Wednesday, May 27, 2015

5 Things 5 Year-Olds Teach You

By Grace Yi
Current volunteer in Philadelphia with Mercy Volunteer Corps

[Jesus] said to [the disciples], “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children. I tell you the truth, anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Then he took the children in his arms and placed his hands on their heads and blessed them.
(Mark 10:14-16)

I’m sure many of you have heard of this passage before, and how Jesus especially loves children. Since August 2014, I have been surrounded by little humans age 2 to 5 (“5 Things 5 Year-Olds Teach You” rolled better than “5 things 2 to 5 Year-Olds Teach You”). I serve as an assistant teacher for a preschool classroom at Mercy Neighborhood Ministries in Philadelphia, and I wonder if Jesus knows…

I wonder if Jesus knows the horror my troublemaker places in my heart as I yell at him from across the classroom to stop swinging between the chairs, only to watch him in slow motion – first ignoring me with a wide grin as he looks straight in my eyes, then slipping and falling face first onto the tile floor. A second of cold silence hangs in the air for him to fill up his little lungs, then the loudest wail ever snaps everything back to life as he looks up at me with tears and bloody lips.

Or how they test my patience every day with their sassy “No!”s, and doing the exact opposite of what I ask them to do.

Or what little germ sacs they are, touching everything and anything, and putting their bacteria culture hands straight on me (I must say, my hand-washing habits have improved significantly since I started working with them). 

So exactly why does Jesus love these disastrous little humans so much?

Well, they are so irresistibly cute that it’s easy to forget about their mischief. On a more serious note, they somehow shine God out of their little bodies and bring His desires alive to the present, to the now in my life. So here are five things I learned through my kids.

*Names of the students have been replaced with a pseudonym for confidentiality.

1. Eyes for the “small things” 
“Miss Graaaaace, I have a booboo on my finger.”
“Oh no, let me see. Where is it?”
“Right here.”
“Right hereeee.”

And there it is, an itsy bitsy red dot you could barely see with naked eyes.

“Can I have a band-aid please?”
“Oh, I don’t think you need a band-aid for that.”

I’ll be honest. When this happens – several times a day – I get a bit annoyed, and I give them a band-aid more for my sake than theirs.

But their little eyes that notice their little booboo’s are also the first to notice little cuts or scratches on me that I didn’t even know about. They stare at my tiny wound for a good while, and ask in a soft voice filled with concern, “Are you okay, Miss Grace? Does that hurt a lot?” In that moment, I could not feel any more cared for. And I think God intended for everyone to feel that way.

2. Life is full of little cheering things!  
One day, we passed out tiles of various colors and shapes to each student for a lesson on patterns and shapes. As I was walking past Cole, I casually asked him what color was his tile. It took him a second to realize that it was “ORANGEEEE!! MY FAVORITE COLOR!!!”. He was so joyous that he literally couldn’t contain it in himself and jumped out of his chair.

Replace this orange tile with just about anything at any given moment. I recently saw an article that said preschoolers laugh about 300 to 400 times a day, while adults only laugh an average of 17.5 times.

Catherine McAuley, the founder of Sisters of Mercy, wrote in one of her many letters, “I would like to tell you all the little cheering things that God permits to fall in our way”.

It is often easy to fall into a trap of finding daily routine repetitive and fatiguing. To combat this, I began to look out for little cheering things throughout my day to find more joy and gratitude. My goal is to get as good as my kids. 

3. Transformation is possible 
“Repeat after me, okay? Es, aitch,” I say as I point at the letters on his paper with the tip of a pencil.
“Es, aitch.”
“Ey, double yoo, en.”
“Ey, double yoo, en.”
“Good. Now can you spell your name by yourself?” I anxiously ask Shawn.
“No, no, no, which letter does your name start with?”
“I don’t know,” answers squirmy Shawn with a half-embarrassed, half-playful smile.

It is beyond my understanding. We just went over how to spell his name about thirty times, if not more. And every single time, he fails to remember these five letters. What is more frustrating is that we have been doing this every day for several weeks now. With my hopes crushed and patience stretched thin, I wonder if I can ever help Shawn learn how to spell his name.

Then one day, I hear Shawn spelling his name all by himself. Surprised, I walk over to his table and I ask him to repeat it. With his eyes full of smile, he proudly recites his name out loud. In the next few weeks, he starts writing his name with backward S’s and a couple of letters missing, and in another few weeks, he can write his whole name by himself.  

Shawn is not the only one who has shown me that transformation is possible. LayLay, who has given me the opportunity to change diapers for the first time ever in my life, is now completely potty-trained and Pampers free. My little two-year olds who started off the school year unable to speak anything are now calling me “Mitt Gwayth” and defiantly yelling “NO!” when I ask them to do something that doesn’t suit them. Sometimes I miss the good old days when they just sat quietly, but whenever I watch them talk to each other, I am in awe.

