If anyone wants to check out my student teaching portfolio from this past semester, you can find it here:
I highly recommend checking out the “I wonder” letters my students wrote, which can be found under the “Student Work” page.
If anyone wants to check out my student teaching portfolio from this past semester, you can find it here:
I highly recommend checking out the “I wonder” letters my students wrote, which can be found under the “Student Work” page.
I thought I would share with you all the final reflection I wrote for student teaching this semester. I think it sums up this past year fairly well (having spent all of 2013 assistant/student teaching) and also where I think my future is headed. As much as I struggle with the theoretical, ivory tower nature of academia, I’m thinking more and more of getting a PhD or Doctorate in Education, while still having my grounding as an elementary teacher. This post also ties in well with what I wrote here, back in April. This essay is part of a whole portfolio I created on wordpress for my student teaching, and once I anonymize it more, I think I’m going to make it public and link it here, if you all want to check it out.
Reflective Essay: On Theory and Practice
I think one of the biggest dilemmas I face in becoming a teacher and trying to become a teacher is the one of praxis, of trying to unite theory and practice in a way that is beneficial to students and myself as a teacher. As someone who has spent the past year of college working on her practice as an educator, assistant teaching at the Cloud Forest School (CEC) in Monteverde, Costa Rica, and student teaching at the Philadelphia Montessori Charter School (PMCS) in Philadelphia, PA, and the two and a half years beforehand studying educational theory, I think I’ve found at a relatively young age how little of practice in schools is informed by theory and how little of theory in higher education institutions is fully cognizant of the burdens of practice.
Prior to this year of practice, I thought I had my praxis relatively figured out. I had developed a fairly articulate theory of instruction while taking Education Psychology, one that reflected the work of Eccles et al. (1993) and the need to create an environment that is developmentally appropriate, engaging, and challenging to students. I incorporated the work of Nolen (2007) to create a theory of practice that focused strongly on the needs and benefits of writing in an elementary classroom. I built on the research of Yamuchi et al. (2005) and the need for creating culturally-relevant projects in classrooms that involve the community and its needs. I looked at Mark Springer’s (2006) work in Soundings and strived to create a pedagogy that would allow students to have a voice and a say in their own learning. I especially thought about Dweck (2000) and the need to constantly reinforce that intelligence is mastery, not performance-based, something that I myself have often struggled to believe.
Moreover, I took Urban Education the same time I took Education Psychology and I incorporated many of the readings and theories from that class into my theory of instruction, since my main aim since my freshman fall has been to teach in an urban setting. Particulary, I looked at Martin Haberman’s (1994) article “The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching” and tried to make sure my practices were as reflective of good teaching as possible, and not just focused on having students understand the basics. I thought about discipline quite a bit and the fact that urban schools often focus on discipline first, content second (Noguera, 2003). While not explicit in the paper I wrote at the time, I made the connection between Yamuchi et al. and Moll et al. (2005) and the need to not only work within students’ communities, but also build on the existing knowledge that stems from their community. It was particulary this semester, my fall sophomore year, where I saw all of these various theories I had read about fitting neatly together in my head to create a pedagogy that, I thought at least, would work well for students.
Other classes contributed as well to my thinking about how I would go into this year of practice. I consistently thought about my reading from Special Education in terms of disability being a social construction. I thought about how to make sure I saw all of my students, regardless of their learning challenges, as smart, gifted, and abled individuals. I thought about how I would best give extra help to certain students without making them feel alienated or different than the other students in the room. I thought as well about the readings and theories from Teaching Diverse Young Learners and my desire to create read aloud spaces where students could fully express themselves, and math lessons that would be conceptually, rather than procedurally, based.
Add all of this processing and thinking about theory taught at Swarthmore to the fact that I am also interested in Montessori education. Having read Angeline Stoll Lillard’s (2008) book Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius winter my sophomore year and externed in a Montessori classroom that January, I fell in love with the order and structure of Montessori classrooms and the way that many of the practices within them are supported by the same educational theories and findings that I had just read about in Education Psychology. I saw my own professor’s name cited numerous times as being support for the environment of interest and engagement that a Montessori curriculum can create. Despite that it is a hundred year old pedagogy that has changed little over the course of the past century, and despite the fact that it is often considered a “fringe” or “alternative” form of teaching in the United States, and that I had never read about it in any Swarthmore classes, I really loved Montessori education. I loved the style of teaching and interacting with students, and the idea of giving students choice and independence over their learning in a controlled, thoughtful environment. I also loved the emphasis on peace education and the global perspective that Montessori took. There is something awe-inspiring about a pedagogy that is not just native to one country, but found all throughout the world, in more or less the same form. It shows that many aspects of learning and thinking truly are universal and gives children around the world a shared experience, despite the vast distances and differences in culture. The Great Lessons that Montessori created also struck me. The idea that students can learn about the Big Bang as early as six years old and have that as a reference point for all the rest of their learning was something I had never encountered before. It showed me that children can learn more than we think they can, and about more complex material than we think we can, so long as we tailor it to their developmental level and make it more impressionistic than detailed and exact.
Given the six education courses I took prior to this calendar year and my own reading on Montessori education, I came into both of my classroom settings well grounded in theory. However, what I soon found, and I knew this somewhat before coming in, especially from my own school experiences, is that the majority of practice in schools is not really tied back to theory. There is a lack of discussion about theory in actual schools that I found to be just as frustrating as the lack of discussion about practice in many of my Swarthmore classes. I felt a strong disconnect between all that I had learned the two and a half years prior and the way that schools are actually run. Neither of the schools I taught in were “bad” per se. Neither of them were trying to do wrong by children. Both wanted their students to grow up to succeed and do well in life.
