Independent Language Learning in High School

Options Exhausted

School schedules are more flexible than one might think. What may seem like a rigid, boring, and oppressive regiment to your day can actually be crafted to fit whatever classes you’d like to take; you just have to know what you want and ask.

Some classes are unavoidable– math, english, science, etc.– but nearly every high school has opportunities to further explore one particular area of study. This could take the form of electives, extra lab/gym periods, and even substituting one core class for another. As a foreign language kid, I’m used to manipulating my schedule to incorporate more language learning time, so that tends to be my area of expertise, however many of the following techniques can be applied to any subject matter, be it STEM, history, or even writing/english.

Tip #1: Academic Electives

This is your prime opportunity to add an extra class to your schedule. My freshman and sophomore years, I took Spanish in place of a typical elective like art, music, or photography. As much as I would have loved to learn more about those sorts of things, substituting an arts class for an extra core academic class was the only way I knew to keep up with both French and Spanish my first year of highschool. I also have friends who take both Mandarin and Spanish. Later down the line, if you’ve exhausted all of the school’s classes in one of these subjects, you can swap in an online class from either a virtual high school or a university that allows you to continue with that area of study.

Tip #2: Online Classes

Most high schools offer dual enrollment programs that allow you to take classes at a local university or online highschool for credit. Sometimes, these credits can be transferred to your future college as well, just like an AP class. When it comes to online foreign language programs, I recommend looking at University of Wisconsin Madison Online, or Middlebury online K-12 learning. Middlebury offers classes through AP for French and Spanish, as well as Chinese, German, and Latin courses. For Spanish learners who have already taken the AP Spanish Language and Culture Exam, I would look into taking AP Spanish Literature online through Johns Hopkins. During the school day, you’ll be given studies to compensate for the time you’ll spend working on your online course.

Tip #3: Independent Studies

Some people believe that in order to apply for an independent study, you need to have some amazing job or internship opportunity, but in reality, anyone can create an independent study. This upcoming year, I’m designing an independent study to prepare myself for the C1 DALF exam and the B2 DELE in June 2018. My teachers and I are creating a curriculum that incorporates small projects and online tutoring sessions that will allow me to keep up with and further develop my listening, reading, and presentational skills in French, Spanish, and Russian. Weekly activities will include everything from reading novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez to watching Russian history documentaries. You could also offer to help out in a beginner French or Spanish class and act as an assistant teacher.

Tip #4: Senior Project

Many schools offer the chance to design a senior project, the perfect chance to explore a new language. Whether you want to analyze French literature or test the Duolingo philosophy that with only 30 minutes of practice a day, you can speak fluently within a few months, Senior projects present an opportunity to explore a unique niche within your target language and dedicate the entirety of your day to its study.

Polyglot pursuits are daunting, especially when you’re a high school student. Instead of thinking about the school day as an obstacle, consider these hours an opportunity. If you’re passionate about foreign language learning, you’ll inspire your teachers, parents, and guidance counselors to help you in any way that they can.

Why I’m Scared of Schedules

Consider the Setting

It’s senior year– the year of college applications, AP classes, and last ditch efforts to make yourself as well-rounded and perfect as you can possibly be before your stamped onto paper and sent in to admissions.

Sometimes it’s a wee bit overwhelming, so instead of working on blog posts and being productive, I write poetry.

Schedules

There are one hundred and twenty six things I have to do today.

One hundred and eleven of them are nothing–

steps in an everyday routine.

Five assignments due tomorrow,

four languages to tune,

three miles to run,

two books to read, and, somehow,

a life to live.

 

Schedules are terrifying.

Schedules are necessary.

Schedules are bone needles and sinew thread.

 

I wake up on Thursday morning and the there she lies,

an agenda fully stocked.

That’s when the veil settles–

one a needle cannot pierce.

Through the thick, grey fog

there’s a dark hole with a warm candle, and

a flurry of soft music

whose tinker-bell chimes invite me to their home

where schedules don’t need to exist.

