Tag Archives: international teaching

Visual Arts and Education: understanding history and context

A recent trip to Venice was an immersive experience in some of the works of the great Italian Renaissance artists, notably Tintoretto and Bellini, whose extraordinary paintings adorn several churches throughout the city.

Seeing their works in churches is an authentic experience that links one to the historical continuity of the initial inception of the paintings: this is how they were intended to be seen, and it is a privilege to be able to still do this, although non-Venetians have to pay more or less systematically at every church, unlike in Rome where it is still possible to see Caravaggio’s work for free in churches as many did for hundreds of years before the globalisation of tourism.

Why might it be important to view artworks in the settings for which they were originally conceptualised? 

After all, the works are less well lit in churches, one has to stand in the slightly stiff and cold silence and the overall atmosphere of the museum is replaced by the austerity of a place of worship. Furthermore, frescoes on interior walls and ceilings can be difficult to see, especially when compared to well-lit works perched at eye level in an art gallery.

However, this is how these works should be viewed and appreciated. In the hauntingly simple and gorgeous church of the Madonna dell’Orto in Venice for example, where Tintoretto served as a chaplain, his grave lies right next to his dramatic panel of the last judgement: the spiritual purpose of Tintoretto’s work, embroiled with the existential anxiety it expresses are unified by the palpable and very moving traces of the artist’s life. One senses the significance of the place of composition which is much more than a backdrop to the art, it is a vital part of the art.

The way we encounter art today, and this has been the case since at least the late 1700s or early 1800s when the most famous European museums, such as the Louvre, Uffici and Prado were opened to the public, is in exhibitions. Hundreds of paintings and sculptures sit alongside one another in an industrial concentration that is difficult to seriously contemplate and digest. Rather than spending time at each painting, visitors shuffle from one famous painting to the next, walking past dozens if not hundreds of paintings composed by less well known artists. I’ve always felt that it is futile trying to view too much in an art museum, and prefer to appreciate one or two floors. How much art can one take in in two hours anyway?

There is another problem with the decontextualised positioning of such works, which is the ethics behind the curatorship of the works themselves, most especially concerning ancient art. For example, almost all Ancient Egyptian works viewed outside of Egypt (in Turin, Paris, Berlin and London for example) found their way to these places under the questionable policies of Napoleon Bonaparte whose emissaries either traded for them in an unscrupulous manner or simply stole them. Understanding how obelisks appeared in Paris, Rome and London or the Elgin Marbles ended up in the British Museum allows for a fuller understanding of the journey behind the art works, their political and cultural imprint, which is part of their story.

On the other hand, walking through the forest of columns at Karnak, or standing before the Colossi at Memnon in Egypt, one is irremediably drawn to the religious significance of these monuments: portrayals of the power of the sun, giver of life and light. A little understanding of obelisks will have you know that they were intended to always be grouped in pairs, standing on either side of the entrance to a temple. So the fact that the famous Luxor Obelisk stands alone while her sister is at the Place de la Concorde in Paris is not just an aesthetic incongruity, not a mere act of material theft, but a disruption of a sacred symbolic placement, thousands of years old. Indeed, by uprooting works of art from their original contexts and displaying them for decorative purposes, the metaphysics of an ancient belief system are destroyed. In fact, most of the obelisks one sees in their natural setting in Egypt today stand asymmetrically alone on one side of a temple entrance, leaving a gaping wound open on the other side, where the twin was literally uprooted and shipped to an English, Italian, French or even American city.

If one is to enjoy the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, it is equally necessary to travel to Athens to look upon the empty spaces at the Acropolis from where they were amputated. This is how we can fully connect the historical journey behind them.

What are the implications for all of this on education? Quite simply to give our students the historical depth of understanding to appreciate art fully so that they might have not only a critical perspective but a richer reckoning of the original purpose of art. Seeing a work as “beautiful” or well composed” is an incomplete analysis since there is almost always a strong sociopolitical context to understand in order to fully contemplate the work, feel its character and presence, its identity. 

Whereas art and humanities teachers should always look to embellish students’ knowledge of the historical context of the works they are studying, mathematics and science teachers should do the same, explaining to students that while we might look at arithmetic in a functional, pragmatic sense today, for the Ancients, numbers were sacred symbols with magical, transformational  power. Having some inkling of the Egyptian and Babylonian origins of mathematics helps us appreciate how ancient mathematicians such as Pythagoras and his lineage of Chaldeans  were numerologists, attributing sacred properties to numbers such as 9 or Pi. And why is this important? Because it reinforces the mysterious allure of mathematical elegance, its abstract, magnetic power and, therefore, the central role it has always played alongside philosophy and religion in several cultures as a key to a deeper meaning and series of hidden truths. For the Ancients, maths was not invented, it was discovered.

