Sunday, November 28, 2010

The End of Poverty. Period.

One of the many things I love about being a teacher is that I am constantly re-evaluating what I know, how I do things, and sometimes, who I am. I also love the privileged opportunity we have as teachers to the precious relationship with young people. But the thing that I love the most is that I learn as I teach. Students have a lot to teach me, just as I have a lot to teach them. The way I see it, teaching is the much sought after fountain of youth.

I knew I wanted to be a teacher in my senior year of high school. Each year at my school the 6th grade students went for a week to Camp Wooten, a quintessential school camp, dotted with cabins full of bunk beds, nestled deep in the Blue Mountain range of Washington State. The counselors were always 12th grade students, chosen by the high school teachers. The year I was a senior, I badly wanted to go, mainly because all of my friends--all stellar athletes and good students, obvious choices for role models--were chosen to be counselors. I was so desperate to go that I offered to go even as extra help in the kitchen. I don't know who, but someone decided that I would go, and not only that, that I would get a cabin full of chirpy 6th grade girls. I was thrilled. And it was this event that set me on my career path as a teacher. By the end of the week, it was obvious to me that I found joy in working with young kids. Leading them, guiding them, talking with them, I dug it all. Soon thereafter, I enrolled in education courses in college, setting the wheels in motion.

17 years later, and I still love that relationship. While my 9th graders are squirrelly and drive me nuts, my seniors suffering from senioritis, I still enjoy being around them and listening to what they have to say, helping them to navigate this complicated world as they unknowingly help me navigate mine.

Which brings me to the inspiration for this post, poverty. Our goal in grade 12 for the month of December is to define poverty, understand why it exists, identify why some people can't get out of it, help students to know ways that global poverty can finally come to an end and what they can do to make a difference.

The UN has set a goal that by the year 2015 extreme poverty will be eradicated from the world. Currently, there are 1 billion people sharing our world who suffer from extreme poverty. Extreme poverty is defined as not having access to the basics like food, clean water, shelter, basic clothing articles, let alone health care and education. At present, the world is producing enough food for each person to have 2, 224 calories a day, each day. But because people do not have a access or means, the food is not being distributed evenly. In Sach's book, I read about a mom in Malawi, who has a family of six, and when asked by a visitor what she will make for her family to eat, she reaches into her pocket and pulls out a bug infested handful of millet which she will take and mix with water to make a porridge to feed all of them. Roughly, a handful of millet is about 450 calories, divide that by 6, and that is how many calories a day she and her family will be eating.

So when I set out this past weekend to plan for my lessons this week, I was hurrying since that evening Koray and I were attending the Teacher's Day party, a lavish event thrown by the school each year to honor teachers. I had been eating carefully all week so that I could wiggle into my shiny new purple off-the-shoulder party dress. And then I read about the mother in Malawi, and it stopped me in my tracks.

In a season where we are thankful for all that we have and eat our way through November and December, consuming thousands and thousands of calories, followed by a strict regime to shed the holiday weight, I suddenly felt very, very aware of how very lucky we are. I am a grateful person, I am grateful for all that I have, and I think about it often, even when it isn't the season to be grateful. But this information made me see my fortunate life in a different light.

I felt moved to do something. But what? What could I do to stop a global problem? Stop shopping at the Gap? Stop overeating? Donate money? Eat leftovers? Stop worrying about the pudge in my waistline? What?

At the very dinner celebrating what we do as teachers, sitting amongst whirls of waiters carrying bright white plates full of artistically stacked food, sparkly glasses brimming with fresh water and wine, another teacher and I were asking ourselves this very question. Racking our brains, we concluded that what we could do to make the most difference was to teach young people. Helping them to understand the multi-faceted nature of poverty and giving them solutions was our only hope. It is a hope that at least one of them will be moved as we were and go out there and make a difference. And this makes me feel hopeless because I wish I could do more. But if everybody did what they could do within their power, maybe the problem would come to an end. In fact, I am sure it would make a difference.

What I have learned is that over-shopping, and overspending, and all of the cheap clothing and items I love to buy actually do contribute to the problem of poverty. I have learned that charity isn't enough, that micro-loans are better since it gives people the empowerment to better themselves. I have learned that we are close to the UN's goal of eradicating poverty and that there is hope, but we all must do our part.

There are many ways to give back out there, but two of my favorites are Oxfam and These are organizations where you can buy capital in the form of goats, cows, or seeds, or give a micro-loan to an entrepenear. Through I loaned some ladies in Nicaragua the rest of the money they needed to buy some chickens for their butcher shop. The cool thing about is that you can loan as little as 25 dollars and once it is re-paid, continue loaning to another person. 25 bucks. Nothing. Click here to watch the dynamic lady who started this amazing program.

