Tuesday, December 16, 2008


Who knew a bunch of middle school teachers, paras, and office staff could be such a good time when they don't have any students to worry about? Turns out we can be a heck of a lot of fun when we're not trying to act like responsible adults. And bowling, of course, brings out everyone's best side. The holiday party after school today included several hours of bowling, trash-talking, stuffing ourselves with Mexican food, exchanging white elephant gifts scavenged from our classrooms, and singing terrible karaoke. I won a bowling-pin-shaped water bottle for winning the bowling-through-someone-else's-legs contest and a Rishel Rangler jacket for being a member of the night's worst bowling team. If only our students could see us like this...they might lose all respect for us. Or they might actually start to see us as real people and respect us all the more.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Sage advice

Looking back in my journal, I came across a little snippet of conversation that I had written down from two weeks ago in school:

(I walk into the all-boys' math class and run into another teacher standing at the door.)
Teacher: Are you helping out in this class?
Erin: Yeah, it's my first day for this one.
Teacher: Do you drink?
Erin: (looks puzzled)
Teacher: I recommend you start.

Monday, December 8, 2008

All in a day’s work

I’ve been working as a para at Rishel Middle School for just over a month now—although it seems like much longer—and it deserves a little more coverage than the first-week impressions I’ve given so far.

So, what exactly do I do? I’m still trying to figure that one out myself. My schedule inevitably changes every time I think I have it worked out, but here’s a rundown of a day that goes precisely as scheduled...although I don’t think I’ve had a single one of those yet.

6:50 Bike three minutes to school, carry bicycle up the stairs and into a classroom, chat with the office staff, clock in.

7:00 Door duty. Stand at the main entrance and tell students they have to walk around the school and come in through the cafeteria, to which they unfailingly whine and complain.

7:25 Learning Families. (Homeroom, essentially.) Abby and I were recently adopted by an existing one.

7:52 This is where it gets interesting. I go to a double-period math class and am still being tossed around doing odd jobs the other period since the girl I had been interpreting for had her schedule changed.

10:04 Lunch. Slightly preposterous, ¿no?

10:45 More excitement. Depending on the day, I have two lunch/recess duties or none. I co-teach a double-period language arts class for ELLs (English language learners) and help out in social studies, more math, and orchestra.

2:30 Clock out, retrieve the bicycle, and head either to English tutoring or home, exhausted.

Writing it down, it doesn’t sound like it should take all that much energy, but you’d be surprised. It’s all the little things. Trying to persuade defiant students to pick up a pencil. Confiscating dozens of worksheets-turned-paper-airplanes. Escorting severely disruptive students to the office. Preventing out-of-control orchestra kids from stomping their violins to pieces. Seriously, it’s happened.

And then there are the redeeming moments, too. Persuading seventh-grade boys that they could have bigger dreams than working at 7-11 and answering their questions about college. Stopping and talking to four of my students walking down the street on my way to the library. Learning a new Vietnamese phrase every day during lunch. Teaching sixth-grade girls to throw a football at recess. Spending a solid class period on solving proportions with a group of students, inventing our own ratio problems about how many of them will drive Porches compared to Ferraris, and watching every single one of them finally get it: "Hey Miss, this stuff in the book is easy!" "I’m gonna take this home and do more of them!" And I remember exactly why I come back every day for more.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

November in a nutshell

So it's December in approximately two hours...figured I'd better squeeze one update for November in here. Whenever I haven't written for awhile, the task of trying to summarize just seems daunting, so I keep putting it off. But here I am, and it's already past my bedtime, so I'll see what I can do under pressure.

I uploaded some photos into my Picasa albums, so feel free to check them out for some of the highlights of the past month. I'll put a few here, with a bit of explanation, for a sneak preview.

Room 203: The project assigned to Abby and Frank and me during my first two weeks as a middle school paraprofessional. All the junk--textbook sets, office supplies, assessment materials, and literally thousands of novels--from the past number of years was transferred from the basement into this disaster zone. We were initially given two days to organize it. Ha. Just for perspective, this is what the place looked like after one full week of organizing.