So the next time you’re in an art museum, or viewing an artwork in its original context, or you’re in a teaching moment where you have the privilege to sensitise your students to great works of art, like those of Frida Kahlo, Katsushika Hokusai or Jacopo Tintoretto, or should you be teaching any other construct for that matter, be sure to expand upon the context and history as much as the plastic composition, for therein lies a story worth telling.

The Springbok Rugby Team: Three Educational Lessons

“Rugby is a hooligans sport played by gentleman” the saying goes (as opposed to football, which is the opposite). Hyperbole aside, there is something remarkable about the camaraderie one finds between rugby fans: there are never crowd incidents and a deontological code of respect transcends not only the discipline players have in accepting the referees’ decisions, but the whole culture of rugby, which, despite the surface violence of the game itself, is built on peace and friendship.

This year’s rugby World Cup saw South Africa win for the fourth time in a nail-biting final against the mythic All Blacks. In following the team, three concepts came to mind which can help us in our reflections about the potential effect of an education:

  1. Unity

There was nothing individualistic about the squad. In fact, one of the hallmarks of the team was that the “bench” (the substitutes) was essentially as important as the starting players. The coach’s strategy was to use the substitutes strategically rather than merely to replace tired players. When interviewed on the victory, the charismatic captain Siya Kholosi spoke of a fleet of birds flying in a V formation – when one drops out, another automatically takes the position that has been left vacant. Assessments, projects, and general learning environments that draw on the collective and understand that learning is a social, team effort are more successful than cultures built on individualism. When students support each other, learning gains are stronger. 

  1. Relevance and purpose

The players kept coming back to the importance of this win for South Africa, a country that has been ravaged by iniquity and violence but at the same time in which there is an extraordinary human spirit. During the apartheid years, rugby was an entirely white sport but over the years it has come to be more multiracial and today the whole nation celebrates the Springboks’ victory. The players were clearly motivated by a higher purpose – the lift that this would give people at home – and this brought out the best in them. Our curricula must be relevant to the needs of society and the planet, not dry intellectual abstractions. This is all the more important in a world where climate change, political upheaval and globalisation are particularly virulent sources of change and impact. Curriculum relevance is about serving students with an education that makes sense to them and equips them for social realities.

  1. Self-belief

The Springboks beat France, England and New Zealand in the Quarterfinals, Semifinals and Finals by one point in each match! Every single detail mattered and on each occasion it came down to the accuracy of a kick, the precision of a tackle on the try line or the discipline of a scrum. To win like that, down to the wire with your back against the wall, takes not only courage but a razor sharp mentality that will not waver from a belief that victory is inevitable. We teach our students subjects, skills and dispositions. Self-belief, confidence, mindset are vital and should feature strongly in curriculum design and the hidden curriculum. Our students are entering a fairly daunting world where there will be no shortage of challenges, and they will be successful if equipped with that deep-seated belief that they are capable of something exceptional. This is an educational value that comes down to parenting as much as teaching.

In a world divided by war, let the beauty of sports continue to inspire us to work together as a team and, at the end of the day, to come together as friends. There is tremendous value in sports as I’ve written before, and the exhilarating Springboks reminded us of the power that it has to lift the spirits of millions of people. 

How might international schools position themselves in times of armed conflict?

For those of us who have the privilege to live away from the shadow of terrible human suffering that we see in the world, what position should we take when it comes to armed conflicts?

This is not a simple question, and one that many would probably rather avoid altogether, but we cannot because the reality that is around us engulfs the minds and experiences of our communities and students, either directly or vicariously through social media.

International Schools, in general, are beholden by a set of values around peaceful cooperation, critical thinking and social custodianship. In times of armed conflict, these four core principles might help you navigate your way:

  1. An international school is a place of learning and not a political organisation or national government – while all those working in international schools should deplore all forms of conflict, especially those that contravene international law, the purpose of an international school is not to publicly condemn nation states or governments, individuals or groups, nor is it to encourage our students to take sides, it is always to stand on the side of peace. While individuals might have their own positions, the school represents several nationalities and does not pick and choose a position that the whole organisation is expected to stand by.
  1. In times of extreme emotional turmoil, such as that which armed conflict creates, as educators we must not forget the vital importance of remaining focussed on being critical thinkers, not swayed by any form of propaganda and not assuming, most especially in the middle of such conflict, that information is unbiased or depoliticised, complete or not charged with complex details of context. Therefore, encouraging listening, learning, reflection, questioning and suspending judgement should be centred. 
  1. Students, parents and staff may be traumatised by events and schools will clearly therefore do what they can to be supportive, allowing members of the community who are affected to feel safe and using pastoral and human resources teams to give care and moral support to the community. 
  1. Armed conflict leads to several forms of real but also symbolic violence and we must be attentive to the dangers of overgeneralisation, prejudice, stereotyping and in-grouping or out-grouping that occur. Staff should be attentive to this and ensure that no one in their school community is ostracised because of the country they come from, their religion, culture or political orientation.

