AN ALLURING CRYPTIC FUTURE

Technologies continue to outpace us.   As a society we are often unable to keep up.  Take for example the task of explaining the differences between cryptocurrency, blockchain, and a ledger?  We may have heard of each but do we understand them well enough to teach? Or, on an even deeper level, are we able to comprehend the implications they likely will have not just in the financial world but also into education?

With 7,800 cryptocurrencies currently in existence, it is difficult to imagine waking up tomorrow and finding out they have all just disappeared  Further, their establishing more than a foothold is evident in headlines such as Forbes March 31, 2021, “Goldman Sachs To Become Second Big Bank Offering Bitcoin To Wealthy Clients.”  The ubiquity of crypto is becoming more and more apparent.  Currently there are 38,460 Bitcoin ATMs in the United States. Or, on an even more prosaic level, the subject of an email I received from a local coffee company here in Thailand read, “NEW ROAST COFFEE BLENDS & SAVE 50% WITH CRYPTO PAYMENTS.” 

A great deal of my learning about cryptocurrency, blockchain, and the ledger resulted from listening to my nephew’s high school capstone project three years ago. I was quick to realize how much I did not know and have since, paddled hard to stay afloat in the current of change.  True to what Sir Wiliam Haley suggested would be a much more effective education. “…if its purpose were to ensure that by the time they leave school every boy and girl should know how much they don’t know, and be imbued with a lifelong desire to know it.”

It makes sense to define each before considering how they may serve education as an institution.  First though, more important than crypto being a derivative of the ancient Greek κρυπτός (krúptō) which means, ‘I conceal,’is the linchpin or what it all really comes down to.  In a word, de-centralization. Think internet. Or, another illustration might be, how workplaces and classrooms were forced to “flatten” during the pandemic.   Everyone suddenly has more stake and more voice, working together instead of the more traditional top-down passive and reverence for power approach. 

 

Definitions:

This explanation is contrary to a quote from the creator of Bitcoin.  Using the pseudonym Satoshi Nakamoto he quipped, “If you don’t believe me or don’t get it, I don’t have time to try to convince you, sorry.”

Cryptocurrency: a form of digital money, called this because the consensus-keeping process is secured by strong cryptography.  The “secret writing” is secured by math, instead of people, governments, or trusts.  Like the example of coffee above, you can pay for items (or NFTs, as shared in an earlier post) electronically, similar to how you might with any other currency.  Recently after Amazon posted  how they were recruiting for a ‘Digital Currency and Blockchain Product Lead,’ much speculation followed regarding the company beginning to accept cryptocurrency.  Also of prominence are recent reports of how some countries are adopting cryptocurrencies as national currency.  “A step too far,” according to a recent IMF report.  But, what are some of the  “pulls” of moving in the direction of cryptocurrencies?  As international teachers we either have first hand experience or peripheral knowledge of these two examples:

  • Wire transferring could be likened to travelers’ cheques in its being outdated.  Wire transfers can take more than a few hours or sometimes even days.  Plus the added cost.  Currently, transfer fees from my bank in Thailand to the United States is more than USD $30.  In the case of cryptocurrency, banks/brokers are not able to take “their cut.”
  • Financial inequality continues to grow globally.   An outdated McKinsey & Company article titled, “Counting the world’s unbanked,” cites how 2.2 billion unbanked or underbanked adults live in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East. They do not have access to financial services

Blockchain: According to Dummies, where complex concepts are made easy to understand, blockchains are distributed databases where groups of individuals control, store, and share information. This is done in blocks.  The blocks are then linked, or chained, using cryptography. What makes this especially powerful is that any change is time stamped and visible to all.  Ultimately this assures transparency but also authenticity.

Ledger: In business, ledgers are written or computerized records of completed transactions. In error, many people use “blockchain” and “ledger” interchangeably. One big difference is the distributed ledger is free from blocks or chains. Furthermore, blockchain data is publicly available in the form of a public key, along with a  digital wallet address. This means no permission is necessary and anyone can view transaction histories and participate in a blockchain operation. Whereas, the distributed ledger requires permission to complete a transaction. 

All tech talk aside, why ultimately should we care?

 

Past, Present, and Beyond

It is difficult for students today to comprehend the world many teachers grew up in. B.G (Before Google).  Or, actually pre-Smartphones and even the Internet! “What, there was life before the Internet?” Equally I remember dreaming as a child, of a phone I might be able to see my aunt and uncle on, though the idea of portability and carrying the phone in my pocket evaded my imagination.  Yet now, as fast and far as we have come, we seemingly accept the digitized world as commonplace.  So too, will be the future of cryptocurrencies, blockchain, and ledgers.  In 10, 20, or 50 years it may be similar to the internet and it will be impossible to imagine a world without them. 

We need not look far to recognize diminishing trust in institutions and governments. School as we traditionally have known it as well.  Centralization is flailing. Best-selling author and entrepreneur Seth Godin shared in a blog post, “Centralized control gives us predictable, reliable, convenient results. Until it suffocates.” In its place is what is being called, the shared economy.  Peer-to-peer connections as evidenced through the use of Airbnb or Uber are examples of a cultural shift towards decentralization.  A similar decentralization in how information and currency is stored and also shared. A movement that is expected to only get bigger in the coming years and appears here to stay. 

 

Implications on Education

Currently there is no system for reliably recording a person’s educational achievement.  In our accelerated world, alternatives to the traditional ways of education are likely to continue to bloom.  Credentialing is quickly becoming the norm.  One million, or to be exact, 967,734.  That is how many unique credentials are in the U.S. alone.  The beauty of this increase in degrees, certificates, and badges is that there are more options.  Yet, according to Credential Engine,“There has never been an efficient system to collect, search, and compare credentials in a way that keeps pace with the speed of change in the 21st century and is universally understood.” Blockchain technology is an efficient and consistent way to keep track of a person’s entire educational history and is likely to be of increasing importance. 

