Fit for Purpose

It’s a big room, the opening session of the ECIS conference near Windsor, England. Hilary Cremin, from the University of Cambridge, takes the stage after the other welcomes, awards, and thank yous have been taken care of.

She is going to talk about education and peace. She recently became a grandmother. She starts with the uplifting experience of her daughter’s experience bringing this new child into the world and how that experience is so different from other women. Women in places like Gaza, Ukraine, and so many other places in the world confronting horrors most of us can never imagine.

“Education has to be our hope,” she says. She’s a peace educator, encouraging us to start with ourselves, with our family and colleagues, everyone radiating peace outwords, through communities, countries, and toward our planet. For this particular group of school administrators, it is key to start with our faculty and students. Providing them with the space and permission to model a peaceful coexistence. Yes.

Like so many of the blogs, articles, books, podcasts, videos, and presentations I watch, she tells us “schools are not fit for purpose.” I agree, at least, I agree that the fit is uncomfortable. I’m always struck in a group like this, a room filled with school administrators from around the world, that we are politely listening to someone telling us that our schools are not fit for purpose. That we could do better.

There is a reason so many people watched that Ken Robinson TED talk. Yet … after the conference we’ll all go back to our schools where we are creative, yes, but mostly around the edges, in ways that won’t upset our parents, our students, our teachers. We’ll mention the constraints, university acceptances, all of that. Yet, how much are we really locked in, and how much are we justifying because the way forward is difficult. Getting the fit right would be a lot of work.

Cremin is working on a book project. “Rewilding education.” From unsustainable ways of thinking and doing to sustainable ways. From factory farming to permaculture. (Schools as a wild garden!) From abstraction to embodiment. From obsession with growth to, to what? We are bumping up against the big issues here. Bigger than big. She mentions moving from current university models and career preparation to micro-credentials and portfolios.

This is an opening session for a conference, the format can only be a presentation, must really just focus on motivating us. But I’m starting to squirm a little. You know, like when a school shows that Ken Robinson TED talk at a faulty PD session on how our school model is outdated, how the head might say some polite and quite sincere words – don’t get me wrong – yet the faculty knows that it’s a feel-good session. Nothing specific is going to change, nothing that will significantly change the school approach and what and how they are going to teach that afternoon, next month, or next year. 

My colleague has been jotting his notes and reaction on his phone. He sends them to me:

My notes: Is peace at any price really worth it – surrender (by Ukrainians or Palestinians) would lead to peace but also domination of the strong over the weak. In a period of conflict and crises should we really focus so much on teaching ”peace?” Or should we focus on teaching our students about what is worth fighting for and what isn’t so that in the future they can make informed decisions about how to respond to conflict, whether to engage in it or oppose it? And if we take the metaphor of nature seriously, we need to recognize that the natural world is full of violence and competition, it certainly isn’t peaceful. And regarding outdated models of education (school as a factory or a prison): if we want to move away from traditionally hierarchical, control-focused institutions, if we want to make real progress, perhaps schools need to be a bit like a factory or prison, first so that we get our message across, and second to learn how to subvert such structures or how to become ungovernable.*

Jan and I have made the session a conversation despite the large group lecture format. We are carrying on this conversation here. I’m all for peace education, I’m also all for being open to how we continue to wrestle with our purpose, and then what the right fit is, even when it’s difficult, murky, gray, and full of contradictions. 

* Quan, H. L.T. (2024). Become Ungovernable. An Abolition Feminist Ethic for Democratic Living. Pluto Press. ISBN: 9780745349114

GLOBAL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

Sometimes a story can be more powerful than therapy. Picturebooks can help readers of all ages to realize they are not the only ones struggling with a problem or dealing with a difficult issue. Meeting a book character can shed new light on how to solve a problem. These books all are good examples of that.

The Only Lonely Fairy by Lana Button, with illustrations by Peggy Collins is the story of one little girl who is too busy feeling sorry for herself to notice new friends. Leah has beautiful fairy wings but, seemingly, no one wants to play with her. All the other children are busy playing with others but poor Leah is all alone and doesn’t like it. Until she finally notices another child who would like to try on her fairy wings. This one is soon followed by another and soon Leah is no longer alone. This is a picture book that can lead to discussing how to make new friends, how to pay attention to others and how to reach out. ISBN 978-1-77278-302-5, Pajama Press

The Reflection in Me, written by Marc Colagiovanni and illustrated by Peter H. Reynolds, is an affirmation – a discussion between a child and its mirror image. “You are just perfect in every way,” they tell each other. But sounding confident and looking lovely are just outward signs of being confident. The true magic of any person comes from within. This simple but caring picture book can lead to wonderful classroom discussions on being brave and having the courage to be yourself. And you’ll be just perfect. ISBN 978-1-338-81048-6, Scholastic

