Category Archives: Community

What does love mean in the context of a school?

We had our Moving On Assembly for the grade 8 classes today. I had a very special group this year. I will miss this class something fierce.

Here is the speech I gave. (We all raised plants this year, hence the reference to plants.)There are many variables to consider when helping a seed to grow into a fruitful, viable, living plant.The obvious things are water and sun. But you have to be sure that the soil has nutrients. It can’t be too wet or too dry. You have to place the pot in a place where it gets optimal sun but not too much.Sometimes the pot needs to be rotated. Sometimes the plant must be pruned. Sometimes you just leave it alone for a few days and trust that it will be fine. Other times it needs constant attention.

Raising a collection of different plants in one setting adds even more complexity. Some plants need water everyday, while others prefer drought. Some plants will vine and weave and grab onto anything they can attach to, while others prefer to grow alone in their pot. Some plants will wither with the slightest neglect, and will spring back to life with a little attention, while others will ignore everything you do.

There are many variables to consider when helping a teenager grow into a kind, independent, expressive human being.

The obvious things are food and electronic devices. But you have to be sure that their classrooms are nurturing. They can’t be too hands off or too smothering . You have to place the kids in a place where they get optimal mentoring but not too much.

Sometimes the student needs to be reminded about manners. Sometimes the kid must be reprimanded. Sometimes you just leave them alone for a few days and trust that they will be fine, other times they need more constant attention.

Raising a collection of different kids in one classroom adds even more complexity.

Some students need attention everyday, while others prefer to be left alone. Some kids will make friends and be social and grab onto anyone they can get attached to, while others prefer to grow alone in their skin. Some students will clam up with the slightest neglect, but will spring back to life with a little attention, while others will ignore everything you do.

But one thing I have noticed is that both plants and students need love grow. Love is word we don’t use enough in schools. We love our families and we love music and we love food and we love boys and we love girls and of course we love books, but for some reason it feels a bit strange to say you love your teacher, or for me to say I love my students. Maybe it is because the word love is such a tiny word for such an immense emotion. But I am here to take it back.

What does love mean in the context of a school? I think it means kindness, honesty, respect, taking risks and allowing for vulnerability in order to feel safe. I think love in the classroom means that everyone feels like they belong. Everyone feels heard and attended to. Everyone can be themselves without having to change for others. In short, people enjoy each others’ company and feel happy to be with others. When you love your peers, your teacher or your students you want to see them everyday and their energy and your energy are no longer separated.

I want to share a quick story to help you visualise what this love looks like. Last Friday night, I was with 8JRa and all their parents at our year end class party. We had eaten and the music was loud. Before I knew it, I looked up and saw us all dancing and smiling. Yes, there was a conga line around the room. Kids, parents, teacher.

In my 15 years of teaching, I have never seen anything like what I saw last week at our class party. I have taught my share of kids. I have raised my share of plants. But sometimes, the stars are aligned and a classroom and the teacher and the kids, and let’s not forget about their parents, create a situation so we all love each other. These bonds. These classrooms are special. Don’t take them for granted. They don’t happen very often.

In closing, I want to say goodbye to 8JRA for this year. I hope you will come and visit and stay in touch in the future. I hope you cherish what we built 8JRA. It didn’t happen by accident. Kids, Parents, Teacher- we all did our part. We had a good run. I hope you will look back on this year and think about the things we learned together and that you smile fondly. This class will always have a special place in my heart.

Thank you. I love you.


Schools Can Be

A few years ago I was scared of my thoughts. More accurately, I was afraid of how people would react to my thoughts, my ideas, my values. Maybe it was because I was living in a conservative country and working at a conservative school. Or maybe it was because my values, at the time, were still forged in anger and seeped in rage. I was driven by an obstinate defiance. I was always pushing back against existing hypocrisies, instead of standing for anything on its own merits. There was little wisdom to my beliefs. Even less understanding. Whatever, the case I was constantly anxious about what I said, what I shared and what I wrote. I was scared of my thoughts.

But recently, things feel different. Not only do I not feel scared, I feel that my ideas are valued and even celebrated. This acceptance and sharing of diverse thinking is a testament to a healthy learning environment. The fact that all members of our community feel valued enough to share their ideas no matter how different from the status quo is what makes UWCSEA East such an amazing place to work.

Let me tell you a bit about my last few days. Last week, I was part of a Share Your Beliefs session with our current grade elevens, as part of their TOK (Theory of Knowledge) exploration of faith. It looked a bit like this:

Your role is in session 1; when you be based in a single classroom and you will have three sets of some 13 students come your way; one set at 8.30am, one at 9.00am and one at 9.30am.  The students are all mixing up for each session, so all will hear from you and two different people; in all cases students hear from an atheist and two people of different faiths.  We have several speakers from outside school coming too.

The aim is for you to share with students your beliefs, and to have a short discussion/debate with them. This will then form a solid platform for later analysis and comparison.

