Tag Archives: joy

Experiencing Joy at Prospect Sierra

Joy is watching first graders in colab work through their partnership by offering endless suggestions for compromise. Joy is listening to our third graders share their process and pride  in the detailed work of their insect drawing art pieces. Joy is witnessing our fifth graders walk arm and arm down the hallways of Avis. Joy is marveling at the questions of eighth grade mathematicians as they grapple with their own thinking and the thinking of others. Joy is knowing the time, energy, and love that goes into community gatherings like Panther Picnic.

“Joy is when you are in the yellow zone.”- Helen (TK student)

When describing Prospect Sierra to family, friends, and colleagues, I have used many of the words in both the yellow and green quadrants of the Mood Meter multiple times. In fact, I can say genuinely that I have been in the yellow or green almost every day of the last three months. I find myself starting sentences with, “I know this sounds corny but…” and then follow with an effusive example of something, either big or small, from the day that brought me joy. Joy is often categorized as moments as opposed to long sustainable periods, but at Prospect Sierra joy is bursting from every seam, with big and small joyful experiences amounting to hours, weeks, and months of happiness.

Joyful communities are filled with joyful people and so it was no surprise that when I asked 4 and 5-year-olds to define the word JOY, the yellow section of the Mood Meter came to mind. This conversation, which included one child who simply walked in circles around me until the word “happy” and “love” came pouring out of her mouth, also demonstrated the impact that our social-emotional learning curriculum, specifically RULER, is having on our students. From TK to 8th grade, our students are able to explore and articulate their emotions via a language and practice that is understood by all.

It’s programs like RULER that remind us of the importance of putting emotions at the center of our learning. Whether it’s joy, frustration, unease, or excitement, research shows that our emotions impact attention, memory, and learning, along with decision making, our relationships, and our physical and mental wellbeing. In essence, our cognitive skills and behaviors partner with our emotions every day.

For example, it’s consistent practice that our eighth graders start math with some form of mental exercise. You may hear a string of problems put together in a series, each child thinking of the best strategies to achieve the same result. And while the very idea of starting class thinking about a string of problems feels worrisome for many of us who learned math in a way that produced anxiety and focused on the end product only, this exercise almost feels like the start of a good yoga class, centering the mind and getting it ready for the challenging stretch to follow. Infused with deep breaths, reflective questions, and acknowledgment of paths that took them to varying ends, math becomes a joyful experience…most of the time.

The result of such intention is a community where you can see it’s development in real time. A community that thrives is different than a community that merely survives and it’s our goal that everyone at Prospect Sierra feels the joy of growing and learning together.

Spotlight On Service Learning

Each time I write to you, I hope to highlight a part of our program that is exemplary of our mission. This week the focus is on our eighth grade service learning trip to Sacramento.

Recently, Nathan Tanaka, our middle school division head, and I drove to Sacramento to visit our eighth grade students on the third day of their five-day service learning trip. Over the course of five days, our students become even closer as a grade level, gain further proximity to communities that may be a window for most and a mirror for some, deepen their knowledge of civic engagement, and grapple with how to create change in their own society with the backdrop of the state capitol. Imagine having experiences each day that exercise your empathy muscles and pair that with being proximate to the place where sustainable change comes to fruition! We are grateful to the eighth grade team for thinking deeply about the experiences of our oldest students and providing a week that captures their Prospect Sierra journey beautifully.

I look forward to sharing more of my thoughts with you throughout the year and invite you to share your thoughts with me. Please do reach out and know that my door is always open. Bring on the JOY!

Resource: Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive

Sharing Stories, Building Community

We started the school year with such a burst of joy–from greeting new families and welcoming old friends, to celebrating our community at Panther Picnic. As always, being at Prospect Sierra gives me a tremendous amount of happiness and sense of purpose. This year I made it a goal to spend at least a few hours in every classroom or grade level in the first six weeks of school so that I could get to know the students better, observe our teachers in action, and more selfishly, to participate in all of the rich curriculum and activities that Prospect Sierra students are engaged in every day.