Sky Pig by Jan L. Coates, illustrated by Suzanne Del Rizzo is about pursuing your dreams, about being persistent when you try something new. Kids, and pigs, can be resourceful. Jack and his little pig friend Ollie try hard to achieve Ollie’s dream of flying. Jack helps his friends but mostly their inventions don’t work. Until Ollie has an idea that just might help pigs to fly. ISBN 978-1-927485-98-9, Pajama Press

More Than Words by Natalie Hyde and Valerie Sherrard, with illustrations by David Jardine, is a brand new release. This unique nonfiction book is all about communication. Written for young teens, the book examines how people communicate. Not only through language but through eye contact, gestures, facial expressions and body language. How and when do you use sarcasm? How important are expressions? Are you a good listener as well as a speaker? The book includes tips on connecting with others online and by phone. Are your words in a text message sending the right meaning? How important is proper grammar to make a first impression? This book will help those seeking to improve or practise good communication skills but will also come in handy for those who like to write. ISBN 978-1-77086-719-2, Cormorant Books, DCB Young Readers

Margriet Ruurs writes books for children and conducts author presentations to International Schools around the world. Book now for the 2024/25 school year: www.margrietruurs.com

Taking The Time To Celebrate

So this week I want to talk about the importance of giving thanks, sharing gratitude, and taking the time to slow down once in a while in our pursuit of progress to simply embrace and celebrate where we are as a school, and to recognize what we have accomplished as a collective community. We work so hard as educators, and we are so committed to doing our best for our students that sometimes it becomes very, very easy to get lost in the work, without taking these important pauses. Slowing down once in a while, taking a deep collective breath, and celebrating the work that’s been done along the way is the key to allowing the great work to continue, and much to my delight, we do that really well here at SSIS.

Recently for example, we have stopped to celebrate the opening of our new, purpose built facilities with our faculty and staff, and we have planned an even bigger, more public celebration in the upcoming weeks. We also just came off of our school-wide kindness week, organized by our incredible counseling team, where we spent several days celebrating each other, doing random acts of kindness, sharing our gratitude and simply taking the time to recognize and celebrate the beauty of our school, and on top of all that we took this past week’s full faculty meeting to celebrate our fantastic community survey results and our impressive progress related to our strategic plan…so good. 

To tell you the truth, there was a moment during last week’s facility opening ceremony when I looked around and found myself getting very emotional. The sun was warm and shining, the entire audience was smiling and happy and cheering loudly at every opportunity, the students were excited beyond belief, and the gratitude that I felt inside at that particular moment just came spilling over. By creating moments of celebration like these we allow space for our gratitude to sink in and flow out, which ends up connecting us deeply to the meaning and purpose of our work, and keeps us coming back for more 🙂

Actually, If we all stop to think about it, there is so much to be thankful for here in our lives as a faculty that it’s almost impossible to hold all the gratitude in, and stop it from flowing out. We work in a beautiful school, in a beautiful country, with amazing students, and incredible teachers, and engaged parents, and a loyal and proud support staff, and a strong vision for the future of the school…I could go on and on and on. I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes as schools, if we aren’t careful and purposeful with our priorities, it can become easy to get caught up in our busy day to day lives. We can get consumed with all the work that we want and need to do, and get to a place where we can forget to take the time, on a regular basis, to recognize, and internalize all that we have to be thankful and grateful for.

So, with that in mind, I want to publicly celebrate you all today for your unwavering commitment to our students, and to their learning. I want to say thank you for being so good to each other, and to me as a newbie to the school, and for approaching every educational conversation with an open mind and with positive intent. I want to thank you for finding your educational voices and your educational courage so quickly this year, and I want to celebrate you for being the kind, caring, and hardworking people and professionals that you all are. We are a very high achieving school, with exciting aspirations and dreams that are progressive and forward thinking, and we move at a fast pace around here to meet these goals. Let’s just make sure that we continue to hold each other accountable for taking a step back once in a while in order to celebrate…not just the big things like new buildings, but the small, day to day accomplishments as well. It’s the little things that can go by invisibly if we don’t make a concerted effort to call them out and give them the recognition that they deserve. 

Supporting this notion, our amazing Head of School, Dr. Catriona Moran, recently spoke at our leadership team meeting about the importance of prioritizing regular celebrations as a school, as well as the undeniable connection between celebration and positive culture building, and you know what, I couldn’t agree more. Culture does indeed eat strategy for breakfast as they say, and it feels great to be a part of a school that prioritizes this important mindset. 

