All posts by Matthew Piercy

MATTHEW PIERCY is a middle school social studies teacher at International School Bangkok. His experiences in the classroom include every grade from 3rd to 11th. He also enjoyed a stint as an instructional coach. Prior to living in Thailand, Matthew worked in international and boarding schools for over twenty years. Tunisia, Ecuador, Hungary, Hawaii, along with the states of Colorado and Georgia all at some point were called “home.” Matthew also enjoys leading summer expeditions for National Geographic, to destinations like Iceland and Cambodia. A diverse pathway in life has led to Matthew’s passion for global mindedness and he constantly is searching for ways to enhance learning, meaning, and transference. His blog explores interconnection and purpose.

MASTERY MATTERS

“At our faculty meeting yesterday we spent too much time talking about how to give final exams so kids who are home don’t cheat.”  So began a Whatsapp message from a friend months ago, her frustration shared by many. COVID-19 caused more than a disruption to education.  However, it may be the catalyst that was needed in order for education to reach a more authentic approach.

“The vast majority of the things we don’t readily forget are all learned from experience and interaction, not from a curriculum or a test,” Tweeted Will Richardson, co-founder of the Big Questions Institute.  Nominated as a Top 5 “Edupreneur to Follow” by Forbes, Richardson’s tweet was aptly given the hashtag #justsayin.

The game has changed. We knew this as we broke into the 21st century and as the digitized world hurdled us all forward.  Long gone were the days of “sit and get” and text books.  Yet still “the institution” seemingly maintained some of its grip.  Control handed down by tighter or even more robust curriculums.  And of course the tests.  

The tests. The tests. The tests.

However, need we be reminded that the game has changed?

With greater clarity we are able to see eyes to see the broken systems but moreover what ultimately matters most.  The “end-all be-all” high stakes hallowed tests have fallen by the wayside.  According to Fairtest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, “More than two-thirds of 4-year colleges and universities in the U.S. will not require applicants to submit ACT or SAT scores for fall 2021 admission. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing (FairTest), which maintains a free, online master list, reports that more than 1,570 schools are now test-optional.”

The Phoenix Flaps Her Wings

An outdated education system akin to crumbling infrastructure or even political shambles, is in transition.  A re-birth of sorts.  One of purpose, authenticity, personalization, and empowerment.  Matt Miller, author and educator of “Ditch That Textbook” sums it up best by positing whether students rent or own their education.  The renters come to class out of compliance.  Whereas the owners are dedicated to caretaking for their own education.  And this makes sense because the global job market no longer is about clocking in and out.  Rather, it expects us to problem solve and proactively and passionately produce.

Getting students excited to have the keys to the car, their car ultimately, does however take educators to trust. “I struggled early on to accept that you couldn’t just convert your class to digital without making changes. I’ve only recently really started to embrace allowing students to own their own experiences,” reflected Jake Trinca in a recent post in response to Dr. John Spencer’s, “7 Big Ideas As You Shift Toward Online Teaching.”  

Letting Students Own Their Own Experiences

Talk about liberation, step back and allow students the space to discuss, grapple, and wonder.  Then, listen and remain flexible to the subtle and sometimes overt direction learning may meander, reminding yourself what this all is for.  Further, who this all is for?  

In “What School Could Be,” author Ted Dintersmith appeals for schools to do just this, by “prioritizing critical thinking, the scientific method, and the essentials of civil society — not high-stakes fact-based multiple choice exams.”  Dintersmith makes the bold claim that, “failure to do so imperils our democracy.”

And wouldn’t this approach in itself be more democratic?  Sitting eight hours a day, being talked at, and told what to do, not only is contrary to democracy and dehumanizing, but also counterproductive to any end goals we have related to student preparedness or empowerment.

A More Authentic Approach Moving Forward 

At the heart of this new, or in actuality old approach, is authenticity.  Proof in the power of apprenticeship is but one example.  A clearer but also brighter vision of the near future is one where education is focused on core competencies and their mastery.  What can students do?  Not on one test but as demonstrated with evidence through their school career. 

The Mastery Transcript Consortium® (MTC) officially launched in 2017 with a purpose of introducing a digital high school transcript. The intent to provide a venue for students to showcase their “unique strengths, abilities, interests, and histories fostered, understood, and celebrated.”  Ultimately, this is where we are.  The train HAS arrived.

This approach is not only possible but necessary because inherent in the design is authenticity but also accountability.  Google and Apple are but two of fifteen companies boasting how they hire individuals without a university degree.  Credentials and moreover “pedigree” are not necessarily the “golden ticket” that they maybe once were. This is because employers want to know and be able to see what an individual can do.  Increasingly, it is about evidence.  

“When you look at people who don’t go to school and make their way in the world, those are exceptional human beings. And we should do everything we can to find those people,” said Google’s former SVP of People Operations Laszlo Bock. 

