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  • Elizabeth Barrett-Zahn

Just Hit Send... (Reflection)

Updated: Aug 4, 2020

So my new mantra has become, "Just

Hit Send!", and that's because what I've learned is that you must trust that you can do something even if it feels terrifyingly scary or is out of your perceived comfort zone. It is so easy to dream about what you would like to do and really all it takes to make it happen is to put it on your "To Do" list and then chip away at it.

Web Program Stalker At Large...

For over two years I was a virtual program stalker of Columbia University's Summer Research Program for Teachers. I would check into the program website, scroll through the past and current participants, read their bios, look through their lesson plans, and watch any videos about the program or lecturers. When asked why I was just looking at the program and not applying, I would often reply that I thought it was out of my league or would just be too difficult to do. Finally, after some good solid urging from my husband (if you know him you would know that this urging would be vociferous and brutally honest), I took the plunge, filled out the application, wrote the essays, asked for the references and hoped for the best.


After some time, I was asked to come in for an interview! I had not been on an interview since landing my teaching job over 20 years before!

This was especially nerve wracking because the interview committee would consist of Columbia University professors and past program participants. This program, although listed as K-12, had only taken one elementary teacher before and she seemed amazing beyond belief so how was I going to make myself worthy of this great but very competitive and rigorous opportunity. I guess I just needed to be honest and speak from the heart. I said what I knew, I didn't BS, and I showed my love of learning, kids, and interest in science.

International Teaching Fellow

After two years in the program, I was asked to go to Malaysia and Singapore as an international teaching fellow! I guess I had it in me to do the program, participate in the research at the Lamont-Doherty Tree Ring Lab and make myself a strong candidate for the international component.

Year number three included traveling to Malaysia, teaching at a an international school, making lifelong friends, visiting many schools in Singapore, collaborating with teachers and administrators, giving speeches, running workshops and getting over my fear of flying.

Keep Hitting the Send Button...

So now truly hooked as an ultimate PD junkie willing to travel, participate, collaborate, present, and take on huge challenges, I was ready for more. The empowerment of challenging yourself beyond and outside your comfort zone is both terrifying and exhilarating. The first time I was asked to run a tutorial for the Tree Ring Lab members of PhD's, post-doc, and doctoral students using a new tree ring reader called CooRecorder, I thought I would just faint and become a mute. But I suppose I must have done a decent enough job because I was asked back after my scheduled summer stint to share the technology with visiting scientists from Vietnam. Did they really know that the person explaining the intricacies of the program was an elementary school teacher?

WIPRO- Mercy College

Immediately joined a science teaching fellowship called WIPRO, sponsored by a technology company with cohorts in Massachusetts and New Jersey. Being part of cohort #1 in New York has lead to speaking engagements at NSTA conferences, ASTE conferences at Columbia University and Iowa, leading a Saturday STEM program at Mercy College and wonderful collaboration with the educational leaders of Mercy's Center for STEM Education. Through my affiliation with Mercy College I had the opportunity to HIT THE SEND BUTTON once again and joined The TEACH Japan Project. With this experience I had the chance to visit Hiroshima, Fukushima, Tokyo, Kyoto and more as we visited schools, collaborated with teachers and I even had the chance to present a few STEM lessons in classrooms. Two weeks of extensive travel by train, by bus, by car and by foot, lots of laughs and some tribulations as 12 people tried to negotiate spending that much time together.

Hiroshima: The Horror of Nuclear War

Visiting Hiroshima was the most meaningful and deeply touching experiences in my life. Our tour was led by four Japanese middle school students who had been preparing for our visit for months. They learned about World War II, the bomb, with the focus of their learning on promoting continued world peace without nuclear weapons. I was greeted by four smiling faces, holding a beautiful sign with my name on it. The students were to practice their English as we first just spend time getting to know each other. We shared a lovely lunch and lots of interesting conversations with the occasional Japanese-English Dictionary to help. We had some extra time before our tour of the Peace Park and Museum were to start, so they asked what I liked to do. Since I wasn't a shopper and not that interested in going to the nearby mall, we went to a park with swings and slides. There, on a somewhat gloomy, damp day in Hiroshima, I was swinging on swings with these beautiful children. There was a deep connection of heart and spirit. I, as an American, had so much angst about what was done here in this very spot so long ago. These happy, vibrant children were there to show me the park and museum that outlines the human horror and destruction of nuclear weaponry and war.

I had visited the park myself early that morning just so that I could have some time to take in some of the sights and meaning by myself. I will always remember walking under the umbrella as I read the plaques and signs around the park, with tears streaming down my face and I saw a group of orange-clad monks slowly moving through the misty park as if they were vibrant ghosts of peace.

The children led me through the park and we read and re-read many of the signs and plaques. They watched me with an attentiveness as if they were told that their American may get very upset at certain times and they needed to let us know IT IS OKAY. They would nod their head in agreement as I digested some of the horror. Later we sat in a circle, talked about peace in the world, made paper cranes (mine being the most handicapped looking one) and later said good bye. I will never forget their gentle, kind faces as they took me on this journey that every person should go on before they even think it's okay to use nuclear weapons anywhere, any time.

