A Tale of Two Back to School Nights

Excitement and enthusiasm were in the air as teachers in my new high school in a middle class neighborhood prepared their classrooms by decorating their bulletin boards, displaying student work, and straightening desks. Welcome messages abounded, Remind.com messages were sent, and we opened our doors to meet the parents.
I have done these events for 24 years, four times a year at my former school in South Central L.A. But this year’s Back to School Night left me reflecting, and perhaps shedding a tear.
First, my new parents were fantastic. They were friendly, enthusiastic, and supportive of the new ideas I bring to the school. I knew in them I would have allies to incorporate my findings from my Fulbright exchange in Finland earlier this year. Parent after parent nodded their heads and strongly affirmed that break time was important to students, teachers, and workers in general. They were excited to hear about the summer travel programs I had prepared.
As I looked at their warm and s…

FULBRIGHT: It is NOT a vacation

Photo Credit https://bodybalance4you.files.wordpress.com

Friday the 15th of December marked the last day of the school semester for me at Los Angeles Academy Middle School in South Central L.A. It also meant that I would not be returning to work until August of 2018.

Goodbye, 8th grade students matriculating to high school.

Goodbye, parents with whom I have collaborated for many years.

Hasta luego, colleagues and friends who will remain on the front to keep pushing our school forward.
Mighty Lions Gala

It was not an easy farewell. But confoundingly, I was wished a happy vacation by various people. I smiled, and corrected them, but apparently this is a very common misconception encountered by Fulbrighters while on leave.

Imagine having a burning curiosity on a subject related to your work. Mine was the education system in Finland, and whether we could implement some of their best practices in the USA. You wish you had the time and the money to explore this esoteric topic, but everyone thinks you are crazy for even believing it could be possible. Except the Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.

A little Fulbright history

In September 1945, the freshman senator from Arkansas, J. William Fulbright, introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress that called for the use of proceeds from the sales of surplus war property to fund the “promotion of international good will through the exchange of students in the fields of education, culture and science.” One year later, President Harry S. Truman signed the Fulbright Act into law.

Today, Fulbright is the most widely recognized and prestigious international exchange program in the world, supported for more than half a century by the American people through an annual appropriation from the U.S. Congress and by the people of partner nations. The program—working with universities, schools, binational Fulbright commissions, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector—actively seeks out individuals of achievement and potential who represent the full diversity of their respective societies and selects nominees through open, merit-based competitions.

From its inception, the Fulbright Program has fostered bilateral relationships in which other countries and governments work with the U.S. to set joint priorities and shape the program to meet shared needs. The world has been transformed in ensuing decades, but the fundamental principles of international partnership and mutual understanding remain at the core of the Fulbright Program’s mission.

Senator Fulbright had the foresight to imagine that freeing people from their everyday duties to learn and interact with global citizens, far and wide, might....just might bring home some new and fresh ideas for schools, companies, and even individuals. I, for one, am thankful of the existence of this program.

Schedule in Finland

There is no schedule. I will have 5 months to plan my days according to my own priorities. As I type this, I am still in disbelief that such professional respect and courtesy would be afforded to me. No one will be looking over my shoulder. There will be minimal check-ins with the International Institute for Education, which manage the Fulbright DAT Program. I will be left alone to study at my own pace, design my school visits, conduct interviews, and sometimes just think.

Inquiry Project

Each Fulbright Teacher selects a topic they would like to pursue, in keeping with the special focus of the U.S. Department of State:

One of the main components of the Fulbright Distinguished Awards in Teaching Program is the design and completion of an inquiry project that is directly relevant and applicable to classroom practice. The U.S. Department of State is particularly interested in supporting projects that reach students in traditionally underserved groups including girls, racial and ethnic minorities, children with disabilities, and students in underresourced communities and schools.

My topic is How Does Outdoor Education Foster Equality in Girls? If Finnish students are provided with an abundance of break time, most of which is spent outdoors, how does this unstructured break time contribute to the great equality between the sexes that Finland has achieved?

Esoteric? Indeed. And I will get 5 months to pursue this line of inquiry.


What if schools in Los Angeles (...CA...USA...) increased their outdoor time? Recess breaks have been declining substantially in the last decade. Kindergarten is no longer fun. We are killing our students by forcing them to study non-stop inside four walls, with little to no breaks. According to brain research, we are doing it all wrong.

What if break time was classified as instructional time? Then we would not have to keep students in school longer in order to meet minimum instructional minutes required by the Department of Education. As I get closer to retirement, I think about the legacy I'd like to leave behind. Giving students a chance to learn in a different environment, closer to nature (even if it is just sunlight), and strengthening underserved populations is something I believe is worth pursuing.


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