Category Archives: Matthew Piercy

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

Deserving Permission

Two bits recently grab my attention as I grapple to better understand each.  The first is simply a matter of syntax but the words I hear and choose to use clearly have an impact. The second is of much larger context and regards the commodification of education.  

“The self-talk you use regularly creates your reality and your destiny,” states Christopher Bergland in an article published in Psychology Today titled, “Scientists Find That a Single Word Can Alter Perceptions ~Language has the power to make the invisible appear real”.  Understanding this, two words seemingly have the power to raise the hackles on my hairless back.  

“Deserve.”

And “permission.”

Consciously I no longer use either, a disappearing act from within my lexicon.  The first, “deserve”, exudes entitlement. “Have a great break, you deserve it!” Or, “Go ahead and eat dessert.  You deserve it!”  

Caroline Myss, five-time New York Times bestselling author and internationally renowned speaker asserts, “The attitude of ‘deserve’, as a rule, is a one-way street.”  As if to say that the world and others are simply to revolve around an individual. Myss further adds, “Expectations do not get filled by themselves. Someone has to ‘make’ you happy; someone has to ‘provide’ security and safety; someone has to ‘provide’ love.”

The second, “permission”, appears especially out of place in the context of education.  A place where empowerment and innovation are essential.  Some these days even are proclaiming “fearless inquiry”.  Boldly questioning and willing to try everything. Yet, still hanging on are the enduring remnants of tradition and hierarchy.  A colleague in another school shared a pervasive example of a school community writhing in dysphoria.  “You have the permission to send Meghan to the office when she tells you to be quiet.”  A knee jerk reaction would surely need to be kept in check, a biting of the tongue just the same.  For surely there would be a desire to sarcastically respond, “Geez, thanks!”   Unfortunately this is not a stand alone example.  I have also overhead educators ardently disclose, “Jill (the principal) said we had permission to purchase supplemental materials with our PD funds.”  Like 7 and 8-year old children, professional practioners, those in the trenches, are so disempowered that they need to be given “permission.”  These examples are even more preposterous when we consider “teachers make over 1500 educational decisions every school day, a constant juggle of manager, content holder, master communicator, and support system.”

Occupying more of my thinking, at a 20,000 foot altitude is how might higher education be 10, 20, or 50 years from now.  Specifically, in the United States.  A proponent of alternative models and interested in learning from the past but also the pandemic present, a part of me is not entirely optimistic.  I have no sources to back my thinking, just experience.  

Last year, Forbes reported how student loan debt is just behind mortgage debt, a figure of $1.56 trillion.  Clearly a broken system, however with all the talk about the unsustainability of student loans, I posit “What would happen if we emptied the higher ed institutions of privilege?”  What if not a single American student attended the Yales, Harvards, and Princetons?  

A vacuum. 

That’s my prediction of what likely would see.  As true as gravity.  

A flood of F-1 student visas would result.  The elite from developing countries would fill the hallowed halls and desks up over night.  Education, a commodity bought up.  More than mere fad, attending such schools is a symbol.  Just as driving a fancy car, wearing certain designer clothes, or toting a $3000 purse.  In Bangkok, the city where I live, shopping is considered by some to be the nation’s favorite pastime.  With countless luxury malls, boutiques as well as upscale brands help fill a sort of void. Opulence a sort of addiction. Status but also appearance, the priority. 

Education is no different.  A commodity.  Only in much of Asia, education is rooted culturally, the pathway to success.  Therefore, what is considered the “best” or “first-tier” naturally is what is sought after. Not necessarily for better or worse.  An Ivy League sweatshirt worn with pride.

However, what is different is the messaging. A more progressive view wells up in the United States.  One example is the rampant rise in credentialing. This appears far more aligned with what it means to learn and work in the 21st century.  In the United States alone there are over 730,000 confirmed credentials.  According to Credential Engine, “Through an increasing array of credentials – such as degrees, licenses, badges and apprenticeships – job seekers, students, and workers have more options than ever to help them get ahead.”Again, I have just experience to make these claims.  Yet, for now my recommendation is to just give students “permission” to pursue an alternative approach.  Afterall, they “deserve” it!

Bridging The Worlds of Teachers and Students

“Put your hands up if you can name a YouTuber.”
“Two Youtubers?”
“Keep your hand up if you know three YouTubers.”
18.
Then, 11.
And finally, seven hands remain in the air.

“Hands down.  Now, raise your hand if you know what is going on in neighboring Myanmar.”
Two hands hesitatingly raise up.

This fantastical visual served as a reflection of the need for a call to action.  The necessity to bridge a divide between a students’ world and that of ours, adults. Generation Z, or Zoomers, have an ocean of information to swim in, right at their fingertips.  However, just as I wish that students begin paying closer attention to the world around them, I too should have much to gain from taking a deeper dive into  what captures their 12 and 13 year-old attention.  

