Time Well Spent

This originally appeared on the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) blog

This post, written by members Jacqueline Hesse and Christine McCartney, is the first of two parts.

After taking students from Global to Local, our global service-learning program out of Excelsior Academy in New York, to volunteer for ten days in Quito, Ecuador, this summer, we invited our students to share some of the journal entries they wrote while there. We used excerpts from five of the fifteen students who traveled with us to help us reflect on how this trip shaped us as educators and cemented our views on the importance of creating a global classroom. What follows are five realizations we want to hold onto and share.

  1. Young people find a sense of empowerment and fulfillment through helping others.

Here, Jason and Aboya reflect in their journals about volunteering with underserved youth in the capital city of Quito:

Jason: I was carrying a small boy named Justin. He was always moving, trying to avoid being tagged, almost falling off my shoulders trying to tag others while I was running away from others; and it was an enjoyable time. Although I was becoming tired as the time passed, with shoulder pain beginning to take over, we did not stop. No one mentioned how tired they were, only how happy the little ones were. My back and shoulders were aching afterward, but it didn’t matter. The important thing was that we were all enjoying this moment, playing with one another, and that the kids were laughing with happiness. They kept laughing, enjoying the time as much as possible.

Aboya: I think I’ve rediscovered the meaning, purpose, and enjoyment of giving back. I got so used to doing small actions that helped people at home that I never really felt like I did anything apart from what I was supposed to do. Being here at Casa Victoria was a choice and a privilege, and I actually get see the change I’m making through things like smiles on little kids’ faces. The tranquility and serenity I feel here away from my actual life is like a mental detox.

  1. Travel helps people exceed their own expectations.

Below, Taina shares an entry from her journal where she describes hiking Pichincha Mountain, where we wrote as we looked down at Quito and the surrounding valley.

Taina: Today had to be one of the most memorable days. I pushed myself to my physical limits and ended up hiking up to an elevated point of 14,000 feet. It was an amazing experience that was worth every minute. The views were absolutely stunning, and I had never seen anything like it in my life. I don’t think I’ve ever taken that many pictures in a span of 20 minutes. The more time we’re spending here the more I realize what a beautiful country Ecuador is and all the amazing things it has to offer.

  1. When young people travel to a foreign country, it shifts their perspective on home and the world.

The following excerpts were written after traveling to an isolated mountain village inhabited by Afro-Ecuadorians; here, students describe ways in which the experience challenged or shifted their ideas of themselves, others, and our places in the world.

Maribel: A lot of people take things for granted, like water and food. I saw that they had to get food from two other big families to feed all twenty of us. It was kind of sad because there were a lot of kids there who were very skinny. It made me worry about the families who lived there . . . what if, because they were helping to feed us, they didn’t have enough to feed their own families?

Aboya: So today when we were walking, I definitely enjoyed taking in all the beauty of Ecuador, but I also noticed all the not-so-nice things—the people out on the streets with soiled clothes, all the dogs running about the streets searching for food. Seeing that just does something to you. Makes you stop and reflect on life a little. I’m thankful for all the gracious opportunities afforded to me and everything that I have.

Addison: One of the elders I spoke with today said that he was grateful for us to come so [we would] see a different perspective on life and how other people live without using technology and how everything that they have is natural and how they work hard for what they have. We get distracted by things, by material things. We should enjoy playing outside, being in nature, without being inside playing on our phones all day.

  1. Travel builds empathy and challenges a single story that a young person might have in his or her mind about people who come from a different place or background.

Both Jason and Aboya found ways to relate to the people they met in Ecuador, despite any language or cultural barriers.

Jason: I was trying to put my mind into how they would think, how they would see the situation, how they would see us coming to them to play soccer, even though we didn’t know them. But at the same time, we both know how to play soccer, so I think that just automatically connected everybody.

Aboya: They’re really welcoming and open. That’s not the type of culture you see in America. You walk by someone and you ignore them. But [here] everyone you saw, they said hi, hola [. . .] so I felt the need to be happy, and reply [. . .] and it felt good, too.

  1. When students and teachers volunteer alongside one another, the student-teacher dynamic shifts.

Although we can’t help but feel grateful for how much our students learned from their experience, perhaps the most powerful idea that we want to keep with us comes from the experience of working and living communally with our students. We cooked, cleaned, washed dishes, ate, and wrote together. Breathless, we stood atop a mountain and looked down at the distance we had climbed. We practiced yoga on the lawn in the Andes Mountains. We sang on the bus and bartered in the market. Side by side, we built a learning center, after a crash course in how to lay bricks. We watched our students as they sat on the floor, teaching young children who had barely any access to technology to code robots and build simple electrical circuits in the after-school program. We felt the slow dissolution of the arbitrary barrier between teacher and student as we learned to see each other more completely as people, each with our own strengths, weaknesses, dreams, and goals.

Despite the extra hours we spent planning, fundraising, and organizing for this trip, there hasn’t been a single moment when we regretted it. In fact, seeing our students return from their travels ready to roll up their sleeves and take on community impact projects in our city, combined with hearing about their newfound love and appreciation for travel is motivating. When we envision the future of Global to Local, we know our next group of students will feel the same sense of growth, empowerment, empathy, and gratitude . . . and we cannot wait to get started.

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Christine McCartney, NCTE member since 2013, started her teaching career by volunteering to teach writing in an all-male maximum security prison in New York through the Bard Prison Initiative; that experience was the beginning of her journey as a social justice educator. As a high school English teacher for over a decade in Newburgh, a Fulbright alumni, and a Co-Director of the Hudson Valley Writing Project, Christine is wedded to working to make her community a better place.

