Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rambling: High Speed Trains

Alright this post is random but I just have to share.  A friend of mine who is currently living in Taiwan recently blogged about how awesome the high-speed trains are (you can drive 2+ hours or sit on a train for 25 minutes).  I had been thinking the same thoughts and wanting to write about it here, so decided just to share my response:

OMG I've fallen in love with high speed trains. Barcelona is about 400 miles from Madrid, so about 6 hours by car. OR you can take the train and be there in 2.5 hours. How awesome.

Since the distance from Chicago and NYC is about double, how cool would it be to get on a train in Chicago and be in NYC 5ish hours later, rather than driving 12+ hours. It would make business sooo much easier. And visiting people. We would just be so much more connected. I would do it all the time, unlike driving 12 straight hours, which I'm never going to do. But taking a train for 5 hours I would definitely do.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Words: Do you have beggars in the US?

*man begging for money passes us on subway* 
R, my British friend: Do you have that in the US?
Me: What?
R: People begging?
Me: Ummm, yeahhh..... I mean in all the cities.
R: *stares at me with horror and disbelief*
Me: Actually, now that I think about it, I guess I didn't really see anyone begging when I was in London, hmm. Yeah we have them on the streets, on the trains, ya know, like here...
R:  *increases horror and disbelief*  Wow, I can imagine it's hard to see them and not be able to help. Like here it's especially so sad when you see the elderly or sick people... there's this one woman always shaking.....
Me: Yeah, we have lots of old and shaking people begging, especially since they probably can't afford health insurance so they can't buy medicine. It's the worst when you see them outside in the snow.
R: *stunned silence of horror and disbelief*  It makes me really glad to live in a country with a good welfare system.

Recipe: Squash Soup

Though my favorite was the onion soup, this one was pretty good.  I'm curious to try it with different herb combinations! 

1) In a large pot, boil salted water.
2) Chop roughly and add half a white onion, one large carrot, three potatoes, and half a squash (they cook with squash all the time here and I thinnnk it's butternut).
3) Whirl everything in the blender and strain. It's excellent with thick rustic bread.

I wonder how it would taste with caramelized onions, too...

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Recipe: Fried Eggplant

Here's one posing with salmon.

1) Peel eggplant.
2) Slide it thinly and place slices in a bowl of water.
3) Beat an egg and sprinkle salt; pour breadcrumbs into a plate.
4) Assembly - coat slice in egg then breadcrumbs, place in pan over medium heat with oil in bottom.
5) Once golden brown, enjoy with tomato sauce!

Recipes: Easy Garbanzos

Yummy, super easy garbanzos:

1) Chop and saute onions in olive oil.
2) In a large pot over medium heat, boil water, garbanzos from a jar (here they're packed with spinach), and a little salt.
3) Add sauteed onions and chopped potatoes and continue to boil.
4) Call it done when the texture is to your liking!

I like how there's so much leftover broth, so I use it to make couscous :) 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Printed: Education Things

Teachers only spend 4 hours a day in the classroom, and take 2 hours a week for "professional development".
Some things that have caught my attention lately:

FINLAND: Oh, Finland. The country with consistent wonderful education outcomes for years and years, studied and admired by all. This recent article gave some facts about how they do things that I hadn´t heard before - I´d be curious to find out how true these things are for all schools, but it´s definitely food for thought.  (no school until age 7? teachers spending 4 hours per day in the classroom?? and they all have masters???)

Friday, November 30, 2012

Recipe: Basic Fall Vegetable Soup


1) Boil water and add a cube of chicken bouillon (OK - so I learned this is NOT actually all vegetables, like I was told.  This is not the first time this has happened in Spain - I ordered a 'vegetable sandwich' and was surprised it came with a bunch of tuna on it, people seem to never mention that things are made with BONES so now I always ask, and meat broth doesn't seem to 'count' as meat.  Anyway, I'll just substitute with vegetable bouillon).

2) Chop roughly and add potatoes, red peppers, squash, spinach, leek, onion, and carrots (the big ones, not baby).  Cook with the lid on for about half an hour.

3) Eat it as is or, if you want, puree the mixture so it becomes a creamy soup.  The end!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Captured: Quotes

So many recent photos + my obsession with quotes + glorious, glorious free time =

Monday, November 26, 2012

Captured: Avila & Toledo

Two more daytrips. I just love how from Madrid you can hop on a train or bus for an hourish and be in a totally different world with it's own history and culture. I can't say the same if you travel 60 minutes in any direction from Grand Rapids or Chicago...
Avila, just 25 min away on the train. The city walls - started in 1090, most rebuilt in the 12th century.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Rambling: Thankful

Alright, well I wasn't going to write anything for thanksgiving. At first there was just too much to choose from and I couldn't pick just one or two things for, say, a facebook post.  Besides, it sounds less meaningful and cliche today since everyone else is saying the same things - family, friends, food, health, etc. And plus I feel like it's obvious what I'm thankful for, so what's the point of writing it out (side note - I've actually been doing this thing for a few months where before I eat when I have food in front of me I take a deep breath and mentally list 3 things I'm grateful for - it's calming and reflective and stops me from just scarfing down my food without tasting it - woo!). But as I'm heading to bed, I'm still thinking about what I am thankful for, so here goes:

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Printed: More Killing in Chi than Afghanistan

This article is from the summer but I just re-found it and it seemed worth posting.

