Who am I?

MYP Humanities Instructor.  International School Teacher in Japan. Google Certified Teacher. Apple Distinguished Educator. Americorp Alumnae. National Board Certified Teacher.  Traveler & TV Watcher.

This is where I think about these things.

To see what’s going on in my classroom, visit my class blog

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Learning from Each Other: Getting Meta with Professional Learning

I have recently taken on a new role at YIS…In-School Professional Development Leader. More to come on what this means, but it’s really thinking about how we support teacher learning while at ELC to grade 12, whether in meetings, PD days, or through the  Professional Growth Plan. I’m both excited and overwhelmed with the possibilities.  This post is about the first initiative with this new role. 

Our school, on the somewhat isolated country of Japan, value learning from each other. We also believe in punching above our weight. These are powerful qualities to have in a school. Around 20% of YIS teachers have led a professional development session of some kind outside of school. For a small school, this is a pretty impressive number. And even more teachers have lead workshops at school.

With this is mind, in my new role of in-school professional development leader, was to organize a learning opportunities for teachers who lead PD sessions, at school or away. I wanted to take advantage of the expertise we had of experienced presenters. We have the amazing Kim Cofino, who presents around the world, at our disposal and I wanted to steal ideas from her. And we had design-teacher extraordinaire, Joe Martinez, who does gorgeous presentations. And, equally important, I wanted to help empower other people so that they felt confident in presenting to other adults in a professional setting.

So I sent out this form

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 1.17.14 PM

And I got these responses:

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 1.19.50 PM

Again, I can’t stress enough how small our school is. And at the end of the school year, to see so many people, some of them unexpected, willing spend time thinking about professional development was pretty impressive.

The Three Sessions

Based on the feedback, we ended up having three voluntary sessions, open to all staff. I sent a pre-survey to the people who said they wanted to go to help out Joe and Kim and they did amazing things.

Session 1: May 27th (4-5PM): Designing an attractive and effective presentation. Run by Joe Martinez, this session will look at tools, templates and styles that will allow you to create attractive and effective presentations.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 2.11.36 PM

For this one, I wanted to give people options other than Presentation Zen. We, as a staff, are pretty good at using images instead of bullet points. I love Presentation Zen, but Joe’s style suggests there might be a next level. As simple as adding lines or pushing Google Presentation to the max, it’s amazing what we can do.

Session 2: June 1 (11-12PM): Creating an one hour workshop: This session will focus on how to plan for a one hour session with adult learners run by Kim Cofino. Kim will address how to create a plan, how to engage learners with with different activities, how to tap into prior knowledge, share ideas/resources and reflect.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 2.12.21 PM

This session really broke down Kim’s thinking about how to structure, plan and engage adult learners. Practical things like grouping and different protocols for collaborating.  No one knows this stuff better than Kim*. We were beyond lucky to have her as a friend and colleague and this session was just one more example of that.

Session 3: June 11 (4PM-5PM) –Creating an extended session created by Kim Cofino: This session will look at how you plan and organize an extended session for adult learners. This session will address engagement of adult learners (before, during and after), storing/organization/sharing of your PD resources, supporting reflection, and differentiation for adult learners.

Screen Shot 2015-06-17 at 2.12.34 PM

Have I mentioned no one knows this better than Kim?

Wrapping it all up

The first session had almost thirty people show up. The second session (held on a day with no students) had about 25 people. And the third session, definitely a more niche topic, had about 12 people. It was amazing to see a room with teachers from all different parts of the school, including almost all the administration team, sit down and talk about adult learning.  I wish I took pictures, but I was too busy learning. It’s  pretty meta having a PD session about how to run PD. Kim’s fantastic sessions, in particular, focused on how to run a meeting, by using strategies she uses to run a meeting or learning session. It was a bit trippy. And all three sessions were excellent. I’m not sure of the impact of these sessions yet. I want to do more and I think people want more. We want our teachers to be leaders both at YIS and beyond, because they have so much to share. And I do know that the Head of School ran a end of year meeting using some of the ideas for Kim and Joe’s session. And that can’t be a bad thing.  


* In many ways, the inspiration of this session was to take full advantage of the last days of Kim at YIS. 

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“You’re just like Kris Jenner, Ms. Madrid”

“You’re just like Kris Jenner, Ms. Madrid”.

                                                -Grade 11 DP History Student on May 8th, 2015

That was a new one for me. I’ve never been compared to the matriarch of a family known for living their life on reality TV. So when I was compared to someone Urban Dictionary describes as “a fame hungry control freak who wishes she was 25” I got a little scared.*

Screen Shot 2015-05-11 at 9.42.03 PM

But it was a compliment. I swear.

My grade 11 DP history kids created some kick-butt Crash Coursestyle videos. The videos were funny, informative, and clearly my kids had worked hard on them. I may be a little prejudiced, but I think they’re fantastic. So I wanted to share them with the world. I asked them to change their YouTube settings to public and I asked for permission to tweet them out. These kids, who moments before were squirming in their seats when their 10 classmates were watching, wanted me to share them as quickly as possible. And when I was having issues with YouTube the same kids were posting them on blogs that are looking a little dusty.

And it was in this confusion of sharing and technology snafus that I was called Kris Jenner.

When I asked my student to follow up her statement, she said I was trying to make them famous like Kris Jenner made her kids famous. They were excited I thought something they shared was cool enough to tweet out to my 2000 followers.** And of course they’re not going to be famous because of my one tweet. Nor do I want them to be. But I do want their voices heard. I hope they will feel special that I cc’d @johngreen on the message. And I hope they might get just a tiny bit excited when this blog post pings back to theirs. And if they hit double digits on their YouTube videos, that might be kind of cool. This isn’t about keeping up with the Kardashians***, but about telling my students that I think what they have to say is worth other people hearing.

Sometimes I check in with myself to make sure I’m using Twitter and building my PLN for the right reasons. But if I can give my students a voice outside the room, then I think I’m doing okay. And it’s little moments like this, when I’m compared to a woman who (according to the New York Times) “not just invaded the culture but metastasized into it”, that I think I might be doing something good.


* There are days I wish I was 25, though. And there are days I might be a control freak.

** Kris Jenner laughs at this measly number, but it’s been 5 years building up to this point. Still surprises me people press that follow button.

*** I’ve actually never watched this show, so I have no real opinion on Kris Jenner beyond what I’ve learned just by being alive in the internet age. Not because I wouldn’t (I love terrible TV), but because I live overseas.

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Leadership Day 2: Empowering Student Leaders in Middle School

You can’t make the term “project management” sound fun. Or cool. Or like anything you want to think about ever. Every consenant sounds harsh and the concept sounds like something out of The Office.

So with that said, I had a blast talking about project management with 30 middle school kids.

First semester, we instituted our first leadership day (blogged about here). In classic YIS fashion, we decided to up our game and take 30 kids off campus to talk about project management. Now this sounds insane/boring. Instead, it was one of the best days I’ve spent with middle schoolers.

The goal:

To help students learn how to manage big projects that they are responsible for outside of the classroom.

The who:

Students who have been identified as leaders. This was the student council, members of the service committee, and members of GIN-CAS (Global Issues Network-Community & Service). Some of the kids didn’t know why they had been identified as leaders. But teachers and admin saw something special in these kids and so they were invited. It a wide-variety of kids.

Defining Leadership

I’ve come to realize that we have made leadership into something bigger than us. We’ve made into something beyond us. We’ve made it about changing the world. And we’ve taken this title of leader, and we treat it as if it’s something that one day we’re going to deserve, but to give it to ourselves right now means a level of arrogance or cockiness that we’re not comfortable with. And I worry sometimes that we spend so much time celebrating amazing things that hardly anybody can do that we’ve convinced ourselves that those are the only things worth celebrating, and we start to devalue the things that we can do every day, and we start to take moments where we truly are a leader and we don’t let ourselves take credit for it, and we don’t let ourselves feel good about it –

Drew Dudley- Ted Talk, Everyday Leadership

Some of the kids didn’t know why they had been identified as leaders. But teachers and admin saw something special in these kids and so they were invited. It a wide-variety of kids, from all grades and different social groups. Susie found this great TED talks, which helped us as adults shape what we wanted our students to be: everyday leaders. This helped our kids realize that they don’t have to be the most vocal, or outgoing, person to be a leader. They just had try to make a small difference. This seems manageable to a middle school kid.

The Newspaper Challenge

Most teachers who has ever been to a workshop based around team building/creativity have done the newspaper challenge. You have a limited time and limited resources to build a freestanding structure. For teachers this is old news. For kids, this is new and exciting.

