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.

The challenges and promises of migration

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

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

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

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

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

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

But this is just a beginning.

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

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

~Understanding Our Own Emotions is Imperative to Building Relationships

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

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

“Hello Jeremy.” Neutral.

“Hey Jacob, gooood morning!” Joy.

“Hi Isabella.”  Irritation.

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

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

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

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

A teacher’s doorway; summer.

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

She is hope. 

He is potential.  

They are promise.  A better tomorrow.

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

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

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

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

“Hello Jeremy.” Neutral.

Neutral?  This is inexcusable.

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

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

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

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

Meeting Learners Wherever They May Be

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time for Action: Reaching Unity in Diversity

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

Distanced, we discuss “togetherness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tapping into Feedback

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

Count?  

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

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

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

How We Might Go About Eliciting Feedback

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

Can you name the movie?  

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

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

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

Water, Water Everywhere, and Not a Drop to Drink

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

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

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

Bringing It Back to Schools

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

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

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

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

3-D Teaching

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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