The 2018–2019 school year has been an epic year for The New Century School in so many ways, but certainly not least for having the Middle School in full bloom—now all the way through 8th grade! TNCS has anticipated this moment for years, growing closer and closer to a fully fledged Middle School, and, in a few weeks, TNCS will graduate its first 8th-grade class.
But not before we take a peek at another first they pioneered—TNCS’s first-ever international service-learning project. In March, three girls and one boy (known here as Z, F, B, and J), ages 13 and 14 years, went to Puerto Rico for 6 days! This trip has been in the works all year, and fundraising efforts, such as twice monthly pop-up hot beverage shops, toward travel expenses really paid off.
Why Service? Why Puerto Rico?
Service is a TNCS Core Value, and, throughout the year, students take on various initiatives toward their service-learning goals, from intra-campus projects to broader, community service–oriented endeavors. To really bring home what service learning means, though, TNCS students should experience how their efforts can have farther-reaching impacts.
Puerto Rico was the natural choice:
- The island is readily accessible—no passports are required for TNCS students, and it’s relatively easy to get to.
- Availability of resources and advice from TNCS community (staff, parents) with knowledge of Puerto Rico was an enormous help for planning.
- It’s a Spanish-speaking country for students to use their developing Spanish skills
- There’s a clear need: The island is still restoring itself after hurricane damage.
Puerto Rico: Here We Come!
Adriana DuPrau escorted the group and said just prior to their departure: “They are very excited—this is the trip of a lifetime for some of them!” She facilitated getting them school IDs, helped create packing lists (hats, bug spray, closed shoes for hiking, beach gear, etc.), and generally did all of the planning with advice from Ms. Madrazo and a very helpful TNCS dad who hails from Puerto Rico. You might be wondering how Mrs. DuPrau got to be the sole chaperone, but you’d have to look no farther than back at the past school year, during which she has grown very close to the middle schoolers, such as while helping them prepare for their big transition to high school, and has discovered that she really enjoys that age group. Mrs DuPrau also spent 6 weeks in Puerto Rico in college, teaching English. “Traveling is a big part of who I was, but I haven’t been able to do that with three small children. I think this will be good for us.”
In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a one-two punch that ravaged the island, we saw an opportunity to help affected communities, and in doing so, to deliver an unforgettable experience for our 8th graders. I got to be the lead organizer of the trip, and got to team up with multiple members within the Puerto Rican community to maximize the relief effort and add an interdisciplinary scope to the students’ experience! It was such an awesome experience and I never, ever thought I could be away from my family for 7 days . . . but I did it, and I’m so happy I did. The four 8th-grade city students completely stepped out of their comfort zone and completely killed it! I’m so incredibly proud of them!
Now, let’s break down their itinerary day by day, interspersed with some additional debriefing from Mrs. DuPrau.
The group left on Sunday, March 17th at 5:00 pm, departing from BWI airport and arriving in Puerto Rico at 9:00 pm. After they picked up their rental minivan, they drove to their digs in Luquillo, a small beach town close to the rain forest that was recommended by TNCS English Language Arts teacher Ilia Madrazo, who is from Puerto Rico.
B was like the mom of the group; she wanted to make sure everybody was okay. She always made sure that everything was tidy. I had them wash their own dishes and clean up, so our living space was always very organized. J was also so helpful, carrying the groceries in, for example. I got to see a really nice side of him, very kind and respectful.
The group kicked off their first full day with a sail on a catamaran and snorkeling, both firsts for most of them.
As urban children, not accustomed to being around the ocean, this thought made them nervous, but we went to a very secluded spot to give them the space to get comfortable in the water. And they did it! It was really beautiful; the water was crystal blue and warm.
After their big days, they all ended up usually falling asleep watching a movie on the couch. We would have breakfast at home and usually packed lunch. They didn’t really love going out to dinner; they were more into coming home and chilling.
The group’s main plan on Tuesday was to explore El Yunque rain forest on the “Off the Beaten Path” tour. They also walked to waterfalls and got a chance to swim and goof off.