PicMonkey Collage

This was used to talk about all the aspects of project management that we had identified: success criteria, planning, time-management, teamwork, and overcoming problems.

Project Management System

I just added the word system to make it an even more boring phrase. Click here if you want to see all the cool work the kids did to discuss all the phases of managing a big project. It’s way more exciting than anything I can time

Project Work Time

The afternoon was spent working on any upcoming projects.

  • Student Council: Assemblies, Sports Week, and Movie Night
  • Student Service Committee: All-school service fair
  • GIN-CAS: Red and White Concert

PicMonkey Collage

They worked so hard. And they worked because they had something important and something that mattered.

Final Reflections 

  • We need to give our kids time to do these projects we are asking them to do. At YIS we turn a lot of control over to the kids. They run assemblies, put on fundraising concerts, and organize all sorts of things. But like adults, they need the time to do this. To take them off campus and to to give them 3 hours to just work together was incredibly valuable.
  • Project management may not be sexy, but it’s necessary. I’ve already noticed that my student council has been more self-sufficient when it comes to planning. They know what they need to do and they do it.

    This is entirely student generated. I wasn't even shared on it until last week.

    This is entirely student generated. I wasn’t even shared on it until last week.

  • I’m so grateful to my school in how much they support this initiative. The PTSA who helps fund it, the always fantastic Adam Clark, the get-things-done Susie Clifford, my principal and Head of School who took time out of their day to stop by and work with the kids. It’s such a gift to work in a place where the default is “yes, and what can I do to help?”
  • Yesterday, the PE department identified 15 kids (different from the ones who we took on Leadership Day) to help run Elementary Sports Day.
    Grade 8 at ES Field Day

    Grade 8 at ES Field Day

    That means that we have about 45 kids identified as potential leaders, all with different skills. That is a powerful investment into their future of our school.

  • There is nothing out there to help support middle school student leaders. Susie and I ran a workshop at the EARCOS Middle School Student Conference in April.In preparing for this session, neither of us could find any resources for supporting middle school students as leaders. And there should be. So for anyone out there looking for stuff here is our presentation.


  • The Red and White Dance last week and the Service Fair this week were awesome. Kids had all sorts of roles…behind the scenes and up on stage. They did it all. And I truly because our job in middle school it to help them learn and then trust our kids to do amazing things. Because they can do awesome things. Grade 8 running the concert like a boss

Red and White Concert


This is written as part of my Professional Growth Plan focusing on Student Leadership

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Live Tweeting a History Class


 I’m starting this with the fact that I stole the following lesson from Ilja van Wering and Russel Tarr. They are the ones who came up with the great idea of a Historian’s Dinner Party for DP History students. The idea of having students investigate and play the role of historians studying WWI was all their idea and I unashamedly stole their idea. And my students seems to really geek out on role playing a debate and arguing a point of view even if they don’t believe in the position of their historian. And it can make historiography, something that can be a little dry, come alive. With that said, I wanted to talk a little about the process of live tweeting the conversation. I have had a historians dinner party twice…once discussing the origins of WWI and one more time today talking about the origins of WWII. And both time, my only job was to live tweet the conversation. I was the recorder and as such I was silent. And some of my kids joined in the conversation. We use the hashtag #16HISYIS so that we can follow the conversation without following each other. And in the process of live tweeting the conversation, I’ve noticed some real advantages of flipping the script and having me be the notetakers. 1) The conversation can just go. They don’t have to take notes and they don’t have to worry about remembering everything. I’ve shared my tweets with them and they know they can use that to go back and remember the conversation. 2) They don’t need me to talk. Today they talked for 40 minutes without me saying a word. They were in charge of the conversation. And if there was an awkward silence, they had to deal with it. 3) They really listen to each other.

It’s great to see heads nodding in agreement. And to see them shake their heads when they don’t agree. And to see them build on each other’s arguments. And to see them reach out to the quiet students to ensure that they are heard.

4) Through my tweets, my kids can see what I consider important. I can’t tweet everything, so I try to tweet what matters. Like anytime you live tweet, I try to capture the conversation as best I can and to showcase the most salient/interesting points. Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 3.44.28 PM

5) By having a backchannel some of more talkative students can “talk” without dominating the discussion. And I can “talk” with those students using the hashtag too.