Viola! And here you have it: the final product. Same view as before, but barely recognizable, eh? Each of those cabinets is filled with young adult novels, organized alphabetically and labeled with lists of all the book sets.

So now that that project's done, we've actually started working with students...but that is a subject for another day. For now, here are some other tidbits.

James and Emily observe sheep at the Georgetown Bighorn Sheep Festival. Or rather, Emily observes sheep; James observes Emily.

Greta and I hike around Red Rocks to celebrate my birthday. Believe me, I've never had weather like this for my birthday in Pennsylvania or Indiana. Awesome.

After watching a YouTube clip on how to carve a turkey, Charles and James go to work on our Thanksgiving dinner in Vail.

A walk in the park down the street. The first real snow of the season, and my first real winter in two years. I forgot how beautiful this was.

So there you have it: some glimpses into life in Colorado. More photos are in the albums; peruse at your leisure. And now it's time for me to get to bed...that 5:40 alarm clock will ring all too soon.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Middle school drama

I’ve worked a whole two days at my new job, and now it’s fall break. Good thing, too; I think I need a vacation. After only two days, you’re wondering? Well. Take a little walk down memory lane to your own preteen years. Let yourself really remember how it felt. I’ve met very few people who actually enjoyed middle school, and I know for me it was pretty agonizing.

I remember how miserable I felt some days, how self-conscious, how excluded. I was mortally embarrassed that I didn’t shave my legs, didn’t wear deodorant, brought my soccer gear to school in a plastic grocery bag. That I got stuck walking down the bus aisle with my violin case. That I hated the way jeans felt and wore sweat pants and animal T-shirts. That I wasn’t a Christian. That I was terrified if any boy liked me. That kids in my music class made fun of my song when we had to bring one in to share. That I hadn’t gotten my period. That I didn’t know how to dance. That I hated dances. That I didn’t have anyone to dress up with for twin day. Even, heaven forbid, that I was smart.

How did I ever survive those traumatic years? And the thing is, I know I had a whole lot going for me that a lot of middle schoolers can’t count on. A supportive family. Enough money. A safe neighborhood. A quiet place to study. No serious peer pressure to try drugs or alcohol or sex. An elementary education that prepared me well for the academic expectations of middle school. Teachers who perceived me as someone who would succeed.

I can’t imagine having any or all of those advantages taken away from me. I can’t imagine trying to make it through those years in a language I barely understood, in a foreign culture, in a school full of strangers...yet that’s what the kids I work with are doing every day. Sometimes I just have to step back and admire their courage, their strength, the pure grit that gets them through. And then it’s back to the grindstone of trying to help them understand what’s going on in class.

My official title is "ELA-S Para," or "English Language Acquisition—Spanish Paraprofessional." Essentially, it means I go around to different classes with students who need extra support in English. In this school, that would actually be most of the kids, but I’m only working with the ones who have the most minimal language proficiency. I don’t have a fixed schedule yet, but I’ve been shadowing the two other ELA paras and learning the ropes. I sit with my kids, I clarify directions, I answer questions. I check to see how much they’ve understood and explain whatever they haven’t in simpler English or in Spanish, depending on their current level of English. I translate vocabulary. I reteach concepts that were missed. I do simultaneous English-Spanish interpretations of various class lectures, including one yesterday on Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift. How do you say plate tectonics in Spanish? Pangaea? Fossil? Mesosaurus? Crust, mantle, inner and outer core? Lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere? Needless to say, my Spanish has been getting a good workout.

And there’s so much more drama apart from the academic aspects of the day. A girl gets in a fight, falls, and cracks her head open on the corner of a desk. A boy is strangled in the bathroom during the Halloween social. Kids fall out of their chairs, stand on their desks, tear up their books, yell out, talk back, smack each other around. And they politely raise their hands, give each other compliments, beam from ear to ear when they answer a question correctly. Like the school social worker told me yesterday, I might get frustrated with this job, and I might get a little crazy, but I will never get bored. And that’s the way I like it.

