Tearing Down Walls

using social media to expand the classroom community

Does anybody blog anymore?

I was fortunate enough to spend some time with a consultant recently, and we were fondly recalling our days in a Powerful Learning Practice cohort in what (seems to me) was the early days of this massive edtech online community (2008-ish).  The subject of blogging came up and he remarked, “does anybody blog anymore” with a chuckle.   If you do a quick Google search, you can see there are many posts about the topic-writing or reading blogs.  I wonder if the rise of Twitter and its concise verse has discouraged folks from wading through more dense blogs?

I know this past year has been a struggle for me to continue this discipline on a regular basis.  I’ve taken on a new role (Asst. Head for Academics) at my school  and travelled more for work in 12 months (Costa Rica, China, and at least three major US cities)  than I have in the last five years.  While I usually take an intentional hiatus from twitter and blogging each summer (read this brief post as to why I recommend it), this is probably the first year since 2009 that the entire year was punctuated by breaks from social media.

Have I run out of things to say? I don’t think so.  Look, I don’t pretend that I do have some special wisdom the thousands of other ed bloggers do not.  I developed blogging as a discipline for some very specific reasons (see this brief post on why I blog).  This site has been a wonderful digital portfolio for me-if you have an interest how I learned to integrate iPads or blogs into my classroom, check out the tags or categories to the right.  I think I’ve just put the demands of learning a new role over taking the time to blog (and reflect) instead.  Now that I’ve “lived a year in the cycle,” I think I’m game to start typing again…

There are some great topics being debated in the educational community (esp. independent schools) right now like digital citizenship, 21st Century Skills, design thinking, beyond college prep…how are you working through those issues? What would you add to the list?





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China Reflections-School Visit Two

In my last post, I gave my impressions of a visit to a public boarding school in a major city in China.  If you don’t want to follow the link and read more, know it seemed a very traditional school with large classrooms set up for stand-and-deliver teaching and test prep.

After visiting that school, our group was fortunate to tour a large (4,000 students!) private boarding school in the same city.  Even though there were more students enrolled in the school, individual class sizes were roughly half those we saw in the public boarding school.

Right away we could notice a difference.  Instead of being ushered into one featured classroom, we were separated into groups of three and invited into different classrooms.  In my room, two students used Power Point slides to detail their adventures during an exchange week in North Carolina.  A few other students did Power Point presentations on Chinese cultures and traditions for us.  The room was filled with laughter most of the class period.  We were obviously not seeing a typical class day for these kids, but overall it was a very different feel from the previous school.  I even got an opportunity to spend about 15 minutes in a small group Q & A with part of the class.

My new buddies

My new buddies

The rooms were very similar in both school-hard floors, old desks and chairs, and no central heat or air conditioning.  It is apparent that millions were spend on the facilities, but student/teacher comfort was not part of the overall plan!  This is a stark contrast to the recent trend in American schools to design “innovative” comfortable class spaces.

After classes we were once again ushered into a roundtable discussion with school leaders about education in our two countries.  These are my notes, as I understood points made by the school principle via a translator:
-The school seeks to master traditional education and institute reforms-moving from more passive learning to more active learning, respecting personalities of students in order to motivate them better, encouraging more creativity, and social responsibility (helping others).
-The school has an “international program” which pulls out about 50 students from the 1,000 kids in a grade after grade 9 (the end of Chinese middle school grades) in order to prepare for US colleges.
-The school is looking for US partners to bring in more “authentic” courses.

In hindsight, this school seems dedicated to some of the same ideals and types of education we seek to provide at our private day school here in the USA!

If you have read both posts, please do NOT think I am proposing private schools in China are better than public schools in China.  In fact, I am told that public schools (government sponsored) tend to be the better schools in China-but they are slaved to Gaokao prep (college entrance exam).  I simply offer these reflections to show the tension in Chinese education right now between the traditional Chinese college prep route and a more (creative) Western-influenced version of education.  Is this really that different than tensions in our own country?



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China Reflections-School Visit One

In my last post, I explained why Chinese schools seek to emulate ours and why is there this incredible market for Chinese kids to attend school in the USA.  For this post, I wanted to share some observations from visiting four different schools in China in March.  Please understand our host schools were most gracious, and treated us as foreign dignitaries.  Rather than hold individual schools under a microscope and run the risk of offending anyone there, I am presenting more general observations.

I got to tour four types of schools in major (10 million plus citizens) cities; public-boarding, public-day, private-boarding, and private day.  Please understand these are my impressions-not trends based on extensive research.  Rather than discuss differences between these four types of schools, I would rather focus on differences between US and Chinese experiences.

