No Penalty

Every year at about this time I spend days and days preparing a week long course for international principals on assessment leadership, scouring the latest research, reading, reviewing all my notes and experiences from recent visits to dozens of international schools.  Gives me plenty of opportunity to get riled up about it once again.

Here’s the problem.  Whose decision was it to make learning punitive and use assessment as the weapon?

Human beings are born to learn- that’s the design.  From the moment a child is born, its all about learning.  There’s no written curriculum, rather a whole bunch of benchmarks so the people who are shepherding that learning have sense of when strategies or environment might need to change.  And when a child is struggling to reach one of those benchmarks – like walking by a certain age, what do we?  We certainly don’t give him one chance, mark him down if he’s ‘late’, spend most of our energy figuring out what’s fair compared to other kids and how we will ‘report’ it to whoever might need to know. We don’t load him up with threats and potential consequences, say to him   ‘This is your last chance. Tomorrow we are moving on to talking and if you don’t show us you can walk I’m afraid you will not be allowed to go to that class.’

The purpose of assessment is so well established now – anyone in any facet of the education business cannot have missed this conversation that has been going on for decades; the Black and William ‘Inside the Black Box’  seminal research gave it the impetus to leap forward…and that was in 1998!

We know that assessment is essentially a feedback loop.  We work on helping kids to learn something, give them specific, corrective feedback along the way, WITH NO PENALTY, ever.  There is simply no place for penalty in this learning process in schools.  We are not talking here about no consequences for behaviors that are harmful to others, or simply ethically wrong.  We are talking about schools, places of ‘learning’ for people who have not yet learned.  That’s why they come to school – not to prove that they have learned but to actually learn.

There are so many practices in our schools- especially secondary, but primary as well- that are driven by the notion that penalty and learning can and should cohabitate.  Any educator reading this fill the list – from restricting access to courses of study to falsely assuming no learning has occurred because the particular  work the teacher wanted produced  was not and so on  Attaching penalty to the natural human condition of learning, as my 10 year old grandson would say is just ‘wrong’.

Letting go of that premise will free us to truly explore that nature of assessment and hopefully design many more helpful and compatible strategies.

You Lose!

“Of course you don’t know. You don’t know because only I know. If you knew and I didn’t know, then you’d be teaching me instead of me teaching you – and for a student to be teaching his teacher is presumptuous and rude. Do I make myself clear?” – Mr. Turkentine (from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory).

Willy Wonka’s rant.

“Why doesn’t he get it?”
“Because he broke the rules.”
“Rules? What rules? I didn’t know there were any rules?”

Many of us remember that Gene Wilder’s famous tirade on Charlie and his Uncle ended when Charlie returned the everlasting gobstopper and saved the day. He had been screamed at, told that everything he had worked for was lost, that he didn’t follow some random rules he wasn’t aware of, and worst of all, disappointed the man he admired most. How is it that Charlie came through in the clutch when all seemed lost? Why didn’t he just give up?

Do our student feel like Charlie at exam time? Do any of us act like Willy Wonka?

At this time of year, I cannot help but feel some of our students are going to feel like Charlie, especially our EAL (English as an Additional Language) learners. Too often, these summative evaluations (including IB exams) are about ‘losing.’ Where did these rules come from? How did I break them? What does that fine print say?

Is this how we want to end it? And in spite of it all, Charlie somehow managed to put the gobstopper back. Is that the value that our students are walking away with?

One of the hottest topics with our faculty is plagiarism. The conversation is ugly, occasionally pushing the limits on cultural sensitivity, and mostly ending without easy answers. Turkentine’s quote speaks volumes about we, the teachers as the holders of precious information, that must be held at all costs. The screaming Willy Wonka, holding his magnifying glass over the lengthy contract that Charlie broke.


If I as a teacher am creating something on which you can cheat, then I would argue that something is wrong. If we need to put children in an environment in which they have to sit still and demonstrate something, then it better be something that demonstrates that the child can, dare I say, think. How can he or she cheat at that?

The good news is, when Charlie put the gobstopper back, he did it not because he learned something from Wonka or Turkentine, he did it because it was the right thing to do.