6) There is something about having a global audience that tells my kids this is important. I’m not going to lie, my kids are impressed I have more than 125 followers. So when I say I’m tweeting their conversation, they feel that what they say matters. So they take it a little more seriously.

So next steps

1) I would love to have more kids in the back channel. I haven’t mandated that the kids get twitter accounts, but I would like to nudge them to do it more. Because I love what the add to that conversation.

2) It think there is a way to globalize this. I have a feeling Ilja and I will try to do this via Skype.

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But with a larger group, there may be value to some kids in the backchannel while others play the historians. We’ll see where this goes. But I’m excited to be the silent one and record my kids learn.


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Attach yourself to people not to apps.

In the past 14 hours I have…

Had a text conversation on WhatsApp with my college roommate about her visit from Chicago to Japan in a couple of weeks.


Had a Facebook conversation with another old roommate who lives in Washington DC about JaRule and his music circa 2001.

Rebekah Madrid    But it’s still fun and games for  Aziz  Ansari ...

Had a iMessage conversation with my sister in London about a piece of art of hers I finally framed.

Also, a very important discussion about The Dress.

Also, a very important discussion about The Dress.

Emailed with a teacher (who I don’t know but met on Twitter) in Sydney about setting up a Skype conversation with her class and mine to talk about Japanese culture.

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Had an amazing Twitter conversation with @traintheteacher (Singapore), @itsallaboutart (Singapore), @wayfaringpath (Thailand), and @JKSuth (Switzerland) about visual note-taking.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 8.47.03 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-09 at 8.47.13 PM Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 8.47.22 PMScreen Shot 2015-03-09 at 8.47.29 PM

There is no rhyme or reason to why I choose a certain app to talk to a person. I flit between Twitter, FB, WhatsApp, iMessage. I’m as happy on FaceTime as I am on Skype as I am Google Hangout. I don’t think about what I’m using. I’m only thinking about talking and communicating and sharing.  Some of the ideas are silly and some are important (JaRule is important). But I live in magical times where I can talk to all my favorite people in many different ways in many different spaces..

And this is what our kids do. They do not care what tool they use. They have no loyalty to any app or any product. They just want to talk.

I’ve got a post brewing about our Digital Citizenship Week and how we track what apps our kids are using. And if there is one thing I know, what is the app for sharing and communicating today will be dead tomorrow.

So don’t get attached to any one space. The way you talk to the people around the world, strangers and friends, doesn’t matter. Do get attached to people and to ideas. Because they are what matter most.

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Bouncy Ball Revolution

There are are lot of words written about how we need to get our kids to move.

“Movement isn’t a break from learning; movement is learning” – Washington Post

Children are going to class with bodies that are less prepared to learn than ever before. With sensory systems not quite working right, they are asked to sit and pay attention. Children naturally start fidgeting in order to get the movement their body so desperately needs and is not getting enough of to “turn their brain on.” What happens when the children start fidgeting? We ask them to sit still and pay attention; therefore, their brain goes back to “sleep –  “Why so many kids can’t sit still in school today”  in the Washington Post

“the use of therapy balls for classroom seating is one strategy that therapists in school system practice might consider when working with children with ADHD who are having difficulty meeting school expectations of staying on task and remaining seated. Additionally, this intervention strategy was found to be compatible with inclusive educational practice and interdisciplinary teaming.” American Journal of Occupational Therapy concluding that in students with ADHD, sitting on therapy balls improved behavior and legible word productivity

I always feel vaguely guilty about making kids sit on the red plastic chairs I have in my classroom. I try to get my kids to move, but I know from my own school days that those chairs are uncomfortable. So two years ago, on a whim, I bought two giant yoga balls to try out as replacements for chairs in my classroom. I’m now up to four exercise balls, of different sizes. It’s really been a case of asking forgiveness not permission. I’m sure the lovely cleaning lady is annoyed by these balls when she’s vacuuming the mess the kids leave behind. And I know the bouncing can drive my principal crazy when he stops by the room (though he’s never ever asked me to get rid of them to his credit).  Other teachers have looked at me like I’ve lost my mind. And all the bouncing can make me dizzy.

But if I could, I would have 10 more in my room.

This is how my kids sit.

Grade 7

Grade 7

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by ndbekah

Grade 7 (not sure this meets Health and Safety)

Also not the safest thing I’ve ever seen

These guys came in one day and just started stretching. I wish they did this more often.

