an open reflection on my practice: semester one of teaching abroad

“As I draw the curtains on the sleepy eyes of 2017, my mind turns to the power of reflection. It is my first semester teaching internationally. How has it gone? What are my strengths? What are my next steps?

At the end of the semester, I presented a survey eliciting student feedback. It is a survey provided by my school leadership that I modified for what matters to me most as a teacher. Here are the results (prompts are at the top). Some thoughts:

  • I need to improve in clarity. 1, “In this class the expectations for assignments, quizzes, tests, homework, summatives are clear.” 2, “In this class I am clear about the goals, standards, objectives.” In both of these categories, I scored an average less than 4. As I have wrestled with before, my current school is adopting Ken O’Conner‘s approach to grades: that is, no grades. Or accurate grades. Or standards-based grading. Or… well, you can see why my students are unsettled with this aspect of my instruction: so am I! As with all initiatives, it is not the theory with which I am at odds, but rather the annoyingly messy implementation. I think this also ties into the below 4 score in “My teacher is fair” category. Here are my plans to address this: 1, more class models and collaborative scoring of work 2, student self-assessment and reflection 3, soliciting continued feedback from students about this aspect of my teaching 4, deliberate introductions and thorough explanation of assessments and 5, being targeted with and explicit about the alignment among homework, formatives and summatives. Those are the easy ones (insert giggling emjoi here). More nuanced but nonetheless necessary: the intentional offering of opportunities for ambiguity (never accidentally). I know that students need to tolerate and negotiate ambiguity to be successful in the real world. But sometimes this is at odds with grading policies, especially in a competitive school like mine. I want to work on transparency regarding this. And yes, well, that is ambiguous. Hopefully, I’ll work through it like my students will!
  • I am proud of the level of rigor I have maintained this semester. 1, “My teacher challenges me to think critically and analyze information.” 2, “In this class I feel challenged.” This has always been the hill I will die on. [bctt tweet=”I will not insult my students by lowering expectations for them. ” username=”eternitymod”] They deserve better. And yes, it is shreddingly painful while I’m establishing that 1, yes they can 2, no I will not back down 3, this comes from a place of love and 4, that’s right, now here we go. One of my greatest points of pride as an educator is the number of alumni who have told me my class prepared them for the intensity of college. I may not be liked, but I make a difference. 

But therein lies the rub: I want to be liked. And this has been the dominant reflection in my mind this break. Today marks two weeks since I have last seen my kiddos; and I won’t see them until January 23rd. I miss them. Do they miss me? Am I a part of their lives more as than just a taskmaster?

To be fair, I don’t think it’s about being liked. That is superficial. But it is about a connection, which is exactly why I asked this question on the survey: “I feel connected to Mrs. Davenport.” This also scored below a 4 average. And out of all the other numbers, I am NOT. okay. with. this. average. And really, connection shouldn’t be about average: it should be percentage. 100% of my students feel connected to me. I am connected to each. and. every. human. in. my. charge. 

And so, more than anything else, this is what I want to work on next semester. And it has a face. This student doesn’t do well. And this student sits in class, quiet, anonymous, hidden. I do not know this student. I am annoyed by parental blame on me rather than student ownership. And I have probably taken it out on this student. And I know this student probably rated me low on so many aspects of the survey.

I have failed this student. I have let it become personal instead of professional. I have neglected our connection. But that was 2017. Look out, this student, I am coming for you.


To all my teacher readers: I’d love to hear your reflections. What went well for you this past semester? What are you working on? What’s your “this student” story? What questions help you reflect meaningfully on your practice? 

 

photo journal of field trip to Belem

Day 1: Travel and arrival to Belém

Day 2: Travel and exploration of Marajó

Day 3: Travel from Marajó back to Belém

Day 4: Boa Vista, Para

Day 5: Belém to Sampa

buying a car in Sampa

For the past fifty days, we’ve managed to get around Sampa via our feet and a la Uber. And although it’s been sufficient, the thought has lingered in the back of our minds: how do we get out of here?! Traveling beyond the city limits begs for a car of our very own. And so last weekend we found ourselves at a local auto shop recommended to us by several people from school: Auto Handel.