The bottom line is that international schools, and perhaps all schools for that matter, should never allow the armed conflict of the outside world to enter the classroom. 

Four principles, therefore, in these terrible and difficult times:

  • Stand on the side of peace
  • Think independently and critically
  • Love and care
  • Be wary of prejudice

An education for human rights: working from the ground up 

Tracing back the origins of some sort of declaration of human rights is not that simple. Some situate it at least 2600 years ago in the Akkadian Cyrus Cylinder, declaring racial equality, others the Edicts of Ashoka in the 2500 BCE Maurya Empire, which sets out a deontological code. The late 1700s French  Déclaration des droits de l’Homme et du citoyen, outlining principles of unalienable natural rights and sovereignty paved the way for other Enlightenment statements such as the soaring American Declaration of Independence and, later, the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The latter is a powerful set of normative statements that should be a reference in every school and organisation. 

Behind the actual writing of these remarkable historic statements are people, and it is commonly known that the driving force behind the Declaration of Human Rights was the chair of the Human Rights Commission at the time, the visionary and deeply ethical  Eleanor Rooseveld, a truly wonderful and inspiring woman. It was her unflagging passion and dedication to the project that marked those around her and in a way it’s not surprising, writing something as significant as a declaration of human rights for all of humanity is enough to make someone give their everything! That is a key for reflection.

The problem with these normative statements is that once  they have been drawn up, they remain at the lofty level of the deontological code, a type of 10 commandments that look down on us from a higher place. One might gaze at the words and statements in awe and even be asked to abide by them, but since they were written by someone else, the fundamental pedagogical act of integrating and owning information by shaping it oneself which creates great productive energy, cannot be harnessed. The statements are somehow inert, pre-baked, off the shelf.

And history has shown us that there is a difference between saying something and doing it. The Cyrus Cylinder declares forward-looking tolerance but Cyrus was no angel, and the French Rights of Man, like so many other Enlightenment ethical treatises, applies to some and not others, most especially those who bore the yoke of European slavery and expansion across much of the planet at the time. Where were their rights?

Perhaps committing to a series of statements as a community is a way of consolidating not only what we think is important, but of galvanising us to live actively by those statements: precisely because they are our own.

This is why at our school, we decided to embark on a collaborative project whereby staff and students would brainstorm the types of behaviours that we wish to see in ourselves and others, to then vote for the statements that emerged and to use these statements as our guidelines. It does not mean that these supersede other moral imperatives, but it does mean that these statements were created by the community creatively and collaboratively, and that there’s some ownership involved.

The statements themselves are quite concrete and simple, and perhaps in that tangible simplicity there is a power that one loses in abstract, general and universalist claims: it’s a call to action and an invitation to live out human rights (and, of course, responsibilities!) every day!

In fact, one of the precepts of The United Nations Office of Human Rights, who are working with the International School of Geneva on a Global Citizenship Education course, is to bring human rights down to earth, into the corridors of the school, into each classroom, the playground and workspace. It is in these spaces where simple decisions lay out the type of respect we truly show for one another.

If you haven’t already done so, I would recommend a bottom-up approach to some normative moral statements by your community and for your community, much the way  teachers would agree on norms with students at the beginning of a school year.  It engages the community and shows us what’s important to us here and now, in this precious moment we share together alive on planet earth.  

Learning From Giants

Learning From Giants

I’ve had four very successful international school headships over the past two decades.  I’m fortunate to be able to say I hold the longest serving tenure as a school head at two of those schools, while I provided successful leadership during political, economic, and labor crises, a sexual abuse crisis, a natural disaster, and a school start up situation at the other two schools, not to mention the varied challenges of the past couple of years around the world and in Myanmar in particular.  There are a number of factors I can point to that have contributed to this success.  I’ve had some incredible colleagues who have shared the same vision for education that have worked with me at different schools, I’ve had the opportunity to support some amazing teachers who have been adaptable and flexible in providing incredible learning opportunities in the classroom, and, of course, at international schools we work with a student and parent population that is committed and motivated to be successful.  However, the one thing that stands out for me above all else is the respect I hold for those giants who came before me as international school heads and the lessons their experience and knowledge provide.

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to get to know a very successful head of school, someone who had gone into a school that had a troubling history of rotating through heads every couple of years.  Yet this head went to this school and survived for a number of years.  At about his fifth year I connected with him and had an opportunity to chat with him.  I asked him why he felt he had been successful when so many others had not.  He said to me, “Greg, I never forget who I work for.”  This was an interesting comment.  As a head of school, we have many constituencies – students, faculty, staff, parents.  Yet, there is one group our contracts clearly state we are responsible to – the board or ownership of the school.  This comment really helped to instill in me the importance of working with the Board or ownership of the school that employs me to make sure we have an understanding of each other and are pursuing a similar vision for the school.  I once commented that I see my most important role in a school is working with the Board / ownership to maintain that focus and ensure I am in sync with those I work for.  If I can do that, everything else can fall into place and the whole school can focus on learning and a conducive climate for students.  

