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The Curriculum of Disappointment

April 5, 2014

The Glass Menagerie“I wish I had a sister like you.”

The line hangs in the air, as the reader pauses in disbelief. Junior jaws drop, a few of them shaking their heads, as if to clear away the last line uttered by Jim O’Connor, gentleman caller and secret high school crush of the hopeful Laura Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie.

“Ouch, that’s way worse than Friend-Zoned,” shudders one young man. “Sister-Zoned!”

“His sister!” wails another girl, who just minutes before had been on the edge of her seat as the gentleman caller gently coaxed the shy Laura out of the imaginary world that had absorbed so much of her attention until now.

This may be an apt time to mention that my honors classes at Black Forest Academy this year are mostly female this year, by a ratio of 29 girls to seven boys. While last year’s classes scoffed at the small, muted world of this modernist play about dreams and their demise, this year my students have been spellbound, swept up in the hopeful possibility of romance for the protagonist’s withdrawn younger sister.

As usually happens, this investment makes the disappointment greater when things don’t work out. The students who were relatively impassive when they read of Gatsby’s murder and the tragic close of Of Mice and Men are enraged by Jim’s bumbling deception, wooing and then disappointing poor Laura’s newfound hopes.

I think my students love this play because for the first time they can directly relate to the characters. Tom wants adventure and travel, but is grounded by duty to his family. Laura wants to be loved–a universal longing–and for a moment believes that wish will be granted. Each student in my classroom has felt kinship to one or the other of these characters, many to both.

Talking with these eleventh graders, it occurs to me that this is one of those moments when literature offers the door to very practical, tangible truth for us. We have all experienced Laura’s disappointment, instances where romantic hope dries up in the hot breath of a few words, declaring that we’re “just friends” or “intellectual equals” or something just as damning. Disappointment, in its many forms, seems to be one of the commonalities of human existence, pointing out the distance between how we hoped life would go and how it actually does.

Yet if disappointment is something we share, then it’s in our response that the hope of Christ shines through. I’m convinced that most people react to beauty, joy and victory in much the same way. Some people thank God, and others do not, but the gratefulness is similar. In disappointment, in failure, in tragedy–there lies the real test.

Almost five years ago, I was laid off from my teaching job with Seattle Public Schools, one of 250 teachers who fell victim to seniority-prescribed budget cuts. I was in a position similar to mine now: faculty advisor for that year’s senior class, deeply involved in planning prom and graduation, mentoring younger teachers as I grew in confidence in this vocation of teaching. I was happy and stable, and felt rooted in Seattle and my school. The loss of this job was, in many ways, the biggest loss of my life up to that point.

With the busyness of the end of the school year, I never had time to mourn, and only had begun to make plans for the future when at the last minute my contract was renewed for the following year. Still, I remember the realization, even in the midst of this rather crushing blow to my dreams for my life, that God must have other plans. That, in the end, it was possible that those plans were better, bigger, more beautiful even than the glowing career I’d imagined for myself at Ingraham.

It’s this realization, ultimately, that led me here a year later, to this green valley in Southwestern Germany, to Black Forest Academy. In disappointment I drew closer to Christ, who guided me forward. I didn’t get what I wanted in 2008–a long career in Seattle Public Schools, maybe a townhouse in Ballard–but this is better. Disappointment doesn’t have to be the end–of dreams, of hope, of joy. It can be a new beginning, a change of scene, if only I trust that God knows more than I do.

As we discuss the play the next day, I ask my students what is next for Laura Wingfield, reminding them that this sort of disappointment–really, any sort–offers two possible ways forward. She can accept the good of that ephemeral relationship, cherishing the few lovely moments that they shared, or she can become bitter at its ending, refusing to let anyone else in.

They are divided on what happens, some believing she’ll withdraw further, while others argue that this experience will help her better relate to others in the future. As we disperse for spring holidays all over the world, I remind them that our dreams–fulfilled, dashed or altered–don’t have to define us. We’re defined by who we love, who we follow, a Dreamer with better dreams for us.

April: News, Thanks and Prayers

April 3, 2014
Our small group, at their first (and last) high school retreat all together!

Our small group, at their first (and last) high school retreat all together!