Facts from this article: 
- More Chicago residents - 228 - have been killed so far this year in the city than the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan - 144 - over the same period.
- Chicago's murder rate is also currently quadruple that of New York and double Los Angeles' rate.
- The city's homicide rate is up more than 50 percent over last year.

Tio Hardiman, Illinois director of anti-violence group CeaseFire, wrote... "once you take a closer look, you will find out that the majority of conflicts stem from interpersonal conflict that escalate into a gang conflict." 
 Chicago Homicide Surge War Zone

So sad. This reminds me of three things:

Monday, November 19, 2012

Captured: Madrid Street Music

Ok, sometimes I am just blown away by the street musicians here.  For your listening pleasure, here are two groups that were in Sol this weekend (I really wish I would have gotten the 5-member band playing traditional Andean flute music on the subway - complete with a rolling sound system!!)

Then this random old man started dancing :-)

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Captured: La Sanidad en Lucha

Some girls and I met up for wonderful Sunday churros and here's what we found when we arrived in Sol.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Recipe: White Beans

Super easy.

1) In a little skillet, start the flavoring base - chunks of tomato, red and green peppers, onions, garlic, and olive oil (this is the same as for the black beans).

Words: How old are you?

Chiquita recently asked me in English, "how many years do you have?"  I explained to her that we use different verbs for age in English than in Spanish - we say "I have seven years" in Spanish, but we say "I AM seven years" in English.

She goes "Madreeee miiiaaaaa!  You are all crazy!"  It makes me laugh because I remember feeling the same way that Spanish-speaking people are weird!  It's funny how different things always seem backwards to both sides. 

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Rambling: Education in Spain

Well, as anyone who's ever met me can suspect, I've been very interested in learning about education in Spain.  I was warned early on that it's 'very strict, and not at all like American schools."  Hmm.  Here's what I've seen so far:

Spain in General
  • Tons of kiddos have rolling backpacks.  This kind: 
  • Public universities costs $650 - $1300 a year. OMG. (Masters can be up to $2,000 a year, private schools can be up to $16,000 - still a lot better than the 2010 average of $32,000 for a private school in the US).
  • The hot thing here is bilingual English/Spanish or French/Spanish schools.  It seems like they all teach language arts and math in Spanish, then English and science in the other language (because 'math is complicated they should learn it in their own language'). The British Council seems to be providing a lot of support (for Adult English classes as well) and their website amazes me - does America have any official program to help others learn English? (Although the British English is weird to me - has she got trousers? instead of does she have pants?
  • I notice a huge lack of emphasis on Social Studies

Captured: Inbox


Friday, November 9, 2012

Printed: Brain Size & Neglect

Wow.  According to this article, a recent study at UCLA shows that school-age children whose mothers nurtured them in early life had brains with a larger hippocampus.  It goes on to state the way a baby is treated in the first two years of its life determines whether or not the eventual adult has a fully functioning brain.  It seems crazy at first, but then not soo crazy when you think about it... I do wonder though, if the lack of development has more to do with lack of proper nutrition, rather than 'attention' in general.  Further studies will be interesting...


Recipe: Black Beans & Rice

I'm lucky here to stay with a family that has a housekeeper who comes for a few hours, 5 days a week.  She cleans the house and makes delicious, delicious food.  (Most families who can afford it have a housekeeper).  Rather than paying for an expensive cooking class here in Madrid, I'm just going to start learning from her while she's cooking!
I took notes and it makes sense to record the recipe here, where it has a 0% chance of getting lost, instead of a piece of paper that has a 70% chance.  So, here is today's lesson: Black Beans and Rice

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Recipe: Tomato Sauce

Ok, we have delicious fresh tomato sauce at home here all the time and I've been wanting to ask our housekeeper how she makes it.  Turns out it's like the easiest thing ever!  Tomato Sauce Recipe:

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Captured: Halfway

Today is the halfway point of Spain, crazy. Accomplishments: I've recorded 361 new words, I read a novel in Spanish (The Boy in the Striped Pajamas), I'm now regularly dreaming in Spanish, and I've memorized (almost) all the words to this song:

My favorite new word is horrorizar.  The definition is "to be terrify or horrified," but I always read it as "he was horrorized!"   

