Saturday, January 22, 2011

Middle Schoolers Use Critical Thinking Skills

I do believe watching problem solving in action is one of the most exciting parts of being an educator.

Design Squad is a science and engineering curriculum created by PBS for middle schoolers. Some of the concepts are pretty complicated and I'm not sure that the kids grasp everything just yet, but I think challenging them to think through it and see what they can do is fun to watch.

(for the other educators out there who might be interested, go to the link. Design Squad has just redesigned their website. It has great complimentary online activities for the kids)

Thursday, January 20, 2011

What is your inspiration?

"Miss Janet, what is your inspiration?"

One of the teens had taken the Flip video camera to interview people on our field trip. "What is your inspiration?" was his question of the day.

"You guys," I replied. I saw a slightly odd look on the videographer's face like, "What is this lady talking about??"I tried to explain, though I don't know that I was able to express my sentiment in a way that completely described the depth of my statement. I probably can't do it much justice here either, but I'll try.

Youth combined with education is my inspiration. I see how much the two together can accomplish. I see kids who are...
  • Quick. Watching the teens handle technology that they've never touched before and take to it so quickly. 
  • Knowledgeable. Seeing the kids in our After-School Academy garden and listening to them explain the difference between grub worms and earthworms, tell about the tea mixture they created to make the garden grow, and explaining how diatribes can get rid of ants. 
  • Passionate. Listening to young adults who teach the kids get as excited as the kids about what they are teaching. 
  • Growing. Seeing the maturity of a college student in a text telling me, "Everything has a reason," and, "Something better will come along," 
  • Demonstrative. Hearing a teacher at the elementary school encourage the kids to get to the After-School Academy because, "They're learning so much about science there! They are my students who speak up in science class."
  • Eager. Hearing about teens who, before going to see Maya Angelou on Friday, rush home from school and immediately go to the computers to begin looking up information on her.
  • Appreciative. Appreciation is often covert. I feel love and appreciation when a middle school boy acts like he doesn't want to participate yet has a sparkle in his eyes as he does participate and learns something new. 
  • Excited.When a few kids begin pushing the other kids to learn and rise to expectations we've set, the many other frustrations go away (at least for that moment). I am thrilled when I am told about different youth who are having extraneous conversations about Nobel Peace Prize winners, life skills they've learned, technology, and game nights.
Youth and their minds inspire me. People in poverty seeking to overcome inspire me. Knowing a kid has potential and pushing, pushing, pushing until that kid begins to see his/her own potential motivates me beyond anything I could explain.

*They* are my inspiration.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

In the Presence of Maya Angelou

This past Friday we gave the teens a choice to continue our traditional Friday night Game Night or to go see Maya Angelou at the Northwest Hwy Barnes and Noble. The group was split in half. The girls wanted to see her; the boys did not.

Making an executive decision about what would be most beneficial to everyone in the group, I decided everyone would go see Dr. Maya Angelou speak. After all, it was an opportunity of a lifetime...and it was FREE! Knowing she would arrive around 7:00, we had decided to leave at 6:00. However, when we called at 4:00 to find out more details, the store employee informed us that there were only 150 seats available and people had already started arriving. The Americorps members overseeing Teen U and Mid Teen U scrambled to make phone calls and push the teens to hurry home from school so we could leave. Around 5:00 we had finally gotten the last permission slip needed.

The store wasn't overly crowded when we got there and we were able to find seats about halfway back. We sat and waited...for about two hours. At 7:00, they raised the black curtain they had set up as if they were revealing a piece of artwork. It seemed odd but I guess, in a way, Dr. Angelou is that precious and rare so why not??

At her first words, the audience began to silence. However, in the 30 seconds to a minute it took the audience to settle down, Dr. Angelou had finished speaking. She was ready to sign books...and we didn't have the wristbands needed to have that opportunity. The teens were disappointed. They couldn't understand, despite her age and breathlessness, why she couldn't/wouldn't say more.

In hopes of them taking home something from the experience, we drove down the street to Half Price Books. I purchased 5 Maya Angelou books and we did a drawing to see who would get to take home one of her books. I watched the bravado of the boys, but I also saw the interest some of them showed in knowing more about her.

After purchasing the books, we quickly drove back over to Barnes and Noble just in case she might speak her words of wisdom. Luckily, right after we got back, she did say a few more words which, I can only hope, were enough to inspire the teens and help them understand her greatness.

Here is a video from the evening. Unfortunately, because of youtube's strict rules these days, the video doesn't have any music with it (until I figure out how to use OpenSource music). However, music or not, I always find the words of people in our Education Department completely inspiring and encouraging.

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Learning about Islam

I have a lot of opinions. If you haven't heard any of them, please feel free to ask. I would be happy to share! Of course, I also believe strongly in education. I think it's important to put the two together. You may not agree with me on everything...nor I with you...but I can respect your argument more if you have done some research on it.

Growing up, I also had opinions. I knew what I believed about gay people, religion, teen moms, poverty, and any other controversial issue. Once I moved to Dallas and met people who fit into every category I had already formed opinions about, my thoughts and opinions began changing. I began learning that everything is not as it appears on the surface. As a result, I have tried to challenge myself to be involved in various situations (that are sometimes uncomfortable). Invariably, what usually happens is once in the situation, I realize that the things we form such strong opinions are much different than we have created in our mind. I have learned to love these new experiences and love how they challenge my own opinions.

I started my New Year off right by going with a friend of mine to the Mosque. Since I had never been before, I wasn't sure what to tell people I was doing. I mean, I usually tell people I'm going to church if I go to a religious function. So, I asked my friends, "What do you guys say you're going to?" To which they replied, "We're going to mosque." Duh. It's no different. Just a different word.

My friend's wife allowed me to wear one of her abiyas. Some people wear western clothes with a head covering, but the majority wear the complete abiya, which is a beautiful dress-like covering that has a wrap that goes over and around the head. All women must have their head covered. 

It didn't occur to me that we would be separated into men and women so I was really glad that my friend's wife was going as well. Otherwise, I would have had no idea what to do! When we walked in, we removed our shoes at the door (there is a place for shoes). We (the women) went in a different entrance than the men. There was a cleansing place for people who haven't done their ceremonial cleansing before prayers. I learned there is a very specific ritual that goes along with that cleansing. We walked up the stairs to sit in a room that had lines taped to the floor so we would know where to sit (no benches or seats). Most people were kneeling already. Some were praying in preparation for the service. My friend's wife and I sat in the back since she had a child. She was great about explaining everything to me. 

Though the service was done in English and Arabic (though many people in the mosque don't understand Arabic any more than I do), I started realizing, "Wait a minute! This sounds like the sermons I heard growing up!"

The preacher, priest, speaker (...hmmm...I don't know what he was called) talked about the daily prayers Muslims are expected to do. He challenged the audience. "Do you even know what you're praying?!" and challenged them to not just allow prayer to become a ritual but that they really be meaningful prayers.

I remember sermons like that! In our church, they used to talk about how the service had become so ritual...two songs, prayer, sermon, two songs. They challenged us to take to heart the words of the songs and not just sing what we had memorized from childhood.

As we were leaving the service, we stopped because someone was saying something over the speakers. My friend explained to me that someone was just converting to Islam and was saying the standardized vows.

We have that, too! At the end of each service, people are asked to come forward and repent or convert. When they do, they are asked specific questions, "Do you believe in the son of God?" I can't remember the other things they tell them, but it was very similar to what we were listening to over the speaker!

As we walked out, people were hanging out talking with each other and catching up with their friends.

On the way home, my friends asked me what questions I had. We talked about some of the things that occurred and I will probably ask more questions as I think about them. If I want, the mosque is open on Sundays from 1:30-2:30 specifically for people to go in, ask questions, and learn about Islam (there's a sign in front of the mosque saying this).

Though there are some differences (like wearing head coverings and separating men and women...which makes a lot of sense to prevent distractions), the biggest and most important thing I learned from my experience is that "mosque" is not that different from "church." My friends are people of faith just as I am. The difference is the venue we choose, not the faith we profess.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

New Year's Commitment to Self

As I may have mentioned in the past, I am not a big New Year's Resolution person. It doesn't take a genius to look at gym memberships and compare them to attendance rates to see that the real dedication to whatever resolution was made only lasts about a week...maybe a month if the person is really dedicated. I don't like professing to do something that I know is only an I-hope-it-will happen moment (as if our outcomes can become reality solely on desire).