Graduates with a mastery transcript not only have gone to school but also are able to demonstrate competence.  Much more telling than a fancy resume or high test score.  

Tony Wagner, a globally recognized expert in education, ironically has the initials M.A.T. and Ed.D.  attached to his name.  Both degrees are awarded through the Harvard University Graduate School of Education.  Yet, for more than a decade Wagner has exhorted how outdated the standardized framework for high school is.  Carnegie Units are essentially what students have to earn if they are to graduate and they merely are measures of how much time a student sits in class.  Doing time? Similar to prison. The uncanny resemblance even shows up architecturally.  You can test your luck in determining whether a building is a school or prison on a fun website even.  

Wagner shares how a mastery transcript goes beyond the knowledge and skills mastered.  “It will also include qualities of character that make their humanity visible and help admissions officers make better decisions when it comes to an applicant’s ‘fit.’”  Again, it’s all about authenticity.

Over the past few years The Mastery Transcript Consortium® (MTC) has developed into a network of 369 schools, a blend of public and private schools in the United States but across the globe. “That 99 percent of the high school transcripts follow an identical format is a vestige of an outdated industrial age,” asserts Scott Looney, Head of Hawken School.  

For now, mastery transcripts may be the exception, yet we can await the day when it is the norm.  

CULTURE MAPS, NOT GAPS

Atop my wish list for 2021 is a post pandemic world.  As it pertains to the field of education, I also hanker for increasing adroitness and understanding.  Dexterity if you will, amongst people and cultures.  Understanding ourselves and our identities as individuals and collective societies is preliminary.  Then, fittingly as international educators, we reflect how our school cultures blend, balance, or possibly even juxtapose with the host culture.  

Erin Meyer, author of “Culture Map” recently published another book alongside Netflix co-founder and CEO, Reed Hastings.  “No Rules Rules~Netflix and the Culture of Reinvention,” attests to the importance of freedom and responsibility.  Late in the book, cultural “maps” or charts are utilized to depict how countries compare one with another, along behavioral scales.  For example, communication tending to be high versus low context.  Or, leading being more egalitarian or hierarchical.  The results are revelatory. For example, when using the country mapping tool comparing the Netflix culture map with the the Singapore regional hub map, the results are nearly parallel.  The largest difference is in how time is scheduled.  Netflix has a bit more flexible rather than linear approach to time.  However, when Netflix and Japanese cultures are mapped, there is a near inversal relationship.  The most striking example is how in Japanese culture there is an avoidance of confrontation, whereas at Netflix it is considered disloyal to not express disagreement if your opinion differs. Netflix even socializes the idea of “farming for dissent.”  

Borrowed from: “No Rules Rules”

How fascinating but also worthwhile it might be if schools apply a similar approach?  To look at an institution’s values and compare it to the culture of the host culture.  In the school where I teach, what would various stakeholders say about the similarities but also possible glaring differences of our school values? In confidence the value of respect would likely be mapped the same.  But what about balance? Or, courage?  Would we similarly envision or even define these values?  

Enter innovation stage left.

Or quite possibly stage left, right, and center! With the continued shake-up felt around the world and increasing globalization, the role of innovation continues to be the loudest voice in the room. Whether wrench in the wheel or the necessary spark to the fire, innovation is more than mere buzz word.

However, how much ultimately has resulted from 21st century education and the declaratory driving force to be more innovative?  

How much remains just words?  

And is innovation embedded in our school cultures? If you live in Germany, Singapore, or Korea, innovation likely already has taken root in your host country and possibly is spilling into your schools. Arguably, it is also happening in pockets throughout districts and even schools. But truly embedded or a guiding principle that is realized?

Yong Zhao, Foundation Distinguished Professor in the School of Education at the University of Kansas, cites a failure of education in its ability to catch up to technology. Moreover, professor Zhao attests to governments going at educational reform in an erroneous way.  The answers do not necessarily reside in curriculum, greater testing, school accountability, or even more educated teachers.  Rather, success hinges on creating environments where students own their learning.  

Within a school’s mission and vision, is there a tapping into the most powerful resource?  Students’ imagination, creativity, and joy.  Moreover, do teachers, families, school cultures and host cultures trust students?  By empowering students we ultimately will engage them in the magic that education can be.  

Flexibility and adaptability are often preached, and yet so, we hold fast to certainty.  And also control. Prolific is the desire to just tweak. A freshening up of the baby’s bath water, as to not let any water escape.  Yet, at Netflix a very different approach is taken; the water blithely thrown out.  Netflix’s heart beats from a place of trust, empowerment, risk and responsibility.   Are these same variables commonplace in our schools? Amongst our teachers but also learners?  And are they implicit in our school’s values?

Let’s have 2021 be the year of paradigm shift. 

Naturally, a first step would be to informally audit, or least reflect on who are as an institution.  So too is the importance of grappling explicitly with reality and the culture of the host nation. In international settings, this close examination is especially critical. Where are the matches?  Contradictions?  Furthermore, what is reconcilable? Respecting of cultures is paramount, but so too is the necessity to strategically plan for pathways of growth.

The goal to clearly see our culture maps while diminishing the culture gaps.

Getting Out of Students’ Way

Education often is steeped in compliance as a result of control.  How nourishing the experience can be, when instead of control, context is the driver.  In October two students asked if I might be willing to sponsor a club called, “Green Oceans.” 

The name was intriguing, as were the stickers already affixed to the computers of various sixth graders.  Instead of an ocean, the design featured a mountain. Come to find out that the mountains wished to convey a broader message of interconnectedness. The green referred to sustainability.  Needless to say, I gladly accepted the request to act as sponsor.

A week later, twenty-two motivated students filled the room.  

The club was born.  

Unbeknownst to me, the savvy pre-teens already were immersed in a digital platform called Discord.  They were quick to include and even assign me a “teacher’s chair.” Green Oceans already determined that the club’s two “founders” should help guide the decisions.  Further, two other students were quick to self-nominate to act as Green Ocean’s financial managers.  

“Financial managers for what?” I question.  We didn’t have any money!

Though I initially did not know several of the students, it is quite possible that unconsciously I was able to trust in the goodness to come.  This especially so, having students named  Birdie, Whale and Proud in the room.  In Thailand it is customary to have a nickname or “chue len.”  Literally translating to “play name,” in 80% of the cases the chue len is but one syllable. It certainly helps with pronunciation, as official Thai names can be especially long.  

At the heart of Green Oceans was an earnest desire to help spread awareness to take care of the oceans.  Furthermore, the club wanted to take action. Students were quick to decide that they should sell something.  One student already was recognized to have a talent for tye-dye, whereas another enjoyed making friendship bracelets.  The novelty of both would be customization.

Over the next month students were part of either the marketing or production team.  Marketing was responsible for creating posters to be hung around campus, as well as digital posters to be shared in both the middle and high school daily news bulletins.  Further, individuals on the marketing team learned how to develop Google Forms for collecting orders and spreadsheets were utilized for organizing payment and also for communicating with the designers.  

Just as quickly as the club was born, orders began to stream in.  The production team was all hands on deck, while marketing worked closely with “clients” (student speak) to collect payment and communicate the time and place orders could be picked up.  

All told, an equivalent of over $1000USD was sold. True service, not an assignment. The endeavor entirely student driven.  “My favorite thing about Green Ocean Club was we had a chance to lead the club.” A similar version of this comment was repeatedly made in a reflective survey. 

In initial club meetings, Green Oceans decided to piggyback on the relationship the school already had with an organization called, Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries, also known as “Turtle Heaven.”  Founded in 1985, Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries is located in Southwestern Thailand, along Thai Muang Beach. The Andaman Sea is home to four species of turtle and Green Ocean club’s monetary donation will specifically help support an effort to protect important nesting areas for both Hawksbill and Green sea turtles. 

Becoming a “sponsor” provided for a “guide on the side” approach.  As teachers we seemingly are quick to lead, maybe even control.  Getting out of students’ way may just be the panacea.  One which leads to greater empowerment but also success!  

Have you eaten?

Does the perfunctory “How are you doing?” really cut it anymore?

Traditionally, the Chinese inquired, “chī le ma?” Or, “chī fàn le ma?”  Literally translated as, “have you eaten?” One origin story points to the significance of the salutation being attached to people’s emotions through food.  Closer to home, here in Thailand, people in passing traditionally greet one another by asking, “bi nigh krup” or “bi nigh ka.”  Used in place of “hello,” it translates, “Where are you going?” The polite response, as ambiguous as automatic, “down the street.”

How are you doing? 

Four words.

At the doorway of my classroom and in the hallways, I might unwittingly string these four words together over a hundred times each day!

400 cheap words, the currency of little value. So, let me try this again.

How are you doing? I mean, how are you REALLY doing? The question, asked in English, goes back more than four centuries.  The actual verbiage being, “how art thou?” Syntactically, various versions of the common inquiry morphed throughout the ages.  The meaningfulness of the genuine salutation seemingly adulterated. Which brings us to today. The response an unauthentic knee jerk, “good.” For any who may contest, when was the last time you responded or heard another respond, “Terrible”?  Instead, the predictable exchange can be chalked up as one of life’s “near miss” exchanges.   Akin to handing off a bill and getting change at a toll both.  Mere pleasantries, if even.

With Social Emotional Learning (SEL) more than ever before on educators’ minds, it behooves us to successfully leverage ways we might more successfully and meaningfully connect with students, families, and colleagues.  SEL dubbed the non-cognitive skills which provide for an holistic and well-rounded education, might feel for some to be yet one more thing.  Yet, amidst a worldwide pandemic and inexorable uncertainty, truly getting to know individuals is vital.  Arguably even more so, in an increasingly virtual world.  A friend recently commented how a professor in an on-line course made the indelible assertion, “SEL is not one thing more on the plate. SEL IS THE PLATE.”  Touché.

