Sunday, December 09, 2007

Would you hire this explorer?

Last month I started a file with International Schools Services (ISS), one of two leading recruiting agencies for (would you believe it) international schools. It's the sort of thing that you have to do if you're thinking about moving across the world, from HK to, say, Luxembourg. Or wherever.

So, here's one of the essays I wrote for that application.

What do you think - would you hire me? What do I sound like?


Narrative I: Please write a statement describing the personal and professional qualifications and experience you have that will enable you to be successful in an international school overseas. (200-400 words - not to exceed one page)

Name: Jeff Pierce

I often wonder what is different about me, what is special. I grew up in a two-story yellow-brick house on the north side of Columbus, Ohio, spent my summers playing baseball, my autumns rooting for the hometown football team, and winters indoors shooting hoops. But then at 20 years old I crossed the Atlantic to volunteer at an orphanage in Morocco, and two years later I went the other direction, across the Pacific, to begin my teaching career at an international school in Hong Kong. And I’ve done very well overseas, adapting quickly to two very different settings and to lifestyles completely foreign to anything I experienced growing up. What personal qualities have helped me to not only survive but thrive in an international setting? Wow, what a question…

The short answer is that I’ve always been an explorer. I’ve always wanted to find out more. The same impulse that caused six year-old Jeff to pick up rocks to see what new creature would scurry away also made it hard to say no to an offer to move across an ocean. That spirit of exploration sustains me, making every day in a foreign country an adventure, a chance to taste a new food, learn a new word or make a new friend.

And that same spirit of exploration drives me forward in my professional pursuits. No lesson is ever the same the next time you teach it. Every class has its own special character, every student responds to the class dynamic and to the texts in a unique way. How could an explorer not love this job?

In addition to the ever-changing classroom dynamic, teachers must be life-long learners. In four years on the job, I have participated in the following diverse workshops / trainings: a creative writing course for teachers, the Klingenstein Summer Institute for promising young educators, an Understanding by Design workshop led by Jay McTighe, MYP Level 1 Training in both Humanities and Language A, and the Learning 2.0 Conference, exploring the future of technology in education.

While I love all the new adventures both overseas and in the classroom, I do all this without forgetting that I am paid to teach my students, that they have skills they need to acquire. My job is quite simple: help my students become better learners than they were when they entered my class in August.


PS I'm a bit antsy about posting this - don't want a potential employer / ISS / a dishonest teaching rogue to find this page and get into any sorts of complications. I suppose that probably somewhere in the fine print of my application to ISS I might have easily signed off on being allowed to republish this essay in any format.

But...what is the point of the interwebs if I can't share this online?!

Middle School / Sex Ed

All I'll say regarding an apology for being quiet so long is that, like so many other teachers, I've just not been making the time to sit down and reflect on what's going on.

But then on Friday I wanted my 7th graders to spend some time reflecting on what I'd taught them in Moral Education about Sex and Relationships. And, the best way to get 18 twelve year-olds to do something quiet like write or read for an extended period of time is for the teacher to do it, too. So, I sat down with them to write out my own reflection on the unit. Here it is.


I learned...
"Normal is different for everyone." That's the main point of a sex-ed video we watched together, and it really is true. Some of these 7th graders are already acting out on their crushes and dating and kissing, but they won't hold hands in school. The 8th graders, well, are some of them experimenting with anything further than that? Probably. 6th, they're really still in primary, still for the most part oblivious to it all.

Another eye opener is how much talking about sex embarrasses them. Can't get through a single lesson without at some point the class dissolving into laughter. I will never forget about the stories they came up with when I introduced our two imaginary classmates, Jimmy Chan and Gloria Ng, so that we could talk about specific situations without putting anyone on the spot. The students decided that they met outside of the restroom. Huh? Then, there was the time I asked them if they thought that Jimmy & Gloria should think about having sex. K__ shouted out at the top of his lungs "YES!", then fell out of his chair because he was laughing so hard.

But they aren't just embarrassed in front of the opposite sex. For about 20 minutes one lesson we split into boys and girls, and the boys went nuts. One of them brought up masturbation - in Canto slang, "shooting the airplane". The whole 20 minutes was spent with them laughing and making "firing" motions from their crotch.

I have to come to the conclusion that with this age group, there's really no possibility of a serious conversation about sex, at least not in a group setting. The point of the unit needs to be to give them answers to the questions they aren't willing to ask in front of their peers, or, as Doc J, my 12th grade religion & moral ed teacher always said, "Give answers to the questions they aren't asking yet".