American Council on Education to lead the Education Blockchain Initiative (EBI) was launched in 2020 in effort to re-think our educational system and how to utilize technologies like the distributed ledger. For example, Blockchain protects against falsified credentials but also allows students to be in control of their own transcripts.  One well-known university’s registrar outlined the process for a student to obtain their transcript as:  “Between the hours of 4:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. place your request at Registrar Services, first floor lobby. The transcript fee is $10.00 per copy for processing within three (3) business days.”  To think a busy college student or graduate would have a thirty minute window to make a request and have to wait three days is archaic to say the least.  EBI continues to evaluate ways that blockchain might improve the flow of data but also empower the individual.  So transcripts are not under a lock and key or on a high hill.  This flow seeks to decentralize information so communication is within and across institutions and into the workplace.  

 

In the Midst a Shifting Culture

Nearly four years ago Tom Van der Ark of Getting Smart reported how Scott Looney launched the Mastery Transcript Consortium“The new nonprofit started by defining the problem: current transcripts mark time not learning–they value information regurgitation over making meaning, disciplines over integration, extrinsic over intrinsic rewards, and encourage grade inflation. The whole charade is based on the premise that grades are replicable, validated and meaningful.”  In programs such as the Mastery Transcript Consortium a motivating force is students being empowered to drive their own authentic learning. This is purposeful for students but also to universities and employers.  Manoj Kutty, CEO and founder of Greenlight Credentials remarked, “The big future opportunity is a marketplace where universities can search for applicants by category and credential and invite them to apply (or even offer acceptance based on verified credentials).”  In an interview with Van der Ark, Kutty asserted, “In 20 years, students won’t be applying to colleges; colleges will be recruiting students.”  However, we need not look into the future to comprehend the cultural shift clearly underway, as employers are becoming more interested in the trusted and verifiable skills a person possesses.  At one of the most sought after job places in the world, Google, ‘college degree’ has no place in its official guide for hiring employees.   

Decentralization will continue to gain traction. As freedom, transparency, transference, and a person’s competencies are valued more, Blockchain and similar technologies will be as vowels are to the alphabet. We are in the nascence of a new “language.”  Blockchain is clearly a catalyst of change and already we are in the midst of a significant shift.  

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WHAT WAS THAT ALL ABOUT?

~The Valuable Role of Reflection

As the world attempts to reinstate “normalcy,” there are clearly different baselines or targets amongst countries.  For the United States, Costco in the news provides but one example. Just before the start of summer, their plans included “beginning a phased return to full sampling,” after 14 long months without offering shoppers microwaved mini tacos for nourishment? Society definitely needs nourishment, though I’m not sure mini-tacos will do.  Or, what about Lollapalooza, a three-day music event that drew 300,000 people in 2015, returning to Chicago from July 29 to August 1? Regardless of what is happening or is planned to happen, I have felt maybe more than ever before, a near mandate to reflect on where we have been.  

As an educator, a sort of responsibility has enshrouded me.  To do due diligence and attempt to make sense, as best I can, of the past school year. To draw out as much learning as possible from the many lessons the pandemic offered, or “forced” depending on how you might see things.  Three immediate if not glaring points stood out:  Change, flexibility, and rebirth.  In this, humanity is in the midst of a quasi-phoenix moment; a rising from the “ashes.” As exciting as the past year was tiring, for some reason, reflecting as thoroughly as I may have liked, continued to be put off.  Not one to procrastinate, this baffled me.

Then the other dayI happened upon a tweet. A teacher tiraded how educators should be left alone, nothing more expected, this is OUR summer and we have done enough to get through the past year.  I understand this sentiment as for many, the past 18+ months maybe have felt like being held underwater and summer finally is a time to come to the surface.  To breathe.  The myriad of unforeseen and often uncompromising situations the force that held us under.  Still, I harken back to an article I wrote a few years ago titled, “You Make a Difference~The Value of Summer Reflection.” Here I outlined the pivotal role of reflection and realigning ourselves to our purpose.  Summer, the essential pause. Yet, also a time to reflect.

 

Summer’s Kick-off

The day summer school teaching finished and summer “officially” began, I received an e-mail from a former student from another school.  The message began, Hey! Jennifer got stabbed in the leg by Wendell at the end of March which complicated the year..” Immediately, I was issued two parts opportunity to lend a consulatory response and one part the ability to gain greater perspective. The timing seemingly perfect, as I still had not done an “honest” job of reflecting on the 2020-21 academic year.  I desperately wanted get to the bottom of the question, “What was that all about? Another year of jostling between on-line and in-person learning.”

And so here I am. There is a ripeness to the moment where the catalyst is space more than time.  

 

Caught Up In The COVID Storm

Before the academic year came to a close, I did not entirely skip reflecting.  Oddly enough, it was something I asked students to do and also something I did with a colleague. Just not alone and to a depth that would appease.  In a final meeting over Zoom, a teaching partner and I met.  We attempted to simultaneously add our thoughts to a straightforward end-of-year reflection template that looked like this:

Biggest success this year: Biggest challenge this year:
Strengths data shows: Areas of growth to focus on:
One thing I learned this year: One thing I want to learn next year:
One change for next year: One goal for next year:

 

Surprisingly, at least for me, was how off the cuff nothing immediately emerged as a goal for next year.  This was the dawning moment of how I was both exhausted but also how I had been caught up in the COVID storm.  My vision not quite 20/20.  Ultimately I had not fully come to grips with the reality of the pandemic and one of the greatest lessons I learned.  The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.”  To remain flexible, adapt, and be forgiving.

 

Meta-Reflection

Over the years, I felt feedback received from students is a gift.  A window into their reality. A term I am coining here is “meta-reflection,” building off metacognition and thinking about thinking. Might we reflect on student reflections? It may even connect  well with a strategy many educators may employ with students.  Harvard Zero Thinking Strategy, “I used to think but now I think.” One question asked on the student reflection that led to more in-depth analysis was, “What are a few things in social studies class that I did to help you to learn?” A prevailing theme was evident, allowing for my own “I used to think but now I think.”  I used to think I was limited in doing meaningful project-based learning because of an overabundance of standards, but now I know that more wisely designed curriculum implementation is possible.  This I was able to deduce, as patterns emerged in student comments attesting to how they were reinvigorated in learning as a result of agency, authenticity, and purpose. 