Of course, Charlie, you won.

What is my Personal, Plausible Future in Education?

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It is better to conquer yourself than to win a thousand battles. Then the victory is yours. It cannot be taken from you, not by angels or by demons, heaven or hell

I offer you greetings, from Big Wave Bay, Hong Kong, on this Sunday afternoon. From today’s twitterverse, I read about how to plot my future in an uncertain world.  Living overseas, contract-to-contract, I write. I highly recommend that you follow the work being done on fastcompany. They force one to think deeply. Read on:

 What unique value do you bring to the world?  

Belief in myself is secondary only to my belief in others.

First of all, how does one answer this in complete seriousness? I do not think that I bring any”unique” value to the world. People tell me that I am “beyond outgoing.” I trust parents.  I believe that attention disorder is wildly overrated. I believe that standardized testing, in moderation, is an excellent teacher’s  friend. I believe that parents and students should evaluate teachers, each year.

I am optimistic in the future of education and have experienced drastic changes for good since I started earning a paycheck. I believe that teachers matter. I believe that empathy cannot be taught by lecture but through experience. I believe that kids want a structured learning environment but demand to laugh and have a lot of fun, as well. I believe that it is harmful to tell a nine or ten-year old that she has anything wrong with her ability to learn.

I believe that you cannot teach effectively when you are sick or pushed to exhaustion. I believe that we all need help to live a meaningful life. I believe in “kid language” and that sometimes peer tutors are the most effective tools in getting students to learn.

I believe that confidence is what I offer my students more than anything else and that classroom teachers cannot overemphasize  impacting real confidence among students. I believe in honoring and not fearing  ”tiger moms “ for each successful person has a mom that has fought hard. I believe that “koala mom’s” deserve equal consideration and perhaps listened to even more actively.

I believe that their is little chance for a classroom teacher to  compliment a kid too much. There are just so many good things going on in class.

What is my life’s purpose?

My life’s purpose is to help others. For me, I try to do this through teaching. I try to do this by inspiring others to teach. I try to do this by working hard.

What is your personal, plausible future?

Hopefully, my future will be largely what it has always been: optimistic, focused, and in the moment. I am too old to think any other way.

What is your vision and plan of action?

To be determined!


Failing Forward

So I was listening to a great podcast the other day, which talked about the opportunity that we have as educators to redefine the word “failure” with our students, and the responsibility that we have as mentors to change the mindset that is typically associated with failing within our schools. Failing (for most students and teachers) has a deeply ingrained negative connotation, and the strange idea of failing as a “positive celebration” seems foreign and paradoxical to most of us. This wonderful podcast went on to suggest that educators should not only encourage and celebrate a student’s failures, but that all schools should adopt the notion of “Failing Forward” as one of their essential qualities of a learner. I first heard of this term, “Failing Forward”, from an amazing educational leader at the International School of Bangkok, named Kelly Armitage. She mentioned that ISB used this idea throughout their school with the belief that by celebrating a student’s effort, growth, and risk taking mentality, the stigma would eventually change to the point where success and failure became synonymous in the minds of their kids……..

I decided to dig a little deeper into the notion of celebrating failure with our own students, and I stumbled upon a few great examples of where this is paying huge dividends. I read about a few master teachers at other quality International Schools around the world who have developed classroom cultures which promote, encourage, and reward failure to the point where kids receive standing ovations when they take a risk and fail…….they even keep growth charts of the class’s greatest failures, which outline and clearly demonstrate the learning that came directly out of every failed attempt by a student. These teachers drill into the minds of every one of their kids that the only “stupid” or “silly’ questions are the ones that are not asked, and they give rewards at the end of each week for the student who tried and failed the most. They spend the entire year with their classes bringing to light their belief that learning and growth and student achievement simply cannot happen unless failure is a part of the process. These inspiring teachers all mention that because of their focus on failure, their kids come to class everyday truly ready to learn, and free from the weight of shame, embarrassment, fear, or intimidation…………and that’s made all the difference.

