AASSA GIN Conference 2016

So we just finished hosting the AASSA regional GIN conference at our school, and it was 3 days of amazing! To see student leaders from all over South America come together to dream, plan, educate, and collaborate was one of the most inspiring things that I have ever been a part of, and I’m super sad that it’s over. An event like this will transform our community in powerful and profound ways, and I couldn’t be more excited to continue the work that began with our students over 6 months ago. I am so proud of our kids, and our faculty and staff, and of our parent community for bringing this weekend of change to life, and because of the passion and hard work of all involved, we will never be the same…changed for the better.


It began on Thursday morning with our entire elementary school out in the courtyard welcoming the visiting schools…they held up their beautiful signs, they sang and danced and cheered, and the kids from 7 different countries poured off of the buses smiling and energized and excited to begin the conference. From that moment on the event just kept getting better and better as the students showcased their incredible projects, shared their passions, collaborated together, and built strong and lasting relationships that will last a lifetime.


There were several inspiring and thought provoking keynote presentations, many student led workshops, art projects, a coastal earthquake relief project, daily film festivals, and so much more. The incredible thing about all of it was that it was entirely student led, and watching it unfold made my heart want to burst. It never ceases to amaze me what young people can do when they are allowed to lead their own learning, and to find ways to bring their passions to life. It really made me wonder why we don’t do more of this in schools, and it made me think about how we can turn the last 3 days into an approach that lasts throughout the year.


I have to admit that when we agreed to take this event on back in May of last year I was feeling pretty nervous. Pulling off an event like this takes so much work from so many people, and it really brings to life what a community is made of. Well, the lesson I learned yet again is that when you empower your students to lead, they step up in remarkable ways and they can accomplish almost anything. With our students leading the way, and with the leadership of one of the best educators on the planet, Andrea Stadler, keeping it all together along the way, the conference was a tremendous success. It did just what we hoped it would do, which is to change our school and community in immeasurable ways, and to move us in a direction that leads to service, sustainability, student agency, innovation and change.


I cannot wait to see the kids tomorrow and to reflect on the past several days. Now it’s time to dig even deeper into our projects, and to use this conference as a jumping off point for many exciting initiatives. Thank you to Linda and Ashley Sills (Directors of GIN) for their support and confidence in us, and thank you to everyone involved…what an amazing 3 days at Academia Cotopaxi. If you are keen to see some pictures and videos from the conference, check out #ACGIN or #learnincommunity, or my twitter feed @DanKerr1. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.


Quote of the Week…

It is pointless to complain about the problems of the world as long as we continue contributing to them – Auliq Ice


Interesting Articles/Websites – 









Inspirational Videos – 



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Jobs, Careers and Callings

Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness. Sigmund Freud

For most adults, work constitutes more than one-third of waking life, and the psychological study of work is a large academic field. We know that there is huge variation with job satisfaction, and furthermore, that work satisfaction seems to account for a substantial part of the subjective quality of life. Quality of life can, in turn, have a major effect on life stress and on health. So finding the right work is a major life decision.

The Difference is Important
The Difference is Important

We are, for better or worse, in an era where no decision that our students take in this respect is final. Most of us have worked, or will work, in many jobs, and perhaps several professions, and our students will be able to do the same – or perhaps even move to professions that don’t even exist at the moment. So there is, perhaps, less pressure to ‘get it right’ immediately, and there is some comfort there. Nevertheless, the choice is still a big one, and I think it’s important that students understand generally what we know about work, from the research literature.One particularly fascinating study (1) is based on three distinct relations people can have to their work: as Jobs, Careers, and Callings. The distinctions, drawn starkly, are these (I quote directly from the study here):

Jobs: People who have Jobs are only interested in the material benefits from work and do not seek or receive any other type of reward from it. The work is not an end in itself, but instead is a means that allows individuals to acquire the resources needed to enjoy their time away from the Job. The major interests and ambitions of Job holders are not expressed through their work.

Careers: In contrast, people who have Careers have a deeper personal investment in their work and mark their achievements not only through monetary gain, but through advancement within the occupational structure. This advancement often brings higher social standing, increased power within the scope of one’s occupation, and higher self- esteem for the worker.

Callings: Finally, people with Callings find that their work is inseparable from their life. A person with a Calling works not for financial gain or Career advancement, but instead for the fulfillment that doing the work brings to the individuals. While the modern sense of calling may have lost its original religious connections, work that people feel called to do is usually seen as socially valuable—an end in itself.

The Job–Career–Calling distinction does not map neatly onto any occupation. Within any occupation there may be individuals with all three kinds of relations to their work.

Now all this would be of passing academic interest were it not for the fact that we have evidence that there are significant differences between people who have each view. In survey and interview responses, the self-reported categories of Job, Career and Calling yielded important differences.

Compared with those who described themselves as Job and Career respondents, those who described themselves as Calling respondents were significantly better paid, better educated, and had occupations higher in both self-perceived status and objective prestige level. Callings were consistently associated with greater life, health, and job satisfaction and with better health. Calling respondents reported notably and significantly higher life and job satisfaction than Job and Career respondents. Calling respondents also ranked work satisfaction significantly higher (relative to hobbies and friends) than did Job and Career respondents

For me this is very positive news indeed. It tells us that we are absolutely right to be telling students to follow their passions, to find something they believe in and to which can commit . It means we can say this safe in the knowledge that it is not some vague platitude, but one that is more likely to lead to health, wealth (in all senses) and life satisfaction.

I am struck by the Zen-like parallel here; there are some things that are best sought indirectly, and that arise as by products of a life well-lived. And wealth is the obvious thing here – the understandable desire for financial security can loom large in all our minds. It is, therefore, interesting to read another fascinating piece of research (2) on precisely this topic. Researchers examined the aspirations of 12,000 college freshmen at elite universities and colleges in 1976, and then measured their life satisfaction nearly 20 years later. Those who had expressed materialistic aspirations as freshmen were less satisfied with their lives two decades later. Furthermore, the materialists were more likely than non-materialists to suffer from a variety of mental disorders.

All this adds up to the need to give a good deal of thought to what we want in our work. If we doing the right work, it won’t be something we leave behind when we step out of the workplace. I once told an extremely hard-working colleague of mine that he needs to learn to say ‘no’ – and was humbled by his reply when he said that he had tried that, but then he ended up sitting at home wishing he was doing whatever it was that he said ‘no’ to. If we find something we are committed to, that genuinely has value and that means something to us, then the work – that is, the calling – isn’t what we do, it’s what we are in some sense. So choosing the right line of work is part of the process of being the people we want to be.

(1) Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C. R., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31, 21-33.

(2) Nickerson, C., Schwarz, N., Diener, E., & Kahneman, D. (2003). Zeroing in on the dark side of the American Dream: A closer look at the negative consequences of the goal for financial success. Psychological Science, 14, 531-536.


By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

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What is Important is Seldom Urgent


By: Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

Presidential Planning

Dwight David “Ike” Eisenhower was an American politician and general who served as the 34th President of the United States from 1953 until 1961. He was a five-star general in the United States Army during World War II and served as Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. (Source: https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Dwight_D._Eisenhower)

In terms of project planning and time management, history yields few masters equal to that of President Eisenhower. There are many methods used for time and project management. President Eisenhower grouped things into simple categories so that he could efficiently and quickly prioritise his tasks/goals. Because of Eisenhower’s great success as a leader, a model was developed from his methods and applied to the business world. The model is known as The Eisenhower Matrix.

The original model is reflected in the four quadrants above. This is a model I personally use and advocate.

Although I am no Eisenhower, I did take it upon myself to alter the bottom right corner. Instead of using it to DELETE tasks or to categorize tasks as “useless”, I use to to track personal projects or 20% Time Projects. After all, if something is useless, it stays outside the box.

My box looks like this:


Reading the Matrix

The most important thing to remember is that everything cannot be urgent and important. If the majority of your day-to-day work-life is in the upper left quadrant, then something is wrong and out-of-balance.

Most tasks that fall into a person’s normal set of responsibilities should be in the upper right quadrant. Tasks or jobs in the lower left quadrant are often things assigned by a superior, that fall outside of the normal set of responsibilities or they are favours you might be doing for others.

Examples From My Personal Matrix
Important Not Urgent:

  • Develop a new class schedule before March 20th
  • Create a new html template for PowerSchool effort reports by March 18th
  • Review email branding process before April 15th

Notice all of the above have due dates that fall within a 7-30 day period. I have had them in the list for awhile. The deadline is approaching but these are all planned.

