Let Freedom Ring: Entreaty to Teachers

Let Freedom Ring: Entreaty to Teachers

The words of Margaret Mead “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world… it is the only thing that ever has,” are as pertinent now, as ever. The anniversary of the march on Washington has just passed. 9.11 is approaching. While something ominous and deadly is imminent in Syria. Events have a way of arriving and then departing like weather reports and headlines, here in America, where we are afflicted with historical amnesia and the conveyor belt of holidays. In the spirit of dreams and the tradition of dissent, I offer this multimedia list as a resource to use with your students (whether in Amsterdam or Brooklyn, international schools or public ones), to remind us of the madness of the world and the vigilance that peace requires.

Myles Horton’s The Long Haul

Dr Kings “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”

Paul Robeson’s “Old Man River” (the unexpurgated version)

Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthurs Court

Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun

Langston Hughes’ “Columbia” from The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes

Picasso’s Guernica

Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”

Charles Mingus’ “Meditations on Integration”

Phil Ochs’ “I Aint Marching Anymore”

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five

Wendel Berry’s “Thoughts in the Presence of Fear”

Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”

Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”

My entreaty is this, put aside your lesson plans for a day, or at the very least, one period. Because this is the core curriculum: learning how to become a citizen and a human being. So that freedom one day will resound with the energy of rock and roll, from sea to luminous sea, from farms to cities, from the east to the west, without wars, or arms, or the shameless pilfering of the earth. Do this with and for the children you teach. So they discover that history is made by ordinary people with the courage not to be silenced or sit in the back of the bus. And come to understand that freedom for all is still a dream deferred. Is still the only dream worth having.

Back to School Night

So last Wednesday’s Middle School back to school night was one of the best experiences that I’ve ever had in education. There was so much to be proud of that I was literally smiling from ear to ear for the entire evening, and that smile hasn’t left me yet. The thing about these back to school nights, at least for me, is that they showcase who we are as a division…..our teachers, our programs, our new facilities, and most importantly, the passion that we have as a faculty for our students and their learning. It essentially lays out the year that’s ahead for our community, and in many ways it sets the tone for the year. Parents come to school wanting to be inspired, and wanting to know that their children are in capable and caring and nurturing hands…..they want to feel good about the decision that they’ve made, and they want to leave knowing that their children are in the best possible place as they meander through the difficult Middle School years. Well, after watching/listening to many of the presentations, and receiving the overwhelmingly positive feedback from dozens and dozens of families, there’s no doubt that we’ve put their minds at ease…..the night was a tremendous success because of who you are as educators and as people, and you should all be extremely proud…..what a magical night!

One of the things that made the night so special was the realization that arriving at this point was the result of three years of hard work, and three years of turning our vision into a reality. The purposeful attempt that we’ve all made over the past few years to create an environment and ethos that inspires our kids to learn, and to grow, and to take risks, and to give of themselves was on full display Wednesday evening, and I’ll never be able to properly thank you for the passion and purpose that you bring to our kids, their learning, and to each other. We’ve come a long way since we began molding this ball of clay…..when we first engaged in the small and simple conversations about how to create a special, specific community and culture for our beautiful Middle School kids. In many ways it seems like a lifetime ago when we designed the template that provided the structure for our fairy tale, and to see how far we’ve come, in such a relatively short period of time is mind blowing. It just shows what can be accomplished when a team works together toward the same goal, and moves forward as a focused tribe of educators with a single end point in mind.

It’s now time, in my opinion, to set another goal……a goal that builds on the trust that we created, and the relationships that we’ve built, and switches our focus from a transformational mind set to a clear student learning mind set. It’s now time to dig deep into our curriculum, and into our assessment practices, and into our collected student achievement data so that all of our professional discourse revolves around what truly drives and effects student learning. We’re finally here…..at a place where we can push back…..at a place where we can have the important and essential hard conversations with clear positive intent…..at a place where we can share our expertise with each other……and at a place where we can “sharpen our saws” so to speak, with the understanding that we’re focused together toward maximizing the potential of each and every one of our kids. The smile hasn’t left me yet everyone, and I hope you’re smiling too. The feeling that I had last Wednesday night was the best feeling that I’ve had as a Principal, and I could see the palpable positive energy being soaked up by our entire Middle School community. I cannot wait to see what this year brings, and now that we’ve come together like this as a faculty, there’s no telling how great we can become as a Middle School. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week………
Most things, even the greatest moments on earth, have their beginnings in something small.
— Lauren Oliver

TED Talk – Ramsey Musallam – 3 Rules to Spark Learning
Article #1 – Setting Expectations (National Association of Secondary School Principals)
Article #2 – The First Four weeks of School
Article #2 (attached) – Nine Ways to Increase Student Engagement (Marshall Memo) Nine Ways to Increase Student Engagement
Article #3 (attached) – Active Student Participation (Marshall Memo) How to Get Active Student Participation In Class Discussions

Jessica Who?

Forgot my I-Phone

Our health teacher told me a story recently about an assignment she gave. It asked the class to write about a person who motivated or inspired them. Many in the class chose someone she had never heard of. Certainly Jessica Cox has an inspirational story but the selection by these students was more than a coincidence. Yes, they found her in Google under ‘inspirational people.’ Imagine being asked to write about someone who inspired you and finding them on Google? I cannot even think of a comparison. Maybe, someone asking you your favorite flavor of ice cream and you Google “favorite ice cream” and pick the top choice?

I like the video link about putting down our I-Phones for a day, not because it beats the dead horse of social media being more media than social, but because it reminds me about the complex work we have before us as educators. If people struggle to connect with one another on their free time, then how can they possibly do it in school?

I am doing something this year that both terrifies and energizes me. I am teaching a class we invented this year called “digital literacy.” I actually don’t like the name very much because it sounds like a fancy way of saying ‘computer science.’ I actually am not that tech-savvy but am passionate about the impact that social media is having on young people and their education. Ask your students how many “selfies” that have taken in the past week and watch them giggle not only out of the awkwardness that you know what that is, but because they have probably done this a lot.

I will be blogging about the course off and on this year, but for now suffice it to say that it’s more about literacy than digital. It’s about communication, creativity, collaboration, and community. I refuse to ‘teach’ the class in a classroom and instead am taking the class to other open spaces around the school and yes (dear me) even outside the school.

The first class? Students had to write a self reflection piece, share them in our Google + community and then ‘present’ one another in person after they read someone else’s reflection. It was basic but it forced my students to talk to one another, learn from one another and present themselves. It was a lot harder than it sounds.

Gotta go make dinner. And no, I am not going to Google, ‘what’s for dinner…’

Fitting In, Figuring It Out- New Families in Transition

It is that time of year when there are new faces at every turn. These faces contain looks, which run the gamut of excitement to trepidation. I’m referring to both the parents and students of new families transitioning to our schools. Some are overseas for the first time and overwhelmed by the differences living in this, a new country. For them oftentimes, school offers a reminder of what they came from. A comforting constant they can be reassured by and feel good about.  For others, the newness is the school. Either the move to a new system of education- ours being an American, college-preparatory system, or a school where their child’s native language isn’t the main language of instruction. For all new families, it is paramount we understand their worries and fears, while assisting them in moving through the inevitable stages of newness.

How best can we help though?

I believe the most effective solution is to make sure we listen to these families and children. Encourage them to tell us how they are doing, listen to their responses, then reassure, reassure, reassure. While this seems simple, it is actually the hardest for me to do at the start of the year, because of the shear pace of the first weeks of school.  We try though. This week alone, we’ve had a new parent coffee, a new family dinner, and the counselor has been visiting with students who are new to check in on how they are feeling.