The student reflections led also to a more philosophical goal. To continually remind myself to be the teacher one student envisions me to be, “You taught us in a way where you knew we would understand. You put yourself in our shoes and every day it felt like it was a brand new day for every student to do better and have fun.”  Comments are not all so glowing and when we model honesty in the feedback we provide students and invite students to do the same when  giving us feedback, there is a necessity to embrace vulnerability.   One student maturely commented in a way which resulted in pushing me to think more about a check-in routine I was using.  Her points not only honest but absolutely valid, leading to my immediate plan to discontinue the routine.. 

As a learning community, giving and receiving feedback is a skill we routinely practice throughout the year. In reading student end-of-year reflections I can say with confidence how students in 2020-21 stands out  for their high degree of insightfulness and graciousness. One individual’s honest yet humorous response is sure to not to be forgotten. The fill-in-the-bank question asked,  “If I were a middle school social studies teacher I would _________________.”  A common response for example attested to the role of collaboration. For example, “make more projects where students get to work together.” The particular student’s memorable response was but one word.  “Quit!”  Ironically he is also the son of two teachers.

A few years ago Rhonda Scharf was credited with posting on Facebook the following thought, “Teachers are not ‘off for the summer,’ they are ‘in recovery.’”  And if I can add, “in reflection mode.”

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STUCK CONTAINER SHIP: A METAPHOR FOR THE EDUCATIONAL SYSTEM?

What could be harder to turn around than a 220,000 ton ship measuring nearly a quarter of a mile long?  The education system. The Evergreen however served as a fantastic metaphor.

For six days, the colossal three year-old was stuck. In a stretch of water narrower (985 feet) than the length of the boat (1,312 feet).  Not even a 3-point Austin Powers maneuver back and forth was possible “baby.” 

 

Not What It May Seem

Though the word “Evergreen” is painted on the ship’s side, on its back and bow in smaller letters is its official name, “Ever Given.”  A Taiwanese company called Evergreen Marine is responsible for operating the vessel, though it is registered in Panama.  Further, it is managed by a German ship company, but owned by a Japanese billionaire.

Education, more than a fifth of the way through the 21st century, is also not what it might seem. 

 

Roots of Education and Where We Find Ourselves Today

For most of human existence children educated themselves simply through play and exploration. A scary concept for most today.  Agriculture and the eventual systems of servitude resultant of the Middle Ages may have been what led to the death of children’s free will to organically learn.  In its place, obedience and reverence for lords and masters. The Industrial Revolution further squelched the innate desire to learn, as children were used for labor.  Once industry began to become more automated children were no longer as needed as much and at the advent of the 20th century child reform efforts surfaced. Finally, in 1924 opponents of child labor in the United States sought a constitutional amendment to allow Congress to “limit, regulate, and prohibit the labor of persons under eighteen years of age.” However, “the conservative political climate of the 1920s, together with opposition from some church groups and farm organizations that feared a possible increase of federal power in areas related to children, prevented many states from ratifying it.”  Not until 1938 were child labor laws enacted.  

 

Mind you, this is but 83 years ago!

 

Until Jean Piaget (1896-1980), pedagogical theory envisioned children as merely “empty vessels.” To be kept in line and “filled up.”  A diametric opposite of the very meaning of education. Etymologically, the term “education” derived from the Latin word “educare,” meaning “to bring up, rise, or to nourish.” Or, even more fitting is to consider the Latin “educere,” and its meaning to “to draw out.”  

 

Nourishing and Drawing Out.  Are Schools Doing This Today?  

More aptly, are schools whole-heartedly bent on settling for nothing less than a child’s best and allow for personalization?  I would argue we still have many miles of road to pave.  However, traction continues to be gained as educational systems move from compliance to empowerment.  The narrow ideologies of the past may pervade, yet however steeped in “control” they may be, such views are being sabotaged by digitization and connectivity.  Now, a teacher in the virtual world likely contends with YouTube, chat rooms, and possibly even Netflix, for a student’s attention.  “Armed” with pre-determined and trite curriculum, it often feels like a losing battle.  Vying for students’ attention and dumping curriculum on them was not the impetus most teachers got into the profession.  

An alternative approach might instead based on respect and trust.  Where the knowledge, skills, and standards checklists become more invitation than imposition. Or, what about the powers of collaboration?  How many educators are trusted, willing, or daring enough to set out to build a sort of kinship with students, where curriculum might be co-created?  A return to a more master and apprentice style; exploration as opposed to inculcation. For an example of how one middle school teacher does this, take a look at the basic structure for a unit design in a post written by Allison Zmuda titled, “A Play-By-Play Strategy for Co-Creating Curriculum with Students.”

 

Damage Done

The Suez Canal, a slit carved between the Mediterranean and Red Sea, took 10 years to build.  An investment well spent because today it is the preferred path connecting east and west. Ten percent of the world’s trade purportedly flows through these waters. From the 23rd to the 29th of March, the world watched as more than 360 ships were forced to wait.  A behemoth blocked the way. According to Lloyd’s List, a maritime intelligence organization, a total of $9.6 billion worth of cargo was held back each day.  Not until April 3rd did the Suez Canal Authority declare the logjam over and that all waiting ships finally crossed through.  Then, on April 13th, the Evergreen was seized and “Egyptian authorities said they wouldn’t release the massive ship… until its owners agreed to pay up to $1 billion in compensation.”

 

Are today’s schools similarly being held for ransom?

