Monday, April 28, 2014

New direction, new blog

I'm starting an all new direction in my life: I have accepted a full-time position here in Florida, and my goal is going to be to remain here as long as possible. I certainly still intend to take international vacations whenever possible, but I'm planning to work in the US from here on out. This has been my plan for some time, but it wasn't until today - when I was actually offered a job - that this plan became reality. Since I'll be [mostly] in the US from here on out, International Cat Lady isn't exactly appropriate. As such, I've decided to continue blogging at American Cat Lady. I hope you'll follow me over there.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Florida and the lack of opportunities for ESOL teachers and students

I recently wrote my last ever paper as a Master’s student on a topic that is very important to me professionally: the state of Florida’s policies towards English language learners in the public K-12 system. I could copy and paste my paper here, but I suspect that most of the people who bother to read my blog don’t come here for academic writing and education jargon. However, since this is a topic that I think is pretty important, I’ve decided to convert my academic paper into a more accessible blog post.

Something like 220 languages are spoken in the state of Florida. There are roughly 270,000 students in Florida’s public K-12 system that are considered English Language Learners (ELLs). That’s roughly 10% of the K-12 population. You would think that this would translate into a lot of available jobs for people like me: experienced, qualified ESL teachers. Sadly, that’s not the case. What is typically seen are ads for content-area teachers holding ‘appropriate ESOL certification.’ There’s little to no demand for ESL teachers in the K-12 system at all, just regular teachers with this ‘appropriate ESOL certification.’ Why is that? What does having ‘appropriate ESOL certification’ actually entail? And is this what is best for Florida’s students?

Prior to 1990, the way ELLs were treated in the public K-12 system varied substantially by district, as there was no state level legislation pertaining to how they should be treated. Some districts had really great programs, including bilingual education, sheltered content instruction (in which subject matter such as Math or Social Studies was taught to ELLs specifically by an ESOL professional), and pull-out programs (in which students were pulled out of mainstream classes during the day for one-on-one tutoring or tutoring among a group of their ELL peers). Other districts had nothing; students were simply tossed into mainstream classes with teachers who had no training in dealing with ELLs. A group of advocates filed a lawsuit against the State of Florida in the late 1980s, arguing that as legal residents of the state, ELLs were entitled to equal access to education, understandable instruction, and intensive English language instruction. They won their suit, and in 1990, the Florida Consent Decree was enacted. The Consent Decree mandated equal access, comprehensible instruction, and language instruction for ELLs, and required that the state’s K-12 teachers actually have some sort of training for working with ELLs. Elementary school teachers, as well as middle school and high school language arts teachers were required to have 300 hours of training for working with ELLs. Middle and high school math, science, and social studies teachers were required to have 60 hours of training, and all other instructors were required to have 18 hours. Sounds great, right? In theory, perhaps, but not so much in actual fact.

One of results of the Consent Decree was that the Florida Department of Education (FDOE) began pushing for mainstreaming of ELLs across the state. While it was left up to each district as to the specifics of how they would comply with the Consent Decree, there was a lot of pressure for districts to work towards mainstreaming of ELLs. (Mainstreaming – sometimes referred to as inclusion – is the practice of putting ELLs in regular classes with native speakers.) The pressure to increase mainstreaming actually led to many quality bilingual, sheltered, and pull-out programs being dismantled and replaced with mainstreaming. After all, if all teachers are now “qualified” to teach ELLs, this should be fine, right?

Well, just how “qualified” are they? Is receiving 300/60/18 hours of instruction in working with ELLs enough? And what kind of instruction is that, anyway? Since 1999, all university teacher training and certification programs in the state of Florida are required to provide their pre-service teachers with their needed hours of ESOL training. However, pretty much all of the universities did this not by adding 300 hours’ worth of required coursework for their students, but instead by creating an ‘ESOL Infused’ program. This means that topics pertaining to education of ELLs would be included in general Education courses; very few of those 300/60/18 hours would be earned in a class that actually focused in its entirety on teaching ELLs.

The university where I’ve just earned my MA in TESOL requires its undergraduate Education majors to take only two courses that are ESOL-specific. I just spent the past two semesters teaching one of those two courses, and let me tell you, my students – junior and senior Education majors – had no clue about teaching ELLs when the semester began. Even at the end of the semester, there are very few of my students whom I would recommend to work with ELLs, and yet most of them are now “qualified” to do so according to state regulations.