 

There are one hundred and twenty six things I have to do today.

I can’t do one.

 

I’ll test my weight on tired feet

and think about apples and oatmeal and shoes and eye shadow and that book half finished on my nightstand and that test I have tomorrow and that application thats due on Sunday and those return labels I still haven’t printed and that text from my aunt that’s 136 characters too long and I won’t reply.

 

Each empty box on today’s to-do list pings

like a marble dropped into a crystal glass.

I teeter on the edge of a single shard,

frozen solid,

terrified to move,

an unproductive hazard.

I’ll make another list.

This time I’ll add time.

Then I’ll compile another.

 

I’ll set my plan.

I feel marbles rolling through my fingers.

I’ll step towards the kitchen.

I taste dust and fresh ink.

I’ll pick up a spoon.

I hear a beating heart that’s two sparks from out of tune.

I’ll sit back down.

I see F’s and idle hands.

I’ll stare blankly at a ticking clock.

I smell the lazy coffee still in its mug.

 

Here I am, hours later–

hands tied to this chair,

feet bound in rope,

pure panic in my heart–

with one hundred and twenty one things left to do.

Last Travel

I tried something new…

I sat at my desk today to write a blog post and I wound up staring at photographs on my wall for more than an hour. This is not the first time I’ve lost myself thinking about my travels this year. I’ve only been home for a few weeks, yet the travel itch has already returned. I’m beginning to realize just how much I miss France and Russia. France, especially, has been a consistent throb in my side this last week. I tried to write a typical blog post about just how much I miss my exchange, but nothing I wrote sounded right.

I gathered up a few songs that said it just right, (To Build a Home by The Cinematic Orchestra, So Close to Magic by Aquilo… ) but that felt like cheating.

Recently, I’ve been experimenting with poetry to sort through my thoughts, and it’s something I’ve found both cathartic and rewarding. I wrote something about this strange sort of longing that I feel for the life I had in France last year.

Here it is…

Last Travel

Air falls from my lungs when that song hits just below the ribs–

The one I listened to on metro nights just shy of 299 times.

I ride the crescendo till I’m knocked off my feet.

 

Looks like longing found her way in.

 

She’s woven through September air,

stirred into my coffee,

bleeding through headphones,

reaching out from my camera roll and

lunging from a polaroid.

 

She settles down onto my chest.

 

She crawls out of my heart and winds down my spine.

She’s an ache that rests behind my eyes and casts 6:00 AM fog

so thick I choke on tendrils of molten music.

 

She taps at my head

like she smells the sweet, sticky memories I left on the counter

and wants a taste.

 

Six weeks of Russia and six months of France bundled beneath my eyebrows.

 

Warm memories freeze my fingertips.

Neurons trapped under frost

fire slow signals that lull across glass tipped grass and

are broken by stumbling feet who seek to save a lick of dexterity

so I may write my way away.

 

Today’s plans cease into long winter slumbers with the ring of Fall outside the window,

of a home I once longed for

plagued tonight by this evening’s treasured guest,

the friend who settles over my shoulders,

at the ring of a piano’s first key.

 

She, who thrives on memory, lives in past tense

eager for the future where I return to far away–

far away across an ocean,

 a few hundred miles of sea churning with demons

that once lunged for my wrists.

 

I lay on my mattress, lulled by piano strokes

that grab at wanderlust with greedy fingers

and choke my new today,

too busy missing yesterday to remind me to breathe.

 

I remember the last sidewalk café,

last bus ride through Theater Square,

last croque monsieur and bowl of borscht,

last “Oui, madame” and “Non, merci”,

last sunrise trek and morning bises,

last click of black boots on cobblestone streets,

last embrace with a foreign friend.

Last month,

last year,

last travel.