Okay, with all of that in mind, let’s keep celebrating all of what makes our community so special as we speed toward the month of May, and commit to finding the time throughout the week, or even daily, to recognize and vocalize our gratitude. Let’s celebrate each other, our students, our SSIS staff and everyone else that contributes to this special place. Let the gratitude truly overwhelm as we look to finish the year strong. Have a fantastic week and remember to be great for our students and grateful for each other!

Quote of the Week…

Thankfulness is the beginning of gratitude. Gratitude is the completion of thankfulness. Thankfulness may consist merely of words. Gratitude is shown in acts – Henri Frederic Amiel

Related Articles – 

Celebrations Reduce Stress

Celebrating at Work

An Enjoyable Work Culture

Being Intentional 

Employee Contributions 

Inspiring Videos – 

Somebody I Used To Know Dance

Lemonade Stand

Solar Eclipse 

Kool & The Gang Celebration

An Old Mustang

Critical Race Theory: Learning from Kimberlé Crenshaw

Kimerlé Crenshaw has an extraordinary CV: with degrees from Cornell University (BA), Harvard University (JD) and the University of Wisconsin, Madison (LLM), she is a specialist in race and gender issues and professor at both the UCLA School of Law and Columbia Law School. She has published widely and is best known for founding critical race theory (CRT) and the construct of intersectionality. It was an immense privilege for me to hear her give the 2024 AERA keynote at Philadelphia just two days ago. 

There was a special feeling in the air when she took to the stage, with rapturous cheering and a spontaneous standing ovation. She launched into her talk with a power and eloquence that sustained itself beautifully throughout the hour, during which time she held the attention of a crowd of at least 3000 people. It was one of those moments in life where you feel that you’re part of something special, lucky to be there, part of history. It hasn’t happened a lot to me, but when it has, I’ve felt it, and this was one such moment of grace and historical transcendence.

In the wake of Claudine Gay being removed from Harvard for what appear to be ideological reasons (this the shortest ever tenure of a Harvard president, and the only black female one at that); over 20 states vetoing or overturning the teaching of Critical Race Theory (CRT); the revision of Florida’s African American history standards to argue for the so-called benefits of slavery; the banning of a Disney film about Ruby Bridges (the first child to be placed in an all-white school in the South after desegregation) – again in Florida; the banning of works of literature such as The Hate U Give (Angie Thomas), I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou) and The Color Purple (Alice Walker) and a presidential campaign underway called America 2025 with the goal to “rescue the country from the grip of the radical Left”, Crenshaw argues that there is coordinated attack against Woke.

CRT is widely and, in some cases, intentionally, misunderstood and subsequently weaponised. It is portrayed by its dissenters as Marxist propaganda, a doctrine which forces students to endorse a certain race-centred ideological position. However, this is not what it is. CRT is an analysis of the racialisation of policy, power yielding and politics historically and in present day social dynamics. If one looks through the history of slavery and subsequent indentured labour and colonisation, and if one does so honestly, accepting the facts, it is quite simply impossible to disentangle racism from the wider scope of mainstream historical exegesis, to conveniently dissociate it from  philosophical movements of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution and much building of nation states across the world. These were built on a bedrock of exploitation, any serious scholar knows that.

Theories of postcoloniality date back to at least the 1960s, CRT goes back to 1989: these are well-founded and substantiated positions. To read a 2009 article I wrote on the intersection between education and postcoloniality, see here.

“The past walks with the present” Crenshaw told us: the legacy of historical racism is still with us today, it manifests itself in statistics on access to education, wealth and power. The term “white privilege”, which causes unease – perhaps understandably, is nonetheless a necessary term which designates a reality: the systemic favouritism towards white people rather than people of colour in many economic, social and political realms. To contest this de facto is to seek alternative facts, opinions over data, disbelief over research, refusal over the acceptance of something that is clearly and patently a fact, at the very least in the United States.    

If one of the goals of an education is critical thinking, then how can we have critical discussions if we are not ready to accept the truth of history and the factual reports of the present? It is surely not by banning books and forbidding teaching of theory that any progress will be made. How can we evolve educationally by not allowing for the analysis of race in an overarching epistemological appreciation of reality?

Theory is everywhere in education, from science to mathematics to the learning of languages to the humanities. A good education should expose students to several theories: feminism, Marxism, liberalism, nationalism, even polemical and controversial theories such as fascism. CRT has its place in education, it is a theory and in fact, a central theory that explains reams of present day social stratification very saliently.


