Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Have fun! Help People! Teaching in Cambodia

It all started with a Facebook post. 'Anybody want to join me for a 1-week volunteer trip to Cambodia...?' Well, sure I do! And thus began a life-changing adventure!
facebook post inviting adventure

On the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, despite the holiday madness, my friend +Mira Wooten was gracious enough to drive me up to SFO. There I met my friend and co-pilot on this adventure, Kyle. Kyle and I have been friends for almost 30 years. He and his husband travel extensively and often ask for friends to join them.  I always wanted to say yes and the time was finally right!

At 5 minutes after midnight, while turkeys were defrosting all across the US, our Singapore Airlines flight took off for Cambodia, by way of Hong Kong, and Singapore.  We arrived in Siem Reap, Cambodia around 10 o'clock in the morning on Friday and were met by our Global Aware coordinator, Alin. Globe Aware, a nonprofit 501 (c) (3) develops short-term volunteer programs in international environments that encourage people to immerse themselves in a unique way of giving back. Alin introduced us to our tuk-tuk driver, Mr. Raht. We were delivered safely to our guest house where we checked-in and freshened up from the 24 hours of travel.  We spent Friday through Sunday sightseeing with an extremely knowledgeable and somewhat crazy tour guide.  He had us trekking the road less traveled as we explored the famed temples of the region.  Angkor Wat was of course, breathtaking. Baphuon and Ta Prohm were incredible. But for me,  the intricacy and history of Angkor Thom were most compelling. There are 54 four-faced spires, representing Compassion, Sympathy, Charity, and Equanimity which watched serely over the out across the provinces of  King Jayavarman VII's empire. We could all benefit from those faces reminding us!

me teaching in CambodiaOn Sunday we also stopped by to check out the school where we'd be volunteering that week.  Even though it was a Sunday there were about 30 children, aged 2-18 waiting to meet their new teachers. It was exciting and humbling to see the school. The classroom is about 8 rows of benches and tables, under an overhang off of the mother's house. There is a dirt floor and wooden benches with old school posters hanging on the wall of the house and a whiteboard on one end.

In Siem Reap, students attend government school only half a day. During the Khmer Rouge, dictator Pol Pot, in an attempt to socially engineer a classless communist society, destroyed all of the schools and killed or imprisoned most teachers. The impact of this remains 40 years later. Due to a lack of resources and minimum government funding for schools, there is a shortage of teaching material and school facilities. Teachers, like those in this county but with a bigger detriment, are underpaid. Children that live where there are private schools and have the financial resources to attend, go to private school or tutoring for the other 'half' of their day. These schools are usually taught in English, so students are learning English along with additional content. In the poorer villages outside the city, no such options exist.

A few years ago, a mother in the village decided to start an English school for the village children. GlobalAware became aware of the school and decided to bring in volunteers. Which is how Kyle and I ended up in the small village outside Siem Reap.

Sunday night, Kyle, the planner, sat us down to plan out what we would teach.  We'd been given the primer they were using at the school, but the teacher in me just couldn't use it.  We talked about what vocabulary would be most useful to these children and tried to focus on that. So time of day, days of the week, greetings and such were our starting vocabulary. WIn addition, we ended up covering colors, shapes, body parts (head, shoulders, knees and toes) and we also did some lessons in hygiene.

boy sleeping in class in Cambodia
Monday morning arrived and Kyle and I were excited to work with the children. We had hoped to be able to break them up into smaller groups, but since we only had one interpreter, we decided that would be too hard. We started in with greetings and "hello my name is...." It was so challenging working with an interpreter, but it made us really thoughtful and reflective on word choice. We made it through the morning session and Mr. Raht, took us back to our lodging, where we freshened up a bit. I asked our manager there where to get school supplies. Since her children were home for their midday break, she volunteered her kids walk us to the school supply store to pick up art supplies. Everywhere we went during the week, people were just so nice! After the store (where I resisted the urge to buy everything I could carry) we had a tasty lunch before heading back to school for the afternoon group. Several students were there for both morning and afternoon. We covered much of the same material and tweaked our lessons a bit for the slightly older group of students. Many of the morning children were there for all or part of the afternoon sessions. One of the little guys in the front row fell asleep in the afternoon. His friends tried to wake him, to no avail. I told them to let him sleep...learning is hard work! They were all so eager to learn. It was hot, dirty and hard work, but the hugs and smiles made it all worthwhile.

