Saturday, March 31, 2012

Polish Egg Decorating

Southeast Michigan has a large Polish community that I have had the pleasure to explore. I've spent some time in the particularly Polish areas of Detroit where I had the opportunity to try Dill Pickle soup, which I didn't even know existed (and it's pretty good soup too!). I have also learned that it's a polish tradition to eat  Pączkis (pronounced PAWNCH-kee) on Fat Tuesday before lent begins and everyone around Michigan seems to go NUTS with this idea. Having never even heard of a Pączki I definitely took the opportunity to participate in this polish pastry/donut affair. Continuing my Polish tradition education, this week I got to participate in another Polish tradition-- super FANCY egg decorating!

My housemates and I's combined Polish Egg Decorating Efforts!
Every year one of the members of the church teaches anyone who is interested how to make these fancy eggs! Here's some things you should know about Polish Egg Decorating

Starting Pattern for Beginners.

1. They are real raw eggs. They are not hard boiled and if you drop them they WILL break. The really intense egg decorators remove the yoke and fluid before decorating them, but that is just too much work when raw eggs will work and last up to 4 years if you don't break them. (and keep them at room temperature)

2.  To make the designs you use wax and a tool called a kistka. You heat up the kistka in a candle flame and then melt the wax while simultaneously scooping it into the device. The kistka has a pencil type tip that you control while 'drawing' on the wax. There are different widths of kistkas that you use depending on the thickness of the lines you want. 

Lauren's Egg in the Yellow Dye.

3. Whatever color the wax covers up is the color that the end product will be. For instance, the white lines are the real egg shell. After you use the wax to cover up the parts you want white you dip the egg into the yellow dye and do the same thing. Every time you reenter the egg in dye increase the darkness of the dye.

4. After you complete your pattern, you melt the remaining wax off as you watch your colors and design appear. A helpful tip is to not hold your egg directly over the flame of the candle but to the side so that you don't char your egg. Also, it is at this point in the process where most people drop their eggs and break them. SO be careful!

5. Each egg takes about a minimum of an hour to create. Of course more intricate detailed patterns take much longer. The red egg with the yellow swirls took me 2 hours to make.

6. This tradition is over 2500 years old. This practice was used in pagan spring festivals, which is where the Easter tradition of eggs later came from.

The dyes and supplies for all of this can be bought at the Polish Art Center in Michigan. I'm very thankful to have people share their talents and culture with me! Now I have beautiful eggs to show off at my house.  

Removing the wax in the final step.

Wax and Kistka plus my egg ready to be dipped in red.

I've always wanted to sign my name on an egg!!

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Observations from Farther Away

I had a pair of outside eyes come observe the literacy program yesterday because they were curious to see what exactly happens at the after school program Read for Life that I coordinate with a core of retired elementary teachers.

Upon her arrival I showed her the two first grade classrooms where she observed nearly every first grader of the 22 first grade students with a one on one tutor.  The students were actively engaged with their tutor doing a wide variety of activities from singing poems to "in the saints go marching in," a sound blending activity with a penny, or a comprehension activity involving using context clues to discover what the hidden word could be based off its first few letters. I showed her the different sight word games, letter bingo, flashcards, and various library books we use to support the first graders. We have plenty of things to keep them busy!

I explained to her that the majority of our volunteer tutors are retired elementary teachers or have some sort of extensive tutoring background with literacy, but of course there are volunteers from the community with no background in literacy training who want to be part of this type of service. We support those volunteers by pairing them with someone with more experience so they can bounce ideas, tips, and explain any questions in addition to me and the committee I work with.

Next I showed her the second grade room which has 14 students and nearly that many tutors. The second grade room is different from the first grade rooms mainly because second graders are SO much more mature than first graders. They can handle much more structure and don't need to take a break for the bathroom etc and can easily work through the whole hour we have them.

She asked why we only focus on first and second graders and I explained to her that there's another after school program pointing down the hall towards the cafeteria and gym where they take the 3rd through 5th graders till 5:15pm for students who have not passed the Michigan state test up to state standards. That program I believe is funded completely though the school district with grant money they receive through that. The students in that program get a hot meal too, which is astonishing when you consider how many students in this area live in food insecure homes. Students take the Michigan state test in the fall in the beginning of their third grade year, so really this test designed for 3rd graders is basically testing students with a second grade knowledge base. There is no way students already behind in second grade are going to pass this test, which is where the program I work with comes in.

She then stuck around to see some of the parents come pick up their kids. At one point she turned to me after a student left and whispered in my ear surprised, "that little boy has holes in his shoes the size of my fist." First of all, I was not surprised; second of all, I did not even notice. Like I have said so many times before, a lot of the things most people do not consider 'normal' have become super normalized for me. But it still bothered me that I didn't notice and I mentally kicked myself saying "Amanda! You have the resources/know the right people to easily get that boy shoes, how come you haven't noticed this before."

When I went home that night still pondering the shoe thing I suddenly realized why I didn't notice. At the end of the program I am busy passing out fruit to students for them to take home and helping parents sign out their students. There are roughly 10 students who I am always super concerned/aware of and I am doing everything in my power given my position to make their lives just a little bit easier and the way I approach this is by giving them fruit to eat. You just intuitively begin to figure out where the need is by the way the children approach you asking about food and I always ask those students how many children there are at home and send them with that amount of oranges. You just never know, that piece of fruit may be dinner for that child and their siblings that night. Of course, not every child in the program lives in a food insecure home, but a lot of them do... and when their guardian comes up to you and gives you a hug and whispers in your ear thank you, you know that the need is there.

