"I Want to Build a Tall Wall" (Or, Cracking Jokes During This Election Cycle)

I know that most Americans are tired of election coverage. They can't take one more soundbite of Donald Trump's racist/sexist/xenophobic/[insert your own brand of hate speech here] rhetoric; they cannot read one more article about Hillary Clinton's godforsaken emails. They are burying themselves inside of their Snuggies with a pint of Ben and Jerry's, and they're not coming out until Wednesday, November 9th dawns in America. I completely understand their election burnout.

But it still doesn't change the fact that this election has gotten students excited about politics in a way I've never seen before. Every morning, we let our students turn-and-talk after watching CNN Student News, so that they can discuss whatever's interesting them in current events. Usually, students turn to their partners, say something along the lines of "that pipeline thing, I guess," and then chat about their plans for the weekend or who's dating who until the buzzer goes off. (Since they're in middle school, "dating" means that they held hands on the playground. Once.) But this election cycle? Students have been completely engaged. I recently covered an English Language Arts class where we analyzed logical fallacies through recent political speeches. We watched Clinton's "Family Strong" campaign video and discussed how that was an example of plain folks rhetoric, so that our class materials could at least make a pretense of being impartial. Immediately afterwards, we read one of Trump's speeches about Mexicans. In our Title 1 school with a 100% African-American/Latino student population.

I thought that this was brilliant. It's not just that Jake (one of our eighth graders) could do an on-point Donald Trump impersonation; it's also that he was able to improvise lines of his own based on election coverage. It made me wonder if the best form of assessment in a civics class might be a student-produced version of The Daily Show or Full Frontal or even the SNL cold openings. Humor requires a deeper level of understanding than more traditional expository writing -- and it's more entertaining for fellow students to watch. (Am I the only one who wishes that I could show Last Week Tonight to my students? Then I remember that it's on HBO [with all that entails] and nope. I think that would be a surefire ticket to the unemployment line.)

We'll just make presidential musicals about sexy dancing peanuts instead.

This election cycle has certainly brought forth a side of our country that many of us never wanted to see -- a side that's entrenched in hatred, ignorance, and fear-mongering. However, it's also given us the most-watched presidential debate in broadcast history and possible record-breaking voter turnout. For a country that's struggled with public engagement in the democratic process, I think that we need to appreciate the silver lining that's buried deep deep DEEP inside this epic storm-cloud of an election. I'm not happy that our students are growing up in a society that's, in many ways, governed by a "basket of deplorables" -- but I am happy that they're taking an interest in how they can fix it.

Teacher Turnover (Or, Knowing When to Leave)

You've probably heard the statistics. 50% of new teachers quit the profession after their first five years. (Not true, according to the US Department of Education. The actual number is a little less than 20%.) And in schools that serve low-income communities, that number becomes even higher. In Washington, DC's poorest public schools, almost two in five teachers choose to leave every year. And the worst schools for teacher turnover? Charter schools. According to the New York State Department of Education, charter schools lose teachers at a much higher rate than their public counterparts -- with some schools bidding farewell to over 50% of their teachers every year. (One Success Academy had over 70% teacher turnover!)

You can find self-reflective essays all over the Internet from teachers who have had enough. Many of them offer a similar narrative: teachers are burned-out from administrative tasks, state-mandated testing, and data-driven instruction. Running your classroom like a corporate enterprise unsurprisingly saps all of the enjoyment out of teaching. (Who would have thought?) I don't have a lot of those problems though. I teach in a supportive school environment where we're given all of the material resources that we need to succeed. We're not burdened with unnecessary paperwork. I'm given the freedom to create my own curriculum based on my individual interests and skills. I'm able to present at conferences and take sabbaticals to travel abroad. Our school's even located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn -- the hipster capital of America. Where else can you pick up a designer fedora, get an 18th century maritime tattoo, AND enjoy cold brew coffee served in a mason jar ALL within a few blocks of your school building?

(I love you, Williamsburg.)

So why would I ever want to leave? For me, there's one simple litmus test. For years, I woke up every morning and, even if I wasn't all that excited about being awake at 5 AM, I never considered calling in sick. I've dragged myself into school in the middle of off-Broadway tech weeks (which, in my opinion, demonstrates much greater commitment than dragging yourself into school during flu season with mucus gushing out of your nostrils like Niagara Falls -- which I have also done). My students needed me to teach them about phallic and yonic symbolism in The Odyssey. About the use of kennings and flyting in Eddic poetry. About gendered violence in the collected works of Lars Van Trier. And I came to school every morning, excited beyond belief to share my esoteric content knowledge with them.

But over the past year, I've started thinking more and more about how I can just "opt-out" instead. There are many reasons why this has happened. I teach 330 students every week and struggle to form meaningful relationships with any of them. My sporadic class schedule doesn't allow us the time or space to create any substantive artistic work together, regardless of how many hours I spend preparing for every lesson. Behavior problems have reached an all-time high, and, even as a skilled veteran teacher, I find myself at a loss in regards to how to get our fifth and sixth graders to walk in straight and silent lines.

For someone whose identity has always been wrapped up in her professional success, this leaves me in a somewhat precarious situation. It's not that I'm struggling to find another teaching job; it's that I'm struggling to determine what the right teaching job would even look like. Regardless of where I end up post-Fulbright, I think that the next six months will be an invaluable opportunity to figure out where I go from here.

Rewriting the Script (Or, The GCSE and the Culture of Devised Theatre in the UK, Pt. 2)

During my first week abroad, I attended a devised performance created by Complex Youth Theatre. Much of Ireland's theatre education culture revolves around extracurricular programs that aren't attached to schools. Complex Youth Theatre (CYT), for instance, is managed by a larger arts organization in Dublin 7 -- the North West Inner City. Many of these youth theatres have similar programming. Students meet once a week (every Saturday for CYT) to attend a workshop. (CYT offers an introductory drama workshop in the mornings and an advanced drama workshop in the afternoon. The advanced workshop leads to an annual public performance.) Youth theatres tend to work with small groups of students to maintain the intimacy required for successful theatre-making. Frequently, these programs receive far more applications from interested students than they have spaces available. The highly-competitive Dublin Youth Theatre (DYT) only has about a 30% acceptance rate. However, many of these programs have policies where students who come back to audition multiple years in a row (thus showing their dedication to the program) will eventually be accepted. And since students are allowed to enroll in a youth theatre from ages 14-22, they have many years to enjoy their membership and take advantage of training opportunities.

This year marked the centennial of the 1916 Easter Rising. If you're unfamiliar with Irish history, the Rising was when Irish nationalists declared their intention to separate from Great Britain and form the Irish Republic. While the rebellion was suppressed and its leaders were executed, the push for independence gained momentum and, in 1922, the Republic of Ireland was established. In honor of the occasion, the government distributed funding to arts programs that were creating work about the Rising. This meant that every weekend, the members of CYT would gather and learn about their country's history. Together, they created a short work (about 30-45 minutes) that examined the Rising through a historical lens -- giving equal weight to both the Irish nationalists and the British loyalists. DYT, meanwhile, will be taking a different approach later this month with Rising, a collaboration with documentary playwright Helena Enright that explores "what revolution means to young people in Ireland now."


Meanwhile, in the UK, students were also creating devised works this summer. I had the privilege of attending the kick-off of Open Court, the three weeks when the Royal Court "hands over the keys" to young producers, artists, and playwrights so that they can curate an entire mini-season of new works. In their words: "Pushing boundaries and taking over the entire building, Open Court will spill out of the stage into corridors, offices, rehearsal rooms, the bar & kitchen and online." The programming for this year includes new devised and scripted works by young artists, as well as installations and panels and concerts (not to mention workshops and other educational events). The Royal Court has long been known for their dedication to the development of young playwrights, particularly ones giving voice to issues confronting Millennials and Generation Z (which will get its own nomenclature eventually). Open Court is specifically curated by the Royal Court Youth Board, a group of students (ages 15-19) who are interested in arts administration and dramaturgy. Obviously, I'm going to try to get into a youth board meeting during the Fulbright program because there's nothing that interests me more than authentic student leadership in theatres.

