Tag Archives: Collective Learning

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?


Everything Means A Lot To Me

This project grew organically from a quick exchange of ideas on Twitter with Paula, John and Ari, and now it may have become the cornerstone of my Learning 2.0 presentation on digital storytelling. I am not only excited about the process to generate this story, but I am also thrilled by the possibility of what something like this might look like in my classroom.

Started like this:

Ari was excited about using #visualwritingprompts. He began to experiment with the form on a blog for his Freshman Comp students. I mentioned that he should take a look at what John has been doing on his blog for #visualwritingprompts. We began to discuss the possibility of students finding their own photos, adding texts and creating their own prompts. Perhaps, one student could find the photo, while another added the prompt and a third student did the actual writing. We then thought maybe a fourth student could Digitize the text. (Create a digital story)

We quickly divided up the roles:

Paula suggested a few photos she had taken herself. John chose this one:

He added the prompt:

To which Ari added the text:

Finally, I digitized it:

I used the Cartoonatic app for my phone to record the footage and added simple voice over of  Ari’s text and layered it with Creative Commons music–Feeling Dark (Behind The Mask) by 7OOP3D which I found on CC Mixter.

What’s next:

Paula and I will be starting a new unit soon about societal ideas of what it means to be normal, and we will use this process to help students visualize and critically analyze  aid theme. Here are some skills that I think this a project fosters:

  • Metaphorical thinking
  • Ability to fluctuate between text and imagery
  • Ability to create mood based on text, imagery and digital storytelling
  • Ability to build ideas and construct meaning based on ideas of peers

I am sure there are more. But I will ask you to help ask and answer these questions:

What does this all mean? How does this sort of collaborative interplay between photography, text and digital story telling help student writing? I am not sure, and honestly I have had a crazy day, so I will leave it to you to extrapolate on this project in the comments below.

Final thought– 

Once the process has been completed, perhaps the participants can switch roles. So someone else adds a new prompt to the same picture, or another member writes the text, and yet another person creates a new digi-story?

What do you think Paula, John and Ari? Want to switch this up? Who is doing what? That means you too reader. Take the photo, change the prompt, write a text based on the existing one, make a different digi-story–join the party.



I was talking to some friends/co-workers the other night when inevitably the subject turned to school. After some initial chatter about curriculum, school governance etc… I came up with an outrageous idea! I am quite certain that no school will ever implement what I am about to propose, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since last week. I will share the idea here, then I will share this post with every administrator I work with from now until the end of my career and see if, perhaps, at some point, it will be possible. If the idea appeals to you, I suggest you do the same.

We were, my friends and I, talking about the Grade 12 IB art exhibition and discussing the mind-blowing work most students produce at the end of this two-year course. I mentioned how impressed I have always been with the accompanying process journals, when I casually mentioned that I would love to take an IB art course. Like right now! As an adult. While I am at school. With the grade 12 students. While I teach. As part of my schedule.

Here is my idea:

What if part of your teaching load as a teacher was to take one course at your school with the students. It could be IB or AP or any course you find interesting. You teach one less class and use that time to sit in with the class of your choice as a student. You do the work, you participate, you model learning. You are a Teacher-learner.

I am not sure of the logistics, or how it would work contractually. I am sure there is an administrator, somewhere out there who can work that out. I am an ideas guy! Perhaps, I need to actually sit down and work out the logistics, because let’s face it, for all the jargon of life-long learning, most schools would never seriously consider a plan like this. Paying teachers not only to teach classes, but also take them? Radical. I know.

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo shared by cayoup

Just think of the community a model like this would create. Think of how the students would perceive teachers as learners, as people who love the act of learning new things. Teacher-learners would model behavior in terms of tech use, discussions, work ethic and more. Imagine siting with a group of grade 10 students trying to figure out how to graph a slope. (Yeah, I still don’t know what that means) Imagine showing students that you are not an expert in all fields. Yes, I can teach grade 8’s how to find inspiration and write poetry, but I am just like you when it comes to the final Drama assessment.

Here are some course I would love to take:

  • IB Art, Drama, and/or Music.
  •  Any basic math class (maybe Algebra again)
  • TOK
  • Language B Chinese Foundation
  • IB Econmics
  • IB Film
  • IB Language A Lit (Yes, I know I can technically teach this class, but maybe it would be more fun to take it)

Like I said, I am not sure how all of  this translates into pay-scales or teachable hours, but I do know that a school with Teacher-learners would be a pretty amazing place to work…I mean learn. It would be a school that takes learning communities and life-long learning pretty seriously. What do you think? Ridiculous or the best idea you have ever heard. Looks like I am may not be the only one and this is nothing new. Take a look at Freedom to Learn by Carl R. Rogers.


Tweeting During Class? No Way!

I recently received a question in a comment from Jesse Scott (@twowaystairs) about a topic I have been meaning to write about for some time. He is wondering how I Tweet while in the classroom.

