Wednesday, May 16, 2012


A few weeks ago, Maggie, one of the BWSC women volunteering in Tanzania, asked me to write about what I have learned about myself in relation to the Benedictine Values. I wanted to share with you what my thoughts were. 
“If you have much, give of your wealth; if you have little, give of your heart.” I mentioned this quote in one of my first blog posts at the start of this adventure, as a reminder that I have a lot to give when I give from my heart. During my time in Puerto Rico, my understanding and appreciation for this quote has grown, especially in relation to the Benedictine Value of Stewardship, and the closely linked concept of sustainability.
The first couple weeks as a volunteer teacher were frustrating. As I expressed approximately 10 months ago, I felt like I could not do a good job teaching without a projector, the Internet, textbooks, and a curriculum! I was trying to give what I had to these students, but my resources felt limited.
A few weeks ago I found myself at the Art and Science Gala, surrounded by students and their parents. They were all so grateful for the enthusiasm and motivation they saw me sharing with their children. The parents, more than anyone, knew their children needed this, and that is what I was able to give. A gift from the heart.
When practicing stewardship, it is important to take care of the belongings of others, which is why sustainability is also important. I wanted to give what I could to Colegio San Benito, in a sustainable way. By heading the WeCycle program, I was able to help these students learn to take initiative with the resources they have. I was not able to donate money to implement an immediate change, but with the idea of stewardship and sustainability in mind, I was able to encourage the students to become leaders of their school and continue the WeCycle program for many years to come. I know that what I gave will extend beyond the WeCycle program – the students now value the idea of stewardship and are better equipped to give with their hearts in a sustainable way.
I have learned countless lessons in the past 10 months, and I have come to greatly appreciate each of the Benedictine values, however, I think my idea of stewardship has grown the most.

If I had to add another value that I've come to appreciate and learn a lot about, it would have to be friendship. 
In college, you don’t necessarily need to be friends with your roommate, you just need to be able to live with them. However, in the Benedictine Women’s Service Corp program in Puerto Rico, this doesn’t relate as well – not when you share meals, an office, students, a bathroom, a closet, and are together constantly around the clock. Friendship has been an essential element in my experience this year, as well as an additional Benedictine value.
            Sarah and I have become friends. As friends, we care for each other, and look out for each other in an equal give-and-take arrangement. We have depended on each other for success, fulfillment, and happiness. We listen carefully, show empathy, and want the best for each other. In the mutual understanding that we have, we are able to allow space when we need to be alone, or with God.
The value of friendship is one that supported me during my time in Puerto Rico. It allowed me to make and grow from my mistakes. Friendship fosters all Benedictine values, and I am happy that my friendship has been able to grow this year.

The lessons that I have learned about stewardship, sustainability, and friendship are only a fraction of the lessons that I have been impacted by this year. At this point, it's hard to fathom the idea that I will be leaving SO soon. That what my life has been for the past 10 months is about to change drastically. It's hard to reflect on everything that has happened during my time in Puerto Rico. But as I start the reflection process, I know that it is all a good thing. I am finally able to look back and begin to feel thankful and happy about all of it. I look forward to sharing a bit of my experience with everyone soon! Until then...

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Mother's Day

I am one of the luckiest women in the world right now, because I got to spend Mother's Day with my mom, in person! She is the best.

Probably the most frequent compliment that I receive has to do with my kind heart and positivity. These traits were 100% passed down from my mother. She is the kindest and most positive person that I will ever know and I have her to thank for all of my best qualities.

She never wears make-up and she is always beautiful. She is happiest when others are happy. She is strong, a best-friend, caring, fun, smart, and loving.

There is so much to thank my mother for. I hope she knows how much I love her, always.

 Thanks moms, for doing what you do.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

WeCycle (and so should you...)

Wow, where has 2nd semester gone?!