 

What is it going to cost to free our brittle, antiquated, and traditional system of education?  Though there is a clinging on to a delivery of knowledge; something seemingly more ubiquitous than even clean water or air, I remind you how the duration of this model, is but a flash in time. A “new normal” if you will. Yet, cracks in the system, like the ones the pandemic is inducing, continue to create a sort of vacuum. The rays of light clear the space for teachers to be more daring and for learners to return to what is instinctual.  Learning which is constructed, not consumed. Actively uploading, as opposed to passively downloading.  

 

Nothing New or Particularly Earth-Shattering

The late Sir Ken Robinson was turning heads 14 years ago, claiming how schools actually squash creativity. Further, in a visit of over 200 schools, Ted Dintersmith shared his observations in a book called, “What Schools Could Be.” Further, for specific schools standing out in the field, you may want to take a look at Getting Smart’s list of “Middle and High Schools Worth Visiting.”  Here you will see project-based learning, personalization, purpose, and a variety of other “ingredients” necessary to “unstuck” education.   

The stuck container ship is in fact a fitting metaphor for the education system. A difficult system to turn. One that still is wedged.  However, I like to think progress is being made, even if  transformation has not freed the “ship.” Marketer and author Seth Godin says it best, “Most difficult, quite rare and precious is the idea of transformation.”  The idea is there! Allies and advocates alike, we are tugboats.  Please stay the course, because your pushing and pulling is critical.  

 

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LEADING AS OPPOSED TO MANAGING

Nearly four centuries ago samurai turned poet Matsuo Manefusa, or Bashō, gave us the gift of Haiku (The inspiration for the Haiku I created above). Similar to Haiku’s time-tested refined distillation of 17 syllables, Twitter constrained users to but 140 characters.  More practical than artistic, Twitter was initially designed as an SMS-based platform and 140 characters was the limit mobile carriers imposed. In both instances, paramount is getting in and out with intentionality.

If only all facets of life were streamlined. Imagine faculty meetings or even better, dentist visits!

Probably much like you, I have a host of people I follow across social media platforms and frequent newsletters. However, none whom I follow parallels the unmistakable brevity and potency as Seth Godin.

If you do not already follow Godin, I suggest you check him out. Godin is an inspiration of what it means to be both purposeful and clear.  For more than thirty years, he has shared inspiration through his writing.  An author of 19 best sellers, his daily blog is in its eleventh year and imparts clever but also applicable messages that pollinate ideas across a spectrum of workplaces. For example, his top two all-time most popular posts are titled, “Don’t Shave That Yak!” and “Quality and Effort.”

One constant of Godin’s style is his ability to succinctly convey his message, masterfully positioning us in the slipstream. Voice so present in his writing. Clear and in pure breviloquence, Godin’s posts are possibly two steps from Haiku and but one away from Twitter.  He imparts wisdom that is enduring but also especially transferable to the craft of education. For example in a recent post he commented on the power of more self-directed and project-based learning, “We can create a pattern of teaching people to be curious because curiosity is an engine for learning… it is less predictable but far more powerful than the current alternative: Creating a desire to get it over with, combined with the ability to believe whatever the person in power tells us to believe.”

Who could disagree with this? The difference between compliance and empowerment.

Just envisioning paths paved by curiosity but moreover what is possible, is the first logical step.  More difficult is the necessary next move. For adults; teachers, parents, and administrators to make a conscious effort to simply get out of students’ way.  Please do not take this as a recommendation for an anarchic melee. Instead, the motivation is more an invitation.  To allow students to genuinely take a front seat to their learning.  If not in the driver’s seat, at least to sit shotgun. Far too much chauffeuring of backseat passive non-learners has grown to be the default modus operandi.  A generation often labeled as bored, disengaged, and unfortunately ill-prepared graduates.

This is not the first time I made the bold suggestion to step out of the way so students can get on with learning. So salient it crops up daily in my reflections, after and sometimes even amidst a lesson. Seemingly I keep having to learn this, as I forget, unlearn and relearn. Why?  My best non-guess is that it is a matter of control and of critical importance is to courageously let go. This I confess with equal parts honesty and vulnerability. Further, I am beginning to think it best to begin each lesson or unit plan with an overt intention to lead and not manage. Similar to coaching.  Or, what Godin references to what we don’t see in a music conductor’s success, “They have less power than it appears, and use their position to lead, not manage.” Ultimately musicians, athletes and all learners will find themself on a stage, field, or court.  Let them manage.  Let them play!

Teaching in Three Dimensions

Self-compassion and seeing clearly of necessity as teachers navigate 3-dimensions.
Photo by: Photo by Nonsap Visuals on Unsplash

The start of a new school year resulted in my taking a bit of a hiatus in blogging.  No doubt, being in three places at the same time has provided some challenge.  Three places?  Live with five classes of twenty-something pre-teens wiggling before me in the classroom.  Getting to know students and  putting faces with names is the first order of “business.”  This year I have a student named Whale and another I warily call Honey.  “Good morning Honey!” just does no’t feel right for some reason.  I remain thankful Honey is not in Sweet’s class, or Sweet Honey might just sit alongside each other.  A colleague has Putter’s little brother, Birdie this year.  Thai nicknames often add  a bit of joy to the classroom and it is quite possible to have a whole fruit salad, with students named Apple, Pear, and Peach!  

 

3-D Teaching

Face to face, or dubbed f2f, often focuses the first days upon building routines and  just putting students at ease, so the classroom is a place each child feels comfortable. A second dimension being explored, is “the virtual.”  Back to Zoom and synchronous virtual learning. While the third space is reserved for the asynchronous and for students  currently out of the time zone.  These learners receive a link to the recorded class and sometimes  the addition of more succinct tutorial videos which teachers create.  So, a start to a school year unlike any other.  Three-dimensional!

Though only two or three class periods in, humorous stories already are being amassed.  Of such things as an unaware synchronous student,  broadcasting inappropriate comments  over the classroom speakers for all to hear.  Or, of the student projected on the screen in front of the whole class.  Only, everyone’s attention is on the mother who is behind her and acrobatically dodges out of sight. Dropped Zoom calls, forgotten recorded sessions, audio input/output incorrectly set.  Whatever the case, even with the fumbles and follies, the first two weeks back to school were a definite success.  One that required teachers both compassion for students and themselves.  

