Saturday, November 14, 2015

The Only Hope for Our Future

In the wake of yesterday's terroristic attack in Paris, I've been thinking a lot about our future as a global society.  There's a whole lot of hate in the world. People seem to be more and more polarized in their political, religious, and philosophical points of view. Compromise, open-mindedness, and empathy seem to be hard to find. Ignorance and bias has too often replaced enlightenment and truth.

Image Credit - Wikipedia
Yet, there is much hope.  And, it lies in education. After all, isn't education always the answer to ignorance?

But, our focus in education must change with the time in which we live.  Much of the polarization and ignorance we face is the result of a society living hyper-connected lives in a time of information overload without having prepared for it. We surround ourselves with others who agree with us and points of view that match our own. So rare is the intellectual, unemotional exchange of differing ideas. Having instant access to all the knowledge of the human race in one's pocket makes it easy to find justification for whatever makes us feel better - truth be damned.

The internet and all its positive and negative aspects came upon us suddenly. We were unprepared. We are still unprepared a generation later. I could write another dozen posts on the way fear keeps us from teaching students to navigate the bias that is so heavily embedded in the information that bombards them. Instead of preparing students for the world they will inherit, we have made schools into institutions of content delivery.

We strive to teach mathematics in school.  Yet, mathematics can be used to help engineer a manned mission to Mars, or mathematics can be used to engineer a more effective bomb.

We strive to teach writing in school.  Yet, writing can be used to persuade others to help their fellow man, or writing can be used to create propaganda designed to recruit more to a campaign of hate.

We strive to teach science.  Yet, science can be used to find a cure for the world's diseases or science can be used to turn those diseases into the next biological weapon.

It's time, in this time of information abundance, to switch our focus in education from learning content to using content to make the world a better place. Empathy, not the 3 Rs, needs to be the focus of education.  Content needs to become the means to the end, not the end itself.

Because children who learn the joy of doing good for others at a young age and are given opportunities to make a real difference in the world grow to be the positive change makers of tomorrow.  The only way to extinguish darkness is to spread light.

This is not idealogical wishful thinking.  It is because I see so many examples of cultural understanding through global collaboration and student service learning that I remain optimistic for the future. Being hyper-connected doesn't have to be negative. It is through my global network of inspiring educators that I see the amazing stories of what is possible.  We need to teach our students the power of using ubiquitous, instant information for good instead of evil. Whether we like it or not, a hyper-connected world is the one we are sending them into.

Our only hope for our future is education being used to teach understanding, appreciation of differences, and empathy.  I've always loved to travel because it has made me a better person.  Each new culture I have encountered has allowed me the opportunity to look inward and assimilate the best parts of that culture into myself.  This has made me more well rounded.  At a time when virtual travel is free and easy to do in our classrooms, we owe our students that same opportunity.

I am thankful to those who inspire me with the work they are doing to make these positive changes in our education system.  This morning in our Skype Master Teacher group I posted the following:
I appreciate being a part of a group that is working toward the only viable solution to the hatred we see in this world. I am thankful to be surrounded (virtually, and on a few spectacular occasions physically) by the two dozen or so of you who are making it your life's work to spread understanding of others and appreciation of differences to the students of the world. The only way to combat hate is love, and the work you all do to expose students to the power of global collaboration over individual competition, the power of celebrating cultural diversity instead of mistrusting those different from ourselves, the power of seeing a global society instead of maps with human created arbitrary lines is modeling the greatest hope we have as a planet.
To all of the educators that I know, and to those I haven't met yet, who are doing this important work, you have my admiration and thanks.  To those who haven't started yet, we await you with open arms.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Skype in the Classroom Lessons Inspire Global Citizens

After two years of working as a curriculum coach, helping teachers and students find really incredible learning experiences, I have switched roles this year.  For the first time in my 19 year career I am teaching 3rd-5th grade science.  In many ways this is a dream job for me. My philosophy that learners should be encouraged to wonder, experiment, learn from failure, and connect with others around the world fit perfectly in an elementary science lab.  Since I am in the same school, I have the added benefit of working with students who have learned with me for the past two years.  They know the power of using their learning to do good for others, and they feel empowered that they can make a positive change in this world through their actions.  They know they don't have to wait until they are adults to make a difference.