The performance that I saw at Open Court was called Follow Me -- the culmination of the Royal Court's annual collaboration with Pimlico Academy's Year 10 BTEC Drama class. Based on the talkback afterwards, the program seems similar to our in-school teaching artist residencies. (Interestingly, the parents emphasized repeatedly how the students had come to think of the Royal Court as their theatre -- something that's dissimilar from traditional teaching artist residencies [which usually have little connection to the host theatre] and that has interesting implications for developing future generations of arts patrons.) Pimlico Academy, which was once a failing school but has since been rated "Outstanding" by OFSTED, works with Royal Court staff to create devised works about topics that are important to them. Follow Me dealt with the Internet. Upon entering the theatre, you were labeled with an Emoji sticker by Young Court staff and told to keep your cell phone on. Unfortunately, the performance used neither these Emoji stickers for audience interaction/collaboration nor the cell phones, to my knowledge. (Since I had an international number, they couldn't really call/text me.) Definitely some missed opportunities.

In Follow Me, students were encouraged to share their thoughts on online relationships, video game violence, and even Anonymous and hacktivism. (They frequently shouted out the refrain of "BANG! And there goes the poor," mocking quick fixes for economic inequity.) While the students' analyses were somewhat cursory, the act of being able to share their voices onstage obviously had a huge impact. In the discussion afterwards, one of the students said that working with the Royal Court boosted her confidence and gave her a platform to be heard. She believed that working with the theatre company created a powerful relationship for teens who frequently struggle to connect. (During this discussion, the theatre teacher at Pimlico Academy talked about how strict adherence to the GCSE curriculum meant a push towards memorization in schools and that fewer teachers saw teaching drama as a desirable job. She also noted that there wasn't universal access to theatres in schools; instead, students were pushed to join youth theatres that charge a membership fee. As someone who views both the GCSE and youth theatres and being two "stand-out" parts of the UK's arts education system, I really appreciated the dissenting opinion -- especially one that so strongly echoed issues in the US around standardized testing, teacher recruitment/retention, and equal access.)

The idea of "handing over the keys" to young artists really resonates with me. One of the things that I took away from my trip to the UK is the power of an arts organization having "a room of one's own," as Virginia Woolf would say.

During my time abroad, I also volunteered at the International Youth Arts Festival in Kingston upon Thames. While working box office, I had the opportunity to watch a new devised physical theatre work by JADA Theatre School. Property of Society explored gender dichotomies and how they can limit self-expression and self-representation. While the performance dipped into transgender issues, I felt that it focused more on individuals whose gender presentation simply wasn't "traditional." (For instance, there was the question of whether, for the masculine-of-center girl, her feelings were provoked by society privileging male thoughts and actions. I really expected this to be articulated in the talkback afterwards, but no one addressed it.) These young artists created some really stirring images -- like young women being physically constrained by harness-like bra-straps and a young man having his image literally reflected back at him (through a series of mirrors) by every member of society. Once again, I wanted the talkback to dig a little deeper into these issues (especially considering the power of the material being shown onstage), but, regardless, it was obvious that working in devised theatre really pushed the students to reflect on how our society functions and what we can do to improve it.

JADA Theatre School's phenomenal devised physical theatre work, Property of Society.

While I do have some background in physical theatre, watching JADA made me really want to explore how dance and drama can intersect outside of the traditional musical theatre structure.

I strongly believe that drama programs in the US lean too heavily on scripted work. The devised theatre that I saw being created in the UK was exceptionally powerful -- and, more importantly, engaged students in thinking about their history, their politics, and their society. During my Philosophy of Education class in grad school, the professor used to ask us: "To what end, education?" Why have we made schooling mandatory? Why does it matter if students have a solid grasp on core academic subjects? Because eventually, these students will be the ones responsible for the public good. And, in order to handle that responsibility, we need to make sure that they understand how the world around them operates. Devised theatre deepens that understanding and starts them down the path of solving (or at least grappling with) our world's problems. If we want our students to be politically involved (and, as the US has notoriously low voter turnout, I think that we must), then we need to use every opportunity available to start them down the path of civic responsibility. Devised theatre is one path that our schools are not taking full advantage of.

Rewriting the Script (Or, The GCSE and the Culture of Devised Theatre in the UK, Pt. 1)

This post kicks off a series about my recent travels across the UK and Ireland. When Uncommon Schools asked me to start their first Brooklyn-based theatre department, I did what any "good" charter school teacher would do: I looked for a standardized test from which I could backwards plan. (Oy.) Fortunately, this did not backfire and result in me creating a curriculum where students bubble in multiple choice scantrons or shoot back scripted call-and-responses. Because the test that I discovered was the UK's GCSE in Drama.

Let me preface the following by saying that I'm sure there are problems with the GCSE. Even during my short stay in the UK, I heard teachers complaining about these summative assessments. But when I compare them to what we have in the US, I'd gladly take the GCSE any day. The assessment consists of:

- Written paper (40% of total score): The written paper has three different parts. First, the student writes about a practical performance-based experience that she had during the course. She considers the skills that she developed as a result of her participation, analyzes the rehearsal/production process, and evaluates the effectiveness of her own contribution. Secondly, the student studies a scripted play (from a reading list provided by the GCSE) through practical workshops. He's asked to complete tasks like reading an excerpt from the script and explaining the acting choices that he might make onstage or describing a costume that he might design for a specific character. During this activity, he needs to prove that he has a thorough understanding of the social, historical, and cultural context of the play. Finally, the student needs to write about a live theatrical production that she attended -- engaging with theatre as a critic as well as a practitioner.

From The Abbey School's final GCSE performances. "We initially had to choose a stimulus out of four to work from, with both groups eventually choosing ‘The Nightmare’ due to the many ways in which this title could be interpreted."

- Practical work (60% of total score): Students have to create a piece of theatre. For a standardized test.

You can go back and read that last sentence again. I'll wait.

Students create work in two "controlled assessment options" (which include devised thematic work, performance [including improvisation and physical theatre], theatre in education, and technical theatre). The amount of time allocated for each student is five minutes -- so a group of four would get twenty minutes total for their performance. All technical theatre/design work must be used in an actual performance -- so if you're a student whose "controlled assessment option" is lighting design, you need to actually plot, gel, hang, focus, and operate lights for a group's final performance. Teachers are expected to provide skills-based instruction and feedback during the groups' rehearsal processes. Teachers keep records of the students' contributions and send these documents in to the test-scorers as part of their assessment. (That's right. The GCSE uses teachers' observations and comments as part of their standardized test scores.) Students also share the written work that they complete during rehearsals/production meetings and are partially scored on that ("process") as well as the final outcome ("product").

From King's College School Wimbledon's final GCSE performances, 2014. "This year’s pieces were Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Euripides’ The Bacchae: two great meditations on the conflict between body and soul. Both groups drew on chorus work, movement and song in bringing the verse drama to life."

(DISCLAIMER: All of my information on the GCSE comes from test prep guides that may be outdated. I ordered as many of them as I could from Amazon.co.uk but, admittedly, there weren't many that could be shipped to the US. I'm looking forward to observing actual GCSE Drama classes when I return this winter, as well as hopefully chatting with a representative from AQA [Assessment and Qualifications Alliance] -- the organization in charge of testing in the UK. Can I just mention that this quote is prominently featured on AQA's website? "Being a charity means our focus is always on what benefits education -- and any money we make gets invested back into education." Can anyone tell me why the US doesn't create a non-profit organization[s] to create our state/federal tests instead of relying on massive profit-generating corporations like Pearson?)

While students can choose to perform/design scripted works for their final GCSE project (like in the photograph above), the GCSE has helped develop a culture of devised theatre in the UK that promotes student engagement in and reflection on social and political issues. There are certainly schools in the US that utilize the devised theatre model -- but nowhere near as many as in the UK. (In the US, devised theatre tends to be used for the occasional production, as opposed to being the bedrock of the department. During my high school career at Buffalo Seminary, we only worked with devised theatre once and even that production was rooted in student-written texts from the AP English Literature class about the American Dream [responding to a curriculum featuring The Great Gatsby, A Raisin in the Sun, and Death of a Salesman]. All of our other productions were completely scripted works.)

Obviously, the GCSE is a huge departure from our standardized tests. I can't figure out why we haven't adapted this model. A practice-based standardized test seems like it would help meet the needs of teachers (who have been pushing for portfolio-based assessment in lieu of standardized testing for years), parents (who have become so opposed to drill-and-kill standardized testing that opting out has become a national movement), and students (who hate filling in those little bubbles with No. 2 pencils). Yet, for some reason, we persist in administering tests that feature cut-and-dry A-B-C-D answers, along with dull and/or nonsensical reading passages. (Pineapples, anyone?)

