Friday, July 15, 2016

Fear and faith when you're far away

I distinctly remember the first time I heard about teaching overseas. Back in a time when I was fairly miserable in my job and looking to leave education for library science, someone suggested that I think about teaching overseas instead. Her brother was teaching in Korea and loved it. I dismissed the idea immediately because my 6 months in Scotland during college had been long enough  to teach me that moving overseas had only two possible endings, and I didn't like either one. 

Option 1 was that at some point, whenever that was, you'd have to leave whatever country you had moved to. Even then I knew how gut wrenching that would be and I didn't want to go through it. Option 2 was to stay forever and not come back, which sounded as horrible then as it does now, and feels totally out of the question for me. Either way, once you move overseas you spend the rest of your life being cut off and far away from people and places that are a huge part of your heart. 

Pretty much everyone experiences fear when they move to a new country, but I've realized lately that the fear I felt when I left for Argentina and then when I moved to Thailand was a different fear than what you would expect. I was never afraid of liking it or doing well or even of being far from home. No, I was afraid of loving it too much, of never being able to tear myself away to come back, and yet not being able to stay forever. 

In some ways my worst fears have come true. I loved Argentina, came into my own there, and to this day grieve my departure. I love my life and job in Bangkok and don't know when I will come back, even as I miss people here with everything in me. And there are new fears too, that a friend recently articulated on Facebook, fears that when I visit the States (or when I visited Argentina) I might love it too much, might enjoy my time too much, and might not be able to go back. How contradictory to fear loving each place too much. 

So how does one handle it? How do you live fully present in your day to day life knowing that you are missing the changing of the seasons, the annual family weekend up north, the nephew's snuggles and laughs, the milestones in friends' lives? How do you be fully there when you visit, knowing you don't quite fit anymore, that shopping and dinners and travels aren't real life and that real life- in all its glory and mess- is coming back? You do it knowing that in each individual moment and day, you are right where you are supposed to be, where God has you to be. When I lay Elliot down for his nap, missing my life and routine and normalcy, I know that all those things can wait for me while I snuggle him to sleep. When I walk through an ordinary Bangkok weekend knowing that my family is gathering back home at my cousin's wedding, I know that my classroom was just where I was meant to be that week. Yes, there are days where the contrast is stronger or cuts more deeply, but even still we learn to walk in the hurt knowing that the deeper we love the more pain it will bring, and having the courage not to be afraid in the face of it, the courage to go anyway, knowing that your God goes with you and that life will never be the same. 

Thursday, June 30, 2016


I had every intention of writing a 'start of summer post', but as I am now just past the half way point, it has turned into a mid-summer post. 

The last 3 1/2 weeks have been filled with family and dear friends, and a good bit of jogging and relaxing as well. I spent the first few days in SE Michigan and was able to see a large number of family members at various events, including a 90th birthday party for my Grandpa. I then went to Grand Rapids for a "long weekend" ie 6 days, to hang out with Meg, Andrew, and Elliot. E and I were reacquainted after many months apart and I loved hanging out with him and seeing how much he has grown and developed. It's way better in person than via FaceTime! Then he and I had a day together when he played hooky from baby school, and even a bonus day together when he got sick and stayed home. The smiles, playing, cuddles, and laughs were the best. I also had the chance to see some friends from college and some of my GR family before heading back. Father's Day weekend brought more family events and then last weekend I was able to go to New York for 4-5 days. I adore NYC (plays, parks, museums, and restaurants, oh my!) and spending time with my brother, and we even made a one night trip up to Storm King Art Park. 

The mostly quiet days have been a nice reprieve from the non-stop pace of a school year, and I've filled them well with runs in the park, lots of shopping, and a few mini TV binges. In some ways it's quite a gift that I get to pick up and leave my life for 6 weeks, to fully disconnect from its rhythms, and allow myself to not think about it for long stretches. At the same time, it's hard to just drop back into this world for awhile, a place where no one really gets my life or has a clue what life is like, where it can be difficult to talk about experiences, people, or even little daily life things that are so deeply ingrained in me. Having zero connections, zero common people between the two worlds makes it a little surreal or lonely at times. 

Plans for the second half of summer include a few days up north, dinners with Mike and Sara, more time in GR, a concert, family gatherings, and more time with my Ann Arbor area friends. Hopefully it also includes more of these cool, breezy, sunny days, perfect for long runs in the park, even in the late morning. To be able to sleep in, be lazy, and still go for a run? What a gift! 

