5 Days, 4 Nights in Lake Como

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Located in Northern Italy, perhaps Lake Como is best known for George Clooney’s home. Admittedly, I didn’t know this tidbit until I arrived and was asked by numerous people from around the globe if that’s why I chose to visit.  I chose it because I’d seen beautiful pictures, it was a quick trip from Milan, and made sense in my route (which changed after visiting Como).

GETTING THERE
I arrived in Milan at Malpensa Airport and took a quick train ride to Como. The ride is around an hour, but it took me a bit longer since I was initially confused by the number of trains at Milano Central.  The number of options coupled with the language barrier made my trip a bit longer than expected.  What I should’ve done was just hopped on a train as they display the route on a screen once you’re on the train. Then I could’ve hopped off and on until I found the right one.  Next time…

WHERE TO LAY YOUR HEAD ON A PILLOW
Lake Como has a bunch of small villages, perhaps the most famous is Bellagio.  I chose to stay in Como proper at Ostello Bello Lake Como because it had great reviews on Hostel World, Trip Advisor, and Hotels.com (I like to cross check). I made the right choice; I was comfortable, had a good time, and met some great people.

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GETTING AROUND LAKE COMO
You can get around Lake Como by bus, train, ferry, or my favorite because it’s free – your own two feet.  Plus, I’m averaging about 16,000 steps a day, which is about 15,000 more than my normal average. The bus I needed only ran about once an hour, so look at the schedule and plan accordingly.

WHERE TO EAT
Since my hostel provided free breakfast and dinner, I didn’t worry about food too much.  To get a break from pasta, I visited La Vita e’ Bella for a salad. The number of salads was almost overwhelming, but again, it’s a healthy alternative to pasta.

Then, to balance my healthy choice, I made room for gelato. As you can see from the line, Gelateria Lariana is a hit.  My favorite flavor was cherry, which tastes almost like Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia ice cream.

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THINGS TO DO
Day trips, day trips, day trips.  While in Como, I visited Bellagio, Nesso, and Varenna.  While Bellagio is the most popular, Varenna was my favorite because it was less touristy.  I spent a lot of time on the beach in Lake Como.  The one that stands out in my mind the most is Lido di Faggeto, not because of the views (which were amazing) but because of the trek to get there.  There were so many stairs that climbing them took the same amount of time as the 20-minute bus ride!! This is an exaggeration, but seriously, there were a lot of steps!! To give your legs a break, I’d recommend taking the ferry at least once.  While more expensive than the bus, the views were amazing.  There’s a normal service and a fast ferry.  I took the fast one, which got me to Varenna in under an hour.

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BUDGET
Here’s a breakdown of my budget for four nights in Como.  The night before I was scheduled to leave, I added an extra night to my stay.  That extra night was more than half the price of my first three nights combined since it was so last-minute. Also, I considered the one-way ferry to Varenna an activity in the budget.  I digress, here’s the breakdown.

Item Cost
Train from MXP to Como 18 € = 21 USD
Accommodations 100 € = 118 USD
Getting Around 28 € = 33 USD
Food and Drinks 62 € = 73 USD
Activities 17 € = 20 USD
Total 225 € = 266 USD

*I used an exchange rate of 1 € = 1.18 USD.

I’m off to my next stop! Ciao for now,

Marissa

Hostel Review: Ostello Bello Lake Como

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If you’ve been following my blog in the time leading up to my journey, then you know I was considering hostels to help save money.  I was super skeptical about the hostel life. I like my own space, definitely my own bathroom, it’s not like I’m back in college. Well, I did it. I stayed in my first hostel, Ostello Bello Lake Como. Here’s my take on it…

When I arrived, I was greeted with a welcome drink of my choice, so I was already a fan. Then, I heard all the free perks, like wifi, bike rentals, computer rentals, renting a modem so you can stay connected even when you leave the hostel.  Free breakfast and dinner were the real MVPs. For breakfast, think continental. For dinner, think pasta. Then pasta the night after that, and the night after that. Still it was free, so you only had to pay for lunch or go next door to the supermarket.

After the welcome spiel, it was time to see the rooms, dun dun dun.  My room had 6 beds — 2 sets of bunk beds. Luckily, I wasn’t on the top bunk because that was a bit of a climb. Each bunk bed had an outlet that included a reading light and a charging station with a usb port, so I didn’t have to break out my universal charger. The sheets were clean, and free. The rooms also included individual lockers for your belongings, and you could rent a lock for free. Working A/C was another plus. My only issue was the bathroom. The showers were pretty small. Before traveling to Europe, I’d read reviews for numerous listings that often mentioned the small showers. Still, I wasn’t mentally prepared to not be able to comfortably maneuver when taking a shower.  Enough of the rooms, now for the vibe.

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This particular hostel was a hybrid between a hostel, a bar, and a club for visitors and locals alike. So, one can chill in the common area listening to music or opt for some quiet time in the secret garden, equipped with hammocks. The people who worked there also added to a vibe. I was surprised to learn that after the first day, some of them knew my name.  They were super helpful when it came to providing recommendations for things to see, places to eat, and where to shop.  One guy at the front desk even invited a few of us out on a boat.

