Transcendent Spirit: The Orphans of Uganda (Douglas Menuez)

I posted this earlier on our family's adoption blog (http://www.wilsonsinuganda.blogspot.com/). As a book review, it's fitting for this space as well.

We recently got a smoking deal on several Uganda-related books on Amazon. Among them was this amazing photographic journal showing the plight of Ugandan orphans.

The reasons for abandoned children in Uganda (or any country) are many and all very sad. Transcendent Spirit addresses them all, including AIDS. poverty, lack of education, political unrest, and murder. On each spread there is a massive, beautiful photograph of one (or several) orphans, and accompanying it there is a name and description of that individual's story.

This book puts specific faces and smiles and tears and hurts on the unfortunately vague term, "orphan." One young girl (Zaina), whose past includes the death of her entire family to some strange curse (her tribe's concept of the AIDS virus), was apparently asked by the author/photographer what she thought was most special about her. Zaina's response was: "The most special thing about me? That I am alive."

Other orphans featured in the book talk about their escape from their terrible circumstances due to traveling to the United States with a concert/musical/dance troupe known as Spirit of Uganda (since 2008...previously known as Empower African Children). Their performances raise money and awareness for the orphanages in Uganda. I have not yet had the honor of seeing one of these presentations, but I'm definitely adding it to our family's life experiences list.

The book is really a picture essay, and what is said about pictures being worth a thousand words is very true. We just received our copy today, and have all sat together looking through it a few times. It helps us understand more about Miriam's culture. It helps us feel the hurt of her birth nation. It helps us realize that when we talk about how "there are 147 million orphans in the world," each one of them is just like the hurting, crying, starving, sick children and teenagers in Transcendent Spirit. It reminds us that every one in that 147 million has a name, a face, and a story.

I'm so thankful that in April, when we finally are united with our baby girl, that there will be ONE LESS.


DEFINITELY worth it!



My National Board Experience: Was It Worth It?

From June of 2008-June of 2009, I underwent the most strenuous, rigorous, arduous task of my professional life: National Board Teacher Certification.

“National Board Certification is part of the growing education reform movement that is advancing student learning, improving teaching and making schools better. Teachers who achieve National Board Certification have met high standards through study, expert evaluation, self-assessment and peer review.” (http://www.nbpts.org/become_a_candidate/the_benefits )

That is what National Board Certification means to some.

This is what going through National Boards meant to me.

While going through the National Board process, I:

-Missed bath time, blowing bubbles, reading, holding, feeding, playing, singing with, teaching, and playing outside with my child.
-Had acne breakouts so bad they were reminiscent of my high school days.
-Saw the sun rise…many times.
-Skipped Bible study, Bunko, parties, and dinners with friends.
-Declined requests to help at church, and with church get-togethers.
-Neglected my family’s scrapbook for an entire year. That is scandalous for someone who normally has the beach page completed before we leave the beach.
-Learned more about my students, about teaching, and about myself than I ever dreamed possible.
-Missed all my favorite shows…repeatedly.
-Skipped grocery shopping and cleaning house for several months.
-Had never been more thankful for my husband and his supportive nature.
-Felt like I didn’t have a real conversation with friends or family from September to June.
-Gained and lost the same 10 pounds at least 3 times.
-2 words: CARPAL TUNNEL.
-Longed to have my guest room back (sweet hubby had converted it to my personal National Board workspace)!
-Completely wore out a rolling crate. Wheels hanging off, bottom busted out, sides falling apart. By mid-March, it was out by the curb.
-Felt truly, madly, deeply VIOLENT towards my printer; how dare that thing print crazy when it knew I had a deadline to meet!
-Skipped more than one bath in favor of a few more minutes’ worth of sleep.
-Had collective emotional breakdowns with other candidates.
-Wondered if I’d have any friends at all once I emerged from the National Board cave because I never talked with them and if I did, the conversation was always about National Boards.
-Was in such a frantic state one day that I backed into the garage door as it was going up, then in my haste to throw it in Drive and prevent further damage to the garage door I almost slammed into the side of the house; the next day I was in such a hurry to get to school early that I ran into a garbage can on the side of the road and knocked off my side-view mirror. Even our cars paid for my stress this year!
-Almost could not pry my fingers off my box to hand it over to FedEx, and threatened them if they lost it.
-Told a friend at McAlister’s that I needed to see the pictures on the wall menu because “I’m a visual learner.”
-Felt so isolated, because no one else in the world knew my exact teaching circumstances, my certification area, my standards, my style, or my writing; this was ME vs. ME.
-Woke up in the middle of the night reflecting on a lesson, thinking of an idea to help with a lesson, thinking of my students, thinking of an idea to help them learn, etc.

In March 2009, I submitted THE BOX filled with my portfolio entries (also known as hundreds of hours’ worth of my blood, sweat, and tears). In June I took a 3 hour assessment at a testing center (also known as a crazy room filled with cameras and sound monitors and fingerprint scanners at the one point of entry/exit for security purposes). Since then I have waited for scores to be released, and have just received notice that all current candidates will find out the fate of our National Board journey this Friday.

So was it all worth it? Absolutely. This process refined me as an educator and specifically as a library media specialist in a way that not even a doctorate level degree could have accomplished. I learned the incredible power of reflection, and of the importance of spending my time on the extra-curricular events, activities, and committees that CLEARLY impact student achievement. I’m naturally a tech person, and have always enjoyed teaching technology with students. During my National Board work, however, I fell in love (maybe for the first time) with the library media portion of my job. This year I learned that my next degree will be an EdS in Library Media, rather than the Instructional Technology program I had in mind before.

