Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Personal Statement for NPTT

When I was eighteen, the first time I went to college, I loved the idea of teaching but I didn’t understand the level of commitment it required.  In my mid-twenties I gave it a try for a few years and then attempted to grasp at something that seemed larger, more erudite and revered - a doctorate degree - only to discover (after five years) that it wasn’t as fulfilling as working with students after all.  At this point in my life I have taught, I have tutored, I have researched, lectured, presented, written, transcribed and jumped through the hoops of PhD candidacy only to reach the realization that I belong right back where I started over ten years ago: in a high school classroom. I have always loved learning; it has just taken me a long time to realize that I also truly love teaching. Perhaps I should start at the beginning.
In 2000, I entered the University of North Florida’s Honor Program with a number of scholarships under my arm, including the Chappy James Most Promising Teacher Award.  At that point I already had an intuition that teaching was the profession for me.  However, after two semesters as an Elementary Education major, I switched to a more lighthearted major:  English, with a Political Science minor for levity.  ‘I can always teach high school English, right?’ was my thought.
When I graduated in 2004, I had no idea what to do with an English degree so I took a trip to Europe, bartended and managed a restaurant for a while, took some creative writing workshops and eventually signed up for a TEFL certificate course in Buenos Aires, Argentina.  In 2005 – 2006, I spent eight months in Buenos Aires teaching English as a Foreign Language to the upper crust of the white collar community:  the CFO of La Clarin, the national newspaper, the children of the Korean ambassador, salesmen and women for Novartis Pharmaceuticals, Repsol, Microsoft and many other students. It was both fascinating and rewarding:  I’m pretty sure I learned more from my students than they did from me!  Every day was entirely new and foreign and surreal. My love for teaching was born.  When I returned to the states in the summer of 2006, I felt ready to teach high school English.
My first teaching gig was at Bishop Eton in Tampa, FL, a private K-12 school for children who couldn’t fit into the public school mold: some had learning disabilities, others had behavioral problems while others were on the Spectrum or had physical limitations, a few had been kicked out of every public school in the county. ADHD, bipolar disorder, epilepsy, Asberger’s:  each student had a unique case history and set of educational needs. I taught English and Humanities for grades 9-12.   There was no set curriculum, which allowed me the freedom to piece together innovative strategies and flexible lesson plans that met Florida State English and Reading goals. For the Humanities credits, I created lessons on food, pop culture, art and music.  We studied the differences between sampling and plagiarism by looking at such examples as Shakespeare and Jayzee and we made screen prints for our unit on pop art.
Though being innovative was fun when it was successful, it was also exhausting: most days I wished I had a cannon of lesson plans to consult. I eventually came to see this flexibility as less of a blessing than a curse! Needless to say, I was in over my head and struggling to tread water.  There were many moments I wished I had taken more than a handful of education courses and I tried to constantly educate myself and memorize each IEP.   During that year, we went through three headmasters and eventually the high school portion of the school closed due to a buyout from a larger educational company.  At the year’s conclusion, I was offered a position in the middle school but turned it down to look for a public school job.  I will never forget the lessons I learned and the joy I received from those special students, some of whom I still keep in touch with. 
That summer I worked in the ESL field again at ELS (English Language Services) Center in St. Petersburg, FL.  For three months, I taught international visitors aged 16- 40 from such locales as Saudi Arabia, Brazil, Germany and Turkey.  This teaching job was exceptionally engaging and enjoyable but without a Master’s degree in ESL I made a fraction of the salary of my peers and when the opportunity to teach at a public high school opened up, I took a freshman English teaching position.
The 2007-2008 school year was the most difficult teaching assignment to date:  I had approximately 175 students in seven classes at Alonso High School, student population: 3600.  I had three course preps and no prep period.  Worst of all, I had no classroom but roved from room to room in an enormously overcrowded institution on a huge campus.  With the optimism of youth, I thought that I could manage all of this, as well as the constantly shifting student population, the near-daily fights and occasional drug busts and still manage to make a difference.  I have to admit that I was wrong.  I may have made small gains and contributed some knowledge but at the year’s end, I was disillusioned, stressed out and looking for other options. 
That’s when I discovered Montana.  In an effort to clear my mind, I did what so many twenty-somethings do every year and took a job at Glacier National Park.  Of course, I loved it here immediately.    Western Montana in the summertime is what I imagine heaven is like.  I regained confidence and considered my career options.  The summer flew by and the park closed but I got a job in Babb working for a Blackfeet family and managed to hang on for a few more weeks until the snow was falling and the tourists were all gone.  I returned south, regrouping along the drive and made up my mind to apply to graduate school.  During the fall and winter of 2008 and 2009 I researched my options and decided to go a slightly different route:  linguistic anthropology.  I applied to six schools for a master’s degree and to one for a doctorate.  My acceptance options were varied and ultimately I went the PhD route. 
From 2009 to 2011 I completed the necessary coursework for a master’s degree in linguistic anthropology at Tulane University, in New Orleans (a master’s inclusive doctoral program) and in 2012, achieved PhD candidacy.  This was an exhilarating and challenging period:  I’d never been surrounded by so many intelligent and driven people.  I was swept away by the enthusiasm and threw myself into researching and writing – after all, I had only one linguistics course under my belt upon admission and knew next to nothing about anthropology– I had a lot of catching up to do.  With a modest living stipend and an enjoyable, non-taxing research assistantship, for the first time in my life, I could focus only on school. Perhaps I had to learn to be a learner again before I could be a teacher.
During this time I was a research assistant for Dr. Dajko, who studied Cajun French, Dr. Spitzer, host of American Routes, a national NPR program and Dr. Maxwell, my advisor and the most genius human I’ve ever met.  I learned much from each of these scholars: partially through transcribing audio interviews, grading undergraduate essays, scanning and uploading pdfs and other routine duties but also through observing their methods, reading their articles and taking their classes.  From 2010-2012 Dr. Maxwell gave me the task of putting together and then coordinating a linguist student group to work with the Tunica-Biloxi Tribe of Louisiana on an ongoing language revitalization project.  My duties were many and varied – from organizing weekly meetings, to contacting artists, graphic designers and small presses to print our first children’s book, to parsing traditional texts into morphemes, to making hotel reservations, to serving as the liaison to the tribal council.  I am indebted to Dr. Maxwell for placing me in the coordinator position for it was an invaluable experience.
