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TRANSLATING EXPERIENCE

Reflections from the Beginning

By SVEA ANDERSON

svea andersonSvea Anderson currently lives and teaches in Tucson, Arizona. Aside from teaching fourth grade, Svea enjoys spending time outside in the desert environment, hiking, bike riding, and playing disc golf. Her passion is teaching science and engaging students in inquiry-based education.

The New Year is a time for resolutions and reflection. Since historically my resolutions never seem to last too far beyond February, I am focusing on reflecting this new year, since this seems the most realistic and fulfilling option. Entering a new year of teaching I am considering what inspired me to go into teaching and what inspires me to stay in the profession. I have also been reflecting recently on how little I knew when I started, how far I have come professionally, and how perhaps in the beginning, ignorance was bliss.

Thirteen years ago I celebrated New Years in Auroville, India. I was teaching in a small village school, New Creation. It was the eve of the year 2000 and, besides hoping with all my heart that the change in numbers from 99 to 00 would cause a technological crash and delete all records of my impending student loans, I was playing the game “telephone” with the local village children. I spoke no Tamil or Hindi. They spoke limited English. As you can probably imagine, it was humorous and frustrating for each of us at the same time. That year, sitting around a small camp fire, there were no glamorous ball drops, no party invitations, no fancy party favors for me. That night, with all its simplicity and ambiance, remains in my memory as one of my favorite New Year Eves ever.

So how is playing “telephone” part of a reflection on my teaching experience? It was truly the beginning of my introduction to the world of education. I was finishing up my Masters in Elementary Education at Antioch New England University in New Hampshire. I had been hired to teach Kindergarten at a school in Monteverde, Costa Rica upon graduation in June, but as the fates allowed, I opted out of the contract and followed my favorite teacher, Heidi Watts, to India for my second internship. Previously my international travel consisted of bordering towns in Canada and Mexico so it is safe to say I was not at all prepared for what lay ahead, living and working in a third world country. I arrived in Southern India in November. It was the beginning of the summer there and when I got off the plane into the humid, dank dawn, I was overwhelmed at the sights and smells of the city of Chennai, overwhelmed at the thought of what I had just gotten myself into, and to be perfectly honest, I was scared.

I had only formally taught in a classroom during my first student teaching internship the previous year. There I was mentored by two amazing teachers who helped me through the creation of lessons and the secrets to classroom management. Here at New Creation, I was the teacher. I taught whatever was needed at the school. I taught the younger grades English and the upper grades science. There was a language barrier, but luckily I had the Indian teachers there to translate for me, as much as they were able to. At night, after our simple meal of rice and sambar, the teachers and I would meet back at the school and I would share with them the teaching skills I had acquired at Antioch. Even with my limited experience, I appeared as an “mentor” to these men and women.

This is where the “ignorance is bliss” comes into play. I had no experience with aligning my lessons to standards, to teaching to the test, to submitting lesson plans on line the week before they were taught. I was innocent as a teacher. As I reflect, I miss those days. Everything was possible. I could make and bind books with the best of them. There was time for play, time for experience. When teaching the middle school students in India about plants, it was ideal to visit the banyan trees to demonstrate adventious root systems. No language translation needed. I wasn’t teaching them how to bubble in answers or write five paragraph essays. I wasn’t always checking the clock, making sure I was on time for the next independent subject. We were integrating education and I was teaching them about the world that surrounded them, teaching them to not be a spectator, but to be a part of it.

These days I am teaching in Tucson, Arizona. I play by the rules, aligning my lessons to not only the Arizona standards, but also the newly adopted Common Core standards. For the most part, I teach my lessons in blocks-each isolated by subject. With my principal and superintendent’s permission I am starting to teach outside the box. I am unwilling to burn out on the profession like so many have before me. I want change and it has to start with me. I look at the children in my classroom, sitting before me, wanting to learn.

Someone recently compared school and prisons, with their similarities of rules and regulations for both students and inmates. School should not be a place where students come and sit for eight hours. Education should be interactive and engaging, like it was for my students in India. I reflect back on my own education. I loved elementary school, liked middle, and despised high school. What made for these emotions? Was it school, hormones, life? Was it play? Was there a sense of intrigue and excitement with learning new concepts? Was I more engaged in my learning at a younger age?

I am a huge fan of inquiry based education, so, with permission, I cram all my independently taught subjects into four days and on that fifth day, Friday, we have a STEM free-for-all. “Science Fridays” are my attempt at getting back to the core of what education should be. Each week we have a different thematic topic, be it science, math, engineering, or all of the above. The students are given the opportunity to explore and investigate and to create their own learning experiences. And it IS magic.

So, I can conclude that I have indeed come a long way from the innocent newbie who got off the plane in India and never looked back. I have traveled the educational highway and have stopped along the way to refuel, to add more air to my tires, to become more confident in the direction I am heading. Those early days of teaching, when it was new and exciting and I felt that could do anything, aren’t really that far away or even out of reach. Teachers need to remember what it is that they love about the profession and embrace it. We tend to get lost in all the paperwork and bureaucracy. that comes our way. It is an important lesson to be able to step back and reflect on just why it is that one does what one doe. I am energized by the idea of starting fresh again now because this year, anything is possible!


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