Beginning With the “Why”

We may profess that we promote environments where students become caring global citizens, yet how might we move beyond mere words and into action? At the school where I teach, an intentional approach was taken to provide opportunities for students to speak, listen and learn about the world, ourselves, and what is currently taking place around us.  This mission was designed to help us maintain focus on why we do what we do.  Further, it is aligned with a three item list that is a header on our weekly meeting agendas.  To design with the following in mind:  agency (voice/choice); promote a robust array of opportunities to develop skills of reading, writing, speaking; and to prioritize meaningful learning that motivates and becomes transferable.  Furthermore, our aspirations as social studies teachers is further backed by our school’s vision statement:  “to enrich communities through the intellectual, humanitarian and creative thoughts and actions of our learners.” 

How A Teacher Might Get Started

One method of going about this is a robust current events integration.  This begins by our modeling of a presentation.  This year it was an event about Elon Musk and Space X.  Specifically how on average every two weeks of 2020 there was a commercial space launch. The Hong Kong protests was a close second.  After the presentation we invited students to comment positively and specifically.  Following this, we roll out the rubric.  Simplified, the one standard addresses communication and a students ability to engage in discussion on public issues.  The “discussion” is ultimately the passion a student is able to spearhead in class.  Can they proficiently speak loudly, clearly, and knowledgeably? Is a visual utilized to help guide the presentation?  And, is there a call to action? 

At a More Granular Level

Once students are on board, we invite students to a simple Google Doc calendar and they self-select.  Some think of their soccer games and upcoming band performances.  A few students usually are quick to sign up to be first stating that they are either excited or “just want to get it over with.”  Whereas, others assign themselves towards the end, in an effort to be wise and build off the learning from all those before them.  

A Google Slides presentation houses everyone’s presentation, to create a quasi archive in the making. Seven slides are intentionally placed at the start:

Now we make no claim that this is “the way” to do it.  Simply, we have found that it works for our students.  The directions for how to create the slides are explicit, yet allow breathing room for students to fill out with creativity. And they do!  

Directions are to select one current event article to focus the presentation. This should be something the student cares about or possibly just wants to know more about.  The first semester students selected everything from whale migration to Black Lives Matter protests.  After reading the article and familiarizing oneself with the event, some students possibly will research more, but this is up to the individual.  Next their three slides are crafted.  The only parameters for the slides are that no slide should have more than 5 words.  This engenders brevity but also leads to the creation of talking points, as opposed to turning and reading slides during the presentation.  Note: this sometimes is challenging as “Death by PowerPoint” presentations have taken root and been accepted for far too many years.  It’s time to bring back tht personality of a presentation.  Remember Show and Tell and how much fun that was?  Imagine a first grader reading a PowerPoint to tell about the item they are showing!

Further, students are invited to thoughtfully incorporate the use  of visuals on their slides.  A range often is selected; charts and graphs, often along with provoking images. Last, we highlight the importance of structure. To begin with a title that hooks and to conclude with a call to action. Also in the beginning, the inclusion of a map will help the audience with context.  From the start the “what” and “where” is already highlighted. Logically, next students will touch on who, when, and why.  The call to action, the “how.”  The conclusion one that hopefully will leave us empowered either to change a habit or behavior. Or maybe just interested in educating ourselves more.  Ostensibly, all 5 Ws and How are addressed in the presentation. For students who may require or desire a template for more structure, we provide a graphic organizer to help with planning.  

A hurdle every year is for students to trust themselves enough to present without the use of a script or cue cards in hand.  The expectation is to speak, as opposed to read.  However, with practice all students have demonstrated success in this.

Beaming at the End

The final step, a favorite, largely hinges on classroom culture. Applause usually ensues following a presentation.  Then, students have an opportunity to comment positively.  Hands often shoot up across the room and the presenter selects.  Observing amidst the “audience,” tears have welled up in my eyes on more than one occassion.  Kind and specific words spoken directly to another.  A boost in confidence noted on a child’s face, easily detected even though masked. 

Since the precursory, “Put your hands up if you can name a YouTuber,” I made the decision to educate myself and join the legions of youth.  To do so, I openly took the recommendations of students.  Quickly three YouTuber names surfaced: Try Guys, Dream, and MrBeast.  The first, Try Guys clearly is a niche unto themselves.  Their online streaming of comedy already has 10 seasons of content. With an even larger fan or following base, Dream has close to 20 million subscribers.  This YouTuber is known for producing Minecraft and speedrun content videos.  The third, MrBeast, is just that.  Offline, known as Jimmy Donaldson, MrBeast has more than 50 million subscribers. A number larger than the population of Spain!  His videos often are expensive stunts, which combine his skills as an entrepreneur, along with philanthropy.  For example, successfully raising 20 million dollars to plant 20 million trees.  Then, there is of course the video of his preposterous counting to 100,000.  Sped up, over 40 hours of MrBeast just sitting and counting is condensed to a full day. Nearly as asinine would be someone spending a day watching MrBeast count.  

Whose World?

