Camp Kuri Kucho

I am once again blogging my reflection of my Discover Ecuador week.  I want to model for our students as well as share my experiences and learnings.  Two amazing weeks gave me much more to think about than I could write but here are some of my thoughts as well as photo “evidence”.  

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For the second week in a row I was away with students for Discover Ecuador trips, it was another great experience.  Working with the 7th grade class at Camp Kuri Kucho (thanks to Gabo Cadenas for the above photo) was an absolute joy!  The community, San Pablo Urku, welcomed us with open arms and we felt totally at home as we worked to support the projects of this small community.  My experience with the 7th graders was just as amazing as my trip to the Amazon the week before but different in many ways, most obvious of which was the weather!

Accomplishments

The biggest outcome of this week for me was the impressive and inspiring work achieved by the 7th grade group.  In the week prior to our visit the 9th grade class had been in this community starting and working on some projects.  The 7th grade continued their work in many areas and started a few of their own projects.

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The first five rows of a 15 row water tank.  Each plastic bottle is filled with dirt to create a “brick”.  Foundation laid by 9th grade last week.

Over the course of the week we were able to see the fruits of our labor as the projects progressed.  Our students felt tremendously proud of the work they accomplished.

 

The main focus of our work was centered around the local school.  In this community they have a school of about 90 students from elementary school up through 10th grade.  The students in this school are from the surrounding villages and could be seen walking great distances to get to and from school each day.  The AC students were able to connect with these students as they joined the 45 minute school break each morning.  Playing soccer, basketball and joining conversations with the local students, our kids got to know the community members better.  The connections they established gave even more meaning to the work we were completing on their behalf.

One of the highlights was the opportunity for our students to take part in a lesson with some local students.  The topic was about the use of pesticides and the harmful impact they can have on the agriculture and the environment.

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Classroom “theory” time before doing the “practical” in the garden.

After the lesson our students worked side by side in the garden with the local students to begin planting either potatoes or fava beans (habas).  Since this school is a rural school they’ve worked to establish a sizable organic garden for their students to learn the process and importance of farming.  Much of our service work involved this garden.  It was a unique experience and opportunity for our students to work in a meaningful and real context with the local students.

 

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Ernesto teaching us how to milk a cow and other fun facts about cows and their milk production.

Aside from the wonderful service work completed by our kids we had a lot of other learning opportunities throughout the week.  Afternoon activities allowed the kids to learn to make tortillas from scratch, learn to milk a cow, and upcycle a plastic bottle into a “maceta” (a pot for plants).

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Maceta creation station led by our fantastic project leader, Karen.

Each student participated in all of these activities and had the chance to come home with their maceta and a plant.  Other opportunities included learning to conserve water (a very valuable resource in this community) by taking a “bucket shower”,

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Buckets getting filled for our “showers”.  Hot water boils on the other side of that wall, each person gets about half a bucket of hot water and fills the rest with colder water.

working as a team to wash their own dishes and silverware, and sharing a bunk space with over 15 other classmates.  All in all, our 7th grade group had the opportunity for a lot of amazing takeaways from the week.

 

What I Learned at Kuri Kucho

While this was a tremendous learning experience for our students there were also some great takeaways for me too.  We worked hard during the day and enjoyed the afternoon and evening team building experiences.  The students learned countless lessons this week.  I too learned a few lessons of my own through this experience and also a few good reminders!

Last week I talked about how much I learned about my tolerance for rain.  This week, I learned just how valuable rain (and water in general) can be for a community.  San Pablo Urku lies in a very dry area and is currently in the midst of the dry season.  We were constantly reminded of this fact since they only have running water a couple days of the week.  Students (and teachers) had to deal with toilets that didn’t flush with the push of a button, an absence of traditional showers (they waste a lot of water), and dust and dirt all over everything.  While we were there we experienced a day of rain and could see first hand just how valuable that water was to the community.  Water collection tanks filled, plants and crops received much needed hydration, and the whole community smiled as we sheltered from the rain (they knew how important that water was!)  Water, the essence of life, is constantly on the minds of this community…something we take for granted everyday was put into a very different perspective at Camp Kuri Kucho.