Important and Urgent:

  • Buy music software for upcoming performance
  • Develop new Sharepoint email workflow for Human Resources

These items are IT support items which have been assigned to me from other departments.
These need to be completed immediately. I am required to do these tasks, but they were not planned, and the notice was short.

Not Important but Urgent (Delegate):

  • Telescope delivery
  • Hand out ID cards
  • Document archive packaging for accreditation team

These are all jobs anyone in my department can do. All are very time consuming. I need to make certain they are finished, but I should not be doing these myself. Occasionally this quadrant contains a task I am required to do, but is outside of my job scope.

Not Important / Not Urgent /Ideas / 20% Time

  • Redesign interface for PowerSchool Parent Portal
  • Improve code for iTunes based video streaming

These are projects I enjoy doing. If they never get finished, the impact at this point in time will be minimal or nonexistent. The systems impacted are already fully functional. The skills learned from working on projects like these often transfer to other areas. 20% time projects are excellent for professional development and often lead to exciting random discoveries.

Tools for Getting Started

A simple way to apply the Eisenhower Matrix is to use Evernote or OneNote. Office software, such as Excel of LibreCalc, will also work. However, keeping a record of all the data and reflecting on it after the school year can be tricky. I recommended using software like Priority Matrix. The interface is simple, and the software links to Evernote.


Appfluence Priority Matrix

Last year I produced a list of all the scheduled items I had completed from January to June. I was amazed not only at the variety of projects and jobs I had been involved with, but also how many should have been placed in that lower left quadrant (Delegation). I have used that data to consciously delegate more tasks.

Before beginning, I recommend organising your team together to discuss what types of projects, jobs, etc. would fall into each quadrant. Have each member bring a list of everything they have been working on for the last thirty days. Use that data to fill in the box by reaching group consensus.

If nothing else, the Eisenhower Matrix makes the mind slow down and focus. The matrix forces reflection and constantly reminds users that most things are not urgent, nor important. Stress and circumstance can often cloud judgements and shift focus away from where it should be- Students & Learning.

And remember – Important is Seldom Urgent.

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Inspiration Projects

So last year we got rid of traditional homework in our upper elementary grades, and we replaced it with inspiration projects instead, as a way for kids to bring their passions and learning to life. We still ask kids to read every night with their families, and we still personalize some home learning for students who may need a little extra support in one area or another, but other than that it’s all about passions, sparks, and inspirations…and it’s been awesome! With this structure, we wanted to create an opportunity for students to lead their own learning, and to engage in experiences that truly get them excited about school. It’s been super successful so far, and after a few tweaks and some thoughtful reflection at the end of last year, we are starting to see some incredible results.


One of the pleasant surprises that we’ve seen out of this switch has been the involvement of parents in the learning process. In many ways, these inspiration projects have brought families closer together as mothers and fathers spend quality time with their kids as they research, create, design, and dig deep into their passions. It’s also beautiful to see the parents arrive at school with their child when it’s time to present, and to see how proud and impressed they are with the level of rigor that often accompanies the presentations. So far I’ve been blown away with many of the projects that have been showcased, and here are a few examples that quickly come to mind of what’s been on display.


Students have…

  • Written their own books
  • Written code to create functioning robots
  • Baked amazing meals and pastries
  • Designed small hydraulic machines
  • Built lego aircraft carriers 
  • Written their own songs
  • Painted beautiful works of art
  • Designed their own clothes
  • Built a working volcano entirely out of chocolate (with hot chocolate lava)
  • Directed a short film with movie maker
  • Built and set off a mini rocket
  • Come up with inspiring gymnastic and hip hop routines
  • Learned how to play a new instrument
  • Built an entire city out of lego
  • Designed a futuristic community using Minecraft


I’m really excited as I write this because this week we have our first inspiration project fair for our community on Tuesday morning, where students will bring in their projects and showcase them for their peers, as well as for the parents during our student goal setting conferences this Wednesday. It’s going to be thrilling to walk around and to listen to our kids talk about the passions in their lives, and to see them get excited about learning. It’s also very cool to see their faces light up when they realize that they are also inspiring others!


It is a remarkable thing to see young people so engaged in their learning, and they never fail to impress me beyond measure…these projects always seem to exceed my expectations, which is arguably the best part…kids always inspire when they are given a chance to bring a passion of theirs to life. We are now thinking creatively about how we can bring this kind of approach into the Middle School through our iLEARN initiative (Professional Learning Communities for students), and it’s all very exciting. Let students loose and watch them blow you away! Anyway, this week is going to be so much fun, and I’ll be sure to send out some photos for you all to see what the kids have come up with this time around. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.


Quote of the Week – 

I have no special talents. I am only passionately curious – Albert Einstein


Video About Bringing Passion to Life –



Student Passion Projects –







These are Great – 





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Students Helping Students

What does it feel like to be mentored by a national champion who is ranked among the best in the world? To find out, you are invited to visit the American School of Brasilia’s afterschool chess club.

Meilin Hoshino (Grade 6) and her sister Karen (Grade 10) are considered to be elite chess players on the world stage, with Karen recently recognized as the top female chess player in Japan. It is the juxtaposition of a student competing in the 14-day World Chess Olympiad in Azerbaijan and the same student offering a chess activity for lower school students that highlights an international school’s sense of community, the wide range of learning opportunities, and the value of diversity.


During my afternoon walk around campus today, I observed several other instances of students learning from other students. Some of these examples included cooking classes, guitar lessons, art projects, talent show preparations, Jiu Jitsu practice, reading program, robotics, and an after school running club. These are some of the many ways in which a school offering a pre-kindergarten to grade 12 educational program benefits from the wide range of student ages. The younger students have the opportunity to learn from older students while older students have the opportunity (and challenge!) to serve as positive role models and mentors while also learning more about their own abilities and strengths.


It is this building of community through mentoring, coaching, and collaboration that personifies the American School of Brasilia’s motto of “Learners Inspiring Learners.” The basis of all schools should be that of a community of learners and, for this reason, we are committed to further developing peer mentoring programs such that all students are benefiting from “students helping students” opportunities. To that end, I would like to thank Meilin and Karen for sharing their impressive talents and experiences with other students and for exemplifying the ideals associated with our school’s mission in which learners are inspiring learners to be inquisitive in life, principled in character, and bold in vision.

Blog: www.barrydequanne.com

Twitter: @dequanne


Featured image: cc licensed (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 ) flickr photo by Peter Miller: https://www.flickr.com/photos/cosmosfan/14628522324

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Ecosystems and Widgets


By Tony DePrato | Follow me on Twitter @tdeprato

The term ecosystem is normally used in reference to biological communities. When people think about ecosystems they often visualize the different organisms and activities that coexist to maintain a balance of sustainable life.

As human beings, we model from what we know. When creating new things, humans often start with a single widget[1], and then expand until there is a system of widgets all interacting.

Thus, the cycle of widgets evolves. Some last for many years, others have a short-term existence. Popularity often determines the life span of a technology widget.


Schools using technology have an ecosystem of widgets. Very few people in a school seem to have a complete understanding of how all these widgets come together to form the web communication and processing which is essential for the day-to-day success of school life.

Unlike the biological complexity in a square meter of a rice paddy, the edtech ecosystem is a knowable system. It is a system everyone can learn, can discuss, and can protect.

[1] https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Widget

Map it Out

Most technology ecosystems have a common characteristic; they require people to be identifiable. Being anonymous is not good practice. When a person is part of the system, the system should know who they are.

Because of this characteristic, it is simple to draw the center of the ecosystem map. The center represents what technology(s) are employed that allow people to sign into computers and the Internet (network).

Next, the most logical thing is to illustrate all the ways people communicate after they join the system. Do not over think this. List out or draw things like email, forums, support tickets, online forms, etc. If there is a widget that facilitates communication, find it, and define it.

Moving through the web of protocols, sharing would be the next concept. How do people share files? How do they collaborate with/without-downloading files? Who can own things? Who can delete things? Who can see everything? How are parents and groups outside the normal community of practice allowed to interact?

These questions can be answered in bullet points, mind maps, or paragraphs. They are knowable and discoverable.

As the journey continues more and more questions will arise. The final foundational pieces to connect are related to data. Where does school data live? This is business data, academic data, curriculum data, etc. These systems normally connected back through the sharing, communication, and authentication (or at least they should).

This is not simple, but nor is it as complicated as school accreditation. If a leadership team can work through accreditation, they can be fully informed about the edtech ecosystem within the school.

Invasive Species

There are many case studies concerning feral animals being introduced into non-native environments. These animals are known as invasive species. Invasive species can destroy the balance and harmony in an ecosystem.

As with a biological system, invasive systems can wreak havoc on a school’s edtech ecosystem. Within a school, people often ask to introduce new services and software. A new tools can cause a negative impact on the existing system.