In their journals, and one on one, they're willing to ask more of the questions that they won't share in front of their peers. We're moving on from sex ed to other topics - right now it's something brief on families - but I'll always let them ask questions about the topics we've already discussed. So I'll wait and see if any of our previous topics, like smoking or drugs or sex ed, come up throughout the rest of the year.


To any readers - what do you think? Does my approach sound right? Do you have any recollections from middle school, that twisted and confusing time, that jibe with what I'm saying here?


Thursday, October 04, 2007

Venturing Online...

[cross posted on "b209", my students' online presence]

Just wanted to put out a short post about what has been happening in the two weeks since I started this online project with my students.

After I gave a lecture on technology, and challenged my students to 1) update our class wikispace daily and 2) find and post links to other schools / resources related to our topics of study in history, they've really taken off. A couple of enterprising / click-happy 7th graders added some great main pages to the wikispace ("What did we do today" and "The Wikipedia"), and the whole wikispace is getting about over a dozen updates a day.

I'm not sure how much longer the novelty of a class webpage will last, so I'll be investigating a way to invigorate the project with something new towards the end of October. Seems like many edublogging teachers give their students their own blogs, or connect their class with someone else on another side of the world, but I think that is a project best saved for the new semester as it would entail lots of time on my end to set up. And after all, this web stuff is really just a supplement to our regularly class activities.

For now, I'm going to let me students know that I'm sending an email to all of their parents so that parents can check up on their children's homework nightly. Think that might reduce some of the edits, as some of them are a bit frivolous, but I also hope it will make the students take the project more seriously as they realize that these pages are posted on the whole web, for everyone to see.


Also, I wanted to share on this post the resources for my technology lecture that I gave last week. Hopefully below the embedded slideshare will work and you can see the slideshow. And I'm also uploading a copy of the handout I gave, and including a copy of the original class slideshow in case it's useful to any other teachers out there. Student Handout

The credit for the ideas comes from the Learning 2.0 conference on technology in education I attended in Shanghai last month. Three sessions stood out to me and greatly contributed to what I shared with my students. First, there was Alan November and his phenomenal lecture on "Teaching Zack To Think". But I was equally impressed with two teachers from South Island School, Ian Williamson and Kieran Ryan, because of their thoughtful models of how to incorporate Web 2.0 technologies into the classroom. And the question that got my presentation going was from Gary Stager, on Ten Things To Do With a Laptop. All the links above go to the discussion pages from these workshops, on the Ning website. The conference was truly interactive, a great experience that will probably and unfortunately set the bar way too high for all my professional development in the future.

Well. Thanks for coming by and reading up on this!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Zeus on ADHD

Let me say a huge thank you to everyone who was kind enough to read and/or respond to my widely expansive thoughts about "What Comes Next".

First a clarification about "jeff" and "happiness". Then comes a few teaching thoughts.

My mom wondered why I was writing about "happiness" and not something more lasting like "joy". Mom, guess that's the part of the book I didn't summarize...great eye for detail in picking that out!

Basically, Gilbert sidesteps all of the semantics and uses the word "happiness" in a completely subjective sense: happiness is whatever an individual defines as bringing them pleasure. Ironically, by defining happiness as subjective to the individual, that's the only way that psychologists can conduct experiments on it. (Okay I'll stop going down this rabbit hole...sorry...) To me: happiness = what will bring me the most lasting fulfillment. Which is why I've started to exercise more & eat less rubbish food. And think seriously about my future.

The current thoughts on "what's next":

This weekend I started to feel the flip side of the enjoyment that comes from toying around with all these ideas...something like the ants-in-your-pants, about to get on a long plane flight sort of restlessness. Except in this case, the anticipation is going to rise and rise for the next few months, because I really think the smartest thing to do is to keep as many options open for as long as possible.

Well. On the teaching front, my brain is exploding. Yesterday, I made this website. Okay for a first draft of a course website. But I just can't stomach it as a main page...perhaps that's partially thanks to Dan for always harping on about design being a part of a good teacher's toolkit. Wikispace may have a great function...but it's design is blech, like it's aimed at the Blues Clues audience.

But on top of general gut reaction, today I found this, and this, and this, all amazing course websites. So as soon as I get a chance, I want to scrap that first draft.

And then I kept on clicking links I found at the Learning2.0 website. Infowhelm? Man, 48 hours up there was such a rush. 8 sessions, almost 200 total presentations!!! Check out what Kim Cofino wrote - why try to summarize it when she did such a fab job?

I found tons of great links, like this, and this, and this. And I put the links and notes I think about each of them into one or both of these two software programs: Microsoft's OneNote, the Zeus of Post-it's, and Personal Brain, the poster boy for ADHD mind-mapping.


...then it was time for class. Crap, forgot to make photocopies!!!

PS. J-dawg: wai, write your comments onto my blogger page, not on facebook la! it makes me feel better if more people can read what you say...

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Option Three: What's Next

First, let me preface with some bullet points from "Stumbling on Happiness", by Daniel Gilbert.

+People make their decisions about the future trying to maximize their future happiness. This is why you don't eat McDonald's every meal, even though it tastes so damn good.

+People are horrible predictors of what their future selves will enjoy. And Gilbert is not talking about those mornings you wake up groggy & hungover, look at who's next to you in bed, and say wtf, but the times you buy a heavy metal poster at the store thinking it is the best thing since sliced bread only to take it home and realize it doesn't fit in with your Ikea decoration scheme.

+Even after being made aware of WHY you are going to make bad predictions about the future, even after hearing in detail all of your imagination's blind spots, and the fascinating experiments that reveal said blind spots, you are still going to make bad predictions.

+There is no magic cure, no 12 step program, to coach / train your brain into NOT making these mistakes.

My consolation: I figure that I would be pretty happy with 90% of the "future selves" I have conjured up over the past few months.


Now I'm going to get visual with this post. And of course, with my male left brain, this means I am going to bust out some charts. Later there will be bulleted lists: yessssss!

A rather confusing mind map, created via Personal Brain*, centered on the thought, "What's Next":

Organized by geography, my future self seems to have a few simple options, spanning the whole freaking globe:

I. Stay in HK
II. Back to USA
III. Go Someplace New

Then throw in all the different professional options...

A. Teach Middle School
B. Teach High School Somewhere
C. Get a Master's in Education
D. Learn Cantonese
E. Write!

...add in all the mixing and matching, leaves you more than 20 choices! (better or worse than this?)

I + A = stay where I am now, at a very young school, a great place for challenges & opportunities & growth
I + D + E = attractive life on easy street that I don't think my protestant work ethic gene will allow...(plus the devil would take my idle hands and bring about a holocaust ala Heroes)
I/II/III + A = a return to a style of teaching I miss, with students who are capable of (for the most part) controlling their hormones / impulses and able to concentrate (to some degree) on the task at hand
II + C = the next rung on the career ladder? don't have a master's in education...have toyed with the thought of going for administration / doctoral work...but just not feeling ready for that much commitment to school, not now...
I + A + C = figure out a way to get some release time from my job while maintaining a visa and take online courses / enroll at Hong Kong U
III + D = move away from the largest city that speaks a language = not the most sensible way to go about it
III + E = the next Bruce Chatwin? (minus the whole AIDS thing I hope)
III + anything = another cool place to learn about and explore


As I type this, I think that part of my "wrestling" with these future choices is simply a form of mental masturbation. Because damn it sounds so cool to do lots of these things.

This very moment? I am leaning towards I + A for next year, then the two years after that doing I + A during the school year and II + C over the summers at Columbia's Teacher College.

Thoughts from my four (more?) readers? How is a young man to deal with all the cool ideas he can cook up? How to choose?!?!?!

*Personal Brain = very useful tool, great for mind-mapping and for all those random links that you don't want to forget about but will get lost if you just pop them into your bookmarks or delicious...big downside: it costs 175 USD. pissed i got hooked on it before i knew about the you've been warned if you click here to find out more.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

time flies like a banana

So...what to put into this post that has been sitting around for a long time...

Option One: a short summary of all the work I've been doing lately, both the rewarding & frustrating, as well as the very pleasant Real Life activities I've diverted myself with, ending with, "well it's a school night & i'm an old soul so time for bed!"

Option Two: explain in detail my goals related to Technology and The Intertubes this year, how I want to use it in my class, and my hopes for the upcoming Learning2.0 conference in Shanghai. (still have to finish those sub plans for Friday...eeek!)

Option Three: the road less traveled? ramble about the different career / life options i have facing me, with a contract to be signed or not by end of january. This post would be interrupted by at least one tangent towards "Stumbling on Happiness" by Daniel Gilbert, a fabulous fabulous book if there ever was one.


First to reply with a choice, one two or three, within a week I'll have a post up for ya. (If anybody's still listening, that is. I have no idea how Dan pulls it off...are there 25 hours in the day on the west coast?? HK doesn't sleep, but I sure need to.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

A bit of an Overload...

Well. Tonight I sat down, thought I'd try to widen my blog-reading-horizons a bit. Since I teach such a large number of mother-tongue Chinese students who are at varying stages of language acquisition, I thought it'd be smart to look around for other blogs on that subject. And while I was looking around on the web, why not try to find some sample wikis? Everyone's talking about them, and my admin is very supportive of any new initiatives.


Gonna take me a while to sift through the buckets and buckets of information I just found...and all from just one simple starting point.


And in the meantime: more working day before the students arrive in full force classroom has nothing on the walls
...all my books and papers that are still strewn about into my idiosyncratic piles
...i suppose i gots lots more planning to do
...i do intend on having a life as well.

So with that - gonna get my add-addled brain off to the pool where it can shut off for 40 minutes.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

A Creation Story

Day One. How do you begin the year?

(you can find this post on the Firstday Wiki as well, under history.)

Once there was a teacher who moved to Hong Kong. This is the story of the lessons he taught in the first week of class. In creating these lessons, he stood on the shoulders of a giant of a history teacher. (That's how a lot of stories about great teaching begin, by the way.)

His job was to teach English and History and Religion to a room full of 16 year olds. 80 minutes of every day, they were together.

And this is how it started.

"Our first unit is about Native American Culture. History, Literature, Religion, we'll study all of it. Ready to get started? Good. Here's a story. It’s called the Walam Olum. You need to share your interpretation with the class. Get into pairs or groups of three. You’ve got fifteen minutes."

"Mr. P...there are no words on this handout."

"Oh, right, I left them out. I thought that would force you to be creative. Get started!"

"Mr. P, what about a syllabus?"

"You'll get that later. C'mon, let's go!"

And on the first day, there is Instant Engagement.

After the students have shared their interpretations, and the teacher has shared the "real" story behind the pictures, it gets Personal. As they leave the classroom, they are given a blank non-lined notecard. The teacher looks each of them in the eyes, shakes their hands one by one, and thanks them for coming. "I've got one favor to ask of you. It's important. Please bring this notecard in tomorrow with four pictures that tell your own personal creation story. Oh - and don't put your name on the card."

When the sun rises on the second lesson, the notecards are traded around the room. "On the back of your classmate’s notecard, please write down your interpretation of the story. Then get into groups of four and share your interpretations; the author of the story also gets to share!"

As the class adjourns on Day Two, the students have a good idea of who their peers are, they've been constantly engaged, and they're still not quite sure what this young teacher's deal is.

And if any of them forgot to bring in their homework on day two, they've learned that this guy doesn't assign pointless homework assignments. “If I ask you to bring something in, it's because we NEED it for the lesson. Yes that's right, go sit in that isolated desk until you finish the homework you were supposed to have done.”

Translator’s note: this homework policy is Easier Said Than Done. Many sources indicate that this teacher often is unable to stick to his preferred policy.

On the third day, the teacher finally relents and passes out a piece of paper that says “Syllabus” on the top. The front side looks familiar, with bullet points and a few percentage signs. But the back side is just like everything else that’s happened so far in this class, definitely not what the students are expecting:

Expectations for Each Student Can Be Summarized by the Following Hopi Sayings:

“Don’t Go Around Hurting Each Other”

“Try to Understand Things”

Then the teacher asks another one of those annoyingly open-ended questions: “Try to Understand Things. What skills did we use while we were Trying to Understand the Walam Olum?”

In the following discussion session, the teacher will make sure to touch on the following key points:

Interpretation of text


Primary Source Analysis

A quote from the teacher is relevant here:

“I've used a variation on this activity twice, once each year I taught that course. Since then, I've discovered that the Walam Olum is believed to have been fabricated in the 19th century. And that just makes it better! Just save the truth of the story for later in the unit - how does that shocking revelation not dovetail beautifully with the sad story of 19th century Native American history?!”


Folks - anyone have any questions? comments? kudos? ...candy?

Hope you enjoyed the reading, because I loved the writing.

Good Luck Teachers!

Monday, August 13, 2007

off the cuff

listening to: my usual GapKids in-store muzack.

what i'm thankful for: the times when my administrators remember that i am a learner as well as teacher, and get me up and moving / involved in what could otherwise be a two-hour butt-numbing session. and that amazingly comfortable pair of boxers i will never part with, for the sessions that do attempt to meld my butt to a plastic chair.

what i'm going to do RIGHT NOW: sleep.

Friday, August 10, 2007

4 Slide Sales Pitch

Okay, so here is the design brief again, from dan meyer:


  • Design your slides. Use Keynote, PowerPoint, Photoshop, a discarded tray liner from Whitecastle, whatever. Just keep the size below 1920×1080, a constraint which will affect none but the most diehard designers.
  • E-mail your name and blog address (if applicable), to dan [at] mrmeyer [dot] com. Attach your slides.
  • Post any reflections on the process in the comments below.
And here is my submission to the contest:

What a fun thing to do! Very challenging task, only given four slides and one week and really no design training or experience. It was fun to try to think of what to choose for each of the slides.

The idea of maps popped into my head, ending with some kind of twist on "Here Be Monsters". And rather than try to encapsulate all of what I do and love and is on my facebook profile, I just aimed to produce a flashier illustrated version of my resume.

I couldn't find a decent map image of Morocco, so that made my choice for slide 2 easy. And I haven't agonized over the copy the way I would have liked to...nor did I really spend a lot of time choosing the fonts. But I did spend one evening manipulating Google Earth so each of the images was just right.

But hey - maybe I can give myself a break if I don't think this is perfect. After all, I am in week one of pre-term meetings. That whole thing called a "job".

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Demons of a Young Teacher

Today is the eve of goin back to school, sort of. Tomorrow is the first day of a week of pre-term meetings, followed by two weeks of teaching a jump-start program for some of our weaker students. The real D-Day, when the invasion of students will begin in full force, isn't for three more weeks from today.

Nonetheless, I'm feeling the jitters, the adrenalin, but it's not the students I'm worried about. It's the Teaching Demons.

"History often repeats itself", they say. With that in mind, I reckon I'll bump into some of the following 'Acolytes of Hell' over the course of the year.

The Demon of Overwork:
Planning out units, daily lessons, marking homework, leading a service club and attending committee meetings haunts both dreams and weekends.

The Perfectionist Demon:
Won't let you half-ass any of the above tasks, and when you DO half-ass something, an inevitable occurrence until God extends the day to 25 hours, your confidence as a competent professional slides down the drain.

The Procrastination Demon:
Traps and snares with the temptation to explore the interwebs a bit longer, "just to look for a better way to teach that unit on the Crusades...". What a forked tongue this demon has, you think, as you find yourself clicking on yet another standup comic on youtube at 11.30pm, your lesson plans nowhere close to finished.

The Rubbish Diet Demon:
This demon works its way into your soul as you drink more and more coffee to cope with consecutive nights of less than five hours of sleep. Then it craftily replaces the FDA-approved Food Pyramid with the following food groups: caffeine, nicotine, sugar and "whatever takes the least amount of time from preparation to clean-up".

The Demon of No Life Outside of School:
This hellspawn's name says it all. And then you end up saying, "I'd love to go out tonight but..."

Do note how the Teaching Demons work in concert with one another. I believe that the 'Agents of the Evil Headmaster' are the true cause of what teaching professionals term "burnout" but is perhaps more better recognized by its various symptoms such as exhaustion, depression, nervous tics, pulling all-nighters, temporary insanity, and seizures at the sight of a pile of marking.

Folks, the one thing that keeps me irrationally optimistic about the upcoming school year are the Guardian Angels of Teaching. If you've any experience working with kids and you've read this far, please comment with the names & blessings of any of these benevolent beings.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Design Contest - Yay!

In response to this post by dan meyer, who continually comes up with stimulating thoughts.

I skimmed his post, went about my morning, and came back home still chewing on how to fit who I am into four slides. That's the mark of a good post!

Mind you, not sure how much of the credit dan deserves - after all, the university of chicago came up with the four-slide idea. But once I saw the word "contest", my y-chromosomes delivered a command my brain can't ignore: "win!"

I've got my doodle topic for the upcoming week of pre-term meetings set. Hope that anyone who reads this post will think about entering as well! What a fun challenge.

Thanks, dan!


Saturday, July 28, 2007

Learn Before You Leap

Well, so much for twice a week posting. Guess that's the summer for ya! I've been keeping busy with...well, television shows, a bit. Took a break from the city over a weekend, spent some time out on Cheung Chau Island, love that place.

Anyways, today's topic, "learn before you leap", is related to my growth as a Technology

Now I have no technology training, and I'm not sure if I have any particular qualifications to teach the subject other than being logical and as a male holding the belief that I have an innate ability to Solve Problems by Tinkering with Stuff. Last year my principal asked if I would help to teach the technology courses, and I found myself with half a teaching load of middle school technology. I threw myself into the task, loved it, and am teaching more of it this coming year.

