Day 282: Adjusting to the New Normal while #stuckinperu

Almost exactly 23 years ago I was making my way from Ecuador to Peru where my friend Pete and I would hike the breathtaking (literally and metaphorically), Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. 

With a sense of excitement, wonder and bit of trepidation we arrived to the bus station in Guayaquil for our pre-dawn departure to Lima, only to find out that all forms of transportation had been halted due to the severe flooding that was caused by El Nino unleashing deadly downpours that triggered severe landslides and raging rivers across the country. With stories coming in of entire roads slipping off the steep mountains, we realized that Machu Picchu would become a dream destination for another day. Last week as we traveled deeper into the Peruvian countryside, my hopes for reaching the fabled city were once again dashed.

Just two weeks ago, when we left Rio for Peru, Brazil was just reporting their first cases of the Corona Virus and Donald Trump was touting Spring weather as the magical cure all. After a few days of exploring and apartment hunting in Lima, Peru recorded its first 6 cases. Meanwhile, stories from back “home” were that of growing concern and I began to think that we should start to consider what impact this would have on the final two months of our trip. On the day that we arrived in Arequipa, just a week after arriving in Peru, we learned that the USA was banning all travel from Europe and fellow travelers began to see their tour companies cancelling their trips. That day we sought out information from local travel agencies, including our own, to see if there would be any issues with continuing our planned travels to Cusco and Machu Picchu and we were assured that everything was going ahead as scheduled. Late that night we found out that our flights into Colombia had been cancelled, so we decided that it was time to end this amazing journey and head home after nearly 10 months. After a few hours, we had cancelled all the bookings we could and went to bed dreaming about coming home. 

At 6:00 AM the next morning, we received a knock on our door telling us that our bus would be coming to pick us up to take us to Lima, which was a total surprise to us. From the time we went to bed on Sunday night to us scrambling out the door the next morning, we had found out that the president of Peru enacted a state of emergency and the entire country was going on lockdown at midnight, wherever we were at that time we would need to shelter in place for 15 days. In the few minutes we had before our bus came to pick us up, we tried to purchase tickets out of Arequipa so we could get to the airport in time to get a flight out of the country, but all flights were already full or cancelled for the day so our best bet was to hop on the bus and hope we got to Lima on time. 

Peru is famous for many things, including its cuisine, fine alpaca wools and deadly mountain roads. Our 17 hour  journey from Arequipa had us racing down the coastal foothills of the Andes, known as the Devil’s Spine, where narrow roads were carved into steep cliffs and I tried not to look out the window. Our bus driver was trying to get us all back to Lima before roadblocks were put in place, so we made only one quick stop to pick up snacks and we were back on our way.  Just before midnight, our bus rolled into Lima where we were met with empty streets and military roadblocks. After the crazy trip, we were feeling thankful that we made it to Lima and we weren’t stuck in some small mountain town in Peru.

Over the next few days, the reality of our situation began to unfold. In our haste to leave our hotel in Arequipa, we were not able to pick up the laundry we had sent out the day before, so we each had two pairs of underpants and Ava only had one outfit and a set of jammies. During the lockdown, the only stores that are open are pharmacies, banks and the grocery stores. One person from each family/household is allowed to go out to pick things up and then must return directly home. There are no private vehicles permitted and there is a strict curfew from 8:00 PM to 5:00 AM. We have seen various individuals trying to tout these restrictions, by walking their dog, going for a jog or walking with another person, and they are promptly sent home by the many police and military that are guarding the streets. Peru is not messing around.

After a few days in our Hotel the amazing staff of FDR, our new school, moved us into a two bedroom apartment. This was a welcome move, as it gave us a bit more space to shelter in place. I will tell you, it feels like we have spent the last 282 days preparing for this moment. We are already used to living together in tight spaces, on limited resources, far from our family all while homeschooling Ava and diligently washing our hands so that we don’t fall victim to travellers’ diarrhea. We got this.

Watering plants. One of the many routines keeping us occupied.

We are currently in day 9 of our lockdown here in Lima and we continue to wait for news about flights that will take us home. Until then, we continue to follow the rhythms of the day. This morning I was woken up by the singing of birds on our balcony and a peacefulness filled the air, not the norm in a city of 10 million people. I take a few minutes to listen for the waves crashing on the cliffs below and they guide my breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale.  Exhale. I can hear the baby from the apartment across the hall, welcoming the day with her coos and cries, until the reassuring voice of her mom soothes her back to sleep.  After our breakfast, our upstairs neighbor sits on his balcony and serenades us with his acoustic guitar and butterscotch voice. He spends all day playing some of our favorites like he has sneaked a peek out our playlists, however I am not sure he has actually made it through an entire song. Yesterday, he sang well into the early evening hours and Ava commented on his endurance. I told her that this was a perfect time to get in those 10,000 hours of practice and she smiled. In the afternoons, one of us escapes into the outdoors to pick up staples for the day. This is our opportunity to soak in some sunshine and to spend a few minutes admiring the waves as they crash into the shore. With everyone cooking at home, dinner becomes a fusion of aromas between 6 and 8 pm in our apartment complex. The breeze brings in scents of fresh baked bread, slow cooked stews, grilled meats and baked treats. I imagine the tendrils of aroma greeting each other in the hallways, where we can not. Each evening at 8:00 the citizens of Peru stand on their balconies and cheer for the teams of doctors and nurses that are battling for those that are in the hospitals. They cheer for the delivery men and clerks, who are working endlessly to keep the markets stocked, so that we can feel secure that there will be food on the table the next day. They cheer the police and military men that are standing sentry hour after hour, isolated so that we can stay safe in our homes with our families.  