Friday, May 20, 2016

It's the end of the year, and we know it.

14.5: the number of sleeps until I leave for the States
9: the number of 5:00am alarm clocks left to set
8.5: the number of days of school remaining 

Several people have asked me lately how I am feeling about the end of this school year and the best answer I can come up with is conflicted. I am excited for vacation, excited to not write lesson plans, excited to not hear my name ten bazillion times a day, excited for the break from routine, excited beyond measure to squeeze my little nephew, excited for time with friends and family in the States. But I am also sad for the end of this year- it's been a good one. I'm sad to send these precious little ones off to K5 (though happy and proud that they are all ready), sad to not be the one they come to with their stories, owies, observations, questions, and tears. I'll miss their humor and the daily adventures of Miss Clare Snowman in the books and stories they write. I'll miss them. 

Am I ready for a new class? Well, yes and no. Yes in the sense that there is always an aura of excitement and anticipation in a new school year. But no in the sense that after 10 months I have really figured out this group, gotten to know this group, and let's be honest- trained this group. My class today is roughly 60% five year olds. They know the routine and procedures and have finally learned what "the look" means. I know I will love the new group, and that they too will become delightful and well trained 4 to 5 year olds, but it will take some time to get there, as it always does. So though I am excited to watch a new group learn and grow, I'm also sad to watch this one go. 

For two more weeks I don't have to think or worry about next year, nor do I want to. I want every ounce of whatever energy I have left to go into loving these 13 well, teaching them well, and saying good-bye well. The end of the year is upon us, and I feel fine :) 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Spring break musings on Singapore, Songkran, and Elliot

I was fortunate to get to start my spring break with a weekend at my Asian home-away-from-home in Singapore. Days with my Singaporean family are always a blessing, and particularly so on this trip. There is no where else outside the States that I can go and be with people who love me and have known me since I was a little girl- and even have a room in their house that is 'Clare's room'. And while the history gives a sense of rootedness, it is the friendships that have blossomed in the past years of visiting that keep me coming back again and again. So while I love the adventures and pampering and food (oh the food!), it is the people and sense of wholeness and belonging and being loved that I love the most. 
National Orchid Garden at the Singapore Botanical Gardens 

I've returned to Bangkok for the days of Songkran, Thai New Year, which I know I have blogged about before. To be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of the 3 day country wide water fight. Sure, it's great if you are out playing Songkran, but spending my days holed up inside or going out and risking having water sprayed, squirted, or dumped all over you is not exactly fun. Last Friday, before break, we played Songkran with the K4 kids and it was the most fun I've ever had playing Songkran, and probably my favorite event of K4 thus far. The water from the hoses was warm and gentle, I was dressed for and prepared to get soaked, and the pint sized splashers were just the right level of intensity for me. The kids LOVED pouring water all over their teachers and we were happy to return the favor. Yesterday, for the first official day of Songkran, I joined friends at a nearby water park, my first water park trip in Thailand. It was a great way to spend a crazy hot day and a fun way to play in the water. Today I'll get a ride over to my friends' house for a BBQ instead of riding my bike, since I'd have to go down lots of back roads where kids and drunken adults lie in wait with their squirt guns and buckets of ice water. Dodging Songkran is doable if you plan and prepare for it, which I am finally learning to do properly. And maybe this year I am learning to love it just a little tiny bit. 
Playing Songkran with our kiddos at school. 

I've been thinking a lot lately about my beloved nephew Elliot. Do you see him in this picture, taken just a few days after I first started loving him? 
My sister was just a few months along and had recently told us she was expecting. And before I met him, before I knew his name or his gender, before he could do any little thing that could bring me joy, I loved him and he brought us joy. I'm sure that seems like a big giant "duh" to anyone who is a parent, and it's not exactly a revolutionary thought, but when I've thought or talked lately about God's love for us, my mind goes to Elliot. Long before he could do anything, before he could contribute or give anything, before he could even make us laugh, we loved him. We loved him just for being, and for being ours. Connected. More obvious perhaps for my sister, brother-in-law, and parents, but connected to me too. My sister and I are deeply genetically and otherwise connected (and we even have practically identical faces) and Elliot carries a piece of her in him, so he kind of carries a piece of me too. He's the first little person of our next generation, and that has affected me more than I anticipated. Even now at nearly 14 months, he can "contribute" little, yet we delight in him. We delight in each of his new tricks, in each new skill, and in his simple being. We delight in his walking, but we'd love him just as much if he weren't yet walking. We delight in his big bald head, but we'd love him just as much if it were buried in hair. And I'm just his aunt, not even his mother. Not even his God, who created him and formed him and laid plans and purposes for him. That's been ruminating this week as I read about our Father God who made us and loves us. 
Big boy walking 