Here in Thailand we consider ourselves lucky to have a chance to be face to face.  This a possibility because of the stellar response of the  nation.  In fact, the end of  July saw Thailand ranked number one in the world out of 184 countries for its ongoing COVID-19 recovery effort.  This,  according to the Global COVID-19 Index (GCI).  Nearly a month later, Thailand remains on top.  As of August 16, the total numbrer of confirmed cases stood at 3,377, where 95 percent recovered and just 58 total deaths recorded.  Further, Thailand had no new domestic cases of COVID for 83 days.

 

New Normal Comes With Some Hard to Reach Directives

Throughout the pandemic, news of COVID stipulations seemingly shifted from morning to night.  However, society was steadfast in being compliant regardless if there appeared to be contradictions. Certain regulations appear to be for perception as the logic is difficult to understand.  For example, in schools students can pass a basketball but not borrow a pencil.  The importance of exercise a priority, while the pencil is deemed a risk that can be mitigated. Keeping account of the dos and don’ts or cans and can’ts can be difficult.  However, more challenging is to break socialization habits learned in kindergarten, where sharing was  “what big boys and girls do.”  First grade began with the importance of washing hands but also that there would no longer be the sharing of anything, toys included.  Then there was the valiant and never-ending  attempt to control for social, or what we call physical, distancing?  Social distancing, a bit of an oxymoron, as we want students to be social, but so long as there remains  1-2 meters of distance between them.  Middle school students huddle around an infographic the teacher probably should not have even printed and handed out.  Yet, the motivation being one of learning, sharing  ideas, and being together.  Laboratory work in the high school can be interesting if physical distance is to be maintained.  Need I even “touch,” no pun intended, what physical distancing might mean to a classroom of 3-year olds who is not yet even proficient in the language of instruction?  

Thai national  schools began the first weeks of July, whereas  the independent international school where I work just wrapped up week two.  However, mid-game (if ever there was a mid-Corona game) yet another measure of compliance was just handed down.  Impossibility absolutely inherent in the “design.”  The Ministry of Education requires all schools to ensure students maintain a daily record of their whereabouts outside of school hours.  The purpose is  to  facilitate any needed contact tracing should a case of COVID be reported (confirmed) in the community.  This means all students need to record where they go daily.  Being a middle school teacher, it often is challenging enough to have a chiild write down their homework when it is written on the board and given as a directive.  

In May Thailand’s government launched a contact tracing app, declaring it vital in reducing a flare up of virus cases. Public buildings required app and temperature check-ins  via prior to entry.  The shopping mall was the first place I encountered this, then the domestic airport.  Unable to mandate the use of the app, because not everyone has a phone, the alternative mirrored how it used to be to make a walk-in restaurant reservation.  A piece of paper on a clipboard and just your name and phone number penciled in. Initially I could not help but question the legitimacy or accuracy of this alternative.  However, Thai culture’s high degree of respect and deference shown to authority likely results in near perfect record keeping. A system like this in the United States would  play host to an array of absurd names and numbers.

 

The Road Ahead

No matter the next edict, law, or measure, Thailand will hurdle, rather than grapple with any ostensible or grey space. There remains a tensile strength in Thailand’s hierarchical structure, one that begets compliance.  Businesses remain shuttered and the entire tourist industry gasps for a breath of fresh air.  Though there is no promise, hope remains and there is conversation about a plan to re-open international borders.  Meanwhile, schools may be in session, but the situation is fragile. Learning could go back to 100 percent virtual at the drop of a hat!  If COVID has taught us anything, it is the importance of flexibility.  This, along with the reckoning of how Thailand’s entire society remains under the auspices of the Kingdom. Yet, herein possibly lies the very reason why the country tops the list of safest places to be right now!

 

Thoughts At the Dawning of a New School Year  

The following post is divided into three sections:  Masks, Summer Happenings, and Getting Prepared. I hope you mith be able to find at least one nugget you are able to do something with.

Masks

United Nations COVID-10 Response on Unsplash

Who would have thought the maelstrom kicked off by the simple step of wearing masks in schools?  We are fortunate to be beginning the 2020-21 academic year fully in-person.  Masks are clearly a dominating concern, if not just something on people’s minds.  For parents this might begin with thinking about how to get their child excited about wearing a mask.  The tactics to mirror what many parents do with wearing “big boy” and “big girl” underwear.  Such things as superheroes printed over the mask, a possible motivator.  Then, there is the whole element of mask care.  Purchasing a holder that goes around the child’s neck, similar to a croakie for glasses, is one effort to prevent children from forgetting their mask, setting it down, or even crumpling and jamming it in their pocket.  But not all students will have these holders and a crystal ball is not needed to be able see the amount of masks that likely will be lying around.  Only unlike the myriad items spilling from a school’s “Lost and Found,” the masks simply will be tossed.  

Personally, I have given some thought to a sort of list of features to prioritize in a mask.  Finding the right mask of sincere importance, as covering my breathing holes eight hours a day is something that may not prove so easy to adapt to. 

  1. Breathability.  A clear frontrunner in the criteria.
  2. Comfort. On my face but also ears.
  3. Safety.  Meets the specifications to protect others and myself.
  4. Ability to project my voice. So students can actually hear me.
  5. Transparency.  I am thinking about how important it might be to show my mouth for students to better read my expressions and even lips.  Afterall, the majority of students are not native English speakers.  

*Notice cost is not an issue.  Over the summer I purchase a handful of different masks to experiment with, and never were they more than a few dollars.  Nor do I prioritize the design or message. However, the masks with “Make America Great” scripted across them, somehow don’t end up in my cart.

The last criteria, transparency are those masks designed specifically with the deaf in mind.  So they could read a person’s lips.  However, before even beginning the school year, it is easy to predict an added challenge hindering cross-cultural communication.  Facial expressions key, as is a face free of a mask so a student’s voice can be projected and pronunciation understood.