As for the student with the shoes, he is not one of my 'most-urgent-need-to-tune-into' students. I hate to say it that way, but he is a very happy kid, has a great, caring, and loving guardian, and has made HUGE leaps in our literacy program and really has come a long way. Plus, he lives a few houses down from me and I see him around the neighborhood and can say at the basic level he is well cared for.

So simply said, food > shoes.

However, now that I am made aware of the shoe thing I will be on the look out for shoes. 

When the lady observing left she said, "wow you are really doing great things here with this program. The need is definitely here you can see it...." then she trailed off for a second holding back tears and then said to me "I'm sorry the wheels are turning in my head. I need to get going." I told her "alright, thanks for coming! I'm sure I'll be in touch with you."

It's nice to hear that from the outside and then to see that someone 'gets it'. Sometimes I get so used to what I'm doing that I'm like.. I don't even know if this is making a difference or even matters to people outside this community. Not to mention how emotionally difficult this sort of work is and the poverty you see on a daily basis.

It's the type of work that grabs your heart, rips it out from under you, tears it into shreds, and then reconfigures your whole inner workings and worldview and completely changes you. 

 That's exactly what this year has been like for me, but I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Racism = Prejudice + Power

One of Lutheran Volunteer Corps (LVC) values is working for social justice with a significant focus on anti-racism work. At the beginning of of my LVC year I participated in nearly 20 hours of Crossroads anti-racism training with the other volunteers and LVC staff in St. Paul, Minnesota. 

Lutheran Volunteer Corps has different groups of people who come together to reflect the organizations values. For instance, several times throughout the year the volunteers, staff, and the Local Support Committee (group of people in the community who hold the same values as LVC and support the volunteers and organization in general) come together to evaluate if our actions are meeting our values. Last weekend I went down to Detroit to join the Local Support Committee on their journey to an inclusive community retreat along with Michigan's Regional Director. We focused specifically on anti-racism both with respect to the Detroit and Port Huron communities, LVC itself, white privilege, and racism in general. 

Now take a deep breath. Racism hurts us all, whether we acknowledge it or not. 

Racism is complex. Even my simplified definition of racism in the title of this post does not even begin to cover its complexity. Really the title should say something like Racism = Cultural Prejudice + Misuse of Power by Systems and Institutions. The history is long and very involved.

This blog post is not intended to dissect the complexity of racism or lecture about it, there are other times and places to do this with people much more qualified and knowledgeable than myself, but rather this post is intended to get you thinking and starting the conversation about racism at the very least within yourself. We are all familiar with racism; from birth we begin to become socialized by ideas and actions about race.  

For myself, as a white woman, going through the anti-racism training, reflecting on the history, the systematic oppression, acknowledging my white privilege, and actively noticing/observing how racism plays into my everyday life (aka not choosing to ignore it even though I have the privilege to do so) has been very eye opening. For instance, I can walk into any children's book store and find tons of books with pictures of people who look like me. When you start looking for books with main characters of people of color you will find it is actually very difficult. Another example, I helped out at a school's carnival doing a 'book walk' (like a cake walk except they get to pick their own books to take home). I was delighted to see a variety of books with lots of different characters of color. I decided to observe the students as they chose their books. Every single student picked out a book with a character who looked like them. It's unfortunate in a general children's book store it is harder for all children to do this.

There are unearned privileges white people, myself included, have whether they want those privileges or not. In fact, white people can easily ignore these privileges or be completely unaware of them and the fact that we can even do so IS A PRIVILEGE. We, as white people, do not have to wonder if something happened to us because of our race (lost our job, have people assume its how we got our job, why someone is rude to us, etc). We, as white people, also do not have to wonder when something racial will creep up to slap us in the face unexpectedly in normal day life. For instance, we don't have to wonder whether a cashier would rather place change on the counter instead of our hand because the cashier is afraid to touch our skin. Yeah... That still happens. All these things, we as white people don't see or think about if we don't want to. 

The way I have come to understand racism is that we are all a little bit racist, because as you start becoming informed and self aware of racism you begin to see it everywhere both with your own actions, cultural actions, community actions, and institutional actions. What I have found to be helpful in all of this mess is to not deny or defend racism and its history by saying things like "I'm not racist" (denial) or "racism doesn't exist" (denial), but to acknowledge how racism as affected me and how I've benefited from it.

To read more information on White Privilege, I have found this article written by Dr. Peggy McIntosh called "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" extremely helpful to understand some of these unearned privileges and it can be read here.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Empty Bowl Fundraiser

The soup kitchen, Mid City Nutrition, had their empty bowl fundraiser yesterday. This is their largest fundraiser and as Alice, the Director, says "I only do one big fundraiser a year and this is IT." My housemates and I volunteered at the event to help navigate over 300+ people, which I believe is the largest turnout they have ever had. Everyone involved was very pleased. 

One of the Serving Bowls.
Some of the empty bowls to choose from.

So what exactly is the Empty Bowl Event? Simply said, it is a meal done in the 'soup kitchen style' where people get a bread bowl filled with AMAZING soup. Alice does her famous white chili recipe once a year and for this event only along with other specialty soups. In addition to the meal, local artists donate hundreds of handmade pottery bowls to be the 'empty bowl' and everyone gets to pick out one that we wrap for them to take home. The bowls are all unique and really gives the artist a way to showcase their talents, which is very very cool. I love it when art can be integrated into things like this, plus it makes it more of a community effort.

