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Broken, but not bad!

Like looking back and seeing your footprints in the sand is sometimes the only way to see where you’ve been, looking back is sometimes the only way you realise you were broken.

There is a danger of course, to look back, see the brokenness and judge it as being bad. But that would be wrong. In this case, I look back and see good times. Times where I was challenged. Times where I was strengthened through the difficulties I was facing. Strengthened through the constraints of a situation that forced me to assess the what-nexts and the then-whats and the but-thens.

With a new perspective, and the ability to turn around and metaphorically “look back”, I can now see that it was a time of brokenness, where I questioned if my judgements, the judgements that I had confidently made in the past, would indeed pass close scrutiny. But again, not a bad time.

I wonder, without this time of brokenness, would I feel so “whole” at this moment? Is this present feeling of completeness only possible because when I look back I can see so clearly the times where parts were missing? Is it the contrast of the then, to the now, that amplifies this feeling. Or maybe even produces it!

It brings me back yet again to the principle of balance that is so important for me. Yet another case of knowing the light is bright because we have fumbled in the darkness.

So I will enjoy the light. Now, being in the light, I can recognise the darkness of my recent past. It is neither good, nor bad. Without one I cannot have the other.

Broken, but not bad.

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A fence, a 9th grader, and pride!

Email: (from a HS Math teacher to the 2nd grade teacher and myself) 

Thought I would brighten your mornings with part of a reflection from a kid who has said all year how he hates school and finds every subject boring… “That I got to make my own fences…It felt really good and I felt proud of my self”

Apart from making my day/week, this little snippet has been playing on my mind. 

The 9th grade student who shared this reflection has been working with his class and the 2nd graders to design and build a picket fence. It is going to run along the perimeter of the Grade 2 kitchen garden. The 9th graders are working on Geometry, design, cost analysis and construction. The 2nd graders are working on perimeter and area, volume (of water when watering the plants), measurement (as the plants grow) and graphing (all the data they gather during the growing). The Art teacher will use the fence as a canvas for the Grade 2 students to decorate, illuminate, illustrate. I’m taking part as the Woodworking teacher, utilising the skills I learned in high school (and have refined ever since) to help build the fence.

That this 9th grader should highlight the building of a fence as a source of pride is funny on one level, and deeply significant on another.

“Why?” Is the question I am asking myself! What is it about this activity that has resonated for this student in a way that (seemingly) nothing else has?

Is it the fact that he/she is building something? Is it the sense of accomplishment having designed the fence, cut up the timber to create the pieces, drilled the holes and assembled it all? Is it that he/she is working with the 2nd graders and contributing to their learning? Is it that he/she is not sitting at a desk staring at a whiteboard of death by Google Slides? Is it that he/she is getting dirty, getting splinters, risking the amputation of fingers in the power tools, wearing safety goggles and generally making a lot of noise and banging things with big hammers? Is it none of this? Or is it all of this?

Or is it because this is different to what he/she has sat through every day, in every class since August 15 last year?

I intend to find out.

Because once I know, I will let his/her teachers know. And then, they can try to use that piece of information to change the way they teach him/her so that every day, he/she can reflect that his/her learning felt great and that he/she felt proud.

If our students cannot honestly share a reflection like this every day then we need to be doing a better job! Our students should not be coming to school to be bored!

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Do You Need To Change Anything?

Being a BIG proponent of reflecting, I asked everyone to complete a short survey reflecting on our recent Symposium II day of PD. Overall, the responses were positive, but like anything, you can’t please everyone.

Being completely anonymous, the responses were quite candid. One respondent answered, “It was nice to have a wide range of choices. I enjoyed learning with other teachers who I normally don’t have chance to hang around with.” to the What-went-well question. This was balanced by a What-could-improve answer – “Encourage inclusiveness vs. cliques by having beople [sic] work with those who are not in their regular social circles.”