News and Dates:

  • April 7-21: Spring Break
  • April 25: Sadie Hawkins Hoedown
  • April 26: First track meet at Bitburg High School
  • April 28: Senior Transition Day
  • Timmy will be completing a chaplaincy tour at Spangdalem Air Force Base in Northwestern Germany in the month of July.
  • Curriculum for April: The Glass Menagerie, Of Mice and Men, A Raisin in the Sun

I’m Thankful For:

  • My Parents, for helping organize storing some of our things back in Washington. Thank you both so much!
  • High School Retreat, which provided a great setting for conversation with our six senior girls in a new place.
  • Early Spring in Kandern, which has brought warm weather, fresh new leaves, and singing birds to the Kandertal for us to enjoy.
  • The Track Team, a group of talented young leaders and athletes, who brighten these balmy afternoons with their good attitudes and commitment to being fit and encouraging each other as a team.
  • My Colleagues, talented teachers who provide advice, mentorship and encouragement daily.

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Student Mission Trips. Starting tomorrow at 4:30 AM, our students will be traveling all over the Eastern Hemisphere to participate in various service, development, educational and evangelical projects. Pray for health and safety for our students as they serve in Europe, Asia and Africa over Spring Break, and that Christ would be working both in their hearts and in the lives of those they encounter on their journeys.
  • Summer Plans. Timmy will be away for much of July, and I’ll most likely be spending time here in Kandern completing online classes to keep my certification current. Pray that we would seek God’s guidance for how best to spend our time this summer, seeking ways to honor Him in all we do.

It is always a delight to hear from you! If you have a prayer request or questions about life or ministry in Germany, or if you’d like to become a financial partner in this ministry, email me at kristi.dahlstrom@gmail.com.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi & Timmy

experiments

March 15, 2014

Poetry Friday

love is more thicker than forget

more thinner than recall

more seldom than a wave is wet

less frequent than to fail

E.E. Cummings

Friday afternoon, and I have only three students in my fifth period American Literature class. It is language field trip day, when the French class drives to Dijon, the German class flies to Berlin, and the Spanish flies to Madrid. It is also the first away soccer game. By my scientific calculations, approximately 76% of all Black Forest Academy juniors are either taking these upper-level language classes or playing soccer. Leaving, in my fifth period, only these three, who do neither.

The options for what to do with a three-person class are admittedly limited, typically dwindling down to:

  1. Watch a movie. Perhaps one related to your class, or perhaps not. But definitely nothing too critical, that will require endless filling-in when the absent students return.
  2. Go out for ice cream. Instructionally, not the best option, but perfect for the odd choir or team sports class, where proceeding meaningfully with the material is impossible.
  3. Plan an elaborate lesson, with many moving parts, that is not repeatable and may not even work, but for three students it’s worth experimenting a bit.

Though options 1 and 2 have served me well on other sparsely-studented days, today I went for 3, spending half an hour after school yesterday setting my classroom up as an experimental typography laboratory. On the tables are piles of words–most of them of the useful, vaguely poetic type like divinevision, or violin–on colorful squares of paper. Each table contains a different challenge:

  • Arrange the words using experimental syntax (“Brilliant violin I have played the divine.”)
  • Use the words to create five new compound words, then use them in a poem. (“But marbleyou, my puzzlefriend, arted across the room.”)
  • Break up a least two words, arranging them in a non-linear way to give them new or enhanced meaning. (see picture right)
  • Experiment with spacing and line breaks to highlight specific words or phrases in your poem.

I have no idea how this will go. Experience whispers both jeers and encouragements, as echoes of other failed lessons elbow me away from risk-taking, and memories of unexpected victories urge me onward. I grasp the irony of  risking an experimental lesson about experimental poetry, and realize the risks are the same. In the poetry, Cummings risked his readers not understanding or bothering with his work. In the lesson, I risk the same, that my students will look at the carefully cut-out words and scoff the dreaded, “Do we really have to do anything today?” They might not understand.

As it happens, they do. I spend three gleeful class periods with the remnant students, pushing words around on tables and playing with their meanings, trying for once to shake of the chains of convention to recall the joy we once took in the words themselves. My non-native English speakers are scrambling for prepositions and articles to make grammatical sense of their creations, and I’m telling them it doesn’t matter. Today. And, swimming in paper words, poetry happens.

It strikes me that a good activity, for me, is as unexpected as a poem, and as serendipitous. After eight years of practice, I can string together the solid prose of instruction and assessment with fairly predictable ease. But these moments apart, odd and marvelous, still take risk and adventure. I’m thankful to work in a place where such risks are rewarded, from both administration and students willing to keep an open mind, and thankful for this quiet day of creative space, peaceful and delightful with my three remaining students.

Oh, The Places We’ve Been

March 3, 2014
Ninth graders take the World War I trenches by storm.

Ninth graders take the World War I trenches by storm.