Teaching International Baccalaureate Technology for middle school focuses on this thing called the "Design Cycle". Basically the idea is that you can use the steps of the Design Cycle to solve any problem you encounter, to complete any task, from making a website to baking a cake.

Below is the image of the Design Cycle by IB - key is how they've presented it as a cycle, the steps are things you go back and forth through, not just check off a list.

It's the sort of thing that sounds simple, right? Maybe too simple...I found it hard to really teach my students to Investigate thoroughly, and to be able to use each of the steps when they were needed.


Well, after this weekend, I think I finally "get" how to use the Design Cycle.

Why? Because I caught myself using it.

I had a problem I couldn't solve: add a photogallery to a website. So first I Investigated: I searched for other examples on the web, having to refine my search a number of times to find the best possible formats for my photogallery. And as I searched, I crossed off possibilities from my list of potential solutions (Evaluate). At the end, I had two options. I Evaluated each of them, found one of them had a key defect, and chose to pursue the other option.

Still left in my mini-Technology project is the implementation of the chosen solution; I can already tell from skimming the site that I will need to install two new programs before I can upload photos (guess that would be Planning). And once I have the programs downloaded, I need to learn how to use them (Investigate again). At the same time, I will need to Design the way I want the photogallery to look; no point in learning how to make a slideshow if I don't think that will look good in the overall Design.


Reflecting on how I'm completing this project is also leaving me with more ideas about how to teach the Design Cycle. Last year, I gave out a few big projects that had every step of the Cycle included; kids couldn't help but approach it like a checklist.

I see now that each of these steps is not really a big phase; they are more like umbrella categories that have lots of small skills inside of them. For example, refining keywords as you search the web is an important skill for Investigating. Evaluate is not a one-off end of project task; it is kind of like opening your eyes as you swim to make sure you're not veering off the mark, or checking your watch as you train for a 5K.

Musing out is still fundamentally a project-oriented class, where real-world solutions / creations are the focus of the curriculum. So perhaps I'll aim to teach these smaller skills in bite-sized openers to lessons, then let students spend the rest of the time on their project.

Also, this is definitely a case where a teacher Thinking Out Loud could be very beneficial for students. Modeling use of the Design Cycle = key.

Maybe I just typed out the outline of that Think Out Loud lesson, huh?


Thanks for reading,


PS Click here to see my other site. Not close to professionally done, but I've done my best on it. And, the photogallery is as of July 28 not up there, is it. Still gotta implement my chosen solution.

Friday, July 13, 2007

On Moving Images

I started to write up a comment to Dan's blog, and then it suddenly got really long. So I wondered if "bletiquette" (blog etiquette? I think it sounds funny...probably someone more of a dork than me has already invented a word for this...) would necessitate putting said long comment onto my own blog.

On Moving Images. You ought to read the background to this post - dan has posted a really interesting video here, and written a response to some of his comments here.

Now, I don't know about US English standards (only did my student teaching in the land of the free, left right after that), but in the UK moving images (media of any and all size / shape / form) is now a part of the national English curriculum. (However while I'm literally on the other side of the world, in Hong Kong, I work at a school that basically gets to make up whatever curriculum it wants. I think we're part of WASC: Western Accreditation? Something? Schools? Coalition? Company? beats me.)

This doesn't mean English teachers are supposed to show the film of "To Kill a Mockingbird" while reading the novel, and tell the kids how the movie is "wrong" because it isn't the same as the book. It means that films, television, commercials, even videos found on youtube, is a form of media to analyze as seriously as any other form of literature, like a novel or play or poem.

Dan makes a strong case for using the film because it helps him to "surprise" his students. And that's true. Since this film will seem cool to the students, since it is from youtube and humorous, that all helps a teacher in relation to the thin-slice (love that analogy dan) we could call "teacher understands students and their culture".

But using a film like this, using a different media, in any class, no matter the subject, isn't that just sound teaching? Information sticks in the brain when it arrives in multiple varieties, multiple forms. Giving the students some kind of anticipation guide, pausing the clip, asking them to talk to a neighbor, not showing the ending and watching it a second time - that would be a GREAT use of a period.

And...information sticks in the brain the MOST when you have to do something with it, so that makes Christian's idea of having students film their own clips a good one. In theory. But a film project is not something to be undertaken lightly, to be handled in anything less than a full-on unit. I'm thinking around four to six weeks to do it right. I had a fabulous set of students for a fifteen hour summer course, and we spent about a third of the time on how portrait photography - check out the amazing project we took part in, the 100 People Project - I'll post more later. If you take a decent skim through dan's posts, you'll become aware of how important tiny details can be when it comes to presentations / media design. Making a thirty-second short film involves an awful lot of specialized skills, all the way from storyboards to the camera work and ending with syncing up music & editing.


