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Crazy Hearts

March 1, 2010

I started writing this post yesterday. Adjust your mental calendar as you read.

Geoff and I just got back from watching the movie Crazy Heart. The soundtrack was excellent, and the acting was strong. We went to an 11:45 AM matinee, which either means we are getting old, or that we will do everything we can to avoid running into our students at the movies. Since the movie still cost us seven dollars apiece, we must not be cheap. We really enjoy the music of Ryan Bingham, and he co-wrote the Academy Award nominated song with T-Bone Burnett that appears in the movie—he also makes his acting debut. Some bonuses from the film include the acting of the four-year-old kid who played Buddy and Robert Duvall’s hair.

The movie date was a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the past several weeks. We have officially lived in the rental house for one month. I spent two weeks of that month out of town, and Geoff spent almost that much time at the baseball fields. I have always wished that Bailey and Scooter could talk, sometimes I want to call them while I am at school to see what’s up, but never more so than this past month.  I feel like they know the ins and outs of this temporary house a lot better than we do.  Everyday I discover something new and peculiar that I am sure Scooter or Bailey could shed some light on if they could only talk. Today, for example, Geoff was doing some laundry and when he picked up his laundry basket he discovered a trap door to the crawl space underneath the house. I am used to trap doors in old houses, and I know that rule number one is don’t open the door (very similar to don’t look behind the curtain in haunted movies and don’t run up stairs in home invasion movies). Geoff, inquisitive scientist that he is, opened the door. From the other room I hear the phrase, “Do you need further proof that we live in a swamp?” Actually, I do not need further proof that we live in a swamp; Scooter’s muddy footprints daily besmirching some formerly clean piece of my personal property is proof enough for me that we live in a swamp.  But to humor him I said okay. “Come look at this,” was his reply. No part of me really wanted to go look at this, but at that point I was committed. Underneath the house, visible to anyone who opens the trap door, is at least six inches of standing water. If we hadn’t sold the koi with the old house they would have a great place to live. Fortunately the under-house pond was clear and not full of mosquito larvae, but how long can that possibly last? I am filing this knowledge of what is under the trap door in my “Ignore it and hopefully it will fix itself” category. I don’t have a strong record of success with things filed in this particular category (dead squirrel trapped in the wall 2005, for example), but I’m not willing to file it in the “Hire someone to fix it” or “Google how to fix it myself” categories, so it will stay where it is until I have to put it in the “Oh shit, ignoring it was a bad idea now we need a real expert” category.

Last week I was in Washington, DC with our senior students. These particular students I taught as both freshmen and sophomores, so it was a real treat to be able to accompany them on their last travel experience. On the trip the students are grouped by their interest in one of ten millennium development goals.  My group had education. The students made an appointment with the embassy of Finland because, for several years, they have been ranked number one in the world for the quality of their education system. In D.C most of the embassies are conveniently located on Massachusetts Avenue, affectionately known as Embassy Row.  The Finnish Embassy is located on Embassy Row, about 1.7 miles from the nearest metro stop. I find, in situations where high school students are asked to walk farther than they normally would be inclined to, it is best to be as vague as possible. When the students would ask me how far away the embassy was, I would say, “Just a few more blocks.” Unfortunately, my students are as clever as they are reluctant to walk long distances. They soon realized that a block is composed of 100 address units. We had to go 3301 Massachusetts Avenue (NW) and we started walking around 2000 Massachusetts Avenue. That means we had 13 blocks to walk. For a New Yorker, or an elderly speed walker, this is a manageable distance. But for high school seniors wearing fashionable boots it might as well have been a marathon. Did I mention that we were running late? The kids insisted on eating lunch (oh the decadence) so we only had about 25 minutes to get to the embassy. Given the ground speed of a laden, boot wearing 18 year old, the frequency of traffic lights on Mass. Ave., and the fact that the last part of the trip was uphill, we were able to cover the distance at an impressive 2.5 miles per hour, and therefore we were 15 minutes late.

In spite of our tardiness we received a warm Scandinavian welcome, meaning the receptionist greeted us with a, “ You’re really late.”

Welcome to Finland!