Up next: Spanish poetry

Captured: Girls Dessert Night

A wonderful night!  It's so great when you meet people for the first time and can talk easily about things... topics included cultural differences, the social pressures on women's bodies, the role of parenting, and British slang :-)  And of course, dessert.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Rambling: A Year in the World

Alright, I just have to share about the book I've been reading.  I picked it up randomly in a used book store in Chicago and it seems like it was just waiting for me :)  The author, Frances Mayes, spent a year traveling around with her husband and recorded their adventures.  Her style is very descriptive and makes you feel like you're there with her.  At first I was a little bored (I wanted more internal-development than just what they did day-to-day!) but I ended up really enjoying getting to "know" places through her writing.  She goes to:

- Madrid and all over Spain - it's the first chapter!
- Portugal, where I'm going this weekend (partly inspired by her!)
- Southern Italy - I went to Northern Italy, not Southern, but it was still insightful and plus cool to read right after Eat, Pray, Love
- Venice, Italy, where I just spent a weekend 
- Fez, Morocco... I'd lovvve to go now since it's so close, but I think I need more than a weekend to get the full experience
- The Cotswolds, England, where I took a day trip 
- Istanbul and the Lycian Coast of Turkey, which I was obviously glad to read about :)
- Also France, Greece, and Scotland... all places to dream about

One thing that she does that I want to start doing is reading works by authors from the area when you're visiting.  A large amount of the book is dedicated to discussing what she's reading, and I can see how it would add so much more context to what you're experiencing.

I just have to share a description that makes me jealous I can't write like her: 

Even the rivers are well-behaved, as if they flow through only for ornamentation. Everywhere described as 'honey-colored', the stone houses are that color, but some are dark like chestnut honey, some pale like acacia or linden honey.  Every few miles the geology shirts enough to change the shade of limestone. Like Tuscan farms, the houses seem to have grown out of the land rather than have been built. 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Captured: El Escorial & Segovia

Two awesome cities just a bus or train ride from Madrid - perfect for daytrips.  I've discovered that I love just wandering around by myself, speaking only Spanish and avoiding areas crowded with tourists.  El Escorial:

Monastery.  I wish I could have taken photos inside.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Words: I'm Not Smart

Ok this has got to the funniest conversation I've had so far in Spain:

(practicing English phrases with Chiquita while she takes a bath) 
Me: Are you tall?
Chiquita: Yes, I'm tall.
Me: Are you a boy?
Chiquita: No, I'm not a boy.
Me: Are you smart?
Chiquita: No, I'm not smart.
Me: Well your grammar was correct, but what do you mean you're not smart?? *rambles on about all the reasons she's smart in an attempt to increase her self confidence*
Me: Ok, let's practice again - are you smart?
Chiquita: No, I'm not smart.
Me: Chiquita, we just talked about this.  Why do you think you are not smart?
Chiquita, matter-of-factly: Because I am not a car.

I cracked up.  Obviously she didn't know that meaning of the word smart and her family drives a SmartCar! 

Rambling: US Politics in Europe

I was surprised to see that Spaniards follow US politics as much as Americans do (I'd say as much as they follow futbol!).  I found that in London, Italy, and here, people are really interested in talking about US politics with me and are REALLY KNOWLEDGEABLE about it.  The presidential debates were all featured on the news, and I get the impression that US politics in general is highlighted even when an election isn't coming to a close.  A Londoner told me, "the way that the US is featured here, you'd think we're the 51st state.  In fact, some people call it that."  I can't say we follow much about the UK, besides Kate's fashion choices.  A Canadian in London informed ME of things I didn't know about US campaign funding, and I saw a Brit school an American on candidate policies.  This is a sharp contrast from our general awareness of other countries' politics - I wasn't even sure about the structure of Spain's government until I had been here a week.  I still can't remember the name of the Prime Minister of the UK.  Wah wah.  

Also interesting is that not only does Europe know what's up in the US, they pretty much all want Obama to win and think Romney is terrible.  According to this super interesting survey, Romney is favored by ONLY 9% IN 21 COUNTRIES (Obama's average is 50%).  A Brit told me, "I just CAN'T understand what could be going through Romney's head when he says those things." (in reference to women's issues and human rights).  This article makes the bold statement that "wariness of Romney is widespread," and my experience here has confirmed that - a Spaniard told me that much of the world fears that the US will start wars when we have a Republican president.   
Bar graph

It's been crazy to see the extent of America's influence abroad.  Someone here told me "I won't vote, but your vote will affect me."  It makes me value my vote that much more, and hope the US people choose a president that will not only have positive benefits for our own country, but for the world.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Captured: Flamenco

Flamenco in M├ílaga was everything I thought it would be - moving, talented, and passionate.  Thank goodness, because I would have been really disappointed if it ended up being some cheap sellout tourist-trap.  I had read before that flamenco is all about the duende; the word doesn't have an exact translation in English - 'soul' is close but doesn't quite encompass it. Wikipedia has a pretty good description.  Most flamenco dancers are not young, like in most other forms of dance, but are middle-aged, because it is thought that young girls do not yet have the experience and maturity needed to convey duende.  Lorca wrote, “The duende works on the body of the dancer as the wind works on sand.”

I found this description of flamenco online and love it:  There is a world of difference between American tap-dancing and Spanish Flamenco. The former is “singing in the rain,” “happy again.” Happy is too light for Spaniards. The Spanish light is so bright that it demands shadows. Tap is closer to flying. Flamenco closer to a body in its death throes or in the frenzied throes of passion. 