So, if connecting with our students is important, becoming more deliberate in our salutations seems to be a sensible initial step. Thinking about what we ask, but also not settling for the generic, “good.”  Instead with compassion, might we look others in the eye, seeking to better understand how each is really doing.  Slowing down and taking a self-inventory to see if we are listening earnestly may also pay dividends.

Five years ago, “thinking routines” rightly were all the rage.  Maybe now, the time is ripe for “feeling routines.”  Challenging ourselves to not only learn more vocabulary but to truly get in touch with how we, they, and everyone is doing.  As we begin to hold ourselves more accountable for assessing the countless shifting tides of emotions, maybe then we can more fully honor and support students. But like all good teaching, first we must model. Additionally, creating space, building trust, developing vocabulary, and truly taking time to genuinely show we care, all are at the core. 

The result? 

Students who are likely to feel more connection, validation, and belonging.  In doing so, we stand a chance to truly bring out the humanity in this noble profession.  

The challenges and promises of migration

How many have slipped on an Oculus or Odyssey headset and experienced virtual reality? Recently a colleague and I intentionally introduced seventh grade students to a unit on migration by seeing firsthand what life is like in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan. Za’atari is home to more than 80,000, with over half the refugees being children. Students are exposed Sidra’s world,a tent-city where the 12-year old has lived the more than half her life. Clouds Over Sidra, available at no cost, was created to support a United Nations goal of developing resilience in vulnerable communities.

The decision to hook students through this experience was founded upon a desire for students to emotionally connect and hopefully generate not only greater interest and understanding, but ultimately empathy. As students followed Sidra through the camp, into a classroom, onto the football field, and into a shop baking a thin, flat bread called saj, curiosity piqued. Students were partnered so one could act as note taker, recording all that was wondered. For example:

*Why are there more kids than adults?
*How do the people here get money aside from donations?
*How does this affect children’s well-being?

After partners switched roles, students were asked to complete a three question survey.
*What is one word to describe how you felt, seeing and hearing about Sidra’s life?
*What did you see and/or hear that led to your feeling this way?
*Did you enjoy doing the VR?

The overwhelming majority of students responded favorably to the third question. To enhance the depth of emotional response and explanation, students were provided with the Mood Meter. Marc Brackett, Yale professor and founding director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence developed this evidence-based road map to emotions. In a nutshell, the tool supports building vocabulary and also measures the energy and pleasantness of a feeling. Over 50 percent of students surveyed indicated unpleasant and high energy emotions. Words like, “concerned,” “stressed,” and even “peeved” were selected.

Further, one student explained why she thought felt this way. “I felt stressed because looking at her life, I don’t know what she is going to do next. Or how she is going to survive through the war.” Another shared, “I felt angry because I was appalled by the fact that rulers can be so dumb. That they make decisions to destroy other people’s homes, just to have POWER. I mean WHY, why would you do that? To get power by destroying other people’s houses? Who does that? So mean!” The level of emotional response was clear. So too was the empathy. Exactly what we were hoping to cultivate.

But this is just a beginning.

Following empathetic awareness, students will explore the myriad reasons for why people migrate and how migration impacts people and places. Through deeper understanding, the goal is to empower students to ultimately transfer their learning in meaningful ways. As a culminating project students will create documentary films of stories from individuals in our community who have experience with migration. The films will then be submitted to the The United Nations International Organization for Migration Film Festival. Ultimately the intention is capture the multitude of challenges of migration but also the promise.

7:25 a.m is Not Too Early to Remember

~Understanding Our Own Emotions is Imperative to Building Relationships

It is 7:25 a.m and Mr. Davidson stands at the “threshold,” carefully accounting for how he feels as he encounters each student. Greeting each child by name as they enter class first took root as a habit, after reading Doug Lemov’s #1 New York Times Best Selling book, “Teach Like a Champion.” That was 2010 and he has since greeted over a thousand students.  However, the pandemic compelled Mr. Davidson to rethink the inherent power behind developing relationships.  And until recently he never really took stock for what he honestly might have been feeling for a student. 

“Good morning Daniela, how did your soccer game go?” Breathe of fresh air. 

“Hello Jeremy.” Neutral.

“Hey Jacob, gooood morning!” Joy.

“Hi Isabella.”  Irritation.

This new attentiveness commenced after a recent reading of, “Permission to Feel.” Author Marc Brackett, director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and a professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University, illustrates how emotions are information.  A first step is to note one’s emotions.  Brackett proposes we conduct an “experiment,” using ourselves as guinea pigs.  He encourages the reader to consider the multitude of interactions they might have in a given day.  What is the instant “top-of-the-head” answer to the question, “How do I feel when I encounter each and every person?” From the cashier at the convenience store and attendant at the tollbooth, to our closest colleagues.  Even more specifically, what about the very students we teach?  Our response to how we might first feel, ultimately has the gravitas to result in our will to approach or possibly, avoid a student.