Summer Happenings

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Transitioning beyond masks, a recent end-of-summer reflection centered on how a clear shift was taking place between the Achievement Gap focus and what now gripped people’s attention, the Privilege Gap.  Certainly the pandemic exacerbated all the discourse around equity.  Besides all the hysteria around COVID and “to wear, or not to wear the question,” the summer of 2020 might aptly be labeled the Anti-Summer. Anti-racism and anti-feminism, two antis leading the charge.  One of the top five best selling titles, “How to be an anti-racist.”  Two others in the top five being “White Fragility,” and  “How to Destroy America in Three Easy Steps.”  Equity, with good reason is legitimately on most everyone’s mind.  

Though I did not hyperfocus when the tides were high; Black Lives Matter protests, movements to defund the police, etc. my attention was grabbed recently by an article written in the San Francisco Gate. Definitely more low tide!  The title sums it up well. “’Learning pods’ threaten to widen the privilege gap in Bay Area schooling.” The author cites Clara Green and an opinion piece Green contributed to the NY Times.  

But first, what are “learning pods.”  No need to feign understanding as the concept did not exist two months ago.  Born out of student and family experiences with virtual learning as a result of the pandemic, learning pods are quickly becoming another option. Some families are distancing themselves completely from schools and opting for only learning pods, whereas others are utilizing them as supplemental.  More than a buzz word, one San Francisco-based group on Facebook has more than 9,500 members.  Furthermore, the “main” pandemic pods Facebook group is 30,000 and growing.  Their description on the “About this group” page:

Join this group to connect with other families, teachers, and caregivers as you figure out how to address your family’s childcare and educational needs during the pandemic…and stay for the information and resources shared in this group to help you navigate schooling and childcare during these difficult times.

The very idea one in which many families find to be of necessity.  A possible place marker for some, while others are likely to thrive and remain with this alternative model.  One in which individuals but sometimes also pop-up services in which teachers are hired and managed. In some cases, parents are even taking on the teaching as they share their areas of expertise.

Simple put, learning pods are all about education. 

However, in the NY Times article Green goes so far as to claim, White parents are again ignoring racial and class inequality when it comes to educating their children.  As a result, they are actively replicating the systems that many of them say they want to dismantle.”

Really?


Getting Prepared

Photo by Element5 Digital on Unsplash

Last, I thought I would begin a sort of “veteran” teacher’s list of preparations for the start of a new school year.  The plan is to add on to this, up until the first day of classes, less than two weeks away.  This being my recipe of sorts.  In no way is it “THE” recipe.

  1. Know thy students:

I begin this by playing with students names, nicknames, birthdays, etc.  The more I write/type their names the better.  This begins with a spreadsheet where I note the aforementioned details and add notes such as, “Grace’s little sister,” “Lives downtown,” or “Father works at school.”  I also make a separate chart of birthdays by month so I can put these in my Google Calendar and be prepared to wish them a special day.  During this process, I deliberately think about each student and their name.  In Ecuador I worried about keeping the Marias straight.  Maria Elena, Maria Christina, and Maria Belen.  For Tunisia it was the Mohammads.  In Thailand I am especially tickled to read the nicknames.  This year I have no Sand or Beach.  However, I do have a boy that goes by Whale. 

  1. Organize the learning space.  This year’s social distance requirements add an interesting element to the classroom design.  However, I already have some ideas.  
  2. Prepare for first days (social emotionally and really building community and then context)
  3. Introduction of myself (a video to be shared with students and parents this year.  Taking what I learned from virtual learning about the power of teacher generated videos.
  4. Course overview (Syllabus? Video?)
  5. Google Sites creation (a place to store parent newsletter links, tutorials for example on how to read feedback on PowerSchool or whatever Learning Management System/Platform a school might have).  This Google Site is a new step I am taking to consolidate information and resources but also hopefully create more meaningful parent partnerships. It also doubles as we begin to utilize Google Sites as a beginning to reflective learner-centered portfolios.  A tool not only invaluable for student growth but also helpful in guiding student-led conferences.

Pandemic Confirms Consideration of Three Ps (people, possibilities, promise)

“The thing that lies at the foundation of positive change, the way I see it, is service to a fellow human being.” – Lee lacocca

 

Teaching is as much about being of service, as it is about making a positive change.  The pandemic of 2019 and hopefully not beyond 2020, as it will surely go down in history books, continues to generate opportunities to reflect and surely to wonder as information shifts and unanswerable questions multiple.  Some people early on were tired by cliched yammering of “silver lining this and silver lining that.” All of our lives were turned upside down, some more than others.  Undeniably, misanthrope or not, the corona virus did incubate possibility.  All systems are being reconsidered, from health care and justice to food supply chains and education.  Behind every system is people.  Which heralds a consideration of what I like to call The Three Ps~people, possibilities, and promise.

 

People

Even the hermit would be stretched to tell a story about the pandemic.  How Italians serenaded each other from their balconies.  Or, the applauding of health workers putting their lives on the line.  Regardless, the thread throughout would likely be the humans as protagonist and the virus?  Predictably, corona the antagonist.  That is, all but possibly the stories abounding of how the natural world was provided a sort of break, while humans were locked down.  The key word being “down,” and not “up.”  And because humans were not locked “up,” plastic consumption continually rose.  More shopping was done on-line and restaurants catered to home delivery.  But it goes beyond this.  Think about the countless millions of surgical masks and gloves.  Or grimly, the body bags.  In a rush, not entirely unlike the space race, governments competed for respirators.  Similarly, some of these same governments rushed to stockpile supplies before their citizens.  In early May, Amazon had to put the clamp on, removing hundreds of thousands of listings where sellers jacked up prices on health related items, all either containing or contained in plastic.  People. People. People!

