Monday, June 25, 2012

Learning, Living and Loving in NYC (Part I)

I know it is already November.  And while student council is getting ready to deck the halls and winter dances are right around the corner, I wanted to take the time to tell you a story of the adventure that I took with 5 yearbook students in the end of June.  (And if you are wondering "why now" you should see the length of my to do list....)

I had the privilege of taking 5 (then) grade 11 students to New York City at the end of June for 7 days.  They were students who had made a commitment to taking Yearbook 12 this school year, and were travelling to New York for a 5 day Photography, Writing and Journalism workshop offered by Columbia University.  [As it was a photography and yearbook based workshop, this post will be filled with photos.  Enjoy/deal with it.]  My students engaged in 2 streams: photography (3 students) and writing for the web (2 student).  The workshops themselves were great.  Every day I would spend the subway ride home listening to tales of "showing, not telling" and "looking for the action."  The evenings were balanced between poignant questions about lighting in Photoshop and panicked rush to interview strangers and complete assignments.  And of course the biggest challenge was that 2 blocks down was central park, and 5 minutes away was Times Square.  The bright lights of the big city were blinding.  Fortunately we were able to combine our exploring and observing with our writing and snapping.  I'm pretty confident that my students left the big apple as enamoured with it as I am.

First ride on the Subway
On the first day, after a long (but comfortable, thank you Cathay!) red eye flight we arrived at JFK and took the subway into the city.  Even the smell of urine in the Jamaica station elevators could not get us down.  We got off the plane starving, and wanted a quick bite before headed off, and sure enough we came across.....Tim Hortons.  Not the most quintessential NYC experience (I'm pretty sure New Yorkers do not qualify Tim Hortons as "real" makers of bagels", but it was a little piece of home to calm a grumbly tummy).  

Grand Central Station

After ditching the luggage at our hotel in the upper west side (the Milburn - standard hotel, but great location near central park, in between Columbia and midtown, and in a more residential neighbourhood by a great grocery store), we headed to Grand Central Station to admire the marble work and get something more substantial to eat from the food court.  It only took about 5 minutes in the station for my to have my wallet stolen.  This is my fourth trip to the city, so I really should know better.  Some guy came and asked me to take his photo (I had a camera, he had an iPhone camera....happens a lot in NYC for tourists to take pics of each other), so I took his picture, and by the time I handed him back his camera, my wallet had been taken by my camera bag.  So my licence, credit cards and everything I needed to pay for this trip were gone.  Not the best way to start the trip.  So we wandered over to the New York Public Library, as planned, and I paced through the Children's book section while arranging an emergency credit card from Mastercard to be sent to me, and my students could see the ORIGINAL Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals.  Not the way I planned on starting the trip, but the students were great and rolled with it.  
New York Public Library
 In the early evening we went down to the financial district and visited the newly opened World Trade Center Memorial.  Even with tickets, there is quiet the series of security measures before you get in to see the reflecting ponds.  I have been to NYC 4 times in the last 3 years.  The first time I went the site has a whole in the ground and they were preparing to build.  So it was amazing to see it completed, and to experience the awe and reverence of those visiting the site.  It was interesting to see my students interact with the experience.  I was in university on September 11, 2001, and most of my friends were American.  I was driving in my car to Organic Chemistry, and getting into the classroom full of US citizens trying to call home, and my professor from Alabama almost in tears was unreal.  My students would have been 6.  There was a certain disconnect between them and the place they were standing.  They were struggling to determine how they should act, think and feel.  They don't really know a world before 9/11.  That's the generation that we are teaching.  Wow.
World Trade Center
Students at World Trade Center Memorial
 As a side note, despite the large number of people who work near and around Wall Street, on a Saturday the place is pretty deserted.  Couldn't even find a place for dinner.  Ended up going back to the hotel and ordering New York Pizza.  I'm sorry New Yorkers, I'm not a big fan.  May be the largest greasiest pizza I've ever seen.  But it was one of the many NY experiences we could check off the list.

Day Two, the second in a week of beautiful, hot, sunny days, was jam packed. We had morning and afternoon sites to see and experiences to partake in, and students had orientation at Columbia.

After a quick breakfast courtesy of the Milburn, we talked to central park, and started our tour in Strawberry Fields, the area of the part dedicated to John Lennon, across from the Dakota Building where he was shot.  We wandered across the Bow Bridge (featured in many movies), down around the boat house and Bethesda fountain and through the mall towards 5th avenue.  The park was BEAUTIFUL in the morning sun and made for the perfect way to start the day.  I may have been sans-wallet, but my camera was still with me, and out in full force.  All 7 of us (me, students, and my friend Luke who was chaperoning) were out with our camera, capturing the beautiful sites.

Following the walk through the park we hit the famous 5th avenue.  All 5 students were super excited for shopping (their request must-have New York experience).  They had fun experiencing the stores, even though very few purchases were made.  We ended up at Rockefeller Plaza (I had lunch at 'wichcraft - HIGHLY recommend) and took the subway back home before heading for Orientation.
Trying on Hats at FAO Schwartz
Columbia University is one of the most beautiful University campuses.  The students checked in and headed to "class" while I got to enjoy photographing the property.  4 hours later they came out with their first assignments.  The photography students needed to go "take pictures" - an easy thing to do while traveling through a new city!  The writing students needed to interview and write a piece and submit it by midnight.  Now, the majority of students attending this program, 350 in all for 15 countries and all over the US, were staying on campus.  They had a 10pm curfew and 12 lights out/internet off policy.  Over the weeks I was told the kids were complaining more and more.  They were in New York City, but were not allowed to leave to go SEE the city.  My students were increasingly grateful for the freedom of off campus accommodations.
Columbia University Library 
Columbia University
When class was over we had more to see though! (every bit of daylight and twilight was maximized!)  We planned on taking the train down town to Washington Square Park.  We proceeded as planned, but when we got off the train we realized we arrived RIGHT as the New York Pride Parade had ended.  There were tens of thousands of people, police, colours, shouting, singing, barricades and general chaos.  I instantly began to think about turning around, but the students were LOVING it.  This was the New York City experience!!  People watching can be fascinating, and this culture of celebration was taken in as one of the highlights of the trip.  Of course trying to get to the restaurant we planned was tricky.  Took us 1 hour to walk 0.3 miles.  We got there and the restaurant was closing, so we had to take the food to go.  Decided to go eat in Washington Square Park, which is beautiful....and under construction.  So we found ourselves some benches beside the construction, next to a few post parade attendees and possibly a couple people who live there on a more permanent basis.  The whole endeavour was a memory building comedy of errors.  By the time we left the park we were well into twilight and a 5 minute subway ride from our final destination - the Empire State Building.  We spent an hour weaving through lines to rise the 86 stories to the windy view of the city lights.  Of course this was the moment is decided to start raining.  So we only stayed about 15 minutes before heading indoors and down and back towards our hotel for homework and warmth.  However, I could have stayed and photographed all night - the view is totally worth the wait!
View from the Empire State Building (see Macy's, worlds largest store, bottom right)

View from the Empire State Building, towards Times Square
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