"Never Say No -- Unless It's Dangerous or Illegal" (Or, Fulbright Orientation: Days 2-4)

While I've been a little bummed about missing the beginning of Uncommon professional development (seriously, you guys went to Brighton Beach without me?), being able to spend this week in Washington, DC with the Fulbrighters has been incredible. I know that we're surrounded by diversity in NYC, but being able to collaborate on a daily basis with the best and brightest teachers from Botswana, Chile, Finland, India, Israel, Mexico, Morocco, New Zealand, the Palestinian Territories (first time Fulbrighters!), Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and all across the USA has allowed me to get so many different perspectives on education. This afternoon, the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching (DAT) staff hosted a session on barriers to participation in this program. Like most US teachers, I won't be receiving pay from my school or district while I'm on the Fulbright program. I thought that I was "overcoming challenges" because I'm giving up my apartment and spending four months crashing on my friends' sofa-bed. Then I heard about the two Botswanian teachers who had to visit their country's Ministry of Education every single day in order to get their Fulbright authorization form signed. (They finally got the form signed -- on the day before they were scheduled to leave for Washington, DC.) I heard about the Palestinian teacher whose employers refused to sign her authorization form because, as they repeatedly told her, there was no way that she would ever be allowed to leave Gaza -- regardless of the US Consulate's involvement. (Obviously, she did leave Gaza.) And I heard about the Finnish teachers who were required to take a TOEFL test in order to even apply for the Fulbright program. And that TOEFL test cost €300. And the results expire after two years. These teachers have moved mountains, and I could not have a deeper respect for them and the work that they're doing.

(A teacher from Morocco presenting at Fulbright Culture Night.)

One of the first workshops that we attended at Fulbright Orientation was called "The Art of Crossing Cultures." Last month, when I was traveling through the UK and Ireland, I frequently found myself getting frustrated. This workshop helped me realize that some of my frustrations were due to minor differences in the values and beliefs of our countries. (The facilitator gave us this example of a common UK miscommunication: "If a British person tells you there is 'a spot of bother' down at the warehouse, this means: A) There is a small problem at the warehouse. B) The warehouse is on fire, and we've lost most of the contents." The answer was B. The British tend to understate situations.) We analyzed where each of the different Fulbright DAT countries fell along five cultural assumption spectrums: the locus of control, the importance of face, management style, concept of rank and status, and communication style. I knew theoretically that there are some cultures that believe in an external locus of control (i.e. "some things are just meant to be, no matter how hard you try"), but until I saw so many international teachers identifying on that side of the spectrum, I never really thought about how that belief could impact someone's everyday life. I'm so used to America's "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" mindset that I have a hard time envisioning anything else. It really jostled my entire worldview -- which is the entire point of international exchange. (Also: Our conversation about monochronic societies [ones that have undivided attention, like the US and the UK] vs. polychronic societies [ones that have divided attention, like Latin America and the Middle East] was fascinating. If you're not familiar with these terms, definitely look them up on Google. MIND. BLOWN.)

(Teachers from New Zealand singing in the Māori language. Jessica Stovall, who traveled to New Zealand in 2014-2015, is wearing traditional Māori dress, complete with a Piupiu dance skirt.)

The facilitator (Craig Storti) also pointed out some quirks that Americans have. When we read a pretend exchange between an American (Bill) and a Finn (Sirpa), Storti said: "Bill is a good American -- and as a good American, his starting point isn't reality." I realized that my starting point isn't reality either because, like so many Americans, I'm a die-hard optimist. THE GLASS WILL ALWAYS BE HALF-FULL. His advice to international teachers visiting our country? "If you're in the US, be happy. You don't have to actually be happy. Just act happy."

(A teacher from Singapore demonstrating some Tai Chi moves with her daughter.)

(And teachers from India and Botswana even joined in!)

Visiting the UK last month made me re-think the subject of my inquiry project. (More on that in a future blog post.) One of the million amazing things about the Fulbright DAT program is that the committee selected your inquiry project -- but they also selected you. They believe in your potential as a researcher, as an author, and as an innovator. They understand that as you continue to learn more about your host country, your inquiry project will grow and possibly even change. Hearing firsthand from the alumni panel about how some of their inquiry projects ended up being much different than they'd initially planned (thanks especially to Anne Ward and Jessica Stovall!) really inspired me to be flexible about my inquiry project instead of limiting it to what I created months (or even years) ago. Having so many alumni at Fulbright Orientation was definitely the most helpful component. I was especially lucky because Courtney Reynolds, who was in residence at the University of Glasgow in 2014-2015, was one of the UK representatives. I found out all about my housing situation, what my class schedule might look like, and how often I'd be able to travel around the UK (answer: all the time). Having some of those questions answered made me feel so much better. While receiving a Fulbright is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, there are a lot of stressors involved in moving abroad -- even if it's only for a couple of months. It feels great to know that some of the basics (housing, utilities, etc.) are already taken care of. (Shout-out to the University of Glasgow for clearly being one of the best Fulbright university placements!)

(We went downstairs for a "pub experience" during a breakout session. The other Fulbrighters couldn't find us and wondered if we had "Brexited.")

The most valuable advice came from Dr. Holly Emert, the incomparable Program Director of the Fulbright DAT program. First of all, I cannot say enough amazing things about Holly and the rest of the Fulbright DAT staff. They were so extraordinarily patient with me -- even when I kept sending them emails that were the academic equivalent of an annoying toddler on a road trip: Have selection decisions been made yet? Have selection decisions been made yet? Have selection decisions been made yet? If you decide to apply for the Fulbright DAT program, I cannot overstate how much you will enjoy working with Holly, Becky, and Angelica; they are complete rockstars.

(Fulbright Orientation Day 2, ready to go!)

At the end of Day 2, Holly told us: "Never say no -- unless it's dangerous or illegal." This advice was reiterated by alumni and facilitators alike. Go visit classes that are unrelated to your content area. Go to an out-of-the-way rural town to experience another side of education in your host country. Go to coffee with someone that a university colleague knows and thinks you might like (a blind academic date!). Everyone kept telling us that the Fulbright experience isn't just about conducting research and writing an essay; it's about experiencing your host country to the fullest extent possible. It's also about being an ambassador for the USA and sharing information about our country and our school's best practices. So even though I'm a homebody who would gladly spend all of my free time in an apartment with fifty cats (no shame in the kingdom), I'm resolving to "never say no." I am so excited about my upcoming trip to the UK, and I could not be more thankful to the Fulbright DAT team for providing us with an inspiring orientation week as well as this life-changing opportunity. I've been dreaming of that coveted Fulbright pin for almost eight years -- and I'm so thrilled to be able to wear it this winter!

(More good advice from Fulbright DAT alumni.)

Capitol Stuff, Old Chap (Or, Fulbright Orientation: Day 1)

I haven't updated this blog in over a month. When I stumbled off the Megabus into the Buffalo Bus Terminal (after already having endured a not-especially-comfortable Transatlantic flight), I basically went into hibernation. I've only dislodged myself from my heap of comforters and pillows to attend Fulbright Orientation in Washington, DC. Otherwise, I'm sure that I would still be buried in a landslide of hypoallergenic goose down.

This summer has forced me to ask one incredibly important question: "If Donald Trump were to become president, would I be willing to marry Calum the Attractive Sheep Farmer and relocate abroad permanently?" Surely, a lifetime of shearing Aran wool would be preferable to four years in Trump's America. (Especially if that deal somehow included a lifetime supply of Doolin fudge.) However, over the past few months, I've realized that I'm probably too much of a patriot to ever consider leaving the Good Ole USA. I used to think of "patriotism" as a dirty word -- one spoken by flag-waving Republicans with creationist bumper stickers on the backs of their pick-up trucks. But I've come to realize that there's many kinds of patriotism.

(This sign was parked outside of the White House. The first time I got teary-eyed during this trip to Washington, DC was when I saw the First Amendment printed in giant letters on the front of The Newseum. There's nothing more precious than our freedom of speech.)

During the first day of Fulbright Orientation, we had the option of taking a bus tour of Washington's monuments. Something you might not know about me: I cannot stand tourist attractions. I took a walking tour of Dublin's Southside and was mortified to be seen following a shouting man with a brightly-colored umbrella. Still, since I've never seen our nation's capital outside of TFA Summits, I figured that a monument tour might do me good. At the very least, it would allow me to meet some of the other Fulbrighters.

(Fulbrighters and family members at the White House.)

Reading the Gettysburg Address at the Lincoln Memorial, I was reminded of why I feel so strongly about this country. How relevant those words are even now, over a hundred years later. "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure."

