See You On The Flipside!

So it might seem premature to start talking of “life after COVID19” but here in Nanjing, this is where we are heading – albeit slowly. Nothing about this situation is normal. It is unprecedented. Exceptional. Out of the ordinary. And our return to school deserves to be nothing short of the same.

When schools, including my own, get the green light from all the various governing bodies to reopen campus to students, I hope we see this as an opportunity embrace the changes that were thrust upon us and to leverage these as an opportunity to do something special and amazing.

I have said before that I am looking to see which schools rise from this more innovative, able to think about core structural changes, stronger in their commitment to personalizing learning – and I am wondering which schools will heave a sigh, say “thank goodness THAT is over” and resume business as usual. (*full disclosure: I want to do this on a pretty regular basis! The uncertainty that is embedded in all of this has been beyond stressful at times and to return to the comfortable, the familiar is totally valid -even if I can see that it doesn’t fit as well as it should or used to)

If you have read my blog for a while or if you know me, I like to think in problems, but also solutions. I am good at identifying areas for improvement and then suggesting things that may (or may not) meet the need and move things forward. What might that look like in this situation? Well, I also think in pictures and love the rhythm of three’s so here I have for you a P.S.A (if you will) on how a return to school might look:

Pods, Skills, Action

Icons made by Nikita Golubev from


When students return to school, they will be coming in staggered grade levels. Some will be in quarantine, some will be in other parts of the world. All of them likely will be looking to connect with others. (*Side note: while not typically an anxious person, the thought of being around large groups of people after months in my ‘bubble’ does leave me feeling anxious. I am guessing some students may feel the same). We could support students in their last few weeks of the school year by creating learning pods. Mixed grade level groups staffed by teachers from different disciplines with a shared interest in a common theme. A deep dive into literature, art history, and design. A close-up of science, art, and math. What if we used this as a chance to see how mixed age group learning works inside a brick and mortar school house institution? How might we pool our teaching talents and our love for our subject areas and cross pollinate them in a way that goes beyond the standard inter-disciplinary unit? How might these pods of learners (teachers and students) support each other? How might they thrive? How might we build connections beyond checking off curriculum objectives and filling in report cards?

What if we showed our students that what we learned from this pandemic is that connection to and personal investment in an idea is what motivates and sustains learning?

And then, what if we give them the opportunity to experience all this, all the time?


The framework for our system of pods could be built from the plethora of skills that reside with the Approaches to Learning (ATL). This robust bank of skills that schools have the ability to customize and add to, could well be the foundation for learning. Through the mapping and articulation of skills, learners could work together to strengthen and diversify thinking, research, social, self-management, and communication skills within authentic, personalized contexts.

Educators such as Suzanne Kitto and Rebecca Madrid have already done the hard yards on showing us what this skill framework might look like. It is now up to us to put it to use. How might we use the Approaches to Learning in a way that shows we are supporting the learning of the whole child? How might using the Approaches to Learning support personalized learning? Schools are already embedding Approaches to Learning in their classes – I have even made sets of ATL skill cards for Early Years learners to self-regulate their skill awareness and acquisition – so why not try it in mixed-age groups as a foundation for learning?


One of the hallmarks of an excellent school is that they strive for students to advocate for their own learning. They also want to help students grow in the understanding that they have the capacity to take action to make a difference. Student initiated action might look like this:

On a more practical level, it could involve students asking themselves one or more of the following questions and acting accordingly:

Working in pods, with the Approaches to Learning as their foundation, learners could develop an action plan that compliments the work they are exploring.

We could begin to view our students as capable, problem finders. Young people with the capacity to bring about change. Innovators who are capable of posing and answering their own questions.

These are just three ideas – but there are, of course, loads more:

  • Establishing breakout groups online and IRL, within and across grade levels
  • Regularly scheduled office hours built into the timetable in order to provide personalized learning opportunities and additional support without overwhelming student workloads
  • The development of a robust blended learning program to support the learning of all students
  • Greater student voice in choosing what and how and where to learn – and with whom
  • Developing flexible learning spaces that provide different ways for students to connect and engage

Schools could choose to do all of this – or none. They could go half-in and adapt these ideas or come up with something completely different. These ideas are an attempt to start thinking in terms of possibilities. I can hear the chorus of “but…” and “what about…” and for now, I tune them out despite how loud and overwhelming they get. I think more about what we might gain from trying rather than what we will lose. I think about what our attempts to innovate say to communities who are used to hearing how we pride ourselves on innovation in education.

