Monday, October 11, 2004

Fulbright Teacher Exchange

I am applying to the Fulbright Teacher Exchange. If I am accepted, I will exchange teaching positions with an educator from another country next year. My first choices are Turkey and Estonia. Here is my personal essay - please provide feedback! Does it answer the questions they ask? Is it well-written? How could I improve it? I know the introduction & conclusion are weak, and I would value suggestions.

Personal Essay

On no more than two additional pages, please write one essay addressing both A and B below:

A. Provide a narrative picture of yourself. The essay should deal with your personal history, focusing on influences on your intellectual development, the educational and cultural opportunities (or lack of them) to which you have been exposed, and the ways in which these experiences have affected you. Also include your special interests and abilities.

B. Describe your future career goals and plans, especially ways you plan to use your experience abroad in your professional work in this country and to enhance international education in your school/college and community.

In the small Massachusetts town where I grew up, my parents and teachers valued the arts, good writing, and science, and passed on those values to me and my classmates. 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.

The next September, I got on a plane for Stanford University, never having seen the school or even 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 own writing ability was dashed by a freshman literature course, my academic preparation seemed poor compared to that of students from private schools and nationally-ranked public schools, my commitment to my liberal ideals was tested as I tried to practice those ideals as an adult. The next four years can best be described in words Ursula LeGuin said in a commencement address at Bryn Mawr, "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."

I became interested in educational equity and took several classes in education and civil rights history. Inspired by two classes, Children, Youth, and the Law, and Children, Civil Rights, and Public Policy, I decided to go to law school and pursue a career as a child advocacy lawyer. As graduation neared, I realized I wasn't ready for law school; I wanted more experience working directly with the children and families I hoped to one day represent in court. I knew that I needed to make my abstract conception of justice real by working in communities affected by poverty and educational inequity.

With these goals, I joined Teach For America and began teaching in a junior high school in the Bronx, New York. My first two years as a teacher were extremely hard. I taught science to 170 students in five different classrooms, with very limited access to scientific equipment. Whenever we did an experiment, I had to wheel my materials from classroom to classroom in a cart. I struggled with classroom management. Yet, 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. When vacations came, I missed my students and the daily routines of the school and classroom.

During those first two years, I lost confidence that legal action was always the best strategy for resolving injustice. I saw many things go on in schools that were illegal and harmful to students, teachers, or families, yet I also saw that the legal system - searching for a single objective "truth" - 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 who I would defend if I became a lawyer!

At the time, Teach For America had a partnership with Teachers College and the New York City Department of Education which allowed me to get my master's degree in Secondary Science Education. I was happy to learn more about best practices in science education, yet dismayed to realize that although Teachers College is an urban school of education, many professors and students there have little conception of what the city's public schools are really like. This realization strengthened my commitment to teaching in under-resourced schools and to providing a rigorous education for my students.

I was planning to teach for another year or two, then investigate other career opportunities, when I received an offer to help open a new school in the same neighborhood. I jumped at the opportunity, and became part of 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, organized the school Science Expo, 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. As we are such a small school, 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.

Our war in Iraq and terrorist attacks in New York City and elsewhere have made me feel that my knowledge of other cultures and of world politics is inadequate. I want to experience life from the perspective of another culture, to the extent that is possible. I have many questions about when it is right for one country to intervene in another's affairs, about how Americans are perceived abroad, about how to make the world more peaceful and just. I feel the need to know more, to educate myself. I hope to unlearn and learn again as I did when I moved from high school in Massachusetts to college in California, from college in California to teaching in New York.

My previous experiences with travel have been brief. I spent two weeks in Italy with my high school Latin class. We lived with Italian students who later visited us in the United States. 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 insight into my students' background. In each case, although I learned certain things about the culture and enjoyed the experience, 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, renting a house, finding a job, and living there for several months. Then I might begin to be able to answer questions about what it is like!

I am applying to the Fulbright Teacher Exchange so that I can live and work in another country and understand the people and culture by being a part of a community, by shopping where the people there shop, working with other teachers, getting to know my students and their families. By working in a foreign school, I hope to enrich my ideas about pedagogy and the purpose of education, and to add another facet to my picture of excellent education. When I am abroad, if I have computer access, I will keep a weblog of my experiences so that I can share them with my students in the United States and other students around the world who are interested in life in other countries. I also plan to set up a penpals program between my students in the United States and my students in my exchange school. I think that having a teacher from another country will enrich my students' education, and when I return, I hope to continue my relationship with my Fulbright school. My students here in the US look up to me, and I hope that by living in another country, I can model for them the value of actively seeking opportunities to increase one's knowledge and of opening oneself up to new experiences.

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