While writing my paper, I read a lot of articles, including a lot of published research on the views that teachers and program administrators had of both mainstreaming and of the required ESOL training. The majority of teachers and administrators did not approve of mainstreaming – with the biggest complaint being that mainstream teachers lacked the time and/or the skill to properly modify their lessons for their ELLs. The majority of teachers themselves also complained that they did not feel adequately prepared to work with their ELLs. One article I read referred to the results of the Consent Decree as the “the deprofessionalization of ESL teachers, rather than the specialization of mainstream teachers” – and sadly, that seems to be the case.

Oh, and the FCAT? That standardized test that one must pass in order to graduate from high school in the state of Florida? ELLs are given one year – ONE YEAR – to get their language skills up to par to pass the FCAT. Research in the field of second language acquisition shows that it typically takes 5-7 years to master a second language, yet ELLs are given just one to take a test that is often challenging to native speakers. Seriously?

As a professional teacher of English as a second or foreign language, I found my research into this subject disturbing to say the least. Certainly, at the moment, finding a job is a pressing issue for me. My goal is to teach ESL to adults, although there aren’t that many jobs available. I had (rather naïvely) assumed that if I could not find work with adults, the public school system would remain an option. As it is, while I have applied for several K-12 ESOL positions, none were in Florida. Straight-up ESOL teachers are pretty rare down here. Then I think about the fact that so many people sacrifice so much to come to the United States in order to give their children better opportunities. But are they really getting better opportunities? If they come to Florida, it doesn’t seem that they do.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Almost done!

Last Friday I took my comprehensive examination for my Master's degree, which was (as you might expect) a Big Freakin' Deal. Essentially, if you don't pass, you don't graduate. While I never thought that failing was a possibility, I was still pretty stressed out over it. Not to worry; I passed :-) I have not yet received my official score (one can fail, or one can receive a low pass, a pass, or a pass with distinction), but I have been unofficially told that everyone who took the exam last Friday received a passing score. Official scores should be out by the end of the week. Now that comps are over, my to do list has shrunk to an amazingly small size: finish writing a paper (it's almost done; all I have to write is my conclusion and then proofread the thing), teach one class, attend one class as a student, and administer a final exam to my students. And find a job. 

I thought job hunting was stressful back in February. Now that it's April, the stress level has increased exponentially. There still aren't many jobs in TESOL in the US, the positions are very competitive, and I am developing an ever increasing urge to punch the people who design some of these job application websites. (The last job I applied for required me to submit a US state, zip code, and telephone number for each of my former jobs... a bit of a challenge for those positions in South Korea, Kyrgyzstan, and Russia. In order to get the website to accept my application, I had to enter false information... and then click a checkbox certifying that all of the information I had entered was accurate. Grrrr.) 

I'll be moving out of Orlando and back 'home' to Georgia at the beginning of May, where I will remain until I find a job. Moving is an expensive and annoying process, and I would have loved to move straight from Orlando to the location of my next job, but unless something appears in the next two and a half weeks, it seems that wherever I end up, I'll be getting there by way of Georgia. Whatever happens, though, the graduate school phase of my life is nearly over; time for a new chapter to begin!

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Adventures of Charlie and Mochi

Don't forget! Charlie and Mochi now have their own Facebook page! If you haven't already 'liked' it, click here for all the mustachioed cat and underbite-faced dog action you could possibly desire!

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Monday, March 31, 2014

Food, friends, and frolics in Portlandia

While I have mixed feelings about the fact that I shelled out a rather large sum of cash to attend the TESOL 2014 conference, my feelings about Portland itself are not mixed at all: I love Portland. Portland is a pretty awesome town on just about every level and I had a fantastic time there. I could definitely see myself living there, except for the fact that the cost of living is a bit too high for me and I would be absurdly obese from all of the amazing food available. In addition to seeing Portland itself, I got to meet up with several people whom I hadn't seen in years, as well as one person whom I'd previously only known online, and we had a lot of fun.

On Wednesday night, after the keynote address (see my previous post), I met up with a blogger named Joy (of ForeignerJoy and AmericanJoy), whom I've known online for years now. We were in Korea at the same time, although we never met in real life. She is now in a Master's program for TESOL in Seattle - where she lives with her black and white mustachioed cat that she brought home from Korea :-) She and her boyfriend had come down for the conference, so we got together and wandered around downtown for a bit before settling at a delicious Mexican restaurant called Santeria. (Note: they give you a TON of food here - if you're staying in a hotel sans fridge and microwave and therefore can't take leftovers, order less and share!)

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Joy and Ian

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After I left Joy and her bf and hopped on the MAX (the light-rail) to head back to my hotel, I ended up having quite a bizarre ride. I've never had a public transit ride that was full of so many talkative, funny people - one of whom was a local ESOL teacher who was also attending the TESOL conference. We talked about bad smells, Israeli Mossad, ballroom dancing, and (of course) the TESOL conference, among other things. Then one guy says 'I'm gonna take a selfie, who's with me?' and everyone in the car got up, so I figured I would, too:

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Wednesday night I realized (via Facebook) that Brooke - a friend and former coworker from my days teaching in Vladimir, Russia - was in Portland for the TESOL conference as well. She was presenting at the conference and had a pretty hectic schedule, but we agreed to meet up for lunch on Thursday. We decided to head for the Georgian food food-truck. Apparently food-trucks are a Hugely Big Deal in Portland, and you can get pretty much any kind of food from these things, and they are DELISH. Now, if you know me or have read any of my blogs for a while, you probably know that Georgian food is my absolute favorite food ever, although it is a huge challenge to find it in the US - especially in my part of the US. And Portland sells it out of the back of a food truck. Heaven! So not only did I get to see a really wonderful person whom I hadn't seen in ages, I also got to chow down on some exquisite Georgian food. Win!

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Georgian food! If you're in downtown Portland, eat here.

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Brookinchka!! :-)

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Cheese khachapuri, lobio khachapuri, khinkali, eggplant salad, other-veggie salad = TASTE BUD HEAVEN

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While we were eating, horse cops rode by!

Friday evening, I met up with Jill and Johnny - two friends of mine who moved to Portland from Florida ages and ages ago, and whom I hadn't seen since 2004. I had a great time catching up with them - and we had some great food, too, including some lovely Vietnamese dishes and the most amazing ice cream I've ever tasted at Salt and Straw. We finished the evening at some woman's house (the wife of a friend of a friend or something), drinking wine and discussing our favorite NPR personalities. I kid not.

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Me & Johnny

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Me & Jill

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Some sort of Vietnamese mushroom dish

Saturday was pretty chill. I have my comprehensive exams for my MA coming up, so I spent some time studying for them. There was a local restaurant (the name of which I've sadly forgotten) located not far from my hotel where I had a wonderful brunch consisting of the best latte I had all week (and it's Portland, so I had some amazing lattes), as well as an omelette stuffed with some kind of specialty bacon and topped with salsa, fresh avocados, and sour cream. I camped out there for a while with my study notes.

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That evening, my friend Linda (whose poetry blog is here, BTW) arrived. She and I knew each other ages ago when we both lived in San Diego, CA, and while we've kept in touch over the years (yay, internet!), I hadn't seen her since 2005. She now lives in southwestern Washington, and she drove down to spend some time with me. Earlier in the week, I had discovered that my hotel was within walking distance of an all-you-can-eat Indian buffet restaurant called Namaste, which was excellent. Linda mentioned having eaten at a delicious Indian buffet north of town on a previous trip to Portland, and upon hearing her description I was pretty sure it was the one near my hotel. So we walked to it, and it was! Nomnomnom.

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Linda and Indian food, yay!

Linda and I had a great time catching up and sharing stories about all sorts of things from the past nine years of our lives. We also spent Sunday exploring downtown Portland. While the weather on Friday and Saturday had been pretty abysmal (even locals were complaining about how unusually heavy the rain was), Sunday was gorgeous. We drank a good bit of coffee, bought some specialty chocolate and some mouth-watering cupcakes, spent a bit too much money on souvenirs, and camped out for a while at a noodle shop. It was absolutely lovely. I could do that every day.... except that my bank account would probably rebel pretty quickly.

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Linda and some Pad Thai

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Linda and a cool elephant statue thingy, which (sadly) was too slick to climb.

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Chinese Garden in Chinatown

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Funny Chinatown signage

Saturday, March 29, 2014

TESOL 2014: My Experiences

Those of you who follow me on Facebook know that I’ve spent the last week in Portland, OR. For those of you who don’t, well, I’ve spent the last week in Portland. I left Orlando on Tuesday, immediately following my classes, and flew to Portland for the purpose of attending the TESOL 2014 international conference. I’ll blog a little later about my non-TESOL conference experiences in Portland; this post will be limited to my conference-specific experiences. I’ll post about the rest of my Portland adventures later.

I have mixed feelings about the conference. On the one hand, I saw a lot of really great presentations on topics that I found quite interesting. Additionally, I was able to meet up with some really fantastic people and have some really informative conversations. (Where else can you have an academic discussion about Konglish?) On the other hand, I came to the conference specifically for the job fair, and to be honest, I found the job fair disappointing. But more on that later.

Wednesday was a pretty slow day at the conference. I explored the convention center, and found myself a nice spot to sit and dig through the 200+ page schedule of events to plan which presentations I wanted to go see. I met a guy from Florida who had watched my presentation back in 2012 at the Central Florida TESOL conference on Low-Tech and No-Tech TESOL in places such as Kyrgyzstan – and who remembered me and the presentation. I had the aforementioned conversation about Konglish, with a fellow presenting a poster on ‘Semantic Shift in Blended Languages in Korea’ (yes, by ‘blended languages’ he meant Konglish), and I met a woman doing research on state policies towards English language learners (ELLs) in Alabama (which seem just about as f’d up as the state policies towards ELLs in Florida, but at least she had some solid research to prove its f’d-up-ness). This was followed by the welcome reception for first time attendees, which was rather pointless (they taught us how to use the 200+ page schedule that most of us had spent the day familiarizing ourselves with, yawn). I did, however, meet a woman seated at my table who administrates the ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) in a north-Florida county. Sadly (for someone like me, looking for an ESOL position), her county only hires mainstream teachers with ESOL endorsements, not full time ESOL teachers.

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Inside the Convention Center

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Just outside the Convention Center: "Attention: Bell will ring without warning"
I never did hear it ring.

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Convention Swag

After the welcome session, we had the keynote speech, given by Surin Pitsuwan. It was a fantastic speech. Pitsuwan isn’t an ESL/EFL/ESOL teacher; instead he’s the product of such education. He came from a working-class, rural family in Thailand, where he was taught English by Peace Corps volunteers as well as volunteers from Canada and the UK. This gave him the skills to apply for a study abroad program in the US. Since then, he’s done all sorts of things, including getting a PhD from Harvard, becoming a member of Parliament in Thailand, and becoming Secretary-General of ASEAN. His point of view was that those of us in this field are helping to spread a necessary skill, and that he wouldn’t have achieved anywhere near what he has without the help from the volunteers who came to his village when he was young. This made me feel really great about some of the life decisions I’ve made (working in Russia for a pittance, volunteering in rural Kyrgyzstan).

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Surin Pitsuwan

Thursday was a big day. It was the day that I had one interview scheduled and when I planned to spend the afternoon cruising the job marketplace, distributing my resume willy-nilly. However, in the morning my goal was to attend several presentations. The first presentation I attended was on ‘English only’ policies at Intensive English Programs (IEPs) in the US. Ideally, I would like to find a job at an IEP, so this was something that was quite interesting to me. The ‘English only’ concept (students may not speak in their first language (L1) during class and are discouraged from using it while at the facility or on IEP events) is essentially standard IEP policy across the country. However, research has shown that allowing students to use their L1, especially for school-related purposes (i.e., explaining directions or a grammar rule to a classmate, or looking up definitions in a bilingual dictionary) is actually very helpful to students. This isn’t really surprising, especially since recent research in K-12 ESOL education has shown the importance of incorporating a student’s L1 into their English education. The sad thing is that despite the research, this policy remains in place – and both teachers and students actually support it, despite its various downsides.

The next presentation that I attended was on transitioning from teaching English as a Foreign Language (EFL; involves teaching overseas) to teaching English as a Second Language (ESL; involves teaching in the US or other predominantly English-speaking country). While I am not making a direct transition (going as I did from overseas to grad school to the job search), I felt that this was still an applicable topic. While I didn’t get much information about the topic that I didn’t already know, I did learn that the job market in my field here in the US is much tougher than I had expected. I have applied to an absurd number of jobs in the southeastern United States. While I haven’t heard back from most of them, I did hear from two (on Tuesday as I was on my way to Portland) that they had selected someone else. I had been hoping that was an anomaly, but according to this panel, jobs are few and far between, and that’s to be expected. The presenters were all fellows with advanced degrees and 10+ years of EFL experience, and they had all had trouble finding jobs when they returned to the US. One had returned last June AND IS STILL UNEMPLOYED. This made me feel rather panicky.

Next, I had planned to attend a presentation on the use of movie trailers in the classroom, but by the time I got to the room in which that presentation was being given, it was so packed that I couldn’t even make it through the door. I opted instead for a presentation on Global Englishes (different types of English spoken around the world, from the types that are considered more prestigious like American and British English, to the types that are often stigmatized, such as Indian or East Asian English). Sadly, I missed the beginning of her presentation, but I arrived in time for an interesting anecdote about teaching the phrase ‘on the bus.’ She discussed experiences in India where one normally says ‘I am in the bus’ unless there is no room and one must actually climb on to the top of the bus, in which case one would say ‘I am on the bus.’ I loved this, mainly because I have had students struggle with the fact that in American English we say ‘I’m in the car’ but ‘I’m on the bus.’ I also had a couple of experiences in Russia and Kyrgyzstan where I told people I was ‘on the bus’ (literally translating word for word into Russian) and having them think I meant I was on top of the bus, as in Russian you use the preposition ‘in’).

After lunch, it was time to find myself a job. Or so I thought. I had decided to come to the TESOL 2014 conference specifically because I was told that its job fair was absolutely the best place to find jobs. Based on the explanations I had received, I envisioned an area of booths manned by potential employers where you could talk to representatives, decide if you were interested in working for them, and then arrange a time for an interview. Sadly, it was not like this at all. You could only meet with the employers if you had an interview scheduled with them, and there was no direct way of scheduling an interview. After checking in at the job fair, I was directed to a computer which gave me access to the TESOL website’s jobs section (which believe me, I am already intimately familiar with). I was told to submit my application to any employer marked as present at the convention, and that if any employer was interested in interviewing me, they would call me. Nearly all of the employers listed who were present at the convention were out of the Middle East. As I am looking for work in the US, my options were incredibly limited. Of the very few US-based employers on the website listed as present at the convention, there were only two that I was interested in working for – and I had already applied for positions with both. While one had already arranged to meet with me during the convention (it was the only interview that I ended up having), the other had never gotten back to me. I re-submitted my application, stating that I was in town for the conference and would love an opportunity to meet with them in person, but never heard anything back. At least I had the one interview that I had arranged in advance. (It went really well, but they also had a stack of resumes about an inch thick from all the other people they planned to interview that day.)

I was feeling a bit discouraged after leaving the job fair section, but since I knew there were a small handful of booths with recruiters for other positions (all overseas) in the Expo section of the convention, I decided to see what else I could find. I had some people from Saudi Arabia and Oman attempt to recruit me, but like I said, that’s just not on my list of places to go. I have mentioned before that I had applied for a competitive position that is overseas. They, too, had a booth, so I decided to ask them about their time-frame, as I hadn’t heard anything yet. On a positive note, they told me that they were running behind. Normally they start interviewing people in March, but this year (“due to the overwhelming number of applications”) they wouldn’t be able to start conducting interviews until April. Then I asked them about pets. Their website had said that they allowed pets, but strongly discouraged them. I wanted to ask about this in person. Well, you can bring your pets, but if you’re in a position in which you are told you must evacuate (they just evacuated their personnel from Ukraine), you MUST leave your pets behind. (The other option is refusing to evacuate, in which case your position will be terminated.) Sorry, I’m not leaving Mochi and Charlie behind; I guess I can rule that job off my list.

Friday had a whole slew of presentations on language education policy in the US. I find language policy (and specifically language education policy) incredibly interesting, so I decided to attend three of these presentations. The first couple weren’t overly exciting, as they essentially reiterated a lot that I already knew. The third, however, entitled ELLs and the Law, was fascinating. They delved quite deeply into the legal reasons why schools are required to provide special language education services to ELLs, and what comprises the bare minimum of services allowed. Comparing what I learned in that presentation to what I’ve learned in recent research on Florida’s language education policies, it seems that Florida is skirting that bare minimum line pretty damn closely.

After three presentations on language policy, I figured I needed a change of pace. I attended a presentation on professor and resident ESL students’ interactions in higher education. The presentation ended up focusing a lot on the views professors held of ELLs who were legal residents or US citizens versus ELLs who were international study-abroad students. It was interesting – and a bit disturbing – to see that the professors almost uniformly held much more negative views of their resident ELLs than they had of their international student ELLs. Sadly, she didn’t delve into if this was based on the actual performances of these students in the classroom, or if this was merely the professors’ preconceived biases towards these students. (I also found this interesting, because when I taught ESL in the US, my resident ELLs vastly outperformed my international students, most of whom seemed to just be in the US in order to party or go to Disney.)

The last presentation I attended was put on by Brooke – one of my former colleagues at the American Home in Russia, where I worked in 2005-2006! She and her classmate (both of them are PhD students at Penn State) presented on ESL students’ reactions to the use of Global Englishes (non-standard English) in their Freshman Composition class. They discussed their ESL students’ reactions to readings from The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Sozaboy: A Novel in Rotten English. Despite the huge push for inclusion of Global Englishes in ESL/EFL curricula (at least in a top-down sense), they had quite a strong pushback from the students, who didn’t see reading such texts as beneficial and not academic. In some ways, the students had a point – learning to include aspects of their native language/dialect in their writing is great from a creative-writing standpoint, but isn’t something that would be beneficial in terms of learning to write a Political Science or Chemistry term paper. The most interesting thing I found was that while the ESL students who were exposed to this kind of writing resisted it and gave a lot of pushback, the mainstream classes (native and fluent speakers of English) accepted these stories with little to no pushback.

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Brooke presents :-)

So there you go; that’s my round-up of my experiences at TESOL 2014. I’ll post my non-conference related Portland adventures in a day or two :-)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

visits, springs, and things

Melissa, my friend and landlord (who lives in CA) was in town this weekend with her kids. Two of our childhood friends were in the area as well, so we all met up:

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Melissa and her two adorable children, Madeline and Miriam

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Me with the kids :-)

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Chris visits with Miriam and Melissa

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And we added a second Melissa to the mix:
Melissa, Miriam, Chris, Madeline, and Melissa

The two Melissas had to head out around 2pm. After they left, Chris and I decided to visit some local springs and historic sites. First we went to Gemini Springs Park, which was really quite lovely. Swimming is prohibited, although pets are allowed AND they have an off-leash dog park section. I wish I'd known; I'd have brought Mochi.

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There might be a reason why swimming is prohibited...

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Hello, buddy!

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There were many trails through huge old growth oaks, just dripping with Spanish moss.

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This was actually *very* comfortable!

We left Gemini Springs and drove to Green Springs Park. It wasn't quite as picturesque as Gemini Springs, but it was still quite nice. It was another place in which swimming was prohibited, although the spring hole was filled with teens happily ignoring that directive. They were also repeatedly climbing up very tall trees and plunging a great distance into the water below. Safety first!

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The guy in the black pants has just jumped.

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Chris (not preparing to jump) on a tree on the far side of the spring.

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Then we drove to DeBary Hall

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Unfortunately, it was around 5:30pm, and the place had closed for the day. We were still able to explore outside though.

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Driving back to Orlando through Sanford, we spotted this large building and stopped to check it out. It turned out to be the old Georgetown school.

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Our last stop of the day was at Big Tree Park. The park used to be the location of a 3500 year old bald cypress tree nicknamed 'The Senator' that was 118 feet tall. It was, sadly, destroyed by arson in 2012. Below are some pictures of me, Chris, Melissa, and her husband Alex visiting The Senator in 2006. Under that is a picture of it today.

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Poorly made snapshots of snapshots.
At least you can see the tree.

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What remains of The Senator.
To read about his sad demise, click here.