For months, Sarah, Nicole Paizy (the art teacher), and I, have been planning the Art and Science Gala at Colegio San Benito. The purpose of the Gala is to showcase all of the art and science projects the intermediate students have worked on throughout the year. This year, however, there was an additional goal of raising awareness about the WeCycle program to the CSB students, their families, and the administration (as well as fund raising). One of the most precious moments I have had during my time in Puerto Rico happened during the premier of the WeCycle video that I put together about the process of this project. As soon as the video started, I instantly thought back to one of the first weeks of school when I barely knew the students. I had assigned them to research five interesting facts or reasons about the importance of recycling to share with the class. Nobody knew, including myself, that from that small assignment, a recycling project would be born that would consume a large part of our class, and lives… It was rewarding to show the WeCycle video in front a large audience. It made me proud to see the eighth graders be proud of something they had worked hard on, and something they were excited to show their friends and families.  It was also fun to look around and see the other teachers, students, and administration realize why the two foreign blond girls made their classes dig stuff out of the trash, store all the smelly junk in their office, take over the weekly announcements with recycling facts, yell (friendly-ish-ly) at people who almost threw recyclables in the TRASH, taped “WeCycle” posters all over the school, and were overall obsessed with recycling. The biggest reaction we received from parents about the project was happiness about our enthusiasm. It was good to hear this, because even if my students forget the names of the chambers of the heart, at least they’ve had motivation to initiate a small change. This eighth grade class has, unfortunately, been stamped as a little bit unintelligent and very lethargic. It’s true that they can be lazy, if you let them be, but they are far from unintelligent. And as far as being lethargic goes, I partly blame the heat. Anyway, the eighth graders need people to motivate them and get them excited about something. They need goals, people to believe in them, and high expectations. I think it was evident to the parents that that’s what we have provided them with, and they are happy. It was definitely one of my most proud moments ever, because the eighth graders were proud of the impact they were having on the school, and to stir up that emotion in them is a big deal. Eighth graders are usually too cool for anything.

Please check out the WeCycle video:
At the Gala

Entrance to the Gala
Entering the Gala...
Inside the Gala
The WeCycle Table

1st Graders in Recycled Dresses!

My most proud moment in Kindergarten was at the conclusion of the diagnostic exams Sarah and I have been giving for the past few weeks. During the exam there were a few students who really surprised me – students who literally seemed like their heads were in the clouds everyday during English class, but somehow pulled off a 94%!. My reaction was something like, “WHOA, where did that come from?!” I guess within the chaos that is Kindergarten English class, in between the regurgitated chewed-up erasers, the frenzied singing, and the disordered distribution of papers, the kindergarteners actually learned some English! What a phenomenon! The proudest moment throughout the Kindergarten English experience though, was spreading out all of the diagnostic exams and looking at them together. Before administering the exams we put together a group of 15 exceptional students who are ready to go on to the bilingual program without even taking the exam. They would undoubtedly score 95% or above. That left 10 open spots in the bilingual program for us to fill, hence, the diagnostic exam. Twenty-one students took the exam, and 18 of them scored above a 70%, with 12 of them above an 80%. Our problem is that we would love to be able to admit at least 15 more of them into the program, but there is not enough space. It’s a pretty good problem to have, and it’s pretty awesome that we somehow had SO many students learn such an exceptional amount of English. Proud moment!

There have been some definite highs points throughout this teaching experience, and naturally, low points as well. Low-points were the result of frustrations with unruly children, miscommunication between the administration and faculty, lack of support/materials, and other issues. However, I have realized that at the foundation of this frustration is care. Low points happen because I care about the students – I want to give them as much as I can in 45 minutes. High-points also stem from care. I love seeing students impress me on exams, get really excited about the WeCycle program, and ask lots of questions about a topic that interests them, because I care.