Grade 11 after a test

Grade 7s

Grade 7. That takes core strength to sit on the ball on your knees.

This is the normal way they sit. Just like chairs


Sometimes even the adults when meeting in my room will sit on them.

And in the two years I’ve had them, I’ve noticed a few things.

  • Not all kids like to sit on them, but a lot of them do. They have figured out their own system for sharing the balls and over the course of a week the majority of kids will have had their turn on the ball. And sometimes, on grading heavy days, I like to sit on them too.
  • Boys really like them. There have been a lot of studies and articles written about how traditional schools do not benefit boys who often need to move more than we allow them to. The bouncy balls let them move, stretch, and change their sitting position when they feel like it. And anecdotally, I honestly think it helps them focus. Of course my girls love the bouncy balls. But there is a reason a lot of the photos above are of boys.
  • They are rarely distracting. They are literally part of the furniture. You’ll have to trust me on this.
  • They are sitting much better and this helps alleviate some of my guilt for when they are spending so much time on their laptops. The bouncy balls force them to sit upright and use their core. Otherwise they fall off.
  • In a related note, I’ve never had a kid hurt themselves falling off a ball.
  • It’s spreading…since I’ve gotten them I know there is a yoga ball in the grade 1, grade 5, learning support and in the counselor’s office. I wish (and my kids wish) there  more were in middle school classrooms but the bouncy ball revolution is happening.

All photos creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by ndbekah

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Why are you here?

My classroom often looks like this.

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by ndbekah

A mess. A disaster. Craft supplies everywhere. Boxes that contain things like cans of helium, a disco ball, and a witches hat.

And it often looks like this at lunch time.

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by ndbekah

creative commons licensed ( BY-NC-SA ) flickr photo shared by ndbekah
Kids running around making messes. And talking loudly/screaming.

They were in my room today during lunch making messes and making noise. Student Council kids getting ready for Digital Citizenship Week. Dance committee kids get ready for this Friday’s dance. And they didn’t have to be there. I didn’t ask them to come. They were just here.

So I asked them, “Why are you here?”  What makes them want to give up lunch to do work?

Here’s what they said:

My job here is a minion, so I help with everything” Oscar, Dance Committee

“I oversee the whole dance committee and …I want to make sure everything is ready by Friday” Kai – Student Council President

“Since I’m leaving YIS this year, I want to leave it…better” Garrick, Student Council, Digital Citizenship Week Committee

‘We’re not done with the decorations yet” Erica, Student Council, Decorations Committee


I’m getting drinks to the refrigerator and I’m doing it because it’s good for the school” Quirijn, Student Council Member, Dance Committee


“I’m here because it makes me feel like a part of YIS…and make sure they have fun and we have fun as well.” Tessa, Decorations Commitee

“I could be eating lunch, but…I feel the responsibility to make this school a better place and a fun place for others” – Lisa

I love the chaos of getting ready for dances and assemblies and all the other things we do. I am constantly telling these students how happy they make me. And they come because they like feeling part of something. And they come because they feel responsible and they care for other students. The projects have value and the deadlines are real. They come because they are the ones in charge. And they come because it’s fun. And sometimes I wonder how I can translate to the other places where I get to interact with my students.

I do know that the decorations committee will be here Friday before school and Digital Citizenship committee will be here on Thursday. Not because it’s required. But because they want to.


As part of my Professional Growth Plan , I am going to be doing the periodic blog post on how I what I am thinking in terms of Student Leadership





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What’s Next: Beyond Blogging

I was lucky enough to be able to facilitate the Beyond Blogging workshop at YIS earlier this month with Jabiz. Trust me that I get the irony that blogging has fallen to the bottom of my to-do list too many times this school year and I was leading a workshop that was nominally about blogging. So with that said (and some inspiration from various participants) here is my bucket of bullet points.

