Sunday, March 30, 2014


Yesterday was the Houston Public Media Regional Spelling Bee. And since I am my school's spelling bee coordinator and we had a student competitng, I got to be one of the guests.

Call me a nerd, but can I just say that it was the coolest experiences ever? Spelling Bees can be pretty intense and suspenseful as you watch a group of kids anywhere from 1st to 8th grade (most kids at the level are usually 4th to 8th) get thrown a series of words and try to spell them. The whole audience is on the edge of their seats each time a kid hesitates and there is a collective sigh of disappointment and pity if they get it wrong. We are all ready to clap and cheer them on as they progress. And even though we hope our kid is the one who comes up on top, in those moments we root for each child and feel for them as if they were our own.

Or at least I did.

The Bee started at 2pm and I didn't get out of there until it ended around 6:30. I was attached to every one of those 55 kids through the 10 rounds that eventually yielded two co-champions (incidentally the same two kids who were co-champs last year).

The journalist in me led me to instantly begin recording the whole event on the program. I kept track of who was eliminated each round and what words knocked them out. I took pictures and observed parent reactions... which led me to realize I wasn't alone. Most of the highly competitive kids' parents were also taking notes. And not just of what words were being spelled incorrectly but of ALL the words being spelled.

Note to Self: Keep track of all words in future so that your speller can also one day be a champion, or at least in the Top 5 for the Bee like all the other parents did.

One of the co-champs' parents even had a computer and kept track of the rounds and everything too. I thought about the value of all that information... and I guess you could get a feel for if there any trends between word difficulty or origin or obscurity.

I mean, there were definitely a lot of words that meant absolutely nothing to me: krigia, Eichhornia, balalaika, sitzmark, jacamar, tintinnabulary, cloche, dauw, bonnaz... I could keep going.

The nerd in me recognized a word that Akeelah had to spell in the movie "Akeelah and the Bee" (senectitude) and I almost squealed with glee when the sentence for the word brumous was as follows: The character emerging from the brumous background was Sherlock Holmes.

My girl was able to hold out until the 3rd round, beating out 23 of the 55, and tieing for  24th/25th with 4 other people (since they all got out on the same round).

She got out on the word "diaspora," which hurt a little because it's a word I used all the time and even had a whole blog about in grad school. But it also showed how often words are "easy" because of our familiarity with them and nothing else. That perhaps there truly are no "hard" words. It all depends on how many words you just know. And the more words you know, the easier spelling bees are for you.

And knowing patterns can help, too. One of the moms talked about how it's similar to math and that's the strategy she uses to coach her kids. Recognize the sound patterns for words from different origins and you know that Greek words that have the 'f' sound will always be spelled with "ph." Or that something that sounds like "nwa" would be spelled "nios" if they origin is French. And sometimes addition is invovled. Adding techno and babble gives you "technobabble."

I learned a lot and feel better prepared for next year and one day even getting a kid to the Scripps National Bee!

Other Fun Stuff from the day: It was also really cool that the Bee was held in the studios where "A Manor of Speaking," Houston's Downton Abbey recap show is aired. And it was the same host! (Didn't get to meet him though.) I was also momentarily aired on TV and almost got interviewed (there was never a long enough break between rounds for the reporter to actually do the interview). The special guest was Nupar Lala, the 1999 National Bee champ who was in the documentary "Spellbound," which I am now going to watch.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Spring Break 2014: Haiti

One thing that I have loved about being a teacher is having built-in vacations. Summer, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Spring Break... and then the cycle repeats itself. It gives me the freedom/time to do things I've always wanted to do. Or really, one thing I've always wanted to do: travel.

Over past breaks, I've been to England, France, Germany, Nigeria, Spain, Costa Rica, and Ghana. Each trip was special in its own way and has allowed me to feel like the globetrotter I always thought I'd become. But all those trips were only about me (except, perhaps Costa Rica and Ghana, since I did take students. And we did renovate a school building in Ghana). And as you may have picked up on some of my recent jobs, I've been trying to focus on "seeking God first" and making sure the things I do bring Him glory in some way. So when my co-worker suggested we spend our Spring Break in Haiti to work with a school, I was immediately on board. It would be a chance to travel and be His hands and feet. 

Tickets were bought in Thanksgiving and the plan was sent in stone. 

4 Days. 6 Teachers. 1 School. 

We had spent the two-three weeks before trying to raise funds at school to donate towards the Mission Starfish teachers' salaries (they make $100/month). Each grade level had "adopted" a teacher and while we didn't reach our goal to raise an entire year's salary for each of the 8 teachers, we definitely got enough for one month. (The best part of this is it was entirely student-driven! Some of the seniors did all the planning and organizing to raise the money and it was great to see the out-pour of generosity from our students.)

