First Person

Editor's blog: Hosting an exchange student

Two weeks from today I will lose a daughter, and regain an only child.

Love is a Gamble puzzle
An aptly named puzzle completed by our exchange student

Our 17-year-old Serbian exchange student Nevena will  fly home after a year living with us and going to a non-traditional Boulder high school for the  2010-2011 school year.

During these nine-plus months, she has become part of our crazy little Boulder family, filling our house with fashion, Facebook and song (a very loud rendition of “Jolene” by Dolly Parton with a slight Serb accent is a recent favorite).

These final days are proving to be full of emotional upheaval played out with short fuses, big laughs, tickle attacks, the beginning of what is sure to be a flood of tears, and many, many trips to Ripple, our favorite self-serve frozen yogurt joint and healer of all woes.

From family of three to family of four – and back

We have supported her as if she was our own child, attending school events and helping as needed with homework. We bought a colorful 1,500-piece jigsaw puzzle and a stash of good chocolate, which helped her get through the most grueling month of January. We even sped up our decision to become truly American and buy a big-screen TV and sign up for Netflix. (We still use a rabbit ear antenna, though..)

Sisters, now and forever

Early on, we enrolled Nevena in Frequent Flyers, an aerial dance program after detecting a love of daring – yet potentially glamorous – feats.  We pushed  her to take the risk of making new friends (the hardest thing to do in a new country). In recent weeks, that has finally happened. She just returned from shopping on Pearl Street with a friend and has towering, golden Steve Madden heels to prove it. Knowing of her interest in international affairs, we hooked her up with Model United Nations. We shared in her excitement when she and a Japanese teammate brought home a trophy.

We took her skiing and signed her up for lessons. Never mind the bent ski pole. She learned to ice skate in America. She went on her first overnight camping trip with her CAP (Community Adventure Program) class at New Vista High School. At Christmas-time, Santa brought Nevena and our 8-year-old daughter Milena stockings plump with gifts. Same thing with the Easter bunny. We helped her carve her first pumpkin at Halloween. We took a spring break trip to Florida, baking on the beach and checking out the wild artwork of Salvador Dali. I took her shopping for prom dresses, and doted upon her with camera in hand as she appeared, looking like a Grecian goddess. Early on, my friend, a pilot, took her flying (turns out that was definitely against American Councils for International Education rules…. Oops!)

Most recently, we walked and jogged the Bolder Boulder, indoctrinating her in a very unique American ritual to celebrate Memorial Day. She now has God Bless the U.S.A. by Lee Greenwood stuck in her brain. She is proud to be a Serb with part-American heart.

Why did we do this?

We always wanted two children, but fate did not agree. Being host parents to Nevena gave us the opportunity. And over these months, we have fallen in love with her. I will always think of her as my Balkan daughter. Not only did she share her incredible spirit with us, she gave Milena a sister to hug and to harass, and a new way to think about her unusual name. Milena no longer talks about wanting to change her name to “Rachel.”

To parents of only children in particular, I highly recommend hosting an international student.

It’s not easy. Turns out having a person live with you for a year is the same as holding up a giant mirror and seeing – in sometimes disturbing relief – all the things you don’t like about yourself and your family. Truthfully, though, I’m thankful for that, too, because we needed to make some changes and we are now working on them.

This photo begs the question: How did we pass the background screening?

We decided very late in the game to host a foreign student. We had it in the back of our minds to have an exchange student when our daughter was in high school and when we were sure to be expert “parents of teens.” But our friends sent a pleading e-mail about Nevena, who is here on a scholarship from the U.S. State Department-sponsored A-SMYLE (American Serbia and Montenegro Youth Leadership Exchange) program. Her original placement had fallen apart. We looked at her sweet yet serious face and imagined her in Serbia with bags packed and nowhere to go. My husband is Serbian-American so there was a cultural connection, too. After five days of vigorous discussion, we said “OK.” Somehow, we passed the background screening and Nevena arrived exactly one week later. It felt then, as it feels now, “meant to be.”

As brutal as it is to see her go, her return home is also meant to be. I can only imagine how her mother and father must be counting the minutes until they can wrap their arms around this most wonderful person. We don’t know if we’ll ever see her again – but my gut says “yes.” I don’t believe Milena would have it any other way.

So, this is my blog post to say goodbye to Nevena and and to encourage parents to think about hosting an international student. It’s worth the risk. Some of the rewards are obvious, others I am sure we will continue to discover long after she leaves.

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk