Sunday, January 15, 2012

2011: Life lessons from a crazy year.

Out of all of my adult years, 2011 was probably the most random so far. Over the course of the year, I lived in 4 countries, spent 8 months unemployed, and had some pretty cool adventures. Reflecting back, I learned a lot. Below are some pictures and the "lessons" I learned. 

Lesson: You can turn anything into a French tarte with a little egg, cheese, and cream. (Hey...I didn't say these lessons were going to be profound.) 
I started the year with a three month stay with a family in France “teaching” them English. Mostly, I became their friend, cook, nanny, space-taker-upper, and errand runner. It was a really fun time and as my blog indicated at the time, made me realize the true importance of Love and Logic in parenting and teaching.

The Louaisil Family. My "French Family" for three months.

I learned a lot trying to teach English as a second language.
Sang lots of songs and realized a lot of idiosyncrasies in American pronunciation when teaching to people who had studied British English in school.

I spent a lot of my time in France baking and cooking for the family.
The boys, Steven & Léo had a MAJOR sweet tooth.
They LOVED my American sugar cookies for Valentine's Day.

Lesson:  Make choices you feel good about when you can.  
In January, I attended a job fair and got to make the decision between a job in Kuwait or a job in Germany and as I’ve said before, the option with pork and alcohol prevailed and I moved to Germany. The job fair was a refreshing change because everyone there spoke my “teacher language.” After teaching in England last year, I was ready to quit being a teacher. So, going to a place where they understood me really renewed my hope that I could be a teacher again. Not wanting to be a teacher made me a little (a lot) lost. It is part of who I am. Being told everyday that I was so bad at it also made me think that it wasn’t for me. Fortunately, I’ve managed over the last few months to “uninternalize” my horrible teaching reviews and to regain my self-efficacy in the classroom. 

A quick afternoon layover in Paris on my way to the JOB FAIR that changed my life.

Lesson: Surround yourself with positive people. (Alternative wording: There are grumps everywhere...stay away from them!) 
My new school is not perfect, but I’ve come to realize that nowhere is and that I need to find the people who share my passion, my philosophy, and devote my energy to them instead of trying to fight the people with whom I don’t see eye to eye. This was something that I had figured out how to do at CBMS, but I’d lost sight of. I’m working on it.

The results of the job fair.
It was "on a wing & a prayer" then but feels like home now!

Lesson: Unless I win the lottery, I need to have a job at least just for entertainment purposes. 
At the beginning of April, I headed back to Chesham (or “Crapham” as I like to call it) where I awaited my various visitors. My first visitors were my parents and we had a really fun time around England. There's a reason I've turned out to be such a is inherited! We read a lot of history while on our trip AND even downloaded a 2-hour National Geographic video on Stonehenge to watch the night before our visit. Though it was so much fun having people visit, the times in between were some of the hardest. I was unemployed, in a small, absolute shit-hole town with no car and no money, and I was living with a roommate in a 500 square feet flat who had canceled our internet and tv while I was in France. I had many, many, many visits to the public library and spent many-a-day in Starbucks using their free internet. I also took extremely long walks pretty much everyday. One would think that it would be fun to just have endless time to do nothing but when you’re by yourself in a foreign country and can’t spend any money, it just isn’t.

My parents came to visit and we managed not to back our car into Stonehenge like the Griswolds.

Lesson: It is possible to have a sore face from laughing too much.
But, in between the down times, I had three amazing trips with friends! Nicole came to visit and we traveled to the Scottish Highlands and then walked our legs off in London. We laughed so hard and so much that a few times, our guide told us that we were not allowed to laugh on the bus anymore! Scotland was beautiful and Nicole and I were perfect travel partners due to our extreme nerdiness for things like Tudor history and the other English/Scottish monarchs and conflicts. We took every available audio tour and thought it was funny that we could reference historical events and people from watching “The Tudors” on Showtime. I will definitely never forget “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.” (Those are the fates of the six wives of Henry VIII!!)

The Scottish Highlands with Nicole. Isle of Skye.

"The Highlander" Castle.

Trafalgar Square. One of my favorite views of London.
Gordon was my next visitor. We rented a car and drove around England and Wales. Gordon's family immigrated from Wales to Pennsylvania and his grandmother's church songs are even still sung in Welch. It was a beautiful country and we had a great time jetting around in our Fiat "Panda" rental car. Gordon drove. I was too chickenshit to drive on the the other side of the road but I am an awesome navigator (especially with the GPS really doing the work!). We didn't have a super-specific itinerary and would often just see something in the book, set the GPS for it and drive there. Most entertaining for us was trying to decipher the Welch language. I'll never forget the word "araf" which means "slow." It is painted on all of the roads since most of them were windy and one-car wide. A few times we had to back down a road because another car/tractor was coming the other way and it was too narrow to pass.
Tinturn Abbey in Wales with Gordon.
This isn't on the "Top 100 Places to See Before You Die" Lists but it should be.

