Moment of Visible Impact

The best part about working with kids is the moment you realize how much of an impact you’re making in their lives.

Since our gym had to move to online training sessions, I’ve actually gotten to stay in touch with the kids I coach a lot better since I can participate in the Zoom calls no matter where in the world I am at the moment. Today we had a team bonding video chat that was just meant to be a fun way to keep up engagement. One of the girls though wasn’t really responding to any of the questions being asked. She ended up messaging me on the video chat first just saying it was nice to see me. Then eventually she finally admitted that she wasn’t really responding much because she’s sad that her family might be moving out of the country over the summer and it won’t be the same as being at Jump Start and she might not get to see me in person again.

I told her how sometimes change can be a good thing and Jump Start will always be welcome to her anytime she’s back to visit. Also that I’d miss her too and her mom has my phone number so she can always ask to talk to me any time she wants to catch up.

FullSizeRender.jpegAnd the kid, being the sweet kid she is, followed up on my offer pretty much immediately after the video training call was over and sent me this text from her mom’s phone:

 

While I’ve been coaching gymnastics for over 6 years now, this is really only my second year with a consistent schedule and being a main team coach. It really makes the world of difference in job satisfaction when you get to form these kinds of connections with the kids. Moments like this also remind me just how important it is to think about the “whole child” when teaching and coaching because there’s a lot more going on in these kids’ lives than just gymnastics or school or theater or soccer or dance, etc, etc…

I truly love coaching gymnastics and especially so because it allows me to be apart of these girls growing up. It’s nice to know I’ve made as much an impact on them as they have on me.

Recording History

Well, it’s official, New Zealand has joined the rest of the world in this pandemic and goes into “lockdown” mode in 48 hours. Schools have now been closed/moved online and other organizations are following suit with everyone preparing for the next 4 weeks staying at home.

History is being made right now, and I figured I should write/reflect about it, so here’s my update from New Zealand:

I’m 17 hours ahead from my home in the US, and yet in some ways, I feel a week behind. The past week and a half I have been dealing with the fact that the situation in the US has gotten increasingly worse and all study abroad programs were canceled with students being asked to return home. I had to decide by last Wednesday if I was going to stay here and sign away GT’s liability to me being here or go back home to the states where the health situation has been significantly worse. I decided to stay because I believe one of the worst things to do right now is travel, and I feel confident in NZ taking advantage of the extra time we’ve had here to prepare for the worst of it. So I’m here for the long-hall for now and just taking everything day by day flying solo.

^This was last week.

Today, in the middle of my International Management class, the Prime Minister announced that NZ has had 36 new confirmed cases of the virus (bringing us to a total of 102 and spreading through the community now); therefore, the decision was made to up the country to a level 3 warning which will change to a level 4 warning in 48 hours.

Since then the city has kind of been in mass prep mode.

I can’t help but find things slightly amusing, because in my mind I knew this announcement was coming any day now. The past two weeks I’ve been getting updates from friends and family and twitter back home about things slowly shutting down and school-going online and toilet paper leaving the shelves. I’ve been hearing so much, and with study abroad programs being canceled also having to think about things so much, it’s almost felt like I was living in that reality too. Even though here in NZ, I was still just going to classes per-usual and dealing with the debate about going home or not while trying to submit assignments in on time.

I specifically treated last Friday like it would be my last day on campus, being sure to buy my last scone from the cafe, getting a sweatshirt souvenir from my host university, and getting lunch at my favorite spot. Then I spent the weekend starting to stalk up on groceries and cleaning supplies.

However, with the way people were acting today, it was clear that not everyone was on the same mental page as me. It was almost as if people didn’t see this situation as inevitable.

Traffic was crazy. Grocery stores were packed with check out lines going to the back of the store. Everyone looked in a rush on the sidewalks. And this was all happening only about an hour or so after the announcement while I walked home from my class. I can only imagine what things got like later in the day.

I got home and shortly after my roommate came in with her parents and suitcases already packing up to go home along with the dozens of others in the hallways. Meanwhile, I’ve been sitting at my desk updating friends and family thinking to myself, “deja-vu.” It’s like we’re just a week or so behind everything that I’ve been hearing about in the States.

