Thursday, August 13, 2015

Time Flies When You're...Teaching!

Every time somebody asks me how I arrived at teaching English as a foreign language in China, I think back to the interview I was privileged to have at a teacher recruitment fair. It does not seem that long ago really. In reality, it was around five years ago. What that means is that I am approaching my sixth year of teaching. What that also means is that I have passed the peak times I could have left the teaching profession.

Am I proud of this? Sure! What I know now is that the minutes, days, and years go by quickly. It doesn't feel like it's been that long. Meanwhile, those of you who have been in the game ten years or more shake your head with a "You have no idea" look on your face. I know. This all connects to something Sir Ken Robinson says. If time seems to go by fast when you're doing something and you hardly check the time, you must enjoy it. If time drags and you find yourself looking at the clock every few minutes, there is probably a lack of passion or motivation. Now that was a paraphrase, but you get the idea. I rarely catch myself looking at my watch (or phone) during the day. So many times I wish I had more than forty minutes for a class, more than four times a week, with my students.

I want to spend quality time with the students.

Learning. Together. Pushing. Encouraging. Challenging. Growing. Molding. Loving.

One of the best ways to do this has been etched in my mind even deeper upon seeing a quote from Don Wettrick, author of Pure Genius. It was a quote from his dad that says...
Think about that for a minute. It makes perfect sense. Teaching is fun because of the innovative ways we can guide students to go beyond the standards.

I leave in less than two weeks to return to China, and I am excited!! To be honest, I've actually been counting down the days until the first day of school for the upcoming year. My students have shared the same sentiment with me several times this summer.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Our Life at Baishan

Recently, I asked a student to write what life is like while attending our school. This idea came from Pernille Ripp who held a #studentlife challenge back on February 5th. At that time, our school was on break for Chinese New Year. Therefore it was only a matter of time after being back this semester before I could ask a student to describe life from his perspective, from which I would have to post it because most blog sites are blocked here in China. I have left the student anonymous in order to respect his privacy.

This is his story.

Baishan School is a private school in Shazikou, Laoshan District in Qingdao, China. The school shares it’s campus with another school - ISQ, which stands for International School of Qingdao.

Life at Baishan is hard work. My daily routine is to get up at 6:45, and after fussing about, I get down to catch the bus at 7:25.

Our homeroom teacher is one of the most strict teachers in the whole school, and is known to rip entire homework notebooks for lousy writing and make that student re-copy the whole thing again. Yes, the whole thing.

Each class usually takes 40 minutes, unless if the teacher decides that they don’t want to end the class. Usually, this doesn’t happen. But the student scores in Baishan are overall pretty high, and our English is some of the best for Chinese schools in Qingdao. I guess that’s the result of doing 4 ~ 5 hours of homework each day.

Our school also has an excellent Foreign teacher team, they are very professional and teach excellently.

At Baishan, lunch usually consists of homemade style Chinese food. (Which is pretty awful to me.) If you want to eat something else, you have to pay an extra 2000 RMB (Which I think is too much.) to have the option to have Korean food from food window #3.

Life at Baishan may be hard, but an old Chinese saying states “Good students come from strict teachers.”

Friday, May 15, 2015

Beyond History and Politics

Where I'm teaching, on the east coast in the city of Qingdao, China, most nationals hold grudges and hatred toward the Japanese because of events that took place in history. In 2012, there were riots in cities protesting anti-Japan messages related to disagreements over who owns the islands nearby. An English teacher at our school from Japan stayed in the teacher dorm for weeks during that time. Her heart was broken because she came to China for that exact reason: to show that Japanese can forgive and love Chinese.

Fast forward to now, neither country has taken ownership of what happened. Punches are continually thrown back and forth in media and politics. Truthfully, I still don't see much of a difference between the two (thank you, Neil Postman).

These past two weeks, my 5th graders have been learning about camping, itineraries, and how to plan trips. Upon completion of their understanding and analyzing of the content, the students had to group up, plan their own trips, and write a 3-day itinerary. They did phenomenal on working out the details together in the process and then creating brochures for their trips.

What made me stop in my tracks was what is pictured below.
Inside the classroom of a private Chinese school, there was a group of girls from (L to R) Korea, China, and Japan. 

Recent events have been cast aside. 

These girls laughed, joked, and planned a fun trip to Korea. Originally, their destination was to Japan! I wish the news would show stories like this. You know: the stories that make you freeze, stop thinking about everything in life, and run chills up your arms. The collaboration was just beautiful.

This is exactly what I hope every one of my students learns. No matter what culture or people say, we can still love, respect, and learn from those whom our country has had trouble with in the past. 

