Category Archives: education

Uganda Part Two: Amani Baby Cottage

If you missed the first blog, you can find part one of my trip to Uganda here.

Lake Victoria / Nile River

On our free day (Saturday), we went shopping for souvenirs in downtown Jinja.  Then we went out to an Indian restaurant for lunch, followed by a boat ride.

The boat ride started out on Lake Victoria.  We saw some prisons that have land that leads right into the water, but there were no fences.  Our guide told us that 96% of Ugandans are unable to swim, so they know that the prisoners will not escape.

We also saw fish farms in the middle of the lake where tilapia are harvested.

We stopped at a fishing village where we walked around and saw all of these little silver fish that they were drying out in the sun.

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All of the children in the village were excited to see us, and they cried out, “mzungu!” (“white person!”)  They all wanted to hold our hands, but what was interesting is that many of them were also smelling our hands.  I have no idea why they did that.  I’m not sure if previous white people maybe had a lot of perfume or scented lotion on.  Or maybe our skin just smells different than theirs.  I’m not too sure.

After leaving the fishing village, we headed to the source of the Nile.  The Nile River is the world’s longest river and it flows north, from Uganda to Egypt.  The water started moving more quickly once we got closer to the area where the lake and the river meet.  The guide told us that it was because of the huge difference between the depth of the lake and the depth of the river.

Rachel and I stuck our feet into the water:

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Then we took a group photo there.

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After volunteering with Sixty Feet and Sole Hope, we spent our last three days at Amani Baby Cottage in Jinja.

Initially, when reading about the trip to Uganda back in December when I registered, we were going to split all of our time between Sixty Feet and Sole Hope.  It was only more recently that the three days at Amani were added.

To be completely honest, I was disappointed at the addition of Amani to our itinerary.  I’m not a huge baby person.  I teach high school students because I prefer the older kids.  I was excited for the other two volunteer opportunities because I knew that there would be children of many ages.  Hearing the words “baby cottage” did not excite me at all.

Fortunately, I found out that Amani housed children from ages 0 to 5, so I was hoping to get to spend most of my time with the older kids.  Five year old I could deal with (or at least I thought so); it was the babies I was not ready for.

Amani Baby Cottage

According to its website, Amani Baby Cottage (ABC), “was established in 2003 to provide care for orphaned and abandoned children…Many are orphaned when their parents die due to AIDS, birth complications or other factors. Some are abandoned in the hospital after birth. Others are found abandoned at taxi stops, in latrines, or on the street…To date, a total of 328 children have been cared for in our home. 107 of these have been reunited with their parents or extended family members, 135 have been fostered into new families, and 26 have been transferred to other ministry placements. We do not refuse children in fragile health, thus 23 children have died while in our care.”

Everyone on my team had different tasks during our time at Amani.  There were 43 children there, ages 0 to 5.  Different team members helped with the infants, the toddlers, the preschool, cleaning, changing diapers, rocking babies, you name it.

There are Ugandan women working there who are referred to as “Mamas.”  It’s really cute hearing the children call the women “Mama.”  Any time the mamas hand out a snack or help a child with something, the kids say, “thank you, Mama.”

When volunteers come, they calls us “aunties” and “uncles.”  It was nice having that routine set before we arrived because even if they didn’t know our first name, they could still address us.

The first day at Amani, Rachel, Cortnie, and I were helping out with the preschool.  The students met as a group at first to do their morning routine, learning about the weather and the calendar.  Then they separated into three groups for different activities.  There were the zebras, giraffes, and lions, according to their ages.  They would rotate through different activities so that the groupings would be smaller.

It was amazing to see how well organized everything was.  The mamas had the schedule down to the minute and the kids were very well-behaved and polite.

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The preschool children in their school uniforms

I was with the zebras and our first activity was to go outside to play.  They ran around, played on the swings and monkey bars, and the mamas led them in some fun exercises like frog jumps and songs that had body movements incorporated.

 

After that, all of the kids regrouped, said a prayer, had porridge and a snack, before separating into their animal groups again. Each of the kids in my group were given a card with a letter on it.  They had to replicate that letter by building it with blocks.  I was really impressed by their language skills.  The other children we met in Uganda knew some English, but here there English sounded perfect and they were completely fluent.

Their schedule shifted a bit after that because the Auntie Rebecca, who had been their preschool teacher for the past month as a volunteer, was flying back home, so she gave out lollipops and they spent some time taking goodbye pictures.

Then we watched some Australian learning videos that were absolutely hilarious to Rachel and me.  They were super corny and the main actor was really strange, but the kids loved them, marching and dancing along to the songs.  There were songs like “The Wheels on the Bus” and then others that I hadn’t heard of.

We helped get the kids ready for lunch and then their nap, and then we left for lunch.

After lunch, we came back to play outside with the kids.  I mainly pushed kids on the swings.  Other people on our team were running around, playing with balls, or doing face paint.

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The next day, we expected to return to Amani to similar tasks.  However, upon arriving, we learned that the Mamas had professional development scheduled that day.  They had tried to reschedule it, but there were people who traveled from Kampala to go there.

Due to the change in schedule, preschool was cancelled.  Mission trips always require flexibility and this is the best example of that.  There was no time to complain or ask questions; we just needed to get to work.

Kimi, Joe and I went to the one of the male cottages, which housed ten boys: Edmond, Solomon, Jimmy, Silas, Babu, Michael, Dominic, David, Jonah, and Jonathan.  Jonathan was the only baby and Jonah was around two years old.  The rest were toddlers.

I cannot even begin to describe the chaos that ensued.  There were a few times when I looked over at Kimi and asked, “Am I being pranked right now?  Is this Candid Camera?”  During those moments, all we could do was shoot terrified glances over at one another and then simply laugh at the ridiculousness that we were experiencing.

The boys had acted like little angels when their mamas were around, sitting in a perfect formation, saying thank you, and using good manners, but it was like a switch flipped the moment the mamas walked out the door.

They were stealing toys from each other, running around, and trying to climb the shelves.  We put on a movie, but they wouldn’t stop talking so they couldn’t hear the movie.  I found two books, so I tried reading to them.  They listened to the first book, but by the second, their attention span was gone.

Every now and then, though, one of the mamas would come in to check on something or to make sure that things were going alright.  The minute they entered the room, the boys returned to their perfect angel state.  All a mama had to say was, “boys, stop talking,” and there was silence.  Kimi and I just looked at each other in amazement any time this happened.

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Watching a movie

Then it was time for their snack (porridge and a banana).  Mama Georgina told us to stir the porridge with a cup before serving them because it was too hot.  The boys were watching something on the TV while we stirred.  Then, one of the boys started the prayer before meals: “Hand together,” he said.  And they all repeated, “hands together” while putting their hands into prayer position.  “Eyes closed,” he continued, and they all shut their eyes.  They went through all of the prayer.  I couldn’t understand all of the words but it was something like: “Hands together, eyes closed.  Bless our porridge, bless our mamas, bless our aunties, bless our uncles, in Jesus’ name, amen.”  They would all clap while they said “Amen.”

Kimi and I thought that it was really cute that they just said their prayers on their own while watching the movie.  Then, a few minutes later, another boy started the prayer.  When he finished he said, “auntie, we would like our porridge.”  The problem was that it was still extremely hot.

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Prayers before snack

The same thing happened a few minutes later, with another boy starting the prayer.  This time we decide to give them the porridge because we knew they wouldn’t stop praying and asking.  I have no idea how they drank it since it seemed to be burning hot, but they loved it.  One boy in the room has special needs and he doesn’t have full control of his arms or legs.  He spilled the porridge all over himself, so we had to find him a new change of clothes.  I hope that he didn’t burn his chest.

After snack, we were excited that we could bring the boys outside.  We expected it to be less crazy than being cooped up in the cottage all day.  Boy were we wrong!

There were people working on the grounds of Amani, doing various tasks like gardening.  The boys ran out of the cottage and made a beeline for the yard tools.  The workers weren’t there at the moment, but their shovels, hoes, and rakes were.

I found myself running toward the edge of the property, wrestling these garden tools out of the hands of the toddlers.  Initially, I told the kids not to touch them and to put them down and they listened, but the moment I walked away, I saw kids chasing each other with the tools.

So back I went, running around in an attempt to avoid witnessing a child being impaled by a gardening tool.  Rachel came outside of her cottage with the girls and she was somehow able to grab a rake out of one of the children’s hands, despite holding two babies on either hip.

Katie told us later that the whole scene was hilarious.  Looking back, I can’t help but laugh at the chaos, but in the moment, I was feeling completely overwhelmed.

At different points during the day, I paused to say a prayer asking God for help.  It sounds so funny now, but gosh, we were all feeling completely overwhelmed and unprepared.  I couldn’t have gotten through that whole day if I wasn’t confident that God had placed me there for a reason and that He was going to help me to continue.

After the garden tool fiasco, we just played outside and then we left for lunch.

We usually went over our highs and lows each day at dinner.  Every team member would discuss their day and it was a nice way to debrief.  This day, we decided to do highs and lows at lunch since we were all exhausted and less than enthused about the thought of returning to Amani.  Many of our teammates were peed on, pooped on, or spit up on.

Kimi and I had been thinking that we had it the worst with ten boys between us, but we came to find out during lunch that Cortnie and Rachel had it even worse in the girls’ cottage.  There were 13 girls and it sounded like they were behaved even more badly than the boys.