For example, switching everyone to a new email so they can access a widget, while also requiring him or her to use another email for official communication, can literally bring communication to a halt.

Consider the impact of subscribing to a video streaming service without having enough bandwidth to allow the majority of users to stream during class-time. This would negate that service’s usefulness as a teaching tool.

Within school and edtech leadership, spotting invasive tools is not difficult if people have taken the time to map and understand how various pieces of the ecosystem are connected.

Widget Reasoning

There is a temptation to communicate with branding and jargon. Early in my academic career while studying speech communication, I read studies concerning people being separated from knowledge by the constant use of jargon. I make a point to avoid jargon unless I am certain the group clearly understands it.

People seem to have a tendency to use brands to group things together. American’s often refer to tissue as Kleenex®. Kleenex is a brand. Searching on the Internet is termed Googling by many people.

Filtering brand names allows for everyone to focus on function and purpose. Including brand names can alienate people who either do not know the brand or simply do not like the brand.

I choose to use generic terms when discussing technology. I also tend to focus on function and outcome, instead of creating action words from brand names. I suggest this communication strategy as a norm when groups of non-tech-savvy people are mingling with those who feel at home with tech jargon.

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They Ask Me Why I Teach

So I had to deal with a few situations last week that truly made me appreciate being an educator, and that made me feel honored to have the opportunity to interact with young people each and every day. Most of the issues revolved around students who had made bad decisions, or who had made a big enough mistake that it warranted a hard conversation. Anyway, reflecting back on these interactions, I found that they were easily the best part of my week, as they reminded me why I love education so much…being with kids!


Having the opportunity to speak to students who have made bad decisions and mistakes is one of the best parts of the job in my opinion, because it’s then that you can really teach, and mentor, and get kids to become better versions of themselves. The mistakes that kids make are where the beauty of adolescence lies, and to have the opportunity to help guide a child through their formative years, which is at times hard for every child, is a true gift that educators have been given. That said, it is remarkable to me that with every conversation that I have with a student around making better choices, I am reminded so much about life and what education is all about, which is that the most precious and most teachable moments often happen outside of the academic classroom.


Teaching kids to be better human beings, and to learn from their mistakes, so that they can become better each and every day is the good stuff, and if we approach these opportunities with the right mindset and attitude then we can change and truly impact a young person’s life in immeasurable ways…and we get to learn about ourselves in the process. It’s easy to quickly go straight to the discipline approach, or to frame the conversation around consequences, but then we miss out on what’s really important, which is the learning. I always walk away from one of these conversations changed for the better, and with a deeper appreciation of the student who is with me at the time. Kids make mistakes, we all do, but it’s how we approach the outcome that makes all the difference. No other profession has the opportunity that we have, and it’s beautiful. How fortunate are we to be doing what we’re doing? How fortunate are we to be spending our days with kids? We get to be mentors and role models and we get to learn from the best teachers on the planet…our students.


It all reminds me of one of my favorite poems by Glennice L. Harmon, which brings to life the reason why we all do what we do…we get to spend our days with young people, and like she says, where could you find more splendid company? Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our kids and good to each other.


They Ask me why I Teach – Glennice L. Harmon

They ask me why I teach

And I reply, “Where could I find more splendid company?”

There sits a statesman,

Strong, unbiased, wise,

Another later Webster


And there a doctor

Whose quick, steady hand

Can mend a bone or stem the lifeblood’s flow.

A builder sits beside him — 

Upward rise the arches of that church he builds wherein

That minister will speak the word of God,

And lead a stumbling soul to touch the Christ.

And all about

A lesser gathering

Of farmers, merchants, teachers,

Laborers, men

Who work and vote and build

And plan and pray into a great tomorrow.

And, I say,

“I may not see the church,

Or hear the word,

Or eat the food their hands will grow.

And yet — I may.

And later I may say,

“I knew the lad, and he was strong,

Or weak, or kind, or proud

Or bold or gay.

I knew him once,

But then he was a boy.

They ask my why I teach and I reply,

“Where could I find more splendid company?”