Dan - you wondered earlier why you got so many posts on a blog entry over a weekend? Well I am writing a lot more now because I am on holiday. During the school year, I have no energy to do this kind of thing, to read a lot of cool thoughts on teaching and write my own ideas down. But right now, just because my students are gone, doesn't mean I'm not thinking about teaching every day.

Guess next I'll write about...the 100 People Project. Jolly good show, that.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Why the difference between 11 and 16 is bigger than 5

Over lunch a friend asked me, “Knowing what you know after teaching your first year of middle school, what would you have done differently? If you could somehow send a message back to yourself in July 2006, what would you say to help yourself prepare for the year differently?”

My immediate thought was that I should have told myself, “You’re in for a wild ride, bucko, so just get ready to deal.” (The school I joined last year is attempting to do a LOT...I have plenty of interesting educational tidbits to share on this blog.)

But then I thought it over, and I think it would have helped me to I think the one piece of advice that would have helped me the most this year was, “Pretend you are entering your first year of teaching.”

Because I went into the year thinking that I knew what I was doing. Sure, I’d never taught middle school before. But I’ve got two years of high school under my belt. And about ten years of doing volunteer work with middle schoolers? Of course I was ready for the year!

What’s the difference between teaching a 16 year old American History and teaching an 11 year old Roman History? I thought it basically boiled down to covering less content, assigning shorter essays, making tests less difficult. Maybe have a few more “fun” classroom activities, a couple of projects like “turn an everyday household item such as a shoe into a model of the Colosseum”, that sort of thing. And phase out from my vocabulary the five dollar words and the twenty dollar sentences, and all obscure references to Abraham Lincoln.

The word “hubris” should have been scrawled in the margins of my planner last August…heck, it should probably just float around behind me, like one of those bad-luck rain clouds.


“Pretend I am entering my first year of teaching.” See, those ideas up there are alright, they’re on the right track. But that doesn’t mean that I knew what I was doing, that I could walk into a middle school classroom and teach with confidence and expertise. I don’t know if there’s really any other way to truly learn how to teach than to just get out there and do it.

So this past year, I just did it. I planned a lot at first, leaving work at 8pm, coming in on weekends. And I would typically find that after one or two lessons I needed to completely redo my plans for the rest of the week, because I had not realized the students didn’t know how to sit next to the opposite sex without someone committing an act of physical violence, or that the article I had photocopied had five words per line that they didn’t know, or that half of the students didn’t know any way to take notes other than “copy down everything teacher puts on the board in any random fashion”. Every lesson, every week, I found something new that I hadn’t realized they didn’t know. I found all kinds of skills they didn’t have, in all kinds of areas…skills I took for granted when teaching 16 year olds, skills I had “known” middle schoolers wouldn’t have; but I didn’t truly realize how their absence would affect my teaching.

I like to think I know a little bit more about teaching middle schoolers now. (I’m saying this cautiously, aware of the floating neon sign, flashing “hubris”, above my head.)

Middle schoolers cannot do some things. They don’t: have long thoughtful discussions with some degree of abstraction / nuance, sit still for long, consistently act mature. If they are shy, you would sooner find your lost contact lens in a swimming pool than get them to speak up. Just turn off the fans, ask your question again, throw an eraser at the boy in the back who is now practicing kung fu on his neighbor, and hope that the poor child has the courage to repeat their sentence.

But once a guy like me who loves to ramble has dealt with the fact that he won't be able to make any comparisons between Spartacus and Malcolm X (or even Professor X), there's a lot of great things about working with middle schoolers.

The age group seems to display some wonderful traits. They can: come to class every day with a positive attitude; be extremely supportive of their peers (although five seconds later they are capable of turning around and being downright nasty); display an amazing curiosity and willingness to try out new activities. And, they don’t seem to worry too much about their marks. The letters “SAT” only describe what they did after they entered my classroom. This was such a breath of fresh air after working at my previous school.

True anecdote: yesterday I bumped into a student I used to teach at the grocery store. While his mother was checking out, he came over to talk to me. He's going to be a junior next year. One of the things he asked me: "C'mon, Mr P, tell me - what did you get on your SATs?" What was the score I got on some bloody test I took one cold winter Saturday seven and half years ago. Pretty soon kids won't know that the thing was out of 1600 once, so I can tell them some bs about how you can't compare the tests anymore.


