when the tables are turned: what I learned about my instruction while being a student

This January, we’ve spent three weeks in Rio doing a Portuguese course at a local language school. Now, as I head home to the kiddos that I miss and the job that I love, I cannot help but reflect on what I learned while being an emerging bi(tri)lingual student.

  • The Teacher. When I think back on my educational experience, it is people I remember…not lessons or curriculum. The teacher matters. Humanity matters. The same goes for this experience: I felt much more engaged when I connected with the teacher; I felt much more motivated when I respected the teacher. What created this dynamic? Patient, present, and authentic listening. A remembering of details. Facilitation rather than sage-on-the-stage-look-at-me-showmanship. A sense of humor. Well-timed feedback that corrects but doesn’t interrupt. Intentional lessons that are relevant to my zone of proximal development. Attention to all modes of learning: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. An encouragement of beneficial resources and a caution against resources that in the end undermine learning.
  • The peers. Since learning is never in isolation, peers have a critical influence on achievement as well. As I was learning a second language, I was slow at times to formulate what I wanted to say. Nothing irritated me more than when a peer would jump in to save me, or steal my struggle, or finish my thoughts. I also was highly annoyed by those who dominated air time. Of course, this goes back to the teacher’s role as well. How do I build community? How do I honor struggle? How do I regulate participation? How do I ensure all voices have air time? How do I equally challenge the “know-it-alls” while supporting other levels?
  • The space. It is hard to learn in uncomfortable chairs in a room that doesn’t feel cozy. It is hard to learn when sitting for hours on end. It is hard to learn when I have limited space. Of course, it is not impossible. But as I think about my role as a teacher, I wonder how I can create the space for optimal learning…especially when I don’t have my own classroom.
  • The learner. Ultimately, my experience in Rio learning Portuguese was up to me–the student. I had to practice. I had to do homework. I had to take risks. I had to struggle. I had to make mistakes. I had to ask questions. I had to engage. In my last week when things shifted to a different classroom, a different level, a different teacher, I didn’t engage fully. And though I may criticize the root of this, in the end… it’s on me.

As I begin my second semester teaching abroad, these are the things I’ll keep in mind.





Tonight was a miracle.

Dave and I sat on the world famous Ipanema beach, eating acai with granola and bananas. In every echo of our ears, there were the accented voices of vendors:

Aguuuuuuuua, cervejjjjjjjja.

Queijo, queijo, queijjjjjjo coalho.

Limonada, mate, Globoooooos.


Hola Heineken. Longe neckeeeees.

Later, we met up with colleagues from Caminhoes Language School to play volleyball.

There we were, covered in sol and sand,

while the setting sun painted streaks of magenta stripes across the sky,

a sly hide-and-go-seek with Pedra da Gávea,

ocean rippling lava and light.

In the north sky,

lightning danced the illuminated story

of jagged exclamation points and question marks.

In our hands were Caipis,

beneath our toes brown sugar sand,

in our hearts joy.

And then, there, in the distance,

a whale meandered through the waves,

along the coast.

Arching and dipping,

a liquid serpentine volcano.

A whale.

What is this life we are living?!

A life of wonder.


sitting with it: my year meditating daily

The summer of 2016, I spent five nights at Vallecitos Mountain Retreat Center in what felt like perpetual, never-ending, extended, are we there yet? meditation. Prior, I had been experimenting with the practice, but never with such intensity and rigor. From dawn to dark, we spent thirty-minute increments either in sitting, walking, or eating meditation sessions. It was intense, to say the least. At times during the retreat, my heavy skin crawled with a suffocating desire to flee…me, my thoughts, and I. But, alas, I couldn’t escape; there was nowhere to go. Now, however, when I look back on that retreat, I see it for what it was: a monumental gift. [To read more about my experience at Vallecitos, see here (prose) or here (poetry).]

After that, I continued to dabble in meditation, albeit with a bit more consistency. Yet all that changed in December of 2016 when my beloved and trusty meditation app, Insight Timer, suggested a year of meditating daily: the 365 day challenge. No ifs, ands, or buts. No excuses or diversions. Every. damn. day.

Yes, please.

And here I sit on the first of 2018 grateful and humbled and honored to say: I did it. Every. damn. day. No ifs, ands, or buts. No excuses or diversions. 

So, here’s a look at my year sitting with it:

  • How. The app offered a curated list of daily meditations grouped together by weekly themes. Though I began with this, I quickly learned that sometimes I don’t jive with the style of the teacher. More often than not, I searched the app’s library for a guided meditation based on my internal landscape: grief when I was mourning the loss of my parents; guidance when I was deciding whether or not to move abroad; peace when my anxiety was kicking in; metta when I needed to send love to some people; compassion when I was raining criticism down on myself. No matter what I was going through, I could find words and light and space to sustain me. Sometimes, I sat in silence with my own breath, training the monkey mind to sit, stay and be.
  • Where. I bought my own set of cushions for ease in the body. Let’s get real: meditation can get uncomfortable… especially for an already, ahem, cushioned girl like myself. An upright, slightly forward spine with ample but soft support for the knees is essential. Those cushions have traveled with me across different homes, hotels and, now, countries. They have been outside a tent and under a staircase. They have grounded me, sustaining my practice.
  • When. On motivated days, the quiet darkness of the morning found me on my cushions. On stressful days, the evening light held my hands as I sat on my cushions. On travel days, an airport floor or the passenger’s seat substituted for my cushions. Often, though, the overwhelming pace of life sprawled me out on my bed, where I fell comfortably asleep with the soothing voice of a meditation teacher in my earbuds.
  • But. Meditation, like life, is a journey. Though I am so proud to say I did it every. damn. day. last year, I also recognize the shortcuts I took. Like fleeting thoughts or experiences, I notice and observe without biased criticism; in this, I gain insight. Moving forward, I want more time meditating on my cushions and less time meditating on my bed. This is a choice. Moving forward, I want more time in silence working through my own mental training and less time being guided by an outside teacher. This is a choice. These I will choose.
  • So What. A friend recently asked if I’ve noticed a difference. It is a profound question that confounds me, for mere words fail to describe how my year sitting with it has transformed me. I long to open the curtains to my heart so people can feel what I feel and know what I know. But, I can, and do, offer evidence. I have lost both of my parents and both of my pets within the blink of six years, yet I am not a bitter person. Fights with my husband have reduced their average running times. The weight of work problems has lightened on my shoulders. Anxieties used to paralyze me with their crippling hold; now, I live in a foreign land (!), embracing the unknown and welcoming adventure. And, when worries do arise, they do not Tasmanian-devil-spiral me into a dark abyss from which I can’t recover. I fight the urge to copy and paste those last two sentences a dozen times because it is all. the. things.

Have I noticed a difference?

am different.

And that, I will gladly sit with.




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