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Brain development in young children

*Disclaimer*: This post is not a comment on your parenting. It is not pro-working mom or pro-SAHM. It's not an advocate for any one methodology nor for teaching your two year old to read or worrying if your four year old isn't doing so. It's a summary of important and at times surprising information that I feel compelled to share because of the huge impact it can have on the lives of our most important people. 

I am in the final days of a grad class titled "Excelling in the Early Childhood Classroom". My usual style with classes, from HS to my Master's degree, has been to at best skim the readings to find the specific information to answer the questions or write the essays. But this class was different. I read our course textbook from cover to cover. "Developing Young Minds: From Conception to Kindergarten" by Rebecca Shore was a great read, and if you're interested in the research and science behind all of this, I recommend getting a copy, or borrowing mine if you are local. The first eight chapters focused on the science and research, while the last two gave incredibly practical bullet point tips and advice for implementing it in either a classroom setting or at home. 

To be honest, I walked away from most of the reading feeling pretty disheartened and discouraged. The vast majority of our neural network is built in the first three years, and I teach four and five year olds. As the struggles of our K-12 educational system (in the US) illustrate, if we wait until Kindergarten, it's too late. The author gave two illustrations of this that really stuck with me, and hopefully will encourage us to take seriously the congnitive development of babies and toddlers. Her first example was that of a train. Consider the K-12 education system to be a train, and a child's brain to be the tracks, or infrastructure. You can buy the world's most technologically advanced and expensive train and bring it to the US, where we have embarrassingly poor rail infrastructure, or bring it a country such as Japan, which has a highly advanced rail network. The train (or K-12 school) will be practically useless in the States. We don't have enough tracks, nor the right kind of tracks, to make use of that train. Currently, we blame the train and it's conductors. But that same train can function very well in a place where there is a large rail infrastructure which includes the recent technology needed for the train to perform at its best. While many Kindergarten classrooms are full of "Japans" or "Europes" many are also full of "Thailands" or United States" (referring here to rail systems only, not educational systems). At times the lack of infrastructure is due to risk factors such as poverty, but not always. And even if it is, why aren't we addressing it? Why do early childhood classrooms often have teachers with lower levels of education than K-12 teachers who earn less money than other teachers if their job is as important if not more so? Why aren't we getting more and better information into the hands of caregivers (in homes or at facilities) from the very beginning? 

Her second illustration was brief but powerful. When we don't develop children's brains from the beginning, it's a bit like building a skyscraper, and then when you're done, asking K-12 education to install the plumbing. Good luck with that. 

So, how do we install that plumbing from the beginning?  The first step is awareness. Most people know that babies need certain things in order to grow and develop socially and emotionally. But it's not doing them justice if we say "as long as they are well loved they will be okay". Many things have to happen in those early years, things revolving around language, nutrition, music, logic, the five senses, and complexity. This isn't about teaching a child to play the piano at age two, it's about exposing them to music, specifically complex music (specifically Mozart and Bach) and then if possible even teaching music theory (specifically with the Kodaly Method). It's not about teaching your toddler to read, but about talking to them using complex vocabulary and structure, reading to them, talking to them some more, and then when they are developmentally ready, teaching them letter sounds (NOT letter names! Those can come later. It's much more important that they know that M says mmmmmm [not muh] than to know it is called Em, which starts with a short E sound) or to recognize environmental print. And, I say this because it's part of the research, not because I am judging anyone, but one of the big problems or issues is TV and screen time. In 1999 the American Adacemy of Pediatrics made a recommendation for the number of minutes (daily) that a child should have TV or screen time under the age of two. How many minutes? 0. And no, it's not only because of an obesity issue, it's because of what goes on in the brain of a young child when they are watching TV vs. when they are not. This includes educational programming. And yes, there are some "you need to sit here quietly so that mommy can do X, y, or z" alternatives given in the book, but I don't actually think anyone besides the Amish achieves that lofty goal. 

