If You Like Piña Coladas, Getting Caught in a Good Book…

I wouldn’t be doing the work of a good business woman if I did not talk about my passion for the start-up work that I do in every space that I reside in, one of those spaces being my blog. Growing up I was an avid reader. My mom is a writer, and when classmates were reading Dr. Seuss in first grade, I was beginning abridged versions of Charles Dickens’ classics. I won reading awards, and got lost in the stories of all types of different genres, from the fantasy worlds of Robert Jordan to the non-fiction stories of Richard Wright. They were my worlds, and I loved getting lost within them.

And then there is music. The melodies that connect to memories, as Eric Church so eloquently crooned. I love connecting tunes to places, faces, timeless stamps upon my memory. And through my start-up work I get to put both of these passions together.

My brother started Younge Media Enterprises Inc in January 2012, borne from his imagination and excitement. YMedia uses advanced technology through an application known as Merged Media to bring consumers a new way of engaging with text. We make customized scores for electronic books, as well as allow users to switch out the customized score for their own tailor-made score through the app. Our company also promotes new artists and music through our website (that is coming soon) YPlace. 

I feel really passionate about this and the group of people I work with are also people I go far back with, making the work personal and enjoyable. Please take the time to check out our Kickstarter Project, and donate what you can. Even $4 gets you the application and helps us out! Especially send this message on to anyone who might be really interested in this idea or supporting new ways in which technology and media interact. 

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Don’t Say the “F” Word

I try to pride myself in being a woman who believes in actions being stronger than words, and I attempt to teach my kids that same value. I often tell them that they don’t have to tell me sorry, they just need to change the behavior. Because of my strong belief in this principle, the environment of test taking season is not one I like. It is not so much the test itself, but rather this idea that our school year has been about the test and that after the test the school year is basically over. No one come out and says that. In fact they talk about how we don’t teach to the test nor do we stop learning after the test. But my students think that learning stops and we won’t do “real” school after FCAT, their state standardized test. But they say that because even though the administration says those things about learning, their actions do not back those statements up. Because of the emphasis placed on the test and the anxiety you could cut with a knife that enters in the months preceding the test, the children have been exposed year after year to this build up of pressure and an unspoken idea that THIS is the only thing that mattered this year. The reality is that the test exists, and it is important to the school’s grade and in tenth grade they must pass it in order to graduate and not become a retaker in their subsequent years. I get that. I want my kids to graduate. It’s the nature surrounding the test and my own kids past interactions with it that concerns me more. 

If the secret of success is in fact never losing twice, then my kids are on the losing end of the stick. And that’s hard. It’s hard when you are made to feel stupid for the rest of your school year and hear comments about being in intensive reading classes for the rest of your life. One of my students was talking to me Friday after school about how embarrassed she was when she got a 1 last year (a 3 is a passing score) and was made to feel dumb by a system that does not know how to balance measuring student knowledge and a humane approach to education as life learning. After talking to her for some time, she looked at me and asked, “Ms. Younge, do you really think we’re going to pass the FCAT with flying colors?” I was taken aback for a minute by the honesty in her question. She was looking for her teacher to help her believe that what had been engrained in her mind about herself was not true, that she could pass the test and get out of intensive. I could not find the best words right away, so I asked her if she felt she had learned more this year than last year. She told me she felt like they were an honors class and that she understood a lot more of what she read this year because we actually discussed the reading instead of workbook work that she did last year. I smiled and responded that her answer was the answer she needed. That she needed to believe she had learned a lot this year and that would guide her through her test. And then I paused, hesitant sometimes to make such declarations, but I kept going and told her I thought she could pass this year. And I do. Do I think all my students will pass? I don’t. And it’s not because I don’t believe in them, because I believe beyond 100% in every last one of my students, but one thing I have learned to do well this year is know that having high expectations and having unrealistic expectations are not the same thing, and too many teachers, especially TFA teachers don’t realize that. I sit through meetings with other reading teachers who teach the lowest 25th percentile like I do and they talk about how they want all their students to pass their FCAT, and I wonder if they have lost touch with their students because of this “big goal” that they have lodged inside their mind. 

Life is about moving forward. When you’ve been lagging behind in the race, to the point that it probably feels like people are lapping you, it should go without saying that it will take some time to make up the ground that has been lost. In my classroom there is a sign that says “We move forward, never backward.” To me it’s most important that my students continue to grow in their reading levels, how many words they can read in a minute (a crucial sign of growing fluency as well as important for taking timed assessments), and their confidence that if they focus each year that they will continue to get closer to the finish line. Maybe it won’t be this year, but resiliency is a key intrinsic element that must be present in our classrooms. Especially the ones like mine. At some point that child needs to run into someone that says this year you’re going to turn it around. You’re going to make a clear plan to reach the finish line and not stop until you get there, whether that is this year, next year, or some year after that. 