Crenshaw ended her brilliant lecture by asking us to not be afraid to defend this educational approach, not to cave in to lobbying and political pressure, including pressure from parents who might have a media-informed misunderstanding of CRT. If we want a more just, equitable, diverse, fair and free world, which are prerequisites for genuine democracy and genuine intellectual freedom, as educators, we have to be bold and continue to fight for the right to teach intricacy, nuance, subtlety, difficult ideas, uncomfortable ideas. This is in the pursuit of those elusive but necessary nuggets that scholarship and education seek: truths.

Wikimedia Commons Photograph by Mohamed Badarne, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Recalibration of Truth

Photo John Mikton

In our rapidly changing digital age, the idea of truth is undergoing a significant change. In the past, truth was often taken from shared experiences and clear agreements. Today, truth often is manipulated by social media, algorithmic biases, polarization, organizations, companies, and in more instances governments,  fueling the algorithms that influence what we see, hear, and believe.

I refer to this as a recalibration of truth. This new landscape requires us to navigate the complexities of deep fakes: video and voice, misinformation, and the algorithmically curated digital environments that condition our understanding of what is real and true.

Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” reminds us, ” Each one of us, of course, is now being trained, deliberately, not to act independently.”  Written in 1932, this quote resonates for me, in a world where we are tethered to our devices, influencing and amplifying our wishes and perceptions, often unconsciously. The world we live in has become a digital ecosystem that curates 24/7 our understanding of the world around us, guiding not just our hopes and dreams but also our understanding of truth.

Throughout history, the concept of truth has always been complex, with each era having its own unique ways of curating information. There was a time, not too long ago when agreements and truths were often established through a handshake or verbal agreement. Nowadays, our point of reference is formal contracts and notarized documents. This in many ways is a natural shift of our time in how we understand and evaluate truth. The digital age has only accelerated this shift, flooding us with a constant stream of feeds and push notifications. The overabundance of information and our ability to process it has led to what Maryanne Wolf, author of Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in the Digital Age, calls ‘skim reading.’ The act of ‘skim reading” dilutes our attention span and reduces our capacity to fully engage with information, affecting our ability to pause, analyze, and read critically and deeply.

The recalibration of truth today involves more than just the weakening of the traditional concept of truth; it involves understanding truth’s new tools and architecture. The accelerated presence of artificial intelligence and the widespread influence of algorithmic curation challenge us to engage with information in entirely new ways. The emergence of synthetic media, such as deep fakes, further complicates our ability to trust what we see, hear, and feel, causing us to question the reliability of our senses.

Schools and educators play a critical role in addressing this recalibration of truth. The abundance of information available to us and our students is seamless and frictionless, yet its accuracy is often questionable, highlighting the vital importance of teaching digital and information literacy. These skills are and will continue to be, essential for evaluating information, cross-referencing sources, and understanding the mechanics and algorithms of the digital content we interact with.

As we navigate this new landscape, we need to be open to reevaluating our priorities, focusing on the development of critical thinking, ethics, and empathy. It’s about being willing to break away from the past and being comfortable to explore new resources, professional learning, and dispositions to navigate the challenges brought about by a recalibrated notion of truth. This underlines the importance of developing learning pathways focused on digital and information literacy, ensuring that our students have the skills and critical thinking agility to live in a world where truths are continually recalibrated.

I believe that as educators and schools, we have a responsibility to ensure our students are not merely passive consumers of edutainment but rather critical thinkers skilled at navigating the complexities of this recalibrated truth in the digital age

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”  Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World”

Sources and Resources to further explore: 

“Brave New World by Aldous Huxley.” Goodreads, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5129.Brave_New_World

Wolf, Maryanne. “Reader, Come Home – HarperCollins.” HarperCollins Publishers, https://www.harpercollins.com/products/reader-come-home-maryanne-wolf?variant=32128334594082

Reading behavior in the digital environment: Changes in reading behavior over the past ten years: https://litmedmod.ca/sites/default/files/pdf/liu_2005_lecture_numerique_competences_comportements.pdf

Updates ‹ AI + Ethics Curriculum for Middle School — MIT Media Lab
https://www.media.mit.edu/projects/ai-ethics-for-middle-school/updates 

Carlsson, Ulla. “Understanding Media and Information Literacy (MIL) in the Digital Age.” UNESCO, https://en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/gmw2019_understanding_mil_ulla_carlsson.pdf

How deep fakes may shape the future
https://theglassroom.org/en/misinformation-edition/exhibits/how-deepfake-may-shape-the-future

FAKE or REAL? Misinformation Edition
https://fake-or-real.theglassroom.org/#/ 

John Spencer: Rethinking Information Literacy in an Age of AI. https://spencerauthor.com/ai-infoliteracy/.