The place we went, Kelipe, was highly rated online as about as authentic as you can get.  There were only 3 performers, one of which was the same man who took our money, led us to our seats, and opened the show (I've read that the shows that feature lots of dancers 'is a style that has been developed as a spectacle for tourists').   It was held inside an ancient PALACE, with awesome original tilework.  All of the artists were excited and proud because it was their first weekend performing in their new venue.  With maybe 30 of us in the audience, it felt intimate.  Both dancers come from long family histories of flamenco performers, and everyone awwwed when the guitarist and female dancer told us at the end that not only have they been performing together for years, but they are married :-)

First, the guitar: 

Then the singing: 
 Then she danced:

Monday, October 8, 2012

Rambling: Settling in Madrid

Well, FINALLY I'm actually posting something.  Basically the past couple weeks have gone like this: something interesting/fun/insightful happens, I jot down a couple things in a draft post or notebook, I don't have time to finish it, something else interesting/fun/insightful happens, I jot down a couple things about that but don't finish it, repeat over and over, until finally I'm overwhelmed with how many things I want to capture but haven't finished.  I'll try to do a recap here without getting super long.

Where to begin!  My family here is great. I'm lucky that I really have no complaints.  I've gotten together with some of the other au pairs a couple of times and it seems that I'm the only one with nothing to vent about.  My main responsibility is to take care of the 7 year old, who I'll call Chiquita, and help out a little with the 13 year old, who I'll call Chica (but is obviously much more independent).  For a glimpse at Chiquita's personality, see this short post.  Here is where I live:

The suburb where I live - Villavisiosa de Odon.  It's like Forest Hills except a little bigger and its history dates back to the year 939.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Rambling: Things About Spain

A list of things I've learned so far:

- Gay marriage was legalized about 7 year ago - woohoo!
- It barely rains here, but randomly has been raining all week (first rain since May-ish!).  So of course, people freak out.  They drive at a snail's pace.  I hear sometimes schools close!!  In the mornings, there weren't worms on the sidewalk, but huge CARACOLES  :-)  (snails)
- There is no MSU alumni association here :-( 
- College is free! For everyone!
- Synchronized swimming is a popular, respected, media-covered sport.  Who knew?
- The economy sucks right now.  Like, a lot.  They use the term "eurozone crisis" to refer to the recessions in most of Europe, and Spain has the worst unemployment of all. (More stats here).
I did not take this picture
- Knowing English is SO IMPORTANT (there are many bilingual colleges but you have to already know both, there are many opportunities to study abroad if you can speak it, obviously jobs, etc).
- A problem: you need to know English, but up until recently you only learned English if your parents could afford to send you to a private immersion school (or abroad).  So, there is a whole generation of people about my age who can't get a job because of the economy AND locked out of other opportunities since they were never taught English much in school.  Wah wahh.

Captured: Churro Break

Productive week - registered as a resident, joined a gym, ordered a local calling card, got a metro pass, selected Spanish classes, downloaded EuropaFM radio app, learned how to drive the Smart Car, started a notebook for new words, and arranged part-time work in an elementary school! This calls for churros :-)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Rambling: A Weekend in Venice

FINALLY I have time to post the last of my pre-Spain travel pics.  Jeepers it only took forever.  After Molly and I parted in Cinque Terre, I headed to Venice by myself for the weekend.  It took four trains and a lot of lugging my suitcases up and down stairs (on one I accidentally ended up on the first-class car, then while trying to move got stuck in the part between cars because I couldn’t figure out how to open the door... turns out there was a button, as the conductor showed me. Wah wah, embarrassing).  Venice was just like everyone describes it – beautiful, but full of tourists.  It feels like it’s two places competing for the same real estate – historical Venice, with gondolas and art and Venetian masks, buried under the money-making hot spot of today, which lures in 17.5 MILLION tourists a year.  My favorite part of Venice was when I woke up early to watch the sun rise - the city (besides the delivery men, street sweepers, and early-bird locals) was sleeping so it was actually relaxing.  Pics: 

About 6am and the city is still sleeping :-)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Printed: Lead in Detroit

Ok, I got an email in my inbox today with the subject "Lead-Exposure Problems Spotlighted in Detroit."  According to the article, "a new study draws attention to the large numbers of Detroit children who have been exposed to lead and establishes a link between blood-lead levels and lower academic perfor­mance.'  - Article

I swear I head about lead poisoning in Detroit years ago!! Why is it just being 'spotlighted' now?  Where's the info about what has been done to get rid of the lead?  Why is it 2012 and this is still happening?

Monday, September 24, 2012

Words: First Day in Madrid

So the 7-year-old I now au pair for, who I'll call "chiquita," has got to be the cutest thing ever.  Her first eager attempt with me at a sentence in English:

Chiquita: (flipping furiously through a Spanish/English dictionary)  Do you have... (flip, flip)... in your house... (flip, flip, flip)... EXPLOSION???

Me: ..... Umm, no, I don't have explosions.

