News and Dates:
- December 4: Small Group Christmas Party
- December 6-7: First home basketball game, wrestling travels to Hohenfels
- December 8: Christmas Concert
- December 13: Last day of classes
- December 28: Kristi and Timmy are getting married!
- Curriculum for December: Addentures of Huckleberry Finn, Pudd’nhead Wilson, satire, short story writing
I’m Thankful For:
- Maugenhard Dorm, which has been a place of warmth, laughter and rest this month. Monday evenings have truly been a delight, a commitment I look forward to each week.
- Donna Dahlstrom and Emily Kremer, my mother and roommate, who have put so much work, from here and in Seattle, into our wedding in December. As an inept event planner, I feel blessed to have two such talented women at my side!
- Mark Twain, providing a lighter segment of content after the dour and melancholic depths of American Romanticism. I’ve enjoyed trying out my Southern accent and laughing with my students this month.
- Fiction, for providing my students a space for creativity and play that seldom appears this late in the educational game. My students are currently deep in imaginary worlds, and I’m excited to see their finished products.
- Snow, which has made a few appearances in the last few days, turning our little town into an even more magical place.
- Seattle, where I’ll be for Christmas for the first time in three years. I am blessed with this home, and excited to share it with Timmy this year!
Please Be In Prayer For:
- Health and Rest. Our community continues to struggle with illness at this cold, dark time of year. Pray that students and staff are able to get appropriate rest in order to remain healthy, and that we are wise with our commitments in this busy season.
- Wedding! Pray that the weekend of our wedding would be smooth and rich, a time honoring to God and our families as Timmy and I begin this journey together.
I’m so thankful for your friendship, encouragement and support, all of which make this ministry possible. 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 email@example.com.
Peace in Christ,
“What’s Literary Thanksgiving?” they’d asked, curious, seeing the note on this week’s schedule.
“You’ll have to wait until Thursday to see,” I replied, cryptic. Then, seeing their expectations, forming like frost on a cold November night, I elaborated. “No, it won’t be food. I mean, you can bring food if you want, but we’ll be writing creatively. Which is better than food.”
They laughed, and rolled their eleventh-grade eyes. Nothing is better than food, except sleep, if you’re in the eleventh grade.
Still, they’re in good spirits at the moment, composing Letters of Thanks to all sorts of inanimate objects, ideas, events and other abstractions that can’t reply. Already today I’ve read letters to pie, to basketball, to playing cards and to the warmth of fire. They laugh at my symbolic Letter to My Flight Home, then get to work, dreaming up ways that they can symbolically express their thankfulness.
We started class with President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Thanksgiving Proclamation, in which he declared the national holiday of thankfulness, long the pet project of writer Sarah Josepha Hale, who after being rejected by the four previous presidents, finally found victory with President Lincoln. The words sound strange to us this morning, old and foreign, 150 years after that first federal Thanksgiving. I break the address into sentences, and have each student paraphrase one sentence. A few minutes later, we read it out again, our modern version.
Into the silence of this snowy morning, students from Italy, Korea, Ukraine, Russia, Central Asia and the Middle East, putting Lincoln’s old words into their newer ones, remind us that all gifts are from God. That nothing of the goodness and success we experience would be possible without His generosity and mercy. We hear a long-gone president ask forgiveness for a nation at war, divided against itself, and comfort for those who’d suffered unimaginable loss as a result. We hear, in the end, the call to “give thanks in all circumstances,” as Paul wrote to the Thessalonians.
As we finish, I’m struck by how easy it is, often, to be thankful on a holiday. Because of Lincoln, Americans spend a day together, reconnecting with family as they eat traditional food and watch traditional parades and football games. There’s honest beauty to be savored in that gift of time and space.
And yet, this year, I find something just as meaningful in celebrating Thanksgiving on a work day, with my students, taking a bit of class time to remember the gifts that make our lives good and rich, even in the midst of stress, busyness, or even more difficult circumstances. In everything, give thanks. In the grey days of November, in a classroom with students from all over the world, amusing each other with creative letters as we celebrate the gifts God has given us.
There are papers still to grade. Stuffing waiting to go in the oven when I get home. Tasks still to finish and details to untangle in preparation for the busy wedding season ahead for us. Still, in everything, I am thankful, as much for the reminder to rejoice in busyness as the rest that’s waiting, just around the corner.