    • It is great not having the answers. Even when you’re supposed to.  Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 4.08.44 PMEvery time Jabiz and I talked in the weeks leading up to the workshop we kept coming back to the fact that we don’t know what is beyond blogging. And I would get a little nervous/excited about that fact each time. We didn’t know the answers to the essential questions we thought should formulate the questions. We still don’t. And it was great that we could be honest with the participants. It can be a bit scary, considering people traveled a long way, to tell a room of adults that we don’t know the answers they came for. But honestly I hope that when I’m a participant in future workshops the consultant/teacher/leader owns up to the fact they don’t know the answers either. But education is too complex for a single answer to the big questions.
  • I’m not doing everything right when it comes to blogging or the things that are beyond blogging. Far from it.  In theory, I have some ideas of how to use digital spaces to encourage student voice and creativity. Sometimes , in practice, I create opportunities for students to use digital spaces (i.e. Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc) in an authentic way. But in reality, I don’t do enough. I still require too many posts that are just reflections or worksheets online. Despite modeling it, the blogs aren’t living spaces for my students. And I’m still struggling with how to do it. But the added bonus of not being a sage on the stage, was that I could be a learner too. I could have a conversation with people also grappling with these ideas.



  • I was worried about differentiation for teachers I didn’t know and I shouldn’t have been. It can be hard to plan a workshop for 40 educators with different experiences, teaching philosophies, and levels of experience when it came to tech. But it was truly a joy watching people create products that were relevant to their schools and for their kids.

    ” async=”” defer=”defer”>The products (Vines, infographics, blogs, widgets, videos, and more)  were vastly different and met the needs (I hope) of each participant. And it was a blast watching someone geek out with a new way of sharing, connecting, and creating with their students. And to be honest, these people weren’t strangers. Most of them I have met before at various conferences. Or talked to on Twitter. Or worked with a friend.  There are no strangers anymore.

  • Collaborative blogging and blogging for curation is something I want to explore more. Screen Shot 2015-02-11 at 4.13.24 PMEarly in the planning stages Kim made the obvious suggestion that we model what blogs could be. I am moving towards the idea that blogs are places of curation rather than reflection. Bubblecatchers.  So in that spirit, I created a collaborative blog for the weekend. Everyone at the workshop was invited to be editor and after some initial set up on my end, it became a place where we put our stuff. I wasn’t sure if it would work. And there were hiccups and things aren’t perfectly organized.  But I really like that the weekends stuff, most of it unpolished, is online. And it may or may not be a place I go back to, but it served a great purpose for those few days. And I’m wondering how I can take this to other projects.
  • I need to blog more. This is a cliche thing everyone who has a blog thinks on a pretty regular basis.  It takes me a long time to blog. I want the perfect picture, the perfect phrase. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I’m not a perfectionist by nature, so why do I have to be one in this space.  Why can’t I just post a post-it note with a short phrase of what I’m thinking that day? Or an instagram pic? Or screenshot a couple of tweets that speak to the things I’m thinking about? What can I do to keep building this space?


So as usual, more questions than answers. But that is a space I’m normally pretty happy being in.  A huge thank you to Jabiz for being such a great person to work with. And a massive thank you to everyone who came…it’s nice to know I’m not alone when it comes to this stuff.

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A teacher learning from her student leaders

I am writing this as part of my Professional Growth Plan this year: Student Leadership. 

I love being a middle school Student Council advisor. To other people, planning middle school dances, trying to run meetings with 12 year olds, and organizing monthly assemblies with grades 6-8 students may not be the best ways to spend your spare time. For me, I am energized by working with fun, silly, good-intentioned middle schoolers.

Look at these goofballs...how can you not smile when working with these kids.

Look at these goofballs…how can you not smile when working with these kids.

I love seeing what they can accomplish and their belief that with hard work, they can accomplish anything. I see my job as StuCo advisor to create opportunities for my students to act as leaders and to shine. The less you see of me, the better.

Despite my belief that my StuCo members do develop as leaders, it’s been a bit like throwing a non-swimmer in the ocean. Kids learn on the job. It’s a joy watching the upperclassmen (the wise and wizened 8th graders) teach the 6th graders how to get things done. But I haven’t set aside time for them to learn leadership skills. And when my amazing Vice-Principal, Susie Clifford*, suggested that we hold a leadership retreat for our middle schoolers, it seemed silly that it wasn’t something we didn’t do as a matter of course.

So this Wednesday, Susie, Adam Clark** and I jumped in cabs with 12 students and headed away to school to the Yokohama Country & Athletic Club. And while the kids were there to learn things like public speaking, how to communicate with adults and peers, and project management, I learned just as much as they did.