Forgiveness brings freedom. When we move beyond history and politics, who knows what is possible?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Why Our BYOD Club Didn't Work And It's OK

Earlier this school year, I was eager to be in the process of preparing a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Club for our upper elementary. I was reading article after article and processing what to do during it. What I failed to consider were the steps to set it all up beforehand. I was extremely focused on the school acquiring Wifi, since it still doesn't have that, and simply moving on from there. (Sadly enough, our elementary office has more hot spots than the 3 buildings of our private K-12 school has routers combined.)

For some reason, in the meetings I held with administrators at the school, the solutions never came for how the school operates on ethernet providing kilobytes per second, the internet itself turned off in every classroom, and our school of 700+ students and 80+ teachers having one IT guy (who doesn't know Apple products while Google would be useless too since it's blocked by the Great Firewall.)

A couple of the previous issues were mentioned by the elementary principal to me, but we never took time to work out how these and other problems were going to be handled. This was all late last winter toward the end of the first semester. The break in between semesters, Chinese New Year, was when I took serious time to reflect on a culture where digital learning prospers by Eric Sheninger. It was at this time that there wasn't any communication from the admin to me about what was being worked out or what was going to happen when the next semester came. Therefore, I decided not to follow through with the idea before chaos or any constant, unconsidered situations would arise.

Upon our first workday of this spring semester back, I went to the elementary principal and informed her of my decision. She was surprised, and her surprise surprised me. To me, it was obvious how this club was not near the possibility of succeeding. How could it? It moved all too fast for it to do more good than harm. I rushed it.
One of the many lessons I have learned is this: Have a team of professionals dedicated to working out solutions (along with plans B & C) take the necessary time to prepare an action plan, follow it through, and reach a point where outcomes and positive collaboration can happen between students, teachers, administration, and the school's stakeholders.

Through it all, I felt the worst for the result I gave my students. They had been a part of this, so much so that they helped me make a video asking earnestly for wifi and resources other than books on their desks. I really wanted this to happen, obviously since I had rushed it. I went to each of the students I originally had planned to be part of the club, apologized, and reminded them how we can still work together via Minecraft and other media. Thankfully, every single one of them understood, while a couple asked questions about why. I explained the technicalities of it and how it couldn't work for now and not even for some time here. For the students and me though, moving forward isn't going to stop.

It's OK. I've been doing what I can this year with my 5th graders outside of the box. I now look forward to where I will move on to next, and I'm preparing for that adventure.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Making 100 Minutes a Habit

Recently, I read a blogpost by Brad Currie titled 100 Minutes a Week. In it Mr. Currie succinctly discussed how 100 minutes a week, or 20 minutes a day, would be greatly beneficial for educators in their professional development. Time is a tricky thing to bring up with any educator probably, but making PD a priority is the utmost importance for the sake of the students and forward progress. There are certainly other priorities that should take precedence such as faith, family, or whatever floats your boat.

What caught my eyes over and over were the specific examples Mr. Currie provided in order that readers could gain insight into the endless opportunities we educators have and the variety of input possible when developing. 

I now consider how these ideas could be driven and lived out as habits since reading The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. The habit loop below presents the science.
There is a cue before every habit. If you want the routine of PD to start without much thought, let there be a cue you create beforehand. My first thought is the Twitter chat that many of us take part in. For example, when the 5:30am alarm goes off, the #BFC530 crew hops onto Twitter for 15 minutes. Others such as #sunchat know that the beautiful habit of collaboration happens every Sunday from 9-10am ET. I do not think only these chats but other resources have extraordinary impacts within the habits as well. Look into what helps you best as an educator, and tailor it to your best capability. PD doesn't need to look the same every time or for every person.

The rewards for such habits are worthwhile.

growth, more resources, creativity, ideas, information, reflection, encouragement, challenges, ______________...
What good habits do you have as an educator set for improvement? 

What cues do you have before the habits happen? 

What rewards do you feel or receive afterwards (and during)?

Friday, April 10, 2015

Joining #read15in15

Seeing #read15in15 trend on Twitter the other day had me Bing it. Turns out there is a plethora of people* who have set the goal to read 15 books in 2015. Lorinda Kline from Warsaw Community Schools is who I've seen lead the way in my feed. Kudos to her and the influence she's having on others in her community!

I really like this idea because of the reading, continuous learning, and collaboration possible. There are educators and others from around the world who have joined. I'm not sure how most are counting, up or down, so I'll go with UP since my unwritten goal is somewhere above 15. :)

It's extremely helpful to create a scroll on TweetDeck with the hashtag #read15in15 so as to see what others are reading and saying.

