Three Fantastic Videos

What is Water?

I had previously heard the analogy of the fish and the water but I had not connected it to this speech.  This animated version of the graduation address is a piece of art in itself, in addition to the message it conveys.

There is real freedom in education, in deciding how you will think, in choosing to look at things from a different perspective from that which you are used to.


Obvious To You.  Amazing To Others.

I think this is something that our kids think of a lot.  Are you holding back something that seems too obvious to share? This animated short may be that thing that someone needs to watch to give them that push to go further, dig deeper, or share more often.


Opal School Children on Play and Learning

This is an AWESOME video from the mouths of students of the Opal School in Portland, Oregon.  They are asked to speak on ‘the wonder of learning’ and what comes through is the profound connection between play and learning and how, when we get it right, it should be hard to tell the two apart.

Inspiration, Reflection

What Do You Want In A School?

I have taught in New Zealand, Laos, the United States, Germany, Thailand, Japan, back to the US, and now back to Germany.  Each year I spend time wondering what sort of year I am going to have and each year I keep refining what is important to me in a school.

My list of criteria is long and verbose. I have ideas about leadership, personalization, community, inquiry, passion, and action – to name a few. As I was thinking of how to include these ideas in one succinct statement, I heard from a friend who shared her daughter’s summation of her summer camp experience.

Imagine arriving at a school with the following sign – and then knowing that every person in the school believed this with all their heart:

Vv Wisdom

How will you make sure this rings true in your school this year? My suggestion: start small:

  • Be kinder than necessary.
  • Smile.
  • Read more books.
  • Be a person you would want to hang out with all day.
  • Ask for help.
  • Offer to help.
  • Start every day with good intentions.
  • Get enough sleep.

The following quotes were shared during one of our orientation meetings yesterday.  Do you know how much of an impact you have in your school?

“I’ve come to a frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element in the classroom. It’s my personal approach that creates the climate. It’s my daily mood that makes the weather. As a teacher, I possess a tremendous power to make a child’s life miserable or joyous. I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration. I can humiliate or heal. In all situations, it is my response that decides whether a crisis will be escalated or de-escalated and a child humanized or dehumanized.”
If we treat people as they are, we make them worse. If we treat people as they ought to be, we help them become what they are capable of becoming.”

Haim G. Ginott, Teacher and Child: A Book for Parents and Teachers


Make Learning Visible Too


I was reading this article about a group of industrious young women who wanted to transform their neighborhood.  They didn’t know how they were going to use the abandoned vacant lot in their community, just that they were going to design something to bring back hope to their area. Instead of sitting inside a building somewhere to plan their design, they just set up their planning space beside the lot and started there. What they found is that in doing that, they got buy-in from the community as well as ideas, feedback, support and help from people in the neighborhood who were keen to be a part of the project.

Move your design studio, or your classroom, or your city hall meeting, to the sidewalk. When you’re designing and building incredible things in public that no one thinks are possible—not just doing an art project or a mosaic, but actually solving a problem—people are inspired to come up to you and ask questions, and share advice or offer resources. There’s a seamless feedback loop with the community.

In my last school, we had a large atrium space that I would often utilize for group work.  In doing so, I would get the kids out the classroom and into a space where people could stop by and ask them what they were working on.  Other teachers used this space too and it is fast becoming less of an atrium and more of an “ideas pit” in which students can share their work and solicit new ideas and feedback on their projects.  

How can we make this bigger?  

Often we look for connections to our units for field trips.  In an international setting where language can sometimes be a barrier, such trips may not be possible for all units.  But what about taking a trip to the town center when planning your own city?  Or going to a local park for ideas on shared space usage? What if the field trip was less about going to a particular museum or gallery and more about being out in the community and seeing what evolves from thinking visibly in a shared space?

How will you make learning more visible this year?

Creativity, Design, Inspiration, Internet

Become an Enabler….of Creativity!

I have read a couple of articles recently which advocate for the development of creativity in children.