I learned our kids can teach. We gave the kids an hour to work in small teams to come up with a 15 minute lesson plan on their topic. To be honest, Susie and Adam and I thought they might struggle to fill the time. Instead they planned amazing lessons***. The group teaching about running agenda, created a beautifully planned agenda for their lesson, with action items and discussion points and then had each group (including the teacher group) act out a good meeting. The group teaching about communicating with adults had each group write an email asking for chaperones for a dance and then chose the best intro, body and conclusion. There were visible thinking routines, quizzes, pair-shares. I saw little things I know I do in my humanities class. I caught glimpses of my colleagues in watching this middle schoolers teach.  It was awesome. And they were amazing teachers.

LR StuCoI learned that it’s important to get away from campus for a day. It’s a special occasion for the kids (a15475046542_5c4538c484_ond adults) to leave campus, eat non-cafeteria food, and spend the day thinking about their roles as leaders. And it can’t be interrupted by all the things that happen at schools. It was special and we don’t do enough of those things for the kids.

I learned we need more opportunities for cross-grade interactions. I truly enjoyed watching 6th graders work with 8th graders. And for 7th graders to switch between being mentors to the ones being mentored. If yo15288412479_3e096c06b6_ou remember middle school, the gulf between grades can be vast. But watching the kids laugh and hang out and play games and get to know each other was the best part of the day. And the community that is formed is  invaluable. And we need more create more chances for the kids to learn from each other. 15475277455_ed1570a8de_o

I learned that schools should value student leadership. Student leadership is one of our school goals this year. It’s because of this that the school supported three teachers leaving campus for the day and paid for the leadership retreat. The belief is that if we train student leaders, they will then teach other students to lead. I truly believe that this can happen.

I learned the kids want to lead. The last hour the kids worked on projects using the skills they developed. They worked on the assembly which would happen the next day (which was according to a 7th grader was “flawless”). They worked on fundraisers. They wrote a blog post about the day to share on the school website. One group worked on setting up an agenda for our future meetings. And for the last 30 minutes, our incredible StuCo president Kai ran the meeting. Watching him run the meeting like a boss was proof the day was worth it.

StuCo Meeting

The evening after the leadership, I was buzzing. It was so much fun to spend the day with these kids and some days when you’re a teacher you just want to have fun with your students. And then I got this email from our president, Kai: 

Today was a really fun day and I learned a lot about how to run meetings, and how to be a good leader. On behalf of the student council I would like to say thank you for everything you taught us today, and the time you put into it. I feel like we can now all be advanced leaders, and our meetings will become more student led. Hopefully, we can start to be more productive on our own in meetings.

I think it goes without saying, but we’re already planning our next leadership retreat.


* There should be no confusion, this leadership day was the brainchild of Susie. And she did the vast majority of the work getting us ready for the day. This day could not have happened with Susie…like so many other things at YIS.

**This day also couldn’t have happened without the indomitable Adam Clark. He ran so many of the activities, games and took the amazing photos you see on this blog post.

*** I did something similar a day later with my grade 11s. Their lessons were lecture based with maybe a small quiz. I’m not sure what that means, but I think it means something.

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Visible Thinking: Not Just for Little Kids

I’m thrilled this year to be teaching DP History again. It’s been a while (my entire time at YIS) and I’ve missed it. But in my years focusing on MYP and middle school, I’ve picked up some new teaching strategies that I knew I could use with my grade 11 “historians”. So this year I hope to document how I challenge my DP students, get through the curriculum, keep the class relevant and ensure that the focus of the class is on student learning. 

One of the strategies I have started to use with my grade 11 students are the Making Thinking Visible Routines. Now I know that MTV is often thought of as an elementary exercise. Or as something good for scaffolding thinking with middle schoolers. And perhaps MTV may not the best fit for pre-college level course. But I also know that the kids in my classroom are 15 and 16 years old. They are just starting their Diploma Program process and they still need help clarifying their thinking. I also know that by grade 11, grades and GPAs really do matter and it’s not fair of me to just throw a test at them without at least trying to see if they had an understanding of the time period we are studying (the complicated Origins of WWI).  And finally, I am not the same teacher that used to believe that lecture and quizzes was the only way to teach this course. So with that I introduced some making thinking visible routines (including a non-official routine) to see if my students were really thinking and engaging with the history we are studying.

The non-official thinking routine: Hexagon Thinking

This final product.

I had first heard of Hexagon Thinking as part of my exploration last year of Design Thinking. The NoTosh website defines hexagon thinking as:

where either student or teacher writes key concepts on hexagonal cards, at the end of a period of learning, where the content behind each ‘headline’ is relatively clear to a team of learners. The students then place the cards together in the way that makes most sense to them – some ideas will connect to up to five others, others will lie at the end of a long sequential order, others still will appear in small outlying positions, on their own.

