Nerding Out a Bit

29 July 2015

Well, I think I might be posting this at the same time as the previous one, but I already have a lot to write! Actually, this one will most likely be shorter than my other posts, but I had a great day and wanted to do some reflection while it’s fresh in my mind.

Today was the third day of teacher orientation, and I really think the school planned it perfectly. Yesterday and the day before were filled with information and were overwhelming (which is to be expected, of course), and today was energizing. We started off by arriving at the school and almost immediately departing for our principal’s home in the mountains. We ended up getting a bit lost (this seems common here), but I didn’t mind because we had an amazing view!


Once we arrived, we got settled on the back patio (well, I don’t actually know if it technically was a porch or what ticos would call it, but it felt like a patio to me). Sra P. sat with us and told us the history of my new school. We learned about its founding fathers, some ups and downs the school has had, and the sort of rebirth of the school with the new campus that was built in 2007 or so. Through the story, I was able to get a sense of the values of the school and what they’re all about. I was really happy to learn that the school’s current priorities are so in line with the things I love to do. They have established clear expectations that we use technology regularly (that’s an easy one for me), include project-based learning (which was already a personal goal of mine anyway), and focus on the IB learner profile and 21st century skills.

Ok, I just stopped writing for a little while and was talking to my neighbor, and when I came back and read my last paragraph, I realized I had gone full nerd, so I’ll back off from the edulingo for now. The moral of the story is that I am excited that the expectations of the school are in line with what I love to do!

After story time, we took a break and had some coffee and snacks (cheese, fruit, and some other delicious items) and then moved into a few activities. The first one was to get us thinking about our goals for the first semester and how we are going to introduce ourselves to parents and students. I really liked the activity we did. We used our iPads and an app called Showme (we were allowed to use any app, but I used Showme because that’s what she suggested) to communicate our 30/60/90 goals. The idea is that you set goals for 30 days into the semester, 60 days, and 90 days (which works out well because 90 days is the end of the first semester). Our principal asked us to find an image to use as a basis for our introduction. I chose a picture of the Spring Lake boardwalk and then used running as a metaphor since that’s where I love to run!


I chose 5k, 10k, and 13.1 as my 30/60/90 goals because I felt like it fit pretty well. A 5k is the first race you do when you first start running. It’s a daunting yet attainable goal. So for my first 30 days at my new school, I want to ease into things in a manageable way. That means getting to know the kids, helping them ease into the IB Lang & Lit curriculum (especially the juniors), and making sure we are all on the same page with the course. Once we conquer a 5k, we can move on to the 10k, which uses our 5k training as a foundation. It’s a pretty scary goal if we hadn’t already worked up to a shorter race, but now it doesn’t seem so bad. This is when the kids will really start digging into the IB works, the assessments, and the skills that I want them to develop. It’ll still be hard for them, but they will get there. Then (this is probably predictable by now, huh?) they will go for a half marathon and really get into a groove. Soon they’ll realize that they can do more than they thought they’d be able to do, and they’ll finally reach a point where it’s almost automatic to do what they need to do to succeed! Hmmm as I was writing this I started thinking about ways to keep the metaphor going; I should totally give them medals at the end of the semester! Haha.

Ok, that got super rambly and ridiculous; sorry about that! After our PD activities, we had a delicious lunch (some kind of amazing chicken pot pie) and headed back to school. I had some time to work in my classroom, which was good. As it turns out, my room got switched, and I no longer have the view I posted the other day. At first I was disappointed but then figured it’s probably for the best. Now I won’t be distracted by the sunshine, mountains, and trees!

I ended up getting home around 4 and went to a local soda (Soda Shalom) for dinner. A soda is a local restaurant that serves typical Costa Rican food. I read about them in all my travel guides before I came, so I was excited to start eating at them. The classic dish to get is called a casado, which means marriage. I think it’s called that because it’s a perfectly balanced dish of lots of yummy goodness. But what’s even better is that casados are just as cheap as they are delicious! I got this dish for about 2800 colones, which is less than $6.00. I have been trying to cook more this week (to save money and avoid eating too much restaurant food), but tonight I thought it would be nice to spend some time out.

Now I’m sitting in my apartment after getting my nails done. There is a woman at work whose sister does color gels (although pretty much else in the world they just call them shellacs), and she came over and did them for me and my friends. It was fun hanging out talking and laughing. I probably should have been doing schoolwork, but I suppose there’s always tomorrow! Actually, I am going to read before bed, so I will end this here. It was a very good day. ¡Ha luego!

A Day at the Beach and A Day at Work!

27 July 2014

I can’t believe it’s only been two days since my last post! And for you, it’s only been one day, since I had a delay in posting the last one. Sunday and Monday were pretty full days, so I may as well get right to it.

I had trouble sleeping Saturday night (I had my first pang of homesickness, but don’t worry, I’m ok!), so I considered backing out of the beach trip (we had to be ready to go at 6am). But I decided I needed to power through and go; literally everyone I know here was going, and I didn’t want to just waste the entire day putzing around the apartment by myself. I’m so glad I went!

