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Giving thanks 2012

I’m thankful for a lot of things, but mostly, I’m thankful for the education I received in America. Point blank.

I went to a decent public school in a middle class area. I dreamed to attend journalism school at USC as a young elementary child and did it, but I didn’t do it alone. I did it with the help of my parents and every educator who helped me develop my writing. I had parents who were involved in my education and spent countless nights with me in high school grueling through math problems or English essays. Enough said.

Education is so important to success and not repeating the cycle of poverty seen in my service communities. Without similar parental support that I received during my school years, the kids in my service communities may not  understand this and are sometimes robbed of a decent education before they can really take responsibility for their own education. Yet, even when they get older, like some of my 6th graders from last year, they still might not get the hint until it’s too late.

What about that little grade 7 learner who stole my heart when he dressed up as a news reporter and performed a skit as a journalist in front of the whole school the other day? Will he ever make that dream come true and get to report for the camera like I did?

His odds are sure far lower than mine were, especially considering his English fluency. However, there’s still hope for kids that attend struggling schools — and that’s one reason why I serve — so that students can understand how important education is, take ownership of their education and receive the education they need to achieve those childhood dreams like I could.

One day, like myself, I hope the students I work with and those who work with my City Year and PCV buddies will look back during the holidays on their childhood and be thankful for the education that helped them get back on track.  Education is everything. Don’t forget to be thankful for yours this holiday season.

Peace Corps update: invitation is in the mail!

After I talked to placement last week, I kept biologically waking up around 2 a.m. every morning to check my phone for an e-mail that said “Peace Corps application status update” (talk about anxiety). I had a gut feeling I would receive the e-mail on Friday morning because I knew if placement wanted to send me to a program mid-July they would have to notify me by next week. And I was right! I woke up at 2 a.m. this morning to an e-mail from the Peace Corps.

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I ran to the computer as my fingers clumsily typed on the keyboard and my heart pounded to find that beautiful “Congrats! An invitation has been sent!” in front of my eyes. I will know by next week where I’m going (somewhere in Africa if my placement specialist didn’t change her mind) and when I’m officially leaving! I’ll be able to keep my mind off of my invitation because I went home to the Bay Area this weekend to enjoy the company of my childhood best friends and celebrate one of their birthdays up in Sonoma County. We’re BBQing, going wine tasting and laying by the pool — the perfect relaxation and remedy to escape from my anxious reality of these past two weeks.

Exactly a year ago today I graduated from USC. Exactly a year later my invitation to serve in the Peace Corps was sent. I am proud of my choice to serve after graduation and to continue serving after City Year. I couldn’t have found a better way to spend my early 20s and it just keeps getting better. I can honestly say I haven’t been as happy as I have been this year; I laugh every day (and often!) If you’re passionate about the work you do, then you’ll be happy.

EXACTLY a year ago today! My childhood best friend Mary and I at my graduation. Thank you to everyone who has supported me through this process and has always been there for me (and will continue to be even when I move abroad for two years!)

The adventure is just beginning,

Liz

Dreams are for everyone

This video was made by a USC student for campaign that USC students are running called EdMonth. Watching this video not only makes me proud to be a USC alum, but also reminds me of every single student City Year works with. My generation, including these USC students, is dedicated to fighting the civil rights issue of our time – education. I have hope that my generation’s leaders will find solutions (and fight on!) to close the achievement gap.

Week 22: people who give a damn

All of my students have desktop computers now! On Saturday, Computers for Youth, a nonprofit organization, handed out desktop computers – fully equipped with Microsoft Office, education games and are Internet-ready – to all 6th grade students. All the students had to do was come with an adult to a 4.5 hour workshop and then take home the free computer. This is great news for our students because there’s a lack of technology in the classrooms at Markham; there’s only a set of computers in the library and a set of mini PC notebooks. My students type letter-per-letter and could really use the typing game all the computers have installed. If their families agree to buy an Internet service, they can even use the computer for research (and Facebook and YouTube… we ARE talking about middle school students here).