To me, a hostel is like an overnight summer camp for adults. From the bunk beds, to who am I gonna sit with for lunch, to foosball tournaments. The only difference is, instead of a medal for participating, you get a shot from the 24-hour bar.

I extended my trip by a day, so I guess it’s safe to say I’m a fan of the hostel life. I am nervous, however, that perhaps my first experience was too good of one. Ostello Bello Lake Como set the bar high.

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At summer camp, you write in a memory book and promise to keep in touch.  At hostels, you follow people on ig or snapchat.

Now, I’m off to my next spot with two new friends I made in the hostel. Click the follow button so you don’t miss a moment from my adventure.

Ciao for now,

 Marissa

 

What’s In My Suitcase

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One of my friends recently got back from a year of exploration, so her packing list was extremely helpful. I ended up buying a lot of things that she suggested even though she was gone for a year, and my trip is only a few months. So here’s what I squeezed in my carry-on bag and personal item:

Clothes:

  • 3 sundresses
  • 1 maxi dress
  • 1 jumper
  • 1 skirt
  • 4 pair of shorts
  • 4 tops
  • 2 sweats…probably will be used for athleisure
  • 2 sports bras…again, we’ll see if I workout on top of all the walking I’ll be doing
  • 3 bras
  • All the undies (in case I’m not able to do laundry as often as I’d like)
  • 2 shorts and 2 tanks for sleeping
  • 2 sleep shirts/dresses
  • 2.5 swimsuits (.5 because the top of one matches the bottom of another)
  • 1 cover up

Shoes:

  • 1 pair of Sandals
  • Flip flops for showering
  • Flats…happened to pack with a color scheme, so just bringing 1 pair of flats
  • 1 pair of sneakers

Day bags:

Toiletries:

  • Toothbrush & toothpaste – 2 of each because I’m that person who will drop a toothbrush then be forced to get creative
  • Floss
  • Deodorant
  • Face Wash
  • Sunblock
  • Chapstick
  • Soap
  • Comb
  • Brush
  • Shampoo
  • Leave-in conditioner
  • Curling cream
  • Shea butter
  • Flexi-rods
  • Mascara
  • Eyeliner (in case I’m feeling fancy)
  • 5 lipsticks/glosses..though I’ll probably only use 2

Other:

  • Travel towel
  • 2 travel face cloths
  • 1 blanket for the plane
  • Cocoon for sleeping…wish me luck in hostels
  • 2 luggage locks
  • 1 lock – for lockers in hostels
  • Universal charger
  • (Below) basic first-aid kit
  • I-pad mini
  • Fitbit – to keep track of my steps so I don’t feel guilty about not working out
  • Notebook
  • Journal

Okay, that’s it…by “it” I mean a lot.

Happy Travels,

Marissa

 

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No Income? No Problem! How I’m Traveling on a Budget

As you may know, I recently decided to take a break from teaching to engage in some self-care, mindfulness, and exploration.  I found a flight deal to Europe and booked a ticket without too much thought.  As a (former) teacher, I’ll be balling on a budget.

About a year ago, I applied for a credit card with a great sign-up bonus.  Check out these sites to compare sign-up bonuses and  rewards that fit your needs.  After paying my car insurance in-full for the year, using the card for everyday purchases, and even asking friends if they had any huge purchases (one of my friends bought a couch), I met the spending requirement to earn a ton of points.  All that to say, I used points for my flight, score!  So, I’m already off to a good start.  Figuring out where to stay has not been so simple.

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I’m not a fan of baggage fees, so I plan to stick to a carry-on and a personal item.

I’ll be in Western Europe for two months, which can easily add up.  So, my big debate remains hostel vs. hotel vs. Airbnb.  Hostels seem to be the most cost-efficient option but not the most appealing (to me).  As I look up hostels, I’ve come to terms with the fact that perhaps I’m a little bad, a little bougie.  I like my own space, especially when it comes to bathrooms.  I learned from my friend who recently got back from a year abroad that there are some good hostels.  She suggested I use hostelworld.com and not book any hostels with a rating below 8; I’ll soon find out just what that rating looks like, sounds like, and feels like.  

So far in my planning, I have a combination of hostel and Airbnb reservations.  With my credit card, I get 3x points for every dollar I spend on travel.  I can use points to book travel accommodations directly on the credit card’s portal at a value of 1.5 cents per point.  Unfortunately, they do not offer hostels or Airbnb, womp.  With my points, I can purchase Airbnb gift cards at a 1:1 ratio.  After thinking about it, that didn’t seem like the best use of points because it wouldn’t allow me to earn points for the travel.  Perhaps I’m being difficult, but I want to maximize my points.  So, here’s what I did to work around my dilemma:  

Using my credit card, I booked an Airbnb that was roughly $200, which means I earned 600 points on that transaction.  Since I can’t use points to book directly with Airbnb, I then used points to get cash back to cover the cost of the Airbnb.  So, I used 20,000 points for cash back, applied the $200 directly to my credit card, and now (in my mind) it’s like my Airbnb was free.  

