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My Summer Trip to Liberia

With the support of The Cathay School and the hard work of fundraising events led by the SAMS Jr. Leader Club, SAMS Family Foundation raised over $1000 for the purchase of supplies and equipment for the expansion of STEM curriculum at Sherman Adams Sr. Memorial School, located in Duazon, Liberia.

Kristin Zhu, a member of the SAMS Jr. Leader Club, accompanied her mother this summer to visit the school, teach classes, and distribute the equipment purchased from fundraising.

By Kristin Zhu, sibling of our camper & partner for Cathay’s Connected World

After over 16 hours of flight over the Atlantic and Europe, on July 15th, 2018, my mother and I finally arrived in Monrovia, Liberia. Although the flight and security checks were tedious, we were welcomed with comforting smiles and hugs by our amazing hostess, Mrs. Kate Adams.

I started to learn about the school when my mother first mentioned it at home. She told me of how Dr. and Mrs. Adams returned to Liberia and founded the SAMS school in Duazon Township, Liberia to address the need for primary education and learning opportunities in the area. Knowing the necessity of a primary education, I became interested in doing something to help the school and its students. I recruited students and organized several fund-raising events. After communicating with Mrs. Adams, we decided to help strengthen the school’s STEM program by building a lab dedicated to science. We collected books and monetary donations, purchased STEM books, ordered lab equipment and downloaded school curriculum.

Although it took us three months to prepare the materials and curriculum for the week, nothing could’ve prepared me for the wonderful welcome from the staff and students. Even though it was their summer break in a rain swept season, the students came to class everyday with an eager and focused passion to learn new knowledge. Their enthusiasm to learn Math, Art, Music, Biology, Astronomy, and Geology blew me away. Even though they didn’t have WiFi and numerous other ammenities, the staff still tried their hardest to help me with presentations and aided me during my teaching sessions. Throughout the week, I learned new songs, new teaching methods, and even new shoe making methods! The kindness of the local populace along with the lovely environment the school had provided made this trip a truly remarkable experience.

The hardest part of the trip was saying goodbye. The students and the staff had also prepared an incredible farewell ceremony. While hugging the students, teachers, and staff, I couldn’t help but remember the beautiful experiences we had. We sang together, laughed together, and we learned together. Knowing now of the incredible work of Mrs. Adams in the face of such unfavorable situations, I am inspired now to take more action on my own. In the next year, I will look forward to recruiting more students as advocates and volunteers for the SAMS school, creating new programs to assist students in need, fundraising even more to help the school provide for its students, and hopefully return to Liberia to teach the phenomenal students again.

This post was originally created for The SAMS Family Foundation

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Social Justice Has Major Benefits

The three core aims of Washington Cathay Future Center (WCFC) are to cultivate students’ artistic expression, intellectual development, and leadership potential. We feel that one of the BEST ways to contribute to this mission is through involving our community in social justice work. Social justice not only benefits those on the outside that the individual is working with or for, but it also provides for strong intellectual and emotional development for the practitioner.

Students who volunteer are more successful in school.  From having more experiences to associate texts they read and paragraphs they write, to being a better team participant in group assignments and projects, students who participate in social justice activities are better equipped to tackle classwork and project assignments. The Corporation for National & Community Service summed it up well when they wrote

Students who report doing better in school are more likely to be volunteers than students who report doing less well…

Additionally, social justice work is beneficial to student’s emotional and physical health. Students who volunteer have an “increased sense of social responsibility”,, and a stronger understanding of injustice in the world, because they have personally connected to those they want to give back to. According to,

the benefits of volunteering in adolescence may even reduce their risk factors for cardiovascular disease.

So why not start your child as young as possible with participating in social justice activities?! We have designed the Cathay’s Connected World to actively engage our community in meaningful activities that will not only educate our community itself but will connect them to communities around the world that are committed to the same dream of providing quality education for all.

