Innovation on Earth

Global Citizenship Resources for Innovation Academy and Beyond

Service Learning at Innovation: First Steps and Missteps

Krakauer Advisory SelfieAs all teachers know, things don’t always go as planned when working with young people.

When I returned from Japan last summer, I had all sorts of visions for amazing active citizenship projects at Innovation Academy. I had been a part of a fabulous team of educators and we were really excited to get our students involved in Education for Sustainable Development.

Japanese Class IntroMy plan was to have students at Innovation design their own service projects, and share the process with students in our Japanese partner school. In the beginning of the year, we received some fabulous videos from Japan, and we were really excited. Students at our school made some awesome introductory videos and we sent them off to classrooms in Japan. Here’s a taste: 

As the year progressed, we did achieve many successes, though there were some hardships too. Communication with the teachers in Japan was difficult, due to language barriers, differences in our school year schedule, and many other distractions which kept us busy. There’s no doubt that our service projects also could have gone more smoothly. IcecreamHowever, for the first time in the history of Innovation Academy, every student in our middle school was involved in a service project during the school year. Not only was this goal tied to my experience in Japan, but it was an exciting new initiative implemented along with our new advisory program. This year, each student had an advisor who worked with his or her group of 12-13 students, offering academic advising, team building, and work building social and emotional skills.

Each advisor worked with his or her advisory to choose a service project that was meaningful to the students. Valentine MakingSome groups, like the Quinlan/Orpen Advisory, decided to focus on helping animals. They made their own dog treats and donated them to the Lowell Humane Society. Other groups, like the McCarthy Advisory, decided to focus on helping children in need. Their advisor, Elizabeth Quirbach-McCarthy, described the process saying, “We felt a strong connection to making a difference in our local community so with some research, we chose the House of Hope in Lowell.  We coined the phrase ‘Wish Tree’ and the idea grew from there.” Each advisory chose their own unique focus.

CyberbullyingMy advisory had some difficulty choosing a topic, but eventually settled on working to end cyber-bullying. They had an ambitious goal, to start a viral internet campaign, by dividing into three sub-groups to make posters, a website, and a video. We worked at least once a week from February through the end of the year. While we never got our posters up and didn’t really fully finish all parts of the video and website, I think it is worth sharing their final product. Even though it’s not perfect, I’m proud of their commitment to this difficult endeavor:


Giving students choice in their projects made them more invested and enthusiastic about the work. BlanketsSamantha Pereyra’s advisory chose to support Project Linus, which gives security blankets to children in need, whether critically ill, traumatized, or otherwise. The students were more invested in the project because all the decision making was theirs.

Some advisories stayed local to work on their projects, while others left campus. The Destramp Advisory stayed late on a Wednesday after school and did an extensive trash pick up all over our school groups. Trash Pick UpThe Falewicz Advisory decided to get off campus, volunteering at the Wish Project, where they organized clothes donations for people experiencing homelessness. A fifth grader in that advisory wrote, “While we were working someone came in and looked so happy to get some items from The Wish Project. I felt, and think others did too, as if I had done something to help this person. Seeing how happy they were made it even better to know we were helping.”

Participating in these service projects was a bonding experience for most advisories. My advisory had a lot of laughs while working on our video. Many advisories elicited student leaders to support their classmates in accomplishing the project. For example, one eighth grader, Thea, organized and supervised her advisory to make “kitty blankets” by cutting out and tying the ends of pieces of fleece. The McLure Advisory later took the finished products to the MSPCA at Nevens Farm, and had a great time getting Chinese buffet on the way.Maier Leach

Many students were inspired to do more after their advisory’s service project. The Haley Advisory started with a simple idea to help a family in need have a nice Christmas. They ended up collecting so many supplies and raising so much money that they were able to provide gifts and even trees to many families. One student was so touched by the project that she fundraised on her own and she and her family were able to help feed nine families a delicious meal, complete with a turkey, for the holiday.

Service learning at Innovation Academy is still a growing program. Whether a one time project or something ongoing throughout the year, each advisory was able to make a difference to others in some way. So, yes, my advisory wasn’t the only one that struggled to start (and finish) a meaningful project. But, overall, this year was a pretty exciting first step in getting students involved in being a part of real world change. Oh, and I think most advisories also had some fun along the way.


rainbowsYesterday felt like a rainbow explosion, as news broke out that the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) ruled that same-sex marriage must be legal in every state. I felt proud to be an American. As I’ve written about before, I want to live in a world where everyone gets the same rights regardless of who they are or whom they love. This isn’t the end of the journey, but it’s a big step for our nation.

