Tag Archives: wordcount blogathon 2013

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 15: Father’s Day & the Revolution

Dear Readers,

Whew. The Revolution has begun! So much going on and I’m prepping for the next BOE meeting on Monday.  Hoping to get a big turn out of parents and community.

And tomorrow is Father’s Day.  For anyone  celebrating, I hope you have a wonderful day. Here’s to all the dads who make our children’s world go around.

Mine taught me how to be a rabble-rouser; to speak up and protest when I see injustice. He taught me how to read  starting when I was   a toddler. He used antique printing blocks to teach me letters and words. We had an old printing press for woodcuts (made by my mother) and signs and did all kinds of hand printing work, too. He helped me publish my first “book.” He showed me how make art; how to capture a moment in photography;  how to look for  light or shadows and really see them.  Among many other things, he’s been a   Civil Rights , social, and environmental justice activist for decades, and to this very day.

Thank you, Dad.

Remember this?

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photo credit copyright Jerry Halberstadt