Former Fulbrighter Nicole Stellon O'Donnell wrote a compelling blog entry about our fixation on Finland's education system. Most of our research into Finland's best practices has focused on topics like their respect for the teaching profession and the agency/freedom given to their students. However, what we all-too-frequently forget is that Finland as a country looks nothing like the USA. Our country was forged, in large part, by immigrant groups that had wildly conflicting beliefs and values. The USA was an experiment to see if these groups (of divergent races, cultures, religions, languages, political views, etc.) could form a cohesive nation. Back in 1863, Lincoln saw our internal struggles as the means of "testing" that experiment -- and implored us to "highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

(Second time I got teary-eyed? The closing lines of the Gettysburg Address.)

The philosophical underpinnings of the USA are inspirational. One of today's speakers told us that Americans are eternal optimists -- something that puzzles other countries to no end. And yes, optimism is writ large on everything that we do. From the Statue of Liberty ("Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to be free!") to James Brown ("You may not be lookin’ for the promised land / but you might find it anyway"), we believe that the world's full of opportunities and that there's a better tomorrow waiting just over the horizon. How could you not be inspired by a country like that?

That said, I also strongly believe that you should never say never. So Calum, if you're out there, feel free to give me a call. I have moderate proficiency in knitting.

The Next Great Adventure (Or, Why I Decided to Spend an Entire Month Traveling Solo)

"Have fun on the next great adventure!"

That's how the girl from Melbourne who'd taken up residence in the bunk below mine (only for two days, mind you) bid me farewell this morning. After spending fourteen nights at Isaacs Hostel, I felt odd joining the revolving door of 20-something backpackers taking a "gap year" (or just a "gap summer") before embarking on adulthood -- employment and mortgages and marriages. I watched them cycle out of the bunks around me, like "flavors of the week" at a jello shot stand. When I'd checked in, the attendant at the front desk actually asked me: "Fourteen nights? What could you want to do in Dublin for fourteen nights?"

What could you want to do indeed?

(Hostel Life.)

I'm not going to recount what I've learned on my travels here; I'll leave that for when I return to New York and begin sifting through all of my interview notes. But, as I wait for my 3:30 PM flight to London (for fourteen more nights, which will be interrupted by a two-day sojourn to Glasgow, Scotland), I'm forced to wonder why I decided to take this trip at all. Having never been out of the country for more than a few days at a time, the decision to terminate the lease on my Greenpoint apartment (with its massive square footage and bargain-basement price) and take off for Western Europe seems impulsive at best. At worst? "Bonkers," as one Irish education director that I encountered would have said. "Absolutely bonkers."

I'm not someone who yearns for a life on the open road. I'm a homebody by nature; I'll choose an evening alone in my bedroom with my books every single time. In fact, the thought of being "a stranger in a strange land" provokes bone-deep anxiety. (I spent almost every morning in Dublin at the same coffee shop where the owner eventually started greeting me with: "The usual?" I've learned that having a familiar space to work and an operational cell phone [the hi-tech equivalent of a childhood security blanket] does a great deal to soothe my rattled nerves when I'm traveling.) So the decision to essentially become "homeless" for a year must have been triggered by something cataclysmic.

And I suppose that it was. My entire life, I have only ever wanted to do one thing: start a national youth theatre in the United States. It's been my goal ever since I stumbled on the website for the UK's National Youth Theatre as a sophomore in high school. As I read (and re-read and re-read) their program descriptions, all I could think was: This is it. This is what I'm meant to do with my life. And so I started my first attempt at a national youth theatre as a teenage girl in Western New York. We did eventually recruit students from multiple states -- but that production also drove my entire family into debt. Discouraged (and saddled with thousands of dollars in loans), I decided to put my lifelong dream "on hiatus," while I served a two-year corps commitment with Teach for America. I tried to convince myself that I could be content, teaching reading to sixth graders at a top-notch charter school. But that's the thing about lifelong dreams, isn't it? When you've been chasing them for years, they can be a tricky thing to shake.

(One of the first things I saw upon my arrival to Europe, scribbled on a bathroom stall -- Cheers to you, apropos psychoanalytic humor!)

So I started the National Theatre for Student Artists (NTSA). And it was a success. We produced our shows off-Broadway on stages used by Atlantic Theatre Company and New York Theatre Workshop. Our students came from the top performing arts conservatories across the country. We built a mutually-beneficial relationship with the Educational Theatre Association and secured our 501(c)(3) status and even received grants from government agencies. But it was when we were selected for a residency in a newly-built 499-seat theatre on Times Square that it hit me: I had achieved my lifelong dream.

And . . . it wasn't that great.

The realization was staggering. Like I'd tripped off the top of a cliff and was careening through the open air, grappling for purchase on ledges that kept slipping from my fingers. My friends had always envied my sense of direction. "It must be easy," they'd tell me, "having such a clear vision for your future. Always knowing what you want to do with your life." And, with maybe just a hint of smugness, I'd agreed. Now, for the first time in my life, I found myself directionless. What did I want to do with my life? Who was I without my life's work? What could you want to do in Dublin for fourteen nights?

(Life these cliffs.)

So I left.

I left my apartment. I left my job (for six months, at least). I left the country. I don't know if I'll look back and shake my head, thinking: "God, Victoria. You just had to have your Eat Pray Love moment, didn't you? What. A. Cliché." And yes, this is the midlife crisis that has plagued so many other privileged, over-educated white women before me -- the moment when we realize that, even if you can "have it all," you don't necessarily want it all. So that's why I'm sitting in the Starbucks at Dublin Airport, waiting for my super-cheap RyanAir flight, so that I can check into another hostel with another revolving door of 20-somethings who are just beginning to feel the niggling of existential angst.

On to the next great adventure.


Dead Texts (Or, Why I'm Opposed to Those Who Oppose Fanfiction)

In my quest to become more enthusiastic about Scotland, someone suggested that I start watching Starz' Outlander. It would, they assured me, make me think about men in kilts in an entirely different light. I'd heard about the series in passing -- steamy historical romance with a bit more political intrigue than your classic Harlequin fare (and the occasional graphic rape scene thrown in "for good measure"). It didn't really sound like something I'd be interested in, but I decided to download the first episode and give it a try. While I was reading the plot synopsis, the author's name struck a cord of familiarity: Diana Gabaldon. Where had I heard that name before? And then I remembered:

UGH. She's the one from Fandom Wank.

Back in 2010, Diana Gabaldon posted on her blog about fanfiction writers. Specifically fanfiction writers who wrote about Outlander. Her post contained this now oft-quoted line: "I think [writing fanfiction is] immoral, I know it's illegal, and it makes me want to barf whenever I've inadvertently encountered some of it involving my characters."

(Quick! We must preserve the artistic integrity of the Highlands romance genre!)

Back in high school, smothered under the outrageously boring texts foisted upon us in AP Literature and Language, I stumbled upon a life-changing epiphany: fanfiction could make any book, no matter how dull, bearable. William Golding's The Lord of the Flies became one of my favorite novels when I started jotting down margin notes about Jack and Ralph sneaking off into the wilderness to "ensnare the beast" together. (Let's talk about the homoeroticism in those hunt scenes for a moment, amirite?) I even enrolled in an independent study course in Biblical Greek so that I could better understand the nuances of the New Testament -- as, for example, the diction used in Mark (kataphilien, as opposed to the more subdued philien) indicated that Judas' kiss in the Garden of Gethsemane was "fervent" and "repeated." So I signed up for an entire year of advanced classical language instruction so that I could write more informed Biblical ship manifestos.

I probably should be embarrassed by my youthful forays into fanfiction; my days of posting in online archives are long over. However, I still feel obligated to defend fanfiction for future generations of bibliophiles. See, the books that we read in AP Literature and Language (and that I later read as an English major at Barnard College) seemed to be, for lack of a better word, dead. You would read the works, as the authors wrote them, and then discuss what the authors' intentions were in academic terms. When it came to canonical literature, there seemed to be tons of space for these "great authors" (mostly white, mostly male, mostly straight) . . . but precious little space for someone like me.

Fanfiction (and later reader-response criticism) changed all of that for me. I stumbled on Fanfiction.net (the much-reviled "Pit of Voles") during my sophomore year of high school and was struck by a sudden realization that literature could be alive. It could grow and change through thousands of texts -- published books, archived fanfics, edited fanvids, ship manifestos, etc. The worlds that I'd read about, in Wuthering Heights or Paradise Lost, were no longer abstruse extended metaphors that needed to be dissected according to the author's wishes. They were playgrounds where we could twist and leap and sprint to whatever endings we dreamed up in our fevered imaginations. They were the testing sites for our first romantic fantasies. They were the "Mary Sues" that helped us explore our own identities and recognize which attributes we wanted to develop in ourselves. These were perpetually-transforming organic worlds that had life outside of their creators.