My group on our flight from Miami to Haiti. Check out our little Asian photo-bomber in the background :-)
Saturday afternoon, we flew out to Miami and spent one last night in Western pampering and then Sunday morning, we were off. Two of the girls had been to Haiti the previous year and were well acquainted with our host (and Mission Starfish founder) Silentor. They caught up a bit while we waited for a team from NYC to arrive. Once we were all there, we took a three hour drive from Port a Prince to Gonaives, where the school was located. Along the way, we caught glimpses of the affluence (a sport stadium being built) and sheer poverty (the "tent village" where people still live in donated tents after the earthquake four years ago). In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Nigeria--street vendors, banana farms, mango trees, concrete homes with tin roofing. But there definitely was a lot more simplicity and poverty. And the fact that it's an island allowed for breathtaking views of the ocean and mountains in close proximity. 

Once we got to Gonaives, we rested a little before heading to the school. The students had been told to meet us there and when we arrived, they instantly formed two lines and began singing "Happy Birthday" in French and then in English. It was NYC-team Isabel's (who they called Iza) birthday. (As a funny side bar, the younger kids wanted to sing "Happy Birthday to you, Iza!" all week long... I think they thought it was a general welcome song). It was an adorable welcome and a perfect introduction to the students of Mission Starfish Haiti. 

We were each paired with a student to be our guide, who stepped up to introduce themselves and say, "I am your friend." My little girl was a gorgeous 4th-grader named Yonette. We got a quick tour of the school, were updated on current projects, challenges and successes, and then the students led us on a tour of the surrounding community. 

We got to see an average home in Haiti (for many it's a one-room accommodation barely bigger than a dorm room that's expected to house both parents and children). One of the projects Mission Starfish is attempting to do is build houses for students who live in shacks, and to make sure all homes have concrete floors to help reduce the illnesses students often contract from the level of dust and worms. 

The next day officially began our project. In the mornings, we would spend two hours teaching English to the students. Most of them only speak Creole, the older ones have some mastery of French. The English phrases they knew, if any, were restricted to their name, "how are you?", and telling us "I am your friend." Oh, and singing Happy Birthday. We can't forget "Happy Birthday, Iza." 

Day 1, we worked on parts of the body. We taught them "Head and Shoulders" and played a version of Simon Says. Day 2, we taught them how to describe their favorite things (they all liked school, home, family, chickens, flowers and cars) and their colors. Day 3, we worked on emotions (happy, sad, tired, hungry, thirsty, etc). I think Day 3 was their favorite. My classroom wanted to sing our re-written version of "If You're Happy and You Know It" a MILLION times.  

After the morning English sessions, the students would have recess and lunch and then head home (they had a shortened school day because we were visiting). They would return in the afternoon to do art, theatre and dance classes with the NYC team. My group would then spend the afternoon working with teachers and other adults on their English or entertain the students who weren't in class with the NYC group with games and a dance party. 

The second grade classroom I worked with

One of the girls brought stuff to put on the walls. We used duck-tape, and the whole thing got blowed off by the afternoon.
Note for next year: Bring better adhesive.

Glimpse of our dance party. We taught them The Wobble, The Cupid Shuffle, and the Macarena.
We had none of the music and had to improvise with the Destiny's Child on my iPod.

At the beginning of the trip, I was a little down and withdrawn. Unlike a lot of the girls, I didn't really bring anything for the school or the students. I just brought what I needed and that was it. And so I beat myself up about being selfish and thoughtless in that way. I also was stressed out that we didn't really have a plan for our English classes--each night we kind of sat around and threw together a joint lesson plan. It never felt right for me and I often felt we didn't really take into account how difficult learning and teaching a new language could be. I mean, I barely remember any of the Creole they taught me!

But each day, my spirit was uplifted as we experienced the sheer love and adoration the kids showed us. And I realized that even if we taught them nothing they would remember, they opened our eyes and hearts to the sheer need they each had. The need for a good education, for a better future. And just by being there, we were showing them that there are people out there who care what becomes of them. By simply being there, we gave them hope. 

Most of the girls left Haiti committed to sponsor one of the students. All of us left Haiti with the desire to come back (better prepared) and ready to do more. We've seen their faces, heard their stories, and are excited to be advocates for these little ones. We may have only been there a short time, but a Jason Grey song kept playing over and over again in my head and I was reminded that "in the hands of our Redeemer, nothing is wasted." 
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