Well. I’d better stop this post before it becomes a novel…probably already too late.

I’ll see if I can get one post per week up here…would be nice if I could write up two of them, seeing as I am not doing much else right now aside from swimming regularly and watching at least four episodes of House / Prisonbreak / Lost / Six Feet Under per day. (but not of each series - that would be a lot of television, even for a summer holiday.)


Thursday, July 05, 2007

holding pattern

It’s been about a week since I finished my last day of teaching, and I love love love having free time. I’ve been able to go down the list of “things to do when I can relax”, the list that I usually add add add to during the school year and never start chipping away at until my holidays.

Thoughts on education.

Maybe I could start at the beginning. Why am doing this? Why am I a teacher?

(I typed out some of answers, and they were boring and/or cliche.) about just some snapshots of the year, the highs and the lows?

(The lows sounded too melodramatic, and I never got around to the highs.)


Guess this is the post that wasn’t. I would like to be able to write something cogent and organized and thoughtful (with subtle wit) about my education career thus far. But it just isn’t happening.

According to “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus” – I am behaving like the stereotypical Martian Male. I have some problems: I am really not sure what to make of my career as a teacher thus far, and I have no freakin idea where it is going; I also don't really know what on earth I am doing in Hong Kong. So, as a true Martian, I am going to my cave to solve minor problems (or to watch other people’s problems) until I stumble onto some kind of solution.

So, I’ll read about the problems in the Middle East, try (and fail) to complete some of the brain teasers in the paper, and watch another movie. Think I'll watch a Canto Triad flick, I love those.


Looking forward to writing some about teaching! Watch this space, it’ll happen. I mean it.

Friday, June 29, 2007

Some Photos

Looking out of my window across the way. Friday June 29, 4pm.

My empty classroom. Room A501. One day before the final move to Cyberport. June 28, 5pm.

Waiting in Central to cross Des Voeux Road. Friday June 29, 7pm.

Looking down Ka Ning Path (the road that goes behind my school). June 27, 10pm.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Back on the horse?

In April I finally started to use Google Reader - and with it all sorts of fascinating blogs. (While I admit the word "blog" still makes me shudder...).

I suppose I have Jeremy Wagstaff to thank for that - a Technology Columnist for Wall Street Journal Asia, he visited my school with his wife and a class of mine had a fabulous time sharing what they were learning with him. So I started reading his blog whenever it was updated...and then got annoyed with having to check it all the time.

What he writes about is how to make technology make sense to normal folk. And since he had written about how he always checks his blog feeder (Google Reader), I decided, wtf, I'll check it out.

Now, two months later, I only need to go to one bookmark to find all sorts of fascinating thoughts on teaching.

And I don't even go to CNN for news, either, and I don't buy magazines like the Economist or New Yorker with regularity - a friend of mine whose job is to sift through the news to prepare reports for the government on current trends has added me to an email list. I get about twenty emails a week from A. - on fascinating things from Hong Kong to education to global warming. (Which I still think is a hoax.)

But teaching.

I love reading Dan Meyer's blog. I feel like I read somewhere that he is a teacher with a similar level of experience to me (~3 years). Maybe I'm wrong. But the guy is young. And he pours his energy into his high school math lessons. And he writes about it all with intelligence and wit.

Just followed a post of his to H.'s blog - sounds like another young teacher who is similarly intelligent and thoughtful. And...H. apparently had been on a blogging sabbatical for a while.

So that made me think...

Back on the horse?

Write a bit more on here. Why not? I have lots of things I think I think about teaching. And lots of things I think I think about life as a foreigner. And while I haven't read nearly as much as I used to, I have started to watch a lot of good movies and shows. (Finally getting around to buying those 5 HK dollar / 65 cents US DVDs while traveling in China helped that trend a lot. Although I am still pissed that the second season of Prison Break is scratched and won't play the second half of the season.)

So. This is the opening post. Has nothing to do with teaching. Guess it's just the inside of my brain, on one single thought. Man I wish my brain would sit still sometimes.

This opening post shall conclude with an anecdote, about living in China. It had been a long time since I've used this blog - so I had to put my password back in, etc. And since I live in China, apparently Blogspot changed something in their software so that the language defaults to the language of your ISP address. Thus, all of those opening screens were in Chinese. Thanks to my rudimentary skills (I recognized the characters for "chinese language" and switched it to "english language") and guesswork, I'm back surrounded by my English.

More on teaching, and not just the lessons, but working with new colleagues at a new institution, later. Think I'll start with my reflections on my first year working in a middle school. But who knows what will come out when I sit down.