In other happy news, I booked tickets for my summer travel yesterday. Drum roll please!

Flight number one:

Flight 1

Flying to Denpasar, Indonesia, on the island of Bali! If all goes well, we’ll have an evening to hang out in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates. While I’ve been to Pakistan and Turkey, this will be my first time really in the Middle East, and Dubai is known to be a glamourous, oil-rich city full of skyscrapers and shopping.

Bali is known for its marine biodiversity, rich music/dance scene, and its status as a Hindu enclave tucked on the edge of a huge and powerful Muslim country. We hope to visit a sacred monkey forest and see rice paddies, among other adventures. From there, we’ll head out to…

Flight 2

Tokyo! I couldn’t resist heading back to Japan, where last summer I was so very blessed to participate the Japan U.S. Teacher Exchange Program for Education for Sustainable Development. The flight goes through Australia, though, unfortunately, it’s unlikely that we’ll have time to see anything. The plan is to spend most of the visit to Japan outside of Tokyo. The details are still open, but I definitely want to visit Kyoto, and I’d love to climb Mount Fuji if it’s possible. There are so many places in Japan that I want to visit, so this will be a chance to see a few more spots. And finally, we’ll head home.

Flight 3

This map is actually totally inaccurate, though it does show the correct locations on the flight home: Tokyo –> Hong Kong –> New York. First of all, it’s a mercator projection, so the areas near the poles are stretched out. Also, the direct flight from Hong Kong to New York City will likely go up and over the North Pole, not across the top of Africa like this. That will take 16 hours, which I believe will be my longest single flight ever.

I’m so excited to go on this adventure! I leave towards the end of July, so there will be some New England adventures first. Right now, in fact, I’m headed to Vermont. Check back soon for more updates, both from me and some of the other Innovation Academy community members on upcoming global adventures.

Planning a Trip?

It’s finally summer vacation! Around this time of year, most people get asked “What are you up to this summer?” Instead, everyone asks me, “So, where are you going this summer?” Apparently, people know that I like to travel!

Teaching a Balloon Workshop in El Salvador

Teaching a Balloon Workshop in El Salvador

The answer to their question? Yes, a trip in the works! I’ll share more when I’ve confirmed the plans.

If you are planning a trip yourself, my students have some resources for you. Earlier this year, these talented 5th and 6th graders researched travel destinations in Central America and the Caribbean Islands. Click the maps below to see their suggested trip itineraries on GoogleDrive.

Will I follow any of these recommendations? I hope so, some time in the future! This summer, I’m thinking of going somewhere a little farther afield… Stay tuned.

Guatemala CircleMexico CircleBelize CircleBahamas CircleDR Haiti CircleHonduras CircleAruba CircleEl Salvador CircleBermuda CircleCuba CirclePanama CircleCosta Rica CircleCaribbean CircleNicaragua CircleJamaica Circle

Tofu San Made It to Japan!

Great news! Our plush friend, Tofu San, arrived safely in Japan. He spent a little over a week in that postal shipping box, but made it unharmed, along with his new friend, Flat Hawk. Wall AnnouncementMy teacher friend Omi Sensei has agreed to take Flat Hawk on her class trip to Kyoto along with Tofu San. Omi Sensei also sent some photos from Tofu San’s return to Japan, which I posted up on the wall outside my classroom today. When we hear from Tofu San and Flat Hawk after their visit to Kyoto, I’ll post again. In addition, since it’s also the last week of school, there’s lots of news coming to the blog. Check back soon!

Thank you Omi Sensei and students! We love seeing these photos.

Goodbye Tofu San!

A dear friend, Tofu San, is currently on his way to Japan, perhaps flying above the ocean this very minute. He is packed away in a box, after spending a whole year hanging out in our classroom. He had a great visit to Massachusetts.Tofu San smelling the Flowers

One year ago around this time, I was getting ready to head to Japan, where Omi Sensei gave me Tofu San. Omi Sensei is a Japanese teacher who has sent Tofu San all over the world. He has even been to Australia back in 2006! I am so grateful that Omi Sensei let us have Tofu San for a while. Here’s a photo of me and Omi and Tofu San last June in Tokyo:

For most of the year, Tofu San explored Innovation Academy. He got to see all the parts of the school, from the front desk to our new track and field. He even visited our school’s beautiful pond.

