Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pre-Departure: A Few Thank You’s

Many months ago when I first browsed WorldTeach's website, little did I know how much effort it would take to get from there to here. With my departure to Colombia less than two weeks away, I wanted to thank everyone who has made this trip possible.

First, I want to thank my mentor at Schwartz Communications, Laurie Falconer, as well as my former teacher at UC Davis, Professor Lorena Oropeza, for writing me glowing letters of recommendation as part of my WorldTeach application. Without you, I would never have gotten into this highly competitive program in the first place.

Second, I want to thank WorldTeach alumnus, Allison Ball, for taking the time to interview me and answering all my initial questions about what it’s like to volunteer in South America.

Third, a warm gracias to WorldTeach Colombia 2010 volunteer, Lauren Doll, for constantly answering my endless barrages of ridiculously specific questions about living, teaching and not getting mugged in Colombia. Without your guidance and advice over these past months, I would be a lot less confident about what I am about to do. Don’t think you’re off the hook yet, though—I’m sure I will have plenty more to bug you about once I get down there!

Last, but definitely not least, a special thanks to all my wonderful donors for their generous contributions to my cause—without them, none of this would even be possible. Because of their philanthropic spirit, I was able to raise $1,000, which will allow me to purchase much-needed school supplies and teaching aids to create the best possible learning environment for my students.

My Ridiculously Awesome Donors:

John & Myra Guzman-Teare
John & Donna Hower
Richard & Donna Bottarini
Kevin & Jeanne Davidge
Nora Guzman
Jackie Hodaly
Ron & Kathleen Barri
Don & Annette Holthaus
Tanner Bixler
Jim & Linda Hower
Jim & Darlene Jaworski
Jimmy Hower
Marc & Toni Reynolds
Cliff & Lori Hirsch
Sean Hogan
Ken Hower

And, of course, thank you to everyone who has joined my support page! It really means a lot. Thanks again and happy holidays!

For those who would also like to donate to my cause, it's not too late! You can donate to me through WorldTeach on their donation page.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Pre-Departure: Learning How to Teach

Roaming the long, cluttered halls of Washington Elementary School, I couldn’t help but feel thrust into an episode of LOST. Flashbacks to long-forgotten memories hit me like landmines at every corner.

Nearing the girl’s bathroom, I recalled a time when a small squad of fifth grade boys and myself mounted a successful rescue operation to save our captured comrade from a band of malevolent fifth grade girls. We ambushed them just as they were about to drag him into their cootie-infested bathroom lair. After a short but fierce battle, we managed to sweep him away to the sanctuary of the schoolyard basketball courts. Needless to say, it was a great victory in our struggle against the nefarious Washington School girls.

Little did we know it was all in vain; puberty was destined to make us their slaves.

But I digress.

Lisa Jaffe at work with English Learners.
This time I wasn’t there to engage in counter-insurgency operations; I was there to learn how to teach children English.

Prior to departure, WorldTeach requires all volunteers to accumulate twenty-five hours of experience working in an English Learner classroom. I chose to complete this shadowing Lisa Jaffe, an English Learner teacher at Washington School, my old elementary school.

Although I had acquired a modest amount of teaching experience over the years from coming in to help my mom in her first grade classroom, I had never worked with English Learner children. My experience shadowing Lisa was, in a word, awesome.

Since she works with EL students from multiple grade levels, I was able to work with a wide range of students, ranging from kindergarten all the way up to fifth grade. The majority spoke Spanish, but there were also kids who spoke Turkish, Russian, Japanese and Korean. Most of the kids spoke at least a little English, so our focus was on improving their pronunciation and reading abilities.

Artwork provided by Yours Truly.
Typical lessons were engaging, hands-on and fun—something I learned is very important to the learning process when working with children. For example, we were teaching one group of students about parts of the face, so we gave them a large piece of construction paper with the outline of a face and had them draw eyes, ears, nose, mouth, etc.

We gave another group of students a piece of paper and had them write a few sentences about what they would sell if they were a peddler (yeah, it’s a politically correct term) and then illustrate it. I displayed my own artistic brilliance by illustrating my own scene as an example for the children. Unfortunately, this said brilliance hasn’t evolved much since the second grade, but it was apparently good enough to impress my students to the point of fighting over who got to take the masterpiece home.

As we worked on our art projects, the students asked me how old I was. I asked them to guess. They said 65. I asked them why they thought I was so old, to which they responded, “Because you are really tall.” Go figure.

van Gogh ain't got nothing on me!
 The highlight of the week came when I got to take a group of underprivileged students to participate in Operation School Bell, an annual charity event that provides school clothing to over 900 children in San Mateo County every year. The program's goal is to provide the basic need of clothing to enhance the self-esteem of underprivileged children and help them succeed in school and beyond.

The kids were thrilled because they thought of the outing as a field trip (and were too young to understand their situation). Lisa and I took the kids to the Operation School Bell location a few blocks from Washington School. The site resembled a mini Goodwill and each child was able to pick out new t-shirts, pants, a jacket, socks, underwear and a pair of shoes. In addition to the clothes, every child was also able to choose a book to bring home, which I thought was particularly awesome.

I had a relatively awkward moment when one of the elderly volunteers operating the site asked me if one of the children was my son, but other than that it was an unbelievably rewarding experience.

Operation School Bell Facility
For kids used to worn hand-me-downs, the prospect of having a new wardrobe to call their own brought a mile-wide smile to their already-excited faces.

As I watched the kids proudly clutch their newfound spoils, I remembered why I am taking this crazy chance in the first place; to help children like them have a shot at a better life—because no matter what station you are born into in this world, everyone deserves a chance to dance. 

Friday, December 10, 2010

Pre-Departure: Breaking Free of the White Man Shuffle

One of the hardships every gringo must face is the difficulty of making fluid movements in relation to beat and melody. Although there are exceptions to this rule, I’m definitely not one of them.

Being six feet three inches tall and two hundred pounds doesn’t really help in the rhythm department, either. Santa Clause could move with more grace.

I knew that if I hoped to survive a year in Latin America, I would need to move beyond the white man shuffle and actually learn how to dance—more specifically—how to dance salsa.

Santa knows how to shake it.
Colombia is known as the salsa capital of the world. It’s pretty much all they do there. You don’t just go out to grab a drink with your buddies—you go out to dance. Although in the United States people can get by with alcohol-induced hip spasms and the occasional dry hump, in Colombia you need to actually know a legitimate dancing style.

When you’re a tall gringo, this is easier said that done.

With my salsa experience limited to a few awkward lessons taken during high school Spanish class, I needed to find a way to build up my salsa resume.

In its typical creepy fashion, Facebook responded with suddenly showing me status updates from an old friend from middle school who happened to be a salsa dancer. In my typical creepy fashion, I sent the friend a message asking if she knew of any good places to learn salsa in the Bay Area. She not only told me about a few local salsa bars offering lessons, but that she would also accompany me to the first few lessons until I got the hang of it.

Salsa Lessons with Antonio Miguel and Valerie Demattei!
In another stroke of luck, a few weeks later, the same friend told me she was going to start teaching beginner salsa lessons with a man named Antonio Miguel at a local fitness club. The lessons were intended for absolute beginners with zero salsa experience. Bingo.

I started going to the lessons every Tuesday and after two months, it is safe to say my skills have improved. I’m no Marc Anthony and I might not be as good as this kid, but I know more than the average gringo. Antonio’s lessons have given me the salsa foundations which I can hopefully build upon when I am in Colombia. 

I'll do my best not to embarrass America too much.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Pre-Departure: Crazy is as Crazy Does

Me, The Tall Gringo, and my dog, Gerico
 As you can see, I am pretty much as gringo as they come.

If, at first glance, my blue eyes, brown hair and pale skin don’t give it away, the second I open my mouth, you will soon learn that my conversational Spanish is about as good as George W. Bush's English.

I haven’t even been to Latin America before. Not even Mexico.

I am going to the one on the right
So when I tell people, “Colombia. Yeah, I’m going there,” they assume I’m talking about grad school.

But then I shake my head and say, “No, I’m going Colombia… the country.”

At first, they might say, “That’s cool! What a great experience that will be.”

But then the thought registers; cocaine and Shakira and guerillas, oh my!

Right about then, they look at me like I’m crazy. Not so much about the Shakira part, but definitely the other two things.

Maybe they’re right to look at me that way.

Things I am leaving behind
After all, I did sacrifice an impending promotion at a perfectly good “real world” job in order to leave behind everything I know and love to devote a year of my life making next to nothing helping disadvantaged populations in South America.

So, if I know that what I’m doing is crazy, why am I still doing it?

Well, I’ll tell you.

All my life, I’ve walked the practical path. I had a more or less cookie-cutter childhood, went to college, graduated in four years and found a “real” job. People told me I should be proud of how well I had done for myself, and I was, but nonetheless found myself in want of something more. I knew I could never be satisfied with doing well solely for myself; I also needed to find a way to do well for others. I needed to break away from the safe harbor and do something truly significant.

And then I found WorldTeach.
WorldTeach has placements all over the world. Duh

I first learned about WorldTeach from a friend of a friend who had participated in one of the organization’s programs in Southeast Asia. Intrigued, I did some of my own research and learned that WorldTeach is a non-profit, non-governmental organization founded by a group of Harvard students in 1986 in response to the need for educational assistance in developing countries. WorldTeach partners with local governments and non-profits to bring English-speaking volunteers into developing areas to work with underprivileged populations.

Due to the abundance of sketchy teach-abroad programs littering the Internet, I was at first wary, but the organization’s Harvard affiliation and a timely endorsement by my favorite New York Times columnist (and personal hero), Nicholas Kristof, reassured me it was legit.   

I knew I wanted to teach somewhere in Latin America because it would allow me to not only improve my Spanish speaking skills (a good career move), but also to discover a previously unexplored (but often joked about) piece of my Latin American heritage.

Numbers don't lie
Believe it or not, my grandmother was from Nicaragua, making me 25% Nicaraguan. Although she passed away a few years ago, I like to think she would be proud of me for what I am about to do and I am dedicating this trip to her memory.

But the question remains—why Colombia?

WorldTeach offers placements in only a few Latin American countries. Among these are Costa Rica, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia (and most recently, Panama). I did a bit of research looking into each of these countries and found myself inexorably drawn to Colombia.  Although Colombia was considered to be less safe than the other countries, it appeared to be the place where my efforts would have the greatest positive impact.

Colombia stands at a crossroads. After years of improving its security situation, the country can either continue down the path to peace and prosperity or fall back into the darkness it has worked so hard to escape. Ultimately, Colombia’s fate will be decided by its willingness and ability to invest in its most valuable resource—its people.

A WorldTeach classroom in Colombia
In the United States, there is a direct correlation between education and prosperity and the same is true in Colombia. As a volunteer educator, I will work to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged Colombians and help them to build better lives. It will be a chance to do something good, something real—something truly significant.

I don’t mean to let on that it’s going to be easy; working in a developing country never is. I will face unforeseen challenges every day and success is anything but assured. I would also be lying if I said I am not a little nervous; this is hands-down the scariest, riskiest thing I have ever done.

Not Superman, but ready for the challenge
But there can be no courage without fear and no real reward without risk.

I have always talked about wanting to make the world a better place; this is my chance. No more talk; now is the time to act. If not now, then when? If not me, then who?

I’m not Superman. I’m not faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive or able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I certainly can’t single-handedly save the world, much less a country as complex as Colombia.

But I'll be damned if I don't try.