It appears that the best way to maximize points is to book flights and accommodations directly through the portal or transfer points to a travel partner.  However, since booking with Airbnb was not an option, I had to make it work for me.  What about you all…any tips on how to use points?  Tips to travel on a budget?  Also, any and all Europe tips are greatly appreciated.

Happy Travels,

Marissa

Hanging Up My Sweater: Why I’m Taking A Break from the Classroom

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Today, as I’ve done for nearly a decade, I’m up around 4:45 and I turn on the TV to catch part of a Law & Order SVU episode.  Then, to have something a bit lighter, I watch an episode of How I Met Your Mother.  Finally, I turn to the news to get an idea of the weather for the day.  It’s starting out cool, which sounds like the perfect excuse to put on a dress coupled with my favorite teaching sweater.  For some reason, I’m all about a good teaching sweater.  After donning my sweater, I hop in my car and prepare to teach the future.  Today, this preparation includes listening to some mellow music, though other days I opt for something a bit more hype.

Going into the profession, I saw myself sitting criss-cross applesauce until retiring, or until I was no longer able to get up and down easily and had to sit in a chair on the carpet.  Either way, I planned to be in the classroom for the long haul.  Regretfully, after nearly a decade of ups and downs that will no longer be the case.

Throughout the current school year, I have gone back and forth about whether I would return to the classroom next year.  Even after the doctor ordered me to take time off from work for a few days due to stress that had manifested itself in a physical way, I was still debating.  I wanted to be there for my current and future students, but I also needed to be there for myself.  Finally, in April I declared my intent not to return.  I’d probably still be debating today (the last day of school) but we must declare our intent in April or incur a fine if we leave.

During the time where I was trying to figure out my future in the classroom, I created numerous pro-con lists, talked to friends and family who’d heard my teaching stories, and talked to a handful of colleagues that I trusted.  Some days, I felt relieved at the thought of the quality of life that I would gain by not returning.  Other days, I felt guilty at the thought of abandoning my kids – those I’d taught in past years and who visit me most mornings before going to class, and those I have yet to meet.  Yesterday, I told one of my students from last year that I wouldn’t be returning next year, she hugged me tight and said, “No, you can’t leave me.”  I felt (and still feel) like I needed to be there for my past, current, and future students, and by not being there, I’m letting them down.

I recently read an article that highlighted the problem of teachers leaving mid-year.  I became so upset reading the article and the insinuation that only ineffective teachers leave, or that when teachers leave, they’re not thinking about the students.  The misconception portrayed by the article has become my obsession.  It may be easier to believe that teachers leave because they themselves are ineffective.  It gives us a target towards which to point a finger of blame whenever something goes amiss in the classroom.  The reality, though, is that sometimes good teachers, dedicated teachers, simply cannot take it anymore.  My kids count for about 10 reasons to stay for every con that I wrote on my list.  At the end of the day, though, the cons won.

A major con was getting over the system that has become education in America.  As a teacher, there are so many things that are beyond my control.  Lack of physical resources, deliverables, professional development that’s not differentiated (which is ironic since teachers are expected to differentiate our lessons), lack of time to address social-emotional needs, just to name a few.  There’s only so much I can do since I feel that I have very little control.  Of all the things that are beyond my control, I’ve found it most difficult to meet my students’ needs while meeting district requirements.

I constantly struggle between doing what is developmentally appropriate for my students and keeping my job.  When I moved to kindergarten, I was so excited about the dramatic play materials I planned to buy.  I remember asking a colleague who’d been teaching kindergarten for nearly 30 years for recommendations and she regretfully informed me that dramatic play has disappeared from kindergarten.

When I tell people that I teach kindergarten, one of their first responses is, “Aww, how cute.” Yes, my kids are super cute, however, the art of teaching kindergarten isn’t as “cute” as one may think.  Dramatic play has been replaced by close reading, guided reading, guided math, tracking data, identifying sight words, number sentences, articulating strategies to solve word problems, accountable talk, and weekly assessments.  Anything else is not considered time-on-task or teaching with a sense of urgency.  They don’t have time to just be cute kids, particularly when I know (and am constantly reminded of) what’s at stake with their education.  Kindergarten looks more like first grade.

When I break out something exciting like blocks (which I often reserve for Fun Friday), I make sure I have an exit ticket and pray an evaluator doesn’t walk in the room.  Though it may not look like it, they’re learning through play, which is an authentic form of learning.  They’re building, problem-solving, sharing, talking – this is learning!  But like I said, due to the fear of getting a low evaluation score (which is tied to both my pay and keeping my job), activities like blocks and puzzles are reserved for Fun Friday.

All of that to say, I’m taking a break from a system where I feel like I’m contributing to the problem instead of the solution.  Don’t get me wrong, my kids are learning.  I’ve taught them to read, write, solve math problems, and to be good people, all while building genuine relationships with my students.  Unfortunately, this teaching and learning is not taking place in an ideal environment.  It’s an environment where I’m constantly afraid of who may walk into my classroom and what they’ll say or think upon leaving.

Teachers are often evaluated on rather minimal evidence of our practice.  Maybe on a 30-minute classroom observation or test scores as evidence of students’ mastery of skills and standards at the end of the year.  Some people who are charged with evaluating teachers or determining mandates have unrealistic expectations of what teaching and learning look like, sound like, and feel like.  I maintain high expectations and strive for mastery, but these expectations can take a toll on teachers.  This is especially the case in an environment where the primary focus is a specific level of mastery instead of growth.

For me, this step away from the classroom is also about self-care and preservation, which is a topic that is often overlooked when discussing teacher retention.  While advocating for my students, I find that I am also advocating for myself and my own educational philosophy.  So many times, I’ve fought to have my students’ growth recognized, which (on occasion) had a modest impact on my evaluation scores.  The constant fighting can be draining.  I’m stressed, and more importantly, the kids are stressed.  The thought of a kindergarten student being stressed and knowing that they have at least 12 years of school remaining breaks my heart.  In such a stressful environment, teaching isn’t sustainable.  I’ve realized that there’s no way I can be there for my students if I’m not first taken care of…it’s just not possible.

Usually, I play “Summertime” by DJ Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince to celebrate my final day of school as I’m cleaning up my classroom before leaving for the summer break.  I haven’t decided if I’ll play it today because I imagine I’ll be in a somber mood as I’m packing up my belongings for the never-ending summer.  I will try to be a little happy as I embark on a new journey.  I have always been, and am confident I will remain, passionate about helping young people.  I hope to continue to have the opportunity to do just that through my part-time work, which is also in the field of education.  In the meantime, I plan to kick off my mini-sabbatical with some travel, which is made possible by my frugal tendencies.  It’s scary, overwhelming, and exciting at the same time.  Feel free to follow me as I embark on a new journey.  I hope that this journey will rejuvenate me and that I will make my way back to the classroom at some point.

For now, I will put on my favorite teaching sweater and enjoy my last day in the classroom.  I will reflect on my teaching experience, which was filled with many lessons that have helped me grow as a teacher and as a person.  It has been as much a pleasure to learn from my students as it has been to teach them.  I can only hope that the lessons I have imparted on them have a lasting impact on their academic careers, and equally important, their character.

 

Cuba: Things To Know Before You Go

I just returned from Cuba and cracked open my laptop when I got home at 1:00 AM after several delays.  Perhaps it was because I was disconnected for a week, or maybe it was because I didn’t want to forget anything…either way, I immediately got to typing.  You can stay connected in Cuba with a Wi-Fi card, but I never used the one that our host gave us.  For starters, it didn’t work where we were staying.  I also wasn’t eager to connect to The World Wide Web.  Being disconnected allowed me to connect to those around me.  We had conversations instead of staring at our phones, refreshing our timelines every five seconds.  It was amazing.  Okay, so here’s some info on Cuba that I think will be helpful for those of you planning to visit.

GETTING THERE

Yes, we can travel to Cuba.  No, you don’t have to go with a tour group.  Though if you’d like to hire me as a tour guide, I’ll be available after mid-June…one of the perks of being a teacher.  Speaking of which, I had a friend say, “Let’s use your status as a teacher to go to Cuba.”  I think that was the first time I’d heard “status” and “teacher” in the same sentence.  I digress, it’s really not that deep.  To purchase a flight to Cuba, you must choose from one of 12 categories.  I chose educational activities, which includes people-to-people exchanges.  Take a look at the categories, and choose the one the best suits your purpose for visiting.  To visit Cuba, you must have proof of health insurance.  I flew with JetBlue, and the insurance was included in the ticket price.  Finally, you are required to purchase a visa that is good for 30 days.  JetBlue charges $50 for a visa, which I purchased at the gate (with a credit card) in Fort Lauderdale…prices and process may vary by airline.

ARRIVING IN CUBA

Three of my friends flew Southwest, and three of us were on JetBlue.  We had this grand plan to meet in the departures terminal to exchange money (more on that later) and go from there.  Luckily, one of my friends must have an amazing international plan (or she’ll get a crazy bill later) and was able to use her phone to call a friend who’d flown Southwest.  They were on the phone for at least 10 minutes asking if they saw stairs, signs, etc.  They were both seeing these things, but in different terminals.  Jose Marti International Airport (HAV) has three terminals.  Eventually, we discovered that the terminals are two miles apart so we could walk or pay a taxi to get to the other terminal.  I didn’t pack my Fitbit, so walking was out of the question (I’m that person who feels it’s a waste of steps when they’re not tracked on a device).  Even if I had my Fitbit, walking two miles with luggage would have been out of the question.  Long story short, we eventually hopped in a taxi, rode to terminal 2 without paying extra, and made it to our place, which we booked using Airbnb.

WHAT TO PACK

Not toilet tissue.  Before visiting, I read tons of posts that said BYOT – Bring Your Own Tissue.  At one point, a friend even considered purchasing a toilet seat because we read some reviews that places don’t have seat covers.  All the bathrooms I visited while in Cuba had toilet tissue, and only one did not have a seat cover.  So, don’t waste your precious space trying to squeeze those things in your luggage.  Also, don’t bother packing heels.  If you plan to do a lot of walking, heels are not the way to go.

Speaking of luggage, we were team carry on.  I’d read earlier that it could take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours to gather checked luggage in Havana.  Between trying to locate our friends, exchanging money, and figuring out our taxi situation, we were at the airport for well over an hour.  My friend said she saw some people on her flight who had yet to get their luggage; I’m not that observant, so I can’t say for sure, but based on the pace, I believe it.

GETTING AROUND

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Getting around Cuba is an adventure to say the least.  My advice for passengers – close your eyes.  People step out in the street without warning, horses on the road, cattle, lots of honking.  Again, just close your eyes.

I’m sure you know classic cars are the thing to do in Havana.  I love vintage cars, but I would not suggest booking one for a day trip.  We took a trip to a tobacco farm in Viñales, which was about 2.5 hours each way.  Now, the pro of riding in the classic car, it doesn’t accelerate as quickly as some of the other vehicles, so you can keep your eyes open for most the ride.  Though we did almost get in an accident with a cattle.  The cons, it doesn’t accelerate as quickly as some of the other vehicles, so it takes forever to get there.  On the way back from Viñales, we ended up on the side of the road with tire issues.  Luckily, we’d booked two cars for the day so the six of us had to cram in one car for the remainder of the ride home, which led to being pulled over by the police.  It was an adventure from start to finish.

All that to say, if you’re planning a day trip to Viñales, I wouldn’t recommend booking a classic car.  I also wouldn’t recommend booking a day trip to Viñales, but that might just be me.  While it was interesting to see how a cigar was made, that’s not really my thing.  Perhaps I would’ve felt differently if we’d done the tour by horseback, but probably not.

MONEY

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Money was the hardest part for me to figure out.  How much do I take?  Should I take Euro or USD? Where will I keep all this money once I get to Cuba?  Here’s the scoop on the money…

For starters, I did my research.  Since American credit cards aren’t accepted in Cuba, most people recommend $100 a day.  That was a great starting point for me.  Then, I came up with a budget where I guesstimated average prices for meals, taxis, the day trip to Viñales, going out at night, there was a line in the budget for souvenirs, and one for emergency funds.  I’d determined I’d need to bring $787 (which I rounded to $800) to survive in Cuba for 5 days.

Now, a lot of posts recommended exchanging to Euro because there’s a 10% fee when you convert from USD to CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso).  The exchange rate to go from USD to Euro wasn’t the best, plus there was a shipping fee if I’d exchanged with my bank, so if my math was correct, it would have been a difference of $4 CUC.  Not worth the hassle.  So, I took 100 Euro that were left over from a previous trip and the remainder USD.  The exchange rate was almost 1:1 for Euro, while at the airport my friends got 0.87 CUC for one USD.  At the airport, we exchanged enough to cover a taxi.  Then, we exchanged the rest with our host who gave us 0.95 on the USD.

If you’ve read my post on being debt free, you know I’m all about a good budget.  Between Euro and USD, I exchanged $450 and didn’t spend all of it.  So, it’s possible to have fun in Cuba without breaking the bank.

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A copy of my budget. Actual costs may vary because I didn’t track each and every purchase.

Food In Cuba

Food gets its own section because I read a lot of posts about how the food in Cuba wasn’t great and you should be prepared to ask for salt.  Due to all of those warnings, one of my friends had hot sauce in her bag swag.  I’m here to tell you that minus one meal, the consensus was that the food was great!  That one meal was in Viñales; you already know how I feel about that so I won’t go into too much detail.  I’ll just say Lassie came up to our table multiple times, and for a minute we thought we heard a chicken being killed…luckily that was a false alarm.  Speaking of Lassie, be prepared to see a lot of stray dogs and cats.  Okay, that was an odd detour so back to food.

I ordered ropa vieja too many times to count, while most of my friends stuck to seafood.   If you do nothing else, you have to eat at Dona Eutimia.  I’d go back to Cuba just to have their ropa vieja y arroz con frijoles one more time.  Plus, the bartender was super nice and gave us rounds of drinks on the house…at one point we were turning down drinks. You don’t even need free drinks in Cuba because the magic price at most restaurants is $3.50 for a drink.  I’d also recommend visiting San Cristóbal, which is where the first family ate when they visited Cuba. When I say first family, I’m talking about the Obamas.  The first family of hip-hop (Jay Z and Beyoncé) ate there, too.

Compared to the US, food in Cuba was priced extremely well.  We were a group of six and each of us had an entrée, additional sides for the table, and at least two drinks with every meal…that came to about $20 per person for each meal.

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Grilled fish with a live goldfish on the side at La Cocina de Lilliam.

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Havana Temptation aka “The Michelle Obama” since that’s what she ordered at San Cristobal.

OTHER THINGS TO KNOW

Now is the time to brush up on your Spanish.  My friend and I speak Spanglish pretty well, so between the two of us we’re almost fluent. Well, fluent is a stretch, but we know enough to get by and I only had to revert to, “Yo no sé” a handful of times.  “¿Cuanto cuesta?” will be good to know to get your negotiations started.  Don’t hop in a taxi before agreeing on a price.  We made that mistake once and didn’t let it happen again.