The students had a lot of fun getting to know Tofu San! Last week, they got him involved in some silliness during our spirit week.

Some students also took him on vacation throughout the year. Tommy took Tofu San to New Hampshire, Braxton took him to Maine, and Alyssa took him all the way to Florida. These students helped write in Tofu San’s journal so that others can see where he’s been.

Now Tofu San is heading back to Japan to go on a class trip with Omi Sensei and her students. We hope that they will send us photos of Tofu San on his next adventures. We also sent over a little surprise for our friends in Japan. Here is hint #1: Tofu San with a picture of our school mascot, the Red Tailed Hawk.

Tofu San with the Squak HawkHere is hint #2: A photo Flat Hawk with the Terracotta Warriors in China.

Omi Sensei — You guessed it. Flat Hawk is coming your way! He went to China with our principal, Mrs. Kapeckas, and now he’s coming to Japan. Please take him on some adventures with Tofu San.

Sayonara Tofu San! You will be missed very much. Innovation Academy loves you.

Dominican Sun, Beaches, and Chocolate

Today, I presented to my students about my trip to the Dominican Republic. After I showed the last post about very poor families and their homes, one student, Mariana, raised her hand and asked, “But did you stay in a nice place?” Great question! Yes, I did! I also dined in some lovely places.

Sosua Beach

Sosua Beach

When Mariana asked that question, I realized that I have been writing about the culture and way of life so much, I haven’t talked enough about the beauty and all the reasons why tourists go to the DR. Most tourists go because of the beaches!

I did spend a bunch of time on the water, of course. I’m not a big resort person, but instead chose to stay in two small bed and breakfasts. Both were lovely. Garden by the Sea was a new place close to the beach between two fun beach towns, Sosua and Cabarete. It was a perfect get away:

In Santo Domingo, I stayed in an equally lovely place, Casa Sanchez, right near the Zona Colonial. I’d never heard of a welcome drink before coming to the Dominican Republic, but I think all hotels should offer this! Here are some photos of Casa Sanchez:

Most tourists who go to the Dominican Republic focus on the fun stuff. They buy jewelry with the local stone of the DR, called Larimar. It’s very beautiful. Larimar

Many tourists also enjoy the delicious Dominican food. The DR is known for its chocolate, and I very much enjoyed a visit to Santo Domingo’s Chocolate Museum. I got to see a cacao plant, learn about the process of making chocolate, and even try a bar of 100% chocolate (no sugar or milk at all — quite gross actually)!

All in all, there are many opportunities to feel pampered in the Dominican Republic. In addition to learning a lot, I also got a chance to relax and enjoy myself too.

Sunset in Cabarete

Sunset in Cabarete

Home is Where the Heart Is

ToysWhenever I travel, I love to get off the tourist track and connect with local people to see how they live. That’s why I was so excited to get to visit student homes to see how these kids live in the Dominican Republic. As I mentioned in my post about Dove Missions, this was a real highlight of my trip.

The students who attend Dove’s programs do not have a lot. They live in very small houses that are right up next to each other.

They make use of all the space they have, even the little alleys between their houses.


Some have been lucky to get concrete houses donated by international charities, like WestJet in Canada. Most have to use simple materials to build with. For instance, here you can see the ceiling in one house, and a window in another, made with steel.

Inside, the people are really creative with not a lot of space. I was really impressed with how much they were able to fit in such a small area.

Another obstacle they deal with is electricity and water. ElectricityThey only get these things intermittently. In fact, we were told that water only turns on about twice a week. Often, it comes in the middle of the night, at 2 am, so they wake up to fill buckets so that they can save it for the next day. They have to be very careful with their water, because they only have a small amount to use for cleaning the house, dishes, laundry, cooking, bathing, etc. The water is good to drink, but you can boil it to kill any parasites that might be in the water. I don’t know if they do this or not.

Another problem is what to do with trash. They don’t have trash pick up, or even any good place to put trash. Some people collect recycling and make very very little money for it. Unfortunately, people need to throw trash just outside of their houses, because there’s no other option.

So, even though they live in a beautiful spot right on the ocean, the water near their houses is not so clean.
WaterDespite not having a lot, the people in these communities seem very happy. They take care of each other well.


They even have pets. There are lots of adorable puppies around, but also cats, birds, goats, pigs, chickens, and more.

We met one woman who lost her niece, and she was raising the orphaned kids as if they were her own. Many people in this area really help each other out in these kinds of ways.

FamilyThe houses get very hot during the day, so people gather outside to spend time together and support each other. Dominoes is a really popular game in the Dominican Republic.

DominoesIt was a little strange for me to be a visitor in this small community. I wanted to be respectful of their privacy, but I also felt that it was really valuable to bring back these pictures for you to see.

TouringMy hope is to help people in the United States and other more developed countries to open their eyes to the diversity of ways that people in developing countries live.  I don’t want to gawk or sensationalize poverty. These people have tough lives, but they are also just like you or me in many ways. If one of you sees this and decides to go out and do something to help improve people’s lives, then I’ll feel that this blog entry was worth posting.

Any of us could have been like this little guy, born into a place like this. Can you imagine living here?


Dominican Driving: Scarier than a Guagua

If you think driving in Boston is bad, you should see the roads in the Dominican Republic! There aren’t a lot of rules followed by drivers.


Basically, people just follow their own rules. They pass on either side, drive in the oncoming lane if the right is too slow, and go through red lights if they’re in a rush. It feels pretty wild from an American perspective.

In the Car

Most Dominicans don’t own cars anyway, so they have to be creative about getting around town. It’s pretty common to own motorcycles, which weave in between traffic, and cram lots of people onto a single seat. Everywhere we went, we got offered “moto taxis,” which basically means “hop on behind me.” I never said yes.


One cheap way of getting around town is riding a guagua. They are mini-vans that act like public buses. People stand on the side of the road and wave them down. For less than 50 cents, you can hop on and get off in the next town. They are super convenient, though not always so speedy, because of all the stops.

Gua Gua

The other interesting thing about the guaguas is the number of people. They squeeze up to 30 people in a van that’s probably meant to seat 15. One time they shoved me into a space between two seats and then stuck a board under me, making a temporary seat so that four or five could fit across. There’s always two people working the guaguas — the driver and the money collector. The money collector usually hangs out the open door and helps pull or push people in as needed. Usually the guagua starts moving before he even gets back in fully. It’s quite a scene to see these guys hanging out the doors of the moving vehicle. Here’s a little video tape of me in a guagua, though it was nighttime so it’s a little hard to see the full experience:

If you think the guagua sounds unsafe, you’re mostly wrong. In Gua GuaWe heard stories of bad things happening when people got in them alone, but as long as there are lots of people around, and the guagua is moving pretty slowly, it always felt pretty safe to me. Maybe not the most comfortable, but entertaining!

Being in a taxi was much scarier than a guagua. The roads are dangerous, even for walking. Here I am walking through an open construction zone! We needed to pass through to get where we were going, and there were no barricades.

ConstructionOn Saturday, we decided to pay extra to take a taxi back to Santo Domingo from the Northern Coast. It cost a lot, but we wanted to see some of the mountain area. Gas is expensive here! It cost $4.45 per gallon, which is about twice what it costs in the U.S. right now! When we saw that, we felt that the price we were charged seemed pretty fair.

GasOur driver ended up being a very nice man who had a different idea for the afternoon than we did. He decided to use the trip as a chance to give his 19 year old son a driving lesson. Despite the fact that we had barely seen any mosquitoes for the entire trip, this car was also filled with mosquitoes. So, before getting on the road, our “driver” picked up some Raid spray, covered the inside of the car with chemicals, picked up his son, and then stopped at a local bar for a few minutes (not totally clear what happened there). But then we were on our way, with the son behind the wheel.

Boy in Car

We never totally figured out if the son had a license. We did get pulled over by national police with machine guns as part of what seemed like a routine check point. My Spanish abilities weren’t quite strong enough to figure out what was going on, but we do know that dad said his son would be a great taxi driver “in three years.” No ticket was given, and eventually the police officer seemed distracted by a fellow officer who pulled up, and he waved us on.

We had a lovely stop at a ranch in the highlands before asking the father to drive the rest of the way back.

It could have been worse. We arrived in Santo Domingo safely, and our driver only had one beer before the second leg of the trip. The scenery in the mountains was lovely, and then we saw some interesting sights in the city. Like Ikea!


All in all, I would have probably preferred the bus back, but that taxi ride was an adventure. And the views are always interesting, whether in the city, or in the countryside.