The classroom visits were, in a word, awesome. Besides doing challenging academic work in every subject, from geometry veiled as art in kindergarten, to researching and debating constitutional amendments in 8th grade, I had a chance to play tag, paint, engage in literary discussions, learn a song and dance, do a science experiment, practice improv games, and sit on the rug for quiet story time. Every day that I devoted to classroom visits was enlightening, inspiring, and tons of fun! I witnessed how thoughtful our teachers are in designing their programs, not only for their own students, but also across disciplines and grade levels. I was impressed by how our students embody our school’s values of empathy and inclusion through their classroom collaborations and outdoor play. To experience Prospect Sierra through the eyes of your students provided me with countless moments of appreciation for our school and our community.

In stark contrast to the vibrancy of each school day at Prospect Sierra, the world around us has been through a devastating time. In the last few weeks I have felt overwhelmed by the devastation, violence, and natural disasters that have hit our country and very close to home. We have wanted to do our part to engage students in conversations about the hurricanes, Las Vegas, and fires, while also protecting young students from developmentally inappropriate information and making sure that they feel safe and hopeful. This is not always an easy task. Below are resources that you may find helpful as your children continue to process difficult news. Please remember that feeling sad builds empathy, and empathy leads to action. It is okay for children to feel sad, as long as you remind them that they are safe. Being industrious and taking action can also build students’ agency and hope. 

Finally, one way I process overwhelming emotions is to write. In 2005 I moved to New Orleans, just weeks before Hurricane Katrina. I evacuated to Houston temporarily and three weeks after that had to evacuate again to Dallas because of Hurricane Rita. To say that I experienced loss, confusion, and instability is an understatement. Surprisingly however, as I wrote, I gained a sense of perspective that was profound and continues to support me through difficult times. You are welcome to read the essay that I wrote below, which was originally published in The Houston Chronicle and is now being used in a school writing curriculum and textbook. I believe that stories bring us together as a community, and we are all in need of community in times like these. I hope you will find some connection to my story below, especially if you have experienced loss or instability recently. My heart goes out to all who have been affected by recent disasters and tragedies. If you have been through a trying time, I hope you will feel comfortable sharing stories and being cared for by our community.

Published as “Vietnam Revisited: “I Was a Refugee Long Before Katrina” in The Houston Chronicle, October 16, 2005

Recently, I’ve found myself struggling to describe where I come from. I have lived in Houston for just over a month, since the day my husband and I left New Orleans with our son and dog, two days before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast.

As New Orleans was destroyed before our eyes, I wept for all those who lost their homes and their lives. As sympathetic friends and family called me, begging to help, however, I found it difficult to feel too sorry for myself. Losing my home is not the most momentous thing to ever happen to me. I don’t consider myself a victim of Katrina. I lost my home long before the winds and high waters swept over New Orleans.

I am a refugee from Vietnam, not New Orleans. Thirty years ago, my mother left Vietnam with her six children, carrying little else but a valise packed with sepia-toned photographs and a heart full of courage and faith. My father was in prison, and my mother had to make the decision to leave without him in order to save her children from re-education camps or death. She was headed for America, where she didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anything about the culture, and knew no one.

In 1975, when we came to the States, we were refugees. We huddled together at Camp Pendleton in California, until we were sent to Alexandria, Virginia, where a Roman Catholic church had offered us sponsorship.

Shortly after we arrived in America, we learned of my father’s miraculous escape from Vietnam, just hours before the fall of Saigon. With incredible fortune guiding him, my father made the perilous journey from the South China Sea, and eventually to a camp in Pennsylvania, where a U.S. soldier gave him the bus fare to meet his family.