We stayed in Miramar, which is about 20 minutes away from Havana Vieja.  If I had to do it again, I’d stay in Old Havana to cut down on transportation costs.  The places we found in Old Havana were more expensive, so you have to do the math and figure out what works for you.

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Visit the beach, but not necessarily on the bus.  We visited Santa Maria Beach and originally, I’d planned to hop on the bus because it was a quick trip and pretty inexpensive.  Well, we saw that bus and how packed it was and decided to hire a driver instead.  Our driver was amazing and we ended up asking him to drive us around for the entire day, which was the way to go.

Finally, don’t leave Cuba without visiting FAC.  I won’t even attempt to explain it, I’ll just say you should take my word for it.

CIAO FOR NOW, CUBA

Leaving Cuba was interesting.  Two people in our group left on a Thursday afternoon and they were able to exchange money, check-in, and get through security in 30 minutes.  The rest of our group left on Friday afternoon and the process was not that quick.  I’d say it took about an hour and I didn’t even exchange money because they didn’t have small bills in USD.  I was told I could give them $100 CUC and get $80 USD in return because they didn’t have ten-dollar bills.  You already know I wasn’t taking a hit like that, so we continued with the rest of the process.  FYI, after going through security you can purchase things in the duty-free shop using CUC or USD.

Okay, that’s all I have for now.  If you have questions, feel free to ask.

Safe and Happy Travels,

Marissa

Hidden Figures – Through A Teacher’s Eyes

 

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I saw Hidden Figures for a second time on Saturday.  Seeing this movie as Marissa and as Ms. M were two very different experiences.  During the former viewing, my friend and I laughed, cried, whispered “Yass” coupled with snaps when one character’s future husband said the day they met, he called his mother and asked for her ring.  Seeing it as Ms. M was extremely different.  I found myself explaining vocabulary, asking them to make predictions, feeling proud when they asked questions. The people in the row behind us were probably annoyed…guess there were some similarities to the time I saw it with my friend.

When I saw the movie as Marissa, there were scenes where I experienced anger to the point I was in tears.  As Ms. M, I had to hide some of my reactions because I did not want to shape my students’ opinions.  Kids really do pick up on everything.  At one point, I laughed and one of my kids started laughing.  When I asked what she found funny, she responded, “I don’t know, but you’re laughing.”  All that to say, kids pay close attention to adults and we shape their views, even without realizing.

When I watched the movie with my students, I let their questions guide our discussion.  Yes, we were having mini-discussions during the movie, but we were using level one voices.  Some questions were simple, like what does female mean.  This made me realize I should have front-loaded some vocabulary.  Other questions were a bit more difficult to answer, like what is segregation?  As I briefly explained that one, I started thinking about Brown v. Board and realized that I could probably use my students’ experiences in the school to explain that one.  I didn’t go there, though I could talk for hours about separate but equal aka separate and unequal…but we’ll discuss that in a future post.  We also talked about why they put the colored label on the coffee pot, the significance of knocking down the colored sign for the restrooms, sitting in the back of the bus.

If I had more time, and the ability to pause and rewind, we’d really chat.  We could talk in detail about women in the workplace, segregation, the importance of education, colorism.  That last one may sound a bit random, but it was inspired by a brief conversation between two of my girls after the movie.  I overheard one say she would go to either bathroom because she’s light skin.  Before I could chime in, they were back to skipping on the sidewalk.  I think color in the classroom (and beyond) deserves its own post.

My kids are five, so I know a lot of the content in the movie went over their heads, partially because the movie was kind of long and their attention was fading.  Still, there were some things they got.  In the opening scene, one of them said, “Look, it’s a trapezoid.”  I couldn’t even get upset at the fact that she wasn’t using a level one voice because the teacher in me was so happy that something from our geometry unit stuck.  There was also the moment when one student whispered to another, “Watch, I bet she’s going to the bathroom.”  In my mind I’m like, yes, a prediction!  The moment when one student angrily stated, “He slammed the door in her face.”  Or the scene where Katherine Johnson returned from the bathroom, drenched, and one of my kids asked if she’ll still work there.

I can’t be 100% sure what they understood in the movie, what will stick with them a year from now, a day from now, or even what stuck once we walked out the theater.  The only thing I’m certain of is this, the discussions we had, their excitement…it was worth being Ms. M for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon.

~ Marissa’s Teachable Moments

 

 

 

Reasonable Resolutions

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Photo Credit: The Pensive Sloth

I had high hopes for winter break…grading papers, creating a scope and sequence for the remainder of the year, making anchor charts.  Yea, none of that happened.  Instead, I spent my break catching up with family and friends, and binge-watching Suits.  If I had to do it all again?  I’d do the same thing; it was a much-needed break.  But now I’m feeling somewhat rested and ready for a fresh start.  So, here are a few New Year’s Resolutions that I hope to stick to in 2017.