Cool factoids and tidbits about the Embassy of Finland:

  • It is the first LEED Certified Green Embassy
  • It was given an EPA Energy Star for superior energy efficiency
  • It was designed by renowned Finnish Architects Mikko Heikkinen and Markku Komonen
  • It has a smart board in the conference room with 12 different colored smart pens (if you know what a smart board is then you know this is cool)
  • Everyone who works there wears really cool glasses
  • Everything in the building looked like it came from the world’s fanciest IKEA

I was very impressed by the student’s ability to ask thoughtful questions of the embassy representative. She was very generous with her time and fully explained to us the structure and philosophy of the Finnish school system. My favorite aspects of their system are that students do not start school until they are seven (check out current research linking “learning disabilities” in young boys with the fact that they start school before their fine motor skills even allow them to hold a pencil properly). At every grade level students get a fifteen minute outdoor break after every class. So they have 45 minutes of indoor study and 15 minutes of outdoor recess. “The students go outside, unless it is -30 below zero, then it is too cold.” Seriously. It is only to cold when it is 30 degrees BELOW zero. All students in Finland get a free education up through college and they get free meals (two a day) through high school. The meals are made from local, natural foods and prepared fresh daily in the cafeteria. The Finnish representative said that when people leave school the thing they miss most is the food—a stark contrast to the U.S system.  One of the students asked our host what is one thing about the U.S system that she wishes could be translated to the Finnish system. She responded that she wishes the Finish system could impart in its students the sense of confidence in speaking and self-advocacy that the U.S system does. She said, “My son is only in kindergarten, and he already does the, what do you call it? The show and tell. He is so confident and shares so freely. That is something that we did not have back in Finland.” I think both countries can learn from each other’s systems.  I know I definitely believe that fresher food and more regular exercise would give our students a better advantage in school. I think the greatest contributing factor to Finland’s success is that all people their believe that all people in their society deserve a free, high quality education. The members of their society work very hard to make that belief a reality. Unfortunately, until everyone in the United States believes that everyone else in the United States deserves a free, high quality education, then we will never be able to provide one—to the detriment of our society as a whole.

The second highlight of our trip was our visit with the City Year volunteers at Malcolm X Elementary School in southeast D.C.  We met with the volunteers and got to participate in pre-cess and lunch with the 2nd and 3rd graders. At Malcolm X they do recess before lunch to help the kids work up an appetite and also to give them time to settle down as they eat lunch before they go back to class. This is their first year to try pre-cess and they say they have seen really positive results.  When the weather is cold (in the 30 degree ABOVE zero range) the students have pre-cess inside. The students’ favorite game is a “safer” version of dodge ball. In this version only adults can throw the ball at the students.  Picture in your mind some of the tiniest 2nd and 3rd graders you have ever seen being pegged with a dodge ball by a series of City Year uniform clad adults. At first glance it seems barbaric, but the kids love it. In fact, when I didn’t hit one or two of them, they came up to me afterward and said, “Why didn’t you hit me with the ball?” My students were quick to jump in and were more than willing to hit as many elementary kids as possible with the bright yellow dodge ball.

After pre-cess we watched the kids eat lunch and talked with them. The City Year volunteers also run a lunchtime tutoring and enrichment program for the kids. So while they ate we got to draw pictures with them about friendship and positive ways to resolve conflict. Recently the school lunch program at Malcolm X has changed. The students now get whole grain breads and pastas.  They also get more fresh vegetables (green ones) and more of the meals are prepared from scratch on site. The change happened only a few weeks ago, so it is too early to tell if there will be long term affects on behavior and attendance, but there is reason to believe the change will pay off.  After lunch and a hug-fest that seemed to last forever (the little ones really like to hug) we had a panel discussion with the City Year volunteers. I think it was a rewarding activity for my students. They got to learn about the possibilities and benefits associated with a year of public service. I think it is powerful for the students to be able to see that life is full of many options, and the path you set out on does not always take you where you thought it would, and sometimes, it takes you to places far more rewarding than you could have ever imagined.

After a week in D.C, away from home, away from my sophomores, I am convinced more than ever of the importance of public education, the importance of proper nutrition, the importance of fresh air and exercise, and the importance of personal integrity.  Everything we do matters, and every way in which we enact our beliefs has an affect on everyone else, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.

The seniors, expressing their elementary side.

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