It is this culture of service and student empowerment that led to the post I am writing today. Two recent Skype in the Classroom lessons were such powerful learning experiences that they inspired my students to take action to make the world better. I am so proud of my students, and so convinced that these type of global videoconferences with passionate experts are vital to 21st Century learning environments that I had to share. 

Earlier this year I was searching on Skype in the Classroom for lessons that fit our state science standards.  I saw that SANCCOB, a sea bird rehabilitation facility in South Africa, offered a lesson that showed students the effects of plastic pollution on penguins with a live penguin on the Skype call. I booked this virtual field trip to help my 4th graders learn about the way animals interact with their environment. I also came across a lesson from the North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher that showed students the effects of ocean acidification on sea creatures.  This fit right along with our 5th grade studies of human impact on the environment and wildlife.

Both calls were amazing experiences for my students. Student engagement was off the charts, and the kids learned the exact concepts that I was hoping they'd learn. The aquarium actually did demonstrations with sea shells and vinegar to show how acid affects ocean animals, and showed live echinoderms and shelled mollusks on a document camera so kids could learn about them.

 Tamyln from SANCCOB was equally amazing and along with Princess, a live penguin who helped out, she shared pictures and examples of sea birds who have been harmed by plastics in the ocean.

As incredible as those calls were, it was my students' reaction to the learning that made me happiest. After students have a Skype experience, I always ask them to share their learning in some way with other classes who didn't get the same opportunity. My 5th grade students decided to create posters for my science classroom sharing ways to reduce factory production of carbon dioxide, which leads to ocean acidification. As they were making their posters, they started talking about ways to reuse materials in school. 

At the same time, my 4th graders were so inspired by their call with SANCCOB that they were seeking ways to solve the plastic pollution problem outside of science class. In between our Skype call and their next science class, several of the students got together and requested a meeting with my principal to demand we start a school recycling program. He told them that we would start a program if they planned it and agreed to run it.

When those 4th grade students came to their next class, they saw the posters from our 5th graders and saw that a "reusing" program would do even more good than a "recycling" program.  Together, the two classes began collecting water bottles at home and at school, and they began to look at ways that the bottles could be reused instead of discarded or recycled. 

The 5th graders are in the process of using many of those bottles to build a walk-in cell museum for their parents during parent-teacher conferences in an empty classroom.  Most of the organelles are being built by students out of materials that otherwise would have been thrown away. The 4th graders have begun planning ways to use bottles as planters and to build a drip irrigation system for the vegetable plants that will be planted in our school gardens in the spring as part of the Global Garden Project

One of the concerns I had when I switched roles this year was that the culture of student empowerment and service that I had helped develop in our school during my time as a curriculum coach would start to fade. I'm so proud of my students for showing me that my fears were baseless, and that they are continuing to look for ways to take action to make the world a better place. 

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Global Service Learning

While at ISTE last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Bob Greenberg, who interviewed me for his Brainwaves Video Anthology series. Bob seeks out "thinkers, dreamers, and innovators; some of the brightest minds in education" and seeks to record their stories to help inspire other teachers.  It was an honor to be chosen by Bob to be a part of this project.  Below is my 4 minute talk about the power that global service learning has had on our students at the Wallenpaupack South Elementary School.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Growing Plants, Hearts, and Minds

It's the last week of school, and honestly I didn't think I'd be writing a blog post this week. Since I will be teaching science to 3rd-5th graders next year, I have been packing up the classroom I've been teaching in for the past 16 years in preparation for my move to the science room downstairs. Monday I did a presentation for our school board on the global service learning activities through which our students have been learning and how they connected to my recent trip to Kenya. I have 3 presentations that I need to prepare for ISTE next week, and a presentation at the University of London next month that needs to be finished before I leave for Philadelphia.  It's been a crazy end of the school year, but after what I experienced this afternoon, I knew that I had to take a few minutes to share.

