Citizen of the World: Nioucha Homayoonfar’s Memoir of Childhood in Iran


Contributing writer Shelley Sperry is back with an insightful and relevant interview with children’s nonfiction author Nioucha Homayoonfar. I hope the conversation inspires you to get your hands on a copy of this beautiful memoir and share it with the young people in your lives. It’s a great conversation starter on the reality and diversity of immigrant experiences.



A while back I had the pleasure of talking with Nioucha Homayoonfar, an Iranian-American author whose memoir of her girlhood in Iran during the 1980s revolution came out earlier this year.

Nioucha’s story mirrors that of so many young people whose lives traverse two different cultures and communities, and who are caught up in larger historical forces as they also try to navigate their own evolution from childhood to young adulthood. I’m tremendously grateful for the chance to talk with Nioucha about her life and her book. Stories like hers, written specifically for young readers, provide human context for the complex events our kids learn about in school and news soundbites. I can’t recommend this dramatic, tender, and often funny memoir more highly—for kids or adults.

Here’s a slightly shortened and edited version of our talk:

Nioucha Homayoonfar, author

Nioucha Homayoonfar, author

How did you decide to write a memoir for a young audience rather than adults?

That decision evolved organically. When I started writing, the voice of a young person just came out—not the voice of an older person looking back at her life. I really liked that voice, so I stuck with it. I hadn’t thought about the age group or my audience at first. I just knew the story I wanted to write. I did some research, and at the time I was starting to write, in 2008–2009, there really wasn’t anything like this available. Now I see it as a great opportunity because I feel young people should know more about what is happening in other countries, and what it’s like to live there.

The work you do in your day job deals with international relations too, so that perspective must be very important to you.

People have always told me I’m a citizen of the world. After 9/11, the circumstances were so tragic and horrifying, and there was a new thirst for stories from other countries and other cultures to help make sense of the world. 

And that’s true of children as well as adults. Many classrooms, including the school my own kids attend, have students from dozens of different countries, and it’s phenomenal. I see that my kids and their friends want to understand how people and events are connected. 

Why did you decide to write nonfiction, rather than turning your story into a novel?

I started out writing some short stories and personal essays. I think a nonfiction author is just who I am. If you want to hear the true side of a story, take Nioucha with you, my family says. She can’t lie or hide the truth. As a reader, I also gravitate toward authors who write from their own dramas and hardships. That feels genuine and pure, so that’s what I aspire to as well.

But having said that, once I had a book contract, I did decide to take some things out. I had to realize that I wanted to remove things that might be hurtful to people I love. 

You’re very hard on yourself though, and honest about your own anger and mistakes. Did you draw on diaries for the book?

As a child, I used to keep some diaries as “someone” to talk to, or a form of therapy. I lost them years ago, but they were written in Persian, so I hope whoever found them just tossed them away. I did write more diaries after we left Iran. I still have those in a box and have not opened them yet. Those were tough years, watching my parents struggle when we first moved to the United States. I just haven’t found the strength to revisit those, but I know that I will look at them eventually because I want to draw on them for another story.

That would be a valuable story for a lot of kids right now to read. 

Yes, the issue of immigration is so important right now. It doesn’t matter when you move from one culture to another, it’s still very hard. I find the thought of my parents’ move here with two children really terrifying, now that I have two kids of my own. I think about that a lot now. Migrating is one of the hardest things people can do. We went from stability before the Iranian Revolution to suddenly feeling like the rug was pulled from underneath us in a matter of moments. I carry that with me, realizing that life can turn upside down so quickly. The Syrians are living that right now.

How did you access your memories from so long ago? You talk in minute detail about food, clothes, and music—and then in the next sentence there’s a dramatic political event.

My memories are really intense from that period because of the heightened intensity of life. One day we could be enjoying a wonderful meal with family or coffee with friends, and the next moment we could be running to hide from bomb sirens. Or the religious police could come and arrest people in front of you. There was an element of danger just renting your movies or buying some music because you had to deal with the black market. All my memories from that time are still vivid and detailed. Even now that I live in the United States, I still sometimes panic when I hear a siren. The biggest trigger for me is fireworks. It’s a beautiful thing here, symbolizing family and picnics, and joy—I really have to calm myself down when I hear them, though. 

Do you have advice for parents who want to help their kids embrace the world and be citizens of the world like you?

What I do with my kids is bring them often to the local libraries and museums with exhibits about other countries and periods of time. Of course, I love National Geographic’s line of memoirs celebrating people from other countries, which is the series my book is part of. Nawuth Keat and Martha Kendall wrote Alive in the Killing Fields about surviving the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. There is also so much available for kids on video. You can find series in French and Spanish and other languages on Netflix, with subtitles.

I grew up reading novels by writers from other countries, and that really takes you outside of yourself, so I think most of all I would encourage parents and kids to search their libraries for those stories.


For more information about Nioucha and her story, check out these links:
 


Shelley Sperry
Sperry Editorial

Jumping rope to help others

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David Darcy founded and currently teaches at
School on the Rise in Southwest Austin. He is also a nationally recognized expert on Waldorf and homeschool education, frequent public speaker, musician, and nature enthusiast. He joins us on the blog to share a special service project his students are involved in and to invite others to join them in supporting a great cause.


Most students love animals, movement, and helping others. These will be combined this fall when the students at School on the Rise hold their annual Jump-a-thon to raise money for a good cause.

Heifer International was chosen as the recipient of our fundraising because their program is based on “the gift that keeps giving.” Heifer works with people in need all over the world, giving them animals that produce food or fiber that can be turned into a sustainable source of income. Family members are taught how to care for the animals, and the income is used for food or other basic needs and often allows parents to send their children to school. Furthermore, Heifer requires each receiving family to give offspring from their animals to others in their village, thus growing the wealth and knowledge of the community.

 At School on the Rise, each of our students will decide which animals they want to have Heifer donate to a hungry family. They then set goals of how many times they will jump rope during the week. By getting relatives, friends, and neighbors to sponsor them for a certain amount per hundred jumps, they turn a week of jumping rope into a donation to help others.

The Jump-a-thon started in 2012 when six students raised $1,285; their goal had been to raise $720. One student that year jumped 9.000 times in the Jump-a-thon week. Since then, the amount raised each year has grown as the number of students participating has grown. Chicks, honeybees, and goats are the animals most frequently given by our students, although some have given sheep, rabbits, or even a llama or water buffalo.

The Jump-a-thon involves goal-setting, as students set challenging but achievable goals; people skills, as they talk to potential sponsors; perseverance, as they work toward those last hundred jumps each day; and follow-through, as they go back to their sponsors to collect the donations.

Most of our students can jump one hundred times in less than a minute, so jumping 2,000 times a day is a very reasonable time commitment. But if their goal is 10,000 jumps for the week, and their legs are hurting Wednesday morning, they really have to work hard to meet that goal.

I would love to have students at other schools join us or do their own Jump-a-thon. So please contact me if you'd like to learn more.

David Darcy

Announcing the Alt Ed Job Board


Almost as soon as this website went live, back in 2011, I started receiving messages from educators looking for jobs in the kinds of schools and educational programs that were featured here. Many of these inquiries came from teachers or administrators working in traditional school systems who were nearing the burnout stage and looking for a workplace where they could re-engage their creative talents, reignite their love of the learning process, and feel better supported both professionally and personally. Others were people who had attended or worked in alternative education in other regions and were interested in moving to Austin specifically to be part of a larger ecosystem of like-minded educators.

I tried my best to connect these job seekers with members of Alt Ed Austin’s network of schools and other educational programs that might have openings, but this tended to be a hit-or-miss proposition. It was time consuming, too.

Soon I also began to get requests from schools to post job openings somehow on the website. But I didn’t really have a good place or mechanism for doing so, and I wasn’t sure it fit into Alt Ed Austin’s primary mission of serving families looking for educational options. Still, I kept informally passing along information about job openings to prospective job candidates, and vice versa.

