The Power of our Local Context

We might be part of learning communities that strive to develop innovative curriculum in which technology plays a central role; we might be part of learning communities in which teachers and students strive for excellence, but what is the point of all this if we, as a school, never inculcate the need of contributing to the community; if we never foster a proactive attitude to give back; and if, despite the 21st centrury attitude in our institution, we keep students from being an instrumental part in the understanding and improvement of their/our local context.

Walking the streets of Qingdao as I follow the colors of the cherry blossoms, I have recently been wondering about how blind many International schools can be: blind about the learning opportunities in their surroundings; bling about the possibilities for engaging students in their local context, and truly encourage them to become change making agents. I wonder how many time schools miss opportunities to take advantage of the play and learning opportunities their neighborhoods allow them to have. Clearly, a school address is more than a street with a zip code- it’s a playground and a laboratory.

The long cold nights of the winter invited me to explore and navigate the layer of my school’s curriculum as a voyager who explores unknown geographies. While we can claim ownership and be proud about the somewhat rich inquiry we can observe, I could also observe how the lack of connections with the local context made it look dry, illusionary, and beautified as if it were a damsel going to the opera. Thus, with the help of my local colleagues, we have gone scouting for venues where our students could put their skills to practice.

Every person has a role to play in the process of transforming the curriculum into a livable experience; a process in which learning experiences connect understandings from all subjects, and also make use of the city spaces for our students see that their skills are needed. Teachers, parents, administrators, policy makers, and practically everyone who comes into contact with the real lives of students are potential instruments to lead, accompany and provoke action in the learning that occurs in our community- we only need to understand that we acquire skills to understand and improve the community we live in, not to become isolated.

For a context like the one Mainland China provides us, every opportunity we have to foster emotional and social literacy in students must be taken in order to get learners to practice their critical and human skills. The size of the unknown and unexplored is so vast that there is room for testing how much we can do with what we know in various corners of a neighborhood, a city, and a province.

Yes, there is rigor in life; yes, it is important to learn as much as one can, but it is important to develop a sense of belonging in our context; and this is only done when we see ourselves as functional, and vital parts of it.

In our exploration we have walked streets that not even the locals born and brought up in Qingdao had walked; entered buildings with deceiving appearances that were actually ‘connections waiting to happen’; and it is like this how we have started to become aware the many experiences our context can provide us: it’s a learning matryoshka, an experience within an experience within an experience.

At school, as we openned the repertoir of possibilities and had students look at what the city allows us to do, the most fascinating thing was to see students’ interest focusing on home for the elderly as they wanted to explore what stories older people had to tell. They wondered whether there were unspoken heroes who contributed to what China is like now; and as they wondered about what these people thought of the youth of modern China. Clearly, witnessing this outlined our inquiry for the unit we were about to commence.

Thus, for over a month students went to a home for the elderly in order to hunt for stories worth telling and also to support the work the institution has been doing. This experience enriched the Language Acquisition class with dialogue; with opportunities for students to use language to communicate ideas that mattered to them; with scenarios that allowed us to engage in deep reflection and to witness how each other’s thoughts can change transform us.

I am happy to share a summary of students’ reflections, which they consistently did for the duration of the experience in a video journal, which is only one of the strategies used to support students’ language development. As I post this, students are getting ready to present a story in a school assembly.

As for me, my learning is clear: One of the worst enemies of effective and meaningful learning/curriculum is indifference.

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Language, ATL and Mathematics

Language and mathematics. For many, this would appear to be synonymous with corn tortillas and flour tortillas; both of them useful to put food in them, but only one makes a genuine taco. Two areas of knowledge; two languages: one is the domain of emotional expression, passion and opinions; and the other is world of steely logic, precision and truth. Nonetheless, if we were to scratch the surface we’d see that these two languages have much more in common than one might expect.

When Murat Gökalp, one of my colleagues and friends, a Math and Economics teacher, asked me if I would like to join him in his planning process to look at how we could make ATL visible in mathematics lessons, not only did I appreciate the opportunity to look at how there is always a possibility for all mathematics teachers to be language teachers, but also explore the role of language in mathematical inquiry.

Silent at first, I listened to Murat explain the concept and goal of the learning experience to me, cautiously waiting for the time when I could actually contribute something meaningful. Thus, it was when he fragmented the big understanding he wanted to achieve and spoke about the possible components of the journey where I could see how language and mathematics could work with the same amount of authority with the a common goal in mind.

As I started visualizing how letters and symbols danced in front of me, I decided to record our conversation, knowing that I would be unable to recall everything we would say, and acknowledging that a lot of interesting ideas might go unnoticed. So, with Murat’s permission, I would like to share the 20-minute conversation we held as we discussed chance in mathematics.

Pictures of the notes that helped Murat and I shape our thoughts.

The tasks given to students, as designed by Murat.

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When Students’ involvement engages me

I was coaching a group of students in our writer’s workshop recently. I wanted to get them excited about writing about a place, considering the relationships we might have established with it. Clearly, I did not think I’d be getting equally excited as well.

Since many students sometimes claim that they find it difficult to write add details, and to make their writing ‘feel alive’, in this session I wanted students to see how images can help us explore our imagination, and how all images include a vast amount of information for us to utilize.

So, besides sharing the steps that I followed, I also want to share the piece of writing that I wrote as students were writing theirs. I must say that engaging with students throughout the process and participating in, or rather witnessing the development of their ideas made me think of a place that was special to me. As I started looking at the ideas students were generating about the places they had chosen, I realized that they were writing really personal things, allowing themselves to be vulnerable, and realizing the power of language.

I started thinking about how many times we, teachers, take the time to experience the tasks we prepare for our students. I am thinking that maybe if we live the experiences we plan for them, it may be easy to identify how engaging our activities will be, and whether they will be able to fully involve learners.

Part of the learning process for us teachers also includes staying stimulated and remaining learners, as there is nothing more motivational for students that to see their teachers being positively affected by the development of understandings and life behind the inquiry.

These are the steps I followed in the session.

  1. Make a photo splash: find pictures of the place you want to write about.
  2. Look at pictures
  3. A-Z: Get vocabulary
  4. Write sense impressions
  5. Write some ideas using as many words as possible
  6. Map the way in which you’d like your ideas to flow: an outline.
  7. Research information that you’d like to add, in order to make your text more relevant: what is it worth mentioning: names of streets, historical figures?
  8. Define audience and purpose- what kind of text am I writing and for whom?
  9. Consider time: for how long will you write
  10. Check whether you’re organizing your ideas as you indicated in your outline.
  11. Publish

My photo Splash:Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 11.29.49 AM

My A-Z
Arrive, above, ask, afternoon
Backpack, bubble, blue, blindness
Ceiling, cloud, curiosity
Dark, drops, day (succumb to night), dance, daily, diary,
Esfahan, East (found me)
Find, fortune, fire, form, feet, and figures
Goosebumps, gallant,
Horses, humble,
Imagination, interest, ignite
Jump, joy, journal,
Laugh, lines, listens,
Mountains, moments,
Night, numb, noise,
People, portrait, photo, phase
Rise remember
Slow, silence, solace, sit down, sunset, shapes
Thunder, triangle
Wander, walked

My sense Impressions

Screen Shot 2016-03-29 at 11.36.45 AMIf you want to read the piece of writing I wrote on Esfahan,click on the link below:
I will always have my Esfahan.

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An Appreciation of Language Acquisition in PYP

How many different dishes can you make with tomatoes, basil, cheese, onion, celery and grapefruit? This is my metaphor for the many things one can do in a foreign language when we understand what lies inside attitudes, concepts and transdisciplinary themes.

The days when grammar was the only thing language teachers thought about is long over. These are the days when language teachers explore the power of meaning implicit in the structure of language and how it empowers us to express and design new ideas and information.


Hockett’s language design features

Undeniably, language is one of the tools that connect all areas of knowledge. It is the one tool that we use to record, and communicate learning, and the vessel we use to navigate the waves of learning. Equally powerful, and adding nuance to the competencies mentioned above, is the empowerment one obtains from learning a foreign language. Learning a foreign language confronts us, learners, with the essence of difference, similarities, patterns, discovery, creativity and access to ideas that we may not be able to express in our mother tongue. Nonetheless, possibly because those that have not lived this experience ignore the wonders of its gifts, these skills are seldom discussed as the main dish in collaborative meetings.
This has always surprised me in international education. What is a more evident sign of internationalism understanding of cultures than being able to live and being an active part of several communities, through their languages?