Think about all the times in your own life where you didn’t answer or ask a question simply because you were nervous about being judged, or made fun of, or embarrassed and thought less of by your peers or colleagues or bosses…….I bet it happens to many of us even now as confident and educated adults. Now imagine all of the missed learning opportunities throughout  our collective lives that have stemmed from this fear of failure… I bet if we poll our students this week with the simple question, “Is failure good or bad?”, we’ll get some sad and discouraging results…….Looking back, I realize that for me, the greatest lessons and the most profound learning that happened throughout my life resulted because of all the times I’ve failed…..I guess you could say that I’m thankful that I’ve been such a failure! So with that I mind, I’d like to challenge you all in the future to work hard and begin to change the mindset, the stigma, and the negative association that comes with the idea of failing. Let’s celebrate it and create a culture where taking risks is the norm, and asking “silly” questions is rewarded to a point where standing ovations become commonplace. Have a great week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week………
If you fell down yesterday, stand up today — H.G. Wells

Article #1 – If You Have to Fail – Fail Forward

Article #2 – Learning From Failure

TED Talk – Rita Pierson (Every Kid Needs a Champion)

TED Talk – Angela Lee Duckworth (The Key to Success- Grit)

Book Recommendation – John C. Maxwell
Failing Forward: How to Make the Most of Your Mistakes

Why I Teach

4th-grade-fun-1272“Most of us end up with no more than five or six people who remember us. Teachers have thousands of people who remember them for the rest of their lives.”
-Andy Rooney

“I have come to believe that a great teacher is a great artist and that there are as few as there are any other great artists. Teaching might even be the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.”
-John Steinbeck

I have been teaching for 23 years in Maryland, Singapore and Japan and now teach 4th grade students in Hong Kong. It has been a wonderful ride.

In 1985, I enrolled as an elementary education major at Bridgewater State College in Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Initially I merely wanted to help struggling kids find success in the classroom. As a high school senior, I was an intern in a classroom of learning-disabled elementary-aged children. Within the first week of my internship, I knew I had found my calling, and I have lived a life of learning and teaching ever since.

Many inspired educators inside and outside the classroom have affected the way I practice my craft. As a public school student, I was taught to value all teachers, regardless of their capability. As a teacher, I teach my students to value themselves and acquire the habits of lifelong learners.

Effective teachers must model kindness, compassion, organization, intelligence, flexibility, and collaboration. They need some understanding of educational technology, a belief in their own ability, trust in their teammates, and perseverance. I am happy if school leaders provide a brain-researched, structured, and engaging differentiated curriculum.

My first day as a teacher was nothing short of a disaster; my Mid-Atlantic based students had little idea what their New England teacher, with his thick Boston accent, was saying, I talked way too much, and my students giggled nervously when I tried to communicate.. Although my lesson plans were highly organized, I was painfully unsuccessful as a manager of time. I had no clue just how mentally exhausting the job would be.

Today, I am much more relaxed and confident. I investigate neurology–specifically how the human brain actually acquires knowledge–instead of accepting what administrators might tell me. For professional development, I greatly rely on Twitter and my professional learning network. I make the time to read professional trade books more than ever.

My advice for new teachers is to live conservatively so that you can be liberal in your craft. Demand more from yourself than any evaluator could ever demand. Work hard. Inspire others to believe in themselves through learning.

Teachers, all over the world, why do you STILL teach? How has your teaching practice evolved? What factors stand in the way of your being able to do your best work?

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Write makes Might

“We all live with the objective of being happy, our lives are all different and yet the same.” (A. Frank)

I waited in line for two hours in the rain with my family this past weekend in Amsterdam to see Anne Frank’s House. The line stretched all the way around the corner and down the block. It was phenomenal. Even after all these years. What was that about? There are monuments all around the world to people who have suffered and sacrificed. Why was this one so special? Why did people stand in line so long?

My daughter posing with her own diary at Anne Frank's statue
My daughter posing with her own diary at Anne Frank’s statue

After I got over the dark, narrow stairs, the moving bookcase, the tiny, cramped corners, the shaded windows, I began focusing not so much on the physical evidence of her suffering, but the psychological achievement of her writing. Of course, it is the diary that became famous for obvious reasons. A transcript of childhood sprinkled with the hopes and dreams of a child laced with the fears and anxieties that no child, nor human, should ever experience but on far too many occasions still do. What made it pertinent, I guess, was that my six year old daughter was there with me and I can only imagine how she would have come to terms as a person in that situation. Would she have written her thoughts in the way that Anne did? Would she have developed any coping mechanism if she were shut off from the world in such a way?

“Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person’s character lies in their own hands.” (A. Frank)

In a video at the end of the exhibit (Anne’s father Otto actually lived until 1980 and died in Basel), he says, “What I learned most of all from this experience was that you as a parent can never really know your child even though you think you do.” In spite of all the time together, in that space, over years, to imagine that your child’s experience, learning, and expression can still be so elusive, a voice so independent and even unnoticeable that a parent may not recognize it, I found fascinating.

My walk away? There are few things more valuable in the human experience than the desire to express, and the lengths to which a person, even in perilous danger, will go to carry that out. I left that day, watching my daughter clutching her diary in the rain, hoping that in spite of what might be happening at school and in spite of my flawed parenting, that she never, ever lose that spirit that burned in Anne for so long and has given the rest of us hope.

Defining Moments

So this week I’d like to talk a little bit about the defining moments in a student’s life, as well as the kind of “learning” that I believe to be the most profound, impactful, and enduring throughout a student’s education. I have to admit that I was inspired to write this post because of the experiences, the stories, and the anecdotes that came out of last week’s China Trips. It was so amazing to watch the students spill off the buses on Friday afternoon, and to hear them go on and on about how, “that trip was totally like the best week ever!”. Not only was the learning immeasurable for most of our students in my opinion, it was the type of learning which will resonate so deeply in their minds for a long time to come. These trips as you all know, are meant to push kids out of their comfort zones, and to give them life experiences that will shape who they are as young adults……..the team building opportunities, the service learning components, the eye opening visits to the orphanages, the chance to face adversity and to take risks…..and the opportunities to fail, and fail, and fail, and then to finally succeed. This learning isn’t necessarily what most people equate with “school” (the classroom concepts and lessons that we work so hard to engage our students with everyday) it’s another kind….a deeper kind that opens up a student’s heart and mind to the world, and to themselves, and to the beauty and the struggle of others……’s the good stuff…..the stuff that transcends the daily classroom experience and endures long past a High School graduation.

We often talk about standards and benchmarks and enduring understandings, but when you think about it, the true enduring takeaways from these trips are defining moments….literal life changing experiences that transform people profoundly forever. Experiences like turning a mountain side into rice terraces for a local Chinese village, and knowing in your heart that you’ve created a sustainable change in a community that will last for generations, and positively effect countless lives………Experiences like volunteering at an orphanage for severely physically challenged kids, with heart wrenching diseases like cerebral palsy, and getting to know them as people and watching how they manage to smile and overcome their adversity in ways that we could never imagine…….Experiences like the “face your fear” high ropes walks, and leap of faith jumps, and long nature hikes, and the team building exercises that make you give of yourself for the betterment of a group…….all of these experiences are defining moments for our young students, and it’s this kind of learning that real “education” is all about.

With all that said, and with the reality/difficulty that we only go on these trips for one week out of the year, the danger in my mind is that we might sit back and wait for this “week without walls” experience before the “good stuff” bubbles up. As I see it, we have the opportunity as educators to uncover these teachable moments everyday, and to find the hidden treasures of a child’s learning embedded in the daily grind of the school year……..through our advisory program, and our house system, and our service learning initiatives, and most importantly through our individual classes, we have ample opportunities to focus on the chance that a defining moment could happen at any time. We should always be armed and ready to teach kids about how to be empathic, and about how to respond to adversity, and about the importance of giving back to others, and about kindness, and about how their mood can effect their lives and the lives of others, and about forgiveness, and leadership, and passion and perseverance…….and so on and so on.