However, neither institution had an ongoing discourse about praxis, about how to best make various educational theories and practices fit well together. Especially in my time at PMCS, I found many curricular choices being made because they seemed to be the lastest and greatest development, or because they supported students’ performance on standardized testing. From AIMSWeb® testing to StudyIsland® Benchmarks to Fundations® (Wilson Phonics), I found myself in a sea of trademarked terms and practices that are meant to prepare students for the PSSAs. My experience was not as test-driven or focused or corporate as it might have been at other urban charter schools. Afterall, PMCS is Montessori-based, and there was a fair amount of time in the day spent using materials like the Stamp Game, Bead Chains, and Three Part Cards. However, I did not see or experience any ongoing discussions at the school about how to add more community-based or culturally-relevant forms of learning, despite the support of research for those forms of learning, or how to make sure that students have a mastery rather than performance-based form of intelligence. I did not find this either at the CEC. I found there to be numerous conversations about rules at recess, rules in the lunchroom, how to handle particular students, how to make sure students’ IEPs were up to code, etc. I found policies and procedures to be taking precidence over theories and research-based pedagogy.
In my own teaching, I tried my best to incorporate the two. I taught a unit where my students wrote letters to experts about questions they wondered about, similar to what students do in the Soundings classroom. Many of them have received replies back. I created a persuasive writing unit and had conversations with my students about the community they live in. We talked about both the beauty and ugliness within it and how to persuade others to make the ugliness more beautiful. We talked about people experiencing homelessness and the need to treat all people with respect because that is part of the process of creating peace. I consistently reminded my students that I wanted them to work hard because I wanted them to get smarter, and that the brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised in order to become stronger. I taught a few of Montessori’s lessons, about the formation of galaxies, the fundamental needs of humans, and foundations of geometry (points, lines, and rays). I tried my best to have read alouds be a time when students could share their thoughts, and where I would listen to everything they had to say. I tried my best to create math lessons that were conceptually, rather than procedurally based, that used manipulatives to show why something is the way it is. Most of all, I tried to give my students the opportunity to write as much as possible and share what they wrote. In Costa Rica, I had my students write and share poetry (the first poems they had ever written!). In Philadelphia, I gave my students’ journal prompt after journal prompt, including one after they had been too noisy during their worktime and I made them sit down and write, that I then gave them the opportunity to write about, share, and discuss. I tried to amplify my students’ voices as much as I could, and make it so it wasn’t just my own that was being heard, a concept that stems all the way back to my reading of Dewey in Intro to Education.
I am realizing, though, that my role in the education system is small and that the forces dividing theory and practice are stronger than I’ll ever be able to tackle. At least at the moment, education policy is and will continue to be influenced by raw test scores and this idea that there’s an “achievement gap.” Education will keep being influenced by money and funding, and the practices that get you those, rather than by solid educational theory. Moreover, teachers will keep being controlled and regulated, and not seen as real professionals, so long as the profession is dominated by women, and sexism exists. There are forces beyond measure that keep practice from truly reflecting good theory. However, this does not mean I do not want to be a teacher anymore. Rather it makes me want to be a teacher even more. I want to bridge the gap between theory and practice in my work. I want to be a voice in faculty meetings that asks why we are doing things a certain way and wonders how new practices best fit with current research. I want to speak up for teachers, and help create spaces where other teachers can speak up for themselves in terms of education policy. Just as importantly, I want to bring more practice into theory. I want to give teachers more of a say and voice in what is published in prominent education journals. I want to conduct my own research rather than just being the subject of research. I want to show just how hard teaching is and how often times what is theorized is incredibly hard to put into practice. Essentially, I want to keep one foot grounded in academia and one foot grounded in the real world, so that hopefully the dilemma between theory and practice becomes just a little bit less profound.
Dweck, C.S. (2000). Self-Theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development (pp. 1-28). Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis.
Eccles, et al. (1993). Development during adolescence: The impact of stage-environment fit on young adolescents’ experience in schools and in families. American Psychologist, 48(2), 90-101.
Haberman, M. (1994). The Pedagogy of Poverty Versus Good Teaching, In J. Kretovics (Ed.), Transforming Urban Education. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Pp. 305-314.
Lillard, A. S. (2008). Montessori: The Science Behind the Genius: The Science Behind the Genius. Oxford University Press.
Moll, L., Amanti, C., Neff, D., and González, N (2005). Funds of Knowledge for Teaching: Using Qualitative Approach to Connect Homes and Classrooms. In N. González, L. C. Moll, and C. Amanti (Eds.), Funds of Knowledge: Theorizing Practices in Households, Communities, and Classrooms. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Pp. 71-87.
Noguera, P. (2003). City Schools and the American Dream. New York: Teachers College Press. Chapter 3 & 4.
Nolen, S. B. (2007). The role of literate communities in the development of children’s interest in writing. In S. Hidi and P. Boscolo (Eds.), Writing and motivation (pp. -255). New York: Elsevier.
Springer, M. (2006). Soundings. Westerville, OH: National Middle School Association.
Yamuchi, L. A., Wyatt, T. T. R., & Carroll, J. H. (2005). Enacting the five standards for effective pedagogy in a culturally relevant high school program. In A. E. Maynard and M. I. Martini (Eds.), Learning in cultural contexts: Family, peers, and school (pp. 227-245). New York, NY: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
I have been doing A LOT of processing lately. This week marks my last week student teaching and, to sum it up quickly, it’s been rough. Don’t get me wrong, the school where I am at has a lot of good things going for it and I would never speak against it. However, just like any urban charter school (or quite frankly, any urban school), it is experiencing a lot of challenges, from little funding to high staff and student turnover to trying to be a Montessori school in a test-driven political climate where clearly no one in power ever went to Montessori school. It has been really really hard to work in a setting where I have no clue what happens in my students’ lives between the hours of 3:30pm and 8:30am and where there isn’t the money or resources for my students to receive all the support that they need or the education they deserve.