The times we had
oh, when the wind would blow with rain and snow
were not all bad
we put our feet just where they had, had to go
never to go

“Postcards From Italy,” Beirut

The view from our castle tower is stunning, the lights of Saturday-night Nürnberg spread out below us in sequined splendor. We’re sitting, five of us–two teachers and three students–on a double bed in a hostel room, late on the last night of this year’s High School Retreat. Our school goes every year, uprooting all 270 students and 50 of the staff, and relocating a bus-ride away for a weekend of reflection, reconnection and recreation. The last three years, we’ve gone to Lenk, Switzerland, bringing our laughter to the high-altitude clean silence of the Swiss Alps. This year, the buses brought us to Nürnberg, in northeastern Bavaria, a red-roofed city with a colored recent past.

Tenth graders, playing in the snow.

Tenth graders, playing in the snow.

The other teacher is my former roommate, Emily, who over the last four years has transformed from anonymous name on an email, Personnel’s pick for my flatmate, to a dear friend, recent bridesmaid in my wedding, co-sponsor and leader of this small group of now-senior girls. The three students are three of the six girls we’ve been mentoring since they were fourteen. There’s history in this room, growing maturity that we celebrate, questions that often surprise us but bring to light the depths to which these young women are seeking to know and honor Christ with every aspect of their lives.

 

Junior year, Paris.

Junior year, Paris.

“I just think,” one of the girls is saying, “I just think that we’ve had an amazing time, you know?” She gazes out the window, down the hill at the city, looking for a moment like an illustration of a princess in her castle tower. We’d been talking over the places we’ve been together, even just for High School Retreat, which is never anyone’s most dramatic travel story. Our students always get teased by their peers back home, in North America or Korea, when they complain about “having to go to Switzerland” for the weekend.

 

 

Paris

“I mean, we’ve traveled the world together,” she continues. “To Vienna, Rome, Athens. In the spring London… Who gets to do that? Spend high school traveling with your best friends? It’s amazing,” she repeats. I look up and catch Emily’s eye, realizing it’s true for us, too, that we’ve traveled together often, with and without students, in the last four years. It is amazing, as she says, and I echo her thankfulness.

 

 

 

Seniors waiting at Piazza San Marco, Vatican City.

Seniors waiting at Piazza San Marco, Vatican City.

Four years, and I’m near the end of an important season at Black Forest Academy. In my first months here, not knowing how long I’d stay, I took on class sponsorship for a herd of freshmen I’d never met. Missing the ninth graders I’d taught for years back in Seattle, I also volunteered to mentor a small group of girls just beginning high school. At that point, I wasn’t certain I’d see them graduate, but I was willing to invest some time in their first years here, hoping to help make them positive ones. Honestly, these roles weren’t always the easiest, and there were times when the tenure of class sponsor and small group leader seemed very long indeed. Not the middle distance of a year of teaching, these were marathons of mentorship.

 

RomeAnd yet, as this season draws to a close, I miss them already. I’ve been all over with these kids, from the trenches of eastern France to the ruins of ancient Rome to the crumbling facades of Oradea, Romania. After a year of English class, I know their handwriting, their affinity for odd idioms and hackneyed similes. I can recognize most of their voices across an auditorium, in the dark around a campfire, or from the back of a bus or a plane. I know that my small group loves cashews Youtube videos, and writing funny quotes on Post-It notes, that they want both to keep wandering and find out what it means to stand still, and that they understand what a paradox that is. Realizing this, my love for this group of students who’ve been here as long as I, there are moments when the transition ahead feels impossibly melancholy, as I try to imagine what this town and school will look like after dear friends and these students have left it.

 

SeniorsWhen I was younger, the grey winters of Seattle were broken by only a few days of snow each year. When it started snowing, I was gleeful. Almost immediately, however, I was mourning the inevitable melting of the glorious whiteness. I missed much of the joy, anticipating its end.

The antidote to such gloom, I know, is thankfulness, like this young woman who looks out the window, knowing the uncertainty of her future, and declares that these years have been amazing. Challenging, full of growth and difficulty, but amazing all the same. I couldn’t agree with her more, or possibly be more thankful for these last four years at Black Forest Academy and the students that I’ve come to know along the way.

March: News, Thanks and Prayers

March 3, 2014
AP Ceramic students watch a demonstration on the weekend workshop with a master potter.

AP Ceramic students watch a demonstration on the weekend workshop with a master potter.

