Reflections that Inspire Action


For the 3rd year in a row, we have worked on a unit on Sustainability with our 10th graders at Ecole Mondiale World School in the Language Acquisition Department; this is also the 3rd time we conduct a Skype conference to accompany and enrich the experience, and having witnessed how students engaged with the experience, we can fully celebrate by saying what we say in Mexico: la tercera es la vencida (the third time around is the winning one).

The first time we used the Skype Classroom experience to wrap up our unit; last year we used it as a key component in the learning experiences of the unit; and this year, not only did we want it to help students add perspective to the initiative they were about to launch, but also to generate an opportunity for them to discuss what they have been studying in their respective language class (French, Hindi and Spanish), and to have the opportunity to demonstrate their communication and critical thinking skills. This third time, students have fully demonstrated that, if given the chance, they are able to elevate the significance of learning to plateaus that cannot be constructed in learning scenarios where there is limited scope to visualize how their convictions and beliefs would take shape in the real world.

Snapshots from the blog

Snapshots from the blog

Prior to this conference, students had taken part in blog collaborations with people from different latitudes of the world, from India itself to Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, Spain, Malawi, USA and Panama; they had also held a meeting where they started to map the timeline they were to follow for the initiative they were targeting as a result of their involvement in the unit; they had divided their duties and commenced to explore the scenario to gain awareness of the current situation of our learning community, as the school will be the receptacle of this experience. For this reason, beyond providing them with the opportunity to learn how Emmanuel López Neri and his students at UVM started a movement towards developing an App for environmental sustainability and sustainable civility, this experience allowed them to evaluate the first steps of their initiative, to learn from the difficulties López Neri and his team have experienced, and to develop a new perspective that can help them prevent problems and devise possible solutions as they launch their initiative.

Students demonstrated that they are able to comprehend complex processes involved in planning, and designing innovations; that they are capable of understanding how data collection processes work; and that they can identify the gaps where problems may occur. Clearly, those teachers that witnessed how students engaged in the reflection process have witnessed yet another example of the power of inquiry and engagement. I, an individual that has ben lucky to witness this happenstance quite often, cannot help but feel lucky of seeing students shaping understandings and inspiring me to continue looking for new scenarios for all of us to learn.

On a personal level, what this experience has allowed me to see is the power of reflection when done at the right moment and at the right time; when we address it with an affective approach and link its substance to personal experience, to our local context; and when we use the energy it provides us to shape our learning journeys. Most importantly, this experience has confirmed my belief that reflection is meaningful and effective when teachers and students are part of the course, when this stage is not an isolated part of the inquiry process, and when we, the participants, acknowledge that the moment at which we reflect becomes a plateau that allows us to look learning before our reflection and after it.

What best system to document reflection than this: an occasion where everyone involved can savor the spices in the ideas we share; an instance where everyone is given to opportunity to create new affective and intellectual links with one another; an event where the knowledge being generated belongs to everyone present; and an experience that allows us to bathe our interactions in the science of thinking, as we navigate the waves of togetherness and truly feel part of the learning community we belong to.

Below is a video that captures some of the key moments in our reflection. López Neri said that we all make science when develop interest in transforming our reality; when we break our ideas and curiosities and put them together to discover that we are capable of creating impact. I also believe that we make science when generate spaces to discuss how we are experiencing our learning, for this is one of the most transparent ways in which we can continue designing the pathway that will take us to our idea of learning and happiness.

Originally posted on Ser y Estar.

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Going with the Flow

I was taking a yoga class the other night from a new teacher and so excited to be back after a yoga hiatus for several months. I wasn’t sure why I so needed to drop everything and go to yoga that night. I couldn’t put it into words.

When I finished the class, though, a bit unsatisfied, I realized why I so desperately love yoga and also why I wasn’t completely satisfied after the class. It came down to flow.

Yoga, for me, is all about “flow.” In fact, the class I take is called Vinyasa Flow. What happens when I do yoga is that I focus on the movements, the breathing, and everything else disappears for a while. I am fully there, engaged, in the moment, in the “flow.” In last week’s class with a new teacher, I didn’t feel that flow. Our movements were too disjointed, without a central purpose. I realized how amazing my previous teacher was in that she could create the right conditions so I felt the flow.

Originally developed by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the word “flow” has to do with the times we are so engaged that everything else becomes secondary. In education, there has been a lot written on the subject. The Greater Good blog came out with 8 research-based tips on creating that flow in a classroom. Although a recent article that’s seen the rounds on Twitter about “7 Things Every Kid Should Master,” didn’t specifically mention “flow,” it mentioned how important engagement is for students:

The educational philosopher Harry Brighouse has suggested that the ability to think about something for 20 minutes at a time (sustained focus) may be one of the most powerful cognitive skills we acquire in school.

I would concur with Brighouse but also add that students should be able to not just think about, but collaborate, act, and engage for at least 20 minutes. I’ve seen it in my kids and lately I’ve resisted the urge to stop them and tell them we need to move on to something else.

IMG_6214In the classroom

Here are some examples from my classroom:

The students’ garden is one place where they can dig and plant and pull weeds and organize for a lot longer than 20 minutes.

Another time, my students started building creations out of popsicle sticks during a passion hour and were so excited creating and documenting their work, I didn’t have the heart to stop them.

Physical, kinesthetic activities are often where students reach their flow. However, I’ve seen it during our writers’ workshop where the room is silent, and they are writing or typing furiously to get out their ideas. We often write before lunch and there are usually groans when it’s time to stop. I’ve seen it in book groups where they are discussing ideas, off on “tangents” and it’s hard to tear students away from those discussions. I’ve seen students so engaged in action, so fired up over an injustice that they are planning their attack on it for much more than 20 minutes.

And it’s not just my upper elementary students I’ve seen going into “flow.” I’ve sat in on a 1st grade class this year, and there have been many times where the students start on a topic, like copyright of their books, for example, which led to an inquiry and discussion and…I think that conversation and action went on for days.

Stopping the Flow

What’s stopping the flow? Us, teachers, for one. We have our scheduled ideas and targets we need to hit. We need to find time to finish the projects, fit in some math, some reading, some writing throughout the day. Flow is also stopped by the need to schedule single subject teachers, who are completely essential in a balanced education. Yet, stopping and heading out to those subjects at assigned times does break the flow. Sometimes students themselves have trouble with the flow. I have one student who is a timekeeper. He checks the schedule on the board for the day and if we are running over schedule, he shoots up his hand to tell me. For him and a few others in my class with some learning challenges, routine is important. They don’t understand that we didn’t go according to plan because we just were too engaged. The world for some our kids is more black and white, and we need to respect that.

So, what to do? I think, coming out of yoga, I just needed a reminder that flow is important. I did ask my students once why they had such a hard time coming in from music into a silent time when they listen to a read aloud. It’s a good question to ask our students. They told me honestly that they had trouble transitioning from one class to another, one subject to another. Their brains were still running on the last class, and I was forcing them into another one.

When possible, I want to respect when my students are in their “flow.” I think being in that flow is good for their brains. It’s stretching them, allowing them to sustain activity, maybe to think a little bit more deeply.

What are your thoughts? Examples?

Originally published on the Solid Ground blog.

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What Really Matters

What Really Matters


Spring came early to Seattle this year and my daughter and I went out to play tennis this week. Our balls flew high in the air, hit the net and landed outside the court…a lot. We murmured ‘sorry’ to each other and players around us. We didn’t even attempt to keep score. Sure, it may have improved our skills to play a proper game, but keeping score would have ruined the experience. As we laughed and loped after our rolling balls, I remembered something a fellow funder said at the foundation where I used to work as a program officer. I cannot attribute it, nor write it verbatim, but it went something like this:

 If you’re not keeping score, you’re not playing the game.

The comment was made to stress the importance of evaluating impact. How do our investments and partnerships move the needle on eradicating malaria, improving maternal health and raising student test scores? If the influx of significant dollars does not change outcomes, and relatively quickly, it is cause for concern and possible grant termination. I remember vigorously agreeing to this statement at the time. After all, keeping score or ‘formative assessment,’ if we relate this to education, is a critical component of the academic learning and improvement cycle, for both students and teachers. This thesis is hard to argue with (Black & Williams’ The Black Box).

Standardized tests administered more infrequently by larger systems like districts, states, provinces and nations are a different animal altogether as they serve to hold investments and programs accountable, but also important. Governments have a responsibility to track the impact of taxpayer dollars and we have a moral obligation to ensure that all students, regardless of racial/ethnic background and social status, achieve. What bothers me with tests now is that they measure some but not all of the right things.

In other words, we’re not keeping score of the game we’re actually playing in a world that is much different today than even a decade ago.

The tennis game with my daughter wasn’t really a game of skill, strategy or endurance. It was more of a game of grit, patience and humility. Schools are still, and rightly, assessing core academic knowledge and skills (the new Common Core exams are a huge improvement over previous exams especially in measuring critical thinking skills; the OECD’s PISA exam is another admirable example of a 21st C measurement tool). Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself! Progress, perhaps…but are we really measuring what matters in the end?

Which begs the question: What really matters? 

As this is a blog post and not a scientific journal, I’m going to tell you what I think matters from the perspective of an educator and parent. As one of my favorite edu-blogger and inquiry kindred spirits writes, “I could write a formal post using fancy language, quoting research about coaching if I wanted to, but I choose not to! (There are plenty of those around, just Google.)” I feel the same.

The Coalition of Essential Schools and International Baccalaureate nurtured me as a young teacher and principal. They (and their associated common principles and learner profiles) are where I still go for inspiration and direction. My “what really matters” is much shorter, however:

What Really Matters What Students Would Be Doing What Teachers Would Be Doing




Speaking to one another throughout the class period on relevant work Talking less; asking more (we could create an voice-recognition app for this!)
Smiling and generally looking happy to be there Creating emotional bonds among students and the subject; students and the teacher; students and other students (eg. storytelling)
Showing excitement and passion for their work, sharing and talking about their work outside the classroom Designing work that is meaningful, integrates the environment/tech and offers creative choice (PBL)


Sticking with Difficult Problems

Everyone is participating and taking risks with ideas Celebrating “mistake-making” and staying neutral when students take risks with conjectures/thoughts
Collaborating with other students and utilizing resources (not just the teacher) Roaming around asking questions and helping students come to own solutions
Asking great questions Taking time to train students on how to ask good questions (Blooms, Webb, RQI, etc.)



Getting Along with Others (and Feeling Good about Oneself)

Building on and debunking others’ ideas in respectful ways Offering lots of instructional conversation and discussion time; and reflection on the discussions
Balancing and taking good care of mind, body, spirit through physical activity, art, music, relaxation and good food Creating a schedule and environment that intentionally nurtures what really matters
Noticing when someone is in need or hurting and taking action Noticing/acknowledging when sharing, helping and kindness are happening; modeling and talking about these behaviors in real contexts
Listening to others with full attention and respect; sharing the stage with other voices Setting up conversational norms and listening to students intently


Analyzing Knowledge Sources

Citing sources of information unprompted Frequently citing their own sources of information unprompted
Asking “How do you know that?” or “What is your source of information and do you trust it?” of one another regularly Asking “How do you know that?” or “What is your source of information and do you trust it?” of students regularly
Accessing and analyzing sources of information from a variety of places; online, in person, through experiences Providing opportunities to access devices and analyze sources of information

What if, upon being hired at a school, you were told that nurturing these four things with your students was your real job (the actual game you were playing)? The vehicle with which you teach these four things is the content; whether it was calculus, culinary arts or literature. Sharing the cannon of your subject area was actually secondary to teaching these four things.

It matters that children enjoy school, stay curious about the world around them and find learning stimulating and worth the effort. Children seems to be getting really good at complying with school. My own children have become dutiful little worksheet-fillers and holiday-celebrants (and they attend “great public schools”).

That’s not on them…it’s on us. We don’t regularly offer students the time or the experience of working on meaningful projects and problems together. Yes, the exceptions are there and they are wonderful. Thank you, wonderful, exceptions! One might argue that the curriculum is so tight that teachers cannot possibly deviate and provide the time needed for this type of instruction. That’s fair, but there are strategies one can overlay on top of even the dullest of lessons. A question like “What makes you think that?” or “What do the rest of you think about what Jake just said?” can be applied to any setting or curriculum and offer students the opportunity to communicate and think more deeply.

When one is 30, 60 and 90 years old, these are the things that will matter more than the periodic table. Keep the new tests, but let’s not forget to keep looking at the things that really matter. What do you think matters most? And how would you assess it?

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Student Voice and Learning

IMG_6125I can’t imagine a school without a discussion. I teach 4th grade, but I’ve had great discussions with my kids in 4th and when I taught 5th as well.

When I’ve visited a 1st grade classroom many times this year, they are always involved in some kind of discussion. How could a school function without it?

I’m afraid with the emphasis on standardized testing and the need for data, that we’re losing kids’ voices. Their voice, their choices.

Reading a recent article by Alfie Kohn, educator and researcher, he said;

…in the best student-centered, project-based education, kids spend much of their time learning with and from one another. Thus, while making sense of ideas is surely personal, it is not exclusively individual because it involves collaboration and takes place in a community…

Just recently, I facilitated a discussion with my students. We are looking at choices and rights, how they work and our responsibility in this world. Students were given 20 items to take with them to a new world, and they needed to narrow it down to 10, then 8. The things came from an idea published in this Unicef site. They were items like clean water, shelter, fast food, computers, fashionable clothes, no racism. They worked in this order:

  1. Individually…Silently, thinking on their own.
  2. With a partner, narrowing it down to 8.
  3. In a group of 4, narrowing it down to 8 between the 4 of them.
  4. As a whole class without any teacher intervention.

The project ended up as 1 hour of complete engagement from a class of very energetic students, many with learning challenges and some with limited English communication skills.

Before we began the discussion, we started by looking at social skills: collaboration, accepting responsibility, taking different group roles. We discussed how important these were in talking and listening to each other.

I frontloaded vocabulary, making sure everyone understood the items they needed to narrow down. We also added “love” and “no racism” to the list.

As you can see from the videos, the final group collaboration was animated and typical 4th graders, but it morphed into an organized vote. I sat back and observed the kids, their leadership skills, their participation skills. I let the ones go who seemed to drift out of the group, allowed them to shout and to step forward. Because I’ve observed my class enough, their roles in a group didn’t surprise me, but what did surprise me was how fast they arrived at a decision.

Our unit is around “How We Organize Ourselves,” and these kids have learned from other class discussions and from paying attention how to decide things fairly and how to come to a decision. It took them about 12 minutes to work out 8 items between all of them.

Reflecting later, they said they were all happy with the decisions. They re-thought their learning process and many had the same perception:  I think it was challenging with a larger group because lots of people have different ideas and it is not easy to choose what everybody likes.

Did my students learn during their exercise? Yes. Absolutely. They seemed to learn about organization, group collaboration and also about what’s important.

Did they learn from each other? Yes. They took charge of the discussion, listened, voted.

Did they learn something about themselves. Yes. Who are they in a group? Can they follow? Do they lead?

Did I learn something? Yes. I need to continue to let out their voices, give them choices. Allow them to learn in the best student-centered way possible because it works.

The Beginning of the Discussion Toward the End
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Ask Great Questions


Originally featured on

Originally posted on sonya terborg:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 10.12.02

I seem to write a lot about questions. The more I look into them, the more I see the massive potential they have to revolutionize the way we teach and the way students learn.

In preparing to share some ideas on questions at our faculty meeting, I came across an article about questions.  The article reflected on the results of a study in which they found that mothers are the people in the world who are asked the most questions each day.  And that the most inquisitive of question askers are four year old girls, who seek answers to an incredible 390 questions per day – averaging a question every 1 minute 56 seconds of their waking day.

I began the meeting by sharing the five most difficult questions kids ask – an interesting mix of curiosities (check out the presentation to see them).

All this was to lead into…

View original 295 more words

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Education Vacation

I learned a lot on last summer’s vacation to the North Island of New Zealand, but the biggest thing I learned was a lesson I had failed to learn earlier in my informal schooling.

First, a few of the things I learned:

  1. How to drive on the left side of the road, which meant slow and dangerous unlearning about driving on the right. (I never would have made it without my daughter’s coaching: “Dad, you’re drifting. You’re DRIFTING!”)
  2. How, once appointed to be the eminent chief of a tribe of confused Chinese tourists, to follow the nose-rubbing rituals of the Maori leaders and to lead my people in a fierce “haka” dance.
  3. The interesting history of the land, the sea, the wildlife, the Maori and the British, which features the usual depressing wars and extinctions but also redeems itself in hope for this mystical, emerald place.
  4. Why Sauvignon Blancs from Marlborough have such a lofty reputation.
  5. What the world looks like ziplining through the canopy of a primeval rainforest.
  6. The look and feel of 4,000 year-old swamp kauri wood.
  7. The habits and personalities of new genera and species of birds: prions, gannets, kiwis, fantails and the virtuosic tui, a honeyeater that shakes the feathery bells on its neck to inspire the exquisite dance of Maori women.
  8. The honeyed sound of Kiri te Kanawha’s voice singing traditional Maori songs.
  9. The ways volcanoes continue to shape the landscape while providing free heat and healing mineral baths to the people of Rotorua (“Rotovegas” to some).
  10. What my lunatic wife and daughter look like in free-fall from a height of 1,076 feet above the concrete in Auckland, where they gleefully jumped from the top of the Sky Tower there.

There was so much more. I wished constantly that I had my short-changed New York students with me, the ones whose explorations had been limited to the handball courts in their local parks. Your identity and sense of potential do, I am now certain, expand with your geographic horizons.

But I was glad they weren’t there to see me learn the lesson that I had failed to learn, which, like most worthwhile lessons, is embodied in a story:

Returning my family’s rental car to the Auckland airport, the Avis attendant in the parking lot noticed scratches on the front fender that I hadn’t noticed before. They hadn’t been recorded on the rental agreement form. A trip through the airport to the manager’s office was required to see if the damage should be assessed to me. The manager quickly cleared the issue up. Seeing the scratches in a photo in the car’s electronic files, I was not to blame. Driving back to the lot to be reunited with my family, I began a conversation with the attendant, who said his name was Roger, and who was a South African of Indian descent. He told me how in South Africa he had been a photo lithographer. He obviously took pride in his identity as a professional who had mastered such unusual skills. He was rueful that his entire profession had died out with the advent of modern information technology. From his demeanor I could tell that he wasn’t bitter, however. Somehow, philosophically, he had attained the equanimity that comes with accepting an unavoidable downturn in one’s destiny.

Roger asked me what I did. When I revealed that I was a staff developer in the schools, he wondered if I ever “got involved with Shakespeare.” “Sure,” I said,” thinking of the several projects I had designed in collaboration with English teachers. The work had been successful at exciting even the least literate of students in Shakespeare. As a byproduct, research projects had been kindled, into the psychology of love, of greed, of altruism, of sociopathy.

I was as proud of my accomplishments as an educator as Roger was of his as a lithographer. Roger and I had formed a fellowship over our shared sense of occupational mastery. So much so that Roger felt free to quote, eloquently, Shakespeare’s sonnet “Let Me Not Into the Marriage of True Minds.”

I hadn’t really expected to delve this deeply into the literary arts with an attendant in a car return lot, but here I was. Roger finished the sonnet as we pulled into the parking place. I turned in the passenger seat to share the one Shakespearean sonnet I had memorized, “My Mistress’s Eyes are Nothing Like the Sun.” I had committed it to memory after working with poet Carol Conroy, who advocated “learning poems by heart” (not “memorizing”) because (a) you never knew when you might need them, (b) your life would be infinitely richer for owning them, and (c) they work like prayers to center and calm the spirit.

But the poem wouldn’t come to mind. It had, like the fish that got away, descended deep, without a trace, into the murk of the brain cells associated with long-term memory. I was embarrassed. Me, a teacher of teachers and professor of writing and literature, mute in the company of a parking lot attendant. Who was the better educator here? Why had Roger been able to call up his sonnet and not me mine? Was it the product of the old English system, where bullying pedagogues hammered literature into their pupils’ hippocampi with their yardsticks? Was there something wrong with my system, based more on gentle inquiry?

On the long plane ride back to the states, I began a personal inquiry project to investigate these issues. First, by rote force, I learned my sonnet again, and have been mentally rehearsing it every day when I brush my teeth, wash the dishes, walk to the subway. I had the words, but they lay dead in my brain. They were not alive in my heart, until a recently, when I recited them to my wife Elizabeth on a drive to have dinner with friends upstate. That is where they came to life, creating a stillness of warmth and wonder as we passed through the snowy landscape of the Palisades Parkway. Since then I have recited it on other occasions in the schools, creating that sense of wonder and stillness each time, and with every performance finding new cadences and layers of meaning within it. I have it back, Carol, so not to worry. Those questions about learning, though – they still linger. I will be inquiring into them for a long time, I suspect.

(Note that this blog is a revised re-post from my personal blog “A Voice From the Classroom.”)

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PYP Exhibition Website

Screen Shot 2015-02-13 at 16.45.55

Last week, I led a Roundtable Discussion at the AGIS (Association of German International Schools) Conference.  Following our discussion I acted on something that has been brewing in my mind for a while – the need for a space for resources related to the PYP Exhibition.

Initially, I was thinking of doing this for my school. We have a number of different storage systems in place – various Dropboxes, Drives, planners, folders on our server – and I wanted to ensure we were not missing any of the good stuff that we have worked on.  I also wanted to pull my own resources from the past 12 years of PYP Exhibitions as a mentor, Art teacher, and classroom teacher of Exhibition students, into one location.

I have ended up with this site:  PYP Exhibition Weebly   Web address:

Here is a quick video tour (or just go check out the site yourself!)

I would love to add to this site.

I have already had a number of people make contact who are looking for students to collaborate with their students and for teachers to share ideas with their teachers.  How to incorporate this sharing? One idea I have is to add a new page for students with a Padlet embedded where students can post questions, answers, articles, videos etc to share with each other.  And a similar page for teachers. What do you think?

Hopefully teachers at my school will find this useful (as the Learning Technology teacher, I am not directly working with a homeroom group this year) and other people will pick up some new ideas. It’s success will depend on people contributing and being open to sharing.

If you are embarking on the Exhibition, I would really encourage you to scroll back a few posts to Mary Collins post on how she has begun the Exhibition with her students.  It is a brilliant example of how to guide students towards their own inquiries and how to push them toward developing parameters for their own learning.

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