Then I received a desperate plea from a parent whose child’s beloved teacher was moving across the country for family reasons. She wrote, “We love the school. We love the teacher who is leaving. Our child and his classmates have been thriving here. But our school director and community are having a heck of a hard time finding someone who could even come close to filling her shoes. Can you help?” This parent’s message convinced me that helping fill open positions in alternative education falls squarely within Alt Ed Austin’s mission. Of course families want to know that open spots will be filled in a timely manner by great educators who are the best fits for their learning communities.

Thus was born the Alt Ed Job Board. I’m proud and excited to say that it’s been in its pilot stage for a couple of months now and is officially here to stay. Please pass the word (and link!) to anyone you know who is looking for fulfilling work in education or who has a position to fill in a learner-centered school, enrichment program, summer camp, or other education-focused organization. And to those in the midst of a search: I hope you find the perfect match.

Teri

Middle school programming: How AHB Community School’s progressive model keeps middle years students engaged in the learning process

I asked AHB Community School Executive Director Sasha Cesare to explain the unique school’s approach to middle school education. In response, she submitted this guest post, written collaboratively by staff and other community members, including insights and images gathered from AHB teachers and real, live students.


What can middle school feel like? What should middle school feel like? Sadly, in our culture, it is often the accepted default that tweens and teenagers are “difficult,” and middle school is just basically a rotten time. “Everybody gets through it. You will too,” is often the response of even the most caring and connected parents.

But what if you don’t accept that? What if you expect something more for your child in their middle years? What if you continue to expect your child to be enthusiastic about and dedicated to school, and you expect school to continue to engage, nurture, and challenge your child?

What would that look like?

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“Every morning I am happy to come to school and have fun with my best friends!”
“Always fun, not boring. Always, just fun.”

These quotes are the words of middle school students at AHB Community School, a progressive K–8 school in Central Austin that has been providing a creative and collaborative educational alternative for Austin families since 2004. In those 15 years, we have learned a few things about how to keep middle school students involved, challenged, and happy, while preparing them for the target high schools of their choice. It is not the only good model for educating young adolescents, but it’s a model worthy of study.

The AHB Community School Middle Years Program (MYP) is a four-day-per-week (with optional fifth day) program designed for students aged 11 to 14, working together in what is known internally as the “Delta” class. The MYP, built on the best of international and national standards, emphasizes intellectual challenges, interdisciplinary understandings of the world around them, and a sense of belonging and service to one’s community.

Specifically, the AHB Middle Years Program is built around five key tenets:

  1. Inquiry-based, interdisciplinary projects

  2. A student-centered curriculum

  3. A developmentally appropriate social-emotional learning (SEL) environment

  4. A community-minded, service-oriented focus

  5. Strong academics

What does that look like in the classroom?

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Here’s a week in the life, as described by the MYP teachers:

Currently, the MYP students are studying world geography as their theme, and therefore, along with map work, we have math, reading, and writing work that all relates to our world studies. Each week, students have the opportunity to explore the part of the world on which we are focused through cooking, art, theater, poetry/literature, music, architecture, politics, and/or wildlife. We are learning about the building of the Panama Canal, the endangerment of the Amazon rainforest, and mining of precious metals in Africa by researching, presenting to, and teaching one another in small groups.

In math we did some algebraic arithmetic in the African language of Hausa, which is spoken by 40–50 million people. Students had to decipher what value each Hausa word meant in numerous equations using substitution. We then got into small groups and tackled a major algebraic and logic problem where we had to create a formula for how many fields were required to feed a community in Africa when concrete numbers were not known. The overall goals were to be able to manipulate variables even when the values are not known and be able to work with them in terms of each other. Each group did an amazing job and made huge conceptual headway in terms of learning how to think algebraically.

Later, we switched gears and did a Lorax Stock Market Game project that included reading Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, coming up with potential rules for the Once-ler to have created a sustainable business and environment, taking the Once-ler to trial and acting out the trial complete with judges, attorneys, jury, foreman, a bailiff, the Lorax, and the Once-ler. We also discussed the concept of environmentally responsible investing and how the students could diversify their own Stock Market Game portfolios to be more diversified, including incorporating more “green” organizations into their teams’ stock holdings.

In Language Arts we are learning how to write descriptive settings that use effective figurative language and how to develop an integral setting as a “character” that drives the characterization, plot, and mood of a fictional story. We are researching real-world geographic locations as inspiration for settings and creating different types of maps to illustrate settings for these original narratives.

Throughout each week, our students apply the concepts of theme to the learning objectives and are able to exercise significant choice in their projects.

—submitted by Kirsten Coleman & Alice Elder, the MYP co-teachers
Together, they have over 15 years of experience teaching at AHB Community School.

What do the AHB middle school students have to say about this model?

About the inquiry-based learning and interdisciplinary projects:

“AHB has a great way of teaching kids about how to tackle problems.” 

“The Delta teachers make understanding tough subjects a more community-centered and in-depth experience by including captivating projects into the curriculum.”

“AHB makes learning as fun as can be by doing project-based learning, which is better than sitting around doing worksheets.”

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About the student-centered curriculum:

“Students are engaged because we have choices, responsibilities.”

“The teachers will teach you according to your intellectual level, not your age/grade.”

“The students get to have a major say in upcoming projects.”

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About the developmentally appropriate SEL environment:

“We do a lot of group projects that help you interact with your peers and get better relationships with them.” 

“There is both freedom and structure.”

“We have daily recess time and get to be outside.”

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About the community-minded, service-oriented focus:

“We do Hope Food Pantry every month.”

“We do projects that are aimed at helping our community.”

“We did science fair projects that were about solving world-wide problems.”

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About the academics:

“AHB is academically flexible but also pushes the students to the point of being ready for high school.”

“AHB is very good at preparing children for high school. It meets children at their level and tries to teach them in the best way possible for that kid. I have been here seven years and I have never experienced feeling unprepared for a certain task or assignment.”

“Some [students] are better at math, some at language arts, and we really accommodate that.”

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A Different Paradigm for the Middle Years

Every stage of childhood and the coinciding parenting phase has unique challenges, but the AHB Middle Years Program challenges the assumption that school bores “big kids.” We are convinced, and see daily evidence in our classrooms, that 12- and 13-year-olds can be just as smiling, curious, and energetic as our youngest learners. They simply need a classroom and teachers that grow with them, taking on the delicate dance of both nurturing and challenging the students as needed.

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How to build community among alternative schools? Put the kids in charge!

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Guest contributor Peter Fox is a high school student at the Academy of Thought and Industry in Austin. When I heard about the multi-school prom he and his fellow students were organizing this spring, I invited him to share the story with our readers. We love seeing this kind of collaboration in the alt ed community. Thanks, Peter, and congratulations on a job well done!


I first joined the Austin alt ed community in November of 2018. Due to a variety of factors, public school seemed to no longer be a good fit. When my family and I looked at a number of different schools, the Academy of Thought and Industry (ATI) seemed to be the way to go. Although I quickly enveloped myself in the ATI community, one distinct issue became clear to me as I continued my foray into the alternative education scene: there are no Friday night lights in alt ed. In public school, we always enjoyed the fact that there were many other schools in the area. Sure, we may have been rivals, but oftentimes we had friends at these separate schools. We were all practically a huge community. In the Austin alt ed scene, that sense of community did not exist—yet.

Fast-forward to February of this year. At ATI, we are highly independent students. In our school-wide Life Design class, we faced the daunting prospect of taking on a project that we would be working on for the rest of the semester. Our only restriction was that our project, whatever we chose, had to in some way better our community. When I heard the idea of a shared prom between alt ed schools, I knew I had to have a part in it. An alt ed prom could begin to fill the void of organized events among alternative schools in Austin. It would not only impact our small school community but potentially many other school communities in our area. It was the perfect solution to the problem I saw.

