What a Great Community!!

Recently I’ve been struck by just how much of a community our school truly has become for our students.  I know ‘Community’ is part of the name of our school and we most certainly do a lot of ‘big ticket’ community things.  Our PAFA events from the International Food Fair, to the back to school picnic, to market days all bring our community together.  However, I’ve noticed a lot of things that are much more subtle indicators of the community we’ve become.

It’s obvious that our school is from all over the map, literally!  We have students from over 50 countries speaking well over a dozen different languages.  Yet that mix of students doesn’t result in clashes or arguments relating to culture, language, or other misunderstandings.  Our kids get along, they’re friends with everyone and they’re open to new experiences.  This may be something that we think is obvious and perhaps it should be.  It’s not unusual to find students who’ve grouped themselves together by home culture.  However, as an example of how kids are building community, I frequently find one of our newest sixth grade boys (who is Korean) on the field playing with a group of almost all non-Koreans.  It’s awesome to see kids out of their comfort zones and taking risks.  Culture is not a barrier to community at SCIS.

Each morning as I wait for the kids to come off the buses I get to observe a whole variety of what I’ll call “proof of community”.  The other day I asked a high school student if the little second grade girl she walks and talks with every morning was her sister.  I was shocked when she said, “No, she’s just a girl that rides my bus.”  This very social high schooler walks in chatting away with a tiny little second grade student as though they’re best friends…and she’s not the only one, this happens quite frequently between students of all ages at our school.  I can’t imagine the confidence and feelings of safety that our younger students must feel because of these relationships.  Age is not a barrier to community at SCIS.

The culture we’ve created at SCIS fosters these community bonds.  Activities and events create relationships between students who would otherwise not engage each other.  House games in the Middle School bring our kids together across grade levels for friendly competitions.  The swim team brings kids from all grades together to train, compete, and grow together.  The bonds I’ve witnessed between high school and middle school swimmers created because of the team are very positive bonds and fortunately they happen frequently.  As the Upper School production comes to production night (go see Midsummer Night’s Dream tonight or tomorrow!!!) it’s wonderful to see the bonds and relationships that have grown between high school and middle school students, kids who normally would have no reason to interact with each other.  We build community at SCIS.

Shanghai COMMUNITY International School truly is a community.  Our students are happy when they come to school.  They feel safe, confident, and they feel welcome.  The community that we’ve become is thanks to all that you give back to our students.  Without your efforts our students get on the bus and go home but thanks to you we have a bustling after school activities program and our kids are engaged.  We are a community at SCIS!

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!

Happy Teacher Appreciation Week!!

All week we have been celebrating the outstanding teachers we have here at school and it has been a very positive atmosphere everywhere around campus.  It was great to see so many of you sitting outside enjoying your food and a little sunshine at lunch today.  There were smiles, laughter, and good feelings all around…a great way to finish off a terrific week 🙂

Right across from my office is a HUGE thank you note from all of the Middle School students to you for being so awesome.  The notes and messages on that big yellow paper are inspiring.  For all of those days that your students come and go without a word of thanks, it only seems to take that one bit of appreciation to strengthen the fire.  This week of celebration and thanks couldn’t have come at a better time.

As the weather begins to turn and we come off of such a great week, enjoy your weekend!  We’ve got two weeks left and then we are on Spring Break…before you know it we’ll be on China Trips and shortly after that we’ll watch our students leave us for the summer.  If there is one message I could give to our kids at this point in the year it would be to cherish these last few months with your friends and teachers.  For many of them, and us, there will be tears and hugs at the end of the year as they go in separate directions.  Enjoy your time with your students and colleagues, they’re all wonderful people (even that kid, you know, the one who you just thought about…the one who might drive you up the wall most days…even them, they’re pretty cool too when you stop to think about it!)

