Middle School Students Vote in a Mock Election

As a line of adult snaked around the edge of the school this morning, middle school students in Academy 2 at the Lilla G. Frederick also eagerly cast their ballots for president. Students had prepared since yesterday morning for the Mock Election.

“If we learn how to fill out the registration form now, we will be able to do it when we are eighteen years old. Now that I know how to register, I can help someone else,” said Nadira, a thirteen-year-old student at the Lilla G. Frederick Pilot Middle School.

Change Agency: 826 Boston, Egleston Square’s Inspiration Center

I was really surprised to find myself out on a school night, especially after the very first day of school last Thursday. However, the lure of free pizza, visiting a book store, and talking with writers at non-profit youth tutoring and writing center 826 Boston‘s Write-A-Thon launch party proved irresistible.

826 Boston’s field trips allow classes to create their own publications with each student writing his or her own ending.

“3035 Washington Street,” I told my husband,”It’s right by that Dunkin’ Donuts at Egleston.” We walked toward the building, right on the corner. “Oh, it’s right here at this bank,” I said, as we walked closer. GREATER BOSTON BIGFOOT RESEARCH CENTER read the letters on the front of the building. “Well, this is 3035,” said my husband, ringing the doorbell for 826 Boston. A smiling woman greeted us and quickly escorted us through the “research center” – which turned out to be the clever disguise for 826 Boston’s very own bookstore, full of books published by the organization’s students.

As we entered the back room, the center’s tutoring center, we were presented with hard-cover writing journals as well as name tages to write our pen names – our childhood pet’s name as the first name and our childhood street name as the last name. Assuming my new identity as “Birdy Thornbrook”, I sat down and helped myself to a slice of pizza while I scanned the room. I noticed a cartoon drawing on a white board, a story being typed and displayed on a projector, and another display of a Skype homescrren.

Before we arrived, the other partygoers had created the beginning of an extremely silly story – this particular story was about an animal named Petunia who hoped to become a shortstop for a Syracuse sports team. Then, each participant wrote their own ending to the story, and several of the endings were read to a bearded and bespectacled editor via Skype. It turned out that this activity is exactly what 826 Boston youth visitors experience when they come on school trips to 826 Boston headquarters, and they then receive a copy of the beginning of the story as well as a book with their ending. If the laughter and smiles of adults are any indication of what children experience at the center, it must be a very joyful place.

This assumption was affirmed by my conversations with 826’s volunteers and staff. Northeastern University student Toby Fox, age 20, volunteers at 826 as part of the Civic Engagement Program at the university. He says that he enjoys leading field trips and tutoring students, and he loves seeing the stories that the students write. Although Fox studies environmental science, he says that his experience at 826 has inspired the desire to continue volunteering with youth.

Northeastern University student and 826 volunteer Toby Fox feels inspired by the students at 826’s Egleston Square writing center.

When asked about her favorite publication in the Bigfoot Research Center Bookstore, Store and Events Coordinator Sarah Skolnick responded by showing me A Place for Me in the World, a collection of interviews and prints written by the middle school students at the Mission Hill K-8 School. The interviews focus on the theme of career, and the interviewees consist of professionals working in cake decorating, marine biology, and even government – the grinning jowls in the print portrait of Mayor Thomas M. Menino are immediately recognizable.

Store and Events Coordinator Sara Skolnick (left) and writing teachers Aria Hamada-Forrest (center) and Julie Drench (right) pose with the center’s latest publication, written by Mission Hill School middle schoolers.

826 Program Coordinator Karen Sama claims to face an addiction to the center’s students. She displays her favorite publication, a well-designed palm-sized volume titled A Handbook of Practical Knowledge for the Modern Spy, which I purchased for $5. The book is full of ciphers (I spent about twenty minutes trying the first one, and I plan to return to it later) as well as stories about spies. Sama recalls a memorable student: “His name is Kamari. I remember he never wanted to hear the feedback. He just wanted to finish his stories, and that’s it – just to get them done. Then, one day, he went to put his folder back. It was almost put away, and then he pulled it back close to him. He said he just wanted to add something to his story. It was a great moment.”

Program Coordinator Karen Sama sits among student publications holding her favorite 826 volume.

Note: I have set a goal of raising $250 for 826 Boston’s Write-A-Thon. Please support me in this endeavor if possible.