There were some very positive comments – “The workshops offered were interesting, fun, and engaging. They helped us to get out of our comfort zone and learn things that we wanted to learn. It was also nice to be able to put on a workshop about something that we enjoy. Seeing other peoples’ talents also helped me to appreciate and admire the staff more as well.”

Some a little critical (from the What-could-be-improved question) – “Making sure that all teachers went to the sessions. I know of one teacher who skipped out and did grading instead of attending one of the sessions :(. It would be good to make sure all teachers are involved all day.”

And some very critical – “The creativity and fun aspect of the day is certainly a plus. But I question whether “remember what it’s like to be a learner” is a significant enough of a goal to spend an entire day this way. I wonder if the goal were something like “learning about other subjects with the goal of integrating,” it could lead to more valuable learning while maintaining the creative aspects. Then if we have sessions on art and dance and movie making and photography, teachers can learn those skills to better help students develop them and use them in their science and English and Korean and math classes. It might provide a better focus for choosing and developing sessions. And it might result in a bigger impact on teaching and learning. Also, it would have been really helpful if you had asked teachers their opinion about how to spend all three PD days AHEAD of time. Teachers really should be playing an integral role in the planning process of every single PD day at this school.”

My experience in developing these sorts of programs for faculty and staff across a number of different international schools over the past 15 years has led me to know that this range of opinions is expected, and even more importantly, is essential.

As an administrator it is important to know how things can be improved, what worked really well and that some colleagues felt the day was a waste of time. It is important to hear that the value I see in devoting a whole day to professional learning is shared by most, but not by all.

My (possibly controversial) reflection is this…

At it’s core, “Teaching” is about “Learning”. You cannot be a great teacher if you are not a great learner. We spend a lot of time (comparatively) learning about teaching (as expert learners), and in the process learn very little! (Generally, not a lot of our fundamental teaching practices change after a conference or a workshop!) We spend very little time (comparatively) learning about learning. This day of learning was designed in the hope that we would experience what being a NOVICE learner was like again. Because that’s what it is like for your students – EVERY day! Maybe EVERY lesson in a given day! Adults are rarely NOVICE learners. And even more rarely do they spend an entire school day being a NOVICE learner.

Before you begin to teach today, consider what it will feel like as a student to sit in your classroom to LEARN today. Do you need to change anything?

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Becoming a NOVICE LEARNER for a day!

Yesterday, after some careful planning and logistical tap-dancing, our full faculty enjoyed a home-grown professional learning day focused on passions. Teachers were invited to offer presentations on something they were passionate about to their colleagues.

Here’s the list of what we had to choose from:

  • iMovie Basics
  • Planning and Integrated Inquiry Unit
  • Sharing gratitude
  • Maximizing SmartBoard use with Notebook Software
  • Introduction to Lego Robotics
  • Cooking: Chinese Dumplings
  • Supportive and Investigative Teaching
  • Woodshop – Build yourself a stand!
  • Learn to Tie Asian Knots
  • Basic Drawing & Shading
  • Coaching the Mental Game
  • Tech-Infused Formative Assessment
  • EAL Resource Website
  • Strength training and conditioning
  • Photography 101
  • Cooking: Unrefined Sweets
  • Fitness Room 101 – Strength and Resistance Training for Beginners
  • Photoshop Basics
  • Let’s Bboy (and Bgirl)
  • Juggling 101  
  • Pumping Up Our Reading Culture
  • Jazz Dance Routine

It was one of the best days of Professional Learning I have participated in in nearly 25 years of working in schools!

For the first time this year, every teacher in the building was truly transported into the role of the student. The NOVICE learner. The student who truly knows very, very little about the topic and is expected to listen, learn and demonstrate their understanding at the end of the day.

There was struggle! For the life of me I just could not fold those Chinese dumplings right. Too much filling. Not enough filling. Clumsy fingers. Ugly Jiaozi!