It was a really good trip. The kids got to see something really different, and they experienced this trip on many different levels—yes, it was service learning, and that was definitely the focus—but they got to experience so many other things, and now they all want to keep traveling. So that’s also important. We always had a full day planned, and when you’re traveling it’s important to take advantage of the fact that you’re somewhere new. This group was just so relaxed. I loved that they got to do more than just service learning because they had so much fun. I never had to calm them down. They never had any anxiety about all the new things they were doing.
On Wednesday, the group had planned a trip to Camuy River Cave Park, the third largest underground cave system in the world and formerly among the top 10 attractions in Puerto Rico. However, the caves have not been open to the public since the twin ravagers Irma and Maria paid them visit. So, they did some sightseeing San Juan and Ponce instead. “We had a good time visiting the forts and shopping around and seeing all the architecture of old San Juan,” said Mrs. DuPrau.
I loved seeing them speaking Spanish. I think it’s important to visit places that are Spanish speaking. All the kids practiced their Spanish—they ordered food in Spanish and tried to speak Spanish to any of our tour guides. They’d also help each other, and that was really nice.
This being Math Kangaroo day back at TNCS, the travelers took the Math Kangaroo exam in a conference room where they stayed and then mailed in their scantron sheets. Afterward, it was time to hit the beach!
They opened up a lot as well, sharing the emotions they go through in middle school. We’d have these conversations while we were driving in the van, and they’d have all these questions. They started talking a lot about how what they go through when they’re feeling down, and I think it’s so important to equip them with how to handle those emotions. They think no one understands, but we do understand even if we’re not all in the same set of circumstances. I think community within the class is how we have to move forward and doing things all together, even though it’s 6th through 8th grade. It will help them with the social and emotional part of being a middle schooler. We can definitely add more of that in our curriculum.
The service-learning stint took place in Cabezas de San Juan Nature Reserve in Fajardo, which is “a bioluminescent lagoon, mangroves, coral reefs, dry forests, sandy and rocky beaches set between headlands.” “We went to what used to be a coconut palm conservatory, but those trees are not native to Puerto Rico,” explained Mrs. DuPrau. “They were planted there and were completely wiped out after Hurricanes Irma and Maria. So the nature conservatory wants to now plant native trees, which are stronger and better able to withstand any future hurricanes.”
|Este día de las madres, sorpréndela con una membresía AMIGOS Para la Naturaleza. Pon al alcance de tus seres queridos la posibilidad de disfrutar durante todo el año de nuevas experiencias transformadoras en lugares históricos y ecosistemas únicos en Puerto Rico.|
Working in pairs (they had to share shovels), the overall group planted more than 100 native trees of various species up and down the beach and into the forested area, with the TNCS contingent responsible for a large fraction of that number. The tour guide spoke only in Spanish.
The service learning part of it was awesome. It was really physical, and I’m hoping that it impacts them in a way they’ll remember. We were working with a whole bunch of other people of all ages to plant these huge trees. It was hard, but the students didn’t complain because they knew it was their community service. One thing that I’d like to change about the trip is having them do a little bit more community service, such as with animals. There were so many homeless dogs and cats, and the students really wanted to help them. I reached out to a few places but it was hard to find any that would accept younger than high school age. We met a lot of older students, who were very nice to our students.
As they were departing Puerto Rico at 3:00 pm, they used their last hours to have some down time and enjoy the beach!
I definitely want to do it again. I was just so proud of the kids again for stepping out of their comfort zone. There was no homesickness or complaining, and, in fact, they all got along great. One of the things that I pulled away from the trip is that they all got to know each other on such a deep level. They walked away calling each other best friends. They were all really respectful of one another, yet they’re all very different. It was was also great to see how open they were to meeting new people. I felt like I saw who they really are. Z, for example, helped an elderly man across a stream without any prompting. It was nice to see how many people thought that they were such great kids—I was told multiple times that this was the best-behaved middle school group they’d ever seen.
Interview with Students
Along with Mrs. DuPrau’s great overview of the trip, let’s hear about it from the students’ perspective.
Immersed: What was your overall impression of your trip?
Z, F, and J (as a chorus): It was fun; it was amazing, great, awesome, exciting.
F: It was full of opportunities to get out of your comfort zone.
Z: Oh yes. All three of us jumped off a cliff! I was so scared to do it because I thought I was going to drown! But Carlos, our guide, made us feel more comfortable.
J: I was scared of heights, but I did it.
Immersed: What other experiences did you have?
Z: I liked planting trees.
Immersed: Planting trees—was that the service project?
Z: We planted more than 16 native baby trees altogether.
(B joins our chat. Which was really more like their chat :).)
J, F, B, and J (all completing each others’ sentences): There were a lot more trees before the hurricane, but they were palm trees. They want to get rid of those and replace them with native species because they are stronger and will be less likely to blow over in a hurricane. We planted them in the rain forest.
Immersed: Tell us more about being in the rainforest.
Z: It was very dry, surprisingly, and there were so many vines and roots snaking out.
Immersed: Tell us what you learned about your service.
F: I felt like I was helping out after the hurricane.
Z (with lots of support from F): Yeah, there are still a lot of houses that are torn down or without roofs, and they’re still fixing everything to this day. I feel like I was doing something really good by planting trees because when the next hurricane comes, they won’t be the kind of trees that knock down houses!
(Many inside jokes ensue, none of which were comprehensible to an outsider.)
Immersed: What was the best part of your trip?
Z, F, B, and J (as a chorus): The rainforest! Not where we planted the trees but where we went hiking—El Yunque.
Z: Then there was the catamaran. It was good! We went snorkeling. We saw a sea urchin.
J: I almost fell over from trying to walk in the flippers.
(Cascades of giggles.)
Z: The flippers were so hard to walk in; we looked like penguins.
Immersed: What other wildlife did you see?
Z, F, B, and J (as a chorus): We saw a huge snake! And some huge iguanas at the old fort in San Juan. They were really big.
Immersed: Wow. You guys really did a lot.
Z, F, B, and J (as a chorus): We did; we did. We went to a lot of beaches, too.
Immersed: Tell us about meals—did you cook in your apartment? Did you mostly eat out? What kinds of new foods did you try?
Z, F, B, and J (as an excited but unintelligible chorus except for a few words): Good, non-spicy, eggs, guacamole.
Z: On days that we went to the beach, we would return to the apartment and make spaghetti or pizza or cereal or something. On days we were out, we would eat out.
Immersed: What else do you want readers to know about your trip?
Z: If you go there, bring a lot of sunscreen.
F: Don’t go to Wendy’s or Burger King.
(Lots of agreement from the gang.)
Immersed: How do think this experience changed you?
Z: It made me have a closer bond with these three. It helped us understand each other more. Before we went on the trip, I was probably the only one who really spoke to J, and I was one of his first friends here. Now we all hang out.
F: This changed me in so many ways. I go to know those three better, and we have a better bond.
J: It made me appreciate them a lot more. Because honestly B and F and I weren’t that close. But once we got to Puerto Rico, and I actually got to spend time with them, it was just all fun.
(Next the group reflected on their changing dynamics back at school and how other students also have begun respecting them more.)
F: Even the teachers see us differently. We may be more mature.
Immersed: Think about the service aspect of your trip. Did it make you want to do more?
Z: I now look around at things and see what I can do at the moment.
J: I’ve been helping out more around the house and saying hi to strangers when I pass them on the street.
(After several attempts to wrap things up, it soon became clear that the group was stalling in order to miss science class. Ahem.)
Immersed: Did the trip awaken the love of travel in you?
Z: I like travel—I just don’t like airplanes!
F: I enjoyed my first airplane ride.
J: There was a lot of turbulence, but it was fun to be on a plane.
(Next we had a bittersweet conversation about where they are going to high school. Sniff.)
Immersed: Okay, any last thoughts? Anything at all?
Z: We are very grateful for all of the people who came to our fundraising and also to the private donors—other TNCS parents. We wouldn’t have been able to go without them.
Immersed: What will your next service projects be? Anything over the summer?
Z: I’m coming to volunteer here as a camp counselor over the summer.
The energy the four students had as they reflected on their international service-learning trip was so tremendously positive—this was clearly a very wonderful experience for them. Interestingly, they took away from it exactly what we would hope: expanded horizons and a broader outlook on life and on people as well as a deepening sense of the beneficial impact they can have on the world.
Well done, you four—you’ve made an indelible mark on 724 S. Ann St. We will miss you next year but know that you will make your respective high schools all the nicer for your presence!