Similarly, about this point in time I ran into another head of school who had recently left a school he had been head of for over a decade.  I remember that his departure was a shock to many in the international school community as his name had become synonymous with the school he led.  I asked him a similar question, inquiring what had led to his departure.  His response was very thoughtful as he explained he had become overly confident in his position and had come to believe the school couldn’t survive without him.  One day he was in a board meeting where the Board was making a decision different from what he recommended.  He told them that if they made that decision he would resign from the school.  He really expected them to back down, but instead they called his bluff and accepted his resignation.  In explaining this to me he said there were many times during his career he was tempted to resign on principle, but this was not one of them.  He indicated he regretted his actions.

This second situation has really stuck with me over the years.  There have been many times that I have been worn out, torn in many directions, and felt completely exhausted by everything I am juggling and then had a board member / owner come along and throw a curveball in my direction that left me gasping and wanting to threaten to walk out the door.  In those situations I’ve stopped and thought about that head of school and the regret he felt.  I then ask myself if this current situation is the one I’m willing to sacrifice it all for?  When I think about everything we are doing for students, the learning taking place, the programs we’ve developed, is this the issue that I believe all of that needs to be given up for?  In two decades as a head of school the answer to those questions has only been “yes” one time.  And, that one time occurred only after having walked away from the situation and spent a full summer thinking about it.  Fortunately, after that amount of time, the board chair ended up agreeing with me and it worked out in the end.  This is an important lesson I learned from that head though, and it has guided me through many difficult challenges and decisions.

Back when I was teaching I had the opportunity to work for some very good school heads.  One in particular provided some guidance for me in my future career in school administration.  He was an extremely level headed individual who always appeared calm and composed.  I asked him about that one time, and he explained that when things were challenging he always grounded himself by remembering what it is about education that gets his juices flowing, in other words, why is he in education to begin with?  He told me that when he puts that question out there, and checks himself to make sure he is remaining true to that purpose, then he can be comfortable with the decisions he is making.  This is another one of those axioms that has guided me through some incredibly difficult times.

Another time I went to this same head of school and told him about some rumors I had heard about the school at a recent social event I had attended.  He explained to me he believed there was nothing wrong with a rumor.  Talking about things is how people process new information, changes, or things they question.  He told me that until an issue actually shows up at your door, it is simply a rumor and needs to be left alone.  Besides, he once said, sometimes silence is one of the most effective tools we have.

When I decided to make the jump into administration, I received a lot of guidance as I sought that first job.  My natural tendency was to apply for everything I saw, assuming I could adapt myself to any role.  Instead, I was encouraged to think about my skill set and to really question schools about their needs to determine if it was a match for my me.  I was told that nothing cuts a career shorter than a head in a position that isn’t a match for them.  For example, I have a few skills that I believe I’m really good at.  One time I interviewed for a really top notch school.  However, with a clear sense of my skill set I quickly realized the school and I were not a match and I pulled out of the running.  That’s another thing I think we sometimes forget.  The interview process needs to go both ways.  Just as the school wants to make sure they are getting the best match for the school, we need to make sure we are checking out the school to make sure it is the best match for us.

Another thing I’ve learned along the way, but can’t remember who from, is the idea that schools go through cycles.  At different times in the life cycle of a school it needs different leadership with different skill sets.  As a school head, it is important to recognize when our skill set is a match for a school, but just as importantly, is to recognize when our skill set no longer fits a school.  It is always better to realize that and make our own decision to seek something new with glowing references than to overstay our welcome and have to leave at an undesirable time.

I sat in a workshop at a conference one time and listened to a presenter I had a lot of respect for talk about the idea of having the right people on the bus.  There is a lot to be said for that concept, while right along with it is making sure that within that group of people we have people who can do the things we can’t.  I once sat in an interview for a headship where I talked about the things I saw that needed to be addressed during the period of my interview visit.  One of the board members commented, “that’s a pretty big list, how can you have the skills and knowledge to do all of that?”  I responded that I don’t, but I have the skills and knowledge to hire the people who can, and then provide the oversight to get it done.  I ended up getting that job.  Several years later, when that board member was leaving the school, she reminded me of that statement and commented that she could now clearly see that this was a skill that had contributed to me being successful as head of that school.

Finally, as I prepared for my first headship I spoke to a consultant who has long been a mentor to me.  He told me that my spouse should rightfully always be my best friend, but that close behind should be my board chair.  That is probably one of the most important pieces of advice I’ve ever received.  I’ve been very fortunate to have had some amazing board chairs.  Every single one has become a good friend.  During times of crisis, I have found myself having daily conversations with them, seeking advice, talking over options.  At other times we check in with each other, they help me to frame and reframe the issues, and I keep them apprised of the things I am doing.  I believe the board / ownership should never be surprised or caught off guard by anything.  This is doubly important with the chair / owner, and in this way they are best able to support me and the school.

I once read that being the head of a school is one of the most challenging positions that exists as there are so many constituents who need to be looked after.  One head I know once stated that on any given evening a head of school can rest assured there is some dinner table in their community where their name is being mentioned as a part of the dinner conversation.  Thinking about this makes the job seem incredibly daunting.  However, there are many giants who have led schools successfully before us.  I believe that by listening to them, observing them, and learning from them, we all have the ability to improve the odds of our own success. 

You can find more posts on my blog  Gregory A. Hedger’s Blog

Comfortably numb

(livethemovies.com)

At the end of The Martian, Matt Damon sits on a bench in a beautiful park, leaving us to decide whether he’s satisfied being back on Earth having survived a near death experience in space, or if he misses it.

Yes it’s been a brutal two years. Yes, we have lost contact with friends, the human connections of social activity, and the ease of travel. I used to travel 4-5 times a year minimum. Since 2020, I’ve travelled twice. Twice! I’ve forgotten even the basics like how to pack for the plane because I’m so obsessed with trying to get the RAT test on time and making sure my flight isn’t being cancelled.

What I see around me as we start sticking our (vaccinated) heads above the ground again, hoping to return to life as it was, is a gigantic missed opportunity. Our industry, like the food, hospitality, health care, and transport industries, was disrupted and accelerated at least 7-10 years. What was an odd exemption for kids in hospitals and the occasional NASA engineer from mission control beamed on a screen to an auditorium full of restless middle schoolers, has now become the norm.

Hybrid, Hyflex, all the things we imagined happening in 2050 when The Jetsons (boomer alert) lifestyle became reality, were catapulted to the present. And it’s not what we imagined, or hoped for.

We have a lot to be thankful for returning to ‘normal’ but also a lot of things that we cannot return to.

I’m concerned that our desire to return to the comforts of routine after two years of crisis management and pandemic fatigue, will rationalize mediocrity. That after so much stress on our schools and teachers, during which all we focused on was getting through the day/week, that once the fog lifts, we will continue to look inwards, our defense mechanisms on auto pilot.

I hope that I am wrong,. I hope that we don’t fall for the seduction of the way things were before. Because, in all honesty, it wasn’t all that great. 20 years into 21st century learning, the actual glaciers are melting faster than we are moving to make education relevant to the times. Getting back to workshops on MYP Cat 2 in Berlin or conferences on AERO standards in Atlanta just isn’t going to cut it.

We all need a month in the Maldives, a grand celebration of reconnection and re-nurturing. That is undeniable. We cannot simply keep Zooming and embracing the dings in the universe caused by Covid. I’m not saying that. We need to hug one another, breathe in the mask free air of a friend filled room the laughter and excitement of traveling and connecting again without social distancing fears or the guilt caused by contact.

But once we taken that breath, we have to keep moving forward, screen time or not. I have taken three takeaways that I hope to move before the retreating waves of change wash over them.

  1. In person time is more valuable than ever and has to be used more creatively and across disciplines.
  2. Limit the broadway shows: We are the only profession that does 5-6 live broadway shows a day. We have to embrace the asynchronous model so teachers can THINK and COLLABORATE rather than constantly juggle chain saws to keep learners engaged. Sorry, lower school teachers, this probably doesn’t work below grade 5.
  3. Community Engagement: We’ve had classes without walls and project based and service learning for years. But rather than a one off week, it has to be more embedded. If we can Zoom in math and English, why can’t we do an arts residency in Istria for two or three weeks while we keep up with “academics.” online? We have to push the limits on community based learning and the how and where of learning now that restrictions are lifting.
  4. Change the Subjects: I’ve been talking about this one for awhile and have to do a better job putting money where the mouth is. Our subjects are woefully outdated. Science has evolved a little bit and I guess math is math, but the rest are arcane, unimaginative, and need critical redefinition. If I see one more test on the Crusades, I might just need to start one of my own.

I know it’s hard, but once you get your Mojo back this Spring, please don’t become ‘comfortably numb.’ You’ve come too far to leave it all behind.

Vaudeville

 “In the United States vaudeville acts performed variety shows, using music, comedy, dance, acrobatics, magic, puppets, and even trained animals.” (vaudeville/Encyclopedia.com).

I loved this definition. It captured everything that our teachers do every day, multiple times a day. And it’s a key reason why we can’t evolve.

A good friend of mine and former teacher from Quincy, MA (USA), George Smith who died way before his time, used to lament the amount of energy it took him just to get through every day. This is a guy that got 4s and 5s from EAL students on the A.P. exams using graphs instead of English. That was 1997.

He gave me two quotes that I will never forget. And I forget almost everything so this is big for me.

“Sometimes you have to sub for yourself.”

“We do five vaudeville shows every day, five days a week for ten months straight. Even broadway doesn’t have a schedule like this.”

I had the best meeting of the year this past week. Three teachers and myself, sitting in a room, ordering in lunch, (we ate lunch!!) without duties to run to, bells interrupting for the next class, and incredibly no crises peeling me away. For three simple hours, we hammered out the results of a course that we took together, listened to one another’s ideas, and hammered out a product, barely meeting deadline. It felt so good to get something done without interruption, highlighted by the chance to eat.

If there’s one thing this pandemic has taught us, it’s that slowing down, even if forced on us, is like gold.

We have to find a way to manage kids that enables us to step off the vaudeville shows so that we can think and ideate, reflect on what our students really need, what we’re doing badly, and what we need to do next.

With our team, we are trying to push back on the relentlessness of the ruthless timetable (note to self, name for next book), and giving people the time and space to create magic and actually talk to one another, not what the next unit will ‘cover,’ but what will happen over the next several days to connect young people with experiences that will challenge them. One thing George never mentioned was that his vaudeville wasn’t just a performance, it had to engage the audience!!

It’s crazy what happens when the music/drama teacher and the language/outdoor ed instructor share ideas and plan. CRAZY. And wow is it good for kids. Yes, much easier for upper than lower school, but still.

Our work is way too complex to relegate this genius to “prep” time or the occasional PD workshop. The prep time, after all, is just enough time for the troubadour to change to his prince costume for the next vaudeville set.

In the movie Bohemian Rhapsody (and in true life) Queen went to the Ridge Farm Studio in Surrey, England to focus and finish what would become the most streamed song of the 20th century. This wouldn’t have happened if all they did was play five sets of “Killer Queen” every day, all day with only tiny breaks in between.

As we head into peak hiring season, and continue to fill our schedules and timetables with faster, better, more to fill the gaps lost by the pandemic, make up for lost time from lockdowns, and launching the DEI initiative you haven’t gotten to yet, please keep in mind that there are creative and better ways to engage an audience than five live vaudeville shows a day.

Talent is a pursued interest

Like everyone in this pandemic, my social life is mostly driven by Netflix. For some reason, the Bob Ross documentary was recommended to me. Maybe the internet algorhythm discovered I am nostalgic, maybe it aligned my approximate birthdate with his life. Who knows.

What I do know is that his shows made me not only incredibly relaxed, but filled me with the belief that I could do things even if I didn’t believe in myself.

People loved him because he made them believe they could paint. And if people believed they could paint a beautiful mountain or a forest, then maybe they could do things that they didn’t have the confidence to achieve. He made the inaccessible accesssible, and maybe that’s one of the genius attributes of a good teacher.

In one of his interviews, he said that anyone could paint. He didn’t say that anyone could be a Picasso. He just said that anyone could paint. I remember one of my favorite lines from the movie Ratatouille was, “anyone can cook, that doesn’t mean that anyone should!”

Yes, a lot of his paintings look like motel/hotel art. You may have even seen what you think to be a Bob Ross painting at a flea market. In fact, in the documentary they admitted it was nearly impossible to authenticate a true Bob Ross from a fake. But the point is not that he expected himself or others to become world renowned artists. The point was that people could pursue a talent that they didn’t know they had, even if they didn’t have it. And who knows what could become of that.

If my math teacher asked me the right questions about how I think and what I would do in certain mathematical situations, even though I stopped learning math at Algebra II in grade 11, who knows what I could have done? Maybe if he told me that anyone can do math that I might have been good!I

Tom Schimmer, a world renowned expert on assessment, told my teachers recently that every learner had an emotional reaction to the opportunity to be assessed. What Bob Ross did with his audience was to focus their emotions in a way that enabled them to access a creative side of themselves that they didn’t think was possible. In other words, magic.

I work in a school. I don’t want to stand in the way of the pursuit of talent. But too often I feel that we do. I want to be a catalyst for the pursuit of interest, not an obstacle. And most importantly, like Bob, I want to get people to believe in their ability to do something even though they think it’s impossible.

It’s a sad docmentary. It speaks to the consequences of what happens to artists and people that simply love and pursue something without understanding the business side of things and the evil that happens when cunning overwhelms curiosity. I don’t have an answer for that.

But what I do know is that Bob Ross gave people something to believe in that cut across cultures, religions, educational background, and vaccination preference.

He made them believe that they could do something they didn’t think was possible. Even if they made happy mistakes along the way.

Feet, You Had Feet?

Love In The Time of Corona and Other Musings…

Zagreb, March 22, 2020

When I was younger in the U.S., there was an old Roy Rogers commercial playing with two men arguing about who had it harder growing up. They started talking about walking to school long distances, not having shoes, then socks, ending up with the punch line which is the title of this story. It’s ‘dad’ humor but I still love that line.