We were very fortunate. Yet, we started with nothing. The church found us housing, but my parents did not have jobs; we had no clothing and no toys. We learned English from scratch, and tried to create a home for ourselves in our new country. We folded paper to make toys and taught ourselves to read. We wore whatever the church parishioners donated to us and had no idea what was fashionable, which in a way gave us some freedom. We were different, but we didn’t try too hard to fit in. And most importantly, we didn’t try to recreate our old lives, the lives we had known in Vietnam.

After their narrow escapes from Vietnam, my parents managed to confront the most daunting task of all—to raise their children in a foreign land.  My parents held full-time jobs, worked overtime and modeled for all of us that perseverance borne out of extreme hardship.  What amazes me most about my parents is that they accepted right away that their stay in America was not temporary. They would never return home.

I, on the other hand, could not help but find my way back to the place where I was born, some 25 years after I had left Saigon. When I arrived, however, I found myself very much a foreigner.  I dressed, walked, and talked differently.

Some locals spoke to me doubtfully in Vietnamese, but I could see on their faces that they didn’t expect me to understand them. I sought out my parents’ former home in Saigon, and snapped some pictures. Later, I found out that I had never actually lived there.  In my search for home, I only found myself to be a stranger.

When I hear from others affected by Hurricane Katrina that they are mourning the loss of their childhood home, or the home that belonged to their family for generations, I feel great sympathy for them. In a strange way, I also feel envious that they have such a clear image of what was their home. After all of these evacuations and refugee experiences, the only thing I’m sure of is that I can’t call any place home. My home no longer exists as a picture in my mind, or as a warm memory embedded in my soul. I don’t have a home.

Yet, I didn’t lose my home to Katrina.  In fact, I have lost nothing. I have only gained. I have gained perspective. I have gained a deep sense of gratitude for all those who have reached out to me and my family 30 years ago and today. I have gained a powerful resiliency and, most importantly, an appreciation for the grace that I have experienced in my life.

My one-year-old son talks a lot, but up until last week, had never completed a coherent full sentence. All of a sudden, a few days ago, he said, “I love you.”

I don’t know how my journey has led me to this place—America, Houston, in a grocery store parking lot with my son and hearing his first full sentence. But I do know that feeling the comfort of home is not what’s most important.

I suppose I will always be searching for my home, but I am also certain that I will never find it. And I hope I never do. The journey, as difficult and tiring as it can be, is worth it.

“How Teachers And Schools Can Help When Bad Stuff Happens,” Anya Kamenetz, KQED Mindshift
“Explaining the News to Our Kids,” Common Sense Media

Congratulations Estella, National Medalist!

We are thrilled to announce that our very own seventh grader, Estella Zhou, has earned national medals in the 2017 Scholastic Art and Writing Awards, presented by the Alliance for Young Artists & Writers. Estella’s short story, China Bird, received a gold medal, and her flash fiction piece, The Sunbirds, received a silver medal. Both were selected by creative professionals as the most accomplished in the nation.

This year, more than 330,000 works of art and writing were submitted and less than 1% were recognized at the national level! Estella has been invited to attend a ceremony at Carnegie Hall on June 8 and to participate in showcase events at Parsons School for Design at The New School and the Pratt Manhattan Gallery in New York. We’re incredibly proud to have Estella represent Prospect Sierra in this year’s Scholastic Art & Writing Awards.

Estella is a beloved friend and student in all of her classes. Her teachers were not surprised that she won two prestigious awards. Her fifth grade humanities teacher, David Allen, commented: “When she was in 5th grade, she wrote a short story (I believe it was about finding an injured bird) that made me tear up as I read it. That is the only time a piece of 5th grade writing has ever produced that level of emotional response for me.” And her current seventh grade humanities teacher, Matthew Williams, shared that “Estella has a passion for words and language, and creative writing is something that brings her great and obvious joy. She is extremely self-motivated, as evidenced by her independent entry into this particular contest.”

Again, we’re so proud of Estella and all that’s accomplished. If you see her around campus, be sure to congratulate her!