AI Digital Literacy: Strategies for Educators in the Age of Artificial Intelligence https://blog.profjim.com/ai-digital-literacy-citizenship-best-practices/ 

GLOBAL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

Books are much like moccasins – they allow you to walk a mile in someone else’s footsteps; to experience life from someone else’s viewpoint. Books share stories from other cultures and countries. Here are some beautiful new titles to enrich any (classroom) library.

Waci! Dance! is an indigenous celebration of dance and life. Written by Sage Speidel and illustrated by Leah Dorion, the art dances off the pages in this picturebook as a small child is dressed and gets ready to join her elders in a festive dance to drums. The indigenous words are explained in a glossary in the back. This beautiful, happy story invites any reader to join in dancing and drumming to celebrate Mother Earth.

ISBN 978-0889957275, Red Deer Press

Look! Look! has been written by Uma Krishnaswami and illustrated by Uma Krishnaswamy. 

Water is one of earth’s most precious resources. In India people used to have wells and catchment systems. But often these ancient sources have became covered by soil while weeds grow and the land dries up. In this colourful picturebook, a child looks closely and notices a grey stone under the dirt. Working together with others, the people uncover steps leading to an ancient well. And when the rains come, the uncovered well once again fills up to provide precious water for the earth and the people. A nice reminder of the value of historic resources and the power of a child. ISBN 978-1773069326, Groundwood Books

We Belong Here, written by Frieda Wishinsky and illustrated by Ruth Ohi is set in the 1950’s. Even though many countries are a melting pot of different cultures, it can still be difficult to make a new country your home. Eve and Mark are each part of a family of newcomers to a new land. They often get teased or called names. Mark’s father even loses his job due to discrimination. But the children help their families to be stronger and better by working together. When Mark’s father uses his carpentry skills, the whole neighbourhood agrees that everything is better in the renovated delicatessen store.  ISBN 978-1-4431-9403-7, Scholastic

Taming Papa by Mylène Goupil is a tender, thought provoking novel for young readers. Mélie didn’t even know she had a father when her mother receives word that he is coming to join them in their country. Mélie wasn’t told about him because he was in prison in his home country, where everyone has to agree and say the same things or they get put in prison. Something her father couldn’t do. When he actually joins them, he doesn’t speak the same language. There are many barriers to overcome for shy, introvert Mélie. But with the help of a kind, former teacher and his new baby, and the help of a new, lost kitten, Mélie learns to understand her father in more ways than just with words. All the while she searches for, and finds the answer to her question ‘what is a real family?’ 

Children of immigrant families who struggle with similar problems, will love this gentle, beautifully written novel. ISBN 978-1-77306-723-0, Groundwood Books

Margriet Ruurs writes books for children in Canada and visits international schools around the world. Book now for the 2024/25 school year: www.margrietruurs.com

The difficulty of reintegrating into the world as you once knew it after an international education

I have often heard this argument: graduates of international schools struggle to adapt to non-international environments, including their own. After years in a type of international bubble, the transition to a local reality can be difficult.

The thought that stands out to me is the whole idea of adaptation to life after school. In fact – and this is what I am going to argue in this piece – that process being difficult might actually be a good thing.  

What if a great education causes a certain defamiliarisation by dint of the new concepts it evokes in the learner, the thresholds crossed, making it impossible to turn back to earlier pastures with the same views and feelings as one had in an earlier life, a little the way an adult returns to a childhood playground only to find that it is much smaller and fragile than what was in the imaginary prolongation of its existence in the memory? 

As we learn, we deconstruct, we go back over and open up (“analysis”  – literally in Greek “lysis” – to open  up, “ana” – backwards), we discover and rediscover in ways that cause us to become strangers in our own lands, whether we physically leave those places or not. 

I think of Jean Paul Sartre’s troublesome centre of consciousness Antoine Roquentin in his phenomenological (and, to me, his best) 1938 novel Nausea: it is a profound awakening in Roquentin which suddenly creeps up on him, meaning that he can no longer go about even the most banal tasks, like turning a door knob or turning the page of a book, without the action feeling different, as if he is now living his life through a different consciousness, outside of himself. 

My interpretation of the book is that Sartre is communicating the idea of learning powerful and profound new concepts. We start by seeing things as absolute, with an inner meaning, a “thing in itself”, which is pleasing and comforting, secure and peacefully simple; then a great teacher, or an extraordinary book (for me it was Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, which I read at 17), or perhaps some profound experience, shakes our foundation, enlightens us, breaks down – even shatters – the mirror we had been looking at all along and leaves in the broken shards a world to be recreated, pieced together with difficulty.