One of our kindergarten teachers, Lizabeth Conklin, has been working this year to create a community garden at our school. The premise of her project is to have students at the school learn through gardening, and to use the school gardens to grow fresh produce for our local food pantry. Her hard work has resulted in national recognition and grant money which will allow the project to expand next year.

Since learning that I will be teaching science next year, I have agreed to partner with Liz to teach science concepts through gardening. In addition, we have found partners in Kenya, the Dominican Republic, Maine, New Hampshire, Luxembourg, and Nepal for a global garden project next year that will have each group of students sharing their learning through gardening with the others. As a teacher who believes that learning through service projects should be the backbone of what we do in school, I am very excited about the possibilities for this project.

Next to our school is a small building owned by our local Fair Association.  For most of the year it is rented out by the Devereux Foundation as an adult day care center for individuals with disabilities.

As part of the garden project, Liz had contacted the directors of the program and asked if we could put a small garden behind their building so that those in the program could help with the gardening.  Today, I went with her and a group of 5th grade students to help plant a few tomato plants in that garden.

As the students finished getting the plants in the soil, we saw that there was no water source available outside the building. Liz went inside to ask if anyone would like to bring water outside and help water the garden. The response was amazing.

Soon, the men and women from the Devereux were taking turns watering and chatting with our students. both groups were sharing their knowledge of gardening with each other, introducing themselves, and having a great time. It was such a wonderful experience for everyone. As I walked back to the school with the kids I could hear them telling each other how happy they were to be a part of building this garden and collaboration.

Over the next few years, our students are going to learn a lot of math, science, language arts, and other content through gardening.  And, that's wonderful.

But, they are also going to learn a whole lot more about topics that are a whole lot more important.

This is what school should be.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Teachers - Shaping Tomorrow(land)

This weekend we went to see Tomorrowland. As a family of Disney fans, we've been looking forward to seeing it for a while.

Image credit -
I walked away from the theater with tears in my eyes.  As far as plot, character development, special effects, etc. - the movie was good, but nothing special.  But it still took me a few minutes after the movie ended to be able to talk without getting choked up because of the message at the end of the movie. I'll do my best to not write anything here that will spoil the plot for you. If you haven't seen the movie yet, and you count yourself among the dreamers of the world who see the possibilities ahead instead of the doom and gloom, it'll be well worth your two hours.

I got choked up because I have made this my life's work - to develop the dreamers who will create a better tomorrow for the world. 

To pass on to the next generation the belief that each of us holds within ourselves the power to make the world a little better. 

To show students the power of wondering "what if...", and then helping them do what they have to do to find out.

To inspire other teachers to choose learning over content.

To connect those outside the sphere of formal education who are passionate about making the world better with students and teachers, and to allow those do-gooders to pass that passion to the world changers of the future.

Because passion is contagious. And, we need more of it.  Like "The black thing" in L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, negative emotions like hopelessness, despair, and inevitability are constantly trying to make us feel as though our passions are unworthy of our time. There is a lot to be afraid of in the future, and the world has a lot of problems.  

As teachers, we face this battle as well. We've been marginalized, suppressed, and disrespected. Many within our ranks have forgotten why they chose to teach and have started to believe that their job is to prepare children for a test at the end of the year. Yet, there is plenty of light pushing back against the darkness.

I get constant inspiration from other Skype Master Teachers who are using videoconferencing to inspire their students to make real, positive change in the world. 

Every day I see new messages on my phone from the Varkey Teacher Ambassadors sharing the amazing ways that they are developing the unique talents and passions of their students.

On Twitter and Facebook I see the way the other Microsoft Innovative Educator Experts from around the world are leveraging technology to bring amazing learning experiences to their students.

Posts from countless other educators on social media sharing the stories of their classrooms, teachers and students who are experiencing the joy of learning so that they can make a difference, give me hope that we are starting to move in the right direction.

And, I see the teachers in my school doing incredible things that are inspiring my own children and the others in the community to grow to love learning.