Join us April 8th for our first event:

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Education CAN Happen Outside of School

When it comes to discussions about education we often refer to the traditional school setting. We envision a classroom with a group of peers around the same age with an adult instructor guiding the students at the front of the room. And when we speak of ways to improve education, we refer to needed adjustments to our schools to enhance student performance. While it is noble to speak about improving education through the schools, a primary source for education, it ignores a plethora of other ways and places that students learn.

For many students mastering of a subject happens outside the school classroom. New experiences, unique interactions, and life situations provide for valuable education. Whether through impromptu learning opportunities throughout life or in planned informal educational experiences, the students gain richer understanding of the subject at hand. Life-long learning, the information that we gather and utilize throughout life typically happens in the informal settings.

These nontraditional settings that support a culture of learning are the key to providing learning opportunities that may not be available in the classroom. Not all students learn the same and not all learning objectives can be covered and comprehended in a traditional classroom, thus alternative learning opportunities should be provided to students who require alternative leaning styles. Valuable teachable moments, individualized and personalized leaning can be found in a learning center, such as Cathay Future, that will not only support the everyday classroom initiatives but advance core skills.


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New Years Resolutions; a Perfect Moment to Set Expectations!

By Staci Mathura, Language Arts Instructor

It’s hard to believe, but we have swiftly exchanged autumn leaves for snow, and 2018 is here. As we celebrate the joys of this holiday season and enter the New Year, many adults choose to begin with a fresh start and new goals to tackle. As an educator, talking about resolutions with my students is a perfect time to set expectations for the upcoming year and teach them to constantly set new objectives. It also gives parents the opportunity to build confidence with achievable goals and for kids to become mindful about the good habits they want to create and accomplishments they strive toward achieving.

So how do we begin to utilize this time of year to have kids set and keep their goals in mind? Experts rightly suggest keeping it positive. Start by going over the things your kids accomplished last year that made you both proud. Did they get straight A’s? Did he or she win an award? Did your kid learn to tie his or her shoe laces on their own? No matter how big or small the success it’s important to acknowledge their hard work and build upon the goals optimistically.  “Instead of pointing out shortcomings, be the historian of their previous successes,” Christine Carter, Ph.D., author of Raising Happiness: 10 Simple Steps for More Joyful Kids and Happier Parents. Dr Carter says “Point to the bright spot where they’re doing something well.”

Once you’ve reminded your child of the awesome things they have achieved in the past year, you have successfully set the stage to discuss what they would like to work on in the year ahead. Ask questions like “What would you like to improve? What is new a skill you’d like to learn? Is there something you could do better or differently?” This discussion will allow students to brainstorm and self assess their possible objectives. Be sure to be specific in their goal setting so as to keep a measurable benchmark of success.

Certainly kids need a little guidance. It would be helpful to suggest some broad categories such as personal goals, helping goals, and school goals and let the child fill in the specifics. If they draw a blank, you could offer some examples, such as being nicer to siblings, help out more at home or raise a grade in a class that may be challenging. You may even motivate your child by setting a family resolution that you can all accomplish together like volunteering, reading a book together as a family or even going for hikes or biking together. When this is accomplished it is important to celebrate the success and discuss the awesome feeling of checking off that goal from the list.

Some final suggestions on helping your child to set goals is to have them jot down a final list of their resolutions in a journal, or keep it up on the fridge where they can be reminded of it often. The list should not be too long as to overwhelm the student, and remember to remain motivating and optimistic when discussing their resolutions. Lastly follow through with the resolutions that you make in order to model the habits you want to see as well as the outcome you want your child to achieve. Lastly it is necessary to periodically check in on your child’s progress on their goals. Too often adults conveniently forget their New Year resolutions, but we like to teach commitment and follow through, so  gently remind the child and motivate them to succeed in the objectives throughout the year.

As we complete this semester, gather to celebrate the holiday festivities and enter the new year, I hope educators and parents alike give the opportunity to students to make resolutions for themselves. The ultimate objective is for them to develop healthy academic and personal habits that will create a lifelong impact.

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Tis’ the Season to be Unique

Around the holiday season classrooms and homes are riddled with festive construction paper décor, the occasional pompom attached, all projects looking essentially the same. On Halloween a perfectly round jack-o-lantern with triangle eyes or black bat, a hand turkey for Thanksgiving, a red or green ornament meant for a tree, or a perfectly piled white snowman for winter. It is tempting for parents and instructors alike to utilize follow the instructor, “cookie-cutter” craft projects” (Cheryl Trowbridge, Teach Kids Art) with children.

Programs that conduct these step by step projects, do not fully develop the creative and artistic ability of the student and while the finished work may be wonderful home décor, these lessons are actually creativity and individuality killers. Several successful art schools thrive on individuality killers, touting success based on the finished product. However, we believe that a strong educational program, particularly an art program, is one that helps each student to fully express their unique selves.

Our goal is to celebrate the joy of individuality at the same time as we celebrate the holidays. Because as Avraham Aderet, a scholar, said,

“Each person has a unique value that does not stem from socio-economic standing or talents and abilities; rather, from being a human being that bears from birth a divine spark that is unique, a spark which was thrust upon on by the authority of the rule of consequence, and which one is responsible for EXPRESSING and actualizing in one’s short life.”

There is no better way for a person to express their “divine spark” than through one of a kind art.  And perhaps, the holidays, a time typically spent with loved ones, is the best time to celebrate the uniqueness of each person and how they contribute to each of our lives.

If you are looking for a quality art education program join us at the Washington Cathay Future Center for visual arts classes that enhance artistic skill and creativity and adapt the lessons to meet the needs of the individual.

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Teaching Gratitude (Just in Time for Thanksgiving)

By Staci Mathura, Language Arts Instructor

Teachers always rely on lesson planning to map out what students learn throughout the year, but sometimes there are these unplanned opportunities that arise where teachers get to offer insight that has nothing to do with the curriculum, but about life lessons.  Sometimes a kid has a bad day, sometimes there is a national event or tragedy in their lives, or sometimes they have a question about navigating the world, where teachers have to give pause and address that. These are precious and magical instances where teachers extend learning and engage students on a humanist level.

When I taught in the inner city, most kids were faces with unimaginable hardships and there were many challenges to engage them academically. Thinking back, some of the most meaningful moments were the teachable moments where I got to connect with students and I would be able to build trust and rapport. One activity that I was able to connect to the students was in their journal notebooks where I had them incrementally complete a ‘Gratitude List’ of all the things they were thankful for. It was great to share this list with each other because it showed that no matter what was going on in our lives we all had something to appreciate and we had someone to be grateful for. Kids soon learned that when we focus on the good things, the tough times became easier to get through, and they learned to think optimistically. The optimism had a positive impact on the classroom, thus increasing academic performance.I often think about how I could further these lessons instead of waiting for teachable moments, and when I did some research and lesson planning I was able to find some fun writing activities (such as practicing writing letters and thank you notes) as well as role playing activities (which was great for public speaking and building confidence) to integrate into our learning. This time of year is perfect for a teachable moment in gratitude, but these are some activities you can try at home any time of the year to put some ‘gratitude into your kids’ attitude!’

  1. Thank-you notes.When young kids receive gifts, they should be create and send a thank-you picture (if they can’t write as ye) or a short note to practice correspondence skills.
  2. Be polite. Role-play with your kid’s favorite toy or stuffed animal to practice saying “thank you.” You can model etiquette for your child so they know when to say thanks without being prompted.
  3. Your daily top 3. At dinner or bedtime, take turns sharing the three best things about your day. It will engage your family in a positive daily ritual.
  4. Make a gratitude jar. Fill it with short handwritten notes of gratitude (“I’m thankful we won the big game!” or, “I’m grateful Grandpa came to visit.”). Pick a special time to pull out notes at random and read them aloud.
  5. Celebrate your year & milestones. Every major milestone or birthday, make a list of things you are grateful for that year. A 5-year-old can think of five things to list, while a 10-year-old can manage at least 10.
  6. Thank a teacher. Send a handwritten note to let her or him know how much their efforts make a difference.
  7. Volunteer. Think of a food pantry, animal shelter or even your local church, where you can give your time and try to make it a regular commitment.

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Experiential Learning – What We’re All About

By Staci Mathura, Language Arts Instructor

“There is an intimate and necessary relation between the processes of actual experience and education.”  (John Dewey 1938)

As an educator and avid researcher of pedagogy, I’ve used many tried and true techniques to engage a range of learning styles. However one of my preferred approaches to engaging students is through the concept of ‘Experiential Learning,” whereby a student learns by a hands on approach, a direct experience or even through observation. Studies have shown that this method has tremendous benefits for the learner and give teachers creative opportunities to enhance the curriculum. As we know, each student has an individual learning style, so where one child can easily grasp a concept in writing, another’s learning style necessitates an actual sensory experience to connect and apply the concept to the real world.

Experiential learning is a model based on the fundamentals of renowned educational theorist John Dewey who wrote about the benefits of experiential education almost a century ago. Dewey advocates for progressive methods to have an experiential component and not rely on content based styles. He argues that by focusing only on content, it eliminates the opportunity for students to develop their own opinions based on interaction with the information. Furthermore the practice of creating hands on learning opportunities enhances learning and creates an invaluable transformative moment for the learner.

While it is undoubtedly important for students to grasp academic concepts through traditional learning and classic methodologies in classroom, it is impactful to create opportunities for concrete experiences. This gives students the opportunity to actively engage in their learning process, and apply the concepts to real world experiences. When teachers create opportunities for students to learn through experiences, they are able to react to new sensory situations, observe and reflect on the experience though direct participation and apply abstract ideas to real world situations.

In my teaching career I have been fortunate to give my students best practices in the classroom as well as outside the class walls so they can absorb and engage with academic concepts in a variety of methods.  I have found that not only had the learning experiences made positive impacts on pedagogy, but it created unforgettable moments between the students and teacher.  For instance I have done hands on lessons that were visually or tacitly focused, I have taken teenage students on local college tours, to volunteer in the community,  to Chicago for a choir festival and even abroad to Paris and Lisbon! Whether the experiential lesson was a small curriculum modification or an international trip, they connected the abstract concept form the classroom to a real and genuine experience for the learner.

Here are some ways that Experiential learning can be beneficial to your child:

  1. Accelerates Learning
    Experiential Learning methodology uses critical thinking, problem solving and decision making to accelerate learning through hands on and concrete experiences. Concepts that are learned in the texts can now be applied in real life scenarios.
  2. Provides a Safe Learning Environment
    Taking kids into nature, to museums or even to a restaurant and getting them to have fun will encourage them to try new things while they learn in a safe controlled environment.
  3. Bridges the Gap Between Theory and Practice
    By giving learners opportunities to apply text based information in the real world allows them to interact and test out abstract ideas, thus allowing them to retain and build upon concepts and ideas.
  4. Increases Engagement

When students are encouraged to explore and apply their knowledge, they are able to interact with the world in an academic mindset, therefore every new experience becomes a teachable moment and opportunity to absorb information.

  1. Enables Individualized Learning
    To enable personalized learning, the teacher should modify the curriculum to creatively engage the visual, auditory and tactile strengths of her students. The best way to encapsulate all of these learning styles as well as encourage learning is by creating opportunities for students to learn and apply the concepts to real experiences.

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Fostering a Love of Writing and Nurturing a Strong Reader

By Staci Mathura, Language Arts Instructor

In the book The Magical Child, author Joseph Pearce explains  “The child can never learn to play without the parent playing with the child. Play … is a huge creative potential built within the child, which never develops unless it is stimulated by the adult model, the parent.

I’ll tell you a secret, I was not always fond of reading!