I love teaching and how it’s impossible to lose my imagination while spending time with kids. I also feel the happiest, most empowered, free, and at peace when I am outside. I love sharing adventures, lessons, peace, and happiness that is found in nature, with other people. Being a teacher has been a rewarding experience, but I think I could succeed even more in an outdoor classroom. I think children are becoming too programmed as a result of electronic communication and tight schedules/routines. I’ve seen magic happen when students enter the natural word of unstructured exploration, where they have a space to think and learn. Students need the opportunity to interact physically with nature, to turn on their imagination and curiosity. Environmental education allows students that may not strive in the formal classroom, a place to do so. Children need the chance to unplug from the technology controlling their lives, discover how they can strive in their own way, and open their eyes to the beautiful world around them.

For these reasons, I couldn’t be happier that I found the Wolf-Ridge graduate naturalist program. For 10 months I will be living in the northern woods of Minnesota, teaching 40ish classes based on environmental education, team-building, and natural history, as well as earning my Certificate in Environmental Education and 18 credits towards my Masters of Environmental Education. I am really excited to be starting this program at the end of August, and it would be a dream come true to someday be a director of an EE program.  

For more information, check out the Wolf-Ridge website:

Sarah and I will be headed to Minnesota in a few weeks, continuing the adventure there. It’s been an…um….exhausting experience. We’ve had to adjust to monastic life, learn how to be teachers (and learn a lot, we did), build a friendship, and live in a new culture. I feel so lucky that I had such a hands-on teaching experience, and I couldn’t be happier with the new (as of 10 months ago) life-long friendship that I have with Sarah. I am unbelievably excited to be reunited with the rest of my friends and family soon!! I now completely understand that no matter where you end up in the world, being surrounded by those who love you is the most important thing ever. I wouldn’t still be in Puerto Rico now if it weren’t for the loving words and support sent from those who love me. Thanks!!

Sarah and I and the basketball team at our last second and last tournament

Saturday, February 25, 2012


Before I actually start talking about Thursday, I want to mention Tuesday, since that comes before Thursday – ask the Kindergarteners, they are currently learning the days of the week.

Tuesday was Valentine’s Day so naturally the day got kicked off in eighth-grade homeroom by eating cupcakes, coca-cola, some kind of cheese-filled arepas, quesitos, and receiving valentines and candy from the eighth-graders. In Kindergarten, we were greeted, well, more like bombarded, by a sea of red-wearing, and sugar-loaded Kindergarteners. All of them were pushing their way to us, saying “MISSES, TOMA!” and shoving a mountain of valentines, candy, and presents at us. I remember receiving a ton of candy from my classmates in elementary school for Valentine’s Day – I used to put it all in a box and stash it in the fort we built where we waited for the bus in the morning. That way we could eat candy right before school and right after school, something that would not be allowed in the house. Anyway, the amount of candy that I received this year is much bigger than any amount I remember getting when I was elementary school! The Sisters enjoyed the extra chocolate!

Valentine's Day treats!

Okay, now for Thursday. It started pretty normal… I fumbled out of bed, ate some cereal, missed my ride with Sister Carmen, and waited for a ride from S. MarĂ­a and S. Vivian. I rushed to the gym just in time for the start of the girl’s basketball tournament where I would be coaching Colegio San Benito’s elementary team! Yes, meet one of your new basketball coaches – ME! Well, Sarah is the main coach, since she actually knows a thing or two about basketball. Anyone who knows me knows that I am a total soccer player. I like sports, but if I had to rank them in order of the ones I have the most experience with or enjoy playing the most, basketball would probably be near the bottom. Regardless, Sarah and I have been coaching the girls’ basketball teams at CSB (I’ll explain more later), and since Sarah was not in school on Thursday, I was the one who would be coaching the girls during the tournament.