And so, we set out. With a grim amount of work in the short time ahead of us, our initial committee immediately brainstormed on how we could plan such a complicated event in a month and a half. It was decided to split up the tasks among four committees: a logistics group, in charge of finding a venue and food; a finance group, who would handle our budget; a decor group, tasked with decorating our prom; and, last but certainly not least, a programming group, for scheduling the event itself and gathering necessary equipment. However, we were still missing one critical element: a project manager—somebody who would keep everything running smoothly and every part moving in sync. After little deliberation, my friend Samantha and I volunteered to take on this role, with Samantha handling the creative oversight and me handling logistical items. Finally, we could begin work.

I first drafted a schedule for every workday we had until prom, complete with deadlines, due dates, and deliverables. This would make sure we could keep track of every aspect that comes with event planning. We then formed committees, and immediately began work on our first deliverables. At the same time, we began reaching out to alternative schools around Austin, asking if they were interested in our prom or any sort of future alt ed event. Spring Break came and went, and when we returned to school, we found that two alt ed schools wanted to join us: Clearview Sudbury School and Lake Travis STEM Academy.

That was when I realized: this is actually happening, and we have to deliver. With renewed energy and added pressure, I sent a small group of people (including our amazing guide Chris Ready) to Clearview to gauge their interest level. The findings were amazing and slightly surprising: the students we spoke to felt the same lack of a larger community beyond their own school and not only wanted to attend the prom, but help plan it. The next day, our Clearview friends visited ATI to work with us on several aspects, such as our theme and possible icebreakers and activities during the prom itself. The time flew by, and soon we were working with Clearview, Lake Travis STEM, and even homeschool students to design our perfect prom.

After months of preparation, the night had finally arrived. We began setting up at 2pm, and the prom officially began at 7:30. We saw our efforts pay off and reaped the rewards in a night of fun and celebration. During a short break, I looked around the room, and what I saw was surprising and satisfying. Students from all three different schools were joined together in groups on the dance floor.

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We had achieved exactly what we set out to do. Our community, during those two hours, was expanded and transformed into something bigger than just us. When we first started working on our prom, we could barely remember each other's names. Now, there was a familiar sense of friendship among everybody on the dance floor, as we enjoyed the fruits of our labor.

So, what’s next? Well, as I put the finishing touches on this post, I’m also sending out an invitation for our next shared alt ed event, a potluck on Friday, May 10. Which, by the way, if you or your school would like to attend, please email me (pfox@thoughtandindustry.com). All are welcome!

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Creating these activities and events is such a fantastic learning experience, and honestly, just a fun time. Our mission, as a group of students, is to create the sense of community among alt ed schools that has been to this point exclusive to public schools, and our prom was just the beginning. Stay tuned for future events!


Peter Fox

Summer engagement ideas for teens

Esha Clearfield, M.A. and M.P.Aff., is the founder and president of Enriched Family in Austin. This local business provides parents with the information, tools, and systems they need to organize their families and thrive. Drawing on her expertise in research, project management, and family organization, Esha helps busy parents with a wide variety of practical, comprehensive family supports and solutions, particularly family resource research (including camps, enrichment activities, childcare and schools, college comparisons and help managing the college application process, and more!) as well as personal, family, and small business organization services (organizing spaces and developing organization systems). We invited Esha to deploy her considerable research skills to the topic of summer engagement opportunities for teens and share her best ideas here. Thanks, Esha!

In my work with families, I often hear how difficult it is for parents to ensure that their teenagers are engaged over the summer break. Many parents have pointed out that it is hard to find camps whose programming is tailored to this age group, and often teens think of camps as being for “little kids” and are therefore resistant to attending. In this brief article, I focus on several local summer teen engagement resources, including camps that offer Counselor-in-Training (CIT) programs, as well as suggestions for volunteer, internship, and job opportunities.