There is a bright future ahead of us.  Yes, there are big problems.  But there are also big solutions waiting to be found.

At the end of the movie, there is an implication that these solutions will come from dreamers who are scientists, artists, mathematicians, gardeners, dancers, social change agents, and a host of other passionate people.  And, they will. 

But, it will continue to be the teachers of the world who are leading the fight to develop those dreamers and to allow each student to find the spark within themselves that makes him/her want to leave a positive impact. That's what we do. That's what real teaching is.

Teachers are the window that allows dreamers to see the possibilities in their futures. The world's teachers are living Tomorrowland pins.

I feel lucky to count myself among them. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

An Interview with Kenyan Wildlife Service Educator Carol Mwebia

While at Lake Nakuru National Park I had the opportunity to ask Carol Mwebia, education director for the park, a few questions. My hope is that this interview can be used to spark learning for students at home and around the world.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands, and Remembrance Day - Student Questions Answered

When our students at Wallenpaupack heard that I was going to have a full-day stopover in Amsterdam on my way to Kenya, and that it would be Remembrance Day, they had questions.  After reading a few articles on the holiday, they brainstormed a list of questions that they wanted answered.

Thanks to my Dutch friend Marjolein Hoekstra, we were able to help them learn the answers to those questions.  Prior to my stopover, Marjolein put together a OneNote notebook for the students with answers and reference material. The hope is that the students will now continue to expand this resource with new questions and answers so that it can become more comprehensive and be used as a learning tool for students around the world who are looking for this information.

In addition, Marjolein met me during my stopover to show me around the city and to record a short interview with me in which many of the students' questions were answered.  You can see that interview below.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Adventures in Kenya Series - Day 11 - Kwaheri, Kenya

I'm through secuturity at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport waiting for my flight to Paris that will connect with my flight to New York. I had thought that my last day was going to be relaxing and quiet, but like every other day on this trip, it was filled with pretty special moments.

We started by waking at 5:30, taking tea early, packing the van, and heading out on a game drive at 6:30.  The plan was to see as many animals as we could on the way out of the park while the morning light made for good pictures, and then hit the road for Nairobi.  Since it's only about a 2 1/2 hour drive, I had figured that we'd be in Nairobi by 10 or so.  Silly.  I should have learned by now that everything in Kenya takes at least twice as long as you anticipate. Pole Pole.

The game drive was amazing. We saw a few hyenas with a freshly killed ostrich carcass, and a baby rhino that was literally hours old.  We could still see the afterbirth hanging from the mother. A big gross, but very, very cool.  We saw lots of baboons, buffalo, zebra, and giraffes as well.  We didn't have any luck finding a leapard.

We passed out of the park gates around 8:30 and headed back to Nairobi.  About an hour into the drive, we stopped for a car wash since the van was filthy from driving on the paths in the park. Kenyan car washes are different than American car washes.  The car still ends up clean, but it's done by hand by guys with rags, and it took about 45 minutes.  We grabbed a quick snack and more tea before getting back on the road.

Jackson told me that he needed to stop to pick up potatoes for the Havilla school at a market on the way. When we stopped, we were immediately surrounded by a dozen or more vendors shaking their produce at us and banging on the windows. It took Jackson a while to figure out who had the best potatoes at the best price with everyone surrounding him like vultures. This is how it's done in Kenya. He, Livingstone, and I discussed the differences in the American produce purchasing experience when we got on the road 25 minutes later.

At the Great Rift Valley overlook we stopped for 2 minutes for a picture.  There were also a few souvineer shops there.  20 minutes later I was back on the road a few hundred Shillings lighter and loaded with some wood carvings I'm sure I don't need. The Shillings won't do much much more good than a zebra letter opener back home, so no harm done. Jackson got a free soda out of the deal for being the driver who stopped there while the Mzungu spent some money.

We hit a little traffic, and we finally go to the Cheery school around 1PM. When I walked into the school grounds, I was greeted with shouts of "Teacher Mike!" once again, and a few kids came running up to hug me.  That's a little humbling. I chatted with Director Jairus for a few minutes about ways we can continue our partnership in the future, and how the work I've done here over the past few weeks can be leveraged to help these children have the opportunity to overcome the abject poverty in which they are living.

