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Bragging Rights

Bragging Rights  12961728_605186556312191_2936564873169789097_n

I felt unsure about how it would go, but when I heard they needed a teacher who wanted to work with at-risk students, I decided to give it a shot. Teaching elementary school for twelve years had become isolating and routine. Earning my Master’s degree and my short experience as a high school and middle school counselor created a hungequestion-mark-1026530_960_720r in me for something different. When I walked inside the building, a nervousness that I hadn’t felt since I first started teaching shot through me. I wondered if I’d made the right decision. My new challenge faced me, teaching teenagers at a continuation high school. What was I thinking?

I hate to admit it, but I was a bit terrified. A tumultuous sea of teens surrounded me all day long. Their attitudes, moods, faces, “eff bombs,” gossip, bullying, and occasional laughter pierced into my being. They seemed so foreign to me compared to elementary children who, for the most part, would do anything I asked of them. Teaching young children has its challenges, but they generally love their teachers. Their little faces light up and they want attention so bad it hurts. “Teacher, teacher,” they’d yell out all day long. They’d depression-1250897_960_720sing and dance, read out loud, and do ten jumping jacks enthusiastically if I asked.  I didn’t experience the same types of responses from these teenagers. They did want my attention and just asking them to work could turn into a huge conflict. Their faces didn’t express joy for much of anything they had to do it school.

Many of them had years of tragically challenging experiences at home and in school that left them feeling hopeless and discouraged, but they showed up anyway. Even though they’d failed in the past, they wanted a chance to succeed. Many people, including themselves in some cases, criticized them, put them down, and looked at them as failures because they went to a continuation high school. Although people told them they couldn’t or wouldn’t succeed, they kept trying. Their strength and tenacity inspired me, but I still wasn’t sure how to reach them.

So we danced.

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I nervously started a Zumba class for P.E. At first, very few students chose the class, but over the years, the room filled with more new faces. When I lead them in Zumba dances, they became those enthusiastic elementary kids who would do anything I asked. They’d shake, jump, clap, shimmy, you name it. Oh to see them smile, knowing what I knew about their lives, created a happiness in my heart like no other. Pure joy.

I had a crazy idea of asking them if they wanted to perform some of the dances in public at a health fair and fundraiser. Surprisingly, they agreed and even showed up to after school events. They returned to the school they were kicked out of and performed with big smiles on their faces. Their enthusiasm and willingness to perform in front of people shocked me. In class their love for movement and music brought laughter and smiles, but to ta792298_10151429665388707_224105806_oke that outside of our safe haven required another level of courage. These moments of pride lifted their heads and expressed their tenacity. They showed people their unwillingness to be invisible or forgotten. Every year each new Zumba class brought new energy and crossed new boundaries.  Then the big moment came – a chance of a lifetime. For the first time ever, teen students from a continuation high school in little Red Bluff, CA would dance Zumba during halftime at a professional NBA basketball game. For me, a dream come true. 12963436_605186506312196_349463721530923816_n

When the day arrived of our performance at the King’s game half-time, I wished all the previous students who helped build the enthusiasm for Zumba over the last nine years could have been there with us. They graduated long before this opportunity arose, but they were key to making it possible. Their willingness to show off their skills during the earlier years changed my thinking. I realized these teenagers still had that youthful enthusiasm and courage. Even though life had pushed them down and took away their smiles so many times, their smiles could be unburied. Their joyfulness and confidence to take healthy risks could be reignited with the power of dance.

The amazing group that made it to the King’s game practiced relentlessly with me for weeks before the big day. They drove two hours to Sacramento the week before the 12973336_605185846312262_1360726372874898236_operformance to rehearse repeatedly with the hundred other dancers. A few were overcome with anxiety so many times at school that dancing in front of thousands of people in a stadium and for television struck a nerve way down deep, but they committed to performing. Before we made our way down to the floor, a few girls expressed their nervousness and fear to the point of wanting to back out, but they didn’t. We ran out onto the King’s floor full of excitement. I looked at the faces of the nine Salisbury students who stood there with me and knew they’d never forget that moment. Neither would I.12932775_605186679645512_4454442459524173230_n

We looked up into the crowds of hundreds of people and waved at the ones who came along to cheer us on. Giant cameras pointed at us. The announcer yelled out, “Let’s hear it for the Zumba dancers!” The crowd roared. The music blasted. We danced for three glorious minutes. Single, single, double. Step left. Step right. Shimmy. I smiled the biggest smile possible. The pride I felt to be dancing there with these incredible students was one of the best moments of my life. They remembered all the moves and they rocked it! The music ended and the crowd roared louder. People clapped and cheered. We ran off the floor, several of my students said, “That was amazing. When can we do this again?”12938304_605186566312190_3257568871448162589_n1