And to be honest, this semester has left me feeling fed up. Not with my students, who are so bright and beautiful and young, or the teachers who try their hardest to teach them, or their parents/family members who often times work two jobs, or with the administrators who do their best to keep the school afloat. This semester has left me fed up with other groups: with academics (for their myriad theories and scarcity of actions), with politicians (for caring about themselves more than their constituents), and, most of all, with one group in particular (the group I happened to have grown up with and still live within) people in white (middle class) suburbia.
Because you know what, friends in white suburbia?
The United States is still segregated.
And why should that matter?
Because you are helping to make it so.
Don’t get me wrong, I full-on grew up in white suburbia. The suburb I lived in growing up was something along the lines of 97% white, and pretty well off as well, with the median household income being $97,725. I went to a church that had about 1500 people worshipping a week, and, I kid you not, all but a handful of families I can think of were white. As someone currently living in an even more affluent, though slightly less white, suburb, I know what it is like to not live in the city. And I get just how white and middle class suburbia can be. But you know what I am fed up with? The fact that all of us in white suburbia are perfectly okay with how white it is. Why is it that white, guys? Who is choosing to make it that white (or that middle class)? Did we really forget, that easily, that we were the ones who made it that way? We chose to move into the suburbs. We chose to stay there. We chose to not have public housing built there. And we chose to take all of our lovely middle and upper middle class resources with us, and leave the schools in the city with nothing. (Whoever decided to have schools receive funding from property taxes was clearly not a proponent of social equality.)
I think what has made me so frustrated this semester, commuting back and forth between an urban school and my suburban college town, and what makes me so frustrated with all these dialogues regarding the achievement gap and urban ed reform is that, in my mind, the solution is so simple. It’s not school choice or charter schools or longer school days or “better” (less-prepared) teachers or more standardized testing. All it is is this:
I’m certainly not the first to say this, and decidedly not the last. And I will keep saying it until the voice for it becomes stronger. If we, in white suburbia, really think schools in the inner-city should be better (maybe we don’t, but if we do), then we should send our white children, and not just checks or box tops, to them. We should bus our kids into the city, just like black kids, and only black kids, were forced to take the bus to far off schools in order to desegregate. Many people I’ve met and know in white suburbia have the idea that the U.S. is a post-racial society and they don’t think racism still exists. After all, U.S. law doesn’t “allow” for it, and look who’s President? A black guy. If that is so, and if we are a post-racial society, then we in white suburbia should have no problem sending our kids to schools that aren’t primarily white, and, in fact, might be primarily black or Hispanic. If we have no problem with people from different social classes, and if we truly appreciate the work Wal-mart cashiers or nursing home aides do (often times taking care of our own relatives), then we should have no problem sending our kids to the same schools as their kids. If we truly care about making urban education reform happen, then we should be okay with making it happen at the cost of our own children. We should be sticking our kids in the same schools that urban kids are being stuck in, because, after all, those are apparently good schools, or at least good enough for the kids in the city. To put it point blank: if we think those schools are good enough for those kids, then they should be good enough for ours. No questions asked.
And if you think these ideas are crazy, then you should check your privilege and post-racial society thinking at the door and realize that the schools we are sending urban kids to are not good enough. If they are not good enough for your middle class white kids, then they are not good enough. Don’t act as if more charter schools, longer school days, more testing, and less-prepared teachers are the solution. If you wouldn’t send your white child to a school that has ten hour school days, or teachers with only six weeks of training, or not enough money to pay for a decent playground, then your idea for reform is not the solution. Send your children to these schools. Have them be in the same classes as kids who haven’t had the same privileges they’ve had. Share your resources. See if there is enough to go around. And if there isn’t, figure it out so that it’s not just your own children getting everything, and children with much less still getting much less.
Don’t just accept white suburbia as the end all, be all for how society should look, and don’t expect others to make the first moves. We’re going to have to be the first ones to do it. We’re the the ones with privilege. We’re the ones with choice. We’re the ones who left.
And to my Christian friends in the suburbs who want to send their children to a Christian school, there are lots of urban Christian schools out there. Don’t let your faith stop you (especially, when, Lord knows, it should be encouraging you even more to create systems that are more favorable towards the poor).
Thoughts? Think this is the best/worst idea in the world? Post your reactions below! For reals, do it! I love dialogue.
I feel like a lot of people in my life know why I want to be a teacher (education can be a means of empowerment, I love kids, love learning, and love helping kids to develop and grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially), but less people know why exactly I want to teach Montessori. During the course of my time student teaching at a public Montessori charter school, people have said things to me like:
“Wait, there’s more than one Montessori school? I thought Montessori was just the name of your school.”
“You seem to have taught a lot of writing. Does Montessori have a strong focus on writing?”
“Do your kids get to do whatever they want?”
“How do you teach first through third graders? How can you differentiate all of your lessons?”
“Do you want to teach at a Montessori school?”
“Is your school religious?”
“I thought Montessori schools were just for pre-school and kindergarteners.”
And most often:
“Wait, Montessori? What is that?”
I’ve decided to write a (not so) quick and dirty post here about what Montessori education here is, and why I want to be a Montessori educator, just so I can try to put a lot of these questions to rest. It is an interesting and unique model of education that is vastly different than more traditional methods of education in many respects. I’ve really appreciated all of the questions people have asked my regarding it because, if anything, it has gotten me to think critically about why I do what I do and if this really is the approach for me.
To begin with, let me have you watch this video:
I promise I’m not trying to get you to donate money to a documentary (though feel free to!). I just think this video strikes a good balance between explaining the ideals/background/overall spirit of Montessori education, and showing what it actually looks like in a classroom (which just so happens to be in my home state). Another good video to watch, and which has the most views on Youtube, is Montessori Madness. I don’t like it quite as much because it doesn’t show actual materials/classrooms, but it does do a good job explaining the pedagogical differences between Montessori and conventional schools.
