Monday, May 21, 2018

Life on a NATO Base

For the last month, I have been stationed at a NATO base in Kabul. There may be changes down the road as our education program expands, but I have been happy to be settled here for a while. The base itself seems to be run primarily by Turkish forces, along with British and US forces as well.

I'm getting much better at identifying the uniforms of each of the different NATO nations. There are soldiers here from Australia, Germany, Slovakia, Macedonia, Denmark, France, Norway, Ukraine and many more. There are also several non-NATO nations that are also here in partnership with Resolute Support. There are contingencies of Georgian and Mongolian soldiers and I'm sure there are even more nations that I haven't met yet.
Projection Map of NATO Nations
CC BY 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

There are two Dfacs (dining facilities) on base. One is an American one and the other is Turkish. I've been eating at the Turkish Dfac most recently because I find the food much more flavorful. If I ever get tired of eating at the Dfac, there are a couple of restaurants on base that I can try out, including several coffee shops, a Lebanese restaurant, a Thai place, a Mexican café, a Pizza Hut and a Burger King. There's also a small PX that sells some basic snacks, along with a small number of toiletries and household items.

There are a variety of housing facilities on base, ranging from basic tents to two-story brick buildings. Your housing assignment depends in part on how long you will be staying on base. Generally speaking, the transient accommodations are not quite as comfortable as the long-term assignments. I'm currently housed in one of the nicer, brick buildings on base. Our rooms are about the size of your average shipping container, shared with one roommate. Almost everyone here has at least one roommate or more.

There is a full service laundry facility that will wash and dry your clothes along with a self-service laundromat if you're interested in washing your own. Many of the larger countries have a space for soldiers to gather and relax - for the US soldiers, there is the USO with a bunch of movies, video games, board games and American snacks. There's also an MWA that is open to all with table tennis, foosball, pool and a mini-internet café. There's also a community center that hosts religious gatherings (along with the occasional movie night) and a beautiful mosque on base as well. 

When I'm not teaching, I usually spend my time reading or hitting up the gym. Given that the Dfacs are all-you-can-eat, I try to make it to the gym as often as I can. The gym is not so different from gyms stateside, except for the fact that it is housed in a couple of giant tents. The also have an informal gym set up next to one of the outdoor soccer fields. This outdoor workout space is affectionately known as the 'prison yard' and seems to be best suited to those who are really into Crossfit and enjoy throwing big tires around. I'll probably stick with the tent gym.

I'm getting used to the constant whir of helicopter blades and the occasional rumble of MRAPs. I've never been to the UN before, but I imagine it might feel somewhat like life on a NATO base, apart from the military overtures, of course. I enjoy being surrounded by dozens of languages and cultures every day. There are so many opportunities to learn and I look forward to taking advantage of them in the months to come!

Monday, April 23, 2018

Frequent Flyer: My Journey to Afghanistan

Traveling to Afghanistan has been an experience in and of itself. It took about five full days (and five different flights) for me to get from Fort Bliss, Texas to my new home in Kabul, Afghanistan.

It all started with a chartered military flight out of Texas. Our baggage was weighed and our motley crew of contractors and service members were loaded into a traditional, chartered airliner. We stopped over in New Hampshire to refuel and then again at an airbase in Germany. In each of these pit stops, we were shepherded off the plane into a holding area for several hours and then given instructions to board again for the next leg of the journey.

Eventually, we made it to Kuwait - with the time change we seemed to lose a whole day in the process. Kuwait is somewhat of a staging ground for the whole CENTCOM region. Some of the contractors and service members in our group would be staying at one of the bases in Kuwait, while others were headed to Qatar, Djibouti, Iraq or Afghanistan. Those with a final destination outside of Kuwait were given transient accommodations and instructions for our next flight. 

I ended up spending a couple of days in Kuwait. Although it was hot and dry, I didn't mind having a couple of days to get my feet on the ground before traveling again. The women's transient barracks were also not nearly as harsh as the men's. The women's barracks were divided into several rooms with ten to twelve bunks in a room. In contrast, the men's barracks were entirely open, with over a hundred bunks crowded into a single hall. 