Week One Host Family Recap

Russian Barbecues and Minty Tea

This past Sunday, I packed up my bags and said goodbye to the hostel where my fellow Americans and I spent our first month in Russia. Though it still hadn’t dawned on me that I would no longer be spending 24 hours with all of my amazing roommates, I still felt quite a depressing pang in my chest when I closed the door to room 304 for the final time. Within the span of two flights of stairs, I left my comfortable American-tourist bubble and ventured out into the “Real Russia” – my very own бабушка by my side.

Now, I knew that I would spend most of my first few days with my host family in a constant state of confusion, but I didn’t expect to meet a random Russian uncle that would guide me into the back of a van and drive me down a pot-hole ridden dirt road to a lake 30 min outside the city. At this point, it was 90 degrees outside, the van had no windows, and I hadn’t had any breakfast, so needless to say, I was a bit grumpy and would have rather taken a nap than swim in the lake. By the time we finally pulled over at our destination, I was ready to fall asleep on the sand, but my eager grandma and her friends pulled me onto my feet and lead me to the water.

I cautiously waded up to my ankles, the frigid water nipping at the 800 mosquito bites I’ve acquired throughout the last few weeks. When my friend’s uncle dove head first into the water, I gaped and made sure that everyone knew that I was deep enough already. Mr. Russian Uncle either didn’t understand or didn’t care, and he sent a wave crashing into my chest with the slap of his hand. Basically soaked at this point, I dunked and the headache I’d been building all day fell away.

After a few more minutes floating around in the water, the grandmas called us all to lunch– an perfect barbecue spread with fresh vegetables, sausages, and even a watermelon!

My host family helped me name everything on the table, and I promptly added those words to my notebook. After we packed up our picnic, we were back in the van and driving to my friend’s host family’s dacha.

Walking around the dacha was like a tour through an early 20th century country home. The house was small and colorful and smelled like fresh wood with only a few rooms but plenty of places to rest and relax. After the grandma’s led us through their gardens and let us taste everything they grew there, we sat down for tea, and if there’s one tradition from Russia that I’ll be packing in my suitcase, it’s mid-day tea.

I’ve never been much of a tea fan, but the minute you put fresh mint leaves and lemon wedges into your cup, English Breakfast becomes a lot less boring.

Coupled with a bowl of fresh strawberries and some sugar cookies… Mmm! Delicious.

That night, back at our apartment, I had my first nightly tea-time conversation with my host sister, half in Russian, half in English. This would become a part of our nightly routine, and probably the time my Russian improves the most every day.

The following morning, on Monday, we took the bus to class where I spent my typical five hours drilling grammar concepts, frantically writing vocab words into my notebooks, and receiving lists upon lists of homework assignments that I would later rant about in our LC meeting. After class, I got my first opportunity to roam Kirov with my host sister and a few other friends– something that I had been hoping to do since we arrived. We walked along the riverside, bought giant bottles of soda at the grocery store and went on a pancake hunt that brought us all the way across the city to a 24 hour cafeteria and a chocolate museum.

On Tuesday I was told that we were going on a “Quest” which ended up being an abandoned orphanage-themed escape room where I was reminded with every note of creepy, suspenseful music why I don’t watch horror movies. Fortunately, an intense rainstorm (which my teacher referred to as a “hurricane”) forced us to take shelter in a Vietnamese restaurant where I ate my weight in egg rolls and beef with broccoli.

Wednesday, our group wrote our dialogues in the park and toured an ice cream museum, and Thursday the van was back, this time driving my friend and I into the woods to a state park to ride horses. While we waited for our scheduled horse riding time, we took paddle boats onto the lake.

At that moment– paddling around and scaring мама утка and her ducklings with some country music– it felt like summer; the summer that I would be having if I were in the US right now.

Summer is stereotypically lazy; the time when we’re supposed to kick back and relax, but my experiences with the season have always been quite the opposite. I’m always busy, whether it be running around from rink to rink when I was younger, to pre-college programs these last few years. Although I’m happy that my Summer has always had a purpose, sometimes I wish that there was nothing on my schedule. It’s hard spending the 4th of July abroad every year and having no control over what food you eat or what activities you do. Sometimes, though, you’re just pedaling along in a lake at some state park in Kirov, listening to your favorite song on a cloudy day, and you think to yourself that at this moment, you could be anywhere in the world. No matter where you’re being dragged by your family, program coordinator, or strange Russian Host Uncle, you’ll wind up somewhere that feels remotely like home, and that can be just what you need.