Serving at Amani that day definitely gave us a quick dose of humility.  It also increased our respect and appreciation of the mamas exponentially.  The mamas do such an amazing job caring for and loving those children and I’m sure that they have their fair share of difficulties.

The children at Amani come from a variety of backgrounds so although everything looked like it was down to a science on our first day there, I know that doesn’t just happen out of nowhere.  Establishing the routines, rules, and procedures takes a lot of work and those mamas are simply amazing.  It is also clear how much they truly love those children.  If I ever considered adopting, I would have no hesitation to adopt a child from a place like Amani because it is obvious that they are extremely well cared for.

After lunch, we were all hesitant about returning, but it was much calmer.  We played with the kids outside.  We played on the swing set and we also brought bubbles.

Something that was really interesting to me was that the swing set was dedicated to the victims of the Sandy Hook shooting.  It had a plaque on it that included the names and ages of everyone who had died in Connecticut that day, along with the names of companies and churches that had either donated the supplied for the swing set, donated money, or helped to build it.

There were stores from Bethel and Danbury, Connecticut listed on the plaque, which is where I used to live before moving to New Jersey.  What a small world that I was playing with kids in Uganda on a playground that was made with supplies from my former town!

Sarah and Mary brought their Polaroid camera, so the kids LOVED having their pictures taken.

We found out that afternoon that the professional development was a two-day course. Upon leaving, we knew that we would probably have another chaotic day in store for us the following day.  I was thankful for a calmer afternoon, but nervous what the next day would entail.

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Yep, I’m holding a baby!

Some of us switched roles the next day.  I stayed in the same room as the previous day because I figured that it would be helpful that I knew all of the names of the boys in that cottage.  Rachel, Cortnie, and Joe were in that cottage with me.

This was our last day volunteering in Uganda, so I think that most of us hoped that it would be a better experience than the prior day.  Fortunately, it was definitely better.  There were definitely still crazy, chaotic moments, but not nearly as many.

The woman who is the current director of Amani bought new movies, hoping that the kids would behave better if they were interested in a new movie that they hadn’t seen before.  That worked really well; the boys were engrossed in The Lion King.

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The only slight problem was that every kid wanted to sit in our laps, but there were only three of us.

They watched all of The Lion King, so we followed that with The Good Dinosaur.  They were less excited about that movie, so they got a little antsy.

We had snack time with more prayers, porridge, and bananas, and this time it was much better because the porridge wasn’t too hot when I got it from the kitchen.

We turned on Cars instead of The Good Dinosaur since they really didn’t like that one.  We could hear noises coming from the girls’ cottage and some of the girls ran into our cottage to show the boys some crafts they were making.  Cortnie, Rachel, and I were nervous that would cause the boys to become rambunctious as well.  We shut both of the doors so that the girls couldn’t distract them and then we brought out the crayons and coloring books.

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It went well, other than one kid who was eating his crayon:

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We left for lunch and when we returned, the mamas had a variety of hand-made items out on display.  It was great to be able to support the mamas by purchasing some souvenirs from them.

Then the kids had pineapple for a snack before going outside.  They wanted us to play “Let it Go” from Frozen on our phones.  Katie had that song on her phone, so she had played it for them before, but she wasn’t with us.  They didn’t understand how it was possible that we didn’t have the song.  We had a phone just like her, after all.  I tried to play them other songs on my phone, but they were unimpressed.

Then it was time to go outside for the rest of the afternoon.  Mama Georgina handed me a pair of nail clippers and said to trim the boys’ nails.  I wasn’t too sure how that was going to play out, but the boys were actually really good at staying still while I clipped their nails.  I’m not sure if I have ever clipped anyone’s nails before that.

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We had nail polish, so we painted their nails.  That was a bit of a mess since they kept moving too soon after and smudging the nail polish, but they liked it anyway.  We also had more bubbles.

It seemed like there were fewer kids that afternoon, so it was much calmer.  I was told that some of them were going to therapists or other appointments.

After playing for a while, it was getting close to our time to leave.  The mamas had the kids form a circle so that they could sing farewell songs to us.  That moment was really touching.

They sang some songs in English and some in Luganda; there were some that we were familiar with, such as “Baa Baa, Black Sheep,” and others that we had never heard.

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One girl started singing a Christian song and it was just precious.  Both her and her twin sister had one hand on their heart and one hand raised to the sky, praising God.

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The songs were really cute, but then it was time to leave.  One boy, Silas, had been sitting on my lap during all of the songs and he had been following me around a little bit that afternoon (he’s the one who ate the blue crayon).  He was holding onto my skirt as I got up to walk away.

I had to physically remove his arms from around my waist and then he started crying.  As we walked out of the compound, some of the kids (like Silas) were crying.  One boy, Edmond, ran up to the fence and waved goodbye.

I couldn’t stop a few tears from rolling down my cheeks.  I couldn’t help but consider how many people the children must say goodbye to.

It’s awesome that so many people go to Amani to volunteer, but there’s always a goodbye.  Some of these boys were abandoned by their parents, and I just felt like I was continuing the cycle of loss.

It was bittersweet, though, because at the same time, we were really needed there.  Although we did a lot of work with Sole Hope, I’m sure that they could have found anyone to help wash the feet or pass out lollipops or stickers.

But when the mamas needed their professional development, I’m not sure what they would have done had we not been there.  Us being there helped take a lot off of their plate and I’m thankful that I was able to show my gratitude to them by removing some of their daily duties for a few days.

I know that God placed me and my team exactly where He needed us, so I know that I shouldn’t feel sad, but walking down the road and away from those children was really hard.


After leaving Amani, we went back to our guest house to pack our bags since we would be leaving early the following morning to take the long drive back to Entebbe for our flights home.

We left around 6:30 to drive about three hours to Entebbe.  We had our last lunch at a restaurant overlooking Lake Victoria.  It was nice to have one last team activity before heading out.

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We had a five and a half hour flight to Dubai, followed by a four hour layover.  When we landed in Dubai, we had to get off the plane and board a bus to take us to the airport, but Rachel was flying to Germany and Cortnie was flying to Dallas, so they had to get onto a different bus than the rest of us.

Unfortunately, we hadn’t expected that, so we didn’t really get to say goodbye.

The temperature was around 95 degrees even though it was 10pm in Dubai.  It was so hot and humid that my camera lens fogged up when I tried to take a picture.

Now this is completely random, but something weird about Dubai International Airport is that the toilets seemed to have hot water in them.  I’m not sure if it was hot simply because it was so hot outside.  (It was around 107 degrees on our trip in the opposite direction since it was day time in Dubai at that point.)  Or maybe they heat their toilet water, though I can’t imagine that.  It felt like sitting on a steamer or something when I sat on the toilet.  TMI?  Probably, but it was interesting to me.

After our layover, we flew about 14 hours to JFK and luckily, that was my last stop.  We went through immigration/customs, got our luggage, and I said goodbye to my team, most of whom had to wait for another flight later in the day.

So that was my experience in Uganda this summer.

To everyone who donated money to help me to go on this trip: thank you so much.  I would have been unable to do this work if it hadn’t been for your great generosity.  Although you were not able to be on the trip in the flesh, I brought you with me in my prayers.

To everyone who donated jeans or helped me to cut the jean patterns: thank you.  I was able to witness the entire shoemaking process, from jeans, to jean patterns, to sewing and creating shoes.  And then I was able to help out at the actual clinic and see the shoes on the feet of people who were not jigger-free.  Although you may have simply given me a pair of old jeans, they are now helping someone to avoid a jigger re-infestation.

To those of you who prayed for me and my team: I appreciate it so much.  There were a few teammates who experienced minor illnesses, but we were healthy for the most part.  We were safe, and we had an excellent, rewarding experience.

To my teammates, Kimi, Bart, Jacob, Katie, Cortnie, Rachel, Sara, Haley, Mary, Mia, and Joe: I am grateful for meeting you.  I know that God formed our team with each of you in mind.  We each brought along our own strengths and weaknesses and together, we were able to help spread love throughout Kampala and Jinja.  I will continue to pray for each of you and I expect to hear more amazing things that each of you are doing in your lives.  You are all inspiring.

Love,

Stephanie


Here is the video for part two of my trip:

2017 USMC Educator Workshop

Tuesday:

On Tuesday, I was picked up at 4am (along with a coworker of mine) by a Marine recruiter and driven to Newark airport to hop on a plane to Atlanta, Georgia, and then another plane to Savannah, Georgia.  We then boarded a bus with other educators from the state of New Jersey and headed to our hotel in Beaufort, South Carolina.

This was the first leg of our journey to the United States Marine Corps 2017 Educator Workshop and we had no idea what to expect.

We were given no itinerary.  Our short packing list included just four items: sunscreen, bug spray, comfortable clothes, and a business casual outfit.

Some of us (like me) had watched a fewYouTube videos from previous educator workshops, so we had some vague expectations.  My roommate and I knew that we would be yelled at, but we didn’t know when that would happen.  As we rode the bus to the hotel, we just held our breath in anticipation of when the yelling would begin.

Upon arriving at the hotel, the Marines were all very kind to us.  We checked in and had free time until dinner, so I went for a run to see some of the area.

When we piled back onto the white buses to head to Parris Island for the first time for dinner, we were again nervous, waiting for the yelling to begin.  We eventually realized that none of that would happen until Wednesday morning.  So much worrying for no reason.

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Entrance to Parris Island

One group of educators (28 of us) was from Recruiting Station (RS) New Jersey and the other group was from RS Pennsylvania (30 of them).  We had dinner together, along with some of the Marines.  We were able to ask any questions that we had while enjoying our meal together.

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Dinner on Tuesday night

After dinner, they told us to expect Thursday to be the physically active day.  For Wednesday, they just made it clear that we would experience the wrath of the drill instructors.  Uh oh.

We rode the bus back to the hotel.  I went swimming in the hotel pool, and then hit the sack early since breakfast would be from 5-6am the next morning.

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Pool time!

Wednesday:

After an early breakfast we loaded onto the buses toward Parris Island.  Immediately upon arriving, a female drill instructor boarded the bus and started screaming at us.

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Ready to find out what day two holds for me

She ordered us to get off of the bus and run onto the yellow footprints, leaving no empty spaces between the members of our “platoon.”  Even though we knew that we were not actual Marine recruits, the drill instructors were still quite terrifying.  The yellow footprints are a significant tradition at Parris Island.  Every new recruit steps onto these footprints upon arriving, which means that every Marine who has ever lived has stood either on the footprints in Parris Island, South Carolina, or those in San Diego, California.  (Recruits from the east of the Mississippi River head to Parris Island while those west of the Mississippi head to San Diego.)

The first thing we did was head into the first building that the new recruits would enter.  We each sat in a small metal desk while we learned about the intake procedures.  Each recruit gets just one phone call home to let their families know that they have arrived safely.  They get three attempts and if they are unable to reach a loved one, they will try again each day until they are able to relay the message of their safety.  After that, there is no contact with anyone from home (other than letters) until the day before graduation (12 weeks later).

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After learning about the intake, we asked some questions and were then released back into the hands of the drill instructors.  For RS New Jersey, we had Staff Sergeant King and boy, was she intimidating.

“Roust that march!”  “Ay, ma’am!”

“Sprint!”  “Sprint, ay, ma’am!”

“STOPPPP!”  “Stop, ay ma’am!”

She had us lining up in formation, sprinting forward, then turning around to run back to the footprints to line up again.  Every time she spoke, we had to scream a response.  If it took too long to get back into formation, we ran another sprint.  If someone didn’t scream the response loud enough, we would run another sprint.  If someone scratched their face, we would run again.  “Did I tell you to scratch your face?” “No, ma’am!”

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We also had to learn how to count off.  So after she yelled some commands, we would kneel down one at a time while calling out our number.  There were 28 of us, so whenever the last person said “28,” all of us would yell, “28, done ma’am!”  Unfortunately, people kept messing up with the counting and kneeling and yelling back commands, so we went up and down a ton of times.  All of us had sore legs and butts the next day.

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Then she had us run into the pit.  It’s a box of dirty, sand flea-filled sand where the drill instructors command the recruits to go through a series of exercises: running in place, running in place with arms lifted and high knees, push-ups, crunches, mountain climbers, you name it.

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We were probably only in the pit for 5-10 minutes, but we were exhausted.  People were dripping with sweat.  Thanks to the combination of sweat, sunscreen, and bug spray, the sand/dirt from the pit stuck to any exposed skin.

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My dirty arm

“I need to text my wife and tell her how I don’t know what to expect for the physical day if this is the non-physical day,” said one of the teachers who was regretting his decision to wear jeans on Wednesday.

We then went into one of the barracks to hear from more drill instructors and to ask questions.  Most people were hesitant to ask questions around the drill instructors since they were so intimidating when they were yelling at us.

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Later, we went into an auditorium, where we would be learning more about the Marines.  They explained that we had 5 minutes to “make a head call” if we “desperately” needed it.  They use the term “head” to refer to the bathrooms.

I opted not to go to the bathroom since I wasn’t desperate, but then I was soon nervous, wondering when they would offer another head call.  I quickly learned to try to go to the bathroom any time they offered it since we never really knew how many hours it would be until we had another chance.

During the presentation, I learned so much about the Marines that I previously had no knowledge of.  We heard about the qualifications and how 71% of current high school students are ineligible, for a variety of reasons which may include:

-drug history

-incidents with the police/law

-tattoo placement

-medications

-health issues

-low ASVAB scores

-lack of a high school diploma

I had no idea how tough it was to get into the Marines.

We also heard from a woman who explained the educational benefits of the Montgomery GI Bill and the 9/11 GI bill.  And we heard from a man who told us about the musicians who are in the Marines and the requirements to enter that program.  I had never considered mentioning that as an option to some of my students who are musically inclined, but there are some Marines who are responsible for playing in their bands at various celebrations, ceremonies, and other gatherings.

After that, we had lunch.  We got to eat with some of the Marine recruits.  It was really nice to be able to speak with them and to ask them questions about their experiences.  The Marine who was sitting across the table from me had finished his Crucible a few days prior.  He had received his ring and his new uniform and he was very excited to graduate on Friday.  His girlfriend’s graduation occurred three days after he started boot camp, so we hadn’t seen her in about six months.  He was clearly proud of their accomplishments, yet very humble at the same time.

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After lunch we went to learn how to shoot the M16 rifles.  First, we tried it indoors on the virtual version.  The gun was much heavier than I expected.  The Marine who was helping me asked me if I was a lefty or righty.  I told him that I wasn’t sure since I do some things lefty, others righty, and I’ve never held a gun before.

He then asked me which eye is my dominant eye.”  “Um…I don’t know that either.”

So he told me to squint.  Because I immediately shut my right eye, he said that meant that my left eye was my dominant eye.  Learn something new every day.

Then it was time to practice shooting the target on the screen.  The gun was pretty heavy and my right shoulder is a little bit injured right now, so I took my 3 shots and then gladly put down the gun to pass it off to the next person.

After everyone practiced shooting, we went to the firing range.  We learned about safety and then each of us was able to take a turn shooting the real M16.  We had the option to shoot standing, kneeling, or prone (laying down).  I opted to shoot prone so that I didn’t have to worry about my shoulder and lifting the heavy gun.

We each got to fire 10 shots.  There were targets placed in the field anywhere from 100-500 meters away.  The first shot I took was a miss, but after that, I did really well, hitting the next shots on targets between 100 and 300 meters away.  Once I tried the 400 and 500 meter targets, I missed again.

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Shooting the M16
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Shooting the M16

Most people were really excited to fire the rifles.  I’m not really interested in guns, so although I was happy that I performed well, I don’t really feel the need to ever shoot a gun again.  We were in a competition between RS New Jersey and RS Pennsylvania to see who could get the most hits.  RS Pennsylvania won.

We left the firing range and then headed over to the pool to learn about the swim test.  We heard from the MCIWS (Marine Corps Instructors of Water Survival) team.  For many recruits, this is the scariest part of boot camp since they don’t know how to swim and may have never had the opportunity to try to swim before.

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They said that if a recruit cannot swim physically, that is an easy fix since they just teach them flotation techniques.  What is more difficult to overcome is those who cannot swim psychologically because of their fear of the water.  If a recruit is unable to pass the test after multiple attempts, he or she will not be able to become a Marine.

The recruits don’t really need to know how to swim well.  It’s more about survival than actual swimming.  They have to be able to float for a certain amount of time while treading water.  They have to be able to remove their gear in the water.  They learn how to tie off their pant legs and inflate them with air as a makeshift life vest.  It’s not like they are training them to swim laps.

They told us the story of a Marine who fell off of a ship and nobody noticed when it happened.  He ended up floating in the middle of the ocean for over two days, surviving as a result of his Marine training and because he was able to inflate his pants to use for flotation.

Then they let us watch instructors go through the tests that the recruits experience.

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They also showed us some extra games that the MCIWS instructors do together to try to push themselves and to have a little fun.  One guy took two 35-lb kettle bells, jumped into the water, walked all the way across the bottom of the pool and then back to the other side in just one breath.40

After that, we drove the buses over to the aviation part of Parris Island.  We heard from some Marines who work on the fighter jets (mainly the F18).  They also told us about the new F35.  Two of the pilots also spoke to us and then they brought us outside to look at the jets.

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One of the pilots with an F18

They let us put on a helmet and climb the ladder to look into the F18, but we weren’t allowed to take any pictures up there.

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After that, we went to have dinner.  It was a crazy long day, with every minute accounted for.  By dinner, I was pretty tired and REALLY hungry.  Luckily there was delicious eggplant lasagna as one of the buffet options for dinner.

Many of the teachers wanted a drink, so they were excited to learn that we could go to the officer’s club for drinks.  I was tired (and I don’t drink), so I was just ready to get back to the hotel and go to bed.

Thursday:

On Thursday morning, we again had breakfast from 5-6am and loaded up on the buses.  I was simultaneously excited and nervous for the day’s activities since I knew that it was our physical day.

First, we got to see the Marines who would be graduating the following morning as they took their motivation run.  This was their last workout before graduation and also the first time their families would see them.  Since there are so many Marines and they all look very similar, most families probably couldn’t pick out their son or daughter, but the energy was vibrant.

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Motivation run

We took a group picture and then we went to the visitors center.  I had a chance to speak to the chaplain, which was interesting.  She said that they have quite a few conversions because some of the new recruits end up finding their faith as a result of trying to cope with the difficulties that accompany boot camp.  She said that she would be performing seven baptisms later that day.

