Sow. Cultivate. Bloom.

An online journal of an uprooted life.

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

Living Without…NCLB

I just started the last quarter of the school year here in Costa Rica. It has been an adjustment getting on the year-round schedule and I still don’t have a verdict about its supposed superiority to the United States school year. I’ve found it to be really tiring in a different way than my former schedule. I feel it has been more taxing mentally without a month and a half of straight time off (although I was always still working during those summer breaks in the States!). One thing has become clear. Living without No Child Left Behind (NCLB) has been a much welcome relief and wildly different from what I’d grown accustomed to.

Curriculum and Pacing Guides

Little did I know how reliant I’d become on the district telling me what to teach and when to teach it (and in the end there…how to teach it). I used to absolutely dislike pacing guides but then here I was without any direction and no pacing guides. I felt as if the rug were pulled out from under me! It was disconcerting and embarrassing to admit to myself that I missed those damned pacing guides that were always staring at me as if to confirm my clear lack as a teacher. I was always behind because I was focused on teaching the students in front of me. I can tell you this with utmost confidence–students cannot confidently tackle multiplication if they are not fluent in addition and subtraction. Thems the breaks.

Fast forward to the middle of Costa Rica and a new school. No pacing guides. I’m still not sure if my colleagues are familiar with the concept. Hadn’t I spent time in graduate school learning how to do scope and sequence? Wasn’t I capable? That ever-present enemy of any decent teacher, time, is a hot commodity and I’ve had some major differences: no grade level colleagues, no grade level team and learning a new school and life culture were, for a very long time, absolutely exhausting on every level.

This year has felt just like a first year teaching.

Trying to learn curriculum and teach it, is something that districts hoist on teachers all the time. And we do the best we can but it is a hell of a challenge. This year has been an extra challenge because my whole class is made up of English Language Learners (ELL). Oh sure I’ve had training in GLAD strategy but GLAD strategy presupposes I have access to at least an overhead projector.

I’ve managed to cobble together some semblance of my own pacing guides. I’ve made monthly calendars that outline everything I do and my end goals written on them. I am not without curriculum…don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a math and science curriculum and our curriculum coordinator taught me how to do Word Work with Words Their Way. We collaborated across grade levels to try out something from the sisters of Daily 5. I at least had anchors from which to work and though I am my worst critic, all considered, I’ve done quite well.

It just dawned on me the other day that I’ve been able to choose everything I’ve taught this year. Everything! If I find a lesson not worthwhile or too challenging for my students, I can choose to skip it or take weeks to teach it. Concept! I can supplement it with whatever other materials or curriculum I want. I can create a project to integrate art and science to further our learning.

In short, I’ve had freedom.

It has been both horribly scary and ridiculously rewarding.

No standardized testing or NCLB

Oh how fondly I look back on those weeks of NCLB testing. Those snacks we got to eat, those breaks we got to take and those canned instructions I got to read and those words of encouragement I couldn’t give and those tests I had to literally lock up. How could I have ever lived without them!? Weren’t they the reason for teaching?

Funny how I’ve not missed NCLB testing one bit. No iota of sentimental waxing poetic from me.

I cannot even begin to sing the joys of the freedom to teach and engage in an environment that believes that learning is on a continuum and that testing isn’t necessarily the way to show learning. Yes, I’ve given tests this year. But I’ve also used reader’s theaters and science dioramas as performance assessments! And I am constantly evaluating whether the students get it or not. I think I’ve graded more papers than I’ve ever because I am using them to truly inform my teaching. I’ve decided what is going to inform me, what will be a quiz or a test and used it wisely.

I’ve had a morning meeting every morning since the beginning and seen vast improvements in my student’s ability to use English in the correct tense. They correct each other now!

I am most thankful that I haven’t had to justify or feel as though I have to justify every minute of my day backed up with the appropriate test prep or GLE. Trust me, everything we are doing is learning and I am evaluating it and has a purpose. Yesterday we even played a game (gasp!) outside (gasp!) because I wanted to see how their teamwork was coming along (come to find out…kind of badly.) I let them lead it, chose teams and play it. From an outside perspective we were “wasting time.” I’m happy to say when I made them stop playing to reflect on if they were having fun or yelling at one another, they were so thoughtful!

Having the freedom to teach is what we teachers long to do. I am blessed for having been able to do it and watch kids thrive without test prep mania.


I won’t pontificate on this point too much but I will outline a few things. If you have an overhead projector, count yourself lucky. If you have an ELMO, thank the gods. I’ve had neither this whole year and wow do they ever help. It is not impossible to teach without them…they are simply modern-day inventions that have made teaching just a tad easier. You’ve got an easel with chart paper? Yeah, I don’t. A supply room? Oh my god, can I come sit in it and stare with awe?

I’ve had resources but they aren’t easily renewable or even easy to find. Please understand I do not want to paint the school in a bad light. We are in rural Costa Rica. Things work a lot differently here and costs of office supplies are $$$. My bosses are always willing to help and supply us with the things we need when we need them. It might just take a month to find them!

The difference is, and I don’t know how else to put this, in the States we have it so dang good. Readily available everything and I’m learning that most of the rest of the world doesn’t work that way.

Personal Space or Anti-Molestation Tactics

The first time one of my students kissed me on the cheek, I was sure that the police were coming for me.

One huge difference that I’ve really appreciated is the dare I say, normal, way in which children interact here with adults/teachers. We high-five, we hug and sometimes (come to find out) a student might lay one on you.

No A-frame hugs here, side hugs or paranoid keep-the-door open if you are alone in your classroom with a student. Full frontal squeezy hugs happen. Just this week one of my students came back from a race and was elated to tell me she’d won first prize! I was really happy to be able to offer my arms out in a hug of congratulations into which she wholeheartedly ran. It was natural way to express happiness.