The Perfect Place for Me: Cabarete Language Institute

Back in March, in the midst of state testing and a flurry of IEP meetings, I was online one night, and I found a $500 plane ticket to travel to the Dominican Republic, where I volunteered for three summers, for three weeks in August. I had neither arranged a place to stay nor did I have any plans of what I would do there, but I decided to buy the ticket anyway.

Myself, Elena, and Nataly (my classmate) outside of CLI on my final day there.

But how would I spend my time? Yes, I can visit friends and former students, but what else? I know myself, and I need to have some sort of schedule. Aha! I can study Spanish at Cabarete Language Institute. I had heard great things about the school from a friend who had studied there, but I had my doubts that I could succeed in a Spanish class. I learned Spanish as an adult from my Dominican and Puerto Rican students in Boston and from living and working in Cabarete for three summers. My Spanish was a teacher’s Spanish and a Spanish from the streets. I could communicate basic information about school events and meetings to my students’ families, even on the phone. But, there are still hiccups, gaps, and stops once the context changed or the ideas became more complex. I had taken Spanish in high school, and that’s how I learned the basics. I had tried a popular course at a local adult education center, but I dropped out because I felt uninspired. I received a scholarship to attend an evening program at a prominent Ivy League university, and the teacher bored me. Although my two weeks at Cabarete Language Institute did not make me a perfect Spanish speaker, they did instill my faith that I was capable of refining my Spanish in a classroom setting. I found that, for myself as a learner, Cabarete Language Institute provided the perfect place for me.

Spanish Immersion
When I entered Cabarete Language Institute for the very first time, Rosa, a cheerful and enthusiastic intern from Venezuela, greeted me in Spanish. I took classes from 10 am – 1 pm each day, and for that time, except for a few clarifications in English, I heard, spoke, read, and wrote in Spanish and Spanish only. Even during our charlar con café coffee breaks, we spoke in Spanish and we were provided with feedback from our fantastic teacher…

From L to R: Elena, Nataly, Me, Al (another student), Rosa, Jessica

Elena
Elena is a teacher’s teacher. As a teacher myself, I judge other teacher’s strongly, and Elena exceeded all of my expectations. First of all, Elena knew her content. Elena is a native Spanish speaker from Spain who has lived in the Dominican Republic for a little under two years. Elena knows her Spanish backwards and forwards, and she even studied philology (which I learned is the history and structure of languages). Elena makes the students feel so welcome and comfortable in her classes – she asks lots of questions, and she is interested in learning about her students. She sets clear goals and she provided us with interesting classwork assignments, such as listening to and dictating lyrics, creating shared narratives using various verb structures, and discussing personal experiences, and homework tasks – such as constructing questions based on common interests and writing summaries of a wordless film. Elena provides consistent feedback and corrections in a way that supports students in their language learning without making us feel stupid or overwhelmed.

Elena (center) in action: a dynamic and professional teacher.

A Welcoming Atmosphere
Jessica, the director of Cabarete Language Institute, was prompt in responding to any communication over e-mail before the class started. When I arrived at Cabarete Language Institute on the very first day, I noticed that the chalkboard in the lobby read ¡Bienvenidos Jenny! The lobby also contained a library of books in a variety of languages, which is a treasure in Cabarete where there are no book stores and a few extremely tiny library collections here and there in shops and non-profits. For me, personally, a particular highlight was the free coffee, milk, and sugar provided by Cabarete Language Institute. I am a shameless lover of coffee, so it suited me perfectly! The classrooms are comfortable and airy, and the teachers and staff are hospitable, professional, and able to answer any questions about Cabarete.

Welcome sign and library in the lobby.

I wish I could spend a whole year at Cabarete Language Institute. Between the wonderful atmosphere, classmates, teachers, and students, it is the perfect place for me. It would benefit my Spanish incredibly to work with a talented and experienced teacher like Elena, and I love the enthusiastic, warm, and caring atmosphere of the school. Although I am now back to my reality in the United States, I am fortunate that Elena and Cabarete Language Institute provided me with the confidence to continue my pursuit of “perfect” or at least “progressive” Spanish.