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After that, we went to the Marine museum.  Then it was time to go to the obstacle course.  I was excited for the obstacles since I would be running the Spartan Beast soon after heading back to Jersey.

The first obstacle was a series of logs across other logs.  You had to jump on the first horizontal log, then up to the next, and finally up to the third, before bear hugging it, rolling over, and jumping down.  This is what it looked like:

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Then, we had to run and jump onto this rope and swing across the gravel area:

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Then there was an inverted wall.  Here, one of the Marines is helping me to get my leg over:

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There were also monkey bars and then this balancing log obstacle:

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After the obstacles, we had lunch with more Marine recruits.  Then it was time for the 50 foot rappel tower.  I’m not scared of heights, so I wasn’t as scared as many of the other people in our group, but the tower definitely looked pretty tall.

First, they taught us how to tie the knots for our harness.  The Marines checked to make sure that each of us had tied the harnesses properly and then we walked up the steps to the top of the tower.

I stayed close to the front of the line because I didn’t want to have to wait too long for my turn.  I knew that the longer I waited, the more nervous I would feel.  They ensured us that even if we slipped, we wouldn’t crash down to the ground.  Worst case scenario, we would flip upside down, still attached to the harness.

When it was my turn, I intentionally just stepped backward toward the edge of the ledge, not looking at the ground below me.  I knew that I would be more scared if I saw how far the ground looked.

When the Marine told me to, I slowly leaned back, still not looking down.

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We were told to keep our legs straight.  If we bent them, we might end up flipping over.  Our left arm was supposed to hold the rope loosely while the right arm was supposed to hold the rope tightly since it was our break hand.  As we let go with the right hand, we would start rappelling down.  The Marines would rappel really quickly, almost running down the wall.  I didn’t want to go that fast, so I never loosened my right hand too much.

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I slowly made my way down the wall and it was pretty fun.  I’m happy that I went early on because after me, there were a few people who slipped.  I saw at lease three or four people flip upside down.  I would have been absolutely terrified if that had happened to me and I was hanging upside down at the top of the tower.

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After the tower, we went to the gas chambers.  First, they asked who wore contacts.  I raised my hand.  They said that any of us with contacts would have to close our eyes as we walked through the gas chamber.  Otherwise, we would get these crystals stuck under our contacts and they said it would hurt even worse when they did whatever was necessary to clean them out.

I had an immediate stomachache because I was so nervous about going into the gas chamber without my eyes open.  I had to hold onto the shoulders of the person in front of me.  I tried to hold my breath for as long as I could, but I eventually had to breathe.  I breathed in through my mouth and immediately felt a burning sensation in my throat and lungs.

We were probably only in the gas chamber for a matter of seconds and I probably only took 2-3 breaths while inside, yet all of us were immediately coughing the moment we exited.  People without contacts probably had it worse because their eyes had been open, so they were burning in addition to their noses, throats, and lungs.

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They told us to walk around to get fresh air.  The gas chamber was pretty painful and the gas wasn’t even on.  They said that it was worse for us because it was such a hot day, so the brick building was hot.  The gas gets stirred up by people walking through it, so even though it wasn’t on full blast, it was still pretty strong.

The Marine recruits enter the gas chamber with gas masks on.  Then they eventually must break the seal, letting the air into their masks in order to get used to training in a chemical situation and not just freaking out.  I can’t imagine how strong the gas must feel when it’s on full blast.

After that, we went to see part of the Crucible, the last event that the recruits have to endure before becoming actual Marines.  It’s a 54-hour culminating event. We got to participate in more obstacles there.  These were team-building obstacles that required everyone to work together in order to accomplish the tasks.

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We also got to see the recruits doing some sparring during the Crucible.

From there, we went to a dinner that they were having.  Some of the families of the Marines who would be graduating on Friday were there.  After dinner, we went to a shop that was on the island and then back to our hotel.

My roommate and I went on a 6 mile run with one of the Marines.  The rest of the group had a karaoke night at the hotel bar.

Friday:

Friday morning we had breakfast and then went to the ceremony where they raised the flag.  From there, we went to the graduation ceremony.

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Graduation ceremony

It was amazing to realize that they have this same ceremony every Friday for a new group of Marines.

Then we went to the auditorium to talk to the General.  We then took pictures with the Marine dog, Legend, and with some of the Marines we had been working with during the workshop.

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Legend with two of the Marines we had been working with

This woman, staff sergeant King, was the drill instructor for RS New Jersey.  By Friday, she was nice to us and speaking normally, but on Wednesday morning, she was completely terrifying with all of the orders she was yelling at us.

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We then got some boxed lunches and hopped on the bus for our flights home.  I flew from Savannah to North Carolina and then from North Carolina to New Jersey.  At Newark, I was picked up by my local Marine recruiter and then brought back home.

Overall, the experience was really awesome.  I learned so much about the Marines.  I definitely feel better prepared to give advice to some of my students who may be trying to decide whether the military is right for them.

I actually have a student who just told me this week that he signed up for the Marines and he was asking me questions about my experience at the workshop.  I like the fact that I can now better understand what he should expect in terms of enlisting and eventually heading off to Parris Island for boot camp.

I would definitely encourage any educator, principal, or guidance counselor to attend the Marine Educator Workshop if they have the opportunity.

School Dress Codes are Not Sexist

Lately, I have been seeing articles about students and parents outraged over the dress codes at their schools and how sexist they are.  People have begun fighting back against these dress codes since there are more rules for the girls to follow.

Well, I’m sorry to break it to you, ladies, but let’s take a trip back to anatomy class: you have more private parts that need covering than men, plain and simple.  Nothing about the dress code in most schools is sexist.  Schools simply wants both male and female students to dress modestly and appropriately.

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Let’s take a look at common dress codes and determine if any of the requirements are, in fact, sexist:

No exposed stomachs.  Boys don’t typically wear belly shirts, but if they wanted to, they couldn’t, just like the girls.

No exposed backs.  Again – boys don’t tend to wear backless shirts, but if they did, they would be breaking school policy just like the girls.  I’ve seen male students wear those workout tank tops where they basically cut the sides off of a regular t-shirt.  It exposes their whole side from their armpit down to their hip.  They get in trouble for those shirts just like a girl would get in trouble for a backless shirt.

No cleavage.  Men don’t really have cleavage, so it’s not sexist, it’s just the reality of female versus male anatomy.  Guys aren’t typically wearing low-cut shirts anyway.  If they were, then they would be breaking the dress code.

No spaghetti straps, tube tops, or halter tops.  I’ve never seen a guy wear a spaghetti strap tank top, but that wouldn’t be allowed either.  As a teacher, I would never wear a shirt like that without a sweater on top.  It’s not appropriate.  Students should learn that there are settings in which they can wear that type of attire, but that they must also dress appropriately when the occasion calls for it.

-No leggings as pants.  As a teacher, I really appreciate this rule.  Do you know how many girls wear thin or worn out leggings and don’t realize that their striped, polka dotted, or floral underwear is clearly visible to everyone around them thanks to the florescent lights?  Or worse, the tiny thongs that my female students were wearing under their leggings was also visible.  It’s awkward to see that.  Do I tell my student that her underwear is showing?  Or does she know and not care? Or do I just ignore it and act like I don’t see it?

Leggings should not count as pants.  They’re fine for the gym or lounging around on the weekend, but they aren’t school appropriate.  Boys definitely stare at girls’ butts when they are wearing leggings.  Do we really need those extra distractions in school?  In most schools, teachers aren’t allowed to wear leggings as pants either.  I am in no way offended by that.  Leggings are skin-tight.  Every piece of fat, muscle, or panty-line is visible.  They simply aren’t appropriate workplace attire.

I still wouldn’t call this sexist, since boys also wouldn’t be allowed to wear leggings as pants either.  Girls would probably be staring at the boys butts (or more than just that) if the boys were wearing leggings to school.  They’re distracting to both genders.  It just so happens that leggings aren’t popular for most males.

No vulgar shirts. This rule bans shirts with any vulgar language, drug or alcohol references, or inappropriate images.  I tend to see more boys who wear these types of shirts, but still, this has nothing to do with gender.

No hats. No gender is being discriminated against here.  I make both my male and female students remove their hats and hoods.

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An article from Teen Vogue asserts that these rules are sexist and that while it’s true that boys become distracted by some of the girls’ clothing items, it’s something that they need to learn to get used to since it’s a part of life.

I disagree.  Sure, there will be distractions, but do they have to be a part of our schools?  Absolutely not.

I know from male teachers that they feel very uncomfortable when their female high school students are wearing tiny shorts or skirts, or have half of their breasts exposed for the world to see.  They don’t want to get caught staring. But even as a female teacher, it’s sometimes hard to avoid staring when a 16 year old girl walks into my room dressed in an outfit that would be appropriate only for a nightclub.  I don’t want to see her butt hanging out of the bottom of her shorts, even though it’s not something that would ever turn me on.  It’s shocking, so most people would do a double take.

The article says that these dress codes “reinforce a message you’re already constantly given outside of school: the way you look is more important than your education. Of all places, a school should make sure it values a girl’s chance to learn over her appearance.”

