Finding SSO: Complexity for IT, Simplicity for You

By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

SSO, or Single Sign On, is something I often discuss with school leadership, teachers, parents, and students. SSO refers to the ability for users to have one login and password that gives them access to all, or the majority of, the services they use. I have achieved this, and I would like to share the path I followed.

The Scope

The scope of SSO is very important. Many people will feel they have achieved SSO if their Google Apps account connects them to a few services. I would classify this as a very limited scope.

In the SSO implementation I am suggesting, the scope is:

  1. Email and Groupware Systems/Cloud (Google Apps, Office 365, etc.)
  2. School Information Systems (For example, PowerSchool)
  3. School Wifi and LAN Network Access. Accessing the network with the single account. This prevents unauthorized users from simply using the network with a shared SSID.
  4. Login Windows for School Owned Laptops and Desktops. This means users apply the same username and password for the school hardware.
  5. Printing and copying access
  6. Additional systems such as Follet Destiny, BrainPop, etc.

With this implementation, all the core IT services on-and-off campus can use, and require, the SSO. Each user uses one username and password to connect to 90% of their resources; and they simply match their username and password on systems that may not be compliant.

For the end sure, this is a transparent process.

The Heart of the Solution

Are you a Google Apps for Education School? If the answer is ‘yes’, then the answer to true SSO is a bit more complicated. Google does not offer a traditional directory service. In order to facilitate a full SSO implementation Google schools need a middle solution.

The concept is that the middle solution has permission to access and use the Google Apps accounts. Once this is enabled, the middle solution will sync and/or translate access between services. The login will either be the username(which is the first part of the email), or the full email itself. The password is managed in the middle solution.

I do not like to promote any specific services. However, for this design I made a special agreement with a company called JumpCloud. There are other services that will do the same job, and unlike traditional methods used for SSO, these cloud based solutions are easy to migrate from in the future.

If you are not a Google Apps for Education school, then odds are you do have Office 365. Microsoft now provides most of the needed features in their Azure Cloud, using Active Directory in the Cloud. This can be free, or licensed, depending on your needs.

If you do not have Google or Office365, then you probably can use any number of Open LDAP Cloud services, or you could technically build and host your our service with Amazon.

If you notice, I am staying in The Cloud. In my experience, very few schools have the in-house talent and resources to facilitate SSO using onsite servers. They can get the services to work, but the speed and quality is no where near that of the cloud based providers. I used a self-hosted solution in China for four years, and once I was able to move off-sight, the end user experience greatly improved.

Enough of the Tech Speak

If you are not working in technology, the sections above will help you immensely in speaking with your technology leadership about SSO. However, to rebound from the monotony of SSO vocabulary and processes, I would like to take a trip through the end user experience.

A new person (employee or student) joins your school. They sit down, and they activate their GMAIL.

When the GMAIL is activated, there is a message in their inbox. They open it. The message directs them to the middle solution provider. The user re-enters their password, and confirms their email.

A few minutes later they get another email, this one is for Office 365. The user opens it, and agrees to terms or service by entering their username and password.

From this point on, that username and password are now linked to all the services, including the school owned devices and network.

The initial steps can be done for new staff before they come to the school. This is an excellent time saver, and I find that new staff like this engagement. If they make a mistake, their email will always work for them. The other services are not critical until they arrive.

The student experience is a little different. I find it is best to have an initial registration process and location for new students. In this location, the WIFI network is open.

However, after they activate, they switch to their official network, and they sign-in with their new ID. Remember, there is no anonymous access. Once implementation is over, only those who are trusted members of the school can use the same networks as students and employees.

If you want to know more about creating seamless SSO experiences, or if you would like to share your own experience, please comment or email me directly, tony.deprato@gmail.com .

Thanks for reading.

 

 

 

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Summer Maintenance Project

So at this time of the year schools often begin finalizing their summer maintenance projects, looking for ways to improve the facilities for the kids and for the teachers, and for us this year is no exception. It’s an exciting process to go through for sure, knowing that we will arrive back after the holiday to a few upgrades or builds that will enhance our day to day experience at school. The idea of course is to look critically at the current facilities, identify areas that need some attention, and then put a plan together to begin the work. It’s the same thing that we as educators should be doing every summer with ourselves…looking critically at our current practices that may need some attention or improvement, and putting together a plan so that we come back next school year as better educators for our kids and for each other. It’s all about reflection and action, and there is no better time than the summer to work on your game so to speak. I wrote a post a few years ago that speaks to this, and I want to share it again because it’s an important reminder to do some work over the next couple of months…think of it as your own personal summer maintenance project. Here’s a piece of that previous post…

With the holiday in plain sight, I want to talk briefly about taking some time over the next couple of months to reflect, and to think about the ways that you can become even better…a better educator, a better colleague, and a better person. In my opinion, the act of reflection is the most important part of learning and growing, and the summer break is the perfect time to do this. Whether it’s a personal or professional reflection, the power of looking back cannot be overstated in my opinion. Thinking about your actions, your beliefs, your attitudes toward others, your reaction to things that may not have gone your way, or even the way you see yourself (your worth, and your value to others and the world) is remarkably profound. Without reflection, the opportunity to discover or to re-discover yourself and your potential is lost.