A question on twitter about the role of foreign languages in the IB PYP exhibition made me look into my very ancient files and look at meeting minutes and photos of moments where I was lucky to discuss the gifts of foreign language skills. Thus, this text is both a reflection and an act to rescue memories that was not documented properly.

The PYP attitudes

Regardless of whether we call them attitudes or dispositions, the term is not as important as exploring the meaning and impact they have in the language teaching and learning process and in the process of building new understandings. In PYP schools, students should demonstrate these virtues yet, it is interesting how these terms are seldom discussed as key elements . In foreign language environments, these attitudes or dispositions occur in interesting manners: as we become acquainted with different ways of looking at things; as we learn a different way to express ideas and look at the world; as we realize how the acquisition of new structures, different degrees of truth, and a different value system is affecting us; and most importantly, as we, learners, become aware of the niche that we create when there is a channel of communication with our peers, which sounds, feels, tastes and moves differently in comparison to our mother tongue.

So how do the PYP attitudes reflect language acquisition processes? Let’s be mindful that they are what we want our learners to feel, value and demonstrate.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 9.20.58 AM* Languages have different grammar tenses and structures; thus, functions have been used to exemplify. Teachers should look at the developmental level for each function and determine for which phase they are more appropriate.
** While there are, clearly, topics for daily conversation and survival, simple language can be used to speak about things that matter, and to learn from different perspectives; we solely need to curate the context we choose so that learners can explore engaging, relevant, challenging and significant experiences.

Now, allow me to speak about the field where attitudes, key concepts and related concepts play: the transdisciplinary themes.

Since the transdisciplinary themes are part of the common ground that promotes transfer and provide the opportunity to incorporate both local and global issues in the curriculum, I thought it’d be interesting to explore the meaning of the subject within each theme. Here are some reflections.

Screen Shot 2016-03-03 at 9.21.28 AMAfter sharing my appreciation of how foreign language systems are present in the PYP attitudes, and the foreign language explorations that can be found in the transdisciplinary themes, all we need to do is pick the combo that best fits in the design of the collective inquiry.

How many recipes can you think of?

A memory.

Back in 2011, at Ecole Mondiale World School in Mumbai, India, for the PYP Exhibition, I was lucky to be part of a theme with who wanted Language Acquisition (and other specialist subjects for that matter) to add nuance to the exhibition by injecting their essence in the whole experience. In preparation for the exhibition, each member of the team was asked to prepare a presentation on how the PYP attitudes and Transdiciplinary themes were seen through the lenses of their subjects.

Not only were we to ‘plan a component’ to show, but to include something whose construction is a reflection of how understanding of the central idea is being experienced, and something that, because of the nature of the subject and the fact that it originated in ‘the foreign language universe’, would create that layer of thought that would serve as a provocation or opportunity for reflection for the audience. So what did we, in language acquisition, do? Above you have read a glimpse of our presentation and below are four memorable points of our experience.

  1. In collaboration with my French language students, we identified a series of activities in which we could find ideas or elements to address the central idea we were working on.
  2. We thought of a way in which we could tweak them and make them relevant to the big idea of the PYP Ex.
  3. We decided to produce capitalize on the value of our choices and turn them into an except of a TV show which was prerecorded, and which gave students the opportunity to use it as a stimulus to further interact with during the presentation stage.
  4. Part of the exhibition that the audience witnessed, hence, was student dialogue that reflected how everything they had done in their French class paved the way towards an understanding they were now consolidating in their culminating project. And the best part is that the product chosen was in the target language (French), but it was through their interaction how they engaged the audience in visualizing how their thinking had evolved.

I have always been against translating foreign language productions to the audience, because then translation becomes the focus, and not the construction of understandings, which is the real goal. Yet, as students discussed their ideas and exchanged their perspectives about what they were watching, they offered the audience two channels of appreciation whereby they became aware of how studying a foreign language truly means looking at the world in a different way.

A big thank you to Kirsten Loza, for her  pair of eyes, brilliant reflections and insights.

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Nutritional Value of the Statement of Inquiry


This is the 4th and last entry about the architecture of the conceptual framework in IB Spanish By Concept. My first entry focused on my the features that define the Spanish By Concept experience; the second entry focused on defining the relationship between grammar and the Key Concept (KC), Related Concepts (RC) and Global Contexts (GC); and, finally, the third entry described the path I followed during each chapter’s design and planning process. Thus, this last entry focused on unpacking the Statement of Inquiry (SoI), and the role of inquiry questions as one moves towards the summative tasks for each criterion.

For the purpose of this entry, I will focus on a phase 5 example, and will use the following conceptual elements to construct a SoI (not included in the book):

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 8.29.43 AMThe statement of inquiry is the big idea that emerges from combining the essence of the KC, RC and GC. Thus, it is important to note that statements of inquiry become the driving force of the unit, the ground where ideas are rooted; the soil where understandings grow and are harvested; and the source of all adventured in the learning journey. Likewise, it is important for us, language teachers, to linguistically squeeze the statement’s spirit in order to generate a learning journey in which both teachers and students are stimulated to think, feel, explore, discover, connect, co-construct, and create. Not only are we interested in looking at all linguistic items and concepts associated with this big idea, but also of the opportunities it offers to test our convictions.

This is a tool I have found useful to look at the ‘living organs’ of a SoI.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.26.34 PM



The outcomes of brainstorming as the SoI is dismantled can lead to analyze the inquiry questions and use them to pave the way towards the goal of the unit. First, I find it important to think:

  1. What do I want students to understand at the end of this unit?
  2. How do I want students to talk about the ideas in this unit at the end?

Once we’re happy with the answer to these questions, it is important to look at the inquiry questions planned and align them in a way that they serve as a sequence that helps me integrate vocabulary, structures and ideas; and as a system that offers opportunities to explore a variety of approaches to learning. In the book, the inquiry questions served to generate umbrella topics for the 3 themes in each chapter. Each of these umbrella themes, hence, welcomes a series of ‘Inquiry points’ in which the inquiry questions either serve as a lead in for a series of activities, or in which they help us wrap up a didactic sequence.

Screen Shot 2016-02-28 at 3.30.13 PM

Thus, if you want to be creative, look at how a potential alignment of inquiry questions can help you map the chapter/unit’s inquiry, move form easy to difficult, recycle past ideas and merge them with new ones in order to elevate the depth and complexity of work from the beginning to the end of the unit. Have you ever looked at the inquiry questions and wondered:

  1. To what extent does each inquiry question represent a task?
  2. What grammatical structures and/or vocabulary do question allow me to explore (explicitly or implicitly)?
  3. How do inquiry questions help to scaffold learning?
  4. How do inquiry questions help to design the path of summative assessments?
  5. How can working with inquiry questions help us visualize and address all components of summative tasks? And
  6. How do inquiry questions and the work we d through them help us to establish the relationship between summative tasks and statement of inquiry?

Reflecting on these 6 questions has helped me to evaluate the quality of your inquiry in the unit/chapter, as well as the richness and force of the relationship between the SoI and summative assessments.

Faran 3faran 4

The design process of a unit always gets me excited; always makes me become aware of the vast amount of possibilities for teaching and learning, but most importantly, always helps me find the identify those grains of stardust that have been missing in the understanding of certain ideas. At the end of the process, I normally feel that my understanding of the big idea I want to share with students is thicker, more solid, and ready to challenge other ‘young conceptions’ I might still have to rework.

Understanding the power of inquiry also includes embracing the need to constantly be in the search for learning and self-improvement. Inquiry can be messy, can take us on a winding-road journey, and will always make us want to look around, reach out to everything we can learn, sense and savour with our senses, and then create something new that wasn’t there before. Inquiry is our ticket to being part of these ever-changing times, and to see the extent to which we have taken advantage of the learning opportunities our present has given us.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 8.45.23 AM

Presentation of the conceptual framework in Spanish by Concept Chapter 4.

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Entering the differentiated world

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 2.53.12 PM

Screenshot from 2001: A Space Odyssey

I started 2016 feeling different about many things. I have spent the last 5 months learning with students to whom we are providing language support in order for them to engage fully in the inquiries that take place in the classroom. All this time, I have been thinking about differentiation, and I have, hence, wondered whether we differentiate according to students’ background? Whether we wonder how students process learning in their native language? And whether we are assuming that the differentiation we are putting in place (which might be based on a European language mindset/framework) will work for students for whom English is their 2nd or 3rd language?

