Something I Wrote is in Independent Teacher’s Spring Issue

It was fun to see something I wrote appear on another website. Independent Teacher decided to publish an article I submitted about making homework meaningful. I would rather not give my second grade students homework, but since it’s a school policy, trying to make it meaningful rather than just busy work or eliminating it was my main objective. If the purpose of some homework is to honor kids who need a little more time to finish their work, why ask those who’ve done the work to do more of the same? Also, when you give kids their own choices about homework, you’d be astonished how many of my students, motivated purely by their own curiosity, go well beyond what one would expect.

Anyway, here’s a link to that article. It’s my first, so I’m a little excited.


Meaningful Conversations

I am still digesting an incredible evening of ideas thoughtful discourse on public education from a diverse panel of advocates for public school and change at Seattle University (Part of their Conversations in Education series). Each made one articulate point after the other. While their views all differed slightly, they were all passionate, and there were clear common themes that came through. The panel included the following people: Chester Finn, Kati Haycock, Tyrone Howard, Reverend Al Sharpton, Denise Pope, and Nicholas Hanauer.

The discussion was moderated by Joseph W. Scott (professor of Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Washington – and husband of one of my favorite profs at Seattle U.) He first asked each member to answer this question: Name the top two things on your list that you think is preventing achievement in public education.

Kati Haycock began and mentioned that we do not demand enough of our students. She also said we need to act on what we know. We know early childhood education makes a difference. Chester Finn mentioned that the state standards are too low, at least the Common Core curriculum seems to be better, he suggested, but warned that it only exists in math and reading and then reminded us again that the curricula is week. Tyrone Howard and Al Sharpton talked about the “New Racisim” which is saying to a child of color or poverty, “I understand your situation, so you don’t need to care as much, nor do I.” We need to become more comfortable talking about race and how education is not serving a significant part of the population. Denise Pope also agreed that our standards were too low, but particularly on authentic real-life skills. She mentioned that now we have doctors, who have aced every standardized test imaginable who cannot diagnose something because it doesn’t look “exactly like it does in the textbook!” She said there’s serious disengagement in school and kids are not healthy (both mentally and physically) – basically, she said (and I’m paraphrasing because I didn’t record it), “The curriculum is extremely broad, but about an inch deep and kids cannot think for themselves, collaborate in healthy ways.” Nick Hanauer (whose children I have taught), talked about bureaucracy, politics, and the need to distribute money equitably.

They were then asked to name one remedy they thought would work. It basically came down to proper distribution of funds, and shave away layers of bureaucracy.

Kati said, you cannot teach from a textbook – you need people who know HOW to teach, and you need to talk honestly and act.

Chester said we need to look at governance and strip away layers and have more leadership at all levels – not something that is hierarchical.

Tyrone said, use data and get effective teachers on board, incentivize them to go out to needy areas, include parents in the discussion, identify teachers that aren’t doing their jobs, try to remediate, if that fails – they should choose another profession.

Denise really spoke to the need for a strong Social / Emotional curriculum, and that the work kids need to do should be authentic, like the work we do. How many timed tests have you done lately? It’s like if my boss gathered all of us and gave us a timed test and those who didn’t score above a certain amount were fired. Many kids face high stakes testing daily, and we’re sending the wrong message to them. She said, kids need to know the value of being wrong, receiving redemption and leraning from it.

Nick spoke about allocating funds strategically and equitably and supporting legislators that support education. He gave concrete examples, like supporting arts programs in schools, and subject specialists. He also talked about the need to support early childhood education and all day kindergarten programs in public education.

Rev Al said, to change the culture, we have to create the culture, and to do that we have to have active engagement.

Active community engagement was on everybody’s list.

That was just the first part of the evening. There were three, but I couldn’t possibly try to summarize it all in one post, so I’m going to leave it there for tonight. I went with four colleagues, and I know one more who went separately. I just wish we could have had more people there , parents, board members, other leaders. It was an incredible and inspiring evening full of people modeling what they believe, taking action, and engaging in meaningful conversation.

Why Diversity is Important

This past weekend, I saw the Intiman Theatre’s production of Arthur Miller’s All My Sons here in Seattle. The director set the play in Seattle in the Central District with the Keller family portrayed as an African American family living in the 40s with both white and black neighbors. Opportunities for people of color in the 40s were pretty bleak. They were denied entry into many jobs, establishments, and neighborhoods among other things. With this as the backdrop for the play, one could easily see why it was so important for the main character, Joe Keller, to continue to live the American Dream regardless of the cost (it’s an Arthur Miller play – you can guess the cost was pretty hefty). It’s a great production, and if you get a chance to see it during its run, you ought to.

Seeing this play made me think of other shows such as Porgy and Bess or Show Boat, and how color-blind casting wouldn’t work for those two shows, but has for something like Les Miserables. In the first two shows mentioned, race is a central issue in the play. In Les Mis, it’s not.

When it comes to diversity, race is definitely an important issue, but it’s not the only one. Gender, age, sexual orientation, political views, religious views (or the absence of them), socio-economic status, culture, sub-culture, interests, IQ, EQ, and a myriad of other things all play into diversity as well. It’s amazing to hear some Republicans and Democrats try to debate. They stick to their talking points, don’t answer the questions, and fail to realize that they actually have a lot more in common with each other. It’s this common ground where these two opposing voices should start. It’s through their differences that new ideas and innovations can occur. It’s this common ground that we all share that we need to focus on as well as our differences. The common ground gets us to start something. The differences inspire creativity. That’s why diversity is important.

When many people start to talk about diversity, unfortunately, the other forms I’ve mentioned seem to get drowned out, and the focus very often goes back to race. It’s true that students do benefit from seeing teachers that look similar to them, but it is just as important for them to see teachers who are older, younger, female, male, white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed, as well as teachers with disabilities, exceptionalities, differing political views, differing orientations, who speak different languages, and so on.

In Seattle, we have a large population of students who have one parent who is white and the other parent who is a person of color. Why ask that child to choose a box, or have us fill in a box on their behalf on some diversity survey? Why not figure out who that child is, what motivates her at school, and meet her needs based on those criteria instead. I am of mixed heritage and consider myself very much a person of color. For me, what’s far more interesting than the color of my skin are the 11 years I lived in Asia, the 20 years I lived in Canada, and the 10 (updated 12) years I’ve lived in the US. What makes your students interesting? How can they add to the fabric and culture of your classroom or school?

Rather than viewing diversity as ‘what’s the other person’s story?’, it would help to see it as ‘how can we both contribute in meaningful ways to the story?’ Timeless stories like Arthur Miller’s All My Sons work regardless of race. Miller manages to hone in on the conflicts all of us face.

Why I Teach

Our head asked if any of us would like to write something with the title “Why I Teach” for our school’s weekly newsletter “The Sunshine” which went out earlier today. Of course, there are a number of reasons why I teach, but here’s what I wrote:

The date was 9/11/2001, and I was awoken by a phone call. Bleary eyed, I was instructed to turn on the news. To my horror, I watched the twin towers fall. Many thoughts rang through my head that morning. What would I say to the children? How would they react? It was my first week at Epiphany. I arrived at school, and prepared for the day. Parents, faces pale, dropped off their children. I rang a bell signaling the students to gather around me on the floor. I told the children that something terrible had happened, but we would have a normal day of school. I also assured the class that, no matter what, they would be safe.

The backdrop of this tragedy made the importance of what I do clearer than ever. In the rhythm of the classroom, emotionally devastating news gave way to the ordinary business of learning. Creating age-appropriate teachable moments gave me a renewed sense of purpose in teaching. It reminded me that learning never ceases, and that every day I too could learn something new from my students. It also gave me hope that these children had the opportunity to shape the future of the world.

In order to learn, we all must feel safe. That day taught me that creating a safe environment, not only for the children’s physical needs, but also for their social and emotional needs had to come first. It is only after those needs are met that children can feel safe to ask questions, challenge the status quo, and possess the freedom to think for themselves. I teach because I want my students to feel safe enough to voice and assert their ideas and opinions while being able to defend them respectfully.

I teach in hopes that I can foster and develop my students’ empathy, so that they feel secure in themselves to recognize when they make mistakes and to understand the point of view of others. It’s often the ability to grapple with conflicting ideas that allow students to come up with novel ones. I also strive to foster collaboration, have students learn to work well with others, engage in civil discourse, and respect that diverse ideas and cultures enrich our own lives.

Jean Piaget once said, “The principal goal of education is to create men who are capable of doing new things, not simply repeating what other generations have done – men who are creative, inventive, and discoverers.” I work towards inspiring all of my students to be innovators in the spirit of Piaget.

Teaching is where my heart is. When I hear the phrase, “Those who can’t, teach,” I shake my head, because I think of all the talented and caring colleagues who chose to spend their days in the classroom. I prefer another saying that begins, “It takes a village….” I am humbled by our own community, and the caring environment they provide for these children. It is clear where all of our hearts lie.

I teach because it gives me hope – hope that these young minds will lead us toward a better world.


What Do You Do When You Feel Overwhelmed?

Liz Coleman who’ll be speaking tomorrow at the NAIS conference answers the question in the title of my post by stating, “You have a mind. And you have other people. Start with those, and change the world.”

That quote is how she ends her talk about reinventing the liberal-arts education and its importance, saying that our current state of education is more likely to “engender a learned helplessness than to create a sense of empowerment.”

Teachers are faced with one-size-fits all scripted curriculums that don’t often help kids think for themselves. They are bound by inflexible standards that delve into the minutia of a subject matter for which they and their students are held accountable for.How could kids possibly do so, if teachers aren’t thinking for themselves?

Another quote from her talk:

“This brew, oversimplification of civic engagement,idealization of the expert,fragmentation of knowledge,emphasis on technical mastery,neutrality as a condition of academic integrity,is toxic when it comes to pursuing the vital connections between education and the public good,between intellectual integrity and human freedom.”

I look forward to hearing more about her talk at the conference with the title Independent Matters as I predict she will call upon educators to think for themselves and provide ample opportunities for students to do the same. Grappling with controversy is not new. Educational leader Ted Sizer was wrote about it many times. Controversy isn’t a bad thing if there is civil discourse. It allows people to find the common ground. Usually good ideas emerge from the diverse ideas of many people. Even if you take the extreme voices in politics and take a closer look, there is a lot of common ground where one can start.  Make no bones about it, Coleman does not mince her words. In fact, they are carefully chosen . Finally, here,s one more quote from this talk:

“The problem is there is no such thing as a viable democracy made up of experts, zealots, politicians and spectators.”

Here is the rest of her talk: 


Eye of the Tiger

President Hu of China’s recent visit to the White House, reminded me of an article in the WSJ about Chinese moms that appeared a few weeks ago. Not that I really needed a reminder. This article has sparked debate everywhere. It continues to be forwarded, and discussed across the web. Published on Jan. 8, it is still the number one read and emailed piece in the WSJ. That article, by Amy Chua comes from her new book called Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (it’s already on several bestsellers lists). Even this coming weekend’s NYTimes Magazine has an story that continues to weigh in on this particular parenting style. I think the idea that the Chinese have it right in terms of parenting and education, is one that is fueled by the media and full of misconceptions and stereotypes. Even Chau herself says, “The Journal basically strung together the most controversial sections of the book. And I had no idea they’d put that kind of a title on it. But the worst thing was, they didn’t even hint that the book is about a journey, and that the person at beginning of the book is different from the person at the end — that I get my comeuppance and retreat from this very strict Chinese parenting model.” I have not read her book, but I have read the WSJ piece. There are indeed so many stories in the media trying to pit eastern and western philosophies against each other. Some are about China’s rising economic growth, some about math test scores, parenting, and language. Within the article online, the WSJ has a binary opinion poll: “Which style of parenting is best for children? ‘Permissive Western parenting’ [or] ‘Demanding Eastern parenting,'” implying that there are only those two extremes. If the words ‘permissive’ and ‘demanding’ don’t seem carefully chosen to polarize people, the title of the article, “Why Chinese Mothers are Superior” should.

According to this CNN article, many schools in the US are being funded by the Chinese government to teach Chinese as the second language. While I believe learning a second (and even third language) is important, especially when kids are young and wired for language acquisition, what that second language is should be meaningful and useful.  For some it may be that one of their parents speaks French and the other speaks English. For others, it may be purely about learning something new and different. Many in this country would argue that Spanish would be a more meaningful language to learn than say Japanese (not that there’s anything wrong about learning Japanese). Predicting what will be the most useful second language for your child when he/she grows up seems a little short sighted. Suppose they end up falling in love with a Finn and moving to Finland (neither of the second languages I mentioned would be terribly useful there). Is the world changing? Yes. Do I think everyone is going to speak Chinese? No. But I may be wrong. I just don’t predict it happening in my generation. For one, learning to read and write Chinese is extremely difficult. Unfortunately, I have read about the demise of languages in smaller communities. Many people learned Russian during the cold war, I wonder how many use it today. Teaching kids to read English, especially kids who struggle with reading, involves getting them to make the connection between the letters and the sounds they make.  There is some rote learning involved too. For some kids it may be the common sight words or homophones. With Chinese, it differs considerably. It’s not a phonological writing system. Chinese is a language based on individual or compound characters. You can’t “sound out a word” in Chinese. There have been phonetic schemes based on the alphabet for Chinese, but that was developed for foreigners.

This op-ed piece in the NYTimes this weekend was written by a correspondent who worked in China, and whose children went to school there. While he agrees that kids were way ahead of his kids in math, there was something missing about an important way it differed from western education: western education fosters and promotes creativity and innovation.

Educational reformer Yong Zhao certainly took exception to this article in his blog post titled, “You’ve must be joking, Professor Chau: An open letter to the Chinese Tiger Mom.” They say there is no tone in text, but one can tell there is a lot of emotion behind his response. Here’s a part of it: “I am sure you know that your children’s success—Carnegie Hall performance and other kudos and trophies—may have more to do with you as a Yale professor, the community you live in, the friends and colleagues you have, the schools they attend, the friends they have (oh, I forgot, they are not allowed to have friends, well in this case, the classmates they have), than your parenting style. There are at least 100 million Chinese parents who practiced your way of parenting but were unable to send their children to Carnegie Hall.”

The Winter edition of Independent School Magazine‘s focus is on the ‘model minority’. An article from this issue, titled “The Model Minority Myth” reminds us of the dangers of stereotypes.

There’s enough variation in parenting and education within any culture.  One could argue the picture Chau portrays in that initial article is an extreme one – not too different (according to this piece in the Seattle PI) than the “Mama Grizzlies produc[ing] tabloid stars.”

I agree that you can’t let children have free reign, and you have to keep your expectations high. But we also have to learn about each child as an individual and know that those high expectations are going to be different for every child. According to the recent literature out there (Drive, Mindsets, Brain Rules, Nurtureshock), Western research shows that praising your child specifically for effort is what counts, not just praise for the sake of praise.

For me, this was a good reminder of how easily one can fall into the trap of stereotypes and a reminder that teachers must check any pre-conceived notions at the door.

In the meantime, here is a TED talk by Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club (in a way, a book about Chinese mothers) speaking about her own creative process. While completely different, you might see from this video why certain stereotypes persist.

King’s Speech

Today we celebrate a great man who tirelessly fought for the rights of everyone. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a man who, through hard work, perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and a greater purpose helped to change the world. His “I Have a Dream” speech inspired many to take up that cause. Is his dream fulfilled. Not yet, but thanks to countless individuals who fight for liberty and justice across the world for all people, I hope to see it in my lifetime.

When you add the article ‘the’ to the title of my post, you get the title of a movie I saw this weekend, “The King’s Speech” which I highly recommend. I won’t spoil it here by summarizing plot, but it is also about a man, King Goerge VI of England who, through hard work, perseverance, overcoming obstacles, and a greater purpose also had an impact on the world.

Not having gone to elementary school or high school here, American History is viewed somewhat differently. Here we look at this country’s history from within, elsewhere they look at it (if at all) from the outside. While I knew of Dr. King growing up, it wasn’t central to the social studies program at my school. Growing up in Hong Kong (then still a colony of Britain), I attended an elementary school based on the British school system. Had my family stayed, the secondary school I most likely would have attended was named King George V school. Still a colony by the time we left, what I can remember of any social studies classes were those of British History – in England. I learned about Kings and Queens, William the Conqueror, Guy Fawkes, Parliament, the geography of England, and so on. What I never learned in school was the history of Hong Kong, cultural information, nor the geography. Thankfully, things have changed, and looking at the website of my former school, I see that, while instruction is purposefully done in English, they have a second language program in Mandarin which also features history and culture. I think I would have benefited from a class like that.

It’s been 30 years since I’ve returned to Hong Kong, and I can hardly wait until our break in April where I’ve planned a trip to return. In doing so, I started reading about what to do and trying to see if any of it sparked any childhood memories. As I started discovering the history of Hong Kong in the travel books, what struck me was that I had never learned this. Any of it! Any history, I got from my grandparents (one who fought against the Japanese who occupied Hong Kong during WWII and was interred as a prisoner of war until his escape. I only wish I had the curiosity I have now to ask him more questions. Nor was the local language (Cantonese) taught. I acquired it out of necessity. I spoke it, but didn’t read nor write Chinese. In brushing up some of what I do know, I was looking at the vast array of vocabulary that didn’t even exist when I left such as: Email, wireless internet, ATM, or “Text me.”

It is true that there would be too many subjects to cover if we were to teach everything, especially history as events keep getting added. Nonetheless, it’s important for children, even in this flattening world, to learn about their own history (both personal and political), their communities (school, neighborhood and other), and so on. Multicultural/Diversity education is crucial to the dream Dr. King once had. When we see that we have more in common than our differences, and see those differences as strengths rather than fear them, there’s no telling what we can do.

King George VI had to deliver a speech to his nation to rally the people in order to stop Hitler. Dr. King delivered one to rally his nation to work for justice. In today’s youtube age, it’s quite rich to be able and view the video of Dr. Martin Luther King delivering that speech at the Lincoln Memorial. For those reluctant to accept technology in the classroom, just remembered what your teachers had to do to show you his speech. If you were lucky, you received the text and an audio recording. If you were lucky enough to view the speech, your teacher would have had to book the reel-to-reel projector, order the film (at great cost), and set up the film. Now, you can hook your laptop to a projector and get it free in a couple of clicks. One things’ for sure, teachers also have to work toward these universal values: hard work and effort, the ability to fail and persevere, a purpose to unite people. In other words, the 3 R’s – rigor, resilience, and relationships.

This is a clear example where technology can save you time. One can also embed these vidoes into their websites/blogs/wikis, etc. so here it is. Enjoy the rest of this marvelous holiday.