But c’mon, you gotta give it up for Zagreb. We had an earthquake in the middle of a pandemic. And can you believe people had to practice social distancing whilst evacuating onto the streets?

Can I get an amen?

While many of you may have experienced snow days, our school called an earthquake day which was a relief from virtual day because of pandemic week. Thankfully, although several teachers lost their apartments, no one in the entire school community was injured or killed by the 5.4 tremor. This is truly amazing for a place with old buildings that hasn’t experienced something like that in 140 years.

I asked some of my Croatian friends how people were being so stoic through it all and they said, “Well, we did live through a war only 25 years ago.” Ah right, the war. And so it goes.

There are many international teachers that have been in tough situations. Wars, floods, earthquakes, fire, coups, sudden closures, disease, and the list goes on and on. So, this is certainly not an attempt to demonstrate anything new in the experience of international teachers or to make some platitudes about how we have to pull together in tough times, with or without feet.

But what opportunity, what necessity that stands right before us (that amazing and always reliable mother of inventions), is the chance to teach us something that we cannot miss in that precious space when new knowledge meets experience, that thing most often referred to as learning.

We thought we were doing this as educators before, but most of us were not. We did some online stuff, a few Khan Academies served with a side of Pamoja. There were tech integrators, workshops, and even virtual learning platforms, but it wasn’t all in. Now, obviously it is. What an amazing ice bucket challenge.

So now we stand side by side with our students, hand in virtual hand, having to figure &%$ out, humbled by realities that we don’t have answers for, but with a blue moon chance to redesign not only the what of our work, but truly the WHY of it. (Thanks Simon Sinek for that).

Of course we have to be a stable force for our students. We cannot throw our arms up, wailing at the sky proclaiming that nothing matters anymore. Of course it does. Much of what we’ve been doing to this point matters very much. But this is our chance to move that needle not just by an incremental skip but by a leap. Are we really going to go back to school once we get through this (and we will), and be like, “Whew that was close, okay everyone, now where were we? Oh, right, chapter five, photosynthesis.”

No, we’re not. We’re going to take a real, hard look at the WHY. We have to.

Why am I standing in front of you?

Why am I asking you to learn these things when those other things are SO much more important but we never get to them?

Why don’t I listen to you more and to myself talking less? (After all, for the past several weeks or months you hardly heard me talk at all).

Why can’t we be the change we want to see in the world now instead of hoping that years from now when you get out of university you might decide to make a difference?

This relationship between learner and teacher, between prior experience and new knowledge, between expert and witness, has changed. It has by necessity. It has for the better.

So, when we do go back, when we return to what we used to think of as normal, even if it takes a long time, we have to take what these opportunities have taught us and be honest about them, not just about the virtuality of learning, but of the humanity this revealed and what we owe to our students to do something real with it.

It’s nice, after all, to have feet.

Fata ‘Magana’

(Joshua Nowicki – Photography)

NOTE: This post is a follow on of my review of Sonny Magana’s book. The previous post entitled Not So Hot for Teacher?


A Fata Morgana is a mirage that is seen in a narrow band right above the horizon. Early associations of the effect were said to resemble “fairy castles built in the air.”

A Fata Magana is a mirage suggested that by making tweaks to how they teach, teachers can disrupt all of the highly interdependent status quo fixtures of “Education” itself and double student achievement. Like the Fata Morgana, it is suggestive of fairy castles built in the air.


TLDR: Polymath believes his interpretation of Hattie’s meta study of technology’s effect size on student achievement afforded him insight into creating a framework that doubles student achievement while requiring far less teacher effort. This is purportedly achieved by combining “high probability teaching strategies” and tracking student emotions about their work solving “wicked problems” using whatever technology they deem appropriate. While there is no shortage of dramatic descriptive detail, Magana leaves out how the framework integrates within Education’s core subjects.

Magana’s Entry in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia, Education

I learned a great deal from this experiment of doing research, writing a critical review and then seeing the author speak about the work in person.

The first jolt of the process was the instant feeling of camaraderie and collegiality walking into an education conference with a hundred and fifty other people. Seeing all the smiles ostensibly all there to “educate better” it was hard to imagine being critical of anything or anyone in that initial moment. As humane and comforting as this feeling was, I noted this is also related to why it is so hard to maintain an independent voice in a school.

Sonny’s Session for Teachers

I went to Sonny’s presentation for teachers first. There were about ten of us. I was familiar with his sessions as I’d seen and read so much online already, nonetheless I was surprised just how exactly the session went like a copy of what I’d seen online. His message discipline was remarkable.

He has obviously read Dale Carnegie and made sure to have everyone introduce themselves upfront so he could immediately begin using our names. As in his writing, he comes off as a clearly intelligent practitioner, of…? His background is somewhat hard to parse; he told us he was a “researcher”, but didn’t let on that before that he spent seven and a half years in various sales roles for Promethean, a whiteboard company, and before that an unexplained three year gap on his profile, and before that a principal of a “Cyberschool”, and so on.