While my fellow teachers in America sleep in and make food, we spend Thanksgiving in Germany at school, celebrating even on a school day. Some classes have snacks. Mine have a creative writing assignment, a letter of thanks to an object, abstraction or entity that represents what they’re thankful for. This year, I’m thankful to be going home to Seattle for Christmas, for the first time in three years.
28 November 2013
Dear Lufthansa Flight,
We’ve met before. It was by accident, when I was younger but more tired, in June of 2008. I was running away from a difficult year of teaching, a year when I had 190 students for a while, students who often missed, but when they did they lit assignments on fire, wore headphones in class, and called me names when I asked them to take off their hoods. Though I loved my school, and even my students, it was a rough year.
And then there you were, a magically nonstop flight to Frankfurt, 11 hours of European-airline delight. No layover in London or Amsterdam or, heaven forbid, Atlanta or Philadelphia. No long domestic airline, forgetting to feed me and yelling about overhead bins in a language I can understand. It’s a long flight, yes, but by the time I got to Frankfurt that summer day I felt rested, awake, and far from home. Good news, then.
Now I’m not going between Seattle and Germany just for fun, for a summer-vacation fling. This is my life, and you make it better, Lufthansa Flight. I’ve tried many ways of getting home. Multiple layovers in Chicago and London. Stranded for three days in the snow in Basel. A cheap knockoff of this flight, operated by an airline, Condor, that I’d never heard of, and hope to never hear of again. None of them were good, because none of them were you. I live only three hours from Frankfurt, so now you’re not the best link in the chain; you make the way home a one-link chain.
Seattle isn’t a big deal, I admit, even though we pretend to be. Why on earth do we have a direct flight to anywhere in Europe but London or Paris? I don’t know, but I’m not complaining. Because now you’re my ideal, Lufthansa Flight. Three hours on the train is a small price to pay for a direct flight home. At Christmas. To get married! You are the prince of flights. Let’s be friends forever. Or at least while I’m living in Germany.
“Hey, Ms. Dahlstrom…?”
He begins asking the question as he walks into Period 6 before class starts, and I look up from where I’m holding a stack of finished essays. I’m only here for a moment, really, just to collect the poetry analysis paragraphs my students wrote last night. As soon as I’ve done that, I’ll hand them off to the college representative, visiting from America, who will fill their eleventh-grade heads with thoughts of the future, distant in miles but not in time. For one day, I’ve agreed to let them trade in the mechanics of writing for the mechanics of a far more mysterious machine: University Admission.
“Hmm, yes? What’s up?” I reply, vaguely hoping it’s a question I can answer.
That’s the hope, these days. I’ve been feeling a bit lost as a teacher lately, confronted with ever new conundrums as I spiral back, a fourth time, to these books and essays I’ve come to know so well. Most days, the freshness of teaching inspires and energizes me, as I realize with delight the potential of a career in which I can still feel challenged and curious after eight or nine years. Oh, the possibilities! I could be teaching The Scarlet Letter in twenty years, and dig ever deeper into the symmetrical symbolism of Hawthorne’s dense prose, parsing those four character with students not even born yet. The magic of sharing old books with new students is a kaleidoscope of possibility on such days, and I’m sure I’ll never tire of it.
Then there are times when I tell myself, “You’ve done this before. How can you possibly be surprised by vague thesis statements and students who don’t like poetry? Why can’t you just figure it out?” How can I sometimes feel as clumsy in the classroom as in the ceramics studio, where I’m genuinely and justifiably a novice?
My student is holding up his shoulder bag, a new one that arrived earlier this week. It came way later than he expected, far into the school year, and when it did come it was too small for some of his binders. But still, the class’s unanimous opinion is that this bag is amazing, the coolest bag, by far, that we’ve seen this year.
“Do you know how to fix a zipper?” he asks, sighing. “My bag–my new bag–it’s broken.”
I take the bag, examining the pull that’s run off the ends of the zipper without a metal barrier on the end, which has in turn pulled entirely out of the seam. Kids’ school bags may be the hardest-working luggage ever created, and these seams were never going to make it.
“I actually can fix that,” I reply. I slide the pull back onto the two sides of the zipper, joining them once again. “But you’re going to need to fix the seam. Someone with a sewing machine… do you have one at home? Or maybe in Independent Living? You could use one of theirs. In the meantime… hold on. I might have something to fix it for now.”
I cross the room to rummage in my desk, searching for the appropriate stopper for the broken zipper. I reject a binder clip and paper clip, dredging up some memory from childhood at the same time my fingers close triumphantly on a giant safety pin. I have no idea where it came from; I’ve never seen another one in Germany.
“OK, this will work for now,” I say, securing the pin before the end of the zipper, preventing the pull from jumping its tracks again.
Bag Owner and his friends are impressed, calling my work, “Super ghetto, but awesome.”
“Best teacher ever,” says a particularly awed eleventh-grader.
I laugh, because zipper-fixing wasn’t a class I took in college, and “best teacher” isn’t how I feel. Far from having it all figured out, I’m sure now that teaching isn’t a formula, as much as I once hoped it could be. More than anything, I’m learning that teaching requires being present with these students, every day, listening long enough to see where and how they need to learn. It means having the humility to try something new if the old ways don’t work, even if they worked for one class, once upon a time.
I’m teaching every moment, whether I know it or not, even if what I can offer is a fixed zipper, or pie crusts for Thanksgiving, or a demonstration, as I ineptly throw pottery on the wheel after school, that learning takes time for everyone. I can step back when I’m confused, try to regroup and save myself from embarrassment. Or I can stay engaged, still learning, eight years in, that teaching is new every day, each morning a new opportunity to love and grow.
News and Dates:
- November 5: Freshman-Senior Operation Christmas Child Box Assembly
- November 8: Fireside Poetry Reading in American Literature
- November 10: Dorm Thanksgiving (at Maugenhard)
- November 11: First day of winter sports (basketball and wrestling)
- November 15-17: Small group retreat
- Thank you to all who were praying for direction for the future for Timmy and me. We’ve decided to renew our commitment to be at BFA through the 2014-2015 school year, and are thrilled to be continuing in relationship with the students and families here at Black Forest Academy.
- Curriculum for November: Romantic poetry, Transcendentalism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Pudd’nhead Wilson
I’m Thankful For:
- Rome Trip, which provided endless opportunities for new learning and class community. Nothing bonds a class like sleeping on buses, walking through millennia-old churches, or building sand castles together by the sea. Honored to go along with them!
- The Scarlet Letter, which garnered more excitement from this class of juniors than it ever has. We’ve discussed the nature of evil, the critical importance of confession, and the mystery of our shared sinful nature while digging through this melancholy tale of sin and redemption.
- Nathan and Lori Duhan, the new dorm parents at Maugenhard, whose hospitable and loving friendship has been both a blessing and an example to us as we help out at the dorm on Monday nights.
- Seasons, which after over three years in Germany are beginning to seem familiar and comforting. It’s a delight to walk through these seasons with people I love, experiencing God’s faithfulness over such a long time.
Please Be In Prayer For:
- Health and Rest. With the end of the first quarter, students and staff are weary and struggling with illness. Pray that this long weekend would allow for rest and recovery for this community.
- Continued Guidance. As Timmy and I make plans to return here for the next school year, pray for wisdom as to how to spend the summer, and trust in God for clarity regarding our work here next year.
I’m so thankful for your friendship, encouragement and support, all of which make this ministry possible. If you have a prayer request or questions about my life or ministry in Germany, or if you’d like to become a financial partner in this ministry, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peace in Christ,
I was an Honors student.
Though it’s been well over a decade since my last advanced class, there are still days when I remember my academic roots. The flash of indignation at the suggestion that my performance was just adequate. The hope that somehow my many busy commitments are evidence of an above-average life. The sting of doing something imperfectly, especially when others are watching or worse, comparing themselves to me.
A brief academic history. From the vague moment when I picked up a Calvin and Hobbes book with the hope of understanding the pictures as well as the words, until nearly the end of the book-report riddled sixth grade, I was home schooled. I was a mediocre artist and a reluctant-practicing violinist. I devoured books and felt compelled to write, but that was the whole of my academic aspiration. For most of elementary school, I thought of myself as a good rock climber and a decent musician, not a student.
