Better Late Than Never

I am so embarrassed. Just after the WAB-hosted FOEN (Future of Education Now) conference IN NOVEMBER, I wrote this blog. Unfortunately, because it wasn’t up to standard (not fully edited, not the right pictures, blah, blah, blah)… I didn’t publish. Mea culpa to @WABlive for not following through with my promise to share, promote (and gloat) about the amazing discussions.

But… better late than never.

“We teach history, but we don’t teach the future.” If my notes are correct, Brett Schilke said this.

a prelude

When moving to WAB last year, Rob and I were so excited that our son could apply for the Capstone Project at the school. In very simple terms, it’s a student-directed learning program that allows children to follow their passions as an alternative pathway to graduation. It is offered in grades 11 and 12.

Alas, our offspring wasn’t interested. Despite our coaxing, prodding, and cajoling, his response was, “If I do it, I won’t be able to get in to college. If I don’t go to college I won’t be able to get a good job.” Our daughter, though two years younger, doesn’t feel much different. Despite being a brilliant musician and creative artist, she is ambiguous about a future that is art driven because, “You can’t make money in art.”

I don’t get it. The two of them have followed our family tagline: “be a creator, not a consumer” which loosely translates to: “share your passions with the world.” And they do. They both have intermittent blogs, YouTube channels, and Instagram pages where they share their creative passions. And yet… they have been convinced that there is only one road to their future. The college route.

What have we done wrong? How has the message been so misunderstood from our mouths to their brains? Have Rob and I screwed up? Or has society been a controlling factor in our children’s decision making process? Are the vortex of school and societal pressures too strong a fight to win?

I know the answer to these question. YES!

World 1. Parents 0.

Our kids, and their peers, are just a tad too early. Though we’re on the cusp of an educational revolution, we’re not (all) there yet.

Our kids are part of a system that is changing but the pull is just not strong enough (yet) to compel colleges and universities to change completely. The building blocks of the system are changing. But not fast enough for our kids to forego ideas of IB, college, and a singular career.

Hopefully your child’s path will be different.

But after spending three awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, and impassioned days at the Future of Education Now conference at WAB, I know, for sure, the tide is turning. Though education has often operated in a top down organizational flow (meaning college takes the lead and school paths are created to funnel into college), we may just be shaking the shit up so much that we’re changing education from its foundational core.

About FOEN

Most educational conferences are attended by academic professionals: educators, administrators, educational consultants, etc. But not FOEN. In an effort to learn from all stake holders the FOEN event included parents, students, as well as environmentalists, mentoring experts, and educational disrupters. It was “a truly immersive, global conference about dynamic change, delivered by a school going through dynamic change.” -FOEN participant.

A group of middle school students share their thinking about learning space design.

Nowhere were people talking about curriculum and state standards. Nobody recounted the education of yesteryear as a place of great reverence and one that we should endeavor to replicate. And I didn’t come across one educator saying, “I think we’re doing enough.”

On the contrary. Most discussions I participated in included thoughts on disrupting the system and creating learning environments that are hubs of divergent thinking, chaos, risk-taking, optimization, and flow.

What FOEN means for education

21st century learning is so 2019.

It seems passe to talk about classroom configurations, memorization, tech integration, and group tasks. Schools on the cusp are talking about the future of learning (now!) as learning spaces that are open to different students’ needs: “watering holes” where they can congregate for collaboration, “campfires” where they can explore through hands-on activities, and “cave spaces” where students can immerse themselves in self-directed tasks. (For more on this, check out Rosan Bosch’s keynote.)

Schools leading the charge are restructuring timetables to ensure that students can move through the day with self-directed schedules and in fluid learning communities that are not arbitrarily created by a child’s birth date but by their ability.

Schools taking risks are looking for educators who are willing to forego “my classroom” with “my stuff.” Educators and students are working in classroom-less schools where all stake holders move freely to learn and teach at the student’s pace through open-ended, comprehensive, transdisciplinary tasks that require thinking and learning from various subject areas.

Schools in pole position are going beyond memorization, standards, and tick-boxes. Their focus is on holistic education inclusive of mentoring programs, ethical practices, ecological awareness, and partnerships with local organizations and global enterprises.

Students in the “Roots and Shoots” club discuss the environment, education, and women in science with the famed Jane Goodall.

Schools that are willing to take risks reflect regularly. They work with students, parents, Boards, and consultants, open to change who are willing to say, “Nope! This didn’t work. Let’s try something else” until things begin to gel. These schools listen to, respect, honor, encourage, and allow student voice and choice. From giving feedback to being the educator–students are expected to lead the change.

The Student Strand of FOEN. Students from various international schools attended workshops and worked with Natalie Chan of OWN Academy on share their voice on where the future of education (now!) is and should be going.

The future

Our future looks bright.

At the end of our FOEN conference, a group of students (my 2 kids included), presented their thoughts, take-aways, and the future of education from their perspective. You can see their entire keynote address online or read on for my highlights:

  • Just like us, the kids are excited, nervous, curious, worried… repeat.
  • They are focused. They have ideas. They may not do what we want them to do or what we think they should do, but they have interesting ideas worthy of support.
  • The kids think schools should focus more on ATL (approaches to learning) skills rather than content. They believe that if they can develop as thinkers, communicators, and self-managers with the ability to communicate and research effectively, they will be be more successful in life. Are they wrong?
  • Students are eager to help make change in school. They are open to the challenges of change and really appreciate the opportunity to participate in the conversation.
  • The students also want us to be mindful that they are human too and they may not be able to handle all the demands that school presents. Build relationships, hear them out, and care.
  • Give students the autonomy over their learning path.
  • Encourage more project-based activities as they often connect learning to the real world, are more engaging, and encourage students to use divergent thinking skills.
  • Encourage autonomy through self-directed learning and flexible timetabling.

And my three favorite quotes from the mouths of babes:

  • “We’re not as dumb as we look. We can guide our own learning because we know what works best for us. Think about the student. Not the students. We are all individuals.”
  • “We love being at school. You need to help us find our passion and help unlock our love of learning.”
  • “We are thankful and grateful that you choose this career.”

The Wrap-Up

In retrospect, I think it’s a good idea that I took this long to wrap up this blog topic. Not only did it give me time to relive three inspirational days but because just tonight my son asked, “Do you think it’s OK if I apply to do the Capstone Project in addition to my full IB load?”

Maybe FOEN and our (loving and sometimes pushy) support has nudged him over the edge!

Snow Duty

Being raised in the Bay Area of California means beautiful (sometimes hot) summers and mild winters. Rain is to be expected and I can remember hail a few times when I was growing up. But snow… never!

So where am I going with this you ask?

Well… last night, after a glorious 3-week holiday, it snowed. All. Night. Long! And this morning, when we woke up, the world was covered in snow.

And though it was a pain to get to school on the snowy (and sometimes slushy and sometimes icy) streets, it was such a joy to see happy kids with snowflakes in their hair. Their smiles alone made me thankful school wasn’t cancelled for a “Snow Day.”

But all day I was dreading my afternoon yard duty. How could the kids play, what would they do (besides a snowball fight?), and how would I stay warm?!?! Just as I expected, my SNOW duty was CUH-RAZY! But in a fun and exciting way: Some kids were clearing away snow to unearth their soccer pitch while others formed snowpeople, fortresses, or heaps of snowballs. The wonderings that were expressed amongst students were only outdone by their insatiable laughter.

Snow Duty is now my favorite duty!

…but, note to self: I have GOT to get these vegan boots some water protection!

The Art of “Tuning In”

I’ve been using this Train the Teacher’s inquiry model illustration for years. Partly because it’s beautiful and rainbow-esque. And partly because it’s just simple and straightforward. Though my inquiry journey is far messier, I still love that reflecting is a regular part of the journey.