Jacqueline Hesse, NCTE member since 2005, teaches ninth- and tenth-grade ELA at Excelsior Academy, a New York State P-TECH school, in Newburgh. She enjoys volunteering alongside her students and admires their devotion to their community. Jackie is also a teacher consultant with the Hudson Valley Writing Project.

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a short documentary about service learning

This summer I had the amazing opportunity to take fifteen young change-makers to Ecuador for ten days of volunteer work through Global to Local.  Check out how awesome they are and dream big for your students!

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Gratitude

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Despite our hesitations as we loaded fifteen 11th graders onto a bus to LaGuardia on the last day of school, traveling with students has been fulfilling in so many expected and unexpected ways. Being removed from our routines and comforts alongside our students has created spaces for us to gain a new perspective on one another.  We are learning who loves to cook, who naturScreen Shot 2017-06-26 at 6.38.13 AMally nurtures and protects others, who can spend the entire day socializing with everyone and who needs time to step away from the constant bustle of living alongside twenty three other people.

We are realizing how much expertise we all have to lend during this time together.  Our students obviously come to us with knowledge and skills we might not know about and which aren’t always applicable within our content-based curriculum; but by being together in a country where we are all foreigners, that dynamic changes to one where teachers and students are able to see one another’s strengths and use them to contribute to the success and happiness of our newfound community.

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As educators who travel, but lack the ability to fluently speak a language other than English, we are used to communicating with the people we encounter in a foreign country by cobbling together words into awkward phrases, ignoring tenses and gesturing to get our message across.  Yet as we travel with our students, several of whom are native Spanish speakers, we are able to rely on them when our ability to speak and understand comes up short. Today during Catholic mass, which Alicia invited us to attend, we both needed help to understand the service, and our students were happy to translate. The benefit of being able to lean on one other was also apparent when several students went out to buy soda at the corner store and cookies at the panadería down the block and quickly realized they needed their Spanish-speaking peers to complete what would normally be a simple transaction.

 

One crucial piece of our first two days of travel has been carving out time to come together, be still, write, reflect and share.  After our first busy day, we invited our students into a big room with comfortable couches and listed all of the things that we had experienced throughout the day.  Once complete, the list had over thirty items and it was gratifying to see what stood out to everyone.  We laughed as we recalled the boys who bought a whole chicken from a street vendor and shared it in the afternoon sun and recalled our inspiring tour of a building that was once a prison, now transformed into a school for higher learning.  From that list, we each wrote quietly for several minutes about what stood out most to us and why.  Then we all wrote a bit more about something that pressed us, either intellectually, emotionally, or physically and thought about how we were processing that challenge.  As we shared out, Alejandro spoke first about his IMG_2210realization that we take many things for granted in the United States.  Maribel was moved by seeing young children working on the streets.  Brendin spoke about the challenge of balancing the desire to live in the moment and wanting to digitally capture everything he was seeing and experiencing.  Aboya discussed the excitement of leaving the country for the first time and seeing beauty in a new place and then brought up the dichotomy of witnessing conditions of poverty alongside the historical architecture of Quito.  All of the students agreed that making the time to come together, be still and reflect was so important to processing everything that was happening.  As we walked away from our first debrief of many, we couldn’t help but reflect ourselves on the ways in which these conversations and moments would impact our future relationships with this group of students. We are inspired by the power of experiencing the real world alongside students and look forward to the remaining days we have together on this journey.

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Educational reform in the US and Finland

While homogeneity in Finland certainly plays a role in the different trajectories of educational reform in the United States and Finland, a closer look reveals that there might be more at play:

resources: 

PBS teaching timeline
Education Reform in Finland Powerpoint
PBS Benchmarks of Reform
OECD: Slow and steady reform for Finland
Statistics Finland: Education
Economic History of Finland
NYSED Historical Overview
Fordham Institute: Real lessons from Finland
Pasi Sahlberg
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PISA scores and Poverty

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I’ve been explaining this to countless Finnish teachers and it has been provoking so many interesting conversations about equity and resources, that I thought I would simplify it into a visual representation.  Find the articles that I sourced most of the information from here and here.  The question now becomes, “How do we take this information and do something about it?”  Mel Riddile (quoted above) would argue that we need to stop looking to countries like Finland because the difference in poverty levels make the results here irreproducible in the States.  He suggests we look at schools in the United States that have turned around performance in areas of high economic need. I agree.  But now that I have been intricately looking at Finnish schools, I am realizing that there are definitely aspects that can be pulled towards our classrooms in the United States… none of them are the silver bullet that we Americans love to search for, but they are practical changes that teachers and schools can implement…more to come…

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Finland’s Choice-Based Educational Structure

This infographic illustrates the various trajectories students can follow to become educated, socially valuable, successful members of their society -one of the high points of what I have seen in the months I have been here… Enjoy!

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school spaces

Thanks to Bonnie Kaplan, here is a collection of shots from the schools I have been spending time in. They illustrate what the typical schools look like -comprised of open areas flooded with bright outside light, clean community spaces, and with inviting areas for students to relax and chat during the 15 minute breaks they get between classes.  Rather than describe each one, I will let the pictures speak for themselves:

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school20 school21 school22 school23 school24 schools25 schools26 schools27 schools28 schools29 schools31 schools32 schools33

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