Another good reminder of things that we take for granted was the importance of certain types of food.  I can walk out my front door and within two minutes be at a pizza place, a sushi joint, a noodles restaurant, or cevicheria.  In San Pablo Urku the staples are potatoes and fava beans.  Every meal includes one of these very filling foods that also provide an amount of protein to their diets.  Meat is rare and when included it is a treat.  Cuy (guinea pig) are raised by almost all members of the community, as well as chickens.  Cows provide milk,

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There were lots of sheep around San Pablo Urku.

sheep provide wool, but both exist as a rare delicacy as far as their meat is concerned.  The last night hamburgers and french fries on the menu, it struck me as to how foreign this menu must be for the local community…something so normal to me is completely foreign two hours down the road.

Wonderful Experience

Waking up each morning to the sight of Cayambe looming over head was an absolute joy.  I didn’t let a chance to appreciate this beautiful sight ever pass me by.

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A hike with an amazing view as a reward, beautiful!

We had clear mornings each day and I even woke up one night at about 4:30 to see a full moon hovering just over the volcano…awesome!  Beyond the amazing scenery was the chance to take in a completely new experience with our students.  Visiting this community and working alongside the maestros to improve their garden and water tank was inspiring.  Community service is important for the people we help but perhaps even more important for the inspiration we can take away from the experience.  I feel very thankful to have enjoyed this trip with the 7th grade students.

 

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It Takes a Village To Raise a Child – Successfully

The first semester is quickly coming to a close and a number of students’ names have come my way for having late and missing assignments.  I’ve had a number of conversations with teachers about strategies for holding our students accountable to their work.  It seems that whether we’re talking about a 6th grade student or a high school senior, the conversation goes the same way.  Often times, as responsible adults, we have a hard time figuring out what is preventing these young adults from living up to the expectations we’ve laid out for them.  

I don’t think there is any one “problem” or “issue” that is common to all students struggling to meet expectations.  In fact, there usually isn’t even a common factor when I sit down and look at a small group of 6th grade boys, for example.  Every student has different struggles and they usually are experiencing these difficulties for various reasons.  There are myriad factors that play into the development of a young mind and trying to place our thumbs on any one “problem” is a bit of a fool’s errand.

As I sat back and thought about all of the different struggles that our students experience and considered their excuses (I think I could write a pretty long book full of the different excuses I’ve heard over the years!) I tried to think back to my first days as a teacher and recall the strategies I’ve used to help hold kids accountable.  To be perfectly honest, the list is long and it’s full of failed attempts but in the end there are two strategies that, when combined, have achieved the most success.

Just for kicks, let’s see…In the early years, there was the guilt trip which was very successful at drawing forth tears and a careful analysis of footwear (lots of hung heads and feeling ashamed).  There were also the whole class heart-to-heart sessions about responsibility, these seemed to have an immediate but very short term effect…I just didn’t have the time or energy to pull these out twice a week!  Then there were the raised voice conversations, random calls home, and sending students to the ‘in-school-suspension’ room.  None of these did anything for the students’ responsibility levels and they most certainly didn’t help me build any form of positive relationship.

I learned though, thankfully, and I turned my attention to more positive motivators.  I gave raffle tickets to those who completed their work, we started a challenge with other classes to see which class could have the most consecutive days of homework completed by everyone in the room, I wrote positive notes home for kids who finally turned in homework on time, and I praised, praised, and praised some more.  While these alternatives helped me form better relationships I still saw little progress towards increasing levels of responsibility among the students of concern.

To be perfectly honest, I know I haven’t solved the riddle yet and I’m most certainly not done pursuing better options.  However, over the last couple years I’ve employed a combination of two strategies that have led to increased responsibility over the long term and also led to positive relationships.

These two strategies are certainly not rocket science but they do require a level of dedication that will take a concerted effort to maintain.  So, what are they already, right?!

 Consistency is Key:  Many people, and young adults are no different, need consistency in their lives.  The students who struggle to meet expectations for timeliness and responsibility most certainly fall into this category.  The first thing we need to provide for our students is a level of consistency that might even border on manic.  As these young minds develop they are facing so many changes, stressors, and emotions that anything outside of a routine will easily become lost in the shuffle.  Establish precise routines for your classes.  For certain students who you’ve noticed struggling even more than the usual, increase the rigidity in their routines.  Here are a few ideas to get you started:

    • Post a detailed daily agenda in a visible place that will remain for the entire class period (build in small breaks that will act as targets/checkpoints.)
    • Ensure that students use a consistent system of organization (agenda, digital calendar, etc)
    • Post any homework or outside of class responsibilities in the same place each day AND give kids sufficient dedicated time to record their homework in a(n) agenda/digital calendar each class period.
    • Create a dedicated “inbox” for completed work and/or ONE specific system for turning in digital assignments.
    • Remind students about long term assignments every class period AND check-in on progress toward the long term goal.
    • Make time at the beginning (waiting until the end doesn’t work, trust me) of each class to check-in with students who need reminders, never let a class pass without this happening…remember, consistency is key!
    • Change up other routines to encourage flexibility…I know this seems to fly in the face of the whole point but try things like:  Changing the seating arrangement, seating chart, groups, or elbow partners.  Also, keep your bulletin boards fresh, rotate student work displays, and keep your room current.  

It Takes a Village to Raise a Child:  The African proverb is so popular and has been around so long for a reason…it’s true!  Students who require the most effort and attention will need the whole “village” to be involved.  Communicate with your grade level teams, share and harmonize strategies, and include other support (Sped, ELL, Counselors, Admin, etc) as necessary.  Similarly, communicate with the parents in a positive and supportive manner.  As a team share the strategies that are being employed, ask for support, and let them know that this is a team effort.  Last and definitely not least, include the student in the conversations as often as possible.  They need to understand their role in their success.  Try:

    1. When an assignment is late, or better yet about to be due, send the student a reminder email and CC the parents and other relevant support.
    2. Let students know that they should be proud of themselves when they do well.  Building the intrinsic sense of achievement is exponentially more powerful than letting them know you’re proud of them.  Try, “You should be proud of yourself for…” instead of “I’m proud of you…”  They will still know you’re proud of them but it also sends a message that they should be working for themselves, not to please you!  Remember, you won’t always be there to be proud of them!!
    3. Use Growth Mindset language with your students.
    4. Communicate, communicate, communicate.  I can’t stress enough how important it is to have all relevant stakeholders involved in the process of supporting a struggling student.

You can try yelling at students, ignoring the problem, or giving them detention, some of these will make you feel better but at the end of the day these strategies will achieve nothing more than a acidic relationship and a distaste for your subject or class.  By this point I’m 100% sure that you already have a small list of students in your mind.  Consider the strategies you’ve employed thus far and think about what alternations may be needed to help improve the level of success they are experiencing in school.  Finally, please involve me in the conversations.  As I hope you know by now, helping struggling students is one of my passions as an educator.  Every teacher in history has had students who’ve struggled for one reason or another, let’s work together to help those students succeed!

The Middle School Balance

A couple weeks ago we sent out applications for the National Junior Honor Society (NJHS) to all of the students who qualified academically.  We sent out just over 90 letters in the Middle School congratulating those students on their academic efforts.  Along with that letter went an application to share all of their awesomeness with the NJHS Faculty Committee who would be voting on this year’s NJHS class.  What we got back was inspiring to say the least!