Among the delights of paper-bag lunches and Lisa Frank binders, middle school introduced a new component to learning: competition. Both with myself and other students, school offered endless points of comparison. We had only one opportunity for tracking, two different math classes. To my chagrin, I was capable of the higher one. Thus, with a math class that made me feel both smart and lost, an honors student was born.
There were times in public high school when my motives were as honorable as the course titles suggested. I took four years of advanced English, relishing the in-depth discussions and assignments. My AP history classes, European and United States, remain among my favorite classes to date, fostering a deep passion for history that has served me well as a literature and briefly a history teacher. Honors classes taught me to think creatively, to study hard, and to revel in the process of learning in community.
Still, for every humanities class that excited curiosity and passion, there was a math or science class that I selected solely for the “H” or “AP” on the transcript (with the exception of one beloved year of AP Chemistry, taken on a physics-hating whim). My coordination at a low point in my early teenage years, I nearly “ruined” my GPA by trying to learn to type and drive, bitterly resenting the classes that “punished” me for a lack of motor skills. I finished high school with strong grades and test scores, but also a sense of self-worth perilously knit to an academic scorecard.
All this comes to mind when my own Honors students–hardworking eleventh graders energetically reading The Scarlet Letter–bring me their Honors woes. 4 out of 5 on a homework assignment. 89% on an essay. A quiz answer that was technically, in some ways, close to right–though way off the mark of what was asked–so “can’t I just get the point?”
My most recent classroom experiences, tempt me to smile. I spent the first five years of my teaching career in an urban public school with ninth graders, many of them the first English-literate members of their families. I’ve celebrated just-passing grades earned by students who couldn’t write their own names a year before and spent hours helping them understand how to do the work that it entailed. Even here, I see native English speakers writing essays for the first time in their mother tongue, struggling to master the academic lexicon that their peers find so simple. With that spectrum in mind, it’s hard for me to feel like a B is a bad grade.
A few chapters back, though, I remember what it felt like to be inches away from the perfection I expected of myself. I remember the feeling that college applications were an unbearable pass, asking me to spend endless energy trying to leave a place where I felt safe and clever. I remember when test scores and transcripts made my world turn.
For my students, none of the pressures have changed. Some of them, like me, hope to be “perfect” students, juggling classes and commitments with seeming ease. If their expectation, explicit or implicit, is perfection right now, then learning will be a perilous tightrope walk, where the first misstep spells doom. Fearing to fail, students will be unable to take the risks required to learn.
Caught between my own past and present, I wonder what I’m teaching my Honors students. I look back on the experiences that most helped me to grow–academically, spiritually and emotionally–and realize that all of them involved some level of failure. The first history teacher to give me a D for a florid but information-less essay remains my favorite, her class the one in which I learned the most. My teaching mentor reminded me, again and again, that I would fail “hard and often” as I learned to teach, and that I’d survive only if I could have more grace with myself.
Grace is the key, I remember, because learning isn’t a tightrope walk. It’s a journey, certainly, and sometimes a steep one, requiring all our concentration and energy, but each step is important, even the unsteady ones. There are hands to guide, hold, and pull us back again. There’s the unrelenting love of Christ, who brought us on the journey to begin with, our gentle teacher along the way. It’s taken me ages to understand this, plenty of failures in front of people who loved me, picked me up, and showed me how to do it better next time. Becoming a teacher, letting go of the notions of perfection that haunted my own walk as a learner, has taught me more about grace than I could ever have imagined, that final day of high school.
It’s this prayer for grace and love that I bring with me as I begin a new week in my fourth year as an Honors teacher. I pray that my classes can be a safe space to explore new ideas and try new things, that I can be a teacher who both loves my eager students and helps them to grow through challenges. I rest in the knowledge that out on the edges of what we know, we find safety in the grounding truth that, no matter what, we’re rooted deeply in the love of God who made us–Honors or regular, teacher or student–to worship and delight in Him with all we do.
Having just returned home from an eight-day excursion to Florence, Rome and Venice with the Class of 2014, I have plenty of tales to tell. Rather than try to combine them all into a massive novel-blog, which would test both your perseverance and my creativity, I’ll be posting anecdotes at intervals, saving them for rainy Saturdays filled with grading, like this one. For the chronology-obsessed, this trip took place from October 3 to 11, 2013.
“So we’re thinking we’ll just go back to the hotel now. What do you all think?” Mr. Kraines’s voice crackles to the back of the bus where we’re sitting, some 45 soggy students and teachers nibbling trail mix for lunch.
It’s our third day into a weeklong trip, the culminating trip for the seniors at Black Forest Academy. For years, they’ve looked forward to this trip, building up to it with class excursions to World War I trenches, a concentration camp, and last year’s adventure to Normandy.
Being at tourist in Rome this week, I’ve felt linked not only to the citizens whose ruins I marvel over, but to the many millions of fellow sojourners who’ve also stared at these ruins in the intervening centuries. The ghosts of old pilgrims whisper loudly here. I’ve been reading about the Grand Tours undertaken by well-to-do British young men at the end of their formal schooling. Like our students, they “saw the sights” at the foundation of their learning, seeing and touching and walking on the real artifacts that lent weight to their book knowledge.
In some ways, our students are like these Grand Tourists, or perhaps the wide-eyed young women that Henry James and E.M. Forster sent to Italy just over a century ago. We walk streets trod by Dante and Vivaldi, see the steps from which Marc Antony gave a speech written by Shakespeare, run our fingers over carved initials of centuries-old lovers. We’ve come to see these places for ourselves, to connect tangible places with the ink versions we’ve spent all these years teaching and learning.
Despite a busy schedule of sightseeing, this is the second time we haven’t gone to the Vatican Museum in three days. On Saturday, the line was too long, so we went to St. Paul’s Outside The Walls instead, saving the Sistine Chapel for another day. For today, actually, a day so rainy that we waited out a tempest under an olive tree in the Forum, then splashed our oval way around the Colosseum, vaguely hoping we’d be dry before visiting the “nine miles of art” housed in the Vatican Museum.
Some students cheer, and others shrug, while a few committed art historians whimper mournfully about the Raphael and Michelangelo. Our leader hears the replies, more mixed than he’d like, and assures the students that we aren’t voting. We’re going back. We’ll come back for the Vatican another day, he promises. It’s too important to miss it.
Leaving the city, we head north and west to the village of Santa Severa, the beach town where we return year after year. The grey-shrouded city seems another world as we emerge from the bus to find hot sun, soft sand, and periwinkle Mediterranean waves.
I’m reminded of the restorative powers of the sea, a place which for centuries has drawn the wealthy unwell to itself, for invigorating bathing in sun or water. The kids who’d been feeling sick are suddenly well enough to swim, do beach exercises, dig massive holes and make sand replicas of Roman landmarks. This could be Brighton, Venice or Nice, but it isn’t. It’s Santa Severa, and we couldn’t feel happier or more alive than we do right here, playing in the sun and waves.
When it gets dark, we leave the beach just long enough for dinner, worship songs and a game, before pouring out again into the balmy evening. Some walk along the beach or dodge the waves, but most play in the street, cul-de-sac children who’ve never known the suburbs. On one end, they draw foursquare and dredge up rules from elementary PE class. At the other, we string masking tape across the street to use as a volleyball net, swearing we’ll “take it down quick” if a car comes by. (Only one comes, and we have plenty of tape to spare.) Along the edges, kids play cards and talk, savoring the night and time together.
At home or abroad, I’m always amazed by our students’ endless capacity for relationship and self-entertainment. Though as addicted to technology as any of their North American peers, take it away for a week and they’ll go back to building sand castles and playing ball, as long as they can do it together. I chat with some of them about future plans and past lives, hearing about schools on three continents, discuss vocation and love and faith. Everywhere I look, I see young people investing in the present as carefully as they learn about the past. Both are important, critical to this moment in their lives.
Because, just like the Grand Tours of the past, this trip isn’t all about knowledge. The Grand Tours were a short adolescence, both the end of childhood and the beginning of adulthood. They were a time of learning, but also of independence and leisure.
The second half of today will undoubtedly be more memorable than the first, for all of us. Part of me hopes that our students will read up on the Forum sometime, or research the Colosseum, adding knowledge to experience after the fact. I know I will, and eventually I’ll feel richer for the memory of standing where Caesar and Paul stood, millennia ago.
But the other part knows that the afternoon of relaxation and relationship was just as critical to these students, linking them to the present that they love just as surely as the Vatican links them to the past. With youth, faith and community to our names–rain or shine, museum or beach–we are rich indeed.