Every evening grants us new hope as we awake the following morning by emails from our embassy assuring us that flights home are coming soon and we might just be on them. Our twitter feed of #stuckinperu just showed this morning a slew of people that flew out yesterday and were safely home in the US of A. Like the people in ‘Casablanca’, we all sit waiting, anxiously for any news, any opportunity and any hope that our number is called next. 

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Day 65: Old Friends, New Laughs in Budapest

We arrived in Budapest via a 2 hour bus ride from Bratislava and could barely contain our excitement.

Seeing our longterm teacher friends Brett and Heather and their little monkey has been a nice respite from the crazy travel schedule of the last two months and we enjoyed every moment of it. Our two weeks in Budapest were spent mellowing out by taking day trips to the park, swimming pools, canoeing down the Danube and a pub crawl or two. One of the highlights was attending the Sziget music festival to see Ed Sheeran, 21 Pilots and Foo fighters. Dave Grohl is practically a rock icon national treasure. Still rocking at 50.

Last spring, an article came out on USA today that caught fire on social media circles attesting to the benefits of teaching overseas. Most of the comments on Facebook were supportive although some of our stateside friends were still skeptical of leaving the land of the free for another option. Some couldn’t even believe there was one.

Two weeks in Budapest gave us time to polish our CVs and cover letters and begin our job search for our 18th year of teaching and what will become our fourth overseas school. As we were doing so, I interviewed Brett and Heather to share what they’ve liked about their experience.

Why did you decide to move abroad and teach internationally?

“We were just looking for an adventure and thought going overseas would be a cool opportunity. We wanted to get right into the classroom and not start as substitute teachers back in Canada. Teaching is hard for new teachers in Ontario, but we also had an ‘in’ to the overseas lifestyle as my parents worked overseas and the expat lifestyle.”

Where have you lived?

We started in Tokyo for 2 years, then Saigon for 7 years, and now Budapest for 5 years. Starting our 15th year and 6th year in Budapest this week!

What are some of the benefits and your favorite aspects of living overseas?

“The international student body. They are slightly more ‘globally minded’ and we have more freedom to teach and not be bogged down by district mandates of testing and excessive paperwork. We get to focus on student learning which has been so rewarding. The lifestyle side is great. There are great opportunities to travel and our money goes far here. Rather than living in a small circle, you meet so many more people outside of your normal school community. “

Be prepared to laugh a lot about cultural hangups and just know that they are just little things.

You talked a bit about travel. Where are some places you’ve been over the last 2 years?

Mostly in Europe. We’ve been to Croatia a few times, Montenegro, Malta, and Greece most recently. We have some fun trips coming up to the Canary Islands this fall and Portugal to meet up with family for Christmas. We do trips home to Canada nearly every year.

Are there any difficulties with an overseas posting?

“Being far from family and friends is hard when you wish you could be closer. We’ve also had to get more creative with retirement saving as we don’t have pensions or access to American savings and investing options. We bought an apartment here in Budapest a couple years ago and hope it continues to rise in value.”

What advice would you have for prospective teachers who are considering a move overseas?

“I think to be open-minded and flexible. Also, do your research. Make sure the school and location are a good ‘fit’ for your preferred lifestyle. Ask “Are you willing to grow and change and adapt to a new place and to what a place might bring?” Be prepared to laugh a lot about cultural hangups and just know that they are just little things.”

10 Books for Early Readers

Resources to Get you Hired and Learn About Schools

Although you can research schools on your own and cold call them by sending your resumes, most international schools use a recruitment service that collects applicants into one central database complete with their teaching experience and letters of reference for easy access. These companies host fairs around the world where candidates and schools can mix and mingle for a weekend of conversations on education. If you’re looking for a position for the 2020-2021 school year, you should get started now with any one of the following:

Search Associates. Search is well established and attracts good quality candidates. Their dashboard is super expansive and after creating an account, you’ll get daily updates for your position. Search is a little pricer than the competitors but their fairs are well run. We used Search and visited their Bangkok fair which is how we got hired to work in South Korea.

Global Recruitment Collaborative This fair is the new kid on the block and undercuts their competitors with lower costs for schools so admin have had good things to say about it from a pricing perspective. About to kick off their 4th year in Dubai in early November, their success has led to a second fair in Bangkok mid November. The GRC fairs are earlier than others, but as schools are moving their declaration dates to November 1st, GRC may be poised to be in the ‘sweet spot’ of hiring season when prospective candidates flood the market.

International School Services. Although we haven’t used ISS for a while (we got hired through them for our jobs in Saigon back in 2006) others have told me they haven’t innovated as much as their peers. ISS has partnered with ‘Schrole’, a vetting platform that is cumbersome to apply through over and over, so ISS makes this process easy.

International Schools Review This is not a search service, but public forum where teachers can speak candidly about their experience at various schools to help you determine if the school is a good fit. You’ll get a feel of school climate, administrative support, and living in country all in one place. The trick was this platform is to get a wholistic perspective by reading multiple reviews to get the full picture. A disgruntled employee may leave a bad review on a school’s administration, but that administrator may have left (or will be leaving) or grumblings may be from a different division than the one you’re applying for.

The Bottom Line

As we are in Istanbul airport heading to Dar Es Salaam to stay with other friends in Tanzania, I can honestly say that a career of international education has made the world our home. Friends connect our world like lines of latitude and longitude and we’ll stay and reconnect with many of them on our trip in cities like Cairo, Muscat, Dubai, Beirut, Amman, Sao Paulo and Curitiba. At a softball game in Vienna yesterday, we rubbed shoulders with two degrees of separation- a player from the Warsaw team whose brother I worked with in Vietnam. A woman from Bucharest who worked with our friend Stacy in Dhaka. International teaching makes the world is a small place.

In a profession back home that results in high teacher burnout and politicization, we’re beginning to see the slow exodus of teachers to overseas locations looking for a better life.

What will happen if word gets out?

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Day 54: Laying Low in Bratislava

At just an hour and 20 minutes, the bus ride between Vienna and Bratislava was the shortest ride we’ve taken on our trip between cities. I sat next to a woman who was nervously clutching the purse on her lap and across the aisle, a textbook frat boy. Oxford blue long sleeve shirt rolled up above the elbows, khaki shorts, leather penny loafers without socks and a neatly trimmed quaff just starting to show signs of thinning. He wore a permanent smirk for our entire trip. Probably for his life.

Bratislava is a more subdued European capital than its big brothers and sisters of Vienna and Prague. In either of the aforementioned places, you’re more likely to bump into more tourists than locals, so Bratislava feels like an ‘authentic’ town where people actually live and don’t just cater to visitors. The smaller size means it’s a very walkable city. Here are some of our highlights:

  • Walking across the Stary Most bridge for view of the city and Danube
  • Sampling craft beers at the ‘Craft Beer Bar’.
  • Enjoying some of the best Ramen in Europe at ‘Ramen Kazu’
  • People watching on Venturska walking street.
  • Having the duck confit at Bratislavsky Mestiansky.

Bratislava was our last stop as a family of three before coasting into Budapest tomorrow to stay with our Saigon family, the Macs, for two weeks of catching up, playing cards and lots of laughs. It’s been 2 years since we’ve seen these good friends of ours, and we were so eagerly looking forward to a reunion we seriously considered just leaving our pre-paid hotel a day early.

Ava’s Digital Story: Avigail’s Story

Bratislava did give us time to complete a big literacy project. After a month of drafting and revising, Ava finally finished her narrative essay, inspired by her trip to the Jewish Ghetto in Riga, Latvia. Aside from all the grammatical benchmarks, one standard still remained, which is using technology including the internet to publish writing an to interact with others.

W.4.6. With some guidance and support from adults, use technology, including the Internet, to produce and publish writing as well as to interact and collaborate with others; demonstrate sufficient command of keyboarding skills to type a minimum of one page in a single sitting.

For this standard, digital story creation comes in handy. A digital story is a multi-media creation that uses photos, videos, along with narration, sound effects and music to evoke a richer experience. We used iMovie and published to youtube in the hopes of getting some viewer comments either there or through wordpress (hint hint) to interact with others.

Layering media such as narrations, sound effects in ‘iMovie’

Although digital story creation can be time consuming to teach and make, it’s generally worth the wait as students learn that ‘literacy’ has come to encompass digital literacy skills as this medium is now a mainstream form of communication. Here is a guide I made to walk you through the process.

Here Come the Malarial Side Effects

Today was another important date for us, as we started taking our malaria drugs to prepare for a 5 week trip through Tanzania and Kenya straddling late August into September. We got our last few vaccinations in our final weeks in Korea but we had to start taking Malaria drugs (Mefloquin) two weeks prior to arriving and 2 weeks after leaving. I wasn’t looking forward to the after effects again and we felt nauseous all day after taking our first pill this morning.

The last time we took Mefloquin, Lisa and I suffered from horrible, long term hallucinations which is a typical side effect. It was always the same- we woke up in the middle of the night convinced that we were covered in spiders and would hyperventilate ourselves awake while frantically fighting off the imaginary arachnids slowly bringing us from nightmare to sweaty lucidity. Although the episodes faded away over time, their intensity didn’t, and it wasn’t until 2 years later that we were back to normal. Just the other day, a Cambridge student interning in Madagascar opened the door of her light engine plane and fell to her death. Anti-malarials are the suspected culprit. I hope the medicine doesn’t hit Ava too hard.

At least we’ll be with friends.

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Day 38: Poland Part 2- Auschwitz Birkenau

The day after arriving in Krakow, Lisa and I took turns visiting the most infamous concentration camp in the world.

Unless you’ve been living on the moon or dropped out of high school, the name ‘Auschwitz‘ brings a chill because of the atrocities committed there. From 1941 to 1945, over one million Jews and political prisoners from all over Europe arrived with false hopes thinking they were coming to yet another ghetto or labor camp. When the cattle car doors clanged open, letting in the first sunshine and first fresh air people had seen in days, the ‘separation‘ commenced by SS soldiers and frothy-mouthed dogs on leashes. Crying, screaming, pleading families on one side imploring for compassion met only with shouts of ‘Shnell! Schnell!” and “Actung!” by the other.

The purpose of the separation was simple: identify laborers who could work and get rid of everyone else. In all, 80% of arrivals were marched into the gas chambers just moments after their long journey with false promises of a shower before being shown their new bunks. They shuffled into large rooms, docilly, after being stripped and having had their heads shaved. The rooms were sealed and instead of water coming from the shower heads, Zyklon B was poured in from above and the suffocating commenced. Those closest to the ducts died quickly, those in the corners lived 20 minutes more in agony.

If the staff of Auschwitz were going to hell, a special place was reserved there for Josef Mengele. I heard of Josef Mengele when I was younger, but the horrors he committed have cemented my view that he might just be the most vile human being ever to walk the planet. Mengele was so aptly called the ‘Angel of Death‘ and carried out numerous, sadistic experiments on the populace in the name of eugenics and finding out how to build a better ‘master race’. His experiments and lab (which we saw) involved castration, genital mutilation and gender reassignments surgeries. He had a soft spot for twin children as he could use one as the baseline and inject the other with debilitating diseases. Whereas Rudolf Hoess, the commandant of Auschwitz was found guilty at the Nuremberg trials and sentenced to hanging next to the crematorium of Auschwitz as retribution for his crimes, Mengele slunk out of Germany and died while swimming in the ocean in south America. A fascinating and horrific read from a first hand account is ‘Surviving the Angel of Death‘, by Eva Mozes who wrote about experiments done on her and her twin sister Miriam while imprisoned there.

travel, holidays, accomodation, Agoda

Visiting the Park

Auschwitz Birkenau was just over an hour outside of Krakow. Although it’s possible to take a bus, I recommend an organized ‘skip the line’ tour from City pass which leaves from Krakow and cost 180 Polish Zloty. An organized tour also provided us with a guide and headset to listen to the extensive history of the site from local experts. When we got back to our apartment, we watched the six part, BBC documentary: “Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution” which combined historical archives, CGI and reenacted scenes leading up to its construction.

What age is appropriate to visit?

After much debate, we decided not to take our 9 year old daughter. After web searches and talking to people who had been there, we felt that she was just a ‘tad’ too young. That being said, there was a middle school group visiting in rapt attention and other parents who brought children as young as 5 to play outside the building’s exhibits while the parents visited inside. In Auschwitz 1, there are graphic pictures of naked, emaciated women and children which may be too much for young eyes.

The personal artifacts are what haunted me the most. At the park, entire rooms are used to house clothes, eye glasses, human hair and shoes from victims of all ages. As you visit, you can’t help but think- in every pair of shoes walked a different person. A different person with hopes and dreams. A different person from a loving family who was loved and who loved someone back. Different people from different backgrounds reduced to nothing. Just ash. Like that.

Enter NewsELA for Current Events

The bus ride back was somber for everyone. Looking out in the windows at the rolling countryside of green with cheerful looking towns, I asked what people have been asking about the genocide for decades: “How could this happen?” In the 1930’s, legions of European Jews were denied asylum in the United States and other places as many thought of these immigrants as vermin who would take their jobs, mooch off welfare –sound familiar?– so they got sent back to Europe and their eventual doom. ‘Not my problem’ was one refrain. “They’re Communists” was another.

Just recently, Poland has passed a new law making it a punishable offense to insinuate that Poland was somehow responsible or complicit for any part in the holocaust. During the war, Germans utilized Polish police forces for rounding up Jews and for logistical support and if they didn’t help, they would have most likely been killed themselves. All over Europe, the third reich bullied the local garrison into doing their bidding. During wartime, people will do anything to survive.

Assessment Blueprint for Un… by Nomadic Edventures on Scribd

I found this new law fascinating and was excited to find it on NewsELA. As we have been reading more and more current events and informational texts, I have introduced Ava to “NewsELA” which curates popular articles into different reading levels for readers and can be assigned for reading and tracking.

Assignments in Ava’s dashboard.

In addition to being able to read articles of varying length, NewsELA also has post reading questionnaires that measure information text understanding of common core reading standards.

A post reading questionnaire: Courtesy of NewsELA

Never again” I repeat to myself, knowing that the ‘Never again‘ mantra goes only as far as those who have seen it. ‘Never again‘ didn’t make it to the shores of Cambodia, the mountains of Yugoslavia, jungles of Rwanda, or Armenia, or Darfur and millions more died because of it.

“Those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it”

-George Santayana

After the visit and after all the books we read and documentaries we watched, two distinct moments hang with me. The first was a video interview of a prison guard at the camp who was asked: “Do you regret what you did?” “No.” he said. “I thought the Jews were terrible and we needed to get rid of them. It was my conviction that they were awful people and the cause of our problems.” The power of propaganda.

The other was from Eva Kor shortly before being liberated by the red army. While having freedom to explore the grounds for the first time, she came across a river and across it on the other bank was a young Polish girl her age. The young girl carried a backpack and was wearing her school clothes and was on her way to a lesson. The other girl had been carrying on with life as usual, inured to the horrors across the bank while Eva was covered in rags and recovering from torture. “How could you not have done something, anything?” She thought.

Combating Modern Day Fascism

One of the more interesting articles on social media use I read recently was ‘The spread of true and false news online” in Science 2018. The authors point out that fake news gets spread quicker than facts because it’s novel, and uses the availability heuristic combined with false consensus to make the sharers feel like they’re part of something; and their tribe is bigger than they think. People just don’t want to waste time checking their sources. Or be told that they’re wrong.

Anger and fear are seeds that germinate war. Forgiveness is a seed for peace.

-Eva Mozes Kor

Truth is discourse. In order for that discourse to develop we have a responsibility to share these truths with all the facts to back them up. We have a responsibility to stand up to newly emboldened white nationalist trolls, holocaust deniers and anti-immigrant populists who cajole fear. We have a responsibility to call out this ugly behavior and vote out of office politicians who either support it, ignore it or wield it themselves.

Never again.” We’ll tell them.

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Day 34: Poland Part 1-Eastern Delights

The day we arrived in Warsaw, one of the biggest music legends in the world was playing at the PGE Narodowy coliseum.

I would not have normally gone to see Jon Bon Jovi, but with standing arena tickets costing only $40, we had to do it. Bon Jovi dominated the romantic rock genre since he started in 1983 and has been riding it strong ever since, without too many trips to rehab or scandals as rock stars are known for. As many archetypes of the classic rock heyday age into playing casinos or second tier rock concerts, Bon Jovi has been playing to sold out arenas (like they did a few nights ago) by starting with songs off their new album ‘This House is Not for Sale‘ and then launching in their classics causing such a rise from the audience that menopausal women started ovulating.

I remember in the 5th grade when, while in gym class, Rusty Henderson pulled out a cassette tape of Bon Jovi’s ‘Slippery When Wet‘ and we gazed, sitting transfixed on the album cover while thinking we were looking at soft porn for the first time in our lives. Since then, rocking out to ‘You Give Love a Bad Name‘ and ‘Living on a Prayer‘ has been a rite of passage for people around the world. Even though Jon can’t hit the high notes of 30 years ago, his band carried the harmonies, giving him time for the requisite hip shakes, which every time, released more eggs from menopausal moms.

Exploring Warsaw

Since we went to bed at 2:00 am after the concert, we had a bit of a sleep-in before exploring Warsaw. Poland’s capital city blends history with modernity. Unlike the medieval towns that we passed through in the baltic countries, Warsaw has embraced new construction and high rise development without the cumbersome resolutions of being a UNESCO heritage site.

The Old Town

The old town has had quite the renaissance since the war. We saw black and white pictures of the city in 1945 and most of it was destroyed with the bombings with nothing more than a few empty shells of buildings and piles of rubble. Since then, they’ve rebuilt buildings to a new shade of the former grandeur.

The Uprising Museum

One night, we watched ‘The Zookeepers Wife’ which chronicled the story of Jan and Antonina Zabinski who sheltered 300 jews in their zoo right under the watchful eyes of the nazis. Ava is not typically into dramas, but the story mesmerized her and helped her finish the first draft of her narrative essay on ‘survival’. The Warsaw uprising was a last ditch effort of citizens in Warsaw to rebuff the nazi occupation by launching a guerrilla offensive to liberate the city. The old Warsaw Ghetto has been destroyed and only a few dilapidated brick walls remain with a memorial to its sad history.

The museum is a testament to this event. The interior is made to resemble a city overrun with strife. It’s dimly lit. Flood lights passing overhead. Exhibits look like fortifications with propaganda posters and war memorabilia.

Hilton Hotels

The Nicholas Copernicus Museum

When I heard about the Nicolas Copernicus museum, I immediately started front loading content about the Polish astronomer so Ava would be familiar with his work. Copernicus wrote his seminal work on the revolution of earth around the sun just months before his death which would be instrumental to Galileo years later that was begrudgingly accepted by the public (and eventually the church) who denounced them as heretical. We used ‘Quizlet‘ to introduce new terminology (See below) and Insert Learning to turn web pages into lessons.

Quizlet allows teacher to use flashcards or build their own to build vocabulary.
A lesson with ‘Insert Learning’. Dashboard on the right can highlight words, or insert discussions or questions for students.

Ironically, the Nicholas Copernius Museum was less about the man and his life and more about hands on experiments and activities that children can do for hours, which, for the children, is awesome. As a former teacher who has taken hundreds of students to museums, this might just be the most interactive museum in the world. We had to drag our child away.

Onto Gdansk

On Tuesday, we took at 3 hour train ride to Gdansk on the northeast coast. We met our Airbnb host, Pawel, who introduced us to local lingo by berating my English and my inability to correctly identify our meeting place.

I’ve had hundreds of other guests and you’re the first not to come to the building!” Pawel said.

You see that?” I said pointing. “That is a building, so is that, and that. Building can mean many things and is very vague.” I replied.

Yes, but we call where we live a building.

How am I supposed to know what locals call a building? The train station is also a building, which I associate with the impersonal description of not being a ‘home’ and where I thought you said you would meet us.

Fearing I might tarnish his 5 star average review rating, he let it go and walked us up to our spacious one bedroom that had a big enough living room, 2 TVs and a washing machine of which we were in desperate need.

Gdansk is beyond charming. Old cobblestone streets and brew pubs make it cozy, intimate and fun. Street musicians playing classical to jazz to swing hang out in the tunnels, utilizing the acoustics for more ‘pop’. The colorful building facades stand up like Crayola crayons and the quay is the heart and soul of town inviting river cruises, boat rentals and rubber-neckers to watch it all go by.

Since we got Ava’s Bon Jovi concert t-shirt washed (which she wore every day we were in Warsaw) it’s bound to make an appearance for our train trip tomorrow back down to Krakow. By the way, ‘Ovulating Menopausal Women‘ would be a great name for a rock band.

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Day 26: Baltic Beauty-Vilnius, Lithuania

Sometimes explosive diarrhea can have a silver lining.

Living and traveling abroad for 17 years has given us stomach microbes that you wouldn’t believe. In every place we’ve called home, we’ve had an intricate map of public bathrooms around the moo ban (Chiang Mai), district (Saigon) and dong (Seoul) that we could depend on at a moments notice if we ever felt an intestinal emergency coming. Sometimes it came with no warning, and sometimes right after we went out.

Uh, daddy, I need to tell you something.

Now? We just left! Why didn’t you go back home?

I didn’t have to go then.

But sometimes, like today, it can have a silver lining. While buying a gelato outside a chocolate shop so I could use its facilities, we strolled inside ‘Sokolades‘ to see the most amazing spread of chocolates we’ve ever seen in our life. They had an entire room made of chocolate (pictured below) like something out of ‘Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’. Before long we had espressos, hot chocolates and tasters.

This might be the best chocolate I’ve ever had in my life.” Lisa said, and it was true. They mixed tastes like no other chocolatier has. Ganache and chili in chocolate moons. Blue cheese and walnut with chocolate. Every taste more interesting and delicious than the previous with caffeine and hot chocolate washing down every sweet bite. Soon after the waitresses were showing Ava around giving her testers. Heaven on earth for a 9 year old.

Vilnius: Capital Delights

The capital of Lithuania is an old city that’s trying not to ‘be’ an old city. Whereas many old towns of eastern Europe are often compartmentalized inside the city gates that have lingered since medieval times, Vilnius’ old town stretches like a hand down arterial roadways from north to south with short fingers to the east and west. People actually ‘live’ in the old town and its residents haven’t been displaced by the tourist industry. People go on about their business and everyone looks like an instagram model.

Gediminas tower looms and watches over everyone here. Currently being refurbished, this 15th century battlement (seen above) has lasted for centuries and one lone turret invites patrons up for a view. After an ascent to the top, we visited the National History Museum to see Lithuania through the ages.

Getting onboard with Ride Sharing

Since I got ‘Google Fi‘ for worldwide cell coverage and roaming, I’ve been installing apps all over the Baltic countries for scooter riding with which Ava has fallen in love. It started with ‘Uber’ to avoid price gouging by taxi drivers but our friends in Helsinki showed us that electric scooters can be an affordable, cheap thrill and fun way of seeing the sights. So far, in nearly every city we’ve been in, we’ve spent a morning or afternoon zipping around the park happy as clams, dodging tourists and runners while we take turns at playing ‘follow the leader’.

Our ride sharing wallet

The Narrative Writing Project Slows

Since Ava has learned about the Holocaust while we were in Riga, her narrative writing piece has been taking shape. She’s writing a story from the perspective of a 9 year old Jewish girl who is displaced from her family during the Nazi rule. The ‘conflict’ that she is having as a writer is that she knows the impending fate that awaits this little girl, whereas the little girl would not quite understand what was happening to her at the time and would most likely confide in, and follow the advice of the adults around her. The little girl in her story is dead set on ‘escaping‘ and our feedback in her drafting process was that the little girl wouldn’t know about the extermination camps yet, so she might not feel so determined to get away….yet.

Although we meant well, this micromanaging has created a ‘snag’ for Ava as she tries to formulate her experiences and infuse them with her conscience to save her character from the horrors around her. Although the topic of our first unit is ‘survival’, narrative writing needs to be realistic in its fiction- decisions, transitions and reactions from its characters believable and true. We’ve since left her alone to write, and I’m anxious to see how her first draft plays out. The reoccurring simple lesson of ‘adults can’t always be trusted‘ is a keystone lesson of adolescence she’ll revisit time and time again through books like ‘Holes‘, ‘The House of the Scorpion‘ and ‘Never Let Me Go‘.

I hope she learns that lesson in a positive way. I hope she grows to respect her elders while forgiving any fallibility on their part. I hope she doesn’t fall victim to teenage angst, brooding over the mistakes of generations that came before her, fueling defiant apathy. As a parent you always want what’s best for your kid and always know better and ultimately what’s best for them.

Until, one day, they do.

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Day 22: Teaching Tolerance in Riga, Latvia

The day after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, a teacher in Riceville, Iowa planned a lesson that would change the world of education.

Knowing that her 28 third grade children could not understand discrimination without experiencing it for themselves, Jane Elliot devised an experiment wherein blue-eyed children would wear blue collars and the brown-eyed children would wear brown ones. The blue eyed students were treated better, told to ignore the brown eyed students, and over the course of the day found that brown eye students were even taunted on the playground by their blue eyed peers proving that discrimination was a learned behavior. Mrs. Elliot was thrust into the public spotlight and the reaction by some was swift:

How dare you try this cruel experiment out on white children? Black children grow up accustomed to such behavior, but white children, there’s no way they could possibly understand it. It’s cruel to white children and will cause them great psychological damage.”

Nigger lover

Jane Elliot eventually went on the speaking circuit to teach similar lessons around the world, wrote books and established herself as a hero for teachers around the world with her lesson as a bastion of lore on the power of applied learning rather than just reading a passage from a book. Academic research in the 90’s showed that the exercise ’caused stress’ for participants and should be eliminated as an effective strategy to reduce racist attitudes, but her children (now adults) conveyed how powerful the activity was years later.

Teaching Discrimination in the Modern Era

Could Mrs. Elliot’s experiment be replicated in our current climate? In a time of xenophobia and entrenched nationalism, lines have been drawn with rival camps unwilling to listen to the other on issues such as immigration and politics with our news feed keeping us firmly seated in the belief that everything we’re doing is right and the other side is wrong. As a teacher, this makes teaching something controversial extremely difficult because of the ensuing backlash.

“Part of being a parent is also wanting to protect your child from the cruelty of human nature as long as you can.”

Teaching Tolerance

Being able to teach our daughter ‘how‘ we want for an entire year on the road with only ourselves to answer to is one of the perks of this trip. As we landed in Riga a few nights ago, tendrils of the nazi’s reach started showing themselves so Lisa and I debated on whether or not to teach our 4th grader the atrocities of the genocide here during world war 2. Would she be able to understand all the geopolitical forces at work? Probably not. The Holocaust is typically taught to students between grades 8 and 10 in traditional schools as they learn the history of western civilization, and have a stronger stomach for it. But as Jane Elliot proves, education is a powerful thing, capable of turning even young children into racists, and back into tolerant people with the right direction. After all, hate and empathy are learned behaviors.

We went to the Jewish Ghetto Museum of Riga, where thousands of Jews were deported to before being killed in the Rumbula forest in the swiftest large scale killing before the advent of extermination camps. The gruesomeness and cruelty of their deaths were left out of the exhibit and instead was a testament to the lives of the victims while they were alive. The questions poured out of Ava like a faucet:

What happened to all these people?

Where did they come from?

Why did this happen?

Is something wrong with Jewish people?”

Why did they die?

Building Comprehensible Input for Narrative Writing

The afternoon of teachable moments was a sign that Ava’s narrative writing piece could be to write from the perspective of a 9 year old Jewish girl living in the ghettos during world war 2. Her narrative writing piece is a larger, more process writing piece that she could share digitally than her daily journal entries, so we started building up her word bank of target vocabulary and content knowledge.

Assessment Blueprint for Un… by on Scribd

CK-12 CK-12 is a free learning management system that can deploy content to students via a classroom you set up, or to other platforms like ‘Google Classroom’. Below is a snapshot of a lesson that I found that was written for a 7th grade reading level and allowed Ava to highlight passages for discussion later.

Assigning content in CK-12

Youtube Playlists– One of the more useful tricks in youtube is to create playlists of videos. Simply log into the app and ‘save’ videos to a playlist which you can see on your left hand navigation bar.

Epic I’ve written about ‘Epic‘ before and found some great books for Ava’s lexile (reading level) about World War 2. We read a great book last night called “Rebekkah’s Journey” which tells the story through the eyes of a girl about the same age as Ava who emigrates to the United States with her mother to seek asylum, but the loss of her father during the war is a constant reminder of the past. Just this morning, we read about Anne Frank.

‘Rebekkah’s Journey’ Courtesy of Epic
10 Chapter Books

Graphic Organizers and Notability. CSI or ‘Color, Symbol, Image’ is a powerful visible thinking activity that can be used as either a formative or summative assessment. I downloaded the image as a picture into my photos on the iPad and then uploaded it to ‘Notability’ a note taking and drawing annotation app that is done more easily with the apple pencil than a mouse.

CSI template of ‘Genocide’.

We’re on our way to Lithuania and eventually, Krakow where just outside lurks the ‘Auschowitz-Birkenau‘ concentration camp. I think we’ll spare our daughter the horrors inside its walls, as that would be a lesson for another day.

In the meantime, Ava has started work on her narrative story and is about two pages in, filling her pages with details around us and echos of history as a testament for peace.

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Day 10: Making a Monster in Budva, Montenegro

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Day 18: White Nights in Tallinn, Estonia

Raising a Mighty Girl

Tell me Ava, why do you think Sistine said what she did about Southern people?” I asked.

We were reading the book ‘The Tiger Rising‘ by Kate DiCamillo and Sistine (the female protagonist) introduced herself to her new classmates in Kentucky by declaring southerners ignorant. Her classmates answered back on the playground afterwards.

Does she have a good point?”

What do you mean?

Are southern people ignorant?” I asked.

Well daddy, everyone is allowed to have an opinion.” She answered back.

Yes, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but it doesn’t mean just because you have an opinion, that makes you ‘right’.” I countered. “All opinions are not equal as some are better supported by facts and reason than others.”

I suppose Sistine’s point is backed up by the cruel irony that actual, modern day Kentuckians in desperate need of affordable health care vote against their own self-interests by electing people like Mitch McConnell who has routinely threatened to take it away. Add statistics on the southern states leading the country in obesity, lowest levels of educational attainment, teen pregnancy, and most deaths by firearm and Sistine may have a point. That would be a lesson for another time.

“Every country has the government it deserves.”

-Joseph de Maistre

With these deplorable conditions and bleak statistics, one would think that voters would be desperate for change. However, when the United States elected an admitted misogynist over a distinguished secretary of state, first lady and senator, we took giant leap backwards for women’s equality. I was shocked at how many women were dismissive not only of Trump’s conduct, but flat out rejected their own gender as weak or inadequate to run a country. The fog of the election hangover seems to be clearing to the reality of having a charlatan run the highest office in the country. That too would be a lesson for another day.

Just like Sistine, girls are often subject to a different level of judgement that has a razor thin margin of error compared to boys. They must be capable, but too much, and they’re seen as headstrong. They must be leaders, but if they micromanage, they’re ‘bitchy’. The pendulum swings so quickly.

Raising a daughter in this double standard environment will be the ultimate challenge for us as parents and we hope she’ll be able to recognize and rise up against blatant sexism as she grows up. Our little jag through the middle east in October and November should yield some teachable moments for women’s equality.

Strong and virile men with the inviting and submissive female

Our family is preparing to see ‘Avengers Endgame‘ this weekend and have been thinking of the franchise as a whole. The first time ‘Black Widow’ was introduced to the world, she was a damsel in distress to be rescued by capable men. One of my colleagues in graduate school highlighted how we even market products to boys and girls differently and this indoctrination conditions gender roles for the rest of children’s lives. Some people just can’t get their head around transgender, unisex bathrooms but have no problem with them on airplanes.

“These lawmakers who preach ‘small government reach’ want to limit a woman’s choice of what to do with her own uterus and ensure she’s nothing more than a birthing vessel to pander to their political base.”

As I write this, the nation is in a frenzy. New abortion mandates in Republican controlled houses have swept across the predominantly southern and midwestern states have made it illegal for women to get an abortion after 8 weeks. Doctors that perform a procedure will be sentenced to a life-time in prison. Teri Carter shared a very touching op-ed piece in the Washington post about her own experience of reuniting with her father who abandoned her as a child and pointed out how these new laws exonerate the impregnating father from all culpability; even child support. This condemns underage women to a life of poverty and limit their upward mobility with them being asked to carry the sole burden of childrearing as men are officially deemed as not responsible. These lawmakers who preach ‘small government reach’ want to the government to have more control over a woman’s uterus than she does, relegating her to a birthing vessel in order to pander to their political base.

For Small Hands
Like a girl

What can be done? How do we raise confident girls in this anxious age? Expose them to strong females in movies, literature and around them in life. Empower them. Let them shine. Encourage them to hangout with similar people who are up standers not bystanders. A friend of mine recently introduced me to ‘A Mighty Girl‘ which is a great site for parents and teachers with fantastic readings, and highlights movies, books, even clothing to empower and inspire girls to stand up, not sit down. But really, how does any parent really know what the hell they’re doing? Like Tyrion told Jon last weekend when asked if he did the right thing: “Ask me in ten years.”

By then, our daughter will hopefully be in her first year of college and I’ll be willing to tell you all about whether I did the right thing or not. In the meantime, we’ll always have Sistine to inspire us so we’ll be seeking out many more like her.

For Small Hands

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Waiting for the Hammer to Fall

We’re in our final few weeks of living in South Korea.

It’s a funny thing- living while such an impending life event is on the horizon. Just yesterday, we were out in the Itaewon neighborhood of Seoul, having a celebratory dinner and cocktails with our friend Roori at ‘Vatos’ before taking a taxi to Insadong to take in the ‘lantern festival’ which is a spring mainstay in downtown Seoul. We met up with some friends, had a few laughs and got Ava home and in bed just before midnight with her tired whininess just setting in. If we were in Spain, we’d just be getting our evening started.

As we were out last night though, I wondered if this would be the ‘last time’ we’d go here or the ‘last time’ we’d see that. My eyes danced around the facades, the hangul, and the lanterns as my friends tried to maintain a conversation while my attention would involuntarily drift elsewhere with creeping nostalgia leaving them wondering if my Tourettes was acting up or I was merely a poor listener.

At the lantern Festival, Seoul

This afternoon, our friend Jim is going to come by for Ava’s bunk bed which will be our biggest furniture item to ditch before the movers come to box up our lives and store them in a storage container for a year. From this afternoon, we’ll start the 6 week, downward slide of getting rid of clothes, asking if this ‘really brings joy’ and only keep essentials that we can’t bear to part with. Our last day of school is a Friday, and we leave the following Monday with a weekend fire sale in between.

The school year is drawing down too. Spring MAP tests are behind us, coaching and after school clubs are drying up, and seniors stress about their upcoming finals and wonder if they’ll have any negative impact on their college acceptance if they were to blow off and bomb their exams. Our staff are having conversations for next year around standards based grading and although we’re being kept in the loop as a professional courtesy, I wonder how much our voice matters compared to primary stakeholders and those who will be stepping up to continue traditions, invite new policies and make their mark.

Coincidentally, there has been a flurry of social media posts in my feed from co-workers around the world who are also about to set out on their new adventures and are feeling nostalgic themselves about the past with an uncertain future ahead. Of all the schools we’ve worked in, we came to love the community of people there, who were each others ‘rock’ of stability in the sea of international teaching and living.

One never realizes how good they had it and how good life was until those moments are no more. Isn’t that always the case in life?

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Living with Air Pollution

School was cancelled last week on Tuesday due to an unprecedented reason- air pollution.

I relished in the shiny luck of mother nature dispensing snow days back home while growing up in Minnesota. We’d watch as the snowfall slowly floated down in the evening and then wake up anxiously to see if it was enough for a ‘day off’ from schoolwork and a full day of building forts, sledding down the hill in the backyard, and as I got older, shoveling the driveway for my father.

We started our day back then by shooting out of bed and running down the stairs with the furor usually reserved for Christmas morning. We huddled around the radio as they announced school closures one district at a time.

Stillwater: closed. Forrest Lake: closed. Minnetonka Falls: closed.” The radio solemnly rolled out.

“I haven’t heard anything yet.” my mother would say wearily because that green light would inevitably impact her workflow at the college and require some amount of child care back on the home front.

“Green lake: closed. Minnehaha falls: closed”

The tension was palpable and we shook with the giddiness of a prospective lottery winner or Vegas gambler before the cards flop.

“Little Canada: closed. Gem lake: closed. Vadnais Heights…….closed.”

“YEESSSS!” We’d shout while scarfing down breakfast to layer up and rush outside with our adventures getting more brazen, elaborate and farther from home as we aged.

Why hello Clarice.

My First Air Pollution Day

I didn’t share the same enthusiasm last week when I did as a kid. Our day last week was spent indoors with an Air Quality Index of over 300. The kids at school cheered when they heard the news, but how can you get excited about the sudden realization that air pollution is really ‘a thing’ and has crept up to levels that make breathing hazardous? Will occasional school and work closures be the new normal for us as a species? Many of our friends have left Beijing, Doha and New Dehli for such reasons. Add Seoul to the list.

Lisa and I have seen this in the underwater world through depleted shark populations, and coral bleaching in the most remote of places. I wanted Ava to have an adventure on this year abroad, but part of me knows that this is an opportunity to see the bounties of planet earth: before they’re gone.

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