And yes, many (nay, most) fanfics are really bad. As in, "Pass the Sporks and Bleeprin" bad. But the point of fanfiction isn't to "out-write" the original author. No one ever tried to get published off of a PWP drabble that they posted in the early hours of the morning when they were supposed to be doing their homework. You could hold up examples to the contrary, like Cassandra Clare and E.L. James, but these are few and far between.

And it's not as if fanfiction doesn't have a well-established and respected history. Take, for instance, Sir Walter Raleigh's progressively feminist "Nymph's Reply to the Shepherd." Raleigh read Christopher Marlowe's poem ("The Passionate Shepherd to His Love") and was inspired to continue the narrative from the perspective of the once-voiceless nymph. If Marlowe had been Diana Gabaldon, I dare say that he would have tried to have "The Nymph's Reply" barred from England's Helicon back in 1600. (See also John Donne's cynical "The Bait," also inspired by Marlowe -- and also possibly on the chopping-block in a Gabaldon-based world.) Works like "Nymph's Reply" and "The Bait" don't detract from Marlowe's original work in any way. In fact, I strongly believe that they make reading "Passionate Shepherd" far more enjoyable. That text becomes part of a larger conversation, rooted in multiple divergent perspectives. And as more and more authors become engaged in that conversation, the more the work becomes accessible to the general public. The next thing you know, communities that have been historically silenced (youth, women, racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ, etc.) start feeling as though they can take "ownership" of the work and create their own adaptations and responses.

That's how the world ended up with outstanding postcolonial "fanfiction" like Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea (Jane Eyre told from the perspective of Mr. Rochester's first wife -- trapped in an oppressive marriage and displaced in European society), Aimé Césaire's Une Tempête (in which the black slave Caliban, from Shakespeare's The Tempest, rises up against his white master Propsero), and Alice Randall's The Wind Done Gone (which critiques Gone with the Wind by approaching the text through the perspective of Scarlett O'Hara's slaves). How could one ever argue that these texts make the original works any "less"? On the contrary, they enrich the conversation around the original works and keep them relevant in an ever-changing world. They are life-support for antiquated authors; they keep their works alive.

(You know, the kind of fanfiction that's one of Time's 100 best English-language novels since 1923 and #94 on Modern Library's 100 Best Novels.)

So when I encounter authors like Diana Gabaldon who seek to stifle that conversation, who strive to make sure that their voices are the only ones that can be heard, that immediately sends up red flags for me. I watched the first few episodes of Outlander but, after a few weeks of scouring the Internet for fan-works and realizing that Gabaldon's world begins and ends with her books, I got bored and turned the show off. Why would I ever settle for a dead world when I could spend time in one that's alive and waiting for all sorts of people (including me and my students) to make a home there?

Day Fourteen (31 Days of Trip Planning): I've done a lousy job at updating my trip planning on this blog. Suffice to say, I've definitely gotten in more than 31 days. I'm almost completely booked up for my time in Dublin. Most recently, I booked my ticket for QUEST-LOVE: An Omnibus of Adventure Plays, Collapsing Horse's foray into serialized episodic theater-making. However, for as much as I have every single detail of my time in Dublin planned out, I have no idea what I'm doing in London. Perhaps that's for the best. I could use a few weeks of relaxing in coffee shops.

Also, credit where credit's due, Outlander did get me much more interested in the idea of national identity as it pertains to Scottish/English local youth theatres in contrast to the larger UK national youth theatres -- especially with the rather tumultuous history between the two countries. (I'm especially interested in light of tense US identity politics, specifically between the South/Midwest [the "Bible Belt" and the "Heartland"] and the Coastal Regions.) Looking forward to getting to know both the Scottish Youth Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland (Let the Right One In! Black Watch!) better.

Finding Flex Time (Or, How We Schedule Middle School Students [and Teachers] for Failure)

The Fordham GSE blog will be running a Q&A with me this month. One of the questions that they asked was: “What has been your biggest challenge as a teacher?” I spent hours debating how to answer. Mismatches between student IEPs and classroom resources? Theft of materials necessary for instruction? All of the copiers being broken fifteen minutes before first period? (WHAT? HOW? WHY?) But while all of those inconveniences have made my life more difficult, none of them come close to the teeth-grinding, gut-churning, migraine-inducing frustration caused by our schedule.

Back in September, I made a decision: we were going to produce actual plays and musicals this year -- even though I only see my classes once a week (at most). I couldn’t think of any better way to get all 330+ of my students to commit to the theater department. After all, what made me fall in love with theater way back in elementary school? Performing in a bootleg Disney musical done by a third-rate summer camp. It’s all in “the smell of the greasepaint, the roar of the crowd,” as the thespians say. So I purchased my scripts, made my royalty payments, and laid out the rehearsal schedule.

And then everything fell apart.

Directing requires a ton of one-on-one and small-group work. Unfortunately, I found completing that work during a regular class period to be almost impossible. The biggest problem was that students who weren't up onstage working would get bored and start chatting. Or ripping up floor tape. Or throwing Legos at each other. These distractions not only make it difficult for the actors to focus, they make it difficult for ME to focus. So I decided to plop all of the students down with Chromebooks and a Brain Pop assignment. That worked extraordinarily well . . . until I realized that some of them had learned to bypass the web filter and were using their newfound open access to look at hardcore girl-on-girl pornography.

Maybe the Chromebooks weren’t such a great idea after all.

Even when the students were distracted by their Chromebooks, having everyone sitting on the sidelines put actor inhibition through the roof. All of my pleas and protestations (“No one’s watching you! They all have headphones in! They're all listening to Drake!”) couldn’t do anything to make my middle schoolers less concerned about looking “cool.” If I wanted to make any breakthroughs, I was going to have to get them alone in the classroom.

Easier said than done.

(I had to pull three of these students from their regularly scheduled classes to make this film shoot happen)

For seven months, I tried to jerry rig the schedule to work for small-group rehearsals. I had breakfast duty every day, so meeting before school was out-of-the-question. There was one day when I didn’t have lunch duty, but by the time students grabbed their trays from the cafeteria and made their way upstairs, I had maybe ten minutes with them. Not exactly the makings of an artistic self-awakening. Students were only allowed to stay in the building for an hour after school, which limited how much we could get done (especially with so many students needing extra work time). I started scheduling small-group rehearsals during recess, which only occurred once a week and didn’t exactly endear me to students for whom theater was a mandatory chore. And some days, especially during IA testing, I was able to email guided reading instructors and pull students from their classes. But rarely did students appearing in scenes together have guided reading at the same time – meaning that I’d work on a scene with Petruchio during period three . . . and then work on the same scene with Katherine during period seven.

By the end of the year, I was exhausted and, despite my best efforts, the plays didn’t get off the ground. I’m going to make another attempt next year (same students, same plays) – but I don’t know if anything will change if the schedule doesn’t.

Schools need to schedule “flex time” for students during the day. I know that our high schoolers have “office hours,” during which they can check in with their teachers, attend optional study sessions, or participate in extracurricular activities. These “office hours” happen every day and give students an opportunity to catch-up academically and/or pursue their passions. Our middle schoolers don’t have that same luxury which means that, during the time in their lives when they’re most likely to disengage with academics, they’re forced into doing a ton of stuff that they don’t want to do – without allocating time for the pursuit of subjects that actually interest them. And teachers who want to work with students one-on-one (especially teachers who don’t work in traditional academic subjects) end up participating in the Time-Slot Olympics, cobbling together a work schedule out of ten-minute chunks of time. By giving them more “flex time,” we’ll be scheduling our students for success.

(Goofing around during a recess puppetry rehearsal)

Day Thirteen (31 Days of Trip Planning): Reading the Lonely Planet: Dublin and Lonely Planet: London guides on Kindle Unlimited. Not that I'm going to any tourist attractions, but they give you a decent sense of what the neighborhoods are like.

The List: Three Ways to Deal with Rejection

Earlier this week, I wrote about applying for grants and awards. I also wrote about how I've been rejected more often than usual this year. I don't take these rejections personally and, at this point in my career, I can usually brush them off after 24-hours of unrestrained self-pity. But what happens when there's a grant or award that you REALLY want? How do you prepare for the worst when you've possibly spent YEARS dreaming of the best?

1. Write an "in case of rejection" letter.
In the Fulbright folder on my desktop, you'll find a document labeled "In Case of Rejection." The opening paragraph reads as thus:

So you got rejected from the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program. I know that you’re extremely disappointed right now; in fact, you may be huddled up in the staff bathroom, weeping onto the grimy tiled floor. But before you throw yourself from the fifth floor window of your classroom, I wanted to remind you of a few things.