Change Agent: Paulina Perez, School Principal and Community Leader

The sun beats down upon tin roofs as motoconchos rev their engines, bachata music blasts from a nearby lavandería, and red dust clouds the sidewalks of unpaved streets. Most of the people in Cabarete, ex-patriates, Dominicans, and tourists alike, adorn short shorts, flip flops, and tank tops in a futile attempt to beat the heat. But not Paulina Perez, the principal of Puerto Cabarete School. Upon entering her office, tucked in a shaded pocket of trees inside the gated school yard, I find Paulina seated at her desk, wearing a green button-down shirt, gray suit jacket, long dress pants, and loafers. She greets me with her gorgeous and friendly smile, and, upon observing the sweat dripping off of my face, she quickly gets up and turns on the fan.

Paulina Perez flashes her famous smile in her office at Puerto Cabarete.

I first met Paulina in 2008, when I partnered with teachers from her previous school in a summer writing program. By 2010, during the Mariposa Girls Summer Leadership program, Paulina had moved to the Puerto Cabarete School and generously opened the facility – the schoolyard, classrooms, and library – to the Mariposa volunteers and the young ladies attending the camp, many of whom were students at Puerto Cabarete.

Paulina has devoted her to life to serving her community as both an educator and a parishioner. Paulina received her bachelor degree from the Ponticicia Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra, and moved to Caberete to begin her career in education. She began this career nearly 20 years ago, teaching in the Cabarete public schools. In 2004, she was promoted to Assistant Director of Colonial Nuevo, a K-8 public school in Callajon de la Loma. In 2008, upon receiving her Masters in Education from UAPA, La Universidad Abierta Para Adultos, she became the Director of Puerto Cabarete, the oldest public school in Cabarete. Within the her parish, she makes home visits to the elderly and sick to facilitate prayers and offer communion. Paulina and her husband, Mario Bonilla, have 4 children, all of whom attend the pubic schools.

Paulina’s office serves as make-shift counseling center for both adults and children alike. Children come in here when they are in trouble in the classroom. Teachers come by when they have a stressful day. Angry, frustrated, or depressed parents bring there problems here. Paulina listens carefully to them, helping them to work through problems by asking questions and offering advice. I myself have cried in Paulina’s office – once due to being completely exhausted by running a summer program and the other time over the murder of a mutual friend. Both times, Paulina’s words and gentle yet strong manner helped me to heal my feelings – indeed, just being in her presence lends itself to a sense of calm.

Over the past three years, the Puerto Cabarete schoolyard has transformed as a result of Paulina’s engagement with her community partner, The Mariposa DR Foundation. Where once stood a chain link fence, through which motoconcho drivers catcalled schoolgirls, now stands a multi-colored wall adorned in butterflies. Volunteers from Lawrence Academy have painted the wall’s interior in rainbow colors. The once-crumbling gate of the school now bears the United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child. A planter that was once filled with litter now holds a well-manicured collection of plants. The children in the schoolyard on this day, dressed in their blue school uniforms, are smiling. Several of them volunteer to read to me from the bulletin board, where one of the signs reads: “Proteger tu escuela. Es tu segundo hogar.” Care for your school. It is your second home.”

Paulina and Candida, a teacher at Puerto Cabarete, pose in front of the butterfly wall. Photo courtesy of the Mariposa DR Foundation

Three students pose in front of the butterfly wall. Photo courtesy of the Mariposa DR Foundation.

The Rights of the Child are painted on the school’s gate.

Students pose in front of the planter at Puerto Cabarete.

All of these students were able to read the signs from the bulletin board.

Change Agent: Orquidea Garcia, Supermamá de Cabarete

In the office of the Mariposa DR Foundation, located on Calle 9 in the Callejón de la Loma in Cabarete, Dominican Republic, Orquidea Garcia is known by her alias:”Supermamá”.

La Supermamá Orquidea (left) with Jennifer Dines (center), daughter Orianna (right) and two of the La Supermamá’s students

In 2010, when I first met Orquidea, she was very excited for her daughter, Orianna, to join the Mariposa DR Foundation’s First Ever Young Women’s Summer Leadership Program , an all-girls summer program that, in its first year, provided 50 at-risk teenage girls with four weeks of academics, activities, and excursions. When Orquidea agreed to join the program herself as a part of the School Staff Training Program, she took the first steps towards her new life as “Supermamá”.

Orquidea’s talents were immediately apparent in her abilities to use her quiet yet radiant personality to engage the Mariposa program’s young women in both casual conversation as well as in their academic work. I remember one day in early July of 2010, I walked into the library at Puerto Cabarete and saw Orquidea with a group of twenty or so girls. Not one of the girls turned towards myself or Mariposa Assistant Director Jessica Lawson when we entered the library. Orquidea had these young ladies completely enamored with a Spanish translation of Tomie di Paola’s Italian folktale Strega Nona. Afterwards, when I commented to Orquidea about her abilities as a librarian, she said: Jenny, tengo mucho ánimo. “Jenny, I have a lot of positive energy.”

Along with her neighbors and best friends, Claudia and Kathy, Orquidea continued to volunteer with the Mariposa DR Foundation, and in the fall of 2011, she was extremely excited when Executive Director Tricia Suriel arrived at her home along with Jessica Lawson to offer her a job working in the office of the foundation.

Today, Orquidea works full-time for the Mariposa DR Foundation, where she serves as the office manager. Each morning, she starts her day by chatting with the program’s young ladies as she prepares breakfast for them and then sends them off to school. Orquidea has gained many computer skills as well as learned English through her work in the office, and she handles e-mail and phone correspondence, arranging trips, appointments, and guest speakers.

Additionally, Orquidea tutors younger girls in mathematics, and she works closely with the girls in the health class alongside of clinical child psychologist Alexandra Milián Martinez. Although Orquidea admits that she worries frequently about the problems that these young ladies discuss in their groups, from typical trials of coming-of-age to more intense personal and family struggles, she loves being able to guide the young women of her community through their teen years and she is learning much from Martinez, her mentor.

Orquidea hopes to complete a degree in psychology at the local university in Puerto Plata, and she is currently taking the first steps towards making her dream a reality – Orquidea is completing her bachiller or high school diploma in evening classes at Puerto Cabarete, a local public school. Orquidea says that working with the Mariposa DR Foundation made her realize that she was actually very smart. Although she attended school through the 8th grade, she didn’t really think of herself as a serious student or learner until she began working with the young ladies in her community.

Between her roles as an office administrator, social work intern, student, and mathematics tutor, Orquidea remains a “Supermamá” to her beautiful daughter, Orianna, now age 13. Orianna graduated from the 8th grade in June, and she will begin classes at Colegio CADIN, a private preparatory school, in Islabón on Monday.

Orquidea is an inspiration to her friends, family, and students in the Cabarete community, and Literacy Change is proud to feature her as our very first Change Agent profile because Orquidea is making positive changes in education in her community, and she is a model of a teacher who is also a learner.

Expository Writing: How To Complete a Word Search Puzzle

Pearl and I used shared writing to compose an expository “how-to” writing piece. In this video, Pearl explains her steps for solving a word search puzzle using her written piece as well as the word search puzzle itself.

The best way to begin writing is to begin writing.

“The best way to begin writing is to begin writing.” – Mrs. Dines

Perhaps I wasn’t the first person to say that. But that’s what I tell my students, and I am taking my own advice. I have been pondering the idea of starting an education blog since April when I met Lillie Marshall, the author of Teaching Traveling. As a National Board for Professional Teaching Standards candidate-in-progress, I had been thinking of ways to improve my professional leadership and advocacy, and writing about my passions online – literacy, ESL, and special education – had not occurred to me.

In public education, expressing one’s perspective too strongly can sometimes backfire or be misinterpreted. I wondered how many educators would really put themselves out there in an honest and compelling way. After all, education is honest and compelling work  – teachers work with real live human beings who contain all the beautiful messiness of life.

I began searching for educational blogs, and I noticed how the teachers who write online sound professional, capable, and interesting….and resourceful…and people are truly interested what they have to say, based on all of the comments that their blogs receive. When I came across Shelley Wright’s article on blogging as the new persuasive essay, it made me consider the idea that blogging would help me model academic risk-taking for my students. And I decided it would be worth it.

I am fairly nervous to put myself and my perspectives on education out “there” on the “World Wide Web”. What if it gets too personal? What if I get “in trouble” for something I post? What if people criticize my ideas? Or, worst of all, what if no one cares? But, I am going to take the risk because my students might see me as a model of academic writing, other people might benefit from the resources I post, and I might have the potential to help somebody that I would not necessarily connect with in another way.

My goal is to post on here every day, so look for a little something from me daily, and perhaps I can make a change in literacy for someone, somewhere. There, I began!