The Effects of Brute Memorization: Navigating Around a Mental Block

How to Train Your Dragon : Making sleepy NSLI-Y students confident in how to say “But I don’t want to kill dragons!”

18, 23, 28, 53 –  these are the amounts of Russian vocabulary words I’ve been told to memorize each night over the last few days.  Granted, some words were repeats, some days our dictation quizzes were cancelled, but that doesn’t change the fact that in the last three weeks, I’ve added 308 flashcards to my “New Russian Words” Anki deck and every term was added with the intention of being memorized within 24 hours. I’ve often criticized language courses for their slow pace when it comes to introducing new vocabulary, but having now experienced a class with an opposite  approach, I miss the lazy days of writing out pages worth of sentences and Quizlet Live. 

I’ve never had too many problems with memorization, however, in the last few days, I’ve been struggling to cram even one more word into my brain. I spent an hour on the bus glaring at my phone as my mind completely erased everything I had learned the night before. I could repeat a word six times, turn my gaze to the window, then completely forget what I was saying. Carrot, Cucumber, Beetroot… all of these words are must-know, basic Russian words, but for some reason, they refuse to stick. Being the lazy, easily-frustrated, slacker I am, I gave up that day on the bus and grudgingly accepted that the day’s vocab quiz was going to be more red X’s than smily faces. When we were assigned a poem to memorize that afternoon, I began to panic.

I assumed that if my brain couldn’t even remember the word for tomato, there was no way that she would agree to letting a nine stanza poem into her memory.

That night, however, as I sat down at my desk, tea and cookies in hand, I found myself reciting lines by heart after only a few minutes. Confused but pleased, I considered myself cured– maybe my brain just works better between midnight and 2:00 AM. Naturally, I took another look at my vocab list from the day before, but once again, not a single word could get past the double-locked doors to wherever Russian food vocabulary gets stored. That magical memorization of the poem I’d done moments earlier seemed to be nothing but a fluke.

This time though, instead of giving up, I thought about why it was that I could learn poetry but not name the ingredients in borsht. I reminded myself that:

A. Nobody is meant to learn 30 foreign vocab words a night,

B. I’d been using the same method of memorization for the last three weeks, and

C. Flipping through a virtual flashcard deck is one of the most un-interesting and mindless things that a person can do.

And so, with these three things in mind, I grabbed my computer and headed off to Youtube Land where I searched “Learn Russian!” (Yes, exclamation mark included). I started watching videos that tested my listening skills and listened to various explanations of the prepositional case. When I logged onto Fluent-U, I considered myself advanced enough for the “Elementary” category, and watched a Russian Nespresso commercial staring George Clooney, where I finally figured out the meaning of “правда” and for the first time that week, felt myself improve.

There’s nothing wrong with learning new words, it’s necessary to speak in another language,  but the way you learn new words is important. My teacher here in Russia says “quantity grows into quality’, but I think I may need a new motto for my personal learning style.

I need a stimulus more active than a virtual flashcard to improve my Russian.

I need to generate my own language and focus on identifying familiar words in a dialogue or video before I sit down and flip through Anki. For me, I’ve found that recapping my day in Russian– what I wore, what I did, how I’m feeling– and watching videos online with Fluent-U to be the most useful learning methods.

Every few days or so, I switch it up. If I’m feeling like a blob, I’ll watch a movie I’m familiar with in Russian with English subtitles, or listen to a language learning podcast (Actual Fluency is my favorite) to gather inspiration. 

Sure, my grades on Dictation have taken a bit of a blow, but I’m able to stumble my way through a paragraph or two describing my daily routine in front of my teacher, so I think she knows that I’m doing okay.