On Friday, I shadowed the eduction editor at good.is for a “Leadership After City Year” shadow day. good.is a social innovation website that highlights people, businesses and nonprofits doing “good” things and “moving the world forward.” We discussed technology in the classrooms because she had gone to a panel earlier that day that suggested giving students access to technology – like iPads – will solve some of the problems in education because it will encourage students to learn by giving them a more interactive way of learning. Does that really solve the root of the problem, though? Will giving a kid an iPad or computer teach them to read? It might help them, but in all honesty, they need one-on-one support from educators to motivate them. I’m still happy that my students received free computers, but the odds of them using it for education than social uses are slim to none.

My visit to good.is was amazing! The education editor, Liz, gave a tour to the City Year external relations project leader and myself. We got to meet at least one person from every department and learn about what all the departments do. Not surprisingly, most of the content that is not written by the editors comes from freelancers who freelance consecutively or once in a while with the website. The education section of the site is what I read on the regular (and write for once a month!)

People came to the company from literally everywhere, which gave me hope for my future career. Everyone was so welcoming and I absolutely loved the work environment (an office that’s dog friendly and the office dog travels from desk to desk to get pets and sits on a chair during a meeting? Now that’s my kind of workplace!) The company’s slogan, “for people who give a damn” says it all. I could really see myself working at a place like this later in life. I’m still deciding if I want to go into international diplomacy (public diplomacy), work for a social change company or work for the communications dept. of a nonprofit. I still have years to figure it out, but this service year has helped me figure out one thing: I need to be around people who feel the same about social issues and are actively trying to fight them.

I feel absolutely disconnected with the world outside of social activism. I feel that I can no longer connect with those who aren’t doing similar work that I’m doing (or at least understand it). I need to be around people who are passionate about social issues; people who get it. People who know exactly how I feel and the types of things I think about and see on a daily basis. People who want to see change.

I’ve also realized that even if social injustices like poverty, hunger and the civil right to an equal education aren’t ever going to go away, I at least want to be with the communities who are facing these challenges. I don’t feel like I belong anywhere else now. It’s hard to explain.

For example, the other day I went to USC to pick up my health record from the health center and I didn’t feel nostalgic, but rather depressed. Yet, I wasn’t depressed because I’m no longer a college student. I was depressed because I was surrounded by wealthy people, people who have nice designer things and likely walked down an easy road to get to USC (and yes, I understand this is a HUGE generalization, so I apologize in advance). I just couldn’t stop thinking about my kids. Why is it going to be so much harder for them in life? Just because they’re from Watts and are minorities? I see so much of middle school self in my students; my students do the same things my friends and I used to do, except they are far behind grade level and we weren’t. So why did it have to be so easy for my friends and I to go off to college and get a good education leading up to college? We went to a California public school, too! Why was I so privileged enough to live the USC dream and not worry about a damn thing but my grades, social life, my tan, haircut and what cute outfit I’d wear to class the next day? For the first time ever, as much as I love that school, I felt like I didn’t belong at USC.

The future for me holds a lot of options. I’m slowly figuring out myself and I think what I felt at USC the other day is a pivotal point in my life. It showed me that I won’t be happy in life if I’m not around other people who think like I do and are trying to make a difference; it at least gives me hope for the world.

People don’t change; they just get a clearer understanding of who they are. So far this year had given me just that.

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I used to make these star-shaped bracelets all the time back in the day. I finally found the same beads and was so stoked to share them with the kiddies at lunch! Everyone made bracelets and keychains.

-Ms. Lizard

Week 19: data struggles and fighting on for next year’s CYLA corps

The sixth graders at Markham Middle School received their common assessment scores for math and English this week. After our teachers shared the data with us, I could sense frustration across the board. From what I’ve heard, not many student’s scores went up significantly; some had minimal gains (a few of my students did). Sadly, my co-teammate (who works with the same teachers as me, just different periods) compared her student’s math scores with the first assessment they took and the students either went down or stayed the same. I haven’t seen my student’s math scores yet, which makes me nervous. I have a feeling they’ll be very similar to my teammate Chariya’s students.