No, not quite.  Rather, they teach students that beach attire is appropriate for just that — the beach.  In most schools, girls can still wear shorts and tank tops, if the shorts aren’t super short and the tank tops have more than a thin spaghetti strap.  When they have a job one day, we want our students to understand that their sexy nightclub outfit might not be fitting to deal with customers while working retail, let alone entering a more formal profession.

Why are people not arguing that these dress codes are sexist in the work setting?  Because they realize that we need some sort of standard to follow.  Is it a crime to see a glimpse of a girl’s back when her shirt slides up a little too far?  No.  But where is the line?  With the completely backless shirts that exist nowadays, we need some rule in place for our students.

The same is true for prom dresses.  It is now popular for girls to wear two-piece dresses, where the top is little more than the size of a sports bra, with a completely bare back and stomach.  Some of these dresses have a tiny little portion of the midriff exposed, but students are always pushing the envelope, looking for sexier dresses, so many schools had to ban two-piece dresses altogether.

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Others are completely backless, or have huge cut-outs.  While that may be acceptable on the red carpet, our high school juniors and seniors are 16-18 years old.  There is no need for them to be showing off their whole body.  Small cut-outs aren’t a major problem, but again, students take things to the extreme.

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Modesty should not come with such a negative connotation.  There are plenty of gorgeous gowns that still leave something to the imagination.

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It amazes me when parents fight back against these rules.  Why would you want your 14 year old daughter to expose her body?  You’re so mad that she can’t show her cleavage that you want to fight the school board?  Maybe you should put your time into helping her to excel in her classes and work on her career goals instead.

Students go to school to learn.  There is no need for such sexy clothing in the school environment.

Dress codes are there for a good reason — to remind students that their number one job at this point is to be just that — students.  They are not at the club or at the beach.  They are in school to learn how to be productive citizens of the world and with being a productive citizen comes the ability to distinguish which attire is appropriate for which setting.

 

Admitting Your White Privilege Doesn’t Make You Racist

I previously wrote a post about My White Privilege about a year ago.  This year, I used a new textbook for my AP English Language & Composition class.  We were working on the gender unit when I stumbled upon a new text that I assigned my students to read for homework last week.

It’s entitled “Just Walk on By” by Brent Staples, which is a piece in his memoir, Parallel Time: Growing up in White and Black (published in 1994).  Here is an excerpt:

“At night, I walked to the lakefront whenever the weather permitted.  I was headed home from the lake when I took my first victim.  It was late fall, and the wind was cutting.  I was wearing my navy pea jacket, the collar turned up, my hands snug in the pockets.  Dead leaves scuttled in shoals along the streets.  I turned out of Blackstone Avenue and headed west on 57th Street, and there she was, a few yards ahead of me, dressed in business clothes and carrying a briefcase.  She looked back at me once, then again, and picked up her pace.  She looked back again and started to run.  I stopped where I was and looked up at the surrounding windows.  What did this look like to people peeking out through their blinds?  I was out walking.  But what if someone had thought they’d seen something they hadn’t and called the police.  I held back the urge to run.  Instead, I walked south to The Midway, plunged into the darkness, and remained on The Midway until I reached the foot of my street.

“I’d been a fool.  I’d been walking the streets grinning good evening at people who were frightened to death of me.  I did violence to them by just being.  How had I missed this?”

In his piece, he explains how he is viewed as a criminal before he commits any crime. Being a black man is his only crime.

Staples is a well-educated man who has a PhD in psychology, yet he will continue to be viewed as a criminal based solely on the color of his skin and his gender.  It is now 2017, but being a black man still comes with many negative connotations that I will never be able to fully understand as a white woman.

My students have very diverse backgrounds.  In the one class in which I was teaching this piece last week, I only had two male students present, and one of them was a tall, black male.  He is an extremely polite young man.  He’s a good student with a great work ethic.  He plays on the football and basketball teams.  But he expressed agreement with the author’s assertions, providing instances when had been viewed as a criminal or a thug simply because he is a tall black male.  He even described some frightening instances in which police officers acted aggressively toward him or his family despite no crime having taken place.

Reading “Just Walk on By,” my heart breaks for a few reasons.

First, it is such a pity that this is still a problem in the year 2017.  Things have obviously progressed since the times of slavery and legalized segregation, but we cannot be content with the way things sit right now.  Relative to the 1950s, we’re living in a utopia for African Americans.  But that means very little.

It also frustrates me because I know that many white people deny their white privilege, which just perpetuates the problem.  It does exist and it must be addressed.  Denying white privilege does not do any good.  Accepting it does not mean that you are racist.  I know that I have white privilege.  Although I am half Brazilian, which could in some cases cause people to view me a bit differently, I appear on the outside as a typical white girl — blonde hair, blue eyes.  I am not intimidating.  I do not look like a criminal.  By accepting my white privilege, I am not saying that I am better than anyone.  Instead, I am acknowledging the fact that society puts me on a pedestal.  I am not feared.  My intelligence and education are not questioned.  I am not given second glances by the police.

And last, my heart breaks in knowing that I will never understand what it feels like to be in the position of Brent Staples or my student who related to the piece.  I cannot fathom walking down the street and seeing people cast back second glances, quickening their pace, locking their car doors, or crossing over to the other side of the road to get away from me.  I cannot imagine how it must feel to be feared simply because of being.

Staples says how it was at twenty-two years old when he “first began to know the unwieldy inheritance [he’d] come into–the ability to alter public space in ugly ways.”  He continues to say that it was “clear that I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seeped into the area from the surrounding ghetto.”

Those who deny white privilege must not understand the recent problems regarding police brutality.  It is undeniable that a black person who is stopped by a police officer must act extra kind, polite, and gentle.  And even if he does, there is still the chance of a wrongful conviction, or even death, simply because of his skin color.

Our society teaches us that the black male must be feared.  This is what we grow up being brainwashed by each day, mainly through the news and media.  Although Staples probably feels some frustration when people fear him, he understands and sympathizes for them.  He acknowledges that the “danger they perceive is not a hallucination.  Women are particularly vulnerable to street violence, and young black makes are drastically overrepresented among the perpetrators of that violence.  Yet these truths are no solace against the kind of alienation that comes of being ever the suspect, against being set apart, a fearsome entity with whom pedestrians avoid making eye contact.”

My student is only 17 years old and he is already aware of this reality.  He was born into a body which will benefit him on the court and on the football field.  His mind and intelligence will be an asset through his schooling and future career, but ultimately, because of his body, he will be feared and judged without reason.

Staples explains how he eventually “began to take precautions to make [himself] less threatening.”  He says that he is careful where he walks, especially at night.  He tries to leave enough space between other people so that he does not feel as threatening to them.

My student actually admitted to doing similar things.  He told our class how he often notices people glancing behind at him, checking his proximity.  He said that he will sometimes cross the street to walk on the other side on purpose so that the person in front of him does not feel threatened.

I will never be able to relate to that.  Why?  Because I am white.

I am able to greet people I cross paths with on the street without them feeling unnerved.  I will probably not be mistaken for a criminal simply because I walked too close to a crime scene and was assumed to be connected.

I love my job as a teacher, mainly for all of the connections  that I am able to make with my students.  But along with those connections comes emotional grief.  It pains me to know that for this young black student, it does not really matter how much I teach him, or where he goes to college; he will not be able to change the body he was born into.

Can he accomplish great things?  Absolutely.  But unless this world changes, he will have a more difficult time achieving greatness than if he had been born a white male.  I know the shameful truth that in many situations, he will be viewed as a lesser version of a white male who has the same education, grades, and work ethic.

Maybe his height, size, and even race give him an advantage with football or basketball.  Some would say that his race could get him into college more easily thanks to affirmative action. But depending on his career goals, he will have to work so much harder than his white counterpart to achieve similar end results.

Some people like to say that this isn’t really true in America in 2017.  After all, we had a black president, didn’t we?  But one black president mean does not nullify the existence of racism and privilege.

I don’t know Obama’s full life story.  But I am sure that he had to work tooth and nail to achieve the success that he did.  The same is true for his wife, Michelle.

Neither of her parents had graduated from college, and some of her high school teachers even tried to convince her not to apply to Princeton because they believed that she was setting her goals too high.  She had to earn her respect as an intelligent woman despite her race.

Growing up without much money, I had an intense drive to succeed, to get through college, and to begin my career as a teacher.  I know that I worked hard in college, but did I have it a little easier because I was white?  I believe so.  Had I been black, I would have had to work even harder to prove myself equal to those around me in my schooling and college.  The intelligent black male or female is still viewed today as the exception, not the norm.

Admitting your white privilege does not make you racist.  It doesn’t make you the bad guy.

Instead, it means that you are aware that you were born into some level of privilege simply because of your skin color.

It means that you have a responsibility to admit and remember this fact so that you can work towards changing the status quo.

It means that you must use that privilege to enlighten those around you about that fact so that we can one day find equality.

I am a white woman.  I was born into a body that does not lead to doors being shut simply because of my appearance.  The same is not true for all of the babies being born into black bodies at this very moment.  They will face bigger obstacles than me for no reason other than the color of their skin.  That is the reality of white privilege.

 

2016 Year in Review

As I’ve done for the past two years (2014: My Year in Review, 2015: My Year in Review), here is my 2016 year in review.  Everyone seemed so eager to see the passing of 2016, but I don’t feel that way at all.  While I am excited to see what this next year of life brings me, I am content looking back at all that happened in 2016.  I feel beyond blessed at how different my life is today, January 2nd, than January 2nd last year.  There are so many people I didn’t even know last year today who I am now happy to call my friends.  I had a great year and I look forward to an even better 2017.