Though I do not lay claim to have fully swung open the door to our student’s world, I feel positive to have begun to glimpse inside. In doing so, it is intriguing to observe how our teacher and student spheres can intersect, collide, or even casually orbit unto themselves. Yet, one thing I am certain. YouTubers have a magnitude of influence. Their style, wit, and communication patterns emerge in student projects, but also in day to day interactions. In a world still gripping with a pandemic and where officials launch lawsuits against a city’s board of education in order force opening of schools, it is refreshing to enter the world of our students. If even to watch a YouTuber pull off the painful stunt of completing a marathon in American size 40 shoes.

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Addendum:

Curated sources we encourage students to utilize can be seen below.  Some allow students to select their reading level which is a big help.  Additionally, we aim for our resources to be balanced and not necessarily promote any one country’s bias.

NewselaThe Good News NetworkDogonewsBBC– British Broadcasting CorporationTime for Kids
CBC Kids NewsKids News– Canadian Broadcasting CorporationKids News– AustraliaNews for KidsNewsbank
(our school database)

Leading as Opposed to Managing

Nearly four centuries ago samurai turned poet Matsuo Manefusa, or Bashō, gave us the gift of Haiku (The inspiration for the Haiku I created above). Similar to Haiku’s time-tested refined distillation of 17 syllables, Twitter constrained users to but 140 characters.  More practical than artistic, Twitter was initially designed as an SMS-based platform and 140 characters was the limit mobile carriers imposed. In both instances, paramount is getting in and out with intentionality.

If only all facets of life were streamlined. Imagine faculty meetings or even better, dentist visits! 

Probably much like you, I have a host of people I follow across social media platforms and frequent newsletters. However, none whom I follow parallels the unmistakable brevity and potency as Seth Godin.

If you do not already follow Godin, I suggest you check him out. Godin is an inspiration of what it means to be both purposeful and clear.  For more than thirty years, he has shared inspiration through his writing.  An author of 19 best sellers, his daily blog is in its eleventh year and imparts clever but also applicable messages that pollinate ideas across a spectrum of workplaces. For example, his top two all-time most popular posts are titled, “Don’t Shave That Yak!” and “Quality and Effort.”  

One constant of Godin’s style is his ability to succinctly convey his message, masterfully positioning us in the slipstream. Voice so present in his writing. Clear and in pure breviloquence, Godin’s posts are possibly two steps from Haiku and but one away from Twitter.  He imparts wisdom that is enduring but also especially transferable to the craft of education. For example in a recent post he commented on the power of more self-directed and project-based learning, “We can create a pattern of teaching people to be curious because curiosity is an engine for learning… it is less predictable but far more powerful than the current alternative: Creating a desire to get it over with, combined with the ability to believe whatever the person in power tells us to believe.”

Who could disagree with this? The difference between compliance and empowerment.

Just envisioning paths paved by curiosity but moreover what is possible, is the first logical step.  More difficult is the necessary next move. For adults; teachers, parents, and administrators to make a conscious effort to simply get out of students’ way.  Please do not take this as a recommendation for an anarchic melee. Instead, the motivation is more an invitation.  To allow students to genuinely take a front seat to their learning.  If not in the driver’s seat, at least to sit shotgun. Far too much chauffeuring of backseat passive non-learners has grown to be the default modus operandi.  A generation often labeled as bored, disengaged, and unfortunately ill-prepared graduates.   

This is not the first time I made the bold suggestion to step out of the way so students can get on with learning. So salient it crops up daily in my reflections, after and sometimes even amidst a lesson. Seemingly I keep having to learn this, as I forget, unlearn and relearn. Why?  My best non-guess is that it is a matter of control and of critical importance is to courageously let go. This I confess with equal parts honesty and vulnerability. Further, I am beginning to think it best to begin each lesson or unit plan with an overt intention to lead and not manage. Similar to coaching.  Or, what Godin references to what we don’t see in a music conductor’s success, “They have less power than it appears, and use their position to lead, not manage.” Ultimately musicians, athletes and all learners will find themself on a stage, field, or court.  Let them manage.  Let them play!

MASTERY MATTERS

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

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

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

The tests. The tests. The tests.

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

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

The Phoenix Flaps Her Wings

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

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

Letting Students Own Their Own Experiences

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

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

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

A More Authentic Approach Moving Forward 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CULTURE MAPS, NOT GAPS

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

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

Borrowed from: “No Rules Rules”

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

Enter innovation stage left.

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

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

How much remains just words?  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Out of Students’ Way

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

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

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

The club was born.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you eaten?

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

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

How are you doing? 

Four words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The result? 

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

The challenges and promises of migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this is just a beginning.

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

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

~Understanding Our Own Emotions is Imperative to Building Relationships

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

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

“Hello Jeremy.” Neutral.

“Hey Jacob, gooood morning!” Joy.

“Hi Isabella.”  Irritation.

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

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

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

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

A teacher’s doorway; summer.

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

She is hope. 

He is potential.  

They are promise.  A better tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

“Hello Jeremy.” Neutral.

Neutral?  This is inexcusable.

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

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

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

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

Meeting Learners Wherever They May Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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