My kids sit for their test next week. I’m not anxious and I have been calmly reviewing with my students. I am rather hopeful about next week. I am hopeful that my classroom’s culture of working hard even through roadblocks will be with them even when I am not on test day. That my students won’t see their four letter nemesis and break down but rather confidently take the test knowing that this year they learned something that will move them forward in life, above and beyond the test. 

A Hop and a Skip in Arenal and the End of Spring Break Costa Rica

It was with sad hearts that we left Monteverde, where we had spent four incredible days in the mountains with a host with a heart of gold. After saying our goodbyes and gobbling up the last of the farmer’s cheese, we embarked on our jeep-boat-jeep journey to our next destination, Arenal. Arenal is known for its volcano and its cave and rappelling tours. I was especially looking forward to the cave tours that we had heard about while in Monteverde from fellow travelers. 

However, our time in Arenal would be short lived. We only got to spend a short amount of time there, and then had to rush onto the last bus leaving for the San Jose region until Saturday. We all had Saturday flights and could not afford to miss them, and public buses were not running from Thursday afternoon until Saturday midday. We were sad, but the journey there on the boat was spectacular and it was nice to enjoy the region for a short time. The bus back, however, was packed with people, and Thecla and I got the short end of the stick and were forced to sit on the bumpy and not very pleasant floor of the bus for two straight hours. Our backs have never been more sore, but we are lucky that after two hours we were able to find some seats as people emptied out of the bus at one particular stop. I am not sure if we would have made the entire ride sitting like that. 

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We were welcomed back to Heredia by Lance, who was so nice to host us for longer than originally planned. The down time was just what we needed, though. We were able to rest up, relax our sore muscles, enjoy shopping in San Jose, and spend quality time with Lance, which of course included more dancing and more Rock Band. It was the perfect way to end a memorable spring break. I only hope to go back to Costa Rica and do even more in the near future. Next visit: Manuel Antonio and a proper Arenal journey.

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Bridge Treks, a Horse named Johnny, and Coffee/Sugar/Chocolate Tour Caffeine Highs

Even though the soreness in our bodies used to classrooms and workouts consisting of grading marathons, Monteverde continued to lure us into adventure after adventure. It is probably fitting that I quickly mention a brief encounter with a scorpion. I was going through my clothes, looking for a swimsuit, when I saw something dark in one of my swimsuit bottoms. I wasn’t sure what it was and then I saw it move slightly and my body’s reaction was to throw my swimsuit onto my bed. I yelled at Ruthie that I thought there was a type of scorpion in my swimsuit and she thought it was just a bug, so she threw my swimsuit onto the ground to shake out the bug, but sure enough, a scorpion crawled out from it. Our reaction: scream and jump onto the beds. The scorpion finally played dead, but the next night Thecla and Ruthie had an epic battle with the scorpion that lasted for an hour and resulted in them finally being able to remove the scorpion from our room. 

Thecla and I had booked another trip into the heart of the rainforest, but this time at Selvatura Park. It was a bridge tour, that had 8 connecting bridges that got higher and higher, until you were looking down at the wildlife from a perch on a bridge above the canopy line. It was spectacular, and a nice change of pace from the adrenaline pumping tours. We spent a leisurely time strolling on the bridges, taking in all the plants and wildlife, and meeting interesting people along the way. We ended the tranquil afternoon with a big lunch at the cafe in the park. 

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After the bridge tour we took a break before Ruthie rejoined us for our horseback riding tour. It was going to be almost three hours long and neither Ruthie nor I had ever been horseback riding before. I was a little nervous about falling off, but once we got settled onto the horses, I felt much better. My horse’s name was Johnny. Johnny was a bit of a volatile horse who did not like to be told what to do…a bit like his rider I must admit. So I settled mainly into the back of the pack of riders and talked to one of the tour guides, and Johnny trotted and galloped whenever he pleased, except for the occasional memory of a rider on his back. He was a great horse though, and even though I knew I would be sore the next day, I began to ease into the riding and enjoy the scenery. We even saw someone doing the superman cable from far away and I shook my head thinking of a time that the person was me up so high and gliding so far along on a single wire. 