A “difficult” child in his own youth, he related that his career took the path it did after taking on kids who were failing in “the system” and helping them to succeed. Once you understand his “alt-school” background, it makes his approach towards traditional teachers and schools much more understandable. You can see why he formulated a framework that fit much better outside “the system,” given his previous roles had effectively allowed him free reign to design his courses and assessments as he pleased.

After hearing about his bona fides, he moved to the story of how he came to the seeds for the book. It all started when he was around a campfire in his teen years, strumming open chords on a guitar until for the very first time he heard…BLANG!!!!! Magana queues Eddie Van Halen’s song “Eruption” to play as if he did not know it would be coming on.

Magana uses Van Halen’s frenetic guitar to demonstrate his framework and how its three stages culminate in transcendant learning, as in the type exemplified by Mr. Van Halen. It was an effective demonstration of the core pillars of his framework and Magana would (effectively) come back to music concepts and clips again and again to explain and his work.

Beyond music analogies around the genesis of his thinking, Magana is less clear….How to lead the transcendent pursuit? How does each kid learn how to learn?  Can it be generalized? All great questions and where those answers fit into a school’s curricular program is a mystery that Sonny does not speak to.

Sonny’s first session activity for teachers was to set the four tables off reading a couple pages of his book summary. Fair enough, but when he asked us to not only come back with three “things that made us think Aha!” from two pages of his writing but also at least one thing we’re going to implement in our own classes, the presumptuous/pretentious request immediately made eyeballs both dart and then roll slightly between teacher attendees.

While he waited for us to read, he noodled in the background on an acoustic guitar while his favorite classic rock jam band tunes played in the background. It was a bit much given only once briefly in about 15 minutes did he walk around among the tables, but even then he did not engage. Next, when we had finished, instead of just discussing the work as a group, he had us type our work into our digital tool of choice and send it to him on email, which seemed bizarrely overcomplicated until later you realize this was to goose the next step in his book promotion/sales process.

When we pulled back together, the responses were not what he was intending. I think with so much of his work being with public schools in the US, he was not at all used to the depth and experience that Tier 1 international school teachers who self select into a technology session possess.

In other words, things got awkward.

A 10th grade social studies teacher politely but firmly told him she was already aware of the strategies he referenced and used most them at different times with her classes; there was nothing new under the sun here. Sonny quickly moved on, and the rest of the responses were tepid at best.

Sonny then went in to describe the stages and reached the final goal of the T3 Framework, Social Entrepreneurship.

Sonny holds “Social entrepreneurship” as some kind of deep, universal human desire that all students will want to participate in at every opportunity if we would only just let them. Sonny’s framework also assumes that changing the world and making money doing it is viable in 6-8 different classes each day. Even if this was the only worthy goal for students (and it is not) I would argue there are not as many kids with the kind of endless creativity and drive Magana assumes. Not every student is Elon Musk, nor should they feel they need to be.

Magana came up to me during a break after the first session for teachers ended and asked about me. I was the most engaged in his sessions in some ways. I said I was a former teacher, involved in digital integration most recently who would really like to see a framework like his work, but that I was concerned that it had a lot of earth to move in terms of the status quo. Sonny interpreted that to mean I was talking about teachers and he did what I was wondering if he would do– he gently threw teachers as a whole under the bus.

Sonny said “You know, so many teachers, like we had today, say that they are doing the things in the framework, but they are not.” He then indicated he had to go, and later in the day he sent me an email with a copy of his Oxford Research paper as a gift to share with my colleagues. Not really a good look at a teaching conference. I felt relief that my initial judgements had born out.

Sonny’s Session for Administrators

I attended Magana’s session intended for Administrators on the final day of the conference. I was not surprised that his presentation to teachers and admin was nearly identical, but what was different was telling. Instead of Van Halen, he used the Beatles and US President Kennedy’s “Moonshot” speech along with a stirring video montage to relate his framework as Education’s “moonshot”.

Again, as in the first, he glazed over the details on the studies; let’s just all assume Hattie’s massive meta-study is a stone tablet from on high. The rest of the presentation steps were generally the same, only without any reading activity and collection of emails for his marketing machine. It was less on explaining the framework and more on selling the whole package…the association with Hattie, the book, the classroom walkthrough Google form tool, the T3 Leadership Academy. Interestingly, none of the non-theoretical practical tools were beyond early iterative stages of a basic Google sheet and form.

I asked what he felt the top three or four things administrators would need to do to implement or encourage the implementation of the T3 framework. Here’s what he said:

  1. Belief in collective efficacy.
  2. Have to talk about it. You need a common language for transcendent learning
  3. Common set of strategies to establish examples
  4. Need to evaluate it

I thanked Sonny when it was over. I then took a seat, went into the initial blog post/book review, added a question mark in the title and let the rest stand.