I’d like to ask that in the future, when you teach your students all about algebraic concepts or reading comprehension strategies and the writing process, or the proper format for research based citations, or any of the rest of it, that you keep your good eye wide open to the opportunities that present themselves each and every day……….opportunities to celebrate the failures…..opportunities to celebrate empathy and kindness and the taking of risks…….opportunities that if acted upon will define the lives of our students and shape who they are as people…….that’s where the real education lies in my opinion, in those life lessons that are very much the true enduring understandings. Welcome back everyone and thank you for all that you gave to our students this past week……the trips were a tremendous success and you all deserve a huge thank you from our community. Oh yeah, Happy Mother’s Day too! Have a wonderful week everyone and remember to be great for our students and good to each other.

Quote of the Week………
Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school – Albert Einstein

Article – Teaching Failure

This is Water – David Foster Wallace (Thank you Geoff Smith……poignant. Please watch this immediately! VPN in China)

TED Talk – In Search of the Man Who Broke My Neck (Joshua Prager)

Write the Speech

SJobs giving speech

We often talk of how important reflection is in our work. But did you ever write “The Speech?” Have you ever sat down for an hour or two, preferably with your favorite coffee mug close by, and committed it to paper? I’m not asking you to write anything like Randy Pausch did several years back when he was dying of cancer, but it’s something that is inside each one of you, and needs to come out. There’s the “If I ran this place this is how it would work” speech, the emotional “death of a colleague or student” speech and a wide selection of personal themes depending all on your mood, your message, and what you need to share. Whatever speaks to you. My favorite is the “final speech,” the last lecture in its purest form, a look back on all that you’ve done, tried to do, succeeded at, failed at, and hoped for. I visualize my colleagues and students while I write it to gauge their reactions. The things I thought were funny, the things I learned from, the stuff that I wish I could change but cannot, the people I needed to thank. But mostly, the feelings and reflections on what happened over the past four years.

It was harder than I thought. There are things people have said that you want to correct, actions you’ve taken that you want to clarify, people you’ve hurt with whom you want to make amends, students who inspired you who you want to thank. Giving credit where credit was due. Opening yourself up to criticism, judgment, observation. Stephen Barkley, a lecturer and teacher trainer, said at the April ECIS Conference in Berlin that “teaching is a team sport and a public act.” It was astonishing to hear it put in such a way. When do we ever express that feeling? So, I imagined my audience of peers and colleagues as I wrote, some shifting uncomfortably in their seats, some smiling with acknowledgement, some maybe even puzzled. But when I finished it felt cathartic. There it was. Four years of work. The goods, bads and the uglies. What I learned from it, what I hoped to take away, and what I even regretted. All in the context of hoping that I made a difference.

If you cry at least once while you do this, you’re on the right track. Get writing.

Market Day Memory

So at last Friday’s Market Day I had a wonderful moment………one that’s going to stick with me for a long, long time to come. I was eating one of those deliciously fresh bagels that were on sale when I began looking around and reflecting on the journey that we’ve all been on this year together. It’s no secret that the vision that was rolled out at the beginning of the year was an ambitious one, and the effort and commitment that was asked of you all was enormous. We rolled out a few very important initiatives simultaneously as you all know, which were to have a tremendous impact on our school’s culture, our collective morale, and of course, student learning. Just to refresh your memory let’s take a look back………..we began our commitment to C.O.A.R, we rolled out the new report card, we implemented the word press student electronic portfolios, we started learning from each other in our monthly SIPS, we introduced our daily sustained silent reading program, we became a member of the National Junior Honors Society, we ramped up our commitment to service learning with two wildly successful fundraising campaigns, we started a recycling program, we went through our WASC accreditation self study, and we worked hard to align and articulate our curriculum…….all of this was going through my mind on Friday when I sat back and watched and listened and marveled at the school that we’ve become…….

Teachers were out in the courtyard enjoying the sun, as well as each other’s company……….students were smiling and playing and laughing out loud………parents were out and about speaking with friends, teachers and kids, and adding very much to the overall community feel…..and the seniors were celebrating their last day of High School before their IB exams. I got a little emotional honestly, because I know first hand what it took to get us to this point. If someone had asked me at the beginning of August what my idea of a successful year would be, I couldn’t have wished for anything more than where we are right now. Not only have we rolled out these initiatives successfully, we’ve managed to find a common purpose which is so difficult to develop in many schools. We have teachers not only owning what we’re trying to accomplish as a team, but flourishing as individual leaders as well……..with many of you being inspired and empowered to use your passion and expertise for the betterment of us all. We’ve had teachers lead EARCOS electronic portfolio workshops, we’ve had teachers organize a city wide Math Counts competition at our campus, we’ve had many teachers step up and deliver incredible Professional Development presentations to our faculty, we’ve had teachers spearhead wonderful service learning campaigns, we’ve had teachers commit to our growing House System, and advisory program, and NJHS, and student council, we’ve had teachers speak openly and honestly about where we need to focus our attention next, and we’ve had teachers find the educational courage to push back and have the hard conversations with me and each other in a respectful and professional manner………..I could go on and on and on………it’s been amazing.