But that’s not what I’m gonna babble about today.

As teachers, we’re often so pressed to get on with the teaching part of a unit, that we often forget how valuable it is to Tune In. Often, we just skip this part of the unit all together (with exception of a quick pre-assessment).

To me, Tuning In, is the most valuable part of a unit of study. It not only wakes up a student’s brain to what they’ll be inquiring about but gives the educator invaluable insight about what the students know, don’t know, have misconceptions about, and what they are wondering. At its core… Tuning In is where the learning begins.

Last week, I supported a group of 2nd graders through the Tuning In stage of their inquiry. The unit is an inquiry into their personal, social, and emotional well-being including aspects of physical fitness, healthy lifestyle choices, friendships, spirituality, and more. As a way to support their Tuning In, one of the inquiry rooms was littered with items for free exploration: yoga mats, books, a grocery bag full of food, health monitors, etc. In the room, students were encouraged to free explore, ask questions, talk with their peers, and share their thoughts and experiences about the items.

For some of the students, there were a lot of unknowns which could be heard throughout their questions: “What is this?” “How does this work?” or “I wonder why this is here?” For some, there were a lot expertise willingly shared with their peers: “I love peppers, the yellow ones are better than the green ones because they aren’t so bitter.” “If you turn over the box, you can read the ingredients list. But this one is in Chinese so I don’t understand it.” and “I do yoga at home on a mat too. Do you want to see my ‘Warrior Pose?'”

Can you imagine what amazing learning would have been missed if the 2nd grade team skipped this stage? What good would I do by jumping in and teaching them the benefits of yoga or the importance of reading ingredients list when (clearly) some of the students already have this expertise?

Instead, our team let the students guide the learning and we began Tuning In to them! What do they wonder about? What are their engagements telling me about them as a learner? What is their expertise or misconceptions? What have their conversations led them to question? What have they learned or unlearned through their conversation with peers?

Through this simple exercise, I was reminded that my job is not to harness all the knowledge in the world. I am not the expert… not in 2nd grade and not in my own home! The most important part of my job is to really, deeply, and truly, tune in to my students and guide them on their journey.

P.S. Need a little cheat sheet to help you and your team? This might help.

let them be kids

Yesterday, after a fun day of dancing, singing, and dramatic play with 1st and 2nd graders, I went out for bus duty and my heart sank. So many of the children who had creative ways of thinking (during their Performing Arts class with me or when I saw them playing on the playground) had become entirely new people. Tech Zombies.

While visiting with their friends, parents kept their children quiet with a menagerie of devices. Though they had not all been zombified (read: some were playing or watching with a partner), most were just a figment of the awesome kid I had seen just hours earlier.

What are we doing to our kids? And why are we allowing technology to take away their kid-ness?

Often, when we think about child rearing in the olden days, we think of girls in frilly party dresses and boys in their perfectly pressed dress shirts. Memories (and media) tell us that children would play peacefully in the garden or with friends, but in the house, they were to be seen and not heard.

The children of today are viewed as rambunctious, an aggressive lion evolved from the careful cub. We view child rearing today as an opportunity to teach children from their surrounding and take risks. This means that loud, playful, busy children fill neighborhood parks and local playgrounds.

But is that what’s really going on?

Think about the last restaurant you went to or the last place you shopped. What were the children doing? I bet they were on devices. Whether they had their a child-protected iPad, a parent’s cell phone, or their own small gaming system, it was probably pretty likely the kids were on a device.

“138 – Who’s iPad is it?”by MellieRene4 is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Why is that? In an era where we are SO consumed with giving our children every opportunity to learn and explore, why are we taking it from their down time? Is it so they are seen and not heard?

Maybe we can help kids spend their empty moments in more productive ways: balancing things on cutlery (physics) or writing on paper napkins (literacy) in a restaurant while they could be examining the ingredients list (science) or comparing the weight of products in the shopping cart (math).

Let’s be honest parents… sometimes we Just. Need. A. Break! So fine. Give them a device. But let’s also be mindful that kids need to be kids. They need to run. They need to climb. They need to explore. And they need to learn from their surroundings.

And we need to let them and encourage them to be kids.

These pictures were from the yard duty that prompted my musings here. This bunch of kids explored how water moves and how they could use tools of different sizes to get the water to move in new and interesting ways. They also strategized about how to clean their feet before recess was over using communication skills and collaboration to solve problems.

It’s not rocket science parents. And it also took NO effort on my part.

…I just let them be kids!

So here’s my million dollar teacher tip: put away the devices and let them get bored. They’ll figure it out!

a new year

This academic year will bring a lot of change in my life: new country (China), new home (hopefully in the Sanlitun area of Beijing), new school (Western Academy of Beijing a.k.a. WAB), and a new job (full-time elementary substitute teacher).

All of the newness in my life is exciting, but the last one scares the crap out of me. And here’s why…

Nearly three years ago today (August 23, 2016) I wrote a blog post about how and when I knew what my calling was. You see, we had just moved to Oman and I didn’t have a job. Which was fine… until the first day of school. By then, our shipment was unpacked, our house was setup, we had “settled in”, and the house was empty–my family was at school without me! (If you want to relive that angst-filled day in my life, read the post.)

Here I am in a different setting, in a moderately different situation, but the feelings of doubt were creeping in as we began the year and I didn’t have a team to work with. Every beginning of year orientation meeting had me aimlessly roaming as I looked for a group to collaborate with. A group that would accept me as part of their squad.

A substitute is an island of one. And to know me is to know… I don’t do ALONE! I love teamwork and collaboration so this wasn’t working for the inner me. (Side note: This statue (in the 798 Art District where we live, temporarily) encapsulates my feelings about not having a mind-team to meld with.)

But then, as if an angel sent from the heavens, my principal had news for me–the Performing Arts teacher would be out for the first full week of school. I had a task. I had a job. I had a purpose!

Fast forward to the end of my first five days at school.

I’ve taught about 250 students ranging in age from 5-11. Together, we’ve explored music, drama, and dance. I’ve had the joy of explaining my role at WAB: “Today I’m your Performing Arts teacher, but tomorrow I could be your classroom teacher, or your PE teacher. Who knows who I’ll be tomorrow.” One kid said, “You’re like a shapeshifter.” I think he hit the nail on the head.

But what does all of this mean for this village, my thoughts about education, and how we raise kids in this ever-changing global village? I think it means I get to step it up even more. I get to talk about so much more than one age range, one group, one focus. As my “shapeshifting” occurs, my thoughts will too. My ideas will be broad and my examples will range. I will live WAB’s ethos: “Inspiration is everywhere!”

Let’s do this thing!

you can expect more!

Through emails, at collection time, and during many parent conferences, the same wonderings come up again and again. Many of you ask: “Does my child have a split personality?” It seems as if you and I know two different children. The child I know is independent, confident, and can organize their own things. But the child you know uses baby talk, won’t sit through a meal, and can’t tidy up their own toys.

I’ll let you in on a little teacher secret. Though school is a place of wild creativity and inquiry-based learning, teachers spend the first few weeks establishing structure and routines so chaos doesn’t ensue. As busy parents, we can sometimes find excuses to “let things slide” with our kiddos. And I know I’ve been guilty of this too! But I must remind myself– what lesson am I teaching my child when I don’t adhere to set boundaries and expectations? If we want to raise our children to be independent, respectful, and mindful of others’ perspectives… the lessons start young. And as a teacher to 22 young, willful, and energetic young’ns, I just don’t have the luxury to “let things slide.”

So here’s the new mantra I empower you to adopt: I CAN expect more from my child!

For the early childhood student, we expect them to: tidy toys, tip the sand out of their shoes, be self-sufficient at toilet time, wash their hands, open their lunch boxes, hang up their own hat, feed themselves, and carry their own backpack to and from school.