I think ahead to when someone says, “What did your school do on the flip side of COVID19?” and I want to be proud of the answer I give.


In Sync…or not so much?

My week began today with Office Hours – a Teams meeting in which students could ‘join’ and there they would find me, ready to chat and discuss all things Design and then some! In between scooping out a batch of oatmeal cookies and supervising a game of Chess, a student stopped in. I decided to use the opportunity to pick her brain about how things were going with continuing school online.

Here are 5 things we discussed that could help you in making the decision around balancing a synchronous -vs- asynchronous schedule:

Icons made by Icon Pond from

Don’t Dump!

teachers really overdid it in the first week with what seemed like a mega dump of homework instead of actual ‘school’.

Our first week in, we were tasked with posting assignments online. We did not meet online with our students but were asked to use our online platforms to assign work. While we had a collaborative document that all teachers populated with their tasks, this didn’t seem to help students from feeling like they were being dumped a load of ‘homework’. My student sang the praises of her teachers who are “really getting it now” and can easily see the changes that have occurred over the six weeks we have been online.

Show Up!

…it is really nice to see the teacher and hear their voiceseven if we are not going to turn our cameras on!

This is likely going to be one of the few times that the students see us inside our natural habitats! Embrace it! Let them see your kids zoom across the screen, your collections, your artwork, your book stack. Maybe move the things you don’t want them to see (!) but it is really nice for the kids to see your face and hear your voice – even if you think both look/sound weird on camera!


…the kids are talking about who records their lessons as short 10 minute chunks and publishes these prior to scheduled online time, as part of the assignment

This is a big plus from her peer group who love that they can listen to and rewind this instructional stuff in their own time. We are more than makers of assignments. We help our students figure out what they haven’t considered yet. We expose them to new ideas. We help them connect rather than simply collect the dots. One way to do this is to prepare a short video that kids can watch in their own time and come to you with further questions. If you operate with Chrome, Screencastify is a great option for recording these types of videos.

Flex Time

Having flexibility is important to me. I like to be able to create my own schedule especially as I figure out when the best times are for me to get my work done.

One-size rarely fits anyone well – and the same goes for school schedules. My student’s current plan is to work really hard on Monday and Tuesday on given assignments, seek feedback and add to her work on Wednesday and Thursday by asking questions during online meetings, and cruise into the weekend on Friday. She’s figured out she needs to get more done during the day rather than stay up at night working. She knows she needs to make time while there’s daylight to get outside. She values time with her friends who are still all not in her timezone. I was really impressed with her ability to advocate for herself and to remain flexible – knowing that this may need to change based on any number of circumstances.

Fixed Time

A fixed meeting time can be a good thing. Its even better when the teacher doesn’t keep you there for the whole time. The best is when they give you time to work on whatever they assigned.

This student has asked me if she should wait for Office Hours/Design Meetings to ask her questions, or if she should email me, because “I know you’re really busy too”. Having a fixed time releases some of that anxiety for students who don’t want to bother you or don’t want to ask questions in front of their friends. I ran mixed grade office hours last week and that was really fun to be discussing graphic design, photography, and game design with a small group of kids from three different grade levels. Don’t feel the pressure to keep the meeting going for the full hour though. I find setting an agenda helps and posting this to the class before the lesson so they can come prepared. If you do want them to ask or answer questions, prep them for this. Give them cues to look for in your lesson as a way in for them to contribute.

I go back again to Seth Godin’s post about The Conversation. I was in a Teams meeting the other day when input was being sought from faculty around online learning successes and overcoming obstacles. We started with “Amy”, then “Andy”….and 34 contributors later…”Sonya”. It was really hard to stay focused. And the tech wasn’t great. And most people didn’t turn their cameras on. As we met we were also filling in a shared document. What I was solid about when I came out of that call, was that I was:

  • going to shorten my synchronous class meetings
  • give access to EVERYTHING I wanted to discuss in a syncronous meeting to the participants BEFORE the meeting
  • explore ways to get students talking in breakout groups

As it stands for us, we are following our typical 8 Day school schedule. At the end of the week, we look ahead to our allocated class times and we choose two of them: one is going to be office hours, and one a synchronous class (recorded for those who can not attend). This gives our kids a mix of face-to-face time and independent work time with the option of teacher help.