So, as you’re sitting on the deck of your cottage, or swimming in the lake, or playing a leisurely round of golf, or even engaging in some summer professional development, I’m asking that you think about the ways that you can emerge from your well-deserved holiday a better version of yourself. What are the areas of your life, and your teaching, that need a bit of a push? Are there ways that you can enhance your lesson planning and delivery…are there ways that you can build stronger relationships with your students, particularly the ones that you find the most difficult to engage…are there ways that you can become a better teacher leader…are there ways that you can push yourself out of your comfort zone and take more risks…are there ways that you can become a better teammate and colleague…and are there ways that you can become more innovative in your approach to instruction? My bet is that the answer is yes to most if not all of these questions, and the challenge that I’m giving to you is to not just think about them, but to act on them, and come back in August armed with concrete ways to make next year the best year of your professional life.

There are too many educators out there that get so comfortable and complacent in their job that they end up delivering the same year over and over again, and the only thing that changes are the beautiful and eager faces in front of them…please don’t be that educator. Think about specific ways that you can improve upon this year, and to never deliver the same year twice. Keep the best aspects of your teaching, and stretch yourself to improve on the areas that might need some attention. Everyone has room to grow, and everyone has the opportunity to reflect, to plan, to act, and to become better. I’ve already identified a few things that I need to work on to become a better leader, and I’m excited to think critically about these over the next several weeks in order to make next year my best one to date.

So with that in mind, and with the end in sight, I want to take this opportunity to thank all of you for what you gave to our students and to our community over the past ten months. I recognize how hard you have worked to give our kids the best possible school experience, and it has been inspiring for me to watch the effort that you put into building such strong and lasting relationships with students, parents and with each other…thank you. You have made my first year at ASP a magical one, and I cannot wait for year two! Come this week full of smiles and energy, and give our amazing kids the best last week ever…summer is coming and I couldn’t be more proud of the work that we’ve done as a team over the past year. Have a wonderful final week and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Summer Sun

– Robert Louis Stevenson

Great is the sun, and wide he goes

Through empty heaven with repose;

And in the blue and glowing days

More thick than rain he showers his rays.

 

Though closer still the blinds we pull

To keep the shady parlour cool,

Yet he will find a chink or two

To slip his golden fingers through.

 

The dusty attic spider-clad

He, through the keyhole, maketh glad;

And through the broken edge of tiles

Into the laddered hay-loft smiles.

 

Meantime his golden face around

He bares to all the garden ground,

And sheds a warm and glittering look

Among the ivy’s inmost nook.

 

Above the hills, along the blue,

Round the bright air with footing true,

To please the child, to paint the rose,

The gardener of the World, he goes.

Quote of the Week…

Summer afternoon – summer afternoon; to me those have always been the two most beautiful words in the English language.

– Henry James

 

Fun Summer Video –

In Summer

 

TED Talks –

What gardening taught me about Life

Live Fearlessly, Love Hard

Draw Your Future

 

Related Articles –

Grow over the summer

Rock the summer break

Summer learning

7 Things that work year round

 

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Parts Unknown

My family thinks I’m odd. When we went to Hanoi, Vietnam in 2016, I was obsessed with going to the hole in the wall restuarant that Anthony Bourdain and President Obama ate at together. Their visit was still fresh so there were huge pictures on the wall of them and a buzz around the place. I found the table that my two favorite people in the world sat at and ordered the same meal. It was one of the most amazing moments of my life.

Everyone who has chosen the international life has a story about what inspired them to live overseas. For me, it was a combination of never feeling like I fit into my American suburban surroundings, an emotion that quickly dissipated once I joined the Peace Corps and spent three years in rural West Africa. I had, at last, found my people. Peace Corps Volunteers became my tribe, my compatriots, my soul mates. And I never turned back.

Anthony Bourdain personified that feeling and put into words and pictures the emotions I often experienced living in the world and in coming into contact with different cultures.

When people ask me what I’d be doing if not working in a school, I say every time without hesitation, “I’d be Anthony Bourdain, travelling the world, walking into random kitchens, talking to people, learning their stories, and absorbing life in its quirky, unfiltered, celebratory sequence of messiness, raw living and hard work.”