One idea I’ve been tossing around on reflection of how we receive and support new families, is to have a team of parents, teachers, and students ready to just be listeners. What if a member of this team called every new family on day 2, day 10 and day 30 to check in? What if we had a table set up in outside the office where members of this team were stationed to answer questions? Any question. What if we developed questionnaires to give to new families to help hone the response from this team so we were able to meet their needs directly? I would much rather over respond than under respond.

From there, how might we help families as they move into the stage when the newness wears off and the worry sets in? Predictably this happens around the 3-4 month of school. By then, I find as an administrator I’m off and running and assume everything is fine for these new folks. (No news is good news.) However, I’m wondering if we shouldn’t reschedule our new family events: coffee morning, dinner, etc. to directly coincide with when we know the honeymoon feeling is fading.

Finally, I would like to have a system for reminding our teachers and families who have been here for years just what it is like to be new. Without that empathy, we can’t really provide the support necessary. We’ve all been through it, however, it is easy to forget what it means to uproot your family, bring them to a new country and school, and to settle into the routine of life.

Developing a transition plan is an excellent way to reach out to the new community, while tightening the bonds of the existing families and our teachers. After all, are on this adventure together.

A Day in the Life of a Pre-K 3 Teacher


One of our puppets (and me!)

Life is very different out here in China, as I knew it would be. When I consider that just a few months ago we had one plan for life then it suddenly changed overnight, it made me realise how much our time on this earth can be an adventure, if only we choose to say ‘yes’!

I am currently really enjoying my time here, nearly at the end of my second week of working with the three-year olds, in an international school in Tianjin. The school is quite small with approximately 320 students with ages ranging from the Early Childhood Academy (where I work) to the seniors in Grade 12. I feel the strong sense of community the school fosters and we’re all in houses (I am in the green dragon house!) and there are a plethora of activities, social, school and family events to become involved in – it’s like a big family!

– My day starts at 6:00 am which is when I wake up, listen to the music drifting up from the park below us from the group that meet every morning to practice the ancient art of Tai Chi (TaiQi) and then my family and I get ready, have breakfast and make the short five-minute walk to school. So far, stress levels are non-existent and at this point I am totally looking forward to my day!

– We all have to get to school by 7:45am and the day officially starts at 8:00am. The children start to move in one-by-one – I have 9 children at the moment, all who are three and incredibly sweet and clever!

– I have two Chinese teaching assistants who are fast becoming good friends of mine too – we work so well together as a team and they are always there, one step ahead, and know the routine. I never need to ask them to do anything as they will come to me and ask what they can do. I am so impressed by their attitude and by the way they interact so lovingly with all the children. We put out a few activities, or ‘morning centres’ for the children and for 30 minutes, they engage in these whilst we observe and play with them too.

– At 8:30, it’s specialist time. This involves 2 singing sessions, 2 dancing and one P.E session with other teachers –  this is my first planning period. I am so surprised at how quickly my class have settled into the routine. And for two days running now, no crying in the morning when they come in! They sing transition songs whilst they walk to their subject and love each class they go to!

– At 9:00am it’s circle and calendar time and we all gather together on the carpet. I teach them songs, we count, we talk about the weather, days of the week and read a story. Then it’s time for a snack. The children are very independent when it comes to snack time and have already learned how to organise themselves round our circular table, open their packets and boxes and eat quietly. We always listen to music (they are going to have such an eclectic taste at the end of the year!) and I am encouraging them at all times to learn new words – so this is a good time to learn the names of the different foods. I also sometime pretend my banana is a phone, but that’s just an aside!

– The rest of the morning includes a 30-minute recess where they play in an adventure playground outside, art activities and free-play within the classroom. Lunch -time comes and goes quickly then it’s time for their nap! All my children, except one, naps for 90 minutes and this is where I take my lunch and have more planning time. If anyone is reading this from a UK state school,  you will now have added up 60 minutes planning so far (add another 30 if I am not on duty for recess) plus a 45 minute lunch.

– Having these breaks enables me to be really on the ball with the children and when I give them my time I make sure it’s 100 per cent effort from me. Compared to working in the UK system where breaks were frequently skipped because we needed that time to prepare, I feel that working here is a very good environment for the mental health of the professional!

– 2:00 we gently wake the children – they are so happy to have had their nap (most of them will go to bed late so this nap is essential!) and then each day we the children experience something different. One day, we have computer time,  the next, sand and water, more outside play, a visit to the library and the parents get to come and play with their children once a week for 30 minutes too.  At the end of the day, we sing a goodbye song that I wrote (they are still learning it!) and then it’s time for dismissal. We need to stay in school until four and then we are free to go.

– The teachers pool their talents and offer various clubs to the other staff. I have joined the yoga, zumba and TaiQi and my daughter has chosen for her after-school clubs Chinese Art, the Choir and Creative Moment. Life is well-paced here and I feel like I have somehow managed to achieve a balance of home and work. I still spend quality time with my family, get to see friends and love my job!





Open Letter to New Teachers

Although you have just arrived, over time, you will discover that there are very few experiences as transformative and broadening, while at the same time as perplexing and frustrating, as teaching and living abroad. That makes sense. With the exception of physical growth, very little in our lives contains the intensity and vitality of life as an international educator. You live walking the cultural tightrope of the unfamiliar. The only safety net is resiliency, a sense of humor, and perspective: multiple ones.

The cross-cultural life is not for the lighthearted or the inflexible. In Bogota, I got fleas. In Mexico City, I learned how to negotiate traffic violations on the spot. And in Barcelona, I acquired the taste for cafe life and the key to living in time, without measuring it. Cross-cultural living is a graduate education in life.

In the spirit of preparedness, here is a list of some of the unexpected and culturally foreign experiences that you might encounter. And when you do, pause, and remember to breathe:

  1. Officious parents who want to give you a gift as a token of their appreciation. Or to invite you to join them and their children for their winter getaway to Calabria.
  2. Confusion and disquiet after giving one of the most engaging and challenging units you can remember on the causes of civil war, and your students remain silent as lampposts. Later to discover it is culturally disrespectful to ask questions of the teacher.
  3. The rows of sleek polished SUV’s with the bullet proof glass windows driven by bodyguards in dark suits with sunglasses.
  4. The subtle and sometimes not so subtle examples of the division between local and foreign hires. (Watch where people eat for example)
  5. The physical and emotional exhaustion that comes from learning a new language.
  6. Homesickness. What is erroneously seen as a symptom of childhood but can be triggered when least expected, especially around holidays like Thanksgiving or birthdays.
  7. In some countries we kiss on both cheeks at school. In others arriving on time (socially) is looked down upon. While in some countries, when a dinner guest in someone’s home, leaving nothing on your plate, is a sign that you have not had enough.
  8. Waiting on line. While this is an assumed protocol in much of the world, in some places you pay others to do it for you (visas, taxes) or the very concept is foreign.
  9. Social space. You will find in some cultures physical proximity is nothing less than uncomfortable. While in others, eye contact is frowned upon.
  10. Leaving tips, driving protocols, and acknowledging someone when they are eating. Small things that together define a culture while at the same time leaving the expat confounded.

In short: expect the unexpected, be mindful of difference, and suspend judgment. It is not only a new language and culture you are immersed in, but a worldview. Read the Iliad. Read the Odyssey. Or read the Golden Ass. Part of the adventure (and it is an adventure) is getting lost, being taken, and becoming transformed. Anything worthwhile can be perilous. And finally, when the siren for home calls (at least 5 years later) that you come back with broader perspectives, another language, and the first hand experience of what living globally means. The educational world is desperate for global citizens like you. And oh yes. Drink lots of water the first 24 hours, if you have not already. It’s a good antidote for jet lag.