While I was away, I posted some about our experience on Facebook. One comment by my friend and former colleague struck home:

MK As I stand in front of my highly privileged students who are generally so unappreciative of what they have and what others do for them, I think of the students you are teaching who are at the other end of the “privilege” spectrum, and get such joy from simple things and those who try to help them. I think I would take your students over mine any day.

Sandra: It is incredibly humbling, MK. One of my Bagby friends posted a pic of their lost and found rack. These children would be so grateful for a second or third shirt, much less so many clothes that you can ‘lose’ some. Perspective.

Grandmother and her wall in need of repair
Monday after school we stopped by the lumber yard to order supplies to repair Grandmother's home, which had been damaged in the rainy season's storms. Tuesday we worked with shapes and colors and names of everyday objects. We had to remember that in Cambodia, everyday objects were not the same as in the States. Every evening, after a shower and a nap, Kyle and I would meet to plan out the next day, before venturing into the city for dinner. The days flew by so quickly. The students were so proud of their work and even Mr. Raht, knowing the value of speaking English in a country whose economy was fueled by tourism, participated in all the lessons.
building wheelchairs in Cambodia

In addition to teaching, we built and installed two walls for Grandmother's home and also built a wheelchair. Another Khmer Rouge remnant in Cambodia is landmines. Cambodia is one of the most heavily mined areas in the world; some estimates run as high as ten million mines (in a country of 11.5 million people), though the Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) estimates 4 to 6 million mines. These mines came from many places, likely including the USA. Partnering with Free WheelChair Mission,  Global Aware provides the parts to assemble an easy to build, rugged wheelchair made from bicycle tires, plastic lawn chairs, and a welded frame. For $80, a wheelchair can be built, shipped, and delivered throughout the world, giving landmine survivors mobility, independence, and dignity. We were able to get parts for one while we were there and assembled it on Thursday, but were unable to connect with its recipient while we were there.

Friday came too soon and we said goodbye to our students. I am already trying to figure out how I can come back and teach for a longer period of time.  Being with these kids, feeling their desire to learn and understanding the value of an education in a third world country really reignited my passion for teaching.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Why Sandy Hook Did Not Change Everything

Since 2013, there have been nearly 300 school shootings in America — an average of about one a week

As an educator in America that statistic is shocking, saddening and infuriating. I was working in high tech in 1999 when Columbine captured the world's attention. In Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, twelve students and one teacher were killed by two teenage students. The Columbine shootings rank as one of the worst mass shootings in US history as well as one of the deadliest episodes of school violence. (source CNN).

Like other disasters - the explosion of the space shuttle, John Lennon's murder and 9/11- I remember where I was, what I was doing, and what I felt. On that spring day, I happened to be in Boulder, Colorado visiting one of our field offices. Someone said something over a cubicle wall about a shooting, and we all tuned into the news. We'd all heard of gun rampages, even back in the 1960s, the infamous clock tower shooting at the University of Texas, Austin in 1966. Not to minimize, that was carried out by a 25-year-old on a college campus. But Columbine was different. Children massacring children. What was happening to the world? I was shocked and so very sad. My son was almost the same age as many of the victims. I was worried. I was heartbroken.

After the initial fear and outrage subsided, nothing much changed. Yet, everything had. Santee. Virginia Tech. Northern Illinois University. Too many to name. Hundreds of lives changed. Too many lives lost. Yet, the shootings continued. By December 2012, after a career change, I had been working in education for 7 years. I was teaching fifth grade and the news of Sandy Hook seeped into our classroom. It was horrific. These were babies - many of the victims were kindergartners. What if this happened at my school? I visualized what I would do if a shooter came on our campus, and I know my students did, too. Surely, this would be the wake-up call our country needed to make some meaningful changes to gun access laws and the identification and treatment of mental health issues. Sandy Hook would be a rallying cry. We would not forget. Congress would not ignore the real and present dangers of access to weapons. Surely.

