Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Reflections on Celebrating Connections

In a nod to April Henderson and in a round-about way of exploring what one does with a degree in Pacific Islands Studies, I will tell you what my Monday looked like - today. Get up at 4:30 a.m. to prepare for work, teaching 4th grade in a public school in Kona, on the Big Island of Hawaii. At 5:30, I do some grading, as I was (and still am) behind, having spent the weekend at this CPIS conference not grading one single paper. Leave home at 6:00, arrive at 6:30. When I get to work, check emails and send some out. I had given myself a couple of reminders to send out reminder emails to HSTA (Hawaii State Teachers Association) school leaders, as I am the Kona Chapter President, and the disseminator of much information. Prepare weekly progress reports, plan and set up the room for the day’s lessons. From 8:00 to 2:00, teaching to a diverse group of students including English language Learners: 4 Marshallese, 2 Filipinos, 1 Kosraean, 1 Russian, 1 Mexican, 1 Samoan, 1 Thai in one class and 2 Marshallese, 3 Kosraens 3 Samoans, 3 Filipinos, 2 Puerto Ricans in another class. Among the non-ELL students are several part-Hawaiians, a few haoles, a few mixed plate locals. When I look around at the faces of the children in my class, I revel in the diversity. There are challenges, in the world of No Child Left Behind, the federal law that has resulted in schools chasing test scores, we are considered a “restructured school.” I’ll spare you the gory details, but it is not a pretty picture, and I spend a lot of my “spare” time reading and writing about nonsensical education reform mandates and the pressures and fallacies of high-stakes testing. To stay sane, I focus on the students and how I can take them from where they are to the next level. I teach math and science mostly, but I have a passion for social studies and I try to squeeze that in too, especially as it relates to being a good citizen. After the students leave, I keep working: grading, planning, organizing, collaborating with colleagues. Checking emails, I see that I have minutes to check as a member of the vestry (like a board) of my church. I leave early today, exhausted at 5:00. At home, I have dinner and set myself up for more grading, but decide that I should do this blog first.

In my Monday, I hope you see that I am a hard-working teacher, a union activist and leader, active in my church. What isn’t revealed is that I am also a writer, not real prolific, but it is a thread that continues to run through my life. What does this have to do with my degree in Pacific Islands Studies? When Vince talked about the shadow side of the conference, I thought he may be talking about the likes of me. I am the shadow side, not because I am a dark person, but because I had (past tense) a feeling of not advancing, as some of the super stars of the field had, all these brilliant young scholars. I was a schoolteacher before the program, and I went back to teaching after the program. The conversation about what you do with the degree was the most relevant in the conference to my life, different comments resonating and repelling. At first, I knew I wasn’t going to contribute because I didn’t want to reveal that there ain’t much you can do with it. But as the conversation ensued, I found myself changing my mind, I would have spoken had there been more time. I would have agreed with Ebil who said, “It’s not what you do, it’s how you do what you do whatever you do.” I would have disagreed with Teresia and her call for the program to be more deliberate in preparing students for careers. I know I made choices to be where I am. I had started a Ph.D. program in Political Science. Attending those classes, I did not feel I belonged, so I dropped out. At first, going back to teaching was just to have a job. But I wouldn’t have stayed if I was repelled by it, as I was in the Political Studies doctorate. It took a while in my journey teaching, but I now know I am where I am by choice.

Still, what does it have to do with Pacific Islands Studies? When I left teaching to get a Masters, I did not want to get a Masters in Education. I wanted to grow as a person, exploring topics that I was interested in, that I was passionate about. I wanted to have exciting conversations, read stimulating books and articles, write essays and papers, do research. Not that I wouldn’t have had the same experience in the college of education, but I thought I had left education at the time. Being where I am now - an elementary school teacher-union activist-public education advocate- playwright-letter writer-blogger- envronmentalist- progressive Christian - definitely built upon my experiences in the Pacific Islands Studies master’s program. I was given wonderful opportunities that I can look back on with pride: editing the film guide, writing a review for Albert Wendt’s Ola for TCP, speaking at a conference in Maui. (Thanks to Bib Kiste, the best boss ever!) I wrote a few plays during that time and one of my papers was published in Mana. Professors, especially Terence, were supportive of my intellectual growth, they challenged my thinking, introduced me to provocative ideas.

I think there is a lot to be said for being supportive. I was a single mom raising a daughter who was in second grade at the time. CPIS was my support system. It was a great job and there were people who cared about my life and my success in the program. So what does that have to do with life after CPIS? Being a big-picture thinker, a writer, an analyzer, a questioner, an integrater, an advocate, a leader, may not have started with CPIS (ask my best friend from high school), but it was definitely strengthened. In the end, I think it is a good idea to have students consider what their options could be with the degree as Teresia advised. But know there is the possibility that you just never know, that having personal, interpersonal and intellectual skills will carry you far forward, not just in a career, but in living a well-informed life of passion, advocacy, and service.

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