Since we’re on tico time, we left a little bit after 6. We had to go so early because the beach is four hours away! Definitely quite a change from my usual three-minute drive up to the Spring Lake boards! It’s not that it’s so far away (I just mapped it and am cracking up that it’s only 40 miles away), but there’s just a lot of traffic in San Jose, and once we get on more remote roads, they’re winding and like up mountains and stuff. Plus, we stopped a couple of times along the way, so that was part of it as well.


The first stop was at a bridge that is known for all the crocodiles that just sort of chill in the mud underneath it. We hung out there for maybe 10 or 15 minutes looking at the crocodiles and iguanas. It was fun, and I’m pretty certain the big fat croc was the one I saw a few years ago when I was in CR for an EF tour! We also stopped and had breakfast (I had huevos rancheros, which were muy delicioso), which was a nice way to break up the trip. I was thankful that I didn’t get carsick like I did on the way to La Paz.

I was trying to be artsy here.

IMG_7023 IMG_7032 IMG_7034 IMG_7040

Once we got to the Manuel Antonio National Park, we laid down our blankets and got comfortable. It was somewhat overcast but still really hot, so it didn’t feel like a waste of a beach day at all. I did a little reading, which quickly led to a little napping, and then I headed into the water for a while. It felt so great to be out in the waves. The water was super warm, and I taught the over/under game to a couple of my friends. Being in the ocean helped with the homesickness for sure. Even though it took four hours instead of four minutes to get there, I was so glad to feel the waves and float around for a bit. A friend of mine had this hand paddle thing that he let me try. Basically you put the paddle on your hand (hence the name) and flippers on your feet and try to catch waves. I have never been good at catching waves, but I got one after a few failed attempts. It was fun! After a while, the ocean started getting pretty rough, so I was done.

After the swim, I went for a nice long walk along the beach with a few folks. We found a freshwater stream type thing that was flowing from the trees into the ocean, so we had some fun just sort of splashing around and rinsing off in the fresh water. The sand got progressively softer the farther we walked, which I enjoyed (the beach where we were sitting was a little walking). I had forgotten how fine the sand in Costa Rica is. It just kept getting everywhere; no matter how many times I rinsed my legs, it was just stuck to them again. Eventually I just gave up trying.

**Now it’s been three days since my last post. Last night I got tired and stopped writing in the middle. I hope to finish it up now, but we shall see if it actually happens! I’m quite pooped after my first two days of work!**

IMG_7043 IMG_7051

This is the little freshwater stream we found.
This is the little freshwater stream we found.

The day eventually wound down, and we packed up our stuff and headed back to San Jose. On the way, we stopped at a great restaurant for dinner. The food was delicious, and of course the company was great, too. I had nachos, in case you were wondering. I feel like there was so much more about the place, but right now I can’t think of anything spectacular to say. Perhaps my favorite part of the trip home was the playlist; our amazing driver Arturo had the single best playlist on his iPod. It was basically just my entire childhood and adolescence in a nutshell, and every song just got better than the next. Some highlights were “Toy Soldiers” by Martika (I mean whattt??), “Something to Believe In,” and a string of Tracy Chapman songs. I probably owe my new friends an apology for signing the entire way home, but hey, I don’t think I could have stopped if I had tried!

I’m glad we went to the beach because it was a great way to unwind before starting school on Monday. New teacher training started bright and early Monday morning, although not as early as it should have! There was some sort of miscommunication with the bus, and it somehow missed picking us up (there is a faculty bus that picks us up and drops us off at the compound every day). So we ended up being late for work, but at least it wasn’t because I overslept or anything! I won’t bore you too much with the details of new teacher orientation, but I will say that it was a good day.

I was pretty overwhelmed by the deluge of information, but I knew it’d be coming, and I know it’s all part of the process (I think I’ve said “it’s all part of the process” about 96 times this week alone!). I was really excited to find my classroom and start to get more specific information about the courses I’m teaching and how the school works. It sounds like the kids will be great, and so far everyone who works there has been super amazing, too. Everyone is really welcoming and helpful, and the longer I’m there (all two days of it, haha), the more I know that it’s a good fit for me. I love how clear the school is about its mission, and I can tell that everyone there knows, understands, and works toward the mission (and as I learned in my ed leadership classes, that’s like the most important thing!). I’m still seeing the emphasis on the IB learner profile, and I am definitely digging the focus on technology (it’s a 1:1 iPad school, so if anyone out there knows of any cool apps to use, please do let me know!).

This was the original view I had from my room.
But then my classroom got moved, and now I see this.

Speaking of technology, today was exciting for me because I was asked to be on a committee that researches new technology tools/apps and shares them with other teachers. I went over to one of the guys who’s in charge of that sort of thing and introduced myself. I had emailed him a couple of months ago to ask about the available technology, and I wanted to thank him for responding so thoroughly. That’s when he asked if I’d be on that committee, and of course I accepted practically before he even had the question out of his mouth. Anyone who knows me, especially those of you who know me professionally, will agree that it’s definitely the right committee for me to be on! I’m excited to meet with the team and share my passion for tech with my colleagues.