Once we got back to the horse farm, we saw a champion horse give a demonstration of its skills with its owner and were allowed to take pictures with it as well. That evening, we decided to spend some more time with our wonderful host Larry. We went out for a tapas dinner on the edge of town (Monteverde is a very small mountain town area) and then danced at the local hangout spot, Bar Amigos, late into the night. 

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The last tour we went on in Monteverde was a tour of a chocolate, coffee, and sugar mountain farm. We were so excited to get an extra day in Monteverde in order to make this happen as by now we were obsessed with the coffee and also love sugar and chocolate. I remembered my love for sugarcane during my time in Ghana immediately when I saw the plant and its sweet taste was not lost to me and brought back countless memories of chewing on ice cold sugarcane with George, my old boss. 

Our tour was made even more wonderful by the presence of four young children who were so spirited and inquisitive that they brought the liveliness out of the entire group. Our tour guide took us through the process of creating the coffee beans and the cocoa beans and let us taste it along each step of the way. I won’t lie, some of the uncooked/unprocessed beans were fairly good and Thecla and I definitely took a handful of one pile and munched on it along the tour route. We took an oxen drawn cart to a building where we mixed hot sugar into flavored candy and bagged it. The last thing our tour guide let us try was moonshine that they brew there, although it is it technically illegal. It certainly had a burning sensation, and I could not stop laughing at the children asking what it was. The tour ended with coffee and yummy snacks, and my body was thankful for such treats as the horseback riding from the day before had left me quite sore. 

That evening, we went to a Peruvian restaurant, and I was inspired by the tilapia I saw on the coffee tour to order some, and I was very happy with that decision. The girls and I had an early night to prepare for our next day departure to the Arenal region. 

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100% Aventura

Our adventure tour in Monteverde, Costa Rica promised a unique adrenaline rush in the heart of the cloud forest. It 100% delivered.

After San Jose/Heredia, we took a public bus headed to Monteverde, which is where the cloud forest is located high up in the mountains. The journey was incredibly picturesque as we climbed higher and higher into one of the mountainous regions of the country. We arrived that night and our couch surfing host, Larry, met us to take us to the cabinas where we would be staying for the next four nights. Our host was very excited to meet us and even more excited that we had arrived on the night of a big latin/salsa music festival in the town. So we quickly dumped our bags off and headed to town where we enjoyed wonderful music, singing, and then snuck away early to sample the mountain cuisine. We ended up at a beautifully decorated restaurant where I had my first ‘typical’ Costa Rican dish, which consists of rice, beans, steamed vegetables, fried plantains, and avocados and cheese if you get the vegetarian dish. It was also the first place we noticed that Costa Rica was filled with delicious shakes and ice cream dessert dishes. 

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The next morning we were greeted with a bountiful breakfast of the best fried farmer’s cheese I have ever had, toast, tortillas, eggs, banana pancakes, and what would become a new staple of our life: Costa Rican coffee. I can still taste the delicious blend of coffee beans now as I close my eyes. This breakfast was Larry’s gift to us every morning, and it could not have started our days off better. That first morning was also our chance to fully appreciate the beauty of Larry’s organic farm and how truly breathtaking the views of his land were and how close we were to the forest. 

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Larry introduced us to a young guide named Watson, who took us to start our day of adventuring with a stealthy climb up a strangler tree. The tree had been hallowed out inside with time, and it was almost like an intricate ladder that we climbed in order to reach the top. As we got closer the space got harder to find a perch for our feet as well as small enough that even I as a small person felt the walls of the tree trunk on either side of me. Once we made our way all the way up the tall tree, we perched at the top and marveled at the wonders nature hides that all we have to do is find and bask in its infinite splendors. 

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From the tree climbing, we headed to the rain forest to go on our scheduled Canopy Zipline Tour with the company 100% Aventura. I was excited and nervous all at the same time, in a mix of apprehension about heights but excitement with how awesome the views would be and how many people never get to have the adventures I was so blessed to have the time and ability to go on. Our tour group was large, but we mainly ended up interacting with a core group comprised of a group of British tourists, a three person group of a couple and their friend from New Jersey, and a petite traveler our age from Canada named Timmy-Rose, who I became close with through this adventure and a few more. The tour wasted no time once it started, and as soon as we were led up a few steps, we were fastened on to our first zipline and the break-neck pace kept going from there. One zipline to the next, they kept getting longer and longer, until soon we were riding on ones where we could not see the other side. This tour had the longest zipline in Costa Rica, at about over 1km in length. At that point we were over 600 ft elevated and above the canopy. It was time for the superman cable. The superman cable is on the same type of line for the zipline, except you are held up by two harnesses so you are hands free laying on your stomach completely suspended high above the forest canopy. After making the guides double check my straps, I was pushed off unto the 1 minute long adventure, screaming and forcing my eyes to stay open so I could witness the sheer awesomeness of the green lush below. Once to the other side, I had no time to reflect on how long and how high I had been on the superman, as we were thrust into a second one of faster speed, though shorter distance. Once that was complete, we had one more piece of the adventure to complete: the Tarzan swing. If you are unfamiliar with the concept of a Tarzan swing, it is a rope that you clutch on to and then jump from a base, resulting in a free fall of several seconds, where you believe you will die, but then the rope catches and you are swung up in the air (just like if Tarzan was swinging from tree to tree) and free fall backwards before the rope starts to slow you down. I was terrified. I don’t do free falls, and this one was tall–the tallest in Latin America. I got the end and looked down and told the men holding the harness that I could not do it. I had promised Timmy-Rose that I would.  A long time back on the adventure tour I had lost Thecla and Ruthie, and Timmy-Rose was talking me through each section that I thought I would not be able to do. I had done it all, and this was the last one left. I knew she was at the bottom hoping that I would change my mind. And I did. I went back to the previous station and had them reharness me. Then I walked back up to the edge of the Tarzan swing, and told them to just push me because my body would freeze and not jump. So they did, and I went hurtling down in a three second free fall, fearing that it was not the right choice and my rope would not catch. Of course, it did and as I eventually came to a slow twirl and was helped down from the harness, I shakily smiled at the girls and Timmy-Rose, ecstatic about overcoming my fears. I was proud of myself. I had to do it. I can’t tell my students to try things they are fearful of if I am not willing to overcome my fears myself. Timmy-Rose also taped the whole thing and once she sends me the video, I will post it here on my blog, and share it with my students as well. Until then, sadly we have no photos because our cameras would have been destroyed on the journey, so we left it at the starting point in lockers. 

Once the adventure was done, we went dancing with our new friends to celebrate a journey well ziplined. 

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We Climbed a Volcano and Danced, Danced, Danced (and Sang)

Spring Break was nothing but pure bliss. I now understand why Costa Ricans say ‘pure vida’ all the time, because that is exactly how I felt during my 9 days in Costa Rica with my two lovely travel companions, Thecla and Ruthie. It was the perfect mix of adventure and relaxation, trekking and lounging. 

We arrived in our destination on a Thursday evening, having left almost straight from school to the airport, washing our hands clean of another round of 9-weeks grades for our students. It was time to put our teaching life on pause and bask in the sun-kissed lands of Central America. We had decided that we would couch surf, to save money and also meet new people. And we could not have made a better decision nor have had better hosts between Lance in the San Jose/Heredia area and Larry in Monteverde. 

Our first night in Costa Rica greeted us with Dirty Girl Scouts and other drinks from our host of very many talents (including a PhD in human genetics) Lance. Lance introduced us to a joy we do not have the luxury of enjoying during the school weeks: video games. Namely, we focused on dancing our bottoms off with his kinect dance games and singing in our fictitious rock band. Ruthie and I even endured blood blisters from playing the drums. That’s dedication to your band. 

On the second day, we got up early to begin our journey to the Volcano Poas that was supposed to be an hour and a half away from the city. We did not realize that only ONE bus goes directly to the volcano a day, and so we got on a series of buses that eventually got us to the base of the volcano. At this point it was getting late, so we needed to make it up to the trails as fast as possible, and luckily we met a woman who helped us find a local ride up to the national park. From there it was a rather easy trek to the top of volcano, where we could look down into the crater lake. When we first got there, however, we could not see anything but thick white clouds. Needless to say we were disappointed after we had journeyed for hours to get there. A woman told us to wait for a few minutes, as the wind sometimes blew the clouds away enough to make for clear shots of the crater. So we waited, and sure enough, we were blessed with an incredible site that was well worth the journey. 

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On the way back, we thought our share of bus transfers had been filled for the day, but it was nothing compared to what we experienced on the return. No bus was going directly where we needed to be, and we ended up on the completely different side of a nearby city, forcing us to take several more buses to find our way back to Lance’s apartment in Heredia. Luckily, Lance knew the cure for a long days journey and took us out that night to a nearby lounge/bar where Costa Rica met our Miami style nightlife in a flurry of drinks, dancing, and once more, getting lost on the journey home. 

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