The following faiths were represented:


This is the second year in a row that I have been able to talk about my unique melange of  Zen inspired spiritual atheism with a group of young people. I spoke about how my Buddhist principals have shaped my ethical and moral choices when it comes to teaching, parenting, and being an active and thoughtful member of the human race. I pulled no punches and spoke about my animosity and disdain for organized religion based on the effects of Islam on my country of birth, Iran. I spoke about how a belief in a patriarchal omniscient deity just doesn’t jive with how I view the natural world.

In short, I was able to have a very open and frank conversation with a group of young people about who I am and what I believe, without fear of reprisal from an angry community member, because by making this sharing of ideas possible, UWCSEA is telling students and parents that we value a range of ideas. We are saying that no one idea is correct or carries any more weight then any other. We are free to hold our unique beliefs, but we must be open to the idea that others may disagree. This melting pot of ideas may seem obvious to anyone who has studied or worked in a progressive environment, but I think we all know that open-minded is not always the case especially when it comes to religious matters.

Second story– My daughter is in grade two and their current unit of study is about food and where it comes from. They were recently visited by Cowboy James, who spoke to them about his experience on a dairy farm and growing up in rural Canada. (BTW Cowboy James is our head of school) Kaia was curious and excited to hear about this process. At home we began to talk about my current decision to become vegan. Our entire family is vegetarian, but the vegan thing is new. It was great to watch Kaia negotiate her understanding of our family’s choices in the light of Cowboy Jame’s message and what I was telling her about food choices.

After our family chat, we thought that it would be great for Kaia her share some of her thoughts from our conversation with her class. So today, Kaia and I gave a 25 minute presentation, which we prepared yesterday, to her class about why our family chooses not to eat animals. It was great. She helped brainstorm the slides, find the pictures and got up in front of her class and shared her thoughts, with just a little help from me.

“We simply love all animals like our pets and don’t want to eat any of them.”

If you are keeping score– Atheist, Vegan, long haired, bearded and tattooed! It may not seem like much to you, but this is the first time in my career where I feel at home where I work. The first time I feel I can be my compete self. I think a school with such freedom of ideas should be celebrated and upheld as a model for effective learning communities everywhere. I cannot imagine having opportunities like the ones I just described in too many American schools. It is precisely because of  this celebrated diversity that I work internationally. I also love the cross pollination of ideas between ages groups and school divisions.

Third Story– Some students in my grade seven BTC (Be The Change) class are working on an action project about labor rights and treatment of migrant workers here in Singapore. As luck would have it, our grade nines recently did extensive work on the topic with TWC2. So they were perfect mentors for my middle school kids. I quickly sent an email to former students and all week, I have had several grade nine students work with the grade seven students as secondary sources and sounding boards. It has been a fantastic opportunity for both groups.

In closing, I wanted to share my gratitude to finally work at a school that puts its money where its mouth is. The examples I shared are just a few episodes that happened to me this week. I am sure there are many such expereinces happening everyday, everywhere in our school. So often we get so lost in the bureaucracy of school administration that we forget how powerful a school should be.

UWCSEA is a special place not only because I can share my quirky liberal values, but because I am sure that my daughter is the recipient of a plethora of conflicting ideas as well.

Final note– I am excited because I can write about my ideas without the fear that an administrator might “find me out.” Instead, I will email this post to our leadership team confident that they too will be proud of the community we are building here at East.

How does your school work? Do you have open channels for an exchange of ideas? Are you doing anything to promote cross-divisional sharing and learning? If so what are you doing? What are some frustrations that you face being yourself?


From Mine to Ours

take me
use me
share me
i’m licensed
to be

those ideas
these words
the painted
scrawling blathering
moves us from
mine to ours.

i can feel it in you
just as you’re feeling
it in me:
nothing original
nothing new
nothing owned
everything free.

dancing derivatives
denizens of a developing
unattached and untethered
blurred and modified
copied and copied and copied.

a commons
in which we give and take
remix and build and create
and share and evolve.

and not for profit
call me an idealist
and I will call you one too.

take me
use me
share me
i’m licensed
and ready to be
made into you,
as i take you into me
and carve a we.

no monsanto
no pfizer
no property

this is buddha
this is marx
this is freedom
this is sharing
this is free

give credit where credit is due
then take the thing and add to it

this new thing,
the one that belongs to neither you or me
give it away and let a third voice sing it free.

i am creative commons licensed
everything i think
i feel and create
is there for you:
use it,
adapt it
share it.
give it away once you’re done with it,
tell people where you found it
don’t try to make money from it.

Last week, I got my favorite Creative Commons License (Attribution, Non-Commercial, ShareAlike) tattooed on my arm. I didn’t tattoo the symbols on my arm, because I think it is cute to cite photos I use for presentations. I tattooed the license on my arm because I see it as a badge of honor! Despite some of the criticism I have recently read,  I see the vision of Creative Commons:

Our vision is nothing less than realizing the full potential of the Internet — universal access to research and education, full participation in culture — to drive a new era of development, growth, and productivity.

as something bigger than just teaching kids how to use images they find on the Internet. I see The Commons cause as bigger than piracy and media use. I see Creative Commons as the building block of a new culture. A culture in which cooperation trumps competition. Where we understand the derivative nature of human intellectual and artistic growth and try to build new laws to deal with a world where Everything is a Remix.