Quote of the Week…

Teachers affect eternity; no one can tell where their influence stops – Henry Brooks Adams


The Power of Great Teachers Videos – 





The Power of a Great Teacher Articles –




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A Week Without Walls

So for the past two weeks, our middle and high school students (and many of our teachers) have been off discovering different parts of Ecuador through our outdoor education program here at AC. I had the opportunity to spend a couple of days with the middle school kids last week in two different locations, and to tell you the truth I was really inspired by what I saw. Our students were working tirelessly doing meaningful service projects for the local communities, as well as coming together as grade levels through team building and trust activities. They bonded as a group, they made new friends, the got pushed out of their comfort zones, and they learned a lot about themselves…it was amazing. It left me wondering why we don’t do this for more than just 5 days a year honestly, as it seems to me that these trips might just be the most profound learning that our kids will experience all year. I love the quote below by Walt Whitman because it gets to the core of what I believe in as an educator, which is that not everything that our children need to learn can be taught in a formal classroom setting.


        In my opinion, students at this Upper School age need to learn about and internalize the importance of things like trust, service, cultural awareness, environmental stewardship, risk taking, failure, teamwork, and a host of other life skills that will shape who they are, and how they view the world as they meander toward adulthood. Obviously, the best and most profound way to teach and learn these skills is through direct experience, which is why it is so important that we provide opportunities for students, like our Discover Ecuador Trips, where these kinds of experiences can be embraced. I also firmly believe that due to the somewhat sheltered, privileged, and pampered environments that many quality International Schools provide for kids (like ours), breaking students out of their comfort zones (no 5 star hotels, nobody picking up after them, next to no technology, room sharing, getting wet and dirty, trying new foods, giving their time to service, etc..) is an educational responsibility that we all share as a global community.


Inevitably, students return from these trips changed for the better (whether they like it or not)……..better attitudes and perspectives about themselves and their community, better cultural awareness and understanding, better relationships with their teachers and peers, and a better sense of what they can accomplish as young adults. Teachers also return from these trips changed for the better…… a better understanding of their individual students as people, better relationships with students who they don’t necessarily teach, better relationships with their colleagues who they rarely see outside of the school walls, and a better perspective on what’s possible when their kids are pushed past their levels of comfort. I cannot wait to hear the stories, the celebrations, and the life anecdotes that have been generated from this remarkable week away, and I cannot wait to see the positive changes in our kids. It was a wonderful way to begin our school year, and I think it’s time to think critically about how we can bring more experiences like this to life throughout the year. Seriously, if the learning is so rich and meaningful, and the service to our local communities is so impactful, then the question remains…why only 5 days?


Finally, I want to thank all of our teachers who spent these past two weeks with our kids. I know the hard work that is involved with trips like these, and the energy it takes to be with our students for 24 hours a day. You truly are mentors, guardians, and change agents for our young adults, and I could not be more proud of you all…thank you! Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the week….

Now I see the secret of making the best persons, it is to grow in the open air and to eat and sleep with the earth.
– Walt Whitman


Funny Commercial about Nature – 


TED Talks –http://www.ted.com/talks/emma_marris_nature_is_everywhere_we_just_need_to_look_for_it




Outdoor Education Articles – 




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It’s possible to be too open minded

I have just finished reading some work done by a student in one of my Theory of Knowledge classes.  He had been asked to compare several possible solutions to a problem, evaluate them and explain which one was the best one, in his opinion.  Toward the end of his essay he wrote that each of the (contradictory) solution had its strengths, and each could be accepted because the person proposing each one came from a different culture, and had been “exposed to different cultures of learning”.

At one level one must applaud the open-mindedness here; the student was trying to see all possible solutions from the perspective of the person who offered them.  Excellent.  We are delighted to see tolerance here.  I worry, though, about the slippery slope from tolerance to relativism.  Toleration of other people is the disposition to fight opinion only with opinion; to use the pen and not the sword.  So far so good.  But toleration of people is based in respect for people simply because they are people (a good thing) – and it’s easy to confuse this with respecting ideas simply because they are ideas (a bad thing).  That means accepting that all opinions “are equally valid” – an appealing but dangerous step.

The trouble is that if all the ideas are equally valid, and all our beliefs are “just our opinions” then we lose the right to search for a better world, or a more just world.  If everything is just opinion, then there can be no right or wrong, no progress and no real engagement with other people.  Perhaps it is the word just that is the problem; because when we call for an end to human rights violations around the world, for example, it is more than just our opinion; it is the voice of humanity’s bitter experience with war, torture and atrocities over the centuries.  The right reaction, therefore, on matter of importance, is not to nod gently, smile indulgently, and respect opinions, but to agree or to disagree, as strenuously as you can and to say why.  Philosopher Simon Blackburn puts it thus: “The virtues of courage and intelligence, patience and concern, are virtues the world over”. This cannot be in doubt.