Tinkerers Unite! How Parents Enable Kids’ Creativity

This WSJ article is in favor of kids making and creating without the use of directions.  Trial and error are favored over “getting it right” and parents who support their child developing their tinkering skills, are doing them a huge favor.  One parent interviewed describes mistakes as “part of the learning process”.  Awesome. Tinkering is encouraged as it develops spatial and mental rotation abilities which are integral to geometry and engineering.  One particularly interesting piece of information:

Jim Danielson, of Arlington Heights, Ill., fell into tinkering after his mother said he couldn’t have a TV set in his bedroom. “If I build my own TV, can I have it in my room?” he asked. “They probably didn’t think I could do it, so they said yes,” he recalls.

He built a projector system for his room during his high school sophomore year, and he and his friends used it to play Nintendo 64 games. His mother didn’t let him take the creation to college, though, concerned it might be dangerous in a small dorm room.

No matter. Mr. Danielson, now 21, dropped out of college last year to accept a Thiel Fellowship—an unusual program started by Peter Thiel, co-founder of PayPal—which pays young innovators $100,000 to stay out of college and spend two years tinkering instead.

Our first unit next year is about Solar Energy.  Based on this information, I want to make sure I have lots of tools and materials that will lend themselves to tinkering with less emphasis on ‘package’ solar energy kits and more on guided discoveries through tinkering. This made me think back to developmental time in New Zealand schools where children are given the option to tinker to their hearts content.  In light of the recent visit of Sal Khan to Boise, I would like to see our school move toward science/math oriented guided tinkering sessions that cross grade levels.  This could also be extended into Family Math and Science nights where teachers, parents, kids all gather together to tinker.  Sound fun to me!

Encouraging passionate learners … even when it’s not your thing

This post was written by Amanda Morgan of Not Just Cute.  The premise of the article is that passion and creativity should be encouraged and supported even when the same passion is not matched by the parent or teacher.  Kids who love worms, toads, dirt….whatever, should be encouraged in the following ways in order to promote self-directed, engaged learning – the opposite of which may be educational apathy:

  • give attention: listen to your child or find someone (aunty, grandpa, friend) who will
  • give supplies: buckets, magnifying glasses, collection containers, art supplies…anything that supports their passion
  • give space: an area for writing, collections, wiggly ‘friends’ or art works

When I think back to our recent Exhibition unit, and I think about how engaged our students were when they were paired with mentors or found community members that shared their passion, I know this to be true.  Seeing first-hand how kids respond when they have someone who really is genuinely interested in what they are passionate about is integral to the learning process.

I then found this website that would support the sharing of the creative process:

DIY – A Website to Share Your Creative Tinkering! 

DIY is an online community for kids. We give kids tools to collect everything they make as they grow up and a place to share it.

We’ve all seen how kids can be like little MacGyvers. They’re able to take anything apart, recycle what you’ve thrown away — or if they’re Caine, build their own cardboard arcade. This is play, but it’s also creativity and it’s a valuable skill.

Our idea is to encourage it by giving kids a place online to show it off, so family, friends and grandparents can see it and easily respond. Recognition makes a kid feel great, and motivates them to keep going. We want them to keep making, and by doing so learn new skills, use technology constructively, begin a lifelong adventure of curiosity, and hopefully spend time offline, too.

– DIY Blog

This looks like a very cool place for kids to share ideas with kids and be inspired by each other. Again, despite the somewhat ‘childish’ looking forum, I would really like to use this as a forum for my little solar tinkerers to share their work, get feedback and be inspired to create more.  What do you think? Take a look at the user interface and the feedback the site has already received:

21st Century, Leadership

Effective Leadership

I am currently reading a really great article.  Pamela Mendels ( is senior writer at The Wallace Foundation in New York City. Her foundation colleagues Lucas Held, Edward Pauly, Jessica Schwartz, and Jody Spiro contributed to this article on the five pivotal practices that shape instructional leadership.

Interestingly, the article begins by explaining that the word ‘principal‘ originally was used as a verb in front of the word ‘teacher‘ and the ‘principal teacher‘ was:

a kind of first among equals, an instructor who assumed some administrative tasks as schools began to grow beyond the one-room buildings of yore.The original principal was, like the other teachers in the school, concerned with instruction above all.