C17 Photo by Sergeant James E. Lotz / Wikimedia Commons
After a couple days, our flight to Afghanistan was ready. There would be no more chartered airliners from here on out. From Kuwait to Bagram we rode on a C17. Our baggage was palleted and loaded up a ramp from the rear of the plane. As passengers, we rode in flight seats that ran up and down the sides of the plane. The plane itself was quite loud and most of us wore earplugs for the duration of the flight. On the plus side, once we hit cruising altitude, we were able to get out of our seats and 'move about the cabin'. For most people, this meant finding a place to lie down on the floor of the plane to catch a few more hours of sleep. 

We finally arrived in Bagram just before midnight. After security briefings, I was lucky enough to find some transient billeting to catch a few more hours of sleep and a midnight DFAC (dining facility) to grab a few quick bites. In the morning, I signed up for the next available space on a flight into Kabul. And then I waited. The weather in Bagram was much colder (and rainier!) than I expected. Because of the weather conditions, the first few flights of the day were all delayed. And so we waited. Eventually, the weather cleared enough for our flight to take off. 
DoD Photo by Spc. Russell J. Good / Wikimedia Commons

For the final leg of my journey, I would be riding in a Chinook helicopter. I once again donned my ear plugs, along with my armored vest, helmet and eye protection. The flight itself was relatively quick, but the brevity did little to assuage the trepidation of taking a rotary flight through a conflict zone. After what seemed like an hour - but was really only about ten minutes - our flight touched down at the airport in Kabul.

It's been great to be able to fully unpack some of my belongings and settle in to a new routine. I'm excited to begin teaching and to get to know my students, my colleagues and hopefully some of the other soldiers, contractors and civilians that call Kabul home. 

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Hurry Up and Wait

Several people have asked me what it is like transitioning from teaching in a public school to contracting on a military base. The truth is that it has been a long and sometimes frustrating process, but it has also been full of opportunities for growth and self-reflection. 

I came across the opportunity to teach in Afghanistan several months ago and began the arduous process of medical and background clearance. It took several months before I was able to receive final approval and set a start date. After leaving Minnesota, my first step was to attend training and onboarding in Orlando, FL. The training sessions included information about personal protective equipment, NATO security briefings and a host of other standard business trainings. 

Image from
Once onboarding was complete, I headed to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas to be processed through the CONUS Replacement Center. As someone who has never been in the military before, training at Fort Bliss was certainly a learning experience. I learned quickly how to fall in line to military formations. There was another whole set of theater specific training requirements, including information on antiterrorism and counterinsurgency, as well as sessions on threat awareness and non-lethal weapons. 

We also had to go through a final medical screening, which tested the patience of just about everyone on site. The process involved a lot of waiting, moving seats, waiting again, and then tracking down the next medical check on the list. The labyrinthine process was aided by color coded tape and hallway guides - follow the blue tape to vision, the white tape to audiology, the brown for immunizations, and so on. I ended up needing to get a couple extra immunizations in both Orlando and El Paso. Some were standard; others, like Anthrax, were a bit more unique.

Trying on my new vest!
Unrelated to the immunizations, I also picked up a softball-sized bruise on my right arm, along with a few smaller bruises, bumps and scrapes up and down my forearms and shins. All courtesy of what was one of the most intense training sessions of CRC: rollover training. Now, when I saw rollover training on the weekly schedule, I have to admit that my mind went straight to 401K rollovers, and I assumed that we would be learning about some mundane financial practices. Turns out that rollover training involves gearing up inside a giant MRAP (sort of like a Humvee) and going through a simulated rollover experience. We ended up needed to egress upside down, and let's just say that I am not as graceful as I would like to be when it comes to exiting a vehicle in more than 30lbs of body armor.

The first two weeks of training have reminded me that the qualities and characteristics one develops as a teacher can be useful across a wide variety of life experiences. The ability to build relationships with others and be patient under stress certainly helped me make it through training without too many complications. With the last few trainings under my belt, I boarded a chartered military flight with a couple hundred other contractors and soldiers and began the journey to my final destination - Afghanistan. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

A New Adventure in Education

In just a few days, I will be beginning a new adventure in education - one that is taking me halfway around the world. While I am excited beyond words to embark on this new journey, this transition is also bittersweet. I am leaving behind the students I have grown to love and the colleagues I have come to trust and admire. I have also had to say goodbye to family and friends.

Throwback to #StaffoftheWeek 
For the last four years, I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching high school in South Minneapolis. I love the quirky inside jokes that teenagers make, the heartfelt conversations about real life and the moments of enlightenment that make even the hardest days worth it. I appreciate the relationships I have built with colleagues that helped to keep me grounded and inspired me to push the boundaries of education in our schools today.

In my new role, I will be working as an English Language Instructor for Afghan women. After years of civil unrest, Afghan women have some of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world. I am unbelievably privileged to be
offered a role in their education because I understand the significance of women's education on a global scale. According to UNESCO, two-thirds of the world's illiterate adults are women. The Kabul office of UNESCO reports that the literacy rate for women in Afghanistan averages around 17 percent.

Teaching outside of my comfort-zone is nothing new, yet this time it feels different. I'm not quite sure what I'll be walking into, and I suppose that is part of the excitement. I know I'll be stationed on a military base and teaching out of a nearby school, and I am confident that the knowledge and skills I have gained over my professional career will help guide me to make meaningful contributions in this work.

As I finish packing my bags and begin the multi-flight journey overseas, I want to extend my profound gratitude and appreciation to you all, my fellow educators and friends, for your encouragement, support and collaboration. If you're interested in learning more about education in Afghanistan, check back soon for my next update!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Social Emotional Learning

This past week I had the privilege of attending the 2nd Annual Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Convening hosted by Education First and NoVo Foundation in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico.

There was so much that I appreciated about this conference, especially the opportunity to connect and learn from educators from all across the country. I heard inspiring stories about how teachers are engaging their students and colleagues in SEL work and I walked away with many different strategies for advancing SEL in my own classroom and throughout my school.

There are three big takeaways from my time at the convening:

First, I need to take better care of myself. Many of the weekend activities centered on modeling practices that could be used with students and staff. These practices go beyond the traditional 'one and done' approach to professional learning by creating an environment that values authentic expression and communication. It became clear through these activities that we as teachers often forget to take care of ourselves. With everything on our plates, self-care can be easily pushed aside. Conference sessions reaffirmed the importance of being kind to myself so that I can continue being my best self with my students and colleagues.

Second, I need to teach my students to love themselves. All of our students have assets to share. We need to invite student stories and celebrate their uniqueness. One of the EdTalks, led by Teacher Prize Finalist Alhassan Susso, illustrated this through his own work with student affirmations. By affirming students as capable learners and leaders he is able to rewrite the negative self-talk that can be consuming for adolescents. My grant project, funded through NoVo, is also focused on elevating student voice through story and I am looking forward to continuing this work with my students.

Finally, I need to give students space to love each other. It's time to move beyond 'inclusive' classrooms to classrooms that are truly welcoming and affirming. At the convening we discussed how kindness is about more than just 'being nice'. Kindness is intentional and it involves self-awareness as much as it does social awareness. Do students feel cared for by one another in the classroom? It is an important question to ask and one that I plan on evaluating in more detail in the next quarter. As our first quarter draws to a close, I need to go back to the drawing board to identify more meaningful community building activities and strategies for my students.

As the conference wrapped up, I felt excited and energized by all that I had learned. I'm now looking forward to finding new ways to support student learning more holistically and creating safe places for students and adults to share their emotions and connect more authentically with one another.

There  isn't anyone you couldn't love once you hear their story.
- Mary Lou Kownacki

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Reflections from a Refugee Camp - Part B

When I think back on the past month, it is hard for me to put into words exactly what the experience of teaching in a refugee camp has meant for me. There is so much I have learned and so many memories I will be taking with me. I have learned a great deal more about human capacity, the impact of collaboration and the power of dreams. Some memories of my time in Lebanon fill me with immense joy, while others bring an almost immeasurable sadness. I am grateful to the staff and other volunteers at Jusoor who provided support and encouragement throughout my time there.