I have re-read the standards for Library Media numerous times…too many to count. I still feel the same way I did the first time I read them: inadequate. Regardless of the score I see on the screen Friday morning, I have a lot of growing room as a library media specialist. I simply have the National Board Teacher Certification process to thank for providing me with a measure of how to get where I need to be. Pass or fail this year, the National Board standards, rubrics, and methodology are permanently a part of my educational philosophy, which I hope will continually increase in impacting students in my learning community throughout the remainder of my time serving children.


Adopted for Life (Russell Moore)

I have a daughter in Uganda, Africa.
As my family and I are moving through the process to finalize her adoption, I've gobbled up numerous books on this topic.
Adopted for Life is not a "how-to" guide. It is not a step by step manual to lead adoptive families through the incredibly difficult and entangled legal process that encompasses adoption. It is not an authority on how to choose a country or how to raise funds to complete your adoption process.
Adopted for Life is a call to action for Christians and the churches they inhabit. Russell Moore describes the pressing need of people to seek the opportunity to help care for the fatherless, hopeless, and helpless. He addresses the concerns of those who oppose transracial adoption, gives practical advice for initiating an orphan care ministry within local churches, and provides guidelines for dealing with the rudeness of others and with the questions from your adopted children regarding their arrival in the family.
Throughout all of this, he interweaves his own family's painful experiences with infertility, and meeting their sons through international adoption, as well as gumdrops of wisdom he learned along the way about these children, his faith, and our God.
Adopted for Life is one of those books that belongs on every shelf in every home with every family. Even those who are not called to adopt (and not everyone is) still play a critical role in helping alleviate the global orphan crisis.



The Graveyard Book (Neil Gaiman)

What would you do if your parents were ghosts? How would you survive if you were confined to a graveyard? Bod Owens is a boy who was orphaned and subsequently adopted by an entire graveyard. The Graveyard Book tells the stories of Bod's adventures growing up in the graveyard and how he was raised by this village of ghosts. As Bod grows, he learns more and more about the murder of his first family as well as the darker forces that are at work around him. Through lots of adventure and surprising characters, Bod is eventually able to play the role he wants in helping protect his family of ghosts.
As with every other book purchase, I always carefully select new materials for my school library. Among many other things, I consult literature review sources, I preview the material if possible, I weigh in the amount of curricular support the books offers, and I also consider any awards the book has won. This book was the 2009 John Newbery Award winner for outstanding contribution to children's/young adult literature. Most Newbery books are a bit set apart, but then any book that wins a world class award would have to be different from the cookie cutter novels of the day. This one is no exception. The Graveyard Book passed all my selection criteria with flying colors and so I added it to my most recent book order...but I'll have to confess that during the first chapter I almost regretted it.
The tone and language of the book is not graphic or threatening, but in the opening chapter of the book Bod's mother, father, and sister are murdered. The first voice we hear is that of their killer ("the man Jack") and his longing to wipe out this family. I had a problem with exposing my kiddos to such dark evil. It wasn't blood and gore, but it was enough to make me think, "Can my 5th graders handle this?" As I turned that concept over and over in my mind, I've talked with other school librarians who've also read the material. One reminded me that this scene was no different than the Goosebumps series that they all seem to love (actually, those might be worse because they ARE gory), and so I read on.
I'm still concerned about the opening scene, and I will take caution to prepare the kids for that, BUT...it stays in my collection, and here's why:
-Without Bod becoming an orphan, this story would not be possible. Children who are orphans always become so through some tragic circumstances.
-The voice of "the man Jack" is not the main one in this story. He's the bad guy, but there is more good than bad here. If nothing, this book has a classic good vs. evil theme. Had Jack's evil narrative been projected throughout the tale, it would be a much darker, and scarier, book.
-This is a GREAT story. Much like To Kill a Mockingbird, there are lots of small tidbits about the life and culture of this setting that come back to play critical roles in the conclusion of the book (and ultimate triumph of good). It's filled with memorable characters, learning experiences, and Bod, who teaches that doing the right thing is always worth it.
-This is the 2009 NEWBERY medal winner. Those aren't picked out of a hat.
-My friend is right. This is much lighter than all those Goosebumps books my kids gobble up like literature candy.



Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire (Rafe Esquith)

The nonfiction market is flooded with books with plenty of suggestions on how to improve teaching, how to better reach students, and how to surf the swell of the latest and greatest in educational fads and pedagogy.
They sell, and they sell well, because teachers are one of the few professionals who are continuously seeking improvement. They honestly do want to do the very best they can with this opportunity to shape the minds of the future.
Every once in a while, there comes along a rare jewel that is practical, and actually does contain some helpful tips for teaching. Teach Like Your Hair's On Fire is one such book. Rafe is a seasoned teacher from the New York city system, and this book begins with some basic concepts about what the big goal really is for educating students. He also goes into detail with practical ideas he uses with his students to teach them to think outside the box. Rafe is a one-of-a-kind teacher, and reading his book and applying the ideas within it will help others become those rare gems in the teaching world as well.


Artemis Fowl: Time Paradox (Colfer)

About 5 years ago I fell in love with the Artemis Fowl series. They're action-packed, full of adventure, very clever, and filled with fairy-related creatures that are interesting without being corny to the kids. Great books. They're all in the 4th-5th grade reading range, and are especially good for reluctant boys.
Artemis Fowl is a young man whose family was once neck-deep in fraud, criminal mischief, and efforts at global control. The boy is a stinking genius, and mostly uses his brainpower for greedy purposes. Along the way in the Artemis Fowl series, he changes a great deal.
The Time Paradox is the latest installment in the series. In this book, Artemis's mother is struck with a fatal illness that can only be cured by Artemis travelling back in time. While he did so, he encounters his former (bad) self, and the adventure turns into a battle of wits with himself. Just as with the other Artemis Fowl books, there are plenty of twists and turns that give you a nice surprise at the end!