This seminal conversion – like Siddhartha becoming the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree – is when we turn the page from the easy plenum of ignorance to the difficult path of knowledge. It’s a turning point.

And this is when a true education starts: we understand that the world might be noumenal, it might have its inner truths, but no one can get inside them, we will forever be outside of them. We can no longer stand on the side lines and judge the world with the naiveté of a child who lives in binary oversimplifications. Nothing is simple anymore. Nothing is as it was.

It’s a bit like a student discovering what historiography means and what it implies; or when students are first taught Plato’s allegory of the cave (and what a privilege to be the teacher who gets to take them into that place!): these learnings are levers that propel students into an entirely new understanding of just about everything. Threshold concepts are irreversible and transformative, integrative and mind changing.

So, yes, an international education does defamiliarise students from the world as it was before. It will be slightly strange to go back home after a powerful educational experience, whether it is international or not (the international dimension is really that phenomenon of defamiliarisation cast over questions of culture and identity). This is not a bad thing, it’s a beautiful, strange, painful and intriguing thing all at once. Let’s not forget, after all, the etymology of the word educate: ex-ducere – to lead out of. As we learn, we are led out of our former selves into our new selves, leaving the old self and the world as it appeared to that old self, behind.

(Image: 2024-04-03-17-53-50_The-Scream-Painting-Images-_-Free-Photos-PNG-Stickers-Wallpapers-Backgrounds.png)

Rose-colored glasses – and beige and magenta …

I have been posting a series of classroom observations in a style I haven’t seen – a stream of consciousness reflection of what I think as I watch class unfold. Let me know if you’ve run across this type of observation before.

Waiting for students to arrive at class. The teacher plays an orchestral version of a popular Mexican pop song through speakers on his desk. Soft, welcoming. 

I know the lesson today is going to be about looking at literature through different perspectives, different lenses, as the teacher has told me. I think of rose colored glasses, that is, seeing everything in a positive light, perhaps a bit naively. That’s not exactly what this lesson is about, I know, but our thoughts sort of bring us where they want to bring us. Like a Max Frisch quote from Homo Faber that I memorized once when I was learning German, something like: “Ich sage nicht was ich will, sondern was die Sprache will.” (I don’t say what I want to, but rather what the language wants to.) So yeah, I’m thinking of rose colored glasses, and then about Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, which leads my thoughts to beige colored glasses, and maroon, and magenta, and taupe. I’m now hearing the musical in my head. Donny Osmond, specifically, who played Joseph.

After the last students take a seat the teacher fades the music and sounds a gong, a bowl actually, an object and an act that makes me think of Tibet or Nepal. The reverberations are calming, centering. I leave Donny and the dreamcoat, I’m here for literature analysis.

The students are going to choose a famous fairy tale, or a popular movie, to deconstruct. They are going to apply a lens, a particular perspective, a way to analyze the stories. 

This is a grade 12 English class. The example text is The Three Little Pigs, their straw, wood, and brick houses. This teacher is good. Not everyone could get away using stories for children for these young adults. For that matter, not everyone can get away starting class with a moment of bowl-ringing mindfulness. 

“What’s the moral of the story?” he asks the class.

“Instead of playing, you should build a better house,” says a student from Azerbaijan. “Work over pleasure,” adds another student from across the room. The teacher has them thinking, all he has to do is nod. Students call out more possible morals. 

And then we’re watching an advertisement for the British newspaper, The Guardian. A spoof on the story of the three little pigs. Police in combat gear raid their houses. We see the three little pigs in court. The wolves seem to have the upper hand at city hall. They have control of the story, it doesn’t look good for the pigs. They are accused of insurance fraud. The destruction of their houses at the hands of the wolf is, in fact, the fault of the pigs. Of course it is, when the wolf has the loudest voice.

We are thinking of the story differently.

“Let’s switch gears,” says the teacher. “Now we are going to consider the story of the pigs with a semiotic lens.” He projects a slide that asks How are the wolf and each pig polysemic? Semiotics is the study of signs. I remember Charles Sanders Peirce, the American philosopher. Polysemic is then multiple signs, more or less. The wolf represents more than one thing, as do the pigs. A simple story, but as the students suggest multiple interpretations it gets complex, fast. Parallels with Marxism, the working class. Reference to manufacturing consent. Do fairy tales use fear to force kids into line, to get them to think a certain way? Innocent-seeming stories that serve to brainwash?

“And now what about a feminist lens?” the teacher asks. What might change? What do we notice?” I can’t hear the students well, they are discussing in pairs and small groups. So I tune them out and think about The Three Little Pigs through a feminist lens.

