Conserving Community

Centropa is an organization based in Europe, and dedicated to the preservation of Jewish history. IThe organization started by conducting interviews of elderly Jewish people in Eastern Europe. Each interview began with a simple premise: tell the stories behind your family photos. In the years since, it has expanded to much more. A peek at the treasure trove of resources on the Centropa website reveals not only interviews but short films, student projects, lesson plans, and a vast archive of rare photographs. Behind each resource is a unified mission: to foster connections among people of different backgrounds and beliefs. The more we can understand about each other and how we are linked, the less likely we are to commit atrocities against fellow humans.


A mosaic of Maryland’s past

This February I attended a workshop for teachers in Baltimore, Maryland sponsored by Centropa and hosted by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. There, I met educators from as far away as Texas and Illinois.  Together, we toured nearby Baltimore neighborhoods, learning about the diverse groups of people who had lived in the area over the last three centuries. Residents of different races, faiths, and national backgrounds opened businesses, raised families, attended schools, and worshiped locally. We visited the Lloyd Street Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in Maryland and the third oldest in the United States, which has operated since 1845.


The Lloyd Street Synagogue

While immersing us in the rich history of the Baltimore area, the workshop also inspired us to bring history and community spirit to life in our classrooms. The Milton Wolf Prize, sponsored by Centropa, honors work in community-oriented diplomacy. Students can enter projects that examine a local problem and how it’s being addressed. Several students presented their winning projects during the workshop. I loved seeing their passion and their innovative approaches to addressing environmental and social issues.


Touring Baltimore with Centropa participants

The Milton Wolf Prize also includes a teacher component, for lessons that incorporate the work of Milton Wolf and La Benevolencija, the topic of the short Centropa film “Survival in Sarajevo.” The teacher contest is accepting entries until June 8. If you work in a school, I invite you to explore and enter the contest!


Learning about Maryland’s Jewish history


Going home and getting global

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My hometown, site of this year’s Global Education Forum.

Philadelphia is my hometown, and though I no longer live in the area,  its proud, gritty sense of character appeals to me. I still cheer for the Flyers and love the LOVE statue. When the opportunity came to return to my hometown as a presenter at the Global Education Forum, I didn’t need to think twice.


Krista at the Global Education Forum in Philadelphia.

The forum brought together teachers, administrators, and thought leaders from all over to discuss best practices in global education. Craig Kielburger and Heidi Hayes-Jacobs inspired with keynote addresses that explored the possibilities for engaging students as thinker and doers, examining perspective and taking action to improve their world.


From Craig Kielburger’s presentation: the traits we want our students to have.

Through the generosity of IREX, several alumni of the Teachers for Global Classrooms were able to travel to the forum and host workshops for other teachers about how to globalize instruction. Sara Damon of Stillwater, Minnesota, Faith Ibarra of Ashburn, Virginia, and I collaborated on our workshop, “Motivating Students and Staff to Take Action on Global Issues.” I was delighted to share my school’s Middle Years Exploration into the topic of poverty, a starting point for future service learning activities. (To check out the exploration, you can join our Google Classroom using code gcempu ). 


Sara Damon presenting at the Global Education Forum.

Nothing motivates and inspires quite like connecting with other passionate educators. Thank you, IREX for the opportunity to attend the Global Education forum this year!


Summer adventures

These last few nights, there’s enough crisp in the air that we can sit out on the porch, watching the sun set behind the crape myrtle. Teachers returned to school last week to prepare for the school year. Our school population has grown enough to merit a huge addition, and over half of the staff moved to new digs, including me. My new office is small and bright, and desperately in need of some wall décor and plant life. Summer is nearly over, and oh, what a summer it was!

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My new office, looking spartan.

 The day after students finished, when most teachers were still finishing up with packing and submitting grades, I was on a plane to Orlando to attend the Korean War Veterans Digital History Teachers’ Conference. So soon after the tragic events in Orlando, I couldn’t help but connect current events to the historical ones we learned about at the conference. Thoughts of lives cut short, of divisions and community, of tremendous bravery and selflessness…the highlight of the conference was the opportunity to speak to several Korean War veterans, now in their 80s, and hear their stories.