*In case you were wondering, we just chatted in the lunchroom. I didn’t seek her out of my own accord. Yet.

Saturday, October 25, 2008


As I was cruising down the bike path on my way home from work the other day, past three traffic lights' worth of cars bumper to bumper in rush hour traffic, I was reminded of how happy I am to be a bicycle commuter. It's not just the voice of environmental consciousness in me that makes me feel good about biking; I've been coming up with more and more practical reasons why it's a viable mode of transportation.

Like I mentioned, traffic is certainly a big factor. Denver has made some serious efforts to become a bike-friendly city, with bike paths and bike routes on less-traveled streets that let you bypass most of the congestion and, at certain times of day, make biking just as speedy as driving. Public buses have bike racks on their fronts, and you can even carry bikes right onto the Light Rail with you.

Parking is another nightmare you don't have to deal with on a bike. I hadn't realized the significance of this until I borrowed a car and drove to work at the community college one day. I spent a good fifteen minutes driving around trying to figure out how to get into the parking lot, with all of downtown's one-way streets and no-turn lanes, only to find out that the college lots have meters with two-hour time limits that cost 25 cents for every 8 minutes. I could spend a full hour's pay on parking for one day. Ridiculous. Back to the bike.

And it's not just in parking that a bike saves money; think about no gas, no insurance, no inspection costs. Then there's the exercise factor. I'm not necessarily in the mood to go out running after a day's work, but after biking thirty-some minutes each way, I feel like I've at least gotten some physical activity. And there's the exhilaration of flying down the hill from our house onto the main drag as the sun rises. Who needs coffee?

Of course, there are some downsides to not having a car. It gets pretty chilly in the early mornings, and it's only October. (I shouldn't complain; at least I'm not drenched in sweat by the time I get to work like I was in Cambodia.) It's also a little silly to change into work clothes in a bathroom stall and have to find a place to keep socks, sneakers, spandex, sweats, fleece, hat, gloves, jacket, and helmet until it's time to go home. At least rain is infrequent in Denver, so I don't usually have to deal with rain gear on top of all that.

Biking in the dark is also tricky, even with lights. A couple nights ago, I set out on my bike for a friend's house to practice some quartet music. Despite the awkward violin case on my back, everything went perfectly smoothly until I arrived at my supposed destination, only to realize that the house didn't exist. After making a phone call, I found out that I had copied and pasted all but the first number of the address into Google maps and was actually supposed to be 40 blocks further north. Fabulous. I continued on my way in the dark on a busy street, hitting a poor innocent telephone pole with my violin in the process, until my sympathetic fellow violinist saved the day and showed up in a station wagon to give me and the bicycle a ride.

In spite of potential disasters like that one, I've enjoyed the adventures of pedaling around. I feel so much more connected to the world around me when I'm not shielded from it inside a car. So much more alive. Winter weather may change my attitude toward long morning commutes, but I guess that's a small price to pay for all the big ones I don't have to.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A community college education

So. Last time I wrote, it was about being unemployed. No longer. In fact, since then, I have gotten not one job, but two. I actually had to give my two weeks' notice before I was even officially hired. Why do these things all happen at once?