During all of these years (2008-2012) I still spent summers in Montana and eventually decided that I would research the traditional Blackfeet language and cultural identity for my dissertation project.  My goal was to conduct interviews and focus groups and amass over 100 surveys (five pages each); this way I would have the quantitative data necessary for sociological statistics and the qualitative data that comes with one-on-one oral history collection and ethnography.  During this time I supported myself by working as a tutor at Sylvan Learning Center and substitute teaching in the Bitterroot Valley, as well as waiting tables and producing a line of body products for sale at local markets.  I made several trips up to the reservation during the year and conducted interviews in Missoula and Great Falls as well.  It became clear that I needed to live on the reservation in order to finish the project and really get to know the community so I took a position with the Browning School District for the 2013-2014 school year. 
It’s hard to explain what happened to my dissertation project as the year progressed but eventually I began to understand the apathy of the community towards language revitalization.  To be frank, life is hard here on the Blackfeet Reservation.  Homes are broken; the tribal council is broken; children are at economic and often physical disadvantages.  Many are worried about what they are going to eat or how they will keep their families warm.  Many are dealing with drug and alcohol addictions.  The traditional way of life is gasping for breath while the modern system is malfunctioning.  Before the community as a whole can be concerned with a dying language and throw their energy into preservation projects, there are numerous other priorities that take precedence.  As an outsider, who am I to persuade these people that this is important?  In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (a paradigm that many Blackfeet scholars identify with), the physiological needs trump the ideological every time. 
Though I still think that traditional languages are important to cultural identity, it is not the object of my existence anymore.  It has occurred to me that the Blackfeet community members of Montana need to come to the realization themselves that language preservation is important – and many have.  If they want the assistance of an outside linguist, I will be happy to provide it.  But I can’t force this realization from my lofty perch of comfort and in the meantime, I feel that my efforts are better spent elsewhere.  And perhaps by spending time in the classroom I will incorporate language projects in more effective ways than I would coming in as an outsider, completing 100 surveys and taking my data back to New Orleans to write a dissertation. 
In my time in Montana in the last year and a half, I have spent a considerable amount of time tutoring and last year, I was a frequent substitute for students at a small K-8 rural school.  One day last year I was teaching a geography lesson to a fifth grade classroom.  I was in the center, with the globe and pointer, while twenty children were gathered around, hands in the air and pushing for attention.  I was having fun; they were having fun.  It was nothing short of magical. Seymore Simon said “I'm more interested in arousing enthusiasm in kids than in teaching the facts. The facts may change, but that enthusiasm for exploring the world will remain with them the rest of their lives.” If I can muster enthusiasm in one kid next year for reading and writing, two of my greatest loves, it’ll be worth it. 
Since August, I have worked for the Browning School District as the Coordinator of the 21st Century After School Tutoring Program for all six schools in the district, focusing primarily on the three elementary schools and the high school.  My duties include grant writing, attendance updates, staffing, ordering supplies and day-to-day oversight of the tutoring programs such as bus coordination and parent communication. Staffing needs are in constant flux so I find myself filling in at one school or another most days and this is my favorite part of the job. For the older grades, homework help is the primary concern but for the younger grades we fill the time with educational games and learning activities and craft projects.  This week, for example, I am excited to bring in one of Glacier National Park’s educational trunks; this one is packed full of skulls from local animals for the children at Napi Elementary, grades 4-6 to identify through a unit study.  I’ve also procured a grant and curriculum to begin incorporating a national science program into the after school program, Fishing in the Schools. 
When I look back at my teaching experiences, it’s not the subject matter or a glowing lesson that stand out but the individuals that impacted me.  Corey, who, at 16, was severely dyslexic and stayed after school to take his tests verbally, never failed to crack me up and demonstrated an uncanny spatial intelligence in all things mechanical.  He is now a successful and enterprising mechanic with an enthusiasm for travel, new experiences and a good adrenaline rush. And there’s Kenyal, a high school senior I mentored while in New Orleans, who was a true Renaissance woman and in true New Orleans fashion, acted like all of her gifts and abilities “ain’t no thing”.  She is now on a full scholarship in a pre-med program. Mustafa, my Turkish tutoree, sent by his employer to pass the TOEFL, labored harder than any student I’ve had since, so that he could return home to his wife and kids as soon as humanly possible. Here in Browning there is Kira*, a high school student, who has made a huge impact on me, though I am not technically her teacher, but her boss.  I have yet to see what her success story will be but it is inspiring to me that she manages to come to school each day, knowing the tragic circumstances that surround her.  I’m not sure if I was a critical component to the success of these individuals but I am thrilled to know them and the fact that I may have helped pave the way even a little bit for them to achieve their goals certainly gives me satisfaction.
All of these experiences in the fourteen years since beginning my bachelor’s degree have brought me full circle.  I feel that now, at 32, I am better equipped to handle a classroom of teenagers and especially more prepared to teach on the Blackfeet Reservation than I would have been even a year ago.  I feel that my background both in and out of the classroom give me unique qualities to bring to students and engage them in reading and writing, which are often NOT the favorite activities of teenagers. Yet I also now realize what I don’t know, which is half the battle.  I look forward to learning more about classroom management, learning styles and lesson preparation as well as many other areas of knowledge through the Northern Plains Transition to Teaching program. 
*Name changed