56 students returned applications for the National Junior Honor Society which focuses on the five pillars of: Scholarship, Leadership, Service, Citizenship, and Character.  We are all well aware of the academic capabilities of the students.  It was downright impressive, however, to see the amount of opportunities our students have to get involved (in our school AND community) on display via these applications.  These are opportunities that wouldn’t happen without you, your time, and your efforts!  Our students are flat out lucky to have such amazing people working at their school; people who are willing to get involved to make the community a better place for the kids.

Being away on China Trips last week and hearing all of the positive comments from kids about how much fun they were having as well as seeing them push their limits and learn new things was a very positive experience.  Then to follow it up this week by looking at all of these amazing student applications and all of the wonderful stuff they’ve gotten involved with really strengthens my belief that we’ve created a well rounded and balanced program for our Middle School students.

When we look at how we live our own lives we can appreciate the importance of balance.  Whether it’s finding time to workout, read, enjoy the city around us or try new things we all find ways to manage our lives in a healthy way that doesn’t allow work to take over completely.  This important part of living a successful life is what we’ve used as the foundational belief for how our Middle School functions.  Creating a program that guides students toward living balanced lives is at the core of our Middle School.  As our students move to high school this balanced approach to life becomes even more important as they learn to tackle the rigors of independence.  Looking past high school we can all attest to the need for balance in our lives as college students and beyond, into the “Real World”.

Thanks to your willingness to offer amazing opportunities for our kids to get involved with leadership, service, and other amazing after school activities we’ve put our Middle School kids on the path to successful, balanced lives!  All of your efforts, both inside and outside of the classroom, are what make SCIS an amazing place for our students to learn and grow through their middle school years!!

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!

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 🙂

We Are All Role Models For Others

Last week I mentioned the work we did as grade level teams to prepare for upcoming advisory sessions.  While those discussions were happening I overheard some great conversations about the best ways to get our kids to demonstrate those behaviors that we value the most.  I bit my tongue and let the discussions proceed but over the last couple weeks this has been knocking around in my mind over and over again.

There is a quote (often credited to Gandhi but in reality not his) that says, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  It makes a great bumper sticker, and probably means more if Gandhi said it, but I digress.  Either way, it’s a brilliant idea.  If we want something to be true we can’t just sit around talking about it, we need to live it!  The beautiful (sometimes scary) thing about our position as educators is that we have tremendous influence over the next generation of leaders!

When we choose our lessons and map our curriculums we consider all of the most important and relevant information for our subject areas.  In advisory we’re trying to teach the pastoral care elements that are often missing from ‘academic’ classes.  What about, however, the other stuff?  How do we teach kids to be kind, gentle, polite, respectful, and caring people?  How do we get them invested in their community, motivated to succeed, or excited to take risks?  Well, we can stand in front of a room all day long talking about it…or we can live it and show them!

Prior to Shanghai I worked in a charter school in Houston, Texas called YES Prep.  We had something called our “Thinks and Acts”.  Essentially this was a list of cliches and catch phrases about things, that as adults, we all know.  However, they hung in the hallways from the ceiling where they served as constant inspiration and reminders for our students (and everyone else!)

I was thinking about these “Thinks and Acts” as you were talking in your grade level teams; one in particular.  “We are all role models for others.”  It jumped to my mind almost immediately because I believe so strongly in the fact that we need to, as Ghandi didn’t say, “Be the change we wish to see in the world.”  I think you get where I am going with this; our students watch us, they listen, and they emulate.

I came across this video earlier this week, I love the message in this video.  You’ll notice that this is more than just “Pay it forward”.  The people in this video aren’t experiencing the helpful acts directly, they are watching them happen and then being inspired to act themselves.  This is how we need to live our lives, as though our students are constantly watching, analyzing, and emulating…we need to be the inspiration for our students!  We need to lead by example and set the tone, “We are all role models for others!”

Here is the video, I don’t think you’ll need a VPN because it’s hosted on our school’s server as part of the next Dragon Time.

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.