An elementary-aged child is expected to: do all of the above and organize their work, take charge of their stuff (hat, water bottle, library bag, etc.),pack their own lunchbox and school bag, and act appropriately in different settings (be mindful of other learners, share toys on the playground, be accountable for your stuff, etc.).

Do you see a trend?

At school, we don’t do things for children. We wait for them to do the work themselves. We cajole, prompt, cheer, urge, remind, and remind, and remind… but we don’t do it for them!

But once the students cross the threshold from school to home, the expectations often change. Every day, I stop students from handing off their bags and water bottles to parents or helpers. Regularly, I urge parents to stop feeding their child while the child blankly uses a phone or iPad. Who’s doing all the work? Who works for who? And who looks like the fool?

If you raise the bar and expect more from your kid, they will rise to the occasion! If your expectations of your child’s independence match mine, they will be far more successful and the home-school message will be exactly the same.

Believe me, if you expect more from your child, they might not hit the target each and every day, but you’ll get closer to raising a confident, independent, and respectful child!

To get some ideas about how to reinforce independence at home, check out this Parent’s Article.


honoring their approximations

As I’ve written before, children’s writing doesn’t often look the way we adults expect it to look. But we adults are often the audience our children are writing for, so our reactions to their writing wields great powers! Unfortunately, we adults don’t often use our power correctly and we can often affect a child’s writing confidence when we make comments like, “I don’t understand,” “It doesn’t look nice,” or “Rewrite it!”

I cringe when I think back to my first year of teaching. I can remember the sadness in one particular students’ eyes when I asked her to rewrite her draft before our writing celebration on Friday. No wonder my students were not eager for writing time!

Well… a lot has changed since then. And so today, I’m sharing my new and improved understandings with you parents in hopes that you use your power more appropriately.

After reading books by and receiving training from my writing hero, Matt Glover, I can tell you that my skill as a writing teacher has transformed in my many, many ways. Matt’s catchphrase: “honor their approximations” has become my motto during writing time. I share with you my conference routine as it may help you the next time your child wants to share something they wrote:

Let them share. Whether I can read a child’s writing or not, I ask them to read their work to me. By doing this, I can assess whether they can read their own writing and how organized the story is in their own mind. Then, I conduct my research. I’ll often ask the child where they go their idea, what they’ve been working on as a writer (as it often differs from what I’ve suggested), what they think they need help with, or who has inspired some of the work that they have done (usually an author from my current teaching stack).

Praise. After they’ve read to me…I gush! I give a commendation for a success I see in their writing. “Wow! You have some really fantastic ideas in your story” or “I really like how your pictures helped me understand how the character was feeling” or “I see that you used Mo Willems as your inspiration to add some colored talking bubbles to your story.” Honor the child’s approximations! When children (and adults!) learn something new, it’s important to focus on what they CAN DO rather than their deficits. And this is where we adults often go astray.

Teach. During the next part of my conference, I offer a teaching point. I decide on ONE recommendation I can leave a child with. Using my mentor stack (published books, my own writing, and other student’s writing), I show the child how someone else has done it: “Look at how David Shannon uses capital letters at the start of all of his sentences” or “I made a nonfiction book like you are writing. Let me show you how I labeled my drawings.”

Gentle goodbye. Before I leave my conference with the student, I nudge just a bit. And based on Matt’s coaching, I nudge in three ways:

  • Envision: I ask the child to envision with me: “Here’s what it could sound like in your writing.”
  • Oral Practice: I ask the child what they are thinking about writing: “Tell me what you’re going to write.”
  • Watch them: I ask if I can watch them take their next steps: “Let me see you try that on.”

As parents, our authoring experiences were controlled by teachers who wanted everything to be perfect. Don’t repeat those bad habits! Be a better writing coach for your child by honoring their approximations. In doing that, you may be inspiring the next Dr. Seuss or J.K. Rowling.

For more on this topic, particularly how to support writing in the early years, read: Becoming Authors.