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Observations from a biased perspective

You don’t know us.  You will never know us.

This was said to me during a focus group about the traditional language of the Piikani or Blackfeet tribe.  I was conducting sociolinguistic research for a dissertation and finding it increasingly difficult to justify to my participants why I was doing the research.

Anthropology.  The study of culture.  Years ago, as an innate observer and perpetual newcomer, I felt drawn to this field.  It all seemed so great from far away, with a blurry lens.  Travel.  Exotic culture.  Living among the natives.  Field journals.  Little known languages.  Ancient traditions.  I thought I would be a natural.  That is, until I found myself actually living among the natives.  My discomfort at being the outsider with the microscope only magnified the observer’s paradox I was supposedly overcoming.  I never became adept at throwing the spotlight on others so well that they didn’t notice me hovering beneath it, taking notes.   And the longer I stayed and stalled and actually lived and worked among the Blackfeet (or at least drifted on and off their reservation) the more apparent it became:  what I was doing was wrong. 

Culture cannot be quantified.  It cannot be objectively researched, dissected, analyzed and wrapped up into a tidy package for all to digest.  It should not be archived.  It should not be mechanically probed.  It cannot be discovered by science.  Culture is itself intangible.  Its tangible presence exists only in symbols and symbolic rituals and in poor descriptive sketches.  Culture can be given but not taken.  It can be passed down and shared and realized.  It can be observed and honored but should not be mimicked and appropriated. 

Now, the strangest thing to me is that it took me so long to come to this conclusion.  A social scientist?  Using the scientific method to understand culture and tradition?  Why didn’t these phrases sound more ridiculous to me before? 

Observations from a biased perspective: that is the best that I can offer to the field.  And really, from an ethnographic stance, that is all any anthropologist can really offer or perhaps, if they are superhuman, they can give observations from an unbiased perspective.  But is that ever truly possible?  Decades ago, the idea of native anthropology was scoffed at.  To be an anthropologist you had to be an outsider.  This was agreed upon by everyone important.  It was the quality of being an outsider, being new to the traditions and culture of a people that gave you insight as to what was really happening.  The inner workings of a living system could have new light thrown on them by a fresh perspective and everything sacred was made mundane.   An anthropologist had arrived on the scene  and everything could be labeled and categorized.   And if you were good, it was neat and clean and fit into an accepted model or a current theory.   If you were really good, you laid out a new model to fit the pieces perfectly into and penned a new theory to match (or vice versa). 