The following are several books I have already read this year with their authors and personal ratings. The order is by the dates I finished reading them.

1. Bringing Up Boys, James C. Dobson, 3/5

2. The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, Sir Ken Robinson, 4/5

3. Finding Your Element: How to Discover Your Talents and Passions and Transform Your Life, Sir Ken Robinson, 5/5

4. Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning, Mark Barnes, 5/5

5. Our Greatest Gift, Henri J.M. Nouwen, 5/5

6. What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most, Todd Whitaker, 3/5

7. The Good Fight: How Conflict Can Bring You Closer, Drs. Les & Leslie Parrott, 5/5

I have four books on my plate right now, and three of them are parenting books since our six-month-old recently started crawling and standing up on his own. I plan to start another ed book or fiction in the near future. Until, read, read!!!

*Check out Goodreads for more in-depth reviews or stroll Twitter for readers' comments.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

I understand.

Last week, I walked in to what seemed to be another normal day with a fifth grade class. Within the ten-minute passing period, one of the students (we'll call him Thomas) approached me to ask if I had researched the next question he and I had encountered in reading up on the International Space Station, space, and other related topics. This one dealt with the English name of a specific part of the ISS. And I failed.

How? Because I didn't do what I told him I would do.

Usually a student might be let down, walk away with a sigh, not feel appreciated, or (D) all of the above. What did Thomas say? "It's okay, Mr. Scott. I understand." Before I could apologize again, remind him that I have a baby son and blah blah blah, he continued, "I have a baby brother. I know how you feel." He then smiled, walked away, and went back to reading his space book and creating a puzzle about the information he was compiling.

Wait. What? Did he just empathize with me? Whoa.

I was touched. This 11-year-old boy softened my heart in one of the best ways I've felt in my five years of teaching.

This experience connects very much with two books I'm currently readingUnconditional Parenting by Alfie Kohn and The Whole-Brained Child by Daniel Siegel and Tina Bryson.

Unconditional Parenting: Thomas didn't get upset with me, raise his voice, pout, or even look the slightest bit unappreciated. He was patient, spoke in a normal voice, and expressed a desire to grow together (as he has every time we've talked). He empathized with me by telling me he understands, giving a non-verbal with a smile, and moving on to what he was doing. He treated me with love instead of a force to comply, and he let me feel in my own heart in lieu of focusing mainly on the behavior and telling me how to act.

The Whole-Brained Child: Thomas connected this situation right-brain to right-brain. He didn't say anything that logically had me move on and forget about it. No! He expressed his experiences and emotions with my feeling at that time. He didn't have to say anything to redirect me following his compassionate words because I knew what I had to do. And I did it the next moment I could research ISS. ;)

Sometimes, we as parents/teachers may try to redirect children without the connection needed beforehand. We also could have tendencies to coerce them to obey rather than to guide them in their thinking. What this boy did last week made an impression on me and proved how applications from these two books can travel both ways in a relationship.

This event echoed one of many things I enjoy about teaching: The students help me become a better person.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Voices of China, Series Finale: I Want To Know

4. Any questions about me, class, etc.?

I concluded all of the individual interviews with an open-ended question leaving time available for the students to ask anything, about anything. They believe I will listen. I believe they will be honest.

The students also know that "I love questions." Most replied calmly without any. No surprise. Those who did ask did so with purpose. No surprise.

How many sea otters are there in the world?
Where do you make the games we play in class?
What is your favorite sport to watch?
Will you teach us in 6th grade? (x3)
What will we learn after Chinese New Year? (x2)
How old are you? (x2)
How tall are you?
What is your baby's name?
Will the next semester be hard for us?
Do you like to teach 5th grade? Why? 
What is your hometown's name?
Can we read the space story in the English Zone (our curriculum)?
This winter holiday, are you going to go to America?
What's your favorite sport to play? What's your favorite color?
Were you [misbehaving] when you were little?
Did you misbehave?

I've reminded the 5th graders a couple times this year about their initiative (It's off the wall!) but not too much because I don't want them to learn because of my compliments in lieu of their natural curiosity. Last semester, a few students contacted me via WeChat and QQ to pass on what they continued to examine at home. Presently, several more have written through blogs each class has.

The point is this: 20 out of 67 students asked me a question. Some may think I'm reading too much into this, but...hey, almost a third of my students asked questions. In Chinese culture, that's saying something. And this number has been growing over the past years while opportunities have been on the rise. As I was explaining to a colleague today, students have changed from when I started teaching five years ago. "How?" he wondered. I informed him succinctly that society is rapidly changing, therefore our children are too. How I taught my 2nd graders five years ago needs to be different from the 2nd graders I'm teaching currently. Why? The students aren't the same. The culture isn't the same. The resources have shot up exponentially. Today's possibilities are more than they were in the past, and the students want to make more things possible.

So the same way 20 of my students wanted to know more, I want to know more of how I can guide these students in a better education. I want to know them as individuals and collectively. I want to know what they know about each other and the world. I want to know what they want to know about. Lastly, I want to know what they're going to do about it.
This ends the "The Voices of China" series. Hope you have enjoyed the blogs and grown in your desire to know your students.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Voices of China, E03: Why I'm a So-So Student

Part 3 of The Voices of China Series continues with question 3.

3) Did you do well in class? Why/why not?

So-so: While I'm not at all surprised by this answer, I wanted to know the deeper reasons with every student who said it because (and they know) I believe it's a cop-out. So though a majority of the fifth graders gave this answer, there are two categories to which they belong. Quite understandably so, I might add, but I will get to that later. Until then, hear ye...hear ye...the following are the top two reasons why students think they are just "so-so."

I didn't listen in class. 
Classic. From early on, students are instructed to sit up, not touch their pencils while teachers talk, not talk with others, and listen to the sage on the stage with ease. Because of this definition of "good" behavior being ingrained in their mind from such an early age, I wasn't at all surprised to hear many students reason this way. It pained me every time, but I knew a time to speak into their lives and guide them in new directions would come.
I'm not good at English. 
Being good at languages carries a higher than normal weight with it when attending an elementary school known, in a city of 8 million, for its English program. Because a lot of students possibly don't do well on their English homework, midterms, revisions, class activities, and tests, they aren't confident in their second (or third) language. Notice the previous assessments listed, read them through a few more times, and reconsider why a student would say this. It shouldn't be too hard.

These reasons are reinforced from kindergarten. That's more than five years, 900 school days of behavior- and test-focused performance being cemented in their minds. These reasons are traditional and will culturally be hard to change. But(!) they are on the brink of shifting. Why would I say such a thing?! Because my students agree with me on particular topics of education. They despise tests. They hate listening to somebody who teaches to a test. They want to learn how they learn best. Thus, I stated some comments at the end of last semester in our class meetings.

1) If you don't understand me, you're not a bad student. If you understand me, you're not a good student.
2) People are different. Some students can listen and do something else at the same time.

Any teacher can tell you to start with what the students know (schema) before approaching new knowledge. This past week then I touched on these two statements within the context of our class studying Howard Gardner's Multiple Intelligences. Believe it or not, it's in our curriculum! The students learned how everyone is made differently, particularly in the brain. Therefore they know and can apply the fact that we are all smart in various ways. It's not the test nor the score that tells you how smart you are. (I received more than one "yeah" from the students on that one.)
Now connect those thoughts with the basic standards I gave the students last week, and you have 60+ fifth graders looking at the content (what) they need to know and creating their own processes (how) in acquiring language and information. More details are being worked out while we have also started sites for each class on Kidblog. There are a lot of new things going on in my classes this semester, and at times, I don't know what to think or how to feel. What I do know is that 60+ students are seeing me take risks, fail, brainstorm, and move forward. All they while, they're doing it with me.

This is what makes all of them more than just "so-so."

Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Voices of China, E02: (Brain)Storming the Future

2) What is something I/we did that you did not like this semester? 

NothingWithin Chinese culture, it is rare to hear or see a student talking back to a teacher or making a suggestion. That's not how the totem from Confucius rolls. In recent years, the younger generation of China has been wanting this to change. How? That will potentially take a few more generations, I believe, since there are still many educators who let tradition and culture dictate how they should teach and lead. But I have seen a growing number of Chinese students courageously stand up to their teachers for justice. Therefore, when most of my students say "nothing" to answer this question, I don't think they're hiding anything. They sincerely mean it. Even after a second prompting, they stick with the answer. Their faces tell me they're not pulling my leg.

I've been blessed with so much honesty from my students, especially in the midst of lessons, that I don't second guess the trust I have with them.

Tests: Interesting. Just plain awesome. I didn't mean for that to happen.

#ICYMI - In the interview I held with Cicy at the end of last semester, she said something I hope all educators will never forget. "[Some teachers] teach for tests, and it's boring. It makes us not want to learn.
I have given paper tests ever since year one of #TEFL in China because that's what I was told to do. I didn't question the method of assessment. I simply asked how to do it because that's what the school wanted. Essentially, I was really asking the school how I could comply. Not all compliance is bad, but being wrapped up in it had me not thinking nor considering the side effects of this assessment I've been told year after year to use on students in my setting. Those ways have and will continue to be revamped. The students want it to change, and I want what is best for them. 