Memorial to the Pulse Victims, Orlando


Later in the summer, I spent ten days on a grand sweep of the Southwestern United States with my husband and stepsons.


Zion National Park



The Narrows at Zion



Bryce Canyon National Park



Bryce Canyon



Mesa Verde National Park




Pueblo Cultural Center, Albuquerque


ABQ Biopark, Albuquerque


The Grand Canyon




 The best part of the journey was seeing through the eyes of my stepsons many of the same places that had captivated me as a young child. My parents had the wisdom and endurance to crisscross the country multiple times with three young children in a station wagon, toting a pop up camper. As the National Park Service celebrates its 100th anniversary, I remember the diverse and beautiful places I had the opportunity to see as a child and an adult.


First time visiting the Grand Canyon


 And now I start a new school year with a continued commitment to bring the world to our students, with same can-do spirit that my parents embraced over 30 years ago. Here’s to a year full of adventure, discovery, and joy!


I shall return

I am back in the land of reliable Internet, bright lights, functional crosswalks, dependable air-conditioning, consistently flushing toilets, and water I can drink straight out of the tap.

I am missing the land of crazy jaywalkers, uncomfortable “comfort rooms,” boku halo, warm smiles, ubiquitous Jeepneys, endless coastline. I miss being greeted with a smile and a “good morning Ma’am,” pronounced with an accent that made it sound just like “Mom.” I miss feeling that everyone is family.

I am already plotting my return to the Philippines, but I plan to make a few changes next time. During my next trip to the Philippines, I will:

Visit some more places

Even the youngest Filipino can rattle off the “must visit” places of their country: the beaches of Boracay, the unspoiled paradise of Palawan, the mountains and rice terraces of the Cordilleras.

Beautiful Palawan

Beautiful Palawan. Image source: Flickr

Cordillera rice terraces. Image source: Flickr

Cordillera rice terraces. Image source: Flickr

Engage more directly with students

Much of our time was devoted to official meetings with government representatives and administrators. Next time, I’d bypass most of those meetings in favor of interaction with students. Less schmooze, more kid time.

Selfie with students

Selfie with students

Spend longer in one school

I appreciated the opportunity to see the range of public and private schools in the Philippines, but I longed to spend more than a few hours at a time in one school. Ideally, during my next visit I could spend most of my time getting to know the students of a single school better.

Leganes students (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Leganes students (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Shoes outside the classroom at Leganes National High School (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Shoes outside the classroom at Leganes National High School (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Be more cautious about food

All of the endless meals and snacking in the Philippines finally took their toll. I ended up combating tummy trouble during the last week of my journey. Next time, I’d heed the advice of medical professionals and stick to cooked foods and bottled water only. Raw fruits and vegetables are tempting but are probably to blame for my distress. Don’t worry – a dose of antibiotics when I returned home cured me!

Hold the halo?

Hold the halo?

Learn more of the local language

I visited the Philippines believing that most residents spoke Filipino and English. While it’s true that those two are taught in school, in reality the languages of the Philippines encompass a much more diverse range. In fact, over 100 languages are spoken at home. In the area we visited, most residents speak the Ilongo language. While learning a few words and phrases of Filipino was helpful, even better would be mastering enough Ilongo to navigate a conversation.

Students writing in English, their third language (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Students writing in English, their third language (picture by Sana Mahmood)

Visit old friends and make new ones

I will never forget the friendships I made in the Philippines, especially the kind teachers and students of Leganes National High School. I want to visit them once again, and I also would like to meet more of the friendliest people in the world.

During World War Two, General Douglas MacArthur made a promise to the people of the Philippines: I shall return. And he did. And I shall.

With new friends

With new friends in Leganes

Saying goodbye...for now

Saying goodbye…for now


Magic Penny

Over the last several days, we had the opportunity to visit a variety of schools in the province of Iloilo: elementary schools, high schools, and colleges. Most private schools had affluent students with plentiful technology and other resources, while most public schools functioned with large class sizes and severely limited resources. The desks housed in a museum of historical artifacts at one fancy private school would have been welcome additions in the classrooms at some of the public schools, where students sat at broken, rusted desks or had no desks at all.