Photo by  Liam Macleod  on  Unsplash

Camp Counselor-in-Training (CIT) Programs

Many camps offer CIT programs—a great opportunity for teens to develop leadership skills and receive training as camp counselors. These programs are typically low-cost and fun, and they look great on a resume or college application. Here are a few Austin opportunities:

  • The Austin Nature & Science Center CIT program prepares teens (ages 15–17) to assist adult camp counselors in leading activities. There is a one-day training that equips CITs with the skills to become outstanding leaders by covering such topics as safety, child development, games, and songs. This popular program helps teenagers develop a sense of responsibility while increasing self-confidence. Participants can register for a maximum of 2 CIT camp sessions (each session is two weeks long: M–F, 8am–5pm). There are currently spots in the 6/24–7/5 & 8/5–8/16 sessions (the other June and July sessions are on a wait list). The cost of each two-week session is $198 for Austin residents. Register on the Austin Nature & Science Center website here.

  • The Austin Sunshine Camps CIT program is available to 15–18-year-olds who meet the qualifications (live in Travis, Williamson, Hays, Caldwell, or Bastrop county and qualify for the school free or reduced lunch program or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program [SNAP] or are in foster care), demonstrate the ability to become a leader in their community, and are interested in becoming a camp counselor when they turn 18. There is no cost for the CIT program. Email programs@sunshinecamps.org for more information.

  • The Thinkery CIT program is available to teenagers (ages 13–18) who will work closely with Thinkery staff mentors to lead fun, STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math)–based activities in Thinkery summer camps. Individual goals are set to ensure each participant develops new skills and gains valuable work experience that is transferable to future academic and career endeavors. If selected, applicants must commit to attending a series of training sessions. All selected applicants must agree to one week of the mandatory training dates and a minimum of 2 weeks of CIT camp support hours. Application is here. Deadline is May 1. There is a $10 program fee.


Photo by Rawpixel.com on  Pexels

Photo by Rawpixel.com on Pexels

Volunteer Opportunities

A number of Austin organizations that focus on connecting youth to local nonprofits are in need of volunteers. Included below are a couple of examples:

  • Generation SERVE, whose mission is to “engage children in volunteerism and empower them to make a difference in their communities,” offers a summer Youth Leadership Program for middle and high school students. Teens selected for the program are trained in group facilitation, communication, problem solving, nonprofits, and fundraising. Teens then put this learning into action by leading or co-leading Generation SERVE’s Family Volunteering Activities and designing service projects to benefit the community. The fee for this program is $170–$200. For additional information and to apply for the program, click here. The application deadline is April 12.

  • If your teen is interested in summer volunteering but cannot commit to the Youth Leadership Program, Generation SERVE also offers one-time volunteer opportunities for teens in 6th–12th grades in the form of Teen Service Days, during which teens volunteer alongside their peers without a parent or guardian. These events give teens experience with volunteer projects in support of many different nonprofit organizations and community needs. Details and registration information can be found here.

  • Austin Habitat for Humanity also offers a variety of Youth Volunteer Opportunities, including painting, landscaping, planting trees, construction, home repair, and more, all depending on the age of the teen. Click here for information.


Other Volunteer/Internship Opportunities

Summer is a great time for teens to participate in formal or informal internships matched to their interests. For example, if your teen is interested in art, they could look into volunteer or internship opportunities at local art galleries. If your teen is interested in medicine and health, many hospitals have junior volunteer programs or summer volunteer programs for teens, ages 15–18. In addition, the City of Austin has a variety of Youth Volunteer, Internship, and Employment Opportunities they could explore here.


Photo by  NeONBRAND  on  Unsplash

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

Job/Entrepreneurship Opportunities

Why not encourage your teen to explore some entrepreneurship activities over the summer? They could build and brand their own babysitting, lawn mowing/lawn care, dog sitting/walking, or odd jobs business. Or perhaps they could find a part-time or full-time job, depending on their other summer responsibilities.

 Happy summer!


Esha Clearfield
Enriched Family