My first stop was a public, boarding school. Yes, public boarding-a strange concept for Americans.  My understanding is parents there faced such an rough commute (in a city of 10 million plus) and wanted their kids to focus on academics, so they boarded them in a great school during the week and welcomed them home on weekends.


The class held 48 uniformed students.  It was similar to any traditional classroom you might see in the US, including the ceiling-mounted projector and whiteboard.  We were all ushered into the back of the classroom, and witnessed a well-rehearsed English lesson.  The teacher asked for answers and the students gave a sing-song response.  The students were engaged, and knew the answers well enough to answer enthusiastically in unison.  Correct answers were showered with applause.  The curriculum came from a workbook (and even had a cassette tape to go with it), and the students were lead through exercises in order that included worksheets.  After class, we all went outside to watch a group exercise session.


Our hosts arranged an educator’s roundtable discussion of US and Chinese systems.  The principal of the school explained, through a translator, that they must teach to the test, National Higher Education Entrance Examination, aka, the Gaokao.  He said the new curriculum had been through eight reforms, and there is now a focus on innovative approaches over just practical knowledge.  He also lauded the value of daily exercise and seemed proud that the students had free time daily after 5:30 pm.  Finally, he mentioned that students had electives on Friday.

I was blown away by the most impressive academic complex which housed about 2,000 kids and 500 educators.  If you have visions of dirty, old schools in a developing country, this would blow your mind.

Next time, impressions from a private boarding school…



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China Reflections

In my last post, I mentioned I would be traveling for two weeks in China.  My plan was to blog from the road, but we were so busy my plans failed.  It was the trip of a lifetime, and I got to experience 6 major cities-Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, Chengdu, Shenzhen, and Hong Kong.

photo 4

Climbing the Great Wall

Along the way I got to tour four Chinese schools seeking to emulate American schools (in some way) and interview about 50 Chinese students (mostly 8th or 9th graders) interested in coming to the USA for high school and college.  Why do these schools seek to emulate ours and why is there this incredible market for Chinese kids to attend school in the USA?

To answer that question, I think back to a presentation by Yong Zhao at the SAIS Annual Conference last fall.  During that presentation he made a case for entrepreneurial education.  I was so impressed with his presentation, I immediately ordered his new book World Class Learners.  If you have read Tony Wagner’s Creating Innovators, this is a nice complement to that work (and if are an educator and you haven’t read Tony’s book yet then you MUST).

Zhao makes a great case that countries that score high on international tests like the PISA tend to show a low level of entrepreneurship (p. 11-12).   In other words, countries that gear their educational systems to testing (especially in math and science) produce kids that are really good at taking tests-but not necessarily students with a desire to solve problems creatively.

To get back to the question-why do these schools seek to emulate ours and why is there this incredible market for Chinese kids to attend school in the USA-I think Zhao summarizes it very well on page 133:

What the Chinese find valuable in American education is a decentralized, autonomous system that does not have standards, uses multiple criteria for judging the value of talent, and celebrates individual differences.

Wow! Score one for a much maligned US educational system, yes?  No, unfortunately, since the turn of the century Zhao also notes on page 133:

However, what the Chinese enthusiastically embrace is just what the Americans have been as enthusiastically trying to get rid of.  Over the past few decades, America has been on a journey to centralize its education system, standardize its curriculum, and impose uniform practices…As the Common Core standards movement accomplishes its goal, America will have lost what the Chinese envy and admire.

So, are private schools like the one I work in going to be the last bastions of what has traditionally been best in American education?  I am not sure, but I would love to hear your thoughts below.

As for my next few posts, I hope to share my observations of four schools I got to visit in China (public and private).  Please check in next week.


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China bound!

Today I am about to leave for the airport to fly direct from Washington, D.C. to Beijing. Why?

I am fortunately to be the guest of our partner in recruiting, hosting and supporting our international students, New Oasis. The company’s vision states:

Our vision is of a new world of learning, a place where society is empowered to change international education, study abroad and cultural exchange for the better.

Providence Day School has been a leader in global education for the last decade. Two of the core values at PDS that inspire our curriculum and programming are:

-We believe the school community should promote global awareness and connections to the world and local community.

-We believe in developing within our students an ability to appreciate and value the differences among people in our school community, as well as those in the larger world around us.

While we have had international students on campus for decades, we are excited to partner with New Oasis to help us strengthen our program.

While I have lived for a year in Asia (Korea, more specifically), this will be my first trip to China and I am very excited. On my journey I hope to study and write about the differences I observe in Chinese and American education. If you are interested, follow my journey that will last from February 26th through March 11th, 2014.

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A little paint and a change of perspective?