Chiquita: (runs upstairs and brings down the iPad) Look! (proceeds to show me an app that makes it look like there's an explosion in your house)

I think it's going to be a good 3 months :-)

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Captured: Cinque Terre View

View from our hotel :-)  The best was listening to the waves while falling asleep.  Oh, world.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Rambling: A Week in Northern Italy

Ok, I know this post looks super long, but there were just too many pictures to choose from!  What a beautiful country.  I was ushered out of London by a plane full of chatty Italian teenagers, and my arrival to Italy was marked by their joyful clapping and cheering when we touched down – two things I haven’t seen in the past week (people being loud ??).  This set the tone for a week in Italy.  Since I had done my homework, I knew a train leaves from the Torino airport to the city center every half hour.  However, when I found the train terminal, it was completely deserted and actually eerie (which made me calmly freak out for about a minute).  A couple of conversations in English/Italian/Spanish later (I’m dubbing it Spanglishtalian) and I stepped off the bus, checked in to my hotel, and met my friend Molly!  She’s one of my best friends from high school and made all our plans - she’s currently on a 7 week trip (China, Vietnam, Italy, and Israel) after taking the BAR exam and before starting at her law firm.  Not only does she love all things Italian but studied in Florence for a semester in college and speaks the language well – helpful things for me!

We toured around the northern part of Italy over 5 days – Torino, Genova, and Cinque Terre (near La Spezia).  After the busy sightseeing of London it was nice to spend more time eating, sitting, sleeping, wandering through random churches, etc.  My first night we had the bessssst dinner – the cheese course and pasta was perfect, the setting outdoors in a local piazza was awesome, and our server made us a sampling of 3 desserts because we couldn’t decide!  We started talking to two girls our age next to us and I learned a lot about Italian life, mostly about how different the people, food, and dialect are from one area to the next (makes sense, since Italy used to be a bunch of separate city-states.  They don’t celebrate Independence Day, but Unification Day instead).  One girl even invited us to the bar she works at the next night, but we were leaving in the morning – my first invitation from a new friend abroad!!  

Piazza full of restaurants

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Rambling: A Week in London

Well, after spending a week in London, the easiest way to summarize is that I could definitely live here.  I was too busy to write during the week so now, waiting at the insanely crowded airport at 5:30am, I’ll try to recap:

First pic on the new cam!  At the top of St. Paul's Cathedral, which is unbelievable.
 The craziest thing happened on the flight from Chicago – it turned out that the girl sitting next to me not only was going to the same hostel as I was, but invited me to join her in the cab she had arranged – for free!  She is a PhD student at Northwestern on her way to do research at the British Library archives so the university is paying for her trip, including her cabs (and mine!).  It seemed like the best luck I could have and instantly assured me that things always work out (for any readers of The Alchemist, I’d call it ‘beginners’ luck’).

Monday, September 10, 2012

Captured: Moving

A few photos from my last week in the US:

My Dear Chicago,

I've done what I came to do: explore the city passionately, do my job well, and meet good, transformative people. Thank you for revealing to me my unearned privileges, teaching me how to parallel park, and providing so many new experiences. I'll be seeing you.

With love, Nicole

Surprise going away party with my familia!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Rambling: The Alchemist

Alright, how weird and coincidental is it that I just randomly started reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho today.  My heart already loves it.  Let's review the facts:

- I'm borrowing it from someone - I've skimmed through her bookshelf tons of times and just now noticed it today, even though it's been there the whole time.

- It's about someone deciding between comfort and taking risks for your dream - MY LIFE lately.

- The boy's dream also just happens to be travel.

- It is set in Spain, where I will go next month.

The story is simple and written in a lovely style, but the analogies to life and the wisdom of life are both subtle and powerful.  Below are some of the best quotes of the introduction and part one.  It's long, partly because it's beautiful and clearly true, and partly because I think I might want to look back on it in the future:

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Captured: Reunions

I got to see two favorite people from my past this week :-)

Haiden, who I used to babysit when she was in diapers!

Chris, now a junior, who was one of the most awesome freshmen at the high school where I worked.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Captured: Finland's Buildings

Wow, how awesome are these photos - EdWeek just published an article about how Finland is using innovative school architecture.  Just check out this cafeteria!

It reminds me of the phrase "there's no 'problem child' that can't be 'fixed' with good food, music, and sunlight" by Bill Strickland.

There are a lot more photos if you read the article here 
or download the pdf here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Rambling: Meeting with a Mother

I'm sitting at Panera, fresh from a job interview.  I saw a posting on a local website from a mother who is looking for a tutor for her 2 boys for two months in August.  They will be in 1st and 4th grade.  I was excited about the possibility and curious to see if they were behind in class and their mother wanted to remediate them a bit, or if she simply wanted them to get a head start heading back into a school year.

It turns out that she has actually hired a full-time tutor for ALL summer, who simply can't cover those two weeks in August.  Her boys are successful in school and in fact, bored because they are not challenged.  They also attend Kumon (private tutoring company) regularly during the school year AND over the summer.  Whew!  A far cry from being behind and wanting to spend a couple weeks catching up.