Then, there are people like prime minister Ardern of New Zealand.  A leader who did exactly that, effectively led!  A poll by the market-research firm Colmar Brunton found that 84 percent of Kiwis approved of the government’s response to the pandemic.  Why?  Ardern led with compassion, clearly communicating throughout as she helped navigate the course of the country.  This example of a person, segues nicely into possibility.  I just finished listening to a book called, “The Art of Possibility” by a husband and wife duo, Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander.   Possibility?  What do you think of when you hear this word?

 

Possibilities

For me, I cannot help but think antagonistically. About what might some may deem impossible but a hero’s journey arises. Stories of men and women where odds were tremendously stacked against a person but how an individual overcomes, earning a sort of legendary status.  Chief amongst these is Ernest Shackleton and how his iconic leadership led all twenty-seven members of the Endurance to safety after being trapped on the icy south pole for nearly two years. At one point Shackleton was quoted, “…even the remotest possibility had to be considered and exploited to the fullest.” His leadership showcased how Shackleton lived and breathed, but also thought artfully.  Anything was possible.  The authors of, “The Art of Possibility” consider a latent potency of being present.  Shackleton undoubtably operated in the present, doing everything in his power to live in the moment so as to safeguard a tomorrow.  To maintain morale but also some semblance of normalcy, the crew was expected to continue daily tasks.  Routines included playing games after dinner and holidays were even celebrated!  It is difficult to imagine what it might mean to live in the present when your home, a boat, is crushed by ice and it appears you are forever trapped.  Yet, Shackleton and his men did. Their belief in the possible, kindred to the eternal flame of the forgotten soldier.  Being present with the way things are is incongruous with acceptance.  You may not accept the conditions, yet zero tolerance can be provided for resistance to take root. Battling only fills in the space necessary for discovering what is possible.  The non-battle a sort of meditation with transformative power. The wind in the sail merely a question, “What CAN I do?”

Did we not ask ourselves this very question during lockdown? People responded, sometimes surprising themselves even.  Seemingly millions of people found their feet during this time, walking turning into a favorite pastime.  Others turned to baking. Many found solace in binge watching YouTube videos and Netflix.  Time became a relative concept as suddenly there seemed more of it.  And we looked for what we could do when we what we considered “normal” was no longer.  A final assignment I invited 7th grade students to what was called, “Quaranthings, an idea I borrowed from a teacher named Heather Clark.  The challenge was to gather up all the things that acted as supports throughout quarantine.  Then, create an artistic display along with your portrait.  Again this was about what was possible.  For me, some of the experience was about reading, guitar playing, and just being with our cats.

 

During the height of the pandemic I thought back on an important lesson I remembered learning in my early 20s.  It was my second year of university and transferred to Oregon.  The autumn was delightful but by early November, winter set in.  “Wasn’t this the West coast?”  I remember wondering.  The cold and wet unanticipated.  Well, at least not to the degree that it rained every day. In Corvallis, Oregon it is not unheard of to receive upwards of 15 inches of rain in a single month. Moreover, the chill was enough to set into even my youthful bones.  What did I do?  Changed course, going from my fraternity to class and back.  The fraternity is another story, one where “What can I do” didn’t bode well with the “brotherhood.”  Shuttering myself in, and waxing friction of being an underclassman or “pledge” in an “animal” house with 75 other dudes, it’s easy to see where I may have been a wee bit unhappy, or even depressed.  However, that next winter life drastically shifted when I made the unconscious decision to not let the weather dictate what I would or would not do.  I cut up a plastic 2-liter bottle, fitted my bike with DIY fenders.  I also invested in a Gore-Tex jacket.  I’d bike in the rain, stand in the rushing rivers and fish in the rain, walk joyously to class in the rain.  Embracing all that was possible because I was willing to live life.  A valuable lesson for anyone at any age!

 

Promise

This takes us to the final “p,” promise.  No doubt the world needs a lot more of this.  As an educator it is the education field I feel most comfortable discussing, relative to it being replete awash with promise.  Like the acrid clouds suspended in an airport smoking room, promise hangs in balance.  Though so much is uncertain, one factor we do know, is that we will not return to how things were in November of 2019.  Nor would it be sensical to desire this, as education systems are rife with inequity, and ineffectiveness.  The pandemic thrust us into a chaos that allows for the surfacing of long overdue opportunities for change.  Commissioned to co-exist with COVID-19, 20 and possibly 21, educators can anticipate change.  Some shifts simple modifications, others more revolutionary.  With this likely will come a mélange of emotion.  Teachers, administrators, students, and parents alike may grapple with change as promise or punishment.  With exhilaration or trepidation.

In the international school where I teach two overarching principles guide any adjustments and are clear from the beginning:

  • The health and safety of students, staff and our community are paramount, and
  • The educational and social emotional needs of students are best provided in a face to face environment on campus.

Who could argue with either?  These two principles push beyond the base physiological needs, a term Abraham Maslow utilized in his infamous Hierarchy of Needs.  Yet, how we support students in fulfilling their unique potential, their self-actualization needs, must continually come into focus we navigate new and fecund frontiers of teaching and learning.

Of course, there will be changes some may be leery or even displeased about.  Teachers having to adhere to a 1-2 meter physical distance requirement when interacting with adults and students, sounds dystopian or in the least, not personal.  Or the expectation to wear a mask at all times. An added challenge to connect with students, possibly understand their words and even facial expressions. But be as it might, people will adapts to these changes.  Of weightier importance is how schools exactly plan to roll-out the scenario they select to open schools with in the Fall.

Blended learning models are really the only option.  Just what this means though needs to be made clear to all constituencies. An approach combining components of an online education with more traditional place-based classroom methods.  Yet, how exactly this looks depends upon the design.  The form following the function, results in smaller class sizes.  Something teachers are likely to celebrate.  Schedules change too.  A shortened school day?  Also, it is reasonable to consider teaching may become more thematic and possibly project based.  Conceivably, teacher and student autonomy might increase but also empower as paths intentionally are paved for personalized learning.  Further, as already witnessed, a departure from high stakes testing will only gain steam.  Paraphrasing Zander and Zander in the “Art of Possibility,” abundance rather than scarcity is to be the context.  It is about what we now CAN do that before maybe we could not.  Education is being infused by promise.  The hope that administrators and teachers motivate, rather than manage. That learning builds on curiosity and is infused with joy.  Undeniably, the days and months ahead are teeming with promise.