Sleep Deprived on a Russian High

32 hours later…

It was a typical Tuesday morning. I crawled out of bed at 8:00, stumbled my way toward coffee, ate a banana and walked toward my car. This morning, however, I picked up more than just my backpack on my way out the door. With more than a few yelps and groans, I managed to get a 50 pound suitcase and 30 pound carry-on down the stairs and into the trunk of my car without falling flat on my face or breaking any toes. For the third time in a single year, I packed up my life and headed to the airport, not for a month of Spanish camp or a semester in France, but a six week stint in Kirov, Russia.

Fortunately, it only took a 45 minute puddle-jumper flight to get me to my orientation in New York, but this was only the first leg of what would prove to be an exhausting travel journey. When I arrived at the orientation, I knew what to expect. I met my  first group of friends at the airport, where I was instantly labeled “the one not from the Southwest”.

Our orientation was as all orientations are– a friendship factory meant to ally us before we were shipped off to our final destination, safety packets and pre-departure language guides in hand.

After two days of various seminars and history lessons, we headed to the airport to board a 10 hour red-eye to Moscow. As per usual, I didn’t sleep a wink, but I was smart enough to pack a toothbrush, cleanser, and concealer in my backpack, so I looked more, “Post-airplane Tousled” as opposed to “Exhausted, Caffeine-deprived Zombie”. From the airport we dived straight into the city, plopping down right in the center of Red Square. Seeing something that amazing surely shakes the sleep from your eyes, let me tell you that. From Red Square we headed to a small restaurant/buffet where we ate our first dose of Russian cuisine and experienced our first involuntary photo-op from a pack of confused strangers.

I supposed that Moscow would be similar to Paris, underwhelming at first and filled to the brim with tourists, but surprisingly, a group of rowdy Americans stuck out like a sore thumb. Anywhere I walk with my friends in Russia, native’s stares cling to our cameras and loud voices. It definitely didn’t help that we decided to do “morning energizers” at the park in front of the Kremlin. On the bright side, some of the guards started laughing at us and waved, so… win? Somehow, the constant walking tours and 3rd grade activities kept all of us at least partially awake, so we were able to appreciate our first day in Russia in its most recognizable city.

Flash forward 14 hours and voilá! Our train arrives in Kirov– home for the next six weeks. Sleep-deprived and somewhat wilted, I once again dragged my boulder of a suitcase up the hostel’s two flights of stairs to the suite I’ll share with three other girls, some of the best friends I’ve made so far. These suites consist of two bedrooms connected to a small, dimly lit common area with a bathroom, toilet, and a fridge– the best part of any room for every study abroad student. The rooms are adorable with window seats, armchairs, a table for tea, and two comfortable beds for those rare occasions on program when you actually get to sleep.

So, sleep.

If there is one thing that NSLI-Y lacks, it’s time to rest. Classes fill the morning hours until 1:15, excursions run until about 5, followed by culture classes, meetings with our local coordinator (also known as tea-time therapy hour), and activities with Russian peers until 10:00. As you may be able to imagine, the homework load for a language program this intense is enormous and takes about 3-4 hours to complete (with tea and rice cake breaks as needed). That puts bedtime at around 2:00 in the morning allowing for five hours of sleep on a good day. Whether it’s memorizing vocab lists for the following day’s spelling test, grammar exercises, memorizing presentations and dialogues, or reviewing the day’s lessons and looking up words you want to know, there’s always plenty of work to be done.

Because of all of this work, it’s hard to appreciate all of the excursions and activities that fill up our schedules.

I find myself dreading anything that inhibits my study time, but fortunately for my sanity, I wind up enjoying myself 90% of the time.

So far, we’ve taken walking tours around the city, visited a museum dedicated to a famous Russian heart surgeon from Kirov region, and spent a day line dancing to entertain kids at a Summer camp. With each step I take in this city, I appreciate this program ten times more. Kirov is beautiful, full of stunning landmarks, open squares, ice cream carts, and, most importantly, and Adidas store. Where else would people buy their matching track suits?