Ok, speaking of tech, I’ve been on it too much today. I am shutting down and heading to sleep (and it’s only 10:00!). I’m trying to be good about my bed time now that I’m here. In New Jersey, I was always up until ungodly hours, and I just can’t handle how tired I am all the time. I’m trying to take good care of myself now that I’m here, especially considering how much a change like this impacts my nervous system. Even though I’m really happy to be here, it’s still a huge transition, and I find myself in a constant state of stress. I know it’s all part of the process (there’s that phrase again), and I’m not worried that I won’t adjust, but sometimes going through it is draining. I was so happy today when I took down a bar that was hanging in my closet. I think it was the first basic task that came easily since I’ve been here. Everything else (laundry, dishes, turning on the stove, getting my phone to work, etc.) just feels like it takes more energy and thought than it would at home. I feel like I have this heightened sense of awareness of things all the time. But don’t worry, I’m managing it just fine and still don’t regret coming here!

Oh, I’m also starting this new thing called #WindowQuotes. Our apartment windows are huge, and I thought it would be fun to write dry erase messages on my window since we hang out in front of my apartment a lot. So tonight I wrote a Kurt Vonnegut quote (of course the first one is Vonnegut) on my window. I took a picture and texted it to an old pal, and he told me I should tweet them out every day. I joked about the hashtag, and he seemed to think it was a good idea, so I figured why not. So, I’ll end today’s post with my very first #WindowQuote! As always, thanks for reading, and I’ll try to write more soon! ¡Ha luego!



Shopping, SIM cards, Waterfalls, and More

25 July 2015

Greetings! Yet again, I am writing this post on the couch in my new apartment here in Moravia. I definitely think this will be my favorite spot to sit and play online and get work done. The couch isn’t very comfy to sit on the normal way, but when you turn sideways like I am now, it’s not bad at all! Here’s my view!

view from the couch
view from the front door (notice how we are walled in for security and privacy)

You may notice that the door is open. Most of us in “the compound,” as we have been calling it, leave our doors open when we are home. There’s a locked gate surrounding us, so no one can get in. It’s really windy here, so it’s nice to leave the door open and have a nice breeze. The reason I’m just bumming around on the couch today is that the cable company is supposed to be delivering wifi today! I don’t think I’ll believe it till I see it, but I am keeping hope. It seems that we are on “tico time.” A tico (or tica, if you are a girl) is a native Costa Rican. And people aren’t really ever in a rush here. So, tico time is basically everyone always being late to everything, like the cable guy who was supposed to be here three hours ago. Aside from being super eager for wifi, I don’t mind so much because I have pretty much lived my whole life on tico time! I am finally living in a place where it is culturally acceptable (even expected!) to be late. And the good news is that now I have time to catch up on my blog.

**Just got word that they aren’t coming to install wifi today. Looks like we’re waiting until Tuesday! Bummer, but hey I guess there are worse things in life. Maybe tonight I’ll take another trip to Starbucks and post this blog.**

This week has been filled with lots of errands. On Wednesday, we spent most of the day shopping. We started with a trip to Pequeño Mundo, which is kind of like a Christmas Tree Shops but cheaper. They have a little of everything, so I was able to get things like glasses, baskets and bins, a drying rack for my laundry, pajamas (since those are in the bag that didn’t make it here), and more. It felt good to stock up on things and start to make my apartment feel more mine. I wish I had been able to fit more decorative items in my luggage, but I’ll get creative and find ways to spruce up the place in the next few weeks!

After Pequeño Mundo, we had lunch at an Italian restaurant and then did more shopping, this time at WalMart. Between the two shopping excursions, I got most of the basics. There are still a few things I’d like to have (a little bookshelf, a side table by my couch, some more storage bins, etc.), but I’m in no rush for those. The rest of Wednesday was pretty much just unpacking and getting used to the area. I walked up to the mall with some folks from the compound, and we had dinner up that way. It’s maybe a 15-minute walk to the mall, which is cool because it feels very much like a mall at home. If I’m ever feeling homesick, I can go up there and sit at Starbucks and zone out.

Thursday was relatively uneventful, other than more errands and a few tears. We started the day by going to school in the morning to complete some paperwork. I brought my laptop with me so I could complete the phone unlocking process (I knew from an email I received from AT&T that I needed my laptop, iTunes, and an internet connection to finish unlocking it). While we did the paperwork, I had my laptop and phone doing their thing. I thought I had it done, but when I went to activate my Costa Rica SIM card, it wouldn’t work. That’s when I just burst into tears in the middle of the conference room. I think I was just upset because I wanted one thing to be easy. Luckily, everyone is super supportive, and they calmed me down. My friend George sat with me and tried to walk through the process with me, but we still couldn’t get it to work. He asked the IT guy, and we learned that they were having network problems at the school, so I decided I’d try from Starbucks later. We went for lunch at Chile’s (very Costa Rican, huh? Haha), and while everyone else went back to Pequeño Mundo, I stayed at the mall and got myself some coffee at Starbucks. They gave me a wifi code with my receipt, so I was able to sit for a while and use their Internet. Much to my delight, my phone worked after the first try! I was extremely excited about that! Not gonna lie; I came pretty close to crying tears of joy!

the road home from the mall
at least they used 2 Ls!