However, I was happy to see that some of my English students scored 4-6 out of 6 on the written portion of the assessment. The written portion of the assessment asked them to write a factual assertion and then provide one direct quote from the text that supports the assertion and a paraphrased detail that supports the assertion. My English teacher and I tried to drill this concept into our students for about two months. About a week before the exam, most students still could not explain what an assertion was. Yet, they pulled through! I think the written portion is more reflective of my students skills because they rush through multiple choice tests and guess because they’re too hyperactive. One of my top English students scored significantly lower than the teacher and I know he is capable of. I’m assuming it’s because he rushed through it.

I could go off on a tangent about how much I hate standardized tests and don’t think they reflect intelligence at all (especially because I attempted to start studying for the GRE this weekend; shoot me in the face), but I’ll save that for my mind that questions everything.

These scores don’t reflect the amazingly-well-taught English lessons my teacher has given the students or the one-on-one time I’ve spent with students in-class and out of class. I think a lot of it has to do with student motivation. Also, the students do not listen in math class. I lack a lot on the behavior management spectrum because my kids tend to boss me around and see me more as a friend than an authority figure, which is my fault (but I can’t say I don’t enjoy gossiping with my students/making fun of them!) They don’t have the passion to listen, regardless of how many times you try to drive home the point that education is important.

The weight LAUSD puts on standardized tests really makes me wonder. These scores are used in a value-added model the district and LA Times has used to evaluate teachers. Is that really fair? I’m in my English teacher’s classroom everyday and everyday see how great of a teacher she is. So, because all of her students scored far below basic, below basic or basic, does that say she’s a bad teacher? I’d hope not! Education reform is interesting and there’s a lot I don’t agree with, but it’s so hard to find other alternatives that will work. It’s seriously like a 1,000 piece puzzle, which is why it’s so riveting to discuss and think about. I just signed up to attend an event on Wednesday, Feb.15 hosted by Michelle Rhee’s organization StudentsFirst and Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. I’ll get to hear all about education reform in Los Angeles. Oh so exciting.

Last semester at SC, I got to approve and edit comments for the LATimes value-added teacher evaluation project. Therefore, I got to read most of the teacher comments before they were published and also sent e-mails to teachers that allowed them to look at the data and respond to it before the Times published it. Most of the comments mentioned how the data did not measure behavioral problems in class, a student’s home life, the student’s other teachers beforehand, etc. I couldn’t argue against these comments or argue for them; I could only sit there perplexed to what in the hell are the solutions to education reform.

I could discuss for hours and hours the struggles of the public education system, but instead I’ll just still be a small solution to a bigger problem. I have finally hashed out a better schedule for student interventions. My higher students are going to start reading Esperanza Rising with me popcorn style and then I’ll throw in reading compression techniques as we go. Other than that, my students will also be working on grammar worksheets (especially verb tenses!) My other students that need more help in reading and spelling will continue doing my team leader Lauren’s English language intervention system and a phonetics reading system my team just got ahold of called Great Leaps.

Point blank: I hate data. I’m scared the Markham team isn’t going to produce high student data for City Year and the school administration, which could influence if City Year comes back to Markham next year. We’re definitely having an impact on this school, but it might not show with student scores. It’s just a whole other world at Markham, which should also be taken into consideration when our end of the year student data is released. I can’t help but worry; our students need City Year. Data, data, data, blah, blah, blah…

This week, my team also had to sit through a speed-dating type of team intervention called feedback 360. Every team member had to meet face-to-face for about three minutes and discuss the negatives and positives about each other’s behaviors and tips on how we can improve ourselves to make our team stronger. Apparently our program director was a little worried about having the Markham team go through this because we already have a very, very strong dynamic, but we killed it, took into consideration everything everyone said to us, and acted exactly as we always act with each other right after. Our team just keeps getting better and better! Guess what everyone told me? Stop stressing out, stop being hard on yourself, give yourself more credit and that they appreciate all the blog work I do for our team (that one made me pretty happy because honestly I didn’t even think my teammates read my GOOD articles). I’ll stop stressing out for my team, I promise!

On Friday, City Year hosted a “recruitment blitz day”, which means our corps members were deployed to UCLA, Cal State LA and USC. All alumni went to their former colleges, so I got to spend the day at USC with other alumni and most of my team! I enjoyed getting to show some of my teammates the campus and getting to share college stories.