I am deeply saddened by his passing because he was my muse, my “keep it real,” my connection to what it really means to live this life of travel, culture and people. His shows were a poetic composition of life, his message one of humanity, love and good times, free of pretension, racism, and commercialism.

He was a constant reminder of why I do what I do. (Even on the darkest days).

My family often make fun of me because when we go on vacations I make an effort to (as they like to say) “wander into the village to talk to the local people.” They laugh, but this has put me in people’s kitchens from Ireland to Istanbul and given me a picture on life that not only puts my work in perspective but allows me to feel that connection to humanity and purpose that Tony Bourdain so eloquently described every week.

He once said upon accepting a Peabody Award that he asks three simple questions on the show: “What makes you happy?” “What do you like to eat?” What do you like to cook?” And the rest took care of itself. It was an approach to understanding people and culture that was so simple that it has served as a constant reminder as to why I do what I do in international education.

But we’ve made it so complicated.

Many of us in international education work in places that have large gates, security, and little to no connection to the surrounding community. From our sports competitions to our arts and academics to the food, we live and work in little bubbles that don’t resemble anything other than their own sanitized entity.

We claim that we are preparing people to be global citizens through things like the IB and a variety of languages and international days and so on, but in large we have become so risk averse, so predictable, and so standardized that we are becoming the complete antithesis of what we aspired people to be when we chose the international life. “International mindedness” has become an air-conditioned simulation through laptops, I-Pads and high stakes grueling exams. Does the kid who achieved a 45 on the IB or a perfect 5 on and AP exam know how to ride the local bus or order a plate of chili crab in Hokkien?

“When we repatraite,” they say, “We don’t want any gaps. It has to be a seamless transition from one place to the next, from Manila to Miami, from Boston to Budapest.”

Well it’s not a smooth transition. And it shouldn’t be.

In a recent interview with Bourdain, he was asked how he managed the offering of local food that was unappetizing or not necessarily fresh. “Food,” he said, (I am paraphrasing), “Is a window to someone’s community, to their culture. Food is the beginning of a conversation of someone telling you who they are. And what’s the worst thing? You deal with it. Maybe a few rounds of antibiotics.”

He reminded me that while there were inherent risks in life and getting to know other people, that they were often risks worth taking. He inspired me to shake things up when they needed to be, to make connections to the local maintenance workers, the cooks, the cleaners and to get a real understanding of the international life. One of my cherished memories of my time in Singapore took place last Sunday night, for example, when I was invited to the Hindu wedding of one of our IT guys whom I had taken the time to get to know. The looks on the faces of the other workers when I arrived at the wedding was something I’ll never forget. That’s what Tony inspired in me and that’s why I work in international schools.

So whether I’m wearing a suit behind the high gates or wandering into villages to talk to the local people, I am inspired by what Tony Bourdain taught me in my commitment to international education and the lessons young people need to learn to embrace the world, other people’s food, and to answer the question, “What makes you happy?”

Farewell Tony, I’m really, really going to miss you.

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The Accidental BYOD Solution


By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

In 2008, I would have said Apple is the best BYOD solution for any school or family that could afford the platform. Then Apple started to change. I think it could be argued, they quietly have abandoned the education market.

Event the recent iPad and classroom management software changes barely address most of the issues. In fact, in many parts of the world, managing Apps legally and efficiently is not even possible.

Aside from oddly developed apps like Swift Playgrounds, iPad App development eventually falls into two categories:

  1. A Focus on Consumer Consumption over Learning
  2. A “Make it the way the App Says” Philosophy

There is no ability for students to go beyond the rules of the iPad, to change the rules of the iPad, or to create anything that was not predicted. The iPad experience is shallow compared to the opportunity to take a blank slate, and build it to a specification or idea(like an opportunity found on a laptop/desktop computing platform).

Microsoft has made amazing strides recently. Specifically, Microsoft products such as the Surface.  However, the Surface products are expensive considering their feature set. There are also security issues involved in running Microsoft products. The Microsoft hardware does not reflect the actual cost of ownership, when much of that cost is used for defending the organizational ecosystem.

It is difficult to recommend a Surface product to a family, because they can spend less for an Apple product.

The rest of the market is too fragmented to build a stable long term platform plan. Unless a school directs students to only by a specific make a model every year (and every year it will change), there is no hope to establish a level playing field with BYOD students.

But. Maybe there is hope. An unplanned, and possibly accidental partnership. Google Chromebook + Amazon.