In my opinion, it’s relatively easy to have an idea or a vision about how to bring a school to life, and it’s not that hard to “talk” about what needs to happen in order to turn a school from good to great………’s another thing altogether however (and ridiculously harder) to make the fairly tale come true. I know that we’re not where we ultimately want to be just yet, and I know there’s work left to be done…….but this week, before we all take off for China Trips, I’d like you all to reflect back on what you’ve accomplished this year. Ideas and visions cannot ever be realized unless you have the people who are willing to do the work……and the belief that the journey that you’re on is what’s best for our kids. To say that I’m proud of you all, and what we’ve accomplished this year, would be the world’s biggest understatement and really I cannot put my thanks for who you are into words. This year (as Bret likes to say) we’ve laced up the shoes so to speak. Next year we will take the time to tie the laces tight, and tie them into double knots so that what we’ve introduced this year will truly become the fabric of who we are…..then we can continue to look at the data to see the overall effect on student learning. We’re getting there everyone, and you should feel great about your contributions. I’m off to spend the afternoon with my family on this beautiful spring day and I cannot wipe the smile off my face. I won’t forget that Market Day for a long, long time everyone and I hope you feel that sense of pride like I do. Have a fantastic week and remember to be great for our students and good to each other….

Quote of the Week………
We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we do have.
– Frederick Keonig

Attached Article #1 The Ideal Workplace (Marshall Memo) The Ideal Workplace
Attached Article #2 –  Four Keys to a Thriving Workforce (Marshall Memo) Four Keys to a Thriving Workforce

Article #3Essential Attributes and Characteristics of Successful Schools

TED  Talk – What Makes Us Feel Good About Our Work (Dan Ariely)

“I appreciate you in advance”

LAS students show appreciation
LAS students show appreciation

Listening to NPR podcasts is one of the ways I keep my toes in my past American life. In fact, “This American Life” is one of my favorites. I recently listened to a February story about Harper High School in Chicago’s South Side and its culture of violence. 29 students current or former were shot this past year and 8 died. One person in the story said if this happened in most parts of America even after one death there would have been panic followed by mourning followed by hopes it never happened again. At Harper, it has become a way of life.

What caught my attention was the Principal. Principal Leonetta Sanders. I have worked in violent and drug plagued schools. Not to the extent of Principal Sanders, but the traumatic experience as a dean of students came back to me all the same. During one point in the story, a social worker breaks down crying, not because she wasn’t accustomed to the job, but because as she said “You never know where it’s going to come from at any time and you cannot stop it.” That’s exactly how I felt.

What a far cry from the experience most of us have in international schools.

Principal Sanders is a hero to me. In the audio, she often complimented students or even disciplined them with the phrase, “I appreciate you in advance.” Reflecting on this comment, she went on to say one of the hardest things about her work is that you never know if what you did made a difference, made the students do better, made them make good decisions and make something of themselves. You just do the best you can and hope for the best.

Maybe that’s part of the problem. We never get to see that, do we?

Our students are highly transient. Maybe on occasion a famous alumni will come back to give a speech, thanking the school and possibly leaving a grant. Of course recent college grads filter through to see their favorite teachers. But past that, do we really know? Are we able to, like Steve Jobs, hold up that I-Phone and say, “This thing really works and it’s good and it’s going to change your life.” Not exactly. And yet we have to bring that passion, that hope, every day.

Well, I am going out on a limb. Principal Sanders, you ARE making the world better. You ARE making a difference. And I appreciate YOU in advance.