Spring Into Books

These books not only are appropriate to the season, they shine a light on different aspects of Spring.

A Flower Is A Friend by Frieda Wishinsky, art by Karen Patkau is a lovely celebration of flowers. Flowers help many friends, like bees and butterflies. They dance in the wind and can shelter insects. The lyrical text lends itself to be read aloud with young readers. The art invites the reader to study the images closely to discover more animals. The back pages give nonfiction details about each animal mentioned like bats and spiders. A perfect book for nature lovers. ISBN 978-1-77278-280-6, Pajama Press

Afikomen by Tziporah Cohen and Yaara Eshet tells the story of the origin of a Jewish tradition: the breaking of matzah at Passover. This wordless picture book shows a family celebrating together while the children sneak under the tablecloth. When they emerge they have time traveled to Egypt where they meet Moses in his wicker basket and help him to safety in the Pharaoh’s daughter’s arms. The back page gives details in this biblical tale.  ISBN 978-1-77306-606-6, Groundwood Books

The Best Eid Ever by Asma Mobin-Uddin, illustrated by Laura Jacobson. This picture book explains the biggest holiday in the Muslim year when Aneesa gets to wear new clothes, helps cook lamb stew and goes to the mosque. A lovely story to share for those kids who will recognize themselves and for those who will learn something new about a major traditional celebration. ISBN 978-1-59078-431-0, Boyds Mills Press

Ramadan, The Holy Month of Fasting by Ausma Zehanat Khan. Many of us are familiar with Ramadan. But what does it mean, why do Muslims fast during the month of Ramadan and how is it celebrated in countries around the world? This beautiful nonfiction book answers those questions and much more. There are information boxes, recipes of traditional dishes, photos and lots of information to learn about Ramadan. ISBN 978-1-4598-1181-2, Orca Book Publishers

Passover, Festival of Freedom by Monique Polak. This nonfiction book explains the origins and traditions of Passover. Through text, facts, photos and personal accounts, the book shares stories and information from the Jewish community. Recipes for traditional Passover dishes are also included in this beautiful information book. Informative for those familiar with Passover and also for those who are not. ISBN 978-1-4598-0990-1, Orca Book Publishers

Margriet Ruurs is a Canadian author of many books for children. She is available for author presentations at International Schools: http://www.margrietruurs.com

Happiness and Education

Today is the International Day of Happiness, a celebration that was first ritualised by the United Nations 10 years ago. This evokes philosophical questions about what it means to be happy and to what extent education can create happiness.

Different philosophers have had different approaches to what happiness is. For ancient philosophers such as Confucius and Aristotle, happiness is achieved by striving for virtue. Virtue for Confucius meant a subduing of the self; for Aristotle it meant moral piety. In seeking temperance and modesty, a higher life, or “eudaimonia” as Aristotle called it, will be gained and it is here, paradoxically, in the selflessness of humility, that happiness resides.

The great Stoic philosophers (Epictetus, Lucretius, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius), not unlike Buddhist philosophers, viewed happiness as something that would come about through an acceptance of life. Rather than resist, one should accept. Through acts of meditation and reflection, one gains happiness by loving what is rather than hoping for what might be. It is true that it is unlikely that one will be happy if life is an ongoing battle against everything around you, but without resistance, how do we stop ourselves from falling into quietism and apathy? 

Indeed, for the great feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, happiness is an act of resistance through which one has to uproot herself from reality, take some philosophical distance and, through this act of criticality, seek a pathway that is personal, genuine and authentic. Happiness, therefore, comes about through this existential, even political act of self-defining decision making and critical consciousness. Ultimately, we have the agency to bring upon ourselves a life that may or may not be a happy one, depending on the sincerity of the choice and the willingness to face the consequences and the responsibility of the choice. A problem with this is that not everybody has the same degree of choice, some have more than others on a structurally unequal playing field.

Ubuntu, the much acclaimed Southern African philosophy, seeks wellbeing through the coextensive appreciation of others: I am because we are; no one person can exist in isolation, we find our emancipation in each other’s interdependence and collective dignity. In this ontological framework, happiness comes about through other people and a feeling of connection. 