Schools practiced code red drills. District bonds were approved to install fencing and locked gates to elementary campuses. Things changed on a micro-level. Hearings were held on the state, local and national levels. Yet, nothing changed. There have been 186 shootings on school campuses in the U.S. since 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., on December 14, 2012, according to Everytown For Gun Safety, an advocacy group. (source LA Times).

Of course, we were wrong. No gun control measures were passed by Congress. And though many states passed laws restricting access to guns, more states actually made it easier to buy weapons. (Source:

How is this possible?

I am sure greater minds than mine have thought about this. But here is what I think. It's all about the Benjamins.

Hear me out. When a plane crashes, the FAA gets involved immediately. They study the disaster from every angle and real changes are made to procedure or product. Not to be cynical, but the airlines have a vested interest in making these changes. After all, it was their logo on the tail of the plane. Their lawsuits to settle. Their claims to pay out. They have a financial motivation to make sure it never happens again.

Who has the financial interest in stopping school gun violence? Who is held accountable when a madman (and let's be clear, it is almost always a white male who shoots the gun) fires into a school? His therapist? The person who sold him the gun? The gun or ammo manufacturer? The NRA? No. Guns don't kill people. People kill people. No one other than the shooter, and maybe his parents, are held accountable. So no one financially benefits from stopping the murders from happening again. So no one is putting pressure on our lawmakers to have the courage to stop allowing access to unnecessary firearms for people ill-equipped to handle them properly. So guns keep getting into the hands of children killing children.

And the shock, and sadness and infuriating frustration of inaction remain.

Sadly, I do not see this changing. Our lawmakers simply do not have the will do make the change. So we must. Organizations like the Sandy Hook Promise work to prevent gun-related deaths due to crime, suicide, and accidental discharge so that no other parent experiences the senseless, horrific loss of their child. So that no teacher has to explain to her students that she will do whatever it takes to protect them, all the while knowing she is powerless against an assault rifle. So that no other confused young man will decide that shooting up a school is his only option. 

Be the change.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Grateful Heart in the Classroom

My colleague and friend, Sheila Monger and I talk a lot about gratitude. After a particularly rough couple of years teaching, she and I would daily remind each other of our mantra to Choose Gratitude. When teachers get caught up in the problems it is easy to become negative and grumpy. No one sets out to be 'that teacher' but we all know them, and at times, may have been them. There really is so much to be grateful for. And lest you think I am a Pollyanna, rest assured, I am not. I was laid off every year for my first 6 years of teaching. I have had great and not so great colleagues and administrators (I liken a principal to an appendix, you don't notice them until they are bad) My husband was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of year 8 of teaching and died the following winter. So I have had a lot of reason to be grumpy and not grateful, yet still, I choose gratitude.

So imagine my great joy to meet +Scott Meile. Scott is a 8th grade English teacher in New Jersey.  His district is in an area with one of the highest teen suicide rates in the country. He saw a need for connection in his classroom and community, and he created it with the Door of Thanks. With all the bad in the world, Mr. Meile encourages his students to stop, think and appreciate what they have.  Throughout the year, students place note of the wall that state what they are thankful for. Notice I said wall. The door of thanks became the wall of thanks, and that became a virtual wall of gratitude!

I met Scott when he traveled to San Mateo, California to participate in a panel discussion at Edmodocon16. I was honored to facilitate the discussion on Supporting the Whole Student with Edmodo. This panel included short presentations from speakers on how they use Edmodo to meet the unique needs of their students for more than just academics—building community, supporting a school Gay-Straight Alliance, reaching out to students who struggle to get to school, and encouraging gratitude.