After our chat, the older classes performed a few songs for me, and made me tear up by presenting me with Kenyan bracelets for my wife, my children, and me. I have mine on right now. It is a special memento of the time I had with these children.  Two students also wrote me letters of thanks that I will hold on to and cherish.

When it was time for me to leave, six or seven students held my hands, arms, shorts, and shirt as I walked down the rubbish, mud, and waste filled path to the van.  They didn't want to let me leave.  When I got in the van, several of them climbed into the back.  They wanted to come with me. It pained me to have to make them get out. With a sad heart, we drove away as I waved and blew them kisses.

From there, we drove to Havilla. I stopped into the classes I had worked with and asked them what they had learned this week.  They were also very happy to see me and to show off thier new knowledge.  The first graders told me about the English weather words they had learned in English class, and the second graders showed me the addition they were working on.  Before leaving, the school also sang me a song, the second grade performed a poem about the importance of education, and Head Teacher Domitilla presented me with a traditional Kenyan shirt.

When I left Havilla at 3PM I figured that I had a few hours to charge my electronics, take a shower, and relax before heading to the airport for my 11PM flight.  I chatted with Tracy and Ross from NGGE to catch up on the happenings of the week, and around 5PM I went on what was supposed to be a short walk with Ross.  He took me to an appartment building a few blocks away that overlooked the Kibera Slum, and then to a garden on the edge of the Slum.

At the garden we met Peter, a Kibera resident who is empowering the youth of the slum by teaching them gardening, catfish raising, and other trades.  With the products they sell, young Kiberans are able to make some money while learning important skills and improving the community. We chatted for as long as I could, and then he walked back with Ross and I to Barnabas's house telling us about his passions. He agreed to connect with our students back home to tell them about his work via Skype, and I told him that I would have Livingstone connect with him to show him how to offer learning sessions through Skype in the Classroom.  He is the kind of passionate do-gooder that is perfect for inspiring youth to get involved in service projects.

At 7, I said my goodbyes and loaded into the van with Jackson to head to the airport.  We picked up Livingstone on the way (he had walked home to shower earlier), and set off.  Of course, we hit a traffic jam, and the ride that should have taken 30 minutes took 90. The traffic lights in town were turned off, at every intersection there was gridlock, and there were a few cars stopped in the road. Kenya.

And so now, with both great sadness at leaving and great anticipation at seeing my family, I wait for my plane.  In typical Kenyan fashion, it took forever to get to my gate.  I had to pass through 4 security checkpoints where I my bags were either checked by hand or scanned though a machine.  I'm very sure this is going to be a safe flight.

I'll try and get some sleep on the plane to Paris.  Over the next few days and weeks, I'll be posting some of the many (60+) videos I took during the trip as they get uploaded.

Kwaheri, Kenya.  I leave a little piece of my heart with you and take much more than souvineers with me as I leave.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Adventures in Kenya Series - Day 10 - Distance Learning in Lake Nakuru NP

We woke up at 5:30 in order to get in a sunrise game drive.  We took tea and breakfast as the sun was coming up through the mist on the front porch.

Although many of the animals in the park are the same as those found in Masai Mara, Lake Nakuru National Park is a very different experience. The scenery and vegitation are different, so there are many more trees and bushes in which animals can hide.  We saw lots of giraffe, buffalo, zebra, and different deer during the drive.  We also saw the flamingoes for which the park is famous, many baboons with their newborn babies, a lion who had just killed a buffalo and was going back to alert her pride, and hyenas feasting on an animal carcass in a water hole.

Our Safari Van

Jackson Kanga, our driver, tour guide, and all-around good guy

Look, a lake!

The game drive ended at the park office where we met Milka, a Kenyan Wildlife Service employee who had helped us set up our stay at the Naishi Guest House, and also arranged for someone to give a recorded interview for students around the world about the park.  She introduced us to Carolyne, the park's education director, who drove with us down to the shore of the lake for the interview.