I knew all along that I wasn’t a scientist.  I can hardly follow a cake recipe, let alone the tedious instructions of an IRB board.  I can jump through hoops in the short term but I need to know that there is a prize at the end or hope that it's something worthwhile that I am fighting for.  I’m not good at painstaking experiments, routine, schedule or consistency.  All of these facts should have been red flags years ago.  Yes, I am curious by nature and yes, I am project oriented but I need to know that there is higher purpose.  A worthy end goal.  And here I am, halfway through my seemingly never ending project and daily more unconvinced.  If my goal is to scientifically analyze the daily usage of the Piikani traditional language, to ask 3200 questions to 100 different people and then run stats on the results in 30 different ways, what good will that ultimately do for anyone?  Will I discover a new corelation?  Will I illuminate a hitherto unknown secret that will save the language from extinction?  Will I help anyone but myself, as I progress towards a fancy title?  

I am fairly convinced that I can tell you all I can about the language right now, only if I were to finish this project the academic way it will take hundreds of pages longer.  The truth is – the language is used in various ways in daily life.  It’s not used by many people and those that use it don’t speak it to everyone.  It’s not vital to survival.  There are few fluent speakers.  It is following the predictable path of a dying language, nearly exterminated by colonists.  It is one of the many results of the genocide of this tribe.  If my goal is to tell that sad story, I don’t want to do it anymore.  Now that I know the story, even though I don’t know all of it, I’m done.  I don’t feel the need to continue delving and poking and then writing that story up for disinterested linguists and academics to read, so that they can criticize my methodology or findings when they know the people I’m writing about even less than I do.

So I quit.  I don’t want to shed light on the culture and traditions of the Blackfeet.  It’s not my culture so I don’t have the right to expose it.  And I feel much better saying that than trying to rationalize what I’m doing any longer. 

There are a few loopholes to my self-argument.   After all, I’m not supposed to be a cultural anthropologist.  Technically, I’m a linguistic anthropologist doing a study on a moribund language.  If I were a true linguist (which I’m not, I’m a terrible linguist) there a many arguments for saving dying languages.  To which I must say a) I’m a terrible linguist, what good will I actually do? And b) it’s not my language.  The only way a language will live is if the people who speak it continue to speak it.  And for that to happen, the Piikani need to want to save the language themselves.  What can I, as an outsider, add to that argument?

I still don’t have a good answer to that man in the focus group.  I probably don’t know them, the Blackfeet.  The longer I stay, the more I realize that I am only scratching the surface of their old, old culture in it’s regurgitated modern form.  And I’m exhausted from trying to take in a whole foreign culture that is itself tired of being scrutinized by the colonizers and therefore, slightly hostile.  I’d rather get to know them one by one.  Then I can take them or leave them, be let in or out as they please, be welcomed, be teased or be left alone.  In the end, I’d rather just live my life and let them take or leave me and not daily feel that my project depends on whether I’m inside or out.

Monday, February 4, 2013

I am not a very good blogger, am I?

Well, it's been a while.  And there is no guarantee that it won't be a while again.   I feel like writing tonight so we'll see where this goes.

The last few months, six months actually, have NOT been very happy-go-lucky at all.  Yes, there have been wonderful moments but it has also been hard.  Very hard.  Maybe the hardest ever.  Montana, so beautiful and tender in the summer, is a harsh mistress the rest of the year.  Or perhaps I don't have the sort of tough, pioneering spirit that is required to survive here.  Or maybe I just made a series of bad decisions, culminating in the point I am now at:  Less one boyfriend and plus one (not entirely wanted) giant dog. Minus so much time and money and plus one empty room that no one seems to want to rent from me.   I will not discuss the (ups and) downs further.  Let me instead use this space and time to think of what I have gained.  Maybe categories and bullet points are appropriate?