There were teachers who for the first time were donning protective eyewear as they ran lengths of timber through a table saw. Noise. Fear. Danger. Sawdust. Triumph! The look of satisfaction on the faces of those same teachers who left with a wooden creation of their own making was so inspiring!

There were teachers who had always wished they could juggle but had never taken the time to try, standing up at the end of the day performing feats of juggling for their peers! The balls were dropping left right and centre but the smiles were so big that everyone in the audience cheered!

And there were teachers breakdancing. Yep, BREAKDANCING!

The juggling was led by an English teacher. The Woodworking was led by the Elementary Principal. The Fitness Conditioning was led by the Kindergarten teacher. The Jazz Dance was led by a Korean teacher. The Lego Robotics was led by the Biology teacher. The Breakdancing was led by the Chaplain!

It was truly inspiring to see so many of my colleagues stand in front of their peers and teach something they truly love doing, that previously we had no idea they knew anything about. I mean, a breakdancing Chaplain!!!

So what are the takeaways from the day???

  • Any school can run a day like this – your colleagues have secret talents!
  • For a teacher, becoming a NOVICE LEARNER for a day is a very, very valuable perspective shift
  • Our culture of learning just received an enormous boost
  • Professional learning is as much about “the act of learning” as it is about what is learned
  • Smiles. Everyone left smiling!

 

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How Hard Is It? Really.

As an international educator, there is one phrase more than all others that invokes fear. “Recruiting!”

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Those of us who have run the gamut a few times remember with fondness the excitement of the first job fair. The thrill of donning a suit and tie, tucking your CV’s under your arm and lining up at tables advertising Argentina or Israel or Laos or Japan. We remember that excitement. Vaguely.

By the time you hit job fair number three, that excitement has turned to something else. Like having a toothache and knowing there is an inevitable dentist visit on the horizon. Drill. Suction. Spit.

It almost becomes a second job during the months of August, September, October and November. Updating the CV, writing the philosophy statement, getting a decent looking photo, writing the cover letter. Then there’s the job listings. Getting up every morning to check the job openings. Yelling back to your spouse, “How about Ethiopia?” or “What about Kuwait?” or “Where the hell is Bokchovia?”

When the decision to give Bokchovia a shot is made, then comes the research and the application. Find the website. Read the mission statement. What curriculum do they run? How big is it? WHERE is it? How cold does it get? What is the governance structure? Is that really the uniform!!!!

Then comes the cover letter. What is the focus…??? Mission statement? Strategic plan? Me? The fact that I speak Bokchovian? Maybe the fact that I love Bokchovian beer???

It is HARD work. Time consuming work. Done BEFORE and AFTER work. And in the quest to be employed in 10 months time, it is done again and again and again and again and again. To Bokchovia, Japan, South Africa, South Korea, North Korea (I’ll go anywhere!), the Southern Hemisphere (almost every school in it!!!!).

And then… you wait.

And you wait.

And you  w  a  i  t.

And you   w   a   i   t

And you     w     a     i     t.

andifyouareluckyyougetaresponse. From one school.

One. Single. School.

Bokchovia sends an automated response, “Thank you for your application.”

Immediately, because you haven’t heard from any other schools (and you’ve begun discussing a “sabbatical year” with your spouse), you start imagining yourself in Bokchovia. Speaking Bokchovian. Drinking Bokchovian beer. You head back to the school website and start imagining yourself in the classrooms and the lunch room. You search YouTube for anything from Bokchovia. You find “Bokchovia’s Got Talent 2014” and spend 23 minutes and 15 seconds (that you will NEVER get back) learning that this is the place for you. Over lunch with your colleagues (the ones you will be leaving) you mention you might be going to Bokchovia. They nod, eyebrows raised. They’ve never heard of it.

And then, as a few more responses come in your colleagues retreat to eat somewhere else because they are tired of hearing where you might go. You become the world expert on which countries have talent and which don’t.

Eventually, if the planets align, the automated response is followed by a request for a Skype interview, which leads to a second Skype interview, then a face-to-face meeting at a job fair and then an offer and a contract. You check the country is still financially sound and politically stable, and sign. Done.

But what about all those schools you applied to and never heard diddly-squat from?

They should have their accreditation revoked, their Superintendent/Headmaster/Director removed and fined a bazillion Bokchovian gringotts!

That’s right! Revoked. Removed. A BAZILLION!!!!

I mean, how hard is it?

How hard is it to automatically send a message to each applicant to say thank you.

Thank you… for taking the time to consider our school and reading through our website. For carefully writing a letter telling us how much you are interested in working for us and for sharing how you think you would be able to help the school grow and develop. Thank you for sharing with us everything there is to know about your professional life and thank you for putting it all in a single PDF file not exceeding 450MB!

With the FREE technology available today, that, “Thank You for considering Bokchovia International School” email is possible to do AUTOMATICALLY! And again, just to press the point, for FREE!

And yet… in my recent experience, less than 25% of all the schools I applied to replied. Nothing. Nada. Zero. Silence. Is there anybody out there?

Image Source: https://media.giphy.com/media/11Wgk9iQJ36hdS/giphy.gif

If you are an administrator at an international school, please realise that the reputation of your school is built on shifting sand. It takes a lot of effort to make it steady and next to nothing to see it come crashing down. Take the time to set up a system that recognises each applicant for their efforts in applying to your school. It is not difficult. It is not expensive. It is a cheap investment.

At the end of my fourth recruiting journey I have been impressed by the schools that responded. Most were automated responses. Some gave the impression of being a real person. One was really real and thanked me for thanking them for the thank you.

I was not impressed by the schools from which I received no response!

Schools are all about communication, and recruiting is the first taste of what’s to come.

How hard is it? Really.

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Are we teaching the “love of” the the, or just the “the”?

In my office, on a small desk covered with Star Wars minifigures, a rubics cube and some Hot Wheels cars you will also find my 4th grade class photo. I’m the smallish blonde boy in the middle row, fourth from the left. At the other end of the row is Mrs Paterson. She is the reason the photo sits on my desk thirty-six years later.

I don’t really remember much about what I learned in fourth grade. As an elementary teacher of many years myself I can guess what was covered, and while it might be interesting, it’s not important. What I can remember is the way Mrs Paterson made me feel about being in her class.

She had high standards. She challenged me. She believed that I could do it.

At a recent conference I sat and listened to Sir John Jones talk about the way schools should be. Amongst his humour were some truisms that all educators need to be thinking deeply about. One was, “Google can teach you history. Only teachers can teach you the LOVE of history!”

Like most other schools around the world, I urge my teachers to “address the standards” when they teach. “Follow UbD when you plan,” I say. “Start with the standards. Design the assessment. Build the plan.”

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But in my fifteen years of co-planning with teachers, I have never come across a standard addressing teaching the “love” of something. I’ve never asked a teacher to add a row in a rubric to read,”demonstrates a love of calculus”, or writing, or painting or long division. And as I ponder this, I am wondering how to address this absence.

If the role of a teacher is to teach a “love of” something, be it physics or reading or history or simply (but not so simply) learning, where do we start? Where do we put all the effort in and how to we know if we’ve accomplished it? Can we use the final grade as a measure? Or is it less quantitative and more qualitative? Is it the number of students who choose to follow that subject as a career path? Is it the number of smiles on faces I see in classrooms as I walk through the building? Or is it the waiting list of students eager to get into a particular class with a particular teacher?

Mrs Paterson was my fourth-grade teacher and she is the one who taught me a “love of” something. She did it by challenging me, expecting I was able and caring for me as I made my attempts and failed.

Maybe it is that simple. Maybe it is that and a bit more. Maybe what was right for Mrs Paterson is different for you and I. Who knows?

As a school administrator, I don’t have the answer. I know when a teacher has it and I can see when a teacher doesn’t. I can give examples of it. I can attest to the importance of it. I can urge those without it to develop it.