For my purposes I wanted my students to being thinking about one of the major concepts we would be studying for the next two years: Causes, Practices and Effects of War.

One the first day of class, students were divided into groups, each investigating either causes, practices or effects. They brainstormed, used prior knowledge, and searched the internet. They wrote down their findings on hexagons*. And after about 20 minutes they came back together and tried to link all of the concepts.  Causes, practices and effects all joined together, and students demonstrated high level of thinking by making links between the three big concepts

hexagon thinking

Working at pulling it all together.

Working at pulling it all together.

I found several advantages of using hexagon thinking.

  1. It allowed me a brief insight into what prior knowledge my students walked in with. It was actually impressive hearing them talk about what they already knew.
  2. It allowed for students to make connections. Sometimes I think my over-reliance on a neat GoogleDoc table means that my students separate ideas too readily. This allowed for my students to see how terrorism (for instance) could be a cause, a practice and an effect of war. They connections between ideas was vital and it was wonderful to see and hear them make the connection.
  3. The routine allowed me to introduce the idea of historiography. By asking students if their final product would look the same as students in different times and places, they realized that history can change depending on who is writing it.
  4. They even made a link to Theory of Knowledge in talking about bias and perspective. Pretty good for the first day of class. 

Tug of War (Modified)

One of the most tricky bits of teaching DP history is ensuring the students understand the facts and the story, but think in terms of concepts and arguments. I want my students to move beyond the narrative and move to analytical. 

Screen Shot 2014-09-08 at 9.37.03 AM

I love how they just sit on the floor and get to work.

Now Origins of WWI is full of details and facts that can be hard to remember. So again, I had my students working in teams outline the events leading up to WWI for different countries. Out came the post-its. Russian events on pink, Balkans on green, Germany on yellow and everyone else on orange. Then we put them on a timeline, a piece a string down the middle of the table. They classified the events as alliances, militarism, nationalism, etc with letters. And the timeline looked good.  They looked pretty proud of themselves. 

I then told them the timeline was no longer a timeline. They had to sort the events from most important factors leading to war and least important. We were now doing the tug of war routine. So they debated. And argued. And conversation started in a way it didn’t during the timeline. 


tug of warSome advantages of this routine

  1. It set up the conversation for how narrative was not what we were looking for from DP History students. Having a timeline (in essay form) isn’t enough. They have to combine facts and analysis to formulate a coherent argument. 
  2. The conversation they had was great. As you can see I have a small class, so everyone was participating and I could see that in general they were getting it.
  3. We now have the tug of war artifact hanging in the classroom and I’ve see kids go back to it. 

See Think Wonder

This was probably the biggest flop of the routines I used. In preparation for our first test, I handed students the official IB mark scheme (aka rubric). These things are full of teacher-talk. In addition, I have several students who are used to the American-style of grading (points of 100 leading to a A-F). I wanted my students to really read them and understand what was being asked of them. So as I handed out copies of the markscheme, I asked them to complete the See Think Wonder routine. What do you see as you read the rubric? What do you think about the rubric? What do you wonder? My grade 11s did not like being asked to break down their thinking this way. Several kids said they got it the rubric and didn’t have any questions. Other kids just jumped around without really looking at the document. The deliberateness (and maybe the childishness) of the routine did not resonate. 

15141529481_38f027cd09_kThat said I do think the See Think Wonder routine does have value:

  1. I think students need to slow down and actually look at documents, pictures, evidence, etc. Often they are already a few steps ahead and they miss the details. This is detrimental to all students. It can be especially detrimental to history students who are asked to analyze and evaluate documents as part of their exam.
  2. The conversation we had was really valuable. While it wasn’t as focused as I might have liked, students were noticing good details that I think they would have missed initially.
  3. The kids who all said they “got it” actually ended up missing a lot. Forcing them to do the routine made them push beyond the assumptions. 


So far I’m incredibly pleased with how the routines have worked in my class. They go incredibly quick with grade 11s, which is great. It’s a valid form of formative assessment. Most importantly it means the kids are a vital part of the conversation, not just listening to me. Next step will be using the routines for teaching sources analysis. Which to a dorky history teacher like me is actually kind of exciting. 





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