Experiences I couldn't have had or didn't have in New Orleans:

- canning organic beer (payment - beer of course!)
- cross-country skiing
- teaching five-year-olds gymnastics and a form of movement that could be called dance (if you're generous, that is)
- meeting a kindred spirit who arrived in Montana from Florida, not only from my state but my hometown and not only that but - wait for it!- who came straight from my old job at TacoLu to a job that we shared for six weeks this summer.  These are the kinds of beautiful and inevitable coincidences that reassure me that the world moves in an orderly and guided manner.
- watching my first snowfall in the forest, walking through my first snowdrifts, running in snow, driving in snow, scraping snow....you get the idea?
- hunting and cutting down my first Christmas tree

Moving on to the more recent past, let me get to the point.  Today I was teaching eighth graders and found myself laughing and having fun.  That may not sound extraordinary but it was.  Many times I enjoy tutoring and moments of subbing.  I can't deny the awesome feeling of being greeted by former students with hugs.  I liked teaching fifth grade last week and there are many times when I grasp a sense of fulfillment when working with a student.  But today, I felt completely uninhibited, natural, "in control" of the classroom and I was having fun!  I felt like I was doing a good job and the students were learning and it was fun! That's it.  

I wish I could explain this better but I guess that's pretty much it.  We read a couple of chapters of Tom Sawyer and there was one male student putting on a spectacular performance reading the part of Becky (imagine the page from 30Rock's southern dialect reading the words of Mark Twain).  There was a classroom full of kids on the same page, literally and figuratively.  There was collective laughter - with each other rather than AT each other.  Of course they weren't perfect and they were testing their limits but only in minor ways like leaning back in a chair (until they fell!) or pulling a hood to cover their face.  I didn't say I was the perfect substitute teacher, after all.

To top it off, a teacher at the school who I filled in for last week, stopped by my classroom afterwards to tell me not only that I was doing a great job and the students liked me (who doesn't want to hear that they are liked?) but to drop a very strong hint about a high school English position opening up next year at a nearby school that her husband is the superintendent of.  This has been in the back of my mind all day.  What does it mean?

Maybe the real question is, when was the last time I enjoyed my job?  Shouldn't this be a normal part of my life?

Something to ponder.  But not tonight.  Tomorrow I am filling in for the reading specialist.  Maybe it will be another great day.

Friday, June 29, 2012

From New Orleans to Stevensville: What a difference a month makes!

"Often when you think you're at the end of something, you're at the beginning of something else."  Mr. Rogers said this.  (For some reason, today I've been thinking about the wisdom of Mr. Rogers a lot.)  I haven't quite said good bye to New Orleans but as I left the city a month ago, I felt like it was the end of an era.  The exciting thing is that here I am, living on a modern day homestead in Stevensville, MT, (population 1,500!) beginning a new something else entirely.  
            The journey here took 6,200 miles - about 3,000 more than it needed to - and along the way we got to go to a music festival in the Ozarks, visit family in the Blue Ridge Mountains, see old friends in Tarrytown, NY and Avon Lake, OH, spend a few amazing days in Acadia National Park, ME and go to a beautiful wedding in New Hampshire.  Oh, and we also stopped and hiked part of the Appalachian Trail in Pennsylvania.  Somehow that was less exciting than the rest.  We ate great food and drank new beers and moonshine and we also ate sandwiches made out of the back of the car and drank way too much coffee.  We got rained on.  A lot.  We fought sometimes. When we weren’t fortunate to stay with friends and family we camped about ten nights, slept in the car a few times and spent one night in the sleaziest hotel Bethlehem, NH had to offer (the only one that allowed a dog)!  We saw the sun rise for the last time (for a long time) over the Atlantic Ocean and climbed our smallest mountain to date in the rain and fog in Maine.    And in the last 38 hours of the trip we drove from Cleveland to here:  managed to hit a storm, snap an A/C belt and check out the Badlands en route.  Just when the car was starting to smell really bad, we arrived at Lisa and Decker's house in Stevensville (apparently Stevi {pronounced Steve-Eye} to the locals) at 3:00 in the morning a week ago.  Phew!

I guess I should have been blogging during all of that but instead it gets a mere paragraph.  I saved blogging for the excitement of everyday life here on the ol' homestead.  Watering the garden!  Feeding the chickens!  Planting seedlings!  Fishing the Bitterroot!  Finding morels! Oh, the joys of waking up in Montana.  If that sounds like something you want to read about (and if you don't mind lots of parenthetical asides), stay posted.  I may eventually reminisce about some of the highs and lows of the trip out or I may just stick to the small stuff that makes me smile daily.  Maybe I’ll even share some of the exciting discoveries that my research brings!  After two more weeks here in Steve-Eye, we'll be relocating to Babb, MT for a couple of months so I can survey lots and lots of Blackfeet tribal members.  Then, the job search and fall/winter/spring residence hunt begin.  If this summer is like the last four there will be adventures and mistakes, discoveries and doldrums and lots of laughter and photos of wildflowers.  Oh, Montana, I sure do like you.