The rest of the letter reads like a locker room speech from Friday Night Lights. I remind myself that while the Fulbright might seem like a great opportunity, there are plenty of "open windows" in the US that might be even better for me. This officially qualifies as "sour grapes," but I knew that, at the end of the day, it was what I would need to make me feel better. (After receiving the email notifying me that I'd been "recommended for selection," I actually wrote a second "In Case of Rejection" document reflecting the change in my expectations. This one wasn't focused on finding "open windows" in the US as much as reminding myself that there were other ways to get to the UK. I'd researched open Sabbatical positions at international schools in the UK. I'd started looking into funding for doctoral programs at UK universities. I reminded myself that I'd overcome tons of obstacles [or, in my words: You bashed those Goombas with your SeeVees-clad kickers, you badass] and that I deserved to take a chance on making my dreams come true -- whether that was through the Fulbright or not.)

If you're applying for a grant that you really want, like more-than-anything-in-the-world want, then make sure you have an "In Case of Rejection" document ready to go. Write down whatever will make you feel better in the moment. If you get accepted, you'll be able to open up those documents and have a good laugh. But if you get rejected, you'll be thankful to yourself for the uplifting words.

(Another good way to deal with rejection)

2. Plan what you're going to do next.
Having Plan B-Z ready to go at a moment's notice can really help you get through those periods of uncertainty. Don't get me wrong: you need to be flexible and roll with the punches sometimes. But having other opportunities lined up can do a lot to alleviate stress. As previously mentioned, I started looking up different UK-based programs that I could apply for if the Fulbright didn't come through. I also started applying for jobs in education departments on and off Broadway. Part of the reason why I applied for the Fulbright was because of teacher burnout. Regardless of IIE's decision, I knew that I needed to take a break from the classroom -- whether that meant a structured short-term sabbatical or simply pursuing another career path for a little while. Knowing that there were extraordinary jobs out there with non-profit organizations that I adored (Roundabout Theatre Company! Public Theater! Second Stage!) made me feel much more confident about my future.

NOTE: I had a few interviews lined up at the time that I received the Fulbright. I thought about going ahead with them and seeing "where the chips fell." However, I ultimately decided to cancel the interviews. I knew that if I received a job offer on Broadway, I would have been tormented by what to do -- regardless of how long I'd dreamed about the Fulbright. Having more options doesn't necessarily make your life better. In fact, according to researcher Barry Schwartz (and his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less), "decision fatigue" can be a key part of our unhappiness. So if you end up getting what you want, close out all other options and commit!

3. Find another source of excitement.
You want to have a "sure thing" in your back pocket that will a) require tons of planning and b) still get you excited during the toughest times. For me, that was my summer trip to Ireland and the UK. Whenever I found myself dwelling on the Fulbright, I would invest another few hours into trip planning. Every time I received an email from an artist that I deeply admired, I'd get a little "buzz" of excitement that would take my mind off of the perpetual waiting. Whenever I felt plagued by the precarious uncertainty of my future, I would buy some travel gear off of Amazon. (That said, shopping has become the pastime to cure all ills this year. I'm usually the most spendthrift person in the world, but this has been the year of the department store spree.) Or I'd download another Lonely Planet guide off of Kindle Unlimited.

My trip was also a great succor for Fulbright anxiety because I knew that, even if they did reject my application, I was definitely going to be traveling to the UK. While my short summer research grant wasn't the extended project of my dreams, it would at least give me a jumping-off point. Whenever I became too "wound up" about a possible rejection, that would set my mind at ease for at least a couple of hours.

If there's a grant out there that you REALLY want, the fear of rejection becomes a million times stronger. But don't let that keep you from submitting your application! Instead, make sure that you have a few methods for dealing with the worst case scenario and, if all else fails, remember: you can always apply again next year!

Day Twelve (31 Days of Trip Planning): Booked a free walking tour for my first day in Dublin. I'm always skeptical of tourist attractions, but The Savvy Backpacker insists that walking tours are a good idea, and I trust them. I also alerted all of my banks about my travel plans. Learned my lesson on that one in Las Vegas.

How To: Apply for Grants and Awards

I was rejected for two different research grants last month.

Despite the opening sentences which read "we regret to inform you --", I view those applications as being triumphs. Because I applied. One of my favorite blog posts of all time is Monica Byrne's "My Anti-Resumé." Upon the publication of her first novel, other artists started asking Byrne how she'd achieved such success, wondering if she might be one of those "pre-ordained Golden Children who Get Everything." To set the record straight, Byrne released her Anti-Resumé -- a spreadsheet of all the literary journals, workshops, conferences, graduate schools, grants, fellowships, residencies, and awards that she'd been rejected from over the years. She discovered that her acceptance rate, the great success that made her the envy of all her friends, was 3%.


This author had been rejected from 97% of the opportunities that she applied for and was still considered, by almost all of her peers, to be unbelievably accomplished. Downloading and perusing the aforementioned anti-resumé has gotten me through some of my greatest disappointments over the past few months. Whenever an email saying "thanks, but no thanks" arrives in my inbox, I remind myself that all it takes is the right 3%.

I wanted to start out with that anecdote because I feel like a lot of teachers (or authors or painters or corporate executives) don't apply because they're afraid that they'll be rejected. And they're right. They will be rejected, but that's okay. So your very first step towards securing that life-changing grant or award is . . . APPLY. And if you get rejected, APPLY AGAIN. (I had drinks last week with a teacher who told me about a Fulbright recipient who applied THREE TIMES before she finally received her grant to the UK.) Once you make the decision to apply, here are my tips and tricks for putting your best self forward:

1. Apply for the Right Grants.
I've struck out more than usual this year because I wanted to test my limits in terms of what "the right grants" means. Sometimes, you can be surprised by the results. (NTSA received a long-shot government grant this season, which we unfortunately had to decline. Believe me, there's nothing more painful than having to turn down desperately-needed funding.) But, more often than not, what you see ends up being what you get. If the grant seems like a long-shot, and you're not a hardcore development junkie like me, don't waste your time applying.

How can you tell if a grant is the right one? Read the funder's mission statement and the specific grant description. Did you just get chills because it sounds like the grant description was written specifically for you and clearly this funder is your spiritual soulmate? Like you two could dominate that ESP connection test where the scientists hold up playing cards? Because unless you're feeling that way, it's not the right grant.

You can take a long-term approach to grant planning. As previously mentioned, I worked on my Fulbright DAT application for EIGHT YEARS. I started filling out the application form before my first day of teaching even started -- and I just submitted the finished product this year. As you might imagine, whenever I made a major career decision (like taking on additional coaching responsibilities or leading professional development workshops), the Fulbright eligibility requirements were never far from my mind. This approach takes patience and commitment. However, I definitely recommend identifying some "reach grants" -- the ones that would represent career-defining moments for you. Read over the eligibility requirements and see how you measure up. Then start brainstorming what you, as a prospective applicant, could do over the next few years to meet those requirements. Not only will you be setting yourself up for grant writing success, you'll also end up taking on new challenges and intellectually stretching yourself in ways you'd never considered before.

2. Know your Funder.
I spend all of my spare time researching. Some folks go out clubbing on the weekends; I go online and peruse grant opportunities. Or, you know, read theological fanfic on AO3. It's all good. (#nerdproblems.) The best way to ensure that you're compatible with your funder and that your proposal sells you (and your program) in the best way possible is to learn everything that you can about previous recipients. Read the sample applications that are sometimes available on the funder's website. Read blog entries and journal articles written by program alumni. Read press releases that have been written about former winners in newspapers. Go through the project descriptions from previous years. Not only will this help you determine if you're a good fit for the grant, you'll also be able to start deciphering what's important to that particular funder. Do you notice that all of the previous winners have something in common? Maybe they all come from a certain geographical area, even though the competition is technically "open to all." Maybe they have a component that integrates members of the community, or maybe they work with a certain population of students (low SES, high SPED/ESL, gifted and talented, etc.). You can use this information to help you "position" your proposal in a way that's more appealing to your funder (like finding a community partner or emphasizing how your project will be specifically valuable to the SPED students at your school).

Depending on the grant, you may want to consult your college or university. Most have a fellowship advisor who works with current students and sometimes alumni as well, especially for high-profile grants like the Fulbright. (If you receive a major grant, make sure to email alumni affairs and let them know. I just received an absolutely charming letter from Barnard College, congratulating me!)