Google has been a big education player for some time. Their services and branded hardware are dependable and flexible. The hardware changes often, but the Chrome OS is consistent.

Chrome OS is a solution for any school that has reliable internet access. Chromebooks can make an excellent hardware platform, yet have some reasonable opposition among many EdTech leaders:

  1. The platform cannot run powerful applications like Photoshop, Video Editing Packages, Etc.
  2. The platform is slow when working outside the core Google products
  3. Chromebooks have one official browser, and are not fully compatible with all websites/applications
  4. Although it is possible to code and create software on a Chromebook, the development options are lacking compared to those of a traditional laptop (This is important for schools developing computer science and/or app development curricula.)

What if these four issues were eliminated? Would the Chromebook be a better choice for most BYOD families or for schools buying hardware for students?

Enter Amazon Workspaces.

I tested Amazon Windows 10 Workspaces last year. I liked the experience, but had no reason to use the service. It occurred to me recently that if Amazon Workspaces supported Chrome OS, then I could create a flexible platform for BYOD that used Chromebooks.

Guess what? There is a Workspaces Client and App for Chrome OS.

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I have tested this platform for the last 6 weeks using the new Samsung Chromebook and an Apple Laptop. I wanted to compare the performance of the Workspace’s Client service on two hardware platforms. Here is what I have found:

All four issues above were resolved. I even installed Photoshop and used it at the office.

Although Chrome OS is free, Workspaces is not free. They do have a seemingly affordable educational package. The downside to the Chromebook+Amazon combination is the entire process, of getting signed-up and calculating the price, is very convoluted. Amazon for Enterprise Business is mature. Amazon for education seems like a discount coupon, not a well directed initiative.

The next issue is setting up management for the Workspaces. The cost of doing this at scale is currently not clear. The cost is clear online, but the actual bills do not match the flat rates. I regularly ask for my costs to be explained. I send scenarios to people at Amazon to get pricing, and then I wait for the bill. The bill never matches the predictions.

I am close to having what I would consider an affordable and reasonable deployment model for Workspaces with Chromebooks.

Keep in mind with Amazon you pay for what you use. How many schools pay for a campus level licenses for Adobe Creative Cloud, yet only use a fraction of the licenses in any one semester?

How many schools give all students a license for Windows 10, just in case they take one or two courses where Windows is required for the curriculum?

Imagine only paying for what is needed, when it is needed.

Part two of this topic is pending until July, when I receive my next bill. 🙂 

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Flip the Script

So I just finished reading a really, really interesting book titled, The Power of Moments, by Chip and Dan Heath, and I strongly recommend it as a summer read for everyone. Even though it isn’t specifically written for educators, there were parts throughout that resonated deeply with me, and got me thinking about how I approach my day to day life in and out of school. There were a couple of chapters in particular that pushed me to reflect on my own experience as a student growing up, which is always an interesting exercise, and I also found myself stopping to analyze the various routines that I have which ultimately have come to shape my days. If nothing else, this book will help you to think critically about the experiences that you are currently providing for your students, and more importantly, it will get you to evaluate how well you are taking advantage of the small but beautiful moments that make up your life.

One of the chapters that hit home for me had to do with this idea of “flipping the script”, or purposely creating moments of elevation that rise above the routine that your students and colleagues have come to expect from you. Just for fun, think back to when you were a student going to school, or as a child growing up in your home, and identify the moments that scream out to you as joyful and truly memorable. For me it was things like road trips or field trips, sporting events that I played in or saw live, memorable parties that I hosted or attended, and all those “first times” that ignited all my senses. Now, think about how often we create those kinds of experiences for our own kids in school, or with our relationships that we have with our colleagues.

I bet that if you really think about it, you’ll notice that we don’t provide nearly enough experiences like these for our kids throughout the year. In the book, one High School principal in the United States is quoted as saying, “we run school like it’s a non-stop practice…you never get a game!” Think about it, we have a tremendous opportunity to do better, and to purposely find ways to elevate our experiences at school from the routines that we’ve come to rely on, to moments that create lasting memories for our kids and each other. Routines have a way of blurring our days together, and if you think about the past year with your own students, what do you think they will remember years from now? I have thought about my own routines at school which are in need of a flipped script…things like faculty meetings and student assemblies and how often and in what ways I celebrate kids and teachers.

This summer I’m going to think really hard about how I can change it up next year to create many, many more special moments that will elevate everyone’s school experience from routine to surprise, and to create lasting memories that will bring us all closer together. I want to challenge you all to do the same over the next couple of months, and to think of opportunities that you have to give your kids and colleagues some moments of elevation…give them less practice and more game time!