As a mom and a teacher, I am finding that pre-pandemic, I did an excellent job of using my prep blocks at school to prep for school. Now, my prep blocks are taken up with playing chase, walking to the mailboxes, baking muffins, prepping snacks, lunch, and dinner, doing laundry, building lego, and navigating all the G1 activities on SeeSaw for my daughter. Anything else is left for well after my kids are in bed.

To continue with the same pace of regular school is not sustainable in this environment. It makes me wonder if it ever really WAS sustainable sans-pandemic? My biggest hope is that we use this as an opportunity to rethink the way we “do school”. If we return “business as usual” when all restrictions are lifted, we have wasted an opportunity for ourselves and our kids. I am looking to see which schools rise up from this as true innovators and creators when all is said and done.

Will it be your school? Will you be leading the charge for change?



Fire Chief Harry, off to save the world!

In the first days of “the virus” we were up in Beijing on our Chinese New Year holiday. We were expecting to see the sights, climb the Great Wall, ride ice bikes on frozen lakes, and explore the Hutongs. Instead, we spent most of the time running scenarios about what we should do and how best to serve the needs of our family.

We returned home a little earlier than planned and, for a number of reasons, decided to stay put in Nanjing. With that decision (somewhat) solid in our minds, we turned our attention to ‘survival’. Did we have food? Sanitizers? Cleaning products? Face masks? How could we make sure we did more than just ‘exist’ over the next few weeks? Life is for living, right? It took a minute, but we soon (somewhat) figured out our new normal. And then came school. And we weren’t ready.

This new normal wasn’t normal enough yet. We still were not sure about anything and had no idea when we WOULD be sure. The mental load of ‘surviving’ was taking up most of the bandwidth in my brain. Now I had to teach my own classes AND work with my own children. I could do one or the other, but not both.

After a week or so of making sure my Design students were ok, I turned attention back to my own children and their school work. The content of what they were doing – I can save for another post. What I want to share is what I consider “the gold standard” in communicating with parents.

Our son’s PreK teacher is our good friend Tasha Cowdy. All of her communication with us as parents of Harry has been calm, reassuring, caring, and has demonstrated her connection with our son. This is her latest communication with us as an example:

Dear terBorg family, I am just checking in to see how you are all doing. I am wondering how the online learning is working for you and Harry, and how I can help you. Please see the questions below. Your answers will help me think about how to support Harry’s learning. Please remember, there it is not an expectation that Harry is doing the Seesaw activities. He may prefer to do his own things with his family. This is absolutely fine. I also understand your time may be taken up with Lizzy. On-line learning can be challenging for families with several children in different grade levels. Where are you now? Do you have reliable internet? Do you have VPN? Is Harry interested in the Seesaw activities or does he prefer to do his own thing? If Harry is interested in the Seesaw activities, which activities work best for Harry? What would you like to see more of on Seesaw? What would you like to see less of on Seesaw? Other ideas for how I can help you and Harry. Thank you!

Tasha Cowdy

Here’s what I notice:

  • she uses Harry’s name frequently and it reminds us that we are not making decisions for his class or grade level but for HARRY.
  • she mentions Harry’s sister and demonstrates she knows Harry’s family and empathizes with the sibling dynamic adding another layer of complexity
  • she checks on our whereabouts and connectivity as an acknowledgement that everyone’s circumstances are different
  • she asks (when all other bases are covered) about Harry’s learning needs and looks for ways to support our family without unnecessary burdens

Icons made by Freepik from

Child – Family – Environment – Learning. And all done with love and empathy.

Wherever you are in your COVID-19 journey, I encourage you to think about these things as a pathway to learning. And this is nothing new. Educators everywhere acknowledge that students need a secure home and family situation in order to flourish with their learning. This situation is no different.

More than ever before families will remember how you made them feel during this time of uncertainty – not how good your math packet download was*.

*I do not endorse math packet downloads or downloads of any kind TBH – more of that in a future post!


You’ve. Got. This.

My grade 1 Warrior taking her daily yoga practice to the top of “Pagoda Hill” near our house.

COVID-19. The talk of the town. Any town.

Right now, there is a groundswell of anxiety as people prepare for the unknown: online schooling, stay-at-home parenting, maintaining connection and community in a time of global pandemic.

Here in Nanjing, China, we have been off campus since we broke for Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations on January 24th. We are mid-way through Week 5 of online learning thanks to the leeway afforded us through a planned week of Professional Development, and the movement of our April Spring Break. 5 Weeks. And I have learned a lot. About myself as an educator, about what I need and want in school leadership, about my children, about friendship, community, and what school is really for.