It got me thinking about the effects of how parents intervene in their childrens' schooling.  These parents clearly have high expectations for their childrens' education and when it wasn't going as well as possible (aka, not being challenged), they did something about it.  They make it such a high priority that they're willing to post a job ad, interview, hire, and pay someone for those 2 weeks, rather than simply take 8 days off of learning.  That is dedication.

I wonder what inner-city education would be like if private tutors were a common feature of family life.  I was reminded of the book Home Advantage, which details how families' socioeconomic standings affect their ability to navigate (and fund) the education system.  I was also reminded of a conversation with a Peruvian friend who is concerned that American education isn't as rigorous as countries abroad.

Basically, today was an interesting window into how culture, standing, expectations, and perceptions of the parents' role all affect student achievement.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Moment: Book Club

I think starting a weekly book club with a handful of friends is one of my favorite things I've done in a while.  Yummy food, girl talk, and a really real conversation about diversity and our experiences with it (thanks to the book we're reading, The Color of Water by James McBride) = win.

Note to self: continue to seek out diverse friends.  Combining the experiences of small town America, mixed race, the south, immigration, white privilege, and a palette of cultures is way more fun than not :-)

Printed: TFA Growing

Teach for America announced today that, as of this fall, the group will have more than 10,000 first- and second-year corps members working in schools—the largest corps yet and a 10 percent increase over last year's total. The organization has also become the top employer for graduating seniors at 55 universities... including the University of California-Berkeley, Howard University, Yale University, and Arizona State University.

Other interesting factoids about the 5,800 incoming first-years, as stated in the press release, include the following:
• 38 percent identify as people of color (13 percent are African American and 10 percent are Hispanic), making this the most diverse corps yet;
• 35 percent received Pell Grants;
• 23 percent are the first in their family to get a college degree...  - EdWeek

This is really interesting, especially as the projected growth of City Year has been on all of our minds for so long.  I'd be curious to know if the quality of their program and training has changed.  I am VERY glad to hear that they're becoming more diverse as they grow, especially after Book Club's discussion tonight about the possible implications of minority children having white teachers most of their lives! However, with so many budget cuts, I'm curious to see if it's harder for them to place their teachers in districts as they get bigger...

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Printed: The Reading Gap

"A 2001 study by Susan Neuman and Donna Celano found that the ratio of books to children in middle-income neighborhoods is 13 books to one child, while in low-income neighborhoods the ratio is one book to 300 children".

This is insane!  Maybe those free books in Cheerios boxes lately really are doing more good than I thought... the whole article about a teacher's "Home Library Project" is worth the read.  I especially like the part about how families started adding in their own books, too, and asking their students to read during 'family time.'  :-) 

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Captured: City Year Potential

I've been meaning to post this!  City Year's new video: 

As the official blurb says, every child is born with potential -- the potential to be a writer, a doctor, a teacher, a scientist . But all that potential falls away when a child gives up on school, and right now, one million students drop out every year... this animated video introduces City Year's Long-Term Impact strategy, a plan to ensure that 80% of students in the high-need, public schools City Year serves, reach 10th grade on track and on time.

Full steam ahead!  (I am a fan of the cute little graphics in the vid)

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Printed: Christians Hanging 'Obama'

Ok, so this is a detour from my usual topics, but it needs to be talked about:

The Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., hung an effigy of President Barack Obama from a gallows on its front lawn, accompanied by an upside-down rainbow Pride flag.

The church’s pastor Terry Jones stated that the display was in response to the president’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage, as well as his stance on abortion, adding the president’s “appeasing of radical Islam.” - Source

ARE YOU KIDDING ME?  How in the world does such a portrait of hatred towards someone, on the grounds of being open-minded towards other groups of people, align with Christian views?  Or any reasonable human views?  The most basic concept I can remember from my Sunday-school upbringing is "love your neighbor as yourself," clearly not "threaten people that are different from you."  The article goes on:

The Dove Outreach Church has stirred controversy previously with a book burning of the Islamic Holy Book, the Quran last year that sparked three days of violent rioting in Afghanistan which resulted in the deaths of at least 21 people, including seven United Nations Relief Agency workers.

You really, really, really disappoint me sometimes, Americans.  Bringing it back to education, I can only imagine what the people who did this are teaching their kids.

Printed: Gang Enforcement Laws

A new Illinois law was signed yesterday:

The new law is modeled after the federal racketeering law known as RICO, which was originally designed to target mobsters but in recent years has been used repeatedly by the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago to target the top leadership of street gangs.

Now the state version will allow county prosecutors to take similar action against a street gang as a whole, instead of individual members... Different crimes can be grouped into one criminal proceeding, allowing prosecutors to paint a more complete picture of a gang's criminal activity for judges and juries.

Gang members who are convicted of criminal conspiracy under the law could face more than 30 years in prison. Fines could top $250,000. The government also would be able to seize gang assets such as drug proceeds, real estate and other holdings. - Tribune

Hmm.  Not sure how I feel about this yet... I think I can see pros and cons coming out of this.  The seizing real estate thing is what worries me the most... could they just label any household with weed in it 'connected to gang activity' and take the home?  It'll be interesting to see how this actually plays out in practice. 