My kids assure me that slowly, but surely, transformation takes place. I have no doubt that every one of my students has the potential to transform and do what they dream of, and become whoever they want to be. It is so easy to believe that.

So why is it so hard for so many of us to believe in ourselves and in each other? Because I’m sure God feels the same way about us as I do about my kids.

4. How well God knows us 
I have come to know my students by more than just their name. I know their parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, aunty, uncle, and godparents. I know what backpack, folder, jacket, shoes, sweater, hat, gloves, and scarf each of them have. I decipher their little whispering voices and call them out by name with my back turned toward them. I can tell which crooked handwriting belongs to which kid. Each child gets the same blanket to sleep with every day. I know who has asthma, who is lactose-intolerant, and who simply doesn’t like to drink milk. The list goes on and on.

Now, just imagine how much better God must know us if I got to know my students this well in just a few months. 

5. How to welcome
Hands down, my favorite time of the work day is walking into the dining hall in the early morning when the kids are eating breakfast. They greet me by flying out of nowhere to give me (or my leg) a tight hug and looking up at me with a wide smile as if my appearance is the best thing that had happened to them so far in the day. Every morning, no exceptions. 

From the very first day, my kids had no inhibition in expressing this kind of welcome towards me. Here I am, a complete stranger, not to mention the only Asian in the whole day center, and my kids either don’t notice it or don’t care.

Caring less about creating barriers between us and them with external differences – socioeconomic status, age, religion, sexual orientation, race, and whatever else – and caring more about welcoming others into my life with mercy is what I’m aiming to grow in during this year of service and beyond. 

We may not be able to stop grey hair from sprouting out (which is increasingly becoming my problem), or be blessed with turbo speed metabolism and unending supply of energy. But we can all still be a kid at heart, right?

Monday, May 18, 2015

Embracing God's plan

By Amanda Ceraldi
Current volunteer in Guatemala
with Franciscan Mission Service

I have been a planner my whole life. I rely on my color-coded calendar, countless to-do lists, and multiple email tabs everyday to keep myself organized and structured. I generally don’t enjoy being spontaneous or going with the flow. When I committed to FMS I liked knowing that I had a plan and a goal for the next two years, but I quickly started trying to figure out what I would be doing in 2017.

As much as I try to deny these things about myself, I know it’s my personality. However, these traits are not always conducive to mission. During formation we often talked about the importance of flexibility on mission and how to adapt to situations. For me that flexibility can be stress-inducing, anxiety filled, and difficult to deal with, but stepping outside of my comfort zone has helped me embrace the adaptability of mission life.

That said, I couldn’t have been prepared for the curveball that was thrown at me when I arrived at Valley of the Angels.

Ever since I found out that I would be working at a boarding school everyone has asked if I would be teaching. Every time my response was the same—“No.” When I was younger I liked to play school in my basement with the overhead projector my sister received for Christmas one year, but I got bored easily and would give up after a few minutes.

I would get anxious in college when my friends majoring in education would talk about lesson plans and classroom management. My whole life I have had incredible teachers who have inspired me and whose value I recognize, but teaching was never a path I wished to pursue.

Proverbs 16:9 says, “We can make our plans, but the Lord determines our steps.” Some might translate this loosely to “we make plans and God laughs.” I made plans to do anything but teach on mission, but God determined through an outbreak of chicken pox and a pregnant English teacher that I would be teaching English to second and fifth graders.

 This endeavor has not come easy. I fumble through Spanish in order to teach my students English. I struggle to explain the concepts I’m teaching. And the most difficult part is recognizing the struggles these students face based on systematic problems they have no control over.

Amidst these struggles I find a sense of joy within me. Joy at the ability to embrace my fears of flexibility. Joy in the challenge to do something I never thought I would be capable of doing. And most of all joy in the smiles and hugs I receive from my students every time I walk into the classroom, or every time they see me around Valley. While the plans I made seemed like the best path for me, I am glad that God opened my heart to His plans.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Why do teachers keep doing what they do?

By Kate Ulfers
Current volunteer in Detroit with Mercy Volunteers

Teaching is hard. As a student I took my teachers for granted; I complained about the tactless and unpassionate ones, and mildly sassed the effective but boring ones. As a student I had zero appreciation for the time and energy my teachers spent on incorporating benchmarks into their lesson plans, on creating tests and assignments, or on the never-ending grading.  

 Now that I have served as a high school teacher for the last 7 months, I have a whole new sense of awe for what teachers and educators do. But one aspect of teaching has still eluded me… why do teachers keep doing what they do? 

I personally want to be a teacher when I grow up, but I don’t know if I will be able to continue the momentum of teaching for the next 35 years or so. Essentially, I am at a loss as to why veteran teachers continue to persevere in the classroom, long after the glamor and new-car smell has worn off. It’s not for the great pay or flexible hours. It’s not for the prestige or celebrity status. 