The article goes on to outline the five pivotal practices:

Shaping a Vision

Deciding what you stand for and standing for it.  Sounds simple, right?  Research shows that when leaders are clear in their vision, when they set a standard and expect others to raise their game to meet that expectation of a shared vision, growth and success will follow.  Without a clear vision for why you are there, people tend to become distant rather than united as a group.

Correlation to the Classroom: Set clear standards and adhere to them.

Creating a Climate Hospitable to Education

In addition to a roof that isn’t about to crumble around you, effective leaders ensure an atmosphere in which students and teachers feel supported and responded to.  Teachers who are given the opportunity to collaborate and work with other teachers to create common goals and improve instructional practice. Making sure you have non-toxic working environment is key to success.

Correlation to the Classroom: Support your students, allow for collaboration and regularly meet to avoid ‘issues’ to decay your class bonds.

Cultivating Leadership in Others

Schools in which leadership is shared are proven to be more effective.  Bringing teachers in to leadership roles, involving parents and other members of the community to share their areas of expertise all go toward raising the standards of education within a school. What I really like here is the finding that leadership is not a zero sum game.  Research found that “principals do not lose influence as others gain influence”.

Correlation to the Classroom: Empower your students with leadership opportunities.

Improving Instruction

Effective leaders know that improved instruction will come when research-based techniques are employed, frequent periods of focused observation are coupled with timely feedback, changes are made to schedules and ‘how things are done’ to accomodate new initiatives and ideas about learning and teaching.  This goes for everyone – especially those teachers who would rather be left to do it ‘how it always has been done’.

Correlation to the Classroom: Give your kids timely and effective feedback, initiating new ways of ‘doing’ based on solid principals of learning, giving students options for discovery and reflection as learners. 

Managing People, Data and Processes

Knowing how to support teachers in a way that allows them to thrive is a key component of an effective leader.  The support of the administration is the number one reason teachers give when making the decision to stay or leave a position in a school.  Being able to effectively manage the key responsibilities of a principal: planning, implementing, supporting, advocating, communicating and monitoring, will determine not only your success as a principal but also the success of your school. (Based on the VAL-ED method of analyzing Principal effectiveness developed by Vanderbilt University and endorsed by The Elementary School Journal)

Correlation to the Classroom: 

  • Plan thoroughly
  • Implement with initiative and innovation
  • Support all levels of learning
  • Advocate in the best interests of your students
  • Communicate clearly with all stakeholders
  • Monitor your own and your students’ growth and progress.
I really like the points raised above – both the five building blocks of effective leadership and the six points via the VAL-ED survey.  I would like to implement these ideas into my own teaching practice as a teacher, both for my own benefit and the benefit of the students in my class. What professional goals do you set yourself?  How do you monitor your effectiveness as a leader in your classroom?
My friend, Marina, who teaches in Nanjing recently posted on how she gathered feedback from her students. Marina used the following tool to gather her data and was really surprised by the feedback she got.  She went on to add a newer post about how things have only gone
from great to even greater since she gathered the feedback from her students.  One of the things Seth Godin talked about in NYC last week was seeking feedback from your tribe – the people you connect to and resonate with.  It would stand to reason that we do this with our kids  in our classrooms, no?
How do you define ‘leadership’?
Creativity, Inspiration, PYP

School…with a helping of learning on the side


Learning “by accident”. Sounds weird but that is what we have seen going on at school for the last five weeks as we have been headfirst, up to our knees in Exhibition – the culminating event for students in the IB PYP program.

Every day it seems, we are seeing learning EVERYWHERE. And it’s not just us (the two fifth grade teachers who are biased toward the genius our kids possess). It’s the kids’ mentors, other members of faculty who are working with our kids, people from our school community, Boise locals and people scattered all over the world who are constantly saying things like, “You are really only a fifth grader?“, “I can’t believe you are only in fifth grade!” and “You are amazing!”