My intention is to start a series of blog posts that touch on these findings from the experience I have had. I want to celebrate some successes and point out what I need, what my kids need, and yes, what I would do differently. To those reading from my own school, don’t expect finger pointing and a list of “should have’s” because you won’t find them.

These are unprecedented times and we are all bound to make mistakes and blunders. It’s how we acknowledge them, learn from them, and move on from them that will shape who we all are when all is well again.

In the spirit of the great, late, Grant Wiggins, let me start with the end in mind – and ask you to do the same. As your school prepares to close or has recently closed, what is your end game? What do you want your kids and families to come away with? You have the opportunity and a challenge ahead of you – what will success look like? And in the spirit of the insightful (and very much alive) Seth Godin, go ahead and claim that victory – write yourself a note of congratulations detailing how magnificently you handled this situation.

I know, it might sound lame, but at least take a moment to think about it.

As educators, we have an opportunity like no other to dig into authentic, conceptually-based learning like never before so, if nothing else, I emplore you to resist the pull of the craptivity. What we are embarking on needs to be as rich as the inquiry-driven, conceptually-based, global context/transdisciplinary theme curricula from which many of us draw from at school-school. What’s the big idea? How might we make this visible to our class community?

Today I had the good fortune to discuss a number of these ideas – and more – with my good friend and former colleague, Marina Gijzen. Marina’s school in Ghana is heading the way of school’s globally and she wants to be prepared and she wants to do it right. If you know her at all, she already has both of those traits nailed down. Her community is in excellent hands. Marina has always been a strong sounding board for me ever since we were 2nd and 3rd grade teachers in Bonn. She helped me come up with a list of future posts and suggested I turn it over to you, the readers, to offer suggestions on which posts rise up first. Here’s the list:

  • building community
  • communicating with parents
  • involving specialist teachers
  • setting schedules and new routines
  • engaging older students
  • rethinking middle school
  • synchronous vs. asynchronous learning

An hour or so after our conversation, Marina forwarded Seth Godin’s daily blog post: The Conversation – A Short Manifesto about the future of online education. I am not going to lie, I think he was listening in our call! Here’s a short excerpt that resonated loudly:

if you want to create transformative online learning, then allow people to learn together with each other. Connect them. Create conversations.

Seth Godin

We can use every flash-bang tool in our IT Toolbox to virtually collect our children and place them all in groups/pods/teams/classes – but what are we doing to connect them with each other in meaningful, authentic ways, and how are we supporting and planning for the same opportunities for student agency that have become so revered in the classroom?

You have the opportunity to do amazing things.

Take a breath.

You’ve got this.

Here are two graphics I created at the beginning of our journey – one for students and one for educators. Please share these with your community, your parents, your students. A PDF file is attached.


Why I Quit Blogging – And Why I’m Back

The past year and a half has been intense for me. After 21 years of elementary teaching, I traded in PYP for MYP and became one of three Design teachers at my school. Just prior to this, I applied for the assistant principal (Primary) position. I didn’t get it. Just recently, I applied for the deputy principal (Primary) position. I didn’t get that either. I thought I was ready for another rejection. Turns out, not so much.

As much as I would love to be a solid subscriber to Seth Godin’s “pick yourself” philosophy, I lean more toward imposter syndrome. And I love a little external validation. So why quit blogging?

I started to waiver in why I was doing it. It takes time and for what? My primary reason was as a reflective tool – it always has been that for me. A chance to process my thinking and to reflect on my practice. Turns out, when you stop reflecting, your practice can stagnate too. I also began to question if I had anything worth sharing. Turns out, I do, and that engagement with the community I have worked hard to help build, is something I have grown to miss.

So what does this all mean? It means I am going to follow the same advice that I give my daughter: “Be Brave. Speak Up. Persist”. I can wear the shirt but I have to do what it says! The combination of International Women’s Day (IWD) and Elizabeth Warren stepping out of the race for Democratic nominee for president was a bitter pill. Women everywhere need to keep rising up, choosing to stand out, putting themselves out there. Even when it feels like it is all for nothing.

I have seen many people quote “Strong Women: May we know them, be them, raise them” in light of IWD and I want that to be more than a slogan in my house and in this blog. So I am back. Back to writing my thoughts, sharing my ideas, stating my beliefs. Even when they’re not perfect. Even when I am not picked. And especially when my daughter is watching.

It’s good to be back.