January:

-I started off the new year in San Antonio, Texas, watching fireworks exploding all over the place at the passing of midnight and playing lots of games like jumbo Jenga before flying back to Jersey

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-Annual trip to Frost Valley in Claryville, NY

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Posing with the snowman and my cousin
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Hiking to High Falls with painted faces
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The crew

February:

-The end of my last relationship

-Caidin came to visit and we went to Twin Lights in Highlands

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-My mom traveled to Israel / Tel Aviv / Jerusalem / Bethlehem / Rome for her birthday pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  She got to renew her baptismal vows in the Jordan River.

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March:

-I traveled to Brazil for Spring Break.  First, I was with my sister, Vanessa, and my brother-in-law, Carlos, for Easter.  We went to see an amazing waterfall.

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Swimming by the waterfall with my brother-in-law, Carlos

-Then I went to Manaus for my grandma’s 99th birthday.  I am so thankful that I got to go and spend some time with her because that was the second and last time I would ever see her.

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I also got to see lots of other family members while there and I went swimming with river dolphins with two of my uncles.

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-My mom’s 60th birthday

April:

-Although my mom’s birthday was in March, we had a family party for her in April

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May:

-My cousin, Dan, graduated from UConn

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-I ran the Run the Hook 10k in Sandy Hook, NJ

June:

-I went to senior prom to see my students

-Finished my first year teaching in New Jersey

-Traveled to Kansas City, Missouri, to grade AP English Language & Composition exams with my friend from DHS, Elise

-While in Kansas City, I also got to see my friend, Kristin, from high school, who is now a zookeeper at the Kansas City Zoo

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-Ran the Fairfield Half Marathon and set a personal record of 1:55

July:

-Went to Connecticut for my grandpa’s birthday party

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-Ran the Belmar five miler

-My friend, Juan, came to visit me in Jersey

-Met on Monday nights with the Belmar Area Catholic Young Adult group that I helped run

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-Through the Belmar young adult group, I met my friend Gabriella, and through her, my Bible study, which has been such an amazing blessing and has brought me so many new friends

-Went to the sand castle competition in Belmar

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-Went to Long Beach Island for a week with my mom

-I turned 28 in Long Beach Island

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Birthday lunch

August:

-Ran the River to Sea Relay race with an awesome group of people to raise money for Covenant House

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-I started riding my bike all around the shore

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Riding my bike through Avon by-the-sea

-Traveled to Nicaragua with Living Water International

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My amazing team

-We helped to drill a well to bring clean water to a rural village

-We also taught hygiene lessons and Bible stories to the women and children.  I helped to translate.

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The community with their finished well

-My friend, Lizzy, visited since she was in Philadelphia for vet clinicals, so we had a beach day

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-Worked on improving my yoga and handstands
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-Hung out with new friends from Bible study14212800_931558857870_9142389201927948083_n

September:

-As of the 1st, I have officially lived in New Jersey for one year

-Started my second year of teaching in New Jersey

-My Brazilian grandmother passed away right before her 99 1/2 birthday

-Went to the Philadelphia Zoo with my friend, Adam

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-Went kayaking with my friend, Adam

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October:

-Ran the Jersey Shore Half Marathon in Sandy Hook

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-Tenth Avenue North concert with my friend, Amanda

-Went to Catholic Underground in NYC with friends from Bible study

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-More kayaking with friends

-Ran the Atlantic City Marathon.  My mom and my friend, Adam, came to cheer me on

-I saw whales a few times from the beach in the fall

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-I went swimming in the ocean the day before Halloween

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November:

-I hosted our weekly Bible study once at my house in November.  It was tight to squish in 15 people, but we managed.

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-Bar Crawl in Asbury Park to raise money for Covenant House

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-Did some November stand up paddling and kayaking in the ocean in my wetsuit from my uncle

-Kayaking Shark River with my friend, Kate

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-Home to Connecticut for Thanksgiving

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December:

-Went to see the ice sculptures in Tinton Falls

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Mimicking the ice sculptures

-Out in Asbury for my friend, Stacy’s, birthday

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-Weekend in the Poconos for Sway’s 25th birthday

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-New relationship with AJ on December 11th

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Climbing a tree in the Poconos

-Graham cracker gingerbread house building with AJ

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-Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ house

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-Christmas day at my aunt and uncle’s house

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-Devin & Elise’s New Year’s Eve wedding with AJ

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So here is goodbye to 2016 and hello to 2017.  This year should be another great one, filled with more adventures!

The Need to Humble Ourselves

My 7th grade CCD students went to confession last week, so I was looking for good YouTube videos to use with them in preparation.  What’s funny, though, is how I often find so much for myself and my own spiritual growth when I go in search of materials and videos to use with them.

I really like this video by Fr. Mike Schmitz:

I was simply looking for a video about confession, but then he mentioned the Litany of Humility and got me thinking about many other items in addition to confession.  Here it is:

The Litany of Humility:

Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val (1865-1930),
Secretary of State for Pope Saint Pius X

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.
From the desire of being esteemed,

Deliver me, Jesus.

From the desire of being loved…
From the desire of being extolled …
From the desire of being honored …
From the desire of being praised …
From the desire of being preferred to others…
From the desire of being consulted …
From the desire of being approved …
From the fear of being humiliated …
From the fear of being despised…
From the fear of suffering rebukes …
From the fear of being calumniated …
From the fear of being forgotten …
From the fear of being ridiculed …
From the fear of being wronged …
From the fear of being suspected …

That others may be loved more than I,
Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it.

That others may be esteemed more than I …
That, in the opinion of the world,
others may increase and I may decrease …
That others may be chosen and I set aside …
That others may be praised and I unnoticed …
That others may be preferred to me in everything…
That others may become holier than I,
provided that I may become as holy as I should…

That is a really powerful, challenging litany.   “Deliver me from the desire of being praised and approved.”  That’s tough.

I love my job as a teacher and I want to feel validated through praise and approval.  I don’t think that’s always a bad thing, but it can increase one’s ego if he is constantly praised.

I like to know that I am doing my work well.  I want that praise.  Yet I also have to be able to remain content without it.  And I don’t want to start feeling as though I am better than anyone else and judging them.

And what about our desire to be loved?  We all seek that.  However, no human being can ever show us the perfect love that God has for us, loving us without limits, even in our weakest states.  I don’t think this is saying that it is bad to want to feel love from another human being, but we must realize that we already have been shown a perfect love in that Jesus Christ died for us.  What more perfect love is there than that, that He would lay down his life for his friends? (John 15:13)

The litany continues, asking God to deliver us from the fear of being despised.  I’ll be the first to admit that I like being liked.  I don’t need to be best friends with everyone, but it makes me sad when I know that someone really doesn’t like me.  But the Bible tells us that if we follow Jesus, we will be persecuted.  “In fact, all who want to live religiously in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12).

We will not be liked by all.  Jesus calls us to live a radical life, and that is something that others will turn their noses against.  People will view us as crazy “Jesus freaks.”  We have to understand that that is okay.  We, as humans, like to be accepted, but if we live in the way that Christ really wants us to, we will stand out.

I have had this happen in many instances when I was not comfortable in certain situations because of my faith.  People have thought that I was crazy.  But that’s okay.

I won’t live with a boyfriend until marriage.  “But that is irresponsible since you don’t get to “test out” a boyfriend first to make sure you will be compatible.”

I don’t want to have sex until marriage.  “Wait, what?”  People look at me like I have two heads.

I need to find a Catholic church even when on vacation.  “But you’re on vacation.  You’re still going to church?  Why?”

I spend more money on mission trips than I do on my own vacations. “But how do you afford that on a teacher’s salary?  Don’t you just need time to relax?”

I’m beginning to understand that it’s okay to be despised by the world.  After all, Jesus was.  He reminds us, “If the world hates you, realize that it hated me first.  If you belonged to the world, the world would love its own; but because you do not belong to the world, and I have chosen you out of the world, the world hates you” (John 15:18-19).

It’s never a great feeling, though, to be hated, which is part of what makes that litany of humility so powerful to me.  I must pray to accept the fact that the world may hate me.  And if it does, I should revel in that fact because it probably means that I am living in a way that is glorifying Christ rather than glorifying the world and worldly desires.  If everyone in the world does like me, then I must be doing something wrong; I must not be witnessing to Christ quite enough.  I must be keeping my faith hidden.

The litany continues with another challenging request, that God deliver me from the fears of being wronged / ridiculed / forgotten.  I don’t think most people would say that they want to be ridiculed.  But here we are, asking God to remove the fear of those things.  Sure, we’re human, it hurts to be wronged.  It’s not fun.  But we must not live in fear of those things.  We must live according to Christ’s teachings, without being afraid of being hated, or mocked, or forgotten.

I think the last part of the litany is even more challenging because it asks the Lord to help us to desire some things that are not necessarily ideal.  We need to desire that other people are esteemed before us, that others are praised and chosen while we are not, that others are preferred.

It is only through prayer that this could ever be possible because that’s the exact opposite of worldly teachings.  This world is so focused on the attainment of success and power and accolades.  It’s difficult to get away from that.