I’m a big sports person, I grew up playing all sorts of sports and enjoyed coaching even more…I LOVE sports!  One of the all-time greatest coaches (at least in basketball) was John Wooden.  He coached at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) where he helped them win 10 national championships in 12 years, including 7 in a row.  At one point his team won 88 straight games.  No doubt he had some of the best players in the nation BUT he was still renowned as one of the greatest teachers of the game ever.  Anyway, I want to leave you with a quote from Coach Wooden, he understood just how important all of you are to our students and the future.  He nailed it when he said:

“I think the teaching profession contributes more to the future of our society than any other single profession.” – John Wooden

Thank you all for being so awesome for our students, no one can say it enough…you’re all incredible and you change the lives of our students every single day!!

Do you have a PLN? You should!

I often share relevant articles or videos when I come across them and in response I have frequently heard something to the effect of, “Where do you find all this great stuff?”  There are so many good things out there for educators that it’s also irresponsible of us not to be accessing such great tools and resources.  So how can you do it without spending hours and hours sorting through nonsense?

The power of the Personal Learning Network (PLN) is something that I’ve discovered during this process of searching for online resources.  I feel as though I’m late getting in the game on PLNs but I’m going to go ahead and blame China and the Great Fire Wall for that 🙂  However, over the last couple years I’ve been working hard to establish more of an online presence and build my PLN.

Anyway, let’s cut to the chase – All educators should have a Twitter account and be building a strong PLN.  This doesn’t mean you have to be some crazy Twitter maniac who is constantly sending out Tweets.  Rather, it means you begin to slowly build a network of connections and resources around the world whom you know you can rely on for relevant educational information.  Then, from this point you grow and learn with the technology and the resources you gain from your network.  Your network essentially does the research and collecting of awesome resources for you.  All you do is sit back and reap the benefits, occasionally sending some great info back out into the mix.  It’s brilliant!

Check out this info graphic that shows Seven Degrees of Connectedness and think about where you fall.  If you’re not yet at Stage 1 then I’d like to strongly urge you to come and begin the journey of getting connected.  If you’re already connected but want to join the conversation you’re absolutely invited as well!

What Makes a Great Teacher?

This week I saw an awesome article from the Washington Post that made me think of all the awesome teachers we have here at school.  It was about Ellie Herman and some lessons she has learned.  Ellie worked for 20 years as an American television writer. She worked on some small shows you may have heard of:  Doogie Howser, M.D., Melrose Place, and Desperate Housewives among others.  However, in 2007 she decided to become an English teacher and took a job working in a very different school environment than ours, one where 96% of the students are living below the poverty line in South Los Angeles, California.  In 2013, Ellie stopped teaching and started observing other teachers to try and learn from them.  She also started writing about what she was observing and learning; it is phenomenal stuff.

Ellie is a fantastic writer (as one could assume) and easy to read.  I want to say this as clearly as possible:  If you have never bothered to read something I’ve shared, let this be your first…it’s great.

Once you’ve read that post go ahead and explore some more…start with the front page or this article about why “love is the answer”.

If you need convincing, here are five practices Ellie observed in great teachers (she explains these in her post):

1.  Great teachers listen to their students.

2.  Great teachers have an authentic vision for their students.

3.  Great teachers have an unequivocal belief in all students’ potential.

4.  Great teachers are calm, persistent pushers.

5.  Great teachers practice non-attachment to short-term results.

These aren’t new ideas, they’re not even ground-breaking.  They are good reminders though and the way Ellie describes these traits is very energizing.  I’m most emotionally attached to numbers three and four as you may have guessed, I love to keep pushing (sometimes pulling/dragging) those kids who need the extra support because I very strongly believe in all students’ potential.  I also can’t help but notice how this all keeps coming back to the Mindset conversation 🙂

Believe in the Possibilities for Learning

We all know about the power of the ‘Growth Mindset’ by now and (hopefully) we all buy into the idea that it’s possible for anyone to learn.  I read a very interesting blog post from the Mindshift organization (started, in part, by NPR) recently about what happens when we “believe in the possibilities” of what teaching and learning can really do.

