Teaching ends, and off to Nepal

The last few months feel like they’ve been filled to the brim.

When I wasn’t teaching those wonderful kids, I was working part-time at Amazing Charts as a technical writer learning all about the world of practice management (aka medical billing). When I wasn’t doing either of those, I was at the gym biking (training for Joe and I’s trip to Ireland in May), or meditating, or sitting at my desk finally editing my novel. When I wasn’t doing that I was at a book club meeting, lesson planning, fitting in time with friends (who are about to disperse around the country in June), and planning trips to Canada, Ireland and Nepal (though Canada got cut). When I wasn’t doing THAT, I was making sandwiches and lunches, snuggling Joe, or finally, sometimes, watching a funny TV show before bed.

And now, tonight, about 7 hours after finishing my last class at Calcutt Middle School (it was awesome), I’m lying in bed  resting after spending the last several days packing for my trip to Nepal with Amy (I get up in 5 hours).

I’m nervous for Nepal.  I can’t quite put my finger on why…my best guess is it’s just anxiety about Nepal being something new, an unknown. It’ll be my first trip to Asia, and I’m thrilled that Amy, who’s been to Asia many times, will be able to help me assimilate. I’m wondering how it will be different from East Africa, what mountains as tall as the Himalayas and those near the Annapurna range will look like, whether I’ll be able to interact with the people more than I did in Africa. I do it takes longer to get there: 12.5 hours to Dubai and then 4 and change to Kathmandu. I also know it’s cheaper. Hostels there cost like $5-$7 a night…and those are the good ones. I don’t know much else except it’s recent history, the damage from the earthquake, that they have a caste system and they recently went through a fuel crisis. I hope to learn more about Nepal, its history and its people while I’m there.

Most people’s plan for Nepal is high-altitude hikes. But after my little…experience…on Kilimanjaro, I’m not quite looking for that kind of time since I still haven’t quite figured out how to avoid altitude sickness yet. Amy and I are going to be visiting temples and villages, hopefully doing some day hikes and possibly overnight ones, we’re going to put our ear to the ground and hear what we should do from the travelers around us.

 

I plan to try to blog as I go, like I did in Scotland. But even if I can’t write here, I do plan to write in a journal and transcribe some or all of it here later.

So, for now, farewell and see you soon!

good days bad days: magic in the classroom

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i’ve been saying this to a lot of people lately: there’s nothing as good as a good day in the classroom.

when the students seem excited about the activity, when they (for the most part) listen, when they tell you what’s holding them back, when you can fix it for them, when they flourish, come together, support each other, grow, when the thing they’re getting better at isn’t science or the subject, but being more themselves and more confident…it’s the kind of day i imagine teacher’s dream of. I know I do.

one of the things i had a hard time doing last semester was keeping my cool. when people didn’t participate, it didn’t try hard enough to figure out why. when students acted out or difficult or didn’t pay attention, i didn’t consider *why* they might be acting that way, i just called out the behavior.

a moment this semester made me realize that mistake. this kid i teach, who has anxiety and adhd, and who i had last semester as well — he’s a handful to put it lightly. he almost always needs to be moving (unless he’s playing a game on his computer), he has a hard time not speaking out of turn, and in activities, he was never on task. i spent so much of my energy just trying to contain him and redirect him toward the activity.

one day a week or two ago, after a particularly rough class period in which i’d had to sit him out of the activity, i had a talk with him, asking him what was going on and why he wasn’t really participating in the activity.

and he said something that surprised me. not that he was bored or didn’t like the activity or was having trouble paying attention or any of that. No — the problem was he felt like his teammates weren’t listening to him and his ideas and so instead of sitting feeling dejected on the sidelines, he was acting out.

it was a revelation! and it was something i could fix. i could help facilitate communication and idea-sharing. i could put him in a group with people who were more likely to listen. and when i did those things, he flourished! the last few classes, he’s participated with his team, found ways to share his ideas, and learned to listen to others. his team, previously annoyed and exasperated with him, loves his ideas, often more than their own. it’s amazing.

and it turns out that almost all the students in that class who were acting out were doing so because they felt they weren’t being listened to. when i worked to fix those problems, all the sudden groups were doing amazing work. things were happening. my tuesdays and thursdays with my 5th and 6th grade classes became almost magical.

it helps that the students are young. my 7th and 8th grade class doesn’t run as smoothly. the 5th and 6th graders don’t seem as afraid to say when they feel stupid or unheard or ignored. they trust that i can help them. the older they get, i’m finding, the less they want to ask for help, and the less likely they are to admit when they’re feeling insecure, left out or not listened to. it makes it harder to help. it makes it harder for me to remember to be patient, to be kind, to be inquisitive. i get frustrated more easily because i don’t know how to help them when they won’t talk to me. there’s few things more demoralizing than a bad day in the classroom. i leave the school these days feeling so low and so sad wishing id done everything differently, wishing i could have found a way to make the students come alive.

but, then there’s those amazing days, days that are happening more often nowadays, where i leave school and feel like I’m floating on a cloud of awesomeness. there’s not much more amazing than a magical day teaching. so here’s to hoping i can mastermind some more of those…

to all the teachers out there, if you have any wonderful ideas for making class more magical more often, share here!

the one thing i learned from some teachers in providence recently was to have a period of class (or one day a week do this) where you ask the students a question about themselves. the idea is that by sharing these things were each other, the students start to look at themselves as a community instead of a class. they come together. the last two classes, I asked each class “What is your favorite memory, and why?” I got some the most incredible answers, answers that gave me insight into who these kids are, and what they care about. Two boys said their favorite memory was their little sister learning to ride their tricycle or taking their first steps. some talked about how going to visit their relatives in another country was the best. one girl talked about her first time at comic-con and how amazing it was. not everyone participated, but some people did who i didn’t expect. and their answers were so much deeper than i expected. i loved it. i hope it building community. i’ll let you know. :)

 

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.

After sitting in silence: finding balance

its been about fourteen days since I got back from the meditation retreat, and those days have been pretty intense.

after getting home from the retreat with the instructions from goenka to meditate twice a day for an hour each, I did a pretty good job for the first day or two. All I really had on my plate (other than writing the next great American novel of course) was working on moving since joe and I were headed to the second floor from the third. It was easy to make time for meditation, but the meditation itself wasn’t easy. My intention was there, but my focus wavered. I was no longer able to tell time with meditation (of course I always overestimated — “it’s been 40 minutes!”  Nope. 20.). And the sensations I got were different. From sounds to temperature to a different posture to the brightness and darkness, it all felt different. All my sensations were also dulled, harder to notice, which I kind of expected.

Then, a day or two after getting back, I started getting angry again. I was still unhappy about the things I mentioned in the last post, and a few other things started nagging me. In his discourses, Goenka had noted that vipassana was the “true, undiluted” meditation that the Buddha himself had taught so many years ago but that had been lost for ages. He also alleged that vipassana was the only true way to reach enlightenment.

It took me all of the ten day course and three days after to realize that I thought this was kinda bullshit. So I got angry. I talked to Joe’s sister, Sarah, about it, and she agreed that the idea vipassana was the only way to enlightenment was pretty ridiculous. But, she asked — did it do anyone any real harm to believe it? No, not really. And did vipassana help me anyway even if it wasn’t THE path to enlightenment? Indeed, tons. Sooo…..does it really matter what was said?

No…………buuuuuttt.

But what? But I felt foolish! Like I’d been taken in and it took me what felt like forever to even question it. April, who it turned out was having pretty similar thoughts to mine, put it best:

There’s a lot of different kool-aids out there and that one tasted pretty good, but it was kind of the first kool aid for both of us, so of course we’re going to think it tastes the best. And of course everyone that sells the kool aid is going to think its the best.

Ha!

Maybe vipassana is the only true way. And maybe the only way to know for sure is to take it to its limits — to do a  45 day course, or become a nun or something like that. maybe the only way to know is to try every type of meditation out there and see what happens.

Or, maybe I can forget all that stuff, all the old stories and the buddha and karma and past lives and true enlightenment and everything that felt wrong to me. Maybe i can just use the vipassana techniques i know and see how they better my life.

And they do better my life. What I do know is that days I meditate, I’m happier and calmer. I know that when I sit for a hour in the morning and an hour in the evening, it feels right. I know that I feel more patient, that my anger and sadness are over more quickly, that I’m more likely to deal with “annoying” situations as if they are just neutral ones. I use waiting in line as an excuse to meditate.

And, I see the world a little differently, and myself differently. Now, when people say something unkind to me, I am aware of whether or not I wallow in sadness or anger about it (and sometimes I do wallow). When I get sad or angry or I panick, it passes more quickly. When pleasant or unpleasant things happen, I’m aware of anicca, that everything changes, and while I enjoy or dislike them, I try to temper my reaction. It’s as if the world I saw before the retreate was slightly off-axis, unnoticeable until attention was drawn to it, and now it feels like I’m seeing straight. Or maybe like now I feel like I can take a step back and see situations for what they are, instead of feeling as overwhelmed by them.

Its a good, stabilizing feeling.

So, ten days after my ten day course, I’ve moved, got a new part-time job teaching at-risk middle schoolers science in an afterschool program, starting writing again, and established a wavering but good meditation practice that improves my overall well-being. My meditation is also helping now that I’m in Orlando, planning to stick around for a few weeks to take care of my mom after a surgery. I had to take a leave from the teaching job, and writing will be more difficult to fit in, and sometimes those things are stressful to think about. But the reality is I want to be here now and those other things are less important right now. Anicca. Everything changes. 

So, I’ll keep you updated here and there on how the meditation is going, how everything is going, but if you have any questions about or the retreat, please feel free to reach out. And thanks for reading…I’ve enjoyed sharing very much.