Brackett shares how in seminars it is not uncustomary for teachers to break down crying once they recognize how differently they treat each child.  The inequity is a simple factor of a teacher’s faulty perception of how a student might “make” them feel.

A simpleton would foolishly chalk this up as being human.  Yet, this would be a futile pardoning of sorts.  One that in the end, absolves a teacher of the privileges and responsibilities of the “superpowers” inherent in being a teacher.  Furthermore, to be controlled by an emotion and not approach a student would be devilishly unprofessional.

Teachers enter the profession with an earnest desire for all students to become successful.  A teacher’s wealth built from the relationships developed with students and families.  Albert Camus touched on this prosperity, “When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

A teacher’s doorway; summer.

There is grave importance in coming to the realization of the near visceral reactions within us. The reactions likely having little even to do with the child.  And children they are, even at 17 years of age!  Malleable lives in the making.  Our influence far greater than might be imagined. Every child, regardless of last class, yesterday, what was said, done, or possibly not done is of little, if any, significance.  What is, is to remember why we are teachers.  The child walking through the door is an invitation, a pending relationship. 

She is hope. 

He is potential.  

They are promise.  A better tomorrow.

It would be remiss to discount how teachers might be feeling.  Often stressed, overworked, and possibly frustrated.  But what about the children?  Many share the same feelings but are also bored and locked within four walls. The exit, the same as the entrance.  Eight purposeless hours, autonomy supplanted by control. Yet, some may wonder why schools feel more like prison than innovative places, when in many urban school districts in the United States rigid security measures include metal detectors, police on campus and students under continuous surveillance. 

Meanwhile, millions of learners are fixed to a computer screen for endless hours each day of virtual learning.  The need for relationships and connection even more paramount.

This begs the question, “Do students celebrate coming into the classroom, as much as leaving?”  For this truly to be realized, there is the necessity to replay the greetings and ensuing emotions at the threshold.

“Good morning Daniela, how did your soccer game go?” Breathe of fresh air. 

“Hello Jeremy.” Neutral.

Neutral?  This is inexcusable.

Neutral is neither going backwards nor forwards.  Neutral is going nowhere and Jeremy needs to be going somewhere.

More than ever before, students need teachers.  Negative and neutral responses towards a student simply is irresponsible.  Assuming Jeremy does propose every challenge under the sun, so what?  

There is all the more reason then to reach out to him. The vitality and value of this, far outweighs any emotion within Mr. Davidson. And he knows it. Emotional intelligence attests to the ability to regulate one’s emotions.  Might he (and we!) be poised enough to do this. Powerful and in control.  As opposed to being asleep at the wheel and possibly reacting to how we might feel.

It requires a remembering of why we became teachers.  7:25 a.m is not too early to remember! 

Meeting Learners Wherever They May Be

“Aim for the middle of the square,” I encourage an 8-year old boy on my basketball team.

The power of geometry on full display. Meanwhile, another player kicks the ball against the gymnasium wall, seemingly confusing basketball for soccer.  Two others chase each other in a game of tag. Out of the corner of my eye, I spot another dancing the Macarena.  The Macarena?  Is Tik Tok responsible for the one-hit wonder Spanish song of 1993 being brought back? Reaching for my whistle, I notice another player launching shots from beyond the three-point line.  In wonder I look on, taking a few seconds to just take in the full scene.  

Weren’t the directions and demonstration clear?  To take shots from 3 feet away, stepping from side to side and aiming at the middle of the box. A timeless backboard drill.  

Before I am able to blow the whistle, it happens.

“Coach, can you tie my shoe?” one 4-foot tall player earnestly requests.  His large blue eyes match his dyed fringe.  The shrill tone of his voice resembling my 5-year old nephew’s.  

I look down at his knotted lace and caught up in the chaos, regretfully do not seize the opportunity to teach this “life skill.”  On the ride home, the moment continued to be replayed. Impossible to get out of my head, it stewed the next 48 hours.  

For a veteran teacher, this was a serious self-check.  An invaluable lesson to meet the learner, wherever they might be. A cornerstone of any education certification program, I would have guessed I perfected this lesson.  However, in the midst of “herding cats,” did I forget?  Mere negligence? Simply distracted?  Whatever the reason, I was embarrassed for myself.  A “wrong” to made right!  

Grateful to learn from the error, I was reminded how we may have a particular aim for a class or practice, yet of even greater importance than our plan, is that we remain flexible and respond to the learners right before our eyes. Differentiation sometimes a reflex, while at other times requires utmost intention.  

The next practice I approached the boy with the knotted laces and on bended knee showed him how to tie his shoe. Singing in a hushed tone, “Over, under, around and through, meet Mr. Bunny Rabbit, pull and through.”  Smiling, he gave it a try, his motor skills a clear challenge. The third attempt a success!

During my childhood a poster hung in our home’s laundry room.  It shared advice from best-selling author, Robert Fulgum and was titled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” Fulgum conveyed the simplicity and power of such adages as, share everything, and to play fair. 

Years later, a third grade teacher, I turned to look over my shoulder each time a student called, “Mister…”  I looked for my father, a bit bewildered because from one day to the next I had become a “Mister” myself.  Though the exuberance, joy, and energy of 8 and 9-year olds was a pleasure, middle school became my wheelhouse.  More than twenty years would pass before I would be in the company of third-graders again. 

This time, wearing the hat of coach. A chance to improve my well-conditioned skills in patience but also explicitness, assuming nothing.   

Not even that all the children can yet tie their own shoes.

Time for Action: Reaching Unity in Diversity

I am sitting in a room surrounded by fellow teachers and administrators, mindful of our physical distance. A grin on my face, not because we just successfully concluded our fifth week of classes. Rather, I am tickled by the irony.

Distanced, we discuss “togetherness.”

More specifically, intercultural competencies was to be the focus of our dialogue. I felt privileged to have the time and space to converse openly because so critical is the work that needs to be done. As part of an international school, one that clearly is not American-centric, we must first consider our context. With students and faculty cultures representing more than sixty nations, there is credence in remaining cognizant of the influences of the host country culture. Possibly the country power structures may even be more hierarchically structured than egalitarian. Furthermore, it would be remiss to not acknowledge the large degree of diversity representative in the range of people’s experiences and quite possibly, readiness to reflect on privilege, equality, and oppression.

Over the summer I wrote an article titled, “An Authentic Response to Take Action.” In it I ask, “Might 2020 be the nascence of more leadership from the heart. Passion hangs heavy in the air, as people imagine a tomorrow they long to live in. Changes bent on solutions, not blame, as millions get down on bended knee in silent protest.” The protests have not abated, if anything they have grown more intense. All this amidst an uncontrolled pandemic and under apocalyptic skies of the Wetern United States. In this same post I introduced Safaa Abdelmagid and her open letter to SEARCH Associates published on June 8. In it she concludes, “Do better, Search Associates, much much better. Start by being honest…Own your privilege and use it to serve those who truly deserve it.” For context, this was but three days after the tragic death of George Floyd.

Then, August 26 The Search Associates Team and CEO Jessica Magagna, responded with their own letter. Addressed, “Dear Search Associates Community,” Magagna cites “tangible actions and evidence of change.” A move beyond awareness and to greater responsibility. Clear points outlined by a 3-section plan, where actions are determined immediate, by the end of December 2020, and by the end of March 2021.

The school where I am employed endeavors to determine measurable action points as well. Thankfully, we too were challenged, most notably by alumni, as they shared their experiences and offered suggestions. The conversations with this invaluable group will continue.

There is much work to be done. The issues do not begin, nor end with race. The move is to reflect, take ownership, and become far more inclusive. So our school, the people but also the systems, are more fully equitable to all cultures; be they defined racially, linguistically, by gender, sexual-preference, or ability. Schools must take a stand. Furthermore, akin to SEARCH associates, a degree of poise but also power must be established. A power which links us as human beings. Our minds simply will not think the way out of this. Our hearts are to play a key role as we feel our way into a reality so many have felt, for so long.

The good news is, the iGen or Generation Z, consistently proves itself to be more accepting of differences than previous generations. It is us educators but moreover the institutions and broader cultures that need to “catch up.” A sensible starting point is to begin by having these long overdue conversations, determining our priorities.

Mahatma Gandhi advised us well when he said. “Action expresses priorities. Our ability to reach unity in diversity will be the beauty and the test of our civilization” The time for action is yesterday.

Tapping into Feedback

“Is this summative or formative?”  A question as contriving as common.  Often latent in the query is the presupposition that summatives are the end all, be all.  Possibly implicit in the question is a credo, “Well, if it is just formative it is practice, so it really does not count.”  

Count?  

Everything “counting,” the teacher is quickly retorts, “It’s feedback.” 

Feedback.  Something teachers provide in abundance but may not necessarily receive enough of. Yet, how ubiquitous is feedback!  So much so, we may not even realize how we swim, quite possibly even drown, in feedback loops.  Technology “flattening” our experience. In many ways it removes the variance of chance, but ultimately its purpose based on improvement.  From the things we purchase, the movies we watch, places we travel, and the food we eat.  It is all being reviewed!

But, what about teaching and learning?  How embedded is the practice of giving and receiving feedback? Infrequent enough for many to consider teaching to be the second most private act. Sure, autonomy is invaluable for a teaching to honing his or her craft and yet, education is something we do together.  Superseding the design of transparent learning spaces and windowed classrooms, is the need for a greater shift in consciousness.  One where schools and educators not only are okay with a more complete picture, but begin to innovate in ways which might invite and also thrive from the feedback parents and students are able to provide.  A semestorial SurveyMonkey approach clearly leaves room for aspiration. 

How We Might Go About Eliciting Feedback

It might help to look at the wellspring of this World of Feedback. It is 1986 and Roger Ebert leads in with, “When the movie is on the ground, is when it runs into trouble.  The love story is not only unnecessary but unconvincing…The whole relationship seems to have been written in as an afterthought and the other relationships are awfully predictable…Somehow we’ve been here before.  I give the movie thumbs down, despite the great action sequences.”  

Can you name the movie?  

Despite mixed reviews it went on to win Academy Awards for Best Original Song, “Take My Breath Away.”  Give away, right?  Top Gun.  Prior to Siskel and Ebert, there was little “giving of thumbs up or down.”  In a quirky way, they revolutionized movie reviewing.

Fast forward a little more than two decades and Facebook begins a trend where everyone (with a Facebook account of course), is suddenly able to be give and receive feedback.  The birth of “we are all critics.”  With the tap on “thumbs up,” a person could indicate approval or “like” a another’s photos.  They may even leave a comment.   A confirmation of sorts, more than a review because silence is not necessarily a thumbs down.  

Or take the story of Trip Advisor and how in the first years of the millennium they stumble upon the power of reviews.  Enough so that their entire business model shifted.  Initially developed in an effort to focus on the “official” words from guidebooks and newspapers, an uproarious response became of s simple and  inviting button saying, “Visitors add your own review.”  There was no denying how the “people had spoken.” Or, at least they desired to!   Almost overnight, the tiny firm run out of an office above a pizza shop, became the world’s most visited travel website.  In 2019, Trip Advisor reported to the United States Securities and Exchange Commision,  “The website has versions in 48 markets and 28 languages worldwide. It features approximately 859 million reviews and opinions on approximately 8.6 million establishments.”   

Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

If Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ancient mariner were not so ancient and living today, he might reflect, “Review, review everywhere, and whom do I trust?” Items get reviewed on Amazon.  Videos on YouTube and movies on Rotten Tomatoes.  Books by the New York Times and Good Reads.  Restaurants on TripAdvisor, Yelp, and within Google Maps. Then, there is a whole host of other platforms specific to individual countries.  The point being, every which way we turn, we are giving and listening to the stars and reviews.  A viscous flow of feedback.  

“Buyer beware. This is a knock off. I have several (fill in the blank) and these are not like the others.   After taking a closer look I could tell these were not real.” When it comes to shopping online, 74% of people trust social networks to guide them to purchase decisions.  The “Buyer beware” review may be enough to sway a person to look at a different product.  The reviewer’s feedback effective, independent of who they may be.  This is something to consider as the 21st century ideology where “everything is reviewed, all the time,” spurred an entirely new niche.  The industry of social media influencers.  

In a BBC article titled, “Social-media influencers: Incomes soar amid growing popularity,” technology reporter Jane Wakefield wrote, “The money made by social-media influencers has risen meteorically in the last few years, according to a new report.” The marketing firm Izea predicting that greater spending on influencers in 2020, will lead to a $10bn industry.

Bringing It Back to Schools

So, what does all this influencing really mean to the field of education?  So far, very little?  A missed opportunity of sorts.  However, we are perfectly positioned in a time of transition.  We need not look forward but only to today. The pandemic in many facets, a catalyst for education systems to be more nimble and quick, as they jump over and under the COVID stick. An appeal to progressiveness.

Whether we redesign or just improve our schools, it behooves us to consider the nature of the times in which we live. Where opinions are omnipresent and yet little have we tapped into our communities to receive a fuller picture of our effectiveness.  The key, integrated systems or platforms that allow for consistent, authentic, and timely feedback. Moreover, the crowning jewel being a team mentality.  Schools, homes, and the greater community as one.  The solicitation of feedback driven by genuine motivation conveyed to be as effective as possible.  Thoughtful and constructive feedback allowing for improvement.  

Just as social media permitted us all to review, so too it might allow us in the field of education, all to improve.  

Author’s Note: For a truly amusing experience, check out author John Greene’s podcast titled, The Anthropocene Reviewed.”  A listener might think that Greene would choose to review only ideas and objects of 5-star quality. However, he consistently surprises, as he concludes with an honest critique after fully teaching about everything from air conditioning and sycamore trees to most recently, mortification and civilization.  

3-D Teaching

The start of a new school year resulted in my taking a bit of a hiatus in blogging.  No doubt, being in three places at the same time has provided some challenge.  Three places?  Live with five classes of twenty-something pre-teens wiggling before me in the classroom.  Getting to know students and  putting faces with names is the first order of “business.”  This year I have a student named Whale and another I warily call Honey.  “Good morning Honey!” just does no’t feel right for some reason.  I remain thankful Honey is not in Sweet’s class, or Sweet Honey might just sit alongside each other.  A colleague has Putter’s little brother, Birdie this year.  Thai nicknames often add  a bit of joy to the classroom and it is quite possible to have a whole fruit salad, with students named Apple, Pear, and Peach!  

Face to face, or dubbed f2f, often focuses the first days upon building routines and  just putting students at ease, so the classroom is a place each child feels comfortable. A second dimension being explored, is “the virtual.”  Back to Zoom and synchronous virtual learning. While the third space is reserved for the asynchronous and for students  currently out of the time zone.  These learners receive a link to the recorded class and sometimes  the addition of more succinct tutorial videos which teachers create.  So, a start to a school year unlike any other.  Three-dimensional!

Though only two or three class periods in, humorous stories already are being amassed.  Of such things as an unaware synchronous student,  broadcasting inappropriate comments  over the classroom speakers for all to hear.  Or, of the student projected on the screen in front of the whole class.  Only, everyone’s attention is on the mother who is behind her and acrobatically dodges out of sight. Dropped Zoom calls, forgotten recorded sessions, audio input/output incorrectly set.  Whatever the case, even with the fumbles and follies, the first two weeks back to school were a definite success.  One that required teachers both compassion for students and themselves.  

Here in Thailand we consider ourselves lucky to have a chance to be face to face.  This a possibility because of the stellar response of the  nation.  In fact, the end of  July saw Thailand ranked number one in the world out of 184 countries for its ongoing COVID-19 recovery effort.  This,  according to the Global COVID-19 Index (GCI).  Nearly a month later, Thailand remains on top.  As of August 16, the total number of confirmed cases stood at 3,377, where 95 percent recovered and just 58 total deaths recorded.  Further, Thailand had no new domestic cases of COVID for 83 days.

Throughout the pandemic, news of COVID stipulations seemingly shifted from morning to night.  However, society was steadfast in being compliant regardless if there appeared to be contradictions. Certain regulations appear to be for perception as the logic is difficult to understand.  For example, in schools students can pass a basketball but not borrow a pencil.  The importance of exercise a priority, while the pencil is deemed a risk that can be mitigated. Keeping account of the dos and don’ts or cans and can’ts can be difficult.  However, more challenging is to break socialization habits learned in kindergarten, where sharing was  “what big boys and girls do.”  First grade began with the importance of washing hands but also that there would no longer be the sharing of anything, toys included.  Then there was the valiant and never-ending  attempt to control for social, or what we call physical, distancing?  Social distancing, a bit of an oxymoron, as we want students to be social, but so long as there remains  1-2 meters of distance between them.  Middle school students huddle around an infographic the teacher probably should not have even printed and handed out.  Yet, the motivation being one of learning, sharing  ideas, and being together.  Laboratory work in the high school can be interesting if physical distance is to be maintained.  Need I even “touch,” no pun intended, what physical distancing might mean to a classroom of 3-year olds who is not yet even proficient in the language of instruction?  

Thai national  schools began the first weeks of July, whereas  the independent international school where I work just wrapped up week two.  However, mid-game (if ever there was a mid-Corona game) yet another measure of compliance was just handed down.  Impossibility absolutely inherent in the “design.”  The Ministry of Education requires all schools to ensure students maintain a daily record of their whereabouts outside of school hours.  The purpose is  to  facilitate any needed contact tracing should a case of COVID be reported (confirmed) in the community.  This means all students need to record where they go daily.  Being a middle school teacher, it often is challenging enough to have a child write down their homework when it is written on the board and given as a directive.  

In May Thailand’s government launched a contact tracing app, declaring it vital in reducing a flare up of virus cases. Public buildings required app and temperature check-ins  via prior to entry.  The shopping mall was the first place I encountered this, then the domestic airport.  Unable to mandate the use of the app, because not everyone has a phone, the alternative mirrored how it used to be to make a walk-in restaurant reservation.  A piece of paper on a clipboard and just your name and phone number penciled in. Initially I could not help but question the legitimacy or accuracy of this alternative.  However, Thai culture’s high degree of respect and deference shown to authority likely results in near perfect records. A system like this in the United States would  play host to an array of absurd names and numbers.

No matter the next edict, law, or measure, Thailand will hurdle, rather than grapple with any ostensible or gray space. There remains a tensile strength in Thailand’s hierarchical structure, one that begets compliance.  Businesses remain shuttered and the entire tourist industry gasps for a breath of fresh air.  Though there is no promise, hope remains and there is conversation about a plan to re-open international borders.  Meanwhile, schools may be in session, but the situation is fragile. Learning could go back to 100 percent virtual at the drop of a hat!  If COVID has taught us anything, it is the importance of flexibility.  This, along with the reckoning of how Thailand’s entire society remains under the auspices of the Kingdom. Yet, herein possibly lies the very reason why the country tops the list of safest places to be right now!