All in all, my first week in Russia has been quite an experience; I feel like I’ve been here for a month, though I know that I’ve only dipped my toes into this country’s  language and culture. I’ll keep plowing through the verb conjugations and continue adding cards to my Anki deck and continue taking as many pictures as humanly possible.

Rice cakes with peanut butter and Nutella await…

 

Why I Strive to Become Mr. American Flag Guy

That Dumb American Tourist

He struts off the plane with his head held high. His jacket swings open as he swaggers over to customs so you can see the T-shirt he has beneath with that obnoxious eagle wearing a red white and blue hat. If you were to open his backpack, you would see a travel sized American flag rolled up in the side pocket because, as he often reminds us, “A good American never leaves home without one.” The backgrounds on his laptop range from George Washington to Reagan, and if you ask his why, his answer is always “because I’m an American”.  

He wears his sunglasses indoors and refuses to use any voice level below eight. He pronounces Je voudrais as Jenny Craig- and unlike me, he’s having the time of his life.

When I went on a school trip to Europe with 42 other members of my class, I knew that no matter where I went, I would instantly be labeled as a dumb tourist- one of those annoying ones whose group takes up all the tables in a restaurant and refuses to speak anything but English. I hate being perceived like this when abroad, so, I did what any reasonable person would do and tried to blend in.

I brought all my European-esque clothes, hid under my scarf, and tried to stay towards the back of the pack where it wouldn’t be obvious that I was with the group. When in France and Belgium, I tried to only speak French. In Amsterdam, I downloaded an app to learn some Dutch so could at least say Hello, and ask for coffee. On the metro in Paris, when my group hogged an entire car and kept yelling about whales, I drifted to the back, put in my headphones, and kept my head down. I’m not going to lie, I was not only embarrassed, but miserable.

For six months while I studied abroad in France, I made it my primary objective every day to fit in. I wanted people to forget that I was just another exchange kid- I wanted to be seen as French. Obviously I still wasn’t able to completely shake that mindset, as I was very, very uncomfortable on that metro months later. But that night, I made it a point to observe and emulate Mr. American Flag Guy.

Mr. American Flag Guy is shamelessly American; patriotic, confident, aggressive, and has no problem relating everything back to big business. He was having a great time making a fool of himself on the metro, yelling on the streets, and taking tacky tourist photos at every turn. Meanwhile, I was trying my hardest to become a speck of dust on the bottom of some Parisian woman’s shoe. At that moment, I realized just how pathetic I was and reminded myself that I have years upon years to blend in and feel like a true Parisian. I would never be back in Paris with my high school friends; this opportunity to whip out the selfie stick and laugh at the top of my lungs would be gone forever in a matter of days. So, I got my ass out of the corner and joined in the ruckus.

Sometimes, it’s good to be “that” American tourist.

Sure, I was still that kind-of-obnoxious friend/mom that told all my friends to hush if they were causing too much of a ruckus on the train and I still winced when Mr. American Flag Guy expressed the cultural sensitivity of a toddler, but I was definitely enjoying myself far more than the Mandy from a few hours ago. She still uses her headphones to block out the noise.

Little does she know, however, that it’s not the sound of dumb Americans that she’s tuning out- it’s comforting melody of friends from home.

 

The Danger of Political Parties: We Were Warned

Why don’t we just stop yelling at each other?

A few days ago, during a socratic seminar in my Time to Think class, my teacher interrupted our discussion to congratulate the class on our ability to debate like rational human beings. In a time when the country seems split down the middle and with politics as polarized as ever, it seems that we have forgotten the key to having an effective argument: acknowledging validity of the other person’s ideas.