Finally, there was one other huge take away from this book that I’ll just quickly share. It had to do with how well we recognize others, and how often we purposely go out of our way to change a person’s day for the better. It talks about how one seemingly small interaction with a kid or a colleague can actually be life changing. I often joke about how I can live off of a compliment for a month but there is some truth to that, especially with kids who are desperate to hear from an adult that they are special, and worthy, and unique, and beautiful as people in our world. How often do you pull a kid aside and tell them something that will make them smile from ear to ear? How often do you write home to their parents and simply say what a joy it is for them to be in your class? How often to you stop a colleague in the hall and thank them from the bottom of your heart for being a friend or a confidant or a mentor? How often do we go out of our way to change a person’s day for the better? Probably not often enough. I’m trying to do better with this and I’m pleading with you all to do better as well. Seek out and create moments to make someone’s day with a simple compliment, a sincere thank you, a little written note or email, and watch how quickly their days change for the better…I’m not joking when I say this…people can live off of a compliment for a month or longer!

Anyway, only a couple of weeks to go and we’ll hit the summer sun so finish strong and bring your best selves to school as we speed toward the end. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week – 

Almost everything will work again if you unplug it for a few minutes…including you!

– Ann Lamott

 

Build Peaks – Dan Heath

All Practice, no Game – Dan Heath

 

Related Articles –

Break Out of the Routine

Rejuvenate Yourself

The Power of Moments – 

 

Great TED Talks –

Comics Belong in the Classroom

How to Turn Strangers Into a Team

A Good Night’s Sleep

Where to Find Joy

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We’re Moving, and Leaving Our Baby in Hong Kong

Follow Me on Twitter @msmeadowstweets

Here’s something I wasn’t prepared for.

I grew up as a child in international schools, so I’ve done it. I’ve said good-bye to so many people, so many times. I’ve made my career in international education. More farewells. The process isn’t necessarily easy, but I am accustomed to it. When my husband and I decided to leave Hong Kong, we knew the hardest part would be separating from the people who’ve made our seven years here so memorable, but we also knew we could handle it.

What I didn’t consider was that our baby, now a toddler, would be left behind.

Of course I don’t mean literally. He’s booked in a seat sandwiched between ours as we rack up the last of our Cathay Pacific airline miles, for now. But, he was born here, and spent his infancy here. And we can’t take that with us.

When we fly into Amsterdam airport later this month, we will be leaving behind the sweet little crew of munchkins that have become his tribe. We rotate group play dates at one another’s homes every Friday, swim in the community pool together every Tuesday, and bop around with maracas and plastic leis (don’t ask) at “dance class” every Wednesday. More afternoons than not, my child spends an hour or two on the playground with these babes, learning how to negotiate, to take risks, to show compassion, to have fun. We hosted the play group a couple of week ago, and he cried a little when the children left. “I miss my friends”, he said.

Oh, dear.

Hong Kong is where I gripped the edge of his car seat, instructing the taxi driver to slow down, as we wound down Mount Kellett Road, heading home from the hospital where he was born. Hong Kong is where he, inspired by his older/wiser/more experienced buddy (born 2.5 months before him) took his first steps across the brightly-coloured, vinyl-covered indoor play room where we passed so many hours in monsoon weather or to escape the air pollution. Hong Kong is where he used to pitch pieces of very expensive, organic pears imported from Italy onto the dining room floor because he was learning how to eat, but also learning about gravity, which was more fun. Hong Kong is where he was a baby.

Parenting adds a new – often unexpected – dimension to virtually every aspect of life, and this is no different. My husband and I have begun to bid farewell to friends, but we also know that we will be able to stay in touch with them, and there are certainly people we intend to see again. Those relationships will change with distance, but they will not disappear.

Our baby’s relationships will essentially disappear. So much happens in a child’s development that it’s not possible for them to keep up with others without real contact. In a year from now, his little crew won’t know him anymore. He was a baby with them, and they won’t be babies anymore. Perhaps that’s why, despite the cost of shipping to our new home in the Netherlands, I’m bringing along a box full of clothes that definitely do not fit him anymore.

As international parents, there is a definitive finality to moving. When we leave Hong Kong, we will do so with a full-fledged toddler. Our baby will stay behind.

 

How do you carry on memories of a place with young children? 

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Beautiful Places and Moments: One Year on the Road

We are now half way through our ride around the world. Since leaving our teaching jobs at Tashkent International School, we have cycled over 12,000 kilometres through 11 countries.