Was I surprised then when "tests" came in a close second place? Not one bit. In fact, I've already cut out midterms and finals from my class since the students receive enough pressure, paper, and persecution with their mistakes and scores. (Side note: A few students mentioned "worksheets" while all of the others sighed in frustration every time I handed out "workbook pages" last semester.) I give tests after every unit, but this is an area I'm going to ask my #stuvoice to assist me with this semester. I'm looking forward to seeing how we can (brain)storm through this process together!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

The Voices of China, E01.5: What Makes Students Not Want to Learn

If you remember, the first question I asked my students at the end of last semester was...

1) What is something I/we did this semester that you liked? 

Now, I was planning to move on to the second question's answers, but I can't let what a particular student said to me go unspoken. For the student's sake, I'll name her Cicy. I've known Cicy to be a student in class that's hilarious, random, smart, cunning, and able to lead the class in discussions. So when it was time for us to meet, I was excited to hear her 100% honest opinions.

As the bell was ringing to officially start class on that day, the Chinese teacher popped her head in and reminded the class that, if I as the foreign teacher was going to show a movie or TV show, they needed to fix their mistakes and let her check them. Mind you...the last couple weeks for our students leading up the midterms and finals, starting in 2nd grade and on through high school, are hours full of lectures, worksheets, fixing mistakes, homework, fixing mistakes for homework, passing periods spent on homework or fixing it, taking practice tests, fixing get the drift.

I called Cicy back, and I first wanted to check on what the teacher said when the bell rang. I asked Cicy if it was right for the other teacher to do that. "No, because we have time to work, and we have time to play. It's not right that the Chinese teacher said to work during your class." How could she know what research has stated time and time again about work and play? She knows what she needs in order to succeed. She is growing and learning how to think, not how to listen. She is intrinsically motivated to learn English (while I'm not sure about her other classes) and has a priority to improve her ability with no carrots necessary. Shoot! She even keeps another notebook, other then the one for my class, for new words in and outside of class as well as for work on application of those words in various forms. I'll let her roll with that any day.

I acknowledged her brilliant thoughts, smiled, and moved on to the first question. I had no idea what she was going to say because, to be honest, Cicy was at times hard to read. Little did I know. "I like that when you teach, you make learning fun." Interested, I prodded for something more substantial. She replied, "You make learning fun. We play games and learn. You're not like other teachers who are boring." Okay...what makes them boring, I wondered. "They teach for tests, and it's boring. It makes us not want to learn."

Whoa! With the majority of the end-of-semester meeting left, Cicy already delivered the mic drop. I went speechless. What could I say? I was planning to only listen, but I really wanted to jump for joy and continue chatting. Instead, I typed her words onto Evernote because I had to get this. I had (and have) to tell the world, educators, and people like you. What makes students (let's be honest, anybody) not want to learn? Teaching to tests. That's what. The students know. In elementary, they know. If it is for the test, less motivation and even thoughts as far as Cicy's for some. I say "some" because Cicy is one girl from a grade of over sixty fifth graders, but she's brave enough to speak her mind and give teachers in China and the world a glimpse of what students think and what the future of education should (with)hold.

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Voices of China, E01: What Did the Students Like From This Semester?

At the end of the last school calendar year, I met with all of my fifth graders one-on-one to ask them questions concerning class, my teaching, and how both could improve from their perspective. That was only done at the end of the year since it was my first time doing it. Therefore, since our first semester was going to end for Chinese New Year a few weeks ago, I thought it would be suitable now also. More opportunities for students to speak up individually and collectively give them deeper purpose for their critical thinking.

What I have found so funny and unsurprising is that students' thoughts usually agree with current research and methods on teaching as well as parenting. My prime example for both of these would be from last year. I asked every student if they felt respected by an adult who yelled and said bad things to them. Not one of them said yes. It's love they desperately want, but how we give it to them needs to be considered firstly. (I would list all the research and articles normally here, but the list would be too long.)

On to this year where I prompted my batch beforehand:
1) What is something I/we did this semester that you liked?
2) What is something that you did not like?
3) Do you think you did well in my class? Why or why not?
4) Do you have any questions for me or about the class? 

With the range and depth of answers given by the students, I thought what better way to detail the students' wonderful voices than with a series? Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Episode 1 of "The Voices of China"! (Side note: The series' name derives from The Voice of China, a TV show in...umm...China.) On to question 1 (cough cough), Episode 1...

1) What is something I/we did this semester that you liked?

