Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Unexpected Encounters

About two hours after arriving at the banquet, my energy level was starting to fade. It wasn't that the conversation around my table hadn't been enjoyable or that the first portion of the presentations weren't inspiring. I did enjoy meeting the other people seated at my table and I had been uplifted as I listened to the director of IFI talk about the mission and vision of this volunteer organization, created to meet the needs of international students studying in the U.S.  Still, as I sat among 700 other IFI partners, with a full belly after a delicious meal, the fatigue that I had been combating with caffeine all week resurfaced in a powerful way. My eyelids began to droop and I felt a twinge of guilt as I tried to discreetly glance at the program to determine how much longer the banquet would last.  
“One more speaker left,” I thought, reading the program. Thus far, I estimated that each person who took the stage had spoken or performed for about 15 minutes. “We’re almost finished, then" I concluded.
But when the man on stage started to introduce the next speaker, I realized that I was wrong.

"And now for our keynote speaker... " he began.
“Keynote speaker? I thought the speech from the program director was the main event. This banquet is going to last much longer than I thought…”  The fight against my fatigue was getting harder and harder. I tried to telepathically plead with the serving staff to offer some after-dinner coffee, but it was to no avail.  Then, suddenly, the gentleman on the stage continued introducing the keynote speaker with one simple phrase that jolted me more than even a shot of espresso could have.

L is a professor at P University, one of China’s most prestigious institutions…” he announced, as he listed many of her accomplishments.
Instantly, I perked up. My husband, sitting in front of me, must have felt the same burst of energy. He whipped around and stared at me with wide eyes and a look of disbelief, as if to say, “The keynote speaker is from P University? The P University? The very campus we have walked and biked on hundreds of times? The school where we celebrated our first Christmas a married couple, and the place we met with both Chinese and American friends on a regular basis for three years?”
Miraculously, every ounce of tiredness dissipated. My attention was now fixated on the Chinese woman standing on the stage facing a ballroom full of people.  I hung on her every word as she described the life events that brought her to the U.S for college several years ago, her experiences with IFI as an international student, and her life now as a well-known and respected professor at P. University. I sat in awe as she described her M.O. and ultimate purpose, which were so similar to what mine had been as a former teacher in China. My eyes filled with tears as she cycled through a series of pictures of her and her students on their university campus. For the rest of the banquet attendees, the background of these pictures portrayed unfamiliar Chinese buildings. But for my husband and me, they were pictures of a place that had been our home for three of the best years of our lives.
I have no idea how long she spoke. Thirty minutes? Forty? I couldn't tell you. However long it was, it wasn't enough. I wanted to hear more.  
The crowd of people that circled around her at the end of the banquet was worth wading through just to have a few more precious moments with L. A burst of glee erupted within my heart when I discovered that we shared a handful of mutual friends. Though L and I had never met on campus, even though we may have unknowingly crossed paths, she knew some of my best friends!
As we chatted briefly about common connections, I could feel the crowd of people around me growing impatient, as they slowly, but noticeably, inched closer to L. Sadly, I realized that my individual time with her had to come to an end. But I would see L one day again. Of this I was certain. We were, after all, sisters, connected by our spiritual like-mindedness and the sharing of a place we have, at one point, both called “home.”

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Less than a week ago, my relationship with Twitter was pretty much limited to watching Jimmy Fallon's "hashtag" videos. But on Friday afternoon, I told myself that it was time to actually get acquainted with this social media site. I had avoided it for 8 years, but that afternoon, I assured myself that if the educators I respect most use it as one of many technological tools in their "teacher tool kits," there had to be more to it than I had given it credit for. I still wasn't 100% convinced that "Twitter for educational purposes" wasn't some kind of oxymoron, but I silenced the doubts and set out to discover what Twitter had to offer.

After creating an account, I began to talk to myself as I journeyed into the land of Twitter...

Now, how do I find Jennifer's site? She's really the one that prompted me to take the Twitter plunge, so I should see what's on her page first.