I walked home from the mall after spending some time on wifi and stopping at the store for workout clothes. On the way, I stopped at Auto Mercado (the grocery store) and got copies of my key made. I was quite proud that I spoke in Spanish to get that accomplished. That evening, the bus picked us up once again, and we headed to a bar called the Beer Factory for some down time. Don’t worry, I didn’t get crazy or anything. It was just nice to be out chatting with and unwinding after a stressful day.

Friday was much different from the rest of the week because we went on a field trip! The bus came and picked us up at stupid o’clock (7:05am, which I guess is actually later than I’ll need to get up once school starts), and we headed off to La Paz Waterfall Garden. It was basically an animal sanctuary and nature walk, which culminated in seeing a beautiful waterfall in the cloud forest. We saw toucans (you can see a picture of me holding one below), monkeys, macaws, butterflies, frogs, snakes, and more. I got carsick for both legs of the journey, but now I know to take Dramamine before going on any long, mountainous rides!

Here are some photos from the trip!

IMG_6889 IMG_6894 IMG_6901 IMG_6912 IMG_6937 IMG_6944 IMG_6952 IMG_6955 IMG_6979 IMG_6984

We got back from La Paz around 4, and I took an hour-long nap, which made me feel much better after being carsick. I walked to Auto Mercado, used their wifi, and bought supplies to make pesto. We then headed to a party at our friends’ George and Penny’s house. We had a great time eating dinner around their ginormous dining room table. Again, it was great to unwind, hang out, and get to know everyone.

Well, as you know, I have been hanging around the apartment waiting for wifi today, but that won’t be happening. This morning we went to the feria (farmer’s market) and got some great produce. The prices are insanely cheap (except the garlic, which I accidentally bought for more than I would have liked to have spent). For instance, I got a giant bunch of cilantro for under a dollar, and three red onions for about the same. I also drank coconut milk right out of a coconut! Actually those were called pipas (I’m not sure what the exact translation is, but there’s a pic of one below). I also got a great batch of flowers for free, which was pretty cool. After the market, Tracey and I walked back to the apartment, we unnecessarily waited for wifi, and now here I am.


IMG_7003 IMG_7005

So, that pretty much means I’m all caught up on blogging, and I will end my post here. Tomorrow we are heading to the beach for some fun and sun, so I’m sure I’ll have plenty to write about after that. I’m not sure when this will actually get posted, so I’m sure that it’s way out of date by the time you read it. I doubt I’ll keep posting as frequently as I am now once school starts. Plus, pretty soon going to the grocery store or mall won’t be such an adventure anymore! But in the meantime, pura vida, and thanks for reading! ¡Hasta luego!


First full day in Costa Rica!

21 July 2014; Day 1 – Settling In

I am typing this from my new home, which is located in Moravia, Costa Rica. I’d tell you the address, but I can’t because they don’t have street addresses here! Basically they just use landmarks and describe locations in relation to other locations. It’s a bit of a transition, but I’ll get used to it! The good news is that I know where I live and can find my way around. Just don’t send any letters any time soon. :)

The day began at the Hotel Bougainvillea, where the school put us up for the night. I wanted to take a walk in the garden, which I could tell is beautiful, but I let myself sleep in a bit (though I was still up by 8). I headed down to breakfast, where I had gallo pinto (rice and beans) and platanos (plantains), among other things like fresh fruit and some eggs. The view was great, and I sat with a couple other Lincoln teachers getting to know them and marveling at the fact that we live here now.

the beautiful view from my hotel room

After desayuno, it was time to get the show on the road! I went upstairs, repacked the few things I had taken out, and then made my way back to the lobby. We piled all our bags into the bus (I wish I had taken a photo because it was pretty ridiculous), and headed to our apartments! My building has nine apartments in it, and as it turns out, they are all rented to Lincoln School teachers (seven of whom are newbies like me). So yeah, it’s basically Melrose Place without the pool or scandal.

We brought our bags into the apartments, checked things out a bit, and loaded back into the van. Our next stop was Lincoln School, where we had a tour and met a bunch of people. I kept getting more and more excited about this place because I can tell already that the school is a great fit for me. Everything about it reminded me of my ed leadership classes, where I learned that you can tell a lot about the culture of the school just by the things on the walls and what greets you in the lobby. Well, in this lobby, there were huge color photos of Lincoln students looking happy and successful. In the secondary school (which is an IB school), the IB learner profile poster hung in every classroom, and they had huge IB learner profile posters hanging in the atrium. (If you know me professionally at all, you know that I am a huge nerd about the IB learner profile, so I was extremely excited to see it highlighted like it was.) The teachers’ lounge literally has lounge chairs, but what I liked even more was the bookshelf with professional publications right as you walk in. I could tell that the school wants its teachers to be happy, but there is also an expectation of professionalism and learning. I will really love it there.