That is almost sacrilegious coming from an English Professor, instructor and researcher, but it is the truth. Over time I had to learn to become a lover of books, and appreciate them for enjoyment rather than for rote information. Thankfully my parents always had books, magazines and newspapers around the house for us to read so there was no excuse to say “I’m bored.” I would choose a story for my parents to read to before bed, and on our way to school I would read the newspaper aloud to my mom as she drove. Sometimes at school I would shock my teachers with my advanced vocabulary from reading these materials. At the dinner table my family would discuss current headlines or literary topics, which engaged me further in world news.

My mother worked across the street from the New York City Pubic Library, where she got me my own library card as soon as I was old enough. In my teens I would spend an hour or so there while I waited for her, after my classes and after-school activities.  In this time I began to explore the library, talk to the librarians about various genres and quickly I realized that I loved being there so much that working in the library became my first ever summer job. Soon enough I began to develop writing skills that I would eventually use a cathartic device in my private journals and ultimately in college, and now in writing my dissertation.

As an educator of over twelve years, I know personally that teachers are under immense pressure from districts to cover a stringent curriculum, raise test scores and produce college ready learners. While this is necessary for academic purposes, systematic rigor of the general curriculum leaves little room for stimulating a child’s creativity. However a love of reading and written expression can easily be nurtured at home, which thus creates healthy study habits and lifelong skills. Similar to the personal examples I’ve shared above, there are simple reading and writing engagement practices that can be fun for parents and students alike that will have a lifelong impact on the learner. Parents are immense assets to learning and the key to stimulating the child’s creative potential outside of school.

If you are a parent who’s child struggles with writing and reading at home, these are just a few ways you can integrate these necessary skills into fun activities that you can experience together. Most importantly, parents are the ultimate role model and learning coach who can encourage a child’s imagination and spark their written communication of those ideas.

Journals, Scrap books or Chromebooks

Pick a medium that your kid enjoys using the most and have them paste fun pictures, doodles and illustrations as they write. Start with a brief sentence about their day or a fun writing prompt and incrementally increase the amount of writing every week.

Make it a game and not a chore

Pick books to read and topics to discuss that your child enjoys. Whether its about daily activities, dinosaurs, sports or movies, your kid has an interest and an opinion to share. Talk through the ideas, ask questions and listen to their answers and opinion. Time them to see how much they can ‘free write’ in their journals

Curate a robust lexicon

Build a strong vocabulary! Have your child record a new word they learned every week in their journal. Maybe practice using it in a sentence, or implement it into their weekly writing. This will have a profound impact on raising reading levels.

Designate writing time and reading time

Whether it’s a few times a week before breakfast or before bedtime, carve out a space for reading and written expression. One good method is to time your child and see how much they can accomplish.

Reading or Creative writing nook

Most kids have a space where homework and tasks are completed. However have them pick a comfortable space, grab a snack and allow them to read and write in a where they feel at ease. Don’t you love curling up with a book on the couch or in bed? Your kid has a favorite spot where they can tap into their creative potential!

Your kid is hilarious, witty, sarcastic…

Let your child naturally develop their writing ‘voice’ or tone. Many of my students are admittedly hilarious and keep me laughing with their natural comedic sense. Soon you will see their unique personality reflected in their writing style.

Be a connoisseur not a critic

We know you are your child’s biggest fan! Journals are known to be private, so don’t force them to reveal their inner musings. But if your child chooses to share written creations with you, make sure to give lots of praise and encouragement. Ask enthusiastic questions to convey your engagement in their topic and don’t be critical about their grammar.

As an educator and now an enrichment instructor, there is so much I can do to academically serve the needs of my students. Remember parents, you are the critical element in assisting your child’s development of strong reading habits and for nurturing written expression skills outside of the classroom walls. You play a pivotal part of cultivating their love of reading and writing, so please encourage your child to pick up a book and a pencil and let those creative ideas flow!

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Go Where Imagination Takes You

Prior to instructing art at the Washington Cathay Future Center (WCFC) and in Public Schools, I was the unlikely painting companion to a 91-year-old woman named Charlotte.  Most Saturdays, for over a year, Charlotte and I sat side by side and created works of art. We not only painted together, but we also discussed techniques and critiqued each other’s works. Her critiques were sometimes harsher than mine, but I guess you can be a bit unfiltered when you are in your 90s!

The time I spent with Charlotte generated some of the most uninhibited and meaningful art-making of my life that has brought me to a dedication to visual art education at the WCFC.

“The discourse transformed the art.”

We’d talk about her trip she took to Mexico when she was in her early 20s, a story she often forgets that she already told me twenty times, and suddenly she selects brighter paint colors and her brush strokes become a bit more active. I learned that art making can be a lot more fruitful in a social setting where artists can discuss and look at each others ideas.

But I haven’t always felt this level of creative freedom and connection to my artwork.  In college, I felt stifled by my professors’ limited definition of what it means to create art in the 21st century.  I felt like they expected all works to be abstract and scoffed at anything representational that involved traditional subject matter – still lives, landscapes, and portraiture. As a result, I created works that I neither understood nor valued.  During critiques, I disagreed with my peers’ interpretations of my work, but couldn’t offer a more accurate interpretation. Painting and interpreting my art felt more like a cumbersome task only to be attempted with a guiding hand. This was definitely a class style I hope to avoid.

One evening I went to a celebration connected to the camp I attended since I was young. The celebration happened to be at the house of Charlotte’s daughter, Sandy.  Sandy expressed her concern that her mother, once a prolific artist, now a victim of depression and dementia, had not painted in a decade. Sandy suggested having a visit with Charlotte to see if Charlotte was interested in working with me. I met with Charlotte the next week over lunch and we have been connected creatively and emotionally ever since.  On the weekends I painted the still lives, figures, and landscapes I love with her, which has helped me return to a similar subject matter in my own artwork and to inspire students to select the subject matter that is right for them.

When I started working with Charlotte, I thought my art would evolve to have a specific style.  But watching Charlotte create her art now, and comparing what she has done in past weeks, to 30 years ago when she was in her 60s, and even before that, has taught me that making art is a constantly evolving process, with no specific end point. Just like my students, I have to keep taking art lessons and working on my craft.

“I have to just go where my imagination takes me and help my students to do the same.”

Melissa Eisen is a programs manager at the Washington Cathay Future Center in Rockville, MD. In her spare time she continues to create her own personal art work that can be found at

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Raising Honest Children In The 21st Century

A core value we hope to impart to our children is to not lie; no matter the circumstance, honesty is key to being successful. Right after family, honesty is one of the first values we emphasize to our little ones.

Unfortunately, in this 21st century age of internet, it is easier than ever for people to confidently lie with little repercussion to themselves personally. Users can lie, cheat, steal, etc. anonymously or under the guise of a character, without others knowing their name. The internet has become an integral tool for introverts in particular to communicate and in some cases live life. But it isn’t the only outlet for this expression and it definitely isn’t the healthiest.

Luckily it doesn’t sit entirely on the shoulders of parents to create another generation of honest individuals.

“One need not look further than a public speaking classroom or a visual art studio to see a place for children to confidently be their most authentic selves.”

In public speaking students learn and build upon skills to formulate and communicate ideas. Even the quietest of children can develop and support their own arguments. Teaching students to search for the facts provides a platform for them to not only tell the truth, but to have the truth supported by reputable sources. Visual art is another tool that can help visual communicators accomplish the same goals. When it is difficult to speak about emotions or how events have impacted us, an art class allows a child to represent themselves and formulate their message.

And for children who still love make believe, there is always performing arts. Acting can be a great way to play out scenarios and emotions in a structured environment. Definitely a safer environment than the internet.

Remember to use support where you can to help your children develop into the upstanding individuals we and you hope for them to be.