Nietzsche, on the other hand, believed that the path to happiness was through the active principle: in a deeply individualistic manner, one needs to strive for the active principle, which is to live your life like a work of art, with passion and conviction, so much so that you would be prepared to live it again and again. In this way you rise above the many in an exhilarating act of self overcoming.  

Some might say that trying to attain happiness in and of itself is a futile endeavour, that it is precisely by not thinking about what happiness is or how one might be happy and, instead, by being fully engaged and focussed in something that happiness might come about. Furthermore, it is not really possible to be in a permanent state of happiness: it is rather a mood that comes and goes. In life, there are bound to be moments of sadness, anger, regret, but also joy and hope. 

Happiness in Schools

The World Health Organisation estimates that globally, 5% of adults suffer from depression. Mental health issues have become a serious issue in schools; we have to explore the best way to address this educationally. 

There is no one answer to the question as the abovementioned philosophical viewpoints demonstrate. Two things I believe strongly as a school leader, a parent and a teacher, are that 

  1. Young people need to be recognised in their school environment for the potential they have. If we are able to see in each student that special gift and relay that to them, not in a throw-away, insincere manner, but truthfully and intentionally, it reinforces a belief in themselves, which becomes a force within that builds confidence and resilience. Deficit narratives are damaging to self esteem. The Victorian belief that through negative messaging we can put people on the right course is a clumsy and dangerous one. Better to see the good within each student and let that grow.
  2. The more engaged students are in the full repertoire of school life (sports, arts, service learning, cultural events, field days, opportunities), the more likely, in that focus and flow, to enjoy themselves individually and collectively. Happiness is not something that necessarily comes about through targeted interventions, it grows out of a culture. Encouraging students to be fully involved in school life allows them to be children, to explore different aspects of their being and keeps them focussed.

Unfortunately, a lot of unhappiness is created by other people (Jean Paul Sartre said famously, in his play “No Exit”, that “hell is other people”), and it is difficult for an institution to tell people how to behave with each other. Even a tightly enforced code of conduct cannot prevent the silent acts of exclusion that are hurtful and happen below the radar.  What schools can influence is the culture. If there is a vibrant, active collective culture in which we recognise talent in people, we will surely be on one of the paths that lead to moments of happiness.

Mining For Gold

So over the past couple of weeks I have been dealing with, working through, and supporting people with some really difficult issues, both personally and professionally, and the heaviness of these recent issues inevitably started to send my mood into a downward spiral. Finally, late last week this downward mood change forced me to stop, slow down, and reflect on how important it is to focus, intentionally, on life’s small and beautiful moments, which for me is an important exercise in ensuring my day to day happiness. You see, we all have bad days now and then, and we all have tough weeks and difficult stretches at one time or another, and if we’re not careful then this collection of difficult experiences can creep into how we view our lives, our jobs, how we treat and respond to other people, and how we see the world. It’s so easy to let the negative moments frame your days, and it can happen gradually, without you even knowing that your energy for yourself and for others has changed.These difficult recent weeks also happened to coincide with the anniversary of the passing of a very good friend of mine, but interestingly enough that didn’t add to my days in a negative way, it was actually what inspired me to get through these weeks in the right frame of mind.

        This very good friend of mine was amazing at framing and re-framing any experience in a way that teased out the good, and he was a master at turning any negative experience into a positive or an opportunity. He used to say that there is always a best part to a bad day, and it’s just a matter of focusing on that particular piece when things get tough. He used to call this practice, “mining for gold”, and it became a daily habit in his life. It’s funny how easy it is to get caught up in the day to day stresses of our lives, and how easy it is to go days and days without slowing down and embracing life’s small and beautiful moments that are invisibly, and not so invisibly, bombarding us at every turn. It’s hard to find the time and the strength to reframe negative experiences into positive ones, and it’s hard to train your mind to be present and open enough to allow these special moments to change your day for the better….here’s a good example of how one small moment absolutely reframed an emotionally trying day, and how the best part of a bad day won out for me in the end.

        One day not that long ago I was hit with three issues that kind of threw me for a loop…one was a very difficult issue with a student’s health and safety, one was a tough conversation with a friend and colleague of mine, and the final one revolved around some residual feelings that resurfaced regarding a personal incident that had caught me off guard. Anyway, I came home that day feeling down and in a pretty negative space. I decided that the best thing to do was to head back to the gym to try and run it all off. It was just as I was leaving home when this small and magical moment reframed my outlook on life and snapped me back into focusing on what’s truly important. As I was walking out the door my beautiful son, Max, unexpectedly decided to come with me to play basketball, which is unusual for him, and the second we stepped out onto the driveway he grabbed me and gave me a great big hug! Now, that may not seem like much, but for an 18 year old who is at the age where Dad embarrasses him with any sign of public affection, this was huge! All my negative thoughts and foolish distractions melted away during that connection, and with Max’s help, I found my smile again.

         Small and beautiful moments are all around us every second of every day, and if we can purposely focus on these and seek them out then a bad day won’t seem nearly as bad. Look around you as you begin this week and notice the things that can help reframe a negative experience and put it into perspective. We’re all going to feel stress in our jobs, and we’re all going to have those days, but by focusing on the best part of a bad day, or when you purposely start mining for gold, you’ll find that there is beauty all around us in our lives if we only embrace the opportunity to let it in. With that in mind, I can honestly look back at my difficult recent weeks and see that they really weren’t that bad after all…there were difficult moments for sure, but way more incredible ones that I just hadn’t given the attention that they absolutely deserved. That “gold” is just sitting there waiting to be discovered…go get it! Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week….

Enjoy the little things in life because one day you`ll look back and realize they were the big things – Kurt Vonnegut

Related Articles – 

10 Ways to Make a Bad Day Better

Positive Thinking

Tracking Happiness

Putting Things in Perspective

13 Strategies

Inspiring Videos –

Returning to College

Inspiring Artist

10 Things That Made Us Smile

A Personal Ad

Balance and Rigor, Not a Paradox

“Eighty-five percent of all performance problems are not people problems, they are process problems.” I heard this two decades ago from the most competent person I ever worked with. He spoke from experience but had borrowed this teaching from William Deming, one of the acclaimed Founding Fathers of Total Quality Management. It is fitting to consider how this relates to education.

Systems are not only curriculum based but tie into the overall structure. Schools routinely reflect on schedules. Conventional or rotating bell schedule? 4×4 or A/B schedule? Multiple Period Flex Block or Traditional 6 or 7 Period Day Schedule? These are just some of the possibilities to consider. The choice largely dictates how time is prioritized. A significant decision, as schedules have the potential to create balance. Or not. Everyone is surely pining for the former.

A schedule that allows students to chew their food and pass casually between classes. For teachers to run to the washroom. Built-in breaks are not only proven to improve productivity but also well-being. This balance that is created falls under what Deming would stamp as a “process.” So, if balance truly can be controlled in schools, what about rigor? 

Radical Simplification

Rigor ultimately is contained in the people, that other 15%. But can schools be both balanced and rigorous? As I reflect on this question, I harken back to thoughts of radical simplification and of what learning looks, sounds, and feels like for a toddler. According to Emma Elsworthy of the Independent, “Children ask a staggering 73 questions every day … half of which parents struggle to answer, according to a study.” In an answer-driven world, seemingly bent on a default to Google everything, the key to rigor is actually not turning to Google. Instead of seeking the answer at the tips of our fingers, maybe it is more about the joyful and honest discovery of the unknown. 

Rigor Anchored by Curiosity

Understanding how the roots of the word rigor are rigidity, cold, and stiffness, 20th-century novelist, David Foster Wallace, shared a revised definition of rigor. Brian Sztabnik alluded to this in an Edutopia article sharing, “Rigor is the result of work that challenges students’ thinking in new and interesting ways. It occurs when they are encouraged toward a sophisticated understanding of fundamental ideas and are driven by curiosity to discover what they don’t know.”

Again, rigor is anchored by curiosity. Understanding this, I am left asking, what are the questions my students are wondering most? Questions not necessarily with answers. Questions that are unGoogleable because, to Google, is not to be engaged in the rigorous. Yet, at seventeen and eighteen years of age, most students likely have been conditioned out of rigor. And out of child-like wonder. It however remains within them I know and I would argue, wonder has a role in being human, not just in being a child.