I could go on, but I'm sure you have gotten the point that preparation for school begins in the womb (reading, singing, nutrition, etc.) and not on the first day of Kindergarten or even Pre-K. All of these things can happen in a loving and knowledgable daycare setting, or they can happen in a loving and knowledgable home, or a mixture of the two. They can happen if mom says home with the kids or dad does, if Grandma is the primary caregiver or the child spends most of their day in a daycare/preschool setting. All of those options have the opportunity to develop the child's brain, or not. But we have to know what to look for in quality care for our youngest children, or what to do and provide if we care for them at home. 

The final chapter of my textbook is 15-16 pages of practical specific ideas for things to do at home with a child of 0-60 months, with at least half of it focusing on 0-12 months. If anyone wants copies of any or all of those pages, in lieu of reading the entire book, let me know and I am happy to get them to you. 

I wish I could change the world, the way early education is structured and funded, or the way information is or is not given to new and prospective parents, but I can't. Most people I know do a brilliant job with their kids, in part due to their own education level and access to information and resources. But sadly, it's not all kids. Things like No Child Left Behind fail in large part because many kids were left behind in the five most critical years before they even got to school, and that, I wish I could change. 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Growing strong muscles: the 100th day

Today was the 100th day of school. This was not a thing when I was a kid, but it's become quite the hoopla in younger grades and ICS is no exception. We spent our morning celebrating the 100th day with the other K4, K5, and 1st grade classes. The students rotated between classrooms doing different activities centered around the number 100. In one class they attempted to do 100 exercises. We did not do 100 exercises in my class because I don't have the energy to do that six times (with six classes!). I can't believe that I've already been with these kiddos for 100 days. Watching them learn and grow is a joy and delight. They have their challenging moments, but mostly they are a lot of fun to work with. Each day before lunch the class helper gets to choose whether they want to pray for lunch or they want me to do it. Today's helper (who 100 school days ago didn't know anything about God) chose to pray and this is what they said: Dear God, thank you for the 100th day. It was so much fun. Thank you for exercises to make our muscles healthy and strong. In Jesus name, Amen. 

Although I had a good chuckle from the exercises part, it also got me thinking. I'm not really a big fan of exercising, and I'm definitely not always a big fan of doing things that I know are good for me. Sometimes I don't want to run the miles that will keep me physically healthy. Sometimes I don't want to make the hard decisions that keep me mentally or emotionally healthy. But today that little four year old reminded me that if I don't, I hold myself back from growing stronger and healthier, physically, mentally, emotionally. I have to keep exercising those muscles if I want them to grow, and to thank God for the opportunities he gives me to exercise them. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Record lows

It's no secret that I am no fan of cold, but the past few days have been epically cold in Bangkok and I am loving it. There is actually a large cold snap moving across Asia, so it's not just us. Record lows are being experienced from Japan and China all the way down to our little corner of the world. There has even been snow in Laos and northern Vietnam. Sadly, the cold has caused quite a few deaths in Taiwan, where the temperature dropped suddenly and many circulatory systems weren't prepared for it. 

How cold has it been exactly? When I woke up this morning it was 61F. That's pretty great considering we get excited if it drops below 80! With all the windows open it was cold in my apartment this morning and I reluctantly dragged myself out from under the warm blankets. I usually lounge around in the evenings in shorts and a tank top (with the AC) but yesterday I got to cozy up in socks and flannel pajama pants. I'm sure it sounds a little crazy to the Michiganders and other northerners, but when you're not used to it or prepared for it, 61 is quite cold. Everyone here is bundled up in sweatshirts and jackets and scarves, which is really fun to see. In the mornings instead of drinking my tea in front of a fan to stay cool I sipped it from under a quilt the last two days. It's been glorious. 

You know you've lived in Bangkok too long when you get downright giddy over a cold snap like this, but low 60s to us is like a blizzard in the US: it's all anyone talks about. The low should be down around 64 again tonight, but the highs tomorrow are expected to reach 88 and then we'll be back to a usual "cooler" temp of mid to high 70s at night and approaching 90 during the day. And that's okay. I love the heat and am happy that I get to live in a place where days like today are exciting. I want to soak up every minute of it, even as my neck muscles are cramping up from being tense in the cold. 

Now, if only I had a fireplace...