IMG_6821 IMG_6823 IMG_6828 IMG_6831 IMG_6838IMG_6824 IMG_6834 IMG_6836 IMG_6841 IMG_6848

Once we finished the tour, we went to lunch at Rosti Pollo. The school treated us, which was much appreciated. Of course there were more rice and beans, and this time there was guac! I do love me some guac; I know it won’t be long before I make some here. **Edit: at the time of this posting (Friday evening), I have made pesto but no guac yet.** Lunch was fun; the director of the school met with us and took some time chatting to see how our travels went. So far everyone has just been so nice and welcoming. It definitely makes the transition easier, because of course I do find myself missing Biotech. I keep talking about “my kids” and realizing they’re not exactly “my kids” anymore. So there’s definitely some bittersweet feelings happening, but I know it’s just all part of the process.

We went back to the school after lunch to take care of some banking (apparently there’s a bank at my school?!) and then took off for the grocery store. I didn’t get too much because I just wasn’t mentally ready to think about what kinds of food I wanted to have in the apartment, and since I have no pots and pans or anything, I knew I wouldn’t be cooking tonight. **Edit #2: I now have pots and pans!** So I just got things like yogurt and bananas for breakfast, plus a few snacks since I literally brought NO food with me. Then we came home and signed contracts for internet service (which I won’t have until Thursday or so…if you are reading this, I have found Starbucks). **Edit 3: It’s Friday evening and I still don’t have wifi at my apartment. I think this is typical for Costa Rica.** I haven’t been able to swap SIM cards yet to get cellular data because I didn’t know that it takes two to five days for AT&T to unlock a phone (how is it possible in 2015 that anything online takes two to five days??). I’m definitely feeling a little nervous about just not having a signal of any sort, but it’s also kind of refreshing to not have my phone on me every five seconds. **Edit 4: I have since switched SIM cards but then ran out of data in like 12 hours. So my NJ phone number exists no more.**

Yet I digress.

Anyway, I’ve spent the rest of the day at the apartment getting settled in, hanging out with my new friends, and unwinding after a busy week. I haven’t unpacked too much yet because we are going shopping for housewares tomorrow. There isn’t much storage in the apartment (for example: I have no drawers here), so I want to wait and get some bins and baskets tomorrow before I start throwing stuff everywhere. We all got together earlier and compared shopping lists to help brainstorm about what we want to get. I did get a relocation allowance, but I still don’t want to go crazy spending. Making the list was soothing. Now I’m about to have some bread, cheese, and fruit for dinner, and then I’ll probably read or draw for a bit before bed. I can totally understand why ticos go to bed so early; it was pretty much pitch black by 7:00, and now it just feels late even though it’s only 7:14pm. I really hope this will help me adjust my body clock and sleep normal hours. Being a night owl is too exhausting, and I think I’ll need to leave for school earlier this year than in the past.

Overall, it has been a great first day. I am getting along well with my new colleagues, and I love my apartment and neighborhood. Tomorrow after the school takes us shopping for housewares, a few of us are going to walk to the mall. I am hoping to find wifi, post this post (and my first one), unlock my phone, and feel connected again. I do miss everyone at home, but I still know this was the right decision for me. It hasn’t yet sunk in that I’m not on vacation or anything; this is where I will be for at least the next two years, maybe more. I think it’ll be a good six months before I internalize that fact. But in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy each day as it comes to me! Thanks for reading, and ¡pura vida!

Final edit: Much of this post is outdated already. I will put together a new one with some updates some time this weekend! Next week will be busy; I have new teacher training at school all week. Then regular staff days on August 3 and 4, and the kids start August 5! Ahhhhh crazy! Ok bye!

First Costa Rica Post: The Journey There (Drama and All)

**I am posting this a few days after I wrote it because of a delay in wifi acquisition.**


20 July 2015

Well, I am on the plane to Costa Rica as I type this! I said I’d blog, so here I am! The good news is that I already have a travel story to tell; the bad news is that I have the story because of a crazy dramatic experience!

Because I know how verbose I can be, I’ll get right to it so this post doesn’t end up taking you five hours to read!

I need to skip all the emotional stuff about leaving and the next chapter and all that for now because I just can’t really process it all at the moment. So I will start with the airport, which is where the drama ensued.

Mom, Dad, and I went to the airport super early because I was checking so many bags. Now, I need to mention that the other day I sent an email to the group of new teachers who are also arriving in Costa Rica to see how many bags everyone else was bringing. One girl mentioned that she was flying United, and there was an embargo on San José, which meant she could only bring three checked bags (my plan was to bring four). I checked the United web site (from my phone, an important detail that will come into play later in this post), and I called to find out if the embargo applied to me as well. At first the woman on the phone said I could only bring two bags, but when I was incredulous, she was all, “oh never mind, you just have to pay $150 for extra bags.” I continued to check on my phone, and the web site continued to tell me it was $150 per extra bag. It said nothing about an embargo. In hindsight, perhaps I should have researched more, but c’est la vie, right?

Proof that it says nothing about an embargo.
And I have the correct date and flight info!

So we went to the kiosk and began the checking in process. And, sure enough, it would only let me check three bags. I asked a United representative, and she explained the embargo. I said I got what she was saying, but I was frustrated that there was nothing about it when I checked online and called (and I had just checked online in the car on the way to the airport, so it was up-to-date information). We started to go to a repacking table to reorganize my stuff, when the woman said to give her my boarding pass. She rescanned it, and it let her print out a fourth tag. She was all, “I didn’t do this, but you have an extra tag.” I thought she was my favorite person of all time. As it turns out, she is now my biggest nemesis.