Uzbekistan:

Kyrgyzstan:

Kazakhstan:

China:

Laos:

Cambodia:

Vietnam:

Thailand:

Myanmar:

Malaysia:

Indonesia:

Not the entire 12 months have been spent actually on our bicycles, it is just not that simple. Over a month was spent in certain cities waiting and resting, normally for visas or extensions. Two weeks were spent in sick beds in Northern Laos, a month off to see our families at Christmas, and really our one year is more like nine months on the road. I think this is quite typical, and we still consider ourselves successful in crossing much of the biggest landmass in the world.

A friend asked me the other day whether this trip is proving to be all I had hoped it would be. Looking back, I was disappointed with the brief answer I gave, so here are some more considered answers –

i.) If I answer that question based on the experience of a year touring this part of the world on our bicycles, then yes, pedalling in a mainly easterly direction from Uzbekistan to Lombok, has indeed been wonderful in its truest sense. It has also been adventurous and therefore rewarding; passing from high plateaus and densely forested islands, to featureless deserts and climbing between snow-capped peaks. There have been dangers such as busy roads and violent provinces, but measured consideration of the safest routes and most sensible riding time gave us an inner-peace that we are grown-ups and responsible for ourselves.

ii.) If my friends question was more about the places and people rather than the ride, then I think my preconceptions of Asia; that it is heavily populated, polluted and runs at a frenetic pace, were correct. But there have certainly been some pleasant surprises.

Kyrgyzstan’s sublime mountain-scape, it’s winding rubble roads up and down mountain passes for instance, were unforgettable.

Cycling near much of the Mekong river from China’s Yunnan province, through Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam was special too. It was as if the river became our friend, not only confirming that we were heading in the right direction,  but also provided some reassurance that we were getting closer to our goal of Ho Chi Minh. The river slowly widened from a cascading body of water, not much more than a stream, to what looked more like an ocean towards its delta.

iii.) Perhaps my friends question was less about the geography and more about the physical challenge. In which case – we have done well. We have dealt with the dry bbq-like 50 degrees celsius desert heat of the Kyzl-kum and Taklamakan deserts. As well as the boiling, dripping, shrivelling humidity nearer the equator. We have had a wide range of physical human experiences too, from feeling fit as fiddles and strong as oxen, to faint, weak and disorientated.

I recently wrote about our trusty steeds in another post (link). They have been fantastic but also like dead weights sometimes. I have been reminded, more frequently than ever, that much of the challenges we face in our lives can be overcome by a positive mindset. Our pace has been good overall so we have been able to take time in places we loved and have blasted through those we did not.

The next stage in North America will be the penultimate in my 18 year attempt to circumnavigate the planet. 40,000km is the goal, and with about 10,000km left as we prepare for this long next leg, we are looking good to achieve this by summer 2019. Administration waits should be less of a problem on this next stage so our Christmas breaks with our families should be our only significant pauses, allowing for plenty of pure pedalling. We are also considering Cuba and the Caribbean in the new year, perhaps even some of central America, but right now the distance is the goal, and of course we will want to leave some parts of the world for exploring in the more distant future.

It is definitely the case that we are now living with a new rhythm. It used to be a rather busy beat, with long awaited silences to get our breath back in school holidays. Now, it seems we are both more easy going. I have noticed that I have become less worried about things, less edgy and stressed, and the need that I lived with for the last 10 years of dealing with everything immediately, has at least a little bit, abated. I feel calmer in myself, having had time to think, and good about my health as I enter the latter part of my 30’s. We have both enjoyed the experience of riding through foreign lands immensely. Sometimes different cultures and their ‘normal’ is a little bit hard to accept and deal with, so yes, from time to time we have felt a little bit travel fatigued, but nothing a good bike ride the next day couldn’t solve. I am sure that all of these little niggles will be the basis for many a daydream when we look back and chuckle in the future. Our relationship is stronger than ever. I think the sense of accomplishing this together added something that we were not expecting and we are both in a wonderful place mentally about our breaks with family and the dream of cycling through prairies on traffic free routes, camping in meadows and breathing fresh air.

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Do we live here, or are we vacationing?

The reality of being an expat is that your family and friends back home usually assume you live some kind of art-film existence in which you travel constantly, never work, have poetic interactions in another language with strangers, and stay up late every night. The reality is that even while living abroad, we still have to buy groceries, do dishes, and take out the trash, as well as grade papers, plan lessons, and stay up late to make a work deadline the next day.

But this is not just the view of our loved ones back home. I think the idea of being “on vacation” permeates expat culture in our communities here, as well. We expect each other to always travel; our social connections come and go; we are constantly looking to our next move. Because we don’t feel like this is our true home, we never fully invest. And the consequences are that there is something lacking in this expat life; this expat culture. For example:

I value travel, but not when the result is 200 selfies and little self-reflection.

I value new friendships, but prefer those that can discuss the day-to-day as well as the occasional adventure.