 

1. I will complete lesson plans in advance

No more waiting until Sunday Funday to do work.  From now on, I will complete my lesson plans on Saturday mornings.  As I was typing, I started to write Friday, but let’s be real…Friday evenings are made for happy hours, Modern Family marathons, and/or sleep.  If you’re like me, that’s an and.  So again, I resolve to complete my lesson plans on Saturdays, which should take away some of the anxiety that comes along with waiting until Sunday afternoons to plan.

 

2. I will add to my craft

When you’ve been doing something for a long time, it can be easy to fall into a pattern, get comfortable.  Checking things off a list becomes second nature.  This year, I vow to make an effort to step out of my comfort zone at work.  For me, that means teaching more science.  While it’s not on the mandated schedule (blasphemy, I know), I will find time to explicitly teach it, not just integrate it here and there.  This will be a learning opportunity for me and my students.

 

3. I will get organized

Yes, I shove things in drawers when I’m short on time, guilty.  I’ll attempt to do better in the new year.  For starters, I won’t let my students’ papers pile up in the finished bin.  I’ll actually review and return papers in a timely manner – not two weeks before grades are due or right before I’m running off to a meeting where I need to show student work.  It will be nice to have a system, know where things are when you need them.  I will also go through my inbox to delete messages.  Just typing that feels so cathartic.  Can you imagine an inbox in single digits?  That hasn’t existed for me since my first e-mail account…think AOL circa 1998.

 

4. I will remember the real reason I’m here

At times, it’s so easy to lose track of the real reason you’ve been called to do a certain job.  When it comes to teaching, I tend to forget why I’m here because there’s such a huge emphasis placed on standardized test scores.  There’s nothing standard about my kids, so I need to keep in mind my teaching philosophy.  My philosophy remains that character is just as important as content.  Obviously, I want my students to learn how to read, write, and do math, but I also need to teach them how to be people.  So when I find myself stressing over the fact that my kids have yet to master 100 sight words, or can’t fluently add and subtract within 10, I’ll ask myself…are they happy?  Have you taught them to help others?  Again, being a good person is just as important as academics, especially when we have things like autocorrect and calculators at our fingertips.  There are no apps that teach you to be a good person, not that I know of.

 

5. I will be grateful

It’s sooo easy for me to recall and harp on the bad things that happen day to day.  But ask me if anything good happened, and I bet I can’t remember it.  I get so caught up in assessments, observations, the kid who knocks over all the books in the library that took forever to organize by level.  But not this year.  I vow to remember the good moments.  Like the student who entered the school year not being able to identify the letters in his name, but now he can identify letters and tell you their corresponding sounds.  Or the funny moments, like the day one student told me she had an upset stomach and needed some “pepto business.”  In the new year, I vow to be grateful for the moments that bring me joy and laughter.

What are your resolutions for 2017?

Happy New Year,

Marissa

‘Tis The Season

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Photo Credit: Teacher Troubles

‘Tis the season to be jolly. Well, it’s hard to be jolly when you’re super stressed.

People in my school building often comment that I’m always smiling and in a good mood.  Little do they know just how stressed I am.  For starters, being responsible for educating 20 plus children is a huge weight on your shoulders.  I know there are people who say, “You only teach kindergarten.”  (Typing the word “only” just now made me cringe).  Kindergarten, like all other grades is super important, so again, it’s a huge weight.  But, that’s not where most of my stress is stemming from these days because I’ve finally accepted that contrary to the number I may get on an evaluation, I’m good at my job.  Unfortunately, teaching doesn’t make up most my job.  I think my most accurate title these days would be a data collector.  I feel like I’m drowning in assessments and paperwork.  And my time to complete the paperwork is being taken up by meetings about the paperwork.  It’s a vicious cycle.

So I guess for me, ‘tis the season to be stressed.  It’s ironic because I was told by multiple sources that my name came up in a meeting saying that I’m not stressed enough.  Not sure why the goal is for teachers to be stressed, but I digress.  I’m plenty stressed but I often get the message that when you walk in the building, you’re no longer a person, and your feelings don’t really matter.  Your sole purpose is to be present for the kids.

Please don’t get me wrong, I love the kids. But how can I be expected to care for and provide for them if I’m not taking care of myself?  You must put your oxygen mask on before helping others.  So yes, I may be physically present for the kids but these days I’m finding it difficult to be mentally present for them, and for myself.

Unfortunately, we live in a society where being busy is cool. Where people brag about being at work for 12 hours a day.  Why do I need to spend half of my day at work to be productive? Some people are more productive in different settings.  But if you don’t meet that minimum you’re seen as not doing your job.  In fact, I was once told that I need to stay late at least 2 days a week.  When I replied that I work from home, the response was, well you need to be seen here.

All this to say, that I’m stressed.  But if you’re still reading this, I’m sure you already knew that.  I have been fortunate enough over the years to have a close friend who is a clinical psychologist. Just talking to her in and of itself has been a huge relief.  She has shared some very helpful tips with me to help me cope with stress.  Over time I’ve been able to develop some of my own.  Below are some tips that represent a combination of the help I’ve received from her, and some strategies I’ve developed on my own.