Uptown Update's opinion: Not sure how it will work out, but we are happy that gangbangers are finally legally recognized as the urban blight that they are.  Not "good boys just hanging with the wrong people," but members of a well-organized, intentional criminal organization. Now let's see the States Attorney and the courts put some teeth into it.

I can see their stance, but I hope we're also putting equal amounts of energy into gang prevention programs. 

Friday, June 8, 2012

Words: Parents' Frustration

I had dinner with family friends this week and the conversation turned to education.  Their daughter is 11 and the parents are very involved in her schooling.  It was really interesting to me to hear a mother's perspective on 'hot topics' right now.  She voiced:

- Frustration with having extra studying specifically for standardized tests... shouldn't they be learning what's on the test in their regular curriculum??
- Concern for which high school her daughter will attend.  Due to a lack of limited 'good' high schools in Chicago Public Schools, they're already looking into private schools.  Also, isn't it unfair how they don't allot more spaces to their district for the selective enrollment schools?
- Frustration with how teacher tenure works - there is a teacher at their school that everyone knows is not a good teacher.  He doesn't assign homework, doesn't grade, and the parents who have a child in his class even feel pressure to teach them things at home that they're not learning at school! Why should this teacher get to keep teaching when he's ineffective?
- Lower standards and less pride in work than when she went to school.  For example, her daughter's friends will turn in work with poor handwriting, incorrect capitalization, or dirty food, and when asked, respond "my teacher doesn't care."
- Doubt that they're learning as much as they should be.  She mentioned all the studying she had to do early in her schooling in Peru, a visiting child from China who called her year in U.S. schools a 'vacation,' and being unsatisfied with the fact that so many teachers shy away from 'memorization.'
- Finally, uncertainty as to where the blame belongs.  Is it the teachers? Administration? School district? Society?  Isn't this the golden question. 

Wow.  That's quite a list of things to be concerned about as a parent.  It's a reminder that all the issues that schools and districts are dealing with do affect parents daily lives in a very real way.  I feel like their voice is the least heard, they are looped in the least about how and why things work, and it shouldn't be that way.    


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Printed: Michigan Teachers

During the 2010-11 academic year, teacher preparation programs in the state recommended 6,201 people for teacher certification. But only 30% of them -- or 1,862 people -- managed to get a job in a Michigan school.

That's one of the key reasons the Michigan Department of Education (MDE) recommends extending a moratorium on allowing new teacher prep programs to open in the state.  - Freep

I remember this being a HUGE issue when I graduated a couple of years ago... I wonder how Michigan stats compare with other states. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

Words: Letter from a Student

From a favorite sophomore :-)

Captured: Last Weeks of City Year

Being twinners with our students :-)
Painting a mural for the teacher's lounge with students
The last crazy lunch... baha I look like a student in a matching shirt!
Last moments... this student came to say bye to us, even though he was suspended that week <3
How we left school
The Picnic
We did it!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Rambling: Letter to Myself

Reflection activity we did as a team: 

Dear Nicole,

            Today is Wednesday, May 16, 2012.  My last day at Collins Academy is Friday, and next week is the end of my City Year experience.  It’s strange to be ending something that has consumed my life for the past 2 years.  I’m not sure that I’ll ever be a part of something that fosters such a deep transformation in such a short period of time.  Right now, my basic emotions are overwhelmed, grieving, and excited – it’s bittersweet.  I’ll try to capture all of my feelings and memories in this one letter, but know that it won’t be sufficient and I won't get the language exactly accurate and it will only be a glimpse. 

            Some of my favorite memories are those that involve just hanging out with kids when there’s a carefree, loving atmosphere in the air (Yaree, Trevon, Eli Bunny, Marvin, Tyshawn, Denikko) Some of them are those really deep, intimate conversations with kids when they open up and you know that they know you won’t judge them (Jerome, Vincent, Justin).  Some of them are time spent with the team (sparking champagne, Hannah ribbon dancing, ridiculous emails from Phil, sleeping on the train with Andrea, my teams’ Life’s Work,  the end of the team supercharger at Robeson, team days at Phil’s, Dan’s, Jade’s, Senait’s, and my place).  Some of them are events planned for the students (Camp Duncan, Career Day, Tyshawn’s poem at Word Warriors, the last day of Spring Break Camp, Manny doing the cat-daddy at the talent show). Some are the magic that can happen with the corps (every talent show, the quality community meeting moments, Ripples of Hope satisfaction, playing Base Defense during Camp).  And some of them are time spent with my Senior Corps family (IJ with Carly and Dan, the day our life’s work banners were on display, the entire summer training out of uniform, South Haven, Boston training, bars, and travel).  I’d like to look back fondly on the sillyness and culture, too – PT, ABCs, BTA, really acronyms in general, email etiquette, dosage, Bobb Darnell, trackers, voting, and first circles.   I always get get weird during times of change about worrying that I’ll ‘lose memories’ and that the value they give my will decrease over time – I think that’s why I get so nostalgic when things are ending.  However, the memories, the ways the impacted me, the photos, and the people involved will never end.

