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.
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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.
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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.
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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%.

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.
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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:

PROS

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!)

CONS

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
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