Our Imagination Sets Us Apart

Akin to the chicken or the egg causality dilemma, is the question, which came first curiosity or imagination? If asking questions denotes curiosity and a desire to know, this then will ignite the imagination. Or, does one’s imagination spur the desire to know? Whichever the case, causal or not, best-selling author, intellectual, historian, and professor Yuval Noah Harari maintains that our imagination is what sets us apart. “Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that can believe in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money, and human rights.”

Education as we have known it is a system steadfast on compliance and test scores. Where teachers traditionally have held the questions and in effect, did the rigor. Neither curiosity nor imagination was necessarily prized. If it is balance we are after, students should be coming up with the questions. Yet, how commonplace the inverse is, students often are simply responsible for the answers. Teachers ask the questions and students answer. This seems like an easy enough shift. One that we can all begin today.  

A Transition to Invitation

So, a more invitational path and approach to learning is to be paved. This likely will take time. Time for the education system as a whole; teachers, and even students to catch up. Or, dare I say, go BACK to! Where there is a realization of how learning is a natural and joyous process. Not something to feel forced to do. Nor a passive process of downloading. Rather a rigorous and active upload. Where learning equates to doing. I like to think that with such consciousness being developed, more and more students will wish to follow this age-old “new” path. At some point, there will be a critical mass of students and schools, though not likely contained within four walls, which will result in a transformation back to what learning always was.

The people and process can will it so!


Stories and Information in Picturebooks

I’m a firm believer in using picture books with readers of all ages. Picture books can seem simple and be aimed at young readers, but many stories are perfect for older learners as well. Picture books allow you to share interesting stories on many topics, they can be used to discuss the format of imparting information and they can serve as a sample for older students’ own writing while learning about beginning, middle, end and voice.

Here are some wonderful picture books that work on many levels for students of all ages. If your school library does not have these titles, you can always try finding them on www.betterworldbooks.com which has new as well as used books. Not only do they ship free of charge anywhere in the world but they also donate to literacy.

Rain School by James Rumford

School. What if you get to school on your first day of the school year, and there is no school? What if you have to first build your school from scratch if you want to learn something?

James Rumford paints a beautiful picture of children going to school in the African country of Chad. The children help to build a school from mud bricks and thatched roof. They may not have many resources but they soak up the knowledge shared by the teacher. This story can be an eye opener for many students. ISBN 978-0-547-24307-8, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Percy’s Perfect Friend by Lana Button, with illustrations by Peggy Collins, is aimed at kindergarten students who can have trouble making new friends when entering a new classroom. Percy does not know anyone but a stuffed animal soon helps him to make friends and play with them. A gentle story to share with new, hesitant students. The book also offers information on social interaction for parents or educators. ISBN 978-1-77278-281-3

Malaysian Children’s Favourite Stories by Kay Lyons and Martin Loh, is collection of folk tales from the rich treasure trove of legends and historical stories in the lush Southeast Asian country of Malaysia. This book is a collection of tales about brash animals, brave villagers and of course handsome princes and beautiful princesses, all set in strange and exotic locations. The stories are widely retold and much beloved by children and adults throughout Malaysia to this day. Lyons and Loh have retold these stories for the first time for an international audience. The beautifully illustrated tales will give children insights into the traditional culture and rich natural environment of Malaysia and be a fun starting point for writing their own legends. ISBN 978-0804835909, Tuttle Publishing

Where We Live, Mapping Neighborhoods Around the Globe is a book that I wrote after visiting many international schools around the world. Each double spread is a map of a child’s neighborhood in vastly different locations: one child lives on a houseboat in Amsterdam, another one walks to school in her village in . There’s a small school in Antarctica which Bruno attends. And .. lives on an atoll in the South Pacific. The book shows a few words in each language and can be used to discuss both cultures and map components. 

By Margriet Ruurs, illustrated by Wenjia Tang ISBN 978-1525301377, Kids Can Press

Margriet Ruurs is a Canadian author who conducts presentations at International Schools anywhere: www.margrietruurs.com

Translating theory into practice in schools

There are a number of imperatives in education that it would be difficult to argue against: any good school should be looking into them. Central ones would have to include:

  • Assessment (the art of pedagogic feedback, scaffolding and strategies for effective learning)
  • Student wellbeing (resilience, mindfulness, character education, health)
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Justice (at the levels of the student, staff and parent experience, syllabus choices, school culture)
  • Sustainability (in the way the school operates and the extent to which regenerative modes of life are taught and ritualised)
  • Education for peace (learning to live together, conflict resolution, communication norms, listening skills, the code of conduct, restorative practices)  
  • Competence-based learning (how to develop lifelong learning, self agency, types of interaction, working with systems and technology, ways of empowering and stimulating original and expansive thinking)

The difficulty is less in articulating what these themes are (despite the invariable taxonomical complications that come with presenting them in a coherent and powerful manner) and much more, of course, in implementing them. This is for three core reasons:

  1. Prioritisation. How do we fit these themes into a heavily packed subject-dominated curriculum with multiple exigencies at the levels of academic performance, externally mandated credit systems, compulsory units of study and only so many hours in the day? What gives to make way for what must be? Where to find the time?
  2. Making it stick. How do schools avoid initiative overload where a “flavour of the month” approach to strategic imperatives comes and goes with different leaders, bandwagons, curricula reforms and change management efforts? 
  3. Culture. How do school leaders create conditions where everybody – or at least most people – are ready to engage with a strategy, to adopt it and run with it? More precisely, what can be done to ensure that adoption is sincere, deep and effective?

There is no shortage of literature on this: change management theories, speakers and books with formulas, stories of success that might be transferred across contexts and sectors abound. Analogies are rife: school leadership is compared to managing football or basketball teams, conducting an orchestra, running a startup company, planting trees (I’ve even heard it compared to planting vegetables!), and so on.

If there was a silver bullet we would know about it and all use it, and it is true that some management theories seem to work across different sectors, but I would argue that schools are unique in that they deal with three variables that other sectors simply do not have to contend with:

  1. Children going through different phases of development
  2. Parents, who entrust the school with their children but are also educational partners in the journey, not mere “clients”
  3. A curriculum that is taught but the effects of which can only be measured very approximately (this is not a world of “productivity” but of learning, full of stops and starts, uncontrolled variables and individual influences)

In my experience, having tried different approaches to the operationalisation of strategy, from “snowballing” (steady incremental change) to “big bang” approaches (a bold vision with steps to follow), I’ve found that some things shift the culture and create a real influence on student learning, others do not. 

If there are two principles only by which we should abide in order to translate theory into practice, I would say they are whole system alignment and integration rather than addition.

Whole system alignment

Using the congruence model approach (which recognises interdependencies as interlocking parts), the reform should run from an unambiguous costed strategy with an implementation roadmap through training of everybody involved, to targets and expectations and at the levels of student learning (the curriculum and school events), communications, feedback loops, systems reform and partnerships. When, for example, we set about to design our Universal Learning Programme curriculum framework at the International School of Geneva’s La Grande Boissière campus, a three year plan was published along with a teacher training programme, student project schedule and intended outcomes, while our official partner, UNESCO-IBE helped set targets through annual reviews of progress made. Through constant feedback loops, the framework was improved and continues to evolve. Communicating what the programme was, was an essential exercise as it reinforced the cogency of the reform, allowing people to understand it better. Student, teacher and parent voices were listened to in a strategy group that followed the progress made at these interdependent levels. Much of this is ongoing as the work needs constant refinement and checking in. As I write this, teachers are releasing short films on how they teach the programme and these are sent to their colleagues and our parents.

Integration rather than addition  

As long as we conceptualise themes as substitutive or additive, meaning that something has to be taken away for them to work, or that we have to add them to a catalogue of existing features, any reform is bound to struggle. If you are asking “where do I find the time?”, it means that the approach is not integrative. Rather than consider an extra module, course or unit to add, the whole approach needs to be rethought: it requires an ontological shift. In other words, rather than trying to look at questions of DEIJ or critical thinking in stand-alone courses, the whole curriculum should be decolonized and made more critical; rather than concentrating on some sort of advisory course as the only possible avenue to drive student wellbeing, the tenets of wellbeing should run through staff and student interactions, messaging, teaching style and discussions focussed on learning within and across subjects. For example, when at the International School of Geneva we developed our Learner Passport, the idea was to start with the student experience and to describe what was already there, not to add anything.  As such, the passport integrates the arts, physical education, social impact work, interpersonal skills and academics, into a whole description of the profile of the graduate. It is making visible that which is rather than creating what is not yet. This makes the reform powerful and sustainable. The passport is not about more work, it requires, instead, a shift in thinking: the way that universities view student learning, the way that students conceptualise their own education and the manner in which teachers recognise student talents. 