Humans have this really cool ability to communicate with each other through the advanced language system that we’ve been building and editing since the first person ever pointed at something and gave it a name. These days, however, we have all mastered our mother language, but for some reason, we’ve lost the ability to really communicate. Sure, we can tell each other our ideas and argue till the cows come home, but are we really gaining anything from our conversations? Think about the last time you turned on your TV to watch CNN. You most likely read a caption on the bottom that said “BREAKING NEWS: New Allegations Against President” then watched a reporter try to interview a few experts before eventually bringing the issue to a panel discussion. If you’re anything like me, this process has probably brought you more anxiety and frustration than a working sense of the day’s news, which, by the way, is not the way cable news is supposed to work.

An interviewer asks a question and gets no response or is interrupted, a panel of experts talk over each other for ten minutes straight, there’s a split screen between a daily White House Press Briefing and a running commentary by a senator from the opposite side of the aisle; all of these scenarios are more confusing than educational and convince me that the only source of news I need is Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. But here’s the problem:

I identify as a liberal, someone who typically favors candidates from the Democratic Party and believes in a welfare state, so I tend to find get my daily news through more liberal-leaning sources of media; The New York Times, CNN, PBS, and the occasional satirical late night television host. I hear the words Republican or conservative and I’m immediately prepared to disagree with the source and brace myself for an argument. But here’s the thing, that’s really bad.

Labels cause a lot of trouble and the moment someone or something identifies as either liberal or conservative, most audience members have already decided whether or not they’re going to agree or disagree with the source. I’ll admit it, I’m guilty of this. Political parties are so polarized in today’s day and age that nobody even dares to be a moderate. Unfortunately, parties are typically simplified down to a few controversial policy points and whoever happens to be the party’s most popular, recognizable member becomes that group’s symbol. This is not the way things should be done. Once we generalize politics down to two angry groups arguing all day long and refusing to compromise with each other, we enter a dangerous political climate that can only hurt our country in the long run.

We have this notion that if a Democrat wants to introduce some form of policy or nominate someone to the Supreme Court, all the Republicans will vote against their decision and vice versa. These days, a Republican President has very little sway over legislation if he/she doesn’t come with a matching House and Senate. Politicians are so stuck in their party’s lines that they forget to collaborate and consider issues from all points of view. Just because a social reform comes from a Republican doesn’t mean it’s going to cut some program’s budget or discriminate against a group of people, that’s not what the party stands for, but most Democrats will dismiss the Republican suggestion immediately. If they’re looking through the proposed plan, they often search for that which confirms their pre-existing expectations. I would argue that it’s this confirmation bias that makes our government seem so useless.

George Washington, our country’s arguably most widely accepted and appreciated president, warned us all about the danger of political parties all the way back in 1796. To this day, his words drip with premonition and leave me wondering if he was truly capable of seeing where our politics would wind up a two centuries later. In the words of our first president:

It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions… the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it (Washington, 1796).

Top 5 Travel Bag Items

Clean, Organized, Satisfied, Fragrant, and Energized

Tomorrow, I leave for a week-long trip to Europe with my school. I packed last night, hugged my dad goodbye about 15 minutes ago, (he’s golfing in the morning and I plan on waking up at 11:00) and looked up the Dutch translations for, “Hi, do you speak English?” and “Yes, I’m American”. So basically, I’m prepped and ready to go.

At this point, I consider myself more or less accustomed to the whole packing process, having managed to fit enough stuff into a suitcase to last me anywhere from a three-day weekend in New York to a six month stint in Northern France. I thought that my last blog post before leaving on yet another trip should be a walkthrough of the bag that I take with me wherever I go.

The Top Five Things You Need in Your Travel Bag

  1. Hand Sanitizer

Let’s face it, travel is dirty. Your hands touch all sorts of screens, doors, and railings that are covered with germs and you can never be sure when you’ll be able to find a sink. I recommend Bath and Body Works “PocketBac Sanitizers” (warm vanilla sugar being a must).

  1. A Notebook

If you’re anything like me, then the key to keeping track of your thoughts is a good, old-fashioned notebook. Whenever an idea pops into my head, I see something a little funky, or learn a new vocabulary word, I always write it down. Not only is this super useful when looking back on your trips, but also is a great way to keep organized throughout your journeys around the globe.