Using the GoPro camera, we recorded a great interview where Carolyne described the park's animals, the challenges faced by the park such as invasive species of plants and poaching, and how children around the world can get involved in conservation efforts.  I will post that interview on YouTube when I get home and have better upload speeds.

After the interview, we drove into the town of Nakuru to get supplies for dinner. Jackson and the two Livingstones told me that they wanted to get chicken for dinner. We picked up Groundskeeper Livingstone's friend in town and she and Teacher Livingstone went off to purchase chicken from a local market while Jackson, Groundskeeper Livingstone and I went to the supermarket for a few other things.  While we waited for them to return, we also went into a local shop and I picked up a few souvineers to bring home.


When I finished, we all piled back into the car in search of a quick lunch.  While driving to a place that sold chips (French Fries), I heard a clucking noise coming from under my seat which nearly made me jump out of the window because it was so unexpected.  Apparently, we bought a live chicken that Groundskeeper Livingstone was going to slaughter for dinner. I guess you can't get any fresher than that.

After a quick lunch back at the house, we set off for a second game drive equipped with equipment to connect with students in multiple locations around the world.  First, we found a nice location with many buffalo in the background to do a Google Hangout with multiple schools that got recorded directly to YouTube.  You can see that recording at the end of this post. The Cheery Children's Education Centre from the Kibera Slum, some students from my hometown in Pennsylvania, Beth Heidemann's kindergarteners from Maine, and Dyane Smokorowki from Kansas participated in the call.  First we talked a little about the park for the kids, and then we took as many questions as we could until an incoming storm kicked us off the internet.

The storm passed fairly quickly, and we continued with our game drive.  Every time we came to a big animal and had internet, we found a school to Skype with live to share what we were seeing and to answer questions.  During a period of about 2 hours we showed giraffes, rhino, and buffalo to a few sets of kids in Massachusetts and zebra to Tanya Cunningham's kids in Pennsylvania. Sharing our experiences with kids so far away made it even more special.



When you travel, and do it with an open mind and open heart, you grow as a person.  You take the best parts of the culture and location in which you are immersed and add them to yourself to make you better.  I've tried throughout this trip to do that for myself, and to share the best parts of the trip with others around the world as much as possible so that they can grow with me.  The calls on this last game drive felt like one more opportunity to do that.

When we got back to the house I actually sat and relaxed for the first time on the trip.  Teacher Livingstone and I sat on the front porch of the house, with water buffalo and zebra walking 20 yards away, chatting about the trip, teaching, and the importance of the work we are doing. This Naishi Guest House seems to be made for relaxing in an amazing setting. It was nice to reflect, and I feel both great sadness to be leaving tomorrow as well as a great longing to see my wife and kids again.

Look carefully, those are zebra in the front yard

For dinner, Jackson cooked up a traditional Western Kenyan meal of Ugali kwa kuku masala na spinach (Ugali with masala chicken and spinach).  He cooked the whole chicken.  Literally.  Other than feathers, there was nothing that didn't go into that pot. Teacher Livingstone explained to us that the key to good eyesight was not carrots, but rather eating eyeballs as he gobbled one down. Dinner was very good, though, and I went for second helpings of ugali with the sauce from the chicken.
As dinner was being made, Teacher Livingstone put on some music from my iPad.  Here's what I learned - He likes Michael Jackson, found out that the Beasty Boys are awesome, and said that Simon and Garfunkel are very nice on the ears.  He didn't know most of the music on my playlists, and had never heard of Janet, even though he was familiar with Michael.

After dinner, we sat around a nice fire in the fireplace that Groundskeeper Livingstone had lit for us. The house is so beautiful, relaxing and quiet, and like every other place I've been on this trip, I wish I had more time here.


Tomorrow, we get up early for a morning game drive out of the park, and then back to Nairobi where I will visit both Cheery and Havilla to say goodbye to the kids, and then off to the airport for a 11PM flight home.  I can't wait to see Lori, Abby, and Michael.

Here is the recording of the Google Hangout session mentioned above: