Thursday, November 25, 2010

Teaching Thanks-giving: November 25, 2010

As Pete and I were planning English classes for this week, we thought we would incorporate some teaching about Thanksgiving into the curriculum. Pete suggested that we find readings for our students about the holiday. I thought this was a good idea, as it would allow our students the opportunity to practice reading English, which we don’t have them do very often (especially since we do not follow a specific textbook or workbook.) Yesterday, I searched on the internet for easy-to-read (early elementary level) readings about Thanksgiving and was met with a challenge. Most of the readings were too difficult for our students’ English reading level. Most of them were also about the pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a big feast. I don’t quite buy into the story of Thanksgiving as it is often told and I didn’t feel it was worth my time or energy to explain the “traditional Thanksgiving story” and how it was problematic. That’s hard enough to explain to kids who have grown up celebrating Thanksgiving. These kids knew nothing about the holiday, so I came to the conclusion that I would just teach about the aspects of the holiday that are important to me: essentially, the idea of giving thanks, gathering with loved ones, and food! By the way, Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, so it is easy for me to transmit my enthusiasm about it to others. 
Per Pete’s suggestion, for my high school students yesterday evening, I decided to write a paragraph about the holiday on the board and have them write it down in their notebooks. We then took turns reading the sentences aloud. Here is what they wrote: 
“Thanksgiving is a holiday that is celebrated in the USA. It is celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November. Thanksgiving is a celebration of the harvest season. People celebrate this holiday by gathering with their families and friends to eat a lot of food. Traditional Thanksgiving foods are turkey, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. On this holiday, people give thanks for the blessings in their lives.”
At the end, I had them write, “I am thankful for: 1)...2)...3)...” and we each named three things that we’re thankful for. I led the same activity with my 4th and 5th graders this morning, although they wrote a simpler version of the paragraph above. 
Ultimately, giving thanks is the essence of Thanksgiving and that is what I ended up sharing with my students. 
Now for some personal reflections about what I am thankful for this year, at this moment. 
I am thankful that...
-we have purified water to drink. We recently discovered that we can buy the large 20 liter returnable jugs of water at the nearby corner store, which we put into our water dispenser for easy-access safe water. Before, we had been walking a few blocks away to Wal-Mart a few times a week to get 10 liter jugs of water. Now, our purified water lasts longer, the jugs are re-used, and we get to support the local corner store when buying water, rather than Wal-Mart. 
-my stomach has been healthy for a while. Following my two experiences with different versions of stomach illnesses during my first 3 weeks here, I have been relatively healthy, with my stomach and otherwise. Hallelujah!
-I am here with Pete. Pete is family. I cannot imagine living and serving at the Casa without Pete. The past two-and-a-half months have been so incredibly rich for each of us personally, and have allowed us to grow in our relationship as a couple. For one thing, we have time with one another, which is a huge blessing, especially after the crazy busy year we both experienced last year. The time we share this year is particularly special given that this is the year in which we are preparing to be married. Embarking on this experience of living and serving in a new environment together has allowed us many opportunities to see deeper into the way the other handles challenges, communicates across language and culture, and interacts with children of all ages; moreover, this experience gives us the chance to support each other through all of that. 
-we are able to live at the Casa “salary-free” for 8 months. Volunteering (at least in the way that we are) is a privilege that I realize not everyone is in the position to do. I am thankful for the window of opportunity in our lives to take time to do this and for the fact that we have minimal financial burdens, which also allows us to take advantage of this service opportunity. 

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Playing Pretend: November 11, 2010

Through working with kids regularly, my inner child gets to reveal itself at times--the part of me that loves fantasy, that loves pretending, that loves to be silly. I found that last year, when I was a teacher full-time and responsible for keeping my students “in line” for 6 hours straight, I was uptight pretty much the entire day at school. When I would get home, the inner child that really did enjoy fun came out, occasionally. I wasn’t the ideal teacher for my students last year in part because I hardly showed the fun, relaxed, real side of me to my students. I was too stressed out and under pressure all of the time. This year is pretty much the complete opposite. I get to show my whole, loving self to the kids, and I get to be that whole person with myself as well. That feels really good, a real relief. 
Two nights ago, one of my fifth-grade English students, a girl both Pete and I have become close to, approached me to tell me that she lost her tooth! I congratulated her and asked if she was going to put it under her pillow. She said that she was. Apparently, here it’s a ratoncito (little mouse) that comes and takes the tooth, rather than a fairy. One thing I love about this girl is her imagination. She’s 10 years old and has a great imagination. She enjoys playing with barbies and pretending her stuffed lion is a baby. Together, we’ve played other imaginary games with very few physical materials. I think I was a 10-year old like her. I encouraged her to put her tooth under her pillow and started secretly scheming how to be her tooth fairy (or ratoncito). 
The next morning, she was waiting outside of the library for me to arrive for English class. “The tooth is still there,” she told me. “Leave it there,” I responded, remembering that I needed to take care of that. “The tooth fairy/ratoncito can come during the daytime too,” I added. Around 5 pm that day, while she was at school and things were pretty quiet at the Casa, I snuck over and asked the Social Worker if I could get into the girls bedroom.  The Social Worker gave me the keys to the bedroom, and with the help of the girl’s older sister, I found her bed, where the tooth was laying on a little styrofoam plate next to her pillow. I took the plate and placed five pesos under her pillow. What do I do with this tooth?! I thought to myself. I quickly left the room, returned the keys, and took the tooth back home. Success! I wrapped the tooth in a little tissue and set it on my dresser. Maybe I’ll give it back to her when we leave in May. It will be ok then for her to discover my secret. 
Today in English class, she told me her tooth was gone. I gave her a thumbs up and a smile. “Do you believe the ratoncito exists?” she asked me. “I like to believe it does,” I responded.

Monday, November 15, 2010

A Changing of the Seasons: November 5, 2010

The change of seasons has come to Colima! Starting yesterday morning, we could feel fall when we woke up. A cool breeze was blowing through the windows and I actually felt compelled to put on long sleeves in the morning. For someone who gets cold very easily in cool weather, it has been quite a change for me to not always be the cold one. The kids get chilly so easily because they’re used to such hot temperatures. They’ll often have on long sleeves or even a coat when I feel comfortable in short sleeves. Fall in the US (midwest and northeast) is my favorite season; I love the crisp air, the cool breeze, and the colorful, falling leaves. Although it still gets hot during the day here, in the mornings and evenings, I feel a taste of the fall I know and love, and I am so grateful for it. 
The changing seasons and cooler weather has brought an onslaught of dry, chapped lips. Yesterday at dinner, I sat with the youngest girls, who I love to sit and chat with over meals. One of them began to tell me how her lips hurt and then the rest chimed in and said theirs did too. I know how painful it is to have chapped lips and I love my Carmex, so I thought I would give them some that evening when I went to read stories to them. 
Now for a bit of a tangent, but one I’ve wanted to share about...
I have been reading bedtime stories to the littlest ones (in Maternal, a separate area of the Casa for the youngest kids,) twice a week. This is one of my favorite activities that I do here at the Casa. I love reading with kids and I love their excitement over books. The first two times that I went, I just took one or two books with me and then read them as they were lying in their beds or sitting on the floor listening. However, they kept asking me to hold and look through the books I brought, so I decided that I would take a bunch of books (20 or so) and give the kids time to look through the books, and for those who could read, read books to themselves and other kids. Then, after about 15 to 20 minutes of reading independently, (and I’ll also read one-on-one with kids during this time,) they’ll all get into their beds and I’ll read one last bedtime story. This has worked very well because they get a chance to read and handle books first and then they’re more ready to listen to the final story. They’ve loved The Giving Tree, by Shel Silverstein--so much so that they asked me to read it a second time last night. I highly recommend that book. Some have told me that they also liked The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, told from the Wolf’s perspective (he’s not such a bad guy after all...) During my bedtime story time, I’m also getting an idea of how some of them read, which gives me insight into whom I might be able to offer extra reading support to in the future.
Back to the chapped lips...
When I went to read bedtime stories, I took my little container of Carmex and a bunch of Q-tips. Right before they crawled into bed, I gave them Q-tips to spread the Carmex on their chapped lips. Word must have gotten out because today, another boy with super chapped lips asked me for some, so I gave it to him and other kids who happened to be around. I’m reminded that the small comforts, which I often have on hand and take for granted, can actually be quite important, especially if you are without them. 

Friday, November 12, 2010

Why are kids at the Casa?: November 5, 2010

Yesterday at lunch, a girl who is one of my English students, just about to turn 12-years old (tomorrow!) and is always very sweet and affectionate with me, asked me, “When you have kids, are you going to put them in a Casa [like this one]? Interesting question, I thought. 

“No,” I responded. 
“Good,” she replied, “because parents who do that are irresponsible.” 
Another girl who was sitting with us, who is very close to her mother (an only child like me:) disagreed, “No, that’s not true.”
I responded, “It depends on the situation. Some parents put their kids in the Casa because they want them to go to school.” The other girl agreed with me, feeling affirmed, I believe. I continued, “ and some parents put their kids in the Casa because they want to make sure they have food to eat.”
The conversation then began to shift to another topic; however, it stuck with me throughout the day. 

Why are kids at the Casa? There are truly a diverse range of reasons. Some, because their parents work at carnivals and they wanted their kids to go to school. They knew that wouldn’t be possible with the transient nature of their work, so by putting their children in the Casa, they gave them a stable place to live during the week and attend school. Other kids are here because their families do not have a home. Prior to coming here, they lived on the street or in someone else’s house. Their mothers wanted to make sure they had decent food to eat daily. Some kids are referred to the Casa by DIF (their Department of Children and Family Services) for abusive or neglectful home situations. Other parents don’t come for their children on the weekends. I really don’t know or understand their stories completely. 

What I do know is that sometimes it must be hard for a 12-year old to understand why she’s here. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

Are you his mother?: November 3, 2010

On Sundays, Pete and I try to spend quality time with kids who are left here, who do not go home to family members. We’ve started a practice of cooking Sunday night dinners, (which Molly and Peter, our predecessors, did as well) or we’ll take the kids out for dinner. Sunday is a family day here in Mexico and so it is especially important to offer these kids special family time, even if with their surrogate family. 
Last weekend, we had a 5-day weekend due to el Día de los Santos, el Día de los Muertos and an extra day because the fair is in town. Therefore, the majority of kids did not return to the Casa until Thursday, and we were able to spend a few extra days with our special Sunday group. 
On Tuesday and Wednesday night, Pete and I read stories to two of our favorite little ones. They’re siblings, ages 6 and 7 (almost 8) years old. They’re here every weekend and we’ve grown quite close to them. On Tuesday night, I read with the girl and Pete read with the boy, and on Wednesday, we switched. On Wednesday, I was reading with the boy and another little girl joined us, who had just arrived back at the Casa from her weekend at home. The boy was sitting on my lap and we were reading a book together. The little girl asked, “Are you his mother?” Usually, I could just respond, “No,” but in this case, I really did not know what to say. “I’m his friend,” I responded. I had heard him refer to another one of his caretakers as ‘his friend,’ earlier that evening, so I felt that was a safe bet. The little girl later asked again if I was his mother and I restated that I was his friend and that I enjoyed spending time with him on the weekends. 
I think what made it so hard for me to respond is that I didn’t know what the little boy was thinking. Did he want me to say: “Yes! He’s my son!”? Did it make him think: “Where is my mother?” What was going through his head when the little girl asked me that? It was heart-wrenching for me also because we have grown so close to him and his sister. I wanted to say “yes, I’m kind of like his mother.” I spend more time with him, read more stories to him, cook more meals for him, and hug him more than his parents do right now. It’s also complicated because he does sometimes call Pete “Papa” and me “Mama” as does his sister. However, it’s not uncommon for kids at the Casa to give people who aren’t actually their parents those titles, because they care about them or because they’re just pretending, like playing house. If he were really feeling like we were his “Papa” and “Mama” figures, did my “No, I’m his friend,” answer disappoint him or break his heart? I didn’t want to say “Yes,” as if I were playing the pretend game, because I know we’ll be leaving in 6 months and if he were actually under the impression that we are like a “Mama” and “Papa” to him, then what does that communicate to him: that “Papas” and “Mamas” get attached then leave their children (as he’s experienced before)? 
Can you tell how much I love this kid and his sister? I just want them to know that they’re loved, which is why I guess it was hard for me to find an answer to the little girl’s question. No, I’m not his mother, but I love him very much. I’ve come to the conclusion that that was probably the best thing I could have said at that moment, but I couldn’t find those exact words.
See when you love kids, especially in a situation like this, it gets complicated. It's not always easy or clean. People--the kids and us--can potentially get hurt. Something tells me though, that if we love extravagantly, but are careful and thoughtful in how we treat these relationships, then the time and love that we share will ultimately do more good than harm.