HINT: If you’re traveling to a country where they speak a different language, have a page dedicated to “Need-to-Know” phrases: greetings, ways to ask for directions, how convey personal information like your country of origin, allergies, etc.

  1. A Snack

It seems obvious, but a lot of people forget to keep a protein bar or bag on nuts on hand. Between busses, trains, and cabs, transportation can take up a lot of your time, making it easy to miss out on meals. A snack a day keeps the headaches away. Candy DOES NOT count!

  1. Antiperspirant

We all sweat; we all smell. The sooner we accept it and fix it, the happier all our noses will be.

  1. Starbucks VIA Instant Coffee

Sure, we’d all love to think that we’ll be popping in for a café au lait et croissant every time we need a pick-me-up around mid-day. Whether you sleep in late and miss your early morning morning Cup o’ Joe or find yourself getting droopy eyed at three, on the go caffeine can go a long way.

HINT: Want to avoid not so tasty airplane coffee? Take your favorite instant brand and ask for hot water on the plane. They always have it, and you save yourself from choking down mud. You’re welcome.

Oh, To Write Again With Whimsy

Writing Playlist Prepped and Ready!

There’s something unnatural yet addicting about creative writing. I’m not talking about blog posts, or essays on Capitalism, or even philosophical discussions, but the flood of euphoria that I know comes only with storytelling.

To someone who’s never created their own story before, it’s hard to describe the way that writing makes you feel when you’re crafting your own character, devising your own plot, latching onto a theme, and playing judge, jury, and executioner. Few things measure up to the sense of urgency you feel at midnight when an idea pops into your head and pulls you to your laptop, or the sense of mindlessness as dialogue runs through your fingertips.

Recently, I’ve been feeling the creative itch, and all I want to do is immerse myself in a world of my own creation, but although I have notebooks full of ideas, I can’t seem to make myself begin a project. I wouldn’t call this writer’s block, but writer’s doubt, as I worry that I will waste my time on an idea that may soon run stale. A little over a year ago, I wrote a 60,000 word manuscript that now sits in my computer’s trash can, months of incessant work staining a page without substance.

I’ve been trying to figure out if I mind that I abandoned my first work. Needless to say, I think I’ve improved as a writer, so I know that I shouldn’t dwell over something that no longer represents me, but I can’t help but have moments when I read over a certain paragraph from a particularly emotional chapter mid-way through my manuscript and am shocked by that which I was able to express through words. Passages such as these inspire me to dive back into my characters, even if I know the novel is a lost cause.

I began my last manuscript as a means of catharsis, and found that writing was the key to developing and understanding my own thoughts. I want nothing more that to experience that contraction in my chest and clarity in my head again, but I want to make sure that I write something that will last. I want to take my time with a story and try not to throw everything that I wish to explore into a single plot. There are ideas in my notebook that I don’t think I’m ready to write, and those that I feel I’ve grown out of. I don’t know if now is the time to tackle an entire novel, but I do have a few thousand words of a Nanowrimo manuscript that I may take another look at.

I guess the point of this article is to express my burning desire to write and the frustration that I feel not being able to do it. A few days ago, I received a flurry of terrible grades in a class dedicated to writing, and found for the first time in years that I was doubting my writing abilities. My flowery, rhetorical, often broad and generalized writing did nothing to impress my teacher, and I just couldn’t seem to find a way to incorporate the type of writing my class required with my personal method and style. I have to remind myself that my ability to write an adequate English class essay may need work, but that by no means diminishes my ability to think creatively and critically about topics. If I’m writing for my teacher, I’ll have to be more careful, but if I’m writing for me, I am free to write as I wish. I have molded my writing to my own model of what I believe to be an effective use of language, but perhaps that which I have always perceived as a style open to analysis and debate is not appropriate in an essay in which I must pick a direct side and try not to let my personal culture shine through.

All that aside, I what I really want right now is to write a story, so that’s what I’ll go do.