I value cultural exploration, but not empty engagement. We should explore old classics as well as new restaurants; quieter neighborhoods as well as trendy ones; local news as well as international.

This practice of not-really-investing has consequences for the schools we teach in as well. Why would I want to improve my curriculum, if I know I’m just going to be moving on in a few years? Why would I seek to get to know my students? Why would I volunteer for faculty committees if I won’t be around to see the results?

One of my favorite aspects of being a schoolteacher is that I get to be part of an educational community. Call it geeky, but the fact that we convene 200+ students and 50+ teachers every day to learn and study is thrilling. And it’s even more exciting to me to see how it develops- to be part of a student club, now in its fourth year, as it becomes stronger and more active; to become a better team leader and orchestrate conversations between faculty where no connection before existed; to teach a student in her sophomore year and see her again in senior year with more wisdom and greater awareness of herself. We’re teachers partly because we like to see kids grow. I want to stick around to be a part of that.

I think there’s something to the notion, also, of letting a place affect us. So often we think of leaving our mark. What mark did your previous schools and placements leave on you? And what more could you learn (about the place; about yourself) by staying longer?

I often feel like travel nowadays is treated as buying a packaged adventure. Here’s your gorgeous breakfast, an unbelievable view, an insane boat trip. If you’re not doing something all the time, there’s something wrong; it’s inadequate. A night in is lame and you’re a failure. Maybe it’s because of Facebook and Instagram that we feel we always have to be exuberant and active and exciting. But we and our students also need to see the value in healthy everyday routines, slow conversation, long-term relationships, community-building, institutional development. We need to actually live here, not be on semi-permanent vacation, in order to be fulfilled and meaning-seeking adults.

Full disclosure: my viewpoint is very much affected by the fact that I fell in love with and will soon be marrying a local, and he has helped me access Argentina far beyond what I would have on my own. I’ve returned to cities instead of only going there once and then continuing to the next on my list. I’ve listened to his family members’ personal and and political histories. I’ve reconsidered how I want to learn the language.

I’m grateful for the opportunity he has provided me with deepening my connection to this place where I found myself– my for-now home– instead of moving on to the next in a few years’ time. I’ll never be a local, but at least I can be a more engaged immigrant.

Posted in Allison Poirot | Leave a comment

The Good People We Meet

 

A commonly used adage is “The less one has to give, the more generous they are’”.

This may presume that material possessions are a gauge of how much one has. Or that giving is a sign of ones kindness. I prefer to think that generosity in the form of helping strangers does not require any form of wealth other than human spirit in the heart.

Along our way, we have been touched by the kindness of strangers. It fills me with hope for the future and, in the short term, a warm glow, protection and reassurance for our continuing journey.

We grew up with clear instructions from our elders never to speak to strangers. Whilst we often remain wary of many people, a large part of this experience is about immersion and putting trust in the people we meet.

Our bicycle tour around the world has now taken us through 12 countries and we would like to pause and say thank you to some of the people who helped us when we found ourselves in sticky situations or just went out of their way to be friendly and welcoming.

  • Sardorbek and the other field workers just outside of Bukhara, Uzbekistan who let us get some shade under their apricot trees in the 40 degree heat that we just weren’t prepared for on our very first day of the tour. They then gave us a huge bag of delicious apricots to take with us for energy.

  • Dildora and her family in Gazli, Uzbekistan who, when we asked if we could pitch a tent in the shade near their property, instead insisted that they make up beds for us in their air-conditioned living room and then laid on an almighty spread of food in typical Uzbek style while refusing any money for the accommodation or food.

  • Islomjon and Dilmorod, the General Motors truck drivers who picked us up on the side of a desert highway in Uzbekistan when Niamh was really sick from heat exhaustion and just couldn’t cycle in the sun anymore. They put our bikes on the back of the truck and let us lie down on the bed behind the drivers’ seats to rest while they drove us to the next town and would only let us buy them some tea at a highway rest stop as a thank you.

  • Abdulrahman who repeatedly welcomed us to Kyrgyzstan while buying his cup of vodka in the local shop, went away, came back 5 minutes later and presented us with two delicious ice-creams and a big smile.

 

  • Sultan, the little boy on the donkey in Kyrgyzstan who helped us to find a good spot to camp on the side of a mountain pass when it was starting to get dark and then came back later to give us two bouquets that he had made from wild flowers and which we adorned our bicycles with the next day.

  • Axel and Claudia, the German couple in the 4×4 in Kyrgyzstan who spared us a couple of litres of drinking water when we underestimated just how remote one section of our trip was.