Fukushima: Nuclear Disaster Again...

Part of our journey brought us to Fukushima where five years before there was an earthquake in the ocean of the coast of Japan that led to a tsunami which triggered a nuclear meltdown at the Fukushima-Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. We were a bit skeptical about going there: was it safe, what would we see, why were we visiting?

We were told it was safe but once on our tour bus taking us closer we found out that residents had just been given the "green light" to return to their homes in some areas and other areas continued to remain as a ghost town where residents could come in during the day for a few hours. So radiation was high but not at life threatening levels. All residents are routinely checked for radiation poisoning and cancers. As we got closer and closer to Namie we noticed several disturbing things: many dwellings with no sign of people, empty school buildings and businesses, machines digging up dirt in many places, dirt being loaded into large "plastic" bags, bags being piled into giant mounds, bag mountains being covered with green "plastic" tarps, and people in different arrays of protective gear.

What we learned is that the area is completely contaminated and the only solution is to scape off the earth about 10 inches deep and put it in sealed bags. These terrifying radioactive mountains must remain on-site because the law requires that each municipality deals with their own mess. So no central location will be used. The plan is to scrape off the soil EVERYWHERE and put it in bags and store it until the radioactive material decays!

We visited a school much like in Hiroshima this school was hit with the devastating disaster. First the earthquake, then an hour later the tsunami and most lifelong debilitating nuclear contamination! The school sits high on a bluff with nothing around it except for several pieces of construction equipment and a few shells of homes. We were told that the area was once a complete, vibrant neighborhood! The school with its happy welcoming signs and clocks that read 4:20 are frozen in a death mask.

In Hiroshima the school day started as usual but at 8:16 AM all the children were instantly killed except for one little girl who went inside to change her shoes. She died later.

Here in Fukushima it was a graduation day so many were not in school but the 100 or so who were in school are very lucky that their teachers avoided the prescribed emergency protocol and instead ran to the high ground a mile or so away near a cemetery. If they had loaded onto the buses, as they were trained, they would all be dead.

So many died in this disaster of earthquake and tsunami yet the insult to this natural event is our cavalier attitude about nuclear energy. Here an earthquake in an area with routine and regular earthquakes occurred which led to a tsunami, another normal and completely accounted for natural event; and this caused a nuclear power plant to flood and go into shutdown. Do we need to think about our use of nuclear power or WHAT! If you think it's safe, please go visit Namie and Fukushima Prefecture- drink the water, eat the crops in the field and smile at the plant in the distance that's still supplying much needed energy and danger to people who can no longer live in their homes!

Fulbright Vietnam

It wasn't too long after returning from Japan that I began looking around for that next educational challenge and adventure. I had recently been awarded the Science Teachers Association of New York's Excellence in Elementary Science Teaching so when I read that there was a school in Vietnam looking for an educator who could help their kids get excited about science and STEM learning, I thought, "Hey, I could do that!". The only problem with this was that it was a Fulbright. As everyone in education and beyond knows, a Fulbright is a pretty big deal. It's one of those very prestigious awards that only the top echelon would ever be chosen.

So I spent some time, looking at it, reading it over and over, looking through the website at other participants and activities until finally one day I said, "Follow your own advice...". There was no reason not to apply. The worst that would happen is I wouldn't get the award. I don't even need to tell anyone about this, that way I won't lose any face when I don't get it. That's a good plan. Plus, I really thought that the process of thinking through and writing down educational philosophy and how you reach all children is a good process in helping you espouse your true core. Essay number one - done, number 2- check, 3,4,5- looking good. Time to get references and pull together all the important documentation. It's worth the process. Just hit send...

Weeks went by... Months went by... I kind of knew when they might be making announcements but for the most part it was out of my mind. Until one day I got an email that said somewhere in the wordy body of the text - you have been selected as a finalist! Truly honored and amazed that I had made it to that level. Next step was a phone interview. This I decided to prepare for but not to over-stress about. I would try to just be me. If they are looking for someone with my skill set, disposition and background, then fine I'd be a good candidate. If not, then I didn't want to BS anything because I would not be the right fit. Interview went well. I was down to earth, comfortable and confident with the questions.

My time in Vietnam was enriching and fulfilling in so many ways. I was plopped into a busy city and worked my ass off for three weeks. This was no vacation or time to relax, I worked long hours, with intense amount of preparation especially for some things I didn't have that much experience with: running workshops for hundreds, leading discussion groups, and advising board of directors about policy and pedagogy.

So, yes I was chosen. I was the one person chosen for this opportunity in all of the United States. You can read more about my Vietnam experience in other blogs posts but the take-away is... don't let anyone tell you you can't do something, be authentic, willing to take some calculated risks, and don't just remain in your comfort zone. You can learn so much about yourself by placing yourself in challenging new situations that stretch your boundaries and expand your experiences.

And you only live once so why just plod along under the radar, be bold, be brave and just hit send!

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