If you are a teacher, how are you developing in students the “Love Of” your subject?

 

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Change the practice by changing the words!

George Couros is a thought provoking educator whose blog is a daily read for me. His post of today titled, “5 Terms We Need To Rethink In Education” has inspired me to write (which is one of the main reasons I read blogs!).

In his post, George asks us to rethink the terms we use in education, to unpack the perception of their meaning and the possibility of what they SHOULD mean. I agree completely, and write to extend the thinking.

My proposition is that our educational reality is strongly shaped by the words we choose to use. Let me illustrate.

A few years ago I was tasked with leading a K-12 school, which had not previously considered itself a “K-12” school. It had always had a Kindergarten program, elementary grade levels, middle school classes and a high school. It was lead by a Director, an Elementary Principal and a Secondary Principal. But they had been “Divisional” principals. The culture had never been K-12.

So upon my arrival, with the leadership structure changing to include a K-12 Principal, I changed the words.

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We began to use the word “sub-school” instead of “division”. There was no longer an elementary division, or a middle school division or a high school division. We deliberately chose words to reinforce the thinking required to build a K-12 culture. We referred to the elementary sub-school, the middle school subschool, and the high school sub-school. A little bit wordy, but important. Now in year three of making that seemingly simple change, we are almost at the point where the word “division” is no longer used. Almost!

We also discussed the idea of banning the word “homework”! Not banning the activity of homework, but banning the word “homework” to describe the activity of doing school work at home. Instead, I was suggesting the terms “preview” and “review” be used. The ensuing discussion was one of the most animated, charged, emotional, informative, full-participation discussions I have ever experienced in a faculty meeting! Just to change a word!!!

A school-wide blanket ban of the word “homework” was a bridge too far for the present faculty, but a number of faculty members DID rename their school-work-at-home and reflected that it did result in some changes in their practice.

As George prompts us to reimagine or rethink what the words we use in education mean, I am prompting you to be very critical when choosing which ones you will use. Words are very powerful influencers of practice.

What practices in your school or classroom can you change by changing the words you use to describe them?

 

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Where have the brave educators gone?

I have spent the last few days at the annual EARCOS Leadership conference. It has been an opportunity to sit and think, prompted by the thoughts of others. Listening to the various keynote presentations, small sessions and lunch table banter has given me much to consider. And yet now, as I sit awaiting a plane to fly me back to the educational reality of my international school in South Korea, I am despondent.

Very little of what I have been hearing has sat me up in my seat, opened my eyes wider or raised my eyebrows. The feeling of frustration has been slowly growing.

We are in the sixteenth year of the 21st century. As we talk about the need to be teaching 21st-century skills there are heads nodding, as if to say, “Hmm, good idea. I hadn’t thought of that!” Others take notes (twe-nty-fir-st-cen-tury-ski-lls…). Most silently wonder, “What ARE the 21st-century skills???”

The opening keynote of the conference was met with resounding approval over the break-time coffee and cupcakes. “Great stuff!” “A good thought provoking message!” “Makes you think, doesn’t it!”

And it was that last comment that did make me think. It made me think that I’ve been hearing the same or similar stuff for quite a few years and it seems that all we are doing is thinking about it. No one seems to be DOING anything about it! In three years my daughter will enter middle school. She will endure three years of that before she gets to high school, where she currently runs the risk of a high school curriculum of “stuff” designed by a group of people somewhere, taught by someone different to then sit a test designed by yet another group of someone-elses. A “just-in-case-you-need-it” bag of calculus, physics, literature, history of somewhere-considered-important and a language or two. She is going to hear people say, “you’ll need this for college” and I am going to SCREAM!

I don’t know about you, but I didn’t find college particularly difficult. Sitting in lectures and classes and submitting assignments was fairly routine. The challenges began as I stepped out of the lecture hall. Part-time jobs to earn enough money to put gas in the car and pay the bills. Looking for a place, solving the problem of not having enough hours in the day to work and study and live, relationships. Wondering if there was a job for me once I had finished with college. And maybe wondering if this whole college thing was really what I wanted to do with my life!