The atmosphere of the event is FUN. They had the lively elderly man jamming out on the piano rocking out to tunes like "You are my Sunshine" and then randomly playing music from phantom of the opera? It was a HOOT. I was in the kitchen carving out bread bowls singing away. I turned to Jeremy and said, this is how it should be, we should ALWAYS sing in the kitchen. He laughed and said "well it looks like you got the moves to go with it" as I swayed side to side.

As a general rule I never really stick to one job in particular at events like this so I bounced around wrapping bowls, carving out bread bowls, participating in the silent auction, telling people about the silent auction, serving people soup, making jokes with other volunteers who have become my 'extended' family here in Port Huron. I loved it. It made me nostalgic for my days working in the restaurant business again, but only for a BRIEF and I mean very BRIEF moment.

Chicken Florentine Soup.

Jeremy preparing the bread bowls like a PRO.

There was a moment when I was serving soup when I realized this is A LOT like serving at the soup kitchen. Sure the people are different, but then again they really aren't. You still get the same sort of comments and requests from people: they can be picky, they can be funny, they can complain, they can tell you exactly how they want their soup served, they can be extremely thankful... it's all the same. Really it is. After one incident in particular I turned to Jeremy making a joke and said "This is very familiar," he laughed and said "Amanda, people are people. Sure we may be serving middle class people today, but being human remains constant across the board." I had to laugh. It's so true.
Artwork made by children for the Empty Bowl Event.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Response to Previous Jake Jahn Post

Hi Everyone,

I just wanted to share with you that in less than 24 hours of posting my previous post In Memory of Jake Jahn there has been over 500 people who have visited this blog. That is phenomenal and shows more than anything that we are not alone in our grief. I wanted to share that with all of you because I feel that is very important as we discover what all this means for us individually and as a community. When I originally wrote the previous post I was at a loss and numb all over like death tends to be, and honestly I did not know what else to do but write. I had no idea it would reach so many people and that my post would indirectly create an online space for healing by allowing people to grieve. 

Last night I spent time with my youth remembering Jake. The stories they told showed me how their interactions with Jake had been full of blessing and life. He is missed. I know there are a lot of feelings we are all experiencing, but more than anything I want to emphasize that it is ok to be feeling the wide variety of emotions we feel. Shock, Anger, Sadness, Guilt, Numbness, may be some of them. And even though this does not feel ok, it is ok to feel.

We need each other through all of this and part of that is to keep the memory of Jake alive. I know the school and different groups are doing various things to remember: changing profile pictures to the batman signal, selling bracelets, car decals, and other events. I encourage you to find a healthy way to remember that works for you. For me that means writing and maybe it means that for you too. If that is the case I encourage you to write, leave a comment of your memories to share here, or maybe just write in your own personal journal. But regardless if you a writer or not find a healthy way to remember. 

And.. if you happen to find yourself here, alone on the internet away from the crowds to remember, know that this blog post was meant especially for you, for the times when we need to sneak away from the world to be with ourselves and our thoughts to ponder. You are not alone. 

Yours Truly,
                                                                     I will remember.

The link to local 4's report on the crash can be found here.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

In Memory of Jake Jahn

Jake Jahn, a student who attended high school in Marysville (about 10 minutes from Port Huron), passed on Monday night when his car hit a cement bridge. 

I know that sounds kind of cold coming off the page.

I did not personally know him, but many of the youth in the youth group did. He was 17, I believe captain of the swim team, good grades, and well loved by the community. My housemates, Jeremy's supervisor at Community Mental Health, left work to go be with the family when it happened as she is the crisis person. It is all very tragic and the youth are taking it very hard. Needless to say I scrapped my original youth group plans for the group tonight to be present with them and our grieving, but I feel like I have no idea what I'm doing. 

The community feels a lot like it did in my hometown after the Frontier Middle School shooting that took place in Moses Lake when I was the same age as my elementary students. Obviously it's a very different scenario and I would never say the two are the same, but the way the community is responding is similar. So much shock, especially in these young people's lives. 

And you have to wonder what was the reason. To my knowledge there wasn't a note and I don't know if there was any bullying involved or mental illness. So far it doesn't sound that way? Please keep the youth and myself in your prayers.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Safe Horizon Homeless Shelter

The dynamics of my neighborhood are quite interesting as I'm sure you can imagine with a soup kitchen and homeless shelter/safe houses in the area. As I've said before I was in culture shock probably for the first month here, but now everything has become so "normal" that it's just another day. I'm starting to understand the culture. I'm hoping to do a blog post in the near future on 'things you see/hear from my front porch' as it is... um... an experience. 

Although my neighborhood has many different points of interest, today I wanted to focus on the Safe Horizon Shelter.  Although I do not know the details/policies of this particular shelter in a strange way I do have a relationship with it. For instance, when my housemates and I are out on a stroll we usually make a point to walk by it. Because of the nature of our work at least one of us usually knows someone who is sitting out on its porch and we like to say 'hi, how are you doing?" and then continue on with our walk. Even when we don't know anyone we still like to say "hi how's it going?" Sometimes they have a short response such as "I'm just enjoying this fine weather" and other times someone may not say anything at all. I guess it probably depends on how well you know someone.

