Odd friends of Ramadan

Transformed by curious couplings during #Christians4Ramadan


Tonight, on Ramadan Eve, I finished two books, both of which were given to me. One by my daughter. One by a first year teacher.

A month ago, my daughter came home from Pre-K4 with I am Malala in her Ninja Turtle backpack.

Holding it up to me in two hands, like a stone tablet.  She said earnestly, (Ivy says most things earnestly) “Mommy I want to read this!”

She’d found it in the fourth grade classroom and I can only assume connected immediately with the tranquil gaze of Malala on the front cover.

“Umm…I want to read that too, five year old,” I said bemused. “Guess this is our first mother daughter book club.” We let Kip join too because…top bunk privilege. At bedtime, for the last month, we have been reading about Malala, Pakistan, Swat Valley, the rise of the Taliban, her Father’s activism, her own fight for human and children’s rights…and her love for Ugly Betty. Kip and Ivy have both been surprisingly riveted, only occasionally petitioning for a respite with Star Wars Rebels or Rosie Revere. After they become drowsy to the wisdom of Malala, I choose my late night profundity from a different direction.

Early in the school year, my colleague Andy (who had actually been a student at the school where I began teaching) asked me “Do you identify strongly with Leslie Knope?”

I gasped and grabbed his arm…

“Do YOU identify me with Leslie Knope?” I asked with rhetorical Leslie Knope-like eagerness.

“Umm…well that all depends…I guess some might see her as a little naïve.”

If by naïve you mean hopefully exuberant as she fearlessly charges into the world with blinders on to the peril towards herself or others but equipped with a bastion of binders to protect her…I guess I can see that.

I should mention here that my spirit animal is Leslie Knope riding a unicorn.

Andy took it all in stride and very thoughtfully presented me with Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, as a Christmas gift…which I finally finished today. I wish this pace could be explained by 1,500 pages, small print and no pictures…but the book is only 329 pages long and is laced with Polaroids, hand scribbled notes from 8 year old Amy, and large margins with riotous side-notes from  friends and colleagues. I have added to these with annotations of my own (should you wish to borrow my copy).

As I drink wine and write this, these two books sit next to me, the authors both gazing at me with challenge and expectation. I don’t think I seek out these kinds of peculiar pairings to be deliberately provocative. I’m just a reluctant sorter. They would seem an odd couple to anyone else…but to those who know me, this will likely not come as too astounding. The spiritual humanitarian alongside the hilarious hedonist. Sounds about right.


I will write more specifics about my strange affinity for these powerful women and the lessons they have taught me in the days to come, but for tonight, I accept their odd juxtaposition in my life and their company into Ramadan just as I hope you will accept the oddity of an educational mystic once again inspired and cleansed by her pilgrimage through this holy month.

I don’t have a logical or convenient filing system for the world or the people in it. I don’t reject these curious couplings when they happen. When my daughter hands me book, I accept. When the first year teacher hands me a book, I accept. When a kid asks me to sponsor the Muslim Student Association…I accept. And then I also accept the possibility that, perhaps, we were supposed to co-exist all along. Become friends. Transform each other. Make the other giggle.

I think Malala and Amy might do some giggling together. I think I might join them. And you? You’re invited, too.



“I can’t tell that we are gonna be friends…”

We are comforted and consoled by the humans we choose. We are challenged and evolved by the humans we don’t.

You want to make friends. We all do. Every new environment you enter…a classroom, the quad, your dorm…you will be asking yourself…

“Who will I sit with? Walk with? Eat with?”

I don’t want to be alone.

We are gonna be friends Sherri

It is a funny phenomenon of fate that you are most likely to be friends with your firsts.

First roommate.

First person you sit next to.

First day of class.

Most likely to (not?) be friends?
Most likely to (not?) be friends?

But after the relief of finding someone (anyone) to walk with begins to wear off…you will begin to look around and wonder…would I be happier in that group? With that friend?

So begins the self-selection process.

The Sorority.

The Ultimate Frisbee team.

The college radio station.

Over the next four years, you will begin to identify your niche friendship brand.

Nama-friends “The Divine in me finds a friend in you.”

In contrast, your potluck of friends after your freshmen year, will be a hodgepodge of utter accidents and actual affinities. The faraway freshmen dorm cohort who marches in solidarity the 15 minute hike to the main campus. Versus the specificity of “I saw you lugging your telescope toward the arboretum at dusk and look! I brought mine too! What model is yours? The view is great from The Hill of Three Oaks.”

We are gonna be friends - net

My advice? Seek this balance between the odd and the intended friend for the remainder of your time. We are comforted and consoled by the humans we choose. We are challenged and evolved by the humans we don’t.

We are gonna be friends - hair

My previous post was a tribute to my first friend at Carleton College. Ours was begun by proximity and sustained by affinity. Had we not been randomly settled on 4th Burton, we never would have found each other. I may have never learned the wisdom of trails, knitting, and New England liberalism. She may have never had another opportunity to love a Midwestern Bible belt holy roller. Our gravity changed each other. Swung us on other trajectories we wouldn’t have chosen as our old selves but would never regret as our new selves.

We are gonna be friends hijab

Friendships in a major key can be a great consolation. These friendships are of our choosing. They affirm our impulses. Mirror ourselves back to us with complimentary variations.

We are gonna be friends - bike

But B7 Flat is beautiful. Dissonance and the comradery in minor chords haunts us long after the luxury of major tones has faded.

Some friendships are obvious and inevitable. Some affections are immediate. Some folks resonate with us from the first note.

And then…there are the others.

We are gonna be friends - deck

May you befriend the other. May you forever change each other.

“People like you” can learn to listen, too. – By Sig-Senior Gabby Kopf

“Some people never listen… some people never let others talk… some people ruin the class for everyone.”

I took a breath and said, “Some people like me?”

“Gabby it’s not just you, it’s people like you.”

People like you.

For all my life I have been eager to show the world what I can do. I’ve always realized I behaved this way: a showoff, a know it all, a bulldozer, especially in class. However, until that day in Leadership class, I never realized how it could affect my classmates and friends.

Leadership II is a mandatory class for completion of Arundel’s Global Signature Program, which is a collection of classes and activities focused on community development and global citizenship. This program has been my home, a place for me to grow and learn about the world around me.

Class constitution...

That day in class we were collectively writing a syllabus to outline what we wanted to accomplish for the year. The students’ voices were finally being heard, or should I say a few students’ voices; only I and few others were actively participating in the conversation. To me, the majority of my peers appeared more or less uninterested. Our signature classes have always been a place of trust, comfort, and warmth so the cold feeling from many lively students was puzzling. Why didn’t the classroom vibe feel the same as before?

Mrs. Dziedzic stopped the lesson and asked the entire class what was wrong.
Kaitlin, a classmate who looked particularly apathetic, raised her hand and began letting out her frustrations about “some people” in the class. As I listened to her describe her feelings I felt more and more attacked. She was talking directly about me. The rest of the class joined in to address how they felt voiceless in a class that was meant to hear them. I felt so ashamed.

I couldn’t help but cry because I took that class in hopes of becoming a better leader, someone strong and successful without being overpowering, and I had become just the opposite. When I realized peoples’ perception of me differed from how I saw myself, I
knew I needed to adjust how I act in class .

When I went to Mrs. Dziedzic after class I asked, “What can I do to change?”

“Simple. Just listen.”

Just listening...

I went back to class the next day with a new mindset. I just sat and listened, but more than that, I listened for the right reasons. I found myself listening to understand, instead of just listening to reply. There was a huge difference that I never truly understood until Kaitlyn gave me the opportunity to be vulnerable, which facilitated my perceptions about what it means to be voiceless. This allowed me to become a more empathetic community member, and consequently, a better leader.

As I began to participate in class again with new purpose, I formed much stronger relationships with my friends in the class. Kaitlyn was courageous and spoke for those who felt voiceless, and no longer rolls her eyes when I speak. I stepped out of my comfort zone in order to better our class, and that laid the foundation for very strong friendships.

As I go on to form new relationships in my life; I will remember the way Kaitlyn felt about “Some People.”

Lifting us up...

Now I actively try to understand what people are saying. Being a good listener and proactive member of discussion does not only just apply to the classroom, but also as a co-worker, or a friend, or even a daughter. While there will always be situations in which our failures make us susceptible to self-doubt, it is important to make these moments generate motivation for personal growth. Moments like this inspire me to make each “failure” count.

The above guest blog was written by Gabby Kopf, a senior in the Community Development and Global Citizenship Program at Arundel High School in Maryland. She wrote it as her college admission essay…and she better get in.

Thinking with our Feet: The Pale Blue Classroom

I go to school on my days off.

I don’t mean that I’m a workaholic who sneaks into school on weekends to put the finishing touches on a lesson. I literally take vacations to classrooms.

Today I’m in California. I woke up at 3:45 am in Baltimore, flew 6 hours, napped 4, and rather than sleeping slumped in a chair until my friend could pick me up from the airport, I took three trains and a connector shuttle to Stanford…and then I creeped on the d.school, Stanford’s Institute of Design where anyone on campus can take classes with a cross-pollination of people from all fields.

More confessions? I’m a serial school stalker.

I take personal days to shadow colleagues in nearby school districts; I take students on train trips during my Spring Break. I’ve traveled to Kenya to teach in one room school houses, Brazil to hangout with teachers doing distance learning in the Amazon, and China to chill with English Language Learners and party member’s wives.

Judge me. Go ahead. Label me a nerd, a compulsive do-gooder, a workaholic. The truth is, this is not an impulse to “save” anyone, nor is it compulsion towards self-sacrifice.

It doesn’t matter where I am or if I’m on the clock…I want to be in school. It’s where I feel connected, alive, at peace. It’s where I get a sense of how the story of humanity will unfold and spiral towards meaning.

How is it that I feel the most at ease in spaces that, for so many, cause anxiety, claustrophobia, and resentment? And more importantly, how could my feelings of tranquility and transcendence be normative for ALL learners?

Yoga at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center
Yoga at Arlington Echo Outdoor Education Center

A few thoughts…

1) Comparative Education is inherently fascinating. It wasn’t until graduate school I was able to examine case studies of pedagogy around the world. Studying how country, culture, and circumstance shape concepts of learning not only helps us understand the world better, it helps us be more reflective on the advantages and disadvantages of our native schooling systems.

For students…
This wouldn’t require a passport, maybe just a bus ride one township or county away. How is rural learning different than urban learning? How does the sense of community impact a student’s ability to learn or belief in education’s importance? What do they do better than us? What might we have to teach them?

Seining for critters in the Chesapeake.
Seining for critters in the Chesapeake.

2) Personalized learning plans should align with our natural passions. We should be taught how to follow the white rabbit towards our inherent human curiosities. State curriculums and graduation requirements are unfortunately becoming more standardized, not less, with even fewer options and pathways to individualized learning.

For students…
Teachers can tap into the growing literature on inquiry and project based learning to start. Move students through iterations of inquiry, to skill acquisition, to meaningful local action. This is how we can help students understand their own agency in the learning process. We need to teach them how to make us (the teachers) obsolete.

3) We learn when we walk. Reacquainting mind with body through actual exploration of space helps us make connections we would have otherwise missed. Man cannot live in his pre-frontal cortex alone. We have to sometimes think with our feet.

For students…
This could be a five minute micro trip outside after learning a particularly intense concept. Or, it could be a homework assignment that asks them to observe in their local environment the theme or idea you’ve covered in class. We must ask ourselves why an elementary school classroom and why 5 year old student routines look so similar to that of a senior high student. Why do we trust teenagers less than toddlers and insist upon confining them in playpens only different in their scale? We ought to be taking upperclassmen into the world, making the classroom the occasional point of return and reflection.

The most vibrant learning experiences don’t happen when we’re sitting. Epiphany comes as we move through this, our pale blue dot, in the playpen of the cosmos. If our students aren’t desperate to journey into our educational spaces, it must be because learning isn’t actually happening there.

Happy walking, learning…and creeping.

The Youth shall set you free

Many people have a so called “bucket list” of places they’d like to travel before they die. I am no different. But for me, I’ve come to realize I’m drawn to places I want to “meet.” Places that can be my teachers. Places that will confuse as much as enlighten me.

From the time I was young, I always remember being drawn to the continent of Africa. Who can explain these seemingly random affinities? I can’t, but I have come to trust them.

My second day in Nairobi, Kenya as an Advocacy Peace Fellow, I sat in a bar drinking Tusker beer with my colleague from the Undugu Society and one of her friends.  Her friend was surprised to learn I had only been in the country two days.  “You seem so comfortable.” I was. And I wasn’t.

I went to Kenya not with answers. I went with questions. I went expecting to be discomforted by the disparities I encountered. I went hoping to be divested of Western “solutions” related to aide, Millenium Development Goals, and the like.

I ended up spending most of my “free” time in Kibera a slum, not out of a sense of charity, but because that’s where the life was, the youth were. It’s where I could witness the rich civil society unfolding, refolding, transforming in the hands of the youth. It’s where I could listen to their stories of creative and peaceful rebellion.  It’s where I found the most friendship, partnership, and hope.

If ever I feel false or out of touch with myself, if ever I feel too ambitious and distrusting of my motives, it is youth that bring me back. Their raw and often accidental authenticity help me not to lose my own. The youth are my truth.

I may make it to those countries that I hope will be my teachers, but even if I don’t, I know that I will always learn in the presence of youth, Kenyan or otherwise.

Follow the links above to read more stories of  youth civil society and self advocacy in Kenya.

The Advocacy Project – Blogging with Youth

My first blog incarnate emerged from my participation as an Advocacy Project Peace Fellow. I supported the Undugu Society of Kenya, a children and youth rights organization.

The Advocacy Project is an organization that seeks to support local grassroots human rights endeavors around the world.  They do this by sponsoring “Peace Fellows” who for a short time work as interns for AVP’s international partner organizations.  The goals of these interns depend on the communities they are supporting, but primarily they are meant to help the organization scale up and raise the visibility of the work the local members are already doing.

I became an Peace Fellow in the summer between my two years of graduate work in International Peace and Conflict Resolution.  The Advocacy Project model appealed to me because it seemed to avoid the problematic patterns all too common in “Aide” from the “West” to “Less developed countries.”

The AP avoided the “patron recipient” patterns by…

  1. Acknowledging that local communities themselves are the most likely to accurately identify their challenges and come up with specifically appropriate solutions.
  2. Focusing on visibility with the understanding that if an idea is a good one, it will have resonance once it can be heard above the din.  This visibility needs to be both local (in order to create stakeholder buy-in) and global (in order to increase the possibility of international funding).
  3. Emphasizing self-advocacy by supporting communities as they reflect on the medium and messaging most appropriate for their specific situation.  That may be a local newsletter or a internationally accessible website.
  4. Training local experts.  Whatever work a fellow does must be sustainable beyond the three to four months they are there. That means working side by side with a local partners and equipping them with the resources and skills they need to continue the work.
  5. Utilizing graduate students (like myself) who have some skills and connections to offer, but so much more to learn about taking academic theory and testing it in the noisy, messy, authentic chaos of the real world.

The theories of “post-development” show that we are beginning to understand development will not, cannot, should not look the same the world over, that we all have something to teach one another about healthy, thriving communities.

That “charitable giving” must be a practice in reciprocity as we consider what we have to offer and what we can receive from community partnership networks throughout our global society.

Over the next week, I will repost and reflect on blogs I wrote during this time. I am grateful to all my Kenyan teachers and friends, particularly the youth of Kibera. I have not forgotten your generosity, your stories, or your lessons: Kenya ni moja.