My students play jokes on me by poking me and saying “Teacher K, it’s a spider!” and I can reply by mock tickling them or poking them back and naming their least favorite animal.

Come to find out kids express themselves with affection and need it. Of course I still have boundaries and I’ve let students know if they are in my personal space. And I’ve seen them learn and grow in response to my boundaries. What a wonderful life lesson for us both.

I can’t help but smile as I write this because it is such a refreshing change. It is empowering to be able to comfort a child when they’ve fallen, after our 7.6 earthquake or share in a child’s excitement in a natural way.

Though I’ve outlined many things that living without NCLB has opened my eyes to, on the flip side, I’ve come to appreciate what I had. I had no idea how much I took for granted. I miss the collaboration of being on a team, a school counselor, my ELMO, my easel, professional development (yeah, I said it), and a Special Education team and a book room.

In conclusion, it has been a hell of a learning curve and I’m still in the thick of it. It has been one of the hardest years of my life both personally and professionally. But as I put one foot in front of the other, I see that the path before me and behind me is lined with gratitude.


One Year

Tomorrow will mark one year living as an expat. I recently felt the need to clean out my little leather folio where I keep my passport and came across a much cherished letter I’ve carried with me from country to country for 10 years.

Back in college when I thought I wanted to be a journalist, the campus paper was silly enough to let me write a column. After one particular column in which I laid out my dream to travel cross-country collecting stories I received a typewriter typed letter. Here is what it said,

“Dear K__________,
I hope the enclosed article will inspire you to follow your dreams.

At age 40, I’m still following mine. Unfortunately, people my age are always spouting unwanted advice. Here goes…

1.) Become yourself.
Not as easy as it sounds. Years from now most of your peers will have become their parents–or worse.
Ask yourself: What makes me different from everyone else on earth?

2.) Don’t be afraid to make yourself happy.
A great many people reason away their happiness for a comfy, dull security.
Ask yourself: What do I enjoy doing more than anything else?

3.) Never give up.
It’s unoriginal. Don’t give in. Don’t sell out. Never ever, ever, ever quit.
Ask yourself: What do I absolutely have to accomplish before I die?

Don’t wait until graduation. Hope a Greyhound with ____ and go to Portland for the weekend. Get a van and spent next summer on the road. But whatever you do, don’t give up on the coloring books.

Best of luck to you both.”

The timing for having rediscovered this gem and its message feel all the more useful now that I am 10 years post graduation and one year having lived 4000+ miles away from home. And there is a bittersweet feeling as I reflect on the last year. It has been really tough. I can’t times I’ve really wanted to quit and head home into the arms of waiting friends and family. I’ve cried so hard that I’ve woken up the next day with swollen eyelids.

Basically I’ve shaken myself up so much that I, for a long time since moving, questioned every aspect of the life I knew and the life I wasn’t quite living here up until about 3 months ago. I romanticized and pined for comfort and for a long time after I moved thought I wanted that comfort back.

Come to find out, I don’t want my old life back. Revisiting the letter I received 10 years ago when I was about to mark my transition into “real” life was good fodder for reflection. And by and large, without knowing it I’ve managed to live my life by those three pieces of advice. I still don’t have The Answers but I’ve carved out a life I can be proud of in all its mess and glory.

I’m largely still figuring it out–who I am, what makes me happy and not quitting. And though I see the merit in advice numero tres, I’ve been able to face a hard reality about quitting. The idea of returning to full-time teaching in the States appeals to me no more. I have no desire to put myself in the classroom or in that system in a full-time capacity for at least one year. Since moving here and continuing to teach I’ve only taken one sick day. One.

The worst I’ve had (knock on wood) is laryngitis and that was caused by fatigue. Prior to this teaching gig in another environment and country, I was sick almost all the time. This is not an exaggeration. Strep, laryngitis, the flu, a staph infection, sinus infections and numerous colds–you name it, I probably had it those 4 years teaching in the States. And here’s the thing, I’ve not had less stress since I moved abroad…in fact I think I’ve had far more. One of the main differences is, I’m trusted as a professional and I don’t have to prep kids for a meaningless test and I don’t have to follow any given curriculum.

It has been both terrifying and extremely rewarding to have basically no huge demands or requirements put on me.

And here’s what I’ve learned about being happy. Happiness isn’t some hoped for coveted mood that you attain as if it were enlightenment. No, the national obsession with happiness, now that I’ve been away from it is something I think makes us very very unhappy. I’ve lived a lot of my life, I think like a lot of Americans, convinced it is in what I do (re:my job) that I will find happiness. If I could just get the right this or the right that, then I’ll be happy. And I still have a hard time shaking this because I am, I fully admit, stepping away from teaching in search of something different in which I can hope to find some level of happiness.

But in this great quest for happiness (and reflecting on my year abroad) I’ve come to realize it isn’t one thing. It will never be one thing. Rather it is in how I chose to grow, how I chose to cry, how I chose to fall apart and pick myself back up again, how I forgive myself and how I allow myself to come home and leave work at work. That essentially I am not what I do to make a living.

Rather, the trick is in how I decide to live.

So as I look forward to the final three months of my adventure here in Costa Rica I’m keenly aware that I’ve not failed. That heading home and not returning to my profession isn’t a sign of failure. Choosing to step away to care for myself is in fact strength. I feel very grateful for the experience, space and time I’ve allowed myself to face the fear (over and over and over again) and grow. If I hadn’t moved, I can say pretty confidently that I would’ve just kept on the wheel because I was slowly whittling away my happiness for a sense of dull security. Oh sure, part of me is scared shitless, but I’m getting better and better at not listening.

I’ve become a master sunset watcher, beach stroller and a whittle the time awayer. And at letting go.

Pura vida.

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