Living here has taught me a lot about homeless shelters in general. For example, some shelters will let you stay for 4 weeks and then you cannot be back for 2 weeks. Most shelters also have rules such as no alcohol, drugs, etc and if they find you with it they will kick you out. Some shelters only take women and children, which means some families have to separate. Currently many of the shelters here in Port Huron that were open 24 hours a day have had to cut their hours to 16 and there's talk of cutting them more.

To give a little bit of perspective on that, imagine you are an elementary student living at a homeless shelter with your parent and then with the cut in hours you suddenly have no where to go after school. What do you do and where do you go? What if it's raining and cold? Attending a free after school program for an extra hour might not sound like a bad idea, which is where my work with the literacy program comes into play. Not all of the students need help with literacy.

To read more about the Safe Horizon Shelter here in Port Huron the Times Herald wrote an article about it here which was the inspiration for this post.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Breaking into the Twitter World

How Twitter Helps my Blog

I originally got a twitter account to place myself right in the heart of education news only to realize the added benefits that it meant for my blog!! I've linked my blog with my twitter account which means every time I blog it uploads directly to twitter. This means as I gain followers more people will see my blog and traffic on my blog will increase! It opens my blog up to new audiences. YES. I like this idea. I don't know why I didn't do this before!

Ok so what benefit does this mean for my loyal readers back home?

Well every time you visit my blog on the right hand side of the page there will be a box of my 3 latest twitter feeds sharing my humor, wisdom, and thoughts in 140 characters or less. Since I have an iPhone I can literally update twitter feeds anytime of the day at my convenience, which means less hassle for me. And.. if you are on the email subscription for my blog no worries, nothing changes, just know that when you do visit my blog link you can check out my Twitter feed on the right.

Why I use Twitter

To stay informed. The majority of the people I follow are people involved with education policy, reform, politicians, and news from all angles. I figure if I can't be a teacher there is no reason for me to know EVERYTHING I can about what is going on in the education world. That way when my shining moment comes I will be ready with the facts, stories, opinions, and holding a wealth of knowledge that will make me unstoppable. At least that is the idea.

When it comes to Twitter I do make personal exceptions to follow people who I think are truly wonderful human beings too (friends/family/etc) aside from education stuff. :)

For those with a Twitter account follow me at @teachmecourage.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Sandpiper

One of the literacy tutors at Read for Life forwarded this in an email with me especially in mind. I'm not usually a fan of email chains, but I greatly liked this one. Maybe part of it is because it talks about going to the beach when you are troubled and feeling the sand under your feet. I have been taking FULL advantage of the beach here in Port Huron for very similar reasons. Enjoy. 

The Sandpiper 
Picture from wikipedia found here.

by Robert Peterson

She was six years old when I first met her on the beach near where I live.
I drive to this beach, a distance of three or four miles, whenever the world
begins to close in on me. She was building a sand castle or something
and looked up, her eyes as blue as the sea.
"Hello," she said.
I answered with a nod, not really in the mood to bother with a small child.
"I'm building," she said.
"I see that. What is it?" I asked, not really caring.
"Oh, I don't know, I just like the feel of sand."
That sounds good, I thought, and slipped off my shoes.
A sandpiper glided by.
"That's a joy," the child said.

"It's a what?"

"It's a joy. My mama says sandpipers come to bring us joy."

The bird went gliding down the beach. Good-bye joy, I muttered to myself,

hello pain, and turned to walk on. I was depressed, my life seemed

completely out of balance.

"What's your name?" She wouldn't give up.

"Robert," I answered. "I'm Robert Peterson."

"Mine's Wendy... I'm six."

"Hi, Wendy."

She giggled. "You're funny," she said.

In spite of my gloom, I laughed too and walked on.

Her musical giggle followed me.

"Come again, Mr. P," she called. "We'll have another happy day."

The next few days consisted of a group of unruly Boy Scouts, PTA meetings,

and an ailing mother. The sun was shining one morning as I took my hands out

of the dishwater. I need a sandpiper, I said to myself, gathering up my coat.

The ever-changing balm of the seashore awaited me. The breeze was

chilly but I strode along, trying to recapture the serenity I needed.

"Hello, Mr. P," she said. "Do you want to play?"

"What did you have in mind?" I asked, with a twinge of annoyance.

"I don't know. You say."

"How about charades?" I asked sarcastically.

The tinkling laughter burst forth again. "I don't know what that is."

"Then let's just walk."

Looking at her, I noticed the delicate fairness of her face.
"Where do you live?" I asked.

"Over there." She pointed toward a row of summer cottages.

Strange, I thought, in winter.

"Where do you go to school?"

"I don't go to school. Mommy says we're on vacation"

She chattered little girl talk as we strolled up the beach, but my mind was
on other things. When I left for home, Wendy said it had been a happy day.
Feeling surprisingly better, I smiled at her and agreed.

Three weeks later, I rushed to my beach in a state of near panic. I was in no
mood to even greet Wendy. I thought I saw her mother on the porch and felt
like demanding she keep her child at home.

"Look, if you don't mind," I said crossly when Wendy caught up with me, "I'd
rather be alone today." She seemed unusually pale and out of breath.

"Why?" she asked.

I turned to her and shouted, "Because my mother died!" and thought,
My God, why was I saying this to a little child?

"Oh," she said quietly, "then this is a bad day."

