Monday, March 25, 2013

Teaching The Hunger Games

This post deviates from the format of most of my posts.  It's not about an experience I've had recently.  It's simply my opinions and thoughts on a book I happen to be reading with my students.  If you've never read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and/or never seen the movie, this post may not make much sense, and I apologize for that.  But if you have, feel free to leave a comment and let me know whether you think I'm overreacting or whether you agree.

This quarter, I’m teaching The Hunger Games in 7th grade.  It’s the second year I’ve taught the book, and I absolutely love the unit.  

My unit plan is based on a unit a friend of mine taught and shared with me during our student teaching seminar, my last year in college.  I’ve modified her plans because she originally taught the book to high schoolers, so some of what she did (and the pace she did it at) had to be scaled back.  But I like her ideas, and as I’ve become more familiar with the book, I see more and more topics and themes for discussion.

This year, in an effort to make my unit even better, I’ve been searching online for more resources to share with my students, and more activities to do with them.  There’s one activity that keeps coming up, and it troubles me a bit.

Now that The Hunger Games has been made into a movie and is wildly popular, more and more teachers are choosing to teach the book in their classrooms.  In an effort to bring the book to life, it seems that several of them are creating their own Hunger Games simulations with their students. 

Now, of course these teachers have the good sense to take the killing aspect out of the games.  Most of them have their “tributes” compete at non-violent activities such as running, camouflage, and agility (obstacle course) training.  They have reaping ceremonies, and create propaganda to sell their “tributes” to the audience and gain them sponsors. 

Gee, that sounds like a lot of fun. 
Such an air of competition and celebration.  Almost like…the Olympics or something.

And that’s where I have a problem.
The Hunger Games are not a fun sporting event.  There is no honor in winning.  There is no honor in being chosen.  The whole thing, from start to finish, is atrocious and horrific. 

That’s what I want my students to take from the book.  I want them to see Katniss’s moral struggles and understand her character, understand why she makes the decisions she does.  I want my students to, essentially, make a pledge to themselves that our society will never devolve into one that would let The Hunger Games exist, if they can help it. 

When students re-enact the book, even in a non-violent way, aren’t they just feeling what it must be like to live the cushy life in the Capitol, betting on competitors without really caring who lives or dies?  Our whole society has already been de-sensitized, as Collins has pointed out in interviews about her inspiration for the book.  My job as a teacher is to bring some of that sensitivity back to my students, to make them look at war, at reality television, at our own bloody history, with new eyes. 

So, while my students may be drawing maps of the arena, writing letters to Katniss or her family members, viewing reality television and analyzing it, and discussing the differences between the book and the movie, they will most definitely not be engaging in their own games or betting on their classmates’ chances of winning or losing.   

Sunday, March 24, 2013

On the Subject of Leaving PR

Most of my students know I’ll be leaving next year, and that I’ll be going to Guatemala.  Sometimes they ask me, “But don’t you like Puerto Rico?”  I answer, “I LOVE Puerto Rico!”  And then they ask, “But won’t you miss us?”  I tell them, “Of course I will.”  And then their next question, inevitably, is, “So why are you leaving, then?”  I tell them I want to see more of the world, experience a different culture.  It’s true, of course, but it always feels a little bit like the prescribed answer of what I’m “supposed to” say.  In reality, I’m leaving in order to better myself professionally at a school where I’ll have more opportunities to grow as a teacher—and I’ve very excited about that.  But the prospect of leaving Puerto Rico really does weigh on me some nights.   

I lay in bed sometimes, listening to the sounds through my window—the coquís singing, the steady flow of cars on the freeway (with the occasional burst of loud music coming from one of them), cows baying across the street, that bird that sort of sounds like an owl—and I think about the fact that next year I’ll be living in the middle of an urban metropolis.  The chances of hearing birds and cows will probably be remote, and the chance of coquís nonexistent. 
Sometimes I step outside at night in Guayama and look up at the stars.  And I take a moment to take them all in, because I know that the sight of them too will probably be gone from my daily life next year.

I take special pleasure, these days, in going on a walk or a run and seeing the Caribbean Sea’s blue hue in the distance, in rounding the corner and glancing up at the mountains.  When I decide, on a Sunday afternoon, that a few hours at the beach sounds nice, and I hop in my car and am sitting on the sand fifteen minutes later, I think about how different life will be next year. 

And as I drive through the mountains, or hike through the forests, or, like a few weeks ago, stand at the top of an observation tour and look out over the island, glimpsing the blue of the coastline both to the north and to the south, I relish in that.  I appreciate it fully.

I’ve spent the last two years of my life in Puerto Rico.  I’ve done a lot of maturing here.  I became an adult here, in my opinion.  (Maybe on some days I’m still not the most responsible of adults, but that’s what makes life interesting.  I am an adult nonetheless).  This has become home.  Sometimes the notion that I will move off of the island and never return to permanently live here just seems absurd. 

I guess perhaps my greatest hope is that after two or three years, I have the same feelings for Guatemala.  

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Half Marathon #2 of 2013: El Guatibirí de Otoao

The great thing about the Guatibirí half marathon that I ran last Sunday, in my opinion, is that I more or less ran it on a whim. 

I knew the race existed, and when it was, and after San Blas (read about it) I sort of had it in my mind to sign up for it.  But, after the race, I put it out of my mind.  I took a week and a half off of running completely in order to let my knee heal, and then when I did start running again, I did so cautiously, not building up much distance. 

A week and a half before the half marathon in Utuado (Guatibirí), I hadn’t run longer than 5 miles since San Blas—a full month previous.  But Lucy told me that though she hadn’t been training either, she still planned to sign up.  After a quick check with my long-distance running advisor/friend to make sure my chances of injuring myself by running the marathon were slim, I decided to sign up. 

Lucy and I ran one 10 mile run the week before the half, and I felt good.  But still, that was the only distance run I did in preparation, and I didn’t do any speedwork at all. 

My attitude going into the race was more or less one of, “Well, let’s see how this goes.”  My goal was to beat my San Blas finish time, but I figured that if that wasn’t possible, it was no big deal; I didn’t devote months to getting ready for this race like I did for San Blas, after all. 

The day of the race came.  Lucy and I, along with her son, husband, and a friend of her husband, made the trip to Utuado and registered for the race with plenty of time to spare. 

Just like at San Blas, school buses took all of the athletes from the registration area to the starting line.  Unlike at San Blas, the buses did not lay on their horns the entire trip, and there were much fewer people along the route cheering for the buses. 

Lucy and I and her friends Michelle
and Marlene at the starting line area

Likewise, there were fewer crowds along the route—though there were still many spectators.  And lots of water! Almost every kilometer there seemed to be a water station, and many people sprayed their garden hoses in a fine mist over the road for runners to pass through if they chose. The people who did come out to support the runners were enthusiastic and cheerful, and they made running fun. 

The race went pretty well, overall.  Lucy and I started on pace to finish in 2:06, had we maintained that rate.  And we did keep that pace, until about kilometer 12 and the first (and really only) big climb of the route—El Caracol.  After that, I found myself winded, and slipped a little behind Lucy, forcing her to slow down a bit.  Eventually, I settled in to watch her back, and dragged myself through the last 7 kilometers of the 21K race. 

I managed one final burst of power the last kilometer and kicked in a sprint at the finish, and was able to come in JUST under my San Blas finish time (almost 30 seconds faster if I go by my stopwatch, or 10 seconds faster if I go by the official gun time).  Lucy finished about 30 seconds ahead of me, improving her personal record by almost 3 minutes! 

I brought my participation medal to school and hung in on my whiteboard this week.  And I’ve learned something since San Blas.  This time, when my students ask me how I did and whether I won or not, instead of telling them I came in 323rd out of 432 overall, I tell them I came in 2nd in my age category.  This is much more impressive.  I don’t feel the need to clarify that there were only 5 women IN my age category…if I’m proud of me, I’ll let them be proud too.  After all, I ran this race on a whim.  

Monday, March 11, 2013

Life Ain't Bad

It’s the simple things in life that make it great, and sometimes I just have to stop moving, sit back, and remind myself where I live.  So often, I feel like on the weekends I need to get out of Guayama and go and see a new and fantastic part of the island.  But sometimes the best days are the ones spent right here on the beach 15 minutes from home. 

Because really, what do the famous resort beaches have that we don’t have right here?

Saturday, we met at the beach at about 1pm.  Robert had his hammock strung up between two palms, the car stereo playing us music, our chairs set up, cooler nestled in the shade of a tree, grill waiting for our hunger to kick in. 

We call this beach "Corona West."
(Locals call it Playa el Faro, Arroyo) 

The weather was perfect, the sand was soft, the water was clear enough to study the sand dollars on the bottom (which doesn’t happen often on this side of the island), the sun was out, and we had the beach more or less to ourselves. 

It was our own little slice of heaven. 

We spent the entire afternoon sitting in the sun, floating in the water, enjoying good conversation and great music, reclining and relaxing.  Scott and Robert tossed a football around for a bit, and Sonja kept us updated on celebrity news from Us Weekly.  When we got hungry, Robert found some small bits of wood (who needs to spend money on charcoal?) and we cooked hot dogs on the grill.  We ate them with cole slaw on top (a new thing for all of us, inspired by something Robert and Sonja saw on a Food Network show), along with all the other hot dog fixings.  Simple and so delicious.  (Seriously—go try putting some cole slaw on top of your hot dog next time). 

We watched the sunset.  And then, we watched the stars come out.  I wish I could capture in a photograph what it looks like to see the blue-black sky and thousands of stars framed with the black silhouettes of palm fronds.  I wish I could adequately describe the feeling of digging your toes into the sand, the sound of the waves gently rolling in to shore, the chill in the breeze as evening sets in. 

We stayed until 9pm. 
We were home by 9:15pm.

Marathon beach day, 15 minutes from home.
No, life ain’t bad.  

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Corriendo en Jajome (Running in Jajome)

Next weekend, there’s a half marathon in Utuado called the Guatibiri del Otoao.  Neither Lucy nor I have really been distance running or training since San Blas, but we were both thinking of giving next weekend’s half marathon a go.  We decided to get together for a long run this weekend and see how things went. 

However, when I texted her to find out what time to meet her on Sunday morning, the response was, “Vamos hacer una larga en Jajome con un grupo q viene d San Juan q va para el Guatibiri.  Hay q estar a las 6:00am t va conmigo llegas a mi casa!”  (Loose translation: We’re going to do a long run in Jajome with a group that’s coming from San Juan and is going to run Guatibiri.  Be at my house at 6am and we’ll go together from there.”) 

6:00am?  On a Sunday morning?  But that would mean getting up at 5am (which is earlier than I EVER get up for school), leaving the house by 5:20, driving to Salinas, meeting Lucy, and then driving to Cayey/Jajome—all before the sun came up! 

I said thanks, but no thanks.

THANKFULLY, Lucy didn't give up, and I ended up changing my mind.  Boy, am I glad that I did!! 
This morning’s run in Jajome, a section of Cayey, which is in the mountains, was an amazing experience. 

I swiped this photo from
because I didn't take one myself this morning.
The route is a popular running route, and on Saturday mornings I guess it gets packed.  Today, there were only two or three other cars there when we got there.  I can see why it’s so popular.  The views along the road of the mountains and valleys are fabulous, and the air is fresh and cool being so high in the mountains.  I was impressed that they have the miles marked with signs and painted on the road, and there are also signs warning drivers to pay attention and slow down because athletes are training.  This is appreciated because it’s a narrow, 2 lane road with no shoulder.  Thankfully we didn't encounter much traffic, and the cars we did see didn't coming whipping around the bends too quickly. 

I just can’t express how much I enjoyed my 10 mile run with Lucy and her two friends, Michelle and Marlene.  I wish I could go every single weekend.  If only Jajome were a ten minute drive, rather than a 30-45 minute drive.

What am I saying?  I live on a tropical island and have the opportunity to run in rain-forested mountains.  And I’m complaining about a 30 minute drive? 
I take it back.

Lucy and I both felt good today, so that means that next Sunday, there’s another half marathon in store for us!!  

Relaxing after our run.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

La Coca Trail: El Yunque

This Sunday, Josh and Amanda and I decided to try out a new trail in El Yunque—La Coca Trail.  We got an early start because we planned to take our time and explore the forest at the three river crossings we’d read that we would encounter on the trail. 

At the first river crossing, there was very little water flowing, and the river was only ankle deep.  A glance to the left, though, showed us a waterfall just upriver.  We trooped over to it and spent some time taking photos and climbing up to the top of it.  There really wasn’t enough water to swim, so we returned to the path after not too long. 

Waterfall #1

Some time after the 2nd river crossing (little more than a trickle of water), we saw a larger waterfall off to our right.  A trail led off the main trail and down to the river—but not to the big waterfall we’d seen.  So we climbed up around the smaller waterfall the trail had taken us to.  This required a bit of work…a muddy, steep slope without a lot of footholds.  With the help of a tree branch that Josh held to give Amanda and I something to grab onto and pull ourselves up with, we made it up with not a lot of trouble.  And we were rewarded with a nice pool at the bottom of the waterfall.  The water was chilly, but refreshing after our climb. 

Waterfall #2 

We spent a while enjoying the view, and playing around on the waterfall, then found our way back to the trail.  The climb down the waterfall didn’t go quite as smoothly as the way up, but other than a small scrape on my shin and some dirt on my shirt, we all survived no worse for the wear. 

When the trail ended at the final (and biggest) river, we encountered another group of hikers.  They said they’d heard of a big waterfall—about 40ft, and asked if we knew which direction that fall lay.  We had no idea, but we decided to go down river for a bit and see if we could find it. 

We walked down the river (well, Amanda and I walked…Josh bounded).  We found some small falls after about 15 minutes and decided to stop there for lunch, as it didn’t seem that there were any huge drop-offs coming up.  The view was beautiful, especially as the sun came out and glinted off the water and made the river boulders shine. 

River "crossing" #3 (walking down the river) 

After lunch, we returned to the trail, met up with the other group of hikers again (they hadn’t found the falls either), and trucked it back up the path.  We made it back up to the car in less than an hour because we didn’t stop at any of the river crossings.  (The way down had taken us just under two hours, waterfall explorations included).  The last leg of the trail is all uphill on the way back, and we agreed that for once El Yunque’s rating of “challenging” for the hike was actually fairly accurate.  We ended the trail sweaty and content! 

As we left El Yunque, we decided to reward our efforts with some ice cream.  We stopped at a little place called Caña where they sell ice cream and natural candies…and sugar cane juice!  I watched the guy feed sugarcane stalks into a juicer.  I’ve no idea what the sugar juice must taste like (sweet…I imagine) but it was a cool little place to see, and a great way to end the day.  

Friday, March 1, 2013

Cooking Lessons

I like food.  I like Puerto Rican food.  My friend Kezia also likes food.  And, being Puerto Rican, she knows how to cook Puerto Rican food.  So, a few weeks ago, we started a Thursday night tradition of a cooking lesson followed by a movie.  With any lucky, by the end of this semester, I’ll be able to make all my favorite foods without her watching over my shoulder to make sure I don’t screw up. 

For last night’s adventure (churrasco with yellow rice and tostones), I remembered to bring my camera so I could document each step of the process. 

It started with this array of ingredients.

First step was the rice.  We dumped some of the seasonings into a pot and heated them up, then added water, and when that got hot, we added the rice.

That cooked for a while, and meanwhile we set our meat to marinating and got started on our tostones.  Tostones, for those that don’t know, are fried green plantains.  We discovered when we got home that our plantains had ripened a little bit too much and turned yellow, so we ended up with something closer to maduras (fried yellow (ripe and sweet) plantains), but we still followed the process to make tostones. 

Step one: cut up the plantain.

Step two: fry those puppies. 

Step three: Smoosh them.

Step four: Fry them again!  (Healthy, right?) 

The last thing we made was churrasco, which in Puerto Rico always refers to skirt steak.  We marinated the meat in Kezia’s signature blend of flavors (vinegar, olive oil, pepper, Adobo, and garlic), then fried it up in a pan with some onions. 

All that resulted in this finished product.  Yum! 

Time to sit back and enjoy the fruits of my labor while watching a movie!  (This week: Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief).  

Last week, we made mofongo, which is my absolute favorite Puerto Rican dish, made from mashed plantains with garlic and olive oil.  Since I didn’t post about it, here's a picture from that night too. 

I’m not sure what’s next on our list of things to learn…habichuelas and white rice, perhaps, and maybe meat seasoned a different way.  And I’m sure we’ll repeat things a few times so that I Inow I can make them without reminders from my teacher.  J  Hopefully by the time I’m home this summer, I’ll be whipping up mofongo and churrasco right and left.