I don’t know when we will have the chance to do it again, but I am driven to find more opportunities for my students to shine. They deserve it and they need it. Their bravery catapults them and future students onto a new levels of accomplishment. They walked away from that experience with something that very few other people can say they’ve done. Yes, they’ve earned serious bragging rights. After everything each of them has been through, they can still push themselves and be amazing. It takes a lot of guts to stand up in front of people and dance your heart out, especially if you’ve been the person who never did things like that before. I hope they brag to everyone they know and meet that they danced Zumba at a King’s game, but even if they don’t, having those bragging rights in their hearts lifts their heads a little higher. Brag on Salisbury Zumba students, you are spectacular and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!

Spirit of the Couch

12801250_1168729283138324_3296289806290059021_nSometimes ideas come to me and I don’t know exactly how they will manifest, but they often find a way into my reality in some form or another. As a teacher of teens at a continuation high school, I am challenged to find ways to reach young minds and motivate them to learn. I believe that life experiences teach more than pencil and paper so I try to squeeze in as many field trips as we can afford throughout the year. Other than field trips, this idea has been brewing: create some sort of business that the students can run from the school, like a bakery or producing some sort of craft that can be sold in local stores. They could get hands-on experience marketing, helping customers, dealing with money, making products, etc. I’ve been thinking about this for a few years, but I haven’t been able to make anything happen with it until this last year when someone asked, “Do you think we could have a rummage sale at the school to raise money for the Equine Assisted Learning classes for Red Bluff youth?”

“Sure,” I said, but I wasn’t positive it could really happen since I’m not the ultimate decision maker. The need to help students meet the new graduation requirement of community service made the idea more acceptable so the higher ups approved the event. We were off and running. Our school was going to hold its first fundraising event, a Spring Bazaar for a community organization, Daystar Ranch. Not quite a long term business, like a bakery, but a definite start.aasale

As far as all the planning, Daystar representatives did most of the work of gathering rummage sale items and promotion.  I assisted with asking staff for donations and encouraging students to help out on the day of the event.  I also had students hang up flyers around town, assist with moving rummage sale items into storage on campus, and pricing items. The Daystar representatives, Liz and Joni, were super enthusiastic and motivated. They asked for donations from the community and acquired many raffle prizes, including an ATV four wheeler! They even found entertainment and a food vendor for the event. Their high energy and motivation was what made it happen. While they were literally jumping for joy, I experienced a few moments of panic when I thought we were in over our heads and worried that students might not end up helping as much as we anticipated.

4:30 a.m. on the day of the event, I woke my six year old son and we prepared for the day. I grabbed some food and toys for my son, downed an iced coffee, and headed out with more coffee for the students who I planned to pick up a 5:30 a.m.  While driving to get them, I questioned whether or not they’d actually be there.  I mean, what teenager wakes up that early to go to school on a Saturday? I also questioned whether any of the other students who said they’d show up early would be at the school when I arrived. I didn’t know what I would do if they didn’t show, because there was no way that we could get everything ready in time without their help. Guess what?

Every one of the students showed up! Yep. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw those tired faces staring back at me before the sun had even risen. Not only did they show up; they worked hard. They moved pile after pile after pile of stuff out of the storage room out onto the basketball court. They set up tables, moved furniture, monitored the parking lot, helped customers, hung up clothes, made announcements, took direction from several adults, cleaned up, entertained my son, and a few even danced some Zumba with me to entertain to crowd. Talk about amazing.

So many times during the day, I would look around in awe because I felt so proud of them. I didn’t have to tell them to get to work or to stop messing around. They would ask me what they could do to help or they would just take the initiative and help a customer carry her things to her car. They gave it their all and asked when we’d do it again.

At the end of the event, 4:30 p.m. we were all exhausted. Some of the students had already left, but many stayed the entire day. They gathered together on the only comfortable resting place, the worn out, unsellable couch. That beast of a couch had been moved so many times that it seemed to suck the energy out of us all. We weren’t sure why we accepted it as a donation, but there it was, bringing us together, serving a purpose. We rested, took some pictures, and laughed. One student put a mask that he’d found in the rummage sale on a round pillow from the couch. He raised it in the air and yelled, “Spirit of the couch!” Everyone repeated in unison, “Spirit of the couch!” and laughed. We put a “free” sign on the couch and moved it unto the curb. Someone eventually took it home, but without the masked pillow.

Several months since the huge event that left me so tired I could barely move the next day, a student brought in the masked couch pillow and said, “Spirit of the couch.”  I laughed and repeated the chant. I know this sounds silly, but silently I thanked the couch for what it had taught me. When I saw all those students show up that day and work so hard, I felt a bit ashamed that I thought they wouldn’t show. Based on past experiences, I had reasonable doubts. Sometimes, with all the hard knocks they’ve experienced, the students can lack motivation and don’t want to participate in anything. In the past, they’ve failed in school, been hurt, and lost some of their youthful enthusiasm. Life has worn them out a bit, kind of like that couch has been worn out, but not as much as people might mistakenly think. With enough opportunities and a purpose, they will show their great potential. As worn out as that couch was, it served us well and held us up off the ground. Its potential not lost because of hard times.

My love for teaching grew that day, which I didn’t think was possible. The students inspired me to want to organize more hands-on, real life events where they have the opportunity to shine. The ideas are brewing. Something new and exciting is on the horizon.

Spirit of the Couch!!!

 

Equine Learning – Overcoming Obstacles

Equine Learning

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Sometimes, if we’re lucky or if we ask, the universe brings us people whose arms are open and full of love.

It all began a few months ago when Joni walked into Salisbury High School to talk to me about duplicating an equine learning program that we had several years ago. She had been working together with the woman I used to work with and really wanted teens to come to her ranch like they had before at Day Star Ranch. Excited about the new opportunity, I visited her ranch one Saturday afternoon with my two sons. The minute we arrived, I knew we would be working together in the future. The warmth and positive energy of Joni and her ranch made us want to return soon and that we did.

This week we completed our second adventure with Joni and her three horses, Cali, Dusty, and Regina. Fifteen students, a colleague, and I arrived at her ranch in Cottonwood, CA and were greeted with enthusiasm, smiles and hugs by Joni, her sister Liz, Jim and two other adult volunteers. It felt like we’d arrived home for the holidays. Their faces lit up and they couldn’t wait to take the group picture and give everyone a name tag so we could start the fun. For three hours we enjoyed an amazing opportunity to bask in the love and support created by a generous human heart, her horses, and equine learning activities.

First, we sat on bales of hay and discussed horse safety. Then, Jim asked the students to consider what obstacles they faced in life. After a short discussion, the students broke up into three groups of five students rotated through three different activities. One group worked on the fence line, boundaries. Another observed the group in the arena that had the task of connecting with the horses, building an obstacle, and moving the horses through the obstacle without talking or touching the horses. They could use anything in the arena to accomplish this goal.

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Three horses gave the students the challenge of the day. They moved slowly or not at all as students walked a long side them and tried to get them to move. Sometimes a student would connect with a horse and it would walk a small distance, but not through the obstacle. Sometimes three students would gather around or in front of one horse and try to get it to move while the other two stood near the other horses. All three groups of teens followed the rules of the activity and never gave up. Although they all didn’t manage to move all of the horses through the obstacle that they created, they kept trying. No one stormed out of the arena in frustration. No one sat down in defeat. Every one of them stood by a horse and tried. Their success was in their resiliency; their willingness to keep on keeping on.

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In the end, the facilitators coached the last group on how to move the horses and modify the obstacle for greater success. They created a pathway along the fence of the arena that the horses could pass through easily. They moved as a unit behind the horses and clapped their hands and put their arms up in the air to herd all three horses through the path. Success required thinking outside the box, combined energy, and teamwork.

Afterwards, the students had a chance to reflect and share their feelings and thoughts about the experience. Some felt frustration. Some realized that working as a team would have helped. Some had ideas for solving the problem, but didn’t feel confident to try them. They were asked to relate the experience to obstacles in their lives. The activity with the horses was a metaphor for the huge obstacles that life can throw at us. IMG_1627[1]

We discussed how, at times, we need to ask for help to accomplish our goals or resolve a problem and that’s okay. Or maybe we need to step back from the problem and look at it from another angle and approach in in another way. A student shared how the activity was difficult and how things in life can be difficult too. Watching the group move the horses in the end showed us that whatever the problem, we have to exert some energy to challenge the situation. It took combined energy to move the horses. Often it takes the combined energy of friends and family to help us get through challenges. And sometimes obstacles are there for the pure reason of teaching us a lesson. Whatever the obstacle, we can learn. Like one student said, “I learned ten ways not to move a horse.”

A morning at the ranch with three horses and some very loving, thoughtful, and generous adults gave the students so much more than they bargained for. They didn’t just pet horses and fix fence. They challenged themselves in new ways, reflected, grew, and much more. They learned about themselves and their classmates and took away some life lessons that will hopefully help them as they face obstacles in life. When they climbed into the vans and we headed out, several of them asked, “When will we do this again?”

Joni asked me the same thing before we left. The dates are set. No obstacles in the way of making this new equine learning adventure continue!

I Thought I Couldn’t

I’m a firm supporter of believing in ourselves and thinking positively. As an elementary school teacher, I read the story, The Little Engine That Could, every year to my students. engine2We made train hats and throughout the school year, we chanted, “I think I can. I think I can.” The students wrote the words, “I can’t” on pieces of paper and then I had them rip up them up and throw them away. I’ve read the story to my own children many times and we have my very large copy of the book at home for those challenging life moments when my boys doubt themselves. I believe that saying, “I can” is a powerful tool to accomplishing our goals and when we reach our goals, we build our self-esteem and personal strength, but then there was U-Jam.

Over the years, I’ve taken on a new challenges that have helped me improve my life and my personal strength. From college and teaching jobs to learning a new language and motherhood, I’ve always thought to myself, “I can do this.” Sure, there were struggles and failures, but my initial efforts at doing something always began with the belief that I could do it. I kept going because I believed I could. After experiencing success, I’ve delighted in the boost of confidence and motivation that always follows and I’ve been propelled forward to the next challenge.

After a life time of doing what I thought I could, I decided it was time to try something I didn’t think Icomfort    could do. You know, step outside of my comfort zone so I could really grow and learn. Sure, there was probably a small part of myself that thought I could do it or I wouldn’t have tried at all, but mostly I just thought I’d learn to dance a little better.

I’d been instructing Zumba classes for a little over a year and through the new dance fitness network I’d become a part of, I heard about U-Jam. I attended a few U-Jam classes and could barely keep up with the footwork. I loved the music and the dance moves, but they seemed way more difficult than anything I’d done before. Many of the dances were hip-hop, something I didn’t think I could do without looking really stupid.ujam logo

I wavered back and forth about whether or not I should attempt to become a U-Jam instructor. Most of my friends encouraged me to do it since I already taught Zumba, but I had serious doubts and fears. Since we were having a training locally and several people I knew were attending, I decided I’d take the risk. I signed up for the two day training.

Although I know we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others, I did. I didn’t think I danced as well as anyone else in the room. I struggled with remembering the choreography and hitting every move, but the trainer did a fantastic job at explaining everything. I did learn to dance much better, but I still felt inadequate. During the workshop assessment, I messed up, but not enough to not pass. I wasn’t the only one who messed up, but I still felt insecure about my ability to make it.10003824_710262322329465_1312138754_o

After the workshop, I stressed about learning the three dances required for the video assessment. My first attempts at doing the dances on my own went poorly. I couldn’t remember the choreography at all. Two friends from the workshop completed their videos within a month or so. I couldn’t believe how fast they learned the dances. I reached out to the local U-Jam instructor and my workshop trainer. They helped me with choreography and confidence, but I seriously didn’t think I could ever learn those dances. I did consider not doing the video assessment, but there were people who believed in me and kept telling me not to give up. I wanted to though.

It came time to videotape. I made five different videos and chose the best one to send out. There was an option of asking for an extension and practicing more, but I was spent. I had given it my all and hoped that was good enough. When I sent my video, I didn’t really think I would pass, but I was okay with it. I knew I could work with a trainer to improve. So much energy and time went into making the video, I was happy to be done.

Time passed and I rested in the belief that I didn’t pass. I was prepared to just let it go and not pursue U-Jam at all because it was just too hard for me. Friends asked regularly if I’d heard yet, and I’d say that I hadn’t, but I wasn’t expecting to pass. Then the day came. I had an email from U-Jam. I was afraid to open it. I read it many times to make sure I read it correctly. I PASSED!!!

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The biggest surge of energy came up through my body. It was nothing like anything I’ve ever experienced. My smile hurt. I called my very first U-Jam instructor, Rosie, and told her the news. Saying the words to her made me feel even more happy and proud. Accomplishing what I didn’t think I could accomplish took me to a whole new level of confidence. I felt like I could do anything from that point on. It was such a different experience than when I’d done something I knew I could do.

I’m so proud of myself for taking on something new. I’ve learned that it’s okay to doubt your ability to do something, as long as you still try and you don’t give up. I’ve also learned that I don’t have to just depend on myself to get through something. There are amazing people in my linever give up_nfe who believe in me when I don’t believe in myself and they will help me through. Without them, I would have given up. I wish that wasn’t the truth, but it is. I’d never tried something I wasn’t sure I could eventually accomplish. The doubt I felt was overwhelming, but nobody let me give into it. I’m so thankful to everyone who supported me, and still does.

I thought I couldn’t, but it didn’t stop me. My friends got behind me and pushed me over the mountain to prove me wrong. Thank you! Not sure what’s next! I’m sure it’s something I’ve never imagined. Here’s to living outside my comfort zone!