Welsh Castle with Welsh Man. 

London! THE picture.
My last visitor was Natalie. We were power tourists like I've never seen. We saw more in five days in London and Paris than most people see in several weeks. My favorite part of our whole trip was sitting at sidewalk cafés in Paris and looking at each other every few minutes saying, "OH MY GOD. WE ARE IN PARIS!" I've been before several times, but it never gets old and being there with Natalie awesome. We also learned a mini-lesson while there...we are not fine dining people. We spent a lot of money eating at a very fancy restaurant and realized that we're much more suited to a baguette, a wheel o' brie, and une bouteille de vin! We also laughed really hard every single day. All day. Even the trip home on the plane was fun. Literally, even single minute of this trip (even while we were sleeping) was fun.
I made Nat do it too!
We had SO much fun on our trip!

Eiffel Tower at night with Natalie.
Lesson: Colorado rocks.
I went home to Colorado for the summer. It was needed (for one thing, I was unemployed and poor). But, being away makes you appreciate what you've left. Besides the people, which is obviously the number one reason it is hard living elsewhere, there are aspects of Colorado that I just didn't appreciate enough when I lived there. The sunshine is just different in Colorado. You never know how much you need the 300 days of sunshine until you live in a really cloudy, high-latitude place and it gets dark in the middle of the afternoon and doesn't get light until well after 8 am for several months at a time. Yes, the summer days are longer in Northern Europe, but it isn't worth it for the super short winter days, if you ask me. Damp, raininess sucks. I think I could live in rainy England or Germany my whole life and never stop complaining about the weather after living the majority of my 33 years in Colorado. It was funny teaching about the seasons in a place that has so little seasonal variation.

In my Colorado memories, the quality of the sunlight is different depending on what time of year the memory occurred. When I think of CSU homecoming or football games, I think of how the light is in Fort Collins in the fall when the leaves are all yellow. In summer memories, I think about the sun being directly above filtering through the trees in Old Town Fort Collins (specifically the trees that used to perch above my house that were so tenuously held up that sometimes I wanted to sleep in a ski helmet lest one of them bisect my house!). This is not something that I can relate to after two years in Northern Europe. Isn't it that Jonie Mitchell song that says, "you don't know what you've got 'til it is gone!" It is true. I've never been one to have moods affected by the seasons...but, duh, I kind of doubt that problem even exists in Colorado.
Summer with family and friends!
German restaurant the night before leaving for Germany.
Courtney, Megan, and I had some fun times!

My Tiger Girls!

Painted with Mom.
Lesson: I have a lot of crap/Mexican food sucks in Europe.
Moving to Germany was like leaving for college all over again in terms of getting all of my junk there. I had shipped three boxes from England and checked 3, 50-lb. suitcases and had two extremely heavy carry-on bags. Each time someone comes to visit me and each time I go home and come back to Europe, I have to pack and repack my bags in order to get everything I want back with me. This is a combined lesson because a lot of the stuff I bring over are ingredients for making Mexican food...specifically lots of green chilis. One would think that one could live without them, but one would be wrong. It is worth it to have all of this luggage each time, because truly, I just can't give up Mexican food for dinner on a regular basis. Sounds trite, I know. But, sometimes, you just have to do what you have to do.
Moving to Germany.
What you can't see is that the plane could barely get in the air due to my immense amount of luggage.
Lesson: The socio-economic status of middle schoolers is irrelevant to their need for relationship-driven classroom management. 
At my school in England, I was not allowed to take the time to set up my classroom rituals and routines the way that I know is important. In finding a new school, this is something I continuously asked about during interviews. So, when school started this year, I spent the first week and a half in the exact same way that I did at CBMS.  My school now has a completely different population than CBMS in pretty much every way imaginable, except for one thing...they are still all middle school-aged kids. The kids at my new school have responded extremely well to all of the expectations we set at the beginning of the year. Love and Logic works on them the same way it works on any other kids I've met. Because I was allowed to take the time to do this, my job is fun again. The other day I was just sitting working in my room between classes and realized that I am having so much fun again as a teacher. I know that there are many extraneous factors that contribute to that fact, but being allowed to do things the way I know they should be done makes a huge difference. We have fun in my class, me included. That's a good feeling. (Sidenote: I believe even more now in the book Drive by Daniel Pink. He says that people need autonomy in order to be motivated. I am a walking example of this. When I had extremely limited autonomy in how I did things in my English school, my levels of motivation and self-efficacy plummeted. If you haven't read it, you should.)
Poster-maker in my living room.
Classroom management is important no matter who you teach!
Lesson: Metacognition is important. 
I've talked so much about this before that I won't belabor it again now. But, I have learned again and again that being able to name how/why/in what ways you are thinking is really important. More than ever, I believe that kids need to be good critical thinkers...especially when you consider that the entire internet is basically in our pockets now with smart phones. Kids need to be good information sifters. Humans need to be good information sifters.
Teaching "The Thinking Strategies" to my new students.
Lesson: Sometimes the simplest things are the most important. 
There are many many contexts where that last lesson can be applied but I'm sticking with my own classroom for the purpose of today. I learned a new "Thinking Routine"this year for helping kids construct scientific explanations and it has literally changed the way I structure almost every assignment. It is the crux of what science is about. How I've managed to get through seven other years of teaching without doing this is now beyond me. Giving kids (or adults) a specific framework in which to put their thinking really allows them to understand content instead of getting lost in format. Because kids are getting so good at using this framework, we can really focus on their claims and how scientists use evidence to create theories. (I sure could have used this in the past when I had parents come in and tell me that a) they didn't want me to teach about global warming because they "didn't believe in it in their family" or b) they wanted me to teach evolution as only a "theory." I could have given them a lesson in this thinking routine so that they could understand that I WAS TEACHING EVOLUTION AS A THEORY...a SCIENTIFIC THEORY BASED ON EVIDENCE!)
The "Thinking Routine" that has changed my teaching.
I'm a teacher dork no matter where I live.
Lesson: If your family is far away, create a new one.
I have made some really great friends since moving to Düsseldorf. Living in a foreign country where you don't speak the language is sometimes quite hard (don't get me started on how I now view the plight of immigrants to America...that is another post...but I've gained some serious empathy for them while living here!). Having new friends with which to laugh, commiserate, drink wine, etc. makes all the difference.
My Düsseldorf "Family," the Brydens.
Thanks to Rachel Larimore for connecting us! 
Dressed up for the Christmas party.
My very own Linda Richman. Lauren from Long Island.
I'll give you a topic. The peanut is neither a pea nor a nut. Discuss.
Ralph Finnes is spelled as neither Rafe nor Fines. Discuss.
I found costume-loving friends here too!
YAY! Can't wait for Carnival in February!
Lesson: There is a gene for silliness in my family and it goes back many generations.
I had another fun visit with my parents this fall when they came to Germany. I also got to go to Denmark twice to visit my cousins there. Every visit to Denmark is so much fun because we laugh so much. Every trip with my parents is also a lot of fun! This time I took them to Amsterdam and we discovered the small town in Germany from which my mom's side immigrated.
I will not lie. It is pretty cool to do things like this.
I had one foot in Germany and one in France!

Parents visited again.
Weather was great.
Beer was cold.
Great time!

Mosel River. Such a great trip!

My parents are ALWAYS willing to do the dorky tourist pictures.
Makes traveling with them just so much fun!

Got to visit my AWESOME Danish cousins twice this year!
Terese & Nina are obviously related to me due to their love of ridiculous pictures.
Lesson: Given enough time and effort, even an Easy Bake Oven can create Thanksgiving dinner.
(And see lesson about creating your own family when your's is far away!) 
Everyone likes stuffing their face on Thanksgiving...even if it is your first one because you aren't American (or Canadian!). Everyone learns pretty quickly. I may not have made as many side dishes as I normally would, but I am DAMN proud of that enormous meal in my ridiculously tiny oven.
Wonderful Thanksgiving dinner with friends cooked in an Easy Bake oven.
International crowd for my current international life.
Lesson: Christmas lights and mulled wine can really take the sting out of a short, Northern European winter day.
Experiencing German Christmas Markets was one of the main highlights of living here so far. And, since being back from Christmas vacation, the streets in downtown Düsseldorf feel empty and sad without the stands of yummy treats, warm glühwein, and cutesy items for sale.
Christmas Markets in Germany have been one of the highlights of living here.

So there you have it. 2011 in a nutshell. I wouldn't say that I made any super-amazing, profound, Earth-shattering discoveries, but overall, it was a pretty good year.

2012. New year. New experiences. Pretty exciting prospects. 


Patricia said...

As I have said before, I already knew all this stuff from our Skyping, but I still get more when I read it here. Love, Mom

Aunt Susie said...

Your "happy" is so evident now, sweet niece of mine. I'm so glad....the teaching profession and children all over the world need more Liz Swansons! Happy 2012 and more adventures, Lizbeth!

Love you!