            I never want to forget what I learned here – treat EVERYONE with respect, resist gossip and negativity, collaborate as much as possible, seek out feedback, value diversity, over-communicate, remember that the people are the job (not the tasks), and spend the time necessary to build and rebuild your team.  I’m glad that my experience confirmed what I already thought to be the key to life – everyone is a good person, and when treated with respect and provided with the right environment, will make the right choices.  The most important thing in education is love.

            I’m proud of the structure I provided for our team – our 3 non-negotiables (open communication, 100% effort, and see the best in every child), our visual ways to manage tasks, the norm of asking for feedback, and excessive positivity.  I’m proud that I was able to earn the respect of my team and the organization almost all of the time.  I’m proud that I was able to put the needs of my supervisor and the team above my own complaints.  I’m proud that I worked really hard, not just the minimum.  I’m proud that we earned the reputation of caring, welcoming people in the building. I’m proud that everyone at school and CY knows who I am.  I’m proud that I allowed myself to listen, change, and be impacted. 

            I’m worried that I inadvertently left some kids behind along the way during the past 2 years.  Everyone needs so much, and I don’t have time to even identify all of the needs, let alone meet all of them.  I hope those students still felt my love and will for them, even if at a greater distance. 

            When I look back at myself on Day One, I see myself as a nervous ‘newbie’, not sure how kids would respond to a “little white girl,” complaining about the ugly uniform, and asking so many questions.  I love that now I feel more at home in North Lawndale than in Uptown, kids greet me with hugs and fist bumps, they stop themselves from cursing in front of me, and I can understand (most of) the slang.  Now my attitude is protective mama bear - “yup, those are my kids, I can roll my eyes and laugh with them but YOU BETTER NOT.”  I’ll go into my next inner-city job with context and confidence.

            I hope I remember the community feeling that City Year has given me and take that where I go.  It’s cool to feel like I’m joining an invisible group of alumni who share the same bond, mission, and spirit.  Even if it doesn’t remain a part of my every day life, I will keep City Year, the values, the students, the people, and the lessons with me; even if I don’t know that it’s impacting my actions, it’s become such a part of me that it always will. 

Yours in Service,

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Words: 20 plus 10

Me: Alright, well we're about halfway done, so how many folders have we done?  There are 25 total.
An intelligent, respectful, hardworking sophomore: Uh, I dunno, you can do it Ms. Lewis.
Me: Well, let's see, I know 25 is near 24, and I know what half of 24 is... do you?
Sophomore: Uhh....
Me: It's 12.  I just have that memorized, but if you don't, you can break up 24 into 20 and 4.  So, what's half of 20?
Sophomore: Umm, I think it's....
Me: Just think, 10 plus what is ______
Sophomore: (Counts on fingers) 20!
Me: Yes, but you don't need to use your fingers for that.  Just remember your tens.  10 plus 10 is 20.  20 plus 10 is 30.  30 plus 10 is _____
Sophomore: (Counts on fingers again) 40!

After some time working on the board, he understood that to add 10 to any number you just increase the tens place value by 1 digit.  We then moved on to adding quickly by breaking apart numbers (ex. 22 + 12 is the same as 22 + 10 + 2).  How are there sophomores in our schools that don't know these things????  My heart breaks for the destruction in their lives that poor schooling in elementary school has done for them.

Note to self: teach students the meaning behind procedures and how to manipulate numbers, not just procedures.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Captured: CY Room Tour

Well, before we tear down our City Year room, I thought I'd capture it.  I do have to say that I'm pretty proud of it, as I lead our team to build it to be both functional and inspiring.  As Martha Stewart said, "life is too complicated not to be orderly."  (Yup, just quoted her.)


The best photo I have.  A dreary windowless room with 2 tables, computers, a whiteboard and couch,
a pile of things that don't belong to use, and an enormous pile of unorganized boxes (out of view).

The best whole-room photo I have.  Notice the work space table against the wall and the tech info above the computers.
The Master of All Things.  Tasks to accomplish along the top, check yourself off when you're done.  Usually a
running list of 'team tasks' as well, random info, and who is heading current 'leadership opportunities.'

STORAGE!  You have no idea how much work I put into getting us a cabinet.
It's (usually) more organized than this, thanks to the labels I made.

Progress monitoring - how many donations have we in-kinded so far? (managed by a corps member)

The appreciation board :-) Cards, emails, and notes from anyone to the team are posted here.

The Calendar, which rules our life.  Color-coded (obviously) and a record of hours along the side.

A running list of inspiring quotes from throughout the year :-)
Notice the red class schedule and monthly 'perfect punctuality awards' in the background. 

Everyone has their own desk (gasp!) and can post up their own things about their spot.

First circle boot prints

The appreciation fridge, thanks to one of my corps members.  Want to thank someone? Post it up!
Yes.  Somewhat effective.
Above the less effective bulletin board, and highly effective supply table.

Mission statements and meeting norms.
Notice they're on our fancy bookshelf, that can hold books AND binders!