Tag Archives: teachers

Day 29: The intangibles and my time in the desert with students

Dear Readers,

This  post by Frank Nappi from The Badass Teachers Association  is fantastic! I  relate to it in a few ways.  A long time ago, I was an educator /counselor in the Israeli army education branch (Gadna) of the IDF in 1985-1987 for my two-year service. I worked in a poor and disadvantaged rural community in the Northern Negev. Many of the children I worked with had illiterate parents with minimal grade school or no education of their own. They were some of the most warm, welcoming, caring, and generous people I’ve ever met. And they were also suspicious of me, the army, and outsiders in general.  They held patriarchal, conservative,  religious, and superstitious views of society. Women’s roles were  defined as wives, mothers, caregivers, food makers, house cleaners–traditional, old world views that were entrenched in their lives and viewpoints which they had brought with them from the social norms of the day in various Middle Eastern countries.

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They had been placed in these remote settlements, in my opinion, wrongfully set aside and marginalized by the establishment of the country. They felt ignored and for good reason. They made the best of their situation as they had no choice. One family grew flowers. One had fields of radishes. Their homes were small but very clean. They made delicious food and hung laundry on clothes lines outside.

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The women  seemed to work harder than the men, and they showed it in their  bodies which appeared older than their ages, always serving others. They were tired, but never stopped. They always wanted the best for their children.

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When  I entered their homes, I was  treated with respect and the well-known, Middle Eastern hospitality; immediate offers to sit down, and an abundance of food and drink placed before me in an instant. It was considered an insult to refuse and I learned quickly to always accept tea, water, a delicious pastry–something. The children I worked with ranged from elementary school to high school and beyond. I taught in classrooms, in fields, in bomb shelters, around kitchen tables,  on the side of dirt roads, etc. It took a while to gain their trust. To do that,  I made house calls. One house at a time, meeting the parents and grandparents, explaining why I was there. Showing them that even though I was a woman and in the army (which they generally disapproved of), that I was a decent person, that I meant no harm, that I was there to help their children. I  listened to their stories.

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I realized early on that the children primarily needed attention and love along with help channeling aggression and frustration. They needed me to show up and wait for our group meetings even though no one came at first. I told them when I’d be there and I waited. Eventually, they started coming. Just a few, then more, then all the kids that could. We played theater games and role played situations to help them deal with all kinds of issues and problems. I did art projects with them and we played for hours. I had a general curriculum we were expected to follow, but within that, I had a lot of flexibility to do whatever worked with my group. I made sure to follow what was prescribed to us, but I made it as fun as I could, and I often added my own topics or ways of delivery.

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One of the older students was the leader and all the others followed her. She was smart,  funny,  cheeky, and gave me the hardest time. I started bringing a camera to my meetings and visits. I started photographing the children and showing them the pictures. Many suffered from  low self-esteem, so I decided that showing them how I perceived them, how I saw their surroundings (they thought it was ugly, but I saw beauty in it), would maybe help them start seeing themselves as worthy and beautiful human beings.

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It worked.  It also gave me chance to hand my camera to the students themselves,  and I showed them how to use the camera. A camera was not something most of them had, so it was a novelty. My father gave me one of his Nikon cameras to use. That was kind of big deal. I was always afraid it would get ruined by the sand and dust that was everywhere, but it survived just fine.

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The students had a blast posing for the camera and thought it was silly that I kept telling them, Just do your thing and I’ll grab the pictures. You don’t have to pose. But pose they did. Showing off bike tricks, running, “Look what we can do!” I praised them for their strengths and abilities and offered support and help where they lacked confidence or knowledge. I often helped them with homework, never doing it for them, but tutoring and helping them arrive at their own answers. The most difficult student came around to me. She loved the camera and taking pictures. Once she accepted me and started changing her attitude, the rest followed suit.

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Long after I finished my army service, I learned that she had become a photographer. It was a truly gratifying moment.  I wondered if  my work with her had anything to do with her choice to pursue photography. I’ll never know for sure, but it could be, and that’s enough to think about how much one person can influence another when you’re able to  teach in the best possible way. No tests or punishments. Just love,  attention,  communication, and learning to develop a relationship based on mutual trust and respect. The information and academics followed from that and were weaved in between the games, playing, conversations about things that mattered to the students. All the topics got covered, but first the work was about building relationships. They had to trust me first. I had to meet them where they were.