So now I’m safe and healthy alone in my apartment with lots of food supplies ready to take things day by day and readying my friends for lots of video chats. With all of this newfound time I hope to be better at blogging more frequently and I would challenge others to also create a blog to share your stories during this time of uncertainty. 30 years from now students are going to be doing school projects about “The Great Pandemic of 2020.” Wouldn’t it be cool if these future learners had all sorts of primary resources from families around the world sharing about what their daily life was like during social-isolation? Not to mention, blogging can be a great way to consume time and reflecting is a great tool for mental health management.

Whether it’s every day, once a week, three times a week, every other day, or even once every two weeks recording our history is important and everyone’s stories matter. I challenge learners of all ages to reflect, write, and share your stories.  

School and Wellbeing

I’ve been in New Zealand for three weeks now and just finished up my second week of classes. I had originally planned on writing today about the observations I’ve made about NZ education during these first two weeks – now that I’ve gone to all of my classes at least twice; however, plans change when there’s a pandemic. 

I woke up this morning to lots of emails that all essentially said: The coronavirus is getting worse so we’re shutting down campus, moving classes online, and canceling study abroad programs, therefore, everyone needs to return home to the US as quickly as possible.

Honestly one of the worst ways to wake up.

I cried. I got mad. I went to class – because why get behind?

Now I’m trying to be patient, calm, and distract myself from checking for new emails every 30 seconds.

Crazy enough it wasn’t until talking to a barista at lunch that I realized that it wasn’t the virus itself that made me sad or mad or even scared.

I was sad because I’ve been waiting for years to study in New Zealand and now I finally get here and things are going well and I’m being told to come home. Then I got mad because I realized the situation here is actually far safer than traveling through multiple airports and returning to Atlanta where there have been far more reported cases of the virus then the 4 contained cases in a different part of New Zealand from where I’m studying. (I’ve already written several emails to different people hoping to be allowed to stay since New Zealand is not the average country at the moment.) Then I got concerned with how it’s going to affect my education.

I started wondering if I have to go back to the states will I be able to keep taking my NZ classes online; how will I be able to attend tutorials which count towards my overall average? I wondered, will this push my graduation back another semester? I wondered how my financial aid will be impacted – will I lose a full semester of funding from being here for these few weeks? Will my airfare home get covered? Will I be able to re-enroll in the fall even though I was supposed to be in NZ until November? Will school even be back in August or will classes still be online or will they just officially cancel classes? If my university decides they don’t think it’s better for me to stay here, can I stay anyway, or will my visa get terminated, or will classes then not transfer?

I say all of these questions in the past tense, but I suppose I’m still wondering them I’m just trying not to focus on them as much at the moment.

Right now I’m just thinking about how crazy it is to have such a strong feeling of knowing history is being made. These next coming days in front of us will be in history textbooks.

And furthermore, I’m thinking how it’s equally crazy that in this time of world crisis, my thoughts immediately think about how my schooling will be impacted over thinking about my actual health… Have I really become that drilled into the system? And it’s not just me. I’ve made friends with other exchange students here from all over the US and they’re starting to receive similar emails requesting study abroad students to come home. They too are wondering the same questions centered around how this will impact us getting our degrees.

I didn’t cry this morning because I was scared that the virus has reached a point that requires schools shutting down and students going home. I cried because of all the questions above making me immediately think about how stressful this situation is going to make my education. And I wasn’t alone… WHY???

Why do students think first about education over health?

Is this because our generation is still young and naive and therefore, doesn’t have the same sense of worry? Is it because the situation isn’t as bad here so we aren’t thinking about the implications as intensely? Is it because every professor keeps reminding us that this is not actually the most deadly disease currently being transmitted? Or could it be because our education system focuses on schooling above wellbeing so that’s what we’ve learned to focus on too?