In giving feedback to the student whose work I mentioned above, I told him that I would defend very much his right to make up his own mind.  But I would at the same time defend the position that there are some things that it makes a lot more sense to believe than others.  We talked about this, and we concluded that there are three ways to respond to differences of opinion:

  • you can shrug and say ‘all beliefs are equally valid; we are both equally right’
  • you can discuss why you believe what you do, and why others believe what they do, and try to understand the difference
  • you can just say ‘I am right, you are wrong’

Why is the second of these so much better that the first and the third?  Because it is the start of an intelligent, patient and concerned conversation, whereas the the other responses are the end of one.


By Nicholas Alchin | Follow me on Twitter @nicholas_alchin

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Viva Voce

“There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” –Marcel Proust

Viva voce is a Latin phrase that means “with living voice” and represents an insightful way to describe one of the highlights of our school year. The dual reference of “with living voice” to signify both the concept of “word of mouth” and an oral examination, such as a thesis defense, accurately represents students’ experiences associated with our culminating International Baccalaureate (IB) Extended Essay experience.

The IB’s Extended Essay is an independent, self-directed work of research that is concluded with the writing of a 4,000-word paper. Through the process of investigating a topic of special interest, the IB highlights how students develop skills that include the formulation of a research question and the corresponding capacity to analyze, synthesize, and evaluate knowledge.

While the completion of an Extended Essay is an impressive accomplishment in itself, the American School of Brasilia extends the experience and learning through an event called Viva Voce. This special event may best be described as the verbal counterpart to the student’s written essay when our IB candidates literally talk about the passion and challenges they experienced when writing their essays. A three to five-member panel, usually comprised of parents, teachers, and students with expertise or interest in the subject, carefully read the essay and formally engage with the IB students during their presentations. The Viva Voce event is also open to our community to participate as a silent audience and, given the full attendance, there is clearly a high degree of support and interest.

Beyond this framework, what makes the Viva Voce experience so profound is the high degree of passion and engagement that students clearly convey for their research topics. It is not uncommon for students to write much more than the required 4,000 words. The following is a sample of some of the research focus areas:

  • Economics: Government’s Management of Brazil’s Electricity Sector
  • World Studies: Sustainable Fashion
  • Film: Alfred Hitchcock’s influence in film
  • Macro Economics. The effect of the Greek economic crisis in the EU.

This year, I had the honor of serving on Carolina’s panel, a student whose research question investigated the ballad structure in Oscar Wilde’s poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol.” While Carolina spoke to the panel and audience about both her findings and her learning, I could not help but be impressed by her reflections on how her research changed how she sees literature, human relations, and the world in general, but also by her depth of knowledge and understanding of Wilde’s work, as represented by her concluding statements:

“The author uses a poetic method as a tool of offering palpable representation of life at Reading Gaol, which causes people to feel sympathy and sadness. The convicted men inside prison are hopeful, therefore although the initial feeling is that of pity, the author transforms it into a soothing, otherworldly environment, one that proved the human soul capable of conquering the harshness of reality.”

Well done Carolina! And, well done to all Viva Voce students!


The deep learning experiences demonstrated not only by Carolina but all of our students is not the only factor that makes Viva Voce such a special experience. It is also the fact that teachers, parents, students, and members of the greater community are also participating in the learning experience. As it was the first time I had read Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol, I was grateful to Carolina for sharing her analysis and introducing me to such an important work of literature. I had similar feelings last year when serving on a panel for an outstanding economics paper and was seated with a talented economist from the British Embassy and the World Bank Country Director for Brazil. While I would like to think that I made some meaningful contributions to our conversation about economics, I have no doubt that I was also a learner on this day.

While these are my personal stories, I am confident that I speak on behalf of everyone who has participated in the Viva Voce event when sharing how meaningful and transformative the experience has been for students, teachers, and parents. To that end, Viva Voce is a good example of how learning can be personalized, relevant, and meaningful. In terms of school culture, Viva Voce also embodies and exemplifies the spirit of our mission statement: Learners inspiring learners to be inquisitive in life, principled in character, and bold in vision.”

Blog: www.barrydequanne.com

Twitter: @dequanne






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