There are also many resources you can look into about poverty. "The Story of Stuff" shows us how consumerism is directly linked to the exploitation of poor countries, which directly contributes to poverty. The United Nations web site on the Millennium Development Goals shows a road map for how they plan to eradicate poverty. For a film, check out The End of Poverty? (with punctuation) by Philippe Diaz and for reading, The End of Poverty (no punctuation) by Jeffrey Sachs, of which Bono wrote the forward.

So, after all of this, am I taking a vow of poverty, giving up the lifestyle that I lead? No, I am not that good. But what I will do is be more aware of my impact on the earth and try to change what I can, and try to teach youngsters, including my own, that we do not live alone and are responsible for each other.

I also hope this this post will inspire you to give back this holiday season and help those less fortunate.

If you do, drop me a line, I would love to hear about it.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

An Ode to Tuna

For those of you who know me, know that I love to eat and that I love to cook. Koray mentioned once that since he has known me, I have rarely repeated a recipe twice. And this is true. I love combing web sites for new recipes, or pouring over my favorite cookbooks for dinner. Sure, I make the staples over and over: lamb chops, roasted chicken, meatloaf, grilled cheese, brown rice risotto and dal, but otherwise, I like to try new things. However, there is one recipe that I keep going back to. The star ingredient isn't really a star at all, but mixed with basic ingredients like eggs, cheese, and onions, your run-of-the-mill can of tuna fish is transformed into a delicate and delicious meal with a fancy french name: bouchons au thon.

The recipe comes from the first food blogger I came across that began my foodie blog obsession, Molly Wizenberg's Orangette. She also published a autobiography/cookbook that was a joy to read, and one that I highly recommend picking up. Based in Seattle, Molly has lived in France, hosts a radio blog, owns an uber-cool pizza restaurant in downtown Seattle and publishes this great foodie blog that I follow religiously. She has an honest, funny, self-depreciating sense of humor and is down to earth. My kind of gal. My good friend K. went to a book signing in Seattle and got me a signed copy of her book. Yep, I am that obsessed. But once you taste these tuna treats, you will see why.

These savory morsels of heaven are a show stopper. From finicky four-year-olds to a hungry post-PEI crowd, bouchons au thon will feed the masses and make them swoon. I usually serve them with a simple salad of thinly sliced red cabbage tossed with fresh garlic, lemon juice, olive oil, Parmesan cheese and a sprinkling of salt and freshly ground pepper. This is a delectable combination. This week I made it with Molly's French home-style carrots; also a good combination.

So, if you are looking for a tasty, easy main dish to make, check these out. You won't be disappointed.

note: you can use yogurt in place of the creme fraiche, sour cream would also probably work. I use any kind of cheese I have on hand, and these still turn out delish.

Friday, November 12, 2010


Recently it was the death anniversary of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, known to Turks as the father of modern Turkey. Every year on November 10th, the country comes to a halt for a moment of silence, cars stopping on the roads, students in auditoriums standing tall and proud, shopkeepers taking a minute away from bustling commerce, all to mourn his passing and remember what he did for Turkey. He is important here, and from the biggest cities to the smallest villages, you can find a bust, statue, or picture of Ataturk. His image graces every classroom and business in the country and his face adorns all of the money.

His death day is also the reason why Koray and I were brought together. Nine years ago,the death anniversary fell on a Saturday, so the entire school gathered for an assembly to commemorate the day. Some mutual friends threw a party the night before, and it was there that Koray and I locked eyes. The rest is history.

This post is kind of two fold. It is about something Koray did the other day at school, which also ties in very closely to why I love him.

As I mentioned previously, on Ataturk's death day, schools across the country gather for an assembly where the national anthem is sung, speeches are made, poems recited, music played and the students sit quietly in the audience. This has been the practice for tens of years. A similar scene also happens for the six or so other mandatory assemblies the ministry of education requires of all schools in Turkey.

But this year at our school is different.

Koray and the deans decided that things needed to change. We are educating our students to be critical thinkers who question and interact with the knowledge and content present in our curriculum in hope that they will bring this skill out into the world with them. This doesn't match with the passive ceremonies conducted year after year. So it was agreed that the ceremonies would change from the students sitting passively, to something where the students are more active in the process.

So as the head teacher, Koray decided to conduct the last passive ceremony by giving a speech that spoke to this very sentiment.

When he first told me about the idea, I admit I was initially nervous. Saying anything but positive statements about Ataturk is frowned upon, and ceremonies that celebrate the man as a hero is the status quo. Koray of course wasn't planning on saying anything derogatory, but what he planned to say was something that could be open to misinterpretation. Koray assured me that he was drawing on the core of Ataturk's principles, saying something that was a long time coming. Once I saw the look of determination in his eyes, I knew that this was something he needed to do not only for himself, but for the students at our school. Whatever happened would happen; it needed to be said and he needed to say it.

When Koray gave the speech, you could hear a pin drop in an auditorium of 1005 teenagers. I was proud and inspired by him.

I will witter on no longer and let Koray speak for himself.

Here is the transcript of the speech:

Good morning,

It was 72 years ago today that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk passed away and we are here to remember him and voice our appreciation and respect for him. However in this year’s ceremony there will not be the traditional sequences of the usual ceremonies, like poems cited or documentaries to be watched. If you allow me, relying on your good reason and conscience, I would like to tell you some things that my reason and conscience dictate. I have been almost regularly attending these ceremonies since 1979 and I feel it is time to share a few notions of my Ataturk, if you like. I hope I manage to say what I mean and I hope you find them appropriate and meaningful and I hope this officially becomes the last ceremony in which you are passively involved.

The year must have been 1981 because I remember being in 3rd Grade at a 10th of November ceremony. Hundreds of us were lined up in the long but narrow courtyard of our school in the neighbourhood. At around 09:05, the hour that Ataturk passed away, the school principal called all of us to attention and a moment of silence started, accompanied by the wailing of the sirens. That’s when it got a bit messy, especially for me. On one hand there were the little first graders who started crying and calling for mommy because they were probably scared by the sirens, on the other hand a group of teachers hurried away to calm the little ones down, at the very expressive facial commands of our principal and the worst of worst things happened.

I started giggling and laughing.

I don’t exactly remember what I found funny but I do remember seeing our principal staring right at me and I knew I was in trouble, a state I was quite familiar with. Later on after the ceremony, as the principal was slapping me quite hard on my head, he was yelling “Do you think Ataturk founded the republic for punks like you? What would he think if he saw you, what would he think?”

That very question has never left me ever since; what would Ataturk think if he saw these ceremonies we were running? What would he say? What would this man, who spent most of his life fighting with dogmas and struggling for individuals’ and peoples’ right for self-determination, see in these ceremonies? What do you think he would think about the expectation laid on students of memorizing bits and myths about him, as a leader who did away with sultanate and caliphate because they base their power and authority on an unquestionable divine source?

Seriously, what would he think?

These ceremonies in the way they are still performed have a set structure and ironically, even though some of these ceremonies are for days which are called “bayrams” (festivals) the structure still does not change. The connotations of bayram like celebration, getting together, having fun somehow never make their way into the discourses of these ceremonies. It is hard for me to be convinced that a leader like Atatürk, who dedicated two national days for children and for the young with the hope of them understanding what he and his principles stand for, would necessarily be happy with what he would see. You see, the Atatürk that I like and take as a role model at times, is very different from the Ataturk my principal tried to bang into my head, literally.

I was told a lot of things about Ataturk and was asked to memorize a lot of things about Ataturk throughout my school years. However, I have a personal understanding of Ataturk based on things I figured out by what I have read, watched and as well as the conversations I have had with people, in whose conscience and reasoning I trust. The most remarkable and essential quality of my Ataturk is that he was a man of action and inertia was not an option for him. Standing from our present context and reality, it is rightfully possible to be critical of some of his practices in his own time and realities. Even when doing so, it is fair to realize that we are talking about an individual who did not accept status quo, a person who actually did something about what he was not happy with.

Many of us today are driven to live lives where making a difference and taking a stance are regarded as out-of-date dispositions and maybe we have good reasons for that. But how honest and consistent is it to seemingly pay our respect and show our appreciation 4 or 5 times a year in exactly the same kind of ceremonies for someone whose portraits and pictures are everywhere we go, whilst refraining from exhibiting the very quality of him that I believe has made all the difference? A question for all of us to take a few seconds to ponder:

“When was the last time you took a risk in order to make others’ lives better, even when you knew what you did would have no direct benefit for you?”

I do not mean to say we all have to be Ataturks, we all have an essential obligation of being ourselves for ourselves and others. My point is that as opposed to paying lipservice in these ceremonies, it is more important and valuable to notice his determination to be himself against all risks and odds. Otherwise, organizing and attending these ceremonies exactly like we have in the last 30 or 40 years run the risk of standing in the way of developing our own unique and individual understandings of such an important man and of creating a lack of response and sensitivity, through mindless repetition.