While I don’t know everything about Montessori education, because I haven’t been trained, I would describe it best as a progressive approach to education that focuses on the whole development of each individual child, rather than on the overall academic development of a group of children. Rather than focusing on meeting a set of grade level curriculum standards for a group of same age children, Montessori education focuses on meeting a group of mixed age children where they are, socially, emotionally, and intellectually. Rather than placing children into groups and differentiating from there, it individualizes from the get go. Each child is given the materials and problems to use that best meet his or her developmental levels. Some children are given materials that help them do three digit addition, others are given materials that help them do two digit multiplication. Oftentimes, those children can be the same age. Moreover, the materials children use are versatile. Students start working with bead chains as early as three years old and continue to use them until they are nine, going from counting to addition to multiplication to squaring and cubing. The materials in Montessori classrooms are standardized and pretty much the same as they were when Maria Montessori developed them. The curriculum is highly based on the use of these, especially in the primary and lower elementary classrooms, because children still think very concretely and kinesthetically. One of the best parts of this standardization, is that a child can move from a Montessori school in Minnesota to a Montessori school in Bhutan (they truly do exist worldwide!) and pick up on his learning exactly where he left off.
Another aspect of Montessori that makes it truly unique is the structure of the school day. The way that the school day looks for my children personally is that we have breakfast and a math or reading packet first thing in the morning, followed by a community meeting. After that, my students have two hours of solid worktime. During this time, my cooperating teacher and I teach small group and individual language, math, and science lessons. When students aren’t in lessons with teachers, they are working with the various materials in the classroom, and filling out workplans, which list the materials and activities they can do. Each day, students are expected to complete one math and language activity. Overall, they are expected to complete four to five activities in a morning. Activities and materials include: three part cards (which have information about everything from plants to seasons to art to ecosystems to geometry terms), the Stamp Game, journal writing, puzzle maps (in which children carefully trace each country onto paper, fitting them together), sight word Bingo, math workbooks (both are not really “Montessori”), spelling booklets, and geometrical insets. For the most part, the students can choose which materials they would like to work with on a given morning and when they would like to work on them. Giving children this level of choice and independence is something that is rarely seen in most traditional schools. In the afternoon, after silent reading time, we usually do a whole group activity, either science, writing, music/culture, or any other activity that we think all of the children will benefit from. There is a lot of flexibility in terms of what this time looks and what subject or topic it focuses on. Last week, we made clocks as a class and learned some songs in Spanish. Other weeks, we have made models of the Earth’s layers using clay and written autobiographical timelines. The way the afternoon, and the overall school day, are structured allows many interdisciplinary approaches to be used to teach topics.
Other reasons I love Montessori education, which I won’t extend upon as much but quickly summarize here, are:
While I don’t think Montessori is the only way to educate a child, I do wish more people knew about it. I think there are many areas of education where the Montessori model could be incorporated or applied more. While there are a few Montessori-based special education schools in the U.S., many of which have produced really positive results, I think many of the Montessori materials would be wonderful to incorporate in any special education classroom because they are so tactile and allow for students to use multiple modalities. Moreover, they are oftentimes self-correcting and control for error. I personally want to work towards having more urban Montessori schools. It’s frustrating to me that a method that was originally developed for impoverished kids in Rome has been co-opted, at least in the U.S., to be mostly for children in white affluent suburbs. While I don’t necessarily think it’s “wrong” for children in these areas to be going to Montessori schools, I do want Montessori education to become something that is accessible to everyone, and especially to children who live where “drill and kill” is the normal method of instruction. Whether this means working in Philadelphia or Chicago or St. Paul or starting my own Montessori school one day, I don’t know. But it is decidedly something I feel passionate about and want to see happen in my lifetime.
So right now, when the going gets tough, and my cooperating teacher and I are holding class in the school’s cafeteria for the next one to three weeks as our classroom gets cleaned up from a sewage leak, I will keep reminding myself that what I am working towards is something that is really empowering and needed. Many people in my life may not understand it, but it’s what I care about, and perhaps even what God is calling me to do.
Have any additional questions about Montessori education? Or stories about being in a Montessori school yourself? Feel free to leave a comment below!
Tomorrow I start my third week of student teaching (fourth if you count in-service days). And I am so excited. We’ll be working on making personal timelines and writing autobiographies. Each classroom at my school is named after a famous peacemaker. Ours is the Frederick Douglass room, so we’ve been reading a lot about his life, and how he wrote an autobiography. The kids have been so fascinated by his life and I think they’re excited to write about their own, just like he did. They’ll also be learning the first of the Great Lessons that are part of the Montessori curriculum, about how the universe began, from a scientific perspective, and all of the different creation stories that people have used throughout time to explain why it began (because science can explain the how, but not the why). It’ll be cool to take such a global perspective on creationism when at least a third of our students are Muslim, one is Jewish, and the rest are more or less different varieties of Christian. We all bring similar, but unique perspectives to the table, and there are countless more out there that deserve to be acknowledged as well.
As wonderful as the curriculum, the teachers, and the kids in my classroom are, I can’t talk about student teaching without admitting how incredibly tough it is. My school, for good and for bad, is located in a decidedly urban area. There is a lot of beauty within the neighborhood. African corner stores, women in hijabs walking their toddlers across the street, men at the bus stop offering their seat on a bench to an elderly woman, people stopping to talk to one another, their reflections showing in store front windows, and kids walking together to and from school in their uniforms. The community carries strong ties, to both each other and the cultures they left behind.
But, as with any struggling urban neighborhood, there is also a lot of ugliness. From men in wheelchairs at far too young of an age to trash covering the sidewalks to the actual cracks in the sidewalk to no large grocery stores to high levels of crime and low levels of income. My kids carry both the beauty and ugliness of their various surrounding neighborhoods into the classroom and it shows. Already one of my youngest students has been called into the Department of Human Services because of a couple of really concerning incidents. A few other students have shown up to school incredibly tired, one falling asleep during class meeting because, she said, her baby sister’s crying was keeping her up at night. Every student receives a free breakfast in the morning, and many qualify for free or reduced lunch. Few brought all of the school supplies they were asked to bring for the first day to school (though all did show up in the correct uniform). I have no clue what happens in my students lives between when they leave school and when they return the next day. And obviously there is a wide variety in how their lives are led, just like in any context. But many of them do live in tough situations and it’s hard to think that we’re sending them back into them at the end of every school day.
