21 November 2011

Commentary: What's in a Name?

I've been thinking that it's about high time I explained my blog's name. No, indeed, I did not just randomly stick two words together in a lame effort to make something "unique." Forget about sad attempts to come up with quirky, catchy nicknames, et cetera. I've never been particularly skilled at naming things, so when it came time to creating a name for my blog, I went with something that actually holds personal significance.

I'm one of those people who's into Japanese anime and manga. I read way more manga than I watch anime but I think both are super; I've always just been much more of a reader. I grew up watching Doraemon, although I'll admit now that I watched the episodes dubbed in Thai and therefore thought that Doraemon was a Thai creation. The first anime that I watched and consciously identified as such was probably good ol' Sailor Moon.

I didn't start really reading manga until high school. One summer, my sister gave me the first volumes of three different manga series in the hopes that one of them would pique my interests. I received Cowboy Bebop, .hack//Legend of the Twilight, and Fruits Basket. I had already seen and thoroughly enjoyed the Cowboy Bebop anime, so while reading the manga was fun, I wasn't all that invested in reading the series through to the end. .hack//Legend of the Twilight was a very entertaining read but it didn't provide me with the level of emotional and mental depth I wanted from a series. Fruits Basket--I clearly remember reading Fruits Basket for the first time and being blown away. The artwork was amazing and the storyline was fully engaging.

Fruits Basket came into my life at the perfect time. I'm not going to say I was in an "awkward phase" in my life--"awkward" doesn't even begin to describe all of the things that were going on (and such a statement could imply that I'm no longer awkward). I was in a very troubled period where I had a lot of inner turmoil to deal with. I've never been good at talking things out with people. I have intense trains of thoughts and conversations with myself but when it comes time to resolve issues with other people, I hit a wall (sometimes literally but not so much anymore). It's not healthy to run away from your problems but everyone needs an avenue of solace. Fruits Basket was my ally. The series followed me through the tough times in high school right on to the end of my undergraduate education. Reading the last volume of the series was bittersweet since it marked the ending of such an important part of my life but by the end, I felt that I had matured much in the same way the characters had.

I still don't have a full understanding of myself--what makes me tick, et cetera, but I do have an identity now and I know what it is. I have defined core beliefs. I have some roots firmly sunken into the ground. One of the elements of the series that stuck with me was the idea that everyone is seeking a place where they belong. Fruits Basket expresses this sentiment through the heroine, Tohru Honda, and the trauma she experienced as a child while playing the game, "Fruits Basket." I never played the game as a child but in Fruits Basket, Tohru recalls how she always looked forward to playing the game. The other kids in her class would designate the fruit that each other would be (e.g. apple, orange, pear, et cetera). Tohru was always designated the onigiri or the rice ball. When the game began, the children would sit in chairs arranged in a circle around the person in the middle who was "it." The person in the middle would call out the name of two fruits and those children would have to get up and run to switch places. While they did this, the person in the middle would try to take one of their spots. Whoever ended up without a chair would be the new designated caller. Since Tohru was the onigiri, she always sat and waited patiently to be called on, but she never was. It wasn't until she was older that she realized the other kids had purposefully made her the onigiri and then had chosen not to call on her; they excluded her from the game by reasoning that there is no room for an onigiri in a "fruits basket."

Since this experience had a big impact on her, Tohru comes to think of herself and other people as onigiri walking through life. We all go through our lives seeking a place to belong and thinking that we're nothing special. In Japanese culture, onigiri often have an umeboshi filling. Tohru imagines that this umeboshi is placed on the backs of onigiri so that we are able to see everybody else's umeboshi and feel jealousy without realizing that we have an umeboshi on our own back. The metaphor illustrates the classic idea that it's much easier to see admirable qualities in other people than in yourself.

These life lessons may all sound pretty elementary to you, but for me, it's not just about hearing or repeating the lessons, the words--it's about living them. I chose "Onigiri Basket" for my blog title because we're all onigiri and I, for one, believe we shouldn't have to worry about whether or not we fit into a "fruits basket." There's a basket right here, just waiting for us.