The world of "outcomes" has taught me that we want to prove we are successful. People want to see good outcomes. Personally, I'm more of the mindset, "It's better to have tried and failed than to never try at all," but that doesn't always work in a society motivated by outcomes. And, I suppose, we do want to ensure what we're working toward gets accomplished.

So, here are my goals for 2011 that I know I can achieve:

  • Do laundry weekly
  • Drink coffee every morning
  • Take at least 2 weeks of vacation
  • Go to work on a daily basis (unless I'm sick or on vacation)
  • Do everything in my power to make education better for children
  • Educate about multiculturalism
  • Push the envelope about people in disadvantaged situations
  • Learn everything I can about cultures other than my own
  • Exercise 5-6 times/week
  • Challenge myself to learn more about the other person's views
  • Carpe diem
  • Do something new

However, there are a few things that I would like to try and fail at than never try. So here are my more ambitious goals:

  • Do things immediately (instead of procrastinating) in order to stay on top of things better (i.e. return phone calls, answer/file emails, etc.)
  • Take on new challenges
  • Connect more with the community
  • Accept compliments
  • Digitize, label, and group all old pictures
  • Organize and label the videos on my computer
  • Get started on a book
  • Learn about the political candidates before election day and vote at every election (not just the major ones)
  • Improve my Spanish
  • Become really good at my kung fu forms
  • Write more (blogs, journaling, book, etc.)

So now, I'm off to accomplish item #1 on the ambitious goals list before I get behind.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Protecting the Powerless Award of 2010

I received a phone call on Friday morning. It was a week day, but it was my day off for New Year's. I usually ignore unrecognizable numbers on my days off, but I answered anyway, "Hello, this is Janet."

On the other end of the line was a 24 year old guy I met a couple of years ago. His mom lives two streets over from me. We discovered this when I was facilitating an Americorps training he was required to attend. He was surprised that I lived in his neighborhood and knew some of the same guys he grew up with.

When he called, I'm guessing his mom was working on her taxes. He needed someone to write a letter saying that his mom took care of his niece this past year. Though I've talked to him several times over the last couple of years, I don't know much about his family. I had to explain to him that since I didn't know the situation, I didn't feel comfortable writing a letter on our letterhead saying she lived there.

I suppose I could have gone on his word and just written the letter, but I have learned a few lessons along the way. One being, it's not always a good idea to step into something you know nothing about. Even so, it bothers me that I couldn't do something that simple for him.

Situations like his frustrate me because all he needs is someone who can vouch for the fact that his niece is being taken care of by his mother. What his mother is doing is so common in our neighborhood. I've never heard of any official "adoptions" taking place by people in the community, but I know of many who take a child in, despite their own poverty and struggles, to ensure that child has the basic necessities their biological parent can't provide for them at that time.

The people who do this always impress me. They don't ask for anything in return. They usually can't get any food stamps or government assistance for the child despite their own...and the child's...poverty (oftentimes the biological parent could receive it, but they often aren't at a functioning level enough to make it all happen). So much of what that child needs comes straight from the new care taker's pocket...a pocket that has little in it for their own family. Sometimes the child stays for a short time. Other times, their entire life. I think what impresses me so much about the people who take other people's children is that there never seems to be any real contemplation about whether or not they could financially take on an extra mouth to feed. A child needs to be cared for so that they won't enter the "system." Period. End of story. The child enters their home.

So when my friend's mom wants to get what will probably amount to about a $1500 tax credit for this child she has raised all year long, I feel like it's a very small cost to us, the taxpayers, to provide her with that. After all, putting the child in foster care or out on the street may have cost us much, much more in the short term and the long term--financially and otherwise.

It's a hard job. Raising someone else's child means less for your own children. Rationing the money out for everyone in the household means even if there was enough before, extracurricular clubs and activities that would help develop a child and prepare them for college are probably not even considered. And college? I rarely hear that as something a parent has extra money to save for their own child, let alone for a couple of others they've raised along the way.

Last year, as a result of my Christmas gift, The Awe-manac: A Daily Dose of Wonder, and it's suggestion to create annual awards, I created my own. This year as I reflect, the people who take it upon themselves to raise other people's children without any fanfare or recognition deserve to be commended. Thank you for what you do!