Education is a complex network of curriculum, instruction, families, human growth and systems and processes.  A major challenge facing school systems is operationalising strategy. There is no silver bullet but perhaps these two principles are useful to keep in mind: whole system alignment and integration.  At the end of the day, however, the real challenge is for the community to embrace reform, to own it. That requires more than strategy, it requires time, dedication, concessions and that mysterious X factor which, I believe, is specific to each school’s culture.

Women’s Day or Not?

Image created by Shwetangna Chakrabarty on canva.com

Every 8th March is marked as international women’s day. We see a lot of enthusiasm in organizations across the world promising change, equity, respect, and breaking gender bias. What we really need to do is measure the impact of our actions, is there a change in the status quo of women?

A few examples will refresh our memory and probably make us think critically about how we celebrate women. Women still fight to claim their right to education. In the 21st century, we have countries abolishing women from schools and colleges. Women in many countries do not have bodily autonomy; female genital mutilation is still a celebrated ritual; virginity is still a virtue in many cultures; and the right to abortion is a contested topic. The irony is all these decisions remain with the opposite sex. So even the right to make the decision about herself is not vested in women.

This essentially means we the women of the world are forced to agree with all oppressive, inhuman, unjust decisions about our lives, our bodies, and ourselves for centuries. Celebrating women on 8th March for the last 10 decades has not made much impact. It’s time to audit our actions to measure real impact. Auditing our actions at the grassroots level of changing the mindset would be a great place to start.

Here is where educators can make a big impact. Let us start a movement for teaching gender equality, women’s rights, and equity. Our content whether in international schools or local schools does not even come close to discussing or introspecting this issue. It is assumed that the mindset of millions will shift by marking a day in a year for women. Teaching something every day about gender equality and women’s rights would be more effective. A few things we can do as educators:

  1. Choosing texts and topics that are women-centered.
  2. Encourage young girls to opt for STEM subjects to get important jobs and careers that give them the opportunity to make important global decisions.
  3. School sports teams must give equal opportunities to girls and boys in terms of facilities, access, and training.
  4. Take away uniforms from schools, and allow students, especially girls to have an identity rather than prescribing an identity.
  5. Have gender-neutral spaces including toilets.
  6. Scrutinize the curriculum to take away toxic masculinity stories of war heroes and political leaders, and replace them with women entrepreneurs, activists, and even warriors.
  7. Include sex education and body awareness lessons in the school’s pastoral care program or health education.
  8. Put a ban on single-gender education.
  9. Make math mandatory for all girls till tertiary education.
  10. Teach financial mathematics or business management as a mandatory subject in the middle years to empower girls by learning about financial independence.

Some of these ideas may sound unreasonable and debatable, remember it isn’t as unreasonable as shooting a young girl for wanting to go to school. The bullet came from a man holding the gun who never went to school or who was never taught to think of women as equals.

Education can steer us toward the desired result. We need to learn from positive role models and women-centric stories. Some research on the positive impacts of gender equality has been recently documented. Countries like South Korea, Norway, and Canada are on a growth trajectory and enjoy a better quality of life due to an increased female workforce. Developing countries like Rwanda, Cuba, and the United Arab Emirates are making better decisions than first-world countries due to the increased percentage of women politicians. The success of the US economy has been with the number of women business owners increasing by 114%  over the last 20 years.

So are we waiting for another women’s day or maybe not! Instead, as educators let’s take small actions every day to create a more balanced world. As educators, we have the power to empower women.

You Matter

Cal Belden, with his great-grandchildren

This is a short note to every teacher out there. You matter.

More than 40 years ago a teacher let me take the floor for a bit when the curriculum took us back to the discovery of the early hominid, Lucy, near Addis Ababa. 

You see, that summer I had read Donald Johanson’s book about Lucy’s discovery, forty percent of a skeleton from a being that lived three million years ago. That’s a long time ago. Thinking of creatures living that long ago intrigued me, thinking about the process of evolution and the high sounding Latin name for her species, ​​Australopithecus afarensis, fascinated me. The way she got her name (the team partied that night to the Beatles’ song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”) was extraordinarily cool to my 15-year old self. 

At the beginning of the school year, my social studies teacher mentioned precursors to humans, found out I knew a thing or two, and gave me the floor for a few minutes. I felt like an expert, I felt knowledgeable, I felt seen and heard. A good day in high school.

One other memory from class really sticks out, not related to the curriculum at all. It was just an aside, I’m sure, I forget the context. Paul could possibly be a professional musician, he told the class, Paul could make it one day. I remember sitting very still, not knowing quite how to react, but realizing in that moment that teachers talk to each other, that they wonder about us, their students, that they have hopes for us, and that they want us to succeed. And here was my teacher, letting me know, publicly, that teachers believed in me. That my time in the music department wasn’t going unnoticed. That I was, like the day I told about the discovery of Lucy, heard. I mattered. 

A month ago my sister mentioned that she was teaching piano lessons to the great-grandchildren of our former social studies teacher, Cal Belden. I wrote these two memories to his family in an email, shortly before he passed away. They shared my memories with him. And I’m sharing them with you, because if you are teaching, it’s important to remember that you are making memories for students that will stay with them for forty years and more, memories that will lift them up and motivate them for a lifetime. 

Thank you, Mr. Belden.

Big L and little l Language

Image by pikisuperstar on Freepik

This week I attended Outstanding Schools Europe, a two-day conference in London. Lorna Caputo-Greenall led two dozen of us in a discussion about multilingual learners. I focus here on the concept of Language (big L) as a broader linguistic system made up of individual languages (e.g. Hawaiian, Vietnamese, Welsh … ).

Lorna (Exploring Multilingualism) starts by reminding us of some of the traits of multicultural students. She is speaking to the choir, I assume, though in our small group discussion it quickly becomes apparent that there is a range of opinions about multilingual learners and language education in our international schools. 

According to Lorna, a multilingual child is someone who has collected various languages of various different levels, for whatever reason, e.g. from native speaking parents, from nannies, from frequent moves, from formal study in school, however. She emphasized (and I comment in the parentheses) that:

  • their language system is one big system. (This is in line with the translanguaging work of many; I remember in particular how Ofelia Garcia made this point); 
  • multilingual children have language preferences (as do adults. In addition, proficiency and comfort levels are different from one language to the next, and may depend on setting, task, and a host of factors);
  • their language systems change over time, growing and fading, and international schools may contribute to their growth or their loss. (This line of thinking is quite interesting in light of efforts to decolonize international school curricula, meaning in part to address how international schools tend to push one language, most often English, sometimes at the expense of other languages.);
  • adults’  attitudes toward language transfer to children. When adults say “I had three years of French but I only remember ‘Bonjour,’” it doesn’t go unnoticed; 
  • multilingual children are over and under identified as students with special needs, as students needing learning support, and as students needing speech therapy; and
  • multilingual students need multilingual role models, meaning adults who are also multilingual (and who continue to work on their language skills).

Quite a list. In other words, the use of language – and the instruction of language in international schools – is not at all simple. In one of the programs I teach for Moreland University, graduate students currently teaching in international schools are asked to locate their school’s language policy in order to critique it. For those students/teachers who can actually put their hands on a plan – and by no means is it all of them – the considerations Lorna highlighted for us are a very good place to start.

I would like to comment on the first bullet, the notion that our language systems are one big system, what I like to call Big L Language, composed of bits and pieces of little l languages. Often our curricula lead us away from thinking about language in these terms. We teach Spanish and Japanese. Our students speak Mandarin, or Turkish, or French. When our students are multilingual we sometimes make the assumption that they speak two, three, or more languages fluently. (And it is worth noting, monolingual speakers are probably far more likely to make this assumption since they do not have direct experience operating in multiple languages.) Fluency itself is a very slippery word. The preferences of multilingual students that Lorna mentioned may well have to do with their own internal feeling of fluency. While they might sound fluent in a language, they may not feel that way, and while they might be quite happy to chat with friends in a certain language, they might not feel at all comfortable writing in that language … but all of those disparate abilities make up their overall language selves. 