Marcus and Rosa in front of their shop.

There Marcus and his wife, Rosa, guided us through the process of picking, buying and securing insurance for a car (2012 Renault Sandero Stepway). In English! Thankfully, Marcus speaks at least three languages. He also worked us through driving in Brazil (or not driving on some days: Rodizio), managing a flex tank that switches from gas to ethanol, navigating traffic tickets, discerning trustworthy gas stations from those to avoid, and storing the car safely while we’re out of the country. It was a pleasant and efficient experience, which came as a huge relief to Dave and I, who were both nervous about the whole process (we downright avoided it in the beginning).

Now, we can transfer all those nerves to driving in Brazil, where the motorcycles are always just one tiny, minuscule, microscopic, holy crap swerve away. Well, at least this Chicago native can.

Dave has yet to drive.

 

Here’s my first time driving Sampa streets. The face says it all!


Safe at home!

 

flowers and monkeys, oh my!

When Dave and I transitioned down here, one of our biggest worries was the shift to city life. No longer would our yard be filled with deer, elk and bear. Rather the sounds of cars and smells of exhaust and emissions of lights would form our daily backdrop.

While this is true, I have been pleasantly surprised at the connection to nature I have been able to experience in Sampa. Every morning between 5-6, there is the most beautiful bird song outside our window. When it rains, the drops on the roof outside my classroom are musical. As I walk to school, I pass stunning flowering trees caressed by streaming sunlight. My campus is open, airy and sunny, with lots of places where I can work outside.

Here are some pictures of the blooms in our hood.

And then today, Dave and I ventured to the local park in Morumbi: Parque Burle Marx. Wow! It felt so wild–a green haven right in the middle of the city. Food trucks filled our bellies and playing families entertained our sights. The grass was a welcome respite from walking. The best part was the paths that felt more jungle than urban park. There, we encountered a giant green parrot eating high in a tree and the playful presence of marmosets.

Here are some pictures of our adventure there!

For videos, check out my YouTube channel.

 

day 36: a Sampa adventure

This past weekend, some new friends of ours (yay!) invited us to explore another side of Sampa we have not experienced yet: Bela Vista (northeast from us in Morumbi, across the Pinheiros River).

There, we discovered the most delightful farmers market: Jardim Secreto Fair. It was unlike anything we’ve experienced yet. Gritty, raw, noncommercialized (though ironically the majority of the vendors we talked to spoke English…more so than anywhere else yet). Within the first few minutes of our arrival, the local booth’s bartender offered us the opportunity to participate in..how shall I say…some herb which may or may not be popular in Colorado. Only a few minutes after that invitation, we were drinking delicious whiskey and tea concoctions. After introductions to some mutual friends and a bit of live music enjoyment, we were off to explore the booths: soaps and candies and clothes and home decor and trinkets oh my! Little beer shops–think paleteros–punctuated every few stalls. One of our favorite places was this delicious little peanut butter shop that had peanut butter brownies called Pe.Nutt.

After the market, we walked a few (some might add the adjective here of shady) graffiti-lined-blocks down to a highly-rated-but-off-the-grid restaurant called Cla Destino Gastrobar. There we sat outside and shared delicious bottled local beers, burgers (vegetariano e carne), and batatas rusticos. At some point, the waiter came around with housemade flavored cachaças. This probably coincides with when we decided to hit up a local speakeasy/art gallery/bar nearby somehow associated with our current restaurant’s owners.

And that, my friends, is where our night ended. Below an art gallery of red-threaded–penises (peni?) and superimposed-grooms-into-brides (!), we drank handcrafted cocktails. That is, until midnight, at which point we were kindly reminded of close time: so the local restaurant owners could come in and drink together.

How do I get invited to that party?!

 

catch up journal: days 10-31

Today marks our 31st day living in another country. We have frequent moments where we look at each other and say: “Holy cow, we LIVE here. In another country. On a different continent.” As of late, I often find myself in the stage of admiring our hefty-ball size for doing something so bold. #teampossum for the win, indeed.

It’s been awhile since I shared about the happenings down here in Sampa, so here goes.