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As was written in The Little Prince by Antoine St. Exupery:

“What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

Love and peace,

Elana

Day 23: Thanking My Teachers Near and Far

Dear Readers,

Sorry, I didn’t have time to add pics. And this is  a bit long. But here you go. A bit from Israel and my college days and years.

I was at the end of 4th grade, on May 8th, when my family left the US and immigrated to Israel (also known as making Aliya; a word in Hebrew which means  to go up. We landed dazed, confused, jet lagged and wearing matching denim jackets circa 1976. It was hot.

We lived on an Ulpan on a kibbutz. My Hebrew teacher on the Ulpan on the kibbutz (a focused period of immersion into Israeli  culture and language for new immigrants designed to help one get over culture shock, learn the language). Plus  the experience was  supposed to help my parents decide if we want to live on a kibbutz permanently. I was ten when we arrived. I knew maybe two words in Hebrew. My teacher was patient and kind. Many kids were cruel to us, but when the teacher was around, I felt safe.

We ended up moving to Jerusalem after six months on the kibbutz. I started 5th grade in Jerusalem. My teacher was lovely. Welcoming, supportive, gentle with me. I was “adopted” by a group of kids who taught me how to speak Hebrew without an American accent. They walked me to and from school. They helped me learn how to be an Israeli. I was the only English speaker in my class. I had to learn the language fast, and I did, as children do. No one tested me. I was treated with kindness and generosity. I was given time and endless patience.

In high school I had one extraordinary teacher for  Hebrew Literature, Raya. She was beautiful, tall, with dark olive skin, shiny, long black hair, and she wore the coolest clothes. I wanted to be like her. Composed, graceful, smart. Hers was an  advanced level class.   I loved it and did well. She was intelligent,  tough, and challenged us to push beyond what we thought we could do. She believed in me. In my ability to write, to be a reader, to understand literature, or life.

When I was around 16 or 17, the year before I’d graduate, family problems left me deeply troubled and I dropped out of school. She reached out to me repeatedly, and finally one day she offered to take to me to lunch, and I accepted. We spoke at length. She said, “You have a gift of a good left and right brain. I cannot let you waste that. I can’t let you   waste your mind. I’ll  help you catch up. You need to come back to school so you can graduate. I promise to help you.” I decided to go back. And she was good on her word and helped me. I spent hours going to her house where she tutored me in the months of material I’d missed. I caught up.  I got to my senior year and I graduated and passed everything except Math.

When I went to college in the US starting at the age of 22, after the army, after traveling in Europe, I enrolled at CUNY Hunter College in NYC. I went using Pell Grants, student loans, and a few odd jobs. I was also broke.  I was a theater major/ dance minor. I took a remedial math class (great teacher) and passed. I had a few excellent teachers there. When I was going through a rough patch my dance teacher held my shoulders in her hands, looked me in the eye and  said, “You’re  going to come out of this on the other side and you’re going to be OK.” It was soul restoring.

I couldn’t keep going to school full time, pay rent, and eat, so  since I had to support myself, I quit school when I finished that semester in order to  work full-time. My theater professor and I had become friends.  Dan always encouraged me, writing me excellent recommendation letters whenever I needed them. A champion. He said “You’re a great student.” It meant the world to me.

A few years later, while working at Sesame Workshop (then Children’s Television Workshop), I got full staff benefits which included tuition reimbursement for undergrad course study related to my job or company. I signed up for part-time classes towards my B.A. at The New School for Social Research. I did one year there and then my job was cut and I had to drop out again. I had a great screenwriting teacher and got good grades, which I had to do keep at a certain level in order to qualify for  the tuition help.

In 2002, I went back to school for one final try, and at age 38, I finally graduated from SUNY Empire State College, the Manhattan Center in NYC. There, I had the great pleasure of working with an outstanding teacher and mentor, Shirley. She literally held my hand and helped me figure it all out. She was also my lit and writing teacher and her classes were a complete joy. The two years I worked to complete my degree were some of the most fulfilling and rewarding. I wrote all the time. I was   in the most incredible writing groups with amazing writers who I became friends with.   I did this with the generous support of my husband. Because of him, I was able to work  part-time and focus on school without fear of losing financial security, food, or shelter. It was a revelation. I graduated in 2004 with a B.A. in Creative Writing and the Performing Arts. My   lifelong dream of graduating from college came true. It remains  one of my proudest accomplishments. I couldn’t have done it without the moral and financial support of my husband.