News and Dates:

  • March 4: Track season begins
  • March 6-8: Middle school play: Annie Jr.
  • March 14-16: Faculty retreat in Switzerland
  • Curriculum for March: The Great Gatsby, modern poetry, author research projects

I’m Thankful For:

  • High School Retreat, always a time of busy reconnection with students in a new place, this year’s was full of rich conversation and explorations of what it means to follow Christ into adulthood.
  • Travel with students, both to Nürnberg for High School Retreat and to the Black Forest for a pottery workshop, times that allowed for connection especially with seniors who are processing their upcoming graduation.
  • The Great Gatsby, for providing the usual opportunities to discuss materialism, morality, love and Western values in the context of a brilliant piece of American writing.
  • The Juniors, a group of students who loves poetry and new vocabulary, and is always looking for connections between English class and their lives.

Please Be In Prayer For:

  • Transition. With students wrapping up their time here, and many close friends preparing to leave, pray that Timmy and I would be wise in how to support, encourage and love our students and friends through this busy and often taxing time.
  • Senior Class. Pray for us as we spend these last few months with the class we’ve sponsored, investing time and love into these students. Pray that conversations would be rich and deep, and that Christ would continue to work in these relationships through the end of the school year.

It is always a delight to hear from you! If you have a prayer request or questions about life or ministry in Germany, or if you’d like to become a financial partner in this ministry, email me at kristi.dahlstrom@gmail.com.

Peace in Christ,

Kristi & Timmy

What Are We Doing Today?

February 16, 2014
What are we doing today?  Sitting on the floor and writing poems, of course!

What are we doing today?
Sitting on the floor and writing poems, of course!

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
    a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
    or ‘Your work has no handles’?”

Isaiah 45:9

Last spring, I contributed a “Teacher Translation Guide” to the yearbook. Mostly satire, it contained phrases that students should never say to a teacher, and the much better questions to ask instead. For example, instead of asking “Did I miss anything yesterday?”–implying the insulting possibility that nothing was missed–a student should ask “What did I miss?”

A recent conversation with fellow faculty reminded me of these un-askable questions, the ones that drive teachers crazy. An art teacher complains that her students come in every day asking, “Do we have to work today?” while a history teacher’s least favorite query is “Do I have to write this down?”

My personal nemesis: “What are we doing today?”

They ask in various tones, from eager to skeptical to jaded, ask as they step into the classroom, a verbal reflex. No matter what I say they’ll stay, and typically their mood won’t change much based on a forecast of an English lesson, but still they ask. Sometimes I answer, and sometimes I beg them to wait four minutes until I can tell all fifteen of them at once what today’s specials will be.

The answer I never give, but the one I want to more often than not, is “Can’t you just trust me that it will be worth knowing, that I won’t waste your time?”

It’s this question that made me laugh aloud when I came to the verse from Isaiah above, in which a clay pot demands to know the end product from the potter shaping it. A novice with ceramics myself, the image of talking clay was enough to amuse me, but the connection to class came just moments after.

How often, though, I’m asking those questions of God, like a student demanding to know the lesson ahead. “What are you making?” I’ll ask through particularly perplexing or troubling times. “Your work has no handles,” I’ll comment when it seems I’m not “turning out” the way that I’d always expected. A pot with an opinion, I tell the potter what’s up.

And, like me to my students, the response so often is, Trust me. I know what I’m doing.

I seldom feel God shaping me as it’s happening, too often content to believe I create myself. And yet as I look back, I realize that He has used each day, each face, each word towards my transformation, if only I allow myself to learn from them, if only I’m listening for His voice.

In a recent literature lesson, a group of students was weighing the relative influence of different American authors, deciding whose legacy was most essential to our history. Someone had just discarded Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder, shrugging off their sentimental novels with unfeeling nonchalance.

“I see what you’re saying,” I commented. “But think of this. Without those writers, I’m not necessarily your teacher. I’m just saying, books are powerful. And those two women wrote some teachers, and those teachers made me want to teach.” Shaped by words, I’m here today.

For the first time in a few years, varying staffing needs here mean I’m entering the next school year uncertain what exact role I’ll play at Black Forest Academy. There are different possibilities, all of them exciting and interesting, if unfamiliar. Sometimes I find myself clinging to specific positions and titles, a pot wishing for handles, or asking for dates and locations, demanding to know the end product. More and more, though, I am learning the beauty of being a silent pot, shaped by the masterful hands of an all-knowing Potter.

So, what are we doing today?

I’ll see, if I keep showing up.