So, instead of repacking my bags, we went to the bag drop line and started giving them my bags. Everything was going along swimmingly until we got to the Fourth Bag. Fourth Bag would not scan. Mind you, bags 1, 2, and 3 had already gone down the belt into the great abyss. But alas, Fourth Bag remained.

A United attendant came over to help, and she seemed confident that she could straighten things out. She disappeared for a while, and when she re-emerged, she had my fourth tag and a plan! Once again, I thought I had met my favorite person of all time. And once again I was wrong.

When she realized I had four claim tags, her evil twin presented herself. She basically yelled at me about the embargo, which I explained I knew about, but the kiosk gave me the fourth tag. She scolded me for not paying for Fourth Bag, and I explained that the kiosk didn’t make me. She angrily stormed away, and when she angrily stormed back, she ripped off my baggage tag with reckless abandon and told me they could not check Fourth Bag. Apparently our next move was to go to baggage services and have them recall my bags so I could start the repacking process. Mind you, the suitcase that was not checked is the one with most of my clothes. Those are probably a little bit important.

Before going to baggage services, however, I felt compelled to speak to the supervisor and at least express how frustrated I was that the web site didn’t have the embargo listed.

**end of typing on the plane; now I’m writing this from the couch in my new apartamento!**

The supervisor at the airport didn’t believe me that the embargo wasn’t listed, and he proceeded to pull up to show me in black and white. I explained that I checked from my phone (because really, who uses a computer anymore??), and he snidely insisted that I was on the wrong page. The woman took my phone and tried to find the embaro notice on the mobile page, but she finally admitted that it was nowhere to be found. Finally I stormed away in tears, muttering something like, “I just need to not be near you right now!”

We moved down to baggage services and put in a request to get my bags pulled back upstairs. The woman there was extremely nice, despite the fact that I was in tears and probably not at my most polite. She recalled the bags and said they’d take about an hour to come back, so we found a spot to sit and wait by the carousel. Well, to make a long story short, we waited over an hour and they never came. I started getting more and more stressed because our time buffer was quickly shrinking. Let’s not forget I still hadn’t gone through security (it was 4:45 and boarding was supposed to start at 5:20). Needless to say, I was extremely sweaty.

I finally decided to just leave my last suitcase (which was pretty much more than half my clothes) and get on the plane. I had no other choice. I said a tearful good-bye to my parents (who were total champs through this whole ordeal, by the way) and headed up to security. But alas, the drama did not end there!

The good-bye selfie! You totally can’t tell how stressed we were!

“There’s no way that carry-on will fit,” the security lady said to me. “You need to check it.”

UGHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!! She wouldn’t even let me on the security line. I basically just felt helpless and just stood there. My parents were coming up the escalator as I hyperventilated, and we did a little brainstorming. We had a smaller tote bag (thank you, Fusco!) that was basically empty, so I just opened all my bags and did a crazy triage-type reorganization session on the floor. I made some bad decisions like bringing my iPad but not my Kindle, not taking a sketchbook, and not grabbing at least one shrinkwrapped bag of clothes from my bigger bag (which means I currently have no shirts, sweaters, bathing suits, workout clothes, or rain gear). But hey, I did what I could do, picked up my belongings (breaking the handle on my tote bag in the process), and sweatily got in line for security.

The bag that I took instead of my carry-on suitcase! Thank goodness for packing cubes!

The rest is history, as they say. I made the plane with time to spare, and the best part was meeting another Lincoln teacher at the gate. We were in the same row and chatted during the flight, so that was exciting. It made me feel better to have someone with me, especially because once we landed in Costa Rica, I immediately started sweating again and got all nervous like I always do during the first couple days of travel. Fortunately, my new friend Tracey speaks great Spanish (although she says otherwise) and safely navigated our way to the hotel.

That was pretty much the end of my crazy and dramatic day. It was stressful for sure, but I keep reminding myself that it’s all just part of the adventure. I will survive without the stuff I don’t have (or buy cheap replacements to hold me over. The fact remains that I am meeting great people, teaching in what seems to be an amazing school, practicing my Spanish, and doing the one thing I’ve always wanted to do. The rest is just details.

#TLConf2015: Is your PBL Up to Gold Standard?

Is Your PBL Up to Gold Standard?
Rhonda Hill & Ashley Ellis

I decided to attend this session because my new school next year is currently in the process of training its teachers in project-based learning (PBL), and I want to be sure I’m ready! I do some projects in class, and I think I get what PBL is, but I haven’t been formally trained, so I have no idea if I’m doing it “right.” I’m looking forward to getting some guidance and learning more about this. (Edit: I learned a ton!)

As with my last post, this is mostly in notes format. It’s late, and I’m tired, and I know if I don’t just post it now I never will! There might be typos, and not everything will be sentences. So, no judging!

So, what is the gold standard of PBL? 

  • Project design elements, combined with
  • Project teaching practices

Every project has a good driving question. Today’s is:

  • How can we design gold standard projects?
  • Need-to-know questions. Design projects around what kids really need to know. Design instruction around what you anticipate what students need to know.