3. Be Passionate about your Project.
Do not find a funder and then try to design a project for them. Instead, design a project and then find a funder that fits your needs. I've seen many Fulbright blogs advise prospective applicants to a) decide to apply, b) select a host country from the Fulbright listing, and then c) create a project that's relevant to the host country. They've done everything backwards here. You need to figure out what you want to learn/accomplish, then choose a host country that can fulfill your needs, and THEN you have to research funders who can help you travel there. Maybe you discover that the Fulbright's completely wrong for you. No big deal. There are tons of other teacher travel grants out there (Fund for Teachers, Teachers for Global Classrooms, etc.). Or maybe you discover that there aren't any grants that are "just right" for your project. Maybe you start cobbling together a "Partialbright," as one article called it. The author found a way to guest teach at a Ugandan university and then conducted his fieldwork from there. Thinking that I might not receive the Fulbright after all, I scheduled my summer research trip to Ireland and the UK. (It got me through those cold, dark nights of waiting for the IIE to return my calls.) My "Partialbright" meant securing small amounts of grant funding and staying in the cheapest hostels available. One of the prospective questions on my Fulbright interview prep document was "If you don't receive the Fulbright, what will you do?" If your answer isn't "find a way to go anyway" and you haven't thought long and hard about how you're going to make that happen, you're doing it wrong. You need to feel strongly enough about your project that you'd be willing to sleep on a bedbug-infested mattress across from a college student who's just vomited on the shag carpeting for the fifth time that night. #hostellife

4. Go Above and Beyond.
I mentioned in my last Fulbright post that I had a 30+ page prospective Q&A document that I'd prepped in advance of my US-UK Committee interview. This document featured questions ranging from "Why not complete your research in the US?" to "What is the perception of the UK in the US?" to "How did you prepare for your Fulbright interview?" (Answer: I Googled every blog post ever written about the Fulbright Student/ETA/Scholar/DAT interview and compiled a list of every question that I could possibly find. Then I spent an entire week thinking of potential answers and vetted them in two mock interviews with friends/family members.) After every interview, if there was a question that I hadn't been able to answer completely, I conducted any additional necessary research and then emailed the committee with a more comprehensive answer. When they told me that finding a host university might be difficult for my project, I researched every single university on their partner list and wrote paragraphs about how I could conduct my research at any one of them.

(Even though I ended up with a placement that's on the opposite side of the country from where I need to be, I don't regret this approach at all. I talked to a former Fulbrighter last week who told me that the host universities are VERY carefully selected. She asked if the University of Glasgow had a strong theatre department and when I answered that it did, she said: "Well, there you go. They probably thought that it was most important to match you with a theatre department that was going to be passionate about your work, instead of a traditional education department." As I wrote before, it's all about having a strong match with your funder!)

I even picked out some universities that I thought would be an especially strong fit and downloaded books/articles written by some of their resident professors. I spent hours scouring their latest research, so that I could comment intelligently on why we would work well together.

As the Girl Scouts always say: "Be prepared." Do your due diligence. Write your follow-ups. Show them how deeply you care about getting this grant. The more you emphasize how much this means to you (through that extra work that you do), the more they'll know that you're a self-starter who will get things done. The more they'll see your passion firsthand and know that you'll follow through on your inquiry project from start-to-finish. The more they'll like you -- and remember, organizations like the Fulbright don't fund projects as much as they fund people.

5. It's Not You; It's Them.
This year, I wrote the best grant proposal of my life for Fund for Teachers. There was a thorough literature review, fully-detailed implementation plans, and accountability metrics. When I clicked the submit button, I felt like I'd hit a home run. I didn't think about the grant again until the notification deadline on April 15. Even then, all I felt was a sense of certainty. I'd read the sample applications and mine knocked all of those out of the park. There was no way that they were going to reject my funding request.

Until they did.

Sometimes, you have to accept that it's not you; it's them. My grant really WAS well-written (and, in fact, was shortlisted by another prestigious funding organization). However, there are sometimes political and logistical complications of which we aren't aware. For instance, I'd emailed Fund for Teachers and asked them if because my school wasn't in their official network, I'd still be a competitive applicant. They assured me that I would -- but I think being out-of-network definitely hurt my chances. I got the feeling that they allocated all of their funds to network educators first and then, if there was anything left over, the out-of-network educators would be considered. Even if you do your due diligence, even if you write that perfect grant application, there's still a chance that you're going to be rejected.

And that's okay.

Because you only need 3%. So keep applying, no matter what happens, and remember that every one of your 97% rejections are just getting you closer to the 3% acceptances. And that 3%? That's what really matters.

Day Eleven (31 Days of Trip Planning): Finally contacted the National Youth Theatre and the National Youth Music Theatre. I've been putting it off because . . . I'm kind of afraid that they won't respond to me. They're the organizations that I've modeled my entire life around, and having the chance to observe them in action would mean the world to me. But sometimes, you just need to grit your teeth and put yourself out there. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Passport to Learning (Or, the Pros and Cons of End-of-Year Trips)

Starting in September, our students work to earn Passport Points. These points are given for grades (3 points for each A, 2 points for each B, etc.), behavior (3 points for each week "in the green," where students earn fewer than three demerits, etc.), and special accomplishments (like being a behavioral VIP or making honor roll). Students with enough Passport Points earn their space on the end-of-year trip.

(Seventh graders in New Orleans' French Quarter)

As students progress through the grade levels, their end-of-year trips become bigger and better. Our fifth graders travel upstate to a summer camp for outdoor sports (like kayaking and high ropes courses) and team building activities. However, our seventh graders travel to New Orleans to complete service learning projects in communities impacted by Hurricane Katrina, and our eighth graders study international ecology in the rainforests of Costa Rica. For many of them, these trips mark their first overnights away from their families, their first experiences on an airplane, and their first journeys outside of the country.

But even though these trips sound like a dream-come-true for any middle school student, there are always some pros and cons to be considered:


Tangible Long-Term Goals
Let's start with the most obvious one: these end-of-year trips provide students with a tangible long-term goal that they can focus on throughout the school year. This helps build their capacity for self-control. If they can stay committed to making the "right choices" (completing their homework, studying for tests/quizzes, participating during class, etc.), then they'll receive the reward at the end. Also, because there's no cap on the number of students who can go on the end-of-year trips (as opposed to only the twenty highest-achieving students receiving a ticket), even students who sometimes struggle can earn their spot.

I think that it's significant that our charter network's high schools don't provide students with end-of-year trips; instead, students partake in college tours throughout the school year. (Many of these college tours happen in-state because the majority of our students take advantage of discounted SUNY and CUNY tuition rates.) For middle school students, college can seem distant and hypothetical; Costa Rica makes a much stronger motivating "carrot." By the time they reach high school, however, students have a greater capacity for long-term planning and delayed gratification. They realize that the ultimate "prize" is a college education, as opposed to an early summer vacation.

(On a New Orleans swamp tour with baby alligator Henry)

Community Building
During these trips, we combine students into cross-advisory groups. They work alongside classmates that they may have never interacted with before. We also take every available opportunity to push for inclusivity -- publicly rewarding students who demonstrate "inclusive behaviors" (sitting with a socially-struggling classmates at lunch, inviting "outsiders" to join their conversations/activities, mixing up their seats on the tour bus, etc.). Teachers also have an opportunity to build relationships with students outside of the classroom, which can then carry over into their day-to-day academic work. The little inside jokes and shared experiences that come out of these end-of-year trips help to make our school into a stronger community.

(Eating beignets outside of Café Du Monde)

Building Life Skills
In many ways, these end-of-year trips are the ultimate "college prep." Students have their first experiences going through airport security, being responsible for their own bedtimes (since students stay in their own "dorm rooms"), and giving back to their communities through service learning projects (where they frequently have to interact with the elderly and/or disabled). While academics might not be at a premium on these trips, students' social skills definitely get a workout. They have to resolve the conflicts that can arise when you have to be around your classmates 24/7 (just like how they're going to have to learn to co-exist with roommates in their dorms); they have to work in situations that might be outside of their comfort zones. Overall, I think that these end-of-year trips strengthen the "soft skills" that are frequently neglected in the classroom but that our students will need to successfully navigate high school and college.

(Weeding a community garden in Treme)

The World as a Classroom
I'm a huge believer in using the world as a classroom. Whether it's touring through the unique architecture of New Orleans' French Quarter or riding a zipline through the rainforest canopies of Costa Rica, these end-of-year trips get our students outside of the South Williamsburg housing projects and into a world that might be completely unfamiliar to them. I'm all in favor of more field trips, more experiential learning, and more interactions with community members. (School Without Walls, I'm looking at you!)