So, yes, I’d go back to the Dominican Republic in a heartbeat. Even if it meant spending some time on their roads.

Music and Art of Santo Domingo

Even the street posts are painted with art!

Even the street posts are painted with art!

I’m finally home from the Dominican Republic but I have to share about the music and art that were everywhere during my last day in Santo Domingo. The city is full of art! Walk into any shop, and there are paintings by local artists, and musical instruments for sale. Here’s a salesman trying to sell a güira, which is a local percussion instrument used in merengue and other local music:

Sit down on any restaurant patio in Santo Domingo and a group of musicians will probably come over and try to serenade you while you dine, asking for tips afterwards, of course.Table to table

The Ministry of Tourism hosts all sorts of free music events in the city. We got to see a few of them, and they are really exceptional — both the performances, but also the positive vibe in the audiences. This first band in the video below is Cuban, performing in front of the ruins of the old monastery of San Francisco. The second band is local, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the April Revolution, when there was a civil war in Santo Domingo.

These kinds of performances happen weekly, but there are others that happen every day. As we walked down the Conde (the main street of the old colonial neighborhood), there were street performers day and night. Here are a few talented examples I caught on camera:

A real highlight of yesterday was happening upon the International Santo Domingo Book Fair at the Plaza de la Cultura. I’ve been to the Boston Book Festival, and this was MUCH bigger. Book FestivalThere were hundreds of stands, with all sorts of ways to learn about the culture of the Dominican Republic and beyond. There was even a Korean tent! There were, of course, lots of books, but there were also craftsmen, food stands, performances, and more. It was really an exceptional event (click on any photo below to see it bigger).

Several of the local museums were also free for the festival. My favorite was the Museum of Modern Art. Contemporary art is VERY different from the ancient artifacts we saw earlier that morning at a flea market. Those date back to Taino times!

The modern art was futuristic and fun, and I found it to be very original.

I definitely recommend Santo Domingo if you like seeing interesting music and art! I’d love to go back and see more, but for now, it’s back to my normal life here in Massachusetts. I will be posting a few more entries from my Dominican trip, so stay tuned.Street Performers

Dove Missions: Connecting with Dominican Kids

I came to the Dominican Republic armed with questions from my students back home at Innovation Academy. I did find some experts to help me get those questions answered! With Kids One of the best things we’ve done since arriving in the DR is volunteering for a day with Dove Missions. We were picked up at our hotel by Martina and Juan, and headed to their youth development center in Puerto Plata. Dove Center They just built this center recently, and as you can see, it’s still in progress. But the first floor is really nice, with a classroom space, a kitchen, and nice bathrooms. We spent the morning working with youth in the program. I gave them the cards and questions from my students at Innovation Academy, and the kids were eager to provide answers.

It was really exciting to learn from these kids. My students had written questions for the Dominican kids, and they wrote their answers on the same page. For example, Therese, Hannah, Mia, and a few of my other students asked about school in the Dominican Republic.

I found out that students here only go to school for 3-4 hours a day! They either go in the morning or afternoon, and then spend lunchtime at home with their families. So, Dove Missions provides supplementary programming for the other part of the day. Dove art After a fun morning with the kids, the volunteers headed to lunch ourselves. On the way, we saw many kids headed home from morning school. Some get picked up on motorcycles. Here, it is pretty normal to see many people on one bike, all without helmets. Motos We ate lunch at a beautiful spot right on the beach, where we got to meet Martina’s family. A lot of my students had also wondered about the beaches here, and yes, they are beautiful!Nice Beaches Lunch was great, and her three year old son helped serve us!

After lunch, we headed to town. Martina took us to see the area where their students live. I was really happy to have this opportunity, because many students had also asked about their homes. HousesIt was really interesting to see where the students live. Their houses are very small, but they seemed proud to show us around.

They live right on the ocean, but it’s not quite as glamorous as other places we visited. Water There’s so much more to say about this experience, but I think I will have to save it for another post. Check back soon to learn more about home life.

After seeing the student neighborhood, we headed back to the youth center for the afternoon group. We also got to squeeze in some time for balloon twisting, which the kids loved. Balloons All in all, it was a really special day. I’ll be coming back to Innovation Academy with lots of answers from the students here, and I learned a lot about what it’s like to live here. Thank you to Dove Missions for the experience! Balloon Creations

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