My first job (apart from some Spanish tutoring a few hours a week) has been as a part-time tutor at the Community College of Denver's ESL writing lab. I've been working there for two weeks now, and I'm loving it. The students I work with are mostly immigrants and refugees, rather than international students who would go back to their countries after graduating. I started keeping a list of the countries my students were from: Eritrea, Mali, Ethiopia, Morocco, Iran, Russia, Ukraine, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Vietnam, China, Mexico, and the list goes on. I've read their essays on fatherhood, politics, education, religion, poverty. On their lives in their homelands, their families they've left behind, their first days in America. Their frustration, their pain, their incredibly tenacious hope. I often just want to sit and digest these pieces for awhile, to ask questions, to listen to their remarkable stories, but they want me to "fix" it, correct the grammar, take away the errors, and please hurry and sign it, class starts in five minutes...sigh. It seems so trivial, scratching away at the mechanics of a paper when there's so much emotion just under the surface. They've been learning about outlines, commas, thesis sentences, and verb tense consistency, but I hope they're also learning that they have valuable stories to share. I'll have a hard time leaving this job at the end of next week.

There won't be much time to ponder that, though, because there's more adventure to come: on the 27th, I'll start a full-time job as an ELA (English Language Acquisition) paraprofessional at a public middle school a couple blocks from my house. 97% Latino, 90% free and reduced lunch, 70% ESL, 17% proficient in reading by standardized test scores. A different kind of challege than my college students, but one I'm still pretty excited about. I'll keep you posted on that one. Until then, happy Friday, and happy fall.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

The joys of unemployment

Really, I'm serious. I wouldn't want to do it forever, but this schedule of baking bread, picking grapes, exploring the city, applying for jobs, and doing some Spanish tutoring on the side while waiting for my Colorado teaching license to be processed is not so bad. And since none of us in this house have full-time jobs (yet), our schedules coincide quite nicely for quality housemate bonding time. At the request of my dear and far-away family, I've uploaded some photos of our place to my Picasa albums, along with some from the summer in PA and Goshen. Here's a little preview. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Rocky Mountain High

It's been awhile, I know. The world does not stop spinning during these transition times, doesn't wait until I'm ready to begin the next phase, so I just keep moving with it. In the month and a half since I've been back in the US, I haven't been in any one place more than 11 days at a time. A blur of family,



Of hello-goodbyes,

unpacking and repacking,

driving from one life into another into another.

Telling myself these feelings of ungroundedness come from being physically rather than emotionally homeless. It worked out pretty well, really, never giving me enough time to fall out of the honeymoon phase of adjusting to one place before I was off to another.

And now I'm here. Denver, Colorado. My fifth day in my new home. I have key and a bed and an address to put on my résumé. Five fabulous housemates, four bicycles, three bedrooms, two hammock chairs, and one treehouse in a crabapple tree.

And it's my night to make supper, so I'm off to explore one of many local Asian markets to make a Cambodian meal in our lime-green kitchen.

And I am happy.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

There's no place like home

Well, here I am, back in good old Pennsylvania. Finally found myself a computer and a little bit of down time to get this blog started up. This page is new, but I'll treat it as a continuation of my Cambodia blog. (Now that I'm back in the States, MCC will take that one down. Maybe I'll see if I can transfer those posts over here.) I liked writing while I was gone, and even though I'm no longer half a world away, I decided to keep up the occasional writings, for anyone who's interested. I'll give you some photos, random stories, life updates, reflections, expressions of what I feel...even though, as Nikki so wisely says, none of it is equal. I know.

Since I last wrote from Phnom Penh, I feel like I've wandered back through several lifetimes. Reentry days with fellow MCC volunteers, coming back to my parents' house, reconnecting with relatives, catching up with high school friends, traveling to Goshen, watching friends get married. Looks like the world kept spinning while I was gone, and now it keeps throwing me off-balance.

So many times during the past year, I thought about what it would be like to be home. In a place where people understood me, where I understood them, where I could simply be myself. Now I'm here, in my house, but home is more elusive than that. On one hand, it feels strangely normal, like I can just melt back into place. It's true; there's no place like home. It's beautiful to be back with the people I love, back where I belong. And on the other, I know I can never quite belong anywhere. Phnom Penh, Telford, Goshen, Denver... and no place is like home.

There's no place like home, there's no place like home, there's no place like home...

Click the heels of my ruby-red slippers three times, and I might just disappear.