I see Creative Commons as an alternative to the very concept of copyright, and not only in the field of digital media. I hope to inspire kids to see their ideas are extensions of generations of thinking. I hope to challenge the idea of intellectual property as something that can be owned. I want kids to see that they are a link in an infinite chain of ideas. I want kids to see that while companies can copyright genetic codes in food production or own powerful medicines, that perhaps they can create a world that would be better served with a culture that chooses to share and build upon ideas, rather than owning them. Perhaps we can create a culture beyond commercialism and profits, one were we strive for sustainability and evolution.

I know these ideas may seem romantic, idealistic and perhaps a bit naive. I was raised on Imagine and Blowing in the Wind. Did you expect anything less? So while like the UN, the actual power of CC may be limited,  I chose to tattoo the label on my arm because I value and love the idea of a shared commons. A place where the cultural and natural resources are accessible to all members of a society, including natural materials such as air, water, and a habitable earth. These resources are held in common, not owned privately.

What are your thoughts on Creative Commons?



Teachable Moment

Today, as my grade 7 students were working in small groups, I heard someone say,”Stop being such a homo. That is so lame and gay.”

I walked over very calmly, sat down and said:

Can we have a very quick but serious conversation? I heard you just say, “Stopping being such a homo. That is so lame and gay.” I just wanted you to know that I would  prefer that we didn’t use that kind of language in our classroom. I don’t think it is very kind to use words like Homo or Gay or even Retard in a derogatory way, do you know what derogatory means? It means to use it in a negative way. To use those words in a way to be put someone down. I don’t think it is okay to use words like Homo or Gay or Retard to put people down. There are most likely people in our class who might be homosexual or know people who are homosexual and if we use it as a put down, then they feel badly about themselves and that doesn’t seem fair. I know from experience because many of my friends who are homosexual have told me that language is powerful and the words we choose affect people in ways we cannot always see. Does that make sense? So please do not use the word Homo or Gay or Retard as a put down in our class again. OK? Thanks.



These Days

I’ve been meaning to write. It has been a while. I know. Did you miss me? I missed you. Missed you terribly. Missed the idea of you sitting there nodding or shaking your head, connected to my thoughts. Each one spilling from my fingers onto your screen into your psyche and daily thoughts. Or maybe, you just skim the words on a phone on a train in the night, soon forgotten. Who am I to know where you and I will meet? What will stick and what will float away. All I can do is write. I’ve been meaning to. It has been a while. I know. I missed you.

The problem is and always has been for most writers, I suppose, that I couldn’t make the time to get it right. A batch of half baked ideas taking up space does not always invite publication or sharing. So we swim with our premature ideas, hoping they will keep us a float long enough to make it a shore of completion.

The problem is that if there are enough of these incomplete thoughts, we may feel we can float forever and never need to actually give our ideas shape or voice or form.  I see clearly now, that enough is enough–  it is nearly October and I have yet to write the year’s first blog post. Here are my random thoughts looking for form:

I am cynical and distrustful of technology these days. It all feels trite and superfluous and outdated and stale. I tried to look for what I still value, really value in the Ed-Tech mold and there is not much. I do howver keep coming back to these ideas from Connected Learning.

Connected Learning
Connected Learning


I guess my goal this year is to define the aspects of this graphic that matter to me and really look at where and when technology is helping me accomplish these things in my classroom. I am planning a two-day workshop on the topic, so I best have my thoughts really clear.

But even in my personal life, the technology and even my network feels stale. Perhaps it is because I haven’t blogged in a while and have lost touch with the core of my audience. Perhaps I am in the midst of a necessary reflective period. Maybe I just need a break, or a detox. Not sure, but all I know is that I am not seeing technology like I have in the past. I am hyper-critical, aware and observant about the role of tech in my life.

So what is working? My classroom for sure! I am loving the lessons I learned from #TCRWP. I have fully embraced the workshop model. Complete with writer’s notebooks and mini-lessons. There really needs to be a post about this transition soon, but this post is not it. Let me just say that I love the idea of writers teaching writers how to write, instead of teachers teaching students how to write. I am very enthusiastic and I hope inspirational to the young writers in my room. I have removed the publication (blog) aspect from our writing work up to this point, and I couldn’t be happier. I am approaching blogging, writing and publication with a different outlook.

I have always advocated the openest form of online sharing and writing, but I am reconsidering my philosophy this year, and focusing on helping kids understand the stages of writing: Collecting, Drafting, Revising, Editing and Publishing. We are as a class discussing what it means to move through this process. Discussing along the way what it means to be a writer and the role of audience. It has been nice to write in private notebooks and work on skills and confidence before we share. We are getting ready to introduce blogs soon, but I am working on a new approach and will share our parent letter and explanation as soon as we go public.

What else is there to say? It has been a great opening to the year. We have been working on a new formative assessment procedure and a new reading program. All in all it has been a year of change and growth, but also one of nailing things down and building upwards. I just needed this post to get the wheels greased again.

So please do not forget about me here in your corner of the Internet. I am here and muttering and scribbling and changing and growing. Who know some of these half baked ideas might just be useful to you. Let me know if they are, because who are we kidding, I still need to know you need and want me.