Tap, Tap, Tap, went my keyboard.

Ah! There she is! I scanned her Twitter feed. It wasn't exactly what I had envisioned.

I thought Twitter pages were basically Facebook-esque little status updates. I see some things like that, but this seems pretty different from Facebook. It's really more of a huge web of conversation. 

My brain attempted to make sense of everything I was seeing. This is kind of like a foreign language...with all of these @s and #s....After glancing at some of the words next to the number signs hashtags, "#dubchat" caught my eye.


Instantly, a massive chain of conversation with each small piece including the label, "#dubchat" opened up on my screen. Whoa!  For the first time, I realized that "hashtags" weren't just randomly made-up phrases to summarize someone's Twitter "status" (Pardon my code-switching between Facebook and Twitter words...I think I'm still in the interlanguage phrase of Twitter-language acquisition).

Hold on...so, everyone on this page uses the same #-label for each post. That must mean that the #s aren't really summaries of a particular post, but labels that connect everyone's comments together. Hmm....interesting! 

As I scanned the page, I quickly realized that I had at my fingertips an hour-long discussion between educators in a nearby school district. And, of all things, they were discussing the uses of technology in schools! How apropos!

I almost felt like I was eavesdropping as I read through their conversation, which was essentially a virtual round table discussion. At first, I tried to figure out exactly how this Twitter world worked...

Okay...so, you use the @ sign to reply back to a specific person and you label your tweet with a specific # so that everyone's comments go to the same place...

I took mental notes.

Before I knew it, though, I was no longer focused on how to use Twitter, but instead on how much I could learn from it. Wonderful ideas from contributing educators seemed never-ending. I took more notes:

Hosting parent education tech nights
Collaborating through Google drive and Google handout
Utilizing Google forms
24/7 learning
Technology as a way to differentiate learning
Redefining instruction and assessment
Giving students an opportunity to write for audiences beyond just the teacher
Teachers as guides who help students learn to find information

Who knew that so much could be communicated in 140 characters or less? Not me... that's for sure! 

One contributor called this style of communication the "PD of the future." I could definitely see it.

I was excited. My former doubts about educational uses for Twitter seemed far away. This is awesome. Now, I need to find people to be my Twitter friends.

Checking out my graduate mentor teacher's list of "friends" seemed like a good place to start, so I returned to her profile.  Oh, they are followers...and then there's those you are following...not friends. Ok, got it. So, who is she following? I began to scan through the list.

Oooh! A Twitter account all about educational technology? I could definitely use that!  The blue rectangle labeled "Follow" enticed me. Should I click it? Why not? 


I read some more descriptions.

English teaching resources? Well, I have to follow that! 

Collaborative help for teaching ELLs? Yes, please! 

TESOL? Another obvious choice!

Ooohh....Stacey, Anna, Dana, Betsy, Tara, and Beth from Two Writing Teachers? Awesome! They are all so talented!

Lynda Mullay Hunt? Hey! That's the author of One for the Murphys! That book was incredible!

Ralph Fletcher? Whoa! I used his poetry as a mentor text last month! 

Michelle N? Hey! That's my Slice of Life friend! I definitely want to follow her!

I was clicking like crazy in my "follow" frenzy. Before I knew it, I had followed more than 30 people and I was having so much fun! You might even say I was "twitterpated." I couldn't wait to start reading what they all had to say.

Not once did it cross my mind that I should edit my own Twitter profile until moments later when I opened my Gmail inbox. Three unread messages? All from Twitter? Hmm...Wait...what?! A mixture of panic and excitement flowed through my veins. People are following ME? Oh, gosh! 

In my excitement to learn what others were saying, I hadn't really considered that people might want to know what I had to say. What did I have to say? 

Thus far, the answer had been absolutely nothing. Nada. Zip. Zilch. I was the ambiguous, faceless twitter account with zero tweets. I better do something about that! But what am I going to say? 

I had a feeling a new learning journey was about to commence.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Where I'm From

A few weeks ago, I attempted to face my fear of writing poetry after Anna Gratz Cockerille encouraged slicers to create their own rendition of the "The Good Old Days", using Ralph Fletcher's original poem as a mentor text.  After getting my feet wet with that poem, my supervising teacher for my TESOL field experience (and the one who inspired me to start blogging with the Slice of Life community) introduced me to another great mentor text for poetry: "Where I'm From" by George Ella Lyon.

In light of it being National Poetry Month and the  fact that I just spent the last 5 days with my wonderful family in my childhood home, today seems like the perfect day to compose my own "Where I'm From" poem. To create my work, I used both the original poem and my supervising teacher's poem as mentor texts.

To be honest, I have been working on this poem sporadically for a couple of weeks and am just now putting the "final" touches on it (though I'm not sure I will ever be completely finished revising it). As I composed it, I found myself wondering if the most personal poems are the hardest to publish. I struggled to know which descriptions of "Where I'm From" to include and it pained me to leave some of them behind. Even today, my fingers hesitate as they hover over the "Publish" button on my screen, listening to the doubts in my mind of whether or not my poem is "ready."

Like many of my previous posts, creating this one has, I believe, prepared me in a small way for my future life as an ESL teacher. I have been reminded of how personal our writing can be and of the hesitancy writers may face as they prepare to share their work with others. Today, I am able to try my hand at poetry and attempt to describe "Where I'm From" with the Slice of Life community because there is a pre-exiting relationship there characterized by trust and a lack of judgement. I know that what I write does not have to be the best...it just needs to be my best right now. As I reflect on this, I am inspired to take active measures to create this same sense of community in my future classroom in order to help my students blossom into confident writers. I know that it won't come easily, but it is certainly a goal worth pursuing! Perhaps in the future, I will be able to tell them "Where I'm From" and listen to them share their own stories with me.
Where I’m From 

I am from bicycles,
from hiking boots and family-sized camping tents.
I am from the motor boat on “Grandpa’s Lake.”
(Wrinkled and wet, my fingers
wore the effects of swimming all day long.)
I am from mounds of white snow
piled high 
outside a grey brick house,
the perfect building blocks for snow day forts.

I am from tea parties and Happy Hunters,
carousels and Spiedies,
       from Aud and Zig.
I’m from the cyclists
       and the mini-golfers,
from Why worry when you can pray?
I’m from Say 3 nice things about your sister!
       with ridiculous responses
       that ended our fights in giggles.

I’m from Buttermilk Falls and Jones’ Humdinger,
beautiful gorges and ice cream cones with jimmies.
From Beanie Babies and Precious Moments,
       given by my Aunt Mary
whose memory lives strong in my heart.

Around the dinner table
my family shares our memories
with stories and laughter.
They abide in my heart,
bringing me back
to where I’m from
whenever it seems far away.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Thankful Thursday

It's Thankful Thursday! 

Since the end of the March Slice of Life Challenge, I have only been blogging on Tuesdays to continue keeping up with the Slice of Life community. Lately, however, I've discovered something interesting about myself...

I miss writing!

Back on March 1, I thought that April would bring with it a sense of relief. Instead, however, I have noticed something missing from my days. I'm still working on determining how exactly writing fits into my life on the other six days of the week, but I know that if I'm ever going to make a habit of it, then I have to start somewhere. This afternoon, I am feeling especially thankful, so I thought I'd try out my first-ever non-"Slice of Life" blog post with another rendition of Thankful Thursdays. (Thanks again to Janna, who gets the credit for the original idea.)

I believe that we are called to be thankful in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18), even when we don't necessarily feel like it. Sometimes, this calling is downright hard. It can almost seem impossible to be thankful when faced with trials and difficult, frustrating, or upsetting circumstances. I've had my share of those days when being thankful doesn't come easily (and admittedly have had days when I do not have the thankful heart I should).

Today, however, is not like that. Today, I am filled with joy, my heart is happy, my soul feels nourished, and I can't keep the smile from my face.

Today, I am thankful...

...for beautiful sunshine!

...that I serve a God who is the Great Physician. The times I have seen him to be a miraculous healer are numerous (stories for another time) and just yesterday, he reminded me of his awesome power, as my sister found out that the cysts the doctor found on her baby's brain just one month ago have vanished! :)

...that I get to see my family in just a few hours! My visit to New York started out as a birthday present for my mom, but really it feels like a present to me! I cannot wait to spend the next five days with my parents and siblings.

...that I get to fly and not drive the 500 miles between my new home and my childhood home. This is a rare occurrence...and one I am very grateful for.

...for good books that "hook" me from the beginning and make flight delays completely enjoyable!

...for friends who hold me accountable to the goals I set for myself and aren't afraid to ask "the hard questions."

...for opportunities to discover. I have mentioned before that I am trying to use this transitory season of my life to learn new things and prepare myself for the future as much as I possibly can. This week, I've been exploring new ways to use technology. I am not a very "tech savvy" person, but I'm trying to become one. I recently discovered Evernote and stayed up an hour past my "bed time" last night just playing and learning! 

...for exclamation points! :) After re-reading this post, I realized that I used far too many of them in such a short piece of text. On this day, though, when I am filled with joy and happiness, my fingers just can't seem to resist gleefully returning to upper left corner of my keyboard!!!

What are you thankful for today? 

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

A Tale of Two Meals

The story of my weekend takes place in two very different corners of the same city. Despite the fact that only 11 miles separate them, the paths of those who walk in the first world seldom cross those of the people in the second world. My feet had the opportunity to step into both worlds, though, and my thoughts haven't been the same since. Let me share with you A Tale of Two Meals...

Meal #1: 
Saturday Evening, April 5th

From the quietness of the small kitchen, I looked around the crowded church basement, full of people who had likely suffered more in their lives than I could even imagine. Men, women, and children of all ages squished together around six circular folding tables. I wondered about their stories. From talking with B, the volunteer coordinator for this facility, I knew that the people seated before me struggled and suffered in ways that I never have. Some were former drug addicts and alcoholics, on the road to recovery. Others may have been still enslaved to their addictions. Most, if not all, of them were unable to break free from the chains of poverty. A midst their differences, they all shared one common thread: they were residents of Franklinton, a neighborhood considered to be one of the largest "white slums" in America, and they had come to this ministry house to receive grace and hope in the form of a friendly smile and a free, family-style meal.

Only forty minutes earlier, they had all quickly filed into the church basement after waiting patiently outside until the doors opened promptly at 5:20, just as they do every Saturday at this inner city church. The neighborhood residents had entered the room quickly, moving with haste with their spouses, friends, neighbors, and children, to secure a seat around one of the six tables. Their eyes widened as they looked at the family-style meal we had prepared for them earlier that day. As they awaited permission to begin eating, loud conversation filled the air.

At 5:30 on the dot, after a few brief announcements, an invitation to attend a Celebrate Recovery meeting after the meal, an introduction of our volunteer team, and a prayer, B told the 52 attendees that they could now partake of the dinner that was set before them.

While I stood in the kitchen, watching for iced tea pitchers that needed to be refilled, I noticed that the booming conversations I heard only moments before had been replaced by a quiet chatter, as our guests' focus shifted from the people around the table to the food on their plates. They buttered their rolls, dished out servings of green beans, savored some homemade macaroni salad, and licked their lips to taste the tender rotisserie chicken.

"It's all about the food," B explained to us later. "We're trying to make it more about the relationships, but it's still all about the food."

It made sense to me. If I didn't know where my next meal would come from, that would be my focus, too. I hadn't considered it before, but I later realized that focusing on relationships and conversation while in the presence of a warm meal is a luxury that is only afforded to those who don't spend many of their days hungry.

A few minutes later, just as quickly as they had entered, they vanished, returning home or heading upstairs to attend the Celebrate Recovery meeting. Not a bite of the dinner remained. Every spoonful of leftovers that could be salvaged was packaged in a takeaway box and sent home with several of the families.