As a teacher, I want to have the best evaluations.  I want my administrators to praise my successes.  In our school, we have the monthly “fab five” faculty members.  I would be thrilled to hear my name on that list because it would give me confidence that I am doing my job well and that I am being recognized for all of my hard work.

But shouldn’t God’s opinion of me be more important?  Why should I desire another human being to provide me with praise?  My ultimate goal in life is not to be the best teacher, but to be the best follower of Christ.

That is not to say that I should blow off my job because it doesn’t matter.  I love my job.  I love having a part in forming the minds of the next generation and (hopefully) teaching them to be better people.

But in terms of accolades, I could receive honors and rewards here on earth that mean nothing in light of eternity.

In the Bible, it talks about how the rich have a more difficult path to Heaven than those who are poor, but the same is true of those who find glory while on earth. Luke 6:25 reads “Woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry.  Woe to you who laugh now, for you will grieve and weep.  Woe to you when all speak well of you, for their ancestors treated the false prophets this way.” And Matthew 19:30 says  that the first will be last and the last will be first.

If we are first here on earth, our path to Heaven is going to be a difficult one.  We must remain humble rather than boastful.

This is tough for me since I so badly desire to be the best teacher.  But I need to be content with the fact that I can teach to my own best ability without ever being noticed.  I still must work my hardest, seeking only what is in the best interests of my students rather than my own honors and achievements.

In today’s society, everything is geared around working one’s way up the ladder.  I’ve always felt that I did not have a desire to become a principal because my desire is to teach, whereas principals deal with more discipline issues.  But I have considered obtaining my administrative degree to move up from a teacher to potentially an English department head.

Maybe I could do that with pure intentions of simply helping more students by helping teachers.  But did I only consider that career move because I felt the push to move up on the ladder?  I’m not really sure.

The part in the litany about desiring to go unnoticed reminds me of the part in the Bible about praying in the quiet of one’s own room, so that nobody knows that I am praying except for God.  “When you pray, go to you inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret.  And your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matthew 6:6).  I don’t need to stand out to the world.

I also like the verse that is read during Lent that calls us not to act as though we are suffering when we make sacrifices.  We must not look “gloomy like the hypocrites“when fasting; instead, “When you fast, anoint you head and wash your face, so that you many not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden.  And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you” (Matthew 6:16-18).

This relates not only to sacrifices made during Lent, but also to work in general.  In my job, I get four observations during which my evaluators come into my classroom and watch my lessons, looking for my strengths and weaknesses as a teacher.  If I know that they are coming, I can try to plan a killer lesson to impress them.  But what is more important is what I do on the days when nobody is looking.

Will I let my students goof off because it doesn’t matter since I’m not being evaluated?  Or will I still try to teach killer lessons every single day because I want the best for my students?

We must seek to do what is good and what is right at all times, regardless of which people have noticed.  It’s easy to feel disappointed when those around us don’t notice great acts of service that we have done, or when someone does not show us the gratitude we believe that we deserve.

But we must remember that God is always there watching us, and He knows what we are doing in order to receive an accolade as well as the things that we are doing simply because we seek to do good and to spread the light of Christ to all we encounter.

You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Today, my seniors were completing final exams.  They are about a week away from graduation, ready to go out into the real world.

One student had a question about the essay that he was supposed to be writing and I reminded him to make sure that he included text evidence.  He said that he wanted to put a quote into the middle of the paragraph, so he didn’t know if he should just rewrite the whole paragraph.

I told him to just put a star within the paragraph and then another one on a separate sheet of paper where he wanted to add the quote.

“But I can’t draw a star,” he said, with a helpless look on his face.

“What?” I asked, not sure what he meant.

“I never learned how to draw a star,” he replied, dejectedly.

I tried really hard, but I just couldn’t stop myself from laughing.  Luckily he, too, started laughing, as well as some of the other students who had just overheard the conversation.  They couldn’t believe that he didn’t know how to draw a star.  I actually started giggling so much that my eyes started to tear up.

“Can I just draw a circle instead?” he asked.

I agreed that a circle would be just fine.

Never had I expected to be told from a senior in high school that the request to draw a star on a piece of paper was too difficult.  You seriously cannot make this stuff up.

 

Don’t Settle for Mediocre in Your Life

“You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” – Jim Carrey

I was recently watching a commencement address that Jim Carrey gave at Maharishi University of Management (MUM) in Iowa.  I was compiling motivational clips to use for an end of the year activity for my students.

You can view the part of the speech I showed my students here:

The quote that I already mentioned really spoke to me.  “You can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.” – Jim Carrey

He was explaining how his father could have been an excellent comedian, but he never took the risk to attain that goal.  Instead, he became an accountant, which was the “safe” route for his life.

Carrey goes on to explain that despite having chosen this safe path, his father still ended up being fired.  He had still failed.  Thus, his advice to the graduates is to take chances with achieving their dreams since they can fail in the process, but they can also fail in other careers that they are less interested in.

As a teacher, I have to determine when to push students’ dreams and when to bring them back down to reality.  Usually I want to help them to achieve their goals, but some of them are simply unrealistic.  The boys who play some pickup basketball around the neighborhood and expect to be in the NBA even though they’ve never played for the high school team.  The student who wants to be a famous YouTuber despite not having any YouTube videos nor the necessary equipment to make them.  The girl who fails every class, but says that she is going to become a surgeon.

I don’t want to crush dreams, but I also don’t want my students wasting tuition money for unlikely careers.  Yet at the same time, I have students who have dreams but are afraid to actually try to attain them.

They may not all end up in their dream jobs, but if they don’t try, they may always wonder what could have been.

I was fortunate to know what I wanted to do very early on in my life.  In 8th grade I decided to become and English teacher and I stuck with it.  I have been a high school English teacher for the past six years and I can honestly say that I love my job.  I don’t ever dread waking up for work.  After long breaks, I really start to miss my students and I feel excitement about going to see them and hear about their vacations.

And ultimately, that’s what I want for my students.  I want them to be able to carve out paths for themselves that enable them to find careers that they will enjoy and prosper in.  Too many people have jobs that they hate.  Many of these people are in these situations because they took the safe route.  They settled for mediocrity and gave up on their dreams.

Most people will work for 30-40 years of their life.  I cannot imagine having a job that I despise, or even one that I am indifferent toward, for that many years.  I am so grateful that I am not in that sort of a position.

We must take chances in order to find fulfillment in life.  I had to take the leap of faith that required me to quit my job in Connecticut, moving away from all of my family and friends to follow my dreams of living by the ocean.  And now here I am, living steps away from the beach, working at a school where my classroom window overlooks the ocean.

I didn’t get here right out of college, as I had planned.  I taught in Connecticut for 5 years before making the jump.  But now I’m here, doing exactly what I want to be doing.

I hope that be telling my own story, I can help my students to realize that they are capable of achieving many of their dreams as well.  I didn’t have my life handed to me on a silver platter, but I worked to get where I am.  And I know that they can do the same, if they have the courage and willpower.  They need to take the chance to do what they love.

Will Standardized Tests Make Americans Compete in the Global Economy? I Think Not.

You’ve heard the statistics – American students are less intelligent than those in countries like China and Finland.

In America, we’ve decided that the way to combat this issue is to implement the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and to create a national test so that students in every state are assessed on the same material.

Although that’s already been quite a bit of a failure, we’re still pushing forward.

As a high school English teacher,  I don’t mind the CCSS.  Most of the high school standards seem reasonable.  I have heard complaints from English teachers in lower grades as well as math teachers, but for my students, the standards seem appropriate.  I do, however, have a strong dislike for the standardized tests like the SBAC and PARCC.

I worked in Connecticut last year when the SBAC was being given.  In a school with over 500 juniors who were supposed to take the test, we had fewer than 100 of them actually take it since so many had opted out.  The test was an abysmal failure.

It wasn’t just my school where the test failed.  Most towns either experienced high opt-out rates, or low scores since many students simply clicked through the test without trying.

So Connecticut is considering getting rid of SBAC completely, or shortening it.  According to a Connecticut Post article from February 26, 2016, the SBAC that was set to be given during this current school  year was trimmed down from the one that was given last year.  The language arts section was cut in half.

Many districts in Connecticut did away with the SBAC entirely, opting for the SAT to assess student achievement.  This makes complete sense.  After all, with CCSS, the country wanted a national assessment to assess students from every state.  We already have the ACT and SAT, so why not use one of those?

Instead, we had two companies create tests that were specifically aligned with Common Core.  Thus, the SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) and PARCC (The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers).  But this still didn’t solve the problem of creating a national test because different states opted for different assessments.

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http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/curriculum/2015/02/a_map_of_states_2015_testing_p.html

SBAC states include: Connecticut, Vermont, New Hampshire, and California.

PARCC states include: New Jersey, Maryland, Rhode Island, and Colorado.

Many states opted to keep their own tests or use other alternatives.  These include: New York, Virginia, Texas, Florida, and on and on.

So take a small area as an example.  If a student moves from New Jersey, to New York, to Connecticut (not a long distance to travel), he will face three different state tests.  This is exactly what we had before CCSS existed.

So Common Core definitely did not achieve its goal of creating a national test.  National standards?  Well, mostly.  Except for the states that opted out and those that continue to opt out while these tests continue to fail.  The map of states that have adopted Common Core can be viewed at that link.  While most states are using CCSS, some that are not include Texas, South Carolina, and Virginia.