I chose the starting line-up, and the game began! Although I don’t have much experience with basketball, I do know that #1, you cannot walk/run with the ball – you are supposed to dribble, #2, the ball is usually being dribbled or passed between teammates, not rolling out of control around the court, #3, the team spreads out in order to cover the court, not everybody clumps together and follows the ball like a swarm of bees, and #4, when you shoot, you typically aim for the box on the backboard, or somewhere in the vicinity of the net, you don’t throw it as high or hard as possible and hope for a basket. Again, I’m no basketball expert, but this game didn’t quite look like the typical basketball games I have viewed in my lifetime. However, it was awesome because we didn’t lose by that much (6-12), everyone played, everyone had fun, and I’m almost positive we can only go up from here! After the game I was in quite a few pictures with the players and their families as Coach Jana. Go basketball! And thank God we have Sarah to help us improve!

So, the girls were out of the tournament after one game, and my day continued as “normal”. I arrived to Kindergarten where the plan was to show a YouTube video of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (we wanted to read the book, but we didn’t have it yet). We had the video set-up in our office upstairs. I arranged the Kindergarteners in two lines, told them to be very quite, and marched them up to our office. Surprise – the Internet was not working! I led them in a few songs while I dinked around on my computer at the same time, but it was just not going to work. I lined up the Kindergarteners again, and we marched back down to the classroom. I had to alter the lesson a bit, but we got through it. When it came time to switch to the other Kindergarten classroom, I couldn’t leave, because nobody else was in the room to stay with the students! Finally, I saw Sister Esther in the hall and I waved her down. She graciously stayed with the students while I went up to the other Kindergarten classroom. I was completely alone during this class too – Mrs. Valezquez must have been watching the tournament. I started the lesson, and all of a sudden I noticed a big wet puddle spreading towards me. I followed the wetness to its source and realized what I thought was someone’s leaking water bottle, was actually someone’s leaking bladder. AHHH! What was I supposed to do with the biggest urine-puddle I had ever seen and 23 Kindergartners? I ended up sending the student with a friend to the nurse, Sister Esther, hoping she was back from the other Kindergarten classroom by that point, and I kept blabbering about the letter sounds while throwing paper towels over the mess on the floor.

Probably about the same time I was dealing with the chaos of Kindergarten, there was a bit of crime happening in Humacao that had upset a few parents of students at the school. I spent the rest of the afternoon locating students whose parents were there early to pick them up – what a day!

This was a crazy day in many regards, but at the same time, I’d say it’s a pretty average school day at Colegio San Benito. It’s not uncommon to answer an interrupting knock at the door and be greeted by a fully dressed and painted clown ready to start a birthday party in Kindergarten that you were totally unaware would be happening, or to burst out laughing/crying in front of the class because one of your students belts out, “EL CIIIIEEELLOOOOOOO” in a deep and vibrato-y voice, while you’re trying to read a story about counting turtles. I’m realizing these unexpected and silly interruptions are not going to stop, so bring it on CSB! Give me some more incidents to journal about!

The clown that showed up at the door

There have been a few moments when it has become clear to me why I am here in Puerto Rico, even though there are countless other places I could be, or other jobs I could be doing. Many of the moments happened throughout the process of setting up the recycling program, and others happened through the basketball team. Sarah and I were asked to coach the girls basketball team, so we decided to go for it – why not? When we asked our team what they did last year, they said they didn’t play because they didn’t have a coach! WHAT? How can that be that the girls just didn’t have the opportunity to play last year? It is so outrageous to me that they weren’t able to play because nobody wanted to coach them – I don’t know the first thing about basketball (well I’m learning, thanks to Sarah), but I do know that I can be a good role model for these girls, learn to play, and that I don’t mind spending a little extra time after school to have some fun with these girls and try my best (with Sarah) to put together a good team. The next moment happened when a young girl from the team informed us that she was going to miss practice – she asked what she should do to make it up and Sarah told her to practice passing with someone. The girl said she didn’t have anyone because she does not have siblings, her dad is in Iraq, her mom had died, and her Grandmother works too much. Yes, they definitely need us. I may not be a basketball star, but I can make a pretty good target, I’ll try to catch passes, and I’ll learn to return passes, dribble, and shoot.

Recycling program update: We are officially called WeCycle now, and we have a cute little logo to go with it! Starting last semester, we spent a lot of time researching the importance of recycling, especially in relation to the health of ourselves, and our earth, but the most exciting part of the project happened about a month ago when we got our hands dirty with some actual recycling research at Colegio San Benito. We spent a week collecting data (in our office) on how much recyclable material the school is throwing in the trash during an average week. For an entire week we collected the trash, brought it to our office, sorted it, and counted it. However, 45 minutes at the end of each school day to dig through 3 large trashcans, 11 classroom trashcans, a few miscellaneous trashcans from the teacher lounge and office, and 1 large dumpster, separate and count the recyclables, and dispose of the trash again, is not a lot of time. The week was hectic, smelly (our office still has flies in it – that’s a problem), but extremely important and eye opening – I think everyone was amazed to see the enormous portion of recyclable material that ends up in the trash during an average week at CSB. Dirty, necessary, and kind of fun :) 


Inside of a trash

Pile of cardboard
Tons of plastic bottles, aluminum cans, paper, and cardboard
Keeping track of recyclable material pulled from the trash
The WeCycle Team!
Enjoying some pizza after a week of digging through trash
Sarah and I made worms in dirt dessert to share on Friday! It was an appropriate dessert choice after a week of digging in garbage

The eighth graders think I am as crazy as ever… I think they appreciate it though, kind of like the students from the Magic School Bus appreciate Ms. Frizzle for making them go on strange adventures in order to understand how things work. I haven’t led them through anymore fire-ant hills or rain puddles, but I did make them dig through trash, actually watch the Magic School Bus (the episode where they get eaten and digested by a human), turn a game of baseball into a review (they had to answer questions correctly in order to “run the bases” and not get a “strike”), take walks around the school property (we have to stand in the burning sun unless they answer questions correctly which allows us to keep walking in the shade), and make them act out various conflicts and resolution tactics, work as a community, and make collages of various topics, such as what makes a good friend. I am a big advocate of active learning.

Something fun that Sarah and I did was go kayaking in Humacao – we basically got dumped in the river in a kayak and we were given a map that got soaked within the first 100 feet of our journey. Maps are fun to use sometimes, but I also like just “going with the flow” (pun intended). Along the way, we saw a lot of iguanas, heard a very loud and strange noise, almost got stuck in a massive amount of mud, watched a bird catch and eat its fish dinner, and relaxed out in the middle of a lagoon, away from the loudness and busyness of Humacao Centro. Being able to spend time with a really great friend, Sarah, in a kayak, away from school and the monastery, was really peaceful. It made me cherish our friendship for more than just supporting each other at school and during our crazy life at the monastery. It reminded me of something I would be doing with my friends at home in Minnesota, and for the first time in a while I felt completely at peace.

By the way, I wrote this while hanging in my Christmas gift from Yvonne and Cezar – a hammock I hung on the porch of the monastery! Maybe I’ve found my new blogging spot, so I can stop apologizing for keeping everyone hanging (yes, I know, I’m punny today!).

Hammock on the porch

Until then,

Thursday, January 19, 2012

A new semester of new adventures

Hello again!

We just finished our seventh day of second semester after a much needed break from teacher life! There are some changes this half that I should let you know about. I will now be teaching English in Kindergarten in Mrs. Velazquez’s class, and I will also continue teaching Health to eighth grade. Sarah will now be teaching eighth grade History class, as well as the other section of Kindergarten (Mrs Lopez’s class). Before break we decided to make this switch in order to keep us both refreshed; it will also allow us both to gain teaching experience with more than one age group and distribute the workload of eighth grade and kindergarten evenly. 

When I started teaching in Kindergarten the first day, it didn’t even seem to faze the students. It’s quite comical how adjustable they are - they could care less about who is in front teaching them, it’s all about the clothes the teacher is wearing and how her hair looks that day. I even had one student who sits in the back call Ms. Sarah over during class and ask why I had a skin-colored Band-Aid on my ring finger. They can be extremely observant of the most bizarre things.