And what’s even tougher to think about is my kids’ futures. How the lack of funding for our school and all of the surrounding ones automatically puts them behind their richer peers in the suburbs. How the way various social and political systems work makes going to prison far easier than going to college. How there is so much less stability, and thus less guaranteed for them, than there was for me in my own very white, very privileged life. As one prospective parent summed it up, she would, in an ideal world, like her third grade son to be able to become a doctor or lawyer, but with the way the streets are, she would at least like him to be able to read when he’s in prison. She would rather her son be a smart criminal than a dumb one. She knows the reality of our society’s systems.
With circumstances and systems like this, it’s hard to not lose hope. Why does it matter if my students are incredibly smart and learning so much right now if they’ll never be able to attend college? Why should we even have them write about their hopes and dreams if we know that there is so much in the way of their hopes and dreams becoming true? And how can we expect them to learn anything during the day when they are having to deal with so much at home?
But to lose hope is to admit defeat. It’s to say that the way our society is structured is how it always will be structured and it will never change. It’s to say that yeah, sure, Frederick Douglass was able to escape slavery and fight for equal rights in so many arenas, but he was one in a million, and nope, none of my kids will be able to do that. It’s to give up on my kids before they even give up on themselves.
So no matter how little funding is being given to public schools right now, no matter how unstable my kids lives are, no matter how little sleep or fruit or vegetables or books or whatever they need to grow and learn that they are being given, no matter how different their funds of knowledge are from what school and standardized testing expect of them, no matter how many barriers and pipelines that have been put in place to make going to prison easier than going to college, I am going to keep teaching. Keep helping decode words. Keep showing them countries and cities on the classroom globe. Keep answering questions. Keep giving encouraging words. Keep setting high expectations. And keep showing them that yes, they are smart, and yes, they can do so, so many things with their gifts and talents.
I refuse to give up hope. Because I refuse to let society and politics win.
You guys, in one month I’ll be back in the States. And boy is it making me sad. You see the thing is that I miss home (and, by home, I mean both Minnesota and the East Coast) like crazy right now. I miss running by the lakes and along the Mississipi River. I miss the change of seasons, and the smell of melted snow. I miss long o’s and friendly hellos. I miss state pride and shared culture.
I miss sitting in Suburban Station or running up the steps from it, only to find myself right next to City Hall and Love Park. I miss the weird smell of the sewers coming from underneath the streets. The people walking and cars honking. I miss searching through my backpack for a SEPTA token or a dollar to buy something from Insomnia Cookie or a bakery in Chinatown. I miss the chilliness of BSM’s sanctuary and the early morning light in the city as I leave SREHUP.
I miss all of the perfectly inscribed labels, next to every flower, tree, and shrub. I miss the odd angles of the roads and brokeness of the sidewalks. I miss the peacefulness of the rocks looking down on the Crum, the steady sound of fellow students working and complaining about work in McCabe, the cozy messiness of the WRC, the back and forth surveying of the different bars in Sharples, and peaceful late night walks back to my room.
I miss walking into the library and seeing students waiting, with their homework already out, backpacks slung on the floor. I miss seeing the librarians go back and forth making copies for patrons, parents talking to the children’s librarian, with their hands on a stroller. I miss running to catch one of the buses or thanking a fellow co-op member for an unexpected ride. I miss church basements and fellowship meeting halls. I miss the familiarity of the transportation center and its people. I miss all of the friendly hellos.
But I know, even now while I’m still here, that this feeling of missing is not going to go away once I return to one of these homes because, as soon as I leave here, I know I’m going to miss the sound of Snoopy barking at night, the laughter of my host family as they chat and watch TV, the smell of coffee, the taste of platanos con natilla, the expectant silence among Quakers, the feel of dirt roads, the dense life of the cloud forest, and the beauty of a sudden rainbow. I know I’m going to miss seeing dogs wandering around on the street, my kids waving hi to me from trees, and cows and horses tied up by the side of the road. And, Lord knows, I’m going to miss the early morning light in the first grade classroom, the hushed whispers between students as they write, the waving of raised hands and calling out after a question is asked, the sound of the microwave beeping during lunch, the view when hanging upside from the monkey bars, and the feeling of a student finally “getting” it. I am going to miss this place a million times over in the months to come after this one. I know that already.
But still my feet are itchy, and it’s not just due to the mosquitos that, without fail, find themselves in my room every night. I love newness, whether it’s in fresh views or fresh perspectives. I love the feeling of discovering something others have known for ages, and the moment when something unfamiliar becomes just a little more familiar. I love the moments of clarity that come with foreign situations, when you realize you really don’t know anything at all, but, luckily, you’re always capable of learning so much more.
Needless to say, I know where I’ll be this summer (back home in Minnesota), and next year (student teaching in Philadelphia and living at Swarthmore), but after that, I haven’t a clue. And, for the first time in my life, I like that. Missing things is good.
Only six days left until I leave for Costa Rica.
I won’t be back at Swat for awhile, but I did have the privilege of speaking at the Christian Fellowship’s student testimony night before I left. Rather than sharing a play by play of my life following (and often not following) Jesus, I decided to go the future elementary school teacher route. I read everyone a story called Something Beautiful.
It was a picture book I had originally picked out to read to three fourth graders for my Teaching Diverse Young Learners class. When I read it for the first time sitting on the floor in the children’s section of the Swarthmore Public Library, I started to tear up. Often times, as adults, we think that profoundness and complexity go hand in hand. We think that something is rich in meaning if it’s “deep” and requires multiple re-readings.
I would beg to differ. This book, and I feel like numerous picture books have so much richness to them that is indeed straightforward and simple, but still insightful.