I think you should take the time to read this blog post so I’ll try to stay as brief as possible but I’d like to highlight some of the main points as a preview:

  • The placebo effect is real and it applies to learning as well.  “When students are informed that it’s possible to improve their IQ, they respond by improving their IQ.”
  • Science shows us that the learning culture can have permanent effects on the brain.  Is the culture in your room as positive as you believe it to be?  Do you have a ‘favorite’ class?  (They know it if you do…and your least favorite class is also aware of their standing!)
  • Building positive relationships is as important as anything and they need to be sincere!  “Inquiry and innovation rely on a high-functioning brain activated by care and acceptance.”
  • Going back to last week’s discussion, the academic skills that we want our students to learn are highly linked to the character traits we also desire…how do we successfully teach those character strengths?

When we did our Strengths Finder work with the Gotuacos it became apparent that many of us have the “Learner” theme in our top five.  I don’t think that it takes a lot of convincing for any of you to believe that learning and growing are possible.  However, I know that the High School recently did a similar strengths activity (the student version of what we did).  It was interesting/sad/scary to hear one high school teacher bemoan the fact that NONE of her advisory students showed the “Learner” theme in their top five.  So for all of us who are energized and excited by the journey of discovery and learning we need to keep in mind that there a lot of students who don’t have this natural tendency…what can we do to foster curiosity and the desire to learn?

What Middle School Students Want You to Know

This past Wednesday we worked to determine the five things we wanted our kids to learn through advisory, I realized it was the perfect juxtaposition of something I’ve been thinking about for a few weeks now.  If all of our students were able to get in a room and come up with five things that they wanted their teachers to know, what would those things be?  As I mentioned, this is something I’ve been thinking about for a while so limiting it to five was tough but I did it (with one bonus at the end!)  I don’t believe that these have any particular order of priority so here they are in the order that they fell out of my head…

1.  Middle school students want to be seen as capable.

Maybe they can’t achieve everything that is asked of them YET but they certainly want the chance.  Our students want to try new things, take risks, and discover their talents and passions.  Middle School students know what it means to be appropriately challenged and that’s exactly what they expect.  They know and appreciate when a lesson has been well thought out, their needs are being met, and challenges are being offered.  Your students want to be engaged, pushed to think outside the box, and challenged to the edge of their comfort zones.  Most of all, they want you to know that they are capable of handling this!

2.  Middle school students want to be seen as adults and treated that way (most of the time).

They know they aren’t adults yet and they don’t want all of the responsibility but they desperately want to feel like they are viewed as “adults”.  The term “child” makes middle school students cringe.  Our students want to be treated with respect and dignity.  They want to be part of the conversation (see below) and they want to feel like they really are turning into adults.  They’re in the the transition age from child to young adult but they’re also in a hurry to skip right to full maturity…growing up is hard, who can blame them?!?  We must treat them with the same level of respect that we show our colleagues, family, and friends.

3.  Middle school students want to be included in their education.

Choice, independence, freedom, voice…Our students want to be a part of the process, they want input.  Middle school students want to work with you, not for you.  They want learning to be a team game.  Perhaps you’re the coach but in more of the ‘player coach’ sense…not the drill sergeant version where you stand on the sidelines with a whistle barking out orders.  Collaborate with each other for your students but also collaborate WITH your students.

4.  Middle school students want to be held accountable.

As much as they want to be adults they still know they aren’t quite there yet and they need help.  So set high expectations for your students and then hold them accountable!  Systems, processes, and clear rules help students meet expectations.  Ambiguity, chaos, and unclear expectations lead students down a confusing and dangerous path.  Set high targets and hold them accountable to your expectations.  Hint:  If you include them in the process of setting the goals or laying out expectations (see above) you’ll have much more success!

5.  Middle school students want you to know that they are human.

We all have good days and bad; go through highs and lows.  Our students want you to know that they are no different.  In fact, because of the immense amount of changes happening in their lives they are experiencing even more of a roller coaster ride than most of us.  Middle school students want you to be patient, be tolerant, and be understanding with them as they try to manage the mine-field of hormones, emotions, and life changes that they are encountering as pre-teens and young teenagers.

And finally, one last thought with no explanation needed…

Middle school students want to be acknowledged as important, relevant, and intelligent people.