Typical public school desks.

Typical public school desks

Private school students.

Private school students

No matter the setting, the best resources in every school we visited were the teachers. Universally upbeat, they teach with passion. Each teacher we observed focused not only on imparting knowledge but also on creating a warm, family-like classroom atmosphere. We witnessed no negative interactions between staff and students. Zero yelling, zero put-downs, lots of supportive comments and occasional gentle reminders, always delivered with a genuine smile.

A high school teacher supports a student as he presents.

A high school teacher supports a student as he presents.

An elementary school teacher models respectful listening.

An elementary school teacher models respectful listening.

Like their teachers, students displayed a consistent attitude of resilience. While I was teaching a journalism class, a storm hit, knocking out electrical power. Strong winds blew through the open windows and shattered glass objects in the classroom. The students calmly closed the windows and continued their lesson, completely unfazed. Their American teacher was a little fazed!

Journalism class in the dark

Journalism class in the dark

Intrepid journalism students (with their trepid teacher)

Fearless journalism students (with their slightly fearful teacher)

As we became more comfortable in different school settings, my teaching partner and I eschewed formal presentations for open dialogue with staff and students. Their insightful questions impressed us. Here’s a sample:

How do you think gay marriage will affect life in the United States?

I think it will improve life in the United States!

Is life in the United States as violent as portrayed in movies?

Nope! One student wanted to know how many shootings there had been at my school, and was surprised when I answered zero.

What will you miss most about the Philippines?

That’s an easy one: the people.

What do you really think about gay marriage?

I support it! At one Catholic school, I quoted Pope Francis, “Who am I to judge?” and students applauded.

When are you coming back? And will you bring those guapo stepsons of yours?

Soon, I hope, and yes, I hope so!

Music is a central part of life in the Philippines. At each school, students sang or danced for us. The fifth graders at Leganes Elementary performed “Magic Penny.” For me, the lyrics exemplify the attitude of the students and teachers of the Philippines:

Joy is something if you give it away,

You end up having more.

So let’s go dancing till the break of day,

And if there’s a piper, we can pay.

To the wonderful students and teachers of the Philippines: like a magic penny, I hope to return to you one day! Salamat and palangga ta ka! Thank you and I love you!

Thank you notes from Leganes National High School students. Gratitude is something if you give it away - it comes right back to you.

Thank you notes from Leganes National High School students. Gratitude is something if you give it away – you end up having more.


Testing the comfort zone

Back when I was a timid middle school student, my PE teacher (the terrific Mr. Canzanese) encouraged me to take risks by saying, “You’re only really learning when you’re out of your comfort zone.” I’m learning a lot in the Philippines as I test my comfort zone daily.


Our daily commute to school involves two Jeepneys and a tricikab, a motorized bike with an attached passenger compartment. There seems to be no limit to how many passengers can be squeezed into these contraptions. Roma and I have navigated the process of paying, transferring, and asking for a stop, all in the local Ilongo dialect.



Stuffing into a trikab. Not pictured: the two or three  riders often dangling from the top.

Stuffing into a tricikab. Not pictured: the two or three riders often dangling from the top.

Riding on a Jeepney. They are the size of large vans with two side-facing benches. The open sides have plastic covers that can be pulled down in the rain.

Riding on a Jeepney. They are the size of large vans with two side-facing benches. The open sides have plastic covers that can be pulled down in the rain.


Personal questions and comments are the norm. It’s not considered rude to ask someone age, income, or marital status, or to comment frankly on a person’s physical appearance. “You’re so white!” and “You don’t eat much, but you’re chubby” are no different from mentioning that someone is tall or has blue eyes. One woman introduced her daughter to me by saying, “She’s chubby,” and another greeted her friend with, “Wow, you are much fatter since I last saw you!”

With some students at Leganes Elementary School. Can you find the white, chubby American lady?

With some students at Leganes Elementary School. Can you find the white, chubby American lady?

In the spotlight

We have needed to adjust to a constantly shining spotlight. We stand out as foreigners and people are eager to converse, take our picture, and see us perform. Every day we are asked to speak publicly to large groups at the schools we visit. Our audience often insists that we follow our speech with a dance, to an accompaniment of uproarious laughter and copious photographing and videotaping as we muddle our way through. I cringe to think what evidence might have crept onto YouTube! Our hip-hop performance was atrocious, while our Tinikling (traditional Filipino dance of hopping quickly between moving bamboo sticks) continues to improve.

Tinikling dancers at Barotac Nuevo National Comprehensive High School

Tinikling dancers at Barotac Nuevo National Comprehensive High School


As guests, we are offered multiple meals each day, prepared by our wonderful and generous hosts. While unfamiliar, nearly everything I’ve tried has been quite tasty, and sometimes downright delicious.

Typical spread

Typical lunch spread.

Mangos, rice cakes, boku, and other traditional dishes

Mangoes, rice cakes, boku, and other traditional dishes.

Enjoying a refreshing drink of boku (coconut juice)

Enjoying a refreshing drink of boku (coconut juice).

Learning, growing, testing and expanding my comfort zone; Mr. Canzanese would be proud.


A spirit of community

The theme that pulls together our weekend experiences is community. We saw it everywhere we went: a resilient and proud community of people working together and enjoying life despite enormous challenges. The more time I spend in the Philippines, the more impressed I become with this spirit.

Early Saturday morning, we met volunteers from the school and other local groups who have transformed an abandoned fishpond into the thriving Katunggan mangrove plantation. Volunteers unearth and bag delicate mangrove seedlings to improve their survival chances. Mangroves provide essential wildlife habitat and flood protection. Since 2009, the community has worked tirelessly to protect 82,000 mangroves. Well, make that 82,005 thanks to the efforts of Roma and me!

Transformation from abandoned fishpond to mangrove sanctuary

Transformation from abandoned fishpond to mangrove sanctuary

With volunteers at mangrove bagging

With volunteers at mangrove bagging

The Philippines is the land of festivals, celebrating both religious and non-religious events. Our guides might not have exaggerated when they told us that a festival happens 365 days a year in the Philippines. We arrived in the midst of the Biray Paraw festival in Leganes, held at the Riannes Beach Resort. A paraw is a double outrigger sailboat traditional to the Visayas region. Roma and I experienced biray-biray (enjoyment of sailing) when one of the riggers took us for a ride. We also enjoyed some exercise in the form of sandbar soccer and a dance-off with local performers. We had a great time chatting with the young people attending the festival about school, sports, and music.

Biray Paraw Festival, Leganes

Biray Paraw Festival, Leganes

Paraw sailboats

Paraw sailboats

Dance-off? Yes, please!

Dance-off? Yes, please!

Biray-biray, enjoying the paraw ride

Biray-biray, enjoying the paraw ride

Sandbar soccer

Sandbar soccer

In the afternoon, we attended a BINGO fundraiser sponsored by the Leganes National High School Alumni Association. The association hopes to build an Alumni Hall, the first of its kind in the town, that can be rented out to raise revenue for the school. This community-supported and self-sustaining project exemplifies the Filipino sense of community and ingenuity that we have seen in evidence everywhere. While did not win BINGO, we were happy to contribute to this worthwhile endeavor.

Bingo in the rain

Bingo in the rain, with pebble markers

After BINGO, we had perhaps our most candid conversation so far with educators from the school, aptly held in the faculty room. Roma and I asked more about the challenges they face: lack of resources, family difficulties, crushing poverty (estimated at 95%), nearly obsolete technology, and not enough support for students who are falling through the cracks. Teachers at the school regularly pay out of their own pockets for basic supplies, for food for hungry students, even for photocopies so that they can conduct their lessons. I asked why the overworked teachers don’t transfer to another school with more resources or an easier workload, and the answer was simple: this is their community and they love it. What an inspiring, remarkable, dedicated group.

Ideas are percolating in my brain for what we can do back in the United States to unite ourselves with this wonderful community. How can we make this resilient, spirited community even stronger?