Most of the time, I am simply "Mrs. Olmos," a busy classroom teacher in a rural district in Southwest Washington State. I teach English, WA State History and Drama to students that range from grades 7-12. I believe in allowing students to use their own creativity and individual voices to enrich learning experiences in my classroom. A typical day in my room includes student-led conversations, collaborative projects, and art supplies. Beyond the classroom, I dedicate myself to many areas of educational leadership. Currently, I am a Fulbright Teacher for Global Classrooms and a member of the leadership team for the Washington Teacher Advisory Council. I am proud to be a National Board Certified Teacher, and a facilitator for National Board Candidate cohorts. Over the years, I have served on committees, panels and cohorts at the district, state and national level. My areas of interest include English Language Arts standards, curriculum and assessment, teacher preparation and certification, equity in rural education, project-based learning, and arts-integrated instruction. In my spare time, I have dogs, horses and and a husband to share my life on a small farm surrounded by green hills and rivers. It's a beautiful life.
On Friday, March 15, 2019, I understood my otherness in Morocco most clearly.
This is the day we visited the most amazing structure in Morocco, the Hassan II Mosque. This is also the day that a gunman killed fifty worshippers at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. On a day when all of the faithful of Islam were grieving and wondering how such madness can exist in the world, I, a white American woman, and not a muslim, was welcomed into one of the most holy places on Earth. I was fully, wholeheartedly welcomed into the peace and beauty of a mosque that was built by all the people of Morocco.
Morocco is 99% muslim. They all contributed to the building of the mosque. They all have ownership. And, I, the other, someone who stands out as obviously different, walked among them in peace, feeling only the deep spirituality of the place, and seeing beauty in every nook and cranny of it. It was solemn on a level I cannot fully communicate. Everyone I met in Morocco on this very day was kind, welcoming, and full of care for their fellow humans. No matter that I was an American. No matter that my whiteness, my “otherness,” was so obvious.
On this day, our cohort of Global Educators had the privilege of visiting Ecole Normal Superieure, or ENS. This is a research institution, a vocational school, and a teacher training college.
During our visit, pre-service teachers at ENS gave us a tour and presentations on Moroccan education and pre-service training. In return, some of our cohort gave presentation on American systems, particularly for language teachers. This was an exchange in the truest sense.
My greatest takeaway from the entire visit was the spirit and attitude of each of the Moroccan presenters. They were optimistic and ready for the challenges of education today. Their enthusiasm for improving teaching methods was contagious, and they were planning creativity and innovation in their future classrooms. I spoke at length with a couple of the presenters. One pre-service teacher told me of a workshop he enjoyed that integrated theatre games with language learning. You know that thrilled me!
In our own country, I often worry about the future of our students and education in general, due to dwindling arts programs and unhealthy testing practices. Then I meet dynamic teachers (like my Fulbright TGC cohort 🙂) and hope is restored. Likewise, in Morocco there are challenges, but hope is strong when future teachers are full of enthusiasm and creativity.
A mentor to the pre-service teachers introduced me to his organization, Global Bus Foundation. His name is Lhoussine Qasserras, and he is a co-founder of Global Bus, an organization that teaches students 21st Century Skills to create positive change, instruct leadership, and promote peace. My guiding question was being answered for me everywhere I looked.
If people like these are the future of Moroccan education, the future looks bright.
We are in training this week, with sessions on culture and education provided by our host teacher Dr. Miriem Lahrizi. Miriam is coaching us on the reality and challenges of the current system in Morocco. Like us, Moroccan teachers struggle at times in a system that is driven by high-stakes testing and bureaucracy. Like our students, Moroccan students sometimes have to sacrifice creativity for compliance, in order to pursue the most advantageous education.
My guiding question for this journey, a requirement for the Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms Program, is about creativity. Rather, it is about so-called 21st Century Skills. Particularly, I am going to be looking for ways in which the education system of Morocco fosters communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. I have those same questions or our systems in the United States. So often, fostering creativity is set aside to emphasize the learning of facts in order to meet the rigors of testing.
The more I see of Morocco, the more I see creativity, art, and overflowing passion. Despite what I am hearing about the system, I know that such vibrant creativity is being fostered. So how? Where? I am feeling an affinity already to those Moroccan teachers and mentors out there that are supporting the next generation of artists, musicians, actors, and poets.
There is so much to learn! The joy of being a lifelong learner has never been so overwhelming to me. I am so glad I was open to this experience. I am so glad that I can observe and relish the differences and similarities I am encountering in Rabat and among our Moroccan hosts.
Observation#1: Cats are everywhere- except in houses. Well, I cannot be sure about whether there are cats inside people’s houses, but it appears to be more normal for domestic animals to live outdoors and unhampered. It’s really the best life imaginable for cats. No one tells them what to do. Food is readily available to them in the street. They laze about like kings and want nothing to do with the humans passing by.
Observation #2: Old things are not leveled and replaced in Rabat. They are amended and repaired. This includes walls, roadways, and sidewalks. Amazing patterns of bricks and cobbles reveal a patchwork history. This is sometimes very challenging when it makes for an uneven walkway, but it is strangely beautiful. I am pondering the deeper meaning behind it. Imperfection is beautiful. Why bulldoze history, after all?
Observation #3: Moroccan food is amazing. Now, I cannot even eat all of it, with my dietary restrictions. Despite that, every meal is big, beautiful, and delicious. From the fig jam in my yogurt in the mornings to the preserved lemons in my Tajine at night, it is delightful.
I’m falling in love with the beauty and the tastes of Morocco.
It’s a lot all at once. I’m now part of a cohort of teachers. I have an in-country Irex program officer (Wyatt) and an in-country Moroccan teacher host (Miriem). The weather is muggy. My hair is ridiculous. The hotel is neither horrible or great.
But, and this is key, I AM ON A DIFFERENT CONTINENT. Okay, maybe that is fairly normal for most people. Let me put it in context for you. I am not a typical world traveler. By some weird chance (long story for another time), I did travel to Nepal 18 years ago. However, I spent the majority of my life scraping up money to survive, and now, in my economically stable years, I am a mom, a grandmother, and a teacher. To me, travel generally means taking a road trip with the dogs. So, this is a big deal.
Rabat is ancient and teeming with life. To me, everything feels exotic and familiar at the same time. The weather and the palm trees remind me of California. The traffic, the river, the bustle of the crowds- I could experience this in Portland. Despite its resemblance to every big city I know, it is a whole new world to me. Rabat sports crenelated walls, a busy boardwalk, towers looming above beautiful gardens, and street vendors selling a multitude of items ranging from ear buds to bulk spices. It’s a lot to take in.
We kick off our journey with a dinner on a pirate ship, the Le Dhow. Toasting with our first official Moroccan teas in hand, we teacher-adventurers are ready for whatever Rabat and Morocco have to offer.
For a solid week I worked and worried, preparing for my Moroccan adventure. My suitcase became inadequate, as I struggled to pack for every possible occasion. That’s when I realized what had alluded me for months. I had no idea what was going to happen in Morocco! Oh, sure, I had agendas. I had the Teachers for Global Classrooms 10-week course and symposium to give me guidance. But, really, I had no idea how the next 2 1/2 weeks would unfold.
Despite the mystery and the feeling that I was about to jump into the deepest of deep ends, there I was, at 3:30 AM, leaving my home, my dog, and my family to embark on a journey across the world that would take me more than a full day.
I’m 54-years old. I have a stable career and a wonderful home. What was I lacking that drove me to seek this adventure? More importantly, what was I to gain? And, because I want to be true to the reason I am on the journey in the first place, what do my students have to gain?
I had a lot of hours in airports and on airplanes to contemplate all of the unknowns. Despite the anxiety it naturally brought me, my anticipation was more like a brewing excitement.
I’m on my way to Africa! What? That’s right! Africa! (I’m more than a little excited about this.)
For the last several months I have been preparing for an international field experience. I was selected for a Fulbright Teachers for Global Classrooms grant last summer, and since then my teaching world has been turned upside down- in a good way! I have discovered the joys of global education.
This week, my big adventure begins, I will be traveling to Morocco to team up with a Moroccan teacher. He has set a fascinating agenda for me, and I will meet hundreds of teachers and students in Morocco. I can’t wait. I will use this blog to record my journey and reflect upon what I see and learn, particularly about education.
Art and creativity belong in the classroom. I know this for a fact. My practice as a teacher of history and English has been transformed by art-integrated instruction. Sadly, there seems to be little support for this concept. Despite that, I find myself doing the work, mostly alone. In a perfect world, the arts are well-funded and students have access to qualified art teachers, no matter their zip code. This is not a perfect world.
After crawling under a desk for yet another stray colored pencil, I sat on the carpet. I didn’t have the energy to clean up my classroom, but I didn’t want to leave it for the janitor in such a condition.
Looking around, I thought about how my classroom had transformed over the last several months. True, my classroom has never been tidy. I don’t function in a sterile environment. I have always had decorative touches – flowery vases and peacock feathers, a collection of old globes. But now….
Now each corner sported a new stack of colored paper or a cardboard contraption, a leftover project kept as an exemplar. One table near the whiteboard had become the “art supply and chessboard table,” with baskets of pencils and markers surrounding two ready-to-play chess sets, pieces askew. The computer table overflowed with baskets of wigs and props, next to a lovely cardboard replica of the Admiral Benbow Inn. Students had craftily tucked ongoing projects between the three monitors, pulling keyboards aside to make room.
Chaos. Well, not exactly, but, from my view from the floor, it looked like it.
And my desk? Piles of debris represented leftover paperwork and props from the recent drama class play. Stacks of student work covered every flat surface – freshman research projects, seventh-grade reading response tasks, drama reflections… Sighing, I pulled myself up to pack up for the holiday break.
Why? Why had I allowed it to get this way?
The echoes of student chatter and laughter reminded me of my purpose – ART.
I had vowed to renew the arts in my district, one way or another. We had lost our visual arts program, due to staffing and funding issues. No painting, no drawing. Time had passed, and nothing was resolved. I even heard that art projects were being discouraged in the elementary, as they were not “standards-based.” With the new evaluation system, teachers were afraid to do anything that wasn’t “core.”
Now, I’m – generally- an English teacher. My school is small, rural, and economically challenged. My plate started out full, teaching Washington State history, drama and two grades of English. No matter, before I knew it, I was advising the brand new Art Club and restructuring my English and history units to allow artistic options as part of daily work and assessments. In no time, construction paper, glue sticks, scissors and colored chalk were piling up on my bookshelves.
You see, the world is not always a clean and organized place. Our future depends on a generation of creative, solution-oriented young people who can make sense and beauty out of the messes we have made. Art-integrated lessons promote problem solving skills and risk taking. Students become comfortable with making mistakes and fixing them. Researchers tell us that this is what we need- the growth mindset and determination to create high quality work that expresses our ideas and opinions. Not to mention, there is evidence that art-integrated instruction increases achievement, engagement and positive classroom culture. So, is it worth it? How can we get our legislature and our administrators to see its value? Shouldn’t art be a part of every child’s education, no matter the zip code?
Currently, our zip code does not get this support. So, is it worth all the mess and exhaustion for me? Yes. Yes, it is. I know that creativity and expression will take my students far in this world. I know that offering them options that bring out the artists in them is fulfilling for them, and for me, too. Strong relationships are forming over collaborative art projects. They are excited about learning and stretching their capacities to share ideas and give evidence. It is working… in so many ways. I see positive proof that creative solutions to big problems can inspire growth, both academic and .
In the meantime, the busy and messy atmosphere of my classroom is full of love, laughter, and learning, and I wouldn’t do it any other way.
It’s a beautiful mess.
For further reading:
For an excellent study on the effects of art-integrated instruction: