Thursday, April 19, 2018

Hurry Up and Wait

Several people have asked me what it is like transitioning from teaching in a public school to contracting on a military base. The truth is that it has been a long and sometimes frustrating process, but it has also been full of opportunities for growth and self-reflection. 

I came across the opportunity to teach in Afghanistan several months ago and began the arduous process of medical and background clearance. It took several months before I was able to receive final approval and set a start date. After leaving Minnesota, my first step was to attend training and onboarding in Orlando, FL. The training sessions included information about personal protective equipment, NATO security briefings and a host of other standard business trainings. 

Image from
Once onboarding was complete, I headed to Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas to be processed through the CONUS Replacement Center. As someone who has never been in the military before, training at Fort Bliss was certainly a learning experience. I learned quickly how to fall in line to military formations. There was another whole set of theater specific training requirements, including information on antiterrorism and counterinsurgency, as well as sessions on threat awareness and non-lethal weapons. 

We also had to go through a final medical screening, which tested the patience of just about everyone on site. The process involved a lot of waiting, moving seats, waiting again, and then tracking down the next medical check on the list. The labyrinthine process was aided by color coded tape and hallway guides - follow the blue tape to vision, the white tape to audiology, the brown for immunizations, and so on. I ended up needing to get a couple extra immunizations in both Orlando and El Paso. Some were standard; others, like Anthrax, were a bit more unique.

Trying on my new vest!
Unrelated to the immunizations, I also picked up a softball-sized bruise on my right arm, along with a few smaller bruises, bumps and scrapes up and down my forearms and shins. All courtesy of what was one of the most intense training sessions of CRC: rollover training. Now, when I saw rollover training on the weekly schedule, I have to admit that my mind went straight to 401K rollovers, and I assumed that we would be learning about some mundane financial practices. Turns out that rollover training involves gearing up inside a giant MRAP (sort of like a Humvee) and going through a simulated rollover experience. We ended up needed to egress upside down, and let's just say that I am not as graceful as I would like to be when it comes to exiting a vehicle in more than 30lbs of body armor.

The first two weeks of training have reminded me that the qualities and characteristics one develops as a teacher can be useful across a wide variety of life experiences. The ability to build relationships with others and be patient under stress certainly helped me make it through training without too many complications. With the last few trainings under my belt, I boarded a chartered military flight with a couple hundred other contractors and soldiers and began the journey to my final destination - Afghanistan. 

Friday, April 13, 2018

A New Adventure in Education

In just a few days, I will be beginning a new adventure in education - one that is taking me halfway around the world. While I am excited beyond words to embark on this new journey, this transition is also bittersweet. I am leaving behind the students I have grown to love and the colleagues I have come to trust and admire. I have also had to say goodbye to family and friends.

Throwback to #StaffoftheWeek 
For the last four years, I have thoroughly enjoyed teaching high school in South Minneapolis. I love the quirky inside jokes that teenagers make, the heartfelt conversations about real life and the moments of enlightenment that make even the hardest days worth it. I appreciate the relationships I have built with colleagues that helped to keep me grounded and inspired me to push the boundaries of education in our schools today.

In my new role, I will be working as an English Language Instructor for Afghan women. After years of civil unrest, Afghan women have some of the highest rates of illiteracy in the world. I am unbelievably privileged to be
offered a role in their education because I understand the significance of women's education on a global scale. According to UNESCO, two-thirds of the world's illiterate adults are women. The Kabul office of UNESCO reports that the literacy rate for women in Afghanistan averages around 17 percent.

Teaching outside of my comfort-zone is nothing new, yet this time it feels different. I'm not quite sure what I'll be walking into, and I suppose that is part of the excitement. I know I'll be stationed on a military base and teaching out of a nearby school, and I am confident that the knowledge and skills I have gained over my professional career will help guide me to make meaningful contributions in this work.

As I finish packing my bags and begin the multi-flight journey overseas, I want to extend my profound gratitude and appreciation to you all, my fellow educators and friends, for your encouragement, support and collaboration. If you're interested in learning more about education in Afghanistan, check back soon for my next update!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Social Emotional Learning

This past week I had the privilege of attending the 2nd Annual Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Convening hosted by Education First and NoVo Foundation in Santa Ana Pueblo, New Mexico.

There was so much that I appreciated about this conference, especially the opportunity to connect and learn from educators from all across the country. I heard inspiring stories about how teachers are engaging their students and colleagues in SEL work and I walked away with many different strategies for advancing SEL in my own classroom and throughout my school.

There are three big takeaways from my time at the convening:

First, I need to take better care of myself. Many of the weekend activities centered on modeling practices that could be used with students and staff. These practices go beyond the traditional 'one and done' approach to professional learning by creating an environment that values authentic expression and communication. It became clear through these activities that we as teachers often forget to take care of ourselves. With everything on our plates, self-care can be easily pushed aside. Conference sessions reaffirmed the importance of being kind to myself so that I can continue being my best self with my students and colleagues.

Second, I need to teach my students to love themselves. All of our students have assets to share. We need to invite student stories and celebrate their uniqueness. One of the EdTalks, led by Teacher Prize Finalist Alhassan Susso, illustrated this through his own work with student affirmations. By affirming students as capable learners and leaders he is able to rewrite the negative self-talk that can be consuming for adolescents. My grant project, funded through NoVo, is also focused on elevating student voice through story and I am looking forward to continuing this work with my students.

Finally, I need to give students space to love each other. It's time to move beyond 'inclusive' classrooms to classrooms that are truly welcoming and affirming. At the convening we discussed how kindness is about more than just 'being nice'. Kindness is intentional and it involves self-awareness as much as it does social awareness. Do students feel cared for by one another in the classroom? It is an important question to ask and one that I plan on evaluating in more detail in the next quarter. As our first quarter draws to a close, I need to go back to the drawing board to identify more meaningful community building activities and strategies for my students.

As the conference wrapped up, I felt excited and energized by all that I had learned. I'm now looking forward to finding new ways to support student learning more holistically and creating safe places for students and adults to share their emotions and connect more authentically with one another.

There  isn't anyone you couldn't love once you hear their story.
- Mary Lou Kownacki

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Reflections from a Refugee Camp - Part B

When I think back on the past month, it is hard for me to put into words exactly what the experience of teaching in a refugee camp has meant for me. There is so much I have learned and so many memories I will be taking with me. I have learned a great deal more about human capacity, the impact of collaboration and the power of dreams. Some memories of my time in Lebanon fill me with immense joy, while others bring an almost immeasurable sadness. I am grateful to the staff and other volunteers at Jusoor who provided support and encouragement throughout my time there.

Jusoor Summer Education Program 2017
The Lebanese and Syrians I met over the last month have taught me so much about human resiliency, courage and capacity. The capacity to learn and grow is evident in schools and camps all over Lebanon. There is a curiosity for learning that shows up through many lenses and in many ways. The heartbreaking truth of refugee camps, though, is that in spite of individual courage and commitment, the dehumanizing process of displacement can strip away much-needed opportunities for growth. The longer we let millions of people languish in refugee camps, the more we lose out on a collective of wisdom and capital that cannot be replaced. 
The work I was able to do was only made possible because a group of like-minded individuals came together with a desire to do more for the children of Syria. We could talk in circles about the need for better policies, infrastructures and systems solutions, but at the end of the day, information and intention alone cannot affect change. Only actions can do that. And the team at Jusoor has worked tirelessly to build a much-needed foundation of support and action for refugee youth, one that can serve to be scaled and replicated across Lebanon. This experience has reminded me of just how powerful collaboration can be when people come together to share their time, energy and expertise. 

Student Dreams
Finally, my students taught me every day about the power of dreams. As part of one of our peacebuilding activities, my students worked collectively to create a tree of dreams. Each student received a leaf and drew a picture of a dream or goal on their leaf. Then, one-by-one, they shared their dream with the class and we pasted it onto our tree of dreams. Although there was a language barrier between my students and me, it was incredible to see the way in which their eyes lighted up and their smiles widened. Some students dreamt of being lions or butterflies. Other had dreams of being teachers or doctors. One girl dreamed of a day when she could once again sit in a garden next to her home. For the children of Syria, I wish all this and so much more.

Jusoor students working on a puzzle

Much more needs to be done internationally to ensure that students’ right to education is realized around the world. The children of this world have incredible dreams, and I believe we have the resources to accomplish these dreams if we can commit to acting together. If you have questions or want to know more about getting involved with refugee and emergency education, please let me know. You can read more about Jusoor’s work here.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Reflections from a Refugee Camp - Part A

The last two weeks have been a whirlwind of emotion and energy. I arrived in Lebanon earlier this month as a volunteer with Jusoor's Summer Education Program. Jusoor Syria is a non-profit dedicated to empowering Syrian youth through education and entrepreneurship.

While the ongoing conflict in Syria has displaced millions of Syrians to countries all around the world, Lebanon is home to over one million Syrian refugees, the highest per capita of any nation. Jusoor has several programs within Lebanon, all designed to provide much needed educational opportunities to displaced Syrian families.

Jarahieh camp in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
I chose to volunteer with Jusoor because I was impressed by the organization's overall focus on sustainability. There are currently three Jusoor schools in Lebanon, one in Beirut and two in the Bekaa Valley.  These schools help prepare Syrian students, many of whom have had their education interrupted, for Lebanese schools. The language of instruction in most Lebanese schools is English or French, so the Jusoor schools also help by developing students' English language skills.

As an English Language (EL) teacher, many of the students in my classes during the regular school year are first or second generation immigrants, including some who have been displaced by conflict, some who have endured the hardships of refugee camps and others who have had their own educational experiences interrupted.

Jusoor volunteer training session
My volunteer work with Jusoor began during our initial orientation. During that time, I led a training session on teaching with English as a foreign language for the other Jusoor volunteers who hailed from countries around the world including the US, the UK, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Switzerland, Colombia, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Together we talked about the importance of creating safe learning environments, encouraging students to take risks with language development, and supporting language input across multiple modalities.

Summer classes began this past week and to say it has been a humbling experience would be an understatement. I was placed at the Jarahieh school, on the edge of a refugee camp. On any given day, I have more than thirty students in my class, many of whom have never been to school before. We spend each day doing peacebuilding work, science experiments and arts and crafts projects. We practice sharing and taking turns and writing our names.

Students experimenting with liquids and solids
I am in awe of the resilience of these students. Their excitement for learning makes it easy to forget that many have experienced far more in the last few years than any child should have to experience. My heart breaks for each of the horrors of war and displacement these children have had to endure, and I am reminded everyday of the value and importance of the work we are doing.

I am honored to be volunteering with Jusoor, and I am excited to continuing learning and growing alongside my students for the next two weeks. The work Jusoor does on a daily basis is improving the lives of thousands of Syrian youth and their families. The Jusoor staff here in Lebanon impress me every day with their commitment to ensuring that this generation of Syrians will not be forgotten.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Lessons Learned from #ASCDTIG

As I reflect on the past year, I am so immensely grateful that I had the opportunity to be a part of the first-ever cohort of ASCD Teacher Impact Grantees. To read more about my experiences with ASCD TIG, take a look at the grant press release and my experiences inside the Department of Education and at the ASCD Empower 2017 Conference. There are many lessons I have learned through this process, most notably what it takes to be a leader, the far-reaching benefits of collaboration and the multiplying effects of empowering teachers.

Through the implementation of this grant it became clear that leadership is about more than just a position. Receiving the ASCD Teacher Impact Grant did not change my position in the school building, but it did provide me with opportunities to learn about leadership as a teacher. The challenges of leading as a teacher became clear even before the grant work got off the ground. Navigating school policies and procedures and then communicating those policies to participating teachers helped me to understand the value of clear communication. I learned how to better communicate my goals and structure a narrative that earns the support of both teachers and administrators. Negotiating these challenges helped me to better appreciate the rewards. For me, those rewards come in the form of heartfelt gratitude from teachers who truly felt more supported in doing their jobs.

Being part of ASCD TIG has opened many doors to collaboration, both locally and nationally. Locally, the funds provided through ASCD TIG have allowed participating teachers to attend conferences together, spend time reflecting on their co-teaching partnerships and participate in peer observations. The feedback I received from teachers demonstrate the need for teacher collaboration time. Being able to collaborate directly with other teachers gave grant participants an opportunity to see new ideas and strategies in action and then take those strategies right back to their own classrooms. Nationally, I have been able to connect and collaborate with colleagues all across the country. To say that I have been inspired by their projects and efforts in education would be an understatement.

Finally, experiences with this grant have had a multiplying effect on teacher empowerment. With the support from ASCD and collaboration with administrators and colleagues, I have felt empowered in my role as a teacher. I know that ASCD TIG projects are making a difference in schools around our nation. In our school, ASCD TIG has demonstrated the value of teacher collaboration. Our project started with a single idea - an idea to create more inclusive classrooms and enhance the learning environment for all student by fully supporting teachers. The teachers who participated in this project were able to take ideas back into their own classroom, enhancing the educational experiences of hundreds of students. Teacher-led initiatives are empowering because they can and do have a direct effect on student learning.

If you are interested in learning more about the ASCD Teacher Impact Grants or how you can learn more about advancing professional learning in your own education community, check out

Friday, June 30, 2017

Standards-Based Grading

This week I had the opportunity to attend a seminar by Rick Wormeli on Standards-Based Grading and Assessment. This topic is one that I have been thinking about a lot as I work to make my classroom more student-centered and to create more authentic assessments of student learning.

There were many salient points discussed during the seminar about the purpose of grading, assessment, and standards. Following are some of the ideas which have stretched my own thinking around these topics.

  • There is a difference between the public curriculum and the hidden curriculum of schools. The public curriculum includes the state-mandated content standards. The hidden curriculum includes all of the other non-academic factors that are sometimes included within grades. With standards-based grading, non-academic factors like attendance, behavior and effort should not be included in academic grades. The 'hidden curriculum' can be its own category on a report card, but it should not be used to inflate or deflate an accurate representation of student learning.

  • Standards are great - Standardization is not.  Standards are a wide-ranging collection of skills and knowledge that are important for a well-rounded education. Being good at standardized tests, however, does not equal the ability to make creative contributions to society. For my own courses, I need to determine what my power standards and what evidence can be used to demonstrate progress and proficiency towards the standards. I also need to find ways to move away from standardization towards greater differentiation in process and product. 

  • Grades are communication, not compensation. Grades need to be an accurate report of what was learned, not what was done. Doing and learning are two different things. A student can be compliant in completing an assignment without actually learning the material being covered. Standards-based assessments need to be designed and delivered to provide evidence of learning over time. Standards-based grades are then a reflection of  where a student's learning is at, whether they have demonstrated mastery or proficiency of a concept or whether their learning is still developing or not quite there yet.

  • No one knows ahead of time how much time it takes someone to learn something. Unfortunately, the structure of most schools is predicated on just the opposite. This idea actually comes from Dr. Tae's thought-provoking TED Talk "Can Skateboarding Save Our Schools?". Deviating from the fixed schedule of traditional educational institutions is not easy, but standards-based grading looks beyond arbitrary school calendar dates to ensure learning is not artificially limited. As a result, redos and retakes are an essential part of the standards-based grading process.

  • Feedback should be non-judgmental. When we look at what motivates student learning, it is clear from research shared at the seminar that low scores are not motivating for students, but authentic descriptive feedback is. Feedback needs to be given carefully. There should not be an evaluative component. Descriptive feedback talks about the decisions made and not the quality. With this idea, it is important to note that praise (in the form of "Excellent" and "Well Done") is a form of judgement, not feedback.   

As I move into the next school year, I am hoping to incorporate more of these concepts into my classroom. As my students graduate and move on to greater things, it is my goal that students would view failure as a necessary and normal part of life and that they would see a world of questions, and not finite answers. As Wormeli said during the seminar, the goal of teaching should not be that my students become as proficient as me, but that my students should surpass me.

Here are some resources shared during the seminar that can hopefully inform and stretch your thinking around the topic of standards-based grading: