Living a Life Well Lived

So this is my 100th post since I began sending these out over three years ago! I’ve had so much fun over the past few days reflecting back on the incredible number of educational issues that we’ve thought about as a faculty over that long period of time, and I have to say how amazing it is to think about all that encompasses our profession…..who knew that there would be so much to say!  I celebrated this milestone by delivering my first TED talk at the Shanghai TEDx youth conference held at our school last weekend. The talk was titled, “Living a Life Well Lived”, and in the same spirit as my weekly Musings, I’d like to share the message…..

The biggest take away for me when I look back at the history of the various posts, and I try to unpack all that’s happened at our school since the beginning, is how unbelievably important and essential it is for educators to share….. their thoughts, their beliefs, their strategies, and their passion……education is a team sport so to speak, and we’re all better (especially our students) if we learn from each other, and grow together for the betterment of our vocation. Here’s the link, and I truly hope that you find it TED worthy… was nerve wracking and a little bit stressful but I believe that the message is important for all of us. We give so much of ourselves to everyone else (that’s just who we are as educators), but often times we forget about what’s really important in our lives….I hope you enjoy it.

The Importance of Regional Conferences

IMG_1591Over the past few days I’ve been attending the NESA Fall Leadership Conference in Katmandu, Nepal. This conference is mainly intended to support leaders in international schools in this region of the world. However, at this conference in particular, there are folks from all over, including leaders from international schools in Asia and Europe. To me, the premise of a globally diverse and globally relevant conference was realized simply in the make-up of the attendees.

There are three important take-aways I gain from attending one of these regional conferences:

  1. A high level of learning which is timely and relevant to me. Over this 4-day period I was fortunate to learn about the importance of institutional and leadership generated focus from Doug Reeves, I learned how to plan for recruiting the best teachers using James Stronge’s Teacher Recruitment Index, Mary Ehrenworth showed me how to lift the level of close reading in our already established reading and writing workshops, and finally, Ian Jukes reminded me of the need for our schools to think about the future, rather than our past. This many top presenters all in one place make coming worth my time and effort.
  2. Networking opportunities with other leaders from other schools. Between the workshops, the coffee breaks and lunches, and the cultural events in the evenings, I found myself meeting and talking about international living and work with people from many different schools. Even though this is one, 4-day conference, what I’ve learned is that these connections follow me to other conferences and other schools. These connections could never happen if I attended a US-based conference.
  3. Being pushed out of my current thinking, into new ideas. Besides the money spent on souvenirs from Nepal, I’ve spent a great deal on new books mentioned by the different presenters and new friends. (My Kindle account was busy!) I want to better be able to deal with change, so Antifragile by Nassim Taleb has been recommended as a new and important read. Similarly, I was reminded more than once that I need to read the books Flow and Thinking Fast and Slow, and the literacy professional development text Pathways to the Common Core. I know it’s been a good conference when I leave with my head full and my brow furrowed, thinking about how to use what I’ve learned.

Regional conferences connect our schools both in sharing what we are doing and in helping us shape where we want to go. These large group contexts provide links which allow us to come together as professionals, maintaining a connection not only to best practices in education, but also to best practices in international education.

In addition, attending this conference allows me time to connect with my immediate school-based leadership team in ways we couldn’t do from school. Taking this time together has allowed us not only to get to know each other as educators, but we are also able to find our common connections as people.

Namaste from Nepal.

It’s almost November, time to embrace your Lightening Mcqueens


Note: Apologies for the cultural reference to a film that many may not have seen. I hope the point is not lost!

What I love about the movie “Cars” is its parallels to the socialization of the teenage experience. You know, the struggle against conformity, the young bucks who feel held back by the sage old institutions, the system that beats the spirit out of the young. Sound familiar?

November is upon us. The sister month to March that tries our patience, our energy, and our souls as teachers and administrators. Our discipline referrals are skyrocketing and things are getting dicey as they do every November.

Having said that, stepping back into the classroom has been one of the best administrative decisions that I have made the past several years because it has dipped me back into the biorhythm of the student/teacher experience this time of year and reminded me to listen to that when I am creating an ambitious agenda for faculty meetings. I am teaching a digital literacy class of seniors and they have been getting ornery as of late. I’ve done everything from heart to hearts, detentions, deals, compromises, and my favorite, reminding them that I am the Principal and the one who signs (or doesn’t) their diplomas. (I am joking about the last one but might still use it).

Which brings me to Lightening McQueen. For the past two months now, we have been holding our Lightening McQueens in the garage, teaching them the fundamentals of braking, steering, responsible turning, velocity, etc. etc., which they put up with for several weeks but have not had enough. They want to race around the track. But we are standing in the way.

“Sit down,” we say. “I’m still talking.”

My Lightening McQueen (as with all LMs) has the capacity to make or break my class. He’s breaking it right now because I’m dropping the ball on this digital portfolio thing we’re experimenting with and he wants to race around the track. But I won’t let him for some reason until he understands all the rules. Instead, I hook him up to the road paver (sorry for the movie reference again) and make him demonstrate that he’s going to be more responsible. He resists, of course.

You see, I’ve driven around the track. I have the freedom to do that anytime I want. I’ve had that experience. He hasn’t. But I’m the one standing in his way. He’s revving the engine, and I’m turning it down.

It’s November. It’s time to wave that flag. Lightening might spin out. He might lose control. He might even crash. You can’t avoid that. You can only be there to tell him to try again and that you’re on his side. That’s your job.

Start your engines, we’re going to race right into winter break. And beyond.

Laughter and Learning

Lots of work and talk these days about social and emotional learning. The need for resiliency, grit and determination has become part of the parlance of many educators. And this is a good thing. But there is hardly any reference to humor and happiness. Ever wonder why? Is there anything more specific and salutary to life than the capacity to laugh? Yet it remains conspicuously absent from school, as something to examine, talk about, and understand. Even more so is any mention of it in all discussions around educational reform. Lots about core curriculum, standards, test scores, and student outcomes but a complete void in any sensible conversation around the purpose of education around well-being and what might make people happy? i.e. being able to laugh.

Laughter and happiness are an objective dimension of human experience. And we all know as products of school, that skills and knowledge are not enough. As educators, we also have a fundamental role in shaping dispositions. In other words, if people are to flourish and be happy, they need to gain various dispositions or virtues that enable them to align all of this together into a coherent whole. Nel Noddings, one of the great educational thinkers of this time in a wonderful book entitled “Happiness and Education” poses the challenge to educators: “Happiness and education are, properly, intimately connected. Happiness should be an aim of education, and a good education should contribute significantly to personal and collective happiness.” Would it not stand to reason then, that a priority be placed upon laughter in school and the pursuit of happiness?

In thinking about my own life, it was from my father that I learned to laugh. How to laugh at myself, the world, and to never take disappointment or failure (my own and others) too seriously. It has served me well. Humor and laughter have consistently enabled me to make visceral connections with others, be it the taciturn man in the post office or the guarded and silent student in the back of the classroom. It is a highly effective form of diplomacy that can disarm and allow boundaries to be transcended.

When you think about it, there are so many layers and dimensions to humor, that can be entry points to cultural understanding. Have you ever considered finding out from your students what makes them laugh and how they define what is funny? Or what is a joke for the Japanese as opposed to the Spanish? Or if there such a thing as word play and puns in Latino culture? Or why some things are funny in one culture and seen as inappropriate in others?

Historically speaking, we have an extraordinary tradition of humor: Charley Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W.C Fields, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Woody Allan. There is an important connection with social critique and humor that runs from Aristophanes to Lenny Bruce. Haven’t some of our finest and most perceptive of social critics been those who have used the veil of humor to challenge and unsettle us out of the normal? Satire is one of the great traditions in American culture that includes Mark Twain, S. J. Perlman, Art Buckwald, and Russell Baker. Have we had more piercing and perceptive critiquing of America than from the mouths of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and George Carlin? The tradition of humor in our culture is as vital an art form as literature, poetry, music, dance or the visual arts. Yet they remain absent from the life of school and the formal curriculum.

How many of us can recall a math teacher who deployed humor as a tool for learning? I am not talking about using humor as a way to laugh at others. But as an anodyne for the challenges and tragedies of life, which can debilitate the desire to learn. Teachers who take themselves and their classes too seriously rob kids of one of human beings healthiest attributes: laughter.

How many schools have we seen where an unnatural pallor of silence and sternness permeates the halls? Instead of relegating humor for recess and the school yard, why not elevate it as something worthy of analysis and study. Try it. You might just find a dour classroom transformed into a site of unabashed happiness and a room full of engaged, smiling and present lives.

Attention Department Head Disorder


I am working on two things simultaneously. Well, actually three if you want to throw in eliminating my lower back pain. The first is teaching a digital literacy class that asks students to create a digital portfolio based on a personal mission connected to the school’s learning goals and mission statement. The second is conducting walk throughs of the students in my digital literacy class to see if they are making any connections at all across their classes. They are not. Yet.

One of my students has created a personal mission statement that includes values of compassion and helping others. She is tying it in with our core values around international culture and compassion. She was sleeping during a French class that I observed when a pertinent video about a family drama was playing that exemplified exactly the core values that she had decided to focus on. It was brilliant.

Except that she hadn’t made the connection. It was simply another class, disconnected from all the other classes, forty minutes before lunch and one hour before science.

Attention department heads, for there is a disorder amongst us.

Are you facilitating conversations with your staff around the curricular connections during a students’ day?
Have you ever ‘shadowed’ a student to observe how disconnected their day is, let alone exhausting?
Does your staff have time to compare notes and work together to make those connections themselves?

We all know that ‘interdisciplinary’ and ‘cross curricular’ is something we tend to ignore until an accreditation team rolls up. We’re just too busy to think about these things. And yet, this is at the heart of learning.

I will keep you posted on the portfolios my students are updating as they (hopefully) start making the connections. And yes, I will talk to the girl about the French class video. It was about a little boy whose parents were splitting up and leaving him with relatives…A perfect anecdote for her portfolio on culture and compassion.

Classroom Management 2.0

Today on my Twitter feed I read a quick bit about a new book soon-to-be-released by Harry Wong. Does that bring back memories? When I was in teacher training  The First Days of School, How to be an Effective Teacher, Harry’s famous classroom management book was the go-to text for understanding how to prepare and what it would be like, inside a real classroom.

Fast-forward 20 years and although an elementary class of students is still primarily sitting inside 4-walls, the “management” is far from the same, and yet so vital to the success of the children. For me, it is the first and sometimes most important item I notice when I observe teachers. When the management of the classroom environment breaks down, kids are unengaged, the tools and systems they need to access aren’t readily available, and the teacher is increasingly ineffective at reining them in and helping them learn. Add to that our new classroom design: readily available technology access, an emphasis on independent work time instead of whole class lectures, and a classroom environment which often sees students sitting where they are most comfortable so they can best learn, and you have a whole new model to manage.

That said, I know I was never given guidance in how best to manage this new environment. What I learned I took from others because I knew what I was doing wasn’t working. (Thank you Sarah Toa.) I watched, I tried and I stole ideas. I believed organizing and managing the room in a way that provided the best possible learning environment was the necessary, professional thing for me to do. But I can promise you, professional development on the subject would have been helpful.

The question is, does classroom management require PD? Is it PD? To me, the answer is an easy yes. Developing as a professional is not just learning the “what” of your subject area or grade level. It is also learning the “how” of teaching. The practice of organizing and effectively managing a classroom environment is a huge piece of the puzzle. Especially when there are teachers who we know struggle with creating a classroom environment conducive to student learning.

There is often talk about the classroom of the future. I have no idea if we will ever actually get there. However, what is true is that the classroom of my childhood doesn’t exist anymore. Four rows of desks, the teacher at the front of the blackboard talking, me sitting still and listening or opening the same book as everyone else and working. That’s my memory of school and to a large extent, what I learned how to manage from Mr. Wong’s first book.

I’m glad you are back Harry Wong. It’s time to reemphasize classroom management for today’s teachers.

Are you interested in learning more about effective classroom management in today’s 21st Century classroom? Until Mr. Wong’s book comes out, here is a set of links via Education Week. You will need to sign up, but they are worth checking out.

A Culture of Trust

So as I was taking part in last week’s Middle School curriculum leaders meeting, I was once again struck by the importance and necessity of a positive school climate and culture. We were all busy and engaged in providing meaningful feedback through a critical friends protocol, when it occurred to me that the trust that was being shown by everyone in that room as colleagues was three years in the making. A culture of trust, where people are able to be vulnerable, open-minded, accepting of professional feedback, and eager to learn from each other takes a considerable amount of time and effort to develop….and it’s such hard work! It’s an everyday commitment that needs everyone on board, but when it finally arrives it’s like a whole new world of possibility becomes unearthed. In my opinion, a culture and climate of trust is the cornerstone of everything meaningful that can happen in schools. Without it, I will suggest that a school will never transition from good to great, and will never be able to truly focus on what’s best for their students. The issue is that it’s not something that you can just implement overnight…or purchase as a new school program…there is so much that plays into it, so much that cannot be taken for granted, and so many moving pieces that it’s a staggering undertaking on the part of the entire community. It’s about people, and their mindsets, and their passion….it’s about leadership, and priorities, and expectations, and follow through, and it’s about coming together over a shared purpose…but when it happens everything becomes easier, and the work can start to focus on the things that NEED to matter in order for student learning to be maximized. For us, it was a long journey and it took all of us to take ownership of what we’re trying to accomplish for our kids and each other…but it’s here now and it’s exciting to be digging into a new kind of work, the work that seemed like only a dream three short years ago.

I mentioned in a previous post how I was inspired by the work of Ron Ritchhart, and the 8 cultural forces that he suggests need to be present in schools and classrooms in order to reach their potential as learning environments. I was fortunate enough to see him present a few short weeks ago and he was truly speaking my language. He talked about how these areas of focus need to mesh and gel together to create a culture of trust, and to strengthen the “hidden curriculum” in your schools. The hidden curriculum being all that goes into creating a happy, productive, supportive, trusting, and focused working/learning environment….all the stuff that’s truly important in schools, but often times the stuff that gets overlooked and taken for granted. When I look at these 8 forces I am reminded about how difficult it is to get just a few of these right, let alone all of them. Here’s my take on what they are and why they matter for schools…….

  1. TIME – creating time for teachers to meet, to talk about kids, to have professional discourse around data, to learn from each other, to share, to celebrate, to get to know each other as people, and to learn to work together as colleagues. People often say that there’s not enough time, but it really comes down to where you’re putting your time!
  2. OPPORTUNITIES – for teachers to learn from each other, engage in rich professional development opportunities, to take on leadership roles, to pursue areas of passion within their work, to have a life outside of school, and opportunities to be heard and to find their educational voice.
  3. ROUTINES AND STRUCTURES – setting up programs that become part of the fabric of the school, the “how we do things around here” stuff, daily advisory, assemblies, house system, meetings, and all the things that make up who you are and what you value.
  4. LANGUAGE – the common language that is used as a community…from the language that you use around assessment, or your essential qualities of a learner, to reporting, to character education, and to the language that all students use when they’re asked about their school…what does your school stand for and what is its message?
  5. MODELING – how are teachers as role models for students? Are we risk takers, do we model growth mindsets, are we constantly questioning and learning, are we positive and supportive, and are we the heroes that our students are desperate to emulate.
  6. INTERACTIONS AND RELATIONSHIPS – How do people treat each other? With respect? Are we vulnerable and empathetic and do we approach every conversation with positive intent. Do we look to get to know our colleagues outside of school? Are we giving our best selves to others…everyday?
  7. PHYSICAL ENVIRONMENT – how focused are you to the aesthetic of your school? Is it welcoming and bright, is the language that you value posted and present? Is it clean and safe and warm and inviting? Is it happy? If you were a student, would you want to go to come to your school everyday?
  8. EXPECTATIONS – how high do you set these for your students and each other? People will rise to the challenge if you set the bar high, but they’ll also sink low if you let them? What do you expect of your community and your kids?

The thing about developing a strong climate and culture in schools, is that even if you’re fortunate enough over time to accomplish this incredible task…the work doesn’t stop. I think that the work is now just as hard, and maybe even harder. Trying to sustain this culture is another colossal undertaking altogether….. people move on to new jobs, students and families come and go, and things happen that can test your resolve as a group almost everyday. Let’s keep focused on where we are right now and the culture of trust that we’re now enjoying. The longer we sustain our current situation the more likely it will become simply “who we are”, and the more difficult it will become to revert back to where we started three short years ago. Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week……..
Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they are capable of being.
– Thomas Carlyle

Upworthy Video (Insert your name and recognize the incredible difference you are making)
Climate and Culture websites and Articles –
(The Hidden Curriculum)

An Interview with Melinda Hoang Ho: Aspiring International School Teacher

imageThis post is crossposted at

“I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.”

― E.B. White


Georgetown University graduate student, Melinda Hoang Ho hopes to become an international school teacher. She found me on the Interweb and asked if she could ask me a questions via Google Hangout.   Here are some follow-up questions and responses about teaching overseas.

1. As an elementary educator both in America and abroad could you tell me if there are any differences that you noticed (such as policy, subject focus, etc?)

First of all, kids are kids. Not too many differences in the grand scheme of things. Teaching at Bethesda Elementary in Bethesda, Maryland prepared me for a life overseas. While there, I taught so many kids from all over the world. Their parents worked in embassies or at the National Institute of Health.  Since then, I have worked at schools that specialize in “American style education.”

Each overseas school looks to stay aligned with educational trends. Right now, I imagine, each is wrapping their collective heads around Common Core while staying true to their mission statements. I am having a blast teaching kids how to read and write with style. Balanced literacy teaching is king here in Hong Kongand I’m lovin’ it.

2. In terms of curriculum, how much control do you have in what topics you teach or are you confine to an official school curriculum? How does school curriculum, standards, and/or textbooks shape you decisions on your lesson plans?

Not as much as I would like but I really cannot complain. Many schools overseas look to Grant Wiggins, whom I love. If you get a chance, read up onUnderstanding by Design. UBD is brilliant in its simplicity.  The trend now is towards data-driven curriculum choices. We now strive for as much differentiated learning as humanly possible. This trend excites me no end.

3. How would you describe your teaching style?  Do you try to accommodate multiple intelligence, and learning styles in your classroom? 

Bethesda Elementary school prepped me to work with students on all ends of the learning spectrum. Some books that have helped me become the teacher I am include: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Writing Life by Annie Dillard, andTeaching with Love and Logic: Taking Control of the Classroom by Jim Fay and David Funk. Read these books and you will get an idea of what I am all about.

4. You spoke about what you enjoyed about teaching, what do you enjoy least? In addition whats the most difficult situation that arose inside or outside of class?

Tough one!  I really love what I do. Alas, my classroom sometimes resembles a fishbowl. This greatly limits my self-confidence, creativity and ability to experiment. Culture shock is always a concern and something I struggle with still. Homesickness is a killer. I wrote about watching my parents age from a distance.

This life is NOT for everyone. I remember being extremely lonely when I was single.

I hope this helps. If you are looking to teach overseas, contact me:


Why Teens Don’t Tweet

Why Teens Don’t Tweet

Spoiler Alert: Don’t Google something that you think is your original, creative idea because chances are someone has already thought of and written about it. (Let alone done a major study on the topic).

In the interest of full disclosure, this is not an original idea.

Having said that, in my digital literacy class the comments of my students were original, so I shall proceed with caution. As with most teachers using technology, the students are constantly bleeping, giggling at things completely not related to your class, minimizing the second you walk by, and generally doing everything but working on that ‘site’ you asked them to research. So, like all of us, we compromise. On this particular day, I asked them, “What are you tweeting, anyway? How boring this class is?”

They all laughed. “Tweet? Nobody tweets. Who do you think I am Jay-Z?”

And like all good teachers, I used it as a teachable moment and scrapped the lesson plan.

“We use ‘What’s App’ or update our Facebook. There’s no need to tweet.”
“Tweeting is for famous people just to talk about themselves. That is so boring.”
“I just use it to follow celebrities.”

And as you will read from the above study, a lot of teens actually do ‘tweet’ but for the most part they have access to so much social media that it is not their first choice. Now, I will not go so far as to say that it is for ‘old people’ but it is amazing how quickly technology evolves. It turns out that most Facebook users seem to be older generations as newer generations use a wide variety of different social media depending on their mood. Snapchat and Instagram come to mind. And forget about email.