Staying Strong with Passport Points
Our biggest problems on end-of-year trips usually revolve around students who fell just short of the Passport Point totals. Our school will sometimes end up with "extra tickets" because of students who dropped out or ended up becoming ineligible because of significant infractions (like multiple suspensions late in the year). Our school feels obligated to use these tickets, so they take students who are on the "cusp" -- who didn't quite have enough Passport Points to be eligible but came close. After six years of student travel experiences, I can honestly say that our school should shred those "extra tickets" and leave the students who fell short back in Brooklyn. Students need to know that they earned the end-of-year trip; bringing along students without the requisite number of Passport Points sends the wrong message.

Problems with the Destinations
I've never seen the actual budget, but some of these end-of-year trips must cost about $3,000 per student. For that amount of money, we could take them almost anywhere in the world. I can never understand why we choose to take them to Costa Rica, especially when so many of our Latino/a students spend their summers in Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republican. One of my co-workers told me that students are more excited about that trip BECAUSE it's a location that's familiar to them. (They especially like sharing information with their classmates, frequently pointing and exclaiming: "We have those kinds of trees in the DR!") But I can't help wondering if our students might be better served with a trip to somewhere completely unfamiliar, somewhere to which their parents might not take them. Another Spanish-speaking country maybe. Like . . . Spain? Just a thought.

(Hanging out at the airport. For many hours.)

So Many Expenses
These trips are EXPENSIVE. And, since most of our students live at or below the poverty line, we're the ones picking up the tab. Parents are expected to make a small contribution of $500 or less, although scholarships are available for students whose families don't have any expendable income. (Every student who has enough Passport Points gets to go on the end-of-year trip, regardless of their economic situation.) I absolutely love the equity that this provides. My high school had travel opportunities, but I was never able to go on them because we couldn't come up with the exorbiant costs. (I went to an elite private school where most of their families didn't know the meaning of "budget travel.") However, even though I understand that these end-of-year trips provide valuable learning opportunities, I just can't wrap my mind around the $210,000+ price tag. For a single trip. And, as previously mentioned, when students aren't getting a brand-new cultural experience, I'm forced to question if the trips are worth the costs.

Those are my pros and cons regarding our end-of-year trips. Overall, I support them and always have a fantastic time traveling with the seventh graders to New Orleans. I think it goes without saying that I'm a huge advocate of educational travel (as proven by the fact that I'll be spending half of next year in Scotland and England), and I want my students to have the same access to those opportunities as I do -- even if they do attend a Title 1 school.

Day Ten (31 Days of Trip Planning): FINALLY contacted every organization/individual that I want to meet with in Dublin. On to the next part of my trip: I contacted the Royal Exchange Young Company in England and filled out volunteer paperwork for the International Youth Arts Festival in Kingston. I'm debating whether or not I want to take a side-trip to Scotland to attend the National Festival of Youth Theatre in Glenrothes. Participants stay in tents which a) is AMAZING but b) would be a hindrance because there's no way that a tent will fit in my Porter 46 and make it through RyanAir's stringent carry-on requirements. #europeantravelproblems

Read (Watch) Along: That Time They Booed LaGuardia Arts (Or, Curtis Chin's Tested)

UPDATE: I posted some English Language Arts packets to the Writing > Curriculum section of this website. If you're interested in reading some of my lesson plans from previous years, check them out. (Expect to find a great deal of Freudian psychoanalysis and Norse mythology. #nerdproblems)

Last week, Teach for America hosted a screening of Curtis Chin's Tested, a documentary about the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT). Every year, students from across New York City spend months drilling for this exam, which is the sole basis of admission for the Big Three: Stuyvesant, Bronx Science, and Brooklyn Tech. These are some of the most elite high schools in the nation -- or, as one parent in Tested calls it, "the Ivy League for the rest of us." Only one in six students is admitted; competition is fierce.

We had the privilege of hearing from one of the students featured in the documentary and his mother at a post-screening Q&A. Inrii Gonzalez, now a sophomore at Stuyvesant, has an Individualized Education Plan (accommodations for special education students) and needed extra time on the SHSAT. His mother had to negotiate her way through the NYC DOE and even the state education board to make sure that her son could successfully take the exam. Inrii was admitted to Stuyvesant and just wrapped up his sophomore year. While I've never been a great believer in the SHSAT (and "high-stakes testing" in general), Inrii's mother brought up a great point. Inrii's middle school hadn't provided him with the accommodations that he needed in order to be successful. Despite the fact that he's intelligent (as proven by the fact that he's thriving at Stuyvesant), he was receiving low grades. That was enough to keep him out of screened schools (like Beacon and Bard); his only shot at a great high school education was the SHSAT.

Stanley Ng, the senior researcher on Tested, brought up another interesting point. Screened schools require in-person interviews. For students who aren't native English speakers, the interview can be the cause of great anxiety and ultimately count against them. (Ng also implied that seeing the student in-person during the interview process might lead to either conscious or unconscious racial bias in selection.) For the Asian-American students who make up the majority of the Big Three's demographics, the SHSAT could also be their best chance.

The documentary itself was well-done, and Chin should be commended for his work. However, I wanted to talk briefly about the reaction of the audience. At the end of the film, we learned that one African-American student was accepted to both Brooklyn Tech and LaGuardia Arts. She decided to attend LaGuardia Arts. The audience shook their heads in disapproval; there was even some actual booing. Now, I understand that some of the audience members were Brooklyn Tech alumni and that there's probably some friendly rivalry between the specialized high schools. (Having gone to Columbia University, we were constantly belittling NYU, our neighbors to the South.) But it also made me wonder if there wasn't something larger at play.

The demographics of the Big Three have been a divisive issue in NYC. It's the reason why some politicians and educators have suggested replacing the SHSAT with portfolio reviews and interviews. Students from low-income African-American and Latino/a communities just aren't getting into these schools. Chin suggests that it's due to lack of access to satisfactory test prep programs, lack of information about the SHSAT, and lack of understanding about how hard students need to work for admission. Whatever the case, African-American and Latino/a students make up almost 70% of NYC's student population.

This year, only ten African-American students were offered spaces at Stuyvesant.

The numbers are grim. According to InsideSchools, 8% African-American and 8% Latino/a at Brooklyn Tech. 3% African-American and 6% Latino/a at Bronx Science. And an abysmal 1% African-American and 3% Latino/a at Stuyvesant.

In contrast, we have LaGuardia Arts -- the only specialized high school in NYC that does not use the SHSAT for admission. 11% African-American and 19% Latino/a. LaGuardia Arts uses a process that's more similar to a screened school. Students are required to attend an audition/interview and grades are taken into account. (Students cannot have any scores lower than an 80% on their report cards.)

Immediately, there were two reasons that I could think of why the audience might have booed LaGuardia Arts.

1. Disrespect for the Arts
I'm amazed by the amount of disrespect that the arts receive in both our schools and our communities (one probably leading to the other). The arts are, for some reason, seen as being "less than" STEM. The audience might have perceived LaGuardia Arts as being less intellectually rigorous than the Big Three, despite the fact that students from the technical theater department are frequently accepted by elite engineering departments like MIT. They might have perceived this young woman as "selling herself short" because she could have been a scientist or a physician or a computer programmer; instead, she decided that she wanted to be an artist. If that isn't deserving of a strong booing, I don't know what is.

2. Unconscious Racism
This is the one that disturbs me a little bit more. Are the Big Three seen as being superior because of their student demographics? Because they're dominated almost exclusively by Asian-American and white students? I may be guilty of this myself. Instead of encouraging students to go to our charter high school, I'm perpetually extolling the virtues of programs like Prep 9 that send high-achieving minority students to elite (and predominantly white) boarding schools like Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover -- even if that might not be the best fit for them. I insist that these are the schools with "name recognition," that these are the schools that will get them into the Ivy League. But why do they have "name recognition"? Because they're rich. Because they're white. And those reasons just aren't good enough.

Maybe I should thank the audience members who booed LaGuardia Arts at the screening. Even though they were way out-of-line, they forced me to check my own assumptions about which high schools are "good enough." But -- for the record, audience members -- LaGuardia Arts is one of the best high schools I've ever had the privilege of working with. And yes, I've worked with students from Stuyvesant.

Day Nine (31 Days of Trip Planning): Booked my Megabus ticket from NYC to Buffalo, NY. (At the end of my Ireland/UK trip, I've decided to spend the remainder of the summer with my family. I'll travel directly to Fulbright Orientation in Washington, DC and then return to NYC for summer professional development.)
Back to Top