Thursday, March 31, 2016

Leave Time for Serendipity

Today, my 4th grade students were supposed to analyze data from NASA's Climate Change website. I wanted them to look at real data and to have conversations about what it meant. I wanted them to draw conclusions and make predictions. That's what today's science lesson was supposed to be. It was a good plan.

Unexpectedly, about 10 minutes into my lesson, the distinctive tone of an incoming Skype call filled the room. My students know this sound pretty well by now.

"Who are we talking to today?"

"Are we supposed to be having a Skype call?"

"Who's calling us?"

In a few seconds I had to make a decision. Should I answer the call or continue on with my solid lesson plan? I saw that a teacher in Nepal, Pradeep Sapkota, whom I had been playing the Skype equivalent of phone tag with over the past couple of weeks was on the other end. He and I have been looking for ways to connect our students. His students had their school destroyed by last year's earthquake and are learning English. I wanted my 5th grade students who were learning about plate tectonics to connect with them to learn about the earthquake.

I knew that it was too late for Pradeep's students to be on the call. My 4th graders hadn't learned much about geology. They have the state's high-stakes standardized science test coming up in a few weeks. They were excited to look at the data from NASA. There were plenty of reasons to ignore this call and move along with my lesson.

But I didn't. I answered the call. Sometimes it's moments of serendipity that make the best learning experiences. If we never take the chance to allow them to happen, our students are robbed of opportunity.

My kids learned from Pradeep about the earthquake.  They learned that the Nepalese don't eat beef, that students are learning outside because their school is being rebuilt, that Mount Everest is in Nepal, and that the capital of Nepal is Kathmandu. They got a little taste of a different part of the world, which by itself is a wonderful experience and absolutely worth the time we took out of our lesson. When we travel and experience different cultures with an open mind, beit physically or virtually, we get the opportunity to see what parts of those other cultures we can incorporate into ourselves to make us a better person. I want my students to have as many of those experiences as possible.

And then, just as we were about to end the call, serendipity happened. One of my students asked, "We've been learning about climate change. Has climate change had an effect on you up in the mountains?"

The impersonal data that we were looking at just became a whole lot more meaningful. Pradeep told us how rising temperatures are causing avalanches in Nepal as snow on the mountains becomes less stable. He told us that many people were affected. He told us that Nepalese people were dying.

After the call we still looked at NASA's data, although we got to see less of it than we would have had I not answered the call. The data my students did analyze was a whole lot more meaningful to them, though. We also had great discussions about the shape of mountains in the Himalayas and how that relates to avalanches, plate tectonics (they'll have a great head start for next year's learning), and Asian geography.

It's the emotional connections to content that make knowledge stick in our students long-term memory. They may not remember in two weeks how many parts per million the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has risen in the past three decades, but I guarantee they'll be able to tell you ways climate change is affecting humans.

Sometimes, with all the demands placed upon us as teachers, it's easy to forget why we do what we do. It's easy to focus on the content that needs to be covered, the assignment that needs to be completed, or the assessment that is upcoming instead of the inspiration that we have the opportunity to provide our students. The most important things we do in schools can't be quantified easily, and so it's easy to forget their power.

It's the unexpected, and often uncelebrated, moments of awesome that make all the difference for our students. As teachers, sometimes we just need to let them happen.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

5 Takeaways from the 2016 Global Education and Skills Forum

It's been a week now since I was sitting on stage waiting for Pope Francis to announce the winner of the Global Teacher Prize. Looking back, my whole experience in Dubai at the Global Education and Skills Forum (GESF) and the Varkey Teacher Ambassador Summit that preceded it have a surreal, dreamlike quality. It's hard to believe that they really happened. There is no doubt that I will remember the last week as one of the most powerful and amazing weeks of my life.

There were so many incredible moments, influential conversations, and meaningful personal experiences that occurred during those few days. Here are my five biggest takeaways.

The Global Teacher Prize is elevating the status of teachers around the world.

At the 2014 GESF Sunny Varkey announced the Global Teacher Prize as a way to elevate the status of the teaching profession around the world. It is working. The narrative around teachers is changing and around the globe inspirational stories of teaching excellence from the top 50 finalists are being shared on television, the front cover of newspapers, and in magazines.  Each of these stories serves as a source of motivation for others in the profession who desperately need it in the current anti-teacher climate that exists in many countries around the world.

The way that teachers were celebrated at the Forum was outstanding. I can't think of another event in which teachers were seated in a place of prominence next to heads of state, ministers of education, and other guests of honor. As my fellow finalist Joe Fatheree expressed, teachers were given respect. Our voices mattered. Teachers were given the opportunity to speak, debate, and participate as equals in policy discussions on the highest level. 

For the Top 10 Finalists, this event was nothing short of surreal. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that teaching would lead me to walk the red carpet like I was a celebrity, be praised by the greatest scientist of our time, or be kicked off a stage while dancing in Dubai as a French Neuroscientist DJ blasts Pakistani dance jams (Yes, that really happened). Nobody ever chose the teaching profession for the recognition, but I hope the attention surrounding this award lets teachers around the globe know that there are many people around the world who understand just how important teachers are. 

Teachers need autonomy over teaching, and learners need autonomy over learning.

Right from the opening plenary keynote in which Adreas Schleicher talked about "making education everybody's business," and Sunny Varkey explained that he created the Global Teacher Prize to elevate the status of the teaching profession, the theme of teacher empowerment was present. In order for us to have the excellent educational systems that we desire, teachers must be treated as the professionals that they are. Teachers must have autonomy in their practice to do what they know is best for students instead of having their methodologies, curricula, and professional learning dictated to them by non-educators. 

Jelmer Evers talks about empowering teachers
It would be absurd to think that surgeons were being forced to use techniques that were dictated to them by those outside the medical profession. It should be viewed as equally absurd for those with no educational background to be dictating to teachers how to teach. We should be encouraging teachers to innovate and share their best practices with others so that those techniques can be replicated. Yet, 75% of teachers around the world believe that innovation in their classrooms is not encouraged. How can we prepare our students for an unknown future in which critical thinking and creativity are crucial when we are being told not to model innovation for them?

Another theme that was present in the Masterclass sessions taught by the Top 10 Finalists for the Global Teacher Prize was the need for students to be in control of their own learning. You can't make someone learn, but you can create conditions that inspire someone to want to learn. That's what made the finalists so amazing. Each of them had their own way of creating intrinsic motivation in their students in order to shift control back to the students.

The world would be better off if teachers were in charge. 

Varkey Teacher Ambassador Summit

During the Varkey Teacher Ambassador Summit and GESF, I spent a lot of time learning and working with 50 teachers who were named finalists for the Global Teacher Prize the past two years. We came from all over the world. Every religion and region of the country was represented. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists were all in the same room working to solve the world's problems through education. We spoke different languages and had very different backgrounds. There was no tension, animosity, or friction. There was just a group of amazing people who were thrilled to get the chance to know each other and make the world a little better. Our governments and politicians could learn a lot from teachers.

We do not agree on the purpose of schools.

Debate over the use of standardized testing in schools
Are we educating children to get them ready for the workforce?  Are we developing global citizens? Are schools tools to ensure the economic success of their nations, or are they tools to preserve culture and heritage? Should we focus on knowledge and compliance in schools, or should we focus on creativity and develop students who will question authority? Should we focus on equal access to education in our societies, or should we focus on developing excellence in our educational systems? 

These are difficult questions, and I don't believe there would be consensus among attendees on any of them. The debates at GESF were an excellent addition and gave opportunities for many of us in attendance to examine our beliefs. In a world that is being rapidly transformed by the ubiquity of information due to the internet, it is vital that we figure out the purpose of schools before we move forward.

Hanan Al Hroub is the perfect representative of the teaching profession.

The most exciting part of this whole experience for me was getting to know and learn from the other finalists and Varkey Teacher Ambassadors. The ten finalists got to know each other very well. When you go through such an emotional experience together, you bond because people on the outside will never understand the experience as well as those who went through it. Every one of the other nine finalists inspired me and made me proud to be a teacher.
Hanan Al Hroub and I after she was announced as the winner

I feel blessed to have gotten to spend a few days getting to know Hanan before she was announced as the winner. I participated in her Masterclass, volunteering to play games as a student. I got to speak with her in private and tell her how much I admired her as a person and a teacher. I got to feel the love that she has for her students and her profession.

When the announcement came from Pope Francis that she had won, I broke out into a huge smile. I am so happy for her and for our profession that she will be our representative for the next year. Her message of non-violence and teaching through play will resonate around the globe, and the story of what she has overcome in order to spread her message will inspire millions.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Global Teacher Prize Trip Report - VTA Summit Day 1

I was so tired last night that I couldn't bring myself to write this trip report before bed. It didn't much matter because I had a tough time turning my mind off and sleeping after a day of incredible conversations, but at least I was laying quietly in a dark room. As an introvert, it's very difficult to turn it all off after a day of constant engaging social interaction.

The day started early - I had to check out of my solo room, check into the room with my wife who was arriving in the afternoon, and catch a bus to the Day 1 of the Varkey Teacher Ambassador Summit at one of the many GEMS schools in Dubai.

There are so many GEMS schools that our bus actually took us to the wrong school. At least we got to see some different parts of Dubai. I enjoyed chatting with Kaz, one of the other Top-10 Finalists from Japan.

It was great to meet up with so many of the other finalists when we first arrived.  It was the first time we had all been together in one place. We got our lanyards with our IDs and followed a series of signs upstairs to a room where we had coffee and pastries waiting for us, and we listened to Vikas Pota, CEO of the Varkey Foundation welcome us.

Next we listened to a professor talk to us for a few hours.  Then, we broke into groups to create resources for teachers around the world. It was nice to finally get to talk to some of the other finalists, but incredibly frustrating to not have the opportunity yet to year each other's stories.

My group focused on developing global citizens in schools. We had some great discussion, and for one of the few times in my life I was in the minority as the only native English speakers. Our session needed to be translated into Spanish and English by Elisa Guerra Cruz, who did an amazing job. We committed to putting together a website with resources and videos for other teachers to use.

During one of the breaks, Jolanta, a teacher from Poland, and I decided to go explore and have a look at what classrooms in Dubai look like.

Our time at the school ended with an awesome drum circle where I tried to find a little rhythm.

From there, we hopped on busses which took us back to Atlantis for dinner. On the way down to dinner I found Lori and my mother, who had arrived in the afternoon.  It was so wonderful to see them here and to have them with me for the rest of the trip to share this experience with me. Unfortunately I didn't have more than 3 or 4 minutes to talk with them before I had to be at the aquarium, where dinner was being held.

Dinner was amazing - the food, the atmosphere, and the company. I had fantastic conversations with Mareika from Germany, Melissa from Staten Island, and Maarit (one of the other Top-10 finalists) from Finland. Sunny Varkey made a surprise appearance, and I was asked to respond to his message. I shared the appreciation of the group and my own feeling that the time I've gotten to spend with other finalists from all corners of the globe has been one of the great blessings in my life.

At 9:30, I was one of the first to leave the dinner, but I desperately wanted to see Lori and get to bed at a reasonable hour. I knew that the next day would begin bright and early at 7AM.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Global Teacher Prize Trip Report - Storms, Spices, and Spectacular Conversations

What a day! It seems like weeks ago that I woke up this morning at the Hilton Garden Inn, had a nice quiet breakfast by myself, and took a taxi to Atlantis to check in.  My taxi driver was a Pakistani, and we had an amazing conversation about cultural differences, how learning happens in schools, and about economic disparities in Dubai.

Walking into the lobby to Atlantis was pretty amazing, and reinforced many of his points.

My room was ready, so I dropped off my bags and explored around a bit.  Wow. I'm not sure there are enough superlatives to describe this hotel.  I think that was kind of their hope when they built it. The aquarium is massive.

At 11AM, I met up with top-50 finalists from last year Melissa Morris (USA) and Souad Belcaid (Morocco), and top-10 finalist from last year Naomi Volain (USA). After checking out the Batmobile in the parking lot, we met our tour guide, Sameh, who led us to his Land Rover.

Our first stop on the tour was the Dubai Mall and the Burj Khalifa.  While in the mall we walked past the giant aquarium that Melissa and I had seen last night, the ice-skating rink, and through some other beautiful areas. Naomi and I took a picture at the Top-10 sign at the candy store, which we were told was the largest candy store in the world.  Everything here seems to be the biggest, tallest, most expensive, or most something-or-other in the world. 

We also stopped to take a few pictures of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. It was just as impressive in the daytime as it was last night. As we were leaving the mall, it started to rain.  Serious rain.  Thunderstorm, cats and dogs kind of rain.  Later we found out that this was a once in a 100 years storm. 

After leaving the Dubai Mall area, we decided to go to the gold and spice souks, even though it was raining.  We also, much to Sameh's amusement, decided to take the boat across the Dubai Creek to the souks in the torrential rain. 

We started at the Spice Souk, which was quite a unique experience for me. It was dark and alley-like with very few people due to the rain. We went into one of the little shops and got to learn about lots of different spices, and the three women each bought some spices to bring back home. I didn't buy anything because I figured that my wife, Lori, would end up coming here when she arrives, and that she'd know better than me what to buy. I did pick up a Dubai shot glass for my cousin. 

From there, we walked to the Gold Souk.  I didn't find this area nearly as impressive.  It looked a lot like a bunch of jewelry stores that you would find in New York City.  Some of the displays were gaudy and over the top, but it didn't do much for me. 

From there, we took the boat back across the creek and found a place nearby to get a bite to eat.  The food was good, but the conversation was even better. 

By the time we finished eating, the rain had just about stopped. We went to the Jumeirah Mosque. We could only see it from the outside since visits inside only are possible in the morning.  While we were there, the call to prayer started. That was a cool experience. 

Our final stop was "Little Venice", which consisted of a shopping area and a walk past a few nicely landscaped canals.  

After the tour, we each went to our rooms to rest a bit, and then met back in the lobby at 6:30 for dinner.  I took some time to Skype a few classes to share a bit about my day from beside the pool. 

Souad had some work to finish, but Stephen Ritz (USA), a top-10 finalist from last year, and Nancie Atwell (USA), last year's Global Teacher Prize winner joined us for dinner. The dinner conversation was amazing. It was exactly what you would expect if you stuck some of the world's best teachers at a dinner table.  Great discussions, debates, and insights into a variety of educational topics. I left feeling totally inspired.

On the way out I finally got to meet Joseph Fatheree, the other American top-10 finalist this year.  I'm looking forward to getting to know Joe better this week. 

Tomorrow we are meeting in the lobby at 7AM for the first day of the Varkey Teacher Ambassador Summit, so it's bed time for me - even though a stroll through the grounds at night looks like it would be amazing.