Friday, October 15, 2004

Fulbright Teacher Exchange Essay, take two

In a commencement address at Bryn Mawr, Ursula LeGuin said,

Thinking about what I should say to you made me think about what we learn in college; and what we unlearn in college; and then how we learn to unlearn what we learned in college and relearn what we unlearned in college, and so on.
LeGuin's words apply equally well to my experiences as a college student, as a new teacher in a large urban junior high school, and as one of the founding teachers of a new public school. I have repeatedly placed myself in challenging situations beyond my previous experience, and have unlearned, learned, and relearned whatever was required to thrive in those situations. I am applying to the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program because I am ready to step out of my comfort zone once again in order to expand my understanding of the world.

I graduated from high school with vaguely liberal politics, little real experience of the world beyond my hometown, confidence in my ability to learn and to do whatever interested me, and a desire to improve the world. I boarded a plane bound for Stanford University, never having seen the school or visited California. Stanford opened up a much wider world for me, and at first I struggled to find my place in it. My confidence in my writing ability was dashed by a freshman literature course, my academic preparation seemed poor compared to that of students from private schools and top-ranked public schools, my commitment to my liberal ideals was tested as I tried to practice those ideals as an adult. Over the next four years, I strengthened my thinking and writing skills, rebuilt my academic confidence, and began to focus my political energy on every child's right to an excellent education.

Inspired by two classes, "Children, Youth, and the Law," and "Children, Civil Rights, and Public Policy," I considered going to law school and pursuing a career as a child advocacy lawyer. As graduation neared, I realized I wasn't ready for law school; I wanted experience working directly with the children and families I hoped to one day represent in court. I felt that I needed to make my abstract conception of justice real by working in communities affected by poverty and educational inequity.

I joined Teach For America and began teaching in a junior high school in the Bronx. I taught science to 170 students in five different classrooms, with limited access to scientific equipment. When we did an experiment, I had to wheel my materials from classroom to classroom in a cart. I struggled with classroom management. Nevertheless, I loved the creative challenge that teaching presented. I loved designing science activities and projects that would capture my students' interest and allow them to connect new ideas to prior knowledge. I brought a lobster to school when we studied crustaceans, crickets when we studied insects, and a piece of bone from the butcher when we studied the skeleton.

During those first two years, I lost confidence that legal action was always the best strategy for resolving injustice. I saw illegal and harmful things go on in the schools - the segregation of special education students, "informal" suspensions that would not show up in school safety records - yet I also saw that the legal system missed the subtleties of these cases. Often, none of the parties involved were wholly right, and yet each had legitimate rights and interests. I was no longer sure whom I would defend if I became a lawyer!

Having decided to continue teaching, I enrolled at Teachers College to get my master's degree in Secondary Science Education. I was happy to learn about best practices in science education, yet dismayed to find that although Teachers College is an urban university, many people there know little of the day-to-day realities of the city schools. This realization strengthened my commitment to teaching in under-resourced schools and to providing a rigorous education for my students.

In the spring of 2001, a colleague called with an offer to help open a new school in the same neighborhood in the Bronx. I jumped at the opportunity and joined the close-knit team of teachers who founded *****, a math, science, and technology magnet school that opened in 2002. Helping start a school allowed me to wear many hats; I have recruited students, interviewed teaching candidates, taught in the after-school program, developed my school's Science curriculum, served as technology coordinator for the school's laptop program, and debated every aspect of school organization with my colleagues. I am currently chair of the Science Department and mentor to two new teachers. Each year, I organize a Science Expo, working with up to 60 different groups of students as they design and conduct original experiments. I have taught minor subjects such as Drama, Health, and Physical Education in addition to Science. Most importantly, I have honed my skills as a teacher.

When I am abroad, I will collaborate with the sixth grade social studies teacher - who teaches world cultures - to have the students research my exchange country and send me on long-distance field trips. They will create short itineraries for me to follow, including places to visit, artifacts they would like me to send them, and things they would like me to photograph. I will use a weblog to share stories and photographs of my explorations with the students. I did this type of activity with students when I worked with a program called Reach The World. My students communicated via the internet with a group of people who were sailing around the world. Before the crew reached the Galapagos Islands, my students researched the history, culture, wildlife, and scientific significance of the islands, and designed a one-day field trip which the crew followed. It would be exciting for the students in the US and my exchange country to do a similar project, sending their teachers to explore places they cannot yet visit for themselves.

In addition, I have always grounded my science curriculum in local, authentic experiences. Two years ago, my students investigated the reasons why the highest rates of childhood asthma in the United States are in Harlem and the Bronx. This year, they will learn to identify, classify, and assess the health of street trees in the Bronx. They will also study the area's ecosystems. In my exchange country, I will continue to combine hands-on science and a focus on local phenomena. My students in the US and in my exchange country can compare and contrast data from the two countries about native species, environmental issues, weather patterns, and other science topics.

My experiences with travel have been brief. I spent ten days in Italy with my high school Latin class. More recently, I traveled to Cuba with my roommate, whose mother worked for the US Interests Section. I also visited Puerto Rico for vacation and for insight into my students' background. In each case, I struggled to answer people's questions when I returned. "What is Cuba like?" people asked. How could I possibly answer that question after visiting for less than two weeks and as a tourist? After each of these trips, I imagined myself returning and staying for several months, shopping where the people shop, returning to my favorite places regularly, and contributing to the community through work. Only then might I begin to be able to answer questions about what the place is like.

I am drawn to countries that are in transition and that straddle cultural, political, and economic boundaries. Geographically and culturally, Turkey inhabits a space between Europe and the Middle East, between Christianity and Islam. Similarly, Estonia inhabits a borderland between the former Soviet Union and the rest of Europe. Like the people in Turkey and Estonia, my current students belong to more than one world. Many spend several months each year in the Dominican Republic; others are recent immigrants from Africa or Bangladesh. They live in the Bronx, mere miles from some of the richest blocks in the world, yet some rarely leave their neighborhood. As a teacher, I must seek opportunities to widen their experience of the world while affirming their cultural traditions.

People in all three countries must struggle with questions of identity: when and how to embrace the West, when and how to resist globalization. I want to know more about how these changing societies educate the next generation. What do they see as the purpose of education? Who designs the curriculum, and what choices have they made about which topics to include and in what form? I wonder, also, how my colleagues, my students, and my students' families will perceive a teacher from the United States. Answering these questions requires that we learn and unlearn and relearn our own cultural traditions and those of another culture. What I desire for myself, my students, and their families, here and abroad, is to begin this learning process.

What do you all think? Thanks so much to everyone who made suggestions in the comments - I hope you will see evidence in my final draft that I took your feedback seriously.


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