The communications team shot a CY/USC promo video with alumni to encourage current students to apply to CY for next year’s corps (2012). I wasn’t in the video, but watched the production side of it (thank God. Me on camera = awkward mess).

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Alumna Angelica Juarez, corps member at Stevenson Middle School in Boyle Heights, fights on for the camera

I answered a Q and A bio for the flyers CY put in envelopes for the sororities and fraternities. I never saw the final product of it, but I’m sure it was funny…

I’m starting to get all my medical work done for the Peace Corps this week so I can turn it in as soon as possible! I am also going to run every night now to get in shape because I might have to bike three or more miles to work (or perform other physical extremes) in the Peace Corps.

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My students just finished their Ancient Egypt projects. This student used green Jell-O and blue tissue paper, pretty creative, huh?

From the porch of Woodcraft Manor,

Liz

From a USC degree to food stamps: my upcoming years in service

Who Am I?

The name’s Liz Warden. I grew up in Half Moon Bay, a small town 20 miles south of San Francisco and 50 miles north of Santa Cruz. I went to school with the same people from elementary school to high school, which urged me to get out of the small town bubble and see other people and cultures. I am also an only child from a itty bitty family (think what stereotypes you want to think, I’ve got enough of that throughout my childhood already). These are just some of the factors that made me decide as far back as elementary school that I wanted to be a journalist. Meeting all different kinds of people, always on-the-go, not staying in one place for too long, working with people with a similar – dry – sense of humor and writing for a living – what could be better? You also can’t forget that journalism, historically, has been a “public service” profession: Exposing injustices to the greater public, being a “watchdog,” holding politicians and others accountable for their words are just a few ideas that intrigued me about the profession. But most of all what inspired me to go to j-school at USC was that someday I could draw attention to social issues – especially those underrepresented in the U.S. and internationally – through my reporting. And sure, I can do that. I already have with some of my work. But the real question is: Does drawing attention to social issues actually motivate the readers to take action and do something about them? Maybe, maybe not.

That’s why I’m eager to put my reporter’s notebook on my bookshelf for good, ditch objectivity and actually fight social issues I’ve reported on previously or learned about (I was an international relations minor). The next three-four years of my life will be dedicated to national and international service. This blog is going to follow my journey as working in the U.S. with AmeriCorps for a year then abroad with the Peace Corps.

During my time in college as a student journalist I became very interested in public education and a lot of my stories ended up featuring the Los Angeles Unified School District in some way. Let’s not forget the school district’s $408 million deficit and its ongoing reduction of its teaching force in the past two or so academic years to help alleviate its budget crisis. Add on top of that reform attempts and the teacher’s union and you get one hell of a mess that could fill up more than one post in this blog.

So, What’s Next?

That’s what inspired me to work for City Year, an AmeriCorps program that places recent graduates into urban schools with high dropout rates in cities across the country (I’m obviously serving in Los Angeles). We basically are assigned a group of kids that are at risk of dropping out in an elementary or middle school and mentor them all year. We live on a next-to-nothing monthly stipend for living in Los Angeles, a metro pass and food stamps. I’m living in a house with 13 other guys and gals that are part of the program too (more of this to come later).

City Year recently established a partnership with the Peace Corps that encourages alumni of both programs to switch to the other program. I plan to submit my Peace Corps application by October, then we’ll go from there!

Follow me these next couple of years as I detail the life of a former college student living off a small government stipend trying to make a difference in this world. Idealism at its finest.

Food for Thought:

“Break your mirrors! Yes, indeed — shatter the glass. In our society that is so self-absorbed, begin to look less at yourself and more at each other. Learn more about the face of your neighbor, and less about your own.

I suggest this: when you get to be 30, 40, 50, or even 70 years old, you’ll get more happiness and contentment out of counting your friends than counting your dollars. You’ll get more satisfaction from having improved your neighborhood, your town, your state, your country and your fellow human beings than you’ll ever get from your muscles, your figure, your automobile, your house, or your credit ratings.

You’ll get more from being a peacemaker than a warrior. I’ve been both, so I speak from experience. Break the mirrors!

Be peacemakers of the community, and you and your family will be happy.” –Sargent Shriver