1. Take a few minutes for yourself

For me, this usually comes in the morning.  I arrive at work early, but I find that I often sit in my car for at least ten minutes before going into the building.  When I’m especially stressed, the time in my car is greater.  In the past, I was listening to a playlist I’d created, but in my effort to be fiscally fit I canceled my Spotify premium, so I have to settle for whatever comes on the radio.  For those few minutes, my Nissan Sentra is my sanctuary.

2. Phone a friend. In my case, g-chat a friend.

Last week was an especially rough one for me, but it made me realize how super thankful I am for my friends and family who listen to my stories, and offer words of encouragement, after they get over the initial shock.  Though your friends and family may not be able to relate, they can be there for you.  Try not to vent all the time, though.  A little at a time is healthy, but doing so constantly just reinforces the stress. I have to check myself with this one, because I have stories for days.  But I’m sure my friends appreciate a break from those stories and it’s good for me to think about other things, not related to work.

3. Follow a mental health blog.

My friend, the clinical psychologist, also has a blog full of helpful daily advice, which you can visit here. She provides great tips, though I must say that some of them are easier said than done, like take a real lunch break.  It sounds simple.  In fact, I told her I was going to do it.  But, unfortunately, I have yet to take an actual lunch break.  In my defense, my lunch is more of a breakfast since it’s at 10:30 every morning.  And, I have to plan for four different subjects after lunch with no transition time in between. So my lunch usually turns into planning, and my planning is consumed by meetings.  One day I will take a lunch break, speaking it into existence.

4. Make plans

In the past, I was good about making plans so I’d have something to look forward to, something to get me through the week.  I’d write the dates on a white board and write down dates, outings, massages, trips.  These days, I don’t have the time or energy to write stuff on a white board; it sounds like a lot of work right about now.  Still, making plans is an effective way to relieve, or at least manage, stress.  Now if you’re like me, you might make plans then unintentionally break them by falling asleep.  Sorry to all my friends who have been a victim of my naps that turn into a deep sleep.  But, getting some sleep is not to be underrated, especially when one is trying to get rid of stress.

5. Take a mental health day.

Unfortunately, there is still a stigma around mental health so I know this is easier said than done.  I’m the worst at taking sick days.  In my nearly decade of working, I’ve probably taken a total of 20 days.  Just typing that I realize how ridiculous and unhealthy that sounds.  Work can be physically, emotionally, and mentally draining, so it’s important to take time for self-care.  I’m officially committing to making time for me.

That’s all I have for now.  Seven school days left before winter break (not that I’m counting).  My goal is to achieve a healthy work-life balance.  These days it’s been work and more work, little life in the equation.  What about you?  Any tips to stay mentally healthy?  Please share below.

~ Marissa’s Teachable Moments

Teach the Vote

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A few weeks ago, we read a book that mentioned a president.  Something made me ask my kids the name of our president.  The responses ranged from “Washington, D.C.” to “Dr. King.”  After about ten guesses, one student finally said, “Barack Obama.”  While my students may be too young to vote, they’re not too young to be affected by the impending election.

As adults, we’re in unique positions where kids are watching our every move.  Seriously, I forget how closely they’re watching until I overhear my students playing teacher; my kids even have my mannerisms down.  Since children are impressionable, I feel the need to express the importance of fulfilling my civic duty without compelling my students to adopt my beliefs.  Instead, I think it’s important that we expose them to as much useful and neutral information as possible.  I’m especially moved to do that this year when we have a candidate who spouts lines like, “Our inner cities are a disaster…they have no education, they have no jobs.”  So, here are a few tried and tested ways to talk to your students about voting.

The Sticker

I plan to wear my, “I Voted” sticker on my face tomorrow.  My kids are infatuated with stickers; I don’t understand it, but I plan to use it to my advantage.  I know my kids will be drawn to the sticker, which will lead to tons of questions.

Talk About It

It’s okay to talk to children about the election.  In fact, I tell them that I like to make informed decisions so talking about it will help them be informed.  Talking about it will look different for parents and teachers.  As a teacher, I am very careful not to push my beliefs on my students.  Still, provide information, answer questions, and encourage them to talk with their parents.

Rock the Vote

Lead by example.  Take your kids to the poll.  During the primary election, I ran into a student from my first year of teaching at my polling place.  It was great to see her there, watching her mother cast a vote.  Children often follow our lead, so why not set an example of casting a vote.  I still remember going to the polling place with my mom as a kid; it’s something that sticks with you.

Rock the Vote, Again

Tomorrow I’ll be reading Duck for President, which has proven to be a hit for eight years running.  My students will then vote on measures like, extra recess, pizza toppings since we recently earned a pizza party – you know, important stuff.

Another good read if time permits, Grace for President.  Then you can have your kids cast a vote for the candidate (Grace or Duck) of their choice. If you choose to read this book alone, it can be used to discuss the significance of “A girl president,” as Grace calls it in the book.

Okay, that’s all I have for now.  Even though we gained an hour, daylight savings time is not my friend right now.  Plus, I still need to get ready for my job, which just so happens to entail educating “The African Americans” and “The Latinos” in an inner city.  Note: Please read “the” with extreme sarcasm.

So, whether you’re #WithHer or looking to get #Trumped, happy voting,

Marissa’s Teachable Moments