I would not be standing (or sitting) here without the many teachers who I’ve had throughout my life. I would be remiss  not to mention my gifted improv teacher, Christine. One of the funniest people on the planet. She helped me return to my roots of improv (first done when I was 15 and in Israel), after I had a crisis of confidence and was going to quit performing all together somewhere around 2004-2005. The fun and laughs and growth I experienced with a group of hilarious people  was pure magic. Needless to say, there were no tests and I didn’t need advanced math skills. For the record, I can balance a checkbook, stick to a budget, and can compute sale percentages and mortgage calculations. Up to a point anyway.

Good teachers give their students things that cannot be measured on a standardized test. The  ones who reach down to pull a student up from the depths of despair are doing a job that is life saving. No one can tell me that the teachers I learned from didn’t save me. They all did. The believed in me before I  believed in myself. When I believed in myself they pushed me harder.   I believe in the power of teachers to transform the lives of their students and I want their respect and autonomy restored. I want them to be allowed to teach and be themselves. The good ones save people on a daily basis.  I know they saved me. My gratitude for that will never end.

Good night, good morning, and thank you!

Elana

Day 20: A Day at the Zoo

Dear Readers,

I joined my son’s class at their year-end  field trip to the local zoo. It was a beautiful, sunny day and everyone was in good spirits. I was so happy to take a break from the revolution to spend time with M and his classmates,  parents,  and teachers.

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After every experience with Ms class, I’m always left asking,  how do teachers do what they do every single day? I bow down at their feet in gratitude. Really. They’re amazing.

Today offered a beautiful reminder and I felt deep appreciation for hands-on learning, exploring, adventure, team work, cooperation, kindness, generosity, empathy, caring, humor, and love.  I’m especially thankful for the new friends I’ve made via Ms class this year.

On several occasions, when M got melty (hey, his mom was there so of course that would happen), his friends (and teachers) stepped in to help. It was incredible to see how they all look out for each other.

Plus, we rode the train.

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And we met this guy, a red panda who I’ve fallen in love with.

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Also thinking about James Gandolfini, being scared, and things that help.

Thanks, Sesame Street and Mr. Gandolfini, for helping us cope with big feelings.

Love and Peace and Hugs,

Elana

Day 13: My Chameleon

Dear Readers,

Ms  year-end performance was this morning. All the Kindergarten classes did a show together, The Chameleon’s Colors. There was a group of K students on African drums who kept a beat all the way through, a different one for each animal. There were groups of lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, giraffes, and chameleons. M was a chameleon. It was quite the array of tie-dye, costumes, and masks.

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It has left me with a case of cuteness overload syndrome.

Please, I got teary last week when M brought home the handmade invitation.

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For some of us, the waterworks started for real as we sat down.   Max did a great job and so did  his friends and classmates. Really beautiful work by everyone involved. Seeing the teachers in action always amazes me. They’re incredible!

Anyway, that’s where my head is today. That’s why I’m doing what I’m doing here. Reformers always say, “it’s for the children” all the while implementing practices that aren’t good for them.  The parents are the ones who are really for the children. And so are  teachers.

This Revolutionary must rest. As we say in Yiddish, its time to kvell and schlepp nachas from our boy. I’m so proud.

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Back to School

Hi!

I join many parents all across the land in a heartfelt, sing it out loud version of, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year.” Max went back to school today and I’m hip-hip hooraying as I down my 4th cup of coffee and get back to work.

Last night, Max tried every sleep delay tactic he knows. However, he was also partly cooperating, because he’s been really excited about school, too. His new teacher sent out mail (received around 2 weeks ago) with a lovely note addressed to Max that included a picture of the train corner in his new class.  He was instructed to bring it in this morning so he could be a “room detective” and play a game of I SPY and find it. So, this was a motivating factor to get him back after several weeks at home. Genius!

Last night, we managed to get Max in bed by 9pm (with the works; bath, teeth brushed, and clean PJs). He told me what he wanted packed for lunch. I wrote it down so I wouldn’t forget: 1 red apple, 1 milk, carrots, a Lunchables box (minus the Oreo cookies they put in there which he isn’t aware I switch out for carrots or other veggies). Then he wanted to read Blue Goes to School (which has been in heavy rotation the past few weeks by his request) so we did.  Then it was time to futz around with the flashlight (first under the covers then shining it on the ceiling) for a few minutes. Followed by goodnight hugs, tickles, and kisses, and then….Max just couldn’t fall asleep. I wasn’t surprised and knew he had to take his time. He’d be back into a better bedtime routine soon enough.

Max talked about his excitement and nervousness. “I need more milk! I need more snuggles.” Max lay there, chewing on his Manatee and Blue plush toys, and he looked at the ceiling. He rolled over. And over. This went on for a while. Finally, he fell asleep a little after 10pm. Not so bad in the  big scheme of things.

Then I couldn’t fall asleep. I lay there in bed (well after 1am) and while I did not chew on a plush toy (or my fingers), I did stare at the ceiling, and the clock, and I obsessively double triple checked my alarm. I had my own fretting and first day back to school jitters, too.

This is the first time Max won’t have an organized rest-time at school. His little pillow, sheet, green blanket and lovey are not needed anymore. I practically cried just thinking about this. Even though Max gave up nap time a long time ago, he seemed to still need this rest time while at school last year. But the past few weeks of summer camp he had told me, “Mommy, I don’t want rest time anymore. I have too much energy!” Well, today there will be no rest time. No more baby Max. How did he get so big so fast? Does this mean he’ll go to bed earlier tonight? Hmm.

So, all this is running through my head, and finally, I  told myself, Stop thinking! Everything’s going to be fine. Just stop worrying! I tried not to yell at myself but it sounded loud in my head. Please stop fretting! But that’s what parents do, isn’t it? There is a certain amount of fretting and doing involved in getting one’s kid back to school. That’s just how it is. Did I pull everything together for the morning? His extra clothes,  the family pics for the cubby? Did I wipe out the lunch box from whatever sticky goop was left in there from camp?) Go to sleep! And I did.

This morning, by some miracle, I did NOT snooze through all my alarms (set at 15 minute intervals, just in case). First challenge, me waking up on time. Check. Then it was off to get Max (who by another miracle, slept through all night in his own bed). He informed me after opening his eyes (after several attempts of, “Wake up, Max. GoodMorningShine!”), that, “Mommy, I’m tired. I’m super dee duper tired!” I took those two cookies from the lunch and used them to get him out of bed. Yes, the magical powers of sugar and cookies can not be underestimated. Please don’t judge. I did what I had to do. Plus, Max only eats the filling, so how bad that can that really be? He also ate a big bowl of cereal and then cooperated with every single step! He chose his t-shirt (The new one from Steamtown USA in Scranton, PA he just visited recently with his dad and Grandpa, Papa Allen). But the jeans I put on him were suddenly too small. “Mommy, I need the next size. I grew overnight. Now, I’m taller!” By the third miracle of the morning, I had the next size handy and on those went. “Much better, Mommy, thanks.” Maybe I’m not a complete failure after all. I confess, I did not do any back to school shopping. I realized that he needs new rain boots and a new raincoat (the ones he has on today fit, but just barely). Maybe he did grow overnight.

Out the door we went with the bag of everything (lunch box, etc), and since it was pouring rain (still), I drove and by the 4th miracle, found a parking spot. In the door we went, passing by his old class with his previous teacher we loved (and I shed an internal, invisible tear), and into his new classroom! His new teacher welcomed us warmly. Max found his cubby and we loaded it with his stuff. The alien rain boots were changed for sneakers. He got hugs from his old pals and started building something from Legos. After a few minutes settling him in, we said goodbye. Max held on tight, and so did I. Hugs and kisses and more kisses and hugs.

I hope the note I wrote for him and  put in his lunch box made him happy when he found it at lunch. By  now, he’s NOT napping at school, and I know he’s going to have a great year.

The school had a parent coffee gathering set up and I had a chance to chat with my mom friend-buddies and to meet a new mom at the school. It was her first day there with her son, and she joined our mini group. When we left, we included her in a hug. That felt great. I know how scary it is to start in a new place, and it felt so good to make her feel welcome. I could honestly tell her, that her son will be fine. That the teacher (Max’s former teacher) is wonderful. The school is great. And so we raised our rugelach (I skipped the croissants) and coffee cups, toasted our success, and high-fived each other on our first day back to school. We did it.

I wish everyone a great back to school week, and a wonderful year ahead! And to all the teachers who do the most remarkable work every day—Thank you!