  • Students. My students have consulates and CEO’s as parents. My students are Olympic-bound athletes. My students are well-educated and articulate and reflective. My students say thank you at the end of the lesson with sincerity in their voices. I worried I wasn’t going to be good enough for them. But alas, all my fears about not being able to meet their needs have been assuaged. As a trusted friend said: “Students are students and Mary is Mary.” I have anchored my new classroom experience in this. And it is true. The Mary who makes connections reaches the students who thrive through relationships. Or vice versa.
  • School. It has been a chaotic start to school. I’m still navigating, at times unsuccessfully, new professional relationships. The schedule has been surprisingly and frustratingly unsettled. There are so many different platforms to maneuver. I’m a bit astonished at how far behind international schools are from current US educational practices–some elements to my relief, some to my angst. And always, I am drawn to think about urban education. Despite these snafus, my current students steadily achieve at the highest levels of international competition. How I wish that were true for students for whom a defective system is just one more overarching oppression in their lives.
  • Home. We are nesting more and more. We put up one of our collage walls. Bought some rugs. Supplemented our kitchen. Figured out laundry (#godave). Got internet (hallefreakinglujah). Cooked dinner at home several times. Ordered some chairs for the guest room. Slept in and lazed around. Hooked up the tv. Bit the bullet to buy more expensive–but better–wine. The routine is starting to become more and more normal. Slowly. However, it still is a struggle with Dave not working full time and him assuming some weird imposed identity of #housebitch. What does that mean? And how do we do that? How do we adapt our roles? Well, lots more nesting to do there I guess. On the upside, it has been really good for him to take on role as JV coach for boys basketball, and to join in on staff league once a week.
  • Sampa living. It is starting to feel a bit more normal to not speak the language. We know the common greetings to give our porteiro and say them regularly. We use the beautifully industrious Google translate for images when ordering off a menu. We can consistently say “we’d like” (gostaria) and “2 more beers” (mais duas cervejas) and “no onion” (sem cebalo) and “thank you” (brigada). We are feeling more confident to order in stores by starting with whether or not someone speaks English. If not, Google translate to the rescue. We know the common questions asked at the grocery store. (No we don’t want to give our CPF. No we don’t need bags. No we don’t need parking validated. Yes credito.) [All of which clips quickly together in social Portuguese]). We regularly get around with Uber (aqui por favor) and order in with Ubereats (comida está aqui? vaminos [that’s Spanish, but it works]).
  • Climate. This one’s funny. I’m pretty sure the Brazilian-God-of-Weather is punishing me for how I made fun of people needing “winter coats down there.” Today I straight up taught in my Neff hat. I have had days where I am so cold, I have a sweater wrapped around my sweatshirt. Dave and I nightly sleep with Mom’s warm fuzzy blanket (that I told him we were bringing not for the weather, but for sentimental reasons) under another ADDITIONAL blanket. I haven’t seen the sun for the past week (as my new colleague said, “oh yeah, RAINforest”). Dave and I are currently working the miraculous two inches of warmth coming from our space heater. And it’s not the temperature that gets ya. It’s the bone-decaying-cold that comes from the humidity. I mean, come on, I’m coming from Colorado! Several nights, Dave and I have gone to bed on wet sheets. (And though I’m prone to wonder what he’s been doing all day, nope, it’s just the heavy wetness hanging in the air, perpetually. Perpetually.) When I put on clothes, they feel damp. (So NOW I know what the heck that DEhumidifier is I saw in the store a month ago. People would laugh that off the shelves in Colorado!)
  • What’s next? Well, we’re going to buy a car. Uber is convenient, but when it comes to driving out to Embu to buy furniture or shop without limit of trunk space or escaping for a hike or weekending on the beach or…  And, we need to buy some tickets. I’m really holding to the advice we’ve been given: always have a ticket in your pocket. I think first on the docket is wine country in Argentina for Thanksgiving. You know, just a few hours away by flight (insert whaaaaaaa face emoji here).

As I type this, I recognize I am in the honeymoon phase of culture shock. I feel good, for the first time in a while. (I feel like I went through every single stage every single day when I first arrived.)

But I’m here. Now.

And life is good.

 

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