If you have experienced college or university (and even if you didn’t!) you can probably relate to the above description. You are probably sitting reading this smiling and nodding your head, remembering some or all of your experience of similar situations. High school didn’t teach me any of that! I had to learn most of that myself.

Why aren’t schools preparing students for that reality? Surely if we, as educators, spent our time helping our students learn how to budget, plan, identify and solve problems, communicate, empathize, manage time, critically assess, etc, etc, etc the “college” thing would be so much easier! Preparing students for the easy thing and leaving them to learn the hard stuff themselves sounds to me like we’ve got things the wrong way around.

So back to the conference…

There is agreement. Heads nodded and the room erupted with laughter as the keynote speaker suggested what teachers do is ABSURD! “Teaching”, he said. “The only time we ask someone a question to which we already know the answer!” He illustrated the absurdity with an example and there is more laughter. Tomorrow, those thousand laughing school administrators and teachers will return to schools where tens of thousands of teachers will be replicating the absurdity they just scoffed at – and doing NOTHING!!!!!!!. My daughter will be one of those sitting through the absurd!!!

And I’ll sadly admit it, as a school administrator myself, I’ll be doing nothing.

The big question is, “What will it take?” In what year of the 21st century will we finally stop talking about needing to teach 21st-century skills because everyone is teaching them already? In what year of the 21st century will we stop saying we are “preparing them for college” because we understand the more critical need to prepare them for the life they experience as they step out of our classroom today (which will do a better job of preparing them for college anyway!)?

I don’t know the answers to some of the questions I have raised above, but I do know it will take some bravery. Some stepping out. Some willingness to stand up and say no. Some willingness to disagree. Some willingness to challenge and be challenged.

Where have all the brave educators gone?

 

 

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How would you change?

I am reading an interesting book right now – Ron Ritchhart’s “Creating a Culture of Thinking: The 8 Forces we must Master to Truly Transform Our Schools” and a paragraph or two have really stimulated my thinking.

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This one has got the wheels turning with some gusto: “does the space facilitate learners’ needs to communicate, discuss, share, debate, and engage with other learners—or is it meeting only the students’ need to see the board?” It is referring to the physical layout of a classroom, and as I did a mental walk through of the school I work in I am concluding that the vast majority of the rooms are set up for the students to see the board, not talk to one another.

Which led me to wonder what would happen if teachers came to school one day to find the board had been removed, the projector taken down and student desks facing each other.

What would happen?

How many would rearrange the desks, tape some chart paper up onto the wall and continue on as normal? How many would turn up in my office, unable to teach? How many would think for a minute and change what they had planned and begin a different approach?

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It was a stark reminder of the very strong connection between our physical space and the way we teach. It was a stark reminder that often times, if we are to change the way we teach, sometimes changing the space we teach in is the first step.

So if you came to school tomorrow and discovered that your whiteboard/blackboard/projector had been removed, how would you change?

 

 

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How are you asking for student voice?

When we are asked about “student voice”, and if it is able to be heard in our classrooms, it is easy to answer yes. “Students in my class talk.” “Students in my class respond to questions.”
 
But this is not what the question is really asking about!
 
Student voice is less about students making a noise and more about WHAT they are saying.
  • Do you know if your students find your classes challenging and engaging?
  • Do your students have a say in determining what they are learning?
  • Do your students have a choice in HOW they demonstrate their understandings to you and others?
  • Do you make all the decisions for your students?
These are the questions you should be asking in relation to student voice. 
 
Best practice tells us learning is improved when students have a “voice” determining the what, understanding the why, negotiating the when and deciding the how.
 
How are you asking for student voice? To read more and for some fantastic ideas, click on the image below!
 
http://www.edutopia.org/topic/student-voice