"Yes," I said, "and yesterday and the day before and -- oh, go away!"

"Did it hurt?" she inquired.

"Did what hurt?" I was exasperated with her, with myself.

"When she died?"

"Of course it hurt!" I snapped, misunderstanding,
wrapped up in myself. I strode off.

A month or so after that, when I next went to the beach, she wasn't there.
Feeling guilty, ashamed, and admitting to myself I missed her, I went up
to the cottage after my walk and knocked at the door. A drawn looking
young woman with honey-colored hair opened the door.

"Hello," I said, "I'm Robert Peterson. I missed your little girl today
and wondered where she was."

"Oh yes, Mr. Peterson, please come in. Wendy spoke of you so much.
I'm afraid I allowed her to bother you. If she was a nuisance,
please, accept my apologies."

"Not at all --! she's a delightful child." I said, suddenly realizing
that I meant what I had just said.

"Wendy died last week, Mr. Peterson. She had leukemia
Maybe she didn't tell you."

Struck dumb, I groped for a chair. I had to catch my breath.

"She loved this beach, so when she asked to come, we couldn't say no.
She seemed so much better here and had a lot of what she called happy days.
But the last few weeks, she declined rapidly..." Her voice faltered, "She left
something for you, if only I can find it. Could you wait a moment while I look?"

I nodded stupidly, my mind racing for something to say to this lovely young
woman. She handed me a smeared envelope with "MR. P" printed in bold
childish letters. Inside was a drawing in bright crayon hues -- a yellow beach,
a blue sea, and a brown bird. Underneath was carefully printed:


Tears welled up in my eyes, and a heart that had almost forgotten to love
opened wide. I took Wendy's mother in my arms. "I'm so sorry, I'm so sorry,
I'm so sorry," I uttered over and over, and we wept together. The precious little
picture is framed now and hangs in my study. Six words -- one for each year
of her life -- that speak to me of harmony, courage, and undemanding love.

A gift from a child with sea blue eyes and hair the color of sand

-- who taught me the gift of love.

NOTE: This is a true story sent out by Robert Peterson. It happened over 20 years ago and the incident changed his life forever. It serves as a reminder to all of us that we need to take time to enjoy living and life and each other. The price of hating other human beings is loving oneself less.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Seven Year Old Inspiration

I have the best students in the world!

At least that's what I tell people when they ask me how the literacy program is going. Since I haven't blogged about the literacy program lately, I thought I'd share with you some of the joy and inspiration my first and second grade students bring to my life.

Their Generous and Innocent Attitudes. The majority of my students do not come from a background of privilege and they treat everything you give them whether it's a smile, kind word, or a snack like it's the greatest  gift in the world. They are so graciously thankful for everything and feel entitled to nothing. They are so generous. Sometimes when we have fruit to send home with them after the program students will give up their fruit and give it to their younger sibling without a second thought. The students and their families are hungry and since the students already get one snack at our program they share the fruit because they know their sibling didn't get to eat.

Their Creativity. I live in a world where potions turn people into giant gummy bears, sharks tell jokes, and leprechauns sneak up to people and turn them 100 years old!!! (just to name a few) I am always amazed at the stories and ideas they come up with and I LOVE it. I especially like listening to any of my students' stories at the end of the day and I think more importantly they like that I listen. (Their poor parents probably hear this sort of thing all the time!) Their creativity is truly beautiful and I like to encourage it as much as possible so they don't lose it!

Their Good and Bad Days. Just like grown up people, seven and eight year olds have good and bad days too. In fact I think I almost like their bad days better because it reminds me that we are all human. For instance, by the time the students get to the after school program they may have had a really rough day in the classroom already. I'll never forget the day when one little student, who does tend to be a handful, came up to me and said "TODAY IS AWFUL.. we had a substitute teacher and she didn't like me and I kept getting in trouble and it hurt my feelings" as she was trying to hold back her hurt and tears. Her tutor and I reassured her that today can start over now and we will have a good day in Read for Life. After that she perked up knowing she was loved and that we were familiar and proceed to have a very good day in our program and left with a smile.

Their Love. Not every student and I see eye to eye all the time and we don't always get along, but their ability to share their love for their parent/guardian, siblings, tutors, and even at times me is remarkable. They are capable of giving great unconditional love probably because they haven't been too jaded by life yet, and really just want someone to love them. (and who really can't identify with that?)  They just have a unique first and second grader way of approaching it. I receive quite a few surprise hugs from students and usually when I need them the most too. It probably helps that I know all 40 students and some of their parents by name and pass out food to them. 

I will miss my first and second graders immensely next year along with the teenagers I also work with outside of the reading program.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

What the Heck is Going on in NYC Schools??!

First they write standardized tests to evaluate the students and now they write standardized tests to evaluate the teachers.

In case you have not been keeping up on the news in education, New York City's education department released all teacher evaluations to the press based completely off of standardized testing using "value-added formulas," according to the Washington Post (details can be read here). Imagine sitting down to read your local newspaper to see all the public school teachers names listed in your area along with a mark after their name saying "ineffective or effective" with regards to their teaching.

The basis to determine whether someone is an effective teacher is solely based off the increase (or decrease) in their standardization test scores in the past five years. This means that a teacher who one year had students who met 90% of the standard and 85% of the standard the next year gets a mark of 'ineffective' written after their name in the newspaper even though 85% is still remarkably high.