Games: A high percentage all three of my fifth grade classes mentioned this without hesitation. I wasn't at all baffled because of the fun and learning that took place simultaneously numerous times over the semester. I asked for individual favorites. I went deeper with the question and sought advice for myself and how to deal with students who get upset when they lose. "Comfort the losing team. Tell them don't be sad. It's just a game. It's not that important. Losing is okay." This came from my most competitive student. 

Group PowerPoints: In groups, students chose an endangered animal to research and make a PowerPoint about to present to the class. The students took advantage of their time: in the computer lab researching and creating the PPTs, in the classroom to prepare what they would say, and in their various methods of communicating. I trusted the students, and they gave me more reasons to do so. Almost the whole time, I saw them come alive since they were able to use the internet in lieu of the one book we have for class, which ashamedly focuses only on the sea otter.

TV Show/Movies: I'm not afraid to admit it. After every unit test, I give the fifth grades choices 1) go outside to play games of their choice or 2) stay inside and watch a movie or TV show. Every time, option 2. Why? They have a plethora of worksheets from Chinese, Math, and their Chinese-English class to last the 40 minutes in mine. So they relax, (choose if they want to) work in a more relaxed environment, laugh, and chat with each other. It didn't bother me. In fact, it made me wonder. Could students make movies? Yes, they said. Did they know how? No. Do they want to? Yes. This conversation led to blogs, videos, other ways to use computers, and on the list went. I had to type everything in my Evernote before I forgot any of their brilliant ideas!


Now, here's the kicker in all these discussions. I didn't push students to understand me. I listened to them, asked questions, and showed them sincerity with my nonverbals. I wanted to let them know, "I want to hear your voice. Your opinion matters. You matter. So talk. I'm here for you." I believe it has been working because I have received so much honest feedback. So much that there are going to be four or more episodes about it.

Friday, February 6, 2015

5 out of 5 Stars to Finding Your Element by Sir Ken Robinson

Everybody needs to read this book. Why? Because there are people who are: doing things they actually aren't good at, pushing through the daily grind without any passion for what they do, or regretting at the end of their lives that they should have done what they truly loved. As a teacher, I believe this can be prevented in future generations by educators who are willing to push the envelope with their students, colleagues and community.

Utilizing one's talents and passions for something bigger than yourself will certainly transform your life; there's no doubt about that. In order to discover those, you need to examine yourself deeper and in ways never done before. With Sir Ken Robinson's Finding Your Element, you can do just that. Every chapter has stories, exercises and questions that will make you see the bigger picture of your life as well as the details concerning your past experiences, current situations and future opportunities.

The main focus of your Element is that it benefit the world we live in and that it be done by you. No one else. Why? There's only one you with your heart and your mind. Therefore, unearth your Element(s).

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Assessment 3.0 is here, but what is it?

I can just hear Tom Cruise saying, "Jim, the package is in the open."

I think many would agree, and this mission isn't impossible either.

Without spoiling too much of today's release, Assessment 3.0, I'll let the picture (below) speak for itself. For the start of more concrete applications and detailed accounts of this authentic assessment, check out the third chapter. But read chapters one and two beforehand because they begin with the history of traditional assessment and why SE2R should replace it.
Anyone else reading this book that would like to discuss it via blog or chat? Let me know.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Why I Reopened My Facebook Account

When my wife and I moved to China in 2010, we were informed that several popular websites of the west were blocked by the Great Firewall. What's interesting is that some of the foreign teachers that year remembered the day Facebook was blocked and where they were when they were informed. That's a little disturbing since the first event that came to mind when they mentioned this was 9/11. Back to my point...since Facebook was blocked, I decided to deactivate my account, focus on relationships in our local setting, and stay in contact with those I felt closest with via email or calls on our magicJack.

Fast forward four and a half years, and we've returned to China. We went back to Indiana for the 2012-2013 school year, but I still didn't activate my account then. Why not? I don't know. It just wasn't at the forefront of my mind. Upon return to the East in 2013, Facebook was (and still is) blocked along with Twitter and anything Google. It wasn't until a month or so ago that I saw an education writer consistently make suggestions on Twitter to join Facebook discussions regarding education issues I believed to be über-important. I clicked on the link, but no dice. This one needed a log-in. After this happened a few more times, I decided it was best to reopen my Facebook account. Conversations were taking place, and I was missing out on good chunks of them even though I was already chatting with many educators on Twitter. Not to mention I could keep in contact with family and close friends once again.

Not a lot of time passed before I joined a group that focuses on Teachers Throwing Out Grades (#TTOG) and saw how sharing and collaboration were daily occurrences. By this point in time, I also had a professional blog (such as the one you're reading) up and running. Now I'm not one to check stats on my blog because they aren't the priority of my reflections, but I would be lying if I didn't say I was interested to see if Facebook was assisting in this way. Sure enough, it's topping the list (see below).