Big L Language makes for quite a complicated linguistic system, really. And Big L is the reality of the students we work with every day. 

For more of Lorna’s work and materials, see www.exploringmultilingualism.com.

Slack: Or Just a Bit Less Hand Holding

Source: https://daily.wordreference.com/2022/08/17/intermediate-word-of-the-day-slack/

This week I’m attending Outstanding Schools Europe, a two-day conference in London. I’m part of a panel this afternoon. Just in case I’m not as coherent as I’d like to be in real time, here is my reflection in advance of the session.

I’ve offered to share some thoughts on slack, a concept I’ve written about before in terms of a set of practices for teaching and learning that I developed with my colleagues at Leysin American School. Slack for us means giving students more time to find their own way. A quick disclaimer: Increasing slack may preclude you from the amount of content you cover. The value add, however, is gaining agency through practicing agency.

The leitmotif of the panel is student agency. The topics we’ll discuss, in just 45 minutes, include self-regulated learning, agency, collaboration, critical thinking, child-centered approaches, and student preparation for life after secondary school.

Whew. Thank goodness for blogging. I’ll start with the last item on this list: preparing students for lifelong learning, perhaps touching on some of the other topics along the way. 

If we are serious about lifelong learning, and I hope we are, since our educational social media posts and mission statements routinely emphasize creating lifelong learners, then we (1) have to give space for children to practice lifelong learning. For me, this means that (2) we need to be intentional about scheduling time for learning when we aren’t teaching, at least not directly. 

Madly trying to cover enough content in the time we have with students will not work. It will not work because (1) there is far too much content to cover, and (2) we don’t really know which content is going to be relevant. There is a temptation, I suppose, given our inability to know which content is going to be relative, to try to cover ever more content. This is a systemic pressure that contributes to the problem.

The problem with trying to cover more content is that the increasingly packed curricula lead to teaching for coverage, which crowds out the little available space for slack. But we need slack to let children find their way. We need slack to teach what I think is a fundamental aspect of life-long learning: independence. 

We need a bit of a shift in thinking about what the appropriate outcomes of schooling. Our transcripts emphasize content, almost exclusively, but there are efforts underway to paddle upstream, e.g. the Mastery Transcript Consortium and the Coalition to Honor All Learning. Transcripts can also report on soft skills, in other words, things like perseverance and the ability to work collaboratively.

What more can we do? Here are a few ideas that I hope we touch on this afternoon.

Create a school culture that allows teacher innovation. In other words, give teachers slack. We heard in a keynote by Richard Gerver about how Pixar made loosely structured space for its employees. We are familiar with the Google 20. Learn to provide slack for students by providing it to teachers. Model the behavior you want to promote.

As an administrator, allow teachers, and as a teacher, challenge yourself, to increase the amount of low-stake, high frequency assessment and to decrease the amount of one-shot, put-it-inthe-gradebook assessment. Have more conversations with students, individually and collectively. Guide students to have good conversations with each other about their learning process and outcomes. Give yourself time to do this by reducing the number of recorded assessments. 

Make learning visible. For the last ten years we’ve experimented quite a bit by pulling agile, originally from the world of software development, into education. So have lots of other teachers, consultants, and schools – see the Agile Research Consortium for Schools for examples. Implement a kanban board or another system that allows students to pull their own work – instead of the teacher, syllabus, school, and government pushing work on students. You can’t expect wholesale change here, but you can lean toward student choice – and the time for students to pursue those choices – when possible. Start perhaps with the visibility of a system like that found in EduScrum.

Finally, adopt the vision of a school system that weights content and soft skills equally – and then take the small, personal steps you can to head in that direction. Gerver ended his keynote with a picture of him and President Barack Obama. Gerver says he asked Obama the most important thing he learned while in the White House. Obama answered that the problems that crossed his desk were rarely technical, they were human. One has to understand the human problem. In other words, one has to have a richly developed set of soft skills. Give your students (and teachers) some slack, back off when you can on subject content, and let students find their way a bit more.

It will be a long, slow process. This shouldn’t deter us. It just means that we need to start right now.