In terms of ‘things we never planned but learning has happened anyway’ here is a short list of things we have observed that our kids are doing:

  • organizing themselves digitally
  • writing sophisticated letters/emails requesting help
  • following up requests for help with equally sophisticated thank you emails/letters
  • organzing meetings and interviews
  • setting up job shadow days
  • organizing their own field trips
  • taking their own photographs to visually represent their learning
  • taking the initiative
  • making and keeping appointments
  • supporting each other with their inquiries
  • planning a live TED-style presentation to showcase their utter brilliance
  • making, creating and doing their ‘art’, their passion

They are passionate, engaged, independent, committed, inquiring learners – and did I mention they are fifth graders?

But the learning doesn’t stop with them. My teaching partner and I are exhausted. And we couldn’t be having a better time! The school day – the school week! – fly by in a flurry of activity. We meet in the morning, fueled by coffee and a collective, unspoken commitment to facilitating this process in order to best support our kids. We ask each other:

  • what do they need?
  • what else can we ‘put out there’?
  • who could support them?
  • is there any coffee? (this one VERY important)

And then we get to work.

Our 28 kids and us on this journey that none of us have been on before, to a place none of us really have ever seen and none of are sure what it looks like. But we have each others backs and we want everyone to succeed.

I have been thinking a lot about the type of planning that is needed for a true inquiry based program to flourish. In a recent Twitter based #pypchat (that is on, my time, at 4am so not sure how engaged I would be!) the topic of discussion turned to how much we plan ahead and how much unfolds naturally along the way. There is an excellent article summarizing the thoughts on this topic. The chat participants were varied in their approaches but seemed united in their belief that inquiry is best supported by teachers who are prepared to forgo their plans in order to be ready to support and facilitate their students inquisitive natures and passionate wonderings.

I know, first hand, that this is hard work!

It is also so inspiring, so rewarding and so much fun. And what I signed up for when I decided to become a teacher.  In addition,  as I reviewed this post, it made me reflect back on my reading of Tony Wagner’s new book “Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World”. Instead of hoping kids will develop the type of skills listed above as an ‘aside’ to their school career, Tony believes we need to explicitly look for ways to equip students with skills needed for what he describes as “an increasingly flat world”.  He calls these the Seven Survival Skills:

  1. Critical thinking and problem solving
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence
  3. Agility and adaptability
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurship
  5. Accessing and analyzing information
  6. Effective oral and written communication
  7. Curiosity and imagination

He published this list of skills in his previous book, The Global Achievement Gap but has since conversed with people across different fields and discovered that there are other skills that needed to be added to this list of ‘essentials’.  These include:
  • perseverance
  • a willingness to experiment
  • taking calculated risks
  • tolerating failure
  • a capacity for “design thinking”
The last skill, ‘design thinking’, is a concept employed at IDEO . (If you don’t know a lot about this company, take a look here or go straight to this great Fast Company Design piece on what schools can learn from IDEO, Google and Pixar – brilliant!).  Wagner shares IDEO’s design thinking concept as an example of a way of viewing the world that is fundamental to any process of innovation. (Wagner, pp13).  The CEO of IDEO, Tim Brown, goes on to describe five characteristics of ‘design thinkers’:
  • empathetic – looking at the world from multiple perspectives and putting others first
  • integrative thinkers – being able to see all aspects of a problem and possible breakthrough solutions
  • optimistic – believing that no matter how challenging a problem, a solution can be found
  • experimental – being willing to use trial and error to explore possible solutions in creative ways
  • collaborative – this above all!

Wagner goes on to list further studies, more conversations and addition research that provide similar lists of requirements and criteria for innovative thinkers, ultimately summarizing them as follows:

    • curiosity – being in the habit of asking good questions with a desire to understand more deeply
    • collaboration – listening to and learning from others who have perspectives and expertise different to your own
    • associative or integrative thinking
    • a bias toward action and experimentation
What he then wrote should have us all leaping for joy:

As an educator and a parent, what I find most significant in this list is that they represent a set of skills and habits of mind that can be nurtured, taught and mentored!

What I have seen first-hand over the last five weeks is proof-positive of that. And it is a beautiful thing.