A 2 Cent Tour

We’re getting ever so close to the end of the semester and it’s incredible how fast we got here!  For some reason I was crazy enough to accept a new family tour today at 2:00 (I don’t usually like Friday tours because things tend to get very busy).  Fortunately, today my tour didn’t show up (a rarity) and it gave me some much needed time to slow down and process things.  I started thinking about everything that I needed to get done for next week and then my mind wandered back to the tour that never showed up…

Basically, I have a love-hate relationship with tours.  I hate them because they take me away from doing things that will impact our students and their learning.  I love them because it gives me a chance to share our school with prospective families.  Nine times out of ten those families are coming to visit us because they’ve been recommended to us by another family or the company they work for, or both.  This is always a pleasure to hear and I think you should know this as well, our families are happy here and they’re recommending us 🙂

Another reason I love tours is because I get to share all of the amazing things that we are doing in our Middle School.  We have a lot to offer, from our academic program, to our after school activities and service program, to our House system and beyond, it’s a great place for students.  I always tell families that I’m not here to ‘sell’ them on our school (I’m not!) but rather I want to give them an honest look at our community.  After all, I don’t want a line of parents outside my door mad at me because I promised them something on the tour that we can’t deliver!  So, I don’t ‘sell’ the school but I really don’t have to!!

I brag about our teachers and the incredible work we do to meet the needs of all learners through our curriculum expectations as well as student support and professional development opportunities.  I can’t say enough about the amazing kids that we have at our school (I usually give them 100% of the credit for why we’re so awesome).  Then it comes time to show the families around campus, and that’s when my job is done.  Students are always engaged in learning as we make our way in and out of classrooms, there are smiles on everyone’s faces, and the overall warm and welcoming atmosphere we’ve created here shines through.

We’ve created something special here and it’s something to be proud of as educators.  As we come together this weekend to celebrate another holiday season we need to keep in mind all the great work we’ve done together at this school.  Enjoy the weekend everyone, and we’ll see you on the boat!

Check 1-2 Cents

I can’t say how much I enjoyed the positive atmosphere that our Middle School faculty meeting had on Wednesday afternoon.  Despite the fact we were on the eve of assessments, the weather has turned cold, and we’re only two weeks from winter break; everyone was still amazingly positive and upbeat.  Thank you for that!  I don’t think we could double, triple, or quadruple down enough on shout-outs to show our appreciation and support of the music department and all that they’ve helped our kids accomplish this semester but I’m going to take this chance to shout them out again 🙂

The way that our music department has banded together as a cohesive group and learned to work so well as a team is impressive.  Bringing five people, who have no common planning time, together to accomplish what they have this semester is amazing!  Looking back on the Middle School Music Festival in October and considering the amount of planning and organization that went into an event like that just blows my mind.  Then to see the shows that this fantastic team put on this week and the amount of growth their students showed, even since October, was inspiring!

There’s little doubt in my mind that music education is extremely beneficial to a student’s growth.  Benefits of music abound; from improved fine motor skills, to improved math and English SAT scores, to improved Executive Function and beyond.  I’m so happy to be a part of a school community that takes music education so seriously and supports the programs the way that we do!

Thank you again (over and over) to Jenny, Sean, Joel, Lee, and Jason for the amazing work they do with our budding (and in some cases, already outstanding) musicians.  Also, a huge thanks to all of you who have made it out to support our students (and their teachers) at the concerts, shows, and events around town.

Strengths Quest Professional Development

Happy American Thanksgiving everyone!  It would be remiss of me not to at least give a moment of thanks to each and every one of you for all that you do for our kids, “Thank you!”  Being the “communicator” that I am, I wanted to make sure I said that before I got off and rambling on something else…

The last couple days have been a wonderful opportunity for us to look a little deeper at ourselves and think about how we can use what is already within us to be better teachers.  Going through the Strengths Finder activities yesterday really helped me to begin thinking about how my strengths can be maximized to make me a better educator and leader.  Another aspect that was pointed out a few times are the dynamics of how different people and teams work together based on the combinations of strengths within the group.  Understanding the 34 different strength themes is a very important step toward building a strong collaborative environment.  Also, so is knowing each others strengths.  To that end, I’ve followed the example of a friend of mine from SAS (Singapore) and added my five strongest themes to my email signature.  In so doing, I’m hoping to inspire some of you to do the same.  Now that we all have this common context, it seems only logical that we use it to maximize the strengths of the whole team, not just ourselves!  Feel free to stop and modify your signature now 🙂

The work that we do together on a daily basis is far too important to do alone.  Looking around the stage yesterday and contemplating all of the different strengths we have as a collective group is astonishing.  The sheer wealth of knowledge and experience we had in that room could, combined, be strong enough to move mountains.  As a school we already do a very good job of collaborating and working together.  Deliberately focusing on our strengths will only lead to better things down the road!!  I’m a big sports fan and I love sports analogies despite the fact that so many of them sound cliché.  However, I’m going to use one…even the best players in the history of team sports couldn’t do it alone…Michael Jordan, Pele, Mia Hamm, Jerry Rice, or Wayne Gretzky wouldn’t have stood a chance without the help and support of their teammates.  Take a second and close your eyes, think about the stage on Thursday afternoon…there were a lot of amazing minds up there, feel free to engage with as many of those as possible!!

It’s very inspiring to sit along side all of you and think about how much collective intelligence is in the room, thank you!  It’s also inspiring to think about all the potential in the world…you futurists know what I’m talking about…so take a few minutes to play with this super cool toy from the BBC.  It’s a customizable look at how the Earth has changed since you were born and a fun way to think about all that has happened around you so far during your life.  I’m only 17 years old on Mars, my heart has beat 1 billion times already in my life, there have been 385 major earthquakes since I was born, and the average life expectancy in the world has increased 7.5 years (Earth years) in my life time…what about you?

Growth Mindset and EAL Students

I’m writing a little earlier than normal this week because I’m away tomorrow (Friday) as I’ll be attending the SIS EAL Conference at Shekou International School.  It is being coordinated, in part, by a friend of mine from my time in Italy and the keynote speaker is EAL guru Dr. Virginia Rojas.  This conference has produced nothing but rave reviews in the past (some of you have been fortunate enough to attend) and I expect nothing less from this weekend!

Ever since I began in education I’ve been working with EAL populations.  My first classes in America were, in fact, comprised almost entirely of students who spoke a language other than English while at home.  I guess you could say that I don’t really have an understanding of what it would be like to teach a non-EAL population; I actually hadn’t come to that realization until just now!  When I think about all of the EAL students I’ve had over the years I’m always amazed at how fast these students can grow and excel in English and, usually, they do it in an incredibly short amount of time.  We’ve certainly seen this happen time and again at our school, take a second to think about all the incredible students you’ve encountered…in some cases it’s awe-inspiring to consider what they’ve achieved.

For many of these students, whether they know it or not, it’s the Growth Mindset that allows them to be so successful.  They know that with hard work, practice, risk taking and a decent amount of failure they will be able to learn English.  Interestingly enough, I don’t think many of these kids even realize what they are doing; this is just how they live their life.  On the other end of the spectrum are the kids who have seemingly given up and don’t put in the effort.  Last year we looked at Carol Dweck’s work in Mindset, a book I’ve gone back to a few times to re-read.  At one point Dweck discusses “Students Who Don’t Care”, she does doesn’t believe that this is really possible.  Before she launches into a discussion about Growth-Minded Teachers (a group we should all aspire to join) she says about these particular students, “It’s common for students to turn off to school and adopt an air of indifference, but we make a mistake if we think any student stops caring.”

Almost every single student at our school who is seemingly “turned off to school” is an EAL student.  Perhaps there’s causation perhaps not, but there is no denying that there is a correlation.  Take some time to think about those kids who seem “turned off” in your class and consider them in a different light for a moment.  Is there something that you could do to encourage them to turn back on?

I’ll leave you with that for now.  You all know me well enough to realize that I’m going to be coming at you fast and furious with EAL strategies and ideas next week 🙂  Enjoy your Friday and the weekend…get outside, it’s supposed to be a BEAUTIFUL weekend!!  Don’t forget that Jerry Rice is still in town, in case you didn’t get enough at Wednesday’s assembly.