  • The Russian family who picked us up when hitch hiking to Charyn canyon in Kazakhstan and to the group of Turkish men who picked us up on the way back.

  • The family in Khorgos who, on our first night in China, were extremely helpful in finding us the best restaurant and food in town and later came to check that we were happy. One of the best and cheapest meals we had in the country.

  • The mechanics in China who tried to fix Matthew’s chain (but made it worse) and then helped us to organise transport for us and the bikes to the next town where it could be fixed while feeding us energy drinks, tea and beans.

 

  • Coco, the woman in China who went out of her way to take us around to all the travel agents in town when we thought it might be cheaper to buy our flights home for Christmas that way. Turned out it wasn’t and we just bought them online, so she had completely wasted her time on us but didn’t mind at all and wouldn’t accept anything but a thank you in return.

  • The doctor in Laos who gave us a lift back from the hospital to our hotel on his motorbike when we were too sick to walk and who then checked in with us to make sure we were ok while we recovered.

  • The family in Cambodia who let us camp under their house when we got a bit stranded in the dark on impassable paths and gave us a ball of rice and some coconut milk to drink when they didn’t have much themselves (we gave them some money in return).

 

  • Meow’s family in Thailand who’s hotel we stayed in. They had all just flown in for their sister’s funeral but, despite the sad occasion, were determined to make us feel welcome and said that their sister would want them to take care of us. So we had a lovely evening of chatting, photos and delicious food.

 

  • Asad, The Pakistani man in Malaysia who made us feel so welcome in the town canteen and cooked his native dishes with such pride and passion.

  • Mr Nager Zer, the manager of the Amadeo hotel in Duri, Sumatra, who took us to an English class to run a Ted Web workshop with his students and then treated us to dinner.

 

  • Randy, who when Matthew met him in a ropey laundry place in Indonesia, happily offered to take him around town on his motorbike to find a better place and then to his family’s cafe to get some tasty local food and coffee. He also guided us through the busy streets out of town as we continued our journey and hooked Matthew up with some great meds from a doctor friend of his.

  • And to finish with a compatriot and like-minded bike lover, Pete in Bali who tended to the needs of our weary steeds in his beautiful bike shop and cafe : Kayuh Bali/Rhino Velo

We will look back fondly on these memories and remind ourselves of them in the future if we start to doubt that:

PEOPLE ARE NICE!

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Just wondering about this “end of year madness”.

When the IB exam season kicks in, every year I think about this term coined by Joe Lumsden, Secondary Principal at Istanbul International Community School and previous colleague of mine. End of year madness. It is hard not feel it: modified schedules, exams, final report cards and transcripts, finishing the master schedule and calendar for the following year, reviewing handbooks and guides, celebrations, end of year parties, award ceremonies, graduation, IB grading, step-up days, connecting with recently recruited teachers who will join our school our school, preparing to say good bye to colleagues and friends…the list is endless. During this “madness”, however, it is crucial to pause and reflect upon the year. It does sound quite obvious but it is challenging as so many things get in the way. But since we encourage our students to reflect upon their learning, we need to model this practice. It does not have to be a complex process and I am a big fan of this simple 3 question reflection:

1) What went well and why?

2) What did not go so well and why?

3) How can I improve my craft based on 2) and use that to create my    professional objectives for next year?

Setting this expectation to all of us and achieving this before the end of the year is essential and if this becomes a priority we need to make time for this. In our school, all our High School students present a capstone presentation when they reflect upon their goals from the beginning of the year. They present their reflections and evidence in front of their mentor, their parents and some fellow students. I am now wondering what keeps us from doing with this faculty.

Furthermore, students feel this end-of-year rush too. It is quite usual for High School students to feel completely overwhelmed in this last stretch with final exams, projects and SAT’s in the pipeline. What we do we do as schools to minimize this? By putting some many things at the end, are we really focusing on the learning journey or are we just repeating over and over again those end-of-year traditions where everything is mad. Do we take the time to give robust feedback after final exams or is everyone already thinking of spending their time on the beach? And if so, how meaningful are those final exams? Is the only point of those to give a final grade?

Instead of feeling so rushed at the end of the year, students, parents and educators should be spending time to think back over their year growth and to think ahead of the future learning opportunities. Current set-up in many High Schools, however, is not conducive to this since we end up packing so much stuff in the last weeks that it is sometimes only there because “those are the kinds of things that we do at the end of the year”. As we are finalizing next year’s calendar, I really want to have a good look at this “stuff”, question its relevance and offer some alternatives to make sure that we all end the school year with our brains switched on to meaningful reflection to continue to grow.

For what it’s worth…

Posted in Frederic Bordaguibel-Labayle | Leave a comment