Although the next hour was a bustle of sweeping, mopping, wiping, washing, and cleaning, my mind later drifted back to the faces of these Franklinton families. I wondered about them again. Where would they get meals on the other 6 days of the week, when this outreach ministry did not provide one? What would the future be like for these individuals? What about their children? How would they fare in school? And after that? What would it take to help these families to finally break free of their chains? And more importantly, who would help them do it? 

Meal #2: 
Sunday Morning, April 6th 

I stood at end of a large, L-shaped table covered with food. Before me lay a wide, delicious-looking assortment of breakfast pastries, bagels, donuts, casseroles, and fruit. Across the room, another table offered just about any breakfast beverage one could hope for: coffee, tea, orange juice, apple juice, and even chocolate milk. All of this was for our Sunday School class potluck.

As I took a paper plate and began to choose from the abundance of goodies, my thoughts floated back to the meal we had served at the inner city church less than 24 hours prior. The faces of our Franklinton families came to life in my mind's eye, but were interrupted by a whirlwind of comments around me:

"Wow! Look at all of this food!"

"This looks delicious!"

"Whoa...who made that casserole? It smells amazing!"

"Homemade pancakes? With bacon in them? Sweet!" 

"Um, I'm pretty sure we are going to have enough food! There is so much stuff here!"

While I listened to the voices around me, I finished filing through the buffet line, eyeing all of the food that lay at my disposal. A twinge of guilt pierced my heart as I took my seat and looked at my plate full of fresh berries and cinnamon-topped bread. Once again, I imagined the crowded room of families I had seen the night before. This meal would have been beyond the comprehension of those people. It would probably be a dream come true for them. I considered bringing this up as a topic of conversation, but chickened out for fear of seeming like a "downer" or making everyone around me feel guilty. I pushed the visions out of my mind temporarily, and focused on my friends seated around the table.

For the next hour, the large fellowship hall was full of laughter, chattering, and story-telling. By the end of the Sunday School hour, our bellies were all a bit bigger than when we had first entered the room that morning, but somehow the buffet table remained well-stocked. Leftovers abounded.

Soon, the clean-up process began, and all around me there was a flurry of washing, packaging, and organizing. When the frenzy subsided, faces once again plagued my mind, and thoughts swirled through my brain at lightning speed.

What would the people I met last night have thought if they saw our Sunday School brunch? How thankful would they have been if they could partake in a seemingly unlimited amount of food? How thankful were we as we enjoyed it this morning? Did we even think about how blessed we were, or did we take it for granted? What's more, how could I rightly sit and enjoy such a massive display of food this morning, when just last night I saw with my own eyes the tremendous need that exists in our very own city? How do I balance the enjoyment of a surplus of food with a desire to help those who have nothing? I know that there is nothing objectively wrong with having a big potluck, with more food than a room of people could possibly eat in one sitting, but in light of what I saw last night, doing so leaves me feeling conflicted. 
As I write my slice today, I think back to the events of A Tale of Two Meals.  Since the Sunday brunch, I have had a total of 7 meals. I did not worry about where any of that food would come from. Nor did I consider whether I would be able to financially afford to satisfy my hunger. Yet, the people of Franklinton I met on Saturday evening can probably not make the same claim, and the realization of that unsettles my heart. What I am supposed to do about this? Sure, I can volunteer with my church on the first Saturday of the month and help provide one meal of the 90 those people will need in a month. But that seems so small and insignificant. Shouldn't I be doing more? And if so, what?

I wish I had a better conclusion for my tale, but as of now, I am still looking for the right ending, and trying to discern what my role in that story should be.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Left Behind

Today, I left it behind
hesitating at first
Was it really time? 

Beside it
ice-cold shivers,
frosty windows,
the heaviness of wool
all abandoned.

In its place
rays of life,
sparks of excitement,
the lightness of cotton
accompanied me.

Today, I left my coat behind.
Ahead I see