As I mentioned in my last post, I have been ruminating on design thinking and classroom design over the last few months.  Kinda ironic that after starting this blog four years ago and focusing on how social media and tablets can extend the impact of the physical classroom (thus the title, “Tearing Down Walls”), that I am now fascinated with tinkering with physical walls and what goes on inside them…

While you can find some schools that are making pretty radical changes in building and classroom design (more on that in a later post), sometimes small changes can have valuable changes in behavior.  Recently, English teacher Ryan Welsh approached me about painting two of his four walls in Idea Paint.  So, we found the paint and had our maintenance staff complete the work over the holidays.


Note the new dry-erase walls over the student’s shoulders

The walls are now dry-erase walls…Ok-so, what?  Ryan describes the changes he noticed within several days of painting two walls with Idea Paint:

First, there is an eye-catching difference between the panels of the room that serve as walls and those panels now covered in Idea Paint.  The clean, white surface provides a visual contrast that sets off the corner of the room as a potentially different kind of space.  Teaching from the corner of the two white board walls creates a sharp point of focus where student attention can be funneled effectively as desired.  Teaching from what would be typically considered the back or side of the room shifts the sense of student and teacher space.  The boundary or line of demarcation between the two kinds of space blurs.  The walls feel more collaborative as a result given the students added willingness to write in a space that hasn’t been claimed or identified as teacher (or teacher permission requisite) space.

Unlike the whiteboards on the opposite wall of the room, these writing surfaces seem less confined given that they take up the entire wall.  Instead of being bound in frames and placed at the traditional front of the room, the white walls provide a more inviting writing surface that students have already used to write up whatever they might like to share with a classroom audience.  The fixed quality of the white wall lends a special sort of credibility to whatever happens to be written there.  Students seem more willing to share their ideas on the board and more willing to respond to one another writing on the wall next to some earlier comment or idea. 

For me, that’s a neat change.  I am intrigued further with how the visible impacts the invisible in the classroom…


Student artwork on Ryan’s new whiteboard walls


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Winter is for hibernation…

From WikipediaHibernation (from Latin: hībernus, of winter) is a suppressed metabolic state that falls under the umbrella-term of torpor or dormancy…

It has been quite a fall and winter for me, a transition from full-time teacher to full-time administrator.  Unfortunately, this period has been one of hibernation from that very public form of reflection known as blogging.

Over these last five years in the blogosphere, I have taken purposeful “walkabouts” each summer-intentional reflective time away from writing here.  This time, I simply fell into a “suppressed metabolic state,” and quit typing.

Sometimes, I find this type of failure very fruitful.  Why? In this case I have had the time to chew and re-chew cud about the idea of design.  While in Atlanta for the SAIS annual conference in October, I was lucky to visit The Lovett School and Mount Vernon Presbyterian School.  At both places, I was able to witness progressive school programs built around the process of design thinking.

Want to see a school focused leveraging design thinking to birth innovation, go visit MVP.  Want to see a school focused on leveraging design thinking to change pedagogy, go visit Lovett.

So, what does this mean for me and my school? Stay tuned…


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2013 SAIS Annual Conference Reflections: The Global Future is NOW

Halloween. Trick or Treat? Hopefully, there are a few treats you can tweet…

I’ve just returned from the 2013 Southern Association of Independent Schools annual conference in Atlanta, Georgia.  My main reason for the trip was to present with my colleagues, Matt Scully  (Director of Technology) and Eric Hedinger (Upper School Head).  While the conference theme was “The Global Future: Preparing Students and Shaping Schools, our presentation (google site with resources here) was on implementing and sustaining a 1:1 (iPad) program.  Using mobile devices for creation and collaboration is one of many schools are grappling with as we prepare for the future.

There were many excellent presenters and sessions, but I was struck by several key moments:

Ian Symmonds: The Global Flattening of Education
A consultant out of Portland, Oregon.  This presentation was a concise analysis of “modest” current trends in global education as well as future trends.  Fascinating.  You can find the slides hereKey takeaway-its about cultural competency, not language acquisition.

Dr. Brett Jacobsen and Nishant N. Mehta: Flat, Flexible, Focused: 21st Century Models of School Transformation
Two up-and-coming rock stars in ed leadership.  This was a session jam-packed with ideas on how to shift (and/or transform) school culture.  During this presentation and a second by Brett, two things resonated with me (paraphrased):
1. The future is here, our student’s don’t have time for us to mess around.
2. The power of common language in shifting school culture.

Dr. Yong Zhao: Two Education Paradigms; What Defines a World Class Education (Keynote)
Dr. Zhao delivered his data-based message with humor and skill.  He debunked the value of traditional education (and testing) and made a wonderful case for the rise of the “creative class”–and how we as educators must foster these young entrepreneurs.  Key takeaway: Dr. Zhao sees this creative class will succeed in a century of “like” where personalized consumption of psychological products is the norm.  Check out his new book here.

All this makes me think back to Tony Wagner’s remarks at the 1st iPad Summit USA last year AND Pat Bassett’s remarks at the NCAIS Conference last year…which makes me think back to the NAIS Annual Conference 5 years ago….maybe Brett Jacobsen is right, the future everyone has been talking about IS here.  So, what is your school doing for kids NOW?

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When pilots die and programs are born

As September 2013 closes, I am launching my 4th and final iPad pilot class (is it really a pilot after the 1st?) while our school rolls out iPads in grades 4, 6, and 9-with plans to add the remaining grades between 4 and 12 next year.  In May of 2011 I started my first pilot with 6 students 1:1 with the first generation iPad.  That seems like the distant past, but it was just over 2 years ago.  We were just starting to grapple with the idea of the iPad tablet as a “digital backpack” that could replace many traditional physical school tools.  I remember reading a post by Ian Jukes on what iPads can NOT do and writing this rebuttal.  Curious how that Jukes post now seems to have disappeared from the web…

It is so exciting that this time has come.  This year is the launch of what we are calling our “One to World” program, adopting language promoted by Alan November in his recent article, Why School Must Move Beyond One-to-One Computing.  In a nutshell, November argues that many of the schools that have rushed to put devices in the hands of students have unfortunately focused on the tool.

As I am now moving into the Academic Head role, I was intrigued by November’s points about leadership in implementing 1:1 programs:

Leaders must be given the training to:

  • Craft a clear vision of connecting all students to the world’s learning resources.
  • Model the actions and behaviors they wish to see in their schools.
  • Support the design of an ongoing and embedded staff development program that focuses on pedagogy as much as technology.
  • Move in to the role of systems analyst to ensure that digital literacy is aligned with standards.
  • Ensure that technology is seen not as another initiative, but as integral to curriculum.

Leaders also must learn how to support risk- taking teachers and creating cohorts of teachers across disciplines and grades…

Thanks to the vision of our Technology Director, Matt Scully, and the support of our Headmaster, Dr. Glyn Cowlishaw, we have tried to structure our implementation program to include these components:

  • We promote educating worldly-minded students that we are preparing for global citizenship, and the “one to world” language encourages use of the device to connect and collaborate with others around the globe.
  • Our senior leadership team all carry devices and have been working to model use the tool to collaborate and communicate with stakeholders.
  • We have developed internal professional development programs that focus on pedagogy (particularly the SAMR Model), as well has pushing key leaders to attend the best national workshops and conferences.
  • We are developing TK-12 digital literacy curriculum in the context of digital citizenship.  Additionally, we are inviting parents in to “town hall” style meetings on a monthly basis to discuss issues of digital citizenship.
  • We see the tablets as a tool to help continue work on 21st Century Information, Media, and Technology Literacy Skills and not a separate initiative.  Additionally, we are empowering faculty to see the transition as a “both-and” approach, and not an “either-or” approach (see this great article by Milton Chen).
  • We hope to start inter-divisional and inter-disciplinary professional development cohorts in the coming year.

Again, these are exciting times.  What we cannot lose sight of has been expressed so eloquently by Bill Ferriter, that “technology is a tool and not a learning outcome.”  I think his simple, hand-drawn chart should be kept somewhere that a teacher can reflect on it daily:

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It’s about relationships…

Today was the first day of school.  This is my 18th first day of school as a teacher.  This is my first day of school as an Assistant Head of School for Academic Affairs.  Regardless, it was exciting.

Why is it exciting? Well, it is exciting because I work at an amazing school that continues to evolve under the pressures of this “flattened” 21st Century world.  We are in the process of moving to a 1:1 school (iPad tablets) and developing a curriculum that pushes 21st Century Skills and a global perspective.

But that is not really the exciting part to me-not on day one.  You see, if you are not a teacher or if you are new to teaching, the real excitement is about new relationships.  This first day (and out to at least the first two weeks) are critical to establishing good relationships.  I often quote this bit of (anonymous) wisdom; “they don’t care what you know until they know you care.”

Yes, it is an exciting time to be an educator.  But despite all the high tech toys and virtual learning opportunities, this is still a endeavor based on relationships. I have had the pleasure of presenting with Peter Gow, who has blogged about independent school and education issues for years under several banners.  I think he said it best with this remark off his Admirable Faculties blog:

Schooling, education, call it what you will and carry it out how and where you will, is a deeply human activity, and for all the ways in which the schools we are creating will not be Your Father’s (or my father’s) School, that core humanity will never change.

To my fellow teachers, good luck building new relationships this year.

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