So why?

I gained a small insight into this recently on a particularly grey and dull Monday.  It was a Monday after a long weekend and I was anticipating untamed and uninterested students whose behavior would range from barely able to stay in their seat to barely able to stay awake. I told myself the night before to give up on trying to predict how horrible this Monday would be… how uncontrollable and talkative the kids would be, how unprepared and incomplete my lesson plan was, how over the long weekend I had probably lost my classroom confidence. On evenings when all of these insecurities are invading my mind, I chant to myself:

“KT, there is zero point spending a whole evening stressing over just two hours of classroom time. You need to prioritize your time and energy, and dreading the unknown is not a priority.”

Remarkably, I felt pretty good when I got to work that morning and classes (as always) were fine. Sure, some kids were a little bit chatty, some a little antsy, but after the first 15 minutes, everyone was relatively calm. My lesson plan was also fine. Considering I made the kids do most of the work, it landed on them to be productive (or not). And my confidence trickled back throughout the class. Good day, all in all.

I was content with this. I survived and now the next 3 hours was to be spent preparing for the next day. Golden.

At lunch time I headed downstairs to carbo-load and I ran into one of my favorite students. He has the lowest grade in both of my classes, and is at risk of not being able to graduate if he doesn‘t pass my class. Thing is, his attitude in class (and out) is funny, sweet and genuine, and he really does try hard in my class. This year he was diagnosed with a learning disorder which might explain a large portion of his academic struggle, but unfortunately he is under the impression that the reason he is struggling is because he’s stupid. 

This drives me CRAZY because intelligence cannot be reflected in a grade; some random letter or percentage does not dictate anyone’s IQ. But in a system where grades are given such emphasis, it is very frustrating that all his hard work does not reflect in his grade… is it any wonder that he is discouraged?

Anyway, when I bumped into him I congratulated him on his last test. He looked confused because he hadn’t checked his test grade online yet. When I told him he scored a 72% (highest grade he has received on a test or quiz so far) he looked shocked, and then he just BEAMED. He thanked me (I am not sure why) and I told him that I didn’t have anything to do with his grade, that the 72% was all him and his hard work. He beamed all over again.

That look on his face, oh man, THAT is why teachers continue to do what they do. THAT is why they still work even though they are paid next to nothing and work hours and hours at home. THAT is why they go into so much debt in order to get that stinking Teaching degree. THAT is possibly one of the most rewarding reactions/looks that a student can gift a teacher with. THAT made my day.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Lessons through Lax

By Nate Marsh
Communications Associate at Franciscan Mission Service

I was lucky enough to have a tremendous coach when I began playing lacrosse in 2006 at the age of 14. While I wasn’t the slightest bit athletic, or motivated in any way, he found a way to make me both, as I went on to start all four years on an NCAA team and graduate magna cum laude.
What was most amazing about his coaching, however, was his ability to make everything we did in practice correlate to challenges we would face later in life, or just planting the idea in our heads that how we act now reflects the kind of person we will become. If we take the lazy way out or don’t put the effort in now, then we won’t in college or a job.

It is because of this man that I have such an intense love of sports and the lessons they teach. And it is also because of him that once I joined FMS and moved to Washington, DC that I sought to find a team to help coach. I was lucky enough to find WINNERS.

While lacrosse is typically seen as a preppy, suburban sport, WINNERS is trying to rectify that. Many of the inner city schools in DC don’t have a lacrosse team, and WINNERS provides one. They also supply the equipment that could easily cost $1,000 each season on equipment and dues.
WINNERS also stresses many of the same life lessons that my coach instilled in me. Every week there is a particular trait each coach is preaches to his athletes, like eye contact, respect, teamwork, etc.

However, the lessons are not limited to the kids, but the coaches learn as well. I do anyway.
Ever since graduating high school in 2010, I have returned to my alma mater whenever I could to help my coach continue the program to the same standards and expectations he always has. But high school students are pretty easy to deal with, all things considered.

I have little to no experience with working with middle school children, and the first practice was certainly a wake up call. But working with kids this young is the best way to make lifelong impressions on them, and learning an interactive environment is a very impactful way of doing it. It has taught me more effective ways to explain fundamentals and drills making me a better and more concise speaker, and ultimately a more patient person, all while bettering myself and my community through serving.

What WINNERS has done for me more than anything, though, is remind me what the root of the sport is: fun. It has brought me back to my freshman year of high school when I was just learning to hold the stick the correct way, and it amazes me how far ahead of me these kids are than when I was their age, learning the game at least three years earlier than I had. Their potential is limitless, and I’m proud to contribute even an ounce to that.

Teaching these kids the importance of hard work, if I can be even a quarter as effective as my high school coach, will pay dividends for them the rest of their lives. Just as I used to be stuck in class all day, begging for the final bell to go out to practice, I watch the clock tick down at work eager to shape the future lacrosse players of tomorrow.