It’s been seven days, but already I feel that I am becoming better organized and prepared to interact with parents. In eighth grade I made it the responsibility of the students to keep track of missing assignments and grades, but with Kindergarten I have to keep track of everything X 23! I’ve quickly figured out that being organized doesn’t only mean keeping track of missing assignments, it’s about planning ahead and communication! On Tuesday, I had all the students put a homework packet in their folders (due Friday), and since they had their folders out, I also gave them a practice packet of numbers that I was planning on working on in-class later in the week. On Wednesday, I happened to look in about five of the students’ folders and saw that not only did they complete the homework packet, but they completed the entire in-class packet as well!! I felt kind of bad that they did so much work for English as homework, but more than that I was annoyed at the thought of how much time I spent putting that packet together for class and the thought of putting together something else. Thinking ahead and communication…

As for eighth grade Health class, it’s off to a really great start. We are about to get into some really exciting topics – it will be very interesting to be on the other end of things this time around. I feel good about how Health is going though, because I already had a semester to figure out what works with those students, and what doesn’t. It was really great to see them after a break, and they seemed excited about the semester I have planned as well! The project I am most excited about is one in which Sarah, the eighth graders, and I will be working on together. Sarah and I started the ball rolling on the recycling program, but we are determined to get it off the ground before the end of the year! We have big plans to put the eighth graders in charge of the project by dividing them into committees in order to make a video about the importance of recycling, write letters and be in contact with important associates such as Waste Management and the San Benito administration, and track our needs and progress through social media and other modes of communication. Not only is it important that we respect the health of our earth and all the life it supports, but we want these eighth graders to understand how they are apart of history and to be proud of something they can leave behind at this school. Hopefully this project will be one way in which they can find value in some of the lessons they learn in school – that everything is related and what they learn doesn’t stop at 2:45 when the bell rings. On Friday I had three students stay after class to discuss ideas they already had about the recycling video. It made me so happy that they are excited about it, which really made me feel like a teacher!!

This is out of order here, but I wanted to mention that we returned just in time to celebrate Three Kings Day in Puerto Rico. It’s a much bigger deal here than Christmas! We drove with Ivonne, Cesar, and S. Mary Ruth to a town outside of Ponce on Friday, and we met S. Carmen, S. Myriam, S. Lois (from MN), and S. Renee (from MN). That day we watched a very extensive parade that ended with the Three Kings. By the time the Kings reached us, I understood why the parade took so long – everybody along the parade route wants to have a picture with each of the Kings, and a picture of their children with the Kings, and a picture of their grandparents with the Kings… I think you get the idea. By the end, there was no boundary between the parade participants and the parade viewers. And yes, Sarah and I got a picture with one of the Kings, and so did about 15 other parade fanatics. Ivonne insisted that we get our picture taken, and I think the crowd around us found it pretty amusing. After the parade we attended an outdoor mass, ate pinchos (skewers), and shopped in the street market… for a long time. It started down pouring, so we took shelter under the market tents. We spent about an hour looking at woodworking. I was starting to feel bad that I wasn’t making any purchases, and then Ivonne led the way to another tent where we spent the next half an hour standing by the coffee vendor. I was also forced into buying a homemade Vicks cream. Eventually we decided the rain was not going to go away and we made a dash for the van and headed back to the hotel.
The next day Sarah and I rested off our jet lag by the pool.

The first of the three Kings

Waiting for the rain to pass! Ivonne rocking the plastic bag rain hat!

On Sunday, we toured Ponce, which is the town S. Myriam is from. It was very beautiful – we saw the church, the first fire station ever built in Puerto Rico, a castle, and we went to the top of a big cross that was used as a look out post to the ocean at one point. Now it provides a beautiful view of the ocean and nice gardens to walk around in. 

Group shot in Ponce

In the fire station

Cross lookout

If you are reading this from Minnesota, I hope you staying warm – there is plenty of it to share in Puerto Rico!!

Hasta pronto,