Language, in whichever form, is one of the most powerful emblems of classroom behavior. In a standard monolingual classroom (what’s standard anymore?!), one in which we know and speak students’ mother tongue, we use language to send vital social messages about who we are, where we come from, and whom we associate with. The transfer of information, thus, is the result of our basic to social interactions, of the connections we are able to make between understandings and by being aware of how we are being affected by them. While differentiating in this scenario, teachers coordinate time, space, materials, and activities and can establish different channels of dialogue with the student in a common language. However, when one knows little or nothing about students’ mother tongue and how ideas are put together, that is a whole different universe. [Check Chaika, E. (1994), Language: The Social Mirror].

Language is more than just words, so differentiating for students whose language teachers do not speak, implies becoming a learner and learn about the way ideas are constructed, the way truth is expressed, and the way value systems are appreciated through the students’ language [Check Macaulay, R (1994) The Social Art: Language and Its Uses]. Our brain is malleable: we think, learn, and create in different ways. So it is not hard to believe that when teachers enter the mind of a child whose learning is being differentiated, they will inevitably come across realities that their planning might not have allowed them to prepare for. Yet, since the learning is in process, one must not turn around and pretend this situation does not exist. More importantly, one must not pretend that these situations are not as serious as they might look. On the contrary, let’s be true and genuine inquirers and explore them deeply to find out more.

IMG_6754For this reason, it never hurts to know a little bit about sociolinguistics, for we deal with this concept everyday. Aren’t our days of teaching and learning filled with language in social and cultural context; with interactions between different social identities (e.g. gender, age, race, ethnicity, class); and with different emotions that cause one’s meaning to change, or adjust to different situations? For those of us whose mother tongue is not English and must operate in an English environment, we are always subject to filters that create challenges when trying to convey meanings, or demonstrate that we have achieved a new understanding: ways of pronouncing words, choice of words, patterns of words. And the truth is that many times these impediments are the result of structures we grew up with: why would Hindi speakers place “is” and “are” at the end of a sentence? Why can Chinese speakers have a tendency to describe from general to specific and to group ideas in ‘big concepts’? Why would an Arabic speaker find it difficult to understand the concept of written and spoken diphthongs and triphthongs? How can a simple decision not to include words with several “r’s” help a student whose mother tongue is Japanese or Chinese? We only need to learn a little about who these students are and where they are come from to understand and devise a system that is proper for the way they process ideas in their language. [Check a personal favorite: Labov, W. (2010), Principles of Linguistic Change]

Learning is more than experiences.

Differentiation is more than students’ choices, and different processes and designs.

I am convinced that the soul of differentiation is empathy, and that teachers who plan teaching by placing themselves at the core of the learning process, along and at the same level of students, will know how to transform challenge and difficulties into opportunities. Sadly, or thankfully, there are no formulas for differentiation; its success is the result of observation, engagement and experimentation.

In this process, not only will teachers live the experience with students, but also adapt to situations when the ground gets softer or rougher, when the weather feels confused between hot and cold, and when the light dims and situations get darker and darker.

In many frameworks the student is placed at the center of it all, and I am solely hoping we, teachers, are able to see ourselves there as well.


Since an encounter with an advanced interstellar intelligence would be incomprehensible within our present earthbound frames of reference, reactions to it will have elements of philosophy and metaphysics that have nothing to do with the bare plot outline itself.
– Stanley Kubrick (explaining the last scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey)



There will be an iteration of this entry in which I will share some of my findings working Chinese and Korean students. Stay tuned.

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Don’t waste thinking, don’t waste skills!

Mathematics is everywhere!
We need language for everything!
The scientific method is present in every decision we make!

I have heard these statements since I was in grade 1, and I believe them. However, I wish those that continue uttering these phrases could elaborate more and add examples to make this visible, to help those of us that do not see the connection to see it and make meaning out of this.

IMG_7308In my last holiday, I spent a week in Cambodia, in Siem Reap to be exact. While I enjoyed and knelt before the presence of Angkor Wat, I also had the plenty of time to observe Cambodians and their habits, to appreciate their smiles and kindness, and to reflect. It seems like even on holidays I am learning. Aside from these experiences, my friend and travel companion, Siddharth Mehta, co-founder of Palate Palette Bombay, had the chance to watch cooks at RINA RINO prepare a variety of dishes and I joined him in his lesson.

What initially started as an attempt to learn a new cooking technique for him, and a IMG_7325chance to eat again at my favorite restaurant in Siem Reap became a long life learning lesson about the value of skills; how we polish them; how we give them an immediate sense of purpose, and we give back to the community at the same time. As the cooks made those dishes and answered Sid’s questions, I remembered those summer days at the countryside when my family and I visited relatives and I had a lesson from family friends on things that were not taught at school. I recalled how Cupertino, a man who was always fixing something in his house, taught me about the tools, force, levers, etc. Clearly there were many physics lessons every time I visited him; and the learning I got out of them were key as I was out of water and electricity in Qingdao recently (as shared on my post about winter).

In those summers I remember how learning was the result of observation and curiosity, and how the way I paid back for these lessons was the help I gave those individuals that mentored me. I learned how clay “adobes” were made; how to improvise a shower; how to “design” flowerbeds in gardens; how to improvise gadgets on different tractor tools to do many things at the same time; and the science behind mounting a horse. Do I use these skills in my daily life now? No, but they certainly have helped me improvise in many occasions; they have allowed me to develop patterns on things that I can do in the same way; and most importantly, they have helped me stay a curious learner.

Thus, as I observed Siddharth’s learning, I started thinking about all the practice we give students, practice that takes place in the classroom. I started thinking about those worksheets that many students are asked to fill out hence wasting precious opportunities to explore their creative thinking time. I started thinking about how many kinds of apprentices schools could generate if they encouraged students to lend their skills to all those masters that need empowerment and support and will most definitely teach them something in return. I started thinking about how we have diluted the opportunities to take action and just reflect on what can be done or avoid accountability by saying that something is going in on in learners’ heads, but we never try to give them the first hand experience that will help them develop a thirst for application of knowledge.

Many schools around the world are teaching wonderful things to their students, but I wonder how many truly regard their local environment as a playground and as a learning lab. I wonder if schools truly value those golden skills that make their learners unique and try to find ways to make them more meaningful while giving them a chance to give something back to community.

I have been saddened when efforts in many schools are limited to raising money for different causes, which is good, but seems to be the easiest way out. Are these examples of what schools consider the best way to demonstrate what students are learning within their walls? I certainly hope not.

99Can schools create translation brigades and talk with government offices to see whether they are interested in getting posters, forms or instructions translated in the languages that students are learning? Could students translate menus of authentic local restaurants that foreigners could enjoy as much as the locals do? How can they volunteer with municipal libraries? What kind of volunteering could they do to support the city’s tourism (if the city receives a significant amount of tourists)? How can they help improve conditions in local markets? What creative systems could be devised to help farmers, fishermen or other people who do not have the means? Isn’t this the real meaning of trying to do something for the community at a decent scale?

Some teachers complain about resources and everything is out there either virtually or physically waiting for us to find it useful. Likewise, it seems that we are taking the information era quite seriously and have become more interested in creating or discovering patterns to do things. Many times do we just create poster information and let it circulate in our networks, instead of presenting it as a stimulus to spark great ideas and inspiration? How many times do we promote imitation instead of authentic creation and innovation?

Evidently, I wish all students were intrinsically motivated, demonstrated initiative, and explored their local context trying to find opportunities where they could lend their skills, learn something new and help the community. Nonetheless, as an educator, I believe every responsible and respectable school’s curriculum should have a system in place to promote apprenticeship and to fundamentally prevent misuse of skills, so that all thinking is channelized into practice that will yield action and real life experience.

I did not ask for a cooking lesson, but I got learning that suits my current mindset and state of mind. I savored the food that Siddharth learned how to cook with a distinctive pleasure, one that highlighted and pointed out at the enduring understanding I was carrying with me.

This has become my homework and a priority. As soon as I am back at school I will talk to out CAS coordinator on how we can optimize what we do, because clearly we must stop underestimating what we think students can bring into the community!

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