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“It sounds like some friends do not want special South American candy!” I stiffled a laugh as my sister’s — excuse me, I mean Ms. Baackes’s — shrill threat sent a hush over the crowd of six-year olds.

Fresh off the plane from Costa Rica, I was visiting my sister’s classroom in New Orleans for the first time. As a fellow, she’s dedicated two years of her life to breaking the cycle of education inequality by working in high-needs, low-income areas. Her self-designed major at NYU, The Politics of Prejudice, could have led to any number of fancy titles right out of college (BEAMING BIG SIS ALERT), and we couldn’t be prouder of the path she’s taken. And never was I more impressed than the day I visited her classroom.

I’ve done this whole classroom-visit thing once before, when I returned to my childhood Montessori school. But nothing could have prepared me for an army of kindergarteners hyped up on their last day of school before Mardi Gras beak. Um, yes, let’s not breeze past that — New Orleans schools take an entire week off for Mardi Gras! I could understand their excitement, and it made the warm welcome I received — a bunch of pint-sized Mean Girls running around in circles singing “I hate Ms. Baackes’s sister! I hate Ms. Baackes’s sister!” — a little easier to bear.

In the spirit of the season, I prepared a short presentation about festivals I’ve attended around the world, from Peru’s Puno Day to Thailand’s Songkran to New York City’s own Mermaid Parade. The real shocker of the day was when Ms. Baackes and Miss Meihoukai (my moniker for the day, to avoid confusion) explained that it was our first Mardi Gras, and it dawned on a few of the kids that their city-wide party is not celebrated by the entire universe. They were genuinely baffled. (And I have to say after having experienced it myself, I now am equally perplexed. Why don’t we all do Mardi Gras?) I felt a bit like I had just broken the news that the Easter Bunny was fictional.

Otherwise, the kids were mostly concerned about the Mermaid Parade. During the questions-and-answers portion of the presentation, they had all kind of feedback. One particularly, shall we say spirited student, who had spent most of my presentation running in circles muttering to himself in the back of the classroom, dropped to his knees and somberly raised his hand. “Are mermaids real, and do they have teeth?,” was his burning question. My reply? Science can’t prove they aren’t. Also, . Next question.

Another boy, who my sister later told me was one of her toughest cases, raised his hands to give me an earnest warning. He looked around nervously, and then gave this invaluable reminder with all the sincerity in the world — “Watch out for sharks.” Much appreciated, buddy.

And those were the questions that were on point. With limited time and a classroom full of kids so eagerly raising their hands I thought their arms would fall off, it was hard to pick who to call on. And when I finally did, and the question was, “It’s my cousin’s birthday on Friday!” it was hard not to laugh. After a little demonstration about what a “question” is or is not, we tried again. With time for just one more, I fielded this query from a charming seven-year-old rocking a mohawk: “Where did you get your nails done?” I replied straight-faced with the name of a neighborhood salon, to which he nodded. “I think my mom gets her nails done there too.”

Our last project of the day was to make some Mardi Gras masks. I love a good art project, but not as much as I loved the conversation that ensued with one of the munchkins.

Adorable kid: Can you watch us play soccer at gym?
Me: No, I’m sorry I have to stay with Miss Baackes. Did you like the presentation?
Adorable kid: [Nods].
Me: Do you want to travel someday?
Adorable kid: [Nods].
Me: Where?
Adorable kid: South Africa.
Me: Wow, that sounds like a great trip! Why do you want to go there?
Adorable kid: Because that’s where Nelson Mandela is from.
Me: [Pause to be impressed.] Other Kid, Interjecting: AND I WANT TO GO TO CANADA, BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE JUSTIN BIEBER IS FROM!

Oh, fabulous.

In New Orleans, are in charter schools, which largely picked up the pieces of the educational system left devastated by Hurricane Katrina. While I attended a fairly liberal private school until fourth grade, even I was taken aback by some of the tactics used at KIPP. Teachers tell the kids “I love you,” do home visits at the start of the school year, drive kids home when they are having a bad day, and are expected to spend one-on-one time outside of school with high-needs students at least once a month. “Kids need a lot of love,” my sister told me, while showing me pictures of a weekend outing she took with one of her students to a butterfly garden. Even the sacred lunch hour is up for grabs — the day I visited, the teacher lounge was peppered with students who were pulled aside for some special much-needed one on one time with their teachers.

My sister’s school is a special place, and I felt privileged to visit and see New Orleans through the eyes of its youth. These kids are going places — from Canada to South Africa — for sure.

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52 Comments...
  • that is adorable- your sister rocks. I think it’s great they say I love you and give them attention, you never know if the kids are getting enough at home. my mom is a teacher and would be better suited at a school like kipp because she’s always getting too involved lol, I’ll have to show her this!
    Rachel of Hippie in Heels recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      Aw, I think those are the teachers that make the biggest difference! I just think it’s amazing how things that would seem very taboo at a typical public school, ie. giving your personal phone number to your students, is par for the course at KIPP.

  • Naomi
    May 7 2014

    I was volunteering with kids in a community centre last year in Medellin and I just loved how you would never know what they were going to come out with next. They are so brutally honest (although sometimes you didn’t want to know hah!) and at times, wise beyond their years. The charter school system sounds very interesting too.
    Naomi recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      Ha, yes. I worked in a children’s summer art camp through high school and college and was amazed by how perceptive kids can be — and all the things they pick up on!

  • Fiona
    May 7 2014

    Love it especially the Justin Beiber lover. Sounds like a fantastic education system for kids who will need that extra bit of attention.
    Fiona recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      Ha, Beiber fever is real! I couldn’t stop laughing.

  • Tiana in Florence
    May 7 2014

    What a beautiful post! I lived in New Orleans for three years (Loyola was my excuse!) and I had to teach kids for a week and it was the best experience ever. I think everyone should be in the classroom more. As for Justin Bieber, hey, what ever will get them to want to travel! 🙂
    Tiana in Florence recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      Good point! I’m sure Canada will welcome them with open arms.

  • Emine
    May 7 2014

    I absolutely loved this! I’m a teacher in Detroit and I can hear my little munchkins echo everything your sister’s students were doing. Schools can be such magical places. Tell your sister to keep up the great work!

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      Thanks Emine! I will — and you keep up your great work as well.

  • becky hutner
    May 7 2014

    this is such a sweet post alex. reminds me of a few of my college friends who did teach for america post-school. they’ve both had such fulfilling lives, full of travel too (umm hellooo, summer holidays??). i really admire smart young people who choose the teaching life — it ain’t easy & it certainly doesn’t get you rich but it is amongst the most important work around x
    becky hutner recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      Yeah, that’s what I love so much about TFA… that it takes people who wouldn’t normally get into teaching and gets them down in the trenches for a bit! I don’t think she’ll keep teaching after her contract is over (though never say never!) but the experience has certainly changed her.

  • Anne
    May 7 2014

    Just…amazing!
    I had no idea this program existed! Wow!

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      It is a really interested program, well worth reading up on if you’re interested in what it’s all about! 🙂

  • Shey
    May 7 2014

    Lol, Kids are too funny! especially the Justin Beiber lover!

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      Ha, I couldn’t relate, but I loved the spunk 🙂

  • Janice Stringer
    May 7 2014

    Well, it seems like both have you are building very special pathways in your lives and sharing them with others!
    Thank you both!
    Janice Stringer recently posted..

  • Michael
    May 7 2014

    Gotta give credit to the kid who knows Nelson Mandela.
    Michael recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      I know, right? I was pretty impressed by that from a kindergartener!

  • Laura
    May 7 2014

    What a fun opportunity to make a small impact on these kids. It’s really great what your sister is doing there. Sounds like a challenging situation.
    Laura recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      I left there vowing not to complain for at least a month about my own work woes. It was intense indeed!

  • Justine
    May 7 2014

    Great piece! It’s really awesome to view New Orleans through a different lens. As a traveler, I’m so used to just focusing on Mardi Gras, Bourbon Street, etc. And don’t get me wrong; I LOVE New Orleans as a tourist destination. However, it’s really amazing to learn a little bit about the kids who live there. They are adorable, by the way. It seems like your sister is doing some great work!
    Justine recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      Yeah, it was a fun intro to the city! And I was there for ten days, so lots more NOLA posts coming up 🙂

  • Emily
    May 7 2014

    I have some teacher friends, and while their schools are not the same as your sister’s, it is such a tough job. I know I could not do what they do. I have so much respect for teachers and am blown away by the teacher-haters out there.
    Emily recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      There are teacher-haters?! Sometimes I like under a rock because I have never heard of such a thing! Do I even want to know?

  • Ah! I am a Teach For America alumna and work for the organization in the Chicago region! NOLA is an incredible place to do the corps, and I’m so glad your sister is a part of one of our highest-need regions. There are so many incredible things happening in the ed sector in NOLA post-Katrina. I can only imagine the incredible impact your sister is having on her kids.Your photos of her students are fabulous and thank you for sharing some TFA love! Go Baackes family!
    Emily from Let’s Roam Wild recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      That’s awesome, Emily! TFA for the win 🙂

  • This is so lovely! I’m a Primary (Elementary) school teacher- I trained in the UK and taught in London for several years (now I teach at an International School in Beijing). I love hearing about schools all over the world and the work my fellow teachers are doing. Your sister is doing an amazing thing. Thanks for sharing.
    Joella J (J in Beijing) recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 8 2014

      Love hearing from all the teachers in the comments! That’s awesome, Joella! Kudos to you… I don’t think I could do it!

  • Katie
    May 8 2014

    Nelson Mandela and Justin Beiber in one post – perfect! 🙂 Kids are so cute, I love their lack of a filter. Your sister definitely has some personality in her class!
    Katie recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Ha, she does indeed! I hope I get the chance to hang out with them again soon 🙂

  • This is great, Meihoukai! I’m sure that your presentation made an impact on the students, and the Justin Bieber kid will probably – hopefully – grow out of that phase. I used to teach tennis and art lessons and hearing what the kids had to say on a variety of subjects was always the highlight of my day. I’m looking forward to that again when I’m teaching in Spain this next year.
    Mike of Mapless Mike recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      I worked at an art camp for kids as well throughout high school and college. Children can be amazingly creative, can’t they? Good luck in Spain!

  • Camels & Chocolate
    May 8 2014

    You two are just darling. I want in on some Baackes sister festival action! Love the topic of the talk you gave them.
    Camels & Chocolate recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Angie and I were on the phone discussing the possibility of some Luna-Orth-Baackes sister antics happening in Vegas this year. Lets make it happen!

  • Amanda
    May 8 2014

    Hi Meihoukai,

    I also teach in a high needs, low income area. Working in a community school is challenging, yet so rewarding, so hats off to your sister for being so committed 🙂
    Does she also have a blog, for teaching maybe? It is always nice to swap ideas to see what things work/don’t work, especially because our schools have very different needs compared to others.

    BTW, keep up the great posts! I love reading about your travels and I am developing an obsession with snorkelling thanks to your dive posts. Wonderful stuff!

    Amanda

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      I wish she did have a blog, Amanda! I’ve tried to convince her to start one but for now I have to experience the classroom via Snapchat 🙂 Maybe I can get her to go for it next year.

  • Diana Edelman
    May 8 2014

    First off: the kids? Adorable a bajillion times over. Second: The questions? Even more adorable. Third: The KIPP program? So amazing.
    Diana Edelman recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      I’m not much of a kids person, and even I was swooning 🙂

  • Juno
    May 8 2014

    What a great experience! I did the similar session in China for Chinese university students. They were quite strong about Tibet is a part of China. haha
    Juno recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Ha, I’m sure the comments would have been on a different level but probably equally as amusing with college students. I presented to a college class once via Skype but I think they were a little shy!

  • GiselleandCody
    May 9 2014

    Love the questions that you were asked. Kids are so damn adorable….when you are able to give them back 🙂

    Pretty impressed with the Nelson Mandela answer and not so impressed with the Justin Beiber answer. Haha

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Ha I’m sure as Canadians you must have some very strong opinions on the Beiber topic 🙂 I don’t blame you!

  • Sally
    May 10 2014

    Sounds like a great classroom experience! I taught at a elementary school for a couple weeks in Baton Rouge when studying abroad and the kids really seemed to love it. Your sister is doing great work and I’m of the same feeling – why isn’t Mardi Gras celebrated everywhere?!

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Let’s start a revolution, Sally 🙂 Mardi Gras for everyone!

  • Rachel
    May 10 2014

    Wow this is so interesting! That school sounds a lot of fun to work in, the kids seem adorable, however I can’t believe how different it is they teach, here in England it seems as though you can’t even ruffle a kids hair without getting a permission slip from the parents.
    And Justin Beiber?..definately a legit reason to visit Canada right?!
    Rachel recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      Ha, I know! I was thinking how teachers at my public high school would have been fired for half the things expected of the teachers at KIPP. It’s a loving and trusting environment for both staff and students. Love it!

  • Kristen Noelle
    May 11 2014

    What your sister is doing in New Orleans is wonderful and so inspiring! I love the idea you two had to give a presentation about traveling. I’ve wanted to start a program for less-privileged children who may never step out of the home state to be able to travel and learn about other countries.

    LOL @ their questions/comments. Kids crack me up.

    • Meihoukai
      May 11 2014

      That sounds like a great program. Let me know if you ever get it going!

  • TammyOnTheMove
    May 12 2014

    Ha ha, they sound like the cutest bunch of kids. What your sister is doing sounds amazing. Looks like she is doing a great job.
    TammyOnTheMove recently posted..

    • Meihoukai
      May 13 2014

      She’s hanging in there! I wish she took us all up on our nudgings to start a teacher blog after all 🙂