Friday, April 29, 2011

Best Accommodations Ever

My travel style tends to focus more on the experiences I have when out and about and less on the actual place where I sleep. I fall into the category of "budget traveler," which in part means that I favor hostels over hotels and rooms over resorts. I'm above the level of saving money by camping everywhere I go (although I did that for a couple weeks in New Zealand when I had a very stingy travel companion), but in general I don't look for much more than a clean room in a safe location. If I'm doing stuff all day, I really just need a comfortable place to sleep. Besides being inexpensive, hostels are great for their social aspect, especially when I'm traveling alone. At this point in my life I think I'd take a comfy hostel with a good common room over a fancy resort.

Even though accommodations don't play largely into my travel experiences, the place where I stayed during spring break turned out to be one of the best parts of the trip. There is actually a hostel up near where I wanted to go, and it was ranked by Lonely Planet as one of the best hostels in all of California. It was serendipity that the hostel was closed for repairs, which led me to booking a room at the Requa Inn in Klamath. It's an old hotel built in 1914 when the fishing industry was bigger, but now Klamath is a little town of 1,400 people and land belongs to the Yurok Indian Reservation. The Inn is now fully restored and turned into an adorable bed and breakfast.

There were so many great things about this place. First was its location, right at the mouth of the Klamath River where it empties into the Pacific. Half of the rooms, plus the dining and sitting rooms look out over the river. This was my view as I ate breakfast Tuesday morning. By Wednesday afternoon a beautiful fog had nestled itself in the trees on the hills. One of the owners told me that sometimes it gets so foggy that they can't even see the river!

This is the road the the Requa Inn is on. See the ocean at the end of the river?

The second great thing about the Requa Inn was the customer service. It's a little family business, owned by a couple, their daughter, and their son-in-law. Everyone was amazingly friendly and helpful. On my first morning I asked for hiking recommendations and one of the owners spent at least 20 minutes helping me pick out good trails and writing down directions. Employees introduced themselves and were happy to chat, but also seemed to know when guests wanted to be left alone. The decor was charming and the staff was meticulous about cleaning. Then there was the food. Breakfast options included all kinds of seasonal fruit and freshly juices, plus local breakfast meat and/or eggs, hotcakes, homemade granola, homemade yogurt, and freshly baked toast. I'm glad I stayed for three days just so I could try everything. There aren't many dining options in Klamath, so I ended up eating dinner at the Requa Inn too. I don't think of myself as a food snob, but their organic, locally produced food ingredients definitely tasted better. I'm sure the fabulous chef didn't hurt. 

I also appreciated the background and social responsibility of the owners. The mother and daughter are members of the Yurok tribe and part of their goal in buying the inn was to create more jobs for people on the reservations and be role models for tribe members who might want to start small businesses. They support other local businesses through the products they use (their food is almost all local, their toiletries are from a local company, etc). The daughter wrote her MPA thesis on Indian education, so she's very active in the tribe and in the local schools. I fully support businesses that do good things and are run by good people. 

My favorite thing about the Requa Inn is a little more specific to me and wouldn't necessarily sway the average person to stay there. One of the owners, the son-in-law, is from New Zealand! I guess anyone would benefit from getting to hear his awesome accent, but I was super-excited to talk to him (or "chat to him," as the Kiwis would say) about all things Godzone. Even better, he had lived in Wellington so we got to reminisce about our favorite places and all the food we can't get here in the US. The most amazing thing was that he had worked in consulting, mediating Maori claims against the crown and since I also did stuff with Maori affairs in the government it turned out that we kind of knew a couple of the same people. Such a small world!

Spring Break 2011: The Drive North

Who knew that California is that big? It takes about 6 hours driving south to get to LA from the Bay Area. If you drive north for 6 hours, you'd think you would make it to another state. It was kind of fun traveling without a GPS or a real map. I got on highway 101 about a mile from my house and just kept going. The drive took me a little longer than expected, but only because there were so many places to stop along the way.

I drove for about 4 hours before making my first stop. The Best of This American Life kept me company, but I was ready for a break. The city (town? village? freeway exit?) of Leggett offered the perfect place to pull over: the southern-most drive-thru redwood tree.

When I paid my entrance fee, the guy pointed out that my ticket allowed me to drive through the tree as many times as I'd like until 8pm that night. As tempting as it was to drive in a very small circle through a redwood tree for 6 hours, I only stayed long enough to stretch my legs and take a picture.

Another 30 minutes or so north of Leggett is the start of an amazing 31-mile scenic drive, the aptly named Avenue of the Giants. It runs parallel to highway 101, traveling along the edge of Humboldt State Park. There was supposed to be an audio tour to accompany the drive, but the box at the start labeled "audio tour" just had a map with no commentary.

I did stop in Humboldt State Park to take a little hike in Founders Grove, home of some big trees (as opposed to other parts of the park?).

The Founders Tree, named in honor of the founders of the Save the Redwoods League. It's really hard to capture the size of these trees on film--the picture below is two pictures stitched together)--but here are some stats: height - 346.1 ft (that's about 10 feet shorter than Niagra Falls); diameter - 12.7ft; circumference - 12.7pi or 40 ft; height to the lowest limb - 190.4 ft. Woah.

I really liked the trees with the burned out insides. I think it's amazing that the trunk can be so hollow but the tree still thrives. All three pictures below are of the same tree (sorry for how creepy my half-face looks in the shot looking upwards).

I was also really into the fallen trees. The exposed roots were so cool. Again, it's hard to demonstrate just how big everything is in photos, so I've tried to provide some scale for each picture below:

Eventually I left Humboldt State Park because I had to make it to my hotel by 8pm. The drive up 101 never stops being amazing. After awhile it moves out of the redwood forests and veers toward the coast. Never a boring drive for sure.

YOLO of the Month: April

True, I didn't really have a YOLO of the month in March. I did spend the night in a YMCA with 110 ninth graders which is something you should only live through once, but I can claim that experience twice (thus far) so I guess it doesn't count. Fortunately, I think my April YOLO counted double.

In an ongoing attempt to fulfill my self-promise of actually seeing the sights that California has to offer, I took a road trip to the north coast and spent a couple of days in the redwood forests. I originally started planning this getaway for spring break two years ago, but of course that was when my car chose to die about a week before my intended departure date. So I got to spend that spring break (and that spring break funding) buying a new car. Not as much fun.

Now finally the trip happened and it was well worth it. I'll put pictures in separate blog posts, but short story: everything was amazing.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

I Like It When Kids Value Each Other

I make my students work in groups pretty much every day. It's hard work (for me and for them), it can be extremely frustrating (for me and for them) and it's often the most challenging part of my class (for me and for them). But one of my fundamental values as a teacher is that kids learn better when they talk about their ideas. I believe that verbalizing their ideas is the best way for them to make sense of concepts. This means that they have to work in groups and that the groupwork must be structured very carefully. We've all had bad experiences working in teams, so I want my kids to learn now, for lack of a less business-trendy word, what high-performing teams look and feel like. A subset of these goals is that students learn to value each other's ideas and learn to see each other's smarts. Part of being a high-performing team is learning interdependence and finding how each person's unique skills are crucial to the team's success. These teamwork skills will make students better people and I believe happier people down the road.

Without question, my classes this year are the most successful groupworkers I've had. Or, I kind of like to think, this year has been my most successful year of teaching (if I'm teaching kids to do groupwork right, it follows that they're learning the content deeply). I think especially that many of my kids have come to value each other's ideas and that they really listen to each other. Most importantly, I think that a lot of them value everyone's ideas, not just the kids who they deem "smart." Today I felt like I had this confirmed, at least somewhat, when I took a poll on who students want to sit with for their last seat change of the year. Here are some of the highlights:

  • In 3rd period, one of the most requested students was A., a girl who averages C's on tests. Math is challenging for her and in her group she rarely has the brilliant idea that moves the group forward mathematically. But she is the group member who asks the questions other kids are afraid to ask. She's the group member who says, "We need to slow down" and who demands that every step is justified. She's the group member who says, "I need you to explain it another way," and who then repeats back what makes sense to her and what she doesn't understand. I think that the students recognize that having A. in their group means that every idea will be examined and thought through until everyone understands. A.'s not the person who's going to teach you the math, but she's the one who will guarantee that you understand it. 
  • Even though I don't like to compare intelligence levels because I believe everyone is smart, there's one girl who I have to describe as the smartest person in the entire freshman class. She is smarter than me and smarter than most people I know. She could do everything I ask on her own and frankly doesn't need her classmates (or me, probably). Her seat request? To stay with her current team, which includes one of the kids who I think came into this year with the biggest skill deficit in the class. But she feels like she benefits from him. Her other request was to sit with A., the girl I described above. 
  • With the exception of just a few kids, my students did not request to sit with friends. That tells me they recognize that school is for learning, not for socializing. Of course they picked kids who they enjoy working with, but enjoyment did not seem to be correlated to who they sit with at lunch. I was even more pleased that a number of kids specifically requested not to sit with their friends. I got a lot of, "I love her but we talk to much!"
  • The kids who were requested the most are students who especially skilled at including other kids in groups. I have a lot of kids who are willing to put their ideas out there, but fewer who will ask their teammates what they think. The "popular" kids were the ones who are super-patient, will ask for everyone's opinion, and who will force their teammates to explain. What a powerful thing at an early age to be able to recognize the people who bring out the best in you.
At the end of my last class as kids were filling out this survey, one boy held up to me what he'd written and sighed, "Can't we just do this?" I expected something annoying like, "Not do math anymore" or "Have class outside." Then I almost cried when I saw what he wrote: "One big table with everyone."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

What I Learned about Teenagers this Week

The past couple of weeks have been rough at school. In particular, we had two racially-fueled incidents in the span of a just a few days. First, a white supremacist page on Facebook "friended" most of our Latino freshmen and spewed frightening hate speech. Second, a white student very directly used a racial slur against a black students, clearly with the intention to hurt him. I'm really proud that our 9th grade faculty decided it was worth our time to address both of these incidents head on, including taking time out of class to help kids process their feelings. Part of this included small discussion groups where kids got to just talk (with guidance from a teacher).

My first group was magical. There were 8 girls and 1 boy of pretty diverse backgrounds racially and socioeconomically. I was really impressed with their self-awareness and empathy. Many of them talked about the anger they felt but also the ways they deal with that anger so it doesn't have repercussions. They also talked about how things like racial slurs hurt an entire community, impacting not just the person who was targeted. I was especially surprised that they recognized that a hateful response to racist speech is likely to make the other party even angrier and will in turn perpetuate a cycle of anger that will just end up hurting everyone more. Woah. Pretty insightful for 15-year olds.

My second group was very different. Again, they were diverse racially and socioeconomically, but this time it was all boys. Instead of talking about compassion, talking through your feelings, etc., the boys basically said they didn't care about what had happened. A number of them pointed out that the Facebook page and the racial slurs hadn't been directed at them specifically, so they weren't bothered by it. I wasn't exactly excited by this reaction, but I do understand that a lot of them haven't developed the same kind of empathy I heard from my first group. Much more disturbing was the prevailing agreement between the boys that nobody should be bothered by these incidents, including the people were targets. One Latino boy talked about the many instances of racism he faces everyday, which led him to conclude that you just have to accept it and not worry about it. A white boy talked about the serious bullying in teasing he'd faced in middle school and almost seemed to see it as a positive thing because it helped him develop a thick skin and not care what anyone else says to him. Many of the boys (both white and Latino) seemed to think that the school shouldn't have intervened and nobody should have gotten in trouble for the racial slur. There was even the idea brought up that the student who used the racial slur was justified in doing so because the other kid was teasing him first. They talked about being taught to stand up for themselves no matter what and saw the racial slur as just a way for that kid to stand up for himself. Wow.

The more I thought about the difference between my two discussion groups, the more it struck me that I know very little about the way boys are raised and how they interact with each other. I also know very little about adolescent development with respect to the ways and rates at which boys and girls mature. It was interesting to me in these discussions the difference in the boys' and girls' abilities to abstract their ideas. The girls seemed quite able to put themselves in someone else's shoes, to think of a community as an entity different from individual people, and to imagine hypothetical situations. The boys focused on concrete examples, and when I asked them things like, "Why might some people feel scared or uncomfortable when they hear that someone has been using racial slurs?" they seemed to have a really hard time thinking outside themselves. Is this a boy thing? Is it a teen development thing? What is going on? Why was there such a push from the boys toward an "every-man-for-himself" mode of existence? Is this just reflective of the gender norms boys were raised with or something more developmental? Is this how boys of my generation were being raised? Most importantly, how can I support these boys in becoming more empathetic, self-aware, and socially-aware? How do I help them think about the importance of community and the value of feeling accepted? Will this all just come in time, or do I need to be thinking more pro-active?