Although I've begged Scott to blog about his gratitude journey, Being a busy dad, husband, teacher and coach hasn't allowed him much time to write. So I asked his permission to share his story. in his own words.
It’s our job in education to show them that our school, our community, our families aren’t just about what we’re teaching but the people that are involved and the relationships that are created and the people we meet. The issues in New Jersey aren’t uncommon everywhere else, There is that many young kids don’t know where to turn. There’s peer pressure, bullying, and self image awareness which often leads to students not knowing who to turn to or who they can trust. Peers are left with unanswered questions, they often don’t understand or realize that some kids need help and aren’t being taught compassion or understanding and the ability to find the right people to talk to. 
In our class we try to recognize the importance of our team and our goals, in addition we take time to recognize our lives outside of the classroom. We push ourselves to complete tasks, but more importantly we learn about each other. We take 6-10 minutes everyday and give thanks. Edmodo is the key because it unlocks a level of communication and acceptance that isn’t always easy for students to receive or acknowledge. We each and everyday make it a point to reach out to one another, and comment on some of the things that are going on in our lives outside of school (or within our school community) and that allows for interpersonal growth that sometimes is lacking in today’s students busy schedules and culture. Edmodo creates a connectedness that allows for something easy, reachable, and creative. It takes a snapshot of our class, the highs, the lows and everything in between and we document these moments and get to see the growth throughout the year.
Emotional intelligence is something we try to grow throughout the year, taking time to talk about gratitude leads to more interesting conversations regarding citizenship and compassion.  As I have become more and more experienced in the classroom I have found I have less and less to say to my students regarding their learning.  I often find them discovering new things and showing me more about their learning then I ever imagined was possible.  But, what I have found myself talking more and more with the kids is their responsibility to each other, how we as a class can make a difference, and more importantly, every person should act with respect, integrity, and empathy.  
Even more importantly it has made me a better teacher, dad, and coach because I have come to realize just how much of a struggle the kids go through on a daily basis.

I am grateful for teachers, and friends, like Scott.

Monday, December 19, 2016

When Mommy Can't Read

Let me start with a story - it will connect to the topic, I promise.

This fall, my niece was married in Jamaica. I was fortunate to join in the family festivities, and spent a few days relaxing in the south coast for a few days after the wedding. Like I do every time I am on an amazing vacation, I fantasize about living there. The place where we stayed (which I am not going to name, so it stays small!) supports Breds Foundation and one of their projects supports Sandy Bank Primary School. Well, this is fate! My nickname is Sandy and I am a credentialed school teacher! I could come here and teach! I was giving voice to this little fantasy while on a small fishing boat with a local captain. He asked what I taught, and I explained that, as a 5th grade teacher, I taught all subjects, reading, writing, math and all.  Captain Clive said, "Well, why don't you just teach me? I don't read very good."

That got me thinking about making an impact on the local economy through adult literacy. I'd need to learn how to teach adults.  And if there adults in Jamaica who can't read, there are certainly adults in my city who struggle with literacy. I researched online and signed up to become a tutor of adult learners here in my home town with the Santa Clara Library's  Read Santa Clara service.  I met with Shanti Bhaskaran, the program supervisor, who seemed thrilled to have someone interested who not only has a teaching background but also experience with educational technology.

During out meeting, she shared some rather startling statistics.  More than 30 million adults in the United States cannot read, write or do basic math above a third grade level.  Adult literacy impacts our workforce, family finances and heath. And now I come back to the topic of this post.  Children of parents who had not completed high school score lower in vocabulary assessments. A mother's level of reading skill is the greatest determinant of her child's academic success. I am not sure it ever occurred to me that some of the parents of my students could not read, write or speak fluently. I know I had some English Language learners, and for those families, I'd arrange translation.  But what about the parents who just can't read yet in any language? I was not making accommodations for them.

My first job in education was to help three recent immigrants to the US learn English. My thesis was titled "Effective Classroom Methods for Teaching English Language Learners." I often joked that mu classrooms were like a mini-United Nations, with all the languages spoken at home. Yet not once in my pre-service or in-service professional development was the literacy of parents ever addressed.

I haven't yet been matched with an adult learner, but I am passionate about spreading the word.  As teachers we need to be not so quick to judge that parent who doesn't respond to our emails, return permission slips or volunteer in the classroom.

What can we as educators of children do to make a difference? After all, we already differentiate and accommodate for our children, now you want us to do the same for parents? Yup. I do! I am not suggesting we all teach adult literacy classes, But there are things we can do. Be aware of the signs that someone might need help reading or writing. Find out about programs similar to Rad Santa Clara in your area. Get some of their literature and make in available to all families 'in case they know someone who might benefit'. Never call them out directly. But think of how hard it must be to have your child read and write for you. Show some compassion to that parent who might just be too embarrassed to participate in classroom activities or unable to read or reply to your notes home. If not for the parents' sake, for your students'. Remember, your students' literacy will improve along with their parents'.