Good driving question will help develop:

  • ownership
  • authenticity
  • buy-in
  • the ability to ask and answer their own darn questions
  • sustained engagement

One way to sustain inquiry is to ask the students what they need to know.

PBL is a little bit harder, and it’s different. People will be resistant at first. Kids will even say “can I just have my worksheet?”
PBL can sometimes be seen as dessert. Teachers teach, teach, teach, and then tell kids, “ok guys, now let’s do this thing!”

The goal is to make PBL the main course, not the dessert.

Designing projects
Rhonda and Ashley handed out an article on essential project design elements (it will be on some time this week, and I’ll try to remember to link it here when it’s up). She split us up into teams and assigned us sections. We then created posters that defined the element, gave evidence from the article, and incorporated a visual aid. Since our group focused on authenticity, we drew a word with lots of hands around it. We added things like microscopes, music notes, phones, and more to take a look at some of the authentic tools we can use when designing a great project with PBL. You can see our beautiful poster below! I meant to take pictures of all the posters but forgot. C’est la vie!


Key knowledge/understandings; Key success skills

  • Intentionally design projects with a focus on the content standards but also the ways in which kids turn into the “ideal graduate”

Challenging problem or question

  • enables dialgoue
  • provokes thought (critical thinking)
  • fosters inquiry
  • challenges what’s intimidating
  • forms the foundation/building block for the students

Sustained inquiry

  • taking challenging problem or driving question and finding creative ways to engage kids in solving problem/answering question
  • leads to deeper thinking/questioning
  • This is one of the hardest things for teachers to do in a project. We sometimes answer our own questions because the kids might not answer them right away.

Important! Need to know list should be the first step in inquiry. That sets up the questions and helps sustain the questioning/inquiry.


  • local or global context
  • audience (blogs, etc)
  • have experts come in; have kids see application beyond school
  • skype in experts; bring authentic audience into classroom
  • choice, choice, choice. (why does everything come back to choice?)

Student voice and choice

  • ownership
  • input
  • choice
  • Some teachers are not comfortable with relinquishing some control. But remember, we have the background decisions; the teacher designs the bigger problem and allows for some choice in getting there.


  • carry on throughout your life. If you really want to learn from your experiences, you need to think about them.
  • formal or informal (sometimes systematic, sometimes impromptu)
  • can build from project to project or day to day
  • reflection helps internalizing the learning; becomes ingrained
  • pushes for continual improvement
  • need to be fearless to reflect; there will be things you don’t do so well, but you can also see the good
  • the biggest problem with education is that we never have enough time, and the first thing that always goes out the window is reflection because we always have to move on

Critique and revision

  • creating a culture in the classroom where it’s ok to not get it right the first time

Public product

  • should extend beyond the classroom
  • give an audience so kids want to share something they are proud of
  • kids feel good that people actually care enough to see what they have done. give them these opportunities!

Big takeaway: must create the need to know! you can’t just say “learning the three branches of government is important, so study it.”

“You show that you know something deeply through the process of creation.” (This was a quote from the movie they showed us; I don’t have the citation.)

Check project design rubric on to make sure your project design is solid. If we want our kids to care, we have to make sure what they’re learning is authentic and relevant. Projects need to be rooted in standards and success skills.

Build the culture in the classroom

  • facilitate meaningful conversations (socratic seminar, fishbowl, etc.)
  • start w/ low stakes. Give them things they aren’t graded on! Yay; this validates my own philosophy and instructional choices!
  • Manage activities- put structures in place that our students know where to do.
  • Can still use direct instruction in PBL; it does not go away. Use mini-lessons to jump in with direct instruction when they need it.

Be sure that the product is truly an opportunity to show that they have solved the problem or answer the question, as well as an opportunity to demonstrate mastery of content standards.

PBL can be a way to create conditions for perseverance.

Don’t forget to check out! They have everything you’d need to design a project on the web site (and it’s all free and downloadable!). They also have a project library of hundreds of projects that teachers have designed and implemented. This could be a great way to start brainstorming ideas and coming up with PBL topics.

BIE signature product: 3-day workshop to help teachers design PBL projects. If you are an instructional leader and you want to have your staff do more PBL, this could be a fabulous resource for some relevant PD! I learned a ton in an hour; I can’t imagine how much I’d learn in 3 days!

Thanks, Rhonda and Ashley, for a terrific session! I can’t wait to design a project using your methods!

#TLConf2015: Empowering Teachers to Build a Positive, Innovative School Culture

This past weekend, I was in Washington, DC for the annual Teaching & Learning Conference hosted by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. I have been a National Board Certified Teacher (NBCT) since 2009, and I love being surrounded by hundreds of other NBCTs (we only have 275 here in NJ). Throughout the conference, I tweeted like a crazy person (although I’m pretty sure I came in at a lowly 500 tweets, approximately half of what I tweeted last year).