I find it amazing that you, Jabiz, can tweet and teach at the same time because, while I love the Twittersphere and understand and appreciate what it has to offer, I find a huge disconnect when I try to tweet in the middle of things happening. I feel like I disengage from the moment, for a moment, while I post a tweet and things lose momentum. More so when I’m part of the conversation but even when I’m not, I feel like I’m missing part of the conversation and not giving people their due respect. How, in your opinion, do you keep that balance?

Great question! Before I get to it, however, let’s consider the larger context in which the question is set. Really he is asking about being distracted by alternative conversations during real time events, in this case with the use of Twittr, at a PYP exhibition or some other conference. The short answer, I think, is that we are all engaged and distracted by different thing and at different levels. If something is truly engaging then no amount of white noise can disengage us from it.  Even if we are Tweeting it, we do so in the hopes that it is enhancing the event and adding a layer of complexity. But sometimes it is just best to shut it down and allow ourselves to be truly absorbed.

For me, like most people I assume, it is difficult to turn off my brain. My constant Twitter stream of thoughts is always on. So even when I am experiencing a talk or presentation, my brain is firing on all cylinders. I find it useful to house these thoughts in my Twitter stream. Partly because I just want them stored somewhere, remember Twitter was originally called a micro-blogging site. I still see it as short form blogging or public note-taking. For better or worse, Twitter has become my online public stream of consciousness. Since I cannot turn that off in the midst of reality, I choose not to turn it off on Twitter. I Tweet what I think, when I think.

This is nothing new, before Twitter I always had a small journal into which I would scribble these random thoughts. The beauty of life now, is that my little black journal talks back! This talking back, however, is what I think Jesse sees as distracting. And he is right, it can be. When the back channel becomes more interesting that the main event, what is one to do? Here is the scene, you are at a keynote speech and the conversation about what is being said is more engaging than what is being said! What do you do? Not sure I have an answer for that. Hate to sound like a broken record, but these are personal negotiations about balance and priorities. I  believe in giving people respect when they present and affording them as much of my attention as I can. As I do more and more speaking and presenting, I expect that much from an audience. That is a personal thing for me. Even at meetings, I try to have my laptop down, when I know the person speaking wants my attention. I see so many teachers, the same ones who always complain about distracted kids, checking Facebook at a staff meeting when they should be doing something else!

So in the case of the PYP exhibition, the question is does Tweeting add to the experience? Or is it a gimmick to appear to be using technology? Not sure I can answer that, but if technology feels wrong then it usually is. Put down the tweets and give those kids the wonder and engagement they deserve.

Sorry abut that tangent…back to how I Tweet in class. I have touched on a lot of the points already, so I will refer back to them in the next few paragraphs. I know many people are a bit aghast and put off when they here that I usually Tweet my way through all my classes. “How can you be teaching and Tweeting at the same time.” or “The kids deserve your full attention.” or “If you have time to Tweet then some kid is not getting enough attention!” Fair enough.

To start I guess we need to define some basic terms: teaching, classroom, attention. I don’t feel that my students are getting a traditional classroom experience with teacher talking at them and delivering content. There are seldom times when I need undivided attention. More and more often,  I am realizing that whole group delivery of instruction is a waste of time. So much of my actual teaching comes through 1-1 chats or small group interactions. It is when the kids are busy with actual work or creation or production that I sit with them and re-teach whatever it was I taught at the beginning of class. So I usually deliver major concepts or skills or ideas at the start of class. Laptops down. Old school. Listen to me. I am the sage on the stage baby! I know some things about (X) and I want to share these ideas with you. I know how to do (Y) and you need to listen. Of course there is discussion and hopefully an open line of communication. I never Tweet during these times. These lectures usually happen at the beginning of a unit and I try to keep them short.

Once kids have listened, it is time to get on task. This is when laptops flip open, mine included. I have very few, if any rules, about who can use what and where they should be online during class. I allow cell phones, sometimes kids need to text. Sure go ahead. You need to check your Skype, fine, as long as you stay on task and do what you should be doing. I seldom have any issues with kids being distracted, because when the time comes to have their laptops open most kids know the task and are into it before I say a word. A five minute text is no big deal. If someone were to spend the whole time texting during my class, then we would chat. This has never happened.

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo shared by mgjefferies

Kids usually work alone or in groups and I hover. I stop and sit and talk. I redeliver content. I make sure the skills are there. I chat about things that are relevant. I stop everyone, “Laptops down please.” I make a point to the whole group. Back to work. I go to each group, each student and check for understanding. There is usually music playing. Instrumental Beastie Boys is a nice touch.  We had Korean Pop yesterday. The mood is light.

During these times, Twitter is just another student. It sits there. As I hover, I share my thoughts or Tweet what kids are saying or doing. Remember I cannot turn of my thought;  I have some of my best ideas when I am with kids. Sometimes people respond, if it is not taking too much energy I respond. If it will take me too far from my kids then I say, “I am in class catch you later.”

We would never tell a teacher not to have Google open during class, because it is too distracting. I see Twitter in the same way. I like that my kids see I am on Twitter. It is not a secret. I want them to know that we have the power of a huge network at our backs. If they have questions I don’t know I say, “Let’s ask Twitter.” The other day, kids were editing their films and they needed footage of an old school bell. I suggested we ask Twitter. An hour later Adrienne sent us a 45 second clip of a bell at her school. I want kids to see that things like this are possible. I want them to understand the power of Twitter.

After a few seconds hovering over Twitter, I go back to a group that is working. It is a system that works for me. Now I am lucky to work at a school that is 1-1 with small class sizes and great kids. They work hard and are usually on task. I like to think I design units and assessment they find fun and engaging. If I find that things are not working, I improvise and we shake things up. I do not sit at my desk Tweet away, while kids fill out worksheets!

Are there times when I do get too absorbed with something that is happening on Twitter? Sure. I would be lying if I said no, but that is where that balance and personal negotiation comes in. I move away. I stop. I learn to control myself. Isn’t the biggest lesson we could model for kids. How to know when to be present and when to connect someplace else?

This post is already too long, so I will not talk about why I do not really use twitter with kids. That will be coming soon…


Building A Culture

When I first start teaching DC101 a few weeks ago, I had no idea what to expect. I could not have anticipated the level of reservations and anxiety teachers would have about writing. I didn’t not realize the effect that past experiences many of our staff would bring to the table in terms of writing and sharing, furthermore I never imagined the influence these experiences would have on how they view digital citizenship. It goes without saying, that I have learned a lot in the last three weeks.

In short, I am beginning to see that for many teachers with a limited understanding of connected learning and life online, opening up and publicly sharing (blogging) is a much larger obstacle to overcome, than the fear of insufficient technical skills needed to run a blog. The latter are pretty basic and can be learned with some time and training, but the paradigm shift of understanding online life is a much bigger issue. It’s as if people are realizing that running a blog is not very complicated, but writing one is. Perhaps, the early development should focus on writing, on learning, on sharing. Leave the tech stuff for phase two.

I am seeing that many people still struggle with the notion that their voice matters. People feel that they don’t need to add to the noise. Why would anyone care about what I have to say? Is a common question I see. I get the sense that due to time, stress and administrative expectations, the notion of reflections, sharing and writing about their teaching feels superfluous. What if we gave teachers time to blog throughout their work week? We spend so much time and energy on reports, what if teacher reflection and blogging was considered as important to the administration of schools? What if we allowed our teachers the freedom to be learners? Created supportive communities of fellow teachers, who could blog during school time? What if this wasn’t considered a luxury, but an expectation?

At our school, we are trying to work toward a learner based coaching model. We want to encourage inquiry from our teachers as well as our students. In the realm of technology, we are trying to move away from the traditional notion of training and moving towards a more holistic understanding of how technology influences our personal and professional lives. We are not interested in transferring technology skills, but of building a culture of sharing and learning. An open community, where all members have a space (blogs), where they can feel comfortable collaborating and sharing ideas, creating content, communicating and connecting to each other through the use of various tools on a platform we are calling e-hub, which at this stage consists of a system wide multi-user WordPress platform and The Google suite for education.

When I began, I thought that DC101 would be a way to give staff members the tools they needed to access e-hub, but half-way through I am realizing that we need to start with understanding the why first. Once we have e-hub up and running, and every knows how to access it, then what? Trouble is that I find myself in a chicken-and-egg scenario: We need blogs and a basic understanding of how blogs connect ideas and people to build community and culture, but we cannot understand the power of these networks without using the blogs to connect people.

cc licensed ( BY ND ) flickr photo shared by US Embassy New Zealand

Having said that, things are going well. The conversations are starting. People are feeling challenged I hope, and they are  having conversations about things like Creative Commons for the first time. It will, however, be a long road. Culture is not created overnight. This understanding is important for schools hoping to implement blogging and expecting kids and teachers to magically use them authentically. It is not very difficult to set up a few class blogs, or even to implement blogging school wide. It is also not very difficult to train students and teachers to write posts, add hyper-links, add photos, video, etc… but creating an organic system where teachers openly share their ideas without fear, where they read the work of their peers and comment, collaborate and create together is a much more time consuming situation. If you are interested in blogging with your class or in your school, you may want to have some pretty big discussions before hand.

It is clear that we can create blogs as portfolios and have students upload post-after-post of homework. We can create class blogs, which teachers use as administrative tools to share curriculum with parents and students, but is this enough? Is this blogging? Of course not this is content management. You might as well use Moodle or Studywiz. Blogging has to be more than content management. So what next?

I am not sure. We have only been doing this for two months. I should be pleased with what we do have so far, but as always I want it all and I want it now, to quote Jim Morrison. Perhaps, you can share some of your ideas. What does blogging culture mean to you? What can it look like at a school? What do you do at your school that promotes a culture of sharing? How do you get teachers and students to write authentic posts, not just upload assignments? As you can see there are many questions, but very valid ones I think, before we assume that since we have blogs at school that we are really blogging.