Do you think I made the right choice in reopening my Facebook account? 

What other pros (and cons) do you see in using it professionally? 

Do you use Facebook or Twitter more? Why?

P.S. - If you'd like to connect on Facebook, visit:

Thursday, January 29, 2015

How Subjectivity Creeps into Assessment

The last few weeks of our fall 2014 semester, I was stumped while grading. I jotted down very short comments on the students' papers and entered numbers onto my grade book before handing the papers back. Part of me didn't know if this was the right way to go about assessing students. In the middle of it all, I stopped, looked at some other teachers, and wondered how they complete their grades. Before I could continue, I had to examine none other than myself. Why look at the sticks in others' eyes before the log in my own, right? (That line is out of context, but the importance of self-examination before placing blame is crucial in many aspects.)

Q1: What assessments do I use?

It was then, ashamedly, that I went back to finish my grading and didn't think of this topic again. Until now...upon reading chapter two of Assessment 3.0.

To illustrate what I picked up from this part, I strongly recommend you with a group of colleagues review a student's assignment. Individually look at the teacher's guidelines and come up with a grade you think the student should receive. Then group back together and discuss how you all decided on the grades you would give the student. (If you don't get my drift, take time to honestly consider the difficulties or actually follow through with this. I, as a member of the #TTOG Facebook group, would love to hear how the discussion ended up going.)
"Arguments in favor of grades lose buoyancy when the previous examples are seriously contemplated. If the teacher's opinion plays even the slightest role in assessment, the process becomes alarmingly punitive" (Barnes, 28, emphasis mine).
Barnes gives a couple phenomenal examples that should hit home for any educator wanting to truly know where the students are in their progress and what the next steps should be in moving forward.

Remember Q1 that I asked myself weeks ago (see above)? The next questions flooding my mind now are:

Q2: How much influence do my feelings and opinions have in creating and carrying out my assessments?

Q3: Would other teachers agree with me on my grading scale, rubrics, and standards?

Q4: How can I solve these conundrums with modern methods that provide authentic feedback?

I need to expose these uncertainties. Why? This is a road worth traveling. In evaluating this part of education, revamping the road will lead to greater and more beautiful destinations for the students. And it will definitely make all the difference.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Some Traditions, Like Assessment, Need Revisited

I strongly believe that most of the success I have had in teaching #EFL in China has come from first questioning traditional methods, management, and ways of communication. Next I would learn about their origin and from there successfully move past them and complete plans of action. It also helps that my students agree since it is the 21st century (or "The Internet Age," as one said), and they think ways of learning should be altered. Assessment 2.0 is no different, no matter where in the world Carmen Sandiego is.
When there is a huge, ongoing problem, one has to wonder what the deeper issue is. In the first page of Assessment 3.0, Mark Barnes touches on what I think is the root reason why Assessment 2.0 is still happening.
For more than a decade as a classroom teacher, I placed number and letter grades on my students' papers and projects...Why did I treat my students' hard work with such disregard? The answer is simple, if sad. I didn't know any better; that's the way I'd always done it, and I wasn't aware of another way. Students had to be graded, and this occurred with points, percentages, and letters.
We as teachers sometimes don't know any better. And even worse, we haven't taken the next step to critically think and question it. This questioning is not that of an angry child drilling his father of why things should happen the way they do. It would be more of 1) examine the method being used, 2) research to learn more about it, and lastly 3) tweak it however necessary or do a 180 with it. Whatever the course, a step has to be taken.

Barnes then moves on to how these numbers and percentages are compiled to make up a GPA. And the GPA could very well be the fruit in the garden that should not be eaten while the SAT is seemingly as deadly. Why? I'm a prime example. In high school, I received As, Bs, and the occasional C. How? I'll admit; by conforming and getting by. Come SAT time, my score ended up a 1040/1600. Believe me, I was quite surprised when Indiana Wesleyan University called to tell me I had been accepted.

Neither score, I believe, displayed what I was capable of (I still don't know that either, ha). Speaking of the SAT, in Sir Ken Robinson's The Element, he explains how the creator of the test only a few years after inventing it changed his mind and didn't think universities such as Harvard should be administering it anymore. There are certainly some historical events within education that every teacher should know but for some reason they go unmentioned.

This was just the tip of the iceberg, folks. By the looks of it, the chapters in Assessment 3.0 aren't long, but I can tell you already there's going to be vital information we all need to know in order to move forward. In fact, chapter 1 already is making me contemplate changes I could try to make next semester to #ChangeTheWorld in my classes.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"I don't give big tests."