I’m not sure I’ll be able to blog enough to do this conference justice. I loved the plenary sessions but didn’t take copious notes (other than a bajillion tweets), and I have a feeling I’ll run out of blogging steam before I write those up. The good news is that videos of the plenary will be posted in the next week or so, so you’ll get to see them if you so desire (I highly recommend the rabble rouser one, followed closely by the one with Randi Weingarten and Linda Darling-Hammond).

Anyway, this post contains my notes from a session entitled Empowering Teachers to Build a Positive, Innovative School Culture, led by Angela Watson. I tried to do a bunch of leadership sessions this year, considering the next step in my professional life will be one toward a leadership position. I love learning about school culture, especially how to create one. I feel that one of my strengths as a teacher (correct me if I’m wrong, students) is creating a learning environment that establishes high expectations but in a laid back way. I want my students to feel safe to take risks in my classroom, and when I am an educational leader, I will want to establish the same feeling of safety for my colleagues. So this session seemed right for me!

What follows are my notes, pretty much as written. Forgive the fact that there will be a lot of shorthand and lists, rather than coherent paragraphs. If I worry too much about the writing, I’ll never end up making this post, and I want to curate a record for myself. The original intent was to live blog the sessions, but we didn’t have wifi, so I just took notes in the notes app and am copying them here.

Without further ado, here you go!

Ideas to remember!

  • Use student work to guide discussion (in PLC format).
  • Group grading can be an awesome way to get teachers speaking the same language, clarifying expectations, and understanding standards.
  • Leaders need to affirm teachers so they know what they are doing well. Too often teachers only hear from higher-ups if they are doing something wrong. Find a way to praise teachers and give positive reinforcement for the awesome things teachers do. One easy way to do this is the sticky note thing; write a quick note on a post-it and leave it in the teacher’s mailbox. Little things go a long way!

Emphasize culture of sharing

  • If teachers are uncomfortable sharing about themselves, focus the discussion on the students. Give teachers a place to share about the great things the kids are doing in the classroom.
  • Give more outlets to share teacher (and student) success. Find a way (blog, twitter, emails, shoutouts at meetings, etc.) to share the amazing things teachers do in the classroom every day.
  • Idea: Principal (or other leader) can send a weekly Friday email request for kudos. Compile the responses and share them with staff on Monday. It can become something that everyone looks forward to each week. I definitely want to try this!
  • Have teachers take turns presenting at meetings each month. Maybe ask a grade level or group of subject area teachers to share one awesome lesson (like best practice sharing we have done at Biotech).
  • Idea: Compliment and a Coke: each week someone gets a shoutout and Coke; something small and inexpensive but goes a long way!
  • Use business partners to get gift card donations; give gift cards to teachers on a regular basis (nominated by students and teachers)

Some tips:

  • Don’t make teachers sit through irrelevant professional development just to be “fair.” Not every teacher needs to sit through the same PD!
  • Choice. Always give choice. Even if it’s just a matter of offering multiple times, dates, or delivery formats, human beings value choice. (I try to follow this same rule in my classroom! I do my best to never force one particular thing upon students without at least some bit of choice. It’s basic psychology; we never want to do what we’re required to do.)

Obstacles to meaningful PD:

  • Lack of choice (top-down mandates about what teachers should learn)
    • I’m sure anyone reading this has sat through worthless PD, amirite?
  • Time. Always time. It’s so important to carve time into the schedule to allow for meaningful, job-embedded professional development.
  • Provide ways for teachers to connect with inspiring educators online (hello, Twitter!). Often innovative and passionate teachers feel isolated. When it feels like you are in an environment of negativity, you can go elsewhere. I love my job, and my colleagues are amazing, but there are only 26 of them. Twitter has been my saving grace in connecting me with teachers literally around the planet.
  • Help/encourage teachers to find online resources that work for them. Don’t push them to use social media that they aren’t comfortable with. If they’re on FB, don’t force Twitter until they’re ready.

Instagram hashtags

  • #teachersfollowteachers
  • #teachersofinstagram
  • #teachershelpingteachers
  • #teacherspayteachers

Twitter chats
Look up @cybraryman‘s Gdoc of all the chats. This calendar is a great way to get started if you’re thinking about encouraging your teachers to get involved in twitter chats. They might be overwhelming at first; remember to encourage newbies to take their time lurking and learning before they try to jump in!

Angela reminded us that Pinterest is professional development!! She has a wealth of resources on her Pinterest boards, which you can find here. And since we’re on the subject, you can find mine here. :) Yes, I know I need to re-organize. Get in line, Pinterest. Get in line.

Blog posts
Angela suggested starting with edutopia if you aren’t sure where to begin. There are lots of practical tips for the classroom. And hey, how about that? I have some posts up there if you’re interested!

Other random advice about building culture

  • Model vulnerability, reward risk-taking, and embrace the possibility of failure
  • Give implicit and explicit permission for teachers to take a risk and consider what worked and what didn’t (this is also great advice to teachers and their students!)
  • Start every staff meeting with reflections about what hasn’t been going well. This will encourage the idea that not everything will always be perfect, and that’s just fine.

A great quote that stuck with me

  • “Success is going to take a while, and there’s no race to innovate.”

Thanks, Angela, for a great session! I can’t wait to be in a leadership role where I can implement the strategies you taught us today!