One example of such confidence is very visible in a letter Ataturk wrote to his mother, as early as 1919, at the very beginning of the movement he started.

“Dear mother,

Ever since I’ve left Istanbul, I know I could send only a few telegrams and I can guess that you are worried. In order to do what I think must be done I have had to take my uniform off and start working as a civilian. That is what I did and I am starting to get results. Soon, the whole world will see the results. Do not worry and let me know if you need anything. Please send some clothes with the person who’s brought you this letter. Do not worry over things you hear. You know very well that I know what I am doing. Had I not been sure of its results, I would not have started this movement.”

One of the surest ways of avoiding these risks would simply be to work harder and meaningfully in our areas of impact. Ataturk’s main approach to laying the foundations of a new identity for a brand new nation was simply formulated with the following advice of his:

“Be proud, work hard and have self-confidence.”

It is of utmost importance that we check our understanding of this statement. Maybe it is now time to spend more time on working harder than on being proud or bragging, in order to have the kind of necessary confidence in ourselves, in our identities and in the main principles of democracy.

While reading the memoir of Hasan Riza Soyak, Ataturk’s personal assistant, one comes to a very profound realization. When we take away the very human qualities of people like Ataturk, or anyone for that matter, not only do we develop a misconception of the person but we also throw them in the pangs of loneliness and depression. Below are Ataturk’s own words, describing his state of mind in 30s, long after having established the republic:

“It is almost like the life of prisoner. I am alone during day time. Everybody’s away attending to their work but I do not have anything to do to fill an hour, let alone a full day. That means I either have to sleep or read a book or write a few things. If I feel like a change of air, maybe I will take ride into the city in the car. And then? Then I will return to this prison, where I will try to kill some more time playing pool maybe, waiting for dinner time. If only dinner time brought about a change…same faces, same names, same words over and over again. In a nutshell, I am fed up.”

Maybe I am wrong in what I am saying, maybe you would disagree. However, one disposition which I have based largely on him as my role-model is to stay true to what my mind and conscience dictate and then to take action.

So at this point, I would kindly invite you to a moment of actual silence, unaccompanied by sirens. During this minute, I encourage you to think about how we can make our ceremonies and celebrations of national days more meaningful and effective in terms creating a better understanding of people like Ataturk and the values and principles they operate with.

Finally I have two people to thank.

First one is to the then principal of the elementary school I went to. I don’t think I learned whatever he intended me to learn but he made me ask a very important question at a very early stage. By the way, this does not imply that I suggest my dear colleagues use the same strategy as his to raise individuals who ask questions.

The second person is Mustafa Kemal Atatürk who has largely provided me with the freedom to speak these and other words and who has also been a role-model for me to speak my mind and take action as my mind and conscience dictate.

May he rest in peace.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Still Series: Installation Bir

I have decided to shamelessly copy one of the mommy blogs that I follow by adding a wordless blog every now and then. The purpose of the wordless blog is to give a glimpse into our life by the use of images, and your imagination. So this will be the only wordless blog installation, with, well, words.

I hope you enjoy it.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Spiderman and Batman Meet the Customers

All Hallows' Eve was a big hit this year with the boys. Last year they were still a little unsure about the whole thing, and the year before they wanted to stop trick-or-treating, mid treat.

The kres has been talking about fall and Halloween lately, so Ali and Omer were fully ready and amped for the holiday this year. Decked out in a Spiderman pajama set and a Batman rain jacket, they were ready for the onslaught of sugar and Halloween fun.

Some of our cool neighbors on campus organized a low-key, yet fun event for the little ones that started the week before with pumpkin carving. The event ended last night in a meet-n-greet, check-out-my-costume twenty minutes of fun and giggles before the herd headed out into the inky wet night in search of free candy. Parents following dutifully behind for crowd control and pictures, the lojman gang invaded the doorways of those brave enough to leave their lights on. All told, there were 16 houses giving out the goods.

Ali and Omer were troopers, running usually in front of the other kids, eyeballing the bright porch lights in search for more "customers" handing out candy. Their spoils were plenty.

The evening concluded with a kid-friendly ghoulish movie at the social center where parents scarfed down black and orange sprinkled cupcakes and speculated on the insulin levels surging through the childrens' bodies surmising what it would do to sleep patterns that night.

I know mine had lots of sugar pulsing through their veins, but after a bedtime story of Stone Soup, they were out like lights.

It was a sweet and precious evening.