Signs a person might need help reading and writing:
  • Uneasy body language, facial expressions or embarrassment when asked to read or write
  • Humor or other distraction is used to change the subject of reading or writing comes up
  • School experiences rarely mentions. If they are, it is in a negative light.
  • When expected to read or write, excuses might be, "I forgot my glasses,' 'I've hurt my hand,' 'I don't have time.'
  • Person appears unable to follow written instructions
  • Reluctance to fill in forms or asks to take forms home
  • paperwork is filled out incompletely or incorrectly.

NPR's All  Things Considered had a 4 part series on Adult Education, where they concluded:
Low literacy rates for adults can have wide-ranging effects on those around them. They may rely more heavily on government services; their children may not get that extra hand with schoolwork; their families may not get sufficient financial support. 
But for the millions of adults with low literacy, the ability to read, write and speak English might offer them the most important opportunity of all: a chance to emerge from the shadows and participate as equals in society.
I still may end up retiring in Jamaica, but for now, I will make a difference locally.

Read Santa Clara
National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER)
NPR: all things considered

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The dinner party

A little while back, a Facebook (and real life) friend of mind made this observation. With their permission, I am sharing the thread. 

Teaching analogy: teaching is like putting on a dinner party for 30+ people everyday (90+ in middle school) mostly by yourself, with a wood stove, and only one pot. And sometimes there is no wood and the pot breaks, but you have to have the dinner party anyway. Seriously - it should not have to be this difficult!
Photo: Getty

  • Renee: Very good analogy! So true

  • Sandra: Yeah, but you know you love the dinner party!

  • Andrea: And if you're on various committees, it's like helping the neighbors, advocating for quality food with the market managers, and communicating with the non-food suppliers, too, while also trying to still create a perfect dinner for your guests. And then one of the guest's associates stops by to discuss the meal...

  • Joy: I loved this! It described my day to a "t"! Thanks!

  • Karyann:  And some of the guests will need different meals than the others, and 1 or 2 will not eat at all:)

  • Shannon:  FOOOOOD FIIIIIIIGHT! ...hehe, couldn't resist. But in all honesty you nailed it!

  • Andrea: Some guests need organic baby food, but it should be the same food the other guests are eating. Other guests need gourmet food and eat with chopsticks. The guests may have difficulties swallowing the food if you don't cut it up for them, especially if they order their own food off a menu of standard items. All food should be perfectly prepared, done at the same time, and consumed by guests on the same occasion, or at least before The Grand Meal.

  • Sandra: Yes, some guests just won't eat. You can't make them. They are not hungry. And some will ask for seconds and thirds, and still need more. Some will be grateful, but may not tell you until 20 years have gone by. And some will have bad manners. But you love to cook, and you love the dinner party. So you cook again another day.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Schoedinger's President-Elect

I couldn't take it anymore last night. I went to bed. Around 1030 maybe it was 11.  I just didn't want to know. it wasn't going change anything and I needed to sleep. When I woke up this morning I wondered and I was afraid. As I reflected on the potential outcomes of this election I decided, much to my surprise that it would probably be better for our country if Donald Trump won. Now hear me out.

If Hillary Clinton won, then she would face indictments, a combative Congress and a populous at least half of which are Trump supporters.  And of those,  a small, perhaps, but vocal percentage are fanatics. He has previously urged his fanatics to create some not so civil unrest. My real fear is that if Clinton won, Trump supporters are going to create such havoc and unrest, the likes of which our country hasn't seen in decades. Now on the other hand if Trump wins... well,  we got a little taste last night as Clinton supporters were starting to read the writing on the walls or the tea leaves or whatever. Some of the posts to Twitter and Facebook were along the lines of,  you're not alone. we still will love. love wins. we're still going to get up and continue to fight for positive change. 

So I'm thinking that if Trump won, then Clinton supporters are going to fight even harder to make the world a better place. That said, I still was lying in bed this more morning in the fetal position with my blankets pulled up over my head.Tthe things that Donald Trump represented: arrogance, greed, self interest before others, bigotry, misogyny... all those horrible things that he said and did do not make him in my mind an ideal candidate for president. Regardless the people have spoken and Schoedinger's cat is going to have to come out of the box one way or the other