looking forward to (instead of dreading) coming to teach them. They share with me when they get kissed on the cheek by their new boyfriend. They tell me their favorite Thanksgiving food. They constantly interrupt when they have something they’ve thought of to say. The girls and I have sung along to Taylor Swift while the boys groan (i think they’re faking it). They ask me questions like “If a person can be legally blind, can a person be ‘illegally’ blind?” I’ve been able to have heart to hearts with a few of them. I’ve proven to some of the students, at least for a moment, that they don’t ‘suck at science and math.’ I’ve sat with a few of them and their parents while they eat dinner, hearing about the rest of their lives. I’ve connected with some of them.

It’s not all roses, of course. They do still suck pretty hard sometimes, to put it bluntly. They’re too loud. Disrespectful to me and others. They don’t pay attention. They complain incessantly. “But WHYYYY?” they ask. It’s maddening and I still get too angry sometimes. i still lose my cool. But I also, more often these days, I remember that it wasn’t so long ago that I was the disrespectful student. I remember not listening, thinking the teacher was way too serious, that I had better things to do. So, when I can, i try to keep their bad behavior in perspective, to remember people generally act well when they can, that generally people want to be good. that there’s a reason for their behavior and compassion, not frustration, will work best.

When I head into the classroom with them, I try to be my best self, I try to find their best selves, I try to get them to believe the story that they can do anything.

And — as much as I can — I try to teach them some science.

On A Dime at #themoth #storySLAM

Yesterday, I stood on a stage and faced several massive fears.

  1. i participated in public speaking
  2. i shared a very personal story with a bunch of strangers
  3. i let other people judge me

All these fears were faced from the The Moth stage at LaughBoston in (you guessed it) Boston, MA.

What’s The Moth? It’s a “not-for-profit organization dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling.” Every month, in cities around the country (and also in a few places around the world), the Moth picks a theme, picks a venue, and welcomes people in the door to participate in what they call a #storySLAM.

People come to these #storySLAMS two reasons: to tell a story, or to listen to them being told. People who want to tell a story must put their name in the hat the beginning of the night, and ten people are chosen from that hat over the course of the night. if you’re chosen, you go up on stage and you have five minutes to tell a true story that happened to you that’s related to the night’s theme.

Last night’s theme was: On a Dime. The instructions were pretty simple:

“Prepare a five-minute story about a sudden change. Overnight success or an out-of-the-blue Dear John letter. Tell us about the moment when everything shifted and where you went from there”

I secretly bought myself a ticket to the show. That was the first step: my declaration of my intent to attend. But then I had to develop a story that fit the theme. I decided on a recent one: my experience on the 6th (and 7th) nights of my meditation course. It was a night when everything changed for me, when I realized that my self hate was much more pervasive and deeply felt than I had ever imagined. It was the night that I started to see myself as truly worth it, truly good enough, and through that new lens, the world around me changed.

Why did I want to tell this story on a stage? Isn’t on my blog enough? I’m not sure why, really.

Maybe it’s because as I’ve listened to their podcast (and you should too) and have been totally blown away by the stories that people tell and the way they tell them. The power these people have to make me cry and laugh and feel astounds me. I want to be able to do that.

Maybe it’s also because I feel like I have something to say. it’s a totally narcissistic idea, of course, to think that what you have to say matters, but maybe i’m totally narcissistic, and maybe it does matter.

And maybe it’s because I wanted to face my fears. I have long been afraid of being judged, of public speaking and of bearing myself to others. On this blog, I’ve been able to slowly get over some of those fears. My meditation course also helped me shed some of my worry. My therapy sessions have also focused on reducing my anxiety.

So anyway, i wanted to. But I didn’t want anyone to know about it. I didn’t want anyone to talk me into it, or out of it. I couldn’t handle the pressure of their nervousness or excitement on my account. In secret, I wrote out an outline for the story, and I practiced it and listened to my practice rounds and rewrote and practiced and listened. In secret, I planned to put my name in the hat.

And then, at noon yesterday, i freaked. I decided my story was awful, dumb, contrite, total bullshit. When Joe woke up, i decided to tell him what my plan was and ask for his honest feedback.

Was my story dumb? Was it worth telling? Should i do it?

Tell the story, he said. It’s good. You can do it.

 

So, a few hours later, I found myself in a WAY bigger room with WAY more people than I expected and WAY fewer names in the hat. The odds of me being chosen to speak weren’t odds. it was definite. I freaked again. What was I possibly thinking going up on stage in front of these people? I imagined the audience not clapping when I was done. or, worse(?), clapping while muttering what a poor girl i was that I thought *that* was worth telling.

At that point, i went public: i posted on Facebook and Twitter what my plan was, and how afraid I was. Should I put my name in? I asked them. Friends came to the rescue. They talked me down from the ledge in the best way possible: using harry potter references.

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so I signed up. because, why not, right? If i sucked, I sucked, and I could leave. And if i was awesome, then great.

I was picked first. Which figured.

I went up, and I stood there on the stage and I clasped my hands under my chin (where they stayed for the entire time) and i told my story. and people laughed at the right spots. and some people looked bored at certain points. and some people looked totally invested. All their eyes were on me, but i just stared into the lights (thank god for stage lights) and tried to remember what I’d practiced and tried to nail the ending.

And then it was over! people clapped and whooped and whistled and that felt amazing. when i sat back down at my seat, people smiled at me smiles that seemed really genuine and kind. The judges entered their scores: 8.9, 8.1 and 7.5. The scores made me feel weird (because who wants to be anything other than a 10?) but over the course of the night they turned out to be pretty average.

And after I was done, all throughout the night, people came up to me and told me they loved my story. that i did a good job. in the bathroom after the show, three women showered me with praises as we waited for stalls.

So…I did it. I paid money to tell a very personal story on a stage to a bunch of people I don’t know and might never see again. I bared myself to them. and all they had in exchange for me was love.

amazing.

50,000(plus) words

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I did it! Every day, I put my butt in my chair, put my fingers on my keyboard and wrote. And it added up! Between my writing in Scotland and the rest that I did during NaNoWriMo, my novel is 57,000 words long. Or 140ish pages.

A lot of those words are going to change. Maybe all of them. :) But, the important part is, I did it! 30 days ago, i had 11ish pages, a vague idea of where I was going and who my characters were, and a hope that I’d stick with it. And today, there’s more than 100 pages of story, twists, turns, dialogue, love, betrayal. Like it bloomed out of nowhere and took on a life of its own. It kind of blows my mind.

Thanks to everyone for their support.

To all the wonderful people on Twitter who made me see that community can be created online, and that there are others out there working toward the same goal. Thanks to the NaNo leader from Providence, who hosted write-ins where I got to meet and trade stories with local writers. Thanks to all the friends on Facebook who liked my never-ending statuses about my writing — i appreciate you bearing with me and being excited about my successes. And thanks to my friends and family and Joe for your amazing support and encouragement over the last month. I couldn’t do it without you!

Now, ‘scuse me, I’ll just head back to writing…