I would encourage you all to get a hold of the story and read it because it is that good, but if you can’t, at least click on the link to the synopsis up above. And, without further ado, here is what I said to everyone once I had finished reading the story:
There is so much hurt and pain in the world. So much ugliness. So much disfunction. For me, the ugliness in my life is a lot of things. It’s the mental illness that has taken over my mom the past couple of years, robbing me of the woman who raised me and causing my dad to want to separate. It’s the crazy amount of educational inequality that still exists in the U.S. and stops students from fully achieving their dreams. It’s the way that people in white suburbia, the environment where I was raised, perpetuate residential segregation and don’t even acknowledge it. It’s the stigmatization that so many groups in the U.S. experience: folks who are homeless, folks who are openly queer and of faith, moms (and dads) who are welfare and raising their kids on their own. Ugliness is even just the fact that so many kids in Chester don’t have access to fresh fruits and vegetables with the nutrients they need to grow.
For you, the ugliness may be different. It may be a broken relationship with a parent or sibling. It may be the brokenness of our judicial system or the school to prison pipeline. It may be modern day slavery or the cost of war. It may be our destruction of the environment or mistreatment of those with disabilities. It may even be something more personal and less societal, like the way you see one family member treating another family member, or the way people devalue sex, or the way your friends (or yourself) act when drunk. The ugliness may even be the way that you think about yourself.
What’s important is that you identify and acknowledge that ugliness as being ugly. What’s even more important is that you find what’s beautiful. You find “what makes your heart happy.” You find what gives you a glimpse of God.
For me, beauty is found in the simple things, the everyday-ness of life. It’s seeing the young dad put his arm around his daughter on the subway. It’s walking down the street in Chester and having people say hello. It’s two homeless guys at Broad Street Ministry offering me half of their cupcakes during dinner because seconds on dessert ran out. It’s a hug from Jason. It’s smoothing my grandmother’s brow as she took her last breaths. It’s a made-up math game with Kaylee, a conversation with Isaiah. It’s Nikeria following me around the library as she reads aloud from an Amelia Bedelia book. It’s a whole family, mom, dad, aunt, and uncle, grandma, kids, and cousins getting on the 109 bus in Chester Thanksgiving day with plates wrapped in foil to go to a relative’s house. It’s my friend back home telling me I can’t just keep taking care of other people without taking care of myself. It’s yoga in the morning. It’s a run in the Crum. It’s a kiss from a significant other. It’s listening to a live jazz performance in the library, surrounded by six and seven year olds munching on cookies and swaying to the beat. It’s M telling me her favorite subject of all is “life!”
Beauty is all that is right and lovely in the world. It is what gives us hope. Beauty is what shows us God.
So while we need to see and acknowledge the ugliness, we need to even more importantly find what’s beautiful for us in this world. We can’t just stop here, though. We can’t just see what’s beautiful and ugly and leave it at that.
We’re actors. We’re creators in this mess of life. We need to see what has become ugly and make it beautiful again. We need to rethink oppression, rethink stigmatization, rethink corruption, and create beauty. How I’ve created beauty is through creating an afterschool program at the library in Chester, volunteering at SREHUP, and working at Chester’s Co-op. How you create beauty might be vastly different. It might be the camaraderie created on a sports team or hall. It might be the beauty of an experiment, a translation, or a piece of art. It might even be a paper you write for a class. What’s important is that you create that beauty and that we all extend grace and forgiveness to each other when maybe this beauty doesn’t work out the way it should. When maybe, rather than creating more beauty, we accidentally create more ugliness. When maybe things simply just don’t go as planned.
This is the lens right now through which I see faith. This is why I do all that I do. And this is how we create God’s kingdom on earth today.
P.S. Thanks to my lovely friend Sam, there’s a video of talk. It doesn’t include the story, sadly, but does have all of the stuff afterwards. If you would like me to send you a copy of the url for the video, let me know! I’d be more than happy to share.
So finally, my new church.
I feel like it’s something that will take time for me to grow into. My whole life (minus this summer), I’ve gone to church in the suburbs. The church I grew up going to, in the third ring suburbs of St. Paul, was primarily white, and decidedly affluent. A small corner of the bulletin every week was devoted to service and mission ministry announcements, while a page or two was dedicated to announcements about choir rehearsals, expensive ski trips, and various children’s and youth activities. None of it was wrong or “bad,” but it did all feel very privileged and isolating, and when the yearly sermon came around that discussed a passaged in the Bible about poverty, maybe the yearly mission trip to Jamaica would be mentioned, but not much else. Not the poverty that was thirty minutes away in the city, or even outside of our own door.
Then, coming to college, I went to a more charismatic Vineyard church the first Sunday of freshmen fall with a huge group of students from the Christian Fellowship, and absolutely loved it. I loved the worship style (that we were singing to God, not just about God), the laid back style of dress and preaching, the babies all crawling around in the back, and the coffee and treats served during, not after, the service. I also loved the focus on stopping human trafficking, supporting the lives of missionaries in places like Bolivia, and generally figuring out how our faith lives.
However, something was still missing. Maybe it was racial diversity (the congregation was still primarily white. The other students from my college were the main ones providing diversity. Haha.), maybe it was age diversity (most people at the church are forty and under), maybe it was political diversity.
Or maybe it was simply the fact that the people we were talking about and helping, just weren’t present. We were isolating ourselves in the suburbs, putting a few dollars in the donation jar in the back, trying to help them as best as we could, without letting them help us.
So church now, at Broad Street Ministry?
Everyone’s there. Quite literally everyone. A random suburban white girl from Minnesota. A PhD student at Wharton School of Business from South Africa. A woman who goes to church with her friend twice on Sundays so she won’t slip back into patterns of addiction. Numerous hippie Christian students from Eastern. Old white people. Young black men. Hipster Asians. Gay Hipster Asians. Queer clergy. People living on the street and in shelters. Old black men who know how to knit. It’s fantastic. It’s absolutely wonderful, and it’s what the kingdom of God looks like. Right here, right now, that’s the kingdom of God. And at the end of the service, we all gather around tables and eat together, the same food, the same chairs, the same table clothes. I can’t put into words how real this Christianity is to me. No more talking about the other, because the other is right there, right by your side, eating the same food you’re eating or singing the same song you’re singing. No more feeling like you’re being patronizing or have a white savior complex, because, sure, while you donated some clothes and soap to help some of them out, they’re helping you out too, pulling a chair over for you, passing the bread, and giving you a huge bear hug.
Not gonna lie. As wonderful as this new church is and as much as it lines up with Jesus’ vision for the world, I’m is still pretty uncomfortable with this new change. It’s hard to break internalized dispositions (yayyy, habitus) and social habits. To be truthful, my world was so incredibly white before coming to college, and I feel like church was the last stronghold for that complete lack of diversity. As horrible as it is, white suburban churches feel like home. It’s also just hard to go to church alone, not with a large group of friends, and to take both the bus and subway so I save money. I also wonder every time I get up for communion whether I should be taking my backpack up with me or if it’s okay to leave it sitting there, with my wallet inside.
However, if faith isn’t uncomfortable and challenging, in a way that grows and stretches your heart, then what’s the point of it? I don’t want to be part of a church structure that reifies and supports the status quo, and all of the injustices that contains. I want to be part of something new and fresh. Something that looks so drastically different from our society today, that every time people walk by and see us, they wonder who or what could have possibly brought us together. I want to go to a place that makes me and others think.
So that’s my new church, and my schedule works out perfectly so that for the next few weeks, I’ll get to go to the overnight shift at SREHUP afterwards. Starting my week off with so many people I love? Pure gold. God is good.
I’ve done a really poor job blogging here this semester, partly because I’ve been dealing with a lot of grief, partly because I haven’t had much time (how did I get roped into doing fourteen, now ten, extracurriculars so easily? Why is it so hard for me to say no to people?), and partly because I feel like anything I blog here should be something groundbreaking or incredibly interesting, given how much content already exists on the internet. Why are people going to read something mundane?
But you know what? Screw it. I’m going to blog about my life because the people in it matter and I don’t think society gives them enough of a voice. So…
How is my life going?
Well, let me describe it through the people who are in it.
Kaylee is back. Last spring her mom had made the tough decision to move the two of them to rural PA, somewhere in the Poconos, because living is cheaper there, the schools are better, and, generally, she thought it wouldn’t be as f*ed up of a place for her daughter to grow up. It was really really sad, of course, to have to say goodbye to Kaylee last spring, with the thought that I would never see her again. She is such a bright young girl, only five years old, but with the attention span of a nine-year-old according to her doctor. I loved just getting to hang out with her, doing arts and crafts together, going over color and shape flashcards, the sounds that letters make, etc. I wasn’t sure what I would do this year when she didn’t show up every Tuesday and Thursday. I loved tutoring her.
However, this year, at the Back to School Night, as I was sitting in the community room of the library, registering people, I looked up, only to see the flash of her mother’s long ponytail walking through the door to the library. I freaked out. Quietly of course, and as I signed someone in, but nonetheless. I couldn’t leave the table, so I quietly waited and hoped that it was her and that she would come in. About thirty minutes later, she and Kaylee came in, casual as ever, and I flipped out. Okay, not really. But I’m pretty sure the smile on my face was self-explanatory. The circumstances surrounding Kaylee’s return are pretty rough. Apparently, her mom found a lot of the people where they lived to be bigoted. Kaylee’s mom is white, but Kaylee herself is bi-racial, and a lot of the children in the area were mean to her because of that. So Kaylee’s mom made the tough decision to move back to Chester, where at least she would be close to family, even if the school district is a hot mess. I can’t handle sometimes the decisions people have to make in their lives, between being in a racist area and being in an area where the school district last year literally went bankrupt. I’m having a hard time dealing with social inequality right now and just the way we, as a society, especially us white suburban dwellers, just let it happen, and accept it as the way the world is. Life’s tough, especially on those who have so much potential, but were born on the “wrong” side of the tracks. However, I, personally, am so glad to have Kaylee back in the program.
On an even happier note, Kaylee’s mom was so incredibly proud today. Kaylee’s in kindergarten at one of the charter schools. It’s only her second month of school (her first full month), and already she’s been named “student of the month.” Kaylee was pretty chill about the whole thing (Getting recognized in a school wide assembly the day before her birthday? Whatever.), but I could tell her mom was just so incredibly pleased and affirmed, as she walking around the library holding the little pink pamphlet announcing her daughter’s award. How often do you think a single, low-income mom gets recognized by society for being a good parent? Not often. Not often at all. Blame is more the name of the game, and single low-income “welfare” moms get so much flak. Given what’s been said in the presidential debates over the past few weeks, especially in regards to gun control, it’s almost as if these moms are more likely to raise serial murderers than bright, intelligent students. I was glad to see that Kaylee’s mom at least doesn’t have to feel that way, and, honestly, I think we should create a day, separate from mother’s day, for single moms or low-income/welfare moms. They don’t deserve all of the constant criticism and stigmatization.
Another group of people who also don’t deserve the constant flak and criticism they get? Folks who are homeless. I’m beginning to realize that this is a part of society I care deeply about, more than just through SREHUP. I’ve come to the realization that I really don’t like this election cycle, or either of the campaigns very much, because both focus so much on the “middle class” and creating jobs for the “middle class”and neither talks very much about the growing number of people in poverty and all of the potential people within that category have. It’s so frustrating to see a population that in many ways has already had it’s voice taken away from it, be even more blatantly ignored. While I can’t change this election cycle, or grab the candidates by the shoulders and give them a good shake, telling them there are issues in this country far deeper than people in the middle class not having jobs, I can change how and where I spend my time. Obviously, when the weather gets cold, and the SREHUP shelters start again, I plan to head back to Arch Street, no matter my class schedule, and hang out with the wonderful men there, but in the meantime, I’ve found myself a new church. That’s right. Dramatic (or maybe not so dramatic), life change, I’ve decided to, expect for occasionally, leave my quite lovely (don’t get me wrong) white suburban church behind and head to the city to go to church on Sunday evenings at Broad Street Ministries.
Funny story how this decision happened… actually, a quite long story as well, and involving someone I care as deeply about as Kaylee and her mom, so maybe I’ll save it for Part II of this post. Needless to say, I’m a little frustrated right now by politics, media, and just the way, generation after generation, we continue to propagate and accept social inequality, but none of that’s new. I’ve always felt that way. I guess I’m just being more vocal about it now.
To end on a more upbeat note, GIANT gave us another $250 giftcard for the afterschool program this week, which brings them to a grand total of $500 of donations towards our little club so far. We are so stocked up on juice boxes now. It’s crazy. I’m so happy for their generosity (especially when grocery stores often have only a 1% to 2% profit margin). Next step… getting Exxon Mobil to share the corporate love! Just kidding. I would have a hard time accepting their money. But for all the frustration I have toward corporations and the social systems that capitalism reifies, I do really appreciate when companies are generous and think outside of their own welfare and pocketbook. It’s great. Thanks, GIANT!
Guess who finally got a new pair of running shoes today?
I am so excited because, as you can tell from my last post, my old pair had a lot of holes, and even more miles. I am also really excited because the laces and lining are bright purple, and, for anyone who has ever known me more than a day, I love purple. Sadly, though, it wasn’t the extra money from not having to pay for birth control that payed for these. Apparently, with the birth control mandate comes a grandfather clause that states I can’t get birth control for free until I renew or switch my insurance plan, and, it’s my guess, that after renewing or switching plans, I’ll probably just end up paying more in premiums to cover the cost. As my twelfth grade econ teacher liked to espouse, there is no such thing as a free lunch. Sigh.
But there are really generous parents who know that running is the one of the few things keeping their daughter sane and healthy at what is apparently the fifth most rigorous school in the country (to be honest, Newsweek’s lists fluctuate so much from year to year that I don’t really trust any of their rankings, but hey, if they want to say that my college is pretty tough, they can go right ahead). So today my mom sent my dad and myself to go get new running shoes at the specialty running store in St. Paul. The sales clerk, honest to goodness, looked like he was fresh out of middle school, but I rolled with it. To think I probably bought my first pair of running shoes when he was still in elementary school…
In unrelated news, I really like the Green Party’s presidential candidate, Jill Stein, enough that I almost went to a meet and greet with her this morning in Minneapolis. Why do I like a third party candidate who will never in a million years have the finances, media coverage, or votes to win the largest possible election? Well, it’s her ideas that get me mostly. Last night, she appeared on Twin Cities Public Television’s local political show, Almanac, to talk about her platform, and while it was only a brief segment, there was not a single thing she said during that time that I did not agree with. I agree with both Romney and Obama that we need to fix our economy and create more jobs, especially as I inch closer and closer to graduation. However, neither candidate gives much attention to what those jobs actually should be. When I heard Joe Biden speak at a grassroots event last Tuesday in Minneapolis, he spoke mostly about bringing manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. from China, which, to be honest, I don’t think will happen anytime soon. And with what we’ve done to the environment and the climate, I think Dr. Stein has a point that we should use this continuing recession as a time to rethink our priorities as a nation, the kind of industries and future we are leaving to our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and put our money where our mouth is in terms of creating green jobs. Why not kill two birds with one stone, working towards both a better economy and a better climate?
I also like where her head is in terms of budgeting. The amount of money that the Pentagon spends unnecessarily on Cold War type weapons and security is astounding, and I’m always frustrated when both major parties talk about debt, but neither party, especially Democrats, talk about cutting military spending as a way to solve it. Osama Bin Laden wasn’t killed using a nuclear weapon or any sort of fancy military equipment. He was killed using a special operations force and a very limited amount of weaponry. While I’m a pacifist at heart, the pragmatist in me wonders why the Pentagon treats warfare like it’s the same as it was thirty years ago. Clearly it’s more about intelligence now than brute strength, so why spend all of this money on outdated weapons and supplies we don’t need and that may very well end up in countries that we may one day go to war with? Why not instead spend that money on making our country more secure through education, jobs, healthcare, and environmental programs? All the missiles in the world can’t protect the American people from an increase in heart attacks, depression, and natural disasters. And the creation of more guns certainly won’t help the increasing amount of gun violence we’ve been hearing about across the U.S. for the past month. It’s the lack of hope and opportunity in so many American cities, not the threat of international violence, that worries me at night. If people could be given meaningful jobs, good healthcare, affordable housing, and fair taxes, that would, at the very least, make the American Dream more secure.
With all of that being said, I still very much love Obama. I love that he has experience living in a non-U.S. context and thus seems like less of a parochial politician on the world stage. I love that he has had to grabble and come to terms with his identity in the U.S., seeing how privilege works and the U.S. social system so easily shuts out people based on their skin color, background, and religious creed. I also love that he was willing to take two years to live out his ideals on the South Side of Chicago, no matter how ridiculous or futile it may have seemed. I like to think that in many ways community organizing is just as hard, if not harder, than running a company, and that the stakes are just as high. And, to be honest, while Obama maybe hasn’t done everything he promised to do and change in 2008 –the list was pretty long –he has done a lot of it, and, with the right people in Congress, he could probably do a whole lot more.
So, of course, I’ll campaign for Obama in the fall, and vote for him come November. I just wish there was some way to give Jill Stein my vote and backing as well. Did I mention, her VP is an anti-poverty advocate working in Philly, but born and raised in Minneapolis? What an awesome ticket.