Jusoor Summer Education Program 2017
The Lebanese and Syrians I met over the last month have taught me so much about human resiliency, courage and capacity. The capacity to learn and grow is evident in schools and camps all over Lebanon. There is a curiosity for learning that shows up through many lenses and in many ways. The heartbreaking truth of refugee camps, though, is that in spite of individual courage and commitment, the dehumanizing process of displacement can strip away much-needed opportunities for growth. The longer we let millions of people languish in refugee camps, the more we lose out on a collective of wisdom and capital that cannot be replaced. 
The work I was able to do was only made possible because a group of like-minded individuals came together with a desire to do more for the children of Syria. We could talk in circles about the need for better policies, infrastructures and systems solutions, but at the end of the day, information and intention alone cannot affect change. Only actions can do that. And the team at Jusoor has worked tirelessly to build a much-needed foundation of support and action for refugee youth, one that can serve to be scaled and replicated across Lebanon. This experience has reminded me of just how powerful collaboration can be when people come together to share their time, energy and expertise. 

Student Dreams
Finally, my students taught me every day about the power of dreams. As part of one of our peacebuilding activities, my students worked collectively to create a tree of dreams. Each student received a leaf and drew a picture of a dream or goal on their leaf. Then, one-by-one, they shared their dream with the class and we pasted it onto our tree of dreams. Although there was a language barrier between my students and me, it was incredible to see the way in which their eyes lighted up and their smiles widened. Some students dreamt of being lions or butterflies. Other had dreams of being teachers or doctors. One girl dreamed of a day when she could once again sit in a garden next to her home. For the children of Syria, I wish all this and so much more.

Jusoor students working on a puzzle

Much more needs to be done internationally to ensure that students’ right to education is realized around the world. The children of this world have incredible dreams, and I believe we have the resources to accomplish these dreams if we can commit to acting together. If you have questions or want to know more about getting involved with refugee and emergency education, please let me know. You can read more about Jusoor’s work here.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Reflections from a Refugee Camp - Part A

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of emotion and energy. I arrived in Lebanon earlier this month as a volunteer with Jusoor's Summer Education Program. Jusoor Syria is a non-profit dedicated to empowering Syrian youth through education and entrepreneurship.

While the ongoing conflict in Syria has displaced millions of Syrians to countries all around the world, Lebanon is home to over one million Syrian refugees, the highest per capita of any nation. Jusoor has several programs within Lebanon, all designed to provide much needed educational opportunities to displaced Syrian families.

Jarahieh camp in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
I chose to volunteer with Jusoor because I was impressed by the organization's overall focus on sustainability. There are currently three Jusoor schools in Lebanon, one in Beirut and two in the Bekaa Valley.  These schools help prepare Syrian students, many of whom have had their education interrupted, for Lebanese schools. The language of instruction in most Lebanese schools is English or French, so the Jusoor schools also help by developing students' English language skills.

As an English Language (EL) teacher, many of the students in my classes during the regular school year are first or second generation immigrants, including some who have been displaced by conflict, some who have endured the hardships of refugee camps and others who have had their own educational experiences interrupted.

Jusoor volunteer training session
My volunteer work with Jusoor began during our initial orientation. During that time, I led a training session on teaching with English as a foreign language for the other Jusoor volunteers who hailed from countries around the world including the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Colombia, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Together we talked about the importance of creating safe learning environments, encouraging students to take risks with language development, and supporting language input across multiple modalities.

Summer classes began this past week and to say it has been a humbling experience would be an understatement. I was placed at the Jarahieh school, on the edge of a refugee camp. On any given day, I have more than thirty students in my class, many of whom have never been to school before. We spend each day doing peacebuilding work, science experiments and arts and crafts projects. We practice sharing and taking turns and writing our names.

Students experimenting with liquids and solids
I am in awe of the resilience of these students. Their excitement for learning makes it easy to forget that many have experienced far more in the last few years than any child should have to experience. My heart breaks for each of the horrors of war and displacement these children have had to endure, and I am reminded everyday of the value and importance of the work we are doing.

I am honored to be volunteering with Jusoor, and I am excited to continuing learning and growing alongside my students for the next two weeks. The work Jusoor does on a daily basis is improving the lives of thousands of Syrian youth and their families. The Jusoor staff here in Lebanon impress me every day with their commitment to ensuring that this generation of Syrians will not be forgotten.