Oh but lets keep in mind the city won't release firefighters or police evaluations to the public.

I really like what Mark Naison, a professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University in New York who writes the blog With a Brooklyn Accent says about how the middle class views teachers (found via one of my favorite blogs School Matters at this link here):

Let’s look at the way many in America’s shrinking middle class and battered working class view the teachers in their midst.
Large numbers of people are losing their jobs and homes, earning sub-standard wages and taking in their children who can’t find jobs. All the while, they see teachers, 80 percent of them women, who make better salaries than they do, have better health plans and pensions, and get two or three months off in the summer!
Many say to themselves: “Who do teachers think they are? Why should they live so well on my tax dollars when I can barely keep my head above water? At the very least, they should feel some of the insecurity I feel every day and face the kind of performance assessments workers in the private sector deal with all the time.”

Interesting... and I still want to start a career in secondary science education? Are you sure? 
Education policy is nothing new to me as I grew up in a house with a teacher and a Grandfather who was on Washington State's education committee. In fact it was growing up around this that made me NOT want to go into education, but here I am regardless wanting to be a physics teacher to combine my love of science with my love of working with teenagers. (How many people say that!?! Seriously I must be insane.) 
I really do have a deep respect for the teaching profession and yes I do view it as a profession or an art form if you will. Teachers go to school to get a certificate just like other professions and have the heavy responsibility of teaching the youth of the future. Yet so many people leave the profession before 5 years after putting up with all this crap. 
Guess what? It takes about 5 years to even become a good teacher. How are we even going to retain and create quality new teachers with crap like this going on? Heavy questions. 
So here I am, a recent physics undergraduate determined to get my certification to teach for the long haul only to be placed up on the dart board of society. Well at least I'm well informed... so I have that going for me. 
Bring it! Let me pick my own education battles and create a splash. Now to get that certification...    

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

My Favorite Outdoor Places in Port Huron

We have been having such beautiful weather recently (mid 60s) that Lauren and I decided to drive around Port Huron and take pictures of some of our favorite outdoor places.

We love these enchanting spiral staircases!!

Train tracks that take you right to the blue water bridge to Canada.. you can't see the white bridge very well in this picture.. but it's there. 
St. Clair River emptying into Lake Huron. The water is SO blue!! The picture really doesn't do it justice, but that is why they call it the blue water area.
Blue Water Bridge to Canada! I like walking along the boardwalk here.
The entrance out to the beach.
Lighthouse Park on Lake Huron. 
Lauren sitting out over the beach.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


One of the perks of being a volunteer is that people will invite you out/give you things they probably wouldn't otherwise. One of the literacy tutors gave Jeremy and I tickets to go see Jim Abbott, a one handed baseball player from Flint, Michigan. He was born without a right hand and went on to become a prestigious star baseball pitcher playing for the Olympic team, Yankees, and the Angels. He talked about his struggle with his disability and shared some motivational pieces of wisdom. It was really good for me to hear and I thought I would share with you all what I learned through his use of the acronym Adapt. 


Adjustability. The willingness to do things differently. Find a way doing things that works for you and do it

A lot of people do the same thing over and over again, the same way it has always been done for centuries, lacking any sort of creativity to make it new. However, some people are put in situations (like not having a right hand) and are forced into thinking creatively because they have to do things differently. Break the cycle of repetition in your life, try different things, and use adjustability to respond to life's uncertainties.

Determination. Mental toughness. 

After you figure out how to do things your own way you are going to be met with immediate skepticism and doubt. There are people in the world who are your "daily negative creepers." Meaning these are the people who are negative their whole life and like to creep that negativity into your life.  Identify who those people are so you are self aware of their influence and cut their messages out of your life. We have power to decide who influences us.

Accountability. Being responsible for yourself and others. 

This one is a little harder for me to explain so I will share with you what Jim said. After Jim had made it to the major leagues he said it was alright. He was living the dream of any baseball player and just soaking it all in when a certain responsibility soon came with it. Soon after he joined the media and cameras started following him everywhere.. "LOOK its a one handed professional baseball player we must spotlight this really inspiration story." He didn't really like that.. they reminded him that he was 'different' and he didn't like being reminded of that. But soon after all the media started coming, soon families did too, with children who had lost a hand etc. He said after almost every game his manager would come up to him and say "hey Jim there's a family here who wants to meet you." Jim said that he didn't always want to go meet the families.. it wasn't always fun to be reminded you are different and those children where reminders of that, BUT he did say he went every time and he always left inspired. You have a responsibility and an accountability to yourself and others.

Perseverance. Focus on your strengths. 

For Jim this meant  focusing on his left hand not his right. There were so many times when he wanted to focus on his limitations of not having a right hand; however, he wasn't going to get better at the game if he kept focusing on it. He had to focus on what he had, his left hand, and put all his energy into learning how to use/stretch/maximize the use of his left hand. Never Give Up. Never, Never Give Up. Even when your major league team releases you and you spend a whole summer playing A team baseball with 18 year olds (and your 30) NEVER NEVER GIVE UP. Jim got signed back on to the Yankees after that summer and pitched the first 4-0 game in the Yankee stadium that season.

Trust.  In yourself and your abilities.

Trust is different from hope. Don't "hope" that the game will turn out with a win, instead trust. When we hope we lose focus of our abilities and  leave it up to fate, which takes us out of the game. Instead we need to hear what our heart is saying and trust in our abilities to get us from here to there. For Jim this meant trusting his abilities to throw the ball and focusing on that all the way through.. this means not thinking about the game, the pressure, who's at the plate, but just him, the ball, and his ability to trust his abilities.

Read the local times herald article "Jim Abbott shares his life philosophy at Port Huron Town Hall lecture" here.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Washington DC is Fine by Me

Daffodils are the happiest flower and are also my favorite. It was very warm in DC while I visited. One day it was even 70 degrees!!! 

View of DC from Anacostia.
If you ever go to Washington DC make sure to pack good shoes. I walked over 20 miles in 3 days (yes I mapped my walk) and had numerous blisters all over my feet to prove it. Basically I had to invest in some quality off brand neosporin and band aids to counter these walking wounds. It wasn't even that I was wearing bad shoes either, it was that I walked over 20 miles in 3 days (one day wearing my backpack with everything I brought on the trip). Keep in mind, this is not because I didn't make use of the metro and buses, I definitely did, but like most big cities you just end up doing a LOT of walking. Needless to say I felt like a walking champion by Sunday despite being super sore and somewhat limping to my gate at the airport.

What I loved most about my time in DC was that I was able to experience many different sides of it and had the time to do so. I spent a majority of my time on the Mall exploring the FREE museums, but I also had the opportunity to explore several different neighborhoods ranging from Anacostia to Georgetown. I was also able to crash one night at one of the LVC houses in DC and had the opportunity to stop by LVC's headquarters just to say hi. What an excellent city to be a volunteer in.. there's so much going on and a lot of it is free!

The National Gallery of Art. I was able to get my art fix for the weekend!

Here are some of the highlights from my trip: (see also my post about the Holocaust Museum here)

View of the Mall after Sunset from the Lincoln Memorial.
The Mall:

My naive self decided I was going to walk the full length of the Mall, you know, because it really doesn't seem that big on a map. BOY WAS I WRONG! IT IS 2 MILES LONG of pure walking! I did not know this when I started off on this adventure, but once I started I was determined to finish. Conveniently I was able to meet up with one of my college friends, the one and only Evan Larkin, who accompanied me on this walk and we made it to the Lincoln Memorial right as the sun was setting.

The People:

A large portion of my time in DC was catching up with people I haven't seen in ages and hearing their take on the city. As one friend was explaining to me everyone in DC feels entitled to something. For example, one acquaintance I met up with is currently interning at the capitol and was sharing with me some of her struggles there. For instance, when asked to give a report on a foreign policy about whether the politician should vote a certain way she made an elaborate pro/con list explaining how it is really important to vote no. Instead the politician completely disregarded her work and said "yeah I'm going to vote yes anyway because I think I can get the government to pay for a trip out there." UHHHHHH... Are you kidding me!?! That's our tax dollars!! I guess that's politics.

The Wright Brothers' Plane at the Air and Space Museum

Another really interesting thing about DC is the license plates. For example, right on the DC license plates it says "No Taxation without Representation," which is ironic because DC is heavily taxed and has ZERO representation in congress. Didn't America separate from England so that we could have representation? What is wrong with this current picture in our nation's capitol? Speaking of license plates there are also a handful of diplomat cars that have blue license plates which basically means they can disregard any of the traffic laws. In these cars diplomats can park anywhere at any time, cut off pedestrians, and who knows what else. I mean it makes perfect sense.. lets have all these traffic laws and then have hundreds of cars THAT DO NOT FOLLOW THESE RULES.

The Lincoln Memorial as the sun is setting.

Washington DC is very different from New York City in that it is so much cleaner probably because it has 3 million less people! DC is definitely a realistic city that is down to business and everyone has their agenda to be somewhere or do something. It's a place where you could become comfortably invisible if you wanted to. Although DC may not have half the energy as New York City, there is something strangely comfortable about it in a cold, dry sort of way. It has the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor and a lot of young people in between who really can't afford to live there. I would go back. Definitely.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

For the Dead and the Living we must bear Witness

The Holocaust Memorial Museum was one of the first things on my to do list in Washington DC. This may be because the last time I was in DC as a seventh grader with my Science Olympiad team I was not allowed into the 'adult' part of the exhibit and since then it has always haunted me as I wondered what exactly is in the 'adult' exhibit. Instead as a seventh grader I went through the children's exhibit "Daniel's Story," which is still very cool and rocked my world as seventh grader. I was a pretty imaginative child growing up so walking through the exhibit pretending to be Daniel was really quite simple for me but affected me more than the other kids I think. I'll never forget my seventh grade self walking through his normal home along with his normal routine. Then suddenly you turn the corner to go into the living room to see the synagogue burning and Daniel tells you he saw his Dad cry for the first time and knew things would never be the same. That's powerful stuff for a middle schooler. 

The outside of the Holocaust Museum
However, this time I visited the museum to specifically see the 'other' adult stuff. When you enter the adult exhibit they hand you a fake identification card of a real person who lived during the Holocaust and then you enter an elevator that takes you to the fourth floor where you begin the decent back down to the main floor. In the card you will find the person's name, where they are from, what they liked to do, and then at each floor there is a page that tells you what happened to the person in that year. Finally at the end, you discover if your person survived the Holocaust or not. Overall it's very personal and I found myself reading a lot of things I wouldn't have read otherwise (like how the Holocaust affected Jews in Romania) just because it was relevant to my person. But even though the passport thing is really personal, that is only the half of it.

The rest of the exhibit has so many artifacts of the holocaust ranging from clothing, a real train boxcar that they crammed people in (I walked through it), the lofts they slept on, and then all the shoes that were abandoned after the Jews were led to the gas chambers. It's unbelievable the quantity of shoes that real people wore before their death and then you realize it's only a small fraction of the Holocaust. There were also tv screens in the middle of 4 feet cement boxed walls so that you had to intentionally look over to see the horrific sights that were filmed when the concentration camps were liberated. I couldn't watch the tvs for long without turning away. It's a good thing they have the cement walls around them. I think it would be too much for children.

Then there's the exhibits of Hitler and his rise to power including the science he used to push his racial agenda, the posters, the hate... it was all just so real... like I was back in 1939 Germany. And then I found myself thinking about Hitler's scientific mindset and how it was all such obviously BAD science, but it didn't matter at that time and you could feel that in the exhibit. Hate was a motivator for science and the people wanted answers for their own biases.... but wait a minute isn't science supposed to be 'truth' and bias free? What BS. It makes me wonder how we are morphing our current 'bias free/ truthful' scientific thought to meet societies own biases about how we think the world should be.   

As I continued through the exhibit I finally came to the part where America starts to know about the Holocaust. I have to admit my initial reaction was "Alright go America! Now something's going to get done! We've must have had some sort of intricate plan to put a stop to this." Ok ok this was a naive moment for me. I mean I always knew America knew about the Holocaust as it was going on but my perception was that America had some sort of difficultly carrying out an intervention. You know, like as we are in the crossfire of the battle and something catastrophic and awful happened that hindered us from doing anything significant. NOPE. I was wrong. America received confirmation that these horrific acts of the Holocaust were happeneing in 1942. IN 1942!!!!!! THE WAR DIDN'T END UNTIL 1945.

My immediate response was instant anger. I was furious. How could we know about this and not do ANYTHING? WHAT WERE THOSE POLITICIANS IN WASHINGTON THINKING!?!? And then I read the fine print in the poster. The politicians making the decisions had reasons for not being involved. They worried that if we were to bomb the gas chambers that it would lead to larger and harsher punishments to the prisoners throughout Nazi Germany. They also contemplated if it was the best use of our resources. What would happen if we failed? These were all questions they tossed around the table and the result was "let's do nothing and see what happens." Way to go America. But then in the heart of the debate as I was reading it I found myself agreeing with their arguments. Of course we don't want to cause more pain to the prisoners if Nazi Germany where to respond in rage. Who would want to be responsible for that? And if we did fail... that would draw a lot of attention to America do we really need that sort of attention at this point in the war? It was in that moment where I realized that had I been sitting in Washington making this decision I would have made the exact same one. I would have said something like "We don't have enough information to act on this. The risks are too large." It doesn't mean I wouldn't have wrestled with the ethics of the question because I definitely would have, but I'm almost positive that's exactly how I would have responded. When I realized this I stopped reading, stared blankly at the poster, and cried. Here I was in the middle of the Holocaust museum all by myself sorting through difficult ethical questions and didn't know what else to do except cry................ and then I walked into the room with all the abandoned shoes.  
Hall of Remembrance from ushmm website.

After you exit the exhibit you enter into the Hall of Remembrance, which is a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust. I sat there for at least 30 minutes by myself going over the same ethical questions from before. Why would America and I for that matter decide to not get involved? Was/is it right to get involved in such hateful crimes against humanity? What does that even mean and how do you define it? Why does it bother me so much that I would have made the same decision? Why did I get so hung over the 'what if's' in the situation.. if we do this then that might happen.. and we wouldn't want that to happen now would we? I should have said "WELL the 'if' part hasn't even happened so lets not worry about it the rest yet."  We use the what ifs in our lives to keep us from being bold.

As I thought about it I narrowed it down to this question, "Am I afraid of doing something wrong even though I believe it is the right thing to do?" I want to believe that I am not afraid, but obviously my reactions to the same dilemma the politicians in Washington faced where the same and I considered them cowards. How utterly irritating and annoying to discover this about yourself especially when you consider yourself to be working for social justice. Am I not being bold enough with my decisions? Am I still hiding behind some blanket of security? How frustrating. Then I thought about all my bold and courageous heroes.. they wouldn't be putting up with this pointless discussion they would be going out and DOING SOMETHING.

When I left the Hall of Remembrance I remember thinking.. "you know it doesn't really matter if something is the right thing to do or not as long as you DO SOMETHING. It may not be saving everyone from the Holocaust because that's pretty huge, but there has to be other ways to be involved besides sitting around thinking about being involved or twiddling your thumbs over policy, which is pretty obnoxious. Now granted everything you do may not actually be the right thing to do at the right time at the right place etc, but you learn pretty quickly when its wrong. That's for sure! I've done that plenty of times. "Hey Amanda remember that time you did that really obnoxious thing because you thought it was the right thing to do?!? Yeah.. it was pretty obnoxious.. good thing you had good professors and friends to call you out on it... Yep and now that I learned lets keep that under the rug because the rest of the world doesn't need to know. Ok just reminding you because I really wouldn't want you to forget. K thanks."

The point is to DO something.. or in the words of one of my good physics friends: GO BIG OR GO HOME!"  and with that thought I exited the museum and greeted the world before me.