What is it to be a feminist? To notice oppression, to notice inequality, to raise up women, to make the experience of being a woman normal? Or extraordinary? I realize I don’t know what a feminist is. Is it a stretch to analyze the story in this way? Of course, perhaps that is the point – to push how we think about stories over some sort of boundary we had assumed was common sense. To consider a story from a feminist point of view, to think about what a story might have to say about race, relationships, religion, power structures, social mores is to challenge ourselves, to widen our view. Literature helps us understand our world. Literature class helps us expand what we get out of literature. 

The teacher switches slides. Now Miss Piggy is looking at us from the screen, the Jim Henson muppet. The first line on the slide says: The absence of female characters in The Three Little Pigs reflects a traditional patriarchal narrative where women are often …

I can hear this conversation echoing in the high ceilinged rooms of ivy covered stone buildings, English majors and students of liberal arts getting passionate, strident. And I can hear at the same time the conversation being dismissed as nonsense. I picture a derisive group of old men sitting around their regular table at the donut shop, holding their coffee cups with both hands, MAGA hats, John Deere hats, suspenders. “Liberal nonsense!” they all agree, nodding, scratching. I’m an awful repository of prejudice.

Students select a story now, for further analysis. Goldilocks, Cinderella, Popeye the Sailorman, The Tortoise and the Hare. Well known stories, at least in America. Mulan and Shrek.

“Consider each story through these literary lenses. What do they tell you about you, us about us?”

While they do that I have the opportunity to interview two students. The teacher sends me out of the room with them both. A Russian student, a boy, says he thinks the lenses are almost too much. I think about my reaction to the feminist lens. “Like the feminist lens,” he says, as if reading my mind. “It’s not always applicable. But the lenses help me know how to respond to literature for the final exam. It’s important I score high, the universities I applied to are looking for a high score.”

The other student, a girl from Poland, never mentions the final exam. “It’s amazing,” she says. “The class is amazing. Looking at literature from multiple perspectives helps me really understand the authors better, and the authors’ intent.”

And does seeing things from another’s perspective help you think better in general?

“Oh,” she says, with refreshing honesty, particularly in someone so obviously intelligent. “I hadn’t thought of that. But yes. Definitely.”

Mr. Slope Guy

Classrooms are different now. I mean, similar, too. Desks, a display at the front, the teachers explaining, the students taking notes. But the teacher in this math classroom stands in the back, writing on his iPad, the results visible at the front of the room on a screen, and the students are mostly taking notes on laptops. So it’s different, but the same.

The teacher is explaining slopes with equations and graphs. He’s going over exercises from the homework before giving the students a new problem to work on. 

Behind the students across the room are a couple of posters. One is Mr. Slope Guy, which I don’t get at first, but after studying another poster to the right, titled The 4 Types of Slopes, I understand. Mr. Slope Guy is a face made out of:

  • a positive slope (his left eyebrow), under which is a + for the left eye,
  • a negative slope (his right eyebrow), under which is a – for right eye,
  • an undefined slope (a vertical line) for his nose, and
  • a zero slope (a horizontal line). 

The result is a sort of pensive face, winking at me, perhaps, as if we are sharing a secret. Maybe we are. Namely, he knows that I don’t remember much about slope. That whatever long term benefit I have from four years of high school math doesn’t rest in the actual facts, but rather any habits of good thinking I developed, if indeed I did.

I focus back on the board. An example.

y = x4 – 12x2

The students are looking for maximums and minimums and showing that what they know with an equation. The teacher gets them working independently again and then answers questions of individual students as they have them. The clacking of my typing grows noticeable as the students drop into thought, one with a pencil, one with an iPad, the others with their computers. Math class that is both the same and different since we’ve been having math class. 

The teacher warns students that they have just a minute left, then he will go through the problem step by step.

Another poster on the wall states its version of maximum and minimum. Wrong is Wrong, even if everyone is doing it, and Right is Right, even if no one is doing it. This is not about slope. Perhaps it expresses a personal conviction that is meaningful to the teacher. It is meaningful to me and for a time I’m lost in thought, thinking how we do school, all of us, and wondering if the adage on the poster has anything to say to us.

When I refocus on the class I see that the teacher has, as promised, gone through the problem step by step. His iPad-penned notes are there in front of the class, a student asks a follow up question. As far as I can tell they are all tracking. The teacher invites them to work on some additional problems. 

From his spot on the wall, Mr. Slope Guy observes all of us, forever winking. Maybe he doesn’t take himself too seriously. I wink back at him and smile. 