To The {Book} Fair

February 9, 2014
Books in Greenwich

Books in Greenwich

…I’m coming to get you, I hissed,

as I entered the library like a man stepping

into a freight elevator of science and wisdom.

“The Literary Life,” Billy Collins

It’s a busy Friday night at Black Forest Academy. Upstairs, the junior varsity boys basketball team plays one of their last home games of the season. In the yearbook and graphic arts lab across the way, a few students and teachers watch the Opening Ceremonies of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics, projected on the wall. (The Parade of Nations is never more amusing than when some of the loudest cheers are for Moldova, Romania, Turkey, Tajikistan and Korea. We tried hard to keep up when the star-clad Americans strolled onto the scene.)

Having resolved to watch basketball later in the evening, I’ve left the Olympic viewing party to get dinner and browse at the Book Swap. The Book Swap, one of dozens of annual traditions in our small English-speaking community, is exactly what it sounds like. Bring an already-read and now-unwanted book in the afternoon, get a coupon for a free new book in the evening. Simple. Or, as some of the students do, bring twenty books that you gathered from dusty corners of your dorm, books left behind by students lightening their loads, and come away with twenty that you haven’t been dog-earing for several years already.

The Book Swap is one of those Inventions born of Necessity for which missionaries are famous. We don’t have to invent all that much, I admit, since Germany is decidedly first-world. In our frustrated moments we blame life’s difficulties on the culture, but by the rational light of day we mostly know that car trouble and medical bills are unpleasant in every language. There are Kafkaesque tax processes and unfindable groceries, but as North Americans living in a German village in the Black Forest, we get along just fine most of the time.

What we don’t have, however, are books. English books. They’re mostly not for sale in our village, and this has never really surprised me. Imagine the smallest town you can in America. In Pacific Northwest terms, our town is the size of Fall City or Concrete, Washington. Then, if you can, imagine that town having a bookstore. Finally, picture the bookstore carrying a section of books in French. “Why would we have English books?” the baffled shop owner had asked me shortly after I moved here and began inquiring. “No one likes reading in English.” 

Of course there are still English books here, hundreds and thousands of them, stashed away in our living rooms and offices and in our own school library, which is what makes the Book Swap work in the first place. It hinges on the idea that people aren’t necessarily purchasing new books, but rather sending well-read words on to new audiences. It’s a beautiful idea from every angle–ecological, intellectual, communal, economic–but nothing can describe the delight of experiencing it in person.

This year, I go down with a coupon entitling me to seven free books, which I’d earned by cleaning out my living room and classroom bookshelves earlier today. I’m rather late, half an hour after opening, so by the time I arrive the pickings are slim. I peruse the tables of fiction–labeled Adult and Young Adult–along with the intriguing Miscellaneous and nostalgic Children’s sections. I pause for a while among the cookbooks, marveling over the rounded yellow letters and orangey photographs that place most of them firmly in the 1970s and 80s. Apparently missionaries aren’t up to transporting cookbooks transcontinentally. They collect here, like rain in a birdbath.

I’m not really here for new (old) books, honestly. I have a few novels at home that I keep for sentimental reasons, and the poetry books that I’ve brought because I can’t read poetry digitally, but most of my new reading comes either from the library or the Kindle store these days. I’m seldom willing to take the risk of physically owning a book that I might not like, even here where it’s a free exchange. I pick up a volume of Kipling short stories, and an old copy of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

For me, the chief enjoyment of the Book Swap is the students who flock here. Unlike their counterparts on other continents, the majority of our students love to read. Before I know it, I’m showing my meager findings to a girl weighted down with a stack of books she’s selected on advice from others, by attraction to covers or by the names authors she already knows. I find another student with a Rubbermaid bin full of books–the best books, he assures me–that he’s rescued from obscurity. An illustrated Bible and an anthology of Persian poetry stare up at me from the top of his heap. He’s delighted with his discoveries, even though he’s a senior who will leave most of these books in this valley just four months from now. Between now and then, they are his.

Unable to find any books I’m moved to own, I begin to make my way toward the exit as another former student enters, clutching a coupon in her hand.

“I can get one book,” she says solemnly, waving the coupon. “One. I better make it good.”

“Here, get a few,” I say, handing over my unused coupon. “Enjoy.”

“Really?” she hesitates, eyeing the coupon.

“Of course. I’m your teacher. I want you to have books!”

She squeals and throws her arms around my neck, and I laugh. Later, she proudly shows me three books written by and about women–an aviator, Biblical women and a friend of Anne Frank’s–eager to share the stories she’ll soon be drinking in like water. And I think, this is a brilliant night.

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