COVID’s Theory…A squared + B squared equals?

Just for Now
Sleep less and commute more.  These are not exactly selling points.  However, lockdowns are being broken and the migration back to places of work is to commence; if it hasn’t already.  Anxiety pours thicker through people’s veins, the anticipation lackluster to say the least.  Lists of “What I’m Not Excited About” being scripted in invisible ink.  Less time with family and more  social pressure.  Yet, chief atop my list, is not an aversion to “rules” and regulations, rather a mental fatigue as a result of  attempting in good faith to keep everything straight.  To abide, surely even more difficult than to even understand what schools and governments want.  To return to some semblance of “normal,” but maintain distance, wear a mask, and don’t use athletic fields.  All that seemingly makes us human, stripped down.  The dependable formula seemingly changed.  A squared plus B squared, for some reason now equals I squared.  Might the “I” variable represent “illogical?”  Or does it stand for “irrational?”  Regardless, I find it helps to remind myself of three words, totalling but 10 letters.
“Just for now.”  A sort of mantra.
A preliminary list of dos and don’ts
I Want to Be a YouTuber
I’ve been thinking a lot about the way how things panned out with “emergency learning,” a term I recently heard to replace “virtual learning.”  We’ve done the best we can, yet even before it is over I reflect on how I might be more effective come the Fall and the start of another school year.  With near 100%  certainty elements of learning remotely will still be offered in addition to the traditional face-to-face.  For families not yet reassured that schools are safe and for others that may be in remote locations.  Chief amongst my endevourings is for compliance to be substituted for engagement.  This leaves me with several ideas of what next to pursue, relative to methodologies that might prove more appealing to today’s learners.  The intentional use of more video, including videos of me, as I emulate compelling strategies employed by YouTubers?  Not only might this be more alluring, but it also is aligned with the evolution of learning anytime, anywhere and from anyone.  Only in this case, from ME and asynchronously.
Michael Wesch, professor of cultural anthropology & world religions, is my inspiration in this.  Breaking down the 4-walls of classrooms and taking learning out into the world, Wesch offers university students something a “little” different.  His most recent video is titled, “Teaching Online by Going Offline: The Adventure Lecture.”  
I Just Need to Finally Do it (Students and Digitally Portfolios)
More than 20 years ago I made a professional portfolio as part of my Masters work.  It was in binder form, as this was before the widespread use of personal computers.  From time to time I’ve considered picking back up on this idea, knowing the great benefits of a digital portfolio.  I also knocked around the idea of students creating theirs too.  However, like that box of stale cereal in the cupboard that we reach past, always for something tastier or fresher, I continually looked past the portfolio idea.
But not anymore.
Already wading waist-deep into the water, I continue to explore how I professionally can utilize the portfolio process.  Further, finding it a definitive high-impact practice, it is something I want for students.  The role it might play in empowering students is clear.  Students  are decision makers, as they curate their learning.  It screams out, “Ownership!” as passivity morphs into action.  Digital portfolios allow for authenticity, reflection, and an opportunity to showcase learning over time.  My guru for all things digital portfolios is George Couros.  He can found here:  George
Maybe it makes sense for my first YouTube video to be on portfolios.  Let’s see, how to make that combination memorable?

Is Lilliput the “New Normal”?

What might we expect for the 2020-21 school year?  With the endless possibilities, stringent measures, and unavoidable conservative changes being considered, one word encapsulates what I am feeling.  An omnipotent word that wakes me up at night and during the daylight hours, blinds my mind’s eye.  Lilluput. A fictional island of Gulliver’s Travels, Johnathan Swift’s timeless satirical classic. Lilliputians, symbolic of the excessive hubris we humans often exhibit.  A pride that in effect shrinks our very existence.  Where structure and bureaucracy become too thick to even wade through. Impossible 10-point plans schools hurriedly are designing, so learning can be brought from on-line to in-person once again.

Opening Back Up
The motivation to open schools back up is driven largely by a a desire to allow students human connection.  Some schools even consider an in-person finish to the 2019-20 school year, even if for one or two weeks.  A risk some declare is worth taking, if this means children (families and teachers too!) might feel good about the world again.  Safety of course driving any decisions being made.  There are considerations of student numbers on campus, possibly just 50%.  Question whether or not to utilize cafeterias.  Hands on learning, but only if items are manipulated by single individuals and also disinfected at night.  What type of masks are best?  On-site COVID-19 testing, data protection and self-declaration forms.   Of course, agreed upon social distancing requirements too.  The list goes on.
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Is this how classrooms are going to look?
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Confronting the Pervasive Uncertainty
One cannot help but wonder what this might not only look like, but what it will feel like? Though for many the motivation is to recover their pre-COVID life, a clear recognition of a changed world is imperative.  One that we MUST embrace.  No matter how strange it might feel for a teacher to keep her distance from a pupil, or try to read facial expressions covered a mask. So much is out of our control.  Yet, what is, is how we might respond.  Determinedly, as teachers we have a moral obligation to confront the pervasive uncertainty.  To run full speed ahead in vulnerability.  Trusting leadership.
Next Steps
Lemuel Gulliver, the “gullible” narrator, had several redeeming qualities.  I would argue that chief amongst these was that he expected others to be honest.  Amidst the current pandemic, we might benefit from a similar mindset.   Further, we might add fuel to the fire, by simply envisaging the irony all around us.  Gulliver was a prisoner to men no larger than six inches tall.  What imprisons us?  And, can we move beyond this and positively put our energy to use?  Possibly, even to pursue levity?  An upturned grin?  A chuckle?  No doubt, the world could certainly use a lot more laughter right now!