GLOBAL BOOK RECOMMENDATIONS

Walking… it might be as beneficial as reading! So here are some wonderful reads about walking: walking people, walking animals, even walking trees. They include brand-new as well as long-loved titles. There are other wonderful books about the importance of walking, some of which I reviewed for this TIE column before, including A Long Walk for Water by Linda Sue Parks and Walking Home by Eric Walters.

Follow up reading one of these books by going for a classroom walk!

The Cat Who Walked The Camino, written and illustrated by Kate Spencer is a wonderful story for anyone who has walked, or hopes to walk, the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It’s a great book to help children understand the history and significance of this popular long distance trail but also a fun story based on a true event. A hiker sets off for Santiago and encounters a kitten who ends up traveling the length of the world’s most famous hiking trail with her. Told in the voice of the kitten, we meet a variety of people walking the trail. We also learn about of the most interesting points along the trail: the church of Santo Domingo and its chicken legend, the Cruz de Hierro where pilgrims leave a stone behind, and of course the Cathedral at the end of the walk. With lovely illustrations as well as a map of the entire trail, this is a perfect story to share with children, whether you plan this epic hike or not.

ISBN 97982-1811-9119. Order from Amazon, wholesale from Ingram Spark, or inquire through the author via Facebook Message: https://www.facebook.com/kate.spencer.1293

Walking Trees by Marie-Louise Gay was inspired by a true event in The Netherlands were an art project used movable trees to bring green space to different parts of a city. When it’s Lily’s birthday she asks for a small tree to put on her balcony. Then she decides to take it for a walk around the neighborhood, with the potted tree in her wagon. Soon, people love the shade her tree brings. They talk about global warming and how much we need trees and shade and green. Soon, others follow her example and create green spaces all over the city.

Not only is this a fun story to share and to find information online about the original project (called Bosk) but also to follow it up by planting school trees, in the ground or in movable pots.

ISBN 978-1-77306-976-0, Groundwood Books

The Armadillo from Amarillo by Lynne Cherry is the intricately illustrated story of an armadillo who sets off on foot to explore the state of Texas. Along the way he learns many things and makes new friends. He sees cities and deserts and forests. He meets many different kinds of animals and, thanks to a Golden Eagle, even sees the earth from a different perspective. And all along, he mails postcards back to his armadillo friend in the zoo. The rich illustrations are full of facts and information. A great book to share and to follow up by sending postcards around the country or around the world.

ISBN 0-15-200359-2, Harcourt Brace

The Boy Who Walked Backward by Ben Sures, illustrated by Nicole Marie Burton, is a beautifully told, yet heartbreaking, story of residential school. Leo and his family live in the traditional Ojibway manner. Their language, food and way of life are steeped in tradition. But one day a truck comes to collect the children who now have to leave their families to go to school. No longer are they allowed to speak their own language. They even have to cut their hair. When Christmas finally comes, the children are able to see their families and to spend time in their own homes again. And when the holidays are over, Leo invents a clever way to avoid going back to school. Using skills he has long learned, he uses his beloved forest to hide and wait until the truck has left.

ISBN 978-1-927849-49-1, Manitoba First Nations Education Resource Centre.

The Camino Club by Kevin Craig. I read this teen novel as an e-book. It is a very realistic account of a group of juvenile delinquents – reminiscent of Ben Mikaelson’s Spirit Bear but for older students –  whose punishment for a variety of crimes, is to walk the Camino de Santiago in Spain with counsellors. Since the real experience is transforming, the fictional teens, too, are transformed by confronting each other, by confessing sins, by meeting new people and by the very act of walking a long distance trail. The teens’ foul language may be realistic in this setting but it almost turned me off of reading on. I’m glad I did, though, as the story gets gripping and you do want to know what happens to each teen in the end.  

ISBN 978-1945053979, Duet Books

Walking For Water, How One Boy Stood Up for Gender Equality by Susan Hughes, illustrated by Nicole Miles is a wonderful story inspired by true events in Malawi. Victor and Linesi are twins. They love going to school but at some point Lenesi is the one who can’t go anymore because she has to fetch water for the family. In school, the new teacher tells the children about gender equality. Soon Victor sees the unfairness of this and has a plan: he and his sister take turns going to class and fetching water. The changes have a ripple effect so that, soon, equality becomes not just something that is only talked about but practised as well.  ISBN 978-1-5253-0249-7, Kids Can Press

Margriet Ruurs is a Canadian author of over 40 books. She has walked part of the Camino de Santiago and will travel anywhere in the world for author presentations at International Schools. www.margrietruurs.com

Sharing stories, expertise, and experiences from international educators around the world. In the spirit of amplifying diverse voices. TIE's blog space is not subject to editorial oversight. TIE bloggers have a long history in various aspects of international education and share their thoughts and insights based on personal experiences.