But anyway, back to the reason I decided to write this blog: the chaos that was PARCC testing here in New Jersey on April 20, 2016.

Monday and Tuesday were the first PARCC testing days in our school.  We were scheduled to have 4 total PARCC days where the test would take place in lieu of classes.  One could argue that the 4 days of lost instructional time is too much, but that was the schedule, until today’s chaos ensued.

Monday and Tuesday passed with just a few glitches.  Students took the computerized test.  Hopefully most of them actually tried and put their effort into it.  We’ll know better when we see the scores next year.

Today, however, was a bit different.  When signing out my materials to bring to my room, I was told that I should keep refreshing the Pearson website since it wasn’t yet working.

All of my students got situated.  I passed out the necessary materials.  I repeatedly clicked “refresh” on my computer, but nothing was changing.  Students were starting to get antsy.  After all, they’re not allowed access to much of anything during testing.  No food, water, cell phones, internet.  They just had to sit there while I clicked “refresh.”

Today’s test called for two 110-minute English sections.  As the clock kept ticking, it was clear that it was going to be impossible to give those two sections and still release the students at 12:30pm.

Eventually, our principal came onto the intercom and cancelled testing since it was still not working at 9am (students get to school at 7:30am).

So I had the pleasure of sitting with my class of students for the next 3 hours while we waited to be dismissed.

This is what I learned about today’s testing fiasco from a NJ.com article:

-The problem was due to the Pearson website

-Pearson is attempting to fix the problem (key word: attempting)

-We are told that testing “should be up and running” by Thursday

Well that sure gives me confidence that tomorrow will play out differently than today.  (Don’t mind the sarcasm.)

This is what happens when we fully rely on technology.  As a teacher, I know how technology can fail.  Projector lightbulbs die out, internet connections cut out, power outages happen.  It’s expected.  In those situations, we think on our feet and adapt our lessons so that we don’t waste entire class periods.  This is what is expected of us.  If we are having a lesson observed by an administrator and the projector won’t work, we can’t just say, “Okay, class, just sit there and I’ll try again to teach you tomorrow.  Maybe by then the projector will be working.”  No, I’m expected to be flexible and figure out a plan B.

With PARCC, there is no plan B.  It’s a computer-based test.  If the website is down, then no student in the state of New Jersey can take the test.  The test is given to all freshmen, sophomores, and juniors.  There were hundreds of thousands of students scheduled to test today, but oops!  The website was broken.

Now don’t even get me started on the fact that students must take this test for three years of high school.  I already believe that these students are over-tested.

But if you cannot guarantee that this test will work, then you are wasting my instructional time.  Today was a complete waste.  We were supposed to resume a normal schedule on Friday, but thanks to the glitch, Friday is now another day of testing.

Students have lost 5 school days for the PARCC test, plus portions of the school day when we had 2 prior practice sections to get ready for PARCC.  Plus, we could potentially face more if the website is not fixed by tomorrow morning.

What about this situation makes anyone believe that standardized testing is going to fix American education?

AP exams start the first week of May.  So while teachers could have been preparing for those tests that can really help students for college, they were instead babysitting students today who had nothing to do.

The problem is that many of our lawmakers and politicians who make decisions about education in America have no background in education, minus their own experiences as a student.  They don’t consult teachers before making these major changes.  They let companies like Pearson monopolize the testing, but Pearson’s main goal is not to improve American education.  They are a for-profit organization that wants more states to choose their test.

If we want to improve education in America, we need to listen to the teachers who have their hands and feet inside a classroom every day.  The teachers who know that forcing a student to sit at a computer for hours on end, answering questions about slope and possessive pronouns is not the best way to assess each of them.

I’m not sure if today’s failure will prompt any changes to take place, but gosh I hope so.  Increasing standardized testing is never going to help our students to become more college and career ready young adults.

Body Cameras in Schools? What’s Next?

Body Cameras

I watched a video that was part of this article about a Virginia school district that is mandating that all administrators wear a video camera at all times.  I understand that people want these cameras to document fights and other altercations, but gosh I hate that this is what our world is becoming.

Today was the first I’ve heard of body cameras, but apparently they already exist in some schools.

The school in which I currently work has cameras in every classroom, outside of the building, and in the hallways and stairwells.  I’m pretty sure the only places lacking cameras are the bathrooms.

I don’t usually mind the cameras being there, but I find it so sad that it’s something that has been deemed necessary in 21st century America.

The cameras can sometimes be unnerving.  I eat my lunch in my classroom and I wonder if anyone can see me.  I’ve heard that the cameras are usually only utilized after the fact, when looking into an incident that happened previously.  But it’s still a bit creepy to have Big Brother over my shoulder, knowing that, if they wanted to, someone could watch me throughout the whole school day, even during my free time when I have my lunch and prep.

I understand why police officers have cameras in their cars to record incidents and arrests. I understand that we need safety monitoring in a variety of public places.  But I’m curious if there is data that proves that these cameras that are now being placed in schools makes a big difference or not.

Cost?

I can’t even begin imagine the cost to install these cameras in some schools.  The high school where I work is not a small building.  It’s four stories tall, and that’s just the regular classrooms (not including gymnasiums, the auditorium, etc).  Every single room (except for the bathrooms) has a camera.  That had to cost a fortune.

To me, it seems that money could have been spent on more technology for our schools, newer textbooks, or more substitute teachers.

Schools or prisons?

To me, installing so many cameras seems to send a message to a school’s students that they cannot be trusted.  They must be watched at all times.  Students sometimes complain that schools are like prisons.  And you know what?  I’m starting to agree with them.  Think about everything that many schools now have, which prisons also have:

-security cameras monitoring everything

-security guards and police officers

-everyone wearing an ID badge

-locked doors that require people to be buzzed into a room before entering the main building

-some schools have metal detectors

-our school has metal gates that are put down at the end of the day to keep students out of certain areas

It’s interesting to think about the parallels.

Teachers and sexual allegations

I know that the cameras are probably also there in case a student accuses a teacher of something inappropriate.  I can assure you that I am EXTREMELY aware of the presence of the cameras when a student is alone in my room after school working on an assignment.  Sure, I may be told that the camera is there to protect me from false allegations, but the opposite can also be true.

I’ve had students, both male and female, who were talking to me about pretty emotional situations.  They sometimes want to give me a hug.  I shouldn’t be afraid to hug a student who is having a hard day, but, thanks to those cameras, I am.  What to me may be a friendly, “feel better” hug could potentially look like a flirtatious situation from the viewpoint of the camera.

I don’t like having to watch my back like that, but that camera gives me no extra security during these moments.  Sometimes I have students who try to hug me to thank me for doing something special for them, whether it’s staying after school extra to help them with an assignment, or writing a recommendation letter for them.  When they reach out to hug me, I usually tense up a bit, never hugging back.  It saddens me to give them this sort of cold shoulder, but it’s also necessary, unfortunately.

Are the cameras making a difference?

I’m not vehemently opposed to these cameras, but I’m disheartened that it’s something that many people believe is necessary because of so many terrible things happening in our schools.  Today’s world is a bit of a mess.  Between school shootings and teachers who engage in sexual activities with students, our schools are facing some major issues.  I don’t know what the solution is.  If cameras can fix these problems, then great.  My worry is that they aren’t really a viable solution.

I haven’t seen any fights in my current school, though I know they happen.  But the same was true in my last school, which only had some cameras in very specific locations.  Most fights happen in the cafeteria.  That is the same in both schools, regardless of the presence of cameras.  I don’t have facts to back it up, but I can’t imagine a staggering difference in the numbers of fights and/or theft between schools with the cameras and schools without them.  Students in my school have been robbed.  The cameras didn’t save the day in those situations.

I feel like the cameras are mostly beneficial to look back at the footage after something happens — after the teacher’s phone is stolen, after the fight happened, after the gunman entered the room.  But in those cases, the crime still occurred.

Having a camera in my classroom won’t stop the gunman from killing me or my students.  It will just relay all of the gruesome details to the investigators more clearly.

Unless someone is sitting there watching every camera at every moment, I’m not sure they make a big difference.  But thinking about someone watching me all day as I teach is highly unnerving.

A student who wants to kill his classmates isn’t going to care about the cameras.  Most school shooters kill themselves by the end of the ordeal anyway.  Will they really care that they’re on camera?  Dylan and Eric (the Columbine shooters) had the goal of being famous for their actions.  They wanted to top Timothy McVey’s Oklahoma City bombing.  They were probably thrilled that their school had a few cameras so that their deeds could go down in history, not just in textbooks, but also from the video footage.  I’ve seen the footage from the cafeteria, just like millions of other people.  It’s been on a variety of news programs, as well as the Michael Moore film, Bowling for Columbine.  If fame was their goal, Dylan and Eric did achieve it.  These cameras are just giving the criminals extra notoriety.

A teacher who wants to sleep with a student is now going to make sure that everything happens off of school property.  Again, the cameras change very little in that situation.

A student who gets into a fight in the heat of the moment with another student will probably still get into the fight since the last thing on that student’s mind is the security cameras.  And if a student does take the time to think about it, the fight will probably happen outside of school, with potentially worse consequences since there will be no security guard to break it up.

 

So although I understand why people want these cameras, my question remains: is it making a difference?