Honestly, it’s probably a bit of all of the above, but it’s the last question that worries me the most. When I think about my k-12 schooling, I know that individual teachers might say “put your health first and we’ll be here for you,” but I’m not sure how much I really saw this mentality in action systematically.  Whether it be mental or physical illnesses, you never really got a break from school. I remember a kid who had a serious concussion during the year that was denied from exempting exams, despite still attaining the necessary A average in the class, but it was because their illness caused them to miss too many days of school. I remember kids leaving early, or for days, due to therapy, but they had to pick up packets of strenuous homework before they left. I remember being sick myself and wanting to skype into classes so I wouldn’t have to deal with the make-up work and the amount of catch up you have to play from just missing a few days for being sick.  – Granted, I acknowledge my own bias because I’m aware of how personally I can be overly anxious about this kind of thing, but I know I’m not the only one that stresses time off from being sick.

And now we have this virus that is causing schools to move to online and I just wonder, especially now – how do we remain aware of wellbeing in our education system?

Should we even be having classes still? I can really argue both ways.

Part of me immediately thinks, “Of course! It’s the middle of the semester and we’ve already done half the work it seems silly to stop doing school work now if we’re not actually sick. It would make me more annoyed to have to not count any of this semesters’ work and start over and get pushed back a semester, plus school can be a good distraction sometimes.”

However, on the other hand, I think about all the students who typically rely on school for food, housing, work-study, etc. The students having to all of a sudden rapidly relocate. The international students worrying about family members overseas. I think about the teachers now working from home and having to balance between watching their own kids since schools are closed while also trying to change their lesson plans to be compatible with online learning. Not to mention I can only imagine all of the challenges involved with being in an area that’s actually infected. And when I think about all of these challenges I seriously wonder if students and teachers are mentally healthy enough to be also worrying about tests and projects and watching online lectures right now.

There’s no “right” answer, everything has pros and cons. And I know everyone is trying the best they can to make appropriate decisions in this time of great uncertainty, but I  can’t stop wondering about this balance between school and wellbeing and how this current volatile situation could be a chance to reconsider our actions towards wellbeing during the typical school year.

Science tells us there are good stressors and bad stressors – stressors that motivate us to work harder and grow as scholars and those that hinder us and decrease our mental and physical capacity. How might we make sure school isn’t a bad stressor? It doesn’t need to be, but oftentimes I find that it is.

Personally, I’m trying really hard right now to not be overwhelmed with the thought of being forced to leave my exchange program early and all that entails. I don’t think I like the fact that I’m more concerned with my education than my health at the moment but at least it’s led me to interesting observations that are also serving as good distractions. And I wonder, how are we going to learn from this pandemic about the balance between school and wellbeing, and how are we going to utilize what we learn once it’s under control? 

 

 

 

With that, happy Friday the 13th… and almost Pi Day! Hope this weekend isn’t my last here in New Zealand.

Kia Ora

In the midst of my journey into the field of transformative education, there has been one country that just kept coming up as somewhere with some pretty cool stuff going on in education. Since high school, I’ve been hearing via Twitter, conference guest speakers, and other education blogs that New Zealand education is worth learning more about. And now I’m finally here to check it out for myself!

It’s been a week since I took off on my first of many planes to make it here to Wellington, New Zealand. I’d like to say the week has been glamours, but that would be a lie. Like all good adventures, there have already been some ups and downs. I almost missed every flight due to airport shenanigans. Renovations didn’t finish over the break on the house I’m supposed to be in so I’ve not been able to settle in yet as I wait to move out of my temporary flat. Oh! And the temporary residential hall I’m in had a fire in the common room on the second night, so we had to evacuate for several hours and only today have been allowed back in the room to collect our plates and forks we brought for the BBQ that was supposed to happen. (Everyone and everything is fine now.) I’m also not fully enrolled yet due to paperwork taking a long time to process, so I can’t log into the online portal to even just find out where my classes will be located next week which is very stressful. However, I’ve also met some awesome people, the school and campus seem amazing so far, and I’ve already done lots of exploring like hiking a mountain, interacting with museum exhibits, and training/looking for a job at a local gymnastics gym.

So overall I’d say I’m doing fine and rolling with the punches. I’m more than a little anxious about not being fully settled – from housing to enrollment – but I also know and have been reminding myself that I’ve done everything I’m supposed to and just need to be patient and wait at this point. (As hard and frustrating as that is…)

As the school year starts off I’m excited to see how NZ university compares to the US; so far one big difference just from orientation is the “party culture.” In the States, the idea of university kids partying tries to get ignored/ students are told “don’t do that”, but here it’s very much acknowledged in more of a “have fun, but be safe” kind of philosophy. Ie. orientation speakers (of all ages) will tell you Wellington has great bars and even mention a few favorites, but also remind you to go with friends you trust and take care of each other. During our first resident hall meeting, we were even told that the hall was hosting their own party where students are allowed to bring up to three drinks – that never happens in the States… Even as someone who is very much not a partier, it’s been interesting to see these little differences already just in orientation.

There has also been a huge emphasis on community which I love – not to say universities in the States don’t value community, but I think it’s been even more emphasized here then I remember from my days touring schools and attending orientation as a freshman. This entire week, “OWeek”, is packed full of social activities both for residential halls and the general student body with everything from hall chanting competitions, to city tours, to late-night concerts, to organized hikes, to Wellington themed movie nights. Plus the entire week, anytime someone has formally spoken, they have talked about getting to know the community in and outside of the university and encourage us to volunteer as a great way to be involved and give back.

I’m excited for studies to start, and I’m also excited to continue to explore this amazing, beautiful country. Some of my “bucket list” items so far include doing a night tour at Zealandia, seeing the glow worm cave, touring Hobbit Town, and doing site visits at a few innovative k-12 schools (I know – I’m a nerd for having this on my “bucket list” and I’m proud of it).

So one week out of thirty-six down and who knows what ups and downs will come next, but I’m looking forward to the adventures yet to come on this incredible journey! Kia ora New Zealand!

iNACOL Recap/Takeaways

Last week involved dozens of hours of learning and networking with thought leaders around the country working towards transforming the education system. While I reflected each night of the conference, I also decided this week to put together a presentation of some of the biggest trends and takeaways I noticed from the conference. The intent of this presentation is so that I can share highlights from the conference with the rest of the Trailblazers Production Team since I was the only member able to attend; however, I thought I would also share it publically if anyone else was curious about the happenings at iNACOl (at least from the sessions I attended).

iNACOL Day 1: Questions to Ponder

Being able to attend events like iNACOL Symposium (as of today now known as Aurora Institute) really means a lot to me because it’s an opportunity to dive deep into the world of k-12 education – a world which I’ve been somewhat disconnected from since entering undergrad. It’s been amusing to me to see all of the surprised faces when people learn I’m a young learner that chose to attend this conference; my number one asked question of the day is, “So why are you here? Is it for a class or something…?” Yet to me what is surprising is the lack of young learners in attendance, especially since this particular conference has no registration fee for k-12 students. I have always said that my personal motivation in this field is driven by the belief that young learners should be at the forefront of education transformation. Students are the primary users of school, and every good design project will say you have to start with the users to talk with them, empathize with them, and build with them in order to actually create something that meets user needs and therefore will last.

Anyway, despite the lack of young learners, we had some great conversations today! I felt like my day was divided by three main conversations so I’ll focus my reflection on those three areas: professional development, research on online learning, and whole child development.

 

Professional Development:

In the realm of professional development, we mainly just discussed a lot of interesting questions several of us are having in regards to what effective PD looks like in innovative k-12 environments. Personally, I’m interested in the question, “How might we re-design teach training from the very beginning (i.e. undergrad teacher education)?” because if re-design teacher education then it should make the onboarding process for new teachers entering innovative learning environments much smoother. We didn’t really discuss this question in-depth today, but I enjoyed having the opportunity to work on framing this question since I have recently realized that it is a reoccurring theme in my pondering. We did however talk a lot about, “HMW measure/insure the impact of professional development on teacher growth?” I found this question particularly interesting because a lot of discussions in education have been focused around competency-based learning and how to measure/assess this style of learning. And theoretically, I see no reason why these same methodologies couldn’t be used to measure/assess teacher learning and growth. Why don’t we always practice what we preach? If we truly believe that teachers are learners too, doesn’t it make sense to provide them with frequent and specific feedback on their work? Some teachers might not yet be comfortable with the idea of receiving constant feedback on their work, but we can’t improve as individuals, schools, or larger communities without feedback. As one of our table group members said “It’s a wonderful place, your comfort zone, but nothing grows there.”

 

 

Research on Online Learning:

Moving on into the day, we discussed a lot about education research specifically within the context of online and blended learning. Today I learned that I don’t know very much about online or blended learning. I’ve taken a few online courses in the past, and I had mixed opinions about them, but that’s about my extent of knowledge in this area of education. I never realized how many different kinds of online learning systems that exist until today but apparently there are over eight based on what came up in our discussions. I don’t have a particular interest in this topic, but today was really the pre-conference day for iNACOL and since I was going to be here anyway, I decided to participate in a session and the only free session was about online and blended learning, thus that’s what I participated in. To be honest, I felt like there was a lot of information that went over my head. The session was designed based on past feedback from online teachers who requested more sessions specific to online/virtual/blended education; thus there were a lot of experts in the room talking about a lot of specific elements of research and practice.

While I didn’t have a lot of take aways today specific to online learning, I did appreciate the general focus on new education practices needing to be grounded in research. A big thing being pushed was that every change should be backed by research, and I think that’s an important idea because it proves people aren’t creating change just for the sake of it. There is a lot of thought and evidence behind decisions which helps make a very convincing case for change that goes beyond just, “Well the old system clearly doesn’t work.”

Something I also heard a lot of today was the idea of “researcher or practitioner.” This came up because our presenters were wanting to bridge this gap, noting that researchers really want to hear from practitioners what kind of research is actually needed in the field that way when research is conducted it can be of real use in the field. However, I wasn’t a big fan of the idea that we have to either be a researcher or a practitioner. Maybe it’s just the reality that we all tend to be one or the other, but I’d imagine it would be more interesting if we all did a little of both. I don’t see why k-12 practitioners can’t also be researchers. Sure timing might be challenging, but if a school could have adult learners both researching and practicing innovative teaching methods I can only imagine the sort of interesting insights that would come about.

 

 

Whole Child Development:

Finally, the end of my night included a great opening keynote given by Dr. Brooke Stafford-Brizar with the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. The keynote was all about education needing to be whole child-focused which means focusing on 6 key aspects: physical health, mental health, social-emotional development, identity development, academic development, and cognitive development. One of my favorite things she said was, “When we’re most vulnerable is when learning takes place.” I was fortunate to have an overall pretty great high school experience with very supportive peers and mentors, but I also am very aware that this is not the case for many k-12 students. Dr. Stafford-Brizar showed word clouds about studies showing when students and teachers alike were asked to pick a word that comes to mind when they think of school they thought of things like stressed, frustrated, and overwhelmed. We know all too well that mental health is an extreme problem in education today, but we have to intentionally design time, space, and culture focused on supporting mental health in order for these issues to change. Dr. Stafford-Brizar made an analogy I loved and will probably now unintentionally butcher: “We don’t expect calculus to be learned in a morning meeting or an advisory session; we intentionally design class lessons to teach these skills. So why do we expect mental health to be learned without intentionally designing for it to be taught to students?” My big wonder though is how do we actually do this in practice? Dr. Stafford-Brizar suggests starting with the adults and making sure their mental health is addressed so that it permeates into the student body. But culture change is anything but easy. So how might we create a culture that’s comfortable with being uncomfortable and vulnerable? Starting with the adults seems like a great idea, but what does that really mean and look like in the start? There is no switch that will all of a sudden make everyone totally open to talking about personal struggles at school. I’ve seen examples of schools that do a really great job with mental health, but I still don’t feel like I have a good concept on how they got started. Or in some cases, I know that the school was founded with mental health as a key principle to the mission so there wasn’t the same cultural shift that has to happen in a preexisting environment trying to become more aware of mental health needs.

So overall I would describe day 1 as a day of thought provoking questions. I didn’t have any mind blowing, game changing takeaways, but sometimes it’s okay to just take away lots of questions because every question is an opportunity to learn.

 

 

Pictures from today:

iNACOL Day 0: The Pre-flection

I have officially landed and spent the day exploring Palm Springs and am so excited to be attending iNACOL Symposium starting tomorrow morning!

My professional goal is to become a social entrepreneur in the field of transformative education. I associate most of what I do in my personal, educational, and professional life back to this goal because of this driving passion to want all young learners to be able to experience education in a way that is learner-centered and has real-world impact. 

The iNACOL Symposium is an event I have been wanting to attend for several years now because it is known to be, “the flagship event for innovators, education leaders, practitioners, policymakers, and researchers advancing powerful, personalized, learner-centered experiences for students.”  While at this three-day international conference I will grow my professional network, get to share my unique perspective and experiences with education, and become further informed about the leading thoughts on a myriad of current challenges in the field. I am particularly excited to attend sessions on Human Capital, Leadership, Systems Transformation, Professional Learning and Development, and Whole Child Personalization/Social Emotional Learning amongst the total of 25 program strands available at this year’s convening. 

I’m excited to increase my knowledge about key aspects involved in my hopeful career field of transformative education by attending the sessions and workshops on topics I noted above. I’m also to be a co-creator of progress in education as I work with other practitioners to advance the communal pool of knowledge and ideas in the field. We will then all be able to take back these ideas and experiment with them in our own learning environments. Personally, I will be representing my magazine team, Trailblazers, while at the conference and will then prepare a recap presentation for the high schoolers I work with in order to provide a professional development opportunity for them as well. The real key to progress is not just working towards change, but also reflecting and sharing on experiences so that others can also benefit from new insights being made in the field; this is why it’s important to me to blog about my experience as well as summarize and share key insights with my magazine team after the experience. I plan to blog each night of the conference to make sure I’m adequately processing and reflecting on everything I’ll be learning. 

I can’t wait to get started tomorrow!

Touring Auschwitz

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This weekend we visited Krakow so we could take a day tour of Auschwitz.

Visiting a place with so much history and emotion associated with it, the common questions to ask are, “How was it? How are you feeling?” So I’ve been trying to ask and answer these question for myself.

How was it?

It was serial. It’s hard to imagine the horrors that took place in these camps.  In some ways, I’m still struggling to believe humans could commit such atrocities.

IMG_3853I’ve had a lot of conversations in the past about the true nature of human beings and it’s situations like this that bring me back to those debates. I don’t believe people are all good or all bad. But I think what’s harder to come to terms with is how wide this spectrum can be and how easily susceptible some people can be to believe things like the idea that some lives have no worth. I find this very hard to even try to empathize with, and yet, I want to believe people can’t be all bad. We did learn today that one of the children’s quarters was equipped with a sanitation room of sorts, so there was at least some small level of pity towards these kids of Polish civilians. Big picture though, it feels disrespectful to even try to justify such a small act as a sign of some level of humanity while looking at the dozens of unstable bunkers, cattle cars, and buildings designed for the sole intent of extermination.

IMG_3842.jpgWhat really made this experience serial and mind-boggling though was how nice it was while we were there. The weather was warm with a slight breeze and overcast in a not gloomy way. There was green everywhere; so many trees and well-kept grass. It was just so paradoxical to see ruins and ashes and discuss mass death while surrounded by so much nature and life.

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It was clean too. I suppose I expected this in terms of the paths being clear of trash and exhibits being neat and well restored. Though something about how much it truly felt like a museum seemed in a way very odd considering for the past few weeks we’ve continued to be reminded of just how not long ago these events occurred.

How are you feeling?

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Some may say it’s a weak word but first most I feel sad. Saddened with humanity and the knowledge that we can and have inflicted so much harm and cruelty in the world. And with this sadness comes confusion. Those lingering thoughts of, “How is this possible? How is this even conceivable?”

Though sad and confused I also find myself grateful. Grateful for the time and place in which I was born and the opportunities and privileges I have because of this. Grateful also for the chance to actually visit this place in person and connect with history in ways not possible otherwise.

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Furthermore, I find myself left with the thought that people are capable of so much. So much destruction but also so much compassion. It brings comfort hearing stories like that of Schindler who used his power of money and influence to save thousands of Jews; it’s a reminder that even in the face of corruption there can still be people to see past peer pressure and fear and proposed logic and instead fight for humanity.

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Which brings me to the most surprising and unexpected thing I’m feeling: inspired. I’m inspired by all the people who helped save lives. I’m inspired by the victims of these crimes who fought so hard for their survival. I’m inspired by the artist who captured these crimes on photos and notebooks to preserve the stories and memories of victims. I’m inspired by the survivors who worked to turn these camps into a memorial and museum so that history wasn’t left to go forgotten.

IMG_3837.jpgSad, confused, grateful, contemplative, and inspired- that’s how I feel upon traveling back from Auschwitz. I was told this would be a life changing experience. I’m personally not a huge fan of the commonality with which some people use this phrase since the idea of “life-changing” seems so grand and should be special to a few truly life-altering moments, but I suppose there is some truth to this notion. This was an experience like no other and while maybe I didn’t have any big life-changing world view or change of passion or life direction or anything like that, I know I will have a newfound level of depth and consideration whenever I think about the Holocaust, nature of humans, and the power of power.

So I guess that’s how it was and how I’m feeling.

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Reflecting on 2.5 Years of Trailblazers

I’ve been slow to posting, but last week was a special one because we published our 5th issue of Trailblazers!!!

I’m still a little in shock to be quite honest. When we founded Trailblazers my senior year of high school, I’m not sure I fully believed we would still be running two and a half years later. Yet somehow we keep managing to pull through – even if we end up publishing a bit after our goal publish date…

It definitely hasn’t been easy though. Trying to manage any group that you only get to meet with a max of four times a year is hard enough, let alone considering the fact that the team you are working with are high schoolers who have to manage all sorts of other conflicts. I’d say a quarter of the year there was always at least one member who didn’t have access to technology, either from losing something, being grounded, or being in an area without service/in a different time zone. Imagine being on an online team where you didn’t have the ability to communicate online… It’s a bit challenging.

Not to mention, when working with high schoolers that means eventually students graduate, so there is a limited amount of time members stay on the team which puts us in a constant state of recruitment and onboarding. Each year we have new members we have to bring up to speed on our mission, values, and their specific roles and responsibilities which often includes a lot of training because these are roles most high schoolers haven’t taken on before.

The onboarding and training part of this journey has been particularly interesting to me as each year I try to get better at letting the high schoolers take more and more control the magazine. This semester I think got better with the team learning to schedule their own group meetings and make decisions without always needing me to direct the way through everything. I was always very pleasantly surprised when I would ask a question in our group chat to find out that the task had already been completed. There were still moments where I had to step in a bit – like in the final stretch weeks when senioritis and summer start to cloud work ethic – but we still got it done and that’s the key.

Recruitment has also been something Trailblazers continues to struggle with. I just finished my second year of college, which means at this point, there are fewer and fewer learners I consider myself to know well at the high school. Therefore, it no longer makes much sense for me to just go in and talk about joining the team or for me to reach out to individuals I think would be a good fit. So this has now become a new task for the high school team to take on and we’ve not yet found the best way to get new learners interested in joining our team.

I’m very aware of the struggles faced with Trailblazers, but that’s not to say I’m not extremely proud of where we are at. This year we published our 5th issue, created official branding, attended our first national education event as a team, got a production team application from a non-Innovation Diploma student, reached over 50 followers on social media, and had our first non-founding members graduate. It’s been a big year for Trailblazers, and I hope we continue to have big years and continue to learn from each semester about ways to improve as an organization and continue to be amazed by the stories and work of young learners.

Life Update: Living in Budapest

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It’s amazing how one person talking for an hour can be so inspiring sometimes; the thing is if you don’t reflect and act upon what you learned it can be so easy for those inspiring messages to get forgotten.

William Benko reminded me today of the importance of having habits and strategies for how we tackle life. I’ve been well aware of this concept for years now, and yet, as evidence of my lack of blogging in the past few years, I think I’ve allowed myself too much slack with what were once my daily habits. So at the very least, I felt it was time for a life update on my blog because I’ve been having some amazing experiences the past few weeks and haven’t done the best job capturing and reflecting on them.

DSC_0510.JPGIt’s been about 2 weeks since I arrived in Budapest, 4 weeks since studying abroad, and 5 weeks since beginning the Leadership for Social Good program. Since I’ve gotten to Budapest I’ve also been interning with Teach For Hungary. (Part of our program is that each participant is partnered with an NGO in Budapest who we intern with for the 6 weeks we are here.)

Teach For Hungary follows similarly with the Teach For All model where the basic concept is to get professionals committed to a two-year fellowship working within schools as teachers and mentors to kids specifically in rural/small town areas. Teach For Hungary is very much in start-up mode at the moment, being only about a year old, and one of my primary roles has been to help the team as they work on developing their hiring and onboarding process for new full-time staff members and later working on how to recruit and train fellows. 

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It’s been fascinating learning about the education system here in Hungary and so far I’ve also really enjoyed my work which has included a lot of strategic planning and brainstorming. Even the location I’m in, the Innovation Lab of Central European University, is just so fitting for me. I’ve been amazed by how much of my work in the gymnastics world has been applicable; for example, I’m currently working on the online test and accompanying assessment tool for the hiring process and I’ve been able to apply lessons I learned from creating the gymnastics assessment tool for evaluating gymnasts looking to enter one of our invite programs. I’ve also noticed my background in design thinking coming in extremely useful as I’ve been asked to give lots of feedback since I’m a fresh pair of eyes for documents like the onboarding information. Most of my meetings thus far have begun with a “Like, Wish, Wonder” feedback protocol, and I even looked up my old Innovation Diploma application earlier this week as an example of a “choose your own adventure” technical skills/thought process assessment. It’s always fun to connect the dots between your seemingly different worlds and I’m excited to see what other connections I make as I continue to work with Teach For Hungary.

IMG_7169.jpgIn addition to my internship, most mornings I’m in class, though I’m sure many people wouldn’t think of it as “class” per say. We have class Monday-Thursday from 10-12ish (sometimes we start earlier sometimes we end later), and our typical week consists of two guest speakers, a group presentation/facilitating class deep dive into any topic we’ve discussed thus far, and one activity/field trip to places like the historic baths and largest synagogue. Our guest speakers so far have been great! Each one has a story about their involvement with Hungarian NGOs and so far everyone has had such powerful messages I couldn’t possibly go into detail about all of them.

IMG_9513.JPEGOne guest speaker, in particular, was from an organization called Bator Tabor. This is one of the most well known NGOs in Hungary, and in fact, it is one of the top 3 NGOs in terms of gaining public funding through Hungary’s special 1% law; this law allows for taxpayers to donate 1% of their tax money to an NGO of their choice from the approved list. Bator Tabor is a campsite for children with serious illnesses. They have an incredibly well-developed program and volunteer training process. What was especially cool is that last weekend we actually got to visit the campsite for our own leadership retreat! I love everyone in this program and it was great to work together to accomplish odd challenges like lifting everyone over a rope between two trees, climbing a rock wall and swinging between hanging tires, and a more complex archery session than I’ve ever done (including learning to shoot backward and off of a wooden horse).

IMG_3136.jpgIMG_3126.jpgAnd in terms of giving a full update, this wouldn’t be complete without mentioning how beautiful Budapest is and how much I’ve loved exploring the city! My friends and I have had a number of random photo shoots and trips to hunt down the best-baked goods and ice cream. I even attempted to make paprika chicken (a Hungarian traditional meal) in our apartment and it turned out surprisingly good. I had never before considered how stressful grocery stores could be when you can’t read any labels and the store set up just doesn’t seem to make sense at all. And to top it off I finally feel pretty comfortable with the public transportation system which knock on wood is true since I’m about to head off to figure out where my bus stop is to take an overnight ride to Munich for the weekend!

Every day’s a new adventure, and I’m excited to see what new discoveries I make in the next four weeks! I have also found that the sense of adventure and exploration has reminded many of us that we need to spend more time being explorers in our own communities because there are bound to be hundreds of things we’ve yet to discover even in our own backyard.

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