Tiny Cups and Orange Lights

Tuesday May 19, 2015
Big shout out to a critical colleague of mine at Oakton @DrGracia. She encouraged me more than she knows via Twitter. It’s tough to write daily – but I’m going to go, go, go. Thanks GNA:)
Tuesday was a good day. A long day, but one with more firsts and a great deal of learning. When I used to teach a student leadership course at the University of Louisville, there was a particular lesson about sustaining relationships that I really enjoyed teaching. In that section we would talk about the importance of “going places and doing things.” If you want to make an impact, if you want to clarify your values, if you want to create and sustain new relationships, you must go places and do things. Sounds simple, right? Well it is. I am fortunate to be able to go places far away and do things that require resources, but it wasn’t always that way. So hopefully this post, and all my posts, will allow you to go places and do things vicariously through me, while you also do your own thing.
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The smallest and simplest things entertain and amaze me when traveling abroad. They help me put into perspective things I take for granted, and challenges me to think differently about what I do and don’t do, and why I do it. The ultimate hope is that I am a better person, educator, parent, and person because of all this perspective-taking. And then some things are just hilarious. Take for instance the size of the cups here in Holland. Mind you I am used to drinking 20 oz of coffee to start each day, and then I arrive here and see these baby cups that look like I should be using them with my daughter at a pretend tea party. Jerome always joked back in the states that our cups were huge, even the small ones. Well now I see why. Or take how I saw a traffic light that to me is yellow, so I commented “yellow light!” since I literally hadn’t seen one since I’ve been here – to which Jerome erupts in laughter and says in his Aruba/Dutch accent which is so endearing, “no man, that’s orange!” Of course we argue for 15 minutes about how the other is wrong, and the way the other does it in their country is crazy. This of course is all in jest, and we laugh at how some people are unable to overcome things even more banal than this in the real world. And so we laugh, and appreciate each other, and realize our differences are what make us the same in the end.
I continue to engage my Dutch colleagues in discussions about race, racism, and the challenges we face in the U.S. They are exposed to many of the same biased and incomplete media images that we are. I was happy when a colleague said to me “I didn’t even think about that, and I’m glad we talked” in reference to why “it” [race] still matters so much in the U.S. I was able to get reacquainted with the higher education system of Holland, which differs in many ways from the U.S. Most notable is how “layered” the system is, in that there are many choices after primary school that can lead students on many different paths towards post-secondary education. It also seems that the way the schools are funded, everyone has an equal chance at a number of tracks, and where they go largely depends on their own talent in school and/or their effort. It’s the closest thing to a meritocratic education system as it gets. Seems simple enough, but in fact I am confident there are problems and disparities that show up. In the U.S. the “meritocracy” doesn’t exist because students are not experiencing primary education the same way. There are vast disparities in resources and outcomes for lower-income people. That apparently is not the case in the Holland system because of the funding structure of the schools. Even so I learned where our system has values and faults, and so did Jerome. I am most affirmed in my belief that we (globally it seems) still rush our students to know what they want to do, well before they are able to understand who they want to be.That’s a dangerous practice.
I am coming to understand that what the Dutch call efficiency is not merely getting things done faster, but getting things done better. I don’t think the end goal is simply to move fast, I think its to move with purpose – and things that don’t seem purposeful distract from their goals; in this case teaching the students. It wasn’t very “efficient” for us to drive out to a gym (which had a bar by the way – yes can I have another) for Jerome to asses a students work in organizing a basketball tournament. But the experiential “learning in action, learning is doing” model at the Sports College, recognizes that its the best way to assess whether the students really get it. It was amazing to watch – not only that the student was demonstrating his skills and what he learned, but it also benefited the community members with which he worked.
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Student organized basketball tournament
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Student organized basketball tournament
It’s not necessarily efficient to have so many shared, flexible spaces. Yes it saves on space, but it robs people of the privacy that we in US spaces crave. We would argue that it causes distractions, and lessens our ability to “get work done.” But what I observed was a lot of work getting done – better work, collaborative work, open work, and social work. It’s the kind of work that keeps you coming back, and silently holds you accountable to both showing up, getting things done, and learning to respect and honor the work that others are doing. I am reminded of the Hive that my colleague GNA started at Oakton – and I think how that creates that space if only for a short time each week.
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Flexible/shared office space
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Seating area/lounge space within the office
I also couldn’t tell who the “boss” was around the building. Yes people dressed the same, but it was more than that. There was a collegiality that pervaded the space, and I want to study that more as I speak with the formal leaders of the organization.
At the end of the night, me, Jerome and his partner Sandra continued a conversation that Jerome and I started in the car. We were talking about the efficacy of the social sciences, and how its impossible to know things with a certainty – and how dangerous it is to judge based on what we think we know about people. This is particularly relevant in our work as we are helping students to think through their own success, next steps, strengths, and talents in a way that is grounded in theory, but imperfect in practice. You understand people’s pedagogy when you spend time talking to them. I wonder how I can do that more with my colleagues at Oakton – to truly understand where their talents are and their challenges are as we try to do best by our students. Speaking of students…I love students – no matter where I go. I got to see the students in action, being taught, doing energizers, using their technology to create videos and present them at the end of the day. The students at the sports college are kinesthetic learners by nature, so sitting still and being quiet was a challenge to say the least. The instructors handled it with such patience and love.
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I was particularly taken with a student leader who is a Level 3/4 student, who is also one of the country’s top athletes in his sport (Cycling) and who I mistook as a teacher. He was so mature, poised, and helpful. Jason if you are reading this, thank you for being you, and doing it really well.

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Jason van Haaften

Other students were also very good to get to know, the clowns (and liars – you know who you are Jop) and the more serious ones. Each had their own style, energy, and sense of purpose. One student wanted to do more and be more partly because his dad said he should. He was so sure about what he wanted to do, at least it seemed that way. Just like our students in the U.S., they are just trying to figure it all out.

Personally I am doing well. I had the chance to visit a Pancake House for some Dutch pancakes for dinner. These are more akin to crepes in my opinion. We agreed they were somewhere between French crepes and American pancakes. I wasn’t a fan, neither was Jerome, but the service was excellent and the scenery was perfect.
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Dutch pancake

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When I prep myself for international travel I am reminded of the courses I taught and led to places in the Caribbean and Asia. I am reminded how powerful and effect the loss of routine can have on your mental and physical well-being. Not having your nightly cup of water; having to brush your teeth at odd times; nothing having your favorite food or access to your favorite music or “things.” Those things are what can set people off, much more than culture or country shock. I’m staying flexible in the face of my losses, and trying to stay present at all times. This is too important to let any loss overshadow the tremendous gains I’m experiencing.
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