16 November 2011

Article: NEA on Being Fair

Today, I read what I thought was a pretty good article from the National Education Association (NEA) called, "Are You Being Fair?" I work with kids every day and at the end of each day (usually on the way home from work), I run through my day mentally, going over my interactions with the students and trying to figure out how I can do things better and more effectively. The question, "Was I being fair?" runs through my mind a lot. I do think that being "fair" is an ideal that's basically unachievable but I still try my best to be impartial.

"Life's not fair," is a phrase that I heard time and again growing up and it's a phrase I often repeat to myself as a reminder to not get stuck in self-pity and etc. Believe me, I get it, but then, why do I still strive to be fair to my kids? No matter what age group I taught, I'd still try for impartiality, but as it is, I mentor elementary school children (K-5). I think it's really important to treat elementary school kids as fairly as you possibly can. I work with a group of about 35 kids. I see them every school day for four hours. Once a week I spend five hours with them. You can look at this situation and think, "That's not that much time," but the time adds up and it has a huge impact on the kids. I'm all about creating a safe environment for them so that they feel free to achieve academically, to make positive, personal growth, and to simply be kids.

The NEA article mostly addresses the dangers of favoritism but I think there are dangers in going too far one way or the other. I'm sure the NEA gets that as well, but this time around, they focused on high achievers getting too much attention. On a personal level, I'm not really concerned about whether or not I'm favoring one student over another. When I was in school, it would have been really easy for me to be the "Teacher's Pet," but I was fortunate enough to have teachers who also strove to be fair. I was definitely seen as a nerd and as being too serious in nature but having the additional label of "Teacher's Pet" would have unquestionably left me socially outcast; I'm glad I didn't have to deal with that in elementary school. My personal experience makes me very wary of having "favorites." During my self reflection, I usually wonder if I'm being impartial to the point that I'm just no "fun."

Am I losing the positive attitude I try to bring to the program every day? Am I smiling enough? Do the kids think that I'm "too serious?" That last question is a real kicker for me since I've been plagued with the comment, "You're too serious," for most of my life...

Overall though, I have to say that I think I'm doing pretty well. Of course, I firmly believe there's room for improvement but I actually do believe that I treat my kids pretty fairly. What am I using as my measuring stick? My kids. Let me give you some examples:

1. Regardless of whether they're high achievers or low achievers, when my kids have problems that need to be resolved with an adult's help (e.g. "I'm going to tell on you!" or "You started it!"), do you know who they more often than not run to? Me. Yep. Their determination in seeking me out as their arbitrator often means that they zigzag through toys, backpacks, furniture, other children, and sometimes three or four other adults just to get to me. It's exasperating at times but it's also flattering. Why the heck are the kids running to me? I listen. I know, I know, listening--actually listening--is a skill that most people need to work on anyway, but kids, man, kids know when you're not attentively listening to them. So I listen to what my kids are telling me and I make sure that all parties (that is, students) involved get a chance to tell their side of the story (completely interrupted).

2. In my program, we all go by our first name. The kids understand that the people running the program are adults but allowing them to call us by our first name creates a more casual atmosphere where we can be mentors instead of being their teachers or their parents. I seriously never asked my kids to (and they certainly don't do it all the time) but I have kids who pretty consistently call me, "Ms. Angela," instead of just, "Angela." Again, this is not something they do with any of the other adults in the program. In fact, there are some adult volunteers who insist that the students attach "Ms." when addressing them but the kids aren't having any of it. So at the end of the day, I've apparently done something to merit the title, "Ms."

3. Although I think I still need to do some work in this department (with making sure the kids truly understand what I'm saying), whenever I praise or scold a child, I make sure to explain my reasoning. I strive not to simply say, "Good job!" or "Don't do that!" Instead, I'll say things like, "Good job on finishing that worksheet. I knew you could do it!" or "Please don't run in the classroom. Remember last week when you were running, tripped on the chair, hit your head, and ended up crying for ten minutes straight?" (Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit...but I think you get the point.)

But enough about me, I've veered offtrack somewhat. My main point is that the NEA's article (in case you don't feel like scrolling back up) is quite good. It can provide some food for thought, some good review, or some new resources for those individuals seeking to improve upon their impartiality.