I know none of this stuff is original thinking (thanks Google). But it does give me pause as I think about the shifting sands of digital literacy and how fast this moves and what is cool and what is not. The part that I love talking about with them is that we adults take it all so seriously, thinking what earth shattering ‘link’ to tweet or what to hashtag, but to them, it’s just a way to ‘chill’ with friends and see what’s going on. So, it really is about expression and creativity. Otherwise, we will never, ever catch up.

Bon weekend.

Getting Involved in the Culture of China


When you move to a new country, it can feel new and wonderful but also a bit scary! So we made a decision that when we moved to China we’d try our hardest to get involved with as many activities as possible… and say YES! So when the time for the mid-autumn festival came around, I was very happy to become involved because it featured one of my favourite foods… moon cakes! We all know it’s moon cake time because two of my students’ parents brought me very luxurious, fancily-packaged boxes filled with them and they are delicious! And we all had a day off to celebrate. The school ensures that it celebrates all the local and cultural festivities and so the children and staff soon became engaged in making sticky rice moon cakes. In the evening,  my family and I were invited to perform in front of 1000 people to help the people in our district celebrate the mid-Autumn festival! The lady who organised for us to sing told us that at the end she had prepared a gift for us all – but not to worry, they were not moon cakes! I love these deliciously exquisitely-designed treats however so I would not have been disappointed!

When one of my colleagues at the school asked if we wanted to come and share some music at a local variety evening at a gym, I thought nothing of it. I figured this meant a few people, gathered in a gymnasium with a few chairs and all informal. Then earlier today, it dawned on me… my colleague meant the massive outdoor gym where people gather every evening for free exercise, dancing and playing!

When we arrived, we soon realised we were the only foreigners in the show and that they had put us on near the end as some sort of special guests… very touched at that even though we knew it wasn’t necessary. We are treated SO well here, with such respect and love from everyone we meet… and of course we are loving and sweet right back!

There was a big stage and a few people gathered which soon transformed into over a 1000 people. Our daughter started by singing ‘Twinkle twinkle little star’ which the audience seemed to love immensely! Then I sang ‘Somewhere over the rainbow’ and one of my own songs, ‘Wonderful Woman’. When I said ‘Good evening’ in Chinese, I received a round of applause. My husband then sang two songs – one by The Cure and ‘Dock of the Bay’ which also was received well and he spoke a few words in Chinese which was greatly appreciated. Afterwards we had many people saying thank you, shaking our hands and looking truly happy that we had participated. We also each received that aforementioned bag of gifts… toothpaste, a mug, washing powder and hand-towels! Again… so touched by this. Who wants a bunch of flowers anyway?!

We were filmed the whole way through by very expensive-looking cameras so look out for us on the news!

When I got home, I opened a book at random and it fell open on a page with a beautiful quotation that I read with my family before we went to sleep. Amazingly, it was all about the unity of the east and the west, and these people coming together. As I read it, it dawned on me, like a warm sun peeking over the horizon… I often wonder, in the short time we have been here what our purpose is to be in this country. Well, I believe there are many reasons. But one of the very good reasons it seems is to bring that unity of east and west… so many of our friends and family and ourselves included had and still have pre-conceived ideas about China… and what shines out so much here is how we are all one. We are so accepted here. We’re the minority, if we’re going to look solely at ethnicity but we are treated with the most amazing love I have ever felt from so many people who I do not know. We get round the city on hand-gestures and limited vocabulary. But the constant love and welcome and hospitality we are receiving is endless and it’s beautiful.

I looked at what it said on our mugs…

‘Here for good.”

I don’t know how long we will stay in China – our plan was to return next year –  but I know I have tasted something now that I never want to give up… it’s hard to describe and it’s more a feeling at the moment than anything I can write about and convey properly. But I truly love it here. I miss ALL my friends and family SO much! But I want this feeling to continue somehow… whether we remain here next year or voyage home. Or is this home? It feels like home tonight.

“Somewhere over the rainbow

Way up high…

There’s a land that I heard of

Once in a lullaby…”