On January 15th, Mark Barnes wrote an article on teachers and "What if" they said NO to testing. Reading this reminded me what I've told our elementary administration a few times this semester.

"I don't give big tests. I only give them after every unit."

the grades I posted include all but the "Final Test"
I still cringe when I remind them and other teachers about this because I would like to move beyond giving paper tests completely. I believe PBL, mobile learning tools, and other strategies of the like would allow my students to go beyond the standardized expectations. Why do I believe this? Because I've seen and read about those who have done it. Unsurprisingly, my students without this knowledge agree. (Side note: I was chosen to read a pre-publication of Barnes' Assessment 3.0, which will come out in February. If you haven't ordered it, you should.)

On our quarterly report cards we have four slots encompassing the ELLs in their Daily Average, Speaking and Listening, Reading and Writing, and lastly...Test Score (see above). An educator from America (as I claim to be though I intend to someday look into my Scottish ancestry), would probably wonder what in the world a school would be wanting parents to do with that. It's not even a unit test score. It's for the Midterm Test and the Final Test. Interestingly enough, our local education bureau said to do away with them as of last year because some parents called and complained about the work load and stress the students were experiencing. Sadly, the tests are back again this year. Sometimes they may just have a different name though it's the same paper test. The students know it too.

In respect to culture, Chinese parents find tests and scores über-important, I understand that. But my fifth graders don't agree. Irony? I think not while I also believe my students are just like some in the US who want to learn what is relevant for their futures and use modern tools to do so. Therefore, I'm not surprised when a student will do something else simultaneously in class while learning. As of reading The Element recently, I've also started encouraging my students to go deeper with their interests.

Now what I've written here should be understood as not grumbling about my school or the Chinese education system. The point is this. I've been told there is Power in One who stands up for what is right. This is usually not the case for teachers at our school, but the test score column is thankfully one area where the administration has not forced me to change. I know I have full support from many while there is a small group of teachers who look down on me. I'm not entirely fond of that, but at least I believe what I am doing is right in guiding my students as they become more #futureready.

Monday, January 19, 2015

4 out of 5 Stars to The Element by Sir Ken Robinson

After watching his 2006 Ted talk on how schools kill creativity, Sir Ken Robinson has had my attention in many ways. 

His processing and combination of data and experiences touched with more than a hint of inspiration will lead one to think there are ways to use our natural gifts in ways we love and want to for the world to be a better place. The downfall of the book comes in its lack of application. With a lack of knowing how to apply what is passed on comes quite an assortment of unanswered questions. And when questions are left unanswered, the search for one's element can be difficult. 

Being a teacher, I also found Robinson's take on education on point. This book has challenged me to let my students learn and create more outside of the Chinese education system box. Why should I take a pencil away from a "fidgety" boy when he could become the greatest artist of his time (and learn EFL at the same time)? 

P.S.- Taking notes while reading a book, even if it's an e-book, is truly one of many awesome hacks for reading.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Proposing a BYOD Club for a Chinese Elementary

The Thursday before Christmas, I handed a proposal to the principal of our private Chinese school. I walked into her office after hours of discussion with her, the Foreign Teacher Head, other colleagues, and (of course!) students. The proposal was for a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) Club at our elementary.

While hashing out kinks at different levels in the school, I was satisfied at the progress and openness that staff from the top down as well as the students gave me throughout the process. A couple administrators informed me of questions and statements that top leaders would have. My colleagues suggested ideas along with "excuses" our leaders would have for this not to work. Students always give me what I enjoy hearing--a piece of their mind, and I mean that in a good way. The students are the ones who suggested the devices we should use and the grades that should be allowed to apply for the club. They will continue to lead the way. That is...if the top leaders approve the proposal. The elementary principal will present it at an administration meeting sometime this week or next. She sounds very confident and optimistic about it.
The team of staff who know of the plan have all asked me: What do you plan to teach the students?

Technology tools (aka websites and apps, aka #edtech) that teachers and students could utilize to collaborate, learn, and create with in subjects such as Chinese, Math, English, and any others the co-teacher and I consider worthwhile. Administrators would also be guided in methods they could use to brand the school and give it a public presence while telling its own story all at the same time. But before any of that, digital citizenship would be the prime goal for teachers and students alike. The TED talk I watched today (see below) emphasizes the importance of everyone